When perfection isn’t good enough

In a world in which second-rate is often deemed good enough, violinist Nikolaj Znaider’s goal is to keep on striving, perfecting the seemingly impossible.

By Rob Cowan, Photographs by Toby Wales taken at Sotheby’s – Gramophone, June 2002

The scene is Vienna in early spring, a glorious Friday evening. I’ve just booked in at my hotel and I call Nikolaj Znaider to arrange Saturday’s interview. I announce that I’ve just heard his new CD of Prokofiev and Glazunov Concertos for RCA. There is plenty to talk about. ‘You’ve cheated! ‘ he complains, laughing. ‘Even I haven’t heard it! Look, I’m coming into town for a drink, so if you don’t want to just chill out after your flight … ‘. So we meet. First impressions are of a very tall, very immediate man in his midtwenties, inquisitive, forthcoming and profoundly musical. Jascha Heifetz, the ‘Violinist of the Twentieth Century’, is among our first shared topics. ‘You know his recording of Vitali ‘s Chaconne?’ asks Znaider enthusiasticaily. Before I answer he shakes his head in amazement, ‘Astonishing! And those octaves!’ We touch on some of Znaider’s more recent musical encounters. There’s chamber music in London with key members of the LSO (‘wonderful people’), Beethoven’s Concerto under Sir Colin Davis (‘a superb musician with no “airs” about him’) and working with the cellist Boris Pergamenschikov (‘such innate sensitivity’). And then quality time spent with Daniel Barenboim, whose sense of musical line Znaider considers second to none. That was significant because what first alerted me, as a listener, to Znaider’s violinistic voice was his own sense of line. Was it part of his musical inheritance, or did he take a cue from one of his teachers? His answer surprised me.

First, though, some history. Nikolaj Znaider was born in Denmark in 1975 to Polish-Israeli parents. Itzhak Perlman was his childhood inspiration and the revered Israeli teacher Ilona Feher a crucial early adviser. Professor Milan Vitek was Znaider’s principal teacher at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, though he later attended the Juilliard School under the tutelage of the late Dorothy DeLay. That was after winning first prize at the Carl Nielsen International Violin Competition in 1992. But it was in 1997 that Znaider triumphed at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels winning first prize. ‘Being locked away for eight days to learn the test piece was real pressure,’ he confesses, ‘but once it was all over I felt incredibly liberated. I had done it! I was free to go!’ Knowledgeable commentators (including Yehudi Menuhin) spotted an unusual interpretative slant that harked back to the great fiddlers of yore.

But to return to that earlier question about musical line, it was around the time of the Competition that Znaider experienced a profound change of musical heart. ‘It all stemmed from my studies here in Vienna with Professor Boris Kuschnir,’ Znaider teils me. ‘In fact, you could split my playing history into two halves: pre- and post-Kuschnir. I first went to him when I was 18, although by then I had already felt the stirrings of a definite shift in my musical attitude. Before that I was happy-go-Iucky, I’d just go on stage and hope for the best. You know how it is when you’re 17: you’re naive, and I hadn’t had much concertising experience. Sometimes it was great, and sometimes not so good. There wasn’t that special. …’ and here Znaider pauses to stress the word, ‘ … awareness.’

The sum effect of that ‘awareness’ is that every note has to have a life of its own, its unique place in the musical scheme of things. And yes there has to be a sense of musical line. So is he saying that in those early days, before this new-found ‘awareness’, he acted merely as a sort of violinistic athlete? ‘No, not at all. A good athlete is always prepared: he knows every move in advance. I’d actually say that I prepare more like an athlete now. I remember very well when we first started working and Professor Kuschnir said that “no matter what happens, don’t forget: I cannot take your musicality away from you.'”

And yet realising that musicality involves painstaking preparation. ‘When you start that kind of work, you’re aware of every move you make and you become very self-conscious. I remember the scepticism in Denmark when, after my success at Brussels, I played Saint Saens’ Third Violin Concerto. We had worked on it for a year. That was literally all we did. Everybody noticed that there had been a change in my playing but not everyone was convinced that I was doing the right thing.’ There were charges of ‘lessened’ charisma and a certain lack of spontaneity. But once this new method took root, all doubts were vanquished.

