At Last San Francisco: Isabelle Faust

Jeff Kaliss on May 28, 2012
Isabelle Faust
Isabelle Faust

It’s hard to believe it’ll be the first visit to San Francisco by the Berlin-based violinist Isabelle Faust, whose elegant and informed recordings across three centuries of the classical repertoire have no doubt put her in heavy rotation on CD and MP3 players, as well as radio, all over the Bay Area. One of her latest outings, on Harmonia Mundi (2009), partnered her with the Russian-born pianist Alexander Melnikov in a revealing reading of all of Beethoven’s sonatas for violin and piano, four of which the pair will present at Herbst Theatre this Wednesday, under the auspices of San Francisco Performances. Faust is also a favored soloist with orchestras in Europe, England, and the U.S., as well as with chamber groups, and has championed contemporary composers, several of whom have dedicated works to her. She spoke with SFCV from her home, a day after performing Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic, under Claudio Abbado.

Is Berlin a good place to work?

Yes, especially being an artist. It’s of course full of wonderful colleagues passing by in the Philharmonie, that wonderful concert hall. And we have fantastic orchestras, not only the Philharmonic, but also the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, and a lot of opera houses. So there’s a lot of inspiration, but also a town where one can take life very easy. It’s a town full of green, full of lakes, so whenever I come home and feel I have to get some air in my head, it’s 10 minutes by bike to the next forest. I’m up on the fourth floor of an old building, and when I enter my door, it’s like I’m coming back to my island. It’s so calm, almost like in a village.

Who shares your place?

My husband and my son, Antoine. He’s 14.

Is he a musician?

He’s playing the piano, very nicely. He has an artist’s soul. [Chuckles]

Are there places to hang with your colleagues?

Ja, of course. We have favorite restaurants, especially after listening to a concert at the Philharmonie, and lots of nice places where one can have coffee and homemade cakes. You will not die of hunger.

I’d like to look back in your life, to when you had your first string quartet. You were 11, even younger than Antoine.

That was in Stuttgart, where I grew up. That was my father’s brilliant idea. It was even more unusual than now that young kids would get together and try to do chamber music. My brother Boris also played in this, the viola part. And the parents had a very important role to play, driving everybody from one rehearsal to the other. We played for five years, every weekend rehearsals and lessons and competitions, national and international, and we started, slowly, to play little concerts. At age 15, we stopped with that. I wanted to make an impression with my solo playing, [to learn] where I actually stood internationally. So I went to participate in this Leopold Mozart Competition in Augsburg, and I was so lucky, I won it right away. So that opened a new chapter in my musical life.

What did you play for the competition?

Of course a Mozart sonata and concerto, but also Bach, I think Schubert, Paganini caprices, and the Bartók solo sonata.

Then you got to perform Dvořák, under Yehudi Menuhin. You were still 15.

That was right after the competition. One of the jury members was playing with the Hamburg Philharmonic, and they were looking for a soloist, so he recommended me.

Was it special, performing under the baton of a violinist?

Especially if you play the standard repertoire, you can see that the conductor knows every little corner, and whether technical difficulties require a bit of attentive conducting. I had that same experience with Joseph Silverstein, and it was always like playing in a Rolls-Royce, because his knowledge of the difficulties and tendencies of natural violin playing was so high.

Does working under another violinist also challenge you?

It depends on the character of the violinist. Someone like Sir Yehudi Menuhin would just be so supportive, very fatherlike; he just wanted to enjoy young people who had this talent. Joseph Silverstein I also played a lot of chamber music with, and he was always ready to show his fingerings and bowings and technical stuff; it was always very helpful.

In your bio material, the word “dialogue” reappears, and it’s traced back to your teacher Christoph Poppen.

Like myself, he came directly from the string quartet experience. He had been the primarius for many years of the Cherubini Quartet, and the willingness to listen to each other in the inner structure of a chamber piece was important to him, as it is to me. I also don’t understand how you can play as a soloist, even with the tutti players of an orchestra, without trying to find some kind of dialogue. But of course it’s easier if you play with smaller orchestras who have players to the last music stand who’ll die for what they do, and who really listen very carefully. Thank God there are orchestras like that!

For the Beethoven sonatas, you’ve pared it down to dialogue with one other player. What makes [her pianist] Alexander Melnikov so special?

It’s fantastic to have a pianist who’s so curious and incredibly talented, and technically, nobody can do better than what he can do when he’s having a good day. He will always be trying to integrate his playing into the violin phase, and the other way round, so we really try to be a duo that doesn’t just play along with each other, but we try to find a very homogenous sound. Which is not easy between a violin and a piano, because those are very different and contrary instruments. Sasha is also very experienced in fortepiano playing, and we’re both interested in that — historically informed playing. We’re doing more and more with those kinds of ensembles. I’m playing quite often with Franz Brüggen’s orchestra, and with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.

