The masterpieces are coming thick and fast for Isabelle Faust.
Seemingly out of nowhere (at least for American concertgoers), the 36-year-old Berlin-based violinist is scaling one repertoire peak after another in visible places. Her acclaimed Beethoven Violin Concerto recording trumped most comparisons, she has further recording dates with the three Bs (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms), and she is making her Philadelphia Orchestra debut this week playing the mighty Brahms Violin Concerto.
She's as intimidated as anyone else by the great violinists who have preceded her. But two things drive her: A receptive recording label (Harmonia Mundi) and a simplicity of goals.
Faust's historical research is exhaustive. She hunts fresh cadenzas as if they were big game. But complexity isn't her friend.
"I feel more moved by things if they're as naked as possible, as innocent as possible. If I put a lot of varnish on [a piece of music], it doesn't move me anymore. That's my way of being the most intimate and the most true," she said Wednesday at the Kimmel Center, waiting to rehearse the program she'll play four times, tonight through Sunday.
How that translates into music-making is also what makes her one of Europe's most readily identifiable classical-music personalities: a high-tension clarity in every phrase that comes from playing a great Stradivarius (the 1704 "Sleeping Beauty"), deploying headstrong tempos, and building long lines of musical logic from smaller, elegantly articulated cells of music. Rather than taking an unveering road to any given climax of a violin concerto, she delves into steps along the way. She talks concertos in terms of aria moments as well as rhetorical ones, and how Brahms has plenty of both.
The one thing that's conspicuously absent is sentimentality, in either her playing or her personality. Or so it seems.
"It's a question of what you call sentimental. I can cry in movies! Yes, I can!" she protested, laughing in mock defensiveness, "but probably in different movies than other people. People say they miss sentimentality in my playing. But I'm not really an intellectual player. I'm guided by my emotions . . . but I can't really be trustful of them if I don't have a clear logical line."
That logic was essential in the modern repertoire on which she initially made her name. Faust, who grew up in a small town outside Stuttgart, learned violin partly from following her father to his own viola lessons. She played in string quartets as a teenager - but also studied Bartok's fearsome Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin at age 11.
Faust didn't get the starting-at-the-top career that might have come with a Curtis Institute education, but she won minor competitions in Europe as a teenager and received her biggest artistic boost from studying with Christoph Poppen. Given that he's one of Europe's most eclectic and enterprising violinists, it's no wonder that Faust feels perfectly comfortable playing with the authentic-instrument ensemble Concerto Koln and that her early recordings were Bartok, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Andre Jolivet, and Morton Feldman.
Beethoven must be a breeze after all that. "You're mistaken!" she exclaimed, not laughing this time. "Jolivet and Hartmann are nothing against Beethoven. You feel really free with those [modern] composers because nobody knows those pieces. But the Beethoven concerto is the most delicate, subtle thing to play on Earth!"
Though she made her U.S. debut in 1995, with the Utah Symphony, her subsequent absence from American concert halls has to do with loving the work she has in Europe and not wanting to be away from her 11-year-old son and her husband (a stage manager at the Berlin Philharmonie) for more than three weeks at a time. (Tellingly, her Wikipedia entry is only in German.)
The Philadelphia engagement is a bit of a fluke: Faust has been filling in for the canceled American dates of Julia Fischer, both with the Boston Symphony Orchestra a few weeks back and now with the Philadelphia Orchestra, whose dates fit neatly between Faust's concerts in Budapest and Sydney.
Obviously, she wouldn't be here were she not fascinated with the Fabulous Philadelphians. But she also feels cut from different cloth than American musicians - or maybe from different soloists, since her formative childhood experiences were playing second violin in a string quartet.
"I'll see how it works here," she says. "I like playing with smaller orchestras, like the Mahler Chamber Orchestra [in Europe], where they work like chamber musicians. That's what I love. We can have duos with whatever wind players have the solo.
"I always look for a partnership with an orchestra. I hope that will be possible here. It's not enough for them to play their part and for me to play my part. If people aren't so sensitive, that makes my playing not so secure. I need to feel that people are throwing me the ball, and I'm throwing it back to them. If I don't have that, it takes one leg away from me."
Isabelle Faust on CD
Bartok: Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin and Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 with pianist Ewa Kupiec. (Harmonia Mundi)
Beethoven: Violin Concerto and Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 9 "Kreutzer") with the Prague Philharmonia conducted by Jiri Belohlavek and pianist Alexander Melnikov. (HM)
Hartmann: Concerto Funebre; Munich Chamber Orchestra conducted by Christoph Poppen. (ECM)
Bach: Violin Concertos BWV 1041-1043. Bach Collegium Stuttgart conducted by Helmuth Rilling. (Hanssler Classics).
Chausson: Poeme; Jolivet: Violin Concerto. Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Marko Letonja. (HM).