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Ida Haendel on Bach's Chaconne

The great violinist offered her insights into the work for our May 2010 issue

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Chaconne may be one of the greatest masterpieces ever composed, although we can’t really say that because we can’t compare one piece to another. But it’s close to expressing everything about life: the tragedy, the sadness, the melancholy, the mystery.  There is such mystique in the notes and the structure is incredible. It starts in the minor key, there is a bit of relief in the middle – a little sunshine – and then it goes back to the minor for a melancholy, hopeless ending. Every note is masterful.

I began to play the piece when I was a child. I felt the drama and tragedy by instinct and that’s the way I went on playing it. I studied it with Carl Flesch and played it like everybody else until I met one of the great musicians – Enescu. Only then did I learn what music really means. He said to me, ‘All of these embellishments and decorations are not Bach. The skeleton is what you have to concentrate on.’ He made me remove everything that was a decoration. He inspired me to play the Chaconne and everything by Bach in this way. The simplicity and the intricacy of it is fascinating, but it is so difficult to really express it and make it speak without any embellishment.

Interpretation

Some people play it in a personal way – I don’t. There are some works where you are free to do whatever you want, to be absolutely personal with taste – Ravel and Sarasate, for example – but Bach is pure. The only way to interpret it is to be as close to the composer and his intentions as possible. If one says, ‘That’s how I feel’, you can’t be right – you only have to feel the way it’s composed. A young man asked me, ‘What is the correct interpretation of this work?’ I told him: ‘Well, you have the score in front of you. Here are the notes, work on it yourself and see what’s the closest to that notion of the music, what it means not only to you, but to the whole world. Because this is the whole world.’ When you start learning something you have to go step by step. You have to get to know the structure to understand it. Everyone is different and evaluates things according to their personality.

Everything is an imitation of life, be it a sculpture, theatre, painting, acting – except music. Every note that is composed by a composer is unique, so it’s impossible to explain music. You have ears and a soul, and that’s how you look at it.

I would not dare to say that there’s only one way of playing the Chaconne, but I have a concept in my mind, and I try to play it like this every time. Nobody can guarantee that it’s going to be the same every time, though. We’re all human and every move we make changes the sound.

First line

We have the chords that Bach has embellished, but if you take the theme by itself, it’s just as fascinating and moving – it’s so simple. It’s important to project the line without any shade or anything to disturb the gist of it. It is wonderful without any interference. People break the chords because it’s difficult to play them in one go. I try to play it as an organist or a pianist would, not just to accommodate myself by breaking the chords into little pieces. I want people to hear the whole sentence, not just a little part of it.

The middle section

The major section is a relief from everything that’s going on – a little sunshine. But in spite of the major it’s still melancholy. It’s like being in church – holy. It’s the only phrase in the whole of the Chaconne that gives you the sense of a cloud dispersing with a tiny bit of sunshine, like someone saying, ‘There is still hope in life’. Then it goes back to the drama and shadows of the whole piece – it reverts to the minor. It’s as if one is going back to reality, the melancholy hopelessness and the drama of this work and life in general.

High points

You have to find for yourself what you think is the climax, the highest point of the composition. As in any Bach, there is not just one climax, but you have to select what you think is the highest point: that’s what each one of us is doing.

The ending

Some violinists think it’s a triumphant ending and play it with a crescendo, but I see it as the very opposite. When I play the last note I play a diminuendo, as if it’s going right into the ground.

Tempo

I would like to play it the same way every time because that’s the way I conceive it, but I’m sure that I don’t. This applies even to tempo – we think we’ve got one tempo in our heads, but if someone timed me it wouldn’t be the same every time. The description of me is that my performance of the Chaconne is the slowest in the business. But time is of the essence. If you play it quickly you can’t express what’s in this great work, so I take time to play every note. Each one is like a jewel and is so important that I dare not miss anything.

