Strings Magazine

The Search For Perfection

It is said that Jascha Heifetz was nev­er sat­is­fied with his own play­ing. Des­pite accol­ades from crit­ics, col­leagues, and audi­ences, he nev­er man­aged to still his inner crit­ic, the one that told him, “It could be bet­ter!” Is it the onus of the great artist, this nag­ging dis­con­tent, the rest­less search, the Sis­yphean pur­suit of an unreach­able ideal? If this bur­den is the mark of a great artist then Nikolaj Znaid­er is destined for big things.

Born in Den­mark in 1975 to Pol­ish-Israeli par­ents, Znaid­er stud­ied with some of the world’s greatest viol­in teach­ers. Pop­u­lar Israeli teach­er Ilona Feher provided Znaider’s instruc­tion dur­ing his child­hood. At the Roy­al Dan­ish Academy of Music, Znaider’s prin­cip­al teach­er was Mil­an Vitek, who was knighted three years ago for bis con­tri­bu­tions to Dan­ish cul­tur­al life. At the Juil­liard School of Music, legendary teach­er Dorothy DeLay began tutor­ing Znaid­er at 16.

But then in 1994, at the age of 18, already with the first prize from the Carl Niel­son Inter­na­tion­al Viol­in Com­pet­i­tion under his belt and on the threshold of a solo career, Znaid­er chose to go back to the draw­ing board. “I wasn’t happy with the way I was play­ing at the time. I felt that some­thing was lack­ing and that I wasn’t entirely going the right way,” explains Znaid­er.

He went to the Rus­si­an ped­agogue Bor­is Kuschnir in Vienna who had estab­lished a cer­tain repu­ta­tion through bis oth­er stu­dents, among them Juli­an Rach­lin. Znaid­er played for 15 minutes. Kuschnir talked for 15 minutes. “I felt instinct­ively that some­thing was wrong,” Znaid­er says, “but I didn’t know what. He was able to pin­point it and put it in words.”

Their work togeth­er would begin with four les­sons a week on open strings only!

“At first you feeI like you’re two years old and try­ing to walk sud­denly,” he adds. “It’s some­thing that you’ve been doing all your life yet sud­denly it feels strange to you.”

What could an already accom­plished viol­in­ist pos­sibly learn from weeks of play­ing on open strings? “Oh, you can learn a lot!” Znaid­er observes. “The qual­ity of bow change, for instance, how to dis­trib­ute the weight through­out the strokes, which is very import­ant for the sound pro­duc­tion, and also to kind of train the right hand. What I was lack­ing at the time was the flex­ib­il­ity and the strength in the right hand. So we broke down all the move­ments you make in a bow change and did them sep­ar­ately.
“lf you watch soc­cer, ten­nis, or golf play­ers train, they break down the end res­ult that they wish to smal­ler motions and train those in the extremes. Then when they put it togeth­er it gets a res­ult at an entireIy dif­fer­ent level. It was an entirely new way of think­ing about sound pro­duc­tion, artic­u­la­tion, inton­a­tion, phras­ing-exactly what I want to do, to really think it through, also to be able to defend it.”

Kuschnir recalls their encounter weIl. “Yes we did about three weeks of open strings,” he says. “I need simple situ­ations for the right-hand tech­nique. At the begin­ning, that was the open strings.”

Znaider’s train­ing con­tin­ued with a full year’s work on Saint-Saens’ Viol­in Con­certo No. 3. It was the start of a new way of work­ing, which suited Znaider’s highly ana­lyt­ic­al, yet pas­sion­ate, style. People quickly took notice. “I first knew of him after he came to Vienna – every­body was talk­ing about him then,” says Mariss Jan­sons, the con­duct­or on Znaider’s recently released record­ing of Prokofiev and Glazun­ov con­cer­tos.

