Talking Heads: Julia Fischer

written by Ben Hogwood Photo of Julia Fischer (c) Felix Broede

Arcana has an audience with Julia Fischer, the multi-skilled violinist and pianist who is Artist-in-Residence with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Her most recent concerts have contained a complete cycle of Mozart’s five Violin Concertos, along with the Sinfonia Concertante and a chamber concert with LPO soloists. The Mozart will shortly be available to view online, after which Fischer will be busy rehearsing the Elgar Violin Concerto for performance with the orchestra in April.

Our online call finds her bringing a little sunshine to an otherwise grey morning, full of enthusiasm as she greets us from her home city of Munich. To begin, she recalls her first encounters with the Mzart concertos. “The G major Concerto, no.3, was taught by my first violin teacher when I was really very little. I must have been eight, and I remember hearing Arabella Steinbacher play it. I think that was my first encounter with that concerto.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Fischer does not have a vivid memory of the impact it had on her – but was soon reacquainted with the piece. “A few months after that I actually performed the first movement of the concerto for my then teacher Ana Chumachenco so when I auditioned with her, it was with that first movement of the G major Concerto.”

Fischer recorded the concertos for Pentatone with Yakov Kreizberg and the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, recordings that have aged will in the 15 years or so since she made them. Having spent a relatively long time with them, has her view changed at all? “I suppose, yes, but not in a conscious way. I learned them between the age of eight and fourteen, when I played the Fifth Concerto, then the Fourth Concerto when I was 16. The First and Second concertos I learned for the recording in 2006. After that I performed the cycle two or three times, and of course there are always things changing from one performance to the next, but my emotional approach didn’t change much.”

There are smaller considerations to be made, however. “Maybe the technical approach, the bowings, the note relations have changed a little, as there is always something you can discuss. You can do it with a large or small orchestra, with a conductor or without a conductor, with a harpsichord or without. There are many options, and I don’t think that any of those options are wrong. For the moment you have to find a good approach, and it depends on the people who are involved and who you play with.”

February seems a good time of year to be discussing and playing these essentially sunny, optimistic works. She smiles. “Let’s hope that we can be optimistic, you know?!” The concerts have interesting and exciting programmes around the Mozart works. Many of them will be given under Thomas Dausgaard, a conductor Fischer has worked with before. “Yes, he is a wonderful conductor. He is a very kind man, a wonderful musician. I specifically asked for him for these concerts.”

Dausgaard it was who chose the Richard Strauss pieces accompanying the Mozart – Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung with the Third and Fourth Concertos, and Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche with the Sinfonia Concertante. Meanwhile Fischer herself took charge of one concert. “I will always play and direct the first and second concertos, because I really don’t need a conductor there. I put together the first two concertos with the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings, and he did the rest of the programming.”

With the Mozart works, is there an assumption that the works are too easy to perform? “Yes. You can always find difficulties in any piece, but I think when you do the cycle it is important that each concerto has its own character, so that they don’t all sound the same. The First and Second Concertos are very different from Three, Four and Five, they are still very much from a perspective coming out of the Baroque-ish way of playing. I think Mozart probably had Vivaldi and Tartini in his mind, as they are much more difficult than Three, Four and Five.”

She expands on these three pieces. “The Third is probably the most lyrical one, and has the beautiful aria as its second movement, With the Fourth, it is a beautiful work, and as well as the portmanteau the second movement has this singing part. The Fifth is very different because it has the famous Turkish March finale, but with Three and Four you have to be careful that they don’t get too similar.”

Throughout the concertos, Fischer finds elements of Mozart’s operatic style. “I think it is everywhere”, she says emphatically. “In any Mozart, one has to see him first as an opera composer, and then it’s far easier to perform his instrumental pieces.”

From her answers above you will have gathered that Fischer learned the violin at an extremely young age. Indeed, she met Yehudi Menuhin well before her teens. Did she speak to him about the Mozart concertos at all? “Actually I played the Fifth Concerto with him, when I was 13, maybe 14. I remember playing that with him, but I don’t really remember the musicality of it. I also played the Beethoven Violin Concerto with him and that had a huge impact on me. We had a conductor for the rehearsals so he spent more time with me personally, and we worked on it together. The Mozart was a one-off concert in France, so we just met very briefly for that.”

