In a massive hall, four open strings can suddenly become an Everest to climb in one’s mind
I tend to practise in short bursts of 45 minutes to an hour, and I try to do two or three of these a day. If I’m on tour or travelling to concerts abroad – as I was on Monday and Tuesday morning this week – I have to steal an hour or two at the concert hall around the rehearsal.
My warm-up is important. I run through some basic scales and some octave and arpeggio slides that Menuhin showed me. Then I play unaccompanied Bach cold to get my muscles thinking immediately about musical expression. I might also play some etudes if I have time. I use exercises from various systems – Shradieck, Ševčík and Kreutzer for basic technique, also Bron and Dounis. One Dounis exercise involves moving all four left-hand fingers independently of one another! To warm up my bow arm, I might also play a piece with bariolage by the Baroque composer Westhoff. You have to produce a continuous sound while executing slight changes in position with the left hand, and the only way to do it is with smooth bow-crossings. Paganini’s First Caprice involves the same principle.
This week is unusual because I have no concerts from Wednesday to Sunday. On Wednesday I spend the whole morning revisiting the Berg Violin Concerto for an upcoming concert in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. I practise some of the double-stopping passages – the sliding and shifting in my warm-up is great for those. I also practise some of the faster passages by slowing them down and employing dotted rhythms and reverse dotted rhythms, and playing the first note slowly and the rest fast, and vice versa. I also find practising at half speed is a great help. It’s an amazing exercise in control and when you speed up again you have the feeling that the fundamentals of the piece are deeply rooted inside you.
I look at two passages in particular that require precision, power and nerve: the famous leap at the beginning of the second part of the concerto, and the passage going into the Bach chorale. I also practise the four open strings at the beginning of the piece. What could be easier than four open strings, you might think. But in a massive hall those four open strings can suddenly become an Everest to climb in one’s mind. I have to choose the right bowings and look at how I control the bow so that the first legato is just endless. In the afternoon I listen to recordings of the Berg concerto, particularly Krasner’s recording of 1936.
From about 10am to 12pm and 5pm to 7pm each day from Thursday to Sunday, I look at the Bach Double, Vivaldi Double, Mendelssohn Octet and an Arvo Pärt piece for violin and strings for a concert in Lucerne the following week. Then when I put the violin away, I do some score reading, mark up parts and prepare myself for the rehearsals because I’m directing the ensemble from the fiddle.
Photo: Harald Hoffmann/Deutsche Grammophon