The Barefoot Contessa of the Violin

Sometimes I’m a bit behind other critics in discovering exceptional classical talents, in part because I have a much wider range of musical interests. But this was even true when I was younger in discovering primarily Eastern European greats who were not big names in the United States. It was only in the mid-to-late 1980s that I heard of Bronislaw Huberman, the outstanding Polish-Jewish violinist whose work was wildly praised in Eastern Europe but barely accepted outside of it because of his “sweet and sour tone” (he constantly alternated straight tone, then considered a sin in violin playing, with a melting vibrato and used very broad portamento at times), but once I discover someone who lights a fire in my mind I investigate all aspects of their career and seek out as many recordings as I can.

As it turns out, I already had a recording by Patricia Koptchinskaja in my collection, the Schumann Violin Concerto with the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Heinz Holliger in his set of that composer’s complete orchestral works, but although I liked the recording her playing did not stand out in my mind in any particular way. After all, there are at least a hundred violinists out there all butting heads and trying to get on the “A” circuit as soloists, and the majority of them are excellent musicians (and a few, besides Kopatchinskaja, are outstanding), but it was her recent recording as a speaker in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire that finally caught my attention—and not just for Pierrot. I was dazzled and a bit shocked by her unorthodox phrasing in the Schoenberg Phantasy and other works on that CD, and wanted to hear more by her.

And oh boy, did I discover a treasure trove!

It turns out that Kopatchinskaja has been playing professionally since the late 1990s and is a superstar in Europe. Her appearances in the United States, however, have only come since 2019 and, of course, her career, like everyone else’s, has been curtailed by the Monster In the Air, Covid-19.

Yet to listen to her, and watch her in YouTube videos, you’ll be completely captivated even if you find her unorthodox approach a bit unnerving, because Koptachinskaja, like Huberman before her (and, to a lesser but similar extent, Joseph Szigeti who enjoyed a bit more acceptance and success in the U.S.A.), plays every piece of music as if her life depended on it. And I mean that literally. To watch her perform, which she usually does in a black pants suit with openings at the shoulders, barefoot and occasionally using a small Gay Pride Flag as a shoulder rest (when she plays the Tchaikovsky Concerto), is to watch an absolute dynamo in action. Sometimes, when making her stage entrance, she holds her violin up high over her head as jazz musician Dexter Gordon did his tenor saxophone, and for the same reason. They felt that the instruments they were playing deserved part of the applause. But once the piece starts, Kopatchinskaya is all business…or, perhaps one should say, all emotion. Although she watches the conductor for cues, her eyes are a bit glazed over, staring into space. Every little turn of phrase is accompanied by an emotional reaction in her face. Her usual concert garb is a black pants suit, plain except for the openings at the top of the sleeves just beneath her shoulders. Most of the time, she performs barefoot, although I did catch one concert on YouTube in which she was wearing bedroom slippers (it was a sweltering summer day, and perhaps the hot wooden stage burned her feet).

Our barefoot Contessa, playing the Shostakovich Concerto No. 1 with conductor Thomas Dausgaard

So what has been the criticism of her? One thing only, and that is her unconventional phrasing. Like a few great musicians with similar ideals before her, particularly like Toscanini, Kopatchinskaja plays her repertoire in terse phrases. There is no lingering, and at times her phrasing is rhetorical (meaning that she accents certain notes for emphasis). This unsettles many listeners who are used to the plush, comfortable-sounding tones of Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham, Rachel Barton Pine and dozens of other big-name violinists. Kopatchinskaja, with her lean sonority and edgy bowing—occasionally, she even makes a scratchy or disturbing sound on her instrument to emphasize the emotion of the music—does not sit well with them. I found several comments from listeners on YouTube complaining about her “eccentricity,” but the only thing eccentric about Kopatchinskaja is her all-out emotional commitment to every note she plays. And in this respect, along with her penchant for brisk tempi, she is very much the artistic great-grandchild of Huberman, the violinist who knocked Johannes Brahms sideways when, at age 13, he played that composer’s Violin Concerto in his presence.

