“I want to hear what music sounds like, and feel whether it moves or unsettles me”

The violinist Carolin Widmann in conversation

(Photo: Lennard Rühle)

Carolin Widmann is not only considered a great violinist, but also a keen advocate of modern and contemporary music. After having performed several times in Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation concerts – most recently together with Alexander Lonquich and the Auryn Quartet last June – she now appears together with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time. And with Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Violin Concerto, she will perform a work whose creation was influenced by the traumatic events the composer experienced in the Second World War. In this interview, Carolin Widmann reveals what fascinates her about this composition.

Why did you choose this piece for your first appearance in the orchestral concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker?

I was explicitly requested by the orchestra for Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Violin Concerto. I played it a few times many years ago and loved it from the start. To me, Zimmermann’s music is so honest and authentic, and never tries to be anything other than it is. It is often rough and rugged, it battles, and is full of resistance. It makes sense when you realise that Zimmermann, who wrote the piece in Germany in 1950, struggled with his experiences of the Second World War until the end of his life. And the poetry and tenderness of the second movement also show a very different side to this great composer. Again and again there are flashes of the Dies irae theme, the melody of the liturgical requiem mass. A reminder to us humans of someone who, in his life, has looked into the abyss.

What musical and technical challenges are there in this work?
Zimmermann has his own language. For example, in the second movement, there is a melody that is not melodic but meanders, snake-like, around difficult intervals, or performs great leaps. It is important to identify a thread, to know where in this network of themes and instruments I find myself a soloist – sometimes as prima inter pares, sometimes all alone, sometimes only in the background. Such things are much more complex in this violin concerto than in many others. Should the solo violin caress the Dies irae theme or work counter to it? The reading of this piece leaves many interpretations open. For example, in the third movement I want to make the rumba understandable; but despite everything, it remains a German rumba, almost apocalyptic. The South American joie de vivre remains a fiction. In the first movement, the crucial element is rhythm: precise and sharp, inexorable, also marked in the orchestra again and again with “molto staccatissimo”, e.g. in the trombones and the orchestral piano. In the second movement, Zimmermann often writes “rubato”, “molto rubato” – this is where I look for freedom, which should never be predictable. A tightrope walk, like the whole piece.

You grew up with a composer brother, Jörg Widmann, who today is one of the leading composers of our time. How did that affect your understanding of new music?
Because Jörg is my brother, I have never regarded composers as people who have to be dead. I don’t see “new music” as a foreign body or as a contrast to “classical music”. I recently premiered Jörg’s new Violin Concerto in Tokyo and again enjoyed being able to ask the composer questions! This really is a privilege that I very much enjoy when I play pieces by living composers. And if it’s a family member, so much the better!

Many concertgoers find it difficult to get involved in new music. What advice do you have for a listener who hears Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s concerto for the first time?
Is Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s concerto “new music”? From 1950? So is Picasso also “new painting”? Are Oscar Niemeyer’s buildings “new buildings”? Even these categorisations are very difficult for me. Are these classifications really helping us to receive art or to enjoy it more – or less? For me, listening without prejudice is becoming more and more important. I want to hear what music sounds like, and feel whether it moves or unsettles me, what it tells me and how it is told. That is the essence of music enjoyment in my opinion. When it comes down to it, “new music” is really just music. The fact that the Zimmermann Violin Concerto is perhaps not played every day on Klassik Radio doesn’t make it qualitatively better or worse!

What are you most looking forward to about your debut with the Philharmoniker?
I’m looking forward to having the chance to play Zimmermann’s wonderful Violin Concerto in this great concert hall with this wonderful orchestra and François-Xavier Roth. For me personally, this combination of factors closes very, very many circles and I am infinitely grateful for this opportunity.