As part her Mozart season with the London Philharmonic Fischer programmed a chamber concert, placing herself as soloist in the Dvořák Piano Quintet no.2 – for she is indeed a fully-fledged concert pianist. It is an extra challenge, but one that she warms to. “I have played the first and second violin parts in that piece, and the piano part!” Does she find chamber music an essential complement to playing concertos? “There’s no difference”, she says. “It’s not as if I use a different technique or different perspective. For me it’s very natural that music is about communication, and communication is crucial to chamber music as well as orchestral pieces. For me it is not a different way of playing.”

As part of the chamber programme, Fischer included the little-heard Octet for Strings by Max Bruch – a composer who is all too often solely represented by his First Violin Concerto. “I love many pieces of his, I think they are really fantastic. The Octet is such a great piece of chamber music, and of course it’s fun to play. My first violin part is like the Mendelssohn Octet, it’s very challenging, and I like the double bass added to it which makes it almost like an orchestral piece. Whenever I am in residence with an orchestra, I try to programme the Bruch because usually I don’t get the opportunity to perform it.”

Fischer is relishing being back on the road and performing to audiences overseas. “In November I did my first tour in one and a half years, so that was very interesting!” she says with characteristic understatement. “Then I lost the LPO tour to Germany in December, and in January I was supposed to have a tour with my quartet. We were supposed to have nine concerts but in the end we had three. It’s a little bit frustrating but I’m very happy to have had this residency to perform.”

Playing the violin was not a challenge during the initial lockdown of 2020, but there were more immediate challenges. “It was very easy for me to keep playing”, she says. “I have no problem with making myself practice every day. I’ve never had a problem with that, but I am a mother to two school-age kids, and German schools were closed altogether for something like two months in the first lockdown. In the second lockdown my son was not in school for around six months. I had problems other than if I practiced or not!”

While she was grateful for the freedom to keep playing, Fischer was aware of the hardship caused. “There were certain professions that had to suffer the most, and we belong to those. Some people kept working through the entire pandemic, and I was basically without work for one and a half years. Of course I am lucky because I didn’t have any financial issues, and have a house and great family and everything, but from a professional point of view, artists were suffering a lot.”

Turning back to the more immediate future, Fischer will be performing the Elgar Violin Concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski in early April. “It was my debut piece with the LPO in 2004”, she remembers, “it was my first performance with them. It was the first season that I played it in concert, but I learned it two years before that when I actually graduated from school. For my graduation I took five months off from concerts, so I didn’t perform for five months. My teacher said, “OK, let’s learn a few concertos in that time”, so I learned the Elgar and the Khachaturian. That was when I first learned it. I had it on my London Philharmonic tour with Vladimir Jurowski to Asia three years ago. And yeah, we actually wanted to play it on the December tour to be prepared for the April concert, which didn’t happen, so now we have to start over again, but I’m very much looking forward to it.

She is fulsome in her praise for the conductor. “Jurowski is absolutely phenomenal in these huge pieces, because it’s so big. You have such a big orchestra, the piece is very long, and you really need a conductor capable of finding the architecture of such a huge piece, and also one who is capable of accompanying because it is a very free concerto. You need somebody who can really follow you well, so I’m very much looking forward to that.”

She did not get a chance to converse with Yehudi Menuhin about the Elgar. “I remember when I met him, I started to collect his recordings. I have the recording of him when he was 16, with Elgar conducting, and that’s when I first heard the piece. My first encounter was with his recording, but I never talked to him about it.”

The Elgar concerto will be coupled with the Second Symphony of George Enescu, a typical example of Jurowski’s imaginative approach to his concerts. “I know Jurowski is pretty amazing with programming”, Fischer says. “When I need to find new programmes I text him and ask for his opinion, because I know that it’s not my strength, programming – so I always try to get inspiration from somewhere else!”

