Saturday 25 March 2017

Rediscovering Mendelssohn: Liza Ferschtman talks about her relationship with the violin concerto

Liza Ferschtman (Photo Jonathan Zizzo)
Liza Ferschtman (Photo Jonathan Zizzo)
Until relatively recently the Dutch violinist Liza Ferschtman had no intention of recording the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, what was the use, it was over-recorded and she had been playing the work since she first started learning it when she was 14 or 15. But suddenly this changed, and her new recording of the work coupled with Mendelssohn's Octet, has recently been released on the Challenge Records label (available from Amazon). Liza was in London recently to rehearse for a forthcoming concert with Martin Roscoe. so we met up to chat further about Mendelssohn and more.

Liza's previous discof solo violin music by Biber, Bartok, Berio and Bach (available from Amazon), came out in 2014 so, thinking about repertoire for a new recording, there were many different ideas on the table. She might have had little thought of recording Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, but it is a work that she is requested to perform regularly. In Spring 2016 she played it twice within a month, once in the Netherlands and once in Weimar.

Her relationship to the work had been renewed

Liza Ferschtman (Photo Jonathan Zizzo)
Liza Ferschtman (Photo Jonathan Zizzo)
With any work Liza has an ongoing process of working on the piece, no matter how well she thinks she knows it. Whilst working on Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, Liza felt a weight lifted off her shoulders, affecting the way she could play the piece, the way that it spoke to her. Her relationship to the work had been renewed, and she felt she could approach the work afresh. She was ready to record it. Not that she claims to have a particular new vision of the work, but she felt a strong desire to share what she felt about the work, to convey something of this freshness of approach. 

Liza first learned the work when she was 14 or 15 and she was, of course, heavily influenced by her teachers and her parents (both musicians). The result was that as an adult, though she played the work with a certain amount of pleasure, she did not feel that she had something specific to say. The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto is one of the most easily playable of the major concertos, and it is a common for young people to learn it. So she felt somewhat weighed down by this communal history of the work, and it has taken her 20 years to feel comfortable with it.

She properly paid attention to what is written in the score

Her fresh approach was a part of a longer process of re-appraisal where she properly paid attention to what is written in the score. The facsimile for Mendelssohn's first version of the concerto exists, and by looking at this she feels you can get an idea of his intentions for the final version. She has also been playing a lot of Mendelssohn's chamber music, which made her more familiar with his language.
Liza sees Mendelssohn as being in the middle between Romanticism and Classicism, and she feels that often he gets dragged into Romanticism against his will, and the Classicism in his music does not get the attention it deserves. This brings us back to the music again, and Liza talks about applying the bowing and other markings from Mendelssohn's manuscripts, following his intentions.

The decision to record the disc was made quite quickly. She played the work with Het Gelders Orkest and it seemed that the time was right, so a couple of days after the concert she phoned to see if they had availability. They had, and the decision was made to record the concert with the orchestra and conductor Kees Bakels. Because of the tight timescale, a second concerto coupling was not possible but an all Mendelssohn disc seemed desirable. The idea of the Octet came up as a nice pairing.

Liza is the artistic director of the Delft Chamber Music Festival, so the idea developed of recording the work live at the festival. 2016 was the festival's 20th anniversary and thus opening the festival with Mendelssohn's Octet was perfect. As there was a free public dress rehearsal on the morning of the concert, there was the opportunity to record it twice. The players were all friends with whom she has worked previously in chamber music, and she calls them an incredible bunch of people.

Based in Arnhem in the Netherlands, Het Gelders Orkest is a group with which Liza had performed many times but she had never made a recording with them. She has many friends in the orchestra and a good relationship with them, For the recording it was important to her that she could talk to the orchestra and really request things from them, so that both she and the orchestral players were paying attention to details like articulation, phrasing and transparency in a way not achievable in the short rehearsal period available for a concert.

At first, during the recording she began to have doubts about whether she could bring  to the recording the freshness she felt about the work, but from the second day things really came together.

Delft Chamber Music Festival

Liza has a busy and diverse career, she plays a lot of chamber music and orchestral music, as well as some Baroque, and as artistic director of the Delft Chamber Music Festival is responsible for planning the festival. The festival was set up 21 years ago by the violinist Isabelle van Keulen. This year the opening concert takes place in the atmospheric surroundings of a 16th century building which was lived in by William the Silent, the Museum Prinsenhof Delft

She admits that the festival is a lot of work, it is a nine to ten day event with around 18 concerts (it runs from 27 July to 6 August 2017). Each festival has a theme and this year's theme is Truth, which she feels is very apt in the current world circumstances. She is responsible for putting the programme together, and this year the music will cover the search for truth in music in the early 19th century, reaching for a higher goal, as well as music as a political instrument. 

The dancers as silent chamber music partners

Liza Ferschtman & Leine Roebane in Smell of Bliss
Liza Ferschtman & Leine Roebane in Smell of Bliss
Also coming up, Liza will be performing a dance piece with the modern dance group Leine Roebane. Entitled Smell of Bliss it is a piece she has performed before with the group, involving Liza performing Bach's Second Partita, Bartok's solo violin sonata, music by Ysaye and music with electronics, on stage with the dancers. There is no story line.

Liza agrees that her career is very diverse, but she would not have wanted to miss out on the experience of performing with Leine Roebane. The performances told her so much, as instead of playing solo she suddenly had the dancers as silent chamber music partners. And playing for dance, she had to find a way in the music to make space for the performers. Bartok's solo violin sonata is quite dense, and Liza felt she had to find a way to open it up so it could be a dance. Similarly with Bach's Chaconne from the Second Partita, there was no apparent need for dance so she had to again open up her performance.

She has found the experience very valuable and very special, and it informs her playing even when she is alone without the dancers. Also, it was bringing a style of music to dance audiences that they might not otherwise experience.

She does not regard herself as violin obsessed, but feels she is music obsessed

Both of Liza's parents were musicians, and when I ask whether she always wanted to play the violin she smiles and says that she is very suspicious of her parents, because her father played the cello and her mother the piano, so a daughter playing the violin was perfect. But they say that she chose the violin for herself.  She want to a lot of concerts as a child, and there was a lot of music around with friends of her parents coming to play.

She does not regard the violin as her favourite instrument, that would be the cello or the voice (though she admits she does not have a good singing voice). She feels that the violin is simply her way of getting the music across. She does not regard herself as violin obsessed, but feels she is music obsessed.

Liza Ferschtman will be at Wigmore Hall in December 2017 and will be performing the Bernstein serenade at Cadogan Hall in May 2018.

The Delft Chamber Music Festival runs from 27 July to 6 August 2017.

Liza Ferschtman's recordings
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