bamberger symphoniker

extraordinary city.
extraordinary orchestra.

Jakub Hrůša
© Andreas Herzau

Chief Conductor Jakub Hrůša talks to Wolfgang Sandner


Mr. Hrůša, you’ve been in Bamberg a while now. How are you getting on?

Very well. In the first year, I’d fully taken up the post but I wasn’t yet as available as ideally I would have been. With the coming season that will change, as my dates with the Orchestra mount up.

Was it planned that way?

The first year, there was no other way, because of the number of engagements booked long ago elsewhere. It’s only in this coming season that we’ll get as much time with each other as we’d like. But we’ve already done some wonderful things together, such as the inaugural concert, and the programmes with Mozart, Rachmaninoff and Brahms. I believe the Orchestra and I are growing closer, and when I’m here, I always have a very good feeling.

Do you already notice a change in the Orchestra’s artistic footing?

I’m reserving judgement. To be honest, it’s still too soon. Plus, it’s not an easy judgement to make when you’re part of the process yourself. But generally I get the feeling we’re coming along well. At the moment we’re doing very detailed work on seating plans – acoustical issues, in other words. Initially ‘seating plans’ may sound rather over-technical, but it’s very closely bound up with music-making and sound. The musicians have to feel that we’ve found the right position for each instrumental section. Also, I’ve come to appreciate the Orchestra’s tremendous aptitude for older repertoire, such as Jan Václav Voříšek. Yes, I reckon we work well together. Rehearsals are intensive, we waste no time or effort. It’s all very relaxed and the atmosphere is great.

You performed Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. That marked the start of an ambitious project pairing Brahms and Dvořák. Can you tell us more about it?

It may seem pretty obvious if I start by saying that I deeply love the music of both composers. What I find so wonderful about them, and especially about Brahms, is their highly harmonious rapport between heart and head. It’s something I’ve attached great importance to all my life, this balance between the intellectual and emotional sphere. Actually it sums up Brahms’s personality. We all know how close Brahms and Dvořák were, and how much Dvořák owed Brahms as a composer. And we also know how much Brahms admired Dvořák’s freshness of invention and creativity. For a long time, almost unconsciously, I’ve been programming both composers together, for instance playing Brahms’ Haydn Variations with Dvořák’s Symphonic Variations, or a symphony by Brahms with a concerto by Dvořák. Actually Dvořák doesn’t really need me to keep pleading on his behalf. This music is sort of mother’s milk to me. The way I saw it, the Bamberg Symphony’s association with me – a German orchestra, yes with a Slav heritage, but still a German orchestra, at home in German repertoire, with a Czech conductor – that could be a logical starting-point for presenting Dvořák and Brahms. Not that we’ll record a separate Brahms cycle, though, and follow it with a Dvořák cycle – instead, every CD will include music by both composers. So the four Brahms Symphonies will be coupled with the last four by Dvořák. Some are even in the same key: Dvořák’s Ninth and Brahms’ Fourth, both their last as it happens, are in e minor, and Dvořák’s Sixth and Brahms’ Second are in D major. So those will be on the same CD. And then you have Brahms’ Third in F major and the d minor Symphony by Dvořák, which are in related keys. It only doesn’t work for the last pair. But that’s hardly an issue.

As you say, Brahms and Dvořák were friends and thought highly of one another. But their styles are different. What you noted in Brahms, this combination of intellect and feeling, can’t simply be carried over to Dvořák.

Yes, but Dvořák’s intellectual side can certainly be emphasized more than it generally is. Still, you’re right about the difference, which in fact can also be stimulating, and perhaps it will open people’s ears.

Brahms was much more polyphonically oriented than Dvořák. His style is more backwards-looking than Dvořák’s. Or did Dvořák also look back to times gone by?

Dvořák too, it must be said, looked back to the past. This isn’t perhaps evident in the symphonies. But if you take his choral works, then it’s clear his starting point is Handel, as Brahms’s was Bach. The relationship of Bach to Handel is very much like that of Brahms to Dvořák. One composer is a touch more intuitive and less self-critical, but for all that often more human, for good or ill. The other is more rigorous, and more concerned to make everything fit perfectly together. If you were to compare Brahms’s Symphonies with Dvořák’s tone poems, the differences would be more salient. Anyway, I’m not aware of another project like ours, which treats two composers with equal care, and doesn’t privilege the one and relegate the other to being the filler on a CD.

Would you say that Brahms is a typically German composer and Dvořák a typically Czech one? And that by pairing them on CD you can really hear this?

