At the end of our conversation, Andrew Manze says something puzzling. We’ve been speaking for nearly two hours, about Brahms, Bruckner, Brexit, orchestral honeymoons and the right time for a conductor to say goodbye; about tempi, literature, and how to nourish the imagination. Manze is a maestro, but our conversation is an antidote to the poisonous term. He’s neither brash nor arrogant nor a diva. He’s a witty storyteller, an avid listener and a cultivated host. I’d heard Manze a few times in concert, where the freshness and spontaneity of his performances struck me. I was familiar with his early recordings as a violinist, which convey an almost anarchic spirit. And I kept hearing his name in conversations with musicians. Few conductors are mentioned quite as often as Manze when players talk about their favorite people to work with. It was high time to meet him. Saying our goodbyes, Manze tells me, “When I heard that you were coming, I thought, ‘Gosh, I’m not interesting enough. I’m sure the article will be very colorless.’” What kind of conductor is this guy?
Manze’s musical career so far can be divided into two epochs. Spending time with Manze makes it clear that the move from the first to the second was necessary, even inevitable. Manze does his best to keep his two musical lives separate, which says much about what music means to him.
Manze was born in 1965 and grew up in Bedford, England, about 60 miles north of London. He studied the violin privately, but majored in Latin and Greek at Cambridge. In the ‘80s, the city was a playground for musicians interested in historically informed performance practice. Though Manze’s original passion was contemporary music, he took up the baroque violin at Cambridge. Early music would become his musical home for the next two decades. Along with the recorder player Robert Ehrlich, the gambist Mark Levy, and the harpsichordist Richard Egarr, Manze founded an ensemble called The Cambridge Musick. He earned his Bachelor’s and went on to the Royal Academy of Music in London and the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, studying with Simon Standage, Lucy van Dael, and Marie Leonhardt. In 1988, he became a member of Ton Koopman’s Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra: first as principal second violin, then, at age 24, concertmaster of the ensemble. In 1993, he founded another ensemble, the Trio Romanesca, with the harpsichordist John Toll and the lutist Nigel North. Their recording of Heinrich Biber’s Eight Sonatas for Violin won a Grammy. That in turn led to attention from Christopher Hogwood, who, in 1996, invited Manze to join the Academy of Ancient Music as Associate Director and Concertmaster. In 2003, Manze became artistic director of The English Concert while touring with Richard Egarr, performing at the Proms, traveling the world, reintroducing works by obscure composers like Giovanni Pandolfi, recording CDs, winning prizes…
Manze gained a reputation as an enfant terrible of the British early music scene. With his unpredictability and willingness to experiment, his mixture of rigor and whimsy, he fulfilled the promise of the early days of the historically-informed performance movement. His recordings of the Biber and Pandolfi Sonatas are remarkable for their exuberant interpretive freedom. Instead of relying on stylized mannerisms he illuminates the music. “These musicians are hooligans,” says the violinist Ilya Gringolts of Manze and Egarr’s recording of the Corelli Violin Sonatas. “By breaking all the rules of harmony, they create a wonderfully gleaming world.” The violinist Veronika Eberle tells me, of Manze’s recording of Mozart’s Violin Concerto in G Major, “He does things that actually aren’t allowed: the pulling back, the extreme diminuendos, but that’s what makes it so exciting and rich.” In 2003, Jeremy Eichler wrote for The New York Times, “With his scholarly demeanor and mellifluous elocution, the Baroque violinist Andrew Manze could be mistaken for a genteel British musicologist. That is, until he puts his instrument under his chin, at which point Mr. Manze transforms into some sort of mad scientist running wild in an imaginary laboratory of 18th-century sound.” It’s fitting that Manze, asked by the BBC to name his top three violinists of all time, chose the swing performer Stuff Smith, along with Adolf Busch and Reinhard Goebel. (Goebel, who Manze has never met, was one of his main inspirations for taking up the baroque violin. “When I was young, I dreamed of being his second violin,” Manze says.)
But Manze’s career in early music also coincided with a crisis in the genre. The groundbreaking discoveries had been made, the revolutionary CDs recorded. The importance of the field is now obvious. But its initial urgency has given way to a kind of dogmatic stagnation. Accompanying the economic success of the early music movement are the pressures and requirements of the market. Albums get made to pad out label catalogues or satisfy the perceived need for new versions of the “Four Seasons” or Brandenburg Concertos. Manze feels less and less at home in this world. He sometimes thinks that everything that needs to be said has been said already. The only way possible forward is an artificial extremity, in which interpretations become ever faster and rougher. “I lot of what I hear sounds a bit like what Neville Marriner once called ‘pencil music,’” Manze tells me. “You take a pencil and write in the score, ‘Crescendo here, diminuendo here, accent there.’ And that’s exactly what it sounds like.” Manze misses what attracted him to early music in the first place: the palette of timbres, the live quality of the music, the possibility of entering into a dialogue with the score and the composer in the moment the music is made into sound. “That’s why it was so incredibly exciting to play with Richard [Egarr],” he says. “I’ve been playing with him for 25 years, almost every month. Even the last time when played together, he did things that made me think, ‘What’s he doing? How is he doing it?’ He’s a magician. He thinks and makes decisions in the moment the music is happening.”
