In mid-April, the Budapest Festival Orchestra will perform three concerts in collaboration with conductor Dmitri Kitayenko. The renowned Russian conductor gave an interview to László Győri.
Nowadays soloists and conductors alike are expected to play the music of their home country during their concerts. Hungarian conductors are almost forced to conduct Hungarian pieces abroad, while Russians and Czechs have to do likewise. As for Hungarian artists and Bartók for instance, people say that their music – or at least part of it – requires that the swing of the Hungarian language as well as Hungarian folklore be in the performer’s blood, thus making the performance authentic. You have conducted a great deal of Russian music, based on your records and the fact that you have primarily played Russian music here in Budapest as well. This won’t be different in April either. What do you think about all this? Do you consider it a cliché that a Russian performer conducts Russian music more authentically, or do you believe in it too?
I am sure that the actual interpretation is greatly affected by the characteristic mentality of a nation, because every country and every people have their own culture, folklore, distinctive colours, shades, different air and climate. All artists – regardless whether they are instrumentalists, singers or even conductors – put their heart and soul into popularising the music of their home country. Therefore they always have to rehearse and play very accurately, not to mention that they must know everything about the composition and the composer. But the key to a successful performance and interpretation is not this – it’s talent. And this does not depend on your place of birth. Many great conductors come from Hungary: George Szell, Ferenc Fricsay, Eugene Ormandy, Arthur Nikisch, Georg Solti, Ádám and Iván Fischer, to name but a few. They made a name for themselves performing pieces composed not only by Bartók, but also by Beethoven, Mahler, Mozart and others. And this is alright, because I believe that all artists should have the right to serve any work of art with their soul and intellect. It would be horrible if everybody conducted works written by their countrymen only, Hungarians the Hungarian ones, Russians the Russian ones. Incidentally, this awful habit you have mentioned originates from Japan, and has gradually spread to Europe, forcing Viennese conductors to play Mozart at all costs, Russians to play Tchaikovsky, and the Finnish to perform Sibelius. Indeed, it has become almost obligatory, and very widespread. Of course, this does not mean that I do not like to conduct music by Shostakovich, Prokofiev or Tchaikovsky. But it should not be forgotten that my capacity and repertoire stretch beyond this little segment. I think I have a lot to say about Beethoven, Bruckner, Strauss and others as well. If a musician is talented enough, they do not need to be a specialist, as they can render any music.
You have been living and working in the West for a long time now. One of our stereotypes of Russian romantic music – such as Tchaikovsky – concerns the flow of unbridled emotions within music, while Tchaikovsky himself preferred to regard his music as much more reserved, almost classical. Accordingly, it seems as if there were an overflowing Russian and a much more distant Western tradition of performing Russian romantic music. What do you usually tell Western musicians when you work with them on this type of music?
One thing is for sure: the essence of Russian music can only be expressed by divesting it of this separate portion of power and brutality you have mentioned. And sentimentality too. If the partiture prescribes forte, there is no need for fortissimo, if piano is stated, it is unnecessary to play pianissimo. The point is that proper ratios and a balance should be maintained. Russia is a great country, it has lots of colours, faces and panoramas, which is also reflected in its music. I am careful to ensure that music is played easily and without too much exaggeration. This is my credo, regardless whether the orchestra I am conducting is European, American or Asian.
Your concert in Budapest features music by Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Richard Strauss. So there is plenty of Russian music. How is the programme compiled, what dramaturgy or logic have you followed?
Easter in Russia will be on 20 April this year, not long after our concert. This is the greatest and most beautiful religious feast in Russia, and why I opted for the rarely played Russian Easter Festival Overture. This extremely exciting piece is full of well-known themes borrowed from the Russian Orthodox liturgy. It is a wonderful way to begin spring. Shostakovich composed his ninth symphony after the war, or, more precisely, in 1945. The premiere took place in Leningrad in November in 1945. Composer Shostakovich was under enormous pressure, audiences expected to hear a “triumphant symphony” after his tragic Symphonies No. 7 and 8. In addition, ninth symphonies have meant something special to composers ever since Beethoven, so he also expected something extraordinary from himself: that his ninth symphony would go far beyond all his earlier pieces. Shostakovich wrote a piece with brilliant and light elements resembling the world of the Viennese Classics, which surprised everyone. What was the reason for that? Shostakovich noticed how everyone in the country, villagers and town-dwellers alike, felt: general relief after the war. The second movement is lyrical, just like a romance, the fourth one is a clear warning given by the composer to humanity, which I interpret in the context of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Be careful, he says to people, the world is not good, another tragedy is on the horizon. Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 leaves plenty of room for fantasy, from both the audiences’ and performers’ point of view. It is a clear, pure, light and fresh – “ecologically clean” – partiture, which is void of any kind of brutality. With a cheerful and great atmosphere from the first sound to the very last. Fate was not particularly kind to this piece because it was in the drawer for seven years after completion until Marcel Darrieux along with conductor Serge Koussevitzky performed it in 1923. If this piece of music is played, I hear the sounds of spring on stage. This is the most sunny and lyrical piece Prokofiev ever wrote. For me, the Scherzo movement with its humour and grotesque elements is as regular as clockwork. At the end of the programme – similarly to many of my colleagues this year – I would like to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss. I chose the suite entitled “The Knight of the Rose” for this occasion, and I am glad that at the end of the concert we can have snippets of music other than Russian.
You studied in Vienna as well, under famed conductor Swarowsky. He was an exceptional maestro with countless students from Abbado to Mehta and the Fischer brothers, Ádám and Iván, who later gained a considerable reputation for conducting. What do you think makes you former Swarowsky students excel, what do you have in common?
I studied in Vienna under Swarowsky and Karl Österreicher, that’s true. Swarowsky was a genius, an incredibly interesting conductor and teacher, especially when it came to analysis, the structure of compositions, balance and forms. I didn’t focus too much on these areas until I went to Vienna. Swarowsky thought of successful interpretations as buildings, and – to stick to this imagery – he held the view that a house should not lean either to the left or to the right, but stand on firm ground. I am very grateful to Swarowsky for all the impulses I received from him. Österreicher, as a member of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, was a very experienced orchestra musician. He laid great emphasis on practical training, including conducting techniques, smooth shifts and accurate tempos. He knew a number of great performers and conductors personally, and was keen to share a lot of his experiences with us. Swarowsky and Österreicher were the perfect match, a wonderful duo.
You regularly perform as a guest musician in several orchestras, and you have even played with the BFO. Each orchestra has its own traits. How do you perceive the Festival Orchestra?
Its members are musicians of outstanding ability, who prepare with precision even for the very first rehearsal, and work with extreme intensity and enormous energy. They are patient, fond of meticulous work, and clearly work on their technique. What is more, they are curious about new and unknown pieces. Somehow, they can always break from routine. Their name is very snappy, working with them actually feels like a festival.