The titular piece for her new album Schumann Violin Concerto with Daniel Hogan and Sinfonia Perdita, violinist Laure Chan breaks down the emotional significance of Schumann’s last great opus and how her journey as a composer has deepened her understanding of the work

Laure Chan by John Davis 01

Laure Chan © John Davis

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When did you first encounter the Schumann Violin Concerto? It’s not often performed - what made you decide to record it? 

I believe it was Yehudi Menuhin’s recording of the work that I first encountered when discovering this piece. Menuhin played a significant role in reviving this work, stating that the concerto was the ‘missing link in the violin literature’, between concertos by Beethoven and Brahms. 

In the beginning of 2020, my long-term friend and conductor Daniel Hogan asked me to perform with his newly-formed young professionals orchestra the Sinfonia Perdita. At the inaugural concert, to generate a larger audience, he decided to programme the Dvorak Violin Concerto, however, his vision for this orchestra is to highlight neglected works. Two years later, Daniel asked me to prepare the Schumann Violin Concerto with another orchestra. It wasn’t a piece that was on my radar to learn soon at that point, but in doing so, I also believed in this work to be highly underrated. After performing the concerto live, Daniel and I decided to record the work with his Sinfonia Perdita to give this beautiful and neglected piece a revival. 

What were the most challenging aspects of this work? (musically and technically). How did you overcome these challenges? 

Due to the sparse textures at times, often only orchestrated for strings, there is a responsibility in the solo violin part to carry long phrases. In general, I would say that my overall impression of this concerto is an emotional one rather than virtuosic. However, there are some technically very demanding passages, including awkward string crossings, tricky double stops and double-stop trills, and extremely fast scalic passages, notably in the last movement near the end of the concerto.

In all honesty, when I first learnt this work, it felt quite awkward to play violinistically, and the structures felt rather unconventional and challenging to memorise, especially in the third movement. As I connected with the work on a deeper level, I could sense that this was an emotional portrayal of what was going on in Schumann’s mind, a sense of restlessness, perhaps confusion, and a juxtaposition of suffering and joy. Beyond the notes on the page, I understood that the work reflected his emotional journey near the end of his life, and that it shouldn’t necessarily be a comfortable experience to play or to listen to. It is a very deep work, and it calls to the past with its transparent, baroque and classical-like textures in moments. After all, it was inspired by Bach’s Chaconne – one of my favourite works of music! 

Tell us about the parallels between the Schumann concerto and your original work Lost in Translation, which also features on your album? 

I thought that the pairing of this concerto with my original work made sense on an emotional level, as both pieces were written during challenging times. Even though the musical styles are rather different and noticeably so in the length and scale as well, both express a sense of struggle. 

Schumann wrote his violin concerto near the end of his life, and the work was thought to be too revealing of his fragile state of mind at the time by his close friend Joseph Joachim, and his wife, Clara. As a result, it was hidden away for most of the 19th Century and rediscovered and performed about 80 years later. 

At the time when I wrote Lost in Translation, I was feeling quite lost and isolated. Initially I intended to write a solo violin work, instead of a violin ensemble. I created the main continuous melodic line, which was based only on four chords, and from this simple harmonic progression, I wanted to create variations around it, again and again, expressing the feeling of going around in circles without a sense of resolution. I can feel this similarly in the third movement of Schumann’s Violin Concerto, when the thematic material appears recurrently until we finally feel a sense of resolution near the end of the work. 

The unconventional structures in the Schumann (particularly in the third movement) is something I can relate to when writing my own piece – I wasn’t thinking about how to write something in an adhered form, I was more aiming to express how I was feeling inside into notes, liberated from any formal construct. I imagine my piece as a ‘sound poem’. 

I would say this album expresses the true depth of human emotions – it is not the happiest of albums admittedly, although there are beautiful moments of relief. Schumann was contemplating suicide when he wrote his concerto, feelings of despair, anxiety and longing can all be felt, and yet, there are moments of humour, joy, and hope.

In creating Lost in Translation, I was struggling in my own way, though I remained hopeful. I suppose the overall message I am trying to convey in this album is one of compassion and humanity. 

Finally: tell us about your instrument and bow you used to record this album 

In this recording, I played on my own modern instrument and bow. My violin is a copy of the 1698 Rouse-Boughton Stradivari made by Philip Ihle and his wonderful team, and my bow was made by Tim Baker. They are both exceptional contemporary makers, and I am also very lucky that they live locally, which helps for servicing my instruments from time to time! 

Laure Chan’s album Schumann Violin Concerto with Daniel Hogan and Sinfonia Perdita, is released 1 March 2024 and available across all digital streaming platforms.

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