Memories - Philippe Graffin

A french violinist, recording artist and concerto soloist. Studied with Hirshhorn in 1980-s.

– Please tell us how you became acquainted. When did you see Philippe for the first time?

I became acquainted with him in Brussels. At the time, I was just a kid, fourteen years old, I think. I heard a recording – from the Queen Elisabeth competition. There was something about the history of the competition, and for that reason they began with Oistrakh, Kogan, etc. But at the end of the recording there were three minutes of Philippe playing. Saint-Saëns, the Etude en forme de valse. The recording was such that I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I recall that I replayed it time after time and simply couldn’t believe that this was possible, that someone could play that way. “Brilliant” doesn’t quite capture it. It grabbed you.

The friend who gave me this recording was a pianist. At the time he was playing in a trio with two Belgian girls. Even these days, I sometimes meet with them. One of the girls now teaches in the Conservatory. This friend said: “You know, I can arrange for you to meet this man.” That was a dream for me! I remember that I took a train. Back then,it took somewhat longer than today. It was around three hours to Brussels. For me, at age 14, that was an entire adventure. I remember the Gare du Nord station and how we walked along the streets until we came to a small concert hall. This was a private concert hall, and it is there that we got acquainted. It appears that this was on precisely the day when his daughter was born, or the next day, because the very first thing he did was to put his palms together to show how small she was, and he covered them with kisses. He was so very happy! And that charming gesture is the first thing I remember.

Later I traveled a great many times on this train to see him in Brussels. In fact, I did this secretly, because at the time I was studying in the Paris Conservatory and I had a very good teacher, very strict and knowledgeable. But I couldn’t stand her. Thus, for me coming to Brussels and getting to know a violinist whom I so admired was a step into the future or a step towards understanding what it is to be a musician. And so my trips to Brussels continued.
There were private lessons, every two weeks or once a month.

What did he teach me? He gave me works to learn that were then not widely known, so they were not in the repertoire that I went through with my Conservatory teacher.With Hirshhorn, I mastered what later played a very important role in my life – the Elgar concerto, the Schumann concerto, as well as Szymanowski and Dvorak.

Later I went abroad, because I wanted to be as far as possible from my Paris teacher. As soon as I felt myself ready, I went to America to study with a very old violinist whom I liked very much and who himself studied under Ysaye. But Philippe, nonetheless, remained my hero. Whenever I meet now with someone from that period and from America, they remember that I always had with me my little tape recorder with recordings of Philippe, whom I let everyone listen to. I believed that he played remarkably, that they must know about him. Later, many, many years later, Philippe played with a chamber orchestra in Israel, and when he returned from there he told me: “I met there one of your colleagues from Bloomington and he said that you always had this tape recorder with you and that you always were playing my recordings…” So he knew all about this.

I later studied with Philippe in Holland. After my stay in America, I moved to Holland to study with him. In total, I spent 10-11 years with him as my teacher. For me, his lessons were something much greater than just studying the violin, and that was so from the very start. His personality was so very important for me. As for his kindness and generosity, I am beginning to understand that now, when I am a teacher myself.

– Is there something humorous that you recall? Some words about your playing? Were his words aggressive at any time? Perhaps if you didn’t practice very much or something similar? Generally, how was he with you?

There were all sorts of things. When I speak of my first impression, don’t forget that I was just 14-15 and I thought that things should be just so, that you learn something and will play it, which is, of course, very naïve. My first impression is from the time I played for him the Poem by Chausson. It is a work that I later performed so many times and recorded thrice. It is a work that played a very important role in my life. I recall that I played it for him from beginning to end. You know, he never spent his time on whether I played this or that correctly, on whether I was doing what was written in the score, whether I was holding the bow or the violin correctly, whether I was playing in tune or not. That is what so preoccupied my Paris teacher and seemed so important. For Philippe, all of this was completely inconsequential compared to something much more essential. At my first lesson, when I was 14, the question was whether I was sincere. I suddenly realized that I should be a good person – so to speak, a high quality human being. And I began to get nervous, feeling that I was standing there naked, exposed. What if it turns out that I am not so good? I played for him this Poem by Chausson and he abruptly said, simply and smiling broadly: “Play it again.” I played it and again he said: “Play it once more.” After that, I played it several times without a single remark from him.I just played with all my heart, thinking that he was watching to understand how good a person I am.I began to cry.Philippe said: “It is becoming better and better.” At that moment, I understood that playing the correct notes or playing with a pure sound has nothing whatever to do with what is really important. To be a good person.From that day on, life became much more complicated, that’s for sure.

