By Thomas May | Photos by Peter Meisel | From the March/April 2020 issue of Strings Magazine
One attraction of being an internationally acclaimed virtuoso is that you get to thrill audiences with your favorite masterpieces over and over, storing up eureka moments with each new encounter. But with the concerto repertoire, all that accumulated wisdom and experience can never be more than a part of the complete picture—even if it’s the pivotal part.
This is why Augustin Hadelich rhapsodizes about the artistic partnership with Jakub Hrůša and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (BRSO) that led to his latest release, Bohemian Tales, set for release by Warner Classics on April 24. Its centerpiece is the violinist’s first recorded account of Antonín Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53. “Something about the Dvořák in particular makes it very tricky to put together with an orchestra—hard for the musicians to play and also hard to conduct. But I found an amazing chemistry working with these players and conductor,” Hadelich recalls from his home during a rare break from touring. Born to German parents in Cecina, Italy, the violinist is now based in New York City.
The encounter with the BRSO took place in October 2018 and was a double debut: for the violinist and for the Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša, who has shot to international prominence in recent years. (He currently helms the Bamberg Symphony.) Strangely enough, Hadelich, 36 in April, had never appeared with the Bavarians before, though the Grammy Award–winning violinist regularly concertizes across Europe and North America.
Hadelich and Hrůša are nearly the same age—the conductor is just three years older—and share a deep love for this concerto. They had already collaborated before the Munich engagement, performing the Dvořák together with several other orchestras. “Jakub knows the piece inside out and has a wonderful sense of all its idiosyncrasies and challenges,” Hadelich says. “Many other conductors tend to shy away from Dvořák’s concerto.”
According to the violinist, their affection for the work aligned with an inspired contribution from the orchestra. This in turn prompted the idea of building an album of music for the violin by Czech composers. Along with Dvořák’s concerto, which was initially written in 1879 but not premiered until 1883, Bohemian Tales includes a selection of works for violin and piano: a violin arrangement of one of Dvořák’s Humoresques, “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” Leoš Janáček’s Violin Sonata, and Josef Suk’s 4 Pieces.
Outside the Orbit of Brahms
On his previous release—a pairing of the Brahms and Ligeti concertos with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and Miguel Harth-Bedoya—Hadelich made his imprint on the staple that looms most prominently in the literature from the late 19th century. So prominently, in fact, that Dvořák’s contribution to the genre is frequently treated as a kind of “satellite” work—as if its qualities were dependent on the example of Brahms. That assumption results from the larger, ongoing issue of the influence of Brahms being exaggerated, particularly vis-à-vis his younger Czech colleague. Dvořák’s position was marginal to the European mainstream during his own lifetime, and that bias continues to distort contemporary reception of his legacy.
To be sure, Dvořák admired Brahms’ compositional style, as Hadelich points out. And he owed his international breakthrough in the 1870s in part to the intervention of Brahms. Moreover, the Czech composer’s meeting of Brahms’ friend Joseph Joachim gave him the impetus to write his violin concerto. He embarked on writing it shortly after the violinist had premiered the new Brahms Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77.
Yet even though he had Brahms’ violinist in mind at first, Dvořák produced a concerto that reflects a much greater influence from another direction, explains Hadelich. “This particular concerto probably has the most in common with Bruch’s G minor Violin Concerto [also premiered by Joachim, in 1868]. It shares a similar form in the way the first two movements flow together, but they have a very different character. I see more of other concertos in the Dvořák than of Brahms’ concerto.”
Dvořák opens the piece, for example, in the vein of Mendelssohn’s concerto (a ploy also followed by Bruch): That is, he omits a preludial orchestral exposition and brings the solo violin front and center almost at once. “The violin just enters and asserts itself with these two improvisatory passages. It’s such a ballsy way to start—and one of the greatest beginnings of a concerto.” Hadelich also admires how Dvořák integrates elements of “wild, untamed energy from folk-music impulses—which also makes it quite different from the Brahms.”
Joachim disapproved of Dvořák’s decision to go against the grain of conventional concerto form in the first movement by foreshortening the reprise and leading directly into the slow movement. The composer accepted some of Joachim’s suggestions for revision but objected to changing his design. In the end, Joachim declined to premiere the piece.
Says Hadelich: “I can imagine how Dvořák felt he had to put his foot down on that point. He didn’t want to sacrifice the transition to the second movement, which is one of the most beautiful moments of the piece. Composers need to be able to accommodate some requests, but I think it is important for them to know when to be stubborn and stick to their vision.”
