An interview taken by Ilze Medne, Latvian radio, Riga
Philippe Hirshhorn is someone who has not departed from our lives, even though twenty years have now passed since his death. He was a unique and inimitable personality. I knew him going back to 1962, and my wife knew him still earlier, from 1959. She studied in the same class with him, and I joined this class later. We became very friendly with him, as well as with Oleg Kagan, who also came from Riga and who died six years earlier than Hirshhorn. It is our unhappy fate that these people are no longer with us. You have to understand that such people do not disappear. There is not a single day that we do not recall Hirshhorn. His distinctive sense of humor, his Mozartian wisdom.
How would you evaluate what he did from a professional point of view? What sort of violinist was he?
That’s a very interesting question. Although he, of course, reached the greatest heights, he was always dissatisfied with himself – even to the point of complete denial of his talent as violinist and musician. In principle, he was a person of absolutely unlimited possibilities who always continued improving himself. In his final years, he gave few concerts, and this was, of course, his own fault, because he was a difficult person for impresarios or influential people to deal with. But he constantly improved himself. In his last years, I also played with him a good deal, and I saw how his sense of his own significance on the stage grew steadily. It was stunning to observe this process of growth in a man who was no longer very young, as he was then. To be sure, neither was he old. We played a lot together when he was aged between 40 and 48.
Were you with him when he began teaching actively? What did that mean to him?
It began when he was 35-36. Before then, he never regularly engaged in teaching. In his class, there were a large number of remarkable violinists, because each of them received a kind of individual approach. Hirshhorn was especially sensitive to this, because he himself was not the beneficiary of such an approach when he was a young violinist. He had to fight all the time against lack of understanding. He had no one close to him in the way he was close to his students. During this period – and it was a very short period – eight or nine years – he became a teacher, well-known throughout Europe, and people came to study with him from all over. Janine Jansen now performs in public a lot. There are others who do not play so much and are not famous, but they do exist, in France, in Italy and elsewhere. Our daughter was his pupil (she is also a remarkable violinist). One can say that Philippe became a celebrity, although Holland was never a center of attraction for people dreaming of playing the violin. But when Hirshhorn began teaching in the Utrecht Conservatory, people streamed in, and ever since then Holland has become an important country for the violin. He completely changed our perception of what can be expected of Holland in the sense of musical schooling.
What was the key to his success in working with students?
You cannot speak about a "key", because it was not something that can be passed along to others. He had an amazing feeling for what the student was experiencing when beginning to work on a new piece. He saw this starting moment and the vision of the goal much better than the student did, and he tried to convey this feeling: a sense of where the student was now and how far he or she could go. Add to that his own unique talent and his feel for the violin, like for any other string instrument. I myself played a lot for him and the advice which he gave was unforgettable, because it was connected with the realization of his own sensations. He, as it were, let you hear the piece through his ears, i.e., through ears of a significantly higher quality. It is difficult to convey in words, but you would suddenly begin to hear better and to demand more of yourself, to want more from your music. This, in my view, was his main distinguishing feature.
That is really not easy to express in words.
It is not easy, because it is very specific. He gave you the feeling that you have other possibilities to achieve or alter the sound, to change the coloring. Moreover, this was never something banal. It seemed to you that it already had become yours, as if something new opened itself up to you, some new horizons. It is difficult to describe. It is comparable to the impact music itself has on a person. Suddenly you hear more than you could generally hear, and in this way entirely new possibilities open up for you. Of course, there is an element of the miraculous here, and for that reason it is impossible to describe it. But it seems to me that I am rather precisely conveying now my feelings. There was a lot of formal advice as well, concerning applying greater pressure on the bowstick, on a string; and at the same time, using just a few words, he allowed you to feel that this is something different from what you were now hearing; something different, new, accessible that is significantly richer than you imagined till now.
Can one say that Hirshhorn lived in music and that music was the main thing in life for him?
Of course, one can say that, one must say that, because he not only lived in music but I had the feeling that he was music in the flesh. You know, there is the expression "open heart surgery" or "raw nerves" – where everything is exposed. On the one hand, you cannot learn this, and on the other hand, you understand that this is the only possible relationship to music – when music is part of your own life.
Did he live with you when he worked in Utrecht? Surely you had a lot of time for conversations?
Yes, yes, there were endless conversations that went on late into the night – about everything and about his role. Our age is one of standardization and globalization, and his rejection of any standardization was not some sort of manifesto but simply was something that was tacitly understood. This was all unforgettable. We often retell his jokes which arose at the time quite spontaneously, so that you cannot understand where they came from… They were a reaction. See the acuity of his reaction to everything, including music, of course. Yes, he lived with us, because we are near Utrecht and it was convenient. He also rehearsed in our place when we were playing the Brahms piano quartets, and we played them quite a bit. Together with the Russian pianist Lobanov, who was our class-mate, and his wife, a well-known viola player. A recording has been preserved.
