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An Interview with Isabelle Faust

13 September 2017

Isabelle Faust, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach, harmonia mundi, Mozart: Violin Concertos

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Photo: Felix Broede

No stranger to prestigious awards, Isabelle Faust has just won this year's Gramophone Award for best concerto album, namely the Mozart Violin Concertos 1-5 with Il Giardino Armonico and Giovanni Antonini on harmonia mundi. We caught up with her to talk in depth about her rich musical background, musical collaborations and her passionate enthusiasm.

Having taken up the violin at an early age, you went from playing in a family string quartet to winning prestigious international competitions and performing with some of the world's leading orchestras. How important were your early beginnings as regards your development as an artist and the way you communicate with other musicians?

Starting off as a chamber player has been one of the (if not THE) most important influences in my musical thinking, way beyond my first years of "serious" violin playing. Imagine: an 11 year old girl gets to experience Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok and Webern string quartets from the inside, that's the best of the best! I could not wish for a more classy, demanding, intense, difficult and beautiful start! Of course I had to learn how to listen, respond, make connections between the voices and get an overlook of the structure and undercurrents of a score, especially from the 2nd violin perspective. Until today my heart beats strongest for the chamber music repertoire and for string quartet in particular...and today I always try to get a maximum of dialogue and listening to each other, looking for the hidden details, even in a concerto context as well.

Your recent recording of the 5 Mozart violin concerti has just won this year's Gramophone award in the concerto category. Could you share a few words about the making of this exceptional album and your collaboration with Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico?

The Mozart project has been an exceptional experience for me. To work with Giovanni and his fantastic ensemble is a great privilege and I have learnt so much during this intense collaboration. We were constantly searching for yet a more detailed and subtle musical understanding of the score. Giovanni is an extraordinary musician who never gives up half way and always questions results for even better or more elaborate ones. The group grew up with him, they have a very special way of functioning and it took me a little while to feel that I was capable of being entirely part of the ensemble musically (in the way a concertmaster/soloist would have emerged out of the orchestra instead of adding himself to it back in those times!). I'm deeply grateful to all of them for their never-ending energy, passionate enthusiasm and incredible professional attitude. Really fantastic!

I was also so happy to interest my friend Andreas Staier in writing fabulous cadenzas for those pieces. He is of course known to improvise the most beautiful cadenzas when he plays Mozart piano concerti himself, but writing for the violin was yet a slightly different challenge and I think it is absolutely wonderful what he came up with in those original, witty, intelligent and touching cadenzas.

You have made several recordings featuring a remarkably wide repertoire ranging from Bach to Berg, Weber, Bartok, and Ligeti, as well as music by composers such as Elliott Carter, Thierry Lancino, or Jörg Widmann. Is there a difference in the way you approach pieces from the standard repertoire vis-à-vis new and contemporary music?

The biggest difference with modern repertoire is the fact that very often you can actually work with the composer and ask questions to understand his intentions, which is obviously worth gold. Some composers ask for very specific technical ways of playing and this can at times be a little laborious. But all the good ones want intelligence and feeling in the performance, not so different from the "old" composers in my opinion...

For more than 20 years now you have been performing on the 'Sleeping Beauty' Stradivarius (1704), one of the few Stradivari violins that retain their original neck. What is it that such a unique instrument brings to the music you play? Are a violinist's tone and her instrument in a way inseparable? 

That's a very good question (the latter one). I don't have a general answer to this. I think it very much depends on the violinist and the instrument. I've experienced great violinists that could play on any violin and it would always sound like them. In my case I think this is probably not so easy. I have been playing on this violin for over 20 years. It is a very specific sound world I am living in for so many years, and this instrument has allowed me to explore special nuances and colours that are by now part of my entire way of interpreting. Playing on another instrument in a way makes me a different musician, I believe.

You collaborate frequently with ensembles that use period instruments, while you had your own violin restrung with gut strings for your performance of Bach's solo sonatas and partitas. What precisely is in your view the value and importance of period instruments and historically informed performance in general?

Well, that's obvious, isn't it? Of course the goal here is to be able to get a feeling for the composer's work and imagination by coming possibly a bit closer to the way musicians back in their day would use their instruments, how they would follow certain musical rules which were not necessarily marked in the scores, how they would understand a score in general. A part of this experimenting consists of getting to know the instruments and the way to handle them. But a much bigger part is of course the research in performance practice.

What are you busy with at the moment? And what projects and collaborations should we be waiting from you in the near future?

There will be recordings of Bach cembalo sonatas with Kristian Bezuidenhout coming out soon, followed by Mozart sonatas with Alexander Melnikov, Schubert octet with an exclusive "historical" group of friends and Bach concerti with Akademie für Alte Musik. All on period instruments...

Isabelle Faust in conversation with Primephonic's Mimis Chrysomallis

Mozart: Violin Concertos


Kristian Bezuidenhout Plays Mozart on Fortepiano  Jessica Duchen reviews Mozart solo piano works performed by Kristian Bezuidenhout on a fortepiano modelled by Paul McNulty...... The Birth of a Culture: The Sydney Opera House  Ever wondered about the backstory to one of the 20th Century's greatest achievements in architecture, engineering, acoustics and culture? An Interview with Kristian Bezuidenhout  I think they expected a kind of conservatory level of proficiency already in the teenage years, and I haven’t come across that level in another place. So I’m very grateful I grew up in Australia...


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