With Sasha and the others, what’s it like for you to take your violin from the Baroque all the way up into the modern?

I don’t understand how you can play as a soloist, even with the tutti players of an orchestra, without trying to find some kind of dialogue.There are an awful lot of things you don’t do in Baroque, and vice versa. Contemporary stuff very often demands a different way of touching the violin with the bow. Sometimes you have to do very odd things, like knock on your violin, or sing along while you’re playing. And, of course, the Baroque ways are something you have to study very, very carefully. It’s full of rules which are not actually written down in the music, so you have to go and study the books by [Johann Joachim] Quantz or Leopold Mozart [Wolfgang’s father], to find out how people understood the symbolic way of writing at that time. Of course, you’re using a different bow, and different strings, which don’t allow a harsh way of playing. And the violin needs a certain amount of time to adjust to those things, and sometimes it has to be done very quickly, because the one concert is this way, and the next one already the other way.

And you’re putting your “Sleeping Beauty” Stradivarius through all that.

Yes. Poor violin.

How did the violin get that nickname?

Because it was forgotten about for 150 years, in a family where at some point nobody played the violin anymore, and they put it in the attic. Then they found it again, around 1900. During the Second World War, it went to Switzerland, in a safe. I got it when it was on sale, but it was almost like a new violin. It had been played very little before me, so it really felt almost like a modern instrument, which needed to be played for years so it can open up. It took me six years to make it “sound” freely, and to make it bloom again.

How does “Sleeping Beauty” feel about the changes of repertoire and equipment?

It depends a lot on the weather. It may need more time, but I don’t give it, or the concert schedule doesn’t give it. But mostly, it’s absolutely OK; it’s a really good colleague.

You’re bringing us four of the 10 Beethoven sonatas that you and Sasha recorded. You talk some about the sonatas on the DVD that came with the set, but tell us a bit about them here.

When we recorded them, there were some we knew quite well, and some we’d never played. Like the Spring Sonata; we’d played it, separately, when we were kids, but hadn’t touched it for a long time, so it was a rediscovery. Even if Beethoven wrote them over a limited period of time (compared to the piano sonatas, which go like a diary through his whole life), there’s a clear development to be seen, and every sonata is different, starting from a more Mozartean view of the sonata, with more weight on the piano part, in the Opus 12. It’s the piano starting the theme every time.

Then, in the Spring Sonata [Op. 24, No. 5], the violin has for the first time the tune to be proposed to the public before the piano does it, so that’s a big change. The violin takes more and more importance, and we come up to the Kreutzer Sonata [Op. 47, No. 9], where it’s competing with the piano part, and it’s meant to be a sonata concertistica. It has nothing to with the Opus 12 anymore.

That No. 10 is probably the most beautiful of all. The first movement is not of this world anymore.

It’s very beautiful, also, to see the ones that are in one opus, like the Opus 12 and 30, and also 23 and 24, which were supposed to be one opus; it was the mistake of the publisher. In each opus, they are clearly seen as a little cycle, and they really need to be played in concerts next to each other. And they have very clear characteristics, in their atmosphere, in their humor. We never can get enough of them, and there’s not one which is less good than any other.

The Opus 30, A Major, is one of our favorites, which is unfortunately not heard so often. And it’s also not so much liked by the public, as we can see, unfortunately, when we play it. At first we thought it was our fault. [Chuckles] But now we love it and know it really well. It’s not always understood right away.

What about the one you’ll be performing here but haven’t referenced yet, the G-major, Opus 96, which you also played on the DVD?

Well, that No. 10 is probably the most beautiful of all. The first movement is not of this world anymore; it starts so transcendent, in a dream, and it’s leading into a different kind of Beethoven already.

Are you bringing the “Sleeping Beauty” Strad to San Francisco?

Of course! She also wants to see the city. I hear that Sasha has been there, not so long ago. [With San Francisco Performances in November 2011, he played a program of Shostakovich preludes and fugues.] And he told me it’s fantastic!

What else do you want to do while you’re here?

A friend of mine recommended, a little bit outside of San Francisco, there seems to be an incredible, beautiful place, with a lot of very special trees, where you can walk around.

Of course, because you’re a forest person. You’re probably talking about Muir Woods.

Ja, I’m sure that’s the one. And, of course, San Francisco itself. Vertigo, by Alfred Hitchcock, is placed in San Francisco, isn’t it?

Yes, though it wasn’t the only film Hitchcock made in this area. It has a very good soundtrack, too, by Bernard Herrmann.

I’ve seen Vertigo many times. But I saw it again just two days ago, and I said, “OK, you’re going there!” [Giggles]

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