An interview with Daniel Hope

From bestselling albums and intoxicating live performances, to books, films and charitable projects, Daniel Hope is so much more than a violinist. His appearances at the Bristol Proms have left audiences breathless and charmed in equal measure, for Daniel’s exquisite skill with the violin is matched by his warm stage presence and ability to really connect with an audience. It is some twelve years since Daniel was last on stage at St George’s, so his return is long overdue; and it is in these interim years that the musician, writer, producer and activist has truly made his name.

In October St George’s becomes the focus of four nights of live broadcasts by BBC Radio 3 as the Brahms Experience unfolds. With concerts by Skampa Quartet, the BBC Singers and pianist Stephen Kovacevich, not to mention a sojourn to Colston Hall with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, it’s a week-long celebration of one of classical music’s more misunderstood and underestimated composers. Brahms is so much more than a magnificent beard, or that lullaby…

Daniel’s contribution takes in one of Brahms’ closest friends and greatest muses, the violinist Joseph Joachim; with music by both, alongside works by Mendelssohn and Schumann.

We caught up with Daniel last month to discuss who Joseph Joachim was, why he’s so important to Brahms’ music and what audiences can expect from the concert in October.

Daniel, we’re so looking forward to having you with us in October; when was the last time you performed at St George’s?

It was quite a while ago; it was with Paul Watkins and Philip Dukes, we did a Theresienstadt programme. This was probably twelve years ago… at least.

What can you tell us about this long awaited next visit?

It’s an homage to Joseph Joachim, who was the most instrumental and important violinist I think of the nineteenth century. He was somebody that, in so many ways, defined what the violin meant. Firstly he taught over five hundred students, he created the Royal Conservatory in Berlin; he famously introduced the young Brahms to the Schumann family and he was the one who rediscovered the Beethoven Violin Concerto. He made a very conscious decision, having studied Mendelssohn, when Mendelssohn died he moved in a sense to the other side, to Liszt – he became his concert master – and broke very famously with Liszt and crossed again to the other side and that was Schumann, Brahms and Dvořák, all of whom wrote violin concertos for him, including Max Bruch, and that’s why we have those concertos and we don’t have a violin concerto by Wagner, by Liszt. So he was really a forerunner in so many ways, his programming was exceptional; it was what we call ‘cutting edge’ nowadays, mixing genres, putting in symphonies next to chamber music, next to solo stuff, two hundred years before anybody else was doing it and he was a composer in his own right. So the concert looks at all these different influences; it looks at his composition, it looks at pieces that were written for him and it looks at his friends, so Mendelssohn, Brahms, Edvard Grieg…

But despite all of that, it’s a name that not many people would actually recognise? Is Joachim overlooked or forgotten?

I think, you know, at the end of the day it is composers whose names go down in history not interpreters, and that’s the way it is; and I think that’s the right thing because, you know, the composers write things that stay and we’re there to interpret them and share them. There was a time where everybody knew Joachim, but times have changed and his style of playing, his way of doing things I think fell out of fashion at the beginning of the twentieth century – even though he was the first violinist to actually record. There are rolls from 1904 of him, wax rolls, you can actually hear him, it’s amazing. So he was actually pretty advanced, but he belonged to the old guard and he was superseded by glittering violinists like Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin, Mischa Elman… It became more about the personality and the brilliance and the perfection, and less about the communication and the feeling of the music. So I think it was just time that took its toll on his name really. And yet there are so many hundreds of pieces that we have because of him, thanks to him.

And this concert is of course part of a five night celebration of Brahms… Is he a composer you enjoy performing?

I absolutely adore Brahms, I just couldn’t live without Brahms… I mean, his chamber music is just incredible; the piano quartets, the piano trios, the piano quintets, the sextets… where do you start and where do you stop? I just can’t get enough of it and I play a lot of his music; I’m touring two piano quartets next year. It’s got something which is so personal and so emotional, and yet it’s controlled as well; that’s the thing about Brahms, he’s a master of control and there’s just nothing quite like it. And, you know, Joachim was – for the most part of his life – his closest musical friend and they broke, split, and then at the end of their lives got back together and the present he gave Joachim was the Double Concerto. I mean what a present! So Joachim really accompanied his whole life and when Brahms thought of the violin, he was thinking of Joachim.

Do you think that Brahms is underestimated as a composer?

