featured article in The Guardian, February 2016
Patricia Kopatchinskaja: We all need madness in our worlds

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Why & How
by Patricia Kopatchinskaja

Why is one a musician?
Every story is different. In my case I was probably never asked if I wanted to be a musician. Both my parents are musicians and me showing some early violinistic talent I was just offered a professional education first in Moldova, later in Vienna. And so I try to make the best out of it.

I was also strongly attracted by composition which I studied with Prof. Eröd in Vienna. Composition had a radical influence on my way of experiencing and dealing with music. Contemporary music is the air I breathe. Composers are the musicians I feel most at ease with. I like to try out, discuss and play new pieces, preferably while the ink is still wet and no "experts" or rigid traditions impede freedom.

Composition and contemporary music influence my approach to older music. Also in "classical" music I feel compelled to dissect and reveal the construction and development of the pieces. To me an interpretation should show how the music created itself in the composers imagination, - with astonishment, colours, joy and sadness, pleasure and anxiety and of course with many surprises. Ideally one should get the impression of a first performance. Whence my conviction that Beethoven and the other classics should really be reinvented as modern music.

But is this not against the teachings of historical perfomance? I am the first to appreciate the importance of historical research, beginning with the book on Bach by jungle-doctor Albert Schweitzer up to the work of Stowell, Harnoncourt, Norrington and Herreweghe. Manuscripts can tell us a lot: e.g. after having seen Beethovens manuscript my attitude to the violin concerto became quite improvisatory. From all this we can learn what might have happened in the imagination of the composers and how to translate it in an authentic performance. And of course the historical recordings of Ysaye, Sarasate, Hubermann, Adolf Busch, Georges Enescu, Edwin Fischer, Maria Yudina and many others are an everlasting source of joy and inspiration.

I feel however that a historically informed perfomance is not enough in itself. These are some arguments:
  • The idea of historical performance is often a contradiction in itself. In the Baroque and classical periods the only thing that was almost never played were historical pieces. People were curious, wanted new stuff. Todays lack of interest relative to modern music is a disturbing sign of a declining culture and civilisation.
  • Our audiences are not historical anymore. They have been educated (or spoiled) by Oscar Peterson, Glenn Gould, Elvis Presley, Gianna Nannini, the Stones, the Smashing Pumpkins, by world-music and the muzak and noises of modern cities. Anyway experienced concert goers know all the classical stuff already beforehand, partly because of the record industry. We will not reach modern ears and imaginations with the mostly polished, polite and predictable mechanical reproductions that the record industry wants to sell us as music. Following Diaghilevs famous phrase "étonnez-moi!" ("astonish me!") we have to find out what matters here and now for this public to create a "sensation",
  • Works of the past may have been meant and understood differently in their times: Witnesses of Vivaldis performances were astonished by his daring virtuosity. Beethovens Kreutzer sonata shocked contemporaries as "aesthetic and artistic terrorism". Brahms composed his c-minor piano quartet with Goethes Werther and his own unhappy love in mind. Hartmanns concerto funebre was an outcry against the barbarism of the nazis. A really "historical" performance must reveal how Vivaldi could be daring, Beethoven terroristic, Brahms suffering or Hartmanns concerto an outcry.
  • Contemporary music helps to present older music. University teachers may present classical stuff (Newton, Darwin, Einstein) but they are expected to do forward looking research and to teach in a contemporary context. Its the same with music. Performance without contemporary context becomes meaningless repetition.
  • Interpretations should never be the same, there are many influences, e.g. the acoustics of the hall, mood and weather, "Zeitgeist" or the genius loci. Mozart can be played more freely in Amsterdam than in Salzburg. And again differently in the irreal white nights of Finnish Kuhmo.
  • Music should be fun sometimes. The historical Georg Philipp Telemann put it in verse:

    Nein, nein es ist nicht g'nug dass nur die Noten klingen
    Dass Du der Regeln Kram zu Marckte weist zu bringen.
    Gieb jedem Instrument das was es leyden kann.
    So hat der Spieler Lust, Du hast Vergnügen dran.

    No, no, its not enough to make the notes sound
    Not enough to bring the old rules to market.
    Give each instrument what it likes
    Then the player will enjoy and you will too.

    Keeping that in mind even a simple Telemann Fantasy for violin solo can become very funny for player and public alike.
  • Last but not least an interpretation is a personal encounter of an interpreter with a work of art, as Casals said. This is a very private affair, nobody can tell you how to do it. One must follow his own vision. Anything else would be a lie, according to Casals.

Some people ask why I play from notes. Yes, I need the music before my eyes while playing to get full experimental freedom. I want to ask the text what he tells us in just this moment. This can be surprising and even disconcerting and one can indeed get lost. So I prefer to have the music at hand. The alternative would be to learn one rigid version of the piece by heart and play accordingly. But I'm not a CD-player.

Others ask why I play sometimes barefooted: Could be that I just forgot to pack my concert shoes. But sometimes it really feels better to have direct contact with the earth. One needs a stable stance to reach for the stars...

Hope to see you in an upcoming concert soon and sincerely

Patricia Kopatchinskaja