Fischer has not yet recorded the Elgar – is that something she would like to address? “I was supposed to record it a few times, and then something always just didn’t happen. We are recording the concert in April, so I’m looking forward to seeing that. I don’t think the Elgar is a piece I would want to record in a studio, because it’s so long. It’s hard to find the excitement through the piece, but in a concert recording I think it is entirely possible.”

In the longer term, are there other pieces Julia would like to learn and record? “I have always been very curious, and I used the pandemic to read through a lot of music and learn a few pieces. I don’t have a master plan though. When a conductor asks me to learn something I think about it. For example I’m playing in a year from now in Warsaw with Andrey Boreyko, and he asked me to learn the Violin Concerto by Karłowicz, which dates from around 100 years ago. I’m very happy to do that. I think it’s tough to judge a piece, because usually with many pieces you only know if they are going to work or not when you are on the stage. It’s worth learning and performing them once to decide if that is a piece you are going to keep in your repertory or not.”

Julia has a busy performing schedule for the rest of the year – pandemic permitting, of course. “Well, let’s see what’s going to happen! I’m very much looking forward to touring Europe with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in May. The past two tours fell apart and this is a big tour. The problem with touring is that if you lose one country then the entire tour can fall apart. Unfortunately it is usually Germany that is the country with the most strict rules, and with the least support for arts, I have to say. I don’t think as many concerts have been cancelled anywhere as they have been in Germany. Or, even worse, when they don’t cancel but have these 25% or 50% rules. Until last week in Bavaria we had 25% and rules of being vaccinated two or three times. Some people wanted to come but it was too much of an effort, and in Austria it was the same. With those restrictions it is impossible to programme anything, so we will see – but for May the prognosis is good. That sounds hopeful but what we’ve learned in the last two years is not to be certain of that!”

She remains busy as a teacher, “a bit busier than I should be! I have too many students, which was a great thing during the pandemic of course. I was teaching every week, and that gave me a lot of joy, with a wonderful class and wonderful students, some very interesting musicians. We even did little concerts for each other just so that we could keep on performing, even if it was four or five of us we continued to do that. I am a very happy teacher!”

Julia Fischer performs and directs Mozart with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in two concerts set for broadcast on Marquee TV on 5 March and 12 March. For more details click here.

In the first concert she is soloist and director in the first two concertos, while Thomas Dausgaard conducts in the third. The second concert pairs the Fourth and Fifth concertos, while viola player Nils Mönkemeyer joins for the famous Sinfonia Concertante.

Fischer will perform the Elgar Violin Concerto with the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski in the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday 13 April, with Enescu’s Second Symphony. Tickets for that concert can be found here.

Finally, for more information on Julia Fischer’s European tour with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, click below:

BBC Proms: The Brandenburg Project – Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard

Proms 29 & 30: Soloists, Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard

Prom 29
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.1 in F major BWV1046
Mark-Anthony Turnage Maya (2014)
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.3 in G major BWV1048
Anders Hillborg Bach Materia (2017)
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.5 in D major BWV1050
Uri Caine Hamsa (2015)

Prom 30
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.4 in G major BWV1049
Olga Neuwirth Aello – ballet mécanomorphe (2017)
Brett Dean Approach – Prelude to a Canon (2017)
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.6 in B flat major BWV1051
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.2 in F major BWV1047
Steven Mackey Triceros (2015)

Royal Albert Hall, Sunday 5 August 2018

You can watch this Prom by clicking here

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse. Photos (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

If musical authenticity has largely banished J.S. Bach’s Six Brandenburg Concertos (BWV1046-51) from the standard repertoire, then the brace of Proms that constituted The Brandenburg Project enabled near-capacity audiences to experience what was once the foundation of this tradition. This was hardly the large-scale Bach that would once have been a familiar fixture at these concerts, but the playing of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra – by turns incisive and sensitive – and unfailingly astute direction of Thomas Dausgaard served these pieces well.

