Riccardo Chailly on Beethoven: 'It's a long way from the First to the Ninth'

Only the brave or foolhardy would dare to reimagine some of the greatest music ever written, so how did Riccardo Chailly convince five composers to do just that?

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra should know all there is to know about Beethoven's nine symphonies. For a start, they're one of the oldest orchestras in the world, and even more importantly, they were the first to perform a complete cycle of Beethoven's symphonies, in 1825 and 1826 – when Beethoven was still alive. Since then, conductors from Felix Mendelssohn to Wilhelm Furtwängler have given their interpretations of the mighty nine with the Gewandhaus players. The orchestra even has an annual tradition of playing Beethoven's Ninth, the climactic choral symphony, every Hogmanay to a perennially packed house at home in Leipzig. These symphonies are in the musicians' blood, the warp and weft of each part of their DNA.

Which all makes what their chief conductor is up to with his interpretation of the symphonies more than a little weird. Italian iconoclast Riccardo Chailly – one of the most fearlessly challenging conductors anywhere, unafraid of tackling lazy traditions wherever he finds them in orchestral playing – is doing something different with his programmes of the nine symphonies, which he is playing in five concerts over 10 days at the Barbican in London. Instead of only playing Beethoven's nine masterpieces, he has commissioned five composers to write a new piece as a response to five of the symphonies on the programme.

The idea is to force audiences to reconnect with the modernity of Beethoven's musical language by putting him in the context of music by contemporary composers. Chailly wants to disturb, shock and inspire. To do so, he has chosen composers from five different countries: Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Austria. He said that he wanted composers "with musical personalities that were very different from one another – where possible, almost unbearably different – and in this, I think I have succeeded."

The youngest, 37-year-old Frenchman Bruno Mantovani is dealing with the Fourth. One of the most impressive and communicative of today's avant-gardistas, he says: "Beethoven is a kind of alpha and omega for me." The oldest is 85-year-old Austrian Friedrich Cerha, most famous to British audiences for his brilliant but controversial completion of Alban Berg's opera Lulu. Cerha was charged with perhaps the most fearsome task, writing a piece to prelude the icon of icons, Beethoven's Ninth; the UK's representative Colin Matthews was given the Eighth, German Steffen Schleiermacher the First, and Italian Carlo Boccadoro the Fifth.

'A filler in a symphony sandwich'

It's a daunting prospect for all five. Beethoven's symphonies loom ominously over the orchestral repertoire as a challenge for any composer writing a large-scale work. They've even scared one of the five composers off ever attempting his own symphony. Matthews says: "Their status has deterred me. And yet the Chailly commission is in a way even more terrifying than writing a new symphony. The whole point is that the new pieces will be performed as the filler in a Beethoven-symphony sandwich. That's inviting a potentially embarrassing comparison."

But Matthews hasn't flinched from the challenge in his piece, Grand Barcarolle. The Eighth was an appropriate choice for him; it was part of the first concert he remembers going to, when John Barbirolli conducted it at Walthamstow Town Hall. He's even risked the gentlest of reproaches to "his" Beethoven symphony. "I've imagined Beethoven returning 200 years later to his Eighth, and realising that he'd forgotten to write a slow movement." Instead of a conventional slow movement, Beethoven composes a quick, chirpy allegretto scherzando, one of the quirkiest things he ever wrote. "I chose a barcarolle specifically because it's not a form that Beethoven used. I'm not inviting comparisons. In that sense, it's not 'Beethovenian', but it was certainly written with Beethoven in mind."

The decision to compare Matthews's Grand Barcarolle with Beethoven's symphony will be left to the audiences themselves. And it was just such a fear that made Cerha originally turn down the commission. "My first reaction was a strong refusal," he says. "I don't like music that is based on the music of others, because I mostly find them worse than the original." But, insidiously and subconsciously, the idea began to get to him. "Against my will, the beginning of the Ninth Symphony haunted my mind – and I couldn't get rid of it." That opening has fascinated Cerha since childhood. He hears it as "a kind of birth of music in general", and he's right. The whole symphony charts a story from the birth of music, out of this prehistoric sonic murk, to the birth and betterment of civilisation, climaxing with the Ode to Joy in the choral finale.

Cerha was infected by that opening music. "The material began to transform itself and the elements became increasingly varied until their origin was unrecognisable. So in the end, I took back my refusal and wrote the piece that had been finished in my mind in one go." And having written the piece, called Paraphrase on the Beginning of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Cerha is no longer intimidated by the original, and hopes that "the gap between my very short work and Beethoven's symphony, to whose greatness it cannot and does not compare, is not like an incurable rift between two strange things, but that they remain related."

Carlo Boccadoro is less sanguine about his work, Ritratto di Musico ("Picture of Music"), written to partner Beethoven's Fifth. "Hearing all the new pieces next to Beethoven's" – the pieces have all been premiered in Leipzig – "it makes me more amazed at how modern he is. He's the most modern of all of us. And especially the way Riccardo Chailly plays the symphonies" – stripped of Romantic fat, and at Beethoven's original, much faster speeds. "He makes me think I'm hearing them for the first time." Boccadoro described being assigned the Fifth as "the most risky, because everyone knows it. But then I took it as a challenge, and I tried to make my piece like a machine that goes on and on relentlessly, and becomes a kind of monster. It's very aggressive, and when it's played like Riccardo does, it becomes almost like a rock'n'roll piece, with a huge amount of energy that you feel in the audience."

Through the looking glass

Steffen Schleiermacher's work takes the essence of Beethoven's First Symphony, in C major, what he describes as "the principle of movement and stagnation" and makes it the basis of his composition. Schleiermacher also has a cheeky in-joke up his sleeve: Beethoven starts his symphony with a big structural dissonance, one of the most radical strokes in all of his symphonies, so Schleiermacher starts his piece with a whacking great C major chord. It's a through-the-looking-glass moment: the dissonance that shocked Beethoven's listeners has become the norm in contemporary music, so Schleiermacher instead has to surprise us by giving us something solid and consonant. What about his feelings on being compared with Beethoven? "There is no competition. You can only lose against Beethoven. Therefore, I will drink a decent glass of wine before the concert in order to await the defeat and face it with the necessary composure."

If the victory really is Beethoven's, that will be down to Chailly as well. The conductor has taken up the challenge he set the composers, trying to recreate the radicalism of Beethoven's music in the way he performs the symphonies. "The modernity of Beethoven is so clearly there in the music, in an alarming way. And my approach will stress that modernity." It's come as a shock to the Gewandhaus players, who are used to playing Beethoven with all the resources of their traditionally rich, dark sound. "They were incredibly surprised at the beginning when we started work on the symphonies, playing them at Beethoven's speeds, not the slower tempos they were used to. But that's what happens: whenever you touch a playing tradition that's over 100 years old, often there are bad habits that need time to be removed."

However, Chailly wants to use the best of the Gewandhaus's Romantic sound culture along with the clarity, expressivity and violence of his vision of the symphonies. "That way, Beethoven still stands with great pride next to the contemporary composers. He holds his own, without losing his powers. Really, the modern composers are the ones who are enriched by the aura of these inspirational symphonies." This is the first time he has conducted a complete cycle of all nine symphonies in such a short time and it promises to be an unforgettable, prejudice-challenging, ear-opening journey for the audiences, the players and the conductor.

"It's a very long way from the First to the Ninth, and it will be exhausting," he says. "I feel that when I come to London, it will be to perform a single, gigantic masterpiece in 37 movements."


Tom Service

The GuardianTramp

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