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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