February 23, 2016

An interview with Vilde Frang: new album out this month

The Norwegian violinist goes from "oceans of romanticism" to a "struggle with death" in Korngold & Britten concertos.

You’ve said that the Korngold Violin Concerto is like a festive celebration. Is it also Hollywood?

For sure there are Hollywood excerpts in the music; Korngold sneaked in themes from his film scores in all three movements. You can’t avoid that fact, but the piece has sometimes been "downgraded" as movie-music which is unfair; it really stands on its own as a full-blooded violin concerto. 

How would you describe your sense of the piece? 

This concerto embraces you from the very beginning! It's almost indulgently expressive, the music soars and always reaches for new heights. It makes me fly.

Korngold’s and Britten’s violin concertos were both composed around the Second World War by Europeans who had left their countries for the United States. But they are nonetheless brought together on a single album for the first time. Why were you so keen to record this unusual coupling?

These are both passionate and dramatic works in a 20th-century tonal language, richly orchestrated. Technically they are equally intense, in terms of virtuosity. But they contrast each other beautifully. While Korngold's wallows in oceans of romanticism, Britten has an X-ray clarity structurally and the rhythmic patterns and brilliance in his music always fascinate me. This concerto is much more tragic than Korngold’s. Only in recent years have both works started to appear more frequently in concert halls, especially the Britten, which has not been considered an audience-friendly concerto. But for me it’s right up there with Shostakovich concertos.

What is it about this concerto that might elude people?

Despite all its braveness, there is a sense of looming anxiety and despair that ends in reflection, not with a flashy, show-off climax. The last movement Passacaglia is like a struggle against death, you can feel that the end is inevitably getting closer. To me it seems that the orchestra is representing the other side, almost religiously – the soothing orchestral chords, the relief of death, the ending of the pain. But the solo violin clings to life until the very end. I‎t is like a swan song.

I think it’s the most powerful ending of a piece I’ve ever played, and my emotional connection with it is so strong – since the very first time I heard it I was so shocked. Britten instantly became one of my favourite composers; he reached me completely.

When performing them live, is the audience reaction different between the two concertos?

Korngold's finale is spectacular and hilarious in a "finita la commedia" sort of way. Britten strikes you inwardly on a far more profound level. Performing it is an experience; a transformation. It always takes a moment of silence to digest and come back to reality.

Since your early twenties you have recorded some of the most demanding repertoire – Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Nielsen, Bartok – was this your biggest challenge in the studio to date?

All my albums have been challenges. It never gets easier from album to album. You always think you'll somehow get used to a recording process, but actually you never do! It's a sort of birth process, you give all you've got. There’s something about the focus and anticipation that makes you the most excited, vulnerable and persistent person.

Both works are remarkable for their orchestral detail and lush textures. What was it like recording with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony and conductor James Gaffigan?

They couldn’t have been more supportive. They were very flexible, it was a very good vibe we had during the sessions. They showed such a high standard and I was very satisfied and grateful for their collaboration. And James was a fantastic asset; the fact that he is also American really plays a role and it was an important point for me with these concertos. We had already performed the Britten together, so fortunately he was available for this recording.

Out of the Britten and Korngold, is there one concerto that squares more with your personality?

No, they both apply to the whole spectrum of my personality! I find them deeply fulfilling to play. They are crown jewels in the violin repertoire and it has long been my greatest wish to juxtapose them on a recording; it’s not exactly what everyone would put under the Christmas tree, but these two concertos mean the world to me.

Vilde Frang's new album of Korngold & Britten Violin Concertos is out on 26 February.