One other important thing in my studies with him goes back to the impressions Riga made on him, to the fact that he grew up in Riga. For example, I never heard any other violin tеacher suddenly begin to speak about this, whereas Philippe spoke about the German world of his childhood. We had to listen to recordings of Fischer-Dieskau. That was very important if you were his student. Sometimes we listened to something together, like friends. The voice of Fischer-Dieskau, especially the voice of the young Fischer-Dieskau, was for him like a recollection of his childhood. Whenever we played Beethoven or Brahms, he had his very defined notions of intonation, the quality of the sound, gentleness, etc., and this was in a certain sense nostalgia for the world which disappeared along with his childhood. He was young, although now he is young forever, but I remember him as a young man who, it seemed, extracted from his childhood a kind of secret about what music means or should have meant even before he appeared. It is amazing that through Philippe I became acquainted with singing, with the vocal repertoire.We listened to many of the Lieder of Schubert, Brahms and Beethoven, as well as many singers together with him. Among them was Kathleen Ferrier, who was his favorite singer. We listened to her many times. I think that her intonation and phrasing were very close to him and to his art as well. It is difficult to express all these specific things… I remember what magic he possessed, what an instinct. I remember his knowledge of the instrument. He could take any violin and instantly know how it will respond to him, with what sound and what intonation, and how this will be from the point of view of expression.

Generally speaking, this feature was absolutely unique to him. Anyone who ever heard him or knew him remembers this impression. Not long ago, I was sitting on the jury of the Jacques Thibault Competition in Paris and next to me was a man whom I previously had never met – the American violinist Joseph Silverstein. He was a very well-known violinist, an elderly man, over 80. He was the Concertmaster in Boston. He noticed mention of Philippe in my biography and nothing else interested him.
“Did you study with Philippe Hirshhorn?”
“Yes, that was my good fortune.”
And he said in reply: “He had the most unbelievable sound that I ever heard. I became acquainted with him in Lyon at a festival. We played together and I won’t ever forget that.”

Really, isn’t it quite amazing? I never saw him before. He read Philippe’s name in my biographical sketch and that immediately awakened in him very strong feelings and reminiscences. For me, Philippe is the ideal and always was the ideal, so dear to me, who is with me always, so long as I live, when I hear someone playing the violin. However, in him there is something completely unattainable, something that belonged to him alone, and when he was still alive, I had to decide – knowing how this is precious and beautiful – how to find some other path to self-expression insofar as his path was absolutely unique.

Of course, we all admired him and lived in fascination. My friends came to study with him. After I studied in America, all my friends there arrived in Holland to study with him, so that very soon Philippe had a full class. But in the very beginning, when I took my first lessons from him, I think that he was not in the best situation. He had to stop playing or something similar happened. Yet, whenever he took the violin in his hands, it was always completely unbelievable how he played. Later, fortunately, his career began to develop and he had many concert appearances.

Once we arranged master classes at the home of my grandmother and grandfather. They have a very old house that looks like a small castle. Philippe arrived for two weeks and my friends also came to study with him. It was very, very good. Among us, there were many girls, my girlfriends, of my age, around 20 years old. I remember how once in the morning over breakfast we began to read Winnie the Pooh. You know, those short tales, just for entertainment. I was a bit concerned. It seemed strange that we would talk about Winnie the Pooh, but then Philippe came downstairs and exclaimed: “I am crazy about Winnie the Pooh!” I didn’t expect that at all and it was a very big surprise.

For me it is very important that although he was the ideal of a violinist – the kind of ideal that you could not even dream about – he played so well, still on the other hand he was such an absolutely simple and accessible person, a good person, you know. As regards his teaching, this is what I saw and what I can bear witness: he absolutely inspired every one of his students. What do I have in mind? Let’s say someone appeared and played not very brilliantly. Philippe took everyone so seriously and behaved towards each in such a special way that the person began to believe that there really is something special in himself. Generally, I never saw someone who could give a person talent, but Philippe could. Philippe loved to say: “Human beings are giants.” I remember that he often repeated this. Each person was an unbelievable giant! He knew how to do this very well. To enable his students to believe that they were working at art and not just to confirm that someone of them is a good or proper violinist. The latter had no relation whatsoever with what the person was doing. I am very grateful that I saw this, saw his generosity.