Znaider’s work was pay­ing off – he was find­ing him­self as a viol­in­ist and an artist. In 1997, three years after hav­ing essen­tially relearned the viol­in, Znaid­er won the most coveted and respec­ted prize of the viol­in world, the first prize in the Queen Elisa­beth Com­pet­i­tion in Brus­sels. “After Brus­sels, he was big!”, declares Jan­sons, “Yet to this day, his meth­od hasn’t changed. “He’s very demand­ing of him­self,” Jan­sons adds.

“He often says, ‘I had a con­cert, lots of suc­cess, but for you it was prob­ably very bad!’” says Kuschnir. “I say, ‘not neces­sar­ily,’ of course. But he says, ‘No, no, I hear it myself’ He hears very weIl, and that helps him in his fur­ther devel­op­ment.”

If one could com­pare the viol­in­ist Yehudi Menuh­in to Moz­art the com­poser – boy geni­uses both, for whom mak­ing music was an easy and God-giv­en tal­ent Znaid­er would more likely be com­pared to Brahms, who worked dili­gently and was known to des­troy any work that didn’t meet his uncom­prom­ising stand­ards.

In Pursuit of an Ideal

This rare glimpse into the mind of a bud­ding star shows that he isn’t motiv­ated by fame or money. His nat­ur­ally com­mand­ing stage pres­ence, the drama and intens­ity one sees and hears from him, are all the res­ult of an ideal­ist­ic pur­suit of artist­ic mer­it.

When asked why he plays, for that mat­ter why any of us plays music, his three-part answer demon­strates a char­ac­ter­ist­ic mix of philo­sophy and prag­mat­ism. “I think we as instru­ment­al­ists, in a cer­tain mas­ochist­ic way, enjoy the prac­ti­cing, the slav­ing over details, the scales, the relent­less scales and exer­cises,” Znaid­er explains. “I also have a def­in­ite wish and need to com­mu­nic­ate with the audi­ence: I feel that I have some­thing to say, that I can say it best on stage with a viol­in in my hand. Finally we want to do justice to the music, we want to serve the music.”

More and more, Znaid­er is get­ting the oppor­tun­ity to do just that. Not every win­ner of a major com­pet­i­tion goes on to a suc­cess­ful per­form­ing career, but Znaid­er already is play­ing around 100 con­certs a year. Appar­ently a favor­ite of con­duct­or Daniel Bar­en­boim, he is a fre­quent guest with the Chica­go Sym­phony, has already had his debut at Carne­gie Hall with the Phildadelphia Orches­tra, and per­formed with the Clev­e­land Orches­tra and the New York Phil­har­mon­ic. His European cre­den­tials are even more impress­ive, being already an estab­lished star through­out Europe. Amer­ic­an audi­ences will increas­ingly have the pleas­ure of hear­ing him as he makes his debuts with the Seattle, Dal­las, and Detroit sym­phon­ies in the 2002 – 2003 sea­son and goes on tour with Valery Ger­giev and the Rot­ter­dam Phil­har­mon­ic, includ­ing per­form­ances in Wash­ing­ton, DC, New York, and Chica­go, as well as some smal­ler cit­ies.

And then there are the record­ings: Bruch and Nielsen con­cer­tos with the Lon­don Phil­har­mon­ic; the recently released Prokofiev Con­certo No. 2; the Glazun­ov; Tchaikovsky’s “Med­it­a­tion,” with Mariss Jan­sons and the Bav­ari­an Radio Sym­phony (the first for his exclus­ive record­ing con­tract for RCA Red Seal); and a just-fin­ished recit­al disc with a mix of his favor­ite short pieces.

“Everything that made me fall in love with the viol­in,” is his descrip­tion of the music he chose for the latest pro­ject. “Most were things that I’ve been listen­ing to since I was a little boy.” Those include the fam­ous Polon­aise in D-Major and the “Vari­ations on an Ori­gin­al Theme” by Wieni­awski; three solo pieces: Mil­stein Paganini­ana, Ysaÿe Son­ata No. 3, and Kre­isler “Recit­at­ivo and Scherzo”; a couple of fun Chop­in noc­turnes: the D major that Michael Rabin recor­ded and an E-flat major in a tran­scrip­tion by Heifetz; Achron’s “Hebrew Melody,” and some Sarasate.

