Two fine violinists set aside competition for couplehood

Posted: February 11, 2007

Comparisons are accumulating. A year ago, violinists Janine Jansen and Julian Rachlin were, very simply, violinists. Now that these two promising soloists are an acknowledged couple - and how often do violinists get together? - they're compared to soccer star David Beckham and Spice Girl Victoria Adams - in a more genteel classical-music incarnation.

At least last year. Now they're Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie with fiddles.

"Omigod," said Jansen the other day on the phone from Europe. "I hadn't heard that one!" The photo-friendly 28-year-old is too new to all this to be anything but bemused. Goateed Rachlin, 32, has seen it all before; he was a media sensation years back as a Lithuanian child prodigy. He'd rather talk about Shostakovich.

Their relationship may be singular. The heroes of the string family, violinists are more likely to take up with violists or cellists. No competition that way.

Besides being violinists, Jansen and Rachlin are of such similar musical stature that both have Philadelphia Orchestra appearances this year: Rachlin plays Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 2 Thursday to Saturday at the Kimmel Center; Jansen plays the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 April 19 to 21.

The fact that their dates don't even begin to coincide sums up the central dilemma that arises from each of them being equally famous and at a time in life when opportunities must be seized. "Right now I'm in Hamburg; he's in Munich," Jansen says a bit sadly. "They aren't so far away, but. . . ."

Concerts must be played - about 100 apiece annually. They usually grab five days a month together, either at her home outside of Utrecht in the Netherlands or, more likely, his place in more centrally located Vienna. "As a soloist, you spend your main time on the road by yourself. It's just the nature of the profession," Rachlin says. "Our phone bills have been horrendous."

Fatuous as the celebrity aspects of their lives might seem, nobody would draw parallels between them and their film- and sports-star counterparts if they didn't have the profile and staying power of true artists. Though Jansen comes across like some crossover violin babe on her CD covers - she has the looks for it and writes chatty, personalized program notes - her reading of the overexposed Mendelssohn Violin Concerto on the Decca label projects a serious, considered and personal relationship with every phrase.

No less startling is Rachlin's recent Brahms Violin Concerto on Warner Classics. While most violinists of Eastern and Central European heritage prefer a big, imposing sound that can be fatiguing by the final movement, Rachlin plays with a light touch that, in collaboration with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra under Mariss Jansons, opens up rewarding new vistas.

Both are such dedicated chamber musicians that they met nearly five years ago playing at a chamber festival in Norway. Now they have "his" and "hers" chamber festivals, his in Dubrovnik, Croatia, hers in Utrecht. Rachlin, in fact, will stay in town an extra day to perform music by Astor Piazzolla in a Philadelphia Orchestra chamber concert next Sunday.

If there's one thing that perhaps ensures the health of their relationship, it's their attitudes toward each other's violins. Many classical violinists, alpha creatures that they are, live with a grass-is-always-greener attitude regarding the instruments of others. Jansen has a Stradivarius, Rachlin a Guarneri. Both are extremely desirable.

"Sometimes we switch violins," Rachlin says. "It's always quite funny. I can't handle her Strad. She can't handle my Guarneri. We always complain that we can't make each other's instruments 'sound.' "

That makes sense, since they come from such different worlds of music- making. She is from a deeply musical Dutch family, and was surrounded by the historically informed early-music movement exemplified by such Dutch musicians as Frans Bruggen. It showed in her debut recording, a small-scale, low-vibrato reading of Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

Though she seemed to be an overnight sensation in London four years ago when she played a concerto date conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy (who opened up many career doors for her), Jansen's rise was "gradual" in her words, particularly compared to life on the competition circuit.

Rachlin grew up in Vienna, which was a major exit point for emigrating Soviet Jews. But instead of moving on to somewhere else, his music-loving parents decided to stay. After he studied with a Russian teacher in Vienna, his career zoomed when he was named Eurovision Young Musician of the Year in 1988. He made recordings for Sony and was the youngest soloist to play with the Vienna Philharmonic, but had to retool himself in the mid-1990s with two-plus years of study with Pinchas Zukerman. It saved his artistic life: Most young musicians have to relearn in adulthood what came naturally in youth.

They're at somewhat different points on the career track. Rachlin made his Philadelphia Orchestra debut in 1997, while the current season is only Jansen's second in the United States. Yet he refrains from giving her advice. It's one of several distinctive dynamics in their relationship.

"She's such a strong personality on her own. It's not like she needs advice," he says. "I've gone through lots of mistakes; when you start a career at 13 years old, you don't do everything right. But you have to make your own mistakes."

His significant accommodation to their relationship, both as a couple and as collaborating musicians, is playing viola on the side. He loves the instrument and would play it no matter what. But the violin-viola combination gives them more and better repertoire concertos than the two-violin combination. The most popular item in their repertoire, Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante, is something they admit to playing to death. They're looking into new works, including a forthcoming double concerto by Penderecki.

In music, as in life, their differences work. "One enriches the other," Jansen says. "We might have different ideas, but it's important to be open to other styles and new ideas. I don't want music to be one certain way."

"When you're exactly the same kind of player, the performance goes too much in one direction," Rachlin says. "One thing we have in common is that we don't have to discuss everything. We don't have to talk about the how and why of every phrase. It feels very natural. It's something very special. Definitely."

They both swear there's little sense of competition between them, which may say more about their generation than about their individual personalities. In decades past, the success of Jascha Heifetz came at the expense of, say, Mischa Elman. But Jansen and Rachlin are friendly with Maxim Vengerov, Vadim Repin and Sarah Chang. That, more than anything, explains how their relationship happened.

"It's a wonderful thing that's happening among violinists," Rachlin says. "We really want to exchange ideas and support each other. Nobody takes away from anybody else. Everybody has a place.

"And there's such a big market. One style of playing wouldn't be enough. We want many!"

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at Read his recent work at

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