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:

Tasmin Little – in praise of Beethoven and Yehudi Menuhin

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Violinist Tasmin Little is a cherished English violinist, loved for her interpretations of the classics in the repertoire but also for her pioneering work in ensuring less heard British works for the instrument get their due. More recently she has championed the worth of classical music education, and ensuring classical music is promoted to those who do not often hear it.

Her strong relationship with Chandos Records has yielded a number of high quality recordings, among them a recent release of Beethoven’s complete sonatas for violin and piano with Martin Roscoe. She gave generously of her time in this recent interview, talking with characteristic enthusiasm about Beethoven, Yehudi Menuhin, the importance of musical education – and how to stop those aches and pains violinists so often get!

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

The answer is no…because it was probably while I was inside the womb! Neither of my parents is a classical musician, but they love classical music and my father was an actor who sang. There was always music in the house, and they had very broad taste, so I remember Blood, Sweat & Tears and The Beatles in particular. I grew up with the whole range, including the genre of musicals as I grew up. It was the same as talking, listening to music!

How did you develop a love of the violin?

As part of my parents’ record collection they had some violin concertos. I used to listen to them and as I got older, say five or six years old, I began to know what some of the instruments were. I loved the violin especially, and then the piano. My sister began to learn the violin, but it was a disaster and I thought it would be a disaster if I tried too! We begged her to give up, and as a result she is now a visual arts star!

When I was seven I fell ill with chicken pox and I hit on the idea of teaching myself the recorder while I was ill in bed. I did that, and loved it. So when I got better I had piano lessons – and then I thought I would learn the violin.

What experience of playing Beethoven did you have prior to recording the sonatas?

I’ve played Beethoven for years and year, as a student at the Yehudi Menuhin school, where I played it in string quartets and tackled some of the violin sonatas. They are difficult, so I didn’t play them until my early teens – probably the Spring Sonata first. The more complex works such as the C minor sonata I left until later, and then the big mountain, the Kreutzer Sonata, I tackled when I was 21.

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Tasmin with her accomplice in the Beethoven sonatas, pianist Martin Roscoe

“Of course when you play these works you need a really good pianist, and it wasn’t until we were at least in our teens that we could cover this music. I’ve been playing some of the sonatas for 30 years, others for 20-25 years, so I’ve known them for a long time. It is really important with works of this nature and complexity, and works that are well recorded to have mature thoughts on them.”

The Violin Concerto I have known since I was 21, and it has been in my repertoire for a long time. More recently I also learned the Triple Concerto, which I recorded with Howard Shelley and Tim Hugh, but it is the Violin Concerto that I completely adore. One of the earliest recordings I had was made by Zino Francescatti, that I have listened to and played into the ground.

Was it daunting recording the sonatas?

I always wanted to record this repertoire, as it is the big mountain of violin and piano repertoire. The violin sonatas by Mozart are a bit more juvenile, whereas with the Beethoven sonatas they are all of such quality you need comparable maturity and sophistication to play them. I took a deep breath before doing the sessions! We did the first five, working fast, in three days – and we felt we were on such a role, Martin and I. Then six months later we finished off the remaining five. It was good to do it like that, otherwise we would have suffered a hit in quality. There was a feeling of momentum.

To begin with in the sonatas they are spring-like, but then that all starts to change. The A minor work, Op.23, is quite a nervy piece but still can’t resist a few jokes. The C minor sonata, Op.30 no.2, is a steely work from start to finish, there is no let up in the drama or intensity. The Kreutzer Sonata is another dimension removed from that, it is an incredibly complex piece. He thinks of it as a concerto for both players, and that’s how it has to be represented. We each represent the orchestra if you like, there are times when he has the fire, and I am in battle against him and his orchestra.

With the ten works covering each period of Beethoven, do you feel like you’re really getting to know him as you progress through each work?

It’s actually misleading, because nine of the sonatas were written in a small space of time, within two years of each other. Then there is a long pause before the last work, Op.96. They are not so representative of the different periods in his output, and that’s why, unlike Mozart, you have this tremendous consistency, within that, he was such a master of so many different styles.

With the equal billing for piano and violin in the Beethoven sonatas, does it help that you have such a good understanding with Martin Roscoe?

Definitely. Beethoven actually puts the piano before the violin in his title pages, it says Sonata Für Pianoforte und Violine – so he considers them piano sonatas with the violin. Because of that I felt strongly that Martin should have lead billing on the cover for this release.

You have got to have someone who is capable of mastering the strength of these pieces, but also the subtlety of colours and the sophistication, mastering the great tunes. You need someone who knows how to play a great tune without being fussy. That’s one of the great strengths of Martin’s playing.

Do you think the sonata recordings are a nice balance to the English music that you’ve recorded?

Absolutely, it is very important to have a balance. I know I’m well known for promoting British music – and there is so much wonderful music that comparatively few people are promoting. I love the standard repertoire too though – Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky – and I enjoy playing them in concerts.

What is lovely about the relationship I have with Chandos is their support of those aspects of my recording, they don’t try to box me in. The recordings have been varied, with British repertoire but also with the works by Schubert, Richard Strauss and Respighi that I have recorded recently – that’s quite a range. It gives me a much more interesting balance.

You were taught by Yehudi Menuhin as part of your education. What would you say he left as a legacy for violinists?

I would say he left us so much. From a practical point of view he commissioned so many works, to think of just a few those by Bartók, Walton and Panufnik. He also was very much interested in bringing to people’s attention other composers such as Delius. He was very good at communicating, and he used his abilities to bring these to the public.

I also think he was one of the first genuine crossover artists, thinking of his work with Stéphane Grappelli, Ravi Shankar and world music. He made it acceptable to work in different genres, it was fine because he was doing it. He was a great teacher – he founded the school I went to – and he also used his position politically to bring people together. In addition to what he left as a violinist he was trying to use his position to unite conflict – and he did this in the House of Lords, through his work as a conservationist and humanitarian.

You’re also judging the Yehudi Menuhin competition. Given all that you’ve done for music education and youth, is it important for you to be putting something back into this level?

I was at a state primary school in the 1970s, and music had a high position in the curriculum. There was a full time violin teacher, and if there hadn’t have been I would not have started. Because there was, and because music was so high on the governmental agenda, all these things were possible.

That is why it is so important to keep lobbying to make sure that gifted people do not fall through the net. I have given two speeches to the House of Commons and the House of Lords about this, and have written letters about it to them as well.

On another tip entirely, do you suffer from aches and pains as a violinist?

The violin is such an unnatural playing position, horrendously so! You have the full weight on one shoulder, and because of that I do work hard keeping shipshape – I have massages and treatments. I have had a few problems so far but I think generally I have been lucky. You have to take care, as it’s a great physical input as well as emotional and intellectual.

Finally, what violin concertos would you suggest to someone who hasn’t heard any before?

There are two that spring to mind. The first is the Mendelssohn, which is a sparkly, light piece. The second is the Bruch Violin Concerto no.1, the one that I get asked to play the most. It is dark, mysterious and very romantic!

For those who have already heard a few violin concertos I would suggest the one by Glazunov, which I absolutely love!