As it turns out, she is like Huberman in another way. The Polish violinist was an outspoken advocate of a United Europe in the mold of the United States as well as a fierce advocate for human rights. In fact, one of the criticisms of him was that he would use his concert appearances as a platform for talking to his audience about these things before he started playing.

In a February 2016 guest editorial in The Guardian,[1] Kopatchinskaja laid out her artistic and professional credo. As someone who grew up in the tail end of the Soviet Union, she is a fierce defender of the rights of the individual against the masses as well as a tireless advocate of modern music. Indeed, one reason why she may not be so well liked is that she plays far less conventional sonatas and concerti than her fellow-violinists but would rather play entire concerts filled with the music of such offbeat composers as Péter Eötvös, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, John Zorn, György Kurtág and one of her favorites—but one of the audience’s least favorite—Galina Ustvolskaya, the dark angel of Russian music who Kopatchinskaja actually got to meet in 1999.

As she put it in the Guardian article:

…can we know about peace if we know nothing about war? Would white make sense without black? Would health be appreciated by someone who’s never been ill? Could beauty be seen in a world of universally polished and shining surfaces? And would such a perfect world allow longing – longing for poetry, composing, for asking, or searching for the things beyond? Or would such a perfectly polished and beautiful world not be rather one-dimensional, and boringly kitsch?

Kopatchinskaja’s background was full of music. Her father Viktor was a virtuoso cimbalom player who led an orchestra in the Soviet Union. He was a superstar behind the Iron Curtain, playing nearly 300 concerts a year including a gala concert in the Kremlin every year with singers and dancers. Her mother Emilia was a classical violinist and violist who gave young Patricia (born in May 1977) her first lessons at the age of six. Eventually the family fled from the Soviet Union to Vienna, where Patricia continued her studies, finishing them in Bern, Switzerland where she now lives. She has often complained of the old-fashioned artistic views that were pushed in the Soviet Union during her time there—even Stravinsky was considered too modern in the 1980s—and this is part of the reason she seeks out as much modern music as she can.

Because of her intense personality onstage, some scribes have nicknamed her the “wild child of classical music,” but she did not and does not set out to be an exhibitionist. She is simply a very intense and highly committed artist who finds in classical music, and particularly in contemporary works, a means for her personal expression. She lives every note that she plays as intensely as if she had written those works herself. Her best friends are living composers; her days are taken up with practicing, learning music and more practicing, although she has now been happily married for 20 years to a neurosurgeon and has a 10-year-old daughter.

For Kopatchinskaja her music is her life, and she wants to communicate what she feels in it to as many others as she can. And she certainly has me hooked. Below are links to the performances that have impressed and moved me the most.

VIVALDI: String Concerto in D, “Grosso mogul,” RV 208 / with Il Giardino Armonica

We start with Vivaldi, music you wouldn’t necessarily associate with Kopatchinskaja simply because it is generally cheerful and light-hearted (this concerto was used later by J.S. Bach). But as soon as she enters the picture, the level of intensity rises. she plays it like a Moldavian hoedown.

TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35: I. Allegro moderato; II. Canzonetta: Andante; III. Finale: Allegro vivacissimo / with MusicAeterna, cond. Teodor Currentzis

This CD, as usual, elicited comments ranging from “absolutely amazing” to “CD from hell: Currentzis and Kopatchinskaja Play From Their Bowels.” Another critic called Kopatchinskaja and Currenzis “Rebels Without a Cause.” But they DO have a cause, and that is to restore the gutsy Russian-ness to Tchaikovsky’s concerto that has been missing in action since Huberman himself last performed it with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1946. This is the most exhilarating recording of it since Huberman’s own 1929 account with William Steinberg, only in much better sound. And, as Huberman famously said to a skeptic who thought he took the third movement far too fast, “Let’s go eat lunch in a Russian restaurant nearby that has a small band. If they don’t play the theme from the last movement of this concerto, or something very much like it, at the same tempo, I lose the bet.” Huberman won, and so did Kopatchinskaja, and so do we.

