Strad Magazine

Inter­view with Nikolaj Znaid­er for Strad Magazine

The great viol­in ped­agogue dis­cusses teach­ing and play­ing with his former pupil Nikolaj Znaid­er.

Nikolaj Znaid­er: Just the men­tion of such names as Leo­pold Auer, Carl Flesch, Ivan Galami­an or Yuri Yankele­vich evokes a cer­tain awe in viol­in­ists. Each of these teach­ers defined a school and con­trib­uted to the his­tory of viol­in play­ing in their own way. You are part of this lin­eage. How do you see the role of a great viol­in ped­agogue?

Bor­is Kuschnir: First of all, good teach­ers must have a great ped­ago­gic­al tal­ent. They should have an eclect­ic edu­ca­tion and, of course, be good psy­cho­lo­gists. They should be able to recog­nise and nur­ture tal­ent, and to see where their stu­dents’ prob­lems lie and how to solve them quickly and in the right order.

Nikolaj Znaid­er: : What were your most import­ant influ­ences dur­ing your child­hood and youth?

Bor­is Kuschnir: My fath­er was lead­er of the Radio Sym­phony Orches­tra in Kiev, and played for years in a string quar­tet and a piano trio. He was my first teach­er, and from him I learnt the import­ance of tone qual­ity. He would always say: ‘Even the shortest note must sing, and music must breathe. My moth­er was also a viol­in­ist, and whenev­er I per­formed she would always tell me the unadorned truth about my play­ing after­wards. Thus I learnt how import­ant pro­fes­sion­al and hon­est cri­ti­cism is.

Until I was 17 I lived in Kiev, where I had very good teach­ers in Veniam­in Seldis and later Las­ar Bend­er­ski. Then I went to Moscow, with the inten­tion of join­ing Yuri Yankelevich’s class. He accep­ted me, but I had to wait a year, and the inter­rup­tion would have meant doing mil­it­ary ser­vice. So I went to anoth­er teach­er, Bor­is Belen­ky, who changed my life.

Belen­ky wasn’t as fam­ous as Yankele­vich then, but Dav­id Ois­trakh was a good friend of his and used to play for him and ask for his opin­ion. Belen­ky could tell with­in a tenth of an inch what a stu­dent should do to solve a cer­tain prob­lem, wheth­er it was hold­ing the instru­ment or the bow, or some­thing to do with vibrato or pos­i­tion changes. Of course he had a meth­od, but he applied it indi­vidu­ally to each stu­dent. I had to prac­tise lots of scales and double-stops, includ­ing tenths and fingered octaves, plus a whole series of etudes, Baroque son­atas and easi­er pieces. Only after two years did Belen­ky allow me to give more time to my soloist­ic and cham­ber music activ­it­ies. After each les­son I wrote a let­ter to my par­ents describ­ing what Belen­ky had said and how he’d said it. These let­ters are a viol­in school in them­selves, as I tried to ana­lyse what he taught me — hun­dreds of things that I had nev­er thought about before.

Nikolaj Znaid­er: Those ‘good old times’ in Moscow must have been very spe­cial in terms of the mutu­al inspir­a­tion that came from such a con­cen­tra­tion of tal­ent.

Bor­is Kuschnir: I was at the Tchaikovsky Con­ser­vatoire from 1966 to 1975. There I met great musi­cians like Ois­trakh, Kogan, Shos­takovich, Richter, Gilels or Rostrop­ovich on a daily basis. I even had the priv­ilege of work­ing on Shos­takovich ‘s String Quar­tet no.l3 with the com­poser him­self, in his flat. I often sat in on oth­er teach­ers’ les­sons, listen­ing to fel­low stu­dents — Gidon Kre­mer, Vladi­mir Spivakov, Vikt­or Tretyakov, Mis­cha Maisky, Nat­alia Gut­man and many oth­ers. Every few months stu­dents were selec­ted to take part in one inter­na­tion­al com­pet­i­tion or anoth­er. This was con­sidered very import­ant in polit­ic­al terms, and Soviet musi­cians were expec­ted to win. Every teach­er wanted to have a prize-win­ning stu­dent. Any careers were launched in this way, but often a stu­dent would not be allowed to take part because the teach­er wasn’t strong enough to push him, or even for racial reas­ons, when a play­er was of Jew­ish extrac­tion.

