Andris Nelsons interview: ‘It’s like learning to talk, except with our hands … only gradually can we conductors consciously express what we want to say’

Whether he’s conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Bruckner or the Vienna Philharmonic in Beethoven, Andris Nelsons is mindful of the profound, indefinable connection between a conductor and his musicians, he tells Peter Quantrill



Conducting Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony is, on the face of it, an effective weight-loss strategy in itself: 80 minutes of hard cardio and unbroken concentration. And on the podium of the Royal Albert Hall, Andris Nelsons is a picture of vitality, now crouched to ensure that no one even thinks about trying to play louder than a triple piano, now reaching to the heavens with an exuberance that encourages the musicians of the Leipzig Gewandhaus to give their utmost.

Nelsons’s predecessor as Kapellmeister at the Gewandhaus was Riccardo Chailly, who gave a forthright interview about Beethoven to this magazine eight years ago, when he laid on the line a doctrine of fidelity to the composer’s tempo markings. The Decca recordings were deed to his will. Nelsons, who took over from Chailly in 2017, would doubtless be no less content than Chailly with a pile of scores in front of him, but we don’t have that particular luxury at a breakfast table in the Savoy, the morning after his BBC Prom. Watching his waistline, he settles for an egg-white omelette with mushrooms, while I hasten cardiac arrest with the house specialty dreamt up by Arnold Bennett, a concoction of smoked haddock, eggs, hollandaise and cream finished off with parmesan.

Nelsons pays unprompted tribute to Chailly’s work in questioning scores: ‘His Leipzig Beethoven cycle is one of the most exciting. You can discuss everything, but Chailly is deeply convinced the tempi should be played that way. Nobody can copy that.’ (In fact Chailly himself considerably slackened tempi when the red light was off and the Gewandhaus were touring the symphonies.)

Nelsons is quiet in conversation, not diffident but reserved. The word ‘subjective’ becomes a theme of our conversation. So does the transitory nature of any learning, any performance and any recording. While cycles of Bruckner from Leipzig and Shostakovich from Boston approach their conclusion, Deutsche Grammophon has just released a Beethoven-anniversary box of all nine symphonies taped live in concert with the Vienna Philharmonic (and reviewed in Gramophone’s November issue), an orchestra with which Nelsons regularly collaborates. The recording producer in both Leipzig and Vienna is Everett Porter. ‘If he had done the cycle with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen’, reflects Porter, ‘it would be a very different sound. Andris isn’t someone who comes in and says, “This is the bowing, this is the style, do it.” He feels what an orchestra has to offer, and then moulds it, but doesn’t try to transform it.’

Nelsons is a thorough pragmatist at heart, happiest when recording in concert, as he does in Leipzig and Boston as well as in Vienna; just as well considering the expense of hiring these orchestras for studio sessions. After the first concert of a project, conductor and producer listen through it together. ‘We talk through what he likes and what he wants to change,’ says Porter. ‘But the complication at that point is that there’s usually no more rehearsal. So my role is to offer comments and questions. Sometimes they’re of a technical nature – this isn’t together, that isn’t in tune. Other issues are more musically motivated. With Beethoven, Andris wants the contrasts. The Vienna orchestra is amazing, but it tends to round off the edges.’

Towards the end of the 1970s, the VPO made its first live Beethoven cycle, with Leonard Bernstein in charge. Reproduced with a recent LP reissue of the set, recording sheets detail the timings of each concert and the patch sessions scheduled for an hour afterwards. Porter is intimately familiar with the cycle, having supervised DG’s alternative remastering for high-resolution audio as part of ‘Bernstein 100’, but he had never worked with the VPO until the Nelsons cycle. Winning the players’ trust was key: ‘In a project of this nature, I need to be able to go out and say to the musicians after the first concert, “Look, we have a problem here, can you solve it in the next concert so that we don’t have to deal with it in the patch?”’ Time was at a premium. ‘Sometimes we used a rehearsal to pre-patch something that was unusually sensitive – a passage that might be obscured by audience noise, for example, or technical issues that you want to make sure are covered.

