“Pure joy”

Frank Peter Zimmermann on Bohuslav Martinů’s Violin Concerto No. 1

Frank Peter Zimmermann
(Photo: Irène Zandel)

Since his debut at the Waldbühne concert in 1985, the violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann has been a frequent and regular guest artist with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Over the years, he has played all the major violin concertos with the orchestra. But not only that: he also performed less well-known works from the repertoire, rarities that rightly deserve to be rediscovered. This season, under the direction of Jakub Hrůša, he plays Bohuslav Martinů’s First Violin Concerto. In our interview, Frank Peter Zimmermann talks about the beauties and challenges of the work.

Martinů is one of the great composers of the 20th century. Why are his violin concertos so rarely performed?

Martinů has a very unique musical language. His music cannot be pigeonholed because it is so changeable: sometimes impressionistic, sometimes expressive, sometimes percussive, then again very song-like and lyrical. It defies any stylistic classification. Add to that the Czech idiom of Martinů’s music. These Bohemian dance rhythms with their intricate metric shifts! They are difficult to execute.

You already performed Martinů’s Second Violin Concerto with the Philharmoniker in 2012. Now you are going to play the First. What are the differences between the two works?

The Second Violin Concerto is in the tradition of the great Romantic concerto. Martinů wrote it in American exile in 1943 for Mischa Elman, a violinist of the old school. On the other hand, the First Concerto, which was composed ten years earlier in Paris, is quite different: Martinů was studying the works of Igor Stravinsky at that time, and the influence of the Russian composer is particularly noticeable in the two outer movements of the concerto, especially as the piece was written for a particular violinist who worked closely and often with Stravinsky: Samuel Dushkin who, among other things, played the world premiere of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. In addition, Martinů was exploring the Baroque form of the Concerto grosso at the time, which is also reflected in the composition of the concerto.

How much do you notice that the piece was written for Samuel Dushkin? Are there any passages that are typical of his playing?

Dushkin and Martinů had a lively exchange of views. However, the violinist was not easy to satisfy, as he wanted his part to be very virtuosic. So the three-part chord passages are down to him. To make this sound, you have to press the bow very hard on the violin. To my mind, it's almost a “rape” of the instrument. And then there are many fourth intervals and extremely wide leaps up to the 13th or 14th position. To hit the note cleanly is almost like winning the lottery. (laughs) I think these interval leaps were also Dushkin’s idea. By the way, Dushkin never played the concerto. The score was lost and reappeared only decades later. The concerto wasn’t premiered until 1973 by Josef Suk.

Martinů was a professional violinist himself. How did this fact influence the composition of his Violin Concerto?

That’s the beauty of it! You can sense immediately that this work was composed by a violinist. Despite all its difficulties, it is very much conceived for the violin. It is a pure joy to play this piece

What do you love most about this concerto? What are the challenges for you?

I heard the piece as a 13-year-old with Josef Suk as the soloist and was immediately captivated by it. This irrepressible, melodiously bohemian musicality which the piece possesses is simply enchanting. And that’s the challenge for us performers. Everyone, whether soloist, conductor or orchestra musician, has to have internalised the complicated rhythm with its metric shifts inspired by Czech dance music. There are places where there is a risk that the whole thing will fall apart. I have worked out these positions very pragmatically with the metronome.

How does the interplay between soloist and orchestra develop in this concert?

The orchestral playing has to be light and transparent. The concerto should almost be treated like a Baroque piece.

What are you most looking forward to in the performance of the work?

Performing with the Berliner Philharmoniker is always a highlight of the season for me. It makes me proud and happy to perform a work that we have not played together before, and that the orchestra performed only once in 1980 with Josef Suk as the soloist.