Isabelle van Keulen
Photo: Marco Borggreve

‘Like pulling a square into a diamond shape’

29 November 2022

Interview with Isabelle van Keulen

Just as in the premiere series of David Dawson’s The Four Seasons in 2021, this time the solo part in Max Richter’s music of the same name will once again be performed by renowned violinist Isabelle van Keulen. After playing Vivaldi’s original composition and the totally different versions by Astor Piazzolla and Philip Glass, Richter’s recomposition of Vivaldi’s score is Van Keulen’s fourth ‘four seasons’ composition. And however much she likes the other pieces, she thinks this one is probably the most exciting. “Richter is continually misleading you. Just when you get nicely into it, he changes tack again completely.”

Text: Astrid van Leeuwen

She was nineteen when she first played Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, at an open-air concert on Dam Square, in Amsterdam, with the Combattimento Consort, conducted by Jan Willem de Vriend. “I’m afraid it wasn’t my finest performance”, says Isabelle van Keulen. “We were plagued by mosquitos, there was a lot of noise from the spectators and from the trams, and scores were continually blowing away. But for me, it was a concert to remember. I’d just started my studies with Sandor Vegh at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. Up to then, I’d been used to playing all my concert pieces for my teacher – ten, fifty or a hundred times. It was always checked and coached down to the last detail. But when I asked Vegh to work with me on The Four Seasons, he said immediately, ‘Are you crazy? You don’t need to play that piece in my lessons. I’m sure you can rehearse that for yourself.’ For me, that was a real eye-opener. It felt so fantastic that someone said I could do it myself and had such confidence in me.”

Musical innovator

Nowadays, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons doesn’t cross her path so often any more – “after all, I’m not a Baroque specialist” – but that doesn’t detract from her admiration for the composition. Today, the popular, widely known piece is often maligned and labelled as ‘muzak for the middle classes’; something she thinks is totally unjustified. “Of course you have to look at the times in which it was written. All things considered you could even say it was the first film music ever. Everything is so expressively composed and given such specific references: from the cuckoo you hear and the snores of the drunken men to the cracking of the ice. There’s an idea behind everything. In that respect, Vivaldi was a real innovator, and for that reason he deserves nothing but the greatest respect for his The Four Seasons.”


A whole different world

If she gets the chance, she still thinks it’s ‘terrific’ to play Vivaldi’s original version, but is even happier to play the other three ‘four seasons’ compositions that are now on her repertoire. “It started with Piazzolla’s Las cuatro estaciones porteñas. Like the ‘four seasons’ by Glass, this piece has nothing to do with Vivaldi or cracking ice. You hear four tangos inspired by the seasons in Buenos Aires. Piazzolla is a whole different world for me, in any case; a world that goes very deep and in which you can put all your emotion, unlike the field of classical music. I love the raw character of his music and the enormous freedom he gives you as a musician. Freedom is anyway something I’m always in search of, and what could be better that a composer who’s in fact saying, ‘Improvise your heart out’?”

In Philip Glass’ The American Four Seasons, she says that the whole idea of musical expression of the four seasons is far removed. “It’s just four beautiful paintings, in Glass’ very personal, minimal idiom. But it’s probably the most difficult of the four versions of ‘four seasons’. Technically speaking, it’s an incredibly hard piece and everything has to be absolutely perfect. If the least little thing goes wrong, sounds off key or scrapes, then it really detracts from this piece, whereas it doesn’t hurt Piazzolla at all, or Vivaldi either for that matter. Moreover, Glass’ four seasons flow into one another without the slightest pause for breath. The piece lasts over forty minutes and you have to maintain the suspense throughout.”


Daring and brazen

The nice thing about Max Richter’s The Four Seasons, says Van Keulen, is that it combines the qualities of the other three compositions, as it were. “Whereas Glass’ seasons form a rounded whole, Vivaldi’s original is a bit ‘hairier’ and Piazzolla’s version, as I said, has a certain roughness, almost coarseness. And Richter manages to bring all these elements together in a fantastic mix.”

