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Interview: Isabelle Faust

Isabelle Faust is renowned as a violinist who combines intellect and sensitivity in her performances. We asked her how a new recording led to a complete re-discovery of the Mendelssohn violin concerto, her love for chamber music and Schubert's Octet.

How do you approach a work like the Mendelssohn concerto, having played it so many times?

Unfortunately, my schedule doesn’t really allow me to start from scratch every single time I play the piece, but I had a big ‘think over’ ahead of my recording with the Freiburger Barockorchester and Pablo Heras-Casado. When you record a piece you really try to check all the information you can get about how people used play or think about it – what was the style at that time? So I did a lot of research, and in the end I had to rethink a lot because I could finally seriously look at the sources that we have from three violinists who actually played this piece under Mendelssohn’s baton – Joseph Joachim, Ferdinand David, and Hubert Léonard. We have their parts, fingerings, phrasings and even comments about what Mendelssohn liked and disliked. In fact, anybody can have a look at Joseph Joachim’s score online, and he even wrote a whole article about what Mendelssohn really didn’t want, so that’s of a great help. I knew this before, of course, but it was the first time I had a close look and also compared the fingerings and phrasings of those three violinists. But it wasn’t easy – when you’ve playing this piece since you were 12 years old, and you’ve learned it in a certain way, you can rethink tempi all the time or even phrasings, but you can’t easily change all your fingerings – it’s so much in your fingers that it can be highly disturbing if you suddenly try to play with different fingers.

But I have no doubt it was worth doing – those three violinists who played the piece with Mendelssohn were all famous violinists who didn’t need to copy each other, but still, looking at those fingerings and phrasings they were so similar to each other and so different from what we do today it was such a real indication of style. One very prominent example is the portamenti, the slides, used everywhere and all the time. You can see by comparing these three parts that they were doing the slides in almost all the same places, and also the slides don’t go into the higher note, they go on top of the higher note. Of course, there were also a lot of explanations about the bowing: for example in the last movement, which is often played with a lot of spiccato and the bow in the air, Joachim writes that it is meant to be on the string. So those are only two examples, but cumulatively these things caused a little earthquake with this piece for me. I didn’t have a lot of time before the recording, but I had to be kind of brainwashed, and it was a great occasion to start again from zero.

I think those revelations and details are perhaps why this recording has received a lot of attention. Maybe it’s excited people about this piece again?

It’s been controversial, I think. It takes courage with such a well known piece to try and make people listen to a new recording three times instead of one, before saying ‘It’s not my Mendelssohn concerto. I don’t like it, because it’s not what I know.’ But this recording is not for those people – I do my work for myself, and I’m full of curiosity to find out what would be the closest possible to the composer’s intention, because I know we cannot be authentic in the pure sense of the word. And when you stumble upon such a treasure of information, you can’t just close your eyes and say, ‘Oh, actually that disturbs me and my audience, so let's just ignore it.’ I feel there is a certain responsibility to tell the people who are curious like I am, and who want to learn like I do to get closer to the composer’s mind. It’s very hard to convince people that the way we’ve heard a piece for the last 50 years is not the wrong way to play it, but that there is something else to discover about the piece. It doesn’t mean that they have to change their taste and love it, but there is still something to learn about it. It’s always very interesting to see how much we depend on what we’re used to.

Having spent all that time rediscovering the piece in such a unique way, what would happen if you were to now play this piece with a big symphony orchestra, or not on gut strings and with a different conductor?

It’s a tricky thing, because of course you can’t just stop playing the piece and only play it with one orchestra and conductor, although that is something I’m doing now with the Mozart concerti. I recorded them with Il Giardino Armonico, and that was such a personal, special way of doing it that I can’t just go on to another orchestra and try to do the same thing, or go the other way and change it completely. But that’s a very special case. With the Mendelssohn it would depend very much on the conductor, so I would probably do it with the LSO and John Eliot Gardiner, but the LSO would probably have to adjust as much as they can, and Gardiner would understand what I am doing. But for instance, I’ve done it with the Cleveland Orchestra now and Bernard Labadi, and it was also his very first Mendelssohn violin concerto, so he was completely open and I could explain where those strange fingerings come from and what those slides are trying to say. The orchestra was amazingly open minded about it too, but then there are other orchestras where I have to be the one to go one step forward and make a little compromise, otherwise it just wouldn’t fit and it would be too strange.

