Aart van der Wal interviews violinist Isabelle Faust

Music must be enjoyed without prejudice: An interview with violinist Isabelle Faust April 2011 (AvdW)
Picture © Felix Broede
The great German violinist Isabelle Faust was recently in Amsterdam to play Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto with The Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ivor Bolton. But there was also the recent release on the Harmonia Mundi label of Brahms’s Violin Concerto and the Second String Sextet. I talked with one of the greatest musicians of our time after an arduous rehearsal session in the Concertgebouw.




You’re playing the Britten Concerto at the Concertgebouw.




It is such an exciting piece, with so many layers. It is not only a quite attractive and catching work for the soloist but also for the public. Britten finished it in June 1939, shortly after he had arrived in the USA, where it was premiered at Carnegie Hall, in March 1940. It is hard to believe that this piece is already more than seventy years old: it still seems absolutely up-to-date.




English music from the nineteenth century onwards does not go down well in this country, not to speak of later British composers.




I have heard that before. I believe that it is just prejudice and wrong perception. I strongly believe that the Britten Concerto will be played more often and by many more colleagues. There can be no question about it: it is really an identifier in today’s programmes and is as important as for instance Berg ’ s Violin Concerto, which was written five years earlier.




You study autograph manuscripts and other sources that might help you to get a better understanding of the music, where others don’t make the effort and limit their horizon to the last or ‘Urtext’ edition.




I believe that it is essential to go to the source. Not every composer was 100 percent sure about the final version of his work, and there are errors in first printed editions. In general, there can be all sorts of good or bad reasons for differences and discrepancies. By trying to find the ‘truth’, I am also witnessing the genesis of the piece. Moreover, it is fascinating to follow the composer’s work in progress.




Would that also apply to contemporary composers?




It is peculiar how little they know sometimes about the technical capabilities and limitations of today’s violin playing. Some want us to tell them what can be done and what can’t, what sounds good, and what doesn’t. But others are not willing to make changes from the outset. Some can be very mulish, but at times a composition can get better when there is eagerness to change things. Look at Beethoven’s manuscript of the Violin Concerto, how many different versions of only one phrase!




Last year you recorded the Brahms Concerto with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding for Harmonia Mundi. You clearly embarked on a less audacious and beefy interpretation. What is more, you found new dimensions in a rather small space.




I recalled what Brahms once said to the pianist Fanny Davies: “Do it as you like, but make it beautiful.” After having studied Brahms’s letters, I think I gradually got the right feeling of the sheer intimacy of this concerto. There is a lot of passion in it, but it all develops from the most inner emotions and pain, far removed from being extrovert or ‘crying out’. By digging deeper and deeper there are those infinite layers to be discovered. Who does not want to reach to the heart of a piece like this? I do it my way by gathering as much information as possible and finding and following the inner and outer logic of it. The ultimate goal is that I get the feeling that I have come close to what the composer must have had in mind, although I realize that I am moving in a kind of virtual world: we cannot be sure, never.
Brahms was closely connected to the violinist Joseph Joachim.
Brahms was a pianist and he composed from that perspective. When working on his Violin Concerto Brahms was often advised by Joachim, who was one of the most renowned instrumentalists at the time. Brahms adapted some of Joachim’s proposals, but not as many as is often thought: we know from their letters that Brahms kept most of his original ideas despite Joachim’s criticism. Nevertheless, it is essential to study one of the most precious sources for the interpretation of all Brahms’ violin music, including the Violin Concerto: the ‘Violinschule’, the enthralling violin method co-written by Joachim and Andreas Moser. There is so much in there that is revealing about Joachim’s own ideas about playing the violin, the concerto and musical and technical interpretation in general; but it also tells us about what was important to Brahms and the musicians around him.




You play the concerto faster than usual.




