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.

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Pierre Liscia-Beaurenaut
© Leila Schütz

Among the highlights of a student's career, the final recital at the end of the course has a special place. Especially since, for some years now, the choice of programme has been entirely free, with the student able to use the most beautiful hall in their institution of study for an hour as they see fit, to present the programme of their choice with their chosen partners. The purely instrumental evaluation gains, in addition, a high symbolic value: for the first and last time since the beginning of their studies, the young musician can categorically express their aesthetic choices, defend their vision of music, in a word: be a complete artist, from the choice of lighting to the writing of the programme note.

This year, it was my turn to step into the ring. What I'm about to tell you relates only to me, but I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who suffers from this incurable disease: during a concert, my monkey brain jumps all over the place, inviting me to reflect on the colour of the shoes of the lady in the front row during a Bach fugue, or provoking uncontrollable anxiety attacks about the presence, or not, of milk in my fridge during a fiery passage of the Sibelius concerto. Welcome to the mind of a violinist in recital.

The big day arrives: I'm the last in my class to appear, but in the darkness of the hall, I can see that the audience are still numerous. With the first notes of my Allemande by Bach, I realise that the acoustic, apparently very enveloping and flattering, is a false friend. For the reverberation of the hall, which is rather heavy, only offers me a distant return on my sound, with a very wide bandwidth which, if I am not careful, disturbs my intonation. My heart races: what if, despite my best efforts, I was making a fool of myself in front of the entire conservatory, for a silly question of pitch? I remember, in a fraction of a second, the incalculable number of wrong notes I have played during my time at the Conservatoire. A fleeting thought: the great Nathan Milstein advised gulping a heaped tablespoon of fresh cream every day to improve intonation and vibrato. Between two dissonances, the image of a slice of bread dripping with Saint-Marcellin comes to mind (this is Lyon, after all). I tell you, between my fingers and my brain are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!

Has our violinist conquered the hall's difficult acoustic? You tell us...

In this situation, everyone has their own way of refocusing. Mine, that day, was finally to plunge back into the comfort of the form, the imperturbable flow of Bach's musical phrases. I resume the Double. Hop, a little stroke of my little finger, and my bow shifts slightly towards the fingerboard. The sound becomes a whisper. I take care to use only a few centimetres of bow per note: this repeat should sound like a murmur. But careful: one must not lose the bass pattern, nor the irremediable balance of the two note slurs. A few imperceptible bends of the index finger at strategic points and I'm back on track. End of the great central crescendo: the phrase must find a stopping point here... But what if we went a little further? I dampen the arrival of the sound and thus shift the landing point of the phrase... which immediately needs to be given some soul. I gradually awaken the elbow joint to start a crescendo at the arrival of the last climax before focusing, for the last notes, on the left hand, to avoid any risk of intonation error. Relief: I've reached my destination.

The rest of the programme goes better: in Chausson's Poème and Prokofiev's Sonata, I can benefit from the reassuring warmth of the piano. If the Poème is a piece for the soloist, the Sonata is an acoustic tightrope walk: I nudge up to the end of the piano to grasp the slightest harmonic subtlety, to melt into the blur of its vibrations. How, in fact, can I go from sounding like the second violin in a quartet (which is what I was the day before in the midst of my Metamorphoses comrades) to that of a solo musician? Paradoxically, as a second violinist, the timbre must be constantly present, even in the frailest pianissimi, to enrich the harmony of the group. A soloist, on the other hand, can sometimes afford a more fragile density of sound, for example when the difference in tessitura with the piano is great enough for the violin melody to develop effortlessly. Alas, if my fingers glide over the neck without the shadow of a hesitation, my head gets stuck. Exactly how many minutes do I have to make my connection to Frankfurt the next day? Last time, in ten minutes, I barely had time to buy a coffee. And I still haven't tasted their wonderful sausages... For God's sake, refocus! Here come the dizzying scales of Prokofiev's second movement!

Is our columnist considering the flow of his phrasing or how well his shirt has been ironed?

When I was a student at the CRR in Boulogne-Billancourt, something said by my teacher at the time made an impression on me: “playing with passion, with a sacred fire, all that is amateurism. When a professional musician plays, he thinks about what he is doing. It's less often a pleasure than you might think.” Rest assured: I took great pleasure in playing this recital. But in the end, starting a complicated passage in a concert is a bit like starting out on a black run on skis: you feel an extraordinary sense of abandonment, an exhilarating sensation of absoluteness, but if you sometimes dare to glance at the peaks, you nonetheless focus all your attention on the slightest movements of your body, on the lookout for any false steps... and you hold on tightly to your legs!

Now we are gradually sinking into the depths of Prokofiev's Sonata. The silence is total, my pianist on the lookout. The pale red glow of the spotlights delimits the impenetrable space between our silhouettes drawn in the light and the dark waters of the invisible audience. Only a few glimmers of light, like lighthouses, appear on the horizon: they're the lamps that illuminate the members of the jury, drowned in the darkness. The moment is right: in the slow movement, I look for a deliberately hoarse sound, a rattle that sighs the notes more than actually plays them. Under the influence of Prokofiev's sweet and icy melody, the space seems to tear apart: my pianist and I engage in a funereal ballet, between sketches of a macabre waltz and a lullaby of subtly restrained dementia. For a fraction of a second, I think I have touched with my fingertips the supreme bliss of stage artists: to feel that the moment of the concert belongs to me, that time has frozen, that the audience's heart beats to the rhythm of my bow. A fraction of a second: and then, already, the fire of applause.

Our musician's last notes at the Conservatoire

As I leave the hall, I see my friends, comrades and acquaintances, who congratulate me warmly. But the one I am looking for only arrives later: it is my teacher, the person who has trained me for five years and with whom I have just given my last student recital. Anxiously, I prepare myself to receive her judgment...

“So, Pierre! What kind of bow is that? You looked like you were going to hang your violin on a coat rack!”

Clearly, I still have a lot to learn.

Translated from French by David Karlin