After a tour with Egarr of Japan and Korea, Manze quit the violin. The decision was so final that he remembers exactly when he made it: “Ten years and thirteen days ago,” in Seoul. “I knew that it might be our last tour together, so we did all our favorites. I had two violins with me, a baroque instrument for a program of Bach, Handel, Pandolfi, the early Italians and Biber of course. And a modern violin for a program of Mozart, Schubert, Perry.” He was tired of the traveling: he wanted to spend more time with his wife Tale Olsson, the concertmaster of the opera orchestra in Stockholm, and his two little children. “I didn’t want to come home and close the door and practice for hours,” he says. At the time, he was sure that he would just be taking a break. He hasn’t touched the violin since. The only exception is the midsummer dance in the little village where his family has a summer home, where he plays along with Swedish folk songs. “I’ve been waiting for the day where I’d suddenly realize, ‘Oh God, what have I done?’ But it never happened.” I ask him if there are experiences he misses: “The only regret would be playing with someone like Richard, or if someone says, as occasionally happens, ‘We are going to play quartets tonight,’ and I think, ‘I’d love to do it, but my fingers just wouldn’t be good enough to do it with these sort of players.’ At the Mostly Mozart Festival one time, Emanuel Ax came up to me and said, ‘We’re doing a little pre-concert recital, let’s play a Beethoven Sonata.’ And I answered, ‘Playing a Beethoven Sonata with you would be heaven. But I’d be the only person in the building enjoying it.’”
By the end of his solo career Manze was doing more conducting than playing. Still, he was thought of primarily as a violinist. “A few years ago, I conducted a concert at the Proms, the three middle Vaughan Williams Symphonies, the most heaviest possible project for a conductor,” he tells me. “And the BBC’s announcement was: baroque violinist Andrew Manze is conducting tonight. And I thought, ‘What the hell do I have to do to stop this?’” He is amused by the tenacity of classical music in clinging to categorizations once they’ve been made: “Maybe I should rent the the Festival Hall or the Philharmonie and put on a violin recital. Then everyone would notice that I don’t play the violin anymore.” Behind the jokes, there’s the truth that Manze has been relieved of the heavy yoke of the soloist’s life. He was a musician who needed hours of practice to sound his best. “I was the sort of violinist who had to practice a lot to stand still, some players practice a lot to get better, some instrumentalists, I don’t know how they do this, they keep their playing, that’s just superhuman, maybe they are not human—someone like James Ehnes, or Martin Fröst—it’s staggering, the level of playing is so high,” he says. “And I found it quite stressful to keep up. I had quite a good mind for it, but I couldn’t get the fingers to go along.” These days, it happens often that orchestral musicians ask him whether he plays an instrument.
After his self-imposed retirement from violin playing, Manze made a break with the early music scene. He has hardly worked with baroque ensembles since. Instead, in the last decade, he’s conducted almost exclusively modern symphony orchestras. With them he’s found a new freshness in the “old” repertoire. “I remember a concert with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester. We were doing Händel’s ‘Water Music,’ and they were in heaven,” he says. “I realized that that’s hard to catch in the early music world. When you do ‘Water Music’ with a baroque ensemble, they are somehow…bored.”
What’s so special about Manze’s way of making music? Maybe it’s the dialectical tension between knowledge, mental plasticity, and the simple joy of trying things out. From his days studying philology he has retained a love of primary sources. When he’s recording Sibelius, say, he buries himself in documents: in the composer’s writings, early manuscripts, first LPs, musicological research. “Why do they all disagree so much, what’s the truth, what is my truth, and how do I justify it?” And yet sometimes he needs to wipe the slate clean. He is like an architect who, having built a detailed model of his building, suddenly wonders: What if it was completely different? That anarchic streak comes out in with conversations with Manze. “Ha!” he’ll say, when the spark of an unexpected idea sets something alight. He is allergic to rigid attitudes and to know-it-alls—both of which happen to be widespread in early music. “A few weeks ago, I did an all-Mozart program with the Gewandhausorchester. In rehearsal, I never referred to any dogma or historical information,” he says. “We just tried to find the music together. I hope that I never come in with the sense of: I read a book, so this is how it should go.” For Manze, a score is like a beloved trail in the mountains which still has unexpected magic around every corner. Instead of following the signs he goes where his imagination takes him. He is so dependent on inspiration that the radical break with his first life becomes understandable, even inexorable. “I got tired of my own imagination,” he says. “I remember having to play the ‘Four Seasons’ and realizing that I had to stop, because I was just challenging myself to make it more extreme.”