Nikolaj Znaider:You were lucky to be in con­tact with such great artists, who must have infi­uenced your music­al devel­op­ment.

Bor­is Kuschnir: There was a decis­ive moment, which happened almost by chance. I gave a recit­al in the Small Hall of the Con­ser­vatoire — I played two caprices by Paganini and the first move­ment of a Moz­art con­certo. Dav­id Ois­trakh, who didn’t know me then, was in the audi­ence. After­wards he said lo my teach­er: ‘Who is that boy? I like him very much. We must help him some­how — he must go to a com­pet­i­tion.’ I was then sent lo the All Uni­on Com­pet­i­tion in Len­in­grad, where I won the third prize — there were just three prizes for the whole Soviet Uni­on. In the final I played the Beeth­oven Con­certo with the Len­in­grad Sym­phony Orches­tra under Yuri Temirkan­ov, and that was the start of my career as a soloist.

Nikolaj Znaider:What were the first years of your pro­fes­sion­al life in Moscow like?

Bor­is Kuschnir: I gave many con­certs both as a soloist and with a string quar­tet in Moscow, of which I had been a founder in 1970. With the quar­tet I won many inter­na­tion­al com­pet­i­tions, and also learnt a great deal. Among our teach­ers were the mem­bers of the legendary Borod­in Quar­tet. I learnt to read a score, and occu­pied myself with mat­ters of sound and bal­ance. All this was use­ful in my later work as a teach­er. I learnt to appre­ci­ate small details, which are what make the inter­pret­a­tion of music even more inrer­est­ing and fine. When I listen to young viol­in­ists or ensembles, I often miss this love of detail, a defi­ciency that can often be traced back to the teach­ers.

Nikolaj Znaider:How did you come to leave the Soviet Uni­on?

Bor­is Kuschnir: My career in Rus­sia had become mono­ton­ous. I gave con­certs both as a soloist and with the quar­tet, and I even traveled abroad now and then. But there was no pos­sib­il­ity of real­ising big pro­jects, or of really see­ing the world. Music­al life in Rus­sia had changed very much for the worse, too, with many great artists hav­ing emig­rated or died. Art was no longer of interest for the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion. So I resolved to emig­rate. Being a Jew, I could do it offi­cially, and I filed an applic­a­tion in 1980. A year later I flew with my fam­ily to Vienna, which was the first stop for most Rus­si­an emig­rants. Then came a happy turn of events: I played for Zubin Mehta — the Brahms con­certo; I was appoin­ted lead­er of the Bruck­ner Orches­tra in Linz; and I star­ted to teach at the Bruck­ner Con­ser­vatoire in Linz, and a year later at the Vienna Con­ser­vatoire.

Nikolaj Znaider:Was that your express wish — to teach? Did your early ana­lyt­ic­al impulses now come to the fore? Or was it just a mat­ter of chance?

Bor­is Kuschnir: Everything in life is a mat­ter of chance, but it had always been my wish to play and to teach. The first thing I did in Vienna was to start a piano trio, the Vienna Schubert Trio. Then some­thing happened that had great sig­ni­fic­ance for my ped­ago­gic­al career. An eight-year-old boy by the name of Juli­an Rach­lin came to play for me, and from the first note I heard in him some­thing very spe­cial. His fam­ily begged me to take him on, and very slowly I began to crys­tal­lise his tal­ent. When Juli­an was 13, he won the Euro­vi­sion Young Musi­cian of the Year com­pet­i­tion in Ams­ter­dam and became world-fam­ous almost overnight. Today, 20 years later, he is one of the best viol­in­ists in the world. And I am very proud of that.

