Frank Peter Zimmermann

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After 18 years the German violinist has returned to the Sibelius Violin Concerto. He tells us why

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This is the second recording you’ve made of the Sibelius Violin Concerto – why did you decide to revisit this masterpiece on disc?

It was very spontaneous. I recorded the Sibelius with Mariss Jansons and the Philharmonia in 1991, and then decided not to play it for a couple of years. And then that became 18 years. There were so many other things I was interested to learn, and also there are so many great recordings of it. But then I decided to do it again, and two weeks before the concert I called the director of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and asked to record it. And it worked out. We were all very pleased, and I hope the second recording can prove I improved a little!

How do you feel your interpretation of the Concerto changed?

After 18 years I had to learn this like a new piece – it was completely gone from my hands, my brain, everything. And I had become a real Sibelius freak, especially loving his symphonic music. I had a different violin, new ideas, and I bought a new score and a new violin part. The main difference was that I made no compromises – I tried to think more of the symphonic, musical side rather than how to play it comfortably. I took all the risks.

The last movement is only possible if you can play it three or eight times as slow without making a mistake. Nowadays I aim to learn a new concerto slowly; 20 years ago I wouldn't have been patient enough to do this. 

What difference does changing violins make?

I’ve played this Stradivarius since 2001. It’s one of the Kreisler Stradivarius violins. Fritz Kreisler had a collection of six or seven violins during his long life and he mostly played on the Del Gesù. This one he had for almost 20 years, though I don't think he ever played the Sibelius on it.

Since I’ve had this violin I've had to rethink every piece of music – it forces me to play the way it wants. This violin has an incredible range of colours, and you can express moods like a singer. You can be R Strauss's Elektra on one hand, a wonderful Mozart singer on the other. Of course you need to know how to play it. I remember when I was 24 I played for Nathan Milstein and he said he needed five years to know how to play his violin. I went through the same process.

What informs your interpretation – are you an analytical performer foremost, or do you like to immerse yourself in colourful life stories?

It’s both. I analyse the piece and I live with the composer. At the moment I’m restarting the Schumann Violin Concerto after 10 years not playing it, and I’ve read lots of new biographies. For example, there’s this theory that Schumann wasn’t mentally ill, just a heavy drinker. There are thousands of things that I try to get in to my brain and system when learning a piece. With the Sibelius, the Jascha Heifetz 1935 recording with Sir John Barbirolli is the best recording ever done, and that was the first ever done. Of course I don't sound like Heifetz, but I try to make my Zimmermann stamp on top of this piece.

Interview by Rebecca Franks

Frank Peter Zimmermann is performing the Szymanowski Violin Concerto with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in Edinburgh (12 November) and Glasgow (13 November)

Related links:

CD Review: Sibelius Violin Concerto from Frank Peter Zimmermann
CD Review: Dvorak and Glazunov Violin Concertos from Frank Peter Zimmermann
CD Review: Ysaye Sonatas from Frank Peter Zimmermann