Arabella Steinbacher in conversation with Michael Cookson, Dresden 2016

My first exposure to the playing of Munich born violinist Arabella Steinbacher was in 2011 when reviewing her recording of the Shostakovich violin concertos on Orfeo.

A child prodigy on the violin Steinbacher started lessons aged 3 and 5 years later became the youngest violin student of Ana Chumachenko at the Munich Academy of Music. In 2000 Steinbacher won the Joseph-Joachim-Violinwettbewerbes Hannover when she was 19 and the Förderpreis des Freistaates Bayern a year later. In 2004 she made her concert debut playing at short notice for an indisposed soloist with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under Sir Neville Marriner in Paris.

Certainly a thrilling musician, Steinbacher has made an impressive reputation for herself with several excellent recordings under her belt. One of the finest violinists around compared to a group of talented soloists of her generation, curiously, she is not as well known as her talent deserves; especially in the U.K.   

In May 2016 at the Dresden Music Festival I interviewed Steinbacher on the morning of her evening concert at the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln under Marek Janowski at the Frauenkirche, Dresden when she played Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and the Chausson Poème to a terrific audience reception. Both works served as ideal hors d’oeuvres to the Bruckner Ninth Symphony to follow.

It seemed sensible to hold this interview back to coincide with Steinbacher’s new September CD release ‘Fantasies, Rhapsodies and Daydreams’ on Pentatone:

Style: "70's look"
Arabella Steinbacher © Jiri Hronik

MC: Arabella, who would you say has been the most influential person in your career?

AS: Definitely my teacher Ana Chumachenko. She helped me so much, not only with the music training but also with the human side. She was also like a second mother to me. I started learning the violin when I was only 3 years old and then when I was 8 I went to her and she took me as a student. At that young age you are really so flexible… she helped me in many ways. She is still out there teaching. At that time she didn’t have any young students and wasn’t really sure if she wanted to take on the job of teaching me. When she decided to take me as her student it was a very important decision for my development. She accompanied me for 13 years which is quite a time.

MC: I know most of your recordings but I was wondering how wide your repertoire is?

AS: I started early learning a large repertoire. It was very important to Ana Chumachenko to learn very quickly a big repertoire from different epochs – not only Mozart, Bach and Beethoven who were always important from a young age. When I was about 12 I started studying pieces by Bartók and Khachaturian and I discovered Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Berg who are highly imaginative composers. You see later on when you start playing concerts you don’t have much time to learn new pieces. You can learn the notes quickly but that doesn’t necessarily help.

MC: Which are the particular works that you get asked to play most often?

AS: Well I wish I could play more 20th century but concert promoters they want Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Beethoven. They are all very beautiful concertos but sometimes I think it would be so nice to try out something like the Britten or the Hindemith or Nielson – other concertos.

MC: I was wondering if you are in a position to say to a promoter which work you wish to play or does it not work like that?

AS: It depends. Sometimes they ask me what I want to play, which is really nice. But then what I play has to fit in with the whole programme, and what the conductor wants to do. Tonight, with a Bruckner symphony you cannot play a work like the Shostakovich before it which is too long. The choice depends very much on the whole programme and if a really classic work is being played after the interval, like say a Mahler symphony. But sometimes it just happens that I play say the Berg concerto and it is followed after the interval by a classical symphony or a choral work like a requiem.

MC: Now the Berg concerto would have been my ideal work to play tonight at the Frauenkirche.

AS: It’s not easy to play the Berg concerto in a building like the Frauenkirche. It’s a very tricky work because of the church acoustic. The works I am playing tonight the Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending, which as you know is like a meditation, and the Chausson Poème are ideal for the church.

MC: The MusicWeb site has its origins in English music when it was established over 20 years ago and I like to ask performers which of the English concertos the Elgar, Britten and Walton they play?