Clearly, the answer has to be yes. Their German and Czech features are unmistakable. But both composed with the intention of making their music accessible across borders. Apart from the scherzos, which do strike a more ethnic note, you don’t get the feeling from Dvořák’s Symphonies that he deliberately set out to create something specifically Bohemian. But of course he couldn’t change his spots. I feel Dvořák paid for his Czech authenticity, sometimes, with a loss of structural rigour. And Brahms strove to be a rational composer through and through, at the cost of a certain spontaneity, which for someone like Tchaikovsky was a failing.

Not just Tchaikovsky, Hugo Wolf too, and the ‘New German’ school.

But that could be another dream project. Imagine these three composers together on CD. Only then would we realise how German Dvořák is compared to Tchaikovsky, how much he structured his works and how much he learned from Brahms or Beethoven. Although Tchaikovsky constantly betrays influences from western traditions, his music is much more firmly based on harmony and melody, whereas for Brahms, the older he got, the more form, polyphony and structure gained in importance. His Fourth is the product of structural thinking.

Especially the last movement.

And the first. The entire opening movement is an essay on the descending interval of a third. That is its fundamental principle, together with the inversion as an ascending sixth. He also plays with rhythms, with multi-rhythmic sections. That is actually a modern way of thinking and leads straight into the 20th century.

That’s also why Arnold Schoenberg spoke of »Brahms the progressive«, and laid such emphasis on the principle of »developing variation«. But I’d like to return to the Czech-German pairing. What’s your view of Mahler – was he a German or a Czech composer?

Definitely not German. Mahler is not a German composer. To a certain extent, he’s an Austrian composer. But if we really want to do justice to his genius, we must mention at least three constituents which are equally important for him: Austrian, Bohemian and Jewish. What do I mean by saying he’s not a German composer? Perhaps I’m thinking along overly black and white lines, but the difference between Mahler and Richard Strauss is like, say, that between Schubert and Schumann. Thinking about German-speaking culture, Mahler was certainly at home in it. But the crucible of his artistic persona fused a Bohemian brand of Slav instinct with an undercurrent of Jewish mindset, enriched in later years by certain Christian motifs, plus the German language. And all this had equal weight. But how his music actually sounds, and whether one side of his triple identity is emphasized, all depends on the personalities concerned: who’s conducting, who’s playing, which orchestra is involved. Obviously, it should be said, the ideal is to have everything in balance. I recently conducted Mahler’s First in Tokyo. And I freely admit the Tokyo Metropolitan Orchestra played exquisitely. But there was one moment, in the third movement, with the trumpets in the funeral march, where I just couldn’t explain how it should sound. They played it too beautifully, too professionally. But at the same time it shouldn’t be vulgar either. To convey this irony, this metaphorical meaning, the players have to find a way of making clear that this is a rustic funeral march. Beautiful, after a fashion, and on no account condescending. That is an extremely fine cultural dividing line, and believe that Mahler more than any other composer walks that line. It takes so much strength, and empathy too, to strike the right balance. For me, this part of central Europe – in which I believe I’m justified in including Austria, Bohemia, Moravia and maybe a part of Hungary – it’s quite unique. And Mahler stands for this last vestige of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy – the cultural heart of Europe. A while ago I was in the small town of Zlín in eastern Moravia, very near Brno and Bratislava. I was performing Mahler’s Third with the Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic. In many places, the Third has these mischievously vulgar overtones. All it really needed was a few brass who play every week in the local band at funerals, as these musicians indeed do. It’s in their blood, playing that kind of theme. And they know just what they’ll be playing the following week, at an actual burial. You can’t easily put that across in Tokyo.

May I return to the topic of the future? We’ve talked about Brahms and Dvořák. Any other plans?

We’re going to do a couple of interesting Czech works. My most heartfelt wish for the coming season was for music by Josef Suk. We’re opening the season with Suk. If you like, he’s a Czech Mahler. And Mahler greatly admired Suk. He was very taken with Suk’s symphonic poem »A Summer Tale«, for instance, and studied the piece, which Suk sent him, with a view to performing it in Vienna. Mahler died before he could fulfil his intention. So, Suk is one composer we want to draw attention to, and another is Bohuslav Martinů. These two are the most important composers alongside Smetana, Dvořák and Janáček, and they’re very dear to my heart. And, step by step, we’re getting closer to Mahler again. After my wonderful experiences with the First, I just can’t hold out any longer. Mahler is a must.