In the booklet text to his recording of the complete Brahms Symphonies with the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, where he was music director from 2006 to 2014, Manze described his own approach as “post-HIP.” He wrote, “The present version might be described as post-h.i.p., in that many of the performance decisions have been taken with a background awareness of appropriate historical evidence and practice but the instruments used are conventional (i.e. ‘modern’ rather than ‘period’).” For Manze, the modifier “post” means more than the same end by other means. His interpretations are hybrids. They are historically informed, but never sound constrained by rules. Knowledge never crowds out the music. Antje Weithaas, the violinist, told me, “It’s enormous fun to play with him, because he has unbelievable knowledge of the sources, but at the same time he’s unbound by convention and tradition.” (They recently recorded the Schumann Violin Concerto together.) Manze’s interpretations balance knowledge with an intuitive sense of beauty. His Brahms recordings, for example, are extrapolated from the depths of the low strings. They have a dark sweetness, without the harsh, artificial marshmallow aftertaste you often get with Brahms. Unlike many of his colleagues in early music, Manze has an effective sense of architecture. He doesn’t lose sight of the whole in the weeds of effortful detail work.
Manze’s approach to the orchestral literature of the 19th century, in particular, reveals something which is often hidden behind the haze of the conventional sound. In this repertoire, the idea that mustiness and imprecision are the sign of a solemnity proves remarkably resilient. No matter the cost to the score. The line between a beautiful sound and egotism and artificiality is thin, as Daniel Barenboim’s new recording of the Brahms cycle shows. Performing Brahms, Bruckner or Mendelssohn, Manze doesn’t let you sink into the overstuffed armchair of the texture. He insists on careful, alert listening, on structural transparency, the gestural, fidelity to the score—a British-American approach that is still raises hackles in Germany, where it is termed rushed, scholastic, “not deeply felt.” Not least among musicians. A player who recently performed Bruckner under Manze told me it wasn’t his favorite interpretation. “I prefer it ‘sticky,’” he said.
The mass of redundant interpretations might be traced entirely to such preferences. In performances of Brahms’s Symphony No. 3, the third movement became progressively slower and wider, as if to suck all possible enjoyment from the opening cello cantilena. The thinking seems to be: The slower we play it, the longer we get something out of it. The melancholy waltz character of the movement gets bogged down in thick orchestral soup. “If the third movement is too slow, the second is little embarrassing, because you can’t have two slow movements,” Manze tells me. “So you do it fast.” For him, the architecture of the symphony is different: the third movement is a “scherzo substitute,” the second, “according to what Brahms said and wrote,” the slow movement. His approach to Bruckner Five is similar. “The beginning is traditionally done very slow, because it’s so lovely, and it is beautiful. But when the fanfare-like entrance of the brass comes, you have to go much faster, because otherwise it’s just death. So you have the very slow beginning, then you get much faster, and a minute in you’ve already destroyed the architecture.”
As precise as Manze’s ideas are, the missionary zeal others show in ostentatiously rejecting traditions is foreign to him. He doesn’t want to be the one to come to an orchestra and say, “You’ve been doing it wrong all these years,” he tells me. He recalls a conversation with Paul Müller, the artistic director of the Munich Philharmonic: “We were talking about Bruckner and I said how many of the traditional tempi taken in Bruckner are plain wrong. Müller said that it would be interesting for me to bring my approach to the Munich Philharmonic, to which I responded, ‘I don’t think so, the Celibidache tradition is still so strong here, I’ve spoken with some of the orchestra members who still feel that very strongly, even though they never knew Celi.’ We should enjoy this living tradition while we still can.”
