Joseph Joachim: The Most Influential Violinist
Violinist Daniel Hope tells Time Out about his homage to the hugely influential Romantic-era virtuoso Joseph Joachim
In the annals of late-Romantic violin repertoire there is one name that dominates. Through his advice, editing and performance, the virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim (pronounced 'Yo-ach-heem') was literally instrumental in the success of the now revered concertos of Brahms and Bruch, to name but two.
In fact, so influential was he that his modern-day counterpart, violinist Daniel Hope, has recorded a CD of Joachim-related works, including pieces dedicated to him and two of his own compositions. Hope is also playing some of these at a concert on Thursday (March 3) at LSO St Luke's.
Born into a Jewish family in Hungary, Joachim learned violin in his home town of Pest, his technique fully developed by the age of 12, when he started studying with Felix Mendelssohn. And it was the German composer, himself a former child prodigy, who brought Joachim to England as a small boy to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto with him and caused a sensation. Over his long life (1831-1907) Joachim's influence was extraordinary - he went on to play for Liszt in Weimar, later splitting with him and his 'New German School' to side with Brahms and the Schumanns and their observance of more conventional musical forms. He became regarded as the first 'ascetic violinist', holding a belief in the absolute purity of music and his subservience to composers and their music above his own virtuosity. And, notably, it was he who introduced Brahms to Robert and Clara Schumann; the latter even embroidered a piano cover for him.
How did you come across Joachim?
'As a violinist you are forced into contact with him because the moment you pick up the music for either the Bruch or the Brahms Concertos, you see his name on the title page as dedicatee or editor. But when it really struck me was listening to records. My father gave me Pearl LPs, the earliest musical recordings. There was a bunch of violinists on the old wax recordings and he was among them. I would listen to this golden age of great virtuosos - Joachim, Ysäye, Sarasate - and was always struck by his tone. The others were very fruity, lush and romantic, and Joachim wasn't. He was very pure, distinguished and noble, and yet very moving.'
Where does he stand in the world of the late Romantic period?
'He is an absolute linchpin. The greatest violin concertos exist because of him. We have the Bruch and the Brahms, the Dvorák, the Schumann and the Brahms Double Concerto. That is an enormous amount of literature and some of the finest music ever written, and it is all dedicated to him. It is also edited and adapted, changed and inspired by him. At one point he was very close to Liszt, and had he stayed in Weimar as concert-master in Liszt's orchestra, we might have had a violin concerto by Liszt and possibly by Wagner. But he left and moved over to the Schumann school. Thus, we have Schumann, Brahms and Dvorák concertos rather than Liszt and Wagner. So he changed the course of musical history as well.'
What did he bring to those pieces?
'I have been reading eye-witness accounts, and I think, first and foremost, the performance itself. Take the Beethoven Concerto. The piece was an absolute failure when premiered in 1806 and was almost booed off the stage. Considered a technical exercise, it is basically full of scales and arpeggios… and it took 12-year-old Joachim and Mendelssohn, who was conducting, to reach into the piece and see what one could make of it. There's freedom in his phrasing - you never heard an arpeggio or a scale, you heard a phrase, a story being told. Contemporaries said the second movement sounded as though he was improvising, it was so free.'
Does editing by a performer always make for a better concerto?
'Yes, with the greatest possible respect for all of those composers,
I can still say that without Joachim those pieces would not be as good as they are. It is not a question of telling these composers to write different harmonies, or necessarily to change the notes (although occasionally he did), but it is taking the best of them and turning them into a violinistic vehicle. Joachim goes into such detail in Bruch and Brahms on how one can “improve” those pieces and I really think he did.'
And your experience?
'I have had the great privilege to work with 30 or 40 composers on pieces written for me or which I have helped to premiere. And sometimes the interpreter has a different take on it. You can see what the composer wants to achieve but how it needs a slightly different accent on it in order for it to be understood, and by applying that accent in a violinistic way you can help the composer achieve the goal he is reaching for. And no one did that better than Joseph Joachim.'
Daniel Hope pays tribute to Joseph Joachim in a recital at LSO St Luke's at 1pm on Thurs March 3, 2011. His CD 'The Romantic Violinist: a Celebration of Joseph Joachim' is released this week on Deutsche Grammophon.