Mining the Essence – Henning Kraggerud Interviewed by Jeremy Siepmann

June 01, 2011
Henning Kraggerud
Henning Kraggerud
Photo: Robert Romik

To meet Henning Kraggerud, the foremost Norwegian violinist of his generation, is to meet three-quarters of a string quartet. He got an early start, like most violinists, but hardly had he started than he took up the viola as well—and the two instruments, in tandem, have been his life companions. Now pushing 40, he exudes energy, passion and enthusiasm in equal measure, tempered by a strong contemplative streak, all of which is reflected in the sheer range of his playing—from poignant introspection to thrilling virtuosity. Yet it all began with a touch of sibling rivalry.

‘I started playing the violin when I was seven, at my own request—because I wanted to be like my brother; in fact I really had no idea at all what it was all about! So my mother signed me up and I started having fantastic lessons once a week (2 to 2 ½ hours every Friday) with a wonderful teacher. And after my lessons we would eat cake and ice cream, and then we played duets. So from every point of view it was something I looked forward to. And I must say, the cake and ice cream worked like a charm!’

And who were the formative influences on his development as a violinist/musician? ‘Well of course my teachers—Magna Halvorsen, Leif Jørgensen, Stephan Barratt-Due, Emanuel Hurwitz (in London) and Camilla Wicks (in America)—were all very important to me. But in a way the most significant influence of all was the great violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe, who of course was long dead when I was born. I remember the first time I heard his music as though it were yesterday. I was 10 or 11 years old, and my father had borrowed a recording and the music to go with it, and straightaway I was transfixed. I decided almost immediately to start learning some of the sonatas for unaccompanied violin. Of the famous violinist-composers, Ysaÿe was far and away my most inspiring influence. Of the great non-violinist composers, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Sibelius and Grieg were also right up there, of course (I know they all played the violin—except for Grieg—but they weren’t ‘violin composers’, so to speak). Since I also compose myself, it’s the great composers who’ve tended to inspire me most of all. One I haven’t mentioned yet is Janáček. I’ll always remember the first time I heard his string quartets, which I thought were simply stunning. I couldn’t sleep that night, I was so filled with this fantastic universe of sound.’

Needless to say, given his duo-instrumental background, chamber music has always been central to Kraggerud’s artistic life. ‘Oh absolutely! As I mentioned earlier, after the cake and ice cream with my first teacher we’d play duets, and I soon started playing duets with my brother as well. And my first compositions were for two violins. Later on, I graduated to playing string quartets and string trios, and works for various combinations of instruments at chamber music festivals. Unfortunately, however, in worldly terms chamber music pays very much less well than being a soloist with orchestras. It isn’t for the most part financially viable to play only or predominantly chamber music. The bread-and-butter, so to speak, really comes from playing concertos.’

MOZART, W.A.: Divertimento in E-Flat Major, K. 563
Naxos 8.572258

From the general we turned to the particular—namely the wonderful Divertimento, K. 563, by Mozart, released this month [June]. Why, I asked, is this stunning work for string trio so much less well-known than Mozart’s string quartets? Especially since musicians are virtually unanimous in hailing it as one of his greatest masterpieces? ‘It certainly is! It’s one of his absolutely supreme chamber works. But I think the explanation for its relative neglect is really quite simple. The fact is, there just aren’t as many good string trios as there are good quartets. If you play in a string quartet you have the whole amazing quartet repertoire at your disposal. First-rate works for string trio are very few, certainly in comparison with quartets. If there were a whole bunch of pieces equal in quality to this one, then I’m sure there would be many more professional string trios to play them. But sadly that isn’t the case.’

Music, and the essence of music, are devilishly difficult to talk about, but is it possible to describe what it is that makes this work a masterpiece? ‘It’s certainly possible, I think, to speak a little bit around it. It’s a particularly inspired work, where he somehow manages to make all three parts equally important. The cello, viola and violin all have both melodic and harmonic responsibility. Mozart manages to move the instruments up and down in fantastic ways and no matter where you are, you’re in the right position to form the harmony. At all times, three very independent voices manage quite naturally to provide the three or four notes necessary to the harmony. I expect it was a welcome challenge to Mozart not to have that extra voice of the quartet; he had to think differently because of having only three.’

When playing this piece—or anything else by Mozart—can one ever really lose sight of the fact that he was first, last and always an opera composer? ‘Absolutely not. Whenever he had a chance to write an opera he jumped at it—and you can hear that in most of his music. For a start, he had such an incredible genius for creating melodies. It cost him nothing to make something that other composers would die to achieve. And his sense of drama! Like in the fourth movement of this divertimento. This wonderful variation movement isn’t a normal theme followed in the normal way by self-contained variations. The variations themselves contain variations on the variations! And Mozart’s sense of fantasy is so amazing. Where other composers might be happy just to carry on, Mozart is constantly getting new ideas and unexpectedly altering, more than that, developing things. It’s very seldom in Mozart’s music that you can play more than two bars without something changing in some wonderful way, giving so much vitality and spontaneity to the music. And you find this throughout the operas. I find it very interesting, by the way, that Mozart apparently composed a lot of his music, that he had some of his best musical ideas, just before going to sleep or awakening in the morning. He loved transition! That middle ground between one thing and another; one state of being and another. I think he must have had a remarkable contact with his subconscious. Most composers try to control things much more, using the narrow, small, left side of the brain, which is less smart, if you like, than the whole. Mozart dares to be natural, to follow his instinct. Which reminds me that one of the greatest problems with many modern composers, for me, is that they try to control too much, and in too intellectual a manner.’

