Classical Conductor Riccardo Chailly: Looking Back

By Bradley Bambarger <2015>

Few conductors mix authority with charm quite like Riccardo Chailly, affably informal and an engaging conversationalist. Born into a musical Milanese family in 1953, the maestro laughs about how he is “one of the last Mohicans,” referencing the fact that he one of the few conductors these days with an exclusive major-label recording contract. He began making records for Decca in 1979, starting with a selection of arias from Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell featuring Luciano Pavarotti that went so well that the label turned it into a recording of the complete opera — a hit that has remained in the catalog ever since.

After productive years in Amsterdam as chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (1988–2004), Chailly has lately been making the most of his Decca association in Leipzig, where he has been music director for the past decade of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. In particular, the Chailly/Gewandhaus series of Beethoven and Brahms symphonies and concertos — which blend modernity and tradition in a deeply satisfying way — underscores why this music still bears new recordings. A Rachmaninoff symphony cycle is on the schedule next, along with the completion of a Mahler cycle on video (for the Leipzig-based Accentus label).

I caught up with Chailly in Houston, a stop on the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s most recent U.S. tour, to revisit some of his key recordings. On the way to discussing those discs, there was talk about some of his favorite conductors: from such past masters as George Szell and Carlos Kleiber to period-performance leaders Nikolaus Harnoncourt and John Eliot Gardiner. Chailly also spoke about one of his mentors, the late, great Claudio Abbado, who set examples “for perfectionism in the technique of conducting and parsimonia with how a conductor should talk in rehearsal, with three-quarters of a rehearsal for playing and only one-quarter spoken — and not vice versa. That can be killing. He was a master of ‘a lot of playing, a little talking.’ I was his assistant at La Scala, so I never forgot this.”

As for Chailly himself, insight comes from pianist Nelson Freire, who recorded a sublime set of Brahms concertos with Chailly in Leipzig and has embarked on a cycle of Beethoven concertos with him there. “Some conductors have this powerful ability to communicate, so it’s like a dialogue,” Freire has said. “The conductor may not produce sound himself, but you feel the energy. Chailly is always present… always spontaneous.”

Brahms: The Symphonies

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

(Decca, 2014)

Available on three CDs or as a single Blu-ray Audio Disc, Chailly’s Leipzig Brahms set generously includes not only the four symphonies but also the two overtures, the “Haydn Variations” and orchestrations of Liebeslieder Waltzes, Hungarian Dances and two late piano Intermezzi, as well as early and revised symphony movements. As an interpreter, Chailly is keen on going back to go forward, whether it’s reading period accounts of what Brahms said about performing his symphonies (re: tempi choices, flexibility, phrasing and dynamics that aren’t in the score) or listening to historical recordings by the generations closest to the composer (from Felix Weingartner to Fritz Busch to Adrian Boult). This familiar music can be some of the very hardest to present in a fresh way, but Chailly managed it by both tapping into tradition and subtly subverting it.

“ ‘Tradition’ can be a dangerous word, entailing good things but also many bad habits when it comes to performing composers such as Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms,” Chailly says. “When I recorded Brahms in Amsterdam, I was under the influence of the so-called tradition, this playing of certain things in certain ways because that’s the way we had always heard it in the decades nearest us, for better or worse. For the new Brahms recordings in Leipzig, I abolished this approach. I started from scratch with the scores, then with all the other information — historical testimony, historical recordings — that I had accumulated over 20 years. This brought a kind of freshness. The Gewandhaus Orchestra showed a great deal of courage by following me in this, although the Brahms was easier after the trauma of my Beethoven — which was a radically new landscape compared to the tradition they had in the past half a century. At first, they were shocked — without words. But their enthusiasm grew, and the Beethoven prepared the way for Brahms.

“The issue after Busch and Boult was one of self-indulgence — of conductors too much falling in love with the sound. That is a tremendous risk for a musician — falling in love with what you are doing. You have to enjoy it and to feel your emotions, but when you fall in love with the moment, the piece is in danger of losing direction. That said, I did as much as I could to maintain the Gewandhaus sound, this German orchestral sound in the best sense. As I learned with the Concertgebouw, it is important to maintain the beauty and the originality of this collective sound, but also to be as clear as possible in terms of rhythmical discipline, articulation and clarity of dynamics in order to express what the composer intended. The composer is never wrong. If someone is wrong, it is the conductor. Tradition can actually be the slavery of bad habits.”

Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; Saleem Ashkar, piano

(Decca, 2014)

The Gewandhaus Orchestra has performed the music of Mendelssohn since it was virtually wet on the page — back when the composer himself was the Gewandhauskappellmeister. Chailly admires Mendelssohn as an “inventor… a master of sound and image,” a quality that comes to the fore in his tone poems as well as this disc’s incidental music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“Mendelssohn was a painter-composer — in fact, he painted water-colors,” Chailly says. “In his apartment in Leipzig, turned now into a museum, there is a full room of his own water-colors. The transparency and the fantasy of his colors as a painter correspond to the sounds he created as an orchestrator. In the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, he created a new world, and in the numbers that follow, you can see how his fantasy, his imagination, was provoked by the greatness of the text. As for the piano concertos — they are geniale. Ashkar is an ideal interpreter as soloist, non-pretentious. Too often in №2, you hear a pompous introduction, which pretends to tell a story that has not yet even started. We tried to have the tempo be floating. Ashkar has the poetic quality as well as technical bravura.

“The Gewandhaus has a privilege in Mendelssohn, because every season the orchestra plays his music as often as others play Beethoven. Mendelssohn, like Schumann, wrote so many millions of notes, so many and to be played so fast. But the Gewandhaus has discovered the secret code of how to interpret these composers — which notes to emphasize when… Mendelssohn was victimized by his own perfectionism, rewriting his scores. The final was never final for him. Thanks to maestro Christopher Hogwood’s editions, we were able to play all the overtures and symphonies in their early, unknown versions. This meant that the players had to be on the edge of their seats even in music that they thought they knew, so we were able to rediscover Mendelssohn together. But the great Leipzig sound in Mendelssohn remains, and it starts with a darkness in the strings, particularly the low strings and the woodwinds. There is a bronze color to the sound, and this adds a gravity and aura to the music. I am convinced that one has not heard Mendelssohn until you have heard the Gewandhaus play Mendelssohn.”

Puccini: Discoveries

Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Milano Giuseppe Verdi; Chiara Taiga, soprano; Joseph Calleja, tenor; Eva Urbanová, soprano

(Decca, 2004)

Chailly takes over as music director of La Scala in Milan in 2017, though he is already leading the house in a Puccini cycle. He has been exploring the furthest reaches of the composer’s catalog ever since a 1982 album with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra that featured his miscellaneous symphonic music. The 2004 album Puccini Discoveries — which sees Chailly leading the Milano Verdi orchestra that he helped found sixteen years ago — showcases more occasional pieces and alternate versions of overtures and scenes, including a lovely symphonic Preludio a Orchestra and Adagetto in F Major, as well as a pocket Requiem. But its major draw is modernist Italian composer Luciano Berio’s 23-minute finale for Puccini’s last, unfinished opera, Turandot, previously performed with the rousing 1926 completion by Franco Alfano. Berio’s version expands the musical language in his own way, while its downbeat ending — if no crowd-pleaser — is more in tune with the plot’s tragic elements.

“Berio took Puccini’s many sketches for the ending of Turandot and put them together like a mosaic,” Chailly explains. “Berio wasn’t trying to simulate the composer. His music is like mortar between the tiles of the mosaic. I am a deep believer in Berio’s finale. Its most important feature is that it ends in morendo, ‘dying away.’ We have the testimony of a young friend of the Puccini family who heard the composer play on the piano the end of Turandot and was deeply moved to hear this planned finale, in morendo. This anecdote was reported long ago to a music critic from Florence. When Berio composed his finale and the music critic — now near 90 years old — saw the score, he wrote to Berio to tell him how moved he was to finally see it done this way. Berio wrote back that he did not know this anecdote when he composed his ending, but that he had always felt that the bombastic finale composed by Alfano had nothing to do with the plot, in which Liù kills herself for love. Normally, Liù’s body is carried away, but in Berio’s ending, it stays there throughout, making the point. This is the finale I want to use always.

“Puccini was a contemporary of Mahler, and to me, he carries the same weight in opera as Mahler did in symphonic music. Berio agreed with this, despite not being known for giving generous compliments to other composers. He said to me that he thought the first act of Turandot is the greatest Italian music ever written. He had problems with the second act, but he thought that the first act was a miracle of perfection. This admiration brought him to write his finale. Berio was very ill when he came to Amsterdam to assist with the rehearsals for the premiere, and this was his last music for the stage.”