A Uniquely Challenging Concerto
Dvořák’s concerto contains some other unique features that make it especially difficult to bring off. “There are many other concertos in which the violin part is intertwined with the orchestra throughout much of the piece, but Dvořák does this in a way that is often like being the middle voice in a chorale, with lines going on at the same time above and below what you’re playing.”
Hadelich refers to the composer’s background as an orchestral violist as an influence on the writing here. “I think that’s why in many sections of the violin concerto the violin is not soaring high above the orchestral texture, but is right in the middle of the middle voice of a chorale, surrounded by the sounds of horns and wind instruments. This means that soloist, conductor, and wind players must breathe and phrase together, and listen and react to each other constantly. So much depends on the other players.”
Another challenge is that “often the structure of the phrasings is very unusual and not the length you would expect. There are moments that feel free and rhapsodic, almost like improvisations. But that can come across as feeling awkward when it doesn’t quite work.”
Hadelich credits Hrůša with giving him insights into how to negotiate such potential traps in the piece. “There’s one place in the first movement with an incredibly long transition that keeps winding down before a new theme starts. But it’s not completely clear where this theme starts. If you take too long to make the transition, you can lose the plot.” Hrůša convinced him that this long transition should not have a clearly defined point where the theme starts, but should gradually shift “into an upbeat feeling, and then a rhythm starts up and becomes a dance.”
The Right Chemistry
What else made this collaboration with Hrůša and the BRSO so exceptionally gratifying? Hadelich is full of praise for the BRSO’s ability to listen to each other when they play. “They never play a phrase as just the notes written on the page. Everyone who plays a phrase does it with initiative and tries to make it come to life. It feels very chamber-music-like in how they respond to each other.”
He mentions the many beautiful passages for woodwinds in the Dvořák: “It’s not just that they produce a beautiful sound. The way they play, it communicates a lot of expression with the sound. This is something that for me is very inspiring.”
The violinist also likens working with Hrůša to playing chamber music: “It’s basically about having a similar instinct about the direction the music should go in—about timing and breathing, about where you feel like the next note should fall when there’s a passage with many notes.”
Hadelich’s description of collaborating with Hrůša recalls something of the experience he detailed in a blog post for Strings about working with Andris Nelsons last fall. Overall, he remarks: “You can have differences of opinion about tempo or character. But what makes playing together feel natural is having a similar musical intuition, so that you don’t have to talk too much about the music but can just feel it. That’s what people mean when they talk about chemistry: both how easy it is and how exciting it is to play together with somebody.”
The Czech Connection
Hadelich says he enjoys a similar level of chemistry with Charles Owen, his collaborator on the album’s other selections for violin and piano. What ties them all together? “The general connection for these composers involves more than geography. These three composers shared a strong interest in the folk music of their country.”
But that hardly means the music necessarily sounds of the same vintage. He explains that Janáček was both Moravian (“Moravian folk music is slightly different”) and “in a way an outsider. His writing is so different and so unconventional—almost provocative—that Janáček can seem 100 years ahead of his time. But in other ways, he was very traditionalist because of this strong connection to the folk music of his country.”
Both aspects are synthesized in Janáček’s 1914 Violin Sonata. “He rejected the schools of Modernism that were getting rid of tonality. Yet at the same time, his music is shockingly intense and raw. His music is full of contradictions and sometimes he uses the violin percussively and the piano for the most lyrical passages—the opposite of what would be normal writing for these instruments. Everything about Janáček is a little crazy. He was an incredibly emotional and volatile person. And that is what the music often feels like.”
Along with the Humoresque in G-flat major (No. 7) from Dvořák’s Op. 101 cycle (in the transcription by Fritz Kreisler), and “Songs My Mother Taught Me”—though not in Kreisler’s transcription, which he finds “too sentimental”—Hadelich and Owen play 4 Pieces from 1900 by Josef Suk, Dvořák’s son-in-law (and grandfather of the violinist with the same name who died in 2011). “This selection is from a period of transition in his music,” explains Hadelich. The first piece already anticipates Janáček, while the other three are closer in spirit to Dvořák. “I don’t understand why these pieces are not played all the time at recitals, because they are so effective in performance.”
How has this close engagement with Czech music affected Hadelich’s overall artistry? “None of these pieces are completely part of the mainstream repertoire, yet they all deserve to be. They are examples of incredibly expressive, emotional music that wears its heart on its sleeve. By nature I am a very analytical person, so it has been interesting playing and thinking about all these composers at the same time—and exploring this more impulsive side of me. I find myself getting carried away by the spirit of this folk music.”