‘The beginning of the third movement of the Ninth is a famous example. Every orchestra has difficulties getting that passage beautifully in tune, not only Vienna! For the Ninth there were just two concerts, and the choir and orchestra met at the dress rehearsal on the day of the first concert, with a patch session afterwards. So that was a very tight schedule.’ Then there is the famous Musikverein acoustic to harness and contend with. ‘It’s much less dry than the Theater an der Wien where several of the symphonies were first performed,’ says Porter, ‘but much drier when full than empty. That’s always a challenge when editing, so that you and others don’t notice!’I have talked in the past to musicians from the CBSO and the Royal Opera who would echo Porter’s judgement that Nelsons ‘exudes music’. There is a rare combination of reserve, charm, modesty and assurance that wins over hard-bitten professionals. ‘With Andris, it’s a two-way communication,’ says Porter. ‘He hears what’s happening, he hears what the capabilities and the possibilities are, and he feeds on that.’

In Leipzig, as with previous orchestras new to him, Nelsons has spent time absorbing the Gewandhaus culture: he talks about making ‘a human connection’ with the orchestra. His Bruckner is not the Bruckner of another recent and distinguished predecessor at the Gewandhaus, Herbert Blomstedt, but it springs from the same source, and the younger man has evidently drawn from that source, and is a conscientious student of his forebears. Eyebrows have been raised about Nelsons taking on too much too soon, spreading himself too thinly across two continents. A century ago, however, Arthur Nikisch was also boss on both sides of the Atlantic at once, and the Gewandhaus hall built for him became the model for Boston’s Symphony Hall. Mahler didn’t do badly either, dividing his energies between New York and Vienna. Shuttling between Pittsburgh and Amsterdam, fellow Latvian Mariss Jansons was hindered by ill health and a serious fear of flying, but then he was also less cut out than Nelsons for the meet-and-greet aspect of American (and increasingly, European) musical directorship.

So the ‘Nelsons Bruckner’ cycle is no less a ‘Leipzig Bruckner’, and the same goes for his Shostakovich in Boston and Beethoven in Vienna. ‘Each concert hall has its own interpretation built into its architecture,’ remarks the conductor. ‘You have a general idea of the architecture of a particular work. But Bruckner may not indicate a tempo change, or many tempo changes – and the ones in the score are not all written by him – so you must find your own, like building a house or something even larger. There has to be a pulse which goes all the way through a piece, but Brahms and Bruckner assumed that musicians and conductors would breathe, and breathe with the music. That’s speculation on my part, I admit. You can’t lose sight of the human biological clock within the structure of a piece.’

The nature of the conductor’s ‘human connection’ with each orchestra is commensurately unique. ‘The Vienna Philharmonic is very much a concert orchestra’, says Nelsons, ‘in that they give something extra in concert if they feel comfortable. If you let them play, then they let you conduct!’ The illusion of ‘letting’ an orchestra play was also one cultivated by Claudio Abbado. ‘He gave the impression to musicians that they could play however they felt,’ says Nelsons. ‘I don’t want to say that I’m giving an illusion, not at all. But the rehearsal process is vital. Sometimes you have to be very clear and academic about solving technical issues. But then it’s so important to talk about the atmosphere, the metaphors of what the music could subjectively mean, and to find a still deeper level to whatever we’re playing.’

Having lately recorded the Eighth back in Leipzig, Nelsons is preoccupied by the art of transition, the silences between paragraphs (which in Bruckner are no less important than the notes), and by ensuring that they feel just right at the end of the editing process as well as in performance. ‘It is a matter of gluing these things together. And this is inevitably subjective, how you turn from one place into the next.’ There are many such transitional moments in Beethoven, too, such as the movement from storm to thanksgiving in the Sixth, or the two tempi of the Adagio of the Ninth. ‘Following the score [of the Ninth], it’s clear there are two different tempi running through the course of the movement. But when it comes to performance, you need to glue them together. Here is the crux of that word interpretation. This word carries a lot of egotistic implications – a sense of taking liberties – but there are moments in any piece where the composer must trust the musicians, and there is where the liberty comes in.

