From London to Aldeburgh

A conversation with Ivor Bolton about the »From darkness to light«concert

When I saw Ivor Bolton in the opera pit for the first time in 1997 - with Claudio Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppaea in Munich's Prinzregententheater - he was still one of the early music specialists who was able to impart his knowledge with verve to modern orchestras. At that time, the man from near Manchester was 39 years old and had a typical English conducting career behind him: studies at Clare College in Cambridge and at the Royal College of Music in London, répétiteur at the National Opera Studio and at the opera festival in Glyndebourne, then chief conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for two years. Bolton seemed to be a jack-of-all-trades on all stages where experienced baroque conductors were needed. But at the latest with his election as conductor of the Mozarteum Orchestra in Salzburg (2004-2016), it became clear that he did not want to be tied down stylistically. In addition to Mozart and Haydn, Bruckner also moved to the centre, and in opera Bolton proved a broad spectrum as music director at the Teatro Real in Madrid (since 2015) - above all, he has repeatedly devoted himself to the music theatre of Benjamin Britten. On 19 September, he conducted the season opening in Madrid with Luigi Cherubini's opera Médée and had time during the final rehearsals to talk about the »From darkness to light« programme with the Gürzenich Orchestra.


Is this your first appearance with the Gürzenich Orchestra?

Oh no, in the 1990s there were several joint concerts, with very different programmes from Beethoven and Mozart to Olivier Messiaen. Then we lost contact a bit, perhaps because I devoted myself more to the Mozarteum Orchestra in Salzburg and was quite "busy" with that.

You have been the principal conductor at the Teatro Real in Madrid for eight years, and on 19 September you will be premiering Luigi Cherubini's »Médée« - a piece that might have been forgotten if Maria Callas had not sung it.

The work got off to a bad start when it was first performed in Paris, at that time still with spoken dialogue. But in the 19th century it was popular, especially in Germany, and Richard Wagner admired it greatly. Basically, Médée is along the lines of Rameau, Gluck and Berlioz - a gripping piece for which you also have to work hard with the orchestra.

Music and commerce

The premiere of the »Médée« was in 1797 - temporally between Haydn's Symphony No. 95 and Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, which you perform with the Gürzenich Orchestra.

That was indeed an exciting time! Yet Haydn's Symphony in C minor is not at all one of the most famous London symphonies - as you can see from the fact that it does not have a popular epithet like "The Miracle" or "The Clock". No. 95 is his only late symphony in a minor key, and on first hearing it also has a lot of parallels to the earlier "Sturm und Drang" symphonies.

It almost sounds a bit old-fashioned ...

The first movement, perhaps, but the slow movement is already very dramatic and grandly constructed: it all has an incredible logic and consistency, as is generally the case with late Haydn. I suggested the piece to the orchestra, and we then put together a programme, starting from C minor, that emphasises a bit the dark side and muted emotions of music.

Do you have an explanation for why Haydn and Mozart wrote so few symphonies in a minor key?

Actually, Haydn composed a few minor symphonies in the 1760s and 1770s. But perhaps the concert manager Johann Peter Salomon, who hired Haydn to London, wanted more optimistic music to capture the market. But that is only a guess.


Did the minor keys with the orchestras of the time perhaps have a different, more exciting character than today?

If you intonate precisely and play with less vibrato, you have to think carefully about how you tune the instruments, how big the thirds are, for example - that already has an effect on the character. Then there's the fact that the audience in the 18th century may have known the music of the past fifty years, but not this huge repertoire from the baroque to the modern that is played in concerts today. It is true that Mozart already rearranged works by Handel, but it was not until the 19th century that composers like Mendelssohn began to rediscover Bach and other "historical music" on a larger scale. Today, orchestras are expected to be able to play music from Bach to the present, sometimes in the same concert.

When you play Haydn today, you also have to think about the size of orchestras back then. In London, he apparently had up to 44 musicians at his disposal - quite an opulent line-up.

