Monday, September 15, 2014

Baroque violinist Anton Steck (Germany) has much to say about the interpretation of Baroque music

On July 31st 2014, I met with German violinist Anton Steck at Dartington Hall, Devon (UK). Anton Steck
was born in Freudenstadt, south of Karlsruhe. Following studies in modern- and Baroque violin in Cologne, he served as concertmaster in “Musica Antiqua Köln” and in “Les Musiciens du Louvre” (France). He has performed and recorded widely with both ensembles. In 1996, Steck co-founded the Schuppenzigh Quartet, in which he plays first violin. From 2005 to 2008 he was concertmaster of “Concerto Köln”. Anton Steck made his conducting debut in 1997 with the Händel Festival Orchestra (Halle) and has been artistic director of this ensemble since 1999. He has received several international prizes for his recordings of Mozart Violin Sonatas KV 55-60 and sonatas of Johann Georg Pisendel. Anton Steck’s world premiere recording of works by violinist Wilhelm Bernhard Molique, with the “l’Arpa Festante” Orchestra and Christoph Spering, was released in January 2013. Since 2000, Steck has been professor of Baroque violin and conductor of the Baroque Orchestra at the National Academy of Music, Trossingen (Germany). He plays on a Jacob Stainer violin (1652) and an Alessandro Gagliano violin from 1701. Anton Steck presently resides in Cologne.

PH: Professor Anton Steck, are you from a musical family?

Anton Steck: Yes and no. My father, born in 1921, started out to become an actor. At that time, actors had to be able to sing and dance – to be entertainers. So my father did sing. He later gave up the idea of being an actor, moved from Munich to the Black Forest, where he met my mother and they started a family. So then he just sang at home.

PH: What are your earliest musical experiences?

AS: I was born in Freudenstadt, a town south of Karlsruhe, and not a big musical centre at all at the time. (Things have progressed there and the town now has some festivals.) I started playing the violin at age five and did my first real concerts together with my sister (on piano) when I was thirteen. My first solo was a Bach violin concerto. Then at 16, 17, 18 we formed a group playing early music, but on modern instruments. We had a very small poorly-sounding German Sperrhake harpsichord from the 1950s, the only one we could get our hands on, but it was convenient, being easy to transport. It stood in the living room of a friend of ours and every weekend we took it out and played some Telemann or Bach, chamber music with three or four people.

PH: When did you start playing Baroque violin?

AS: I began playing Baroque violin in Karlsruhe. In 1988 there was the bicentenary of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s death and that was my first year of playing Baroque violin. I was so surprised when I heard C.P.E.Bach’s music for the first time, a style of music I had never heard before. In 1989, I decided to completely stop playing the modern violin, taking studies in Baroque violin at the Sweelinck Conservatory (Amsterdam), which had a big early music department. That was where Gustav Leonhardt and other great Baroque musicians were teaching. My violin teacher was Reinhard Goebel, founder of “Musica Antiqua Köln”. He taught there only for two years, but they were the very two years I was a student there.

PH: And following your studies?

AS: At the age of 25 I became concertmaster of “Musica Antiqua Köln”. By then I was performing a lot of chamber music, orchestral music and soloing.

PH: Would you like to talk about your teaching?

AS: Yes. I love to teach. I have been teaching for almost 17 years. I first had a small position in Karlsruhe and I now have a professorship in Trossingen, a very small town on the southern edge of the Black Forest. The University of Music, Trossingen, has the biggest department of early music in Germany: they have 29 teachers and 22 harpsichords of different styles, for example. It is indeed a luxury position because the regional government (aware of the international success of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra – Freiburg is situated at the foot of the Black Forest) saw the potential in having a school for early music there and, precisely 20 years ago, created more positions for early music teachers at the school and funded a new building.

PH: Trossingen is a very small town.