Nikolaj Znaider:Does this mean that you didn’t have the ambi­tion to become a great teach­er when you came to Aus­tria?

Bor­is Kuschnir: I nev­er had that ambi­tion. I believe that only stu­dents can say how good a teach­er is. I just wanted lo help young viol­in­ists on their way, and I am very happy to be able to do this as a pro­fess­or at the Vienna Con­ser­vatoire and at the Music Uni­ver­sity in Graz.

Nikolaj Znaider:What qual­it­ies do you look for in a stu­dent?

Bor­is Kuschnir: I look far tal­ent, a gift, some­thing spe­cial. I recog­nise it with­in a few seconds.

Nikolaj Znaider:But some­times tech­nic­al or oth­er defi­cien­cies obstruct the artist­ic devel­op­ment that the stu­dent could achieve through hard work if giv­en the chance. Do you take this poten­tial into account?

Bor­is Kuschnir: That is some­thing else. I can tell how gif­ted a viol­in­ist is, even if the inton­a­tion or the viol­in hold aren’t right, or even if the inter­pret­a­tion isn’t inter­est­ing. I main­tain that teach­ers should also be tal­en­ted, in a ped­ago­gic­al way. I hope that I have this kind of tal­ent, and with my exper­i­ence I can identi­fy the prob­lems affect­ing young musi­cians, and more often than not I also have the rem­edy. In my work as a teach­er, I try to free tal­ent from everything that stands in its way. That can be a lot of work. It is not just about viol­in play­ing or inter­pret­a­tion. For many young stu­dents I play almost a fath­erly role, for oth­ers I am a friend, and for oth­ers a doc­tor or coun­selor. They will tell me about their lives, their feel­ings, prob­lems or hap­pi­ness, and I would nev­er betray their con­fid­ence. This friendly rela­tion­ship often lives on after they leave. I also learn a lot from it, and it keeps me young! Teach­ers must also know where their bound­ar­ies are. Just how much should you ‘inter­fere’ with an inter­pret­a­tion, espe­cially if you are deal­ing with a gif­ted, bril­liant stu­dent? Of course, it would be easy to use my author­ity to influ­ence the stu­dent, who would then prob­ably give in and say, ‘Ok, I’ll do as you say.’ That w0uld be a big mis­take on the teacher’s part, because a tal­ent is being repressed. A teach­er must always leave tal­ent the free­dom to devel­op.

Nikolaj Znaid­er: I’ve often been impressed by the way in which you avoid impos­ing your inter­pret­a­tion on a stu­dent. You would always ask crit­ic­al ques­tions instead , thus help­ing the stu­dent to work things out. What would you say are the most import­ant qual­it­ies a viol­in­ist needs?

Bor­is Kuschnir: Why do we have so many good viol­in­ists but so few great ones? And what is the dif­fer­ence between both? I had the good for­tune to hear such great play­ers as Mil­stein, Dav­id Ois­trakh, Kogan, Szeryng and Frances­catti, and I can’t for­get those con­certs. Of course, their phe­nom­en­al tech­nique impressed me, but nowadays there are many tech­nic­ally gif­ted viol­in­ists. What fas­cin­ated me is some­thing that has almost van­ished today — their ton­al qual­ity. Those viol­in­ists really ‘sang’! They could express their souls with their own indi­vidu­al voices. A con­cert is worth­less for me if I don’t hear that. A viol­in­ist must be able to fas­cin­ate their audi­ence.

Nikolaj Znaid­er: Which object­ives would you recom­mend to young viol­in­ists?

