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My violin heroes by Joshua Bell

The American violinist remembers the warmth of his teacher, Josef Gingold, and his admiration for Jascha Heifetz in this interview from The Strad Violin Heroes edition

November 11, 2013

Gingold never let a note go by without love and care

‘For me the most direct influence and by far the greatest hero was my teacher Josef Gingold. He was one of the most sincere and beautiful music makers that I’ve ever heard. His teacher was Eugène Ysaÿe, who also became my hero.

When I came to know Gingold, teaching was the centre of his world. He’d had experience playing in orchestras under Toscanini and as a concertmaster, and he played quartets with Primrose. He was an all-round musician. He was an example of utter sincerity in music making. There was never a note that wasn’t expressive; he never let a note go by without love and care. You felt that when you were in the room with him: he caressed the instrument and loved it. So much joy came through in his playing. Maybe Kreisler comes close to that, in the charm and the joy you sense in his playing. 

Gingold’s was not a big sound. It was never aggressive, and it had a lot of nuance. The greatest lessons I had from him were by example – his tone was so beautiful that it made you want to emulate it. It was all about honesty, though. If you were playing for him and he felt there was any type of gimmick or that you were copying, he would catch you on it.

Old masters such as Heifetz, Kreisler and Gingold had a way of playing rubato around the beat whereby you always have a sense of the underlying rhythm. It’s not distorted in the way that we sometimes hear today. This is very hard to teach – you just have to hear it and pick it up. Hearing Gingold do it, particularly with Romantic works by Wieniawski and Kreisler, was very special.

Once, when I was 13, I was playing the Beethoven Concerto in a masterclass and Gingold was talking to the class, saying, “If you are a solo player you never know when you’re going to be called at the last minute to fill in, and you have to be prepared to play something you haven’t done in a while.” So after I’d played the Beethoven at this open masterclass, where I was already nervous enough, he told me I had to play the first movement of a Paganini concerto that I hadn’t played for a year. He said, “I’ll give you five dollars,” and he opened his wallet and made me do it. I was scared to death, but he continued, “Just play it. If you make mistakes, you make mistakes, but you have to play it like you own it.” I did it and it was scary, but once I got into it I realised I knew it better than I thought and I tried to make a real performance out of it. It taught me a lesson. Nothing after that ever felt so unprepared, and I figured that if I could get through that I could get through anything. And I still have the five dollar note.

Gingold is one of the few people that I’ve never heard a bad word about. He was a very loving person. Everyone who came into contact with him left with a smile on their face. Some teachers get results by scaring their students into practising, and that can be very effective. Gingold didn’t have that in him. You wanted to please him, so that got you to work. He was a very kind person and he loved the violin so much that it never left his hand from morning to night, so you always felt inspired to go and practise.

The first couple of years before I became his student, I would come to see him at the end of his day, at 4pm on a Friday, and we’d go for two or three hours, without any structure – he never asked for money. We’d play and he’d pick out scores of string quartets that we’d read through. Sometimes he’d pick out Kreisler 78s and we’d listen to them, and he’d tell stories about when he met Kreisler.

As he was for every violinist of that time, Jascha Heifetz was one of Gingold’s idols, and he became my idol too. I don’t listen to much violin playing any more in my spare time, but whenever I put on a Heifetz CD it sets the standard for me. You always have this bar in your head that you strive for in playing the instrument. Whenever I listen to Heifetz I realise that

I set it too low. Of course I can never get there, but by listening to Heifetz it always makes me set the bar higher. I always play better after I’ve just listened to him. My technique improves just by listening to him play. So much of it is about the expectations you put on yourself. You can always do better than you think.

Heifetz had such intensity. I’ve listened to him playing Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy a few times recently and there just isn’t a recording that comes close. He defined that piece. It’s almost a curse: it’s hard not to want to mimic him, because he captured it. He was like a tornado. He didn’t radiate a lot of warmth in his persona, the way he looked, but his playing is not cold at all. He doesn’t over-sentimentalise things. If you compare him to someone of his generation, such as Elman, he would avoid the obvious sentimental gesture. He would almost gloss over a place where another player would make a big deal. But when he did that, the moment somehow became much more powerful. He didn’t have a lot of gimmicks, so some people refer to him as cold, but I don’t think of him that way at all.

Heifetz didn’t look up to people, but one of the few players he mentioned in his writing was Fritz Kreisler. For me, Kreisler epitomises charm. I never think of him as a virtuoso, even though he must have been. I don’t think about his technique, but of his incredible handling of the bow, and a rhythm with the bow that just gets underneath your skin. There’s nothing like hearing Kreisler play his own music.’

INTERVIEW BY ARIANE TODES

  

This interview was first published in The Strad Violin Heroes supplement, available to buy from The Strad Library. The Strad Violin Heroes Calendar 2010, featuring instruments played by the great violinists, is also available to buy. 

Joshua Bell is the cover star of The Strad, November 2013 issue. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. 

Photo Richard Ashcroft

 

 

 

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