A quirky collection this is too. Uncertain as to its date (Bach’s promotional autograph to the Margrave of Brandenburg dates from 1721 but the music was likely in existence up to a decade earlier) and hardly constituting a logical or systematic key sequence (being in F, F, G, G, D and B flat respectively), it positively invites juxtaposition with works either akin in genre or inspired by their specific precedent. It was this latter factor which underlies the present project, with six diverse composers commissioned to write a piece inspired by the Brandenburg in question.

The Brandenburg Project – 1

With its relatively expansive four-movement structure and its virtuosic use of a (then) sizable complement of wind and strings, the First Concerto anticipates the Concerto for Orchestra of two centuries hence. Dausgaard secured a suitably forthright response, not least in the diverse ‘quodlibet’ that is the finale; the SCO then providing eloquent support for cellist Maya Beiser in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Maya. Although the least ‘connected’ to its Brandenburg in terms of concept and follow-through, this was an impressive showing for its soloist’s long -limbed phrasing and mellifluous tone – even if its two halves witnessed relatively little sense of expressive contrast or intensification. The fact that Turnage completed his contribution so far in advance of the project’s taking place suggests his response as being a generalized one.

Long the most famous (rather, immediately recognizable) of the set, the Third Concerto is a blueprint for the Concerto for Strings beloved of the high Baroque era. The SCO relished the robust and incisive contrapuntal interplay of its outer movements; the (deliberately?) absent slow movement being provided on this occasion by Anders Hillborg, who then drew upon its plaintive understatement in the slow section of his Bach Materia. With its prelude of anticipatory tuning, headlong workout between violin and double-bass in its scherzo, then a finale whose interaction of soloist and ensemble was as much vocal as instrumental, it was a showcase for ‘improvising violinist’ Pekka Kuusisto as communicated readily to the audience, even if its attractions (not for the first time in Hillborg) seemed to lie primarily on the surface.

Whether or not the first Concerto for Keyboard, the Fifth Concerto is an intriguing take on that nascent genre; its elaborate harpsichord part scintillating in Mahan Esfahani‘s rendition (not least the headlong ‘cadenza’ passage), with the more circumspect contributions of flute and violin no less appealingly taken by Fiona Kelly and Antje Weithaas. They remained in their respective roles for Uri Caine’s Hamsa, joined by the composer on piano for a piece whose ominous-sounding title is no more than the Arabic for ‘five’. What ensued was an object lesson in composing-out an already elaborate structure and it was hardly Caine’s fault if, at the end of a lengthy programme, this piece outstayed its welcome. Certainly, his attentive pianism and formal finesse would have held one’s attention in any other context.

The Brandenburg Project – 2

With its dextrous and, in the elevated central Andante, plangent interplay of violin and two recorders (the preferred option for those mythical ‘fiauti d’echo’ so designated by Bach), the Fourth Concerto is perhaps the most immediately attractive of these works; despatched with relish and not a little pathos by Kuusisto in partnership with Per Gross and Katarina Widell. As part of her response, Olga Neuwirth pointedly eschewed Double or even Triple Concerto connotations for a single flute as heard against an ensemble with two obligato trumpets and portable typewriter as part of the continuo. This, along with judicious use of tuning systems, gave her ‘ballet mécanomorphe’ which is Aello (2017 – the title that of a retributive Harpy) an insubstantial and capricious aura not without its more ominous and suspenseful qualities.

That the final two instalments segued directly between Brandenburg and commission was not their least fascination. In his Prelude – Approach to a Canon, Brett Dean came up with a methodical extemporisation where he and fellow violist Tabea Zimmermann pursued a fine line in ‘call and response’ with the ensemble; motifs from the Sixth Concerto being variously evoked and denied prior to a rhetorical lead-in to the Bach such as Schnittke might well have relished. With its scoring for low strings and its accordingly dark sonorities, this is the most intriguing of the Brandenburg’s – a Concerto for (or at least predicating) Two Violas whose intricately polyphonic opening movement makes way for winsome elegance in the Adagio then gallant buoyancy in the finale. Qualities to the fore in this most probing of accounts.

