IDAGIO Meets ... Daniel Hope

The violinist talks about tracking down composer Alfred Schnittke as a teenager and how the encounter changed his life.

Daniel Hope (Photo © Nicolas Zonvi)

For his latest album on Deutsche Grammophon, the violinist Daniel Hope turns to the music of composer Alfred Schnittke. Hope had close contact with the composer in the last years of his life, and has programmed the album, on which he is joined by Ukrainian pianist Alexey Botvinov, to reflect the remarkable variety and imagination of Schnittke's output.

In the booklet for your new album, you tell the amazing story of how you tracked Alfred Schnittke down as a teenager in Hamburg. Could you say something about how important it was for you to build this relationship at such a crucial stage in your development as a musician?

I would describe it as life-changing. I perhaps didn't know that as a young upstart, who cheekily went round and rang his doorbell. At the time I just felt I had to meet him, that I connected somehow with his music. I've always been inquisitive, and in a sense I became a kind of musical stalker, because I wanted to know what made that person tick to make that music. Nowadays it would be much easier to track them down – you could go onto social media and just ping them. But in those days you couldn't do that, and he was also rather reclusive. Looking back I'm kind of horrified I did that. But if I hadn't, this would never have happened. I feel very lucky that he was gracious enough to welcome me in and to allow me to ask the questions that I wanted.

How would you say things changed for you with that meeting?

It opened up a whole new world for me. I'd spent my years until then playing the concertos of great dead composers, and it didn't occur to me to question a phrase or something directly with the person who created it. Suddenly I had all these questions, and I had someone who was willing to answer, and who had fun answering. So that really unlocked my brain to the world of contemporary music. I would never have gone down the road that I did – with the contact with so many hundreds of composers I've had since – had it not gone that way, and had he not shown me what was possible.

Portrait of Alfred Schnittke by Reginald Gray (1972) (wikipedia)

You've said that it's impossible to describe Schnittke briefly. Instead, can you say what you hope people will take away from the new album, especially those who might not have heard his music before?

I hope that they'll discover a world of magic, in the way I did. The contrast in his music is quite simply extraordinary: the pastiche and love of the past, the takes on Baroque music, the takes on Mozart (as with the Gratulationsrondo), his wit, his irony. There's the biting wit of Silent Night, for example, and the violence of some of the music, which is extraordinary. Then you see the move to the later music, the Madrigal, which is like an amazing journey into a different world. You have to – or at least I do  – attach your seatbelt a bit tighter, because you feel you're off here on an extraordinary roller-coaster ride. It's an unnerving experience, but it's the nitty gritty of his soul, which I find so deeply fascinating. And what I've tried to do on this album is to really give you a cross section of 30 years of the various faces of Alfred Schnittke.

The album includes music based on music originally written for films. How grateful should we be to the film industry for its role in Schnittke's career?

Film music for him was a lifesaver, I'd say. Because it gave him the chance to experiment, to see what was possible, and also to shock. If you're shocking with images, it's seen as less shocking than if it's just the music itself. I think that was also a cover for him at the beginning to see how far he could go. Then he took all that with him later with the symphonic music. I would say the paradox is that, as is often the case with film music, it's often written off and belittled by the "serious classical world", whatever that is. And it was similar with the Soviet authorities. Even though they wanted him to do it, and he did it with great success, it also gave them the chance to belittle who he was as a symphonic composer.

Can you say something about Alexey Botvinov, who plays the piano on the new album? 

He's absolutely phenomenal! He's a masterful pianist, a brilliant chamber musician – he can play anything – but what I love about him is the touch, and in this very potent touch there is a whole universe of colours, and that I find, particularly in this music, is amazing. Alexey and I met about four years ago for the first time. I'd heard a lot about him and we'd met because he wanted me to come to Odessa where he's from and where he has this fantastic festival. It's the most incredible place. A jewel. I go there every year and play every single year with Alexey. In our conversations we started talking about what we could do together. I suggested Schnittke, and he said, "Aah, Yes! I've played lots of his music." And so that's how it came about!

Daniel Hope's new Schnittke album is out on Deutsche Grammophon now.

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