I think maybe he’s not everybody’s cup of tea, although he never was, funnily enough. Menahem Pressler, of the Beaux Art Trio, the pianist, he told me he went to play for Darius Milhaud back in the early forties and Mihaud asked him what he’d like to play. He said ‘I have some Debussy’ and Milhaud said ‘Great’, and then he said ‘I have some Brahms…’ and Mihaud said ‘Brahms?! Ha, that Beerhouse composer?!’ I’d never heard Brahms referred to as a Beerhouse composer, but there were people who thought he was unsophisticated and I think some of his works are overlooked; and yet look at the symphonies, look at the violin concerto, look at the piano concertos, to name a few.. incredible. He was such a perfectionist; it was once said that he threw a number of his works into the fire, apparently another four of five violin sonatas, cello sonatas, all the rest of it… he was never happy. But for me, if I had to really choose a genre it’s the chamber music; the chamber music is so incredibly broad, from the sonatas – violin, piano, cello sonatas – the clarinet trio, the horn trio, piano quartets, piano quintets… it’s one piece after the next, every single one is a masterpiece, every one, and that’s amazing.

You’re doing this concert with Sebastian Knauer, with whom you’ve worked a lot – are those kinds of ongoing collaborations important to you?

Very. I’ve worked with Sebastian for twenty years now, we’re very close friends and we travel a lot around the world and he’s a phenomenal pianist and a great musician, great partner. We devise these programmes ourselves, we sit down and work out what we want to do and how we want to do it. Particularly for Brahms you need to have a fine pianist, because these sonatas really the emphasis is on the piano; Brahms was a master pianist himself and so the piano in a sense controls the pieces. So you need to have somebody who has weight and who has real knowledge and also an empathy to it. Brahms was born in Hamburg and Sebastian comes from Hamburg as well; it’s a particular place and he feels very close to him, so I wouldn’t want to do this programme with anyone else.

St George’s of course has a fantastic acoustic; how important is a venue to your performance? Can it inspire you?

Absolutely, I mean there’s nothing nicer than when it all connects; the venue, the audience, the programme and the connection between the audience and what you get back from them – it’s a two-way conversation that’s going on. I do remember the concert we did at St George’s and I remember this magnificent acoustic, and it being very flattering for string players; you have this resonance there, but not too much, so the instruments can really sing and I think for this programme it will be just ideal.

You’re well known for a kind of ‘Musical Activism’… what other issues are out there which would benefit from a bit of musical activisim?

A lot, I mean where do you start? One thing that I think is fascinating and which is extremely important is music therapy, and what music can actually do… That’s not activism, that’s just helping, in a sense; disabled people, autistic children, senile people, alzheimers. It’s incredible the effect that music can have. People who literally don’t know anything anymore – who they are, who their loved ones are – will suddenly recite a song for you with perfect lyrics. There’s something about the connection between the brain and music which I think is amazing; the same with Autistic children, it’s had an incredibly beneficial effect on their peace of mind and on their development. So I think that’s something which needs to be pushed, actually; we need more soloists to get in on it and help and use their names to do things like that. I would link that to music education, as the next biggest problem around the world because it’s just been cut from most curriculums. So that’s a major thing that I spend a lot of time on, working for other children’s charities at children’s concerts or a number of different organisations within Europe that give instruments to kids, or give them the chance to come into contact with music – and not just classical music, music in general, music, dance, singing. Those sorts of things I’m involved with and I do a lot for the music of the composers that were murdered by the Nazis; for example, I made a film about Theresienstadt that came out last year and just this week I did a concert in Munich – a benefit concert – fundraising for families of these composers, to support them. The list is long and there are a lot of very worthy causes and I think it doesn’t take all that much actually to give a bit of help here and there.

And away from that, what’s coming next for you?

I’m about to launch a big new album for Deutsche Gramophon, it’s called Escape to Paradise and it’s about the composers who fled Europe and went to Hollywood and created the ‘Hollywood Sound’. It starts in fact before they were forced out, so it starts with the eleven year old Korngold, with bits of his Pantomime and then it goes into his Violin Concerto and then it goes into the film music of the thirties and forties, so there’s things like Ben-Hur, there’s Suspicion the Hitchcock film, then it also looks at Hanns Eisler and Kurt Weill and Franz Waxman, and I have a couple of very special guests on the album. Sting is singing a song by Hans Eisler and there’s a German chanson singer called Max Raabe who is singing a Kurt Weill song. So it’s a very broad mosaic of, in a sense, a search for the Hollywood Sound – where did it come from, and this whole European tradition which was forced out and created something very special. So that comes out in September and there’s lots of projects linked to that, touring, recording, writing, producing, filming… all sorts.

We understand you also play the Saxophone… are we likely to see you at St George’s doing a Sax recital any time soon?

(laughs) I did at some point, when I was about thirteen or fourteen. You wouldn’t want to hear it, put it that way!

Daniel Hope performs live at St George’s on Tuesday 7 October as part of Brahms Experience.


Interview by Michael Beek. With thanks to Daniel Hope, and Sarah Mitchell at Wildkat PR.