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Charles Hazlewood on... Tchaikovsky and me

Updated Tuesday, 23rd January 2007

The conductor Charles Hazlewood explains the challenges and rewards he's found in Tchaikovsky's music.

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Tchaikovsky’s always been a fascinating series of conundrums for me as a musician really. I’ve been performing his music somewhat guardedly almost all the time that I’ve been conducting professionally, and I say guardedly because there have always been several things about Tchaikovsky which I absolutely adore and instantly am attracted to but, equally, certain other things within his musical vocabulary which I can’t quite figure out. And I believe very strongly that, as an artist, I must only play music that I have something to say with and through.

I can’t just play music and, indeed, I’m afraid there all too many examples of this in the modern musical world of people, ensembles, orchestras, playing repertoire where they’re doing it very tastefully, they’re doing it with, you know, a great - they’re well informed performances, you know, they tick all the boxes in terms of what’s authentic, what’s appropriate, but they don’t actually say anything with the music and I think that’s rule number one for any musical artist. And so, for me, Tchaikovsky, the biggest single problem that I’ve wrestled with for years and I think now, blissfully for me, have found some kind of breakthrough with is the fact that you’ll have kind of an amazing bleeding chunk which is idea A, and an equally amazing contrasting bleeding chunk which is idea B. Now, how does he get from idea A to idea B?

Very often through what can at best be described as a kind of faulty connective tissue.

Now, for many years, I used to think well that’s Tchaikovsky’s weak spot. I realise now he’s far greater than that, and this is the single greatest revelation for me, that actually when he does the most appallingly difficult sort of gear-crunching transition from idea A to idea B, when he doesn’t bother doing any bridging material at all, and when he does something which seems tortured and drawn out and kind of bleached of decent ideas, it’s always for a reason. It’s to make you sit up, it’s to make you feel frustrated, it’s to put great idea A in relief before, or rather to give you time to digest and to kind of regroup before great idea B. So that’s been the big revelation for me. Also as part of my journey in the past year, I’ve been making some films for BBC Two which have involved a kind of Russian odyssey.

I’d never been to Russia before and, most importantly of all, I’d never played with a Russian orchestra before and they have a completely different way of making sound. They have a saying in Russia which says sound first, when later. In other words, it’s not so much about playing ‘bah’, there. Very often with a Russian orchestra on a heavy entry like that, you go ‘phwar’, it comes right after the beat. So it’s somewhat disconcerting if you’ve not been used to that. You know, I work with European orchestras and American orchestras where it’s very keen, it’s very there, but the point is that they need time to amass the particular kind of protein-rich sort of bleeding sound that they make in Russia. This is true of wood winds and brass just as much as it’s true of strings. So that was an amazing extra-revelation for me, that these are the musicians, if you go back several generations, who were making the music that Tchaikovsky was composing. This was the sound world, this was the approach, the raw and incredibly intense and sort of dark approach to music making, and making sound which Tchaikovsky knew.

So, armed with that experience, I can now come back with an orchestra, a great British orchestra like the BBC Philharmonic, attempt to re-find that sound without obviously being false. We’re not going to pretend there’s an orchestra full of Russians. As it happens, it’s led by a Russian but most of the rest of the orchestra are British, and thank goodness for that, so they should be in this country. But it’s a way of finding the kind of the soul of the sound without some kind of silly pretence at being Russian, and we certainly haven’t done that.

But I believe that we have, both in Romeo and Juliet and in the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, we’ve found a kind of a new meaning and a new truth for all of us which means that these pieces won’t and can’t sound hackneyed, even though every single member of the BBC Philharmonic has played these pieces countless times. There’s a newness, there’s a freshness, there’s a liveliness, there’s a zest for exploration and that’s how it should feel. When you perform a piece of music, however many times you’ve done it, every time should feel like the first time.





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