When most people think of winners of the Carl Flesch Competition in the nineties - and particularly of winners who took all the main prizes - the name Maxim Vengerov immediately comes to mind. Yet, two years after Vengerov won this competition a young Austrian by the name of Benjamin Schmid achieved precisely the same feat. Whilst Vengerov's career has sprawled at much the same pace as the pianist Yevgeny Kissin's, with acolytes selling out concert halls and cult status quickly following, Schmid remains largely unknown in the UK. It can often seem desperately unfair at this stage of an artist's career, but it may well be the case that Benjamin Schmid ends up the greater violinist when we come to reassess the first half of the twenty first century.
I arrange to meet Benjamin Schmid on a little bit of Austria in central London - the Austrian Embassy. It seems the ideal place to meet a violinist who is steeped in the traditions of Vienna and Salzburg, but as the interview progresses it might have seemed almost preferable to have met at Ronnie Scott's in Soho. For Schmid is a violinist very much in the Menuhin mould - one who feels just as comfortable playing modern-day jazz as he does the Brahms Violin Concerto.
He is currently playing a series of recitals at the Wigmore Hall - the complete solo violin works of Bach and Ysaÿe, a formidable undertaking for any violinist. Throughout the year, these concerts are also being played in Vienna, San Francisco, New York and Tokyo - his own tribute to Bach's 250th anniversary. "This is the first ever integral cycle of these works to be done over a span of three concerts", he tells me. "The main reason is a new idea of presenting these sets of works together - everyone knows the Bach but the Ysaÿe are not very well known. The aim is to show the similarities between the two sets - the greatest written for the violin. It makes great sense to show the direct relationships which exist between both sets".
I ask him how he came to choose the order in which the works are being played - for they are not being done chronologically. His answer displays a deep understanding of what makes great concert programming, as the Wigmore performances themselves have revealed. "The first criteria was getting the right pairs. There is often a direct correlation between the pieces - the second Ysaÿe and E major Bach makes an obvious pairing. He quotes Bach often and takes a lot of the material and puts it into a twentieth century context. A second pair is the No 1 Bach and the No 1 Ysaÿe - same key, same movements, same keys within movements and often the same tempos. Ysaÿe wrote it after he heard Szigeti play the G minor Bach - and that is also why he dedicated it to him. The No 4 Ysaÿe and A minor Bach and so on. I also tried to have one sonata and one partita per evening and tried to match the pairs so we always have one long Ysaÿe in the first half and a short Ysaÿe in the second half. You hear Ysaÿe very differently if you hear Bach before, but in the second half you get to hear Bach after Ysaÿe which is an entirely different experience. I thought about playing them in chronological order, but I don't think it would have worked as well".
Schmid's advocacy of Ysaÿe is total. As he talks about the contextual similarities between the two giants of the solo violin repertoire he describes the music with a passion that merges intellectual thought with a true inner understanding of the greatness of these neglected masterpieces. "Ysaÿe transposed the ideas of Bach - still the highest level of violin composition 250 years after they were written - and put them in a twentieth century perspective. He was partly influenced by his contemporaries - Debussy and Strauss - but the violin writing, the technique, goes way beyond anything before, such as Sarasate, Vieuxtemps or Wieniawski - whom I love. Ysaÿe's works stand up to a new dimension of writing, a new dimension of violin virtuoso repertoire. But it is also absolute music. Quite a remarkable achievement. He made his own ideas within the period".
"I have tried to make the connection between the two sets of works seem clear. Take the first 8 bars of the adagios of both the Bach and Ysaÿe G minors. They almost have the same harmonies, but a few whole tone scales are added. Ysaÿe goes a little further than Bach - six chord strings rather than four chord, new ways of using arpeggios and even using quarter tones. There are different meters, but they always emerge from the same ideas that Bach had. Compare the theme of the fugue - there are the same number of notes in the motif (he now hums both for me) and there is almost the same rhymical structure but it is given a new direction. The first interlude in the Ysaÿe could be by Bach. At the end of the fugue, in both there is four part writing for the violin. Ysaÿe was one of few composers who tried this and succeeded. He uses the same material, but uses it in slightly different ways. Sometimes in quite a brutal way - almost destroying the music and taking it in completely new directions. It was written after the First World War, in 1923, so perhaps this is the reason".
It might be assumed that the Bach Sonatas (relatively short, in four movements) would be easier to surmount than the Partitas (much longer, often in six movements). Not so, according to Schmid. "The Sonatas are much more demanding - both from the player's point of view and from the listener's. The Partitas often use dance rhythms, whereas the Sonatas employ much more complex figuration and more complex technique". The fact that Bach's scores for his works display little in the sense of dynamic markings makes me wonder how rubato is used. "Partly because the Bach requires more emotional involvement and greater humanity on the part of the player, a violinist has to sense when pianissimo markings can be used, vibrato etc". I mention, as a prelude to my next question, Maurizio Pollini's Berlin recording of Brahms' First Piano Concerto as an example of an artist's technique somehow clouding the emotional and musical interpretation of a great work. It had certainly been the case with Schmid's first Wigmore recital that technique somehow didn't seem to matter - faultless as it was. The performance of the Second Partita struck me as a deeply emotional and deeply involved reading - something one doesn't always expect when works have an over developed familiarity with the performer. "Technique is naturally very important, but it would be a mistake to think that it is the ultimate. Only when you have the technique can you ever expect to begin to understand the work's meaning - and that is the whole reason for playing".