A Personal Style

This rep­er­toire reflects the impres­sion by many who hear Znaid­er that he is an artist and a vir­tu­oso in the mold of the great viol­in­ists of the 19th and 20th cen­tur­ies. He is, in fact, very con­scious of the long tra­di­tion of viol­in play­ing and enjoys hear­ing record­ings of the old mas­ters. “I think it’s import­ant to know where we come from,” he explains. “There’s so much love to be har­ves­ted in those record­ings, so much great­ness in them. It’s like a treas­ure, a leg­acy that shouldn’t be for­got­ten. ”

Spe­cific­ally, Znaid­er refers to an early Menuh­in record­ing. “I just bought the Elgar con­certo that he did when he was 15. What struck me was the intens­ity that a 15-year-old could keep for how long is this con­certo? Fifty minutes? Incred­ible! And not just phys­ic­al intens­ity but men­tal intens­ity as well,” he says. “That was so impress­ive, espe­cially if you think about it-a 15-year-old child.”

His own soon-to-be-released recit­al CD could per­haps be seen as his trib­ute to the great names that appear on it in one form or anoth­er: Wieni­awski, Sarasate, Ysaÿe, Kre­isler, Heifetz, Mil­stein, Rabin.

Accord­ing to Kuschnir, Znaid­er could be added searn­lessly to this list. “[Znaid­er] is for me one of the best viol­in­ists in the world in this gen­er­a­tion because his tone qual­ity is unique. Tech­nic­ally he can play any­thing, abso­lutely per­fectly, but I think that’s not the most import­ant thing. How he presents this tech­nique-tone, depth, vibrato – this I find unique. In earli­er times, there was Ois­trakh, Gru­mieux, Heifetz, Kre­isler, Mil­stein, and Menuh­in – so many great per­son­al­it­ies. In our times there are very few per­son­al­it­ies, very few. What Nikolaj is doing now can only be com­pared to those times. He’s a viol­in­ist that you can always hear and say ‘yes, that’s Nikolaj Znaid­er.’ That’s some­thing the oth­ers don’t have, it’s a very per­son­al way of play­ing.”

The Right Tools

Hav­ing equipped him­self with the tools to do any­thing con­ceiv­able on a viol­in, the next thing Znaid­er would need is the prop­er instru­ment. “To express your­self in the best pos­sible way, you need a great instru­ment … if you have a great instru­ment, it inspires you to be bet­ter than you are,” he says.

Since soon after his par­ents bought Znaid­er his first full-size viol­in, to this day the only instru­ment he per­son­ally owns, his tal­ent has been so obvi­ous that found­a­tions, col­lect­ors, and deal­ers have been offer­ing him an assort­ment of great old ltali­an viol­ins to play. For many years, until the age of 20, he played a Giuseppe Guarneri Fili­us Andreae. “After that I was back and forth between bor­rowed instru­ments,” he says. “I had a won­der­ful Strad that was lent to me just for the [Queen Elisa­beth] com­pet­i­tion. Then there was a Strad that you get as the first prize that I had for a little over a year. Then I played a Guarneri del Gesù from the Strad Soci­ety, also for just a year. I have been play­ing over the last two years a won­der­ful Guarneri deI Gesù. It’s from 1732, so it’s rel­at­ively early, but it’s mag­ni­fi­cent. I’ve had a drama sur­round­ing what will hap­pen with this in the future [if I am not able to con­tin­ue bor­row­ing it]. Hope­fully not, but it looks a bit like I’m in an in-between phase right now.”

True to his nature, Znaid­er is still search­ing, be it for the right viol­in or the best way to express him­self with it. His already bril­liant play­ing coupled with that inner voice, say­ing “it can be bet­ter . .. it will be bet­ter” makes for great anti­cip­a­tion.

Photo of Nikolaj Znaid­er by Shiela Rock.

Excerp­ted trom Strings magazine, November/December. No. 106.

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