John Holloway plays the Baroque violin with a sinewy sweetness, his lines as textured and alive as the bark of a tree or the hand of a nonagenarian. That his career started on the modern violin in a conventional orchestra—after conservatory, Holloway was briefly principal second in the Bournemouth Sinfonietta—now seems as improbable as late Heldentenor Stephen Gould working an office job.
In 1972, an encounter with the Baroque violinist Sigiswald Kuijken introduced Holloway to the burgeoning world of historical performance. Since then, he has performed with most of the founding fathers of that movement, and released a series of charismatic chamber and solo recordings. (Listen to his 2006 “Bach: The Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo” CD on ECM. I dare you to go back to the metal string version after.) Between 1999 and 2014, Holloway also taught (modern) violin at the University of Music in Dresden, Germany.
In 2016, Holloway took a radical step: He quit the violin completely. His intricate, introspective latest album, “Henry Purcell: Fantazias,” was recorded in 2015, though not released until this September. In the meantime, Holloway, now 75, no longer owns an instrument—a stark choice in a field that loves its living legends. He is now focusing on a self-funded website devoted to the Bach solo violin works called The Bach Project. Recently, we spoke on video chat about rising standards, passive students, and life after the violin.
VAN: You first encountered Sigiswald Kuijken—and early music in general—over 50 years ago. How has the historical performance world changed since then?
John Holloway: There was a time when I knew personally every single person earning some sort of living from playing Baroque violin in Europe. It was a small world. Most of us were still doing modern violin as well, to pay the rent. Things developed in a very unequal way: In the mid to early 1970s in London, it was difficult to impossible to mount, for example, a Bach “Matthew Passion,” because the winds weren’t all there yet. There was nobody playing an oboe d’amore.
In that sense it has changed massively. I live in Bern, Switzerland now, and in the last three days, there’s been a really nice performance of Handel’s “Alcina” in the opera house with a Baroque ensemble; Monteverdi’s “Vespers”; there’s also a local Baroque orchestra called Les Passions de l’Âme. And this is a city of 120,000 people. We’re not talking about London, Berlin, or New York.
I’m a tennis fan, and it’s like watching people playing tennis—the U.S. Open just finished—at a standard that was unthinkable 20 years ago. A few years back, while I was still a professor of modern violin in Dresden, I accepted an invitation to be on the jury for a modern violin competition in China. The two winners’ playing was absolutely stunning: not a single sound that one would raise a question mark about. Of course, there were matters of taste. But there was absolutely no doubt that they were completely on the top of it. The moment where we start to think that it can’t get any better is the moment we’re about to be shocked. And it’s the same with old instruments.
I’ve always been amused when certain kinds of colleagues in traditional, conventional institutions say, Young people are not as good as we were. The whole world’s going to hell in a basket. The answer is: If that’s the case, what have we been teaching them? But the fact is, these young people are not just as good as we are. They are better.
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Are there things that have gotten lost since then, like a more anarchic, rebellious spirit to the early music movement?
The gain of becoming established is that you become established; the loss is that you become established. In London in the early ‘70s, there were the demonstrations against the Vietnam War and for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I have to say that most music students were totally un-politically aware, but nonetheless, when I was a student some of us were on the streets sometimes. The explosion of the early music movement fit into that anti-establishment mood.
I don’t think you can go back there. What I’ve tried to do over the years in my teaching is to say, “You should be reading this stuff and coming to your own conclusions.” I’ve tried to resist people who come to lessons—as constantly happens with the modern violin—and expect to be told what to do: this fingering, this bowing, loud here, soft there. That’s mostly how I was taught modern violin. What moved me about that encounter with Sigiswald was that he asked questions which implied an opinion on my side. I was being invited to think.
In 1999, you began teaching at the conservatory in Dresden…
I took the job knowing it would force me to think about those issues: to what extent can one—[sighs]—infect a rather traditional school with ideas that are anything but traditional. I tend not to teach with a violin in my hand, because I don’t think it’s good for students to imitate me. My job is to get them to develop themselves. That was already a bit revolutionary. I said, “Have you actually tried thinking about what the composer might have been expecting when he wrote this? If we’re going to study the Brahms Violin Concerto: Are you going to look at [violinist Joseph] Joachim’s edition? Are you going to read the letter exchange between Joachim and Brahms? Or are you going to expect me to give you bowings and fingerings and tell you what to do? In which case, you are in the wrong room.”
