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After successfully conducting La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, Carlo Rizzi is rounding off the season with a special concert of work by Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky. The First Piano Concerto and the Sixth Symphony – the ‘Pathétique’ – are two of the composer’s most iconic works and have enjoyed uninterrupted popularity among public and performers alike.
You are regularly invited to conduct work by Tchaikovsky in La Monnaie’s symphonic series. Can you tell us a little about the background to this cycle?
When Peter de Caluwe asked me to come and conduct opera productions at La Monnaie, we also discussed the importance of having an opera orchestra perform large-scale symphonic programmes. That’s how the idea of a project spanning several seasons came about. I am particularly fond of Tchaikovsky, not only because he is a fantastic composer, but also because I studied under the Russian maestro Vladimir Delman. He and I have done all the Tchaikovsky symphonies – and that has had a great impact on my career.
Does putting on a cycle provide insight into a composer’s oeuvre?
During the concert itself the cycle idea is of secondary importance. However, throughout the concerts as a whole the audience can form an idea of the evolution a composer undergoes. I see a major development take place in Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies in particular, not only in the way he wrote but also in terms of his conception of the genre. The Sixth Symphony, which is on the programme now, is very different from the others. The end of the other symphonies always left room for hope. After the Sixth, we are not even left with that! Of course, I am not the first to point this out…
How do you tackle a programme like this which features no fewer than two emblematic pieces, both public favourites?
Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and the Sixth Symphony are in fact two of the most frequently performed pieces in their genres, but their popularity should not detract from their merit. The First Piano Concerto is a phenomenal masterpiece, with a strong symphonic dimension. Tchaikovsky’s approach to the relationship between soloist and orchestra is fundamentally different from that of a Chopin for example, whose concertos tended to be solo pieces. With Tchaikovsky there is considerable interaction between the soloist and the orchestra, which does more than purely accompany. Of course it is a very demanding piece for the soloist: it is long, it requires considerable physical strength to hold your own against the orchestra, and you need twelve fingers to play it! But there is a dialogue and that makes conducting this work interesting. What is more, I am really looking forward to performing this work with Elisabeth Leonskaja because of her great musicality, her eye for detail and her sense of lyricism.
And the Sixth Symphony?
I have conducted the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth symphonies on many occasions. The Sixth is exceptional in that it exhausts me: not so much physically as mentally! The key lies in the third movement rather than in the uncustomary Adagio lamentoso which serves as the finale. The third movement is sometimes played very triumphantly. But how do you reconcile that with the fourth movement, the Adagio lamentoso which follows? However, if you approach the third part as a final struggle or battle for survival, then the finale has a raison d’être: it is a lamento after the battle. The third movement starts almost from nothing, then gradually builds up, with the characteristic rhythmic theme becoming increasingly threatening, inevitable, remorseless, to the very last four notes, which reverberate like a machine gun. At that point, I want the audience to be nailed to their seats and breathless. The subsequent finale is an entreaty, an attempt to turn the clock back. But the famous gong-stroke tells us that this will not happen… the music fades, all signs of life are snuffed out and only death remains. There is a big difference between this symphony and Tchaikovsky’s earlier ones. In the Fifth Symphony, for example, the central theme of the work is also used threateningly, particularly in the third movement, but the finale is in the major key and ends as a victory. That is not the case with the Sixth. I feel conflict in it, a dramatic journey, an attempt to do something, followed by the loss of hope, the loss of everything.
So then how do you see the second, waltz-like movement?
Despite what I have just said, I am not planning to explain this music in its entirety [laughs]! But I would like to draw attention to one aspect of the second movement: it is scored in 5/4, which is unusual. It is magnificent music, but the musical time sends a trickle of uncertainly running through it, a sense almost of instability, which you may not detect immediately. This is magnificent, melodic music, but it is also quite clear that Tchaikovsky didn’t intend it to be ‘easy listening’. This is also apparent at the beginning of the symphony, which builds up from a small motif in the bassoon, a motif that is gradually transformed and followed by other, equally insistent motifs (for example in the violas). I try to portray all these things in this music. Of course you can perform the music ‘con bravura brillante’! But then I think you miss the essence of this symphony. An essence that is better approached through Tchaikovsky’s precise instructions with regard to dynamics and tempo, rather than by striving for effect.
Interview by Marie Mergeay