Modern Mozart

Double portrait of Sabine Devieilhe and Maxim Emelyanychev

Sabine Devieilhe
(Photo: Parlophone Records Limited / Anna Dabrowska)

They are a dream team on the international concert circuit: French soprano Sabine Devieilhe and Russian conductor Maxim Emelyanychev will make their long-awaited debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the end of October and show how Mozart can sound in a modern interpretation.

With few other composers has the sound of their music changed as radically over the last half-century as it has with Mozart. Even as recently as the 1960s the reliable performances by the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Böhm were regarded as the ne plus ultra of the “true” Mozart sound. But then came the early music movement associated with the names of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, John Eliot Gardiner and Christopher Hogwood, all of whom set to with a will and swept away everything that had been viewed as valid until then. There was no Rococo daintiness about their approach, nothing to recall a Nymphenburg porcelain figurine. No, these pioneers eschewed beauty for beauty’s sake, preferring vibrato-less strings and historical wind instruments, including natural trumpets and horns with their characteristic tone colours. And yet this was not the end of the battle as the zeitgeist continued its inexorable advance. At the end of October the Berliner Philharmoniker will demonstrate what the Mozart of the younger generation sounds like with two spectacular debuts at once: Russian conductor Maxim Emelyanychev will be in charge of the orchestra for the first time, while the amazing French soprano Sabine Devieilhe will be performing a selection of Mozart arias.

“The longer you rummage in a museum, the more impoverished the interpretation becomes.”

Both artists agree on the need to achieve a balance between historically informed performance practice and interpretative freedom. Sabine Devieilhe knows what she owes to musicological research: “I’d really like to perform these works as Mozart imagined them and I mean to get to the bottom of this. But I’m not interested in becoming a specialist at any price.” And Maxim Emelyanychev admits that “everyone must decide for him- or herself to what extent they turn themselves into archaeologists and how deeply they dig. The longer you rummage in a museum, the more impoverished the interpretation becomes.” He refuses to stick slavishly to historically authenticated instructions. “We know, for example, that a symphony by Mozart was performed with six first violins, but does this also work in a large hall? A conductor must remain open-minded and not bring any fixed ideas to the rehearsal room.”

In the course of their careers both Sabine Devieilhe and Maxim Emelyanychev have repeatedly demonstrated their open-mindedness. Devieilhe was born in Normandy in 1985, one of four daughters of a family of music lovers. She initially studied the violoncello and was twelve when she was accepted as a pupil at the Caen Conservatoire. On graduating, however, she read musicology in Rennes, where her main focus of interest was ethnomusicology.

She left the University with a degree. But even during this time she had already discovered her love of singing: she sang part-time in the local opera chorus, surprising everyone with the beauty of her voice and immediately receiving her first solo engagements. By 2008 she had decided quite logically to pursue a career as a professional singer. After only three years in Pierre Mervant’s singing class at the Paris Conservatoire, she sat her concert exam – and was awarded a premier prix.

Maxim Emelyanychev
(Photo: Andrej Grilc)

Three years her junior, Maxim Emelyanychev was exposed to classical music from his earliest childhood. His father played the trumpet, his mother sang in the chorus in Nizhny Novgorod. Even as a three-year-old he was already accompanying his parents to their rehearsals: “Even before I went to school, I knew what a horn in F was, or a clarinet in B♭,” he recalls with a smile. He sang in a children’s choir from an early age and was given piano lessons, but by the age of twelve he had decided to become a conductor. Nor was it long before he had a chance to try his hand at conducting: there is a video of him on the internet in which the thirteen-year-old can be seen working with an orchestra, his stick technique both resolute and authoritative. At Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Conservatory he studied under the legendary Gennady Rozhdestvensky. But there was no question of him ever being satisfied with the Classical and Romantic repertory. And why should he be? The world of music has far more to offer him than this. This also explains why he learnt to play on period instruments and has proved a brilliant exponent on the harpsichord and the fortepiano and has even trained as a cornett player.