Brahms was not very fond of metronome markings, but Joachim’s are very interesting: they are faster than the speeds we are used to today, incidentally even quite a bit faster. More so, Joachim noted his markings after having performed the work in public. This gives their significance more weight, as he must have been well aware of their practical implications. To me it makes the impression that Joachim might even have played the last movement more quickly, for example, if it had been less difficult to perform. What is also very interesting are the fast tempi in that famous recording of Bronislaw Huberman, who had also played the concerto successfully in the composer’s presence. Brahms admired him very much.
My own basic concept for this monumental work is optimum transparency together with establishing a tight structure. The tempi play an important part in all that. It was again Joachim who led the way for me, as Brahms would certainly have ‘reprimanded’ him had his tempi been wrong! Joachim said to Brahms about the original tempo marking for the last movement that it was too fast and that he should mark ‘non troppo vivace’. Otherwise, it would be too difficult to play. Brahms indeed added ‘ma non troppo vivace’, but later he crossed it out again. Then he changed his mind again and finally incorporated it: ‘allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace’. At the end of the piece the tempo accelerates to ‘poco più presto’. The slow movement was originally marked ‘un poco larghetto’, but Brahms changed it to ‘adagio’ later on. You can see from this that Brahms was not so sure himself about his tempo indications in the first place.




You only talk about the main tempo markings.




Yes, because the tempi within the entire movement should never be that strict. You have to look at the phrases, the lines and decide what you want to do about the tempo. It is not metronomic, and should never be. Joachim’s remarks in his ‘Violinschule’ definitely help to get a better understanding of it all, but the artist himself should finally make his own decisions. It is up to him to find the various tempo relations and to put these in the right perspective, e.g. within the scope of a whole movement.




You could also say that there is no ad libitum but there is specific room for artistic freedom.




Joachim stipulated that the performer should not take too many liberties with the Brahms Concerto. On the contrary, in the Mendelssohn Concerto he writes about keeping the tempo in one place, and consciously slackening just a little bit in another, at the same time proclaiming the necessity of keeping clear lines all the time. Anyway, what is the purpose of playing a passage very quickly and losing the details along the way? The most essential lesson is that the tempi are part of the overall structure of a piece. Most of it is much less negotiable than you might think. Be strict when you need to and you will find pure logic in any piece!




What about vibrato?




I refer to Joachim again, who wanted a deeply felt but unsentimental approach to this music. The ‘Violinschule’ is a fascinating read from this perspective, too: it teaches us a lot about the use of vibrato. Even if a melody is marked ‘con gran espressione’ or ‘molto appassionato’ it would not be the right thing to vibrate on every note or even a single bar, by mere habit or because it is so comfortable for the left hand. That said, the artist should find his own way in the expressive myriad to find the appropriate balance that suits him best. Which does not mean that it suits the music best!




Joachim left a few recordings: his own Romance in C major, two pieces from a Bach Partita and Sonata and two of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances.




It is not much but still enough to get a pretty good idea of his playing style. Sometimes, a few minutes of music making tells more than a lot of words. Apart from that, there was no discrepancy, no hole between what he had written and how he played. That was a fascinating experience, to read his ‘Violinschule’ and to hear him playing.




Unfortunately, we do not have Joachim’s recording of Brahms’s Violin Concerto.




No, but we know that he believed that only the soloist who had thoroughly immersed himself in the full orchestral score and nonetheless knew how to accommodate his solo part would be able to achieve a completely satisfactory interpretation of the work.




To Joachim, the orchestra was on an equal footing with the violinist.




Even more important, the violinist should not only know his part, but also the orchestral parts, and from his own perspective. This gives real weight to the performance because it brings all the compositional features of the pieces together.




You opted for the Busoni cadenza, which has no apparent connection to Joachim.




