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Sometimes the Beauty Isn't So Obvious - Interview with Violinist Carolin Widmann, Part 2

This continues the interview with Carolin Widmann.

Widmann and I touch on the definition of ‘entertainment’ having morphed to meaning “no effort involved” and about the existence (or lack) of a vocabulary that might make it more difficult to listen to contemporary music. But if the greatest challenge for modernity in music is the unfamiliarity of the vocabulary, why is modernity in painting such a hit? Why do entire families cue up to see a Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, or Andy Warhol exhibit? The latter, we reason, has to do with the “patience” of paintings and the intense concentration necessary to follow a temporal art like music.

Widmann also suggests that the experience of the Second World War has something to do with it. The increasing academicism in composing, a shift in listening habits, the rejection of everything “romantic,” especially in German-speaking countries. “Not in English-speaking countries so much, but John Adams would not have been possible here.” The only American modern composer accepted as avant-garde in Europe is Elliot Carter (with the possible exceptions of John Cage and Morton Feldman). And even his music, we agree, is much more “smiling” music than Boulez. “John Corigliano” she says, “—I am sorry—could not make a living in Germany.

“I learned a lot recently when I played a new piece by Esa-Pekka Salonen, “Lachen verlernt”, for solo violin. I have to be honest; in the beginning I was quite skeptical because with my brother being a composer and Boulez and Nono early heroes of mine, I grew up in this ‘hard-core’ tradition—and there comes this Salonen, this very simple, Californian ‘feel-good’ music. And I liked it actually. I was ashamed, but I liked it and there was something very techno-like about it. And then I met him and he said, ‘You know, when I was in Finland, everything was brainy, everything was cerebral, and then I came to America and learned that people listen with their bellies, not just their brains.’ I really learned a lot from that.”

From having a composer-brother, meanwhile, she learned that “the composer” isn’t a saint, that he’s a person you can talk to (in the case of contemporary composers), and a score not necessarily sacrosanct. “My brother would be the first to change a note if it is uncomfortable, or he might say ‘No, it has to be just that harmony.’ And that’s also an approach I am beginning to take to the great masters, which takes away a bit of that ‘total distance.’ Zealous Texttreue can get in the way—there are so many freedoms, perfectly within the score, that we never take.” With some liberties taken, it might be easy to disagree with an interpretation, but it can also make it easy to fall in love with. When we ask anew what it means to write a certain phrase like that, rather than reproducing that which we know because we’ve heard it done that way a thousand times, you might come up with really interesting, new answers.

Speaking of Carter (“not even in the same category as Adams”), Widmann isn’t afraid of using the word “great.” She is equally ardent about the lamentable, populist disdain on alleged elitism as she is critical about the “ghettoization” of modern music that takes place in—usually highly subsidized—specialist events that present only contemporary works.

“That’s why the Schumann (her debut recording of the three Schumann sonatas for ECM) had to come out now, so that people don’t even think I’m interested only in modern music—before I’m pigeonholed. I love to play the Brahms and Beethoven concertos, for example.”

“Absolutely, entirely” is her take on these concertos informed by her work with modern pieces. “Because I can see the modernity in these works so much, in a way that people who will only listen to a Mozart symphony probably cannot. And that contributes to a much leaner, less cluttered approach. Because modern works are ‘all new notes’ to me, in the beginning, I can take Beethoven on the same way, too. So I am much more ready to ask myself ‘what does it mean if this concerto opens with octaves that go up, up. Hindemith and Janáček and Ysaÿe open your mind.

“Although,” she continues, “it is really important to say that sometimes I have trouble with modern music too. The audience is not the only one. Sometimes when we rehearse—like Kurtag’s Kafka Fragmente—it’s difficult, because there is not one harmony that sounds soothing to us; it’s painful. And you have to credit the audience finding it painful. It often takes a lot of time and exposure. Sometimes the beauty is not as obvious.”

Finally we get to the raison d’entrevue, her Schumann recording that made me seek out the meeting with her in the first place. Why Schumann? “For one, because I feel extremely close to the music, an extreme kinship with Schumann’s music, with the improvising, with the storytelling, the fairy-tale characters that come and go. Another reason was that the Third Sonata is so neglected and I want to show that it’s not weaker than the others. I want to show the development of the very late Schumann and ultimately get into his mind, which, at that point, was deteriorating—with the music getting so very desperate. In the beginning of the Third Sonata, especially, there’s just nothing to hold onto anymore—and you can feel that in the music.”

Since recording is different from performing, because there’s the added element of competition that goes beyond “just” playing it well and having something to say, does that also mean she approaches Schumann differently in the recording studio than she would live? Widmann isn’t sure, but knows comparison was certainly not on her mind. “I can’t think of the market when I record. I have to burn for it, and in this case I really felt that fire. No matter who has recorded it. I mean, Argerich and Kremer recorded them, of course, but it will always be the case that someone amazing has recorded something I like. But I thought that I had to say something with this; moreover, I needed to say something with this and that’s why it had to be that way.”

Just the mention of the Second Sonata’s slow movement makes her chuckle because she knows which question is coming. The opening is marked pizzicato. But what you hear on her recording doesn’t remotely sound like a regular old pizzicato. In places, it sounds more like a breathy spiccato. Just what exactly is going on there? “My students always say I have a pizzicato-fetish” she sniggers, “because I find it so sad that people switch the music off when they see a ‘pizzicato’ in the score. Perhaps because they don’t realize what you can do with that. I use different fingers, I use different directions, I like to experiment with that. You use your hands, of course, but you also have to use love and try to make the most beautiful music you can make. I hear how a guitar can sound and I am inspired by that so I try several techniques. And when we played that movement as it ended up on the CD—in one take, almost without any editing—we weren’t aware that it was being recorded. We came back after dinner and thought, ‘Let’s just play a bit, improvising,’ in one of those moods you cannot recreate. For me, that was the most ideal state that I could get into concerning music in that studio in Lugano, two years ago. For me that was as close as I can get to paradise. Which you’d never expect from any recording.”

return to Part I --- Part II

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