The segue was in the opposite direction for the final pairing, with the Second Concerto a putative Sinfonia Concertante whose modest dimensions belie the plethora of timbres and textures derived from its solo quartet. Kelly and Weithaas were partnered by oboist Mårten Larsson and trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger, their overt élan during the outer movements complemented by their wistful poise in the Andante. A sustained note from trumpet duly provided a link into Triceros  Steven Mackey’s typically resourceful response that deploys ‘family’ instruments (piccolo/alto flute, cor anglais and flugelhorn/piccolo trumpet) in music whose ingenious variations on Bach motifs readily evoke the title’s ‘three-horned chameleon’ through to a heady culmination then full-circle resumption of that trumpet note.

Maybe it would have been preferable to hear this latter trilogy in the published order (2-4-6), or at least end with the Sixth Concerto so that Bach’s music could have framed proceedings. Even so this was a fascinating and engrossing project, judiciously conceived and unfailingly well executed, such as confirmed both the intrinsic greatness of the Brandenburg Concertos and their continued relevance three centuries on. Might a similar Proms project be considered utilizing Bach’s Four Orchestral Suites or Handel’s Op. 6 Concerti Grossi? Let us hope so.

BBC Proms 2017 – BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Thomas Dausgaard: Mahler & Schubert ‘Unfinished’

Prom 36: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard (above)

Schubert Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759, ‘Unfinished’ (1822)

Mahler Symphony No. 10 in F sharp, realized Deryck Cooke (1910; 1959-76)

Royal Albert Hall, Saturday 12 August, 2017

You can listen to this Prom by clicking here

Having made an auspicious start to his tenure with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard tonight brought the orchestra to the BBC Proms for its most ambitious concert this season – Mahler’s I, given in the ‘performing edition’ by Deryck Cooke.

Left unfinished at Mahler’s death in 1911, the work was partially premiered in 1924 though it was not for another four decades that a complete rendering was heard – Berthold Goldschmidt conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Proms in Cooke’s realization. Since when his (subsequently revised) edition has become the preferred option for those tackling Mahler’s last symphony in its entirety. Dausgaard recently won praise for his recording with the Seattle Symphony, and his account this evening proved no less successful as an overall interpretation.

Other than the notably deliberate tempo for the violas’ initial theme, such as made it almost an epigraph to the movement overall, the opening Adagio was flexibly paced; the wrenching theme heard on massed strings finding contrast with the sardonic, waltz-like music as passed between solo woodwind. The development’s polyphonic intricacy was eventfully unfolded, then the climactic dissonance – with its piercing trumpet note – was pointedly drawn into the whole so that the lingering coda evinced a serenity whose fulfilment was at best provisional.

The first Scherzo emerged even more impressively. Texturally the least cohesive movement as Mahler left it, its contrapuntal density allied to elliptical harmonic progressions make it the most radical (the earlier music of Hindemith and Weill tangibly within reach) and Dausgaard expertly integrated its increasingly close-knit sections into a stretto of mounting excitement. The brief, fulcrum-like Purgatorio which follows was a little matter-of-fact for its glancing irony wholly to come through, and Dausgaard ought to have made an attacca into the second Scherzo (the three movements of this second part ideally form a continuous whole). Not that there was much to fault in this latter as it pivoted between anguish and appeasement, before vanishing into that ‘tunnel’ of darkness whose nihilistic overtones were palpably to the fore.

Come the Finale and Dausgaard might ideally have deleted the opening drum stroke, while the climax of the central Allegro really needed underpinning from drums for its intensified reprise of the first movement’s dissonance to make its fullest impact. But these were minor flaws in a perceptive rendering overall – sepulchral opening brass making way for the most eloquent flute melody in the symphonic literature (not least as played by Charlotte Ashton), transformed into a radiant string threnody which brings about this work’s cathartic ending.