STRAVINSKY: Violin Concerto / with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, cond. Andrés Orozco-Estrada

Stravinsky’s cool neo-Classicism gets a from-the-gut Russian treatment here, and Orozco-Estrada’s conducting backs her up fully.

SCHUMANN: Violin Concerto. KURTÁG: Hommage à Mihály András / SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, cond. Christoph von Eschenbach

Kopatchinskaja recorded this concerto with Heinz Holliger, who she admires, and the WDR Sinfonieorchester, but that reading somehow emerged a bit coolly. This is a let-it-all-hang-out performance, with Eschenbach playing one of Schumann’s piano pieces (albeit one that uses a similar theme) between the first and second movements at Kopatchinskaja’s insistence. Kurtág’s Hommage à Mihály András follows the concerto via the same hyperlink.

BARTÓK: Violin Concerto No. 2 / with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orch., cond. Sakari Oramo

Another stupendous performance, this time with conductor (and fellow violinist) Sakari Oramo, with whom she is quite friendly, as well as with his wife, the superb coloratura soprano Anu Komsi with whom she has performed Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments several times.

EÖTVÖS: DoReMi, Violin Concerto No. 2 / with Peter Eötvös conducting the SWR Symphonieorchester – Sept. 2016

As with several other living composers, Kopatchinskaja is on very friendly terms with Peter Eötvös, who conducts her here in one of his most interesting works. The late Michael Gielen molded the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg into a wonderfully responsive instrument which was used to performing modern music along with the old. The combination is magical.

K.A. HARTMANN: Concerto Funèbre: I. Introduction – Largo; II. Adagio; III. Allegro di molto; IV. Choral: Langsamer Marsch / with Camerata Bern

This stunning performance of Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Concerto Funèbre was part of an Alpha Classics CD that, as usual, I was never offered for review. (My former employer thought of me solely as a Beethoven-Chopin-Liszt kind of gal. I wasn’t.) On the same CD was John Zorn’s somewhat interesting Kol Nidre and the even more stunning Polyptyque, written in 1973 for Yehudi Menuhin. Although the Alpha recording of Polyptyque is quite good, I actually prefer the live performance that Kopatchinskaja gave with the good ol’ SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg under the direction of Gérard Korsten on June 14, 2013, which you can access HERE.

TURNAGE: Dialogue for Violin, Cello & Orchestra, Percussion, Harp & Piano / with Sol Gabetta, cellist; Gstaad Festival Orch., cond. Kristjan Järvi – Aug, 15, 2015

The world premiere performance of an excellent piece by Mark-Anthony Turnage. Watching the video also shows you what an unselfish colleague Kopatchinskaja is, giving her all to the music and not caring about how often she’s on camera.

LIGETI: Violin Concerto / Ensemble Modern; Peter Eötvös, cond

A strange, dark work which Kopatchinskaja makes even darker with her intense interpretation. I consider this to be the definitive recording.

MARTIN: Polyptyque, 6 Images of the Passion of Christ / SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg; Gérard Korsten, cond

The last great work written by the masterful but still-undervalued Swiss Huguenot composer Frank Martin. Strangely, the world premiere was given in 1973 by none other than Yehudi Menuhin, but Patricia’s interpretation is extremely intense. I personally prefer this performance to the commercial recording she made with Camerata Bern.

BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata No. 7 in c min., Op. 30 / with Joonas Ahonen, pianist

Now we’re into chamber music, one of Patricia’s favorite venues, and we start with her highly original and inspired conception of al old chestnut. Joonas Ahonen, who is one of her favorite musicians, is the accompanist here.

ENESCU: Violin Sonata No. 3, Op. 25 / with Mihaela Ursuleasa, pianist

A not-so-unusual sonata played to perfection. I’m told by a reliable source that Mihaela Ursuleasa was another of her favorite musicians until her untimely death from a brain hemmorhage, and this is her most intense reading of the score.

