In a soft, lightly French accented English (except for “Bruckner” and “Mahler”, which he pronounces with a notable Dutch inflection), Philippe Herreweghe sat down after rehearsals with the Salzburg Camerata for their concerts at the Konzerthaus to talk about music. Not Beethoven, or Chopin, which he would go on to perform (and play the hell out of), but Haydn.
Is Haydn underrated in a way? Or neglected perhaps? How important is he really in Music?
Well, I have played a lot of Haydn and next week, for example, I am making a recording of Die Schöpfung and we just recorded Die Jahreszeiten and I played, of course, many of the symphonies. The thing is at the moment—and I don’t speak about here, because I don’t know the situation very well in Vienna… but in Belgium and Holland, Haydn is now considered ‘ancient music’ in a way, and is played a lot by the specialist orchestras on historical instrument. And I must say that this music sounds, in my opinion, indeed much better on original instruments. And for that reason normal, modern orchestras don’t play Haydn so much anymore. And since the period instrument orchestras don’t have that much money, they play less often. So for that reason, Haydn isn’t played very often any more.
But he is a fantastic composer, of course. The only thing is that the traditional public is still fundamentally very romantic in their outlook on music. They want to hear romantic music. Even contemporary music is, like you know, not so much present. And Haydn is very happy music, it’s very simple in a way… but very pure. The architecture, the sound, is very intelligent, very refined. But the symphonies of Mahler, for example, are more popular because they are more dramatic. And I think Haydn is music for people who have a really good feeling for music. And not so much of an emotional linkage to the music of the romantic period. Haydn is simply good music; a good sound, a good combination, eine interessante Spielerei. But I, like all musicians, like Haydn a lot because it is very intelligent music.
A Mahler symphony, emotionally but also socially, is an event. To a lesser extent also Bruckner and maybe Shostakovich. Or at least a Schumann symphony or one of the bigger Beethoven symphonies. People buy tickets for that. And when Haydn is played at all, by the Philharmonic orchestras of this world, or the Radio orchestras, it’s usually a symphony at the beginning of the concert: The least rehearsed bit of the evening, and done away with in the manner of a throw-away overture.
The reason is that most modern orchestras lack the language to ‘speak’ this music well. And I find it very boring when even very good orchestras—uhm, this is a little delicate to say in Vienna, and I don’t speak about very good, indeed fantastic Viennese orchestras—but they can’t speak that language. And if they play it in the style of Brahms, it is very boring. It’s like when classical trained musicians try to play Jazz. It’s boring because they can’t play jazz. And in a way it’s the same for all ‘ancient music’ that we know here, with that kind of approach. It’s not only about the sound of the period instruments but above all about the articulation, the phrasing, which make this music really vivid. And then when it’s played by that kind of orchestra, like in Germany by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra or Frans Brüggen’s orchestra in Amsterdam (Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century), or I think also by my orchestra in Paris (Orchestre des Champs-Élysées), I think we are more trained to speak the language. And most of the modern orchestras in Belgium and Holland are aware of that problem and they don’t do it anymore, simply because they know they are not doing it well.
And that’s a shame, because it is very important for an orchestra to go on playing Beethoven, Haydn… for the basic grammar, in a way. If you only play Bruckner or Mahler, tchhh… first of all you miss a big chunk of fantastic music, and the basic grammar is getting lost. I myself I conducted a traditional orchestra in Belgium (Antwerp’s DeFilharmonie) and I tried to play with them… well, I avoided Bach because I can’t stand that with modern orchestras, but Haydn we do it because it is important to do it. Also because I come from that field of early music and I think that I can try to train even modern orchestras (which I do here now, with the Camerata) to play Beethoven—but in another way than they played it thirty years ago, even with fantastic conductors. But that was another kind of style. I don’t say that this is the ’true style’, because in twenty years there will be another approach and so forth. But that is, I think, progress.
It’s partly ironic that the idea of Haydn being solidly in the realm of the period instrument orchestras leads to ‘modern’ symphony orchestras playing it less, eventually not being able to playing it well anymore, and then, when they do play it, investing too little time in it and boring an audience out of their mind so that they, too, won’t do Haydn anymore. Dennis Russell Davies once told me, non-disparagingly but out of the same concern, that he considers it his mission to snatch Haydn from the jaws of the early music specialists. I love that statement.
