© Felix Broede

Isabelle Faust, a true musician

A conversation with our artist in residence

Isabelle Faust is a true musician. The eminent German violinist, approaches a piece of music by delving into the aesthetic and the writings of its composer, so she can hear its beating heart. The records released by this outstanding soloist and chamber musician, who is as much at home with Bach or Beethoven as she is with Kurtág, have been consistently hailed by the public and the press. We met her on 14 December 2019, when she gave a concert at BOZAR, accompanied by Ivan Fischer, Tabea Zimmermann and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Speaking flawless French, tinged with a delightful accent, Isabelle Faust spoke to us about the programme of her residency here this season.

Isabelle Faust at BOZAR - 14 DEC. '19 © Lorraine Wauters
Isabelle Faust at BOZAR - 14 DEC. '19 © Lorraine Wauters

What a pleasure to hear you perform in the Henry Le Bœuf Hall! How do you feel there?

I really enjoy playing in this venue. The acoustics are generous, but not overly so: it’s ideal for playing with an orchestra. I was afraid the acoustics would be too dry for solo playing, but the truth is, it works well. I also like the hall’s particular aesthetic; its ovoid shape is very harmonious.

We will see you perform there three times during the 2020-2021 season. What surprises do you have in store for us?

I don’t think I’ve ever played a solo with gut strings [i.e. on a period instrument] in this hall. I’ll probably have a go at it with Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas.

What’s the difference between playing on a period instrument and on a modern violin?

It’s all about timbre, resonance and articulation. On an antique violin you can create a dry or transparent sound, according to the desired texture. But unlike the piano, where the ancient and the modern versions are fundamentally different, the difference in the violin lies in the strings, which are made of gut for early music, or metal for music from the Romantic period to the present day.

You switch effortlessly from ancient to modern, both in terms of the instrument and the repertoire. How do you manage to be so free and yet be consistent?

It’s a good question… some repertoires, like that of Mozart, are easier to play on period instruments. I rarely perform this repertoire on a modern instrument. With Mozart, I find that the rhetoric that drives the music is easier to express with an orchestra performing on period instruments. Il Giardino Armonico is an excellent example: this ensemble thinks in a line from Baroque towards Mozart and not from Romanticism back to Classicism. For me, I think this way of embracing Mozart’s music in the “right” historical direction is fundamental.

Beethoven’s piano trios are a perfect opportunity for you to reunite with your friends, the cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and the pianist Alexander Melnikov...

That’s true. We recorded an album of Beethoven’s trios in 2014. Then, we were invited to perform the complete piano trios during the Beethoven year. It was an opportunity to learn and to record them. The Archduke Trio was already on our record, but the other piece programmed at BOZAR, the Kakadu Variations, Op. 121a, is new to us.

© Molina Visuals
© Molina Visuals

The harmony of your trio is world renowned. What’s your secret?

We have a common approach to music. The three of us share the same artistic idea.

Which is?

Jean-Guihen and I have very similar ways of producing sound. Imagine two string players performing together. If one creates more vibrato than the other, they have a problem: they will never be able to create a pure chord. In order for two musicians to be “in tune”, their respective playing must blend well from the very start, without a need for discussion. When we approach a new work, our ways of establishing a mood sometimes differ. But we all adapt to one another; we understand each other very quickly.

And what about playing with Alexander Melnikov?

As Sacha [Alexander] is a pianist, the question of vibrato does not arise. It’s more a question of rhetoric. We are attentive to the dramatic sense, to the tempo, to the accent… We examined all these aspects at the beginning of our collaboration. And that goes back 20 years! In the meantime, we have evolved together. We encourage one another, nurturing each other’s curiosity – especially about historically informed performances. We have embarked on the same path for so long that there are many aspects that we no longer have to reflect on, they simply come about. But we don’t always see eye to eye. That would be boring!

The human dimension seems to be central to your understanding of music. Would you say that, for you, music is above all a question of sharing?

Rarely does music reach its full potential when the performer approaches it alone. Take Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas: although these are pieces for solo violin, the instrumentalist is in constant dialogue with him or herself. The music is polyphonic. There are always several voices speaking; there are questions, answers… Other works are more of a monologue. Paganini’s concertos, for instance, are impressive in their virtuosity. But that’s not my cup of tea: there’s less to discover! The concertos of Mozart or Beethoven are quite unfathomable...

Isabelle Faust at BOZAR - 14 DEC. '19 © Lorraine Wauters
Isabelle Faust at BOZAR - 14 DEC. '19 © Lorraine Wauters

You will approach Brahms in nonet with a confidential group of musicians. Can you tell us more about this ensemble?

The group is magnificent! It wasn’t easy at the start, because it included musician friends, but also musicians I had never met before. In chamber music, I always tend to want to work with musicians I know to make sure the project is a success. This time, I took a risk by forming a mixed group. I have to say, the result is very convincing! I highly recommend it! [Laughter] I’m happy that this group exists. It’s no small task to create an ensemble of more than five musicians to play chamber music. The programme of Brahms’ Serenade is quite new. We played it in 2018-2019. Playing it at BOZAR will make everyone happy!

Interview by Luc Vermeulen

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