Facets of an Artist

The Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna dedicates a portrait to Isabelle Faust, in which the German violinist presents herself in a highly multifaceted way in five programmes: as a soloist with orchestras of modern and historical practice, as a chamber musician, in a concerto for violin and voice and in a solo recital with the baroque violin.

“Isabelle Faust captivates her audience with her sovereign interpretations. She approaches each work with the utmost respect and understanding of its music-historical context and the historically appropriate instruments. She complements the greatest possible fidelity to the work with a fine sense of the necessity of encountering a composition from the present. In this way, she succeeds in exploring a wide variety of works equally deeply and making them accessible to a broad audience through the intensity of her playing.”

These weighty words at the beginning of Isabelle Faust’s official artist biography can be confidently put on the scales. The German violinist outweighs them with her art, regardless of whether she premiered Thomas Larcher’s Violin Concerto with the ORF RSO Vienna – for example using past performances at the Musikverein – in a concert with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra for Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, played Strauss’s “Metamorphoses” in memoriam with other colleagues closely associated with the maestro at the memorial service, or recently performed Strauss’s “Metamorphoses” in memoriam with other colleagues closely associated with the maestro, or recently performed a chamber music recital with Christian Gerhaher.

“The Sinfonia concertante simply makes my heart beat faster.”

Isabelle Faust on Mozart’s masterpiece for violin, viola and orchestra

Of course, this is only possible in an artistic career that is built on solid foundations. “I’ve been very lucky,” Isabelle Faust said in an earlier conversation. “Several factors came together: firstly, extremely intelligent parents who didn’t put any nonsense into my head, who also pushed for me to finish my high school diploma, who believed in my qualities, but also made it clear to me that talent alone is not enough, but that regularity and discipline are absolutely the be-all and end-all.” Then, of course, “the right teachers” and her children’s string quartet with her brother as violist, with two other boys. Rehearsals and lessons took place every weekend, initially with the first violinist of the Bartholdy Quartet, who lived in the same town near Stuttgart as the Faust family, later with the Melos Quartet and in master classes with the LaSalle Quartet. Competition prizes brought her first concerts and travels – impressive experiences that showed Isabelle Faust the way forward. At the age of 15, after the dissolution of the string quartet, she faced international competition at the Leopold Mozart Competition in Augsburg for her own orientation – and won. “This unexpected success presented me with opportunities as a soloist and opened doors that were completely new to me,” the violinist recalls. With Christoph Poppen as her teacher, she began to build up her solo repertoire “slowly and thoroughly”.

Chamber music has always remained an important part of Isabelle Faust’s international concert activities, parallel to her solo engagements. The pianist Alexander Melnikov, with whom she gives many of her sonata recitals, and the cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, who expands the duo into a trio, have become long-standing partners. Chamber music in piano trio formation is also one of the five programs that Isabelle Faust plays in her portrait concerts at the Musikverein. For the piano trios op. 66 by Mendelssohn and D 929 by Schubert, she once again invites Alexander Melnikov, the violoncello part will be taken over by the internationally acclaimed Sol Gabetta – as a special guest, so to speak. Several exhilarating musical encounters already connect Isabelle Faust with the Argentinean, and Alexander Melnikov has also given concerts with Sol Gabetta. The three performers in the trio are a premiere at the Musikverein, which Isabelle Faust looks forward to with joy.

Among her regular partners, Isabelle Faust also counts the conductor who conducts her portrait concerts at the podium of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in November: Philippe Herreweghe. “We like each other very much,” is how Isabelle Faust describes her close artistic association with the Flemish master of sound speech. Accordingly, she is delighted to present a work with Philippe Herreweghe that has accompanied her for a long time: the Violin Concerto by Antonín Dvořák. “It was one of my very first violin concertos,” says Isabelle Faust. “I learned the last movement when I was eleven or twelve years old for ‘Jugend musiziert’.” She has always had a soft spot for Dvořák. “These Slavic melodies, also this light that he makes shine so beautifully, that has always fascinated me. Dvořák makes something resonate in me that goes far beyond the intellectual.”

The Dvořák Concerto with Philippe Herreweghe and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra will be played by Isabelle Faust on her Stradivarius “Sleeping Beauty” from 1704, with modern strings. In Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante, K. 364, in January, gut strings come into play, harmonious for making music in an already tried and tested dream team of the artist with the British grandmaster of historical performance practice Sir John Eliot Gardiner, his English Baroque Soloists and the French violist Antoine Tamestit as her soloist colleague. “Very familiar and also very privileged” is her feeling on this co-operation. And Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante? “There is no more beautiful piece by Mozart for the violin than this one,” she says without hesitation. “The Sinfonia concertante simply makes my heart beat faster. For the soloists it is completely balanced, violin and viola play the themes to each other – it is astonishing how democratically this piece is written. And then these unbelievable cadenzas, which Mozart had to write, thank God, because it would be difficult for two instruments to improvise. There we finally see how Mozart wrote a cadenza for violin or viola. We don’t have that with the violin concertos.”

Between the two programmes with an orchestra, there is a concert of co-operation between the Musikverein and Wien Modern, which shows Isabelle Faust in another facet of her diverse artistry: Together with Anna Prohaska, she will perform the “Kafka Fragments” by György Kurtág – “a project close to the heart” of the violinist, as well as the soprano with Austrian roots, “who feels very much at home in Vienna”, as Isabelle Faust knows. “And somehow,” she thinks, “this piece belongs in Vienna after all.” The two had planned to record the “Kafka Fragments” during a tour planned well in advance. But “when the first Corona lockdown came in spring 2020 and we all tried to keep ourselves busy in a meaningful way, we tackled this project calmly,” says Isabelle Faust. “So we were able to really concentrate on it – and Anna came along with such a rested voice, which was really a great pleasure and also particularly pleasant for her.” Because this work has it all: Kurtág takes up Kafka’s pictorial language musically meticulously, demands an enormous spectrum of expression from the performers and pushes them to the limits of technical possibilities. “It’s a very tricky piece,” confirms Isabelle Faust. “The violin has a melody, but also a piano function, just like in a song recital: you roll out the carpet for the singer and at the same time have an absolute counterpart to play. Then you jump out of the piano role that the singer carries and have to act completely independently and far away from the singer.” Isabelle Faust particularly loves the “miniature Kurtág”, as she calls it, “it’s the art of drawing the essentials from a few notes, of being able to say so much reduced to the minimum”.

An “Artist Portrait of Isabelle Faust” would not be complete without an evening of Baroque music and Baroque violin. Almost twenty years have passed since Isabelle Faust’s curiosity won out and she first ventured to the gut strings, back then with the Beethoven Concerto and Concerto Cologne. “I really wanted to get to know it and see how the piece changes with the instruments. Which, of course, was nonsense, because it changes mainly because of the musicians around you who have dealt with this style. I tried to benefit directly from the musicians and open my ears well,” she says, listing the who’s who of the early music scene. “And then a lot really changed.”

In order to record Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas, Isabelle Faust made tabula rasa and re-studied the works from scratch. “Pieces that have always been in your DNA can only be tackled in this way,” she speaks from experience. “I probably learned the first Bach movement when I was nine or ten, and then you slowly ‘eat your way through’, but of course not in the way I imagine it to be today.” Her Bach recording was an immense success, and she has now played the solo sonatas and partitas in many international music cities, but not yet in Vienna. With this special premiere for her and for Vienna’s music lovers, Isabelle Faust will conclude her artist portrait at the Musikverein in May 2023.

Text by Ulrike Lampert.

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