By Laurence Vittes
The universe of concertos for violin and cello just received a little extra attention with husband-and-wife duo Jan Vogler and Mira Wang‘s latest recording on Sony Classics. The pair, who first played the Brahms Double Concerto together in 1996, teamed up to record: a bevy of double concertos by Wolfgang Rihm, John Harbison—and, of course, Brahms.
Harbison’s entrant was commissioned for the Boston Symphony by the Friends of the Dresden Festival, and written in memory of Roman Totenberg. Vogler and Wang premiered it in 2010. As for the Rihm, the duo premiered it at Carnegie Hall with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 2015.
I caught up with Vogler between the successful closing of the 41st Dresden Music Festival, of which he is the Intendant, and the start of the Moritzburg Festival and Academy, where Wang is director. The 26th season kicks off on August 5, and was founded in 1993 by Vogler, his brother Kai, and cellist Peter Bruns. I addition to festival engagements, Vogler is gearing up to launch the Australian/New Zealand tour of “Bill Murray, Jan Vogler & Friends: New Worlds.”
Over how long of a period did you prepare for recording the three doubles? And how did you prepare?
We played our first Brahms Double together more than 20 years ago. The Harbison premiere was in 2010 with the Boston Symphony and we have been playing the Rihm quite a bit since the Carnegie premiere in 2015. All this added together helped us to be open during the recording sessions to our partners’ energy, and the wonderful Royal Scottish and Peter Oundjian.
Was playing the Brahms in 1996 like a first date? And does the added intimacy of being partners take the music making into a realm where just good friends cannot follow?
Well, that first performance was more like our first fight. We’d never fought before—about anything—but making music together while having to change habits in a piece we had played with different partners required a substantial one-time adjustment.
Could you elaborate on that one-time adjustment?
Mira and I came from different schools. My teachers—Josef Schwab and my father Peter Vogler—mostly came from the German cello school of Leipzig, meaning Julius Klengel and Emanuel Feuermann. Later I studied with Heinrich Schiff who was also very much about phrasing, style, and sound. Mira had already been influenced by the Russian school during her studies in China, and later studied with Roman Totenberg, who loved George Enescu and had played with Arthur Rubinstein. She also adores Heifetz and there is some of that remarkable “virtuoso style” in her playing that characterized the generation that fled Europe in the first half of the 20th century and founded the modern American violin school. So there was a lot to talk about—but very interesting stuff. I remember our playing the Brahms for Mr. Totenberg, and how he showed us how to bridge the similarities in our playing rather than dwell on the differences.
Do you still play the Brahms with other violinists?
We have played it a lot since this first time, but also have never stopped performing it with other partners. I played it recently on gut strings with Thomas Zehetmair and the Orchestra of the 18th century; it will be a very valuable experience to bring to the table for our next modern-instrument performances.
Your new [sic] “ex Castelbarco/Fau” Stradivari cello and Mira’s “ex Joachim” Stradivari violin sound fabulous together. Did you match your strings?
Yes, we did! We both love the Jargar Superior strings.
What did Peter Oundjian contribute? The orchestra is almost as flexible as the soloists!
Peter was a dream partner for this. He is very open minded and, as a former string player, he has so much understanding of these scores and such positive energy. We love working with him.
Did Totenberg’s daughter, NPR journalist Nina Totenberg, attend the Harbison premiere?
Yes, Nina was there, as well as her sisters Amy and Jill, and of course Roman Totenberg himself. He was in his 100th year and came onstage to greet the audience. It was a beautiful moment; everyone in Symphony Hall stood up for him.
What do you reckon the future of the two new pieces?
I believe in the future of both new pieces. John and Wolfgang are among the most accomplished composers of our time and they both created spirited and inspired works. I particularly love the “country groove” of the last movement of the Harbison which is a true American answer to the Brahms!