Indeed, when you play it even with very good orchestras—like Harnoncourt, whom I admire a lot and with whom I worked when I was young—and when he did Haydn a lot with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, he wanted a lot of rehearsals. Because you are right: very good orchestras can play these symphonies without rehearsing at all… but Harnoncourt for example, and myself also, insisted on those rehearsals. Otherwise it’s not interesting. You have to work a lot. With period-trained orchestras, on the contrary, like the Freiburgers, you can play another symphony of Haydn no problem. Or with my group—I think I have a very good group for Bach [the Collegium Vocale Ghent] and we can do whatever Bach Cantata without rehearsing. Because we’ve done all the Bach Cantatas so often, that that’s a language that we speak and so we often do concerts with just one small rehearsal. With them you can do that. But if you do that with a normal, even very good orchestra, you need something like five rehearsals.
More and more the benefit of the early music movement, is that, let us say… it’s good for conductors and players to have the insight—I think that’s my case a little bit, without any pretension—from playing early music. It helps me that I’ve done even Machaut, Orlando di Lasso, Josquin, Schein, Schütz, Bach, C.P.E.Bach… I always say: If you want to understand Venezuela, it’s good to know Spain. You can’t understand South America very well if you don’t know from where it comes. You can better understand Brazil if you know Portugal and so on. It’s the same with music. You can better understand Brahms when you know Schütz. Because all these people, Schumann, Bruckner… were very interested in their musical heritage. But for a while, many conductors didn’t have that culture internalized. They only knew a thin sliver of music history. They were not interested in contemporary music and for them their reach was from Brahms to Debussy and there it stopped. And now more and more conductors have a vast musical culture with which they are familiar. Of course to conduct well is still another thing, you need other qualities, too… psychologically and so. But it doesn’t hurt to have a certain culture. If you want to understand literature, it’s better to know history, too. And so on. And that’s why people like Gardiner, Norrington, Simon Rattle, and of course Harnoncourt… and I admire a lot Iván Fischer. He’s a fantastic musician.
And another thing is: There was at one point a divorce of sorts between singing—choral singing and ensemble singing and text—and instrumental music. And conductors like Harnoncourt and Fischer and all these people, they also know this and they work with voices. Brahms’ first profession was that of a choir conductor. Bruckner was an organist, but also a singer. I say that because now choirs are all amateurs. But I think that singing, for the whole of 19th century music, is the basis of that music. But well, that’s another point.
What about Phi, the record label you founded?
Phi is a Greek letter. And it’s Phi because… well, we looked for a name and Phi is also “P.H.” which is my name, Philippe Herreweghe… that’s a bit of a joke. But also, and that’s more useful, ϕ in Greek is the symbol of perfection… of the, nombre d'or, the golden ratio. Which amounts to beauty, the human scale… As you know, there is a crisis in the business of recordings today, and all the major companies have to be very commercial to survive. They have a lot of people working for them that they have to pay each month… so for me at this point in my life, I find it important to record what I want to record. Szymanowski or Myaskovsky or whatever I want. For example Dvořák’s Requiem. All the things that record companies say: Don’t do that, it’s suicide! If they want to sell 50.000 items of that, it will not work. But I am not interested in money, I want to make recordings because it’s very interesting for musicians to make recordings. Normally, when you are recording you are in an ideal situation—acoustically, the best possible musicians, you have time, and you can go as far as you can go, with your imagination. And it’s good training to make recordings. And recordings you make are also very good teachers, because you can listen to them and so on. And also it’s a business card of sorts. For example: At some point I started making recordings of Bruckner with period instruments, which is of course contestable… and since then people invite me to conduct Bruckner. Otherwise they would never have associated me with that repertoire. Normally concert organizers are behind in what you do.
I also did Frank Martin’s Jedermann, which is a work for baritone for orchestra which I find fantastic. Well, I would like to record that in order to get it out there. The press in Belgium, they never come anymore to concerts. They go to operas, but concerts the papers don’t write about anymore. They do go on talking about recordings, though. So if you make a recording of Jedermann, people talk about that work which is important, because then organizers will say: ‘Oh, this is interesting… we’ll invite you to do that.’ So for that reason it is important to make recordings and to make your own recordings allows you to be free and to record exactly what you want. Which is my case now.