Isabelle Faust

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As the German violinist makes her Proms debut, she tells us why she loves playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto
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How does it feel to be making your Proms debut this year?
Exciting! I’ve never been to any Proms so I only hear from colleagues and friends that it’s an incredible experience to play in a huge hall in front of this fantastic and very special public. I will be curious as some people tell me it’s so huge that one shouldn’t even try to fill the whole hall, and others tell me that there’s such an atmosphere that people come towards you so you don’t need to. It’ll be something new to discover.

And you’ll be performing Mendelssohn’s ever-popular Violin Concerto. What do you think the secret of its success is?
It’s one of those strokes of genius that Mendelssohn had, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the Fourth Symphony. Some of his pieces are so perfect from the first to the last note that you can’t imagine any note different from what he wrote. If you look at Mendelssohn’s whole oevure it’s clear which pieces everybody knows. For example, if you go to Japan, and they want a really popular piece it’s not the Beethoven Violin Concerto or the Brahms they want but the Mendelssohn. But other pieces like the string quintets, which are absolutely beautiful, are still not well known and need some help.

I’m generally much drawn to Mendelssohn’s character anyway, there's this very light, youthful and elfin atmosphere in his music. It’s always heading towards the sky. His music is clear and sunny, but at the same time nostalgic. And also virtuosic, like in the last movement of the Violin Concerto. This piece has so many different aspects unified in the most ideal way.

So do you have a favourite moment?
The transition from the first to the second movement is absolutely fantastic, and I also very much like the moment before the cadenza in the first movement… and then all the rest, because it’s so perfect! It’s really special – the violin is like a bird flying through the whole piece.

Do you remember the first time you performed it?
Yes, I do. I was something like 15 years old when I played it for the first time with an amateur orchestra in Israel. After I won the Leopold Mozart competition I met this amateur conductor. He invited me to play all the major concertos for the first time before going on a big stage – so that was [where I performed] my first Mendelssohn, my first Beethoven and also my first Brahms concertos. I will always be grateful for those performances!

Making such well-known concertos sound fresh must be quite a challenge…
Yes, in a way it’s a pity that the Mendelssohn is so well known because it’s sometimes difficult to hear with fresh ears. For the public, with pieces like the Mendelssohn, they have – I don’t know how many – interpretations on CD at home, and they have their favourites. The other day I played the Beethoven Concerto and when I went out to listen to the following symphony one member of the public immediately told me about his favourite Menuhin recording of the Beethoven. He couldn’t listen to what was actually happening in the hall in that moment on that day with another violinist.

And for me it’s hard as I’ve been playing the piece for many years, and it’s my task to find new aspects and to re-question all I’ve been doing. A lot of things can become routine. I’ve been helped a lot by my recent experience playing with historically informed ensembles, and trying to get back to the composer’s text. And I’ve started on gut strings now, which is completely different. I don’t think it has to be on gut strings to be more true, but it does open other windows and the more questions there are, the more you start to rethink.

Interview by Rebecca Franks

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