Our age is unprecedented in its musicological awareness. Has this affected Kraggerud? ‘To a certain extent, yes, of course. I read a lot of books on how they think music was played in the old days, but my main problem with a lot of ‘early music’ playing—and this may sound a little funny—is that it sounds too stylistic. I’m sure that in Mozart’s and Bach’s time they were more concerned with the content of the music than the style of performance. And whenever I hear a performance where I’m more conscious of the style, of the how of it, than of the music itself, then I can’t help feeling this approach is mistaken. I think in order to enchant an audience, you need a lot of different tools to make a suitably varied interpretation. Take this stipulation that in some music you should never use vibrato. If you take away vibrato altogether, and put nothing in its place, the result, for me, is likely to be sterile. And I think that’s very dangerous. In Louis Spohr’s generation, they used a lot of portamento (glissando) and less vibrato. There was a kind of swap, which still left them with the means to express themselves. If you play his music now, and remove the vibrato in common use today without adding the compensatory portamento, you may end up with nothing at all.’

And what about playing on so-called ‘period’ instruments? Had Kraggerud experimented with these? ‘I have. But not a lot. Frankly this isn’t an issue that concerns me overmuch. It’s a fact that the great composers have always availed themselves of the best instruments available. I’m quite sure, for instance, that if Bach had had the piano—if he’d had a good Steinway or something like that—he would have used it; would have written for it. I would always try to use the best sounding instrument I could get. If I should come across a really fantastic period instrument I might be tempted to use it. But those I’ve tried so far have not really been more than OK. To put it another way, I think that in any type of art, the most interesting thing for the audience is not if it’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but whether it’s good or not, whether it’s communicating. That’s the essential thing.’

And communication presupposes an audience—something notably missing in a recording studio. But are there compensating virtues? Does the very intimacy of the microphone, with its unparalleled clarity, offer interpretative resources, instrumental subtleties, not generally available in the concert hall? ‘I think it does. The studio has many resources which are unique. Of course there are a few extremely good concert halls, in which you can achieve something of that intimacy, but nothing brings you so close to the instrument as a microphone, no venue is more alive to extreme subtleties at the very softest dynamic level. At the same time there are dangers. In this unique little world, without an audience, it’s possible to become overly concerned with technical perfection. At such moments you can lose that vital sense of communication. I think this happens often in the studio. We must all remember, we musicians, that we are storytellers. And even in the relative isolation of the studio we’re telling a story to an imaginary audience. We have to feel free to take risks. If you think about recording in that way, you can really afford to take big chances, because if they don’t work out you can just delete them. So I think that in the studio you can dare to be even more risk-taking than in a concert. Which is great!’

It sounds, on balance, as though Kraggerud enjoys recording. ‘I do. Partly for the reasons we’ve just been discussing. But precisely for that reason I like to have a little more time than usual, so I’ve quite often had private sponsors for many of my Naxos recordings, to buy some additional studio time. I always insist with my producer that once we’ve recorded all we need and listened to it through, I get to play it again, complete, two or three times. And very often quite a lot that’s useful comes from this extra time. So I need to work with the right types of producers, who have no boundaries.’

Are there, I wondered, any particular recording projects that Kraggerud especially covets? What are his greatest unfulfilled ambitions at the moment? ‘Well I have several plans, not all of which I want to share, because sometimes I think it’s nice to keep that hidden—to keep it fresh and always alive. I know many novelists refrain from sharing their plots because once they’ve told the story to someone they lose much of the desire to write it. So I’ll keep a lot of that secret! I will say however that as well as playing great classical works like the Mozart we’ve been talking about, I’ve also devoted much of my career to finding hidden gems of lesser-known music by Spohr and Sinding and other composers. And I aim to continue in this. Of course I’ll go on playing and recording popular masterpieces and other works—which are popular for good reasons—but at the same time I’m always looking out for really great music which for some reason has been forgotten by history.’

History is the past. Music is the present and the future. In closing, I asked Kraggerud to reflect on the nature and value of music itself, and on its chances of eternal survival. ‘I think music is the shortest way to get into contact with your own feelings and your own inner light. To read a novel can take several hours, but you can hear one melody from Mozart’s Requiem or something like that and you’re instantly in contact with something that feels important. I think the most fantastic thing about music is its capacity to focus on the meaningful in life, and it can do this at the same time as it entertains us. I’m sure that music will always exist in the world, but if the best is to survive we must be discriminating. It’s not the responsibility of the musician to play all music, from all periods. I firmly believe that not everything is meant to survive. If a work can’t interest and touch an audience, there’s probably good reason for it to fall by the wayside. We shouldn’t preserve for the sake of preservation. That carries its own dangers. So as I say, there are worries but I’m basically optimistic.’

In that Darwinian perspective, the survival of Mozart, at least, would seem to be assured. Equally certain is that he’ll be in the best company our race has to offer.

More recordings by Henning Kraggerud on Naxos:

Henning Kraggerud Biography & Discography