Jack of all trades and master of most

Last night, Riccardo Chailly won yet another Gramophone award. What is the secret behind this conductor's continuing success? By Rob Cowan
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The Independent Culture

What's in a music award? Depends which one. Years ago, the Emerson Quartet confessed to me that when their Bartok String Quartet recordings won both an American Grammy and a British Gramophone Award, the Gramophone 's citation had the greater impact on sales. And it's true that "Gramo" (a now-popular pet name) still has its fare share of critical clout.

What's in a music award? Depends which one. Years ago, the Emerson Quartet confessed to me that when their Bartok String Quartet recordings won both an American Grammy and a British Gramophone Award, the Gramophone 's citation had the greater impact on sales. And it's true that "Gramo" (a now-popular pet name) still has its fare share of critical clout.

Yesterday's awards ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall unveiled the usual roster of surprises and "sure-fire bets", though one of the nominees was destined to triumph right from the word go.

The Italian maestro Riccardo Chailly has been flying a flag for the French-born avant-gardist composer Edgar Varÿse since the early Nineties, when his Decca CD of Varÿse's explosive Arcana challenged the nation's speaker-cones. That was just for openers. Four years later, Chailly - who has held the post of principal conductor at Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw since 1988 - embarked on recording "the complete works", both with his own orchestra and with the chamber-size Asko Ensemble. The Complete Varÿse has just won Gramophone 's Twentieth-Century Orchestral Award, an accolade which last year's Artist of the Year (Chailly again) views with a certain sense of fulfilment.

"Varÿse was a 'sound inventor' who ruled his own kingdom of musical colours," Chailly told me recently, in an Amsterdam restaurant. "His music has certain elements in common with Mahler, especially the rarely heard early song " Un grand sommeil noir ", which was clearly influenced by Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. "

Gustav Mahler has been an Amsterdam mainstay since before the war, when his friend and long-term "king" at the Concertgebouw, Willem Mengelberg, did so much to promote his work. Post-war, Bernard Haitink - now the orchestra's honorary conductor - did more than anyone to carry that Mahler tradition forward, and Chailly is keen to have audiences recognise the stylistic continuum with Varÿse. He will be taking " Un grand sommeil noir " with him on a forthcoming American tour. "I want to provoke American audiences into discovering this important musical relationship," he said.

"Varÿse greatly admired Mahler. He met him in Vienna and presented him with his orchestral work Bourgogne , which has since vanished from sight. Varÿse sent his last copy of the score to Bartok, just as Bartok was setting off for the United States. They must have crossed each other on the ocean - Bartok en route to America, and Bourgogne to Budapest - and the score hasn't been seen since." Bourgogne was premiered, tp acclaim, in Berlin in 1910. "I can imagine it was an impressive late-Romantic piece," pondered Chailly, "perhaps like a Richard Strauss tone poem. It's a great loss."

By contrast, the Varÿse of Chailly's Complete Edition is brightly percussive and aurally challenging, the musical incarnation of Futurism. As to Mahler, Chailly enthused about an unexpected channel of influence. "I'm convinced that Puccini was father to the 'Mahler sound'," he says. "Mahler conducted Manon Lescaut , a work that was a turning-point for Puccini as a musical inventor, and an important encounter for Mahler as a composer. Mahler also conducted Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and it might be said that 'verismo' and 'pre-verismo' opera [ie, opera with a strong sense of dramatic realism] was an even stronger influence on him than Wagner, who was important - but only as a starting-point."

Chailly's penchant for both Mahler and Puccini has borne fruit in some exceptional recordings. His recent La Bohÿme incorporated countless textual minutiae that have eluded past interpreters and his artistic relationship with Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna proved especially rewarding. His performances of the score mark a significant stylistic break with certain of his predecessors.

"I wanted to eradicate any signs of sloppiness, bad performing habits, notions such as 'we've always done it this way, so why should we change?' My approach is very personal, very 'determined'," said Chailly. "We had to negotiate points of interpretation, and reach certain agreements. But Angela and Roberto were very willing, and they never went against the grain. 'Let's see, let's hear,' they'd say. Many of these ideas were new to them; this was my first collaboration with them, but it was a happy one."

Chailly's passion for all things musical is infectious. The son of Luciano Chailly (one-time head of music on Italian radio) and still only in his forties, he has journeyed a long way in a relatively short period. My own first encounter with his conducting was via extraordinarily characterful recordings of Stravinsky with the London Sinfonietta. He reminisced about his early Decca set of Rossini's opera William Tell , which, as originally planned, was intended merely as a "selection" but which subsequently blossomed into a complete recording. "Then Decca decided to give me an exclusive contract. I was outrageously young, in my twenties," he recalled, "- but I'm only telling you that because when you start so young, you ought to be uneven. If that is not the case, then there's something wrong."

Chailly is candid about early critical reactions to his work, which were often far from positive. "Sometimes, when my records are reissued, the reactions are different; and you occasionally feel different about them yourself." He finds recording exhausting but enjoys the challenge of motivating players to perform at full throttle in an empty hall, "which can, on a good day, be even more exciting than at a live concert". He is proud of his best efforts in the studio, especially his Berlin Radio Symphony recording of Mahler's 10th Symphony (in Deryck Cooke's version). He also claims that a musician should be capable of recognising his own recordings, "even after only a few bars".

Chailly is a stickler for textual detail, but the musical spirit is equally important. "My credo in recording is, first and foremost, to 'read with your ears'. The 'eyes' should come second. And it doesn't matter what I'm recording - opera, contemporary, Romantic music or whatever - the principle remains the same. If I'm rehearsing the orchestra and I don't hear precisely what I read, then I stop the players immediately."

His own stylistic priorities centre on transparency, clarity and rhythmic precision, qualities that help illuminate, in particular, classical and 20th-century repertoire. I asked him if his interests extended to the Baroque. "Absolutely. My work as head of the five-year-old Giuseppe Verdi Symphony Orchestra of Milan will involve building a stable Baroque tradition, usually for performances in tandem with new music".

Chailly's love of the Baroque reaches farther than most of us think. Few will readily associate him with Bach, and yet one of his most consuming musical preoccupations is the St Matthew Passion. "It was an obsession of my youth," he says. "I always thought to study it with one purpose in mind: never to conduct it! I saw the St Matthew Passion simply as musical enrichment for my soul. For me it has three principle attractions: musical power, religious content - I myself am a Catholic - and an emotional impact brought about by the combination of the music and the text."

This year, Chailly celebrated the Concertgebouw's 100th Easter presentation of the St Matthew by conducting the work himself, and will perform it from 2002. In 2004, he is planning to conduct the work in London, as part of the LSO's 100th anniversary season.

This, then, is the contemplative Chailly, a man whose lakeside strolls with his wife and pet Labrador help to regenerate the essential energies needed for an action-packed career. And he also loves silence. "After all, what comes directly after the conductor's initial up beat? Dead silence. To appreciate music, you must also appreciate silence. It is music's birthplace."