AS: I play the Britten concerto quite often. In fact I’m playing it in a few weeks at the Vienna Musikverein. It’s a really beautiful piece, I love playing it. I have considered studying the Elgar but it has never got that far as I studied other works that are not played as often. [MC: What about the Walton?] I’m curious to study it but there is so much out there for me to discover; music life for me will never be boring.

MC: In relation to its quality which concerto in the whole repertory would you say is the most neglected?

AS: Deserves to be played more often, I would say… Well for its quality, I would say the Hindemith concerto deserves to be played more. It really is not played often at all. There is also the Korngold concerto which again is completely different. It’s played more often now than it was but in Germany not so much. There is also the Bartók concerto, I mean his first concerto, which is an early work published after his death, it’s a short work in two movements. [MC: That’s, a fine choice!] The second concerto written around 30 years later is the much better known of the two.

Arabella Steinbacher © Maren Martell

MC: How often do you have to practise the violin?

AS: Of course I play every day. Like a sportsman the muscles I use have to be constantly in shape. If you don’t do that every day you feel that they are becoming weaker. It’s really training and important to do it every day but on the other hand I’m not the type of person who practises all the time. I do 2 or 3 hours a day maximum. For me it’s important to stay fresh in the mind musically you know.

MC: Are you the type of player who can play straight away after a taking a holiday or do you suffer from a break. Tasmin Little told me she could play straight back to where she left off after a break from the violin whilst Andrew Manze said that he needed to play every day.

AS: Yeah, I think it’s healthy to leave the violin at home once a year for a holiday. Just to leave it at home and so it’s not even in your mind. So yes, I can take a break and pick it up where I left off but I wouldn’t risk doing it before an important concert. I would take the time to stay in good shape for a performance.

MC: If you keep playing the same few works the Mendelssohn, the Beethoven, the Brahms over and over again how do you keep everything fresh rather than risk sounding like playing on autopilot?

AS: Sometimes I think when a programme is being arranged say  two years ahead will they want another Mendelssohn concerto or another Beethoven and I think, ah gosh, it would be good to do something different. I can suggest playing something else but sometimes it’s just not possible. Then I might think oh, my God not again. Then before I go on stage, even when I’m on tour playing the same work every night, it’s always a different experience. You see we all feel different everyday, the concert hall is different, the audience is different. The work stays the same but the way I interpret it is never exactly the same. So I make sure that I am not trying to play exactly the same as I did yesterday, to try not to over control the situation but to trust and let go and see what happens. That’s what makes things so exciting every time.

MC: Do you consider violinists such as David Garrett, Hilary Hahn, Julia Fischer etc. as rivals who are in competition with you?

AS: No, I don’t see other violinists as competitors; we all play for different audiences. Of course when we play at the same festival it’s kind of the same venue you know but our style of playing, our approach is different. No, I don’t mind what other violinists are doing. I concentrate on myself; it wouldn’t make any sense to bother about other people. It’s interesting to follow and see what others in this area are doing but not to judge.

MC: Would you say you were an intuitive player or an analytical player?

AS: Oh, definitely I’m an intuitive player… For me I find that a rehearsal goes well if the conductor and orchestra that I am working with are very open and flexible and are not analytical because that would drive me crazy. I cannot imagine playing music like I was doing mathematics. Of course I think more dynamically, it’s about the whole understanding and the meaning of the music: to play, and not to think and to analyse. For me at least it is to make music and then it grows and develops in certain ways. I think musicians like me are there to take audiences into another world by my art and to make music

MC: Have you ever played violins fitted with gut strings. [AS: No, I don’t.] Not even in your early years playing. [AS: Not even then.] I ask because many soloists seem to be swapping between metal and gut stings; Viktoria Mullova for example and Jan Vogler is doing it too at this festival.

AS: You see if I try to play on a baroque violin, which has to be tuned lower, because I have perfect pitch it makes me feel really crazy. I cannot play with that, I get so confused, so frustrated. It might be possible for me to get used to it but I don’t think it’s likely that I will ever try.

MC: What instrument are you playing with tonight?

