Vladimir Ashkenazy talks shop with DW but admits that some aspects of music making are beyond explanation.
Russian-born pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy is currently touring several cities in South America with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (DSO). He is a former principal conductor of that body of musicians, formerly known as the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. Ashkenazy sat down with DW for a chat about the DSO and the pieces they are currently collaborating on.
DW: You are used to working with orchestras from all around the world. Does a "national sound" still exist in orchestras? Does the DSO Berlin have one?
Vladimir Ashkenazy: Yes, that still exists today. Every orchestra has a different sound because the individual musicians grow in a different way. Basically, they adjust to the sound of the orchestra, of course, but many keep their individual sounds.
But it's almost impossible to make a general statement on this question. When I listen to an orchestra - on the radio, say - and I don't know who they are, I can mostly guess the nationality, but sometimes I make mistakes.
And what about the DSO's specific sound?
It's basically a German sound but not always. The last time I conducted them, I did some French music, and I managed to bring a French sound out of them in that piece. It all depends on the ability of the musicians to follow what you try to express. It's often possible for them to do that, unless the orchestra is unwilling to try. Sometimes you can't play anything with the best orchestra of the world, and who knows why? It's all a mystery. All of music making is a mystery. But when you have a concept about how a piece must sound, you try to go for it. Sometimes you succeed, sometimes you don't.
How did you come up the idea of putting together such different symphonies as Beethoven’s Sixth and Shostakovich’s Tenth? Do you find any type of connection between them?
They are both great symphonies and can co-exist after the interval. The only connection is that both pieces are great and both composers are great.
Shostakovich’s Tenth is not the most famous of his symphonies. What's the character of this piece?
Up to the finale, the symphony very much reflects his life in the Soviet Union and the atmosphere in the country. It is like a mirror of it. The three first movements are very depressive, but he ended the fourth movement when Stalin died, and he felt, like we all did, that a new era in the country might come. The finale is kind of optimistic. In the very last bars, he quotes the initials of his name: DSCH. It is like a sort of dancing with the crowds.
When Stalin died, I remember very well that Moscow was totally dead. Transportation did not work, and the shops were closed during the day of his funeral. So I had to go through a deserted Moscow in order to have a piano lesson with my teacher. I walked almost half of an hour to her apartment, and I asked her when I arrived, "What do you think will happen now that Stalin has died?"
Then she, in her own apartment, whispered in my ear, "It will be better now." She was afraid to say it in a loud voice. That is the life we had. Not funny.
You play an Austro-German concert on May 18 in Teatro Colon de Buenos Aires: Mahler's Fifth and Strauss' Don Juan. Those two composers and friends are often compared: the tragic Mahler and the optimistic and brilliant Strauss. The program is full of contrasts.
Well, Don Juan dies at the end. The end of the piece is the end of the world.
Yes, but before the end the music is full of strength and power.
Sexual power, maybe, but not spiritual. Don Juan was very attracted to women. Seducing women was very important for him; that was his life. On the other hand, Mahler’s Fifth ends very optimistically. Only the first movement is a funeral march. The Adagietto of the symphony was a love present for his wife Alma, and the finale is terribly optimistic - quite unusual for Mahler. Mahler’s Fifth is a manifestation of love, full of life. It is amazing. Usually Mahler is obsessed with himself. But in these two pieces, Don Juan and the Fifth Symphony, Mahler's is the optimistic piece. Strauss included the death of Don Juan, but Mahler ends with a manifestation of life. Both pieces are great in their own way, and Strauss was very fond of Mahler.
They were friends to a certain extent.
Strauss was so talented. Well, both of them were unbelievably gifted. Many people say Strauss did not take enough time for contemporary composers, but he had much respect for Mahler. And when he died, Strauss was very upset.
Do you respect Mahler's work?
Yes, of course, you can’t be disrespectful of him because he was a genius; there is no question about it. When I conduct Mahler, I am totally in his power.
But I will try to explain what I want to say, and I don’t want that you to misinterpret it. Mahler’s music is not my type of expression. I identify with Beethoven or Schubert and many others. Mahler always thought of himself, how miserable his life was or how happy he felt one day and all sorts of tragedies that occurred in his life. All the time: me, me, me. But look at Beethoven. He was going deaf halfway through his life, and he was absolutely deaf in his last years. He could not hear the Ninth Symphony, he could not play his Fourth Piano Concerto because he could not play together with an orchestra, and he never complained about this in his music. We should show an incredible respect for Beethoven. What a fantastic man! How did he manage not to be depressed? I am very fond of many composers, but, as an individual, Beethoven was an example for our lives.