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Sibling Songs, Without Words: Tianwa Yang talks to Jeremy Siepmann

February 1, 2013

Tianwa Yang

When people talk (as many do) of works such as Pachelbel’s Canon, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, Handel’s Largo (which isn’t one), Mozart’s Concerto in C, Liszt’s Consolation (also his Liebestraum) or Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto, they reveal themselves as outsiders in the world of classical music. This is no sin. Most musical connoisseurs wandering casually into the realm of, say, particle physics, or Kabuki drama, would embarrass ourselves far more. But the fact is that Pachelbel, like all self-respecting German Baroque composers, wrote many canons, Bach wrote several Toccatas and Fugues, Mozart’s concertos in C number six (like Liszt’s Consolations), and Tchaikovsky wrote three piano concertos. Then of course there’s ‘the’ Mendelssohn violin concerto. Except there isn’t. ‘The’ Mendelssohn violin concerto has a sibling—at once both much older and much younger. Unlike most violinists, Tianwa Yang plays both. So what can she tell us about this musical Cinderella? Why does it remain virtually unknown?

‘Well, it was written in 1822 when Mendelssohn was only 13. I think one reason many people don’t know about it, though, is not that it’s a very early work as such but that it was actually discovered very late: in 1951, by Yehudi Menuhin. He was the first person who ever played it, as far as we know [though that honour may have gone to the work’s dedicatee Eduard Rietz], and it was he who first published it. Mendelssohn may have been only 13 when he wrote it but I really think it’s a work of genius. Certainly the work of a genius. Menuhin, by the way, didn’t just discover and publish the piece. He loved the work, played it numerous times and actually made three recordings of it. It’s closer in style to the classical era than to the later romantic world of the mature Mendelssohn and Schumann etc, and there are times when it really reminds me very much of the Sturm und Drang style that was so popular for a time in the 18th century. But it’s not just backward-looking. In some ways it’s actually forward-looking. In fact there are some ways in which it clearly anticipates some of the most “original” features of the late E-minor concerto. There are the written-out cadenzas in the second and third movements, for instance; both concertos are in minor; there are passages in the D-minor that clearly foreshadow certain things in the E-minor, and even the form is unconventional for its time. But that’s not why I love it. I love it for the music itself.’

That said, apart from the fact that we know he was 13 when he wrote it, are there aspects of the piece which reveal the youth of the composer? Or is it fully mature in its impression? ‘If you compare it to his later works—those wonderful mature works, like the E-minor concerto, in which every note seems to have, in some measure, its own character, its own meaning, its own place in the larger scheme of things—then of course his youth is evident. The idiom here is much simpler. It has something of the simplicity and purity of Mozart about it. Which isn’t to say that it sounds like Mozart. But we shouldn’t underestimate the extent of Mendelssohn’s incredible precocity. After all, he spent the previous year writing the first six of his string symphonies—among other things! He may have been 13, but he really knew what he was doing!’

Mendelssohn was one of the great pianists but something less than a master violinist. Is there, I wondered, any trace in either of these works that he wasn’t 100% comfortable with violin technique, that he lacked in any way a fully idiomatic grasp of the instrument? Or is he utterly at home, as it were? ‘Oh utterly. Definitely. His works are always very comfortable to play—very violinistic, actually. You never have any feeling at all that he lacked sufficient knowledge of the instrument. In fact he basically writes as though he were a violinist. That said, though, the early D-minor Concerto is nowhere near as technically challenging as the great E-minor we all know.’

And how does that rank in terms of sheer difficulty? ‘The E-minor? For me it’s one of the most difficult of all concertos to play. But for musical rather than predominantly technical reasons. I find it tricky to strike the right balance between the classical, the romantic, and the classical-romantic, so to speak. It’s not like Schumann or something. Like the D-minor, though maybe not so consistently, there’s a great purity and simplicity, rather as Mozart might have sounded if he’d lived for another 50 years. It’s really very challenging to get the balance just right.’

And what’s the nature of its specifically technical challenges? Pianists always complain about “so many notes!” ‘Oh yes! I’ve heard that too. But that’s really not such a problem for us violinists.’ Nevertheless, the audience is treated to what certainly seems to be a lot of virtuosity. More to the point, a lot of quality. How would Yang characterise the work? ‘In words? With difficulty. Music is so hard to talk about! In many ways it’s very typically Mendelssohn, with all his characteristic brightness and vividness of character. And much of it (especially, of course, the slow movement) also reflects the more intimate world of Lieder—not only his own songs, with or without words, but the genre of Lieder in general.’

There are many, many recordings of the E-minor concerto. I rather wonder whether anyone has actually heard them all. Have any had a particular influence on Yang? ‘Yes. Maybe most of all—and this might surprise you—Heifetz. But only in the slow movement. For me, his playing in both the outer movements is far too fast. But the slow movement seems to me to sum up everything that makes Mendelssohn Mendelssohn. Further to what we were talking about just now, Heifetz seems to me to strike a perfect balance between the classical and romantic elements of the music. In fact the first time I heard this performance it changed and deepened my whole vision not only of this work, this movement, but of Mendelssohn the composer, in all his breadth and variety. It was a revelation. Suddenly I realised how simple this music is. For all its sophistication—it’s quite amazing sophistication—there’s an element that’s almost childlike. And one must be careful not to obscure this with too romantic, too overtly emotional a tone.’

Yang has played the work many times. Does she ever, I wondered, go back and re-learn it, as it were? Or does she just let it evolve in her subconscious and allow herself to be surprised? ‘When I was a kid I played this concerto a lot—to the point where I didn’t really think about it when I played it. Then I had a four or five-year break with the piece, and that was the time when I started to learn chamber music and to immerse myself in the German, and the Western, tradition, with its completely different musical concepts. And it was my discoveries in rethinking, rediscovering, Mendelssohn that best represented how I changed my mind about music in general. So yes, I did relearn it very consciously. When I picked it up again in 2010, for this recording, and also for some performances, I did actually surprise myself, yes. When I heard my earlier recordings, from some 10 years before, it really seemed like something totally different. Another world almost.’

And how would she describe the difference between her later, ‘Western’ approach and her training in China? ‘To put it simply: in China I learned mostly how to master the violin; in the West I learned how to understand music. As a kid I learned how to deal with the technique, how to make it all sound brilliant and effective; when I came to Europe, I relearned everything. I realised it’s not just about playing, but about “telling” the music, if I can put it that way. And I’ve never looked back.’

Yang’s reference to ‘telling’ the music, implicitly stressing its narrative properties, put me in mind of an interesting distinction made by the novelist EM Foster between a story and a plot. A story, he suggests, is a sequence of events. It requires no causative relationships. One thing happens, then another thing happens. A plot, on the other hand, requires consequence: one thing happens because of another. A story is a record. A plot requires development. It is intrinsically dynamic. Its roots are in dialogue. Tianwa Yang requires no lessons from Forster. The stories she tells—or more properly, the stories she helps the composer to tell—are also, reliably, plots.

Jeremy Siepmann is an internationally acclaimed writer, musician, teacher, broadcaster and editor.

Tianwa Yang Biography & Discography

Felix Mendelssohn Biography & Discography

Previous releases featuring Tianwa Yang:


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