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Escaping the Shadows: Christopher Hinterhuber talks to Jeremy Siepmann

November 1, 2012

Christopher Hinterhuber

For some performers, perhaps for many, there are certain works, certain composers, who take on the character of personal acquaintances—and acquaintance ripens into friendship. They become companions. The bond can be formed instantaneously, or it can grow, over time. When Christopher Hinterhuber first encountered Ferdinand Ries—friend, pupil and first biographer of Beethoven—he had no sense that this would be any such relationship. ‘It was a Sonata for flute and piano, I think in E flat major, that I heard on the radio, and I have to confess I was unimpressed. But when I heard his Second Symphony, some time later, I was hooked on the spot. And we’ve never looked back.’

Could he, I wondered, cast his mind back into childhood, and remember the first time he’d been similarly ‘grabbed’ by a work? ‘Oh yes. It was a Mozart mass, when I was about five or six. And this had a huge impact on me. It changed my life. At that time, I’d started to play the recorder, when I was in kindergarten, but after the Mass experience I started to play the piano. I remember at my grandmother’s house coming across a whole lot of pieces, I particularly remember arrangements of Strauss waltzes, marches, polkas, things like that, which I plunged into and somehow managed to play, I don’t know how. I would sit at the piano and play for hours on end, discovering how great it was to express things in music. Not for somebody, just for myself. My spending all this time at the piano had my parents rather worried. But there was no need. They aren’t musicians, they aren’t really connected to music in any way, so it took them a while to realise that there was some kind of talent here, and a really strong connection to music. They liked music, though, and I heard a lot of it at home—on the radio mostly, but also on record. Not just classical music, but music of many kinds, popular, even pop music, a lot of operetta…so music was around me all the time. Among my earliest memories are of listening to records of the Beethoven symphonies with Karajan and the Dvořák Violin Concerto with Oistrakh.’

Who (and what), I wondered, were the formative influences on Hinterhuber’s development as a musician? The teachers, composers and institutions who really shaped him? ‘Early on, I had a German teacher, Axel Papenberg, who had a marvellous way of developing the basics of both piano technique and general musicianship. Another major shaping force was Sviatoslav Richter, whom I first heard when I was about 12. Then, too, there was a wonderful series of concerts at the theatre in Klagenfurt, where over the next 10 years I heard most of the important operas, indeed theatrical productions of many sorts. It was really a wonderful all-round education in the arts, which I think is important for any pianist; any musician. All this diversity feeds the totality of our musical experience, which I believe is reflected in our music-making.’

And what about composers? Especially where the piano was concerned. ‘The German teacher I just mentioned was quite focused on Schumann and the German Romantics but he’d also studied in France, and it was he who exposed me for the first time to French music, which was a nice combination I think. At the age of 12 I hadn’t yet discovered Debussy or Ravel. When I did, of course, it was a revelation. Debussy’s Préludes, I have to say, were really quite enigmatic for me at this time. And though I studied them hard, and have enjoyed performing them, I have to say that they remain for me outside the inner circle of my closest musical friends. That said, I think that French music in general has very important lessons for all pianists, especially in developing and enhancing one’s sense, one’s understanding, of sound; of timbre. Almost every piece by Debussy or Ravel is like a picture, with different levels of happenings in sound going on simultaneously. Transferring these French perceptions to the playing of, say, Schubert and Beethoven is something I find very exciting and illuminating. It’s been a tremendously valuable connection for me.’

And this brings us to the central focus of our discussion—a composer who is coming into his own more than two centuries after his first appearance on the international musical scene. Until very recently, Ferdinand Ries was virtually forgotten, even by most musicians. Insofar as he existed in most musicians’ consciousness it was as a bit-player in Beethoven’s biography. Hinterhuber has played, and is continuing to play, a significant part in his rediscovery. And as indicated above, it has been a labour of love.

‘For me, this is a composer you can’t just play. You have to really care for him, really care about the music. Happily—this may be putting it a little too strongly, but I think you’ll know what I mean—I found in him a soulmate. I felt an almost instant sympathy for what he was trying to express in his music (though at times it’s been a little bit like playing Sherlock Holmes, trying to sort out which are the “real” notes and which are the imposters that have crept in one way or another). But all of us (including the wonderfully supportive conductor Uwe Grodd and our meticulous editor Allan Badley) have thoroughly enjoyed performing and recording all this great music, whose quality comes out with terrific immediacy I think.’

Noting his adjective, I asked whether Hinterhuber regards Ries as a genuinely great composer. ‘I think I do, actually. He’s not on the level of Beethoven or Schubert, that’s for sure, and there are certainly some weaknesses—in the way sometimes controlled the form, for instance. Or didn’t! Sometimes, I think, the movements are simply too long. If I were to meet him today, I would first of all express to him my deepest and most heartfelt respects, but I would tell him, “Look, Ferdinand, your music is so wonderful—but maybe you should consider saying something no more than three times. More than that is really not necessary.”’

Can Hinterhuber understand why an artist of this stature should have been so much forgotten? ‘For me, I have to admit, this really is a mystery. It didn’t help his cause, of course, that Beethoven complained “Ries imitates me too much.” That did a lot of damage to his reputation, particularly after his death. It’s worth noting, however, that though in his later years he wrote more and more romantically, this was the time when Schumann, Liszt, Chopin, Mendelssohn and Wagner were all coming up, so Ries’s great achievements, less revolutionary than most of theirs, were simply overwhelmed, as by a great wave.’

