All in good time

The violinist Julian Rachlin has recently recorded concertos by Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky.

Judging from the lavish praise heaped upon his first two albums for Sony Classical – “Certainly his artistry and sensitivity place him securely among the finest players of the day” (this quotation from our own RL, 6/94) – violinist Julian Rachlin has a positively stellar future ahead of him. And yet, when I met the 20-year-old Lithuanian last August just a few hours ahead of a Proms appearance with Lorin Maazel and the Pittsburgh Symphony, I was struck time and again by the refreshing maturity and candour of his outlook – rest assured, this is one youthful talent with his feet very securely on the ground!

Born into a musical family, Rachlin showed signs of aptitude from a very early age. “At first I wanted to become a cellist like my father – I remember I used to take an umbrella and imitate him as he was practising. That famous performance of the Dvo’rak Concerto with Rostropovich and Karajan would be on the record-player 24 hours a day! Though I was always surrounded by music, my parents really didn’t want me to become a musician so, at the age of six, I pleaded with them to get me a violin teacher. By this time, the family had emigrated from Lithuania to Vienna, and at the age of nine I started serious studies with Professor Boris Kuschnir at the Vienna Conservatory – a truly great teacher, as well as a constant source of wisdom and close personal friend.

“When I won the Eurovision Competition in 1988, it was incredible. Every main manager around the world wanted to engage me – some even drew up contracts proposing 100 concerts a year. But I was still just a 13-year-old kid! Remember, at this time I had been at the Conservatory for only four years. I could play the Wieniawski concerto reasonably well, along with scales, etudes and the like – really just the normal stuff you’d expect from someone my age. I did not play, for example, the Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Brahms. This was always the philosophy of my teacher: never try to cram everything into, say, a couple of years, no matter how talented the student. My career has been built up very carefully and I have always taken things extremely slowly and methodically. My mother would tell all the managers that they could offer me separate engagements, but absolutely no contracts! I can honestly say I was never put under any pressure by my parents or teacher to achieve a career: the main priorities were always to improve my quality of playing and to allow me to develop as a musician, something which, naturally, takes time. I must also say the people at Sony Classical understand this philosophy – there was never any question of me bringing out 15 CDs over a fiveyear period — and they give me a lot of freedom to record what I want and with whom I want.”

Just so, for when plans were being hatched for Rachlin’s new live coupling of concertos by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, the young violinist knew exactly with whom he wanted to collaborate. “Vladimir Fedoseyev. Although he is not a glamorous ‘big name’, I consider him one of the best conductors around today. I performed the Prokofiev First Concerto with him in Vienna with the Symphoniker and also on tour with the Moscow Radio Symphony. I just love what he brings to this piece – it’s all to do with the genuine Russian folk feeling he has for this repertoire – and in the last couple of years we have forged a very special musical relationship. I also felt strongly about recording both concertos live, despite all the problems with the set-up – the four concert performances we used as the basis took place in Moscow during February 1993 and the temperature outside was minus 20! Anyway, it was really great of Sony to agree to my requests and we had a wonderful time making the CD.

“At this moment, I am preoccupied with the Prokofiev in particular. The whole piece is like a gorgeous fairy-tale and in order to enter its magical world you need to take off completely: your feet mustn’t be on the ground for this piece! It’s also amazingly compact: the whole work is as long as the first movement of the Tchaikovsky. In the orchestral part, too, there are so many little, hidden things: it’s so much more than just an accompaniment and I have spent many hours listening out for new details in the score and discovering its whole world. But yes, lately I have grown to love this concerto completely for its beautiful, special atmospheric feel and I enjoy playing it so much, especially with great conductors such as Fedoseyev and Maazel. The Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, is the ideal virtuoso concerto, one which shows off all the advantages of the fiddle and what one can do with it. Physically, it’s very demanding and I have spent the last few years looking at the piece, trying out millions of new things with it. I have about five scores at home, crammed full of pencil marks and observations. Whenever I start learning a new work, I never listen to other recordings. When I first played through the Tchaikovsky with my teacher about four years ago, my score was empty – nothing was written in, just what Tchaikovsky wrote. I want to be brave enough to make my own statement about this piece; it must always be like a personal adventure.”

Among contemporaries, Rachlin especially admires Gidon Kremer. “He is the most fascinating figure, a really thoughtful, provocative musician. I was lucky enough to perform the Prokofiev Sonata for two violins with him at Lockenhaus last July. We had four rehearsals together and it was unbelievable working with him. He has so many ideas, so much fantasy. More importantly, he never ever compromises; he thinks about music non-stop. Even when he is playing the Beethoven concerto for the umpteenth time, he will always be trying out new ideas. He is always challenging himself, always wanting something else.

“Kremer, of course, is a special, altogether exceptional character. These days, one can hear many technically perfect performers, but there seems to be a lack of expressivity, of sensuality. Just 20 or 30 years ago, there were so many great personalities alive: Oistrakh, Heifetz, Szeryng, Milstein, Grumiaux, Kogan, Francescatti, all of them unbelievable players. But that great tradition is dying out now, especially in Russia, and I must say it worries me. There are so many prodigious talents around, but what use is talent without a great teacher? Ideally the teacher should grow with, and learn from, his or her pupil; it should be a mutually enriching, parallel process. So many young performers change teachers after two years or so, because their teachers have simply told them everything they know and then that’s it. But that’s not enough. Look, I’m not yet 20 and am lucky enough to have a great career already. But I’m determined to do something with this marvellous opportunity. I don’t just want to show people how well I can play the violin – this they can find anywhere. No, when I’m playing, I really want to tell the people something, to move something within them, and I believe that the public will always respond to any artist who is genuinely trying to convey some sort of emotional message. After all, why should we be ashamed of expressing our innermost feelings?”

Andrew Achenbach, Gramophone August 1995

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