Rolf Schulte Spotlights 5 Modern Violin Works on ‘American Violin Music 1947 to 2000’

The German-born violinist discusses the source of his intensity and the modern composers featured on his latest album

By Greg Cahill | From the March-April 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

“I have indeed been, and continue to be, a performer—‘scholar’ sounds a bit pretentious, no?—of music from Bach to Carter and Kurtág,” says violinist Rolf Schulte when asked about his latest CD, American Violin Music 1947 to 2000 (Centaur), featuring pianist Ursula Oppens. “How to approach it differs from one piece to the next—always with the most attention to detail and style, if not to say aesthetic, of each.”

Rolf-Schulte-American-Violin-Music-1947–2000
American Violin Music 1947 to 2000, Rolf Schulte, violin; Ursula Oppens, piano (Centaur)

The German-born Schulte, 75, has had a long and illustrious career. He started playing the violin at the age of five under his father’s tutelage. His teachers included Kurt Schäffer at the Robert Schumann Conservatory in Düsseldorf. He attended Yehudi Menuhin’s summer course in Gstaad, Switzerland, and studied with Franco Gulli at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena before taking instruction from Ivan Galamian at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He made his orchestral debut with the Philharmonia Hungarica in Cologne, playing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. The New Yorker labeled this child prodigy “one of the most distinguished violinists of our day.”

But critics most often comment on Schulte’s intensity. What is the source of his energy? “Intensity, that is for the beholder, or the critics, to judge—it goes without saying that the more demanding the music is, the more you have to dig into the depths of physical and mental energy, but that is really the same in Bach, Beethoven, Bartók, Schönberg, Kurtág… That is, after all, where energy is generated. The more you believe in a piece, the more energy—and love—goes into your performance. There is nothing more satisfying than playing the wistful soliloquy at the beginning of the second movement of Bartók’s first sonata or the climactic cadenzas at the end of the last movements in both his sonatas, but also the sublime slow movement of Beethoven’s last sonata, Op. 96, the minor variation in his ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata, the struggle of Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto…”

Strings asked Schulte about his newly released CD.

Donald Martino’s Fantasy Variations for violin

You’ve had a long association with both the classics and with 20th-century works.

I entered the Munich competition—ARD—in 1968 for duo violin/piano. Among eight mandatory works were two contemporary ones, in my case, Stravinsky’s Duo Concertant, which I performed at the concluding concert, having come out on top, and Webern’s Four Pieces, Op. 7. Ever since then, newer music was definitely in my field of interest. After coming to this country in 1969, I presented three recitals at New York’s 92nd Street Y, playing all my favorite music: Bartók’s second sonata, Schönberg’s Phantasy, Op. 47, Berg’s “Adagio” from his Kammerkonzert were on these programs, and the middle one was entirely dedicated to the music of Igor Stravinsky. His widow, Vera, and Robert Craft were in attendance, which led to a longstanding collaboration, performances, and recordings of a plethora of works by Stravinsky, Schönberg, including his fiendishly challenging concerto with the Philharmonia London, and Webern.

Where and when did you record these works?

Three of the works—all solo—were recorded last summer in Princeton at IAS (the Institute for Advanced Study): two by Donald Martino, “Fantasy Variations” and “Romanza,” and “Second Piece for Violin Alone” by Stefan Wolpe. I had performed there twice before and liked the sound on the stage, especially for solo works—unencumbered by the gigantic piano. And, more importantly, I met their recording engineer, David Walters, who was very astute and a pleasure to work with. So I chose him to record these three works. The other two works, Duo for Violin and Piano by Elliott Carter and Nocturne by John Cage, were recorded for Radio Bremen in Northern Germany, both with pianist Ursula Oppens, a long time ago, back in 1977.


Advertisement


Why these particular modern violin works?

I had been wanting to record the two works by Donald Martino, with whom I had a long-standing relationship—he wrote a big Violin Concerto in 1999 for me that I premiered. A recording exists. He was one of our finest composers and, since his death in 2005, is in danger of almost being forgotten. What intimate knowledge he had of the violin, having studied Paganini’s Caprices—he had Ruggiero Ricci’s recording, still the best in my opinion. And together with his familiarity with Verdi’s operas and his studies with Luigi Dallapiccola in Florence, you have a potent mix. To fill out the CD, it occurred to me to use the old recordings from Bremen, adding the short Wolpe piece, and voilà, you had a CD! I should have added a few Morton Feldman pieces recorded at the WDR in Cologne. Too late now. But, as with any other repertoire, the goal in recording these pieces, which I had played frequently in public, was simply to preserve them for posterity. I hope I do them justice.

The Cage Nocturne was written in 1947, Martino’s “Fantasy” in 1962, Wolpe’s piece in 1966, the Carter in 1974, and “Romanza,” dedicated to me, in 2000. There you have it: a nice “survey” of demanding—and atmospheric—American music of the post–World War II period!

The Cage piece really struck a chord with me.

The Cage is all about timbre and a kind of Eastern-influenced “philosophy”—Zen, as taught to him by Daisetz Suzuki.

John Cage’s Nocturne for violin and piano

And the Wolpe?

Wolpe’s “Second” piece is in stark contrast to his “Piece in Two Parts,” also for solo violin: about a fifth in length, a humorous little thing. Cubist, if you want, in its abstraction.

You also are passionate about the Martino works.


Advertisement


His “Fantasy-Variations” should be a classic for violinists interested in music of its period. It’s highly challenging in its technical demands, but always with a tremendous sense of freedom and drama. For its second incarnation of the Competition for American Music, sponsored first by the Kennedy Center, then by Carnegie Hall—and now extinct—I managed to get it on a list of six mandatory works from which participants were to choose one. The “Romanza” could not be more different: all wistful lyricism, rediscovering the octave in his language, again with tremendous sophistication in phrasing and melodic invention.

Describe the challenging Carter Duo.

It’s for two protagonists who never in the entire work play a single attack together. It starts out with a long recitative for the violin, with quicksilver changes in mood, from tenero to espressivo to ruvido, just to name a few, over long sustained harmonies in the piano, which slowly joins in the discourse, dancing at times in scherzando mode. After roiling build-ups, there comes a pointillistic section à la Webern, if you want, eventually leading to a cataclysmic climax in which the violin “snaps,” goes fairly out of control, with the piano initially commenting on the madness of the violinist—sort of like in the “Kreutzer” Sonata—and little by little receding into the background, so that the violinist has the stage all to himself at the end, a bit like Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape.” An extraordinary work, really, one that Carter was very proud of.

You had a long association with Carter.

My “association” with him began with my work on the Duo in 1974—I had heard the première, played by Paul Zukofsky, and did not really care for it that much. On a tour in Germany that fall, I began to look at the piece whenever I had a moment and began to see many beauties, leading eventually to easily 30 or more performances, most of them with Ursula Oppens, and two recordings, the other later one on Bridge Records with Martin Goldray. Elliott was very generous and supportive—he had me over for dinner often, where I met Pierre Boulez, Charles Rosen, Heinz Holliger, to name but a few. I played much of his music, all the way to the end of his life—not only the “Fantasy—Remembering Roger,” but also “Mnemosyné” for solo violin as well, and “Duettino” and “Duettone” with cello. The first two were dedicated to me, and  the last two were dedicated to Fred Sherry.


Advertisement


What do these works have in common?

The commonality between these works is their quality—their common pursuit of “serious” music, nothing frivolous about it. Their pairing obvious and co-related: these composers all knew and appreciated each other, all in their own way!

What would you like the listener to take away from this CD?

I’m not going to beat my drum, but these are fine performances of some of the best music this country has produced in this time frame. Of course, there are some others, but this gives a good idea what the second half of the last century was all about, kind of like the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Lowell. But I do not ever want to dictate what reactions people should have, or how they should listen to these pieces—the visceral impact of it, the poetry, should speak for itself.

Are you pleased with the result?

Yes, I would say I can be pleased with the final result, thanks to David Walters, who did a yeoman’s job in editing the recorded materials, down to the tiniest little details, and my pursuit of “perfection.”