The Russian virtuoso talks Moonlight Sonata and Ashkenazy ahead of his return to Australia.
We've caught you on a tour in Japan, where you've been a frequent visitor since you won the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition at the age of sixteen. What do you enjoy about coming back?
There are many things I admire about the Japanese passion for music, and it is a place where every single year so many cultural events take place. On this particular visit I played with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the NHK Orchestra along with a solo recital tour. I come here almost every year because the people have such a high level of music appreciation.
You’ve decided to proceed with the tour when many artists have cancelled - the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko just pulled out of a tour last week.
There was a moment of hesitation I must say – I did consult with a doctor due to the fact that I was in Ukraine at the age of 2 when the disaster at Chernobyl happened. My doctor actually advised me not to go, but knowing that the concerts were with Ashkenazy and that people were waiting for me in recital made me decide to go ahead despite the situation with the reactors.
Do you think shared, community experiences of music can have an uplifting role in times of turmoil like this?
Absolutely, and for that reason I was looking forward to the tour more than usual because I believe that music can do a lot to unite people together in a common impulse emotion and the feelings that music can create. The amazing thing is that no matter where the music touches people, no matter which culture, language or upbringing, it touches them in the same way. It always seems to find the way through to people’s hearts and our inner worlds. It’s important to be able to share music with people in a difficult time.
You've been very active with charitable activities for organisations like Opportunity Cambodia, for whom you gave a concert at Sydney's Government House last year. Why did you choose that particular cause?
I’m trying to participate in charity events every single year. I happened to meet the wonderful person who is in charge of this one and saw an opportunity to help out. That was a good experience for me and they did succeed in building a school centre for children in Cambodia. It’s a good thing to be a musician and not to be selfish about music-making. It’s a blessing to be able to help in this way.
How do Australian audiences compare to Japan?
Every country is different but music erases most of those differences when there are no words spoken and all that’s left is the sound and the feeling. For me personally, concerts in Australia are very special because I took a lot of good things from my Australian surroundings and my life there between 1998 and 2008. Now I live in Berlin, but every visit to share music with people in Australia is very rewarding spiritually.
Do you ever have anxiety or bad memories about the terrible car accident you had in Sydney in 2002, when it was thought you might never play again?
Quite on the contrary; all my time in Australia had good outcomes no matter what life brought, so I have only joyful impressions and feelings when I come back.
As you already mentioned, you've developed a rapport with a great Russian now working in Australia: Vladimir Ashkenazy. When did you first get together?
I played a small recital in honour of Ashkenazy’s arrival in 2007, which he attended. A couple of years later we met in Moscow, and at that point he invited me to be the soloist in the Prokofiev Piano Concertos, which we recorded in 2009 as part of the Sydney Symphony Prokofiev festival.
What was it like performing and recording with him?
The experience of working with him was tremendous. I found him to be a very gracious person with a kind heart and an honest relationship towards music and his colleagues on stage. It was a learning experience for me as well.
What advice did he impart?
I learned a lot about the way he looks at music, about the subtleties of his conducting and phrasing and intonation. There were many conversations that I found quite incredible – he told me he remembers an announcement on the loudspeakers that the Nazis were about to attack Russia. All those stories of how he lived in Russia and how he was affected by the war, but of course we also discussed his opinions of the modern music scene. I regard him as one of today’s musical heros.
You have Rachmaninov's lyrical Moments musicaux on your City Recital Hall program, followed by Prokofiev's later Seventh Sonata, which definitely has a lot more bite. It's quite a gear-change; how do you approach the contrast?
They are different planets. The world of Rachmaninov has endless colours to discover, endless ideas. It’s an ocean of passion, sadness and joy. Prokofiev’s music has a lot of theatrical aspects to it. I see visions when I play this music. It's a war sonata so I think of things Prokofiev described; specific images of the events that took place during the Second World War, life under the Soviet regime, and the personal circumstances of Prokofiev at the time. There are so many things to think about, to let all this information pass through my own lens and to try not to interfere with music too much but to be sincere at the same time.
Do you feel you have a particular affinity for Russian composers?
I feel very close to the essence of Russian music because I was brought up surrounded by Russian art and literature and music and theatre. But at the same time, I wouldn’t say that I treasure Russian music more than the music of Mozart and Brahms.
You're also playing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, his most overheard piece! What do you hope to bring to it that will make the audience sit up and listen with fresh ears?
The challenge for me is to find new territories in this music. I could compare it to the vision of the great Russian actor Stanislavski, who often spoke about finding this so-called “truth” onstage when he presented one of his characters. It took him a long time before he could fully transform himself into the skin of that character. I try to draw a parallel between acting and being completely involved in a piece of music – forgetting myself and dissolving into the world of Beethoven and trying to feel how it was for him when he was composing this music.
There's Chopin in your Sydney recital too. For his bicentenary in 2010 you recorded the Chopin concertos in a Polish castle. Did it bring you closer to his music or elicit new insights?
That particular experience opened me up to the history and pastimes of Polish aristocracy: it was a live recording in Wawel Castle in Krakow. But more than anything, living in Berlin which is only an hour’s drive in Poland, we come across a lot of Polish people and many of our good friends are Polish. I learn a lot from them about the subtleties of Polish language and expression, and the colours and shadings of their ways of seeing life. Coming across Polish culture in that way helps me to understand Chopin’s music.
And It’s Liszt’s turn this year. For major piano bicentenaries like this, do you find there is too much recording and performance saturation of the one composer all year?
We should all be grateful that Chopin composed these works of genius, so the more he’s performed the better! But I don’t believe in the kind of music schedules that don’t allow for proper preparation; it doesn’t allow a musician to be truthful to themselves and to the public.
You were something of a child prodigy, givimg your first concerto performance at nine and winning the International Horowitz Piano Competition at fifteen. Do you look back on that sort of intense musical upbringing with mixed feelings?
There are both positive and negative sides to any form of music education. In my view it’s all that hard work and discipline that is so important for young pianists of that age. But looking at music in the right way doesn’t necessarily follow. It wasn’t until I was 18 years old that I completely changed the way I look at music and my piano playing. It was the first time I saw music as something I could really dedicate myself to completely and something that is a spectacular creation that can move people. I started to see it in a different light beyond the competitions.
You had your Hollywood Bowl debut last year - was it an unreal experience?
Actually, I’m returning there this year after my visit to Australia. The concert last year at such a huge open-air venue – immediately I was reminded of the Tom and Jerry cartoon where the cat and mouse perform at the Hollywood Bowl! It was the only knowledge I had of it until last year.
The LA Times critic compared your style of playing to Horowitz's. Is that something you strive for?
I’ve never really tried to emulate any pianist. I’m not particularly fond of those comparisons – although some technical aspects can be compared I think the point is to find your identity through music and your own way of expressing it.
But was there a pianist you listened to growing up who has influenced on your musical outlook?
Horowitz, Rubinstein, Ashkenazy and Argerich taught me a lot about rhythm, the space in between the notes, the breathing of music. One should never try to imitate but recordings have really helped me in this way.
You've had your pick of orchestras and conductors lately. Has there been an experience as soloist that was particularly memorable?
My concerts with New York Philharmonic and the Concertgebouw were special because of the level of musical communication that I experienced on stage and the interaction that was present. I’ve learned the most in my career from these and from my work with Ashkenazy.
Alexander Gavrylyuk plays Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev at the Melbourne Recital Centre Friday June 17 and at Sydney's City Recital Hall June 24.
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