A contribution to the Leonard Bernstein centenary celebrations recently grabbed me by the guts. It’s a recording by the Dutch violinist Liza Fertschman of the composer’s Serenade: a concerto that aims to capture impressions of love according to the Greek philosophers depicted in Plato’s Symposium.
The disc, on Challenge Classics, pairs it with the Korngold Violin Concerto, uniting two works by composers whose Jewish heritage runs deep in their music, whether by accident or design. This month Ferschtman, herself of Russian Jewish origin, is performing the Bernstein in London.
“The first time I heard the Serenade, I was captivated,” Ferschtman remembers. “What drew me in was the quality of speaking he creates in it. It’s something I always search for: the ability to speak through the music, not just sing wordlessly.” Opportunity knocked five years ago when she was asked to replace the indisposed Janine Jansen in a concert performance of the piece: “I had to learn it in one week!”
Ferschtman’s background chimes well with Bernstein’s: “I read an interview with Bernstein’s daughter, saying that at Passover and Easter they’d have a Seder night and the next day an egg hunt,” she says. “That’s how modern Jews roll! You have Christmas with a Christmas tree, but a Chanukah menorah as well. That’s pretty much how I grew up.”
In the family home, music was everywhere: “I sometimes blame my parents for making me play the violin,” she smiles. “My father’s a cellist and my mother’s a pianist, so they wanted a piano trio. I’m not a typical violinist: I don’t love the instrument for its own sake, but more as a means to a musical end. I would have loved to be a singer, but I didn’t have the voice…”
Fertschman’s cellist father, Dmitri, played in the Glinka String Quartet before applying to emigrate from Moscow to Israel in the 1970s. The family ultimately settled in the Netherlands. “Rostislav Dubinsky, the leader of the Borodin Quartet, told my father he was moving to Holland, and suggested that if he came too they could form a new quartet,” Ferschtman recounts. “But visas were given in such a random way that Dubinsky left for America three years before my father arrived.”
Another USSR-born Jewish musician had a profound influence on Ferschtman. Philippe Hirschhorn, from Riga, who won the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 1967, is something of a legend in the violin world. He stayed often with the Fertschmans in Utrecht, where he had a teaching post, and gave the teenage Liza lessons too. His extraordinary tone — burning, intense and irresistible — touched all who heard him: “There was something of the devil-and-angel in him,” Fertschman remembers.
Hirschhorn died tragically young of a brain tumour in 1996 and Ferschtman, then 16, felt the loss deeply. Her own sound, conveyed on the Guarneri del Gesù violin she plays on loan, recalls something of Hirschhorn’s even now.
Her career nevertheless has been unconventional. At 38, she is still building prominence internationally, although she has been artistic director of the annual music festival in Delft for 12 years and her recordings, Bernstein and Korngold included, have won excellent reviews. In the end, she says, it’s all about the pace of her personal development.
“In the last two years I’ve been coming much more into my own. For a long time it seemed I had control of my life, but in a way it was leading me. Now things are ‘clicking in’ much more. I’ve always enjoyed being on stage, but at the same time something was holding me back. Now I feel relieved from that pressure. I recently saw a preview for an online masterclass with Helen Mirren in which she said that when you know get it right, you know about it. This has started happening to me more often. I feel some layers have come off.”
Could Liza Fertschman become the Helen Mirren of the violin? From what I’ve heard so far, it wouldn’t surprise me.
Liza Ferschtman plays Bernstein’s Serenade at Cadogan Hall on May 31, with the Brussels Philharmonic conducted by Stéphane Denève.