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18 April 2018

Philippe Herreweghe - A ceaseless explorer

von Anne Payot-Le Nabour

Having electrified Philharmonie audiences on several occasions in the past, Flemish conductor Philippe Herreweghe is returning this season as Artist in residence, offering us an opportunity to  discover his multifaceted talents over the course of four concerts that will reveal him as the ceaseless explorer in a remarkably wide-ranging repertory.

It was early music that initially fired his enthusiasm as a young man and that he decided to explore in tandem with his second great passion, medicine. At this stage his future already seemed to have been laid out in advance: he would become a psychiatrist and conduct amateur performances of Bach’s cantatas. But fate determined otherwise following a crucial encounter with Gustav Leonhardt, who suggested they record the cantatas together.

There followed a long career as a pioneer in the field of early music, during which time he became one  of its most distinguished specialists. Passionate about history, he emerged as an ardent champion of  historically informed performance practice, drawing in the process on his study of treatises from the period in question. He will offer the Grand Duchy a glimpse of this first love of his in an exceptional concert in St John’s Church at Neumünster Abbey, where he will conduct a performance of madrigals by Monteverdi.

And now for the Germanic repertory. For him, this love was inspired in his youth by hearing the symphonies of Anton Bruckner conducted by Bernard Haitink in St Bavo’s Cathedral in his home town of Ghent. The conductor believes that in spite of the fact that this repertory comes centuries later, it is still essentially the same kind of music, only it is expressed in rather different ways: «There is less distance between Bach and Bruckner, who emerged on the scene one and a half centuries later, than between Bach and his contemporary Vivaldi. By the same token, there are evident links between Bach and Mendelssohn, Schubert and Brahms

Philippe Herreweghe | photo: Matthias Baus Philippe Herreweghe | photo: Matthias Baus

This music’s underlying way of «speaking» occupies a central place in his thinking, as he explained on the occasion of a Beethoven concert in the Grand Auditorium in November 2017: «The whole of the nineteenth-century Germanic repertory rests on the intimate marriage between song and instrumental music. Brahms, Beethoven and Bruckner all felt an overwhelming sense of an omnipresent poetic text and a concern to transfer a type of articulation based on pronunciation from a spoken text to instrumental music

Audiences will have an opportunity to hear this for themselves, initially at an all-Mozart concert devoted to his Requiem and Symphony N° 41 «Jupiter» performed with Herreweghe’s two ensembles, the Collegium Vocale Gent, which he formed in the late 1960s, and his Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, which has just celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. For his second concert Herreweghe will conduct works by Schubert, Schumann and Beethoven with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The soloist in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto will be the brilliant Isabelle Faust. Conductor and violinist have worked together frequently over the course of many years and, as Herreweghe told France Musique, «developped together a shared inner world».

Philippe Herreweghe’s residency will end with his much anticipated appearance with the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg which includes a performance of Brahms’ Piano Concerto N° 1 with the German pianist Martin Helmchen, with whom he has already recorded Mendelssohn’s two Piano Concertos. For the orchestra, this will surely be an opportunity to learn from one of the great conductors of our age.