So what precisely is this ‘method’? We meet up again on Saturday, though this time Znaider comes armed with a couple of violin scores. He takes out a copy of Wieniawski’s First Polonaise, Op 4, a bravura piece that will hopefully feature on his forthcoming RCA recital CD with pianist Daniel Gortler (due for release next year). Then he shows me Nathan Milstein’s unaccompanied Paganiniana, another contender for the same programme. It’s astonishing. Every bar is crammed with indications relating to fingering, bowing, phrasing, and how the ends of notes should sound. Then there’s the matter of which notes are the most important. ‘See, here, at the end of the Polonaise,’ Znaider points out excitedly, ‘every bar has some sort of circle around it, or an underlined relationship with the next bar, or hints relating to stresses, dynamics and so forth.’ But how long does it take to commit all these incredibly complicated instructions to memory? ‘That’s part of the reason why I write it all down: the very process helps bond it to my memory. I will never forget it. It’s like a manual. I’ll take these scores with me on a plane or a train; I’ll read through them – and it all comes back to me.’

Professor Kuschnir will brook no short-cuts. And yet he acknowledges that an artist’s view of a piece is in constant flux, which is why Znaider keeps at least three or four separate scores of the various pieces he’s working on. ‘If I happen to change my mind,’ he says, ‘I still know where I originally came from.’ Znaider claims that his encounter with Kuschnir came just in the nick of time. ‘It was my last chance,’ he says, halfironically, ‘and I was very much aware of that. My focus was always directed inwards. It was never merely goal-orientated, set just on my career. Of course I wanted that too but what I was really trying to do was to improve my playing and that didn’t change with the Brussels Competition. That’s very important. There was no sense of having “done it”, or having “arrived” at some new level. My goals were purely musical and I needed to focus them.’ But it is also important to ‘never stop developing’. Znaider expands the point. ‘Once you feel you’ve reached that goal,’ he says, ‘you may as well give up. You have always to strive for something better, more pure, more sublime … even for what’s impossible. Because what is in my head is impossible: I could never play like that!’

Although Znaider enjoys the process of minute analysis, he has, by his own admission, become fairly dependent on it. ‘I now lack the confidence to go on stage if I don’t know exactly what I want. It’s only when I’m fully prepared in this way that I can really let myself go. It’s a sort of contradiction. People say that when you go on stage you have to forget everything, and that’s largely true. But you also have to know what to forget. On stage you have to split your brain. One part has to be aware of intonation, another of phrasing, or movements, angles, arms, bowing and bowing technique. Part of you has to let go and be inspired, and another part has to be relaxed. There are millions of things that you have to do at the same time. But… you can only learn that on stage. It’s all about striking a balance, and things only really come together on very rare occasions. You play say a hundred concerts and you have that huge, grand feeling – a sensation where everything seems to fit – once, twice maybe three times a year.’

When performing with an orchestra, Nikolaj Znaider prefers to think in terms of chamber music. ‘I really do try to involve all the players,’ he says, ‘I try to promote an idea of dialogue.’ Talking of his new RCA recording of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto with the Bavarian Radio Symphony he reflects on the ‘natural musicianship’ of conductor Mariss Jansons, how the orchestra and conductor ‘slipped into their roles with absolute ease’. Long takes are the norm and if edits are necessary, Znaider would prefer to splice between longer takes. RCA’s original plan had been to record the Khachaturian and Sibelius Violin Concertos with the LSO under Sir Colin Davis (there was even an announcement about the event in Gramophone). A temporary lull in RCA’s classical activities decreed otherwise, but it wasn’t too long be fore this latest programme appeared on the agenda. Znaider learned the Prokofiev Concerto between 1999 and 2000, having mastered the Glazunov ‘quite a long time before that’. And while he is perfectly happy with the results, he would have been even happier with a live recording. ‘As much as I love the medium of recording,’ he says, ‘the one aspect that’s lacking is the energy that evolves between an audience and a performer. My main objective in the studio situation is to make it feel as live as possible. Of course in this particular case the fact that I was recording on stage at the Munich Herkulessaal helped, so it wasn’t too hard for me to picture an audience.’

