Riccardo Chailly, not only one of the great conductors of our time, but one of an even smaller group who have exercised a truly formative influence on contemporary musical life through his championship of twentieth and twenty-first century music—through his many recordings, most of them for Decca, which he has produced since the beginnings of his career in the late 1970s, and through his long tenure as chief conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam (1988-2004), and now, since 2005, as Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. If you survey the most prominent music publications, you will find many accolades, “artist of the year,” “best recording,” etc., and you will find many of his recordings recommended as the best available or the “recommended choice.” His fresh, individual interpretations, always based on a close study of the score, as well as his close relationship with a single recording company over many years, have resulted in recordings in which his ideas and the sound of his orchestras and their halls are communicated with exceptional vividness and presence.
Since taking up his position at the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Chailly has shown a keen interest in studying and carrying on the history and traditions of the institution. As he says in the interview, before he took up his position at the Gewandhaus, he had a sabbatical year to study its history, which is uniquely significant in the history of symphonic music. Leipzig is of course Bach’s city (his residence of choice, it is thought), and Felix Mendelssohn, Kapellmeister of the Gewandhaus from 1835 to 1847 (with a year’s break in 1844-45) was the most important leader in the Bach revival. Other Kapellmeisters have included the greatest conductors of their time, Artur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Bruno Walter, as well as their worthy modern successors, Vaclav Neumann, Kurt Masur, and Herbert Blomstedt. (Gustav Mahler held a position there as Nikisch’s assistant.) Typically, Chailly goes about his historicism in a thoroughly fresh way, cultivating the orchestra’s traditional dark timbre so that it sounds more glorious than ever, and producing performances and recordings of alternate versions of works by Mendelssohn, Mahler’s arrangements of Schumann symphonies and overtures, a series of important Bach performances, including the Passions, regular commissions of new music, and, just last week, a Gershwin program with the jazz pianist, Stefano Bollani, which included a suite from Porgy and Bess, Rhapsody in Blue, and the Concerto in F.
When I reached Maestro Chailly on the telephone, he had just finished the first rehearsal for this concert, and he was full of excitement over it. For him, this was not only a continuation of his survey of twentieth-century classics, but a revisitation of his youthful enthusiasm for jazz, which he has explored recently in Shostakovich’s music. He was especially enjoying his collaboration with Bollani. What’s more, Leipzig has something of a tradition with Gershwin, going back to the Communist Era. During his tenure, Kurt Masur performed Gershwin and made recordings, still available on Berlin Classics, but initially issued on the GDR’s state label, Eterna, with a stern evaluation of the music as the soul of capitalist decadence, interesting mostly for historical reasons. Back then, Masur’s classically-rooted approach added its own valuable insight into Gershwin’s attempts at a fusion of classical and jazz. I think we can expect something entirely different from Chailly’s collaboration with Bollani.