AS: Yes. There is just one cinema there and it shows one movie a week! But our students are so busy with their studies that they do not really miss city attractions. They mostly arrive at the Academy latest at 8 o’clock in the morning and leave around 10 at night. We have some 80 students, from all over the world, who experience playing the whole gamut of early instruments – there is a trombone class, a trumpet class, flute, viol, violin, harpsichord, fortepiano, lute, oboe; you can study cornetto and dulcian…whatever you want. We have the biggest period clarinet class in Germany. What is most distinctive there is the new B.Mus. program students can take in Baroque Orchestra, the only degree of its kind in Europe. It began two years ago and is beginning to be known: in addition to their weekly 1½-hour individual instrumental lesson, students on the program have another six hours in which they are taken through the whole Baroque orchestra repertoire: we go through the St. Matthew Passion, the St. John Passion, the B minor Mass, instrumental music, we accompany the clarinet class, and more. I lead that course; the other two artists teaching it are Werner Matzke, first ‘cellist of “Concerto Köln”, and renowned British violinist John Holloway. We have just had some lovely concerts together and this has been an incentive to students not in that program to be more involved in early music.

PH: How do you see what is happening with the new generation of Baroque violinists?

AS: They are having it much easier than we did. At the end of the 1980s, we had a hard time finding music, books about early music and treatises. Not much was published. You had to wait for weeks till you got your hands on a certain book or it meant going to a specific library to get information. Nowadays information is basically on-line and can be downloaded. Sometimes I feel it has become too easy now. On the other hand, the practical level of today’s students is most outstandingly high compared to what it was when we were starting out. We also had other problems, like playing on really bad gut strings. The subject of gut strings has developed over the last 20 or 30 years; there are now much better strings available. And I have a very good feeling seeing more young Baroque players looking for orchestral positions. In our time, that was impossible: there simply were just a few Baroque orchestras. Playing ensemble music meant getting together with friends to play this repertoire. Nowadays, there are many Baroque orchestras. And another thing: in my time, we learned music of the 17th and 18th centuries, including Mozart. We just worked with one Baroque violin, and that was it. Nowadays, students have to play Mendelssohn and even Bruckner – technically much more demanding music – and very often they do not have the right instruments for that, especially when it comes to bows.

PH: How do you see trends of playing early music, now that the authentic movement has passed its peak?

AS: I must say that I have a very special way of looking at it. Regarding all the information we have collected over the last 40 or maybe 50 years, we have created a certain way of playing Baroque music. I do feel we have got somewhat stuck when it comes to interpretation, color and finding new ways of interpretation, as we have been repeating the things our teachers have been doing for the last 30-40 years. In my opinion, we now understand about 15% of what was written in the treatises of the time, when it comes to color and interpretation. There is still a lot more work to be done. In a way, people get very comfortable with “knowing how it should be done” and this is a dangerous rut I find because, as the treatises go for the “correct” way of doing things the player must find the differentiations, that detail which is not written down and lies between the notes. If I read the writings of Johann Mattheson, a very strict, boring German theorist with no sense of humor, he nonetheless says that every bar has to be taken at its own tempo and that every bar has to be in a different mood. If Mattheson in 1739 spoke of the maximum of emotion, and this was in the in the mid-Baroque, I cannot believe that this music should be dry. Daniel Speer was another musician, who in 1698 listed 50 elements, such as “low”, high”, “expressive”, “dry”, “short”, “long”, “1,2,3” (sequences), “effects”, “affects” etc., saying that all these 50 elements must appear in every piece we play. So today’s Baroque musicians and researchers could really also try for something very different. For me, playing this repertoire does not mean dry repetition or metronomic performance. Well, indeed, they did not have a metronome at that time but a pendulum and a pendulum gives you a swing. A swing has a beginning, a peak and a lowest point. This is what I try to do with Bach and the other Baroque composers. 18th century music, of a different emotional expression to that of the 19th century, finds emotion in every individual figuration, as each figuration is connected to a different harmony. Every tonality has its own color and its own mannerism. That is why Bach is so extremely colorful: he can change the atmosphere within a half bar! His music is compact and very loaded with energy.

Here is a story that illustrates this realization: Gustav Leonhardt was interviewed by an Amsterdam newspaper on his 80th birthday. “Well”, he said “very late in my life I discovered that Baroque music was actually the most expressive music ever written, but I am too old now to re-record the entire repertoire. That is for the next generation to do.” Leonhardt knew exactly what he was talking about and he has pushed the door open for the next generation.

PH: So, what do you see as the role of the performer?

AS: As a performer, you have to decide what kind of style and tone you want to produce on stage and this, for me, is absolutely connected with the performer’s character. With two artists presenting absolutely opposing interpretations of the same piece, there is no right or wrong in music. I, myself, go for a rather expressive style.

PH: Do you write music?