It does to Brahms! This rarely played cadenza goes back to 1913. Remember that soon after Joachim, many violinists took the Concerto into their repertoire. His pupils often used his cadenza, and it was passed on in various versions from one generation to another, but most of the great violinists back then wrote their own. Brahms got to know Busoni as a child prodigy and highly valued his musical and pianistic qualities. He said that he would like to help young Busoni as Schumann had helped him. Busoni played many of Brahms’s piano works and dedicated several of his own works to him. The use of timpani in the Busoni cadenza reflects, in a way, Beethoven’s for the piano version of his violin concerto op 61. I suspect that Busoni was aware of this, all the more so as he felt that Brahms’ violin concerto was ‘stolen’ from Beethoven’s.
There is that pastoral connection between the Violin Concerto and the Second Symphony.
The pastoral connection between the Second Symphony and the Violin Concerto is well known. They were both written in those two very creative summers at Pörtschach. However, I perceive a similar atmosphere in the String Sextet in G major, the second piece on this CD.
It is even amazing that there are so many ‘pastoral’ similarities between the Sextet and the Violin Concerto, as they are thirteen years apart. In the sense of atmosphere and ‘Natursymbolik’ they have, together with the Second Symphony, a lot in common; and there is that horn motif in the Concerto, which I believe can already be sensed in a string-horn imitation in the Sextet.
We are faced with the introvert, even secretive Brahms who could be harsh to the outside world, even ill-mannered, but with an inner life that is full of beauty and poetry. Like Beethoven! This goes directly to the heart without opulent textures and superficial brilliance. The second movement of the Sextet with the main theme that was in Brahms’s letter to Clara Schumann: the love motto was drafted for her and appears here in all its beauty. That must have been a very special relationship, and much more than just a love affair, something like an existential thing.




Did you go to the sources of the Second Sextet as well?




Yes. To start with, it is always useful to verify the manuscript against the first edition. It was interesting to discuss the piece with Christopher Hogwood, who was preparing the new Bärenreiter edition at the time. He had not yet finished the project and still had some questions and queries, but he knew everything about all the different sources. In September 2010, when we recorded the piece in Berlin, we called him to get his opinion about all sorts of little details we questioned. The old edition was not as exact as we had hoped, and we started to ask ourselves and others various questions. Christopher assisted us from start to finish. He also emphasized both the importance of the first edition and what came after it. Let us not forget that Brahms incorporated many changes gradually suggested or adopted by his interpreters. Not being a string player himself, he was – from the technical perspective – very open to these. It so happens that the autograph manuscript is only one source. All these different sources, and there are at least five, make it very difficult to come up with a reliable new edition.
Knowing, understanding Brahms’s musical language is one of the most important points. What did the publisher at that time know about this? Did he have as close a look as Hogwood or did he ‘interpret’ it in another way, in his way? This is an extremely tricky issue. Anyway, we based our performances of the piece on the latest insights. In that sense we have been very, very text critical!




This is different with the Violin Concerto. Happily, there are far fewer questions to be resolved as far as the autograph and the published editions are concerned.




In this case, I heavily relied on all the work my colleague Thomas Zehetmair has done. He intensely studied the manuscript and the various editions. His recommendations made a lot of sense to me and I gladly embraced them!




The score itself should never be subjected to daily routine.




One of the things going so easily, so smoothly is the music settling down in our brain. All those so familiar sounds and every bar we know by heart! This can be so tricky; as if it cannot be heard or understood in any other way. A few years back, a new edition of the Mendelssohn Concerto appeared. I was excited to see a copy but there were not that many changes in there after all. Still, I realized how tempting it can be to play just all those familiar notes, phrases and dynamics without questioning them, just playing on automatic pilot. I try to avoid the common pitfalls by making an effort to get as close as possible to the original texts. Otherwise, when following routine there will be no discoveries or adventures. But finally you need to forget all the ‘paperwork’ and seriously go back to your own interpretation knowing that nothing stands out there forever. How many second thoughts could refurbish your previous analysis, traditions et al!




How great would it be when we would have a Schuppanzigh-recording?




Our recording of for instance the Beethoven Violin Sonatas could only go back to what was firmly documented in the nineteenth century. These were our main sources and they will remain so. We could come pretty close by studying correspondence, sketchbooks, autograph manuscripts, corrections made for first prints as well as reviews from that period in magazines and newspapers. The more we get to know the more questions need to be raised, but when we listen to performances by great musicians from the beginning of the twentieth century onwards, we realize that they also struggled with what was no longer there, even if they were in a way closer to the period in which the music was composed. They also had to find their way to achieve what they thought was to get the very best out of the score. These great historical performances bring us new insights, and mainly because it is all about integrity, not about age.




