Jorja Fleezanis and Michael Steinberg Interview
In the spring of 2000, the American violinist Jorja Fleezanis, who is concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra, collaborated with the French fortepianist Cyril Huvé in a series of concerts devoted to the Beethoven sonatas, presenting all ten in Minnesota, as well as single evenings in New York, California, and Mexico. Music writer Michael Steinberg asked her some questions about this project.
Michael Steinberg:: Why?
Jorja Fleezanis: I am an orchestral musician and I suppose I am that fairly rare bird, an orchestra player who really loves playing in an orchestra and loves that repertoire; even so, I feel the need to refresh myself and keep my mind and my chops in trim by taking on other challenges. Doing all the Beethoven sonatas is a good one. You find people doing cycles of the nine symphonies and of all the quartets and even of all thirty-two piano sonatas, but a survey like that of the ten violin sonatas is really rare.
We don’t tend to think of Beethoven as a neglected composer, but if you stop to consider, the young Beethoven is in fact a neglected or certainly under-valued figure-performers tend to go for those extroverted, sure-fire effective middle-period works or for the mysteries of the pieces with opus numbers in three figures - and except for Opus 96, which is from 1812, the violin sonatas are early or on the cusp between early and middle. Even the Kreutzer, which Beethoven finished in the early spring of 1803, comes before the Eroica and pieces like the Waldstein and the Appassionata that we think of as defining the big, heroic, middle-period style. And while a few of the sonatas are played quite a lot - the Spring, that tempestuous C-minor, the Kreutzer (though that shows up on programs a lot less than it used to), and Opus 96 - when did you last hear the A-minor, Opus 23, or the A-major in Opus 30? I like defending neglected and under-valued music. Most often that means twentieth-century music, but it’s fun for a change to leap to the defense of stuff by a very famous name.
Michael Steinberg: What about your collaboration with Cyril Huvé?
Jorja Fleezanis: I met Cyril in London in 1993. Roger Norrington was our dating service. He was doing one of his big "Experiences" at the South Bank, this one devoted to Wagner, and he asked me to come over and be guest concertmaster with his orchestra, the London Classical Players, and on one of the concerts exploring various aspects of Wagner’s musical pedigree he asked me to play the great Schubert C-major Fantasy with Cyril, who brought his 1840-something Érard over from Paris in a horse-trailer - "Attention, chevaux!" it said on the back. Cyril is a fine musician and pianist, an Arrau student, who, like me, enjoys exploring. Anyway, we had a fine time working together in London, and I always hoped to cook up some other collaboration some time. And now everything has come together thanks to the generous help of the Schubert Club in St. Paul, which is sponsoring the concerts in Minnesota and New York as well as providing the piano for the Minnesota concerts, the McKnight Foundation of Minneapolis, which has given me a grant to help with some of the expenses, and a presentation series in San Diego, California, called Mainly Mozart.
Michael Steinberg: A special aspect of these concerts is that you will be trying to get close to the sounds one would have heard around 1800 or just after, when the sonatas were new.
Jorja Fleezanis: Yes, definitely, though I want to begin with a disclaimer. These are not performances that would get by the authenticity police unscathed, but they will represent a real try at getting in touch with the sound world of Beethoven’s time and to reap the advantages of living in that sound world rather than that of the year 2000 in a huge hall. I’m not at all a fanatic about period instruments. I play Bach and Mozart on my violin with its normal modern set-up, though with a different bow-grip, maybe two inches higher up the stick, and I enjoy Bach on the piano, both on old recordings by Cortot and Schnabel and Fischer as well as with current players like Angela Hewitt and Andras Schiff. At the same time, there’s no question that my Bach-playing is informed by what I’ve heard done by players Reinhard Goebel, Sigiswald Kujken, and Andrew Manze. But this time I’ll be going a bit farther on that road.
Michael Steinberg: You’ll be using your regular violin, though, yes?
Jorja Fleezanis: Yes, which is a Lorenzo Storioni from the 1780s, but I’ll be using other strings - a gut-wound Olive G, a gut-wound Eudoxa D, and gut A and E. Actually I’m not completely sure about the A, that may turn out to be gut-wound as well. My guru on these matters is Andrew Dipper, a wonderful English luthier who works in the Claire Givens shop here in Minneapolis. This is a slippery issue, this matter of gut strings. I love the color vocabulary they allow, but I’m also aware that even in the early nineteenth century there were players who were dissatisfied with them and frustrated by their breakability and by the difficulty of keeping them in tune, and who were therefore experimenting with wound strings. You could almost say that the whole of the nineteenth century and the first half the twentieth was one gigantic transitional and experimental period. As for the bow I’ll be using, it’s early nineteenth-century English. One tricky thing is that much of the time while these Beethoven concerts are going on I’ll be having to do my regular orchestra job with the likes of Messiaen’s Turangalîla, which means that probably both Larry - that’s what I call my Storioni - and I might be getting a little schizzy.
Michael Steinberg: And Cyril Huvé? I don’t imagine he’ll be bringing his horse-trailer from Beaune to Minneapolis.
