Paavo Järvi, one of the world's most sought-after conductors, will again perform all nine Beethoven symphonies in 2020, the composer's anniversary year. In a DW interview, he explains why Beethoven remains so relevant.
The Estonian star conductor Paavo Järvi is, among other things, artistic director of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, one of the world's leading orchestras. The "dream team," as they call themselves, has already won several prizes for their collaborative recordings, including those of Ludwig van Beethoven's nine symphonies. Deutsche Welle has filmed Paavo Järvi and the orchestra on "The Beethoven Project." Here the conductor explains the secret of their success and why Beethoven's music — especially his symphonies — are so relevant in 2020.
DW: Ten years ago, with "The Beethoven Project," you sought to present a version of his symphonies for the 21st century. What is always new to you about Beethoven?
Paavo Järvi: Beethoven considered his symphonies the summit of his output. For me, the thrill is a test of time. If you listen to a performance of a Beethoven symphony and listen to it again ten year later, does it still stand up? Is it still something that feels interesting to hear, is os alive and does it have energy? That's really the goal and the key.
I think a lot has been said about the historic importance and political aspect of Beethoven symphonies and his quest for brotherhood, fairness and empathy. That message will always be there and will always be important. That's why we talk about Beethoven as a kind of revolutionary. But as a musician, I find that there is something about his music that never grows old, that is very direct, uncompromising and also honest.
Why is his music relevant nowadays?
Paavo Järvi will be conducting all of Beethoven's symphonies during this anniversary year: shown here with the German Kammerphilharmonie Bremen
We live in a time when you can't believe much of what you hear. A time where you always doubt everything. In fact the biggest deficit nowadays — as far as I'm concerned — is the lack of authenticity. There are a lot of fake stars, manufactured stars and manufactured ideas. You very seldom hear somebody tell it like it is.
Beethoven not only does that, but he says it in such a brilliant way that you just stop and listen because it is really authentic, and powerful and uncompromising. Beethoven's musical statements are delivered so compellingly that you have no choice but to listen. It's not: "Let me tell you a story about what I heard somewhere." It's about the here and now, and it's only this way, and there is no other way. It's not political music per se, but it is a kind of music that reacts to things. Reacts against injustice, reacts against what is fake.
How do you convey that authenticity?
Before we made the recordings, we worked on the symphonies for ten years and then recorded them one by one. We took a lot of time to actually discover exactly what's in the score, how to seat the orchestra, what kind of instruments to use, whether the metronome markings are correct, and how many liberties we can take. All the things that we had been looking to achieve were achieved only because we had enough time to really immerse ourselves in the works.
With the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, you have recorded not only Beethoven's symphonies, but also those of Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann. With the Orchestre de Paris, where you were principal conductor for five years, you dedicated yourself to the symphonies of Jean Sibelius. What does it mean for you to record these complex symphony cycles?
I think with certain composers you just feel like tackling the whole cycle makes sense. If you do the cycle of Beethoven's symphonies and play them in chronological order, you hear each symphony quite differently than if you just play one of them.
Playing the Fifth alone, for instance, is a great experience, but if you play the Fifth right after the Fourth, it's a real shock. It puts it in a different context. Then, after the Fifth, where fate knocks at the door and everything revolves around this kind of higher power, you have the Sixth, the Pastoral, where it is suddenly very close to nature and much less heroic and imperial. All that will change the way you look at the piece, if you have the right context.
Can we draw conclusions about Beethoven's musical development from this?
We instinctively believe that progress is linear and logical. But with Beethoven, there's no such typology. For example, after the Third Symphony, the Eroica, one thinks that something really amazing, unique must follow. But then comes the Fourth Symphony, which is very close to the Second. It's as if he had taken two steps backwards after the great breakthrough he had made with the Third Symphony. Then, from that place, it seems like a mystery why he wrote the Fifth, which takes another ten steps further forward than the Eroica. Then he returns with the Sixth to a kind of Pastoral, which seems like a walk in the park. I'm obviously simplifying here, of course.
With the Seventh, he's written a dance symphony, which one would really not have expected. After that comes one of the greatest jokes ever written by a genius. From the beginning, the Eighth Symphony is just a number of pranks. And with the Ninth comes a piece that changed the history of music, with chorus and the statement that "all men should become brothers." It changed the way one looks at symphonies. So there's no clear logical progression in Beethoven's symphonies. An inner logic perhaps, but not one that's easy to detect.
Which of his symphonies with all these different attributes do you like best?
I like every one of them, because once you are immersed in one symphony, it becomes the piece you like the most. Looking back, I've always specially looked forward to conducting the First, the Second and the Fourth. They are fresh, they are incredibly witty and slightly less familiar to the orchestras and also to the audience than, let's say, the Fifth, Seventh and Ninth. Purely from my personal point of view, conducting the Fourth symphony is always a joy.
The Fifth Symphony is physically so demanding and so complicated to do the way you really want to. I have never been a part of a good performance of the Fifth, other than with the Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. With the Kammerphilharmonie, we have had many good performances with the Fifth symphony. It's not that there was anything wrong with the other orchestras, it's just that we hadn't gone through those ten years of experimentation together.
You have been working as artistic director with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen since 2004. What makes your collaboration so special?
The Kammerphilharmonie Bremen is an orchestra that organizes itself around projects. We take a composer and immerse ourselves in the works. We do cycles, we have specialists who come and talk to us. We experiment and take enough time to really delve into the composer. With Brahms, we took four years; with Schumann, five years; with Beethoven, ten years. How many orchestras have the luxury to spend that much time on standard repertoire? It's an entirely different way to get into the essence of a piece.
With The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Paavo Järvi will again perform the entire cycle of Beethoven's nine symphonies in Bremen and Frankfurt during the Beethoven Anniversary Year 2020, as well as conduct the Ninth in Tokyo to mark Beethoven's birthday in December.