It was Dutch National Ballet that invited her, at the end of 2019, to play Richter’s recomposition for the first time in the spring of 2020, for the premiere series of David Dawson’s ballet of the same name (which had to be postponed twice due to the corona restrictions). “I’d heard the music once before, and it gave me a real wow feeling. So when the invitation came, I immediately thought, ‘Yes, I definitely want to do that. That’s right up my street’.”

She calls Richter’s composition ‘quite daring and pretty brazen’. “There’s no copyright on Vivaldi’s music any more, but if there had been I think this might have been a dubious case. Someone could easily have accused him of plagiarism. But personally, I think that’s nonsense. I think it’s wonderful what Richter has done. He’s used existing material and given his own personal take on it in an extremely smart way. It’s Vivaldi with a twist. As a musician and as a listener, you’re continually misled. Some parts are identical to Vivaldi, but the difference in tempo means they’re completely transformed. It’s as if you’re pulling a square into a diamond shape. Vivaldi often remains recognisable, but just when you get nicely into it, Richter changes tack again completely, or you suddenly have one beat more or one beat less. And that’s precisely what makes this piece such fun. It’s continually hop step, hop step. Richter keeps on surprising you.”

Constantine Allen and Floor Eimers - The Four Seasons (2021) | Photo: Hans Gerritsen
Constantine Allen and Floor Eimers - The Four Seasons (2021) | Photo: Hans Gerritsen

Extremely slow

She has since performed Richter’s composition in a concertante version as well, with her own chamber orchestra in Neuss, in Germany. “It was once even in a programme alongside The American Four Seasons by Glass. That was fantastic and exciting, because the two pieces are poles apart, as it were. Whereas you can really have fun listening to Richter, you need full attention and concentration for listening to Glass.”

There’s a big difference between a concert and a ballet performance, she says. “For a ballet performance, of course, I have to adapt to the choreography. Although that’s often restricted to playing just that bit faster or slower, there’s a section of Richter’s composition – in the winter movement – where I have to play extremely slowly, because I have to wait for all the pirouettes and other impressive things the dancers are doing. We rehearsed that at length in the studio prior to the previous series of performances, so that – unlike during the real performance, where I have my head turned to the auditorium – I could see exactly what they needed that time for. When I watch dance, the thing I find strange as a musician is that not everything the dancers do is necessarily on the beat. They do a jump and the note I play has to come just as they’re hanging in mid-air, for example, or just as they land on a shoulder. That’s something I’ve had to learn, in consultation with the dancers, the conductor and – in the case of The Four Seasons – also with the choreographer David Dawson. But this time, Dawson’s ballet will probably be performed by a new cast of dancers, in part, so that requires new rehearsals as well. And I feel a huge responsibility, because those boys and girls of Dutch National Ballet are doing top-class sport, whereas I” – she says laconically – “just have to play.”


Great luxury

She says that appearing with Dutch National Ballet and the Dutch Ballet Orchestra gives her the opportunity to perform particular compositions for an audience very often in quick succession. “That’s a great luxury for me. It means you really get a piece into your fingers.”

Van Keulen – who lives alternately just outside London, in Hannover and in Lucerne – is looking forward to spending a few weeks in Amsterdam again. The Dutch Ballet Orchestra is now ‘familiar territory’ to her. “I know many of the musicians, some still from my student days. The orchestra also worked for two seasons on the television series Maestro (for which Van Keulen is a jury member – ed.), and I worked previously with the orchestra on Igor Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, accompanying George Balanchine’s ballet of the same name, for two performance series by Dutch National Ballet. During the second series, my mother passed away, which strengthened the bond between me and the orchestra even further. That bond is very precious to me.”

So, she says, it’s extra nice that this time she can share a more cheerful experience with the orchestra. “On the last performance day of Dawson, I’m celebrating my birthday. It’s wonderful to spend a day like that as part of a team again.”

  • Dawson will run from 8 to 16 December 2022 at Dutch National Ballet.