The British maestro on climbing the mountain, the lessons of history and avoiding chauffeur-driven limo Beethoven.

First of all, congratulations on another fantastic recording set and one that’s won our Orchestral Recording of the Year!

Thank you! What a wonderful thing, that’s really an honour for us.

I know you recorded a previous cycle of the Beethoven Symphonies back in 2002 with the Vienna Philharmonic. How different would you say your interpretations are now?

Oh, it’s hard to tell. The thing is, although they’re both these great central European orchestras, the two of them are so different. The Vienna Philharmonic is much more lithe and the Berlin Philharmonic is much heavier and more intense. Also, in Berlin I’ve spent over 15 years playing the Beethoven Symphonies, so it was really interesting to come back and say, “Okay, what do we think about it at this moment?”

What I hope is there is a little bit more feeling of the whole – of the big shape – than there was. But I’m probably the last person to ask. Anyone who goes into Beethoven with an agenda – “This is what I’m going to say now, this is what I’m going to try to do to it” – is doomed to an even worse failure than the way we all have to fail playing Beethoven anyway. Beethoven has a way of shining a mirror onto you: just saying “Okay, this is where I am, this is where you are”. You just have to try and be as honest as you can in the moment. That’s all you can do. None of us feels that it’s anything less than one of the greatest mountains there is to climb.

The Berlin Philharmonic has an enormous history with these symphonies, going back over a century. What is it that this orchestra brings to Beethoven?

Beethoven asks for a greater degree of energy and intensity than actually any other composer. He asks for the absolutely impossible. But if there is any orchestra in the world that is willing to drive off the cliff when Beethoven says you should, it’s the Berlin Philharmonic. What was interesting for me was to find a grammar of phrasing. The fact that it’s played with great intensity doesn’t mean it’s all played evenly, or equally. It would be sad if you ever felt there was a kind of chauffeur-driven limo version of Beethoven. The warmth and the lushness of sound can lead to that, but in fact, I think it’s such strange music and you just have to embrace its strangeness.

I was lucky enough earlier this year to sit through a cycle over four evenings. What strikes you about these works when you examine them under such intense conditions?

The journey that one composer can take in a lifetime is clear on the page to see. He was inventing the music for the next 70 or 80 years. In the Ninth Symphony, it’s very, very striking to see where he’s going. But what’s also fascinating is that some of the pieces – the Fifth Symphony and the Sixth Symphony – were really written as counterbalances to each other. He is nine very different composers in these pieces – that’s an astonishing thing. By the time you come to the Eighth, where he’s finally saying, “I’m now going to write the last ever Haydn symphony”. It’s an incredibly touching tribute to his teacher and his teacher’s humour. And presumably his patience with him, because he must have been a God-awful pupil!

Yes, he must have been a complete nightmare! Your new performances are noticeably buoyant – how influenced are you nowadays by the historically informed performance movement?

I think very much so. It’s now so much in the mainstream of what we do and think. All these things we learnt from Harnoncourt, for instance, are now in thinking musicians’ DNA. It seems to me not to be sensible to try and imitate the sounds of the period instrument orchestra with the Berlin Philharmonic. We do use an enormous variety of vibrato, from a normal vibrato to none at all, and we do use stop notes on horns et cetera, but to try to imitate the period sound seems to me not particularly helpful. The music can take being sounded in many different ways, as long as there’s a kind of integrity of phrasing – the idea of music as speech or the idea of a phrase. Casals, for instance, taught all his orchestras to shout the word “Beethoven, Beethoven, Beethoven!” louder and louder. No matter how loud you say Beethoven, the name still has a shape and it still has its diminuendo. Those very basic things are incredibly important and we can all learn an enormous amount from correct articulation.

Where do you stand on the famously controversial tempo markings?

I think it’s pretty simple: this is something that you aim towards. Almost every composer – apart from Bartók – writes his metronome marks faster than they can be played. I’m sure this is absolutely true, because if you sit with the scores and sing the metronome marks to yourself, they make perfect sense. With an orchestra, often they need to be modified just for the sheer practicality of it. However, if you don’t come close, for instance, to the metronome mark of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, you’re missing something very, very important about it.

But we do know that this is a kind of base tempo that you reach and go away from. Beethoven was famous as a performer for being very rhythmically free and using rubato, in the same way that Mozart was famous for being a pianist who stayed in tempo. I think the trick is to try and make the tempo changes not noticeable, or at least sound as organic as possible. Whether we succeed or fail is another matter, but that’s what you aim for. 

The Berlin Philharmonic’s house label seems to have scored a significant hit rate in a few short years. Are you happy with where it is, and what can we expect next?

Recording companies have become shape-shifting lizards, and I think it’s a good thing that orchestras now are making their own labels. We’re recording what we feel we want to put out there but, like the Digital Concert Hall, it’s just another means of communication. 

We recorded the first eight of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances and we’ll record the other ones next year. There’s now a John Adams project going on. He is Composer-in-Residence this year – it’s his 70th birthday year. He’s conducted a concert, which will be issued on the label, and we will also record The Other Mary, his astonishing recent oratorio/cantata/opera, whatever it is. And there are one or two more things in the future, which we don’t talk about yet.