SAY: Violin Sonata (1997) / with Fazil Say, pianist

Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say is another one of Patricia’s friends with whom she plays whenever they have an opening in their very busy schedules. This relatively short sonata is a real little gem, and one may consider this the definitive performance.

CAGE: Melody No. 4 / with Anthony Romaniuk, harpsichordist

My regular readers know that I’m not a fan of John Cage’s music—I consider him to have mostly been a fraud—but this is a surprisingly attractive piece and Kopatchinskaja lifts it up with her typically intense reading.

Patricia’s dad, Victor, and his cimbalom

RAVEL: Tzigane / with Victor Kopatchinsky, cimbalom

A rare performance by Patricia with her father, Victor, on cimbalom. The two of them produce a performance of almost overwhelming exhilaration. I’m sure that the same critic who hated her Tchaikovsky Concerto will hate this one, too. Screw him. Since the Tzigane is a Gypsy dance, you need to play it like Gypsies, and by God they do.

SCHUBERT: Violin Sonata in a min., D. 385 / with Fazil Say, pianist

BRAHMS: Violin Sonata No. 3 in d min. / with Fazil Say, pianist

BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata No. 9, “Kreutzer” / with Fazil Say, pianist

Three straight performances of standard repertoire sonatas with the wonderful Fazil Say on piano, but with these two musicians approaching them with fresh ears and a fresh perspective, don’t expect ordinary readings. The “Kreutzer” Sonata gives us a chance, like the Tchaikovsky Concerto, to directly compare Kopatchinskaja with Huberman, who left us not one but two recordings of it: a somewhat straightforward reading with pianist Siegfried Schultze from 1926 and a looser, more imaginative reading with Ignaz Friedman from 1929 (although neither artist know of these recordings when they made this disc). Kopatchinskaya is not quite as poetic as Huberman in the slow portions of this sonata, but she definitely has her own way of phrasing it, and the fast passages sizzle and smolder as they’re supposed to do. the Schubert is such a taut, exciting reading that you’ll be left wondering why you enjoyed anyone else’s performance of it.

USTVOLSKAYA: Sonata for Violin & Piano. Duo for Violin & Piano / with Markus Hinterhäuser, pianist

This is the video in which Kopatchinskaja is wearing slippers instead of going barefoot. The weather was hot, and the performance absolutely smoldering. You can see the continuous look of concentration on her face through every second of this bleak, despairing music that will take you to places in your soul you never knew existed. And when its done, the audience barely applauds. But who cares. This music is absolutely cathartic.

KURTÁG: Kafka Fragments (excerpts)

In this live performance from Tokyo, Kopatchinskaja didn’t have the luxury of working with Anu Komsi or in fact any other noted soprano, so she sings a bit of it herself along with her violin playing. Yes, I’d love to have a full performance with a great soprano, but I’ll take whan I can get, and this is extremely terse, fascinating music.

BARTÓK: Violin Sonata No. 2, Sz. 76 / with Polina Leschenko, pianist

We end our excursion of Kopatchinskaja’s artistry with another (sort of) repertoire piece, but in her hands it again becomes something extraordinary. You may never be able to listen to another violinist play this piece after hearing her rendition of it.

So there we have, I believe, the essence of Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s art in a nutshell—to which, of course, we need to add her astonishing Pierrot Lunaire disc which also includes her playing Johann Strauss, Schoenberg, Webern and Fritz Kreisler. Everything she touches is transformed, much like an earlier woman violinist, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, but Nadja always stuck to the tried-and-true classics while Patricia keeps searching for new and challenging works to play. I consider her a genius in every sense of the word, and hope you will, too.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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[1] https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/feb/05/patricia-kopatchinskaja-changing-minds-festival-schumann-kurtag

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One thought on “The Barefoot Contessa of the Violin

  1. Joe Pearce says:

    Thanks so much for introducing this wonderful violinist and aging enfant terrible to us.
    I wish I like ‘modern’ music more, so I guess I’ll just have to be content with her Tchaikovsky. Schumann and Vivaldi. But Vivaldi in bare feet – who could ask for anything more? Wonderful introductory article and coverage.

    Like

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