Forget flash and fireworks, showiness and star power. Isabelle Faust is a very different kind of international soloist.
The well-respected German violinist, who will make her much-anticipated debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on May 11, 12 and 15, got her start in the world of chamber music, performing intensively in a string quartet for five years starting at age 11. That collegial sensibility still pervades everything she does, including her appearances with many of the world’s most prestigious orchestras.
“I think that is still very deep inside of me, this kind of polyphonic dialoguing,” she said. “Any kind of music that [allows me to] interact onstage with other colleagues in the most intense and interesting way, that is attractive to me.”
To that end, she eschews some of the best-known violin concertos that are showpieces for the instrument. “I’m not the Paganini Concerto guy — or woman,” she said with a laugh.
Instead, Faust prefers concertos in which the orchestra is as important as the solo part. She pointed to Berg’s Violin Concerto (1935), which she recorded in 2012 with conductor Claudio Abbado and the Orchestra Mozart to considerable acclaim. The work is not a “real violin concerto,” but something more akin to a concerto grosso or a symphony with a prominent solo violin part. Partly the same is true, she said, with Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77, and even Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61. While she concedes that the latter is “very soloistic,” she notes that the violin rarely plays the melody, and there is considerable interaction between the violinist and orchestra.
For her first CSO appearance, Faust will join guest conductor Emmanuel Krivine in a work she has long championed: Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D Minor. As surprising it might sound, considering the status of the work’s composer, these will be the first-ever performances of this concerto on the CSO’s subscription series.
The work’s tortured history may explain why it never gained the recognition that might have been expected. Schumann wrote the piece in 1853 for celebrated violinist Joseph Joachim, who played through it with the Hannover Court Orchestra in October of that year but never performed it publicly. After Schumann attempted suicide in February 1854 and was subsequently admitted to a sanatorium, Joachim apparently became concerned that the piece would be seen as a product of the composer’s madness. He later gave the manuscript to the Prussian State Library in Berlin and stated in his will that it should not be played or published for 100 years.
“That’s very unfortunate, because it’s one of the most genius concertos that I know,” Faust said.
After receiving a copy of the work from a German music publisher in 1937, famed violinist Yehudi Menuhin eagerly sought to give the concerto’s premiere that year. But the Nazi-led German government, which had control of the piece’s copyright, insisted that a German (and not Menuhin, who was Jewish) debut the piece. The task fell to Georg Kulenkampff, who performed a version of the piece in November 1937, that, according to Faust, was arranged to make it showier and more virtuosic. Menuhin followed in December in the United States with the next performances of the piece, first in a violin-piano reduction and then the full orchestral version.
Menuhin continued to champion the concerto, but it remained largely obscure for decades. “I think in the last 20 years,” said Faust, who recorded the work in 2015, “it has become much more popular among my colleagues, and I’ve played it for many years now.”
Most musicians, and certainly major soloists, tend to stick to either the modern-instrument or period-instrument realm. But Faust, who is mostly associated with the former, doesn’t hesitate to put gut strings on her 1704 “Sleeping Beauty” Stradivarius, on which she has performed since 1996, pick up a historical bow and perform in the latter style. The violinist has collaborated with several period-instrument ensembles, and she and her longtime recital partner, pianist Alexander Melnikov, have presented concerts on historical instruments.
For her 2016 recording of Mozart’s five violin concertos, she took just such a period-instrument approach, joining Il Giardino Armonico and conductor Giovanni Antonini (who will lead the CSO in June) and entering what she called “a very special world.” Working together with these musicians, she said, she questioned everything she had learned about Mozart and the ways she had been listening to his music since childhood; she then tried to develop a more historically informed approach. “So that was a very exciting and intense process to kind of start from zero again with those concerti,” she said.
Faust knew going into this process that she was taking something of a risk, because these concertos, like just about everything else Mozart has written, are quite familiar, and many listeners are attached to certain established recordings. “And then, suddenly,” she said, “someone does it in a different way, and it’s not always easy for people to have open ears and be happy about new suggestions, which might not be better or worse but just a new angle and a new perspective.”
But her approach obviously worked, because the release won the prestigious Gramophone Award for Best Concerto Recording and Recording of the Year in 2017. “One is always surprised by those awards, because you can’t judge beforehand which one will have an award or not,” she said. “It depends on so many things, and, of course, the taste of the people deciding. But when it then happens, it’s a wonderful thing, especially for the CD label, and of course, people get more of an idea of what I’m actually doing.”
No matter what kind of repertoire, Faust brings the same kind of fresh perspective and scholarly inquisitiveness to it as she does in her period-instrument recordings, always trying to get as close to the mind of the composer as possible. “That doesn’t only apply to Mozart or Bach, but it, of course, also applies to Schumann and Brahms, and it also applies to contemporary music.” But such an interpretative bond is obviously much easier with living composers, she said, because it’s possible to talk directly to them about their intent.
Most of Faust’s early career was focused almost exclusively on Europe and Asia. For the decade or so, she has typically come to the United States two or three times a year. She made her first appearance in Chicago in 2003, performing at the Grant Park Music Festival, and she made her recital debut in 2016 with Melnikov as part of the University of Chicago Presents series.
“It’s always wonderful to discover new, wonderful orchestras, and discover new publics and experience their reactions to my view of the music that I’m bringing with me,” she said. “And it’s always wonderful to be in certain incredible cities in the States, and Chicago is one of them.”
TOP: Isabelle Faust will make her CSO debut in concerts May 11-12 and 15. | Photo: Felix Broede