Cellist Nicolas Altstaedt on the Lockenhaus Festival & Bringing Unknown Pieces to Broader Audiences

By Laurence Vittes

Cellist Nicolas Altstaedt, continuing ascent as a major international soloist, festival director and most recently conductor, has depended not just on virtuosity but in creating whole new paradigms for making classical music. In doing so, his schedule is reaching dizzying heights.

This year alone he has: played the Beethoven sonatas with Alexander Lonquich in Florence, the Dutilleux Cello Concerto in Detroit, the Brahms Double in Berlin with Vilde Frang, toured Japan with the Haydn Philharmonie—of which he now artistic director—returned to Japan for Dutilleux with the Nagoya Philharmonic, and now headed off to the Verbier Festival to play and give a master class or two.

In between, Altstaedt oversaw yet another brilliant Lockenhaus Festival, his seventh since taking over from Gidon Kremer. The program for each concert is posted at the beginning of the day, like prix-fixe restaurant menus. The musicians Altstaedt recruits always include the leading edge of classical music’s movers and shakers. Altstaedt’s lineup for a performance of Enescu’s Octet is already making the internet rounds. It included violinists Vilde Frang, Barnabás Kelemen, Maia Cabeza, and Sarah Christian, violists Lawrence Power and Katalin Kokas, and cellist Maximilian Hornung.

The theme this year was “creation”—both in its larger environmental concerns and perceived through the lens of musical creation. There was also a range of public master classes, seminars, and lectures.

I caught up with Altstaedt in Scotland while he was embarking on yet another extraordinary adventure, this one in particular would be the dream of every young cellist: Playing and conducting Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major, joining the orchestra for Sandor Veress’ 4 Transylvanian Dances, and then finishing with a flourish—conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.



How did Lockenhaus Festival go?

I enjoyed the festival very much, and as always we followed our curiosity as much as our heads. In the first week, for example, we built our programs around large chamber-music pieces that no one knows, even some of the musicians—such as Bartók’s Piano Quintet and Enescu’s Octet, two major masterpieces that are not known enough yet to a broader audience.

What were the new music highlights?

I was very happy to introduce a young Australian composer Jakub Jankowski from Adelaide with the European premiere of his new cello sonata Aspects of Return, and Maja Ratkje, a Norwegian artist working with electronics and vocal improvisation. Lawrence Power played Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Pentatonic Étude. We linked an evening inspired by the Orthodox Church to this year’s creation theme: The first half was Arensky’s deeply spiritual quartet with two cellos, Op. 35, dedicated to the memory of Tchaikovsky; for the second I played John Tavener’s Protecting Veil with all our strings. We also programed Schubert’s last three piano sonatas played by Alexander Lonquich and Herbert Schuch.


I see you’re moving into film?

A special highlight for me has always been percussionist Johannes Fischer’s appearances performing his own music and improvising. This time the improvising was to Paul Wegener’s silent horror movie from 1920 Der Golem wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came into the World).

Another important film event was the screening of Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi with Phil Glass’ music in the park-like garden of the castle, which itself is surrounded by forests. It was our way of saying that it’s about time to think more seriously about how we can make life more sustainable, and how we can change our lifestyle to guarantee the survival of planet earth.

We renewed our commitment this year as the artists planted trees during a special ceremony.


How did pianist Alfred Brendel come to be at Lockenhaus?

I met Alfred Brendel a year ago after a concert in London backstage and when I learned that he had made only one appearance even at Lockenhaus—and it was 30 years ago with the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau—I invited him on the spot. He is an artist I have admired since my childhood and it was very special to have him there and talking about music, and even demonstrating from the keyboard.

The festival has a special relationship with Eberhard Feltz.

He does play a very important role at Lockenhaus. There is no musician I have met in my life who has such clarity, insight, and depth into scores. His work goes beyond any teaching, master classes, or advice. He opens closed ears and widens the horizons of every musician he meets—even his friend György Kurtág. His new book Genauer als Worte-Intuitives Finden shows excerpts from his work that illustrate his enlightening, inspiring approach to music. I am very grateful for his time at the festival exploring music, as this year he did from Haydn’s string quartets to the music of Ligeti.