Let's meet again! - Hartmut Haenchen

The Bruckner-Brahms cycle

In 2018 Hartmut Haenchen, the German conductor who for many years was Music Director of De Nederlandse Opera, began working with the Belgian National Orchestra on an ambitious Bruckner-Brahms cycle. After a year’s break Hartmut Haenchen is now continuing the project with Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3 and Brahms’s Symphony No.3.

Intendant Hans Waege described Bruckner and Brahms as doubting composers, in contrast to self-assured composers such as Beethoven and Wagner. Do you share this analysis?

Most certainly, but it must be said that the nature of Brahms’s doubt was very different to that of Bruckner. In the case of Brahms the doubt came from within. After Beethoven’s Ninth was it possible to write a new symphony? He worked for 20 years on his Symphony No. 1! In contrast to Brahms, Bruckner only became prone to self-doubt when an orchestra refused to perform his work or when (so-called) friends gave him negative feedback. So in his case the doubt did not come from within but from the exterior. This resulted in Bruckner making a lot of corrections to his work – which is why we have several different versions.

As a conductor it is your task to select a version. How do you set about doing that, in the case of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3 for example?

As Bruckner did not give any recommendations on how to conduct versions of his works other than the last version, I assume that this is always the version that Bruckner wanted. This also applies to his Symphony No. 3. Which does not mean that the first version of this symphony is not exceptionally interesting in a number of ways: it is longer, wilder and attains a dimension that you do not find again until his Symphony No. 8. That turbulent character is of course imposing but from an artistic point of view the last version is much better. The many stages of selfcriticism clearly proved fruitful!

Brahms wrote his Symphony No. 3 at a different stage of his development as a composer than Bruckner …

That’s right! Although they were both about the same age when they composed their third symphonies. Brahms wrote his at the age of 50 in the summer of 1883. He had in fact only composed four symphonies, and this was a late work for him. In the case of Bruckner, who wrote the first version of his Symphony No. 3 at the age of 49, it was quite an early work. As a notorious late developer he went on to write a total of nine symphonies. He was working on his last symphony until his death in 1896.

Much has been written about the rivalry between the supporters of Brahms and the supporters of Bruckner. Which of these two composers do you in fact prefer?

I find this tension between the two composers – which was not at all personal – exceptionally interesting. A conductor such as Hans Richter conducted works by both Bruckner and Brahms in Vienna at the end of the 19th century. He was one of the few people to understand that both composers were masters and that it was not a question of choosing between the two. Although their musical language is very different, both composers are children of the Romantic tradition.

Bruckner’s symphonies are notorious for their length. Aren’t such works rather anachronistic in an age when everything seems to be speeding up, with threeminute songs, ever shorter online articles and dazzling entertainment?

There is no denying that we are living in an age that I would describe in German as a ‘Häppchenkultur’ (snack culture). Popular music sets a trend in this respect, a trend that classical music has all too often followed. When just one movement of a Bruckner or Brahms symphony gets played on the radio then you are missing a great deal. Online concerts are not ideal either: making a cup of coffee or having an evening meal is not good for the concentration. It is only a concert hall environment that can really do justice to the kind of symphonies composed by Brahms and Bruckner. Cut off from the outside world you can give their works the concentration they deserve. In which case the music has an incredible impact!

What are the advantages of a project over several years such as the Bruckner-Brahms cycle?

It always takes a huge amount of work to stand before an orchestra for the first time. As you continue to work together it becomes easier and more possibilities open up. The members of the orchestra get to know your body language, know where you want to go and react with more precision. A cycle like this is a fantastic project that allows a conductor to really build something with an orchestra. I also look forward very much to each and every one of these concerts!