Jorja Fleezanis: No, he won’t, and that’s where, as I mentioned before, the generosity of the Schubert Club comes in. They have a good collection of pianos (also a gamelan, among other treasures), and for the concerts here Cyril will be using one of their instruments, probably a modern copy of an 1824 Conrad Graf, who built several pianos for Beethoven, or possibly a Broadwood from about 1820, which the Schubert Club may have acquired by then. Malcolm Bilson is going to lend us a fortepiano for our New York concert, and at this point I’m not quite sure of the arrangements for the West Coast.
Michael Steinberg: You’ve already done some preliminary rehearsing with Cyril.
Jorja Fleezanis: Yes, that was an idea that provided a wonderful excuse to spend a couple of weeks in Paris in the summer. One of the things we had to decide is the contents of the three programs it takes to the whole cycle. That’s never easy, as quartets or pianists who’ve done their complete cycles can attest. When Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis did their cycle last season they did it strictly chronologically, or at least by order of opus numbers, which is almost the same thing, but we were not entirely persuaded by that. There is something to keeping an opus together, because Beethoven planned his collections carefully, and our middle program actually consists of the three sonatas of Opus 30. Even there, though, we decided to end with No. 2 in C minor, because that’s a powerful meeting that makes the biggest impression on the audience. And we do have Opus 23 and Opus 24, the Spring, which really are a pair, together on the same concert. But we thought it was better to spread the biggest and richest of the sonatas - the C minor, the Kreutzer, and Opus 96 - across the three programs, and likewise not to bunch all three of the lighter-weight Opus 12s together.
But the big thing in Paris was the playing, and that was excitingly ear-opening and an amazing lesson for my bow-arm. It’s a kind of musical weight-loss clinic, playing with an early nineteenth-century piano, and it’s not even an issue of how sensitive your partner on a modern Steinway is. In fact, paradoxically, the more considerate and tactful and sensitive the pianist on a modern instrument is, the worse it can sound. So as not to drown the violin, big, full fortissimo chords have to be pushed down to a kind of muffled mezzoforte, and you never get that satisfying feeling that the instrument is giving its biggest, fullest sound. It’s nothing to do with decibels, it’s the fortissimo gesture that you want. On a Graf or a Broadwood, the pianist doesn’t have to play puny, and the violinist doesn’t have to live on the edge of fortissimo all the time. Even when the piano is at top volume, the violin will still be heard. I remember a student of Dénes Zsigmondy telling me how he used to bemoan what he called "diese ewige Lautspielerei" - this non-stop playing loud - in Baroque and Classical music, and that’s putting the finger right on the problem.
The Beethoven sonatas aren’t about weight, they’re about clarity, melodic line, buoyancy, zing, energy. The bow I’ll use is a little shorter and the bow-grip is designed not for pressure but for speed and flexibility. It leads the hand to explore the whole world of articulation and speech rather than sostenuto. It’s a more transparent and varied language, a world of sweetness and delicacy, of swift blows of thunder. One of the biggest challenges then is learning to play a lyric line like those at that begin the slow movements of Opus 30, no. 2 and Opus 96 on a bow with less weight. And what a joy it is to be able to realize these qualities when the piano you’re playing with is itself an instrument of sweetness and delicacy, one that does not resist speed the way a modern piano does, and, most blessed of all, one in which the bass never gets thick even if the pianist puts weight in his left hand.
Michael Steinberg: So that constantly debated question of tempo comes in here as well.
Jorja Fleezanis: Yes, because all these characteristics I’ve been describing lead to a performance style in which speed and energy are of central importance. We’ve thought about tempo a lot. In the early 1940s, Rudolf Kolisch - now there’s someone I wish I had known and could have studied with - published a fascinating and illuminating essay in The Musical Quarterly titled Tempo and Character in the Music of Beethoven in which he showed the inextricable connection between those two dimensions and also showed how on the basis of the metronome marks Beethoven provided for some works you could infer the tempi for works without those numbers. Kolisch thought about this tempo question all his life, and a somewhat revised version of his article was published in German after his death in a series called Musik-Konzepte. It’s an article - and an idea - that still gets some people upset because it calls into question so many performance habits that have been sanctified by tradition.
Another really interesting source is a book by Beethoven’s student Czerny - yes, the one of the gazillion piano etudes - On the Correct Performance of all of Beethoven’s Works for Piano, which includes the concertos and the chamber music with piano. Czerny is quite specific in his recommendations about tempo and he gives metronome marks, but what’s interesting is that he never talks just about tempo: it’s always about tempo in conjunction with musical character. Neither Cyril or I are inclined to fall flat on our faces because we’re over-awed by dogma, and we don’t slavishly follow Czerny’s or Kolisch’s recipes to the letter (neither of us cooks that way either), but what these two musicians have to say—one going on his recollections of Beethoven’s playing and of his lessons, the other using straight musical evidence - is terrifically stimulating. The faster tempi fit the original bowing and phrasing marks, so you can do it as is ninety per cent of the time, you don’t have to break phrases for bowing convenience, and that’s revolutionary. I find myself enjoying the details so much. It’s like the difference between one of those huge Turner seascapes (which I love and which are thrilling) and the lovingly painted in detail in a Dürer or Altdorfer or Van Eyck.
Michael Steinberg: As we speak, you’re still a few weeks away from plunging into your final rehearsals. How would you describe your feelings at this point?
Jorja Fleezanis: It’s exciting. It’s an adventure. Best of all, it’s receiving a gift of discovering ten new pieces.
©Jorja Fleezanis and Michael Steinberg