Great playing bound to the period?




We characterize the music with our own personal stamp, and that is the way it should be. We must focus on finding the real foundation of the music. Coming back to Joachim, this is what I instantly felt when I heard him play and when I read about his ideas of interpretation; and let us not forget that he was a composer as well!




Adolf Busch…




Another great violinist! He, like Joachim, totally immersed himself in the music. There are so many similarities between these two great musicians! They both had a very strong musical personality and neither was even the least bit arrogant. They propagated their own style, rooted in the deep studies and love of the music they interpreted.




Talking about strong characters from the past, like the famous Busch Quartet or the Hungarian String Quartet…




Their playing goes to the heart of all matters. The violinist, the violin, they seem to have become irrelevant. Equal spirits and goals combined with great individuality create the most wonderful chamber music. This is why I love to play with just a small group of equally spirited and minded musicians. But there are more benefits from playing chamber music: I can bring my experience to the great concertos with great orchestras and conductors, actually also making chamber music with the orchestra. Strictly speaking, I see no substantial difference between playing a concerto and playing chamber music. This was another reason to mix the Concerto with the Sextet on the CD. And wouldn’t you agree that the Sextet has symphonic lines?
One of your other favourite composers, Robert Schumann?
Recently I had this strong experience together with my colleagues Alexander Melnikov and Jean-Guihen Queyras. We were to play Schumann’s Second Piano Trio in the Beethoven Haus in Bonn. The day before the concert, we asked for a suitable rehearsal room. Yes, they said, that had already been arranged. Actually, we ended up in the small village of…Endenich, and to be more precise, in the mental clinic where Schumann had died. We rehearsed practically in his room! To me, this was very moving, to work on the Schumann piece in a place like this. They have photographs on the wall, documents on display, etc., a quite amazing and moving site.




You have played Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor with the Berlin Philharmonic.




It is such a peculiar piece. I went through the manuscript and the ‘Klavierauszug’. The Concerto was edited by the German musicologist George Schünemann and partly transcribed by Paul Hindemith, who got secretly involved by its first performer, Georg Kulenkampff. The Nazis intended to replace Mendelssohn’s concerto with this Schumann Concerto. Jewish music was forbidden at the time.




Its first performance was in Berlin on 26 November, 1937, by the Berlin Philharmonic and the recording followed on 20 December. The solo part was indeed played by Georg Kulenkampff.




It is strange that Joachim actually first liked the piece, but later found it less convincing. Maybe he was also influenced by the circle around Clara Schumann and Brahms, who had refused to publish Robert’s last works. As we now know, his mental illness played a big part in all of this. It is a masterpiece full of problems, but by the same token the most touching music ever written. It revised my whole picture of Schumann.




Only that to study musical history on the basis of past and new recordings is an incredibly long haul.




We might have to become more selective, in one way or the other, although we cannot know what will be on the market, ultimately. Yet I always say: know your history, or get to know it. We had a shocking experience recently, when Alexander Melnikov and I were preparing for the recording of the Shostakovich Violin Sonata op.134 as a ‘filler’ to go with his recording of the two piano concertos. We looked at all recordings that were on the market, and were flabbergasted to hear about a recording we were not aware of, by Oistrakh and Shostakovich himself.




This must be the recording of the informal try-out by Oistrakh and Shostakovich in the composer’s Moscow apartment, prior to the premiere in May 1969.




Oistrakh had not had the music for very long, and they just wanted to play it through together in order to get a good idea of the piece. The very difficult bits were not played perfectly in technical terms, and yet this ‘sight-reading recording’ is by far the strongest, most convincing and logical version of all the recordings we heard! We also listened to Oistrakh’s premiere recording with Richter, but also to many others as well. To us it was this Oistrakh-Shostakovich recording which gave us terrific new insights into the way they played this sonata, but also into the piece itself. We were just pondering how incredible and how sad it is that musicians do not have easy access to such important historical recordings. This is so important to us, not because we wish to copy it into our own performance but because we learned from it.




