Le Figaro’s renowned music critic focuses on his passion: the symphony orchestra. It’s a passion that has turned into an object of study: here is where Dr. Merlin, rigorous researcher, meets Mr. Merlin, enthusiastic journalist whose writing is a reference for every music lover.

 TL: You are watching musicians wearing two hats: as critic and as researcher. How do you marry the two different activities?

CM: For a long time, I considered the two activities to be more or less incompatible. In point of fact, I’ve drawn a fairly wide separation between my university work and my journalism: at university, I’ve never talked all that much about what I was doing in the newspapers or on radio, and vice versa. The two worlds do tend to view each other with mutual mistrust. For academics, describing a work as being journalistic is, I believe, the ultimate insult! It’s often considered synonymous with a lack of rigour, with lightness, stylistic effects, etc. Similarly, when Jacques Doucelin hired me for Le Figaro in 2000, I was already a lecturer at Lille University, and when he mentioned to his management colleagues that he was considering me, an academic, they immediately assumed that I was going to be boring, sinister, unreadable and so on. So there’s a reciprocal reputation that is not great in either milieu. For a long time, I kept the two separate, with a long-held belief that listening and critical judgement came from the journalism side while, when it came to research, I should stick to more solid, less ductile subjects.

When L’Avant-Scène Opéra brought me in to create some discographies, I started to change that opinion. Of course, it wasn’t proper academic work, as my university colleagues lost no time in reminding me. None the less, L’Avant-Scène Opéra is a serious publication, very thorough, and when I wrote the big discographies for frequently recorded works like Carmen or Le nozze di Figaro, I was doing so with the head of a researcher. The idea of the magazine was to be comprehensive, including versions that had never been republished. For any given work, that required assembling all the recordings that were ever made, by way of dealers who specialise in unreleased LPs and all the record shops in Paris. In short, a proper research task. I then realised that these discographies couldn’t be anything other than what a reader usually expected, namely to advise on a reference version, or perhaps the three best versions of a work. So that created an opportunity to write a proper history of the interpretation. At this point, criticism joined the aesthetic and historical attitudes of the researcher, showing how interpretation had or had not changed over time, or how highly different aesthetic choices sometimes occurred during the same era.

More recently at university, when I embarked on some work to become accredited as a director of studies of research, I wanted to combine my speciality of German studies (because I’m first and foremost a German specialist and not a musicologist) with my love of music and especially of the orchestra. At that point, I started reading the history of the Vienna Philharmonic and I allowed myself to combine purely historical work with critical elements. I proceeded not just to follow this orchestra through its history (its internal functions, the way it recruited musicians) but also to look at its way of playing. That’s something that one usually steers clear of, kept for a few brief words at the end. But I wanted to engage in some deep thinking about the “Viennese style”, and it seemed to me that it was helpful that I was simultaneously a researcher and a critic. The only problem was that I came out with far more questions than answers: 500 pages later, I still don’t know what the Viennese style is, or even if there is one! But still, I’ve asked the question and shown that it was often more an intellectual construction than an audible reality. It’s tied to stereotypes, cliches, to an argument about orchestral sound that one hears today that goes “the identities of orchestras have been lost, there is globalisation…” It’s something that's up for argument! What’s interesting is to verify it by listening.

Faced with this argument, do orchestras look to cultivate a unique identity, or is there now a sort of quest for a universal interpretation?

That’s a subject one can get obsessed about, an area in which there are surely more questions than answers. Still, there are some clear pointers. For a start, except for some countries like Russia or some of the Asian ones, recruitment has become an international business. If I remember correctly, the Berlin Philharmonic has players with 25 different nationalities. From that point, does it still make sense to talk about a German orchestra? Musical apprenticeship has also become globalised: today, a young musician doesn’t get trained in just one place, they won’t do all their study at the Paris Conservatoire, the University of Music at Vienna or the Juilliard School: they’re encouraged to travel and to take advice from other teachers, which opens them up to a greater diversity of style. I think the 21st century orchestra usually tries to have the widest possible stylistic palette, to do justice to the different styles of music. That was Simon Rattle’s typical reply whenever people accused him, sometimes harshly, of having ruined the Berlin Philharmonic’s sound and that since his tenure, there wasn’t a German sound any more. He replied quite simply that he didn’t want an orchestra with a German sound, but he wanted an orchestra that sounded French when playing French music, German when playing German music and Russian in Russian music. The way I see it, that’s a somewhat contemporary point of view which speaks of a musical concept of today that’s not about regret or promotion but simply of observation.

