German violinist David Garrett talks to IDAGIO about the influences behind his new album of showstopper pieces, Iconic, inspired by legendary violinists of the 20th century.
What inspired you to return to Deutsche Grammophon now and make this classical album?
It feels strange when people call it ‘a return to classical music’ because every day for me includes going through the core repertoire, keeping my hands fit and my mind sharp. I realised it has been way too long since I recorded something classical, which was a bit of a shock. I usually like to alternate between classical and crossover albums to keep a good balance, and to invite the people who I play crossover for to listen to some classical music for the next season, so I was very excited when DG approached me about this album. I’ve been recording with Universal for many years – since I was thirteen – and so actually I feel the only return is returning to DG, not to classical.
The last classical album you did included very traditional music. How is this album slightly different?
I was prepared to do something very traditional, but I was actually pleasantly surprised when DG said they would really like me to do something special, something catchy, because we also live in the 21st century and want to connect to younger audiences. I have a huge fascination with the Golden Era of violinists: Milstein, Heifetz, Kreisler, Elman, Francescatti, Gitlis, Haendel, Oistrakh, Szeryng, Neveu, Hassid. They all had such wonderful pieces in their repertoire. When the first LPs came out, there were only a few minutes per side, so there was no way to record a Tchaikovsky first movement without turning the thing around. All the great artists therefore looked for the most beautiful and moving shorter pieces to reach a wider audience. Something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time is to bring back those beautiful ‘encore’ pieces; pieces which were actually very famous in the 20s, 30s and 40s. Let’s start that tradition again in the 21st century.
You’re calling upon that tradition, but the arrangements are quite contemporary aren’t they?
For me it was very important that each piece works as a duet, for classical guitar and violin. So, together with my guitarist in the studio, we were trying out all the pieces which I thought would work well as a duet for the album. If you look at a composer like Niccolò Paganini, who was a fantastic guitar player and wrote almost as much repertoire for classical guitar as for violin, his approach when he wrote or arranged music was to do the accompaniment first with the guitar and to always work with violin and guitar together. So that was my starting point for Iconic. Of course I knew in the end we would integrate an orchestra, but the starting point was always violin and guitar.
Can you tell us about your relationship with Franck van der Heijden, your guitarist?
Franck and I connected immediately in 2002 and have been working together ever since. Franck comes from a jazz background; I come from a classical background. Nevertheless, we’ve both evolved in many musical genres and he has done a lot of arrangements for symphony orchestra, including on my recording of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on Decca. We’ve been collaborating, both on classical and crossover, for a very long time.
Could you say a little about the other musicians on the album: how you chose them, what it was like to work with them?
I thought it would be great to do Ave Maria as a duet with a singer and, as I love to dream big, I approached Andrea Bocelli, who agreed not only to record it but also to film the process so that I could match it together with my video. The next person I contacted was my former teacher Itzhak Perlman, who I worked with at Juilliard for four years and of whom I am the biggest fan. For me he is God on the violin, so it was a little bit of a challenge to call him for the Shostakovich duo, because I wasn’t sure if I could emotionally recover if he said no. He was kind enough to write back ‘yes, absolutely, I would love to do it.’ I chose to do the Hora staccato with Till Brönner, another very good friend and wonderful musician. I wanted to ask someone coming from a jazz background because that music actually fits closer to the piece, which is very free and has a lot of tradition and folk dance music in it. DG also pitched in and suggested Cocomi for the final person, who I also worked with on her latest album. I thought four is enough; if it was more than that, it would be a different project.
You talked a little bit about how you were inspired by the repertoire of the Golden Age violinists. Can you say something about their general style of playing and how that inspired you?
From working with Perlman and with many other great violinists and artists in the past, I always ask: what is the most important thing when it comes to violin playing? Technique? No. Musicality? Yes, but also no. It’s your own identity. What are you going to do with what is written in the score? That makes a violinist search for their own identity, and that’s what was so wonderful in that era: every violinist had their own sound; their own vibrato; their own phrases; their own glissandi; their own way of interpreting. Everybody sounded different and music is supposed to be brought to life by an interpreter. You have to put something from yourself into the music (in the frame of what is written in the score), but you also have to look for who you are, and that’s a big risk. I find it troubling that this risk is not being taken these days by many young musicians. It should be. You have to be your own musician, and you should not only play for the critics sitting in the hall.
This album is a return to Deutsche Grammophon after a long time. What have you learnt in that interim period?
Everything! I was twelve when I signed with DG and thirteen when I recorded for them. I’ve learnt from playing with great talent and great instinct. When I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen I played from the heart. Then I learnt to play from the head. And then I learnt to combine both.
Iconic is out on IDAGIO now.