By Greg Cahill | From the March-April 2023 issue of Strings magazine
Arabella Steinbacher has said that hearing the slow movement of Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041, at age four inspired her to become a musician. So it’s no surprise that she has included that seminal work on this exquisite recording of music by J.S. Bach and Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in a pairing she calls a personal double-portrait of two sacred and spiritual composers. “I remember very well how I felt while playing the amazing second movement of this concerto. It was a mixture of deep happiness, calmness, and confidence that is hard to describe in words,” she recalls of her initial encounter with Bach’s A minor Violin Concerto. “I also remember that I could see myself in the mirror of the grand piano of my father because I was still so small.”
The new recording also includes Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major, BWV 1042, and the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043, on which she is joined by Christoph Koncz, the principal violinist of the Vienna Philharmonic. The Bach concertos are bookended by two of Pärt’s most spiritual pieces: Fratres (for violin, string orchestra, and percussion) and Spiegel im Spiegel (for violin and piano, with Peter von Wienhardt).
On this recording, Steinbacher plays the 1744 “Sainton” Guarneri del Gesù, provided by a private Swiss foundation. For the Bach Double, she used a François Tourte bow provided by that same foundation; for the rest of the program she used her own bow by Johann Christian Süss.
How did you prepare for this recording?
After all preparations that I do in advance, my intention for each concert and recording is always “switching off” the controlling thoughts and just letting the music flow.
These are difficult times for performers
and recording artists, due to Covid restrictions. Were there obstacles to overcome on these sessions?
By the time of this recording, fortunately, there were no heavy restrictions anymore, and finally we were able just to enjoy making music together.
What would you like the listener to take away from this recording?
I wish that this music would influence the listener in the same way it does me, and brings them back to their inner selves, away from all the craziness that is going on in this world.
Are you using Baroque tuning?
No. Honestly, it confuses me totally in regard to intonation if I use Baroque tuning. I better leave it to the experts.
In addition to your fondness for Baroque music, you’ve had a nearly 20-year association with 20th-century composers—Pärt, Khachaturian, Britten, and Hindemith, among others—even at a time when concert programmers were ignoring them. Why has that been important to you?
The energy of 20th-century music always fascinated me because of the wide range of possibilities in interpretation and freedom, which is not always “allowed” in that way in the classical repertoire.
What led you to pair Pärt and Bach at this time?
Although their music is so different from each other, both composers have a sacral and spiritual origin in common. Their music takes me back to myself and brings me peace every time I play it.
Pärt’s Fratres is quite a workout—an epic 12-minute composition with a wide dynamic range. What were the technical challenges of this work?
At the first impression, Fratres doesn’t seem too challenging technically, but to hold the long mental breathing and inner calmness requires a lot of endurance. Especially at times like today, where we are jumping so quickly from one point to the next, I find it extremely healing to play this music.
How would you describe the emotional tone of this piece and how you approach it?
The beginning is very emotional when it increases into total ecstasy, but as soon as the percussion enters, the time stands still and only being exists. It’s pure meditation.
Your playing in the upper registers is so expressive—it’s a great challenge for many to play in the upper registers with so much musicality. How did you master that?
Thank you for this kind compliment. When I practice high passages on the G string, I let my left arm hang with the whole weight, so that it is completely relaxed. Then the sound becomes fuller and warmer by itself without forcing.
Had you worked with Koncz before? You certainly have musical chemistry.
Christoph is a dear friend of mine and although it was the first time for us to work together, it matched musically immediately.
How did you prepare for the Double Concerto?
Actually, we met a few weeks before the recording on Skype to discuss a few things like tempi and dynamics, although playing together is not really possible through this tool. Overall, we had similar ideas, and all went harmoniously during the recording session.
Were you pleased with the results?
All together, yes, as we had a fantastic team from Pentatone and, of course, the wonderful musicians from Stuttgarter Kammerorchester. On the other hand, is a musician ever really completely pleased with her own playing?