This concern for the ultimate in musical communication doesn’t only apply to the concertos. The same CD also contains Tchaikovsky’s beautiful ‘Meditation’, where much is expressed within a relatively brief time-span. Znaider relishes the challenge of condensing a maximum of expressive force into a minimum of musical space. This unstinting attention to even the smallest detail isn’t the result just of good music teaching. It originates, in part, with attitudes to music in the home. And to life itself. ‘Both my parents have been hugely influential. My father led a rock band in Poland and my mother is a pianist, but they have influenced me in a far broader sense. They have instilled in me a sense of generosity. By that I mean the idea of sharing your last piece of bread with a friend. Also, the notion that anything you want to do you can do, except that you have to make it happen. And then there’s humility, doing all this work in the service of the music… not for myself, but for the sake of the composer. That’s why I prepare so much. For me there’s no such thing as a chatur (a mere “gig”).’

Znaider is a maelstrom of energy. Although his formal education was cut short at 15, he sees learning as a never-ending quest. Being an autodidact, he’s shy about admitting to some fairly heavy reading. And he’ll listen to almost anything: MTV pop for relaxation, though ‘serious’ music has sometimes posed a problem. ‘As soon as I hear something classical, either I’m forced into concentrating on it by the power of the interpreter, or I’m not. If I am, then I have to sit and listen and I invariably start forming an opinion. If I’m not drawn in, I’m annoyed by that fact – and I switch off!’

And yet as a listener Znaider makes it a general rule to focus on positive rather than negative qualities. ‘When I listen to records of other violinists I try to establish what works, and why. What is it that these players are doing that attracts people? Then I put the records aside and never listen to them again during my own studies. I’ll look at the score and I’ll form my own opinion. Being ‘different’ only happens when you try to be yourself. When I recorded Bruch’s First Concerto, I didn’t think to myself, “we must make this central movement a proper Adagio.” I tried to make it authentic to myself, authentic to the piece, and to whatever communication we had achieved during that particular recording. Those were my starting points.’

When it comes to repertoire, Znaider takes his time. ‘I took a year to study the Beethoven Violin Concerto before I went on stage with it. And I haven’t even scratched the surface of its inner meaning, although I’ve already played it several times in public. First I try to do what the composer intended, then I read between the lines, add a little more here and there, a tiny effect perhaps, or a particular shade. I start from nowhere, from the smallest point, then select a colour in context. I build gradually, one floor after another. The problem before was that I’d start with the roof. I’d put in nice windows and paint the house, but there would be no foundations. And I think that I now do the music a big favour by not putting my personality in before I really know what I’m doing.’

Humility. Respect. Tradition. These might easily be Znaider’s key-words. Here we’re confronting a musician who wouldn’t dream of playing in a string quartet because he has too much respect for the hard-earned achievements of established quartets, and who won’t attempt to compose because he has too much respect for those who can, and who do it weIl. And his love for his fêted forebears is undimmed, especially in those once-popular morceaux. ‘Those old guys, they could create an entire world with just one short miniature. You had a whole life story in a five-minute piece. That’s the big challenge. And that’s what we’re in danger of losing today. People say the smaller pieces are insignificant, that they’re not “good music”. But it’s our duty to make them good music by taking them seriously. That’s the kind of thinking I’ve been brought up with since working with Professor Kuschnir.’

When we met in Vienna, Znaider had just been listening to Artur Rubinstein play a Chopin Nocturne, and he was still on Cloud Nine. ‘Really great musicians only get better as they get older,’ says Znaider. ‘Listen to “old” Horowitz, “old” Rubinstein, or to Alfred Brendel now – they got better and better. The trick is to keep searching. So you lose a degree of crispness or youthful exuberance; but it’s replaced by a wisdom that you can’t achieve unless you really live. When I was younger people would say to me, “you’re talented but what you need is life experience”. And I used to think to myself, what is this life experience they’re all talking about? And now I know. It’s the will to search. That’s what makes us whole.’

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