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Schumann at Pier2

The Conductor

Grammy Award winner Paavo Järvi talks about his passion for Robert Schumann's music.

Paavo Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen have already taken part in another outstanding documentary film about classical music: "The Beethoven Project", which follows the orchestra around the world as it performs all nine of Beethoven's symphonies, has garnered 14 international awards. Paavo Järvi explains why he went on to perform all of Robert Schumann's symphonies.

Could you first explain to us why you are so fond of Robert Schumann's music?

Schumann speaks to me because his music is incredibly impulsive, his music is very direct. To me, one of the most attractive aspects of Schumann is that he shows exactly who he is immediately. Schumann can go from complete melancholy, sadness and depression into this combustion of joy without any warning. It is something that is really unique about him. To me, after conducting the Schumann symphonies for years and years, I am still surprised sometimes how somebody can go from one key to another so unpredictably and create these moments of absolute magic without much warning or preparation and yet how logical in a bigger picture all that still is.

To what extent is Schumann a typical representative of the romantic musical era?

Schumann is maybe the most colorful representative of this romantic era because of his personality, but also because of his wish to be a kind of Renaissance man. He was somebody who thought very highly of his own writing skills. He was somebody who needed and had this incredible urge to express himself, no matter how, no matter in which field. He was a pianist, he was a composer, he was somebody who wrote extensively about music and he was kind of a musical journalist and a philosopher. He needed to express himself and I think this is one of those traits that you can actually hear in his music. He had this feeling that he never just writes music for music’s sake. It seems there is always a story behind everything that he writes. It seems to always have another layer of meaning, as if he is trying to translate words into music.

Why is the instrumentation and orchestration of Schumann’s music a source of controversy for many conductors?

We all have grown up hearing that Schumann was a bad orchestrator. Why? Because he has a lot of repeated notes, the balance sometimes doesn’t work, there seems to be some kind of heaviness and thickness in the texture of the music. This has led a lot of people to believe that somehow he wasn’t good enough at orchestrating music. I think this is all misconception, because I think that the music is very well put together, it’s very well orchestrated, it is just that we have not necessarily followed his directions. If we had an orchestra that was not so big it would be more transparent, if we used instruments that he wrote for, there are certain things that would have been clearer. So, a lot of the reasons why we think he wasn’t a good orchestrator are actually due to our limitations. It’s the problem of the interpreter, the performer, who does not know enough about the style or about the historically correct way of interpreting and playing this music.

You and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie are well known for a dynamic interpretation of the Beethoven symphonies. Was it difficult to find and develop the characteristics of Schumann’s sound?

We had a very clear understanding of the sound that we wanted for Beethoven. We also knew very clearly that that was not the sound for Schumann. So, we had a good starting point. But we still wondered: if that’s not the sound for Schumann then what is it? We started experimenting with the length of the notes in the baroque style, the classical style. In romantic music, in Schumann especially, you are looking for something that is more sustained. Basically, the colors are darker. Finding affinity with the German romantic expression came surprisingly quickly and it felt right, it felt authentic, it felt like everybody actually understood exactly what we were looking for.

Which is your favorite Schumann symphony and why?

It’s very hard to say which one my favorite is, because they are so different and every time I actually come in contact with one of the symphonies I am convinced this is my favorite at the moment. Maybe if I really had to make a choice I would say the second symphony. The second is one of the most dynamic and most emotionally thrilling symphonies in the repertoire.

What does finishing the Schumann symphony cycle mean to you personally?

After performing the whole cycle of Schumann symphonies you come away from that experience completely reassured that Schumann is a great composer, that everything that you have been taught in school in the beginning was just nonsense. Basically, Schumann’s symphony music is truly great. There is no need for anybody to apologize for it or feel any sort of inferiority. If you get into it with complete commitment, if you have the courage to really see what’s in the music and forget a little bit about the so-called tradition, you realize that Schumann’s music is stunningly and emotionally powerful.

Interviewer: Christian Berger.

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