Strad Magazine

Violin Julian Rachlin was heavily influenced by his teacher, Boris Kuschnir, but he refuses to be defined as having a russian sound. Tim Stein caught up with him in London.

Surfing the net for the latest news on the young, Lithuanian-born violinist Julian Rachlin, you can’t help but be bowled over by the endless list of glowing epithets: ‘An amazing combination of intellect and flair’; ‘Phenomenal’; ‘Breathtaking’. One admirer (and fellow musician) even wrote, ‘I defy anyone to find me another fiddler, past or present, with his sotto voce sound’, evidently overawed by this latest musical hotshot. Praise indeed. Of course such hyperbole is bandied about so often that you begin to wonder about its accuracy. But when the praise also comes from the likes of Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, Mariss Jansons, Mstislav Rostropovich and Pinchas Zukerman (to name but a few), you step back and think again.

Meeting me at his agent’s office on one of the hottest days this summer, Rachlin couldn’ t have been more amiable. Though I flatter myself that he’d flown in to London especially for the interview (so I was informed), I’m secretly convinced that his girlfriend’s Proms performance (Janine Jansen playing Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending) the following evening is more of an attraction. Nevertheless, Rachlin seems particularly eager to speak about his early childhood, his teachers and the musical influences that have helped turn him into one of the finest of the younger generation of violinists.

‘Life has never been easy,’ says the 28-year-old Rachlin, whose diminutive frame and boyish looks belie the ever-increasing reputation that precedes him. When the Rachlin family emigrated from the tiny Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, to Austria in 1978 they arrived, he says, ‘with only $300 in our pockets.’ But they were relatively lucky. Rachlin explains: ‘Many Jewish families were branded traitors, had their passports taken away, and had to wait nearly ten years to emigrate.’ Moreover, only four countries would take immigrants at that time, Australia, the US, Israel and Canada. But his parents, both musicians who had met while studying at the St Petersburg Conservatory, wanted to stay in Europe.

It wasn’t easy to find work, however. It took his mother, a pianist and conductor, almost a year to find a teaching position at the Vienna Conservatory (‘arbeit only a few hours a week’), while his cellist father spent four years auditioning before he secured a position with a symphony orchestra. So, finally, they were settled in Austria.

Was it always his intention to become a musician? ‘Absolutely not!’ exclaims Rachlin defensively. ‘When my parents auditioned for the St. Petersburg Conservatory, of the hundred musicians who applied only five Jewish students were allowed in. Because nothing came easy to them’ he says, ‘they didn’t want me to think that a musician’s life is always rosy.’ Though he picked up his first fiddle at two, it was not until the age of six that he was able to have his first formal lesson. ‘And that was only after much rebelling’, he says.

By the age of eight Rachlin had begun lessons with the legendary Russian violinist and teacher Boris Kushnir, which subsequently blossomed into a remarkable I5-year relationship and which set the youngster on a seemingly inevitable course for musical stardom. Does he remember the first time he played to Kushnir, the former disciple of David Oistrakh and Boris Belinky? ‘Of course,’ he says. ‘How could I forget? He said nothing special. Just lots of work to be done, that there is possible potential and that we will have to start from zero. He really wasn’t excited at all’, he laughs.

Could he elaborate a little more about Kuschnir’s background, and his style of teaching? ‘Firstly, Kuschnir came from a very Russian background, having studied at the Moscow Conservatory, before emigrating to Austria four years later. Though his background was steeped in the Russian tradition, playing with the Moscow Quartet in the 60s and 70s, he also spent time absorbing other European influences, and so his teaching had a wonderful blend. As a teacher, he was incredibly demanding and thorough.’

So thorough in fact, that many students are not able to cope with it, Rachlin says. ‘Everything is scrutinised and analyzed. Every single muscle, every single movement, whether with the body or the fingers, is put under a microscope. ‘Kuschnir, he says, ‘has not only a total awareness of control, but incredible ears and an unbelievable ability to get right inside the mind and body of a player. ‘We often call him Doctor, quite simply because he would always have a solution to a problem, which would always make sense and which would always sound convincing. Sometimes you would take hours and hours, weeks and months, to get through a few lines of one piece, and we would go on like this for many years.’

Ask Rachlin about his sound or his technique and he becomes positively sheepish, reluctant to be drawn into any kind of selfanalysis. ‘Sound. I don’t believe in a Russian sound, a Japanese sound, a Chinese sound, or whatever,’ his thick Baltic accent becoming thicker by the minute. ‘Sound and schools of playing don’t matter to me. I believe there are many ways to cultivate sound.’

It’s something he’s been thinking a lot about recently, however. ‘Sound is not something that you can easily learn. It’s all to do with pressure, with bow speed, vibrato and so on. This is such a personal thing, and there are so many elements to it that I think it would be impossible to say that I, for one, play with a very Russian sound. Of course it’s possible to shape something in a particular way, but sound is a very natural thing. No matter how much work you do on this, and I do a great deal, I’m constantly trying to explore, to expand my palette of colours. It’s one of the most important things for me to do. The thing about Kushnir is that he would never kill the individuality of a pupil. Yes, he was very strict and demanding, but before you went out on stage, he would often say: “Forget everythig we’ve done, do what you want to do”.’

After leaving Kushnir (‘at some stage you have to be separated from the milk bottle,’ he says) to go and study with his ‘great idol’, Zukerman, in the US for two years, Rachlin didn’t want to hear the word ‘school’ again. ‘At the end of the day,’ he says, ‘it’s not a school. How you hold your bow, how you do this or that, is entirely down to you. You can even invent your own school, if you really want to. As a musician you have to grow, take risks, make your own mistakes, remain curious about things. This is more important to me.’

Curiosity, coupled with ongoing avuncular advice, both musical and personal, from the likes of notable musicians like Jansons and Maazel, have led Rachlin to explore a much broader violin repertoire. And, with the encouragement of Zukerman, he has picked up the viola as well. ‘When Zukerman suggested that, with my kind of sound and the way I touch the fiddle, I should tryout the viola, I just thought it would be impossible. “I can’t read the clef,” I said. And he said: “Forget it, just pick it up and start playing open strings.” And when Zukerman tells you to do something, you do it,’ he says, pointing a mockthreatening finger at me.

Now, when he’s bored with practising the violin, he turns to the viola. And when he starts practising the viola, he wants to return to the violin. ‘Both instruments complement each other,’ he says. ‘I always maintain that my intonation sucks, so that switching between the two won’t make any difference.’ He laughs: ‘If anything, I can only get better.’ His progress with the viola has been remarkable: this month he performs Berlioz’s great viola work, Harold in Italy, in Moscow under Yuri Bashmet with the Moscow Virtuosi.

In fact, this is a big month for Rachlin: on the 4th of December he makes his Carnegie Hall debut, playing the Brahms Violin Concerto under Donald Runnicles. Future plans include an Asian tour with the Vienna Philharmonic early next year playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto, and performances of the Berg Concerto at the Dresden Staatskapelle in July. And plans are under way for a series of Shostakovich concertos to celebrate the centenary of the composer’s birth in 2006.

Talk of performing brings us inevitably to the delicate subject of the recording industry. It’s been almost nine years since his last disc, in spite of the fact that his recordings of the Sibelius, the Tchaikovsky and the Saint-Saens concertos for Sony Classics were voted Critic’s Choice in the 1999 Gramophone Classical Good CD Guide. Rachlin is keen to step into the recording studio again, though, and if I were a betting man, I’d predict that it won’ t be another nine years before we see some new Rachlin CDs on the shelves.

The Strad, December 2003

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