Amihai Grosz is one of the most versatile violists of his generation: after seventeen years playing with the Jerusalem Quartet, he has been the principal viola of the Berliner Philharmoniker since 2010. He often plays as a soloist with the top orchestras in the world, including the Berliner Philharmoniker itself. But most of all, over the years and the richness of his professional experience, Amihai has thought deeply about his instrument and is happy to share that body of thought with his audience and with younger generations.

Amihai Grosz © Felix Rettberg
Amihai Grosz
© Felix Rettberg

PL: Herbert von Karajan said that the Berliner Philharmoniker was the best orchestra in the world because every string musician was also playing in a string quartet. Do you agree?

AG: Chamber music is the best school you can have. As a chamber musician, you must, of course, play like a soloist; but as a soloist, you have to play like a chamber musician. In an ensemble, whatever you play, there is always a reaction from your colleagues. It makes you think about time in music, about how to create a sound together... When it is part of your DNA, it gives you another dimension of music. It's unbelievable. The Berlin Phil is so special, because when we play on stage, it feels like a chamber music group.

You have already played as a soloist with "your" orchestra. How was it?

It was demanding. First of all, regardless of the fact that I am working there, it is kind of a life achievement to play with them. Then comes the point that I work there. This group of people is amazing, I knew they were going to support me. But it is also really challenging : if the concert goes really badly, I cannot leave. I have to come the next day in the morning, because it is my job!

In 2016, you returned to the Jerusalem Quartet to play for their 20th anniversary. Playing with them again, did you feel that something had changed in your perception of the string quartet?

When you play in an orchestra, what immediately stuns you is the sound. As the principal violist, I always have to find how to navigate my ship in a big symphony. By the end, it gave me a larger spectrum, sound-wise and colour-wise, and also a better comprehension of musical climaxes. That is what I was referring to when I talked about time in music: when you play Bruckner, Mahler, all these huge symphonies, you have to understand the architecture of the piece. Of course, there are climaxes in chamber music, but the structure is less obvious. Now, when I see a phrase in a chamber music piece, I ask myself if it is not part of a bigger construction that I did not feel before.

What do you think is the function of the viola, in a string quartet and in an orchestra?

When they played in ensembles, Mozart or Beethoven did not play the first violin: they played the viola! Maybe because you can feel everything around you. That is why I like it.

If an orchestra was a body, the viola would be its heart: it functions without you noticing it. You don't want to think of your heart 24 hours a day... but it is there, connecting the different organs of your body. Of course, it is much easier for a listener to follow the first violin section, but when you really think about it, looking at the score, the viola is the glue of the orchestra.

Now that you have gained a different experience as an orchestra player, would you like to broadcast again some pieces for chamber ensemble?

I miss the quartet. How can you not miss it? I left the quartet because I felt that I wanted to do something else. But chamber music is part of my DNA: if I do not play it regularly, I miss it.

You are working on a recital album with pianist Sunwook Kim…

It will be my first solo album, and it is supposed to come out in October 2020. I feel very lucky to be the only violist of Alpha Records. It is so impressive to see a label that takes risks, and think only from the music point of view. Sunwook is a good friend of mine and I am honoured that he agreed to play with me on this recording.

In the album, there will be Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata and Shostakovich's Sonata, and a very personal israeli piece, Yiskor-In Memoriam, by Ödön Pártos. It is filled with the typical Jewish orthodox lyricism and fits the viola beautifully. Pártos was a very famous violist with Hungarian origins. It is interesting because it completes the programme amazingly: on one side, Schubert is always searching for optimism; on the other, the Shostakovich sonata is one of the darkest pieces I know. Pártos fits very well in the middle: it has some really Schubertian themes, but also these Jewish melodies that are close to Shostakovich.

Until the 20th century, all the famous violinists were also viola virtuosos. Nowadays, just a few violinists also play the viola. Is this seperation a good thing for you?

I think it's normal: in the last century, the viola has become a solo instrument. Now people start to play the viola without having played the violin before. It is, in a technical way, really hard to play the two instruments equally beautifully. It's a matter of sound: if you give a viola to a violinist, it will be difficult for him to have a beautiful sound. With the viola, you really need to dig in with the right hand. That is why violinists can play faster with the left hand: there is less tension on the strings.

Amihai Grosz, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker © Monika Rittershaus
Amihai Grosz, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Monika Rittershaus

You play a wonderful viola made by Gasparo da Salo. Why is it so special? What do you think about the difference between old and modern instruments?

There are wonderful modern instruments today. But there is something very special about old string instruments: they have a soul. It is not about good or bad. When you find a good old instrument, there is history in it and that inspires you. You can connect with it... or not! When you play an instrument like that, you always share the stage with it, which you cannot do with a modern instrument. But it is also a good thing, because you can feel more secure, it may be more simple to get what you need. The relationship is different with an old instrument. Not every day is a great day, sometimes you are fighting a bit... When I play my Gasparo da Salo, we are two on stage.

Do you have an ideal violist?

Maybe Pinchas Zukerman. Because I grew up with his recordings. It is hard for me to think of anybody else. He comes to Israel every year and I saw him many times as a child.

Any advice for young violists?

When I hear young violists, I always pay attention to two things: the way he or she builds a phrase, and the sound. There is no reason to choose the viola if you do not have a beautiful sound. For me, the viola has the most human sound. When you are aware of it, find your own sound, and think, technically : "how can I bring it out?". I often listen to singers to help me. On a flight, when I need to get goosebumps, I always listen to Pavarotti. There is something, in his vibrato, that shakes me. To find your own sound, take from everything you can! But it has to be yours and it has to be beautiful.

Amihai Grosz © Monika Rittershaus
Amihai Grosz
© Monika Rittershaus

Sorry to ask you this… But do you have a good viola joke?

I will tell you one, but it's is a long one. So this violist goes to the beach in Tel-Aviv and suddenly bumps into a golden lamp. A genie comes out! And tells the violist "You have three wishes, whatever you want". The violist is thinking... "Oh! I want to be the principal violist of my orchestra". And suddenly the violist becomes principal. He is amazed, it is like... unbelievable! The next day he goes to the genie with a map of Middle East and tells him "You know, I live here in Israel and the political situation is so bad... I want you to bring peace to this country. But the genie shakes his head : "Sorry, I cannot do that, it is just beyond my power". "Okay" says the violist, "So, you know, I want to play the Hoffmeister concerto, but really clean, in tune and with a good sound..."

And the genie says: "... Okay, show me your map again?"