Manze’s music-making is most exciting live. On good nights, the spontaneity that originally attracted him to early music, and whose loss proved so frustrating to him, is immediately audible. “Unlike other conductors, he doesn’t panic when something is different from the rehearsals or from the day before,” says the pianist Francesco Piemontesi, who has been performing with Manze for years. “On the contrary, he insists on a kind of mental agility.” The violinist Kristina Altunjan has been a member of the NDR Radiophilharmonie in Hannover since 2004, where Manze is currently music director. “He’s helped us gain something which is probably the highest level of performance: spontaneity,” she tells me. “I haven’t experienced that with anyone else to the same extent. When we play a Mozart or Beethoven Symphony with him, he says, ‘The dynamic is a suggestion, let’s see what I’ll do in the concert.’ When we’re playing the same Brahms Symphony three times in a row on tour, he’ll do it differently every time, and everyone is alert and attentive, as if there was an invisible force holding us together.”
Felix Mendelssohn, Symphony No. 3 in A Major, Op. 56 “Scottish,” I. Andante con moto – allegro un poco agitato; Andrew Manze (Conductor), NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover. Get the album.
An orchestra must be willing to play music in this way. There is an element of uncertainty, and ensembles often need to be convinced that it’s worth the risk. Orchestras also decide within minutes whether they like a conductor. Does he speak vividly and with enough substance for them to trust him? Manze benefits from his ability to explain clearly what his intentions are. “He has good answers to every question. Musicians feel that right away,” says Piemontesi. Manze recently performed Brahms Three with the Radiophilharmonie for the first time. “I was talking to a few musicians in the coffee room,” he says. “One said, ‘I was really shocked,’ so we talked about it. In the end they followed me, because they trusted me. Which was nice of them. It takes plenty of courage and trust to start working on a piece, without knowing if you might go much too far to the left, or even a bit to the right. The idea is that everyone’s relaxed enough so that things can happen.”
With many orchestras Manze has built up goodwill to spare. As a guest conductor he passes through like a refreshing breeze. In June 2018, he led the Gewandhausorchester in Leipzig in Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter,” and you could hear the crispness of the playing, though the orchestra has done that piece hundreds of times and Manze only had a few rehearsals to work with them on it. Since his 2013 debut, he’s been in Leipzig nearly every season, and has started offering workshops on questions of historical performance for the musicians between rehearsals. He also takes the reins of the Munich Philharmonic and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester, in Berlin, once a year. Once he has conducted he tends to get invited back.
The proof of what Manze is capable of doing with an orchestra is the NDR Radiophilharmonie in Hannover. When the orchestra voted to name him music director in 2013, he had already guest conducted them six times. “When I first met them, 12 years ago, I came and I played in their baroque series. I remember speaking to the first cello player, and I said, ‘I don’t believe it, this is the best-kept secret baroque orchestra in the world,’” Manze says. On his sixth visit he conducted Hindemith and Vaughan Williams. “By then, we knew that he could handle anything,” Kristina Altunjan tells me. Manze recalls, “When the offer came from Hannover, it was immediately an instinctive yes for me.” He answered with a handwritten thank-you note to the orchestra, saying how excited he was to work with them.
Manze is now in his fifth season with the orchestra. His contract has already been renewed until 2021. “We could go very quickly into the serious things,” he says. “One time, I ended rehearsal early, because I had the feeling that we had got everything; I’m very practical and don’t like wasting time. The concertmaster came up to me and said, ‘You know, we like to work!’ That’s the atmosphere here. Not many orchestras are like that.”
Maybe the relationship between Manze and the orchestra works so well because both sides know what to value in each other and what they can reasonably expect. Manze insists on the personal engagement of every single tutti player. He wants the orchestra to take ownership of the music. “The winds don’t just play their soli, they lead during the tuttis, just like the celli, when they have the main line. We interact more closely with one another and avoid the frustration that easily sets in when they’re just doing with ‘the idiot up front’ wants,” Manze said in a 1998 interview. Weithaas, who has been working with the Radiophilharmonie in Hannover since 1991, tells me, “He insists on mutual listening. When a conductor really values that, it’s immediately obvious how much better the orchestra sounds.”
Manze knows that he can only achieve the quality of chamber music if everyone in the orchestra trusts him unconditionally: “Every seat is really important. I don’t just say that to keep them happy. If the back desks play for their lives, you have a great orchestra.” To achieve this, he prefers a kind of upfront generosity. For instance, musicians say that he is quick to learn their names. Altunjan, the violinist, recalled that after coming back from a couple of sick days, she ran into Manze in the corridor, and he told her, “I’m so glad you’re back. We’ve missed you.” She says, “It wasn’t fake, he’s just extremely attentive. This week there’s a new musician at my stand who’s in her trial year. He came up to her right away and introduced himself.”
