Mario Hossen: Violins have soul

The great composers are ambassadors of the divine, they channel cosmic energy

Photo: Boyko Kichukov

The old instruments give you a sense of tradition; they rather represent a spiritual process of reincarnation. Just think of it - several generations of violinists played this instrument, conveyed their emotions. The vibration preserved in the body of the instrument is something that lasts, it does not go away, maestro Mario Hossen says in an interview to Europost.

Maestro Hossen, in a week's time you and Adrian Oetiker are set to give a unique concert, bringing together Paganini and Chopin. Are their worlds not diametrically opposed?

We will bring them together historically and musically. On the one hand, we will recreate their vibrations by playing some of their signature works. Chopin is ethereal, avoids crowds and ostentation and seeks the sacred, an intimate interaction with the audience. Paganini is the exact opposite - a man of extreme contrasts, expressiveness, the clash between the artist and nature. One of the figures who influenced Chopin as a composer is none other than Paganini whom he heard for the first time at the age of 18, in Warsaw. The rector of the music conservatory, where Chopin was studying, introduced him to his already famous colleague. Still completely unknown despite being a prodigy, Chopin was so captivated by the aura of Paganini that he decided to replicate the effects in his works with the means of expression offered by the piano. It is interesting to note that Chopin used to play only for a very small audience of no more than 10-20 people in the Paris parlours, he had very bad stage fright. We will venture to re-enact the meeting of Paganini with Chopin, in its historical sense, but we will also have clashes thanks to Mendelssohn, who was influenced by both.

You have had the fortune of playing to the original sheet music of the composer whose crown you wear thanks to being called the Bulgarian Paganini.

Three years ago in Rome, I met the person in charge of the Paganini archive. I sat there in the library for an hour, perusing the notes Paganini wrote himself. I wore white gloves, with two policemen watching my every move, and as I was examining the sheet music, I could hear it play in my head, I imagined him writing it, even secretly took off my gloves at one point so I can feel the sheets with my fingertips. At 5pm, when the library was supposed to close for the day and I had to part ways with the manuscripts, I received a great surprise. The library's director and her entire team invited me to the big reading room, where I found all the scores set on the desk in front, no security. I had my violin with me and they asked me to play a little. Words cannot describe that experience, it was priceless.

You also study Paganini's work as editor of research for Doblinger Music Publisher. How did this project come about?

Well, the first invitation actually came from Paganini's family and the largest record Label in Genoa, Dynamic, to record the last eight pieces by Paganini. They had never been recorded because they were made in a way that no one could decipher. Coincidentally, I think I was the one to figure out the way to perform them.

Were the notes somehow coded?

It was not a code. Paganini did several revolutionary things. He developed several violin techniques that were then in their infancy stage, like playing a certain piece of music on a single string at every concert; opera paraphrases which - interestingly enough - he never played on a violin with a regular tuning. He tuned his instrument in a unique way and that was the missing piece of the puzzle. I recorded these never-before-released last pieces in Vienna two years ago, and I am very happy to have become part of music history and closed an entire cycle. I see these events as fate trying to show me that I am on the right track. Then came the invitation from the Doblinger publishing house to edit his whole body of work.

What kind of violin do you play on and how important is the instrument to your ability to express yourself as an artist?

For the past 18 years, I have been playing on a Giovanni Battista Guadagnini, a violin that is over 250 years old and on loan from the Oesterreichische Nationalbank's collection. As for how important the instrument is, I would say it is a question of preference. The same result can be achieved with a modern violin. But the old instruments give you a sense of tradition; they rather represent a spiritual process of reincarnation. Just think of it - several generations of violinists played this instrument, conveyed their emotions. The vibration preserved in the body of the instrument is something that lasts, it does not go away. Acoustically speaking, the differences are barely perceptible, but the feeling of holding an instrument that has served great musicians for 250-300 years cannot be explained.

Instruments have soul. The musician's emotions somehow seep into the very fibre of the wood. There is an intriguing example with Stradivari violins. One of his best series was made for the king of Spain and is currently on display at the royal museum in Madrid. The craftsmanship is impeccable, with mother-of-pearl inlay, and they were extremely expensive even at the time. The Spanish king ordered them, but he could not play. For 250-300 years, they have been kept in a museum and only occasionally taken out for musicians invited by the royal family. And you know something, these instruments do not sound well. They are much worse than an ordinary violin made by a mediocre luthier. At the same time, young instruments are like babies - they may be geniuses, but it takes time to grow up. You cannot play the most challenging and virtuoso pieces on a new violin because it has not had the time to find its inner harmony. It takes a year or two before the bow settles into its perfect spot physically, before the wood becomes accustomed to the musician's breath, the humidity.

Who gave you your first violin?

My grandmother. She is a musician, an opera singer, a soloist of the Plovdiv Singing Society, a music teacher, a choir conductor and a math teacher. Her father, who played a little, brought a violin from Austria and gave it to her as a present. Actually, it was the first gift I ever got. When my mother took me home from the hospital after my birth, the first thing that my grandmother gave to me was her violin. This is why I feel this instrument as a part of me.

If you had to compare your life to a composition, what style would it be in?

Mine would be more of a hard rock - extreme emotions combined with a ballad, utter peace and romanticism. Perhaps Deep Purple. In high school, I really liked heavy metal - Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, later Metallica. Then I went through a period of jazz - Chicago, as well as Earth, Wind and Fire. Lately, I have been leaning towards rock again. These are the styles that give me energy.

Is higher education responsible for putting the great composers on a pedestal that no one dares to reach for?

That is how it is supposed to be. The great composers are, as they say, ambassadors of the divine. Johann Sebastian Bach, Mozart, Paganini and Chopin were people who channelled the cosmic energy. There is no logical explanation for the mathematical numerology woven through a piece of music, as is the case with Bach. We have five black lines and advanced mathematics displayed on them, with extremely precise and complex proportions, where the composition is entirely built on calculations. The counterpoint is mathematics. The fact that the man who created all of it did not even need a draft is unthinkable. He wrote extremely quickly - two cantatas every week, each of them from one to one and a half hours long, for 12 to 24 instruments. Bach also had 20 children and taught classes eight hours every day in a boarding school. All of this justifies the respect and reverence shown to these brilliant human beings and their musical scores.

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Born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, Mario Hossen made his debut with the Plovdiv Philharmonic at the tender age of eight. His ancestry is a blend of four nationalities - Jewish, Arab, Greek and Bulgarian - hence his unusual surname. He got his higher education in Vienna, where he graduated with an award from the Austrian ministry of culture for exceptional artistic achievements. Later, he specialised in Paris. He has been the soloist for some of the most renowned orchestras in the world. On 25 November he and the brilliant pianist Adrian Oetiker will present a Chopin-Paganini 'duel' in a Sofia concert entitled Between Two Worlds.

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