“Now I have time to read and play the piano. Additionally, I have sorted out a pile of sometimes almost 15-year-old documents and find it exciting to look at them again.”

Tabea Zimmermann


Teaching obviously means a lot to you

Yes, a lot! I could give up travelling and sometimes a concert or two also, but I would miss teaching too much. It grounds me as an artist and keeps me in contact with young musicians and their questions. It is only through teaching that I have learnt to explain a performance. I don’t just want to play ‘from the gut’ but rather create a connection between what I am feeling and what I know. Out of this, a performance is created that is hopefully conclusive, but not set in stone.

You said that the viola is simply the instrument that you happened to learn. Do you therefore associate more as a musician rather than as a violist?

I really hope that I am more of a musician than a violist. The instrument that you choose really is just ‘an instrument’. It is not the music. What would I be today without the viola? That is a question I cannot answer. The viola is my accompanist through life, but it is not the entire content of my life. To make music, to communicate, to pass on the content to the listener, I just so happen to do that using the viola. I can’t do it any other way.

At the age of 21 you were already a professor. How did that happen?

Well, that is a long story. As a child, I had the best possible education. My teacher Dietmar Mantel gave me many impulses which I still feed upon today as a teacher. And the music college in Lahr: a complete chance! Then I went to Ulrich Koch in Freiburg at the conservatory. It was there, with him, that I studied the repertoire. He pestered me to enter for numerous competitions, which – it turns out – really gave me a push at the beginning of my career. But it isn’t my natural inclination to try for another prize, to try for another competition. When Mr Koch wanted to send me to competitions in Geneva, Paris and also to the ARD-Competition in Munich within the space of a year, I refused. A certain teenage rebellion was likely mixed up in there also. At home, I couldn’t rebel against my parents, so my teachers became my target. I didn’t travel to Munich in the end, and that resulted in a huge argument. I wanted to be more independent and decide for myself. He wanted me to dance to his pipe and bring him the prizes as a form of trophy. He said to me, “If you have a prize horse in the stall, you have to show it off!” It was at this point that I asked to no longer study with him and transfer to Sándor Vegh instead. He didn’t like that idea at all. He considered Vegh to be a charlatan and spoke badly about me to all the other teachers I wanted to go to. “What can I do”, I asked him. His answer, “Well, stay here”. That was really very amusing. At the end of the conversation, he said, “I have been thinking about your life and believe that you should definitely teach”. Koch wanted me to inherit his position in Freiburg once he retired and, for that, I’d need some teaching experience. Therefore, he recommended a teaching post for me in Saarbrucken – it was there, at the age of 19, that I started gaining experience as a teacher. When I was 21, they were searching for a viola professor and I applied. After a few years in Saarbrucken, I stopped giving lessons. Later, once I felt mature enough to better approach the demands of a teaching position, I taught for a few years in Frankfurt. Since 2002, I have taught at the Hanns Eisler music conservatory in Berlin. Life has never led me back to Baden.

Why challenging?

Kurtág demands a certain attention to the smallest of details and a very high inner tension. Whenever you meet him, an hour is enough to make you feel like you have just completed eight hours of physically demanding work. Only in retrospect do you understand that it was a challenge that led to great realisations and that this was a gift. Sometimes, I had the impression that Kurtág wished his notation be more accessible. Some things you can only understand once you have met him and appreciate how he hears and comprehends music. 
Some pieces are linked to performers and only they are allowed to perform it, because they have worked with him. That is where I see a bit of a problem. I sometimes wish that a composer could let his pieces go. As an interpreter, my goal must however remain to come as close as possible to the intentions of the composer.

Kurtág seems to be a good example for this thought

The performer should be able to play freely, but when this freedom is taken away by practising together, it is difficult. I always found it very advantageous to be able to play in front of Kurtág when it wasn’t in close proximity to the performance. It was great to be able to take the ideas back home and have time to work on them. But when the concert is the day after tomorrow and the composer tells you today everything that is wrong with it, that can be problematic! It weakens you and you no longer want to step onto the stage.

Do musicians receive only limited praise?

That is something to be expected when working under such conditions. I have met different kinds of musician. Some people do well in that scenario, others not. One colleague left a rehearsal with Kurtág in a rage and said, “I can’t stand it!”
On the other hand, a meeting with him is an unbelievable enrichment. His voice, his fantasy! He writes music with so much freedom for the performer. Especially in his solo works, that is wonderful!

Is working together with composers therefore important?

Meeting composers can be unbelievably inspirational and often helps me to better understand the person behind the composition. I would have loved to have met Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and even Hindemith!
You also have to put yourself in a composer’s shoes to understand how difficult their situation is. They may have worked for a whole year on huge a piece of music and then, at the first rehearsal, the result sounds terrible. Then, they are required to give a positive impression to the musicians, to help them to find the right tone and style, and even to encourage them to find other aspects – that isn’t a walk in the park! A bit of psychology is helpful in those sorts of situations.

“If I play music in my limited spare time, I tend to play piano. It may sound surprising, but I don’t find the viola to be the ideal instrument, it is just the instrument with which I can express myself most clearly.”

Tabea Zimmermann


How did you discover the music of György Kurtág

I first encountered Kurtág almost fourty years ago at a festival in Lockenhaus. Gidon Kremer invited him to be the chamber music teacher and to place his music in focus. I remember intense Mozart quartet rehearsals under Kurtág’s direction but also strong auditory influences, for example, his Kafka fragments. [For example, we played a string quartet by Mozart and Kremer was insistent that Kurtág be present at all rehearsals. He organised five rehearsals, which is a lot for a festival. It was a great meeting!] I met him again at various festivals, and every time it was challenging and enriching in equal measure!