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Building Platforms

img  Tobias Fischer

Scores are documentations, preserving musical ideas in time. But without performers to bring them to live, they are doomed to remain without emotional meaning. For violinist Linus Roth, this insight gained fresh relevance after being exposed to the little known trio by Russian composer Mieczysław Weinberg for the first time. From being a complete novice to Weinberg's ouevre, prominently admired and promoted during his lifetime by no one less than his contemporary Dmitri Shostakovich, Roth turned into a passionate advocate, immersing himself fully in the artist's tragic biography and triumphant compositions. The hard work would soon bear fruit: Last year, he teamed up with pianist José Gallardo to release a sumptuous and deeply rewarding 3CD-box of Weinberg's complete works for violin and piano. And already a mere twelve months later, Roth is back with a follow-up, this time a single CD juxtaposing Weinberg's and Benjamin Britten's violin concertos. The liner notes are as ecstatic as Roth's performance, claiming that "Weinberg composed a masterpiece that not only stands shoulder to shoulder with great un- or underplayed 20th century gems (…) but anything – famous or not – the century has to offer in the genre." That is high praise indeed and only time will tell whether listeners and concert audiences agree with the assessment. But that is beside the point. What matters that with artists as dedicated as Roth, Weinberg finally gets the wide-spread public appreciation his work deserves.

Last time we mailed, I asked you what you'd put on the hypothetical program as the artistic director of a concert hall. You mentioned Beethoven and Brahms. What would your response be today?
Still Beethoven and Brahms. But now I would also add some Weinberg, of course! His music is so unique that it always makes a great contrast to other pieces. And I know from experience that an interested audience is eager to get to know new and unheard pieces as well. I believe it is not only important to listen to Weinberg´s beautiful music, but also to remember him as a person, his life story and this darkest chapter of 20th century history.

How do you approach the inclusion of new works by someone like Weinberg into your repertoire?
As a performer you have to "feel good" with a piece. This means you have to have built a relation to the composer´s way of writing and have found your own personal interpretation. In all this, your own personality plays an important role as well. Some music might not suit you - or it may no longer suit you any more at a certain point in your life. As an example, I learned the Dvorak Violin Concerto, but then took it down from my repertoire list, as I realised that it's just not a piece I feel connected with. On the other hand, there are composers I feel an immediate connection with, be it rather unknown ones like Weinberg or the known ones such as Bach and Beethoven. Having played the entire main violin repertoire, I will continue to explore and widen it. I´m sure I will find more hidden gems ...

What do you still remember about hearing the Weinberg trio for the first time, and why it struck a chord with you?
It was the impeccable drive and energy, but also its beautiful melodies that fascinated me from the very beginning. I also felt a very direct connection to this music, which made me want to play it. I didn´t know Weinberg at all four years ago, and many other musicians didn´t know about him either. By recording and playing his music I want to give him a platform which will allow him to become known by a wider audience. It always requires the will and the persistence of us musicians to convince concert organisers to program music of an unknown composer. When Weinberg was still alive, world famous musicians like Rostropovitch, Oistrakh and Kogan played his music all the time. I feel it is my duty to help bringing this music on stage again. Simply because whenever I play Weinberg, the audience is very touched by the depth of his compositions.

Tell me a bit about the sonatas, please, which constitute the core of the 3CD set. What makes them special?
The sonatas Nr. 1- 5 were all composed in the 1940s and 50s. While the first is a very youthful work and its melodies remind me of Schubert´s transparency, the second sonata seems strongly influenced by Prokofiev. In the third, it is obvious that Weinberg found his very own voice. It has very dark moments, and a very touching 2nd movement. The fourth and fifth are for me his strongest works, the later dedicated to his great friend and influence Dimitri Shostakovitch. Between Nr. 5 and 6, there´s a gap of almost 30 years, which you can hear in the style of composing: he sometimes leaves tonality completely, while finding his way back to it a few bars later. This last sonata is dedicated to his mother and a work in which he strongly deals with all the pain, struggle, anger and depression he felt. His parents and sister were murdered in the Nazi concentration camps, they didn´t make it to flee with him to the Soviet Union. Under the communist regime his suffering continued: he was put in prison and the KGB murdered his father in law.

In which way, would you say, does Weinberg's music reflect his biographical background?
When I played Weinberg´s piano trio for the first time I didn´t know his biography at all, but was really wondering what had happened to him that his music can sound this dark and bitter-sweet. Generally speaking, to know as much as possible about a composers´ life always helps in finding your own interpretation.

You recently released a CD with the Weinberg violin concerto. How do you rate the piece after studying it intensely?
When I received the score of his violin concerto I was immediately sure that this is a master piece! And it felt like a logical consequence to record it as well, after having done all the sonatas. It makes me extremely happy to have recorded this CD with the wonderful Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under my conductor friend Mihkel Kütson. And I believe the Britten Violin concerto makes a good coupling with the Weinberg on that record.

From a technical and conceptual perspective, what are some of the challenges of performing this music both for you and José Gallardo on the piano?
In terms of the distribution of tasks in the piano-violin constellation, both parts are just as important and it is all very equally distributed between the two instruments. Weinberg was an excellent pianist himself, and some passages are technically really difficult for the piano. So are some of the things for violin. For example when he makes you jump from a very low note to an extreme high one, that has to be played as soft as possible. And within the split of a second.
Together with José Gallardo, we played most of the sonatas in concert before recording them. What works on stage will also work in the studio, standing in front of the microphone. First we are always recording the run through of a complete movement, and then do mostly long tracks, to make sure to have a natural flow in the music. Perfection is important, but we would rather choose a take that is musically lively, instead of the just polished and correct version.

At a time when many are proclaiming the end of the physical medium, what's your take on the ongoing relevance of albums?
I enjoy recording more and more. It´s great to see a project come to reality which once was not more than an idea, a mere thought. Playing a concert live is satisfying in a different way, as you get the immediate reaction and feelings of the audience transmitted. For us musicians, a CD's maximum recording time of 75 minutes can be also limiting. You have to make up your recording programs according to that time frame.
While downloading music has lately become more popular among classical music audiences, many people still appreciate having a CD and a booklet out of paper. For the same reason also I enjoy having a CD in my hands.

In 2012, you took up a professorship at the university of Augsburg. How are you enjoying teaching so far?
I´m enjoying it tremendously. To help a student improve his playing and find his own personal approach is not only a big responsibility, but also a very fulfilling task. Right now, I´m mainly focusing on one-to-one violin lessons with the students of my class. A violin lesson is ideally a musical inspiration for the students. I explain the structure and style of the music, but I  also play certain passages for them to demonstrate or give visual images that go with the music. Often I ask questions to make the student think about important aspects, to force them to come up with a good solution of their own. I  learn a lot myself by explaining and teaching music and the technique of violin playing. It feels like it deepens and strengthens my own knowledge and abilities.

Interview with Linus Roth by Tobias Fischer
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