Effortless, elegant melodies warmed by sublime vibrato rise in volume as the phone is whisked toward Frank Peter Zimmermann, one of the greatest violinists of this age, at his home in Germany. They end abruptly, but interrupting Zimmerm- an’s rehearsal causes him no irritation, and he dives enthusiastically into the subject of his return to Tokyo with the London Symphony Orchestra and celebrated conductor Daniel Harding.
At Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall on April 17, Zimmermann will tackle Beethoven’s “Violin Concerto in D major Op.61,” which he recorded with conductor Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra in 1999 (EMI Classics). Badly received when first performed in 1806, its permanent popularity was established 38 years later by violinist Joseph Joachim under the direction of Felix Mendelssohn. Now it is the core of any violinist’s repertoire.
“I’ve performed it about 200 times in my life already,” Zimmermann says, with a joyful laugh that shows he does not mind that fact at all. “But it’s always very fresh to me every time. As soon as I hear the opening tutti (orchestral passage), I feel that it is an adventure.” What kind of adventure? A dive into the deep Mediterranean sea? A ride on the emotional contours of a dramatic romance?
Zimmermann replies, “A climb up Mount Everest.” Beethoven’s violin concerto, the only one the composer ever wrote, is the “Mount Everest of all violin concertos. It is more difficult than, say, Brahms or Bartok.”
The grandeur of the work, for Zimm- ermann, lies in its revolutionary impact. “There had been nothing like it before. It was a new form, a new idea; it was huge and symphonic. It created a new ideal for subsequent composers to aspire to. It is a piece of art, not just a violin concerto.” Reminded that, on its first performance, violinist Franz Clement was so offended that Beethoven had completed it hurriedly days before the premiere that he inserted his own composition between the first and second movements, and played his violin upside down, Zimmerman’s soft voice gains a dark edge: “Yes, that is unbelievable. Beethoven is like Shakespeare or Goethe; he is not a joke.”
Written in an intensely creative period in which Beethoven also wrote works as wide-ranging as the “Eroica” symphony, the “Appasionata” piano sonata and the “Rasumovsky” string quartets, his violin concerto is certainly no joke. Beethoven demands technical dexterity and flexible nuance, while his trademark dramatic force delivers both in a density of notes and complex emotional depth. Zimmermann seems to have absorbed all of this and nurtured his interpretation into fine maturity and reinvigorated freshness over his many performances.
Much sought after on the international scene, Zimmermann gives regular recitals across the globe and performs with all major orchestras. Born in 1965 in Duisburg, then West Germany, he started playing the violin when he was 5, giving his first concert with an orchestra at age 10. He has played with the LSO and with Daniel Harding many times, and refers to both with great fondness. “The LSO is a fantastic orchestra and I enjoy playing with them very much. Daniel is one of the few conductors who are younger than me,” he says, laughing gently. “I started so young that all my colleagues were older. But now, some world-class names are younger, and I find their musical interpretations very interesting.”
Maestro Daniel Harding is certainly a conductor who excites many audiences. Born in Oxford, he began his career assisting Sir Simon Rattle at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with whom he made his debut, before going on to assist Claudio Abbado at the Berlin Philharmonic, directing them at the Berlin Festival in 1996. Since then, he has held many prestigious positions, and last season he made his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducting Mahler’s “Symphony No.10″ and Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.”
At this concert, he will also conduct the LSO in Dvorak’s “Slavonic Dance in D-flat major Op.72-4,” and “Symphony No.9 in E minor Op.95″ “From The New World.”
For Zimmermann, a visit to Tokyo is a personal pleasure. “This must be my 13th or 14th time I’m playing in Japan,” he recalls. “The first time was back in 1983. I was a teenager then, wearing just a white shirt and black trousers, no jacket, no tailcoat.” He speaks of classical music in Japan with much admiration. “It had — it still has — financial problems, but Japan is just soaking in all Western music. It is the capital of Western music in Asia, like Germany is in Europe.” He is confident as he prepares to scale a musical mountain.
“Japanese audiences adore Beethoven,” he says, his voice settling back into its genuine warmth. “So I will play for them.”