Hinterhuber has cited Ries as a kind of bridge between the Classical and Romantic eras. What, I wondered, does he see as the most characteristic and important features of his music? ‘First of all, I suppose, there’s the really great piano writing. It’s beautifully idiomatic, it always sounds very well balanced. And Ries was one of the first to explore the full range of the instrument. There are many passages which are very high, in the right hand obviously, or very low, as in the Abschied Concerto. For its time this was most remarkable. At this point, lesser composers were still tending to confine themselves primarily to the middle register. And then there’s his really quite extraordinary lyric quality—and here, if he sounds like anyone else, the model that comes to mind has to be Schubert. He had a great, highly inventive melodic power.’

But the name that keeps cropping up is Beethoven. Does the music actually bear out what Beethoven said? Does he imitate Beethoven too much? ‘Superficially, perhaps. But to see it from this perspective, I think, is really to take the easy way out. Of course there are some similarities. For example, the sudden, dramatic outbreaks in his music certainly reflect his great admiration for Beethoven. But of course, Beethoven’s music isn’t a fixed entity. He was always changing, always developing; and as he grew older much of his writing grew more polyphonic, contrapuntal even. This was clearly not a way that Ries wanted to go, or perhaps could go. In this very important respect, his music sounds completely different from Beethoven’s. Many people have told me how much they’ve loved listening to Ries’s music, precisely because it’s so romantic.’

And how virtuosic is his writing for the piano? He was, after all, a very considerable virtuoso himself. When it came to playing the instrument he really knew what he was doing. ‘Well at one point, mostly after he returned to Germany from his years in England, he experimented with a very bravura, virtuosic, almost show-off style, which was extremely competent, of course, but was clearly not his natural metier. Soon he more or less abandoned it. His greatest strength, I think, what gives his music its most captivating power, was the honest lyric quality of his expression.’

In the concertos, is the relationship between solo and orchestra predominantly classical? Essentially conversational as opposed to the many solo-dominated concertos of the Romantic era? ‘Well, it’s very interesting to compare his earliest known Concerto, in C major, which we recorded at the beginning of this cycle, back in 2005, with his last known Concerto, number nine in G minor. The orchestral setting in these two concertos is really very different. Unsurprisingly, the early concerto is much more classical, but later he makes increasingly effective use both of the winds and of the brass—especially the horns. And I have to admit that we’ve encountered some difficulties with almost all the concertos, in the orchestral parts, because they haven’t been played for the last 170 years, and there are quite a number of mistakes, which you only realise when you play them. This was the Sherlock Holmes aspect I mentioned earlier. Most of it, though, works out very naturally in the end.’

Having read the account of Ries’s performance of the Beethoven Third Concerto (in the composer’s presence), where he played his own rather than Beethoven’s cadenza, I was interested in Hinterhuber’s approach to the whole issue of the cadenzas—specifically in the case of Ries’s concertos. ‘This is interesting because in the very first concerto I had to write my own cadenza. None by Ries survives. His own cadenzas get bigger and bigger and appear in different parts of the movement, not always as a near-final flourish but sometimes in the middle, sometimes even at the beginning. The cadenza was clearly an important element for him and one to which he gave a good deal of thought.’

And what of his treatment of the orchestra? Would Hinterhuber describe him as a first class orchestrator? ‘Maybe not, at least where the concertos are concerned. I don’t think the orchestra was his prime concern here. It’s quite a different matter with the symphonies. There’s sometimes a feeling that he lacked the time or the energy to give such matters the very detailed attention which they call for, so there are a number of inconsistencies. But mostly, I think, on balance, he’s a very good orchestrator—sometimes a truly great one.’

Are there other neglected composers, I wondered, whose work Hinterhuber would like to champion as he has done Ries? ‘I think it’s a bit in my character to be curious all the time! To find out what good and interesting works are out there besides the main repertoire. I’m continually discovering excellent, undeservedly neglected pieces. For instance, I just recently came across a very nice trio by Carl Frühling, written for the same combination, and in the same key, as the Brahms clarinet trio. But I also quite regularly play works of our own time, usually putting them in a particular context. For example, my next two recital programmes will include music by Frederic Rzewski: the first juxtaposes the little-known Aria variata by Bach, Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata, some short piece by Rzewski, and the Schumann Humoreske; the second consists entirely of variations: the Bach again, the big Rzewski set The People United Will Never be Defeated, and the Eroica Variations of Beethoven. But back to your question about neglected composers. I’m discovering interesting pieces all the time. And it’s a wonderful opportunity to be able to perform them and make them known to the wider public. It’s also very important, I think, to reveal the connections between all these composers, great and otherwise. In every period there are some unrecognised, or under recognised, figures. One composer becomes famous, another doesn’t. I’m not talking about the absolute greats, of course—like Brahms or Wagner—but often, in the second rank, if you like, there’s a lot going on. There are “Ries” figures in every generation. Today, though, it’s in many ways much more difficult for composers generally than it used to be. Things have changed, are still changing, so much. And if there’s a prevailing conservatism in the concert hall, it’s not fair just to blame the audience, or the critics, or whoever. We artists, too, are often guilty of a great conservatism, focusing (sometimes almost exclusively) on established repertoire. Of course I have nothing against playing the works of the great masters again and again—I do it myself—but it’s worthwhile, to say the least, to showcase the works of others as well.’

Change, however, was not born yesterday. When Ries himself was born, virtually all the music being performed was contemporary music. The past, broadly speaking, was a foreign country. Its discovery had scarcely begun.

Jeremy Siepmann is an internationally acclaimed writer, musician, teacher, broadcaster and editor.

Christopher Hinterhuber Biography & Discography

Ferdinand Ries Biography & Discography

Previous releases of the Ferdinand Ries Piano Concertos series
Other previous releases featuring Christopher Hinterhuber


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