On the evolution of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and why it captivates so many young violinists
Video by Freiburger Barockorchester on YouTube. (Ctrl+click to open in new tab)
Disclaimer #1: I do not own this video, any rights, or make any money from it or this translation - I’m just providing a transcribed translation I did for fun. (Sadly, the YouTube function to add subtitles/translations is gone, so here it shall live on my blog.)
Disclaimer #2: I am not a professional translator nor transcriber. I have no formal training in either. English is my 1st language and German is technically my 5th, so no guarantees of the accuracy of the translation, especially the more idiomatic parts of the conversation. Happy to get feedback or suggestions.
Why did I do this translation? Several reasons:
So English speakers can understand this fascinating conversation between 2 wonderful violinists! Isabelle Faust (IF) and Anne Katharina Schreiber (AKS) touch on so many things about the music world that are typically on the ‘periphery’ of the concert circuit, and in an informal way that you won’t find in the glossy ‘highbrow’ classical music magazines. For example, they discuss pedagogy (especially of young musicians and how they relate to the Mendelssohn concerto) and their personal backgrounds with respect to this piece, the process of preparing it, the audience’s reactions…
It’s special to me personally. I had the privilege of attending their concert of this Mendelssohn cycle in Zurich some years ago, and it was a very powerful experience. I remember being so moved, especially by Symphony No. 5 (Reformation). I remember everyone on stage had such great energy and chemistry, and they seemed to have genuine fun making music (‘musizierien’ - a word that still tickles me). I am forever grateful that as a student, you could get tickets for 20 Swiss Francs, even for the most expensive category. Going to the Tonhalle was one of my favourite pastimes in Zurich. In fact, it was ever since hearing Isabelle Faust’s Schumann Concerto performance for the first time at the Tonhalle that I became so hooked on going to classical music concerts (especially those featuring Isabelle Faust!).
Because I’ve never done a translation before, and I thought it’d be a nice challenge :) I could write a whole post about this experience…but for now, here it is.
AKS: Hey Isabel! We are playing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concert this evening…
IF: …seems like it!
AKS: …yeah! in this wonderful theatre in Wolfsburg, constructed by Scharoun. And we also have in the mean time recorded (this concerto/album) together. I still want to ask a question about the concerto…whenever I get new students coming to me and I ask them what have they done and what they would like to work on, and I always ask what their dream piece would be, and their eyes start to light up and they say “Mendelssohn Concerto”. So I wanted to ask you how you yourself encountered this concerto? Also very early on?
IF: Very early. Mendelssohn’s was perhaps one of the - the first - biggest violin concertos that I learnt. I still remember when I was 11, I started playing in a String Quartet as 2nd violin with other kids, my brother had to then switch to viola because we were three violinists and Alexander Zeyer, perhaps you know him [inaudible]…he was first violin. He practiced Mendelssohn back then and he was two years older…he practiced Mendelssohn, and I just sat there and saw all those ricochets and he had to explain how they work to me because I had no idea how they went, but shortly after I then began with this Mendelssohn piece. That was surely the first violin concerto that I knew from the vinyl records. It is a piece that has accompanied me for almost my entire ‘violin life’.
AKS: What do you mean, where does it come from? (That) young people so eagerly want to play this piece? What does it depend on?
IF: I think young people perhaps underestimate how difficult this piece is! (laughs). When it is beautifully played…very light, flowing, unhindered…the way Mendelssohn pieces should be played. For me, that is a concerto that is perhaps the most perfect and shining - no notes should be changed. Every note has its exact place. It starts in the beginning with the interesting solo and it goes without pausing through the three movements, then when we arrive at the end, then we think yes, it had to be this way. I think this perfect form speaks not only to young violinists but to the audience too, and is the one of the most beloved violin concertos of all, all, all time, even more so than Beethoven’s and Brahm’s. For example when one plays in Japan, everyone normally first asks for Mendelssohn, and the concert hall is really full, the Japanese love the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto.
AKS: But does it also have to do with the emotionality? With the expression?
IF: Surely there is something quite youthful in this tenderness, in the “Sturm und Drang” and appassionato. That is also what I find especially beautiful in this piece, this boisterousness/turbulence (‘ungestüm’) and yet controlled…always with this fragility. Never muscular, but it always encourages higher and higher poetic experiences. And naturally the last movement is like fireworks spilling forth, almost.
AKS: We are playing on old instruments. I know it’s another matter to have been busy with the piece itself but also intensively with the violin technique you learned back then [?]…Can you tell us a little about it - what, above all for you, the issues/concerns were?
IF: I always find it unbelievably fascinating when one is not 20 years old any more, but has a little bit more experience with concert life and already brings a proper violin repertoire [to playing this piece] and then naturally especially with the Mendelssohn concerto, which I began to learn when I was so young..when you then have a chance (technically one always has the chance when one wants), but to do a recording project with an orchestra, with the Freiburger Barockorchester (FBO), who naturally approaches this concerto in a particularly different way…I think it was the first time for everyone playing it…that was a whole new sensation for me!
AKS: Also for the orchestra who had not played it before…[not completely audible, voices overlapped]
IF: Yes! Every note was so freshly interpreted and there were no prior assumptions about interpretation. It was unbelievable…it was unbelievably good and opened possibilities to ask all questions, and to be conscientious, to be honourable about getting through those things with you all (laughing).
AKS: But tell how! How do you do that?