So, has all this happened to the detriment of a discernible national identity, in favour of normalisation, globalisation, standardisation of sound? I’m sorry, but I’m going to give a real politician’s answer: yes and no. In some ways, yes, in that there are some very characteristic ways of playing that have lost their uniqueness. I’m thinking, for example, of the vibrato in the horn sections of French orchestras, which has disappeared since the early 1970s. Still, despite these detectable losses, I believe that there remain strong, evident specifics in the various cultural regions, which all conductors admit. We saw it clearly when Philippe Jordan conducted the Ring at Opéra de Paris: it was a light and transparent Ring. At the first rehearsal, he was completely seduced by this kind of transparence that he had never had in Berlin, when he was Barenboim’s assistant at the Staatskapelle. But sometimes, he had to force some of the dynamics to stop it being too elegant, too transparent; it became necessary to rough up the musicians a little. For example, in the opening of Die Walküre, he asked the double basses not to play forte-piano but do do everything forte. The principal bassist complained that this wasn’t the correct dynamic, to which Jordan replied “I know. But if you play forte-piano, no-one’s going to hear you in the hall!” In Germany, they would have produced this effect spontaneously. The converse of this is that Marek Janowski told me that he wouldn’t take the chance of conducting Fauré or Pelléas in Berlin, because he knew that it would lack that finesse and transparency. So types of orchestral sound do still remain.

I’ll go further and say that I’m not really sure that the terms “German sound”, “French sound” or “American sound” mean anything when we consider the differences between different orchestras within the same cultural domain. Take the Americans: Cleveland doesn’t sound like Chicago which doesn’t sound like Boston or Philadelphia… And when we say that an American orchestra is synonymous with a super-powerful, ringing sound with up-front brass, that might be the case in New York or Chicago, but in Cleveland? Not in the slightest! And at Philadelphia, it’s a gentle sound, with extremely warm, velvety strings, and brass which insinuates itself into the strings. So there are specifics that remain, even within any given cultural domain: standardisation isn’t showing up any time soon.

What about the status of the conductor? It seems to me that it’s never been as much in question as it is today, from salaries to the representation of women, with consequences for interpretation. Some orchestras go as far as removing the conductor altogether, like Les Dissonances...

For sure! Conductors aren’t getting a good press right now. It’s very interesting: their status has evolved at the same time as society, which goes to show that art is in no way disconnected from social change. I think we’re living in an era, at least in the West, where the cult of an individual is no longer in fashion: rather, we’re looking for integration, collaboration, involvement of everyone. The first person to really embody this change was Simon Rattle. There are 128 musicians in the Berlin Phil, and Rattle would always say “I am the 129th”. That doesn’t mean that there were no tensions; there were enormous ones – perhaps precisely because the musicians had been used to a conductor who decides everything!

It’s amused me to observe that there are old maestros who have not embraced this change in any way whatsoever. Riccardo Muti, a lion-tamer of orchestras par excellence, made a statement to me that is extraordinary but says it all: “I don’t want an orchestra who knows more than me.” For him, the conductor is the repository of all knowledge. For a long time, that was a valid statement, because musicians were less educated than today, but they now have a far broader instrumental and musical upbringing, which empowers them to hold opinions. For that reason, it’s become more difficult to be a conductor, because the conductor gets judged, he has to convince his players that his views are valid. I asked Muti if he wasn’t being arrogant, and he protested that “No, it’s not arrogance – I would say responsibility”. Interesting: the person with the responsibility has to know more than the others. In a sense, it’s true, since the conductor is the only one to see the score as a whole, whereas each musician knows his own part, but not necessarily what’s happening at the same time in the rest of the orchestra.

So yes, one of the big questions of today is the status of the conductor and the role of the musical director. I think it’s no longer possible to have a single decision-maker, and I’m therefore interested in the German model, which embodies a very developed self-management (or collaborative management). In Berlin or at the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, it’s clearly the musicians in the orchestra who are in charge of recruitment: the whole orchestra votes. But still, no less than before, the conductor is expected to have a musical vision that he believes in and can drive. If one wants to have a conductor who is setting the direction for the orchestra, one has to accept the idea that his musical vision is the one that’s going to be embraced. And that’s not a democracy.

Click here to read the first part of the interview, dedicated to music criticism.

Translated from French by David Karlin