In my youth, I looked at things through his eyes. In principle, that is normal. He was a very strong personality and under his influence I took over his view of the world. I remember how once I upset my father… We were watching the news on television and there was the President, who made some official declarations. I did not show any respect for the fact that it was the President. I was not concerned over the value of what he was doing. I simply looked at him as a person with his personal achievements. Generally, for me if you did not play the violin like Philippe, then you were simply nobody. Of course, I was very young then, but I remember that this went on much longer than just this incident with the President. And it is amazing how many lives were touched by Philippe. Each of his students bears his imprint on himself.

As for me, he changed my life forever. He forced me to see the violin and music with entirely fresh eyes. If today I make music and get pleasure from this – not from the profession but from this life in music – then this is largely thanks to Philippe. It seems there is not a single day when I have not thought about him in one way or another. I meet a lot of people who knew him and I spent a lot of time with him, including not just at lessons.

When I was studying, I once imagined the possibility of making a recording under the direction of Menuhin. I came to meet him in a hotel. We intended to record the Poem by Chausson. He said: “OK, but if you want to record this work, then I would work with you.” And he gave me a lesson which turned out to be very long. During this lesson, I swear, it was possible to feel the presence of his teacher, Enescu. Menuhin always was quoting him, imagined him, referred to him, to the man who inspired him in his youth. He judged everything that happened later according to Enescu.

For me, Philippe was such a person. I never met anyone like him, and whatever happened later I saw through his eyes: talent, humanity, goodness, what it means to work hard… I keep his photo in my violin case, but it is rather strange, because he himself is not visible in it, just his hand, and it is so full of life, even something childish: he is doing a trick, how to hold a piece of bread in a strange way; and by means of this gesture you can in an instant imagine all of him, though, as I say, he is not visible in the photo.

There is one thing about which I often think. Before playing something at the lesson – and he played best of all at the lessons, he played like at no other time, because he felt completely free, so that you really could see his talent and his possibilities, and this was overwhelming… As I was saying, before he started to play, there was always this silence. Basically, it was pure instinct – an instant of pure silence which precedes the music. With Philippe, this was truly magical. It was something special. As if he somehow psycholized what now will happen in sounds. In his music, there was only absolute sincerity, beauty and a moving quality, to the greatest degree possible, and nothing else. No thing that would seduce you, nothing artificial or deliberately glossy. It was only sincere, beautiful and touching. You know, we often went to pubs together or were in restaurants. We’d have a drink together, exchanged a lot of jokes and so forth. But that is not what comes to mind when I think about him. I remember that very first lesson, the point that you must be a good person to play two notes. Therefore, for example, the question of style never existed with him, because whatever the style it was always persuasive and any style turned out to be correct.

– Did you hear him sometimes at concerts?

Yes, of course, many times. I always followed him in order to listen, if it was possible. Each one of his concerts was magical for me. But he usually was secretive about his concerts! He never spoke about them, never told us where and when he would be playing.

– You said that during lessons he felt free and therefore it produced such an impression. What about the concerts? Did the same thing happen there?

Yes, it sometimes happened that at concerts he felt the same and then it put us into a trance. But even if that wasn’t the case, still he applied himself to reach a similar result, because he knew how it should be. Perhaps this could even be more beautiful than if he felt himself free. Someone might say: “Oh, he surely was anxious.” But this never bothered me, because what is important is not only the result; the intentions are also important. And discipline. So any concert performed by him met the highest standards.

– If you saw him today, what would you ask him about?

But I am always with Philippe. You know, I studied with him for many years, but for several years before his death we no longer were in such close contact. I moved to England, started my festival, etc. I wanted to find my place in life, and he simply could not help me with this. But I always thought that I would soon see him. It was very important to believe that once I return I will see him and tell him something. I remember that after his first operation we spoke by phone and it was a very good conversation, very friendly.

When he died, I was in New York with two concerts of chamber music. I was stuck there. Dmitry Fershtman called me and said that Philippe passed away. I was in shock, but I was stuck there in America and couldn’t come to the funeral. It was such a tragedy. I felt absolutely forlorn. I could not see anyone. Later friends told me how the funeral ceremony went, but I was not there and it was very difficult for me to accept the reality that he died. Before this, Philippe was absent from my life for several years, and this absence simply continued. But later I began to meet people who knew him and I played with them. It turned out that we had something in common, and this bond was Philippe. It was as if I was late for something and now will always remain late. That’s how I feel about it.