Why didn’t he like to work in a studio?
Here is the recording which has been saved. It is actually from a studio, but still I think his best recordings were live. In general, many musicians prefer live recordings, if they work out well. You cannot say that he liked his recordings or acknowledged them, but the problem is that you have to repeat what cannot be repeated, and this is very difficult from case to case. He recorded a remarkable disc, which was never brought to market, because the best moments in the technical aspects and in the playing itself do not always coincide, and that is something very unpleasant. In a live concert performance, it is not so important that something does not succeed or does not work out as one wanted.
What did he record on that disc?
He was supposed to make a big record that would include the Strauss sonata and something else which I do not remember at the moment. But he stopped the recording and it was never released, unfortunately. He left here, left us to work on it, and therefore we were informed about what is going on. He was dissatisfied with the comparative indifference of the pianist. He did not have the feeling there was a single approach to the music and in the final analysis Philippe stopped working on it.
How important to him was his work with the chamber orchestra?
When he was invited, at that moment he somehow returned to high spirits. He was then passing through a difficult time. Depression is, of course, too strong a word, but it was a difficult time when he and I met up in emigration here in Holland in 1978. And just then he got this invitation and he really rose in spirits. However, he was really a person who did not like routines, and therefore when some squabbling occurred or his ideas did not find sufficient understanding, then he, unfortunately, parted ways with this. When he did something, he did it with an open heart, with a desire to achieve something, and when he saw an inadequate reaction and lack of understanding, then for him that was the signal that he had to end it. However, the start of his work with the orchestra was very inspiring for him.
… Of course, any recording which has been preserved is unique for us, for those close to Philippe, and if we cannot listen to a live recording – it is simply too difficult an experience – then recordings such as the Chausson Poem or the studio version of the Brahms concerto are incomparable. This is not a sport, where you make comparisons, but if you can compare the feelings and experience of the listener, then I cannot imagine anything similar to this; it is impossible. I think that he remains a legend to this day, however strange that may seem, given that, on the one hand, he did not play much and on the other hand our memory of him does not leave us, including in relation to his pedagogical work.
You’ve just called him a legend. It seems to me as well that there is something of a myth about him and, perhaps, it is not worthwhile to try to know everything. Perhaps what remains is the fact that Philippe Hirshhorn was a unique personality who was not cut from our everyday fabric of life.
Of course. But if you analyze the content of this legend, then you understand that this was a legend that lived alongside us. Oleg died, and a short time later Philippe died. When you listen to their recordings then the feeling arises that they could have lived longer. Each performance or, for example, his lessons, gave you the sense that this is given once, as by some force from on high. The question is not whether to talk about him or not to talk about him. There are no scandalous or shocking stories relating to him, and they are as a rule always simple stories. But if you listen to the recording from the third round of the competition in Brussels, then you feel the musical tension – in music which is not so preferred. After all, besides the Paganini concerto there are the concertos of Brahms and Beethoven. Yet, that he reached such musical heights in the Paganini concerto is, of course, a unique and incomprehensible phenomenon. Yes, there was in Hirshhorn something demonic, in the sense of being higher than human – precisely in how he conveyed the music. He himself believed that he deceived everyone in this competition, that everything happened differently and at a higher level than he could do. However, I do not think this was so. I think that it was his true nature, and it is very difficult to live with this.
There was a certain fatalism in the way he became ill so early. The same happened to Oleg. I link up several of their recordings. Shall we say, angelic and demonic. Although in fact there was something divine in the one and in the other.
What would you like to speak to him about if it were possible?
Ah! Personally, in the time since his death, I have made a great many mistakes, and I think that if I could have spoken with him I would not have made them. But the question is not put correctly, when you ask what I would like to speak about. I would like for him to be here! In that case the emergence of new violinists would proceed differently; it would be under the influence of Hirshhorn or under the influence of Kagan. But as regards Hirshhorn, he definitely has had an influence in the West, because everyone who once met him – whether as student or colleague – never lost this feeling afterwards; it left an imprint for your whole life. Therefore, we miss him – and that is the main thing one can say: we miss him after all these years and will continue to miss him. I never saw and do not imagine that any replacement for him is possible. I became convinced of this quite naturally right after his death and I remain so convinced with each passing year, all the more so, that it is impossible to replace him.
What can you say to young violinist? How can they be made familiar with Hirshhorn’s art? And is that necessary?
Is it necessary? I think it is necessary. But this must be done rather comprehensively, because, for example, after the competition in Brussels they spoke about his virtuosity, forgetting about his performance of the Geminiani sonata. There the issue had nothing to do with virtuosity, but precisely with Hirshhorn’s acute understanding of music and human life. That is what we are missing. People are always talking about playing and about performances when you have to understand that music is the part of our inner lives that must break out onto the surface. This is what would be important for young people to understand. It is not about playing an instrument but about communicating one’s own feelings from life.