The German violinist gives advice on how to inject character and charisma into the daunting solo introduction of this much-loved work
I first played Ravel’s Tzigane when I was 14 years old and immediately I loved it. It isn’t a typical virtuoso piece, where the aim is just to show off: there is so much depth and musicality to it. I had the opportunity to play it with a student orchestra when I was the same age, and it was a very scary experience, to play completely alone for the first five minutes – almost half the piece – with the orchestra sitting behind me, listening. It taught me, as a young player, to be confident.
I found that the best way to deal with the situation was to breathe deeply, to imagine that I was like a huge tree and then to start the forte theme full of presence. You cannot begin this piece shyly, no matter how scared or nervous you are! The way you begin influences the rest of the piece. It was a great challenge for me to think, by myself, about what I wanted to express through the music.
Gypsy spirit and French style
In Ravel, no matter how much virtuosity is required, the musical spirit is the strongest part of the music. Tzigane is very much inspired by the gypsy style, but it is still Ravel. The result is a beautiful mixture of gypsy virtuosity and the seductive French sounds that can be heard in so much of his other music.
I like to think of the gypsy and the ‘Ravel’ sides as different characters: a macho gypsy man and a seductive Frenchwoman. You can do so much to shape each one, by experimenting with different colours and dynamics. Even your body language can change: for the strong, macho gypsy rhythm at the opening, for example, I have more tension in my body and I stand up taller.
At figure 2 I do the same thing again, taking more time so that I can really exaggerate the accent. In contrast, when I bring out the feminine character at figure 1, my body becomes more flexible. Here – and also for the cadenza and figure 3 – I play with the bow very close to the fingerboard, to give a more mystical sound.
To play this music well, you need to have an inner attitude and musicality that work in perfect synchrony with your technique – you cannot have one without the other. You have to find your way between feeling what you want to express on the instrument and then having the technical ability to bring that across in your sound.
In this first section you are completely alone and free, so you have to be brave, to really make something out of it. Don’t just play with a metronome: use your imagination! It’s a good idea, when you start learning the piece, to play very rhythmically so that you are familiar with what has been written. But after that, take more time – and make sure you catch up that time again somewhere else, so that the music does not lose its interest or become too slow. The basic rhythm and tempo shouldn’t be lost, except perhaps in the rubato passage before figure 3, where you can start bar 41 slowly and speed up until you reach the trill.
Work on the G string
The whole of the first page, until bar 28, has to be played on the G string. The closer you are to figure 2, the harder, higher and more uncomfortable it gets!
Almost every instrument has a wolf note high up on the G string – on mine it’s around the C and C sharp – and unfortunately in this piece you really need those notes. Every time I approach this section I feel stressed, and I find it best to breathe deeply and try to ignore the wolf notes: stress will only make them worse. It can help to use more bow and to bow more lightly, without pressing too much, so that the string vibrates more freely despite its shortened length.
When I practise this passage I use an exaggerated vibrato to strengthen my left hand. I also like to practise while sitting on the floor and resting my violin on something. The first thing I do whenever I’m in a new hotel room is think, ‘In which corner can I sit?’ Then I build up a pile of pillows and play with my violin resting on a chair or a table, so that my left hand can just hang from the fingerboard and I can play using my arm’s natural weight. It is actually very heavy, so it’s good training for the fingers. Afterwards, when I play normally again, everything feels much easier.
When I practise double-stops, I move to each new position very quickly, as though I’m trying to catch a fly
The octave double-stops at figure 2 are very uncomfortable to play, and you will need a lot of strength to play them in fortissimo. Prepare each one carefully beforehand, to make sure that you feel secure. It can help to practise these, too, with an exaggerated vibrato, to build up your finger strength and your sound.
The double-stops from bar 33 are particularly awkward to play, because you have to position your fingers in a strange way to find all the notes. Very often I see violinists who do not prepare their left hands early enough here. If your fingers are already in place before you have to play each chord and they know exactly where to go, you won’t have to search for the notes at the last moment. If you have to search for the notes when it’s time to play them, it’s already too late.
When I practise double-stops, I move to each new position very quickly, as though I’m trying to catch a fly. When I’ve jumped into place, I don’t play immediately – I wait, to think about whether the position is correct or not – and then I place my bow. After that I repeat the same action until I get it right. Later, when you’re performing, you won’t need to jump so fast to each new hand position, because by then your fingers will know immediately where to go.
Record your practice
It can be a good idea to play a piece through, record it three times and then listen back – even if it’s just on your phone. For me this is always the best way to practise, because a recording sounds very different from having the instrument under the ear and it helps me to feel a sense of connection with the piece. When you listen back, you may suddenly hear that you are doing things you had never realised you were doing.
INTERVIEW BY PAULINE HARDING