‘The Adagio of the Ninth begins with a mystical, even religious vision. It’s so beautiful, but it feels that Beethoven knows that such beauty isn’t possible in the world. In the transition he returns to earth, and there must be a different sound, as well as tempo, to describe what it is to be human. To glue the tempi together is important but so individual to each conductor – it isn’t just about a ritenuto here or a diminuendo there. This is where conducting becomes a psychological process. The attitude of musicians, the thoughts behind their bows, will make the sound different, even more than the technique they or I use. I find it so important to be in the same boat as the musicians.’

Daily practice on the trumpet helps keep up his lip, but perhaps also serves to remind Nelsons of where he came from: a high-school trumpeter in Riga who nurtured hidden ambitions for the podium. For three years he took conducting lessons in secret, practising in front of the mirror. Then one day opportunity came knocking, in the form of Beethoven’s Second. ‘My conducting teacher was also the conductor of the school orchestra. On this day he didn’t come to rehearsal for some reason. We were all about to leave when I stood up, and told them that I had been conducting. I don’t know how I got this sudden courage. I’m a shy person. I don’t feel comfortable being at the centre of attention. But something happened – we began to rehearse, and at that moment I knew that I wanted to continue my conducting studies, because I felt much less nervous. I felt taken over by something bigger.’

Beethoven may have learnt from Haydn how to make a grand entrance, but each symphony begins with its own, unique upbeat, many of them graveyards for conductors. How on earth did he manage the Second? With a smile, Nelsons recalls the study he undertook in St Petersburg, in the conducting classes founded by Ilya Musin. ‘So much of that teaching concerned the upbeat. Conducting is the art of the upbeat. Everything is in the upbeat – the breathing, the tempo, the preparation for the tempo and the character is all there. Because if you conduct with the music, it’s already too late, they’re already doing it.’ Nelsons sings through the opening of the Second, and explains how the weight of the opening chords is determined by their repetition at the end of the following downward scale. He makes it look, and sound, so easy. There is another wry smile. Nelsons will return to Vienna in January 2020 to lead the traditional New Year’s festivities for the first time, and his preparation has included watching the films of Carlos Kleiber, master of ceremonies on two legendary occasions: ‘He makes it look as though the music just plays itself.’ We think about the five-minute miracle of Die Libelle, Josef Strauss’s exquisite tone poem on a dragonfly. ‘The material seems so slight. Many conductors avoid the piece because it’s so difficult not to land heavily, and in the wrong places. When you see Kleiber, you think it’s so easy, it’s just as written. But he takes – not exactly liberties, but – he gets into the shoes of the composer.’

Karajan notoriously said of Kleiber that he only conducted when his fridge was empty. When I ask Nelsons what he has learnt from more than 20 years in the profession, he talks in more elevated terms, but also with awareness of wider responsibilities. ‘I think it took me 10 years to understand something about conducting. What I had learned about technique began to relate with what I was feeling about the music. It’s like when we learn to talk: only gradually can we make it a conscious expression of what we want to say. With conducting we do it through not only our words but our hands and the rest of our bodies.

‘Kleiber was a genius’, continues Nelsons, ‘and he didn’t need to do any communicating beyond the podium. Likewise, Haitink doesn’t talk much, but he always says that conducting is a mystical profession. Abbado said the same. There are so many things you can learn, and you should learn, about music and technique and rehearsal – this is something Mariss [Jansons] says. These things make life easier for the musicians. But then there are things you cannot describe. With the exception of the odd bar here and there, the Vienna Philharmonic could play Beethoven without me. What is it that makes them play differently when I am there?’

Nelsons returns once more to the peculiar mutual dependence between conductor and musicians. ‘Without a spark between us, there can be no compensation – not the communication with the audience, nor the conversation with donors. You have responsibilities as the Music Director of an orchestra. The musicians are like your family. You need to take care of them.’

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