AS: Only in a very particular sense. I write cadenzas for violin concertos. I never play a cadenza that has been written by any other violinist. I do this kind of composing because there is material on which to base the cadenza. I did not study composition, a background needed for becoming a serious composer.

PH: Do you write about music?

AS: I do. I write for press, program notes and sometimes liner notes for CDs. But this is problematic because you write something and then, two years later, you would really want to rewrite it as you know much more about the subject.

PH: Do you edit?

AS: I do. Some years ago, I discovered half of a Biber chaconne and edited it. Of course, a few years later I had many new ideas and observations on it. I also wanted to edit one of the Geminiani solo sonatas for violin. The manuscript had suffered water damage in World War II. We have an old edition of it from 1911. I made an edition of the sonata and recorded it on my Geminiani CD.

PH: Has the edition been published?

AS: I could not decide to publish it as I am a musician who needs to change things daily in order to be satisfied with what I am doing. I think it was Goethe who said “You have to change in order to remain the same.” If you try to remain the same person and the same musician for ten or twenty years, the world around you changes, and, all of a sudden, nobody is interested in you anymore. But I admire people who put out reliable editions or books, such as David Boyden’s wonderful book “The History of Violin Playing from its Origins to 1761”, first published in 1965, still a good text despite new information we have found over the last 30/40 years.

PH: Would you like to talk about conducting?

AS: Conducting is a very interesting thing because it is very different to playing the violin or even to leading a group from the violin. Conducting from the podium, you stand a little more distant from the players, you do not have to cope with playing an instrument and you have a total view of the ensemble, giving you a nice way of being in contact with your musicians. Actually, for instrumental music with soloists and singers, I prefer conducting from the podium. For Concerti Grossi , I would rather lead from the violin. I also love conducting Baroque opera.

PH: Would you like to mention some of your present activities?

AS: Yes. Two years ago, in a library, I found two Romantic (1840s-1850s) violin concertos by violinist and composer Bernhard Molique, this style of music normally not my cup of tea because it is a very different technique from Baroque music. Molique was a German, working in Stuttgart. A brilliant violinist, he later taught composition in London. In these concertos, the composer had put in all the fingerings, those being completely different to fingerings used nowadays. I tried them out and found them so logical. Those mid-19th century fingerings are totally an integral part of the music: they are used to interpret the music, and not just technically, like fingerings we have learned in the Carl Flesch scale system, or whatever. I was so astonished by this. I worked on the pieces for two years and finally recorded them two years ago. This is a completely different style and, through these pieces, I saw that the 19th century has also to be reread. I am continuing on that subject also with my string quartet, the Schuppenzigh Quartet.

PH: Where does the name originate?

AS: Ignaz Schuppanzigh was the violinist who did the first performance of all the Beethoven quartets. He was a close friend of Beethoven. His quartet of performers was the first permanent quartet of players in Vienna.

PH: What repertoire does the Schuppenzigh Quartet play?

AS: Up to Schubert, maybe a little later, but not much later.

PH: On what instruments?

AS: On period instruments, but with different bridges and, of course, classical bows. Also the necks of the violins were different around 1800 as compared to 1700, with development and constant changes taking place up to the 20th century. There are still some very fine original bows from the Classical period, but there are not many left from the Baroque.
So there is a lot going on in my life – teaching and performing, also performing with my wife, harpsichordist Marieke Spaans.

PH: At what age do you think children should begin learning violin?

AS: This question has been much discussed. There are those people who say children should not start learning an instrument so early so as to be free to enjoy their childhood. But when it comes to violin playing, you have to start at an early age because the body can change and adapt up to the age of eight. After that, your body and your bones change less and it becomes increasingly more difficult because of the way the violin is held.

PH: When it is not music, what interests you?

AS: With 24 hours in a day, I have very little time for hobbies. I have played chess from age eight and I do play on quite a high level. I very much love playing chess but have no time to attend a club and comply with all the regulations of a chess club. But I play chess on my computer, sometimes when traveling on trains.

PH: Professor Steck, it has been most interesting talking to you. Many thanks for giving of your time.

1 comment:

  1. Vielen Dank für die tolle Artikel. Ein großartiger Ort, um Informationen zu diesem Thema erhalten. Ich habe eine Präsentation nächste Woche, und ich bin auf der Suche nach solchen Informationen.
    Ich habe einige einige andere große Ressourcen auf den untenstehenden Thema
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