April 10, 2015

Exclusive interview with Vilde Frang: finding the inspiration to record Mozart

The Norwegian virtuoso opens up about 'getting under the wig' of Mozart for her new album of violin concertos.

Why Mozart for your latest album? Did it feel like the right time to record his first and fifth violin concertos?

Vilde Frang: For a very long time I’ve wanted to record them. They have been part of my repertory and they have been in my fingers for decades. I’ve been playing them for several years now; I can’t even remember the first time I performed them.

In what way are they significant for you?

VF: During my childhood, Mozart was my earliest acquaintance and he was the first composer that I was allowed listen to in my home. I was extremely disapproving of all other composers when I was small. Either they tended to be too dangerous or too sad, and I would end up crying!

My sister who was a bit older than me and playing in a student orchestra. They played all this terribly dangerous repertory like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Holst's The Planets, Sibelius, Mahler and Bruckner symphonies – and I was terrified of all this repertory. I asked for almost only Mozart until I was six or seven, that’s all I wanted to tackle.

You made your name recording some of this ‘dangerous’ Romantic repertoire: Tchaikovsky and Sibelius concertos for example. How does your approach change coming back to smaller-scale works?

VF: It didn’t really change, but I had been through a bit of a difficult phase in my teenage years because I kept telling myself that I needed to in order to play these Mozart concertos I needed to be an adult to spot the genius of Mozart, it’s almost like you need to be divorced three times and have grey hair and experience a lot before you can realise the true genius of the music. I was a bit too star-struck, I think. I did not base my studies of Mozart and what I really thought;  it was like I was over-analysing. It’s like you have a flower and you want to analyse it and you’re peeling apart the flower and its beauty is disappearing.

How did you find the right approach for you?

VF: I started to listen a lot to his operas, and that really revolutionised my whole attitude to this repertory, and it brought the love back. It’s impossible for me to imagine Mozart without thinking ‘opera’. It’s theatre, it’s comedy, it’s so many characters to be explored, and once I realised that this is the essence of Mozart, this is the spirit all rolled up in his music, I allowed myself to let my feelings come first. Then things started to go much more smoothly and my pleasure of playing Mozart increased and increased! Once I started to think I was part of an opera it changed everything and I got back the joy. It’s easy not to get under the wig of these older composers, you think too much about the genius and you are paralysed a little bit.

There certainly is a singing quality to the melodies on this album. What is your ideal Mozart sound?

VF: My sound ideal is the voice, and always has been. But it’s not only musically that things are changing in the music, but also technically speaking. These concertos by today’s standards we can tackle them relatively easily, technically speaking. But at Mozart’s time they were quite refreshing technically, and virtuosic. He took some risks; it shows he was very vital and vivid. If you think vocally, then everything expands, you can see through the looking-glass and the music gets totally three-dimensional.

How did you go about deciding on the cadenzas?

VF: The Joachim cadenzas are quite known for the Violin Concerto No.5. What was unusual was Jonathan Cohen’s cadenzas. Jonny was conducting Arcangelo. He’s so versatile; a very skilled harpsichord player, a wonderful cellist, a conductor and he does compose as well. He was playing around behind the scenes a bit in this recording, jotting down some suggestions. We tried it out in the studio, and that was quite an adventure for me. Jonny was experimenting; he composed the cadenzas for the Violin Concerto No.1 and I’d never been through such a process before so it was nice to do it spontaneously; they were born during the recording.

How were the recording sessions with Arcangelo, and also Maxim Rysanov on viola in the Sinfonia Concertante?

VF: Maxim is a wonderful viola player and we have worked together before so I knew we would be on the same wavelength.

I met the orchestra for the first time in the studio. I instinctively knew from the moment I heard them that I wanted so badly to record with these players. I admire this orchestra so much. It’s incredible energy; everything is sparkling.

Did playing with a period-instrument orchestra make a big difference to your sound?

VF: I didn’t really think about the fact that they are more a ‘period’ orchestra and I am considered a so-called ‘modern’ player. I did not pay attention to that at all; it was not relevant for me. Some people asked me about that because the orchestra plays on gut strings; 'Will you use gut strings? A Baroque bow?' I realised that there was a difference to the approach, but couldn’t let it become a snowball of doubt. I needed to keep my faith and remember what made me so inspired in the first place. We came from two different worlds in a way and met in the studio and recorded but the attitude was really positive. And playing with them, the sessions were so refreshing that I felt I gained energy from them rather than getting tired from recording.

Vilde Frang's new album of Mozart Violin Concertos with Arcangelo is out now.