Pierre Liscia-Beaurenaut has one foot in violin playing and the other in music journalism. Every month, Pierre invites you to the other side of the curtain, to discover the daily life of a young professional musician doing the rounds of rehearsal rooms and auditions as well as meeting the great musicians of our time.

Pierre Liscia-Beaurenaut
© Leila Schütz

"Really! What kind of glissando is this?", exclaims my teacher one day, looking daggers at me. Let's confess that in this passage from Chausson's Poème, I laid it on somewhat thick: I had just seasoned a deliciously syrupy glissando with a thick layer of vibrato, producing an old-school bleating effect that would me the envy of any herd of goats. It puts me out in the cold: no-one has vibrated like that since the 60s! I try to rectify the situation but, obviously, today is not a good day. After the umpteenth performance of Bach's Chaconne, my mentor's judgement is implacable: "It's well worked, the phrases flow... but objectively, the sound is not beautiful, the violin doesn't vibrate, you're choking your strings. I'm not going to give you any more clues. You have a pair of ears: use them."

What to do? A musician's life is full of these kinds of challenges. Unravelling an instrumental problem means understanding something about the instrument, but also about oneself. In this case, I realised that it was my head that was in the wrong place, not my hands. So I went off to bury myself in YouTube, comparing several versions of the Chaconne, seeking a return to the sounds of the violinists who are dear to me, to turn their musical ideals into a cocoon for these moments of introspection. Since my early days as a musician, I have been a proper groupie of my instrument's heroes – CDs, haphazard home-made bootlegs, a special "Heifetz" mute, I had to have it all. I spent so many of my formative years listening to these venerable masters that every time I watch them, I find a part of myself in these faces of the past. Hence the need to re-immerse myself into their universe: would I find, at the end of my journey, an answer to my questions, or would I get lost along the way and come out of this introspective interlude with more questions than answers?

Without a moment's hesitation, I dive into the Itzhak Perlman's interpretation of the Chaconne. There's something about his relationship to sound that fascinates me, so much so that when asked the inevitable question "who is your favourite violinist?", it's his name that comes up most often. I think it was his vibrato that bewitched me, enriching his generous tone with a plaintive colour. It's a short step from admiration to imitation: I put on the headphones and, with Itzhak and the London Symphony Orchestra, 'we' play Max Bruch's First Concerto. I owe everything to Perlman, for better and for worse: how many of my teachers have despaired of my left thumb being hopelessly backwards, twisting the whole hand, making a mockery of everything you read in the textbooks about holding the violin. "But Perlman stands like this! "I reply confidently. "Yes, but Perlman... is Perlman," comes the smiling reply.

A parade of Chaconne versions march past me. Here's the version by Arthur Grumiaux, whose centenary was celebrated a few days ago. Come to think of it, it was also the relationship to the vibrato of the great Belgian violinist that amazed me. In spite of all that one can read in books, of all that good taste might dictate, here he is, vibrating with great amplitude a note in the high register, colouring his bass notes with a very tight, almost electric vibrato... But what could pass for eccentricity is in fact remarkably accompanied by a miraculous suppleness of the right arm, which, associated with the different intensities of vibrato, gives the whole thing a crazy charm.

Once a violinist I was studying with wanted to teach me wrist vibrato, a certain way of vibrating in which the forearm has to remain completely still. It was a resounding failure. I still remember the class where my first teacher tried to channel my nascent vibrato: impossible! As with many young musicians, my vibrato appeared on its own, not the result of work or external influence, but rather the unquenchable desire to add to one's playing palette this inseparable mark of the instrument's sound. Vibrato is an extraordinarily personal tool, which I think about as little as possible when I work. This is a concept I inherited from listening to Elman, Neveu, Ferras, and so many others for whom, at a time when music was transmitted much more by live concert than by record, a unique vibrato and sound were the best way to make a mark. Some artists are able to modulate their vibrato endlessly, others imprint a unique colour on their vibrato, like a signature. Everyone has their own truth!

I activate Shuffle mode. Within a few seconds I recognise Anne-Sophie Mutter's timbre. Another incandescent vibrato, very fast, very round, sometimes – it must be said – so mannered that it plays with the limits of propriety. Mutter! In the 1980s, she was everywhere and if I am still a groupie today, it is undoubtedly because my mother was one before me. My first violin CD (the Bach concertos with Salvatore Accardo), and above all my first live concert. 2011, Salle Pleyel: I sneak into the hall, my little VCR (a tool from another time, I admit) hidden under my coat. On the bill: the Brahms concerto with Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony. Of course, what struck me that evening was less a sound than a stage presence. My teacher told me at the time: “You don't apologise on stage, and you play for the back row!” Anne-Sophie Mutter takes on absolutely everything – her choice of phrasing, her vibratos, her swelling of the sound – with a mastery like no other. Not long ago, during a competition in the great hall of the Berlin Radio, when the immensity of the hall drowned the jury in the ocean of seats plunged into darkness, I remembered this concert. Who knows, maybe the jury was hidden in the back row?

Suddenly, a buzzing sound. A raucous, animal roar from behind the curtain of crackling. It doesn't take me long to realise that I am about to hear Chausson's Poème played by Christian Ferras; a slow, heavy and highly convoluted version, which takes so many liberties with the score that it would send more than one jury president into apoplexy. But, in the last chill of winter, the sound envelops you with a liberating warmth and the notes weave together in an ample gesture. I look at Ferras: in his posture, so eccentric that one wonders to this day how he was able to produce such a miraculous sound, I see that, by mimicry, I have adopted his right elbow position, exaggeratedly high, and of the left shoulder, in tension. But I also see his willingness to use the pads of the fingers of his left hand rather than just their tips to maximise the roundness of the sound, and I hear his way of playing the short notes with a lot of bow, a way of playing inherited from the French school of the 19th century, which I have inherited in turn. And then, suddenly: a vibrating slide, from high to low, of miraculous elegance, at the very spot where my teacher had been so steamed up that morning.

Playing the violin is a sufficiently surprising art that, in a totally different context, the brain tells us to reproduce a slide that we heard ten years ago through a screen. To be a violinist is above all to be a violin groupie, to savour each recording with a devouring curiosity. To be a violinist is also to know how to surround oneself, in moments of doubt, with the great masters of the past. And to accept that at the most unexpected moment, in the middle of a concert, they are beside you on stage, to give you the courage to be yourself.