Some treat Bach as a virtuoso exercise, trying to outplay others, playing very quickly to show off their advanced violin playing. This does not impress me. What’s the most difficult part of being a ballerina? The slow tempo, not the fast dancing; the adagio, not running around the stage. It’s the same with violin playing. To play fast, it’s over before you know it and nobody can even pinpoint what’s wrong when it goes so quickly. The real problem for violinists is control of the adagio.

Dynamics

Every time I play any work, not only the Chaconne, I discover things I missed yesterday, so it’s a never-ending journey. The meaning, the phrasing – I hear it sometimes by accident. I listen to myself and think, ‘I missed that crescendo yesterday, when it should be there.’ In general I am respectful of dynamics, but if there is none given by the composer we have to be guided by what is appropriate to the music. You are guided by your ears, by the drama. Sometimes you have to express it violently, sometimes you have to be very cautious and mystical and start playing pianissimo, but it all depends on the melody.

Sometimes the melody in this piece is a little bit obscure and we have to find it within the chords. You have to voice them, playing the melody louder so that the listener can distinguish it. If you want to express something theatrically you use your voice with more strength. This brings people’s ears to the emphasis ­– this is what they have to listen for. With the arpeggio chords you also have to emphasise the line so that the listener knows that it’s all about that.

Vibrato

Vibrato has to be discreet when you play Bach – it’s not a gypsy piece where you can try to impress people with a lot of it. Some think that in those days there was no vibrato, but we’ve gone too far with the notion of playing without vibrato. I’m against excessive vibrato, though. Some people have vibrato that is slow or obvious, which becomes a little vulgar.  Vibrato should be discreet, whatever you play, and particularly in works of that century. Vibrato is important because it gives you colour and warmth, but a note without vibrato can be just as moving, if you know how to use the bow.

Rubato

If you play Zigeunerweisen you can allow yourself rubato, but in Classical works I’d be careful with it and I’m very respectful of the Chaconne. Many players don’t hear their own rubato or they think it’s indicated or allowed to be used at any time. You have to be very selective – we all use rubato without even being aware of it. Some players use it to facilitate things that are difficult, but the challenge is not to allow oneself the luxury of slowing down just because it’s difficult. I do the reverse – if something‘s difficult I purposely don’t use rubato.

Rhythm is one of the most important issues in music. Very few people have the mastery of being rhythmical if they have technical problems, so they sacrifice the rhythm to accommodate their technique. I’m aware of that and don’t use that as an excuse – I wouldn’t make a rallentando or decrescendo just to suit myself. I’m very strict with myself in a piece of this calibre.

Technical perfection

You have to be a master of your instrument to be able to convey everything in the score, especially because of the chords. You have to play them with good intonation and cleanly. It’s not just the left hand involved – it’s the bow. Some people say that technical perfection isn’t important, that it doesn’t matter if you miss a note, but I disagree. It’s difficult to be perfect, but we have to try. Every note is a link to another note. It’s like explaining something: if you look at some literature, how can you tell what it means if some of the words are missing? It’s the same with music. Every note is of importance to connect to the others. It’s not only a technical feat, but a musical expression. We have to be as correct as possible because of the connection of one note to the other, one phrase to next.

Playing by memory

When you start performing the Chaconne, the concentration and drama is so intense you don’t even notice the length of the piece. Performing is so fulfilling and you can go on playing without feeling tired. I play nearly everything by memory, which is a gift. Some people are able to memorise quickly and some can’t, but memory isn’t everything. You can give an amazing performance using the score. The wonderful pianist Sviatoslav Richter always used a score. Who cares, as long as the rendering is fantastic?

Self-criticism

The great art of music making is being capable of listening to yourself in a critical way so that you can distinguish what you are doing in regard to phrasing, vibrato and technique in every bar. You have to listen to yourself as if from a distance, as you would listen to someone else playing. To be self-critical is one of the greatest arts.

Interview by Ariane Todes

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