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Paavo Järvi: Beethoven 'leaves everybody behind'

The star conductor from Estonia has served as artistic director for the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen since 2004. He tells DW what he thinks music reveals about the "German soul."

DW: Your career started early in Estonia. How did you view Beethoven's home country back then?

Paavo Järvi: What we learned about Germany as children and young people living in the Soviet Union was of course a little bit special. We were inundated with Soviet propaganda about the Second World War and so on.

On the other hand, as musicians, all our gods came from Germany and German-speaking countries. Those are of course Mozart and Beethoven and every great German composer from Wagner to Richard Strauss. So we had a very clear view of what Germany meant for us as musicians. It was obviously the mecca for culture, for art and especially for music.

At that time, we had no access to Western media. We knew about Germany as a developed country that was very successful and prosperous, but most of the people who were in the Soviet Union were lucky if they could visit East Germany even once. Even that was not so easy. So we had a lot of myths and a lot of second-hand information, but for us, Germany always was the home of Beethoven and Mozart.

What's different about working in Germany in comparison with other countries like the US?

I love working in Germany for various reasons. In fact, there are professional and personal reasons. Estonia, as a country - even though it was part of the Soviet Union for something like 70 years - has been part of Germany for something like 800 years. So there is a very strong connection to and strong identification with German culture. My grandparents both spoke fluent German. The work ethic, the appreciation of certain cultural things seems very similar.

So for me, when it comes to making music here, I find that there is a very good combination of deep tradition with a work ethic where one always asks questions and doesn't settle for just being together and doing the bare minimum. I find the difference with American orchestras and German orchestras is that German orchestras need to know what they play. They have questions; they want to know why. Once they've digested, understood and thought about everything, they can give something from themselves that's very personal and powerful. And I think that a lot of orchestras in other countries, especially in the United States, are perhaps a bit more concerned with technical precision and not so concerned about why something has to be a certain way.

The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen
(c) DW

Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen

Schumann, Beethoven, Bach - which German composer has most shaped Germany's image in the world?

I think that in today's world certainly the composer that stands out and leaves everybody behind, basically, when it comes to recognition and social impact, is Beethoven. For some reason, Beethoven has managed to become universal in a way that, let's say Bach, Mozart, Haydn, even Brahms, have not been. When you talk to non-musicians - people who have no connection to classical music - they will have heard of Beethoven, but maybe not Schumann.

When you conduct Schumann, Beethoven or Bach, is it possible to transmit something about what we might call the German "soul"?

Absolutely, and I think that this is exactly the difficulty. The goal that we are always trying to achieve is not just to play the notes but to try to see what's behind them. And in order to truly understand the German Romantic gestures, one has to consider the type of connection that German music has with German literature and language. In the case of Schumann, for example, and also Brahms, it is very obvious that you feel a certain uniquely Germanic soul. So it's something very German, and it's very hard to exactly put a finger on what it is - just like it's difficult to know what's French in French music or Russian in Russian music. But one can always feel it, and recognize it when it's done well.

Paavo Järvi is an award-winning Estonian conductor and Grammy winner, who has served as artistic director of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen since 2004. He is also the music director for the Orchestre de Paris, as well as a creative advisor to the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and the Järvi Summer Festival in the Estonian city of Pärnu. He regularly serves as a guest conductor for the New York, Chicago and Los Angeles Symphony Orchestras, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, the Philharmonic Orchestra London, the Wiener and Berliner Philharmoniker and the Staatskapelle Dresden. During the most recent Beethovenfest Bonn, he led the performance of Beethoven's opera, "Fidelio."
Interview: Martina Bertram / gsw