Baroque Violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch Talks with Stan Metzger
Elizabeth Wallfisch, soloist, leader and teacher, has been playing the violin for more than fifty years, and has been a major practitioner and proponent of Baroque historically-informed music technique. As soloist and leader, she has performed with major period instrument groups, including The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, The Raglan Baroque Players, Tafelmusik, The Hanover Band and Les Violins du Roi. As teacher, she has taught at Oberlin College, Curtis Institute and the Eastman School of Music as well as at major music schools and departments of music in Canada and Australia (her birthplace). She is the founder and director of the Wallfisch Band, a Baroque orchestra consisting of both professionals and young musicians to whom she acts as mentor and companion player. These young players are replaced as their skills mature, and a new group gets the opportunity to learn from playing with Wallfisch and other professionals. I spoke to her during “Bach Week,” a part of the 19th Annual Montreal Chamber Music Festival. She had already led a group of winners of the Musical Instrument Bank Competition and professional soloists in a sparkling performance of the complete Brandenburg Concerti, and that evening she was to perform the complete Bach Violin Concerti with a similar mix but with Rachel Barton Pine as soloist.
I congratulated her on her performance of the Brandenburgs, and asked her what kind of effort it took to harness all these disparate forces, each instrumentalist coming from a different school of music.
“Well, I’m very demanding in rehearsals with ensembles about unity of purpose. Otherwise, you end up with the music not working. If it’s ragged around the edges, you don’t hear its clarity. So that’s something I always go for ─ and a smile!”
I asked her why she had performed the Brandenburgs out of sequence, although I did see why the Third Brandenburg was an ideal closing piece: it allowed all the strings to be on stage at the same time.
“All those youngsters. Wasn’t it just glorious? Everyone was just ready to let it go. It was really good for them.
“By ‘sequencing’ you mean the order of the programming? That was taken out of my hands because I would have done it in order. But, you know, having the big works at the beginning of each half was tremendous, and having Jens [Lindemann] playing trumpet like a god…that was such fun. Then to have the horn players in the 1st Brandenburg was absolutely electrifying. In the rehearsals, I asked them to do a little work using their lips rather than sounding too much like traditional horns. You know, the brass players are much more attuned to old instruments. In conservatories, I know, trombonists just love the old instruments: it increases their ability to play the modern ones. And then there is my great love, the Brandenburg 6, a wonderful work. I love playing the viola part in the 6th.”
I then asked about the thorny issue of vibrato: how she overcomes the resistance of members of traditional orchestras with their various playing styles.
“Well, dare I say it, but as a leader, the orchestra must do what they’re told. You see, to me this issue of vibrato is a bit of a red herring, because it isn’t an issue. It becomes a non-issue when you think of it as part of the ornamental equipment one has, rather than as the basic background sound. I’ve been asked so many times, ‘Shall we do vibrato for this concert?’ and I answer, ‘Oh yeah!’ But there are places to do vibrato and places not to do it. If there is vibrato on the last note or here and there, can’t you hear that it’s out of tune and it’s not appropriate? To always do non-vibrato, I think, is anachronistic as well. It’s the continuous vibrato that is the issue: the vibrato that creates the sound, that gives the distortion to the sound at all times. That’s just not how to play.”
I mentioned how in an earlier concert that I reviewed the string players were all over the place in their use of vibrato, from densely throbbing to squeaky clean.
“What were they doing with their bows? The whole voice is in the right hand. If you read the many treatises, they all deal with the issue of the ‘shake,’ the tremolo or the vibrato. They all talk about it, and there are some very contradictory things said. But in a way it seems that everybody should use vibrato as decoration, and if it doesn’t decorate, don’t use it. Quantz described vibrato as like hitting a bell: just as the harmonics of the bell are about to lose sound, it sweetens. That’s what Quantz said. If something’s going to hurt, if you’ve got a kind of pain, if something is going to clash or there’s a kind of stress on a chord or note: when you’ve sweetened it, well then you’ve kind of lost the stress.”
I said that there was a time when modern orchestras feared to play early music so as not to incur the wrath of those committed to historical performance. This year, Alan Gilbert performed the Mass in B Minor with the NY Philharmonic Orchestra: its first performance of this masterwork in 17 years. Gilbert says, “We are at the tail end of a period in which Bach and other Baroque composers have become the almost exclusive domain of musicians who adhere to what is known as ‘historical performance practise.’” Did she think this was true? Have we become more accepting of performing styles than ten or twenty years ago?
“There is a change, a shift. More questions are being asked. It will take another two or three generations, as the younger generation becomes the leaders of the future, for things to change.
“I think it’s difficult for a symphony orchestra, really difficult, for people who’ve grown up in the traditional fashion, to grasp the complexity of these concerts. It’s really hard. Many of the players inside these big symphony orchestras want to play, are really hungry to try it. What we really need though are conductors who know what they’re doing, who demand these kinds of concerts and attention to detail of these styles.”
I told her about a concert I had reviewed where the conductor clearly wanted the playing to be in the Baroque fashion, but the orchestra appeared to resent that. The concertmaster was playing the way he always played, while the first cellist performed with hardly a note of vibrato.
“Poor chap. If you have a conductor, you need a concertmaster. You need the two at once. A conductor can’t play. That’s the advantage I have: I can stand up there with my violin and just show it. And with a bit of luck, it’s convincing. I’ve conducted many symphony orchestras all over the place. It’s tremendous fun.”
“If it’s always such fun, could I join the Band?” I asked. “I would carry your instruments or archive your scores.”
“The fun is the making of music. It’s joy, joy and pleasure, but pleasure in the deeper emotions. You read a sad book and you could cry, and then you think, ‘God, that was a wonderful book.’ Music’s the same, you know: it creates images in your mind. It brings up memories. It brings up feelings. It’s very, very important in our lives.”
Another project that she has been involved with is recording the complete violin concerti of Telemann. How and why did she start it, and how many volumes are left to do.
“For the Telemann project I was approached by the record company CPO, and they were a great supporter. For years I had been with Hyperion, and I was very hesitant about, as it were, defecting. But we started. We players look around for musicologists, and I went straight to the chief musicologist at Bärenreiter. They had a very small amount of Telemann concertos. ‘Look, I’ve been asked to do this. Would you consider putting one of your musicologists (there is a chap named Wolfgang Hirschmann) on the case to make the editions for us for these recordings?’ He did the first three. We brought out music alongside the recordings: concerto after concerto after concerto. They are now available in the Green Collection, the Telemann Collection.”
I commented on how surprised I was to hear some of the license Telemann took with these concerti or overture-concerti. For example, he begins with what seems like a classic overture, but right in the middle of the second section starts up a violin concerto.
“I know. Aren’t they wonderful? And that’s what Bach did with his overtures. You know the French ouverturecame into its own in Germany long after they stopped using them in France. Telemann had access to Italian and French as well as German musicians. He had tremendous knowledge and a chameleon-like talent for music. It looks like nothing on the page, but there is this life inside it. I just adore it.”
And how many more volumes to go?
“Three. Two more came out last year, and there are two more in the can, and now we have three to go. We’re working on finishing the violin concertos/overtures for solo and double violin. In September, we are moving on to the orchestral overtures, and the sonatas in four parts which have never been recorded (there are twelve of those). They are gorgeous, just gorgeous. He was a Renaissance man and he lived a long time. He wrote a lot of music and must have been a very good man. He was much beloved by Johann Sebastian Bach.”