“I lose a part of my soul in this piece”

The violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann in conversation

Frank Peter Zimmermann
(Photo: Iréne Zandel)

Violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time at the age of 19 – and took the orchestra, audience and press by storm with his soulful tone and captivating artistry. Since then, the musician has been one of the Philharmoniker’s highly esteemed artistic friends. This season, Frank Peter Zimmermann appears for the first time with chief conductor Kirill Petrenko – as the soloist in Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto. In our interview, he reveals what this piece means to him, why he loves working with the orchestra so much, and why he never wanted to become anything other than a violinist.

What motivated you to become a professional musician?
I come from a family of musicians – my parents were string players – so I grew up with classical music. My mother loved listening to the recordings of Maria Callas, my father to the violinist Leonid Kogan, and every Sunday we would meet to play string quartets. I was actually supposed to learn the piano because my grandfather bought an instrument for me. But I wasn’t interested. I always wanted to play the violin and knew early on that this would become my profession: “I want to become a world famous violinist,” I wrote in my school notebook when I was six years old.

What do you love most about your instrument?
The violin is my instrument. Its multifaceted sound allows me to express myself. I like to lead all others with it as the upper voice. It also has an extensive, interesting and technically demanding repertoire.

Which artists and composers have inspired you most?
My “violin gods” include David Oistrach, Nathan Milstein and Arthur Grumiaux, who – in my opinion – had such a special “perfume” in his sound, plus Jascha Heifetz and Itzhak Perlman. These violinists are characterised by their unmistakable personal style. Among composers, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven are my guiding stars.

This season, you will perform Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto with the Berliner Philharmoniker. What do you want to express in this work, and what is the challenge of the piece?
I have played this work many times. Together with the Beethoven concerto, it is my musical calling card. Arranged by Berg in a chamber music style, it requires an intensive interplay between soloist and orchestra. It is a very touching piece. A requiem for a girl who died young, whose life, death and transfiguration are described in a musically very evocative way. When I play this piece, I live through the fate of this girl and afterwards I have the feeling of having lost a part of my soul.

What do you like about working with the Berliner Philharmoniker?
I have been working with the orchestra since 1985. Our relationship is very close and relaxed, because I have known the musicians for years. I like their very special, individual way of making music. I experience the most intensive week of the year with the Philharmoniker and our concerts together are the highlight of the season for me.

This season you will present all of Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas with pianist Martin Helmchen. What do you love about Beethoven?
In my opinion, the ten Violin Sonatas by Beethoven are the New Testament for the violin – despite the very virtuoso piano part. It is fascinating to follow how the violin becomes more and more independent from sonata to sonata. Each one is a challenge in itself and makes new demands on the performer. As a player, you cannot make any compromises. It is just a pity that Beethoven stopped composing violin sonatas before entering his late phase. Only the Tenth, which is very intimate and lyrical, is already heading towards the late work in its final movement of variations. The more I study the sonatas, the deeper insights I gain. As a violinist I am very grateful to Beethoven for these works.