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 Interview, Liza Ferschtman on Bernstein and Korngold

Liza FerschtmanThe Dutch violinist Liza Ferschtman has kicked off 2018 with her own personal homage to Leonard Bernstein (whose centenary falls this year), performing his Serenade after Plato’s Symposium in ten major venues across Europe and the United States; her tenth album for Challenge Classics (out at the end of this month) pairs the work with Korngold’s Violin Concerto, which was premiered seven years earlier and shares much of what Liza describes as the ‘heart-on-sleeve’ quality of Bernstein’s music. I had a chat with Liza whilst she visited London recently for a recital at the Wigmore Hall (reviewing the performance, The Independent remarked that ‘Ferschtman’s command of texture and colour is remarkable’), in which we touched on her early encounters with the music of Bernstein and Korngold, Bernstein’s writing for the violin, and the kinship between the two composers…

Bernstein's Serenade hovers somewhere between concerto and chamber work - where do you think it fits?

I see it as a chamber work for sure - but actually I try to approach everything I play with orchestra from a chamber-music point of view, just because it makes the style of music-making so much more collaborative. Bernstein provides ample material for that, but at the same time he’s definitely written it in a concertante way: the violin is obviously centre-stage, there’s no question about that, but he uses the instrumentation so intricately and in such a way that each part is challenging for the orchestra. It’s really something to get their teeth into, and you’re both working hard!

Bernstein didn’t compose a great deal of music which showcases the violin: how do you find his writing for the instrument?

He really does know how to write for strings: there are some technical challenges, of course, but it would be boring if there weren’t! I think Isaac Stern had quite a bit of input (the published version includes his fingerings), but Bernstein’s general knowledge of instrumentation was already so great that he really knows what works and what doesn’t – in terms of balancing the soloist with the orchestra there are barely any problems.

You mention Stern's association with the piece - how closely did you study the recording he made with Bernstein?

I did listen to the Stern recording when I was preparing the piece, but eventually you have to let that go and develop your own personal relationship with the music and not try to copy. I first heard Serenade on the radio quite a few years ago, and within a few bars I thought ‘Wow, what a piece!’. I instantly fell in love with it because it has a very unique voice and a very unique style: my immediate reaction wasn’t ‘Oh, this must be Bernstein!’, because it’s not that obvious West Side Story-type of writing. It was only years later that I finally got a chance to play it, and to go through that much more in-depth process of really getting to know the musical language. What really struck me then was the way Bernstein treats some of the bigger tuttis: the big climax in the fourth movement could almost be described as sentimental, but at the same time he does it with such pathos that it simply has to be taken seriously. If you watch Bernstein conducting Mahler or any Romantic repertoire, you will see straight away what he wants there: there should be no fear of bad taste.

You touched on how different the sound-world is from that of West Side Story…Bernstein was working on another music-theatre score, Candide, at the same time as writing this piece – do you think they exist in completely different spaces or do you see any sort of kinship between the Serenade and Candide?

There is certainly some kinship, particularly in the last movement where he goes into outright swing, but I think most of it really has its own unique non-definable style that is not ‘popular’ at all. For me he had the perfect balance between the two, where he’s able to write with flair and humour and swing without for a moment compromising just to please: there’s a lot of quite heart-on-sleeve writing but at the same time he manages to do that extremely subtly. There are very few pieces that have such a beautiful opening melody, which is not actually a straightforward melody at all – it’s so tender and speaking at the same time. I clearly remember hearing that opening for the very first time and thinking ‘Wow, who could that possibly be?!’.

Going back to that 'heart-on-sleeve quality', I've heard that same phrase used rather a lot in relation to the Korngold Concerto – do you see many parallels between the two works?

When I was writing my little introduction for the booklet-notes I realised that both of these pieces really speak about love - Bernstein in the literal sense of using Plato’s Symposium as his inspiration (although he’s very adamant about making clear that it’s not programmatic, it still played an important role). When my sound-engineers and I were working on the Korngold I remember us saying ‘It’s so generous!’. It exudes this embracing generosity, which for me is linked to loving and giving whatever you have to give.

Another important parallel is that Korngold was, like Bernstein, a ‘serious’ composer - starting out as this wunderkind writing incredible music in Vienna, and then coming to America and in a way creating the ultimate ‘Hollywood Sound’. You occasionally hear people speak with a certain disdain about this ‘kitschy’ sound: but it’s not kitsch, it’s so genuine and generous! Korngold made this sound, he didn’t copy it, and I always get the sense that these are sincere feelings that he’s playing out. The Violin Concerto is definitely influenced by that Hollywood sound, but I think he had a way of using it that doesn’t come across as cheap; both he and Bernstein really know how to reach for the heart and grab it, but they never abuse or exploit that. And that’s what ties them together for me, this talent for treading the very fine line between popular writing and immense musical sophistication: if you analyse things like the subtlety of instrumentation and phrasing, how the melodic material is used and re-used and turned around, they really knew what they were doing on the highest level. And then to be able to combine that with this open-hearted generosity – well, I find that a really rare combination.

Finally, do you remember your first ever exposure to Bernstein's music?

Oh, it must have been West Side Story! I think I saw it in a movie-theatre - when I was a child in Holland my local cinema occasionally did screenings of operatic movies, and my parents often took me along. With Korngold I remember that I used to watch the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood over and over again when I was little, without realising it was anything to do with Korngold. Then many years later, somewhere in an illegal DVD store in China, I found a copy of the film and it was only when I turned it around and looked at the back cover that I realised that he wrote the music!

Liza Ferschtman (violin) Prague Symphony Orchestra, Het Gelders Orkest, Jiri Malat, Christian Vasquez

Liza Ferschtman's recording of Bernstein and Korngold is released on Challenge Classics on 16th March.

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC