Saturday 11 December 2021

Being able to see Brahms as he was at the time: I chat to Jérémie Rhorer about recording historically informed Brahms with Le Cercle de l’Harmonie

Jérémie Rhorer conducting Brahms' Violin Concerto with Le Cercle de l’Harmonie and Stéphanie-Marie Degand at Le Grand Théâtre de Provence in November 2021 (Photo Le Cercle de l’Harmonie)
Jérémie Rhorer conducting Brahms' Violin Concerto with Le Cercle de l’Harmonie and Stéphanie-Marie Degand at Le Grand Théâtre de Provence in November 2021 (Photo Le Cercle de l’Harmonie)

Since 2005, Jérémie Rhorer and his ensemble Le Cercle de l’Harmonie have explored the repertoire of the 18th and 19th centuries using period instruments and original tuning from Mozart to Verdi's La Traviata. On their most recent disc, they have turned their attention to Brahms with recordings of his Symphony No. 1 and Violin Concerto on NoMadMusic with Stéphanie-Marie Degand, and in 2022 they will be continuing their exploration of Brahms symphonies as well as performing Bruckner. I recently chatted to Jérémie to find out more.

Johannes Brahms | Symphony No.1 & Violin Concerto Le Cercle de l'Harmonie - NoMadMusic
Jérémie studied harpsichord and composition at the Conservatoire de Paris, and his teachers and mentors have included Bulgarian conductor Emil Tchakarov (1948-1991), and period-instrument specialists William Christie and Marc Minkowski. In 2005, Jérémie and violinist Julien Chauvin co-founded Le Cercle de L'Harmonie, an ensemble that focuses on performance practices, traditions, and original instrumentation of 18th and 19th-century music.

Interestingly, it is Jérémie's background as a harpsichord player that led him to Brahms, as Brahms was the first editor of Couperin's harpsichord oeuvre. Evidently, Brahms had a vast knowledge of French musical history, and Jérémie was fascinated to discover what this might reveal about Brahms' musical culture. Recording Brahms after the revolution in historically informed performance practice means, for Jérémie, being able to see Brahms as he was at the time rather than viewing the music through the tradition which came after him. And Jérémie sees this tradition as going further and further from Brahms himself.

Brahms was nourished on the French repertoire and enjoyed the elegance of French Baroque music as well as having a clear knowledge of Bach, and for Jérémie all this opens up when reading the text of Brahms' music. Chatting to Jérémie, it is very clear that he is wary of the traditions that have built up around the performance of Brahms music, and he feels that historically informed performance practice enables the ensemble to avoid an approach to the music which introduces elements that were not written by Brahms, particularly rhythms. If you understand the background to the music that Brahms created, with its links back to folk music and older classical material, you approach Brahms music differently and he talks about the way conductors slow down at points and destroy the urgency of a climax. For Jérémie the main point of the Brahms project is to reconsider the text and bring out what Brahms wanted. Jérémie hates arbitrary things, so his reading of the symphonies go as deep as possible into the text. This extends to the phrasing, as string players in Le Cercle d'Harmonie approach phrases differently and with a greater sense of subtlety than modern string players.

Both Bach and Palestrina are clear influences in Brahms' music, and Jérémie points out that Brahms was one of the first to use Gregorian modes in symphonic music, something that seems to be not well known today. Jérémie sees these references to the past as being the root of Brahms' inspiration. Brahms' immediate inspirations in his symphonies come from Beethoven and Schumann, but he also embraced the culture of the past. This extends to what he calls the spirit of the dance, and you feel this dance element in the music too. After all, the youthful Brahms would play popular music with his father, and Brahms' organic use of popular rhythms contributes to the dramaturgy. Rhythm and its affect on the dramaturgy of a piece is something that crops up quite a bit in my conversation with Jérémie, from symphonic music right through to its importance in opera.

Jérémie Rhorer (Photo Caroline Doutre)
Jérémie Rhorer (Photo Caroline Doutre)

The way that he and Le Cercle d'Harmonie perform Brahms comes directly from Jérémie's reading of the text, so it should not sound that different from a traditional performance, however, the dramaturgy might sound different especially if you are used to large-scale performances. And when we talk about large-scale performances of symphonic music, including Jérémie's experience conducting modern orchestras, it is clear that he feels that the larger body of performers can affect the rhythms of the music and the dramaturgy. He comments that tradition comes from the habits of the mass of the orchestra, and he quotes Leonard Bernstein as saying that tradition makes everything slower. He sees modern performances as little by little going further and further from the texts.

