If you could spend the afternoon with just one of history's great composers, who would you choose?
For German-American violinist Augustin Hadelich, "Mendelssohn would be at the top of my list," he told me in a recent phone interview. Of course, Felix Mendelssohn was on his mind - next week Hadelich will be performing Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) and conductor Jaime Martín. The concerts are Oct. 21 and 22 - click here for more information and tickets (and use the code VIOLINIST for 20% off).
At age 39, Hadelich has proven himself to be one of finest violinists on today's concert circuit - and he's keeping busy. Just this summer he performed in Taiwan, Korea, the Aspen Music Festival, Music Academy of the West, the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago and the BBC Proms with the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich.
His most recent recording projects cover some of the most central and challenging works ever written for violin - including his exquisite recording of all 24 Paganini Caprices in 2018, his intensely emotional and intellectually satisfying recording of the entire J.S. Bach's Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin in 2021, and most recently, his Spanish-themed album Recuerdos in 2022. And importantly for a new generation of violinists, in 2021 Augustin joined the faculty of Yale School of Music, and in 2022 he performed for the new recordings of Suzuki Violin Books 4, 5 and 6.
The Mendelssohn violin concerto? Well, Augustin learned to play that piece when he was eight, and he even recorded it nearly a decade ago. But his sense of discovery and passion for playing the piece is constantly renewed - through a curious mind that has continued to look at it anew, through revelations from playing it on a different instrument, and through many, many performances over decades.
It's really a lifetime love story.
"I could talk a long time about what makes this concerto special," Hadelich said. "It's incredibly concise. There's nothing in the piece that feels like it goes on for too long, or or that it's useless. It's a lot of music, packed into a short time."
"And Mendelssohn sounds like such a nice guy. His letters are so friendly, charming and playful," Hadelich said. Mendelssohn wrote his popular violin concerto with help from his good friend, violinist Ferdinand David, who was concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra at the time. It was a nearly seven-year process, beginning in 1838 and finally receiving its premiere in 1845. The whole time, the two musicians wrote back and forth to each other about the piece. "David was really pushing him: 'Make sure that it's really virtuosic!' Then Mendelssohn said, 'Don't worry, the entire beginning will be up high on the E string...' I thought it was funny exchange - and also interesting to read, because you can see that the piece really did become exactly that!"
The E minor violin concerto (which was actually Mendelssohn's second - he wrote his D minor violin concerto when he was 13) was "also pretty innovative for the time it was written," Hadelich said.
"It's quite virtuosic," Hadelich said. "Right away, the soloist enters with the theme and makes very impassioned and virtuosic statement, with those octaves at the end of that first page - it's quite an entrance! Only then does the orchestra play its tutti." Compared to other violin concertos of the time, "the solo violin is much more front and center, which is very exciting. Also, all the movements in the Mendelssohn are connected - I don't think anyone had ever done that before," Hadelich said. It wasn't a new idea - but it was new to make such a point of doing it in a violin concerto.
In reading about Mendelssohn, Hadelich noticed that people criticized Mendelssohn's own performances as being too fast - "He would conduct too fast, play too fast," Hadelich said. "Definitely it was in his character to be fast-paced, kind of pushing forward." And this is something that is evident in the last movement of the violin concerto. "The last movement is incredibly exciting and exhilarating - it wants to go fast." Not too fast, though! "It needs to have all the clarity, all the notes have to pop out really clearly and sparkle."
When it comes to learning the Mendelssohn so young, "I'm not the only one - that is the case for a lot of people." And because people tend to learn it so young, "there is frequently a certain amount of baggage attached to the piece, a lot of old habits - a lot of things that you heard and then imitated - that aren't not necessarily good ideas."
The piece has been played and recorded so frequently, over so many years, that certain practices and habits have evolved and become entrenched. "I think that the violin tradition for the piece has gradually over the years become more and more exaggerated, sometimes like a caricature of what it once was, 100 years ago," Hadelich said.
At a certain point, Hadelich found he simply needed to start over again with the Mendelssohn.
"I just felt like, this isn't working," he said. "So I started over, pretending like I'd never heard of the piece. I wanted to figure out, what do I really want to do with this music? How many things am I doing because I really believe in them, and how many things are just habit?"
So he took a deep dive into the score of the Mendelssohn, pretending he'd never seen it before. He also had the help of a then-newly published edition of the Mendelssohn ("urtext"), which included details of an earlier "first version" of the piece, from 1844.
"I found this interesting," Hadelich said. The "first version" shows details like slurs that were later changed - "you can actually see what Mendelssohn's original intentions were, before (the concerto's dedicatee, violinist) Ferdinand David made it all violinistic. Sometimes, those were actually very musical also and made a lot of sense." For example, toward the end of the first movement, David took something down an octave to make it easier, "and actually the original version works fine, and it's really exciting."
In the end, "I definitely used the revised version, not the first version," but with added knowledge and ideas from Mendelssohn's "first version." After that re-working, Hadelich recorded the Mendelssohn in 2015. Since then, it has evolved further for him - "I do find a little more freedom than I did 10 years ago, but now these are my ideas," he said. "I always love the experience of playing it."
