Wesley Horner: Tell us about about your violin, an amazing instrument made while Mozart was still alive.
Carolin Widmann: I’m playing right now on a very late Giovanni Battista Guadagnini violin that was made in 1774. I love just thinking about what could have happened, because we don’t know. We weren’t there. But 1775 is the big year where Mozart wrote, very likely, the three last violin concertos, G major, D major, A major. For me it’s so interesting to think that just one year before my violin was completed, Mozart travelled to Italy. Maybe he saw it. Maybe he even played it. Those things really fascinate me.
Wesley Horner: Mozart’s father was a legendary violin teacher. You are a violin teacher. Do you learn anything from Leopold Mozart as a teacher that is still useful today?
Carolin Widmann: Absolutely. ‘The Violin School’ by Leopold Mozart is still a standard work for us. What he says stylistically helps us so much to understand how to play a Mozart concerto, how to approach it.
Wesley Horner: Do you have any theories as to why Mozart only wrote five violin concertos?
Carolin Widmann: First I have to say that I am in no way mad at him for what he wrote for the violin. It’s so amazing. When we think all of the sonatas, and I also mean the early sonatas, the Wunderkind sonata and the early works! Köchel seven, eight, nine: those are master works unequaled for me. He was only seven years old. The slow movement, for example, of KV 7 brings tears to your eyes. It’s so perfect in its simplicity. But, of course, it’s still dominated by the piano.
Supposedly Mozart played the violin and Nannerl, his sister, played the piano. So he was accompanying his sister, which is even more touching. The later sonatas are phenomenal in the balance that piano and violin build together. It’s not one instrument accompanying the other, but really starting to be a symbiosis, which continues in Beethoven, of course.
The violin concertos for me – and Symphonie Concertante, please let’s not forget. Also the B flat major Violin Concerto #1 is one of the most beautiful pieces, and so neglected. Why does nobody play this? It’s so lovely and so beautiful.
But to come back to the question, why did he not want to be a violinist? The more I dive into music more deeply, I feel this: The violin is a melody instrument. If you are a composer, you want to have as much background about the harmony as well.
When I’m teaching my students I realize so often, even if they play Bach, that you don’t realize the harmony behind it, because you’re just playing the melody. You have to constantly hear what the orchestra behind you or the piano behind you would do. You need to create these harmonies. So I think Mozart was hungry for more, and for him, it was the piano.
Wesley Horner: If you had Mozart’s cell phone number, knowing that he probably played this concerto himself, and here you are, getting ready to perform it, and you had a chance to give him a quick telephone call, what would you ask him about this?
Carolin Widmann: Oh, I would love to call him. I would love to call Mozart for so many reasons. I think, to be honest, I would rather go and play pool with him and go gamble with him than talk about his works, because that would be so much fun with him, I’m sure.
I would love to know why, for example, specifically in this G major concerto, he replaced in the second movement the oboes with the flutes. I can imagine why. It’s a completely different coloring. But why didn’t he then use the flutes for the first movement and third movement? It’s interesting, and so special about this concerto.
Then I would just love to play it for him and ask him, ‘Do you agree, or am I totally on the wrong way?’
Wesley Horner: Is there a moment in the piece when you can really let loose and have fun, past the difficult moments?
Carolin Widmann: No, no. It’s not about that. I really feel in life in general I want to enjoy more what it’s really about. Because when you study you’re constantly judged and given points and grades. Once you are out of that system, you’re a bit lost, because, ‘Am I good? Am I not good? How can I get better?’ I really feel letting loose is the most important element of making music, after you’ve worked your ass off.
Because this is really what music is about. I see this so often with my students, that they think the work is accomplished when they are playing the notes. The next step, if they’re talented, is that they play the right dynamic and the right timing. Then they’re happy: It’s an “A.” But that’s just the beginning of it. That’s just the fundamentals. That’s nothing. To get behind these black dots on white paper is the most important thing to do in music, to dig deeper all the time into another layer and another layer. You have to be aware as a player and as a listener that the devices of notation are the most limited of all art forms. There is no color; there are no different shapes.
Of course a Bach score looks different from a Mahler score. But it’s five lines and eight notes in an octave, or twelve notes, depending on how you see it. A white piece of paper and black dots. The rhythmical notation also is very limited. So we have to really be interpreters. I like how in German we say, ‘Interpret’ for a player of music. He’s an interpreter. I’m interpreting what is on the piece of music, via me, my heart and my soul and my brain, to the audience as directly as possible.
We are not as unimportant as we thought, lately. In Romantic times, we were the most important stars, and composers were unimportant. We were the stars. We were celebrated. Then, after the war, we thought that we had to hide behind the composer, the big masters. We are nobody. The work is what counts. But I think it’s a middle way. We are very important. Without us, there is silence.
Wesley Horner: In this concerto, of course, you have a partner, in conductor Louis Langrée. Talk to me about what’s going on between the two of you during the performance.