I think there were also commercial reasons for this, because London was a pioneer in the marketing of music at the time. Musical life was no longer paid for by princes or kings, as it was on the continent, but organised and financed by impresarios like Salomon - or by societies like the Royal Philharmonic Society, which commissioned works like Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. This development already began with Handel, who was an entrepreneur in London and naturally also knew the problems and collapses that one risked with commercially oriented cultural enterprises. That he was dependent on the economic cycle and the goodwill of the public can be seen from the fact that his late operas have increasingly sparse orchestrations - for the simple reason that the singers were becoming more and more expensive and he therefore saved on the musicians.

Idyll and catastrophe

At the end of the concert is Ludwig van Beethoven's Sixth Symphony - a piece written only fifteen years after Haydn's C minor Symphony and yet representing a kind of musical quantum leap.

Beethoven completely rethought the old formal models in the symphony. Already the dimensions of the movements exceed anything in Haydn, Beethoven's tonal language is unbelievably dynamic and no longer pleasing at all. And we know that the orchestral musicians of his time were shocked by the difficulties of their voices - Beethoven pushed the limits there too. The Sixth Symphony is an exception, in a way, because it has this programme of a »pastoral« symphony, which was quite popular at the time. But with the exception of the »thunderstorm«, which he sets to music almost naturalistically in the fourth movement, this is not illustrative programmatic music, but rather a very individual shaping of musical »moods«. Compared to the Fifth Symphony, which features incredibly pathetic gestures and a development from conflict to triumph, the Sixth is much more delicately crafted.


The theme of the Sixth Symphony is nature. What was Beethoven's attitude towards nature?

I think that in the 1800s, nature was generally more challenging for people than it is today, and a failed harvest meant a life-threatening threat for many. Today we believe that we have tamed nature. But this is increasingly proving to be a mistake; one only has to look at the consequences of climate change and the current catastrophes in Morocco or Libya.

Many composers of today address these catastrophes and the gloomy perspective of climate change for humanity in their works. Did Beethoven's »Pastoral« also depict the threats, or is it more of an idyll?

That also depends on the interpretation. I think if you approach the music as vividly as possible, you can break up the idyll. We have learned a lot from historical performance practice for modern orchestras as well: you can make the sound rougher and let the music »speak« in a completely different way. François-Xavier Roth in particular showed in Cologne how one can intelligently change the shaping of sound and gesture.

A difficult character

Benjamin Britten died in Aldeburgh in 1976, when you were 18 years old.

I remember that I had just started studying at Cambridge when the news of the death came. At that time I already had connections with the Britten Festival in Aldeburgh, as accompanist on piano and harpsichord, and later I conducted Mozart's Così fan tutte at the festival and accompanied the last master class of his life partner, the tenor Peter Pears, on piano, shortly before his death.

Britten was the most important English composer of the post-war period, especially through his operas. Personally, he was probably rather difficult ...

He was a very strict, demanding person - and by all accounts not an easy character. Anyone who offended him in any way could be banished from the circle of his followers from one moment to the next. That happened to John Pritchard or the librettist Eric Crozier - above all, Britten knew no quarter when it came to the performances and enforcement of his works. I have conducted many of his operas, Billy Budd and Peter Grimes in Madrid, Albert Herring in Salzburg or the television opera Owen Wingrave in Glyndebourne - a fascinating musico-dramatic spectrum!

If we take the »Nocturne« for tenor and small orchestra, which you will conduct in Cologne, as an example: Where are the strengths of Britten's music?

Definitely in the pictorial and colourful realisation of the poems, but also in his feeling for the sound of language. Nocturne is a cycle of eight English poems that revolve around the nocturnal and are sung by tenor Andrew Staples. He is accompanied by a string orchestra, but Britten also assigns a wind instrument, timpani or harp to each of the poems. This is brilliantly done and very moving, but it also reveals in every note Britten's incredible professionalism with the instruments. He was a masterful orchestrator, nothing about him is accidental! And I think texts particularly inspired him to play out that mastery.

The interview with Ivor Bolton was conducted by Michael Struck-Schloen

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