Manze is responsible for a sea change at the NDR Radiophilharmonie. The mood is optimistic, though the orchestra has had troubled relationships with conductors in the past. “We realize that we keep getting better,” a musician in the group says. “The working climate is very, very positive, we look forward to every week with him, because we know it’ll be good.” The results are encouraging, and the industry is starting to take note. The first major recording project they did together, a cycle of the complete Mendelssohn Symphonies, has become a reference. “I wouldn’t have thought they could play like that,” says a musician who happen to hear the album on the radio.
Does Manze think about the question of how long the conductor-orchestra relationship is capable of bearing fruit? “I have it in mind all the time. Am I still good for the orchestra, are we progressing, can I get the group interesting projects? More than anyone else it’s the music director’s job to realize when it’s time to go. Before someone else says, ‘It’s time to talk.’”
Some conductors love their profession for its trappings of authority, which the job has a way of representing in their purest form, a phenomenon Elias Canetti described in his 1960 book Crowds and Power. World-renowned conductors retire to the green room after a concert and wait for praise. For some listeners, too, the opulent gestures of maestro-dom are part of the music, because they seem to give the art an extra sheen of importance. Manze is that unusual breed of conductor for whom attention is something mildly unpleasant. At his concerts, you get the sense he’d rather sneak off stage as soon as the final applause has begun. “It’s the worst part of the concert for me,” he says. “The orchestra and the composer have done so much for the actual effect of the concert. I hope I’ve helped the process, I’m not saying that I’m nothing. But for me the music making is everything. I love the magic when musicians come together, think about music, and then a fantastic result comes out.”
Manze is eccentric in a good way. He’s not interested in the status symbols. He flies coach, rides his bike to rehearsal, and shakes the hand of every player after concerts. He doesn’t strike heroic poses on his CD covers—in fact, he’s hardly ever pictured on them. Nonconformity comes easier to him than to many who try much harder at it. He’s no Sokolov, who cultivates the appearance of introverted genius, or the inaccessible Kirill Petrenko. It’s easy to get to know Andrew Manze. He doesn’t orbit around the world; he lives in it. He reads voraciously, takes a stand on Brexit, has a good British sense of humor. If you ask most musicians which composer is overrated, they’ll go off on obfuscating tangents. Manze says: Dvořák. He shares his childlike fascination with music with anyone who cares to listen. When classical musicians talk about the art, it often sounds strangely abstract, routine, hectoring. Manze, on the other hand, is in his element. His eyebrows bounce; his gestures become those of an actor on a theater stage. Or perhaps the better comparison is to an archeologist who can hardly believe his luck at the discoveries he’s making.
Manze is now 53. Agencies considered this a difficult period, in the no man’s land between rising star and sage master. But it might actually be the perfect age for making music. It’s possible that Manze’s conducting career will soon make a big step up. In May 2018, he took on the additional post of principal guest conductor with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, where he’s currently recording the Vaughan Williams Symphonies. Last season brought his first visit to the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, which is currently searching for a successor to Daniele Gatti. (Gatti was let go amid allegations of sexual harassment.) “When I met Andrew 10 years ago for the first time, he represented a kind of conductor I’d never encountered before,” says Francesco Piemontesi. “The knowledge which he uses to dive into the depths of a work and get the best out of it. At the same time the readiness to look at it with fresh eyes, the modesty and simplicity and humanity.” Few of Manze’s competitors have as much to offer as he does. On his end, Manze is still surprised at the way things have turned out. And it’s true that musical careers rarely grow quite as organically as his. He knows what he’s good at and what he isn’t good at, what he wants and what he doesn’t. The conductor bubble of the last 10 years has burst, and given way to a realism that acknowledges how easy it is for talents to be wasted. Still, many conductors come across like candles burning at both ends, harried by multiple full-time posts and the pressure to rush through the world as well as the entire repertoire. Can Manze imagine keeping the jet set career going when he gets older, like a Herbert Blomstedt or a Bernard Haitink? “I’m looking forward to traveling less and going to more concerts. I love music in a way that I don’t have to be the one on the podium doing it. My love is listening to music as much as making it.” Maybe his time at the NDR Radiophilharmonie will become an epoch, like Mariss Jansons’ 20 years with the Oslo Philharmonic, which Jansons turned into a world-class orchestra.
“Gosh, I’m not interesting enough.” Spending time with Manze means recognizing that this isn’t British understatement. Nor is it an expression of bitterness or self-doubt. He is aware of the superficial concerns of the music industry. But they are so far removed from the things that he cares about that it’s almost exaggerated to say they amuse him. After meeting with Manze, an unexpected feeling sets in. I realize how tired I am of the stories that journalists like to call “colorful.” The needy egoism, the constant weighing of image versus reality, the dramatization of the self. It is so refreshing to meet a person who simply cares about a thing. ¶