Carolin Widmann: Well, in the worst case, and that sometimes happens, sadly, you play against each other. That is something where I feel it’s not only superfluous, but it’s a waste of time, it’s a no‑no. It is something you shouldn’t do, not in life and not in music. It’s unproductive. It makes you step backwards. You will be rotten if you continue to do it. So in the best case, you have a wonderful partner who feels what you are going to do. But it’s also your skill to convey what you are going to do in two seconds. So prepare it, hint at it, so your partner or conductor or orchestra or pianist can feel that and anticipate, and then play the ball back, and say, ‘I am going to go here.’
That is when music becomes alive, when it becomes something so spontaneous and unique. I think also that it’s something that sometimes a recording cannot capture, because it’s a one‑time thing. Even when the people go out of the concert, it’s gone. Very ephemeral, the most ephemeral of arts, is music.
Wesley Horner: Are there surprises that happen during a performance?
Carolin Widmann: Yes. Good ones and bad ones. But you have to risk. You have to risk everything, because very many musicians try to play it safe in order to not have surprises, not bad surprises. But if they don’t risk anything, they won’t have good surprises either.
Wesley Horner: You’re doing a lot of exciting work in new music. Does playing Mozart feel a little more frightening in some way, because it’s familiar to people, and there’s a kind of set of expectations?
Carolin Widmann: It used to be more frightening. But now that I play so many different kinds of music, not only new music but also ancient music, Baroque, and, improvisation, which we did in the choreographic project that I premiered yesterday, for example. There are some composers that were the biggest geniuses – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. But the language is the same. It’s always been the same for thousands of years. I read an interesting article that claims that it’s been 40,000 years that the language of music and the purpose of music was the same; namely, to communicate the deepest emotions and conflicts of the human soul. Those have always been the same. We see it in the Bible already. It’s always been love, mortality, and envy. These things happen over and over. Look at our world: They continue to happen. So composers will continue to express them.
Wesley Horner: You’ve performed this G major concerto of Mozart before. How will this performance be different?
Carolin Widmann: I’m extremely happy to play this G major concerto by Mozart again. The last time I played it was with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. In the three years since I’ve learned so much. I have such a different approach to working on music now and what I want to do. I want to make it so special and unique. I changed all my fingerings. I changed all my phrasings. I changed even the bowings and the tutti that I’m going to play with the orchestra, which is a conscious choice.
You know, you can just stand there like a soloist, like it was in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I have a new understanding of being a soloist. I’m one of them but above them at the same time.
What also plays a role is the cadenzas. The G major concerto is the only one of the Mozart concertos, of the big last three major concertos, that doesn’t have an established cadenza. There are standard cadenzas that are played all the time.
But this is the first time that I was ambitious enough to write my own. I just put it on the program although it wasn’t written yet, ‘Cadenzas by Carolin Widmann.’
I was a bit inhibited, of course, because my brother is a composer. I have such high standards around me. When it concerns composition that it’s almost like a big wall I had to climb before I could feel free enough to just let my thoughts flow. But then I got into it, and I’m so happy that I feel I achieved something that is only Mozart material: no showing off or going from one harmony to the next that has nothing to do with the piece.
Everything in the cadenza is directly linked to the concerto except for one little homage to the three boys’ entrance in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. I included this because I think it’s in the same mood, so related to the G major concerto, this brilliant, radiant mood. So, I have that as a little homage to The Magic Flute.
Then it goes right away back into the theme, which I use in minor. In the concerto it appears in major.
So I’m using the main motif just before my entrance in the first movement. It’s iconic for violinists because that’s when we start to get ready. I play them on the violin. For the second movement, it’s the flutes. So in my cadenza, I play harmonics, which is very flute‑like, and play the theme like a flute.
I’m proud to have really used all the brain I have. I don’t know if it’s very much, but all the brain that I have, I have used for these cadenzas. They will be premiered the day after tomorrow.
You know, I haven’t even written down the cadenzas yet. I hope Louis Langrée won’t want them, because it’s like a sketch thing. I wrote, ‘Number one, number two, number three.’
Wesley Horner: Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but when we talked to him two days ago, he says that he has a great time when the cadenzas are surprises, when he doesn’t know –
Carolin Widmann: Yeah, right, yeah. I want to ask him for some advice actually, with one little fragment. Should I put it in or should I leave it out? I’ll ask him. So that’s not yet set in stone at all.
I do something with sul ponticello, because I want to incorporate the modern playing techniques as well. Sul ponticello in minor, then in major. But I don’t know if I should do the figure without sul ponticello, or if I should just stay in this very ethereal mood. It’s up to him. That’s the one thing I couldn’t decide yet. But a few years ago I wouldn’t have had the nerves to not know two days before the concert. That’s my way of life right now.
Wesley Horner: That’s what makes a performance exciting. You never know what will happen!
Carolin Widmann: I think so, and that’s what makes life exciting.