Isabelle Faust (violinist)
Isabelle Faust was the Gramophone Young Artist back in 1997 and our belief in the violinist has been well justified: she returned to the Gramophone Awards two years ago to collect the Chamber Award for her Harmonia Mundi set of Beethoven’s violin sonatas.
This year she gave us a superlative coupling of the violin concertos by Berg and Beethoven and confirmed what a great player she has developed into. You can read the Gramophone review here: Beethoven and Berg violin concertos.
In March 2012, AJ Goldmann spoke to Isabelle Faust for Gramophone about Berg’s Violin Concerto:
The Musician and the Score – Berg's Violin Concerto
Isabelle Faust ushers me into the cavernous sitting room of her Berlin apartment. On the coffee table, I spy two copies of Berg’s Violin Concerto. The first is a newly published full-size facsimile of Berg’s fair copy. The second is a worn pocket score with brittle pages and heavy annotations by Faust. Berg’s final completed work – he wrote it as a musical eulogy for Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius, who died, aged 18, of polio – is featured on Faust’s new recording with Claudio Abbado and his Orchestra Mozart, coupled with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.
Faust explains that the Berg has long been under her fingers, although she’s only now adding it to her discography. She first learnt it when she was 19 or 20 and was surprised at how naturally it came to her. ‘It attracted my emotions and immediately woke up my intellect. I think whenever you play this piece, it jumps at the audience,’ she says. Faust opens her facsimile copy and peers inside with evident wonder. In Berg’s elegant and careful handwriting, you can visually decipher the music. ‘In the beginning, you can already hear the waves. It’s almost calligraphic.’
That Berg’s Violin Concerto is among the most-performed pieces of the 20th-century repertoire owes something to the tonal hints Berg strews about his 12-tone composition. ‘As he builds his tone row up in thirds, our ears, which are used to triadic listening, think, “Ah, we have tonality here”. But Berg never uses the triads with a cadential function,’ she explains.
At the same time, Berg often harks back to earlier musical traditions, incorporating the Bach chorale ‘Es ist genug!’ into the second movement. It’s a clever fit, because the chorale’s opening notes are identical to the three final whole-tone steps of Berg’s row. That triad, long considered forbidden in music for its satanic ring, gives, says Faust, ‘the whole chorale a kind of flying, vague atmosphere’.
Berg’s ability to transition and transform his musical material is a miraculous sleight of hand. ‘There’s this one beautiful link,’ says Faust. ‘He goes from 3/8 to 4/8 to 6/8 to transition into the Allegretto. It’s very cleverly done. If you’re a composer who prepares things like this, then your musicians shouldn’t have any problem following it.’ This is a work that demands both sensitivity and abandon. ‘You need to be careful with balance but sometimes the soloist has to drown in the orchestra or completely join in. I’m thinking of the places where the violin needs to scream for her life, for example at the big climax of the second movement, before the chorale, which is comparable with the death-cry of Lulu.’
Faust is keen to make the case for putting the Berg and Beethoven side by side on a recording: ‘In both these concertos, the violin doesn’t have an accompanying role but rather a decorative one. The orchestral part is just as important as the solo violin.’ For this reason, Faust says both concertos require an in-depth knowledge of the full score. ‘You can’t just learn your part and think you’re well prepared. You need to know exactly what to listen for. You need to know when the orchestra gives you the melody and when they take it over.’
She points to the climactic chord at the end of the Allegro in the Berg. ‘This chord has nine of the 12 tones. And Berg leaves the last three for the solo violin. The first note of the chorale is in the violin. Then we have a chord of seven of the 12, and two chorale notes in the violin. The row is decomposing and the chorale is coming out of them. He just does it so systematically. If you go into detail, you find all these cross connections. You can find every note connected to the row or to different themes. No note appears without a reason or just because it sounds nice. Everything is so integrated, so connected, which makes all the transitions easy.’
She pauses for a moment and reconsiders what she’s just told me. ‘Or at least possible. Nothing in this concerto is easy.’