Nikolaj Znaider

WHY WE’RE WATCHING: There is something about Nikolaj Znaider’s playing that recalls the dashing elegance of a bygone age. Znaider won the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels in 1997 and has since proven himself both an artist and a technician of rare ability. The great Yehudi Menuhin even hailed him as the successor to legendary Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaÿe. Still in his 20s, the Danish-born violinist already has two solo albums to his name. His debut for EMI was widely admired: Rob Cowan wrote in Gramophone magazine,” I haven’t heard a more enjoyable or auspicious debut record for quite some time.” Now he has released an equally praiseworthy disc of Russian concertos for RCA.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: “My first big influence was Itzhak Perlman,” Znaider says. “He’s the one who actually made me want to become a violinist in the first place. His warmth, personally, and incredible facilly were an inspiration to me.” Other great fiddlers have also left a lasting impression. “I had a very long Heifetz phase, from which I think no violinist really recovers. Then I wanted to find out what was special about each of the greats – Szeryng, Milstein, Menuhin, and so on. I still do.”

PRACTICE, MAN, PRACTICE!: Znaider’s talent was apparent from an early age. As a teenager, he attended the Juilliard School, studying with the late Dorothy Delay. But he says it was Boris Kuschnir at the Vienna Conservatory who taught him the most valuable lessons. ”When I came to him at the age of 18, I started again from scratch; he completely revolutionized my playing. l’ve never met anyone with the kind of hearing that he has. His perception of sound quality and sound production and his ability to explain it is just incredible.” More recently, he has benefited from working with Daniel Barenboim and Mstislav Rostropovich. “I don’t know if ‘lessons’ is the right word, but I was able to play for them and work on different pieces. It was an incredible opportunity – not just to perform with them in concert, which is a big honor, but to really work with them offstage and pick their brains.”

SOUND ADVICE: Znaider is a probing musician, certainly, but what first draws one to his playing is his tone – silky, elegant, focused, expressive. When asked whether his beautiful sound is innate or cultivated, he says, “Professor Kuschnir is the one who brought it out, but I think it has to be inside the player, too – it’s something innate.” And under the pressure of a live performance? “Playing onstage is an especially challenging experience, because you have to focus on so many different things at the same time. It’s not enough to only focus on sound; on the other hand, you cannot afford to forget about it. In the end, everything you’ve learned offstage doesn’t count unless you can do it onstage.”

TO RUSSIA, WITH LOVE: Znaider’s acclaimed EMI debut paired the popular Bruch G Minor Concerto with Carl Nielsen’s marvelous but more rarely played Concerto. And he found an interesting mix for the new RCA recording, too. “I thought it would be a tremendous challenge to do a program of Russian concertos, but I didn’t want to do an all-Tchaikovsky disc – that’s a little bit one-sided. I really wanted to get a portrayal of the great Russian composers. And what’s really appealing to me is that they’re all so very different. You have Prokofiev, who in my opinion was almost a 2oth-century Mozart, in terms of his ability to come up with great melodies and his ease with orchestration. Then you have the Glazunov Concerto, which is Romantic, almost to the point of sounding like a great Hollywood score of the 1930s. Then, of course, the godfather of Russian music: Tchaikovsky.”

JET SET: Not surprisingly, Znaider is in great demand and maintains a grueling schedule of performances that takes him from one great orchestra to another – Berlin, Amsterdam, Chicago, London, New York, Tokyo, and on and on. He says now is the time to give his career the big push, but being on the road 300 days a year leaves little time for non musical activities. ”When I’m not actually playing, I’m getting over jet lag. Also, I try to stay in good shape physically, because it helps me be mentally fit.” And if he had a week’s vacation and could go anywhere? “Right now, the most relaxing thing I can imagine is to go to my parents’ house, switch off my cell phone, and just be completely isolated. It’s much more appealing to me than going on a Caribbean cruise. Just to be home and eat home-cooked food – that would be a big luxury.”

-Andrew Farach-Colton

April 9, 2002

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