Another point that he and Sabine Devieilhe have in common is that both were pigeonholed at an early date, their names associated with certain models. But both were able to break free from these associations. When Devieilhe conquered the world’s stages, music lovers found it hard to get over their amazement. What stupendous top notes this woman had! In her infamous aria “Der Hölle Rache” from Act Two of Die Zauberflöte, the Queen of Night has to rise four times to a stratospheric f''' – but this is child’s play for Devieilhe. She is even able to introduce dynamic gradations into her coloratura flourishes at the very top of her range. Or take Lakmé’s Bell Song from Léo Delibes’s opera of the same name, where her imitation of a tinkling bell must appear to defy the laws of gravity: Devieilhe performs it in such a way that she no longer seems to be a creature of flesh and blood but is like a glockenspiel or a celesta. Finally there is Olympia, the mechanical doll in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Even the original part is almost impossible to sing, but Devieilhe adds additional fioritura embellishments, implying the transcendence of the material world by means of technical perfection.

These three signature roles ensured that Sabine Devieilhe was named not just Discovery of the Year but also Singer of the Year at the annual Victoires de la Musique Awards. They have also led to her being hailed as the legitimate heir of two French coloratura sopranos, Mady Mesplé and Natalie Dessay. And yet Devieilhe is much more than this as it is impossible to tie her down exclusively to coloratura roles. It was with Mozart that she demonstrated her remarkable versatility when she recorded an album of his arias in 2016 with her husband Raphaël Pichon and his Ensemble Pygmalion. These arias were written for the three sisters Josepha, Aloisia and Constanze Weber, all three of whom represented very different voice types. In her debut album Devieilhe cast her spell not only with her breath-taking coloratura singing and insane intervallic leaps but also with the beauty of her rounded tone and the lyric qualities of her voice. No note stands out from the rest, but all are sung with the greatest, most well-tempered delicacy. Nothing sounds vulgar or kitschy. Not to mention her ability to introduce a bewitching sense of humour into her vocalism. The distance that she has travelled from the typical operatic nightingale is clear from the fact that she has now taken the role of Debussy’s Mélisande into her repertory and graduated from the soubrette role of Blondchen in Die Entführung aus dem Serail to the more dramatic part of Konstanze.

With positively childlike enthusiasm

Maxim Emelyanychev first came to the attention of western audiences as a virtuoso keyboard player working with Teodor Currentzis. When Currentzis recorded his cycle of Da Ponte operas between 2014 and 2016, many listeners wondered who was the musician who performed the recitatives on the fortepiano with such wit and imagination. It was Maxim Emelyanychev, who shortly afterwards embarked on a conducting career of his own. In 2016 he became music director of the Baroque ensemble Il pomo d’oro and in March 2018 he took over from an ailing colleague and made his debut with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, proving so inspiring that the musicians immediately named him Robin Ticciati’s successor as their new principal conductor. And this was only the beginning. In the meantime he has also conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, the London Philharmonic and the Orchestre de Paris. When he made his debut with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester in Berlin in January 2022, the local Tagesspiegel rhapsodized about his “electrifying charisma”, adding that “he eschews the use of a baton but uses his hands to shape the melodic lines and overarching paragraphs, while the delicate movements of his fingers create the tiniest figurations, all of these gestures serving to communicate his elemental delight in the sheer beauty of the sound”.

And it is undoubtedly true that when audiences see Emelyanychev conducting, they are immediately captivated by his delight in the music. Even in conversation it becomes clear that he needs only to have a keyboard instrument nearby for him to run over to it and perform on it with positively childlike enthusiasm. Emelyanychev loves brisk tempos and crisp rhythms. He does not use broad brushstrokes but relies on transparency, bringing out hidden inner voices, savouring the dissonances and investing the music with a real sense of swing. The music flashes and bristles and teems with life. His ideal is chamber music, which is why he is fond of comparing the orchestra to a family that wants to achieve something together. He naturally takes his place within this family and refuses to behave like a maestro. “I’m onstage with the musicians,” he describes his position, “and this produces a concentrated energy, the air is electric.” This spark is inevitably transmitted to the audience. We hope that the same will be true when he makes his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker. And a lucky star will be shining down on him because “Mozart” was the nickname that he was given at school. We have come full circle.

Susanne Stähr