New Classical Tracks: The emotional range of violin concertos

by Julie Amacher
January 29, 2014

Listen New Classical Tracks: Rachel Barton Pine - Mendelssohn/Schumann Violin Concertos

Rachel Barton Pine - Mendelssohn/Schumann Violin Concertos (Cedille 90000)

"I was ten years old when I was first invited to perform the Mendelssohn concerto with some orchestras in the Chicago area," says Rachel Barton Pine, "and there was one group that was having a family concert with a Wild West theme, Copland's Hoe Down and some of those things. And I got to wear full cowgirl regalia; a blue jean skirt, cowboy boots, a checkered shirt, my hair in braids and a big belt buckle. And I would have worn a cowboy hat, too, but it would have been in the way of my bow. But that left such a vivid impression in my mind. You always have the feeling of the fairies but for me it's also, 'All right, here we go, off on our trusty steed,' when that last movement kicks in."

Even though the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor has been part of Rachel Barton Pine's repertoire for most of her career, she's just now got around to recording it. On her latest recording, she pairs this famous German violin concerto with one that's rarely heard by Robert Schumann.

When Rachel Barton Pine plays the Mendelssohn violin concerto, she may be thinking about the Wild West, yet her approach is filled with fairy dust. "And luckily, flying bow techniques have always been something that I've been particularly known for," she says. "It takes a lot of practice. But it is possible and it sounds pretty darn cool. And I just love having all those sort of up-bows because they give the music lift and, yeah, it just does sound like fun and fantasy and just jolly good times, which is probably why my daughter loves to dance to it so much.

"Also, about ten years ago, I'd really come into a strong conviction in terms of my interpretational approach," she continues, "really leaning more towards the early Romantic in terms of more pure tone colors, a little bit more flowing tempos, though, with plenty of rubato and fewer expressive slides, and really differentiating it from the type of middle Romantic approach that I would take with a concerto such as the Bruch g minor. Ever since then I've been honing and refining that sound world and stylistic approach, and I felt it was time to share it with the world, not only in the concerts I give, but just to lay it down on album for posterity."

The Mendelssohn has been on Rachel's short list to record for some time. She'll record the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius violin concertos soon, and she recently recorded all of the Mozart concertos with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. That recording is due out in the spring. "And the Schumann wasn't on my radar at all, until a few years ago when a young German conductor that I really admire, Christoph Mueller, specifically invited me to perform the Schumann," she explains. "And so I decided to really study it and give it a try and just fell in love with it and really wanted to record the Schumann with him."

Schumann's violin concerto was written late in his life, during a time when his physical and mental health was deteriorating. The work was suppressed by his wife, Clara, and by the violinist for whom it was written, Joseph Joachim, and it was hidden for some 80 years. "Unfortunately, their attitude had long-term repercussions for the piece," Rachel explains. "I think finally enough time has passed that we're able to take a look at the piece for its own sake and separate the music from its unintended history. It's a wonderful concerto, and once I came to that realization I could really embrace it and just discover what there was to love about it."

Because he wasn't a violinist, Robert Schumann wrote some passages in the final polonaise that Rachel says were physically challenging to play. "So I thought to myself, I think it would actually be more true to Schumann to fix these things in the way that they would probably have been fixed if he had the chance to do so," she says. "So I was pretty liberal with all these minor changes. I feel like the music was able to dance in a way that it previously couldn't. And that was so much fun, almost like scraping away these little rough edges, so that the music could just shine through."

Rachel Barton Pine believes that music can be equally profound whether it's inspired by great joy or great sorrow. She says the two pieces on this new recording are a case in point. "I always try to be a positive person and draw my sources of strength from not just what I've overcome in various aspects of life, but also [from] what brings me the greatest fulfillment, whether it's my marriage or my friends or getting to travel around and see the world. I think in these two concertos, it's actually quite ironic because people sort of dismissed the Schumann for a long time because they said, 'Oh, he was deteriorating and going through all these struggles.' It was almost like, 'OK, he has too much angst.' But then Mendelssohn's music is often dismissed as being lightweight because he was a pretty happy guy. So if he had it too easy, how could he possibly make great art? Great music can come from anywhere. And so I think this pairing of concertos kind of just bashes that whole theory."