Sometimes after playing a concert I ask myself how it was, and it happens that I may say to myself: “Philippe would have hated that.” Or at other times I need to quickly go over a piece that I recorded years ago, and when I listen to the recording I’d say to myself: “Here I am trying to sound like him; I will not play that way any more.” There is something sad about this. Why? Did my ideal really change? No, my ideal did not change. It’s just that I already play differently, while an ideal is truth in music which is expressed through intonation, through vibrato, sound, phrasing. An ideal of purity, that ideal which is dear to me. It’s not an absolute, but something personal for me, because it is part of me, part of my past.

– Still, try to imagine that he is standing in front of you now. What would you like to ask him?

The first thing I would ask is how is it there.But I believe that everything is ОК there. And, you know, there is a musical proof of that. I am not a religious person at all, unfortunately. But this proof exists. It is quite an amazing proof that there is something there. I will tell you, it is a true story. It concerns the violin concerto of Schumann that I mastered because Philippe made me learn it. Do you know how this concerto was discovered? There was a certain Hungarian lady violinist to whom Bartok dedicated two violin sonatas, Jelly d’Aranyi. For her Ravel as well wrote his Tzigane. She was a well-known personality and lived in London. The grand-niece of Joseph Joachim, who was a friend of Brahms and Schumann. This was in 1933. You have to understand that there was so much pain in the world after the First World War, so much death, that the thought that one could speak with the dead at some séance became very popular.

Jelly d’Aranyi was invited once to such a supper. She was a very practical woman with gypsy roots and didn’t believe in any of this, so that they were busy with this just for a laugh. The Swedish ambassador was also there. One of my friends read his notes about this incident. In a word, these people heard voices who presented themselves as Robert and Joseph. They said: “You should go and find the forgotten violin concerto written by Robert. We rehearsed it only once in Dusseldorf. It must be in the library. Go and find it, because it is a very important concerto and is completely forgotten.” She traveled to Germany, which was already under Hitler, went to the Prussian National Library and found the concerto there. It was soon afterward published by Schott. The Nazi government decided that an Aryan violinist should be the first to perform it, and so the premiere was played by Kulenkampf in 1937. Either Hitler or Goebbels was expected to come to the concert, and the music was subjected to changes, because the performers were disappointed with it. It sounded very strange. Hindemith made the arrangement, made the orchestra solos shorter, raised the violin part higher, etc., and Schott published the concerto a second time.

Menuhin received the scores via d’Aranyi and recorded it in New York several years later. But he heard the German recording on the radio, since they broadcast it to the whole world – the just discovered violin concerto of Schumann! And when he heard it, he could not recognize the music. That’s how much it was altered by Hindemith to be made suitable for high-ranking Nazi ears. This is an absolutely true story and, if not for that, we still wouldn’t know about this concerto today. So I think that Philippe is looking down on us from somewhere and, possibly, is trying to look after his family, for example. I don’t know. That’s how I imagine it. Sometimes at a concert I notice that I am beginning to play better if I am thinking that perhaps he is listening to me.

– Did Philippe himself play this Schumann concerto?

He studied it. Philippe liked the concerto very much. And when I was working my way through it, we played it together. It’s an amazing recollection, how he played for the orchestra and I played the violin part, or the reverse. Just to take it apart and analyze it.

– Did he play a lot at lessons?

There were times and there were lessons when he did not play at all, but that did not have any significance. You always wanted it to happen, because you could learn a lot just by observing him. When Philippe played, it was always unbelievable, absolutely amazing. But I also remember how he could kid around as well. For example, he played the First Capriccio, superbly by the way, like no one else I ever heard – at the same time as he hopped on one leg down and then up stairs. All, without making a single mistake… Or he played Mozart sonatas on the piano sitting with his back to the keyboard. All of these little tricks! A very gifted man!

– Those who remember him from Leningrad say that he had a special kind of ricochet for the First Capriccio.


– What kind?