Although Schmid is Viennese, and he holds to many of its traditions, his musical philosophy is a pan-European, transatlantic one. Many young - and often not so young - violinists are quite content to play the mainstream concertos and little else. Benjamin Schmid, however, has a very keen sense for the music of the twentieth century - and in this respect he is perhaps more akin to Anne-Sophie Mutter than Maxim Vengerov. The Bartok Solo Violin Sonata, according to Schmid, is the greatest work for the instrument after the Bach and Ysaÿe, but he also plays John Cage's Etudes at the other end of the century. He has recorded Christian Muthspiel's Violin Concerto (on electric violin), with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, and has commissioned Muthspiel to write a double concerto for him - for violin and cello. A solo work by Wolfgang Muthspiel, the jazz guitarist, called Passacaglia, has also been premiered by Schmid. Taking the letters of Schmid's own name it is based on the notes B-E-A-D. Reminiscent of Shostakovich, I add. Gerhardt Sehidl has written a concertino for him, and Wolfgang Seierl a solo work, Ferne.
When it comes to tackling other twentieth century works high up on his list are the Ligeti Concerto, and those of Walton, Britten, Elgar and Berg. His affinity with the Britten concerto should be a fine one, since Schmid has recently premiered the Britten Double Concerto. This he has played in Russia, Germany, Italy and Austria - yet strangely, not Britain. The first performance was in Israel. Since he is a violinist who is able to effortlessly produce that Viennese tone, that rapturous beauty that so easily seduces the ear and fills a concert hall, it is perhaps not surprising that he adores both the Goldmark and Korngold concertos. French music from the turn of the century is also a long-standing passion.
His work with Wolfgang Muthspiel was particularly satisfying because of the strong jazz link. Schmid's passion for jazz is as great as his advocacy of Bach and Ysaÿe, so it is no surprise that playing jazz should be an important part of his musical development. He tries to devote at least one full month of the year to playing jazz - and solely jazz. Most of this is done on a project basis - either touring or recording, or a mixture of both. Menuhin is mentioned often as an artist who gave great support to both jazz and classical music - and who introduced Schmid to Stefan Grapelli. But the great passion for jazz comes almost entirely from its inherent, and tangible, difference from classical music. "Jazz is a complex world that needs feeling and soul. It is never the same as playing the next repertoire piece. It is music that puts us out of time. You are just able to forget everything around you. It is the only kind of music I could not live without". The improvisatory aspect of jazz is perhaps the key to Schmid's passion for it, although he admits that Menuhin lacked this and Perlman's playing of jazz has very little to so with great jazz playing. "It is one of those things you can't just pick up. You have to have an innate sense of what improvisation is and what you can do with it to make really great music". He continues, "In classical music so much of it is about rubato playing ; in jazz the timing works completely differently. You will notice that the absolute timing of a jazz player is so very different from that of a classical player - and often much better. There is always a different type of freedom in the use of time". He mentions, briefly, some recent comments made by André Previn about 'crossover' music in general, but the comments were specifically targeted towards classical players who are now taking on the mantle of jazz players. The violinist Previn specifically had in mind was Viktoria Mullova who is now looking more closely at playing jazz. It is something which Schmid has little patience for, although he is as ever very guarded in his own comments and criticisms of others (often during our interview he has deliberately stopped himself mid-sentence. His comments about an illustrious Austrian violinist are, I am afraid, to be left unsaid). In 2002, Schmid wants to undertake a jazz violin summit - probably taking in New York and Salzburg - so he can play only jazz with Roy Emerson, the New York trombonist, and his own quartet without percussion.
The conservative Austrian is perhaps more of a rebel than we may imagine. Whilst talking about jazz I ask him if he has heard of Roby Lakatos - described in a Deutsche Grammophon press release as 'the best kept secret', and 'THE name being mentioned time and time again in the underground musical cognoscenti'. Not surprisingly he has, and his comments are illustrative of a violinist who appreciates the sheer capabilities of his own instrument. "Lakatos has done things on the violin that I have never heard done by anyone else. His technique is amazing - he does almost impossible things with pizzicato". It is interesting that when he comes to name his favourite classical violinist he chooses Ivry Gitlis - a wizard at playing Paganini. "He was a crazy violinist, inspired, but crazy".
Benjamin Schmid is that rare thing amongst virtuosos - an intellectual with something of a wild side to his character. His interest in German literature from the 1920s, his interest in anything cultural and artistic from that era, displays a keen sense of the rebirth which happened after a whole world order was turned topsy-turvy post World War I. The unity he sees in art, literature and music bares a strikingly close resemblance to that of his mentor - Yehudi Menuhin. But he is also adamant on carving out a career that merges the refined, cathartic sensibilities of the classical with more than an eye turned towards the development of new music and jazz. It is ironic that he has often been compared to Fritz Kreisler (and nominates Kreisler's performance of the C minor Grieg Sonata as one of his favourite records), when really he is probably the complete antithesis of that great player. If destiny weaves itself the way it should, then there is every possibility that Benjamin Schmid will be the twenty first century violinist everyone else will be compared to.