An impressive reading was fittingly programmed within the context of Schubert’s Unfinished, of which Dausgaard has made a fine account with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. While his rapid take on the first movement (little ‘moderato’ about this Allegro) did not transfer ideally onto full orchestra (at least in the resonance of the Albert Hall acoustic), the ensuing Andante had no lack of poise: the hushed dynamics of its coda no less arresting than the blissful final cadence in which Mahler’s transcendent leave-taking, 88 years on, was not hard to perceive.

Richard Whitehouse (photo of Thomas Dausgaard (c) Thomas Grøndahl)

You can listen to Dausgaard’s recordings of these pieces on the Spotify playlist below:

BBC Proms 2016 – Pekka Suusisto, Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Pekka Kuusisto High Res 6 - credit Maija Tammi

Pekka Kuusisto (c) Maija Tammi

Prom 27; Royal Albert Hall, 5 August 2016

You can watch this Prom from its BBC broadcast – the Grime and Tchaikovsky here and the Stravinsky here

For sheer musical enjoyment this Prom took some beating.

Right from the start it was clear the players of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra were at the Royal Albert Hall to enjoy their Friday night, and in Pekka Kuusisto they had a more than willing accomplice.

It was Kuusisto’s first appearance at the festival, and as he arrived onstage he gazed in wonder at the full hall, taking in its scope and bidding a cheery ‘hello’ to the front ranks of the Prommers. At that moment you sensed his performance, even before he played a note, had gone up a gear.

Sure enough, his performance of Tchaikovksy’s Violin Concerto was dazzling, but he was careful not to let technical feats overshadow the core of the music’s emotion. As the longer first movement unfolded so did the ardent, lyrical phrases, until we reached the solo cadenza, where just a flick of the eyes and arms were enough to get the audience laughing. Kuusisto plays a lot of his music as though for the first time, the childlike innocence (not to mention his boyish face!) a combination of pure enjoyment. The audience, wrapped up in the occasion, applauded as though he had finished, fully aware there were two more movements to come.

These were the doleful Canzonetta, reminding us of the serious circumstances in which the piece was composed (Tchaikovsky’s disastrous and shortlived marriage, made in spite of his convictions around his homosexual orientation) and a finale that brushed all that aside, its main tune from the violin scampering all over the orchestra as they tried to keep up.

Both violinist and orchestra rightly received a rapturous ovation, but Kuusisto was not done, returning for a traditional Finnish song. Following Sol Gabetta’s lead from the First Night he did the singing, while BBC SSO leader Laura Samuel gamely added a rustic accompaniment. Even the audience were involved, singing one of the phrases as Kuusisto brought the house down.

Even after that the enjoyment was yet to peak, for Thomas Dausgaard – who had shaped Tchaikovksy’s phrases rather beautifully – led them in a vibrant account of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. The composer’s second ballet is perhaps his most tuneful, full of Russian folk song references as it tells the tale of the ultimately doomed puppet. The colours of this performance were given by the BBC SSO at their very best, with superb contributions from Mark O’Keeffe and Eric Dunlea (trumpets), a beautiful, child-like solo from flautist Charlotte Ashton, and wonderful contributions from solo woodwind, brass and percussion alike – not to mention the brilliant efforts of pianist Lynda Cochrane and Julia Lynch on celesta.

Dausgaard was enjoying himself, and although on occasion the music was a little fast it was never less than energetic, the players relishing the shades of colour in The Shrovetide Fair, and the irresistible hooks and dance rhythms Stravinsky threads through the music.

Dausgaard is due to take over full time as chief conductor of the orchestra in the autumn, and on this evidence the two look set for a fruitful musical relationship.

eardleyCatterline in Winter (c) The estate of Joan Eardley.

Beginning the concert was the first part of Helen Grime’s Two Eardley Pictures, a new piece commissioned by the BBC and with its second part today. This one, Catterline in Winter, portrayed the fishing village of the North of Scotland, capturing it in steely, metallic colours – reflecting the dark grey sky and the icy blasts of a seemingly ever present wind. It is always difficult to appraise a new piece on first hearing, but this was an impressive and brightly lit score that is well worth hearing for a second time – preferably in the company of the second, Snow.

Ben Hogwood