Jérémie's approach to Romantic music is not confined to Brahms, he feels that it is valid for other composers. However, he rather draws the line at Mahler, as he feels that Mahler consciously tried to establish a new aesthetic. For Jérémie, whereas Brahms and Wagner simply used what they had, whether consciously or unconsciously, with Mahler's music there is a clear rupture with heritage; Mahler's re-orchestrations of Schumann's symphonies reveal a misunderstanding of the earlier composer's intentions. But other schools, such as the French, the Italian and the Russian, keep in touch with the elegance of the earlier sound, whereas the late German symphonic repertoire is more massive.

This can be traced in clear historical lines, witness the French fondness for a certain type of bassoon, which Verdi favoured as well. And similarly Verdi preferred the elegance which came from the use of lower pitch (Jérémie's performances of La Traviata were at a lower pitch than is usual nowadays), whereas the German school favoured the brilliance that came from using a higher pitch.

Verdi: La Traviata - Vannina Santoni as Violetta at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, conductor Jérémie Rhorer (Photo Vincent Pontet)
Verdi: La Traviata - Vannina Santoni as Violetta at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 2018, conductor Jérémie Rhorer (Photo Vincent Pontet)

One of the composers that Jérémie does plan to explore is Anton Bruckner. At the beginning of the project, Jérémie felt that you could establish clear lines which run between Mozart and Brahms, between Gluck and Wagner, and he was more dubious about how the music of Mahler and of Bruckner fitted into this. As we have seen, he still feels that way about Mahler, but the ensemble was asked to perform at the Brucknerhaus in Linz, and this was one of the few engagements that survived the recent lockdowns. So, they performed Bruckner in Linz (where the composer was born) and it was a great success. Next year the orchestra will continue performances of Brahms' Symphony No. 1 (1876) with Bruckner's Symphony No. 2 (1872). Jérémie can see clear links between Brahms and Bruckner. However, Bruckner is not as brilliant and organic as Brahms, but Bruckner is not reaching for the same goals as the earlier composer and Bruckner's music is more mystical than that of Brahms. Jérémie describes Brahms music as more earthy and Bruckner's as airier, and he finds the juxtaposition of the two inspiring.

Having recorded Brahms's Symphony no. 1 and Violin Concerto, Jérémie would love to do a recorded symphonic cycle along with the Deutsches Requiem. He has performed Brahms' Requiem in the version with two pianos and found that there were very clear links in the vocal writing to Brahms' interest in the music of the past, and he worked with the choir on the way various figures and motifs in the music were based on the music of the past. He sees this sort of performance as a chance to interpret the composer in new ways, building on the work of such inspiring conductors as Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929-2016).

Jérémie does not create his interpretations from a political or ideological position, instead, he sees a single unified line from Baroque music through to late Romantic, with each composer reconsidering their musical style in the light of the past, so there is no artificial rupture between Classical and Romantic, just a clear organic unity. And he founded Le Cercle d'Harmonie with the clear intention of revealing this.

Wagner's music also interests Jérémie deeply, but he understands that the weight of tradition that comes with this repertoire is immense. Kent Nagano is doing a Ring Cycle with Concerto Köln (Das Rheingold debuted last month with performances at Kölner Philharmonie and Concertgebouw Amsterdam), and some of Jérémie's friends saw a performance. However many felt that their ears were used to a different sound world, and they were not ready to admit that Wagner could sound like that. The benefit of historically informed performance practices in the music of this period is the ability to reconsider the balance between singers and the orchestra so that you can include a wider range of expression and dynamics. This variety is present in Wagner's music, as he wrote it, but not in modern performances, and any historically informed performance would change the nature of expression in Wagner's music.

Jérémie then refers back to his experience performing Verdi's La Traviata at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris and at the MusikFest Bremen in 2018/19 with Le Cercle d'Harmonie performing at lower pitch. [see George Loomis' review, originally published in the New Criterion]. The instruments used, particularly the brass ones, were less powerful which had the happy consequence that the singers did not have to force, and he feels that this type of historically informed performance would be profoundly useful for young singers. The music did not change radically, instead, there was something more organic about it, more fruity, but with the same power of expression. He and the ensemble also performed Rossini's Il barbiere di Sivigla in Paris, Bremen and at Edinburgh Festival in 2017/18 and most reviewers were enthusiastic, commenting on the liveliness of the dramaturgy. 

Jérémie Rhorer and Le Cercle de l’Harmonie (Photo Caroline Doutre)
Jérémie Rhorer and Le Cercle de l’Harmonie (Photo Caroline Doutre)

Looking ahead, he is hoping to develop more Verdi and Puccini repertoire. Verdi was a great admirer of Berlioz' treatise on orchestration, but so was Puccini!

After having had a relationship with the Theatre du Champs Elysee for over ten years, in 2022 Jérémie and Le Cercle d'Harmonie make their debut at the Philharmonie de Paris (performing Bruckner and Brahms on 7 January 2022, further details) They have plans for further Brahms performances, having developed a Brahms cycle with five French venues and two or three international ones, and Jérémie deeply hopes that a recording cycle might come out of this too.

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