Streets paved with music history

At the 2023 Salzburg Easter Festival, Andris Nelsons and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra will present a concert programme that spans the traditional and the modern. In our interview with Nelsons, he describes how these works by Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner and Gubaidulina are situated between restlessness and calm, threats and consolation.

© Marco Borggreve

You are bringing the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra’s core repertoire with you to Salzburg. What does Leipzig mean for the world of music, and what relationship do you have to the city as the Chief Conductor of its orchestra?

Since the times of Bach and Mendelssohn, Leipzig has been a kind of small-scale capital city for classical music. It still is today. Very many composers have enjoyed a history with Leipzig, or started there. Wagner was born in Leipzig, many world premieres of Beethoven’s works took place there, Mahler worked in this city, and so did many other famous conductors. Leipzig was also the seat of several important music publishers.

When I’m in Leipzig, I always think about the important musical personalities who lived there, who walked the same streets that I walk today, and who quite possibly ate at the same restaurants. Even though many of its historic buildings no longer exist, this city still exudes a very special atmosphere.

When the Gewandhaus Orchestra and I come to Salzburg, we want to bring something of that Leipzig spirit with us.

Your concert programmes stretch from the Classical and the Baroque to modern music. What are your ideas behind this programming?

Our programme is full of contrasts. Leipzig has always been a city where many world premieres take place – that was true in the past and is still true today. And new works were perhaps given greater opportunities there than was the case in other European cities. Such as Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto or Mendelssohn’s 4thSymphony – or Bruckner’s 7th Symphony, which was given its first performance in Leipzig by Arthur Nikisch. This is especially interesting to me personally, because Nikisch was the Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Chief Conductor of the Gewandhaus, just like me. So there is a parallel here, and this is why I am also very pleased to present this symphony at the Easter Festival. It was in Leipzig with this symphony that Bruckner enjoyed the first great success of his life. The story around Schumann’s 2nd Symphony is similar.

Are these works to which the Gewandhaus Orchestra feels a special bond?

The Orchestra’s history alone means it has a very close relationship with these works and with these composers. They are part of the Orchestra’s DNA. Every orchestra gets its identity from the individuality of its sound, and that sound has to be cultivated. Just like you have to exercise your body, an orchestra has to work on its sound. And the Gewandhaus Orchestra has this especially transparent sound in Mendelssohn and Schumann. People always say that Schumann’s orchestration is very thick, and that everything is forte. But when I conduct Schumann with the Gewandhaus Orchestra, everything sounds very transparent. It’s not the same forte that you get with the works of other composers. The restlessness of Schumann’s personality is also brought wonderfully to expression. This special orchestral sound has enabled me to learn a lot as a conductor about all these composers.

© Marco Borggreve

What is Sofia Gubaidulina’s place in the history of the Orchestra?

She is currently our Composer in Residence at the Gewandhaus Orchestra. This is our way of continuing what began with Mendelssohn, Schumann and Bruckner – namely building a close relationship between the Orchestra and a composer; in this case one of the most important composers of our day. So while we are proud of our past, we are also looking to the future.

Gubaidulina’s »The Wrath of God« was commissioned by the Salzburg Easter Festival. What kind of sound can we expect from this new work?

It’s a truly frightening piece. Gubaidulina employs low frequencies and low instruments in a masterly way – such as the double bass, tuba, contrabassoon and percussion. It sounds very threatening. Especially today, with all the terrible things that are happening in the world, these sounds of anger are very topical indeed – even if we believe that God also forgives.

… and this forgiveness also finds particular expression in Brahms’s »Deutsches Requiem«.

Alongside the restlessness of »Tannhäuser« the disquiet of Schumann and Bruckner and the menace of Gubaidulina, Brahms’s »Deutsches Requiem« is intended to offer a haven of peace at the Easter Festival. It is a work that offers comfort. Whenever we perform or hear a requiem, it always confronts us with ourselves. We have to ask ourselves just what happens after we die. With many requiems, I always have a certain sense of anxiety – just think of the “Dies irae” in Verdi’s Requiem – but the German Requiem by Brahms, in contrast, exudes a very comforting feeling. It’s like being taken in someone’s arms to be told: “Don’t be afraid! Everything will be just as we were promised”. You feel embraced by this music, even if you are not religious. There is something very calming about the sound of the orchestra with the choir and the soloists. This is just what we need right now. We need values that we can hold on to.

You are a regular guest in Salzburg. What do you find special about it as a festival city?

I think the city offers much more than its various festivals. Here we have Nature, the mountains, the river, the architecture. And all that is quite independent of the festivals. But of course, we musicians always think first and foremost of the Salzburg Festivals with their international audiences. Salzburg is a wonderful place for coming together, for meeting colleagues, and for us artists to see and hear our fellow artists perform.