The Concerto funebre by Karl Amadeus Hartmann is “dark, powerful music” in which “every note is like a word from the Gospels”, says Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who will make her debut with this work as the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Artist in Residence for the 2021/22 season. In conversation, she tells us what is particularly important to her in the performance of the Concerto funebre. We discover how her artistic work is similar to mRNA research, and how she comes close to her dream of an everlasting childhood on stage.
You once said, “I am a dissonance”. Who or what do you dissonate with?
For me, the whole world is made of sound. I even see furniture and food as music and sound and form – or as musical theatre. There is always a vibration in my soul, too. The dissonance is probably my sound. something that has to be resolved. Although I haven’t found this resolution yet.
Does this dissonance have to do with where you come from? With your personal history as an emigrant?
Certainly. I was a child refugee and arrived in Vienna from Moldova with my family when I was 13 years old. The first stop was a refugee camp. But I didn’t find it a traumatic experience, it was like a ticket to a new world. It was amazing after such a quiet life. That’s at least how I saw it at the time. Now I feel rather the opposite. I think my childhood was the most wonderful thing I could ever have experienced. And everything I now draw on is based on that – from the very great affection in my family and from the Moldovan soil, which is different from anywhere else.
“Of course, I experience reality as it is. But the dream is much more interesting”
When you say that your music-making stems from your early experiences – how does that happen?
It’s like I’m allowed to keep dreaming. As if I can remain a child and don’t have to grow up. Of course, I experience reality as it is, but the dream is much more interesting. That’s where I find my roots again, which I have been separated from forever. Home disappeared with my childhood and only exists in my head. What do I know about who I am? But I always find myself again in the pieces I play. The stage is the place where I can search for myself.
At the same time, you also look ahead in your concerts. You play a lot of contemporary music and seem to be curious in the truest sense of the word – greedy for new things. What drives you?
If I were an mRNA researcher working on a new vaccine, that question wouldn’t be asked. Of course you look for the new. The question is rather why play old stuff all the time? For me, that has little to do with art and is more like archival or museum work. That can also be fascinating, but it’s not for me. I am like a dog in the forest that follows its nose. Who always asks himself: what is that smell? Is there perhaps another dog?
Broadcast in the Digital Concert Hall
The concert conducted by Kirill Petrenko will be broadcast live on Saturday, 18 September 2021, from 19:00.Go to live broadcast
In the 2021/22 season you will be pursuing such questions as the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Artist in Residence. How was your first encounter with the orchestra?
That was in 2014 with a performance of Peter Eötvös’ Violin Concerto. Every single person in the orchestra gave their heart and soul to this piece – a great pleasure for me. As a soloist, you can’t ask for more. Not being alone, but working together for the music.
Another link between you and the Berliner Philharmoniker is Kirill Petrenko, who you have known for a very long time, since your student days in Vienna. How did you find him at that time?
Kirill Petrenko always stood out. Because of his concentration in class, because of his questions, which were often more interesting than the professors’ answers. It was obvious even then that he was a very deep individual. At the same time, there was always a great humanity, warm-heartedness and modesty – not at all the typical airs and graces of a conductor. He is a very dear friend to me.
What you have in common with Kirill Petrenko is a commitment to works that are unjustly neglected. In their first concert of this season you are playing the Concert funebre by Karl Amadeus Hartmann. What is it about?
It’s not simply an aesthetic work, it also makes a powerful statement. Hartmann himself was a spirit of resistance, and his pieces must be understood in their historical context. This concerto is an expression of his outrage at the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. It is dark, powerful music. Every note is like a word from the Gospels. What matters here is not perfection on the violin, but power. You have to become this power yourself, and you have to endure it. Music like that is not easy to play. It is a piece that needs to bleed.
Does such a historical background make interpretation easier or more challenging? Do you feel any pressure to do justice to the magnitude of the subject?
I first asked myself this when I played Polyptyque by Frank Martin, where the violin is supposed to represent the voice of Jesus Christ. I thought to myself: Oh dear, how can that be done? Hartmann’s Concerto funebre is actually simple in this respect. You just have to feel your way into it, then you experience the suffering that Hartmann himself saw. He was a very observant citizen who already understood what was happening politically in the 1930s. Among his friends were composers of so-called Degenerate Music, and he did not have his music performed in Germany, which is why the Concert funebre had its world premiere in St. Gallen. He was a kind of emigrant in his own country. This is all very familiar to me. I myself come from a country where people used to talk very quietly about politics. For me, Karl Amadeus Hartmann is a hero. I see his music as an expression of civil courage.
“For me, Karl Amadeus Hartmann is a hero. I see his music as an expression of civil courage”
Music and politics: this is a recurring theme for you. You once realised a project that dealt with climate change; in your residency, you are now working on the project Les Adieux, which deals with the extinction of species. What can music achieve politically and socially?
PK In the last few decades, we musicians have perhaps forgotten what role we can play, other than showing off our pretty clothes and our perfection. But there are other issues for us. At a concert, we are often stared at for two hours by 1,800 people. Many just come to have a nice evening, but what I want is for them to think about it. The Adieux is a project in which we play music to our own funeral. We humans are like parasites. We come to this earth and eat it up. We eat as much as we can. No other parasite, no worm would ever eat up its host. With us highly developed humans, on the other hand, this kind of reason is not pre-programmed. But what can I do as a musician? I can only put myself on stage with a response to my concern, perplexity and despair.
What are your overall hopes for this residency? Is there a measure of success for you?
PK I don’t know what success is. I’m very happy when I feel that the audience is electrified. I feel that very strongly, and I have great antennae for that. This communication is all I need. As you know, communication between two people does not happen with words alone. There is always something else, an energy that is strongest in music in particular and that sometimes results in love. Then it’s good. I don’t know what will be. I want to experience things with my audience, I want to follow paths that I have not yet walked myself. And I hope as many as possible come along.
The interview was conducted by Tobias Möller