Recording means compromise.




Especially when recording with the conductor and the orchestra when you do not always have ample time to work things out together. This will never work if we do not move towards each other: in the end you will fail if you try to impose your own opinion no matter what. The soloist does not run the show and needs to reconcile himself to the fact that many other people contribute to the performance or the recording, too.




Nevertheless, you will have a strong opinion about the piece and I assume that you want to do it as you feel is right. Consequently, everybody who wants to oppose to it or do it differently is an intruder in your mind.




That may well be, but it is very healthy to change one’s mind and to hear some opposing views, as this might lead to new ideas. They can certainly clear the mindset! There is nothing to be said against trying and developing various gradations. When I hear something nicely done , with an ensemble or with an orchestra, it can instantly loosen up certain things. For instance, with the Brahms Concerto, I had it all clear in my mind; I knew exactly how I wanted to do it. I had been through every bit of paper, tried out a lot, I felt totally ready for it. Then I came to the rehearsals, which usually do not leave all of us much time. The first one with Daniel Harding and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra took place in a horrible rehearsal room, an acoustical non-setting, nothing really worked straight from the beginning. However, in the concert we suddenly found each other, I gave way, as Daniel and the orchestra did, and we all felt that finally it was going to work. We actually had a lot of fun during those recording sessions!




It also says something about not being orthodox.




Let me just mention Claudio Abbado, with whom I recorded the Beethoven and Berg Concertos. He is the kind of musician who not only goes back to the sources of the music but who is also approaches each piece from scratch, even if he has conducted it maybe a hundred times before. Claudio never takes anything for granted and he stays away from all that is routine. He has a place in my heart, because it is just wonderful to go over all kinds of details with him, studying the score anew, creating fresh images and seeing things from quite a different perspective. Then, when it comes to the recording or concert, thing goes incredibly smoothly, I just happen to play along with the great flow he is creating, as if he is taking us on a big trip, free as a bird because we have already digested every last detail. He wants a strong impulse from his soloist and then he takes over in an incredible way. It is a fantastic experience. I think that Abbado is the most poetic of all conductors I know. The Berg Concerto is one of those masterpieces which confirms all of this, it is such a great dolorosa work, it goes higher and higher and it brings us to the limits of the skies. To play it with Abbado is a breathtaking experience.




You are also an advocate of modern and contemporary music. However, in future there will be fewer opportunities to play such music in the concert hall, or to record it.




The glass is half-full or half-empty, but it is a problem indeed. This does not only apply to modern but also to unknown pieces. Sometimes we tend to forget that. There is still so much that needs to be (re)discovered and performed! The public is entitled to get a larger, broader picture of the musical landscape, not just the cherries from the cake. But alas, we have to realize that music is also a business that must be run and kept profitable. No one wants empty halls, and musical experiments create an unwanted financial risk. There a tendency to play it safe, which is a pity because it deprives the audience of real adventures. Also, when it is not created, no one will ask for it: we need to stimulate demand, so to speak. Mostly, we try to strike a compromise, such as applying the well-known sandwich- formula. However, I am going to perform Kurtág’s Kafka-fragments with Christine Schäfer in 2013, and the program will just be about Kurtág and nothing else. A great experiment!




At the beginning you said something about prejudice and perception.




Music must be enjoyed without prejudice. I notice so often that people have already made up their mind before really listening to a piece. They will tell me that this or that one of my colleagues always plays like this or that, they know it all, they have heard it so many times, and they know exactly which recordings are fabulous and which are not. It happens often that one is so deeply engaged with one specific recording or interpretation that all else is compared to and diminished by it. Once I was at a concert where a Beethoven symphony was being performed. One of the critics recognized me, and before the performance had even begun, he started to explain to me which specific very old recording he thought was the one and only version of this symphony… I advised him to stop going to concerts, since he would never be happy with any living conductor, or any live performance for that matter …




Aart van der Wal




© Aart van der Wal, April 2011
Harmonia Mundi’s Biography of Isabel Faust:
Isabelle Faust’s agent Simmenauer: