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Interview with Jonathan Nott

During the summer, Jonathan Nott was in Geneva to work on recording music by Debussy, Ligeti and Strauss with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, his orchestra. Fast-talking and enthusiastic, he took some of his time to discuss with ConcertoNet.

J. Nott (© Thomas Müller)

Thank you for taking the time to meet. The orchestra has made a lot of progress and its sound is changing.
Is it ? I hope it is. You know, it is a challenge to work on this in Victoria Hall because it is too narrow. The sound bounces too quickly off to the side. It emphasizes the high frequencies much more than the low and it doesn’t allow the musicians to hear themselves.
When I first came, we thought we would have a new concert hall in 2019. It is now due in 2021 and may go to 2022. I cannot wait because Victoria Hall is a great hall for medium ensemble, like what we need for Schubert 5, but it does not work well when we play a work that require a bigger ensemble.

Why not use the side velvets curtains more often ? Somehow, I think that there is a little less reverberation, but they are never used.
I did not know about these side curtains. I know we have some central ones for rehearsals. Maybe this has been an experiment as I know they’ve been trying to do all sorts of things, but this is news to me. I will research this and find out.

The sound that you have started from is much more French, maybe Russian, and you’ve taken them totally to another world of Mahler sound. So, what were the challenges?
I want to make the orchestra I am chief of, virtuosic and modern as much as possible. What does that mean? That means we find a sound world, a technique for each epoch and for each type of music.
I have grown up with French music although I did a lot of German music. We can encourage the beauty and the fluidity which is in French music and even improve it more. But as I have often said, in German music they need to change the bowing which is too fast and to think on controlling the sound right from the beginning. I can do this partly by saying it and also through conducting gestures. I also try to stretch the phrase so as to give them a little bit of time to think about the line. When they go from a low to a top note, they mostly think of hitting the top one, whereas it is from the low note that you jump off. I do not want to lose the French sound, I want to keep it for Debussy. But there is not enough pathos in the sound needed for Mahler.

What about the challenges of balancing woodwinds, brass, strings... You have some great woodwinds but suddenly, they are not as important in German music as they are in French music.
Yes, they are. They need to fight a bit more because German works are more string-based. They have to play differently. It is terribly difficult to do and especially in a hall where the sound is so different whether it is full or not, with or without curtains. It is very difficult to get a sense of what the balance is going to be.
But for a work like Mahler 1, they have to be stronger in character and push their way through. And I want my klezmer clarinets, the specific high notes for the woodwinds. Mahler always wrote fortissimo for the flutes because he thought they were too weak... I did some research, and this is why you have four flutes for Mahler 4. So, I asked them for stronger character here and that changed the sound.

They have not played so much Mahler in the past.
That is true, and this is an advantage. They are terribly easy to do things when they are inspired. I do not like to work slowly and repeat things three times. Also, when you rehearse, it is not to do exactly what will happen during the concert. It is to reduce the number of possibilities from a million to ten and then improvise within these ten possibilities. So, they have to stay awake which keeps them alive during a performance.

What is your idea in the disposition you have adopted which is to have the cellos next to the first violins on the left?
I have experimented and researched on this. I believe that historically, it is very important to have a strong bass foundation set up. The basso continuo was underneath the melodic line. So, I wanted the sound of the first violins to merge with the bass. I really wanted to avoid a “stereo” effect of having the melody on one side and the cello-basses on the right. I also have less places to have a classic “16 16 12 12 8” [first and second violins, violas, cellos and basses]. So, this actually “emancipates” all the middle voices and works for nearly music of all epochs I have played.

When you played Mahler 1, you asked the entire bass section to play the theme in the third movement. This is very rare.
So, the first version Mahler wrote was actually for solo cello and solo bass. (see here). I will not do again to ask the entire section. I did it once, so did Gergiev, and we used the Erwin Ratz edition which mentions using the whole section. We all thought that we had to do this, but the new editions clearly print at the bottom this is a solo for bass group.

In this movement, Mahler asked for no crescendo, so I thought this was to better achieve this indication.
Not really, but what happens is that all players want to play it beautifully, whereas the music is a little bit macabre and pedantic.

There are often bad traditions that prevail in Mahler like doing a huge unwritten crescendo at the end of Mahler 3 which say a Bernstein did, and which you did not do.
Bernstein did some great things and made this music popular. When he played these works, they were not so well known. Bernstein being who he was, found in Mahler a composer where he could himself as his own vehicle. But for the Third, one has to remember that the first movements end as a catastrophe, and this is also true of the last movement where there is no “salvation” even in the last pages.
It is actually somewhat the case for the Ninth. It is only until the last moments that Mahler starts accepting his fate, but you fight until you arrive at this point.

Next year, you will play in Geneva Mahler 6, which is an amazing work and you will also conduct in the first half Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Should not you just play the Sixth with no interval? I remember they were somewhat tired at the end of the Third which is such a monumental work.
What actually happened with this performance of the Third is that we played it twice on a whole day. The Monday was a holiday, so we had to do the general rehearsal the same day of the concert. It was on TV and we had to be in frac, so everybody was tired. But in fifteen years’ time, we will have done this piece several times and there will be a learning process.
Back to the Sixth, when Mahler played, they started with it and then played a piano concerto. Concerts in this time were hugely long. What I want to do is to bring the appassionato of the concerto and not something too floral... and link with the darkness of the Mahler.

In any case, it is great to bring together the two quintessential Jewish composers. What do you think of the completed version of the Tenth?
We need to speak about the order of the movement for the Sixth. What do you think it should be?

The slow movement in second place?
No, and let me tell you why. First, the slow movement is the most important one with so much poignancy but more importantly, it is the same structure as Beethoven Ninth. You have a material in 4/4 and then in 3/4 the scherzo and then you have the slow movement. Mahler changed it during the general rehearsal because it is difficult for the audience to follow if the scherzo is after the first movement.
For the Tenth, I have a problem with it. It is not quite a “whole piece”. Even the first movement, Mahler could have changed the instrumentation. It is just not enough for me. Maybe also like Bruckner Ninth, it is meant to end this way. Maybe one should play Das Lied von der Erde and then the Adagio but I cannot find enough coherence in this work.

You will also play Webern next year. This is a composer which has nearly disappeared from concert halls.
It is a shame, isn’t it? We do not hear it enough because it is so difficult, and I need to have a mandolin and a guitar for six minutes. It is amazingly beautiful music. I really want to focus on the Viennese School. It is the link with Mahler. It is so rich and so romantic. You do have to know the piece [he starts singing]. It is like playing a whole Mahler symphony in two bars.

[Interview with Antoine Lévy-Leboyer]



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