As you may know conductor Ilan Volkov replaced Sir Charles Mackerras for our concert of Beethoven Symphony 9 last Friday at the Royal Festival Hall. The concert also toured to Valladolid, in Spain and Spanish newspaper El Mundo asked Ilan a few questions ahead of the
What was it like to take over this project at such short notice?
How do you organise and prepare yourself mentally to conduct – unexpectedly – such a huge work as Beethoven’s 9th?
Luckily I conducted Beethoven 9th at the the Proms last summer so it’s fresh in my mind. Its very exciting to do this with period instruments- there are so many details that sound completely different. Quite amazing. With these instruments one really feels the radical nature of the work and how modern it still is. I’ve admired the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for a long time so its a fantastic thing to work with them for the first time.
Tell us about your vision of this work as the conductor
The 9th has so much in it. In many ways its an utopian work of art ,way ahead of its time. Each movement has such a distinctive character so that when the last movement begins the listener has travelled far. And then this monumental movement opens more doors and has such power that it is impossible to stay unmoved. For each musician in the orchestra and choir this work demands total commitment and strength, but it also gives many rewards both to player and listener.
During the rehearsal, which are for you the most important moments, at which you really have to focus your concentration?
Many details make the overall picture. One needs to rehearse and fine tune dynamics, expression, ensemble and much more. As a conductor it’s important to see and think of the structure of the whole piece so that the many details fit together and build into the huge climax that’s erupting at the end. The contrasts in this piece are important and it’s the first time in the history of classical music that the contrasts are so significant. Even to an audience that knows the work and heard it before there are many treasures to discover- as it is with every true great art.
The first movement has a very unique structure with its climactic recapitulation and its many themes/ fragments. The second movement develops the strong rhythmic energy of the first movement and melodically uses very little material, the bare minimum. The third movement for me is one the great pieces in orchestral music – on a par with the late piano sonatas by Beethoven (and his late quartets). The variations in the violins are stunning and never cease to amaze. Some of the last movement reminds me of the eroica with its turkish / folk like rhythms. This movement is still unique – its not by accident that it had such a huge influence on other composers from Brahms and Bruckner till Mahler. Beethoven combines many themes from march to archaic baroque harmonies, fugato, fanfares and much more to describe different emotions and moods. And it still leaves lots of space for interpretation by the listener- the piece asks more questions then give answers.
What projects will follow for you after this concert?
I will be working all of April in Europe (Leipzig and Glasgow) and actually coming back to Spain at the end of the month to conduct the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra (Beethoven and Schubert).