Varèse: The Complete Works

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Asko Ensemble

(Decca, 1998)

In the mid-’90s, Chailly recorded what stands as the definitive edition of music by Paris-born modernist Edgard Varèse (1883–1965). As a student, Chailly was taken by a record that included Varèse’s Ionisation — the same one that thrilled the young Frank Zappa. In 1971, after Zappa was a convention-tweaking avant-rocker and nascent composer of orchestral music, he wrote a charming article for Stereo Review about how he, as a 13-year-old, had tracked down that Varèse LP after a long search in La Mesa, California, and loving its otherworldly sounds, became obsessed with the composer — even using birthday money to call him long distance in New York City. For years, no one Zappa ever met shared his enthusiasm for Varèse. Chailly experienced a bit of the same mystified resistance when he wanted to record the complete Varèse with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. The two-CD set would go on to win a Gramophone Award and other prizes, but it took cajoling to make.

“It was an adventure this Varèse project,” Chailly recalls. “In the beginning, there was a certain resistance in Amsterdam. They had never played much Varèse, except for the early version of Amériques — which requires an ensemble of 150 musicians, with many percussionists — and Arcana, which is one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. But, as I said, there was some resistance to this music — its volume, its unusual instruments, like the lion’s roar, a percussion instrument. The attitude was one of ‘What does this violence mean?’ But I advised them to be patient — wait and see until the next rehearsal. Don’t react impulsively — give time for music like this to tell you a story. Eventually, they realized this was the case.

“I am proud of this achievement — it represents a special moment in the history of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. We established that Varèse is a classic of the 20th century. His music should be played regularly, not considered some risky proposition. It should be played as often as Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. There are obviously difficulties in playing this music, and how. But today at the level orchestras play, this can be completely resolved. Obviously, you have to believe in this music — otherwise, don’t touch it.”

Shostakovich: The Jazz Album, The Dance Album, The Film Album

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Philadelphia Orchestra; Ronald Brautigam, piano

(Decca, 1993–1999)

Chailly’s three thematic albums collecting Shostakovich’s ballet suites, film scores and jazz-influenced pieces are addictive listening experiences (and now available in Decca’s nine-CD set devoted to the composer’s concertos, orchestral suites and chamber symphonies). The music — full of mood swings from the ironic to the tragic — rivals that of Prokofiev for melodic invention; and the performances brim with personality, whether it’s Chailly leading his Amsterdam ensemble or the Philadelphia Orchestra (for The Dance Album, his only recording in Philly). The Jazz Album features not only Shostakovich’s two fizzing Jazz Suites from the mid-’30s and his arrangement of “Tea for Two” but also the tune-rich Piano Concerto №1. The Dance Album includes suites from The Bolt, The Gadfly and more, while The Film Album covers eight scores from 1931 to 1964, including for a Russian Hamlet.

“I’ve had a great attraction to Shostakovich, since my youth,” Chailly explains. “The wit and sarcasm and tragedy in his music — it’s like a kaleidoscope. I never dared touch the symphonies until only recently, but there are these different lines in Shostakovich, such as dance and film, that I wanted to explore with the Concertgebouw and the Philadelphia Orchestra, with whom I was a regular guest conductor at the time. It was wonderful in Philadelphia. Since Stokowski, the orchestra has been accustomed to the style of Shostakovich, a Russian tradition that has its roots in Rachmaninoff — and, of course, Philadelphia is the Rachmaninoff orchestra. In Amsterdam, there were grumblings that this music might be ‘too light’ for the orchestra, because they had done all of Shostakovich’s symphonies with Bernard Haitink but were unfamiliar with this side of the composer, especially things like his ‘Two for Two.’ But there are so many different moods in this music and many, many notes to play, with metronome marks that can be breathtakingly quick. The music can demand great collective virtuosity.

“Ultimately, the Concertgebouw Orchestra delivered recordings with real understanding of the Shostakovich style. Stanley Kubrick chose our recording for his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, which begins and ends with the Waltz in Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite №2. He listened for weeks to many different recordings. The film is about the disintegration of a marriage, and he told a friend, ‘You know why I chose Chailly’s recording? Because I hear in the saxophones the meaning of nostalgia’.”

(Originally published in the summer 2015 issue of Listen magazine… Chailly has released albums of Respighi and Nino Rota via Decca since then. He is now the music director of La Scala in Milan, as well as music director of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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