I was able to provoke some thought among some students. But the thing about tradition is, it’s very difficult to change—by definition. One of the interesting things about the German system is, the existence of two fine orchestras in Dresden and many more in Berlin makes it tempting to say, “We train people for a future in those orchestras.” For a while I ran a little violin masterclass and competition in Dresden, and one time I invited a former concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic to come and teach. I asked him, “Could you give us a little talk on the Vienna sound?” He said no. I said, “Why not?” He answered, “In the end, it’s about sich anpassen [adapting yourself].”
Why did you retire from playing the violin?
Around 2015, I was offered the chance to play the unaccompanied Bachs in concert. I had done a lot of performance to prepare for my CD, [released in 2006]. When the offer came in, I knew exactly what it would take to get the unaccompanied Bachs up to standard and better. I knew all the passages where I had had small disasters in the past. There’s a place in the fugue of the A Minor Sonata where if you’re playing from memory, and your brain switches even slightly off, you can go back two pages of score rather than going on. That happened to me in a modern violin competition when I was about 20, and it scarred me for life. [Laughs.] No, there are places in the Bachs where I knew I was at the edge of my competence to do what I wanted to do. I knew how much practicing would be demanded of me. I wasn’t enjoying practicing that much. I love being on the concert stage, but practicing gets tedious when you’re 70. I think it’s important to enjoy practice, but it was becoming a mechanical process. I wasn’t particularly developing new ideas about the Bachs.
The other thing was being aware that the hands don’t get nimbler, they don’t get more supple. I was feeling the hands slowing down slightly, stiffening slightly. I don’t suppose that one person in a thousand in the audience would hear that. But that’s not the point. I felt it. Doing this repertoire requires a very high level of self-belief. I was losing that a little bit.
The other part is a question of marketing. I’ve never been good at it. I have worked with colleagues whose agent or manager I would’ve loved to have been, because I would’ve been very happy to tell any promoter that I think, for example, that Lars Ulrik Mortensen is without question the greatest continuo player I have ever heard. But I can’t ring a promoter and say, “What you need is me.”
Promoters want young faces; I absolutely understand that. They don’t want the old faces until they’re really old. Then the public will go and hear somebody if they think it might be his last concert. There was a conductor, he had been chief conductor at the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the standard number of years, and when his contract ran out, he was asked what he was going to do. He smiled at the interviewer and said, “I’m going to try and live until I become a grand old man. And then I’ll be offered all sorts of opportunities that only come to grand old men.” It sounds terribly cynical, but there’s a certain truth in it.
The trouble is that any kind of violin playing is very difficult to do in great old age, and gut strung violin playing is even harder. I just didn’t feel up for it. So I stopped. I haven’t regretted it for one second. Really not at all. I don’t play quietly at home, thinking, “What a pity I’m not out there.” I occasionally hear a concert where I think, I’d like to be up there with them doing that—very occasionally. But mostly I don’t miss it. I don’t own a violin anymore. I passed them on to other people in different ways: sold some, gave some away.
Your newest album, of Purcell’s “Fantazias,” was released last month. Is that your final album?
Definitely. But you know, it was made in 2015. The reasons why it has taken so long to come out—I think I should say that’s a question for ECM. ECM is not an early music recording company, but Manfred [Eicher] has been incredibly loyal to me. When I see my royalty statements, I’m a niche product. They know that; they had their reasons. But it was made back in 2015, and it was at the end of the next year that I stopped [playing violin].
That means it’s been eight years since you recorded the “Fantazias.” What’s it like for you to go back and listen to that album after having retired from the violin in the meantime?
I guess inevitably, listening to it now, I feel a certain distance. We recorded it at the radio studio in Zurich, where we had already done a Dowland album with the same basic group. A radio studio is a dry place. Listening to it now is like, “My goodness, we’re naked.” [Laughs.]
My wife will tell you that when it arrived a couple of weeks ago, I was a bit depressed for a while. I’ll tell you why. All the previous CDs were done at [the church and ECM recording venue] Sankt Gerold in Vorarlberg, Austria. ECM doesn’t record there anymore, sadly, because they couldn’t get the conditions they needed. Sankt Gerold is a heavenly place to record. In the Bach, I’m still astonished by the recording: they somehow got it that you can hear me breathe, and yet it has the halo around the sound that Sankt Gerold gave. The Purcell is not like that at all; the Purcell is like being in a private room in Windsor Castle, with curtains and tapestry on the wall, close and dry. There’s nowhere to hide. It’ll take me a little time to get used to it. I got the finished product a couple of weeks ago, and I need to grow into it. But it is astonishing music. ¶
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