AS: I’m playing a Stradivarius from 1716 so it’s exactly 300 years old. It’s known as the ‘Booth’ called after a Lady from the 19th century, Madame Wilhelm von Booth who collected instruments.

MC: Please tell me which conductors in particular you enjoy performing with?

AS: It’s a hard question because I don’t want to leave anyone out… I think I have to   name a few because they are all so different from each other. There is Marek Janowski who I perform with tonight at Frauenkirche. I know him over so many years and if you know someone that helps the communication. I always feel that he is following me. The way he rehearses the orchestra is so very clear and they immediately know what he wants. It’s a sense of feeling so safe on the one hand and on the other I have the feeling that I have the freedom to do what I want. I know he and the orchestra will follow without doing too much unnecessary movement. It can be very distracting when someone is doing his own thing too much. He is really very clear… Another conductor I really admire, although he is very different, is Charles Dutoit. I find the way he conducts so elegant and yet the music always feels as if it is dancing; no matter what he plays. His conducting is special always noble and elegant, and very flexible too; completely the opposite of Marek Janowski who is very controlled, very organised. There is also Christoph von Dohnányi who I enjoy working with. [MC: Ah! the grandson of pianist and composer Ernst von Dohnányi] That’s right. For years he was with the Cleveland orchestra and also the Philharmonia in London… In my career I have been so lucky to have had the chance of working with so many experienced conductors, many great conductors. There was Lorin Maazel too and also Herbert Blomstedt who is one of my absolute favourites who I love to work with. There is Riccardo Chailly who I have toured with and the Gewandhaus. In addition I have been happy to work with Colin Davis and Kurt Masur too. Of course there are many excellent young conductors around but that particular generation of older conductors, I feel privileged to have worked with them.

MC: Another question that I like to ask is how you feel that orchestras differ in different countries? For example can you distinguish between an American and a German orchestra?

AS: Definitely! Definitely! For me it depends on the piece being played. When you play a very classical work there is a huge difference. With Mozart violin concertos when I play them in the States and in Germany it’s like playing a completely different piece because of the way they play. It depends which orchestra in the States is playing; the Cleveland Orchestra  has a fine, very classical style of playing. However with other American orchestras I feel they are more suited to symphonic, romantic works, not so much classical works. My ideal style of playing Mozart and Beethoven is like the way Arthur Grumiaux and Nathan Milstein performed. I must say that in the U.K. I enjoy playing with the Philharmonia Orchestra because they are incredibly flexible in different styles.

MC: Is being an international soloist a glamorous life?

AS: No, I wouldn’t say so. Maybe it looks glamorous when I’m on stage with all the lights, nice dresses [MC: The accolades, the clapping and cheering!] It’s a very hard life in the end but with the chance to make music. It’s all the other factors such as the travelling and the things you have to do around that which can make it difficult. It’s not always fun as so many things can happen before you finally go on stage but the public doesn’t know that. Especially air travel with all the delays and cancellations and missing the connecting flight and the jet lag but of course the public don’t get to see all that. In situations like that I have to make it work and act as if nothing is wrong.

MC: Where did you learn to speak English?

AS: Well not so much at school we didn’t learn English. But for a while I had a pianist for recitals who was actually from New York. But then I was often playing in Australia but I don’t think I have developed an Australian accent.

MC: Jan Vogler the other day told me a funny story about the end of his bow flying off during the closing bars of the finale of a concerto. Has anything amusing ever happened to you on stage?

AS: Sometimes, well mostly, when on stage I close my eyes. I like to be in my own world and I can feel the energy of the audience and the players all around me. Once during a concert I didn’t realise how much I was moving while I was playing and I ended up playing with my back to the audience. I don’t know how long I was in this position. When suddenly I opened my eyes I panicked momentarily, oh my god where has the audience gone! It was so, so funny looking back!

MC: Thank you very much for your time. I know you have to go over to the Frauenkirche soon for a sound check and look forward to hearing you tonight.

Michael Cookson

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