Bor­is Kuschnir: They must devel­op not just instru­ment­al abil­it­ies, but also play cham­ber music and the piano, read scores, go to the theatre and the opera, edu­cate them­selves eclect­ic­ally. They should not just be healthy, but learn to play nat­ur­ally and health­ily. It’s no use if you ache after every con­cert — after a while you might not be able to go on play­ing. In those cases I believe that the teach­er hasn’t worked prop­erly to pre­vent those prob­lems. To be a great viol­in­ist, you should also be a good per­son and think pos­it­ively. Why go around envy­ing some­body else who has a bet­ter career? That wastes a lot of time and energy. If you are con­scious of hav­ing a good teach­er, a good edu­ca­tion — and tal­ent — then just keep going, and a happy time will come your way. That’s what I’ve always told my stu­dents, and many of them — when the time was ripe for it — have won com­pet­i­tions, for example Juli­an Rach­lin, Lidia Baich, Dalibor Kar­vay, Alex­an­dra Sou­mm (all first prize at the Euro­vi­sion com­pet­i­tion) or you, Nikolaj, win­ner of the Queen Elisa­beth Com­pet­i­tion in Brus­sels.

Nikolaj Znaider:Patience is also a neces­sary vir­tue.

Bor­is Kuschnir: Yes, it is a very import­ant qual­ity. And young people must learn to devel­op self-con­fid­ence. It is also very import­ant, and not just for the young, to have someone you can trust to tell you the truth. Many cel­eb­rated artists have chosen me as a sort of con­fid­ante, for whom they play before import­ant con­certs or record­ing dates. I am not afraid of telling the truth. It hap­pens often enough that young play­ers win com­pet­i­tions and sud­denly start play­ing 200 con­certs a year, and don’t notice that after a while things are no longer in order. lf there is no one to tell them, it might be too late when it finally dawns on them. Once a fam­ous viol­in­ist asked for my opin­ion after a con­cert. I made some crit­ic­al obser­va­tions and he asked me wheth­er I really heard all those details. When I said yes, he replied: ‘I’m off to prac­tise!’

Nikolaj Znaid­er: How do you see the present devel­op­ment of viol­in play­ing? How would you wish it to be?

Bor­is Kuschnir: Nowadays, win­ning a com­pet­i­tion seems to be the only way of start­ing a career. The res­ult is that there are many good viol­in­ists around with the where­with­al to play a Paganini concerto,but only very few great musi­cians with intel­lect and an indi­vidu­al sound. Audi­ences get used to mediocrity. It is like Andersen’s fairytale The Emperor’s New Clothes. The emper­or was naked, but no one dared say so, prais­ing his beau­ti­ful new clothes instead. Some­body comes and plays, and is neither a great viol­in­ist nor a great musi­cian — he has ‘no clothes’ , no tal­ent. Listen­ers come once, twice, maybe three times, and then no more. We are los­ing audi­ences for clas­sic­al music, and the reas­on is often mediocrity.

Nikolaj Znaider:How import­ant is your own play­ing for your activ­ity as a teach­er?

Bor­is Kuschnir: It is very import­ant that my stu­dents see and hear me play. Of course, I try to show the things I teach when I play. I play in lhe Vienna Brahms Trio and the Kopel­man Quar­tet, and my play­ing has a strong influ­ence on my teach­ing. For the last 15 years I have been for­tu­nate that the Aus­tri­an Nation­al Bank has lent me a won­der­ful Stra­di­vari, from I698. With it I can not only make beau­ti­ful music, but I can also show my stu­dents infin­ite ton­al shades.

Nikolaj Znaid­er: Pro­fess­or Kuschnir, I admire the pas­sion you bring to your work, and I wish you the very best in your struggle against mediocrity. On your 60th birth­day I wish you many happy returns and thank you for everything you have done for me and my fel­low pupils. We wish to carry out into the world what you have giv­en us.

Bor­is Kuschnir: And I wish to thank my stu­dents for hav­ing chosen me as a teach­er. I have learnt much from them and still do so. Without them my life would have been much less inter­est­ing.

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