Raphael Oleg’s keen art of detection


Few concert violinists do more preparation than French virtuoso Raphael Oleg. For him, each performance requires meticulous research on the composer and the work.

“I believe the performer is just a medium, a bridge between the composer and the listener,” says Oleg in a recent interview ahead of a recital at Tokyo’s Kioi Hall next month with the experienced pianist Yuki Nakajima.

“Often, the performer’s ego stands in the way and tends to destroy the initial meaning of the composer. [Research for me] is like conducting a criminal investigation. I’m looking for clues everywhere.”

So what has his investigations into the program for his forthcoming Tokyo recital turned up? Stories riven with complexities.

“Even in the dark tragedies of the first pieces there are moments of dreamy poetry. The (Francis) Poulenc sonata for violin and piano Op119 was written in memory of Federico Garcia Llorca, the Spanish poet killed by the fascists, and one can feel how upset Poulenc was when he wrote it.

“Similarly, (Leos) Janacek started the composition of his sonata for violin and piano during World War I as the Moravian people (of eastern Czechoslovakia) awaited the liberating forces from Russia. Janacek himself actually depicted a theme towards the end of the sonata as the Russian armies coming into Hungary.”

The program takes a more delicate turn with the Beethoven sonata No 6 in A major Op30-1, which the violinist describes as “the most intimate” piece of the recital. It closes with “the happiest sonata of this program, the Schubert sonata D574, which has all the tenderness and joy one can expect from Schubert.

“I like the ‘equilibrium’ in this program: both Poulenc and Janacek are dramatic pieces, very intense and tumultuous, and in contrast, Beethoven and Schubert share a more peaceful, tender and sometimes joyful atmosphere.”

Born in 1959, Oleg entered the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris at aged 12 to study with French violinist Gerard Jarry.

Since winning the Gold Medal at the prestigious International Tchaikovsky competition in 1986, he has performed with first-rate orchestras around the globe and with maestro conductors such as Riccardo Chailly and Japanese conductor Tadaaki Otaka. Of the latter, Oleg has some fond memories.

“My most memorable concert in Japan was a performance of Beethoven concerto with Otaka (conducting the Kioi Sinfonietta Tokyo in 2000). It was one of these rare occasions when everything seems to be happening in the right way at the right moment.”

Clearly fond of Japan — his forthcoming visit will be his 16th and he says he longs to visit Hokkaido, where he will perform in June — Oleg is quick to praise the working conditions for musicians and the quality of venues. But he is concerned that “the ticket prices are very high compared with other countries,” which limits access to classical concerts.

Oleg’s Kioi Hall recital — priced at a reasonable ¥2,000-5,500 — promises new interpretations of the popular sonatas.

“With every concert I am trying new things, even with pieces which are in my repertoire already a long time,” he says.

For inspiration, he looks to genres other than classical violin, including aspects of traditional Japanese culture.

“I love the sound of shakuhachi (bamboo flute), and one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in my life was an exhibition of origami figures depicting scenes of the Heike Monogatari,” the epic war account of medieval Japan known in English as “The Tale of Heike.”

But his most lasting influence comes from the West. In 1981 he attended a master class by the leading soprano of the 20th century, the German-born Briton Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Her singing has deeply affected Oleg’s playing.

“But asking me about my biggest influence is like asking (the same of) a pebble you’ve picked up on the sea shore,” says Oleg. “Its shape is the result of thousands of strokes and patient work from the sea.”

The violinist’s exhaustive approach ensures that he is on a life-long learning curve. “New repertoire is my daily bread,” he says, adding that he studies at least six new pieces per year and is particularly excited about an album for two violins, due to be released in spring.

“Will I be attempting new things in the future? That could be the definition of a musician’s duty: creating new emotions with material from the past,” Oleg says.

“Of course, the material is here. It’s always the same if you look at the ink on the paper, but the way you look at it changes and will always change as you mature. That is why we are like students our lifetime long.”

Raphael Oleg’s violin recital with pianist Yuki Nakajima takes place at Kioi Hall, Tokyo on Feb. 16 at 3 p.m. (doors open at 2.30 p.m.). Tickets are ¥2,000-5,500. For more information and tickets, call Kioi Hall ticket center at (03) 3237-0061. For more information, visit www.kioi-hall.or.jp Oleg is also scheduled to appear as a solo violinist with Kioi Sinfonietta Tokyo in Hokkaido in June.