IF: And also, because the concerto is so frequently recorded…then there was no sense to do it the same way I learned it 20 years ago during my studies. And how I did it…I simply tried to go back to the (historical) sources, the ones we have, I went quickly to the Joseph Joachim violin school (Moser Joachim violin school)…an unbelievably cool book that every violinist probably knows in and out…where Joseph Joachim, for whom this was very important violin concerto back then, wrote one page about it…playing it with Mendelssohn as a 15 year old, especially about what he wanted and did not want out of this piece. Then he marked the entire violin part with fingerings and his lines (strikes) and it is something ‘simple’, it can be seen on the Internet, something I already knew. And something I very specifically looked at…when someone has played this piece for so so long, it (the fingerings) is practically…
IF: …carved into one’s skin! Then one is careful…and has to throw the whole thing away suddenly…then I tried hard to compare with other texts and sources of violinists, one by Ferdinand David…
AKS: …who premiered this piece…
IF: …who premiered this piece…and with whom Mendelssohn worked on in detail on the final version. From him we have very precise instructions, fingerings and lines. Then there was a third violinist - Hubert Leonard, he also studied with Mendelssohn and so then there was this other source. Then I compared it a little with help of musicologists who have had this topic under their magnifying glass, in summary, Clive Brown. Then it emerged that all these fingerings were very similar to each other, but completely different from today’s modern fingerings and violin technique. Also sometimes naturally different phrasing, but the bowing was naturally very Mendelssohn. But also the portamenti, glissandi that we don’t hear today, many flageolets were used, and naturally many instructional pages. Then when one reads up on these different violin schools, then one realises that even the vibrato was at least in this corner, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Joseph Joachim, very sparingly (used), really only as ornaments. One used it as an exception…vibrato…such things. Then the tempi sometimes by Joachim were extremely fast - he wasn’t afraid of that. So certain aspects were taken seriously that were likely never possible with other orchestras, but with you all (the FBO) who were so naturally touched by this…it was almost, I have to say for me, practically a new piece altogether.
AKS: But is there a [?]…there is one part I especially love…(vocalises)
IF: (laughs)…yes, with the first finger…
AKS: Yes all with the first finger.
IF: Yes, that is found in all three sources we know of…this fingering.
AKS: And then we think, especially probably for the first time, that it cannot be, right?
IF: Yes, yes, yes.
AKS: But I find it meanwhile/anyway (‘inzwischen’) wonderful, the legato…that we never really reach.
IF: That is an important word that you use (‘inzwischen’), because for me too, certain things were just essential…naturally also to change the fingering but it was also beautiful to realise…I also noticed that like animals we have our habits, and how quickly habits can change. Then it was slow but also beautiful to witness…having the goal before our eyes…then suddenly Hoppla! And naturally in the beginning one plays it slowly and crudely because one has to find how to make it elegant and sensible to play, which needs time, but we had this time while touring…in the mean time (‘inzwischen’) it is in fact extremely touching.
AKS: And right (‘richtig’) too, I think, no?
IF: And I think right too - well what does that word mean?
AKS: Well it feels right.
IF: For me in this constellation it feels extremely touching (‘anrührend’). I think that is the word. And as said, the habits change and as said, today, today’s audience as I also noticed on tour…are startled by this way of playing because they only come to the concert and hear it once, but of course we heard it many times in rehearsals and prepared it for weeks and had a lot more time to get used to it and discover and get used to it, to listen to it and feel it…and then someone comes to the concert and suddenly thinks they know it…comparing to this or that violinist (on recordings) and that is how it should be played…but now it’s played differently and then they are disappointed.
AKS: What do you say then to these people?
IF: I noticed, especially with my CDs quite frequently, with the Schumann recording that with this approach to recording…there I also had the feeling during the tour that not everyone was convinced/compelled by this way of playing…“Schumann with no vibrato”, how would that work?
AKS: And the tempi…
IF: And the tempi…which are generally with Schumann not immediately easily recognised. But with the CDs, I always noticed, or very often, that the people only start to listen after hearing it for the third time…to get into it…
AKS: Yes they need the time that we needed too…
IF: Yes! And naturally it would be so cool if during the tour we could tell the audience to stay the same every three or five concerts so that they too can notice and experience what we experience with this way of playing. But I think it needs time, and perhaps there are other performers and ways of playing, to give them a chance…we don’t want to somehow fabricate authenticity here. That is an undoable thing anyway, but I find it so unbelievably important and fun to try to get closer to the composer and the time they were in, which I think is the intention/idea of this orchestra.
AKS: Yes, yes…
IF: And that suits us…play this way forever for us! (laughs) and I think we came to finding a way of interpreting this piece that is unbelievably exciting and naturally also for me, personally on a banal level, I find it cool that such things are refreshed, when for the Mendelssohn Concerto as I have known and played it my entire life…and then there is a completely, newly experienced interpretation. But that isn’t the main concern/priority when pursuing it of course. Not for the sake of doing it just because nobody has done it before. But that is a good side effect, when one supposedly knows something so well, but then sees it in a different way and discovers new things.
AKS: And it’s splendid that we have recorded and played it several times now.
IF: Yes, we are playing it at the Proms!
AKS: Exactly, and the audience can of course listen to the CD beforehand.
IF: Exactly! (laughs) They should all come prepared or else no tickets for them! (laughs)
AKS: Good…then I wish you a nice concert.
IF: Have fun!
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