In more recent years, it was the Mendelssohn concerto that helped convince Hadelich to make the switch from the 1723 'Ex-Kiesewetter' Stradivari violin that he had played for nine years, to the 1744 "Leduc/Szerying" Guarneri "del Gesù" violin that he has been playing now since 2020, on loan from the Tarisio Trust.
Most people have heard of the Italian violin maker Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737). But not everyone knows that his contemporary Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù (1698-1644) made violins that are equally valued for their unparalleled sound, high craftsmanship and rarity. In fact, because del Gesù made fewer violins than Stradivari did, del Gesùs often cost more - millions of dollars, in both cases. The curious "del Gesù" moniker ("of Jesus") comes from the labels inside the violins - after 1731 Guarneri appended Greek abbreviation for Jesus (IHS) beneath a cross in the labels for his instruments, possibly to praise a higher being, possibly to distinguish himself from his father, Andrea Guarneri, also a violin maker. At any rate, people in the violin community have long used "del Gesù" when talking about this maker.
Hadelich, with his extensive experience playing both, has interesting insights about the distinctions between the two.
Several years ago, when Hadelich was first trying out the "Leduc" del Gesù, he was playing various pieces of music to test the instrument. That's when he played something that was love at first listen: the beautiful and lyrical theme from the second movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. It was a passage that never quite sounded right to him the Strad, despite much effort.
"A lot of Strads have a quality on the A string that's a little bit like an oboe - a slightly reedy, nasal quality. It's not so warm," Hadelich said. "The beginning of the slow movement of the Mendelssohn is played on the A string, and I was always looking for warmth, for a certain color. You almost want too much from that theme - it's incredibly tender, warm and sweet when it first starts, and the orchestra is very, very soft, with eighth note patterns creating these small waves underneath the violin line. I found that, to get the color I wanted on the Strad, had to play very, very softly. Then the orchestra had to be even quieter - triple piano."
"But on the del Gesù - it just sounded like what I had always dreamed of," Hadelich said. "I didn't have to make a sound that is that soft. There is a sweetness to the sound itself - it's just part of its sound. I find it's very singing. It was actually one of the things that really convinced me about the del Gesù. The theme of the second movement sounds so beautiful on this violin - so I'm finding more joy in playing the piece now."
The violin also carries signifiant history.
"It was made in 1744," Hadelich said. Called "Leduc," it was one of the last violins that Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù ever made. "It is famous for having been Henryk Szeryng's violin, for about 30 years." Szeryng was a Polish-Mexican violinist who studied with Carl Flesch and was well-known in the 20th century, having made numerous recordings with pianist Arthur Rubinstein.
"Growing up, I heard recordings of Szeryng playing this violin," Hadelich said, "and I even remember going to the Jacques Francais violin shop in New York as a student, and looking at a poster of the 'Leduc' hanging on the wall. When I finally tried the violin, it was really special to me."
Of course, there were trade-offs in switching from the Strad to the del Gesù. "On the Strad, every note was precisely the same volume and kind of the same color," Hadelich said. "The del Gesù is a little bit more quirky."
For example, "it's got a huge wolf." Wait, a big bad wolf? Well, kind of - it's actually a treacherous note. A "wolf" is a particular tone, typically a note on the G string, that sounds stuttery and off-tone when played. It is almost impossible to make it sound right because of the physics involved: the frequency of the note is the same as the frequency of the entire instrument itself. For the "Leduc" del Gesù, the tone is a B natural.
"Whenever there is a B natural, it's louder than the other notes - that's also the wolf note, so it is connected to that," Hadelich said. "The violin just is so strong on that note, and so I know to give way less with my bow on that note, and on the notes around it."
You can do things to get rid of a "wolf" tone, but that involves tinkering with the set-up - that is, changing the positioning of the sound post inside the violin, etc.
With the "Leduc" del Gesù, that meant asking the question: "do you keep it with the Szeryng set up, or do you eventually change it?" Hadelich said. "It was actually good to change it. At one point, the set-up for the 'Leduc' was entirely about reducing the wolf. But I actually think that violins often sound the best when the wolf is the strongest, Every other note is going sound amazing, it's just that the wolf note then creates a problem. But if you try to reduce the wolf, sometimes that entails reducing a lot of other resonances - you sort of put a damper on the whole thing."
"Over the last four years the violin has gradually opened up, and it sounds better now - it's a little more open and strong. The sound is healthier now from having been played a lot and also set up slightly differently," Hadelich said.
"There was definitely an adjustment period, but that process was fun, because I love the sound," Hadelich said. "During the pandemic, I spent so much time doing home recordings on this del Gesù - it was actually a great way to get to know the instrument. By the time I started performing concerts again, I had gotten to know it really well. I love how the violin is incredibly reliable in concert, and I feel very free with it on stage."
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For more information about Augustin Hadelich's performance of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) and conductor Jaime Martín, click here (and use the code VIOLINIST for 20% off).
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