What sparked the idea for your Schubert Octet recording? How did you choose the collaborators? What was the process of recording like?

The Schubert Octet has always been one of my very favourite chamber music pieces. I put together a group many years ago with some historic wind players, who are all very good friends of mine – Lorenzo Coppola, Javier Zafra and Teunis van der Zwart – and we played the Schubert Octet, but back then it was still on modern strings, with historical winds. It was just a coup de coeur which I made happen two or three times a year, but at some point I thought “those winds are the best I can ever get”, so I just wanted to record it, and luckily they did too. But I knew it had to be on gut strings, and then I actually changed the rest of the string section to musicians who are playing on gut strings almost all the time. So then with this new group I think we did two days of rehearsals, and then we went to the recording studio. Somehow it felt like an old group and somehow it felt like a completely new group, but it was one of the most happy and enchanting recording projects I’ve ever been a part of. Everybody felt so privileged and grateful for every hour we could spend with this music. We then played it at something like six concerts in summer festivals in very beautiful but difficult to reach places, and with all the long, complicated travelling (especially with the bass) it was very tiring, but we all just felt so lucky to be with each other and playing this music that we would’ve travelled for three days for just a one hour concert and we would still be happy! It’s also a very democratic group where everybody listens to each other. Nobody is there just for the money, or to show off. For instance, when Harmonia Mundi wanted to put my name bigger on the album cover to help sell it, there was not a single second when anybody would be irritated by that small detail. It’s heaven to play this kind of music with these kinds of people.

What is what is so special about this piece to you?

I am always astonished that people don’t know this piece that well. For me, this piece offers absolutely everything. From the smallest, intimate duetto feeling – like the beginning of the Andante, when clarinet starts and then the first violin enters – to really symphonic stuff, if you think of introduction of the last movement. It’s terribly dramatic, almost like an opera: super large in sound. And then in between those extremes you have everything: minuets, scherzos, a huge sonata form first movement and then of course the variations. I’m usually not the biggest fan of variations movements, but in this one every note is genius, every instrument has its challenges. It’s so exciting and so varied: sometimes very light, in other places super profound It just has everything! With historical instruments, the colours really come through, especially in the winds. In the horn part in particular, every note has a different colour. I’m in love with those instruments, as you can tell! Those instruments are absolutely not homogeneous, and on every note they offer something else.

So you must be thinking about what else you can do with this group?

Absoluetly. I think the Beethoven Septet at some point would be absolutely genius to do, and I’ve been doing some other little projects with Lorenzo, like the Brahms Clarinet Quintet.

What are your next projects with Harmonia Mundi?

Well, we are in the middle of a huge Mozart Sonata project with Alexander Melnikov. We’ve recorded two volumes: the first one will come out by the end of the year, and the next one will quite soon after. And then I’ve just finished recording a double album of Bach with the Akademie für Alte Musik, so there will be all the violin concerti, the double violin concerto, the oboe & violin concerto, but then also some sinfonia movements and two trio sonatas! So it will not be just violin concerto after violin concerto like all those other recordings! It’s good to mix it up a little bit, so there will be lots of different colours on that album. Then in January, there will be Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night on the same album as his violin concerto, which is an absolutely fascinating and beautiful piece. I thought it would be nice to pair this very late and very early Schoenberg together.

It sounds sound like Harmonia Mundi gives you a lot of freedom to pursue the projects you’re interested in.

Yes, I think that has always been one of the huge advantages for musicians recording for Harmonia Mundi. They have always had this strategy, and when a musician is really convinced and burning for a project they know you have to follow them. That’s the only way of doing it, because you can’t really tell a musician “I would like you to record this and this” if he’s just not in the mood at the moment – that will not make a good CD! A musician has to burn, and be very inspired in that very moment about a certain piece. They are also very supportive of things I’ve introduced to the label, like pairing big solo stuff with chamber music, because at the bottom of my heart I’m a chamber musician, and I love all this fantastic repertoire so much. They are very open.

Listen to Isabelle Faust's recordings of the Schubert Octet and Mendelssohn Violin Concerto on Primephonic.

Top photo: Felix Broede