I’ll tell you what kind. Each note was played with exceptional energy. This wasn’t some lazy ricochet-bariolage, which the bow plays as if by itself. Overall, he played this like a pianist. Do you know what is interesting in this capriccio? That we can hear how it was played by Paganini – from Schumann and Liszt, who heard this capriccio played by Paganini himself and cite him in their writings. And every time they cite him, it is played slowly. Ti-ki-ti-ki-ta-ka-ta-ka. Philippe played it quickly but with such an approach to each note, and it turned out that this expressed unbelievable energy. Another capriccio that he played marvelously was the twelfth. He did something there so that it became similar to Brahms. It was so pretty. You know, I think he had a difficult life. That is my feeling. Though he could have been on the top of the world.

– He had a difficult life dealing with himself.

Yes. You know, I loved him very much. I brought my friends to him. But after his death something happened that can be seen only now. What happened is that many people remember him. It’s an amazing thing, as if they understood what or whom they so sorely miss.

– Many people say that he was very critical of what he himself did on the violin, right up to the point of rejection. Do you recall anything like this?

Yes, I remember it very well. For me it’s as if it were just yesterday. He always made his life more complicated than it had to be. He had his notion of what should be. He knew what he wanted, and this was so high and hard to attain that, perhaps, it could be reached for three seconds in a whole lifetime, and then everything would slip away. But he wanted this every time. Of course, it is impossible to get it every time. Yet, Philippe was a magician and for the most part he was very close to this when he played in such a way that I never have heard from anyone else. However, he was not ready to accept what he would call bad days. You know, once we had a lesson during the holidays and he said: “What you are doing is suitable for good days, but there are also bad days when you don’t want to play, when nothing works out, and all the same you have a concert to perform.” And so he had to prepare himself in various ways and for various situations. For when he felt great and for when he felt less well and for when everything was really bad.

In a certain sense, this reminds me of Gerard Depardieu, with whom I recently became friends. Once he was watching on television a film in which he played. It was made when he was young. He told his friends, meaning us: “Look at how appealing I was, a handsome lad. But back then I hated myself. I thought I was ugly.”

After this, I recollect the film interview with Philippe. They show him after the competition and he says, if my memory serves me right: “I thought I was something.” Indeed, he was “something.” There is nothing to be done about it. He decidedly was something! And if he did not think so even then, well I don’t know at what other time he could have seen it. That’s what I have in mind when I say that he made life difficult for himself. He wanted to play great all the time. For the most part, he did this and there is nothing more to say about it.

– Do you have favorite recordings of his?

For me, his Brahms concerto is the best of any I have heard. No one ever played it so beautifully. The Brahms concerto is simply a dream. He played the First and Second Sonatas of Brahms marvelously. The amazing Strauss sonata was unforgettable; it was recorded and this is one of the best recordings I have heard. As for the sonata of William Walton, I never heard anything comparable; it was so very good. I listened to it in Utrecht together with Lieberman. Philippe, it seems, was at the time preparing something else that was supposed to be recorded. I heard his Ravel sonata in France, at the Roque d’Antheron, together with Martha Agrerich. It was a dream the way he played it. In fact, he recorded the Ravel sonata. A recording exists!

– Really? Did you hear it?

He let me listen to it, but he did not want to release it. I remember that he recorded Ravel and Strauss. The pianist was Ronald Brautigam. It was a studio recording, and it must be somewhere in Holland. I once met Brautigam in Italy. After his concert, we went to have supper together and I asked him about this recording.

– And?

He didn’t know. He said that it must be somewhere. But he remembers that it was very difficult to record with Philippe, because he didn’t like anything.

We often listened to music together when we were both free. We also listened to jazz. Once it was a recording of Misha Elman. He was playing a tango. I remember that day very well. It was a tango that he composed himself. Philippe liked it so much! He could not stop: he listened and listened, and after the tenth time he said: “Let’s hear it once more.”

– So Misha Elman really composed a tango?

Yes, in fact there is such a piece. It’s not long. Something like Albeniz, very pretty. And the way he played it was something unusual. But I don’t think that the tango interested Philippe as such. What interested him was Misha Elman’s playing, how he played the violin and what he did. Basically, of course, it was his sound, the fantastic Elman sound, the best in the world, it seems. However, Philippe had something similar. He had a kind of unfathomable instinct for this.

– You spoke about the Etude in the form of a waltz. Now, thirty years later, has your impression of it remained the same?

Absolutely the same. It did not change in any way. I am totally captivated by his playing.