Strad Magazine

He isn’t afraid to bare his soul on stage, but does Nikolaj Znaider have any qualms about putting his new CD of Beethoven and Mendelssohn concertos up against the greats? JESSICA DUCHEN finds out

A hundred concerts a year means approximately one every three days. With a schedule of such intensity, it’s a wonder that Nikolaj Znaider is in one place long enough to be interviewed at all. But, meeting in London the morning after he’s performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and Zubin Mehta at the Barbican, Znaider seems astonishingly relaxed. There is a solidity about this tall, affable Danish-Israeli star violinist that suggests he can more than cope with anything life chooses to throw at him.

So far, life’s rather dramatic lobs have included first prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 1997, lavish praise from Yehudi Menuhin – who compared him to Ysaÿe – and an invitation to play with the Berlin Philharmonie under Daniel Barenboim just two days after he auditioned for the conductor. It’s possible to detect a whiff of Barenboim about Znaider: the firm, direct gaze, (he lively, inquiring mine) and the passionate sense of intellectual questing all seem oddly familiar. Znaider’s accent when speaking English, too, bears some resemblance to Barenboim’s, combining as it does a range of different influences. Znaider, born in Denmark to parents of Polish-Jewish origin, is very much a citizen of the world.

‘There’s the cliché that a musician is at home wherever he makes music,’ he remarks, and there’s some truth in that. If you have a good musical experience, you feel at horne wherever it happened.’ He currently has homes in Denmark, Israel and France, ‘but I can join many colleagues in saying that I live in airports and out of suitcases. I think if one travels the amount I do, it’s important to be based somewhere with a good airport, good restaurants, a nice musical life  and nice people, with weather that’s not too bad – if the sun shines now and then, life could be worse!’

Turning 30, Znaider is aware that he’s entering a new phase. He’s past the post-competition stage of having to prove himself: ‘That has to take place over a number of years, while you consolidate yourself and prove whether this “new hot thing” is going to keep coming back. Most “new hot things” start to grow a bit lukewarm, then cold; and then the next hot thing comes along. Over six or seven years I’d felt I was having to show that it was OK for me to play and to keep playing. I’m very grateful to my parents and to my teacher in Vienna, Boris Kuschnir, who always said to me that the career shou ld never be one’s main focus: that must always be the music. But inevitably the outside world is checking you out. Now I feel I don’t have to prove so much. I once read that “the greatest luxury of success is independence”. You’re no longer dependent on anyone, not even other people’s approval.’

Znaider’s record company approves of him so much, however, that his next new release is of two of the greatest of all violin concertos, no less a pairing than the Beethoven and Mendelssohn, with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) and Mehta. ‘I feel it’s a vote of confidence to be able to record these concertos, and especially with this orchestra and Mehta,’ Znaider agrees.Working with the IPO is, he says, ‘a dream came true. This was the first orchestra I heard live as a very young child, when they came to Copenhagen on tour; and when we visited my grandparents in Israel, I went to hear this orchestra and dreamed one day I’d play with them. To record with them feels like coming full circle. I couldn’t be more fortunate.’

But what interests him most about these two concertos is the contrast between them. ‘For me the Beethoven is the Bible of violin literature. It’s our holy grail and it remains in many ways enigmatic. It raises so many questions. For instance, why does Beethoven relegate so much of the melodic material to the other instruments and what does this mean for the placing of the violin within that structure? Above all, the juxtaposition of the thematic material presents an enormous intellectual challenge. Next, how do you find a concerto that works alongside the Beethoven, something that won’t be just a filler? The Mendelssohn Concerto is the complete opposite, filled with glorious melodies, each of which seems to grow out of the last as Mendelssohn was simply exploding with ideas. He brings out the necessity to sing on the violin – the instrument that perhaps has the widest range of expression; but for the Beethoven you have to find an intellectual approach because otherwise it falls apart – you cannot rely on the instrument’s melodic qualities. So it is precisely this: a study in contrast.’

Does he not have qualms about putting his new disc up alongside so many great recordings of these works from the past? ‘ I ‘m not putting it up there,’ he declares, twinkle in eye. ‘Everybody else is! I try not to look at it that way. I feel there’s no need to do anything except learn from those great recordings. Qualms? Not at all. It’s the same as going on stage: you stick your neck out, you give it your all and you stand naked before the audience, metaphorically speaking, and bare your soul! You prepare for years – it’s what consumes me, the study of Beethoven, the study of the concerto, the study of Beethoven in contrast to Mendelssohn, what I want to say with this music. That is my focus, not how people will think of it next to someone else’s performance.’

There’s no shortage of future recording plans. Next up are the complete violin and piano works of Brahms, which Znaider will record in New York with the Russian pianist Yefim Bronfman in December; and next year the Brahms and Korngold violin concertos with the Vienna Philharmonic and Valery Gergiev.’ I like connections,’ Znaider comments, ‘and this is a fascinating anti-connection because Brahms moved to Vienna and Korngold moved away from it. Plus we have the Vienna Philharmonic!’ Also in the pipeline is a CD of Mozart piano trios with Barenboim and the cellist Kyril Zlotnikov.

Znaider first met Barenboim around seven years ago – as he puts it, ‘by coincidence’. Owing to a cancellation, he took part in the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival with its artistic director – Barenboim’s wife, the Russian pianist Elena Bashkirova. ‘After we’d played together, she said, “You must play for my husband.” So I did … and two days later I received an invitation to play with him and the Berlin Philharmonic!’ The relationship with Barenboim has been one of the most central in his musical life ever since.

‘He’s been a tremendous influence, whether it’s been learning through osmosis, learning through observation or direct contact. He’s really been a mentor: someone who always opens up new worlds to me. Speaking of his own meetings with Sergiu Celibidache, Barenboim would always say that he did not leave those meetings as the same person he was when he went in; and that’s the same for me when I spend time with Barenboim. I always leave a different person, a more curious person, thinking, “My God, there is a whole new world of things I have still to discover.” For instance, when I played the Schoenberg Concerto with him, we spent 16 hours working together, just the two of us, on that piece; he showed me the connections it has to Wagner, to Brahms and so on, and if you’re able to take those ideas and develop them further then you will never be able to look at music in the same way again. I’m immensely grateful to him.’

A very different yet equally significant mentor is Mstislav Rostropovich. ‘Slava is a larger-than-life personality in so many ways. It’s always inspiring to be with someone who is not only a part of musical history, but part of 20th-century history altogether.

I played in his festival in 1998, and we had an instant connection; immediately he invited me to play with him! We went to Japan with the London Symphony Orchestra and had a wonderful time. I still work with him regularly, I’m happy to say. If there ever was a storyteIler since Hans Christian Andersen, it’s Slava; he has an amazing ability to inspire people through storytelling. And it works. It ‘s a completely different approach from Barenboim, who is incredibly articulate, intellectually speaking. Slava will tell you a story that’s seemingly unrelated, but it makes sense and suddenly in the music you have a sense of what he’s trying to say. He has a magic in him that I don’t think I’ve experienced with any other person. You can’t explain what it is exactly – he just has that magic. That’s why he is who he is.’

Znaider isn’t only eager to soak up all the wisdom he can from these extraordinary figures; he’s also keen to convey that knowledge to the next generation. For several years he has run a summer course on the Danish island of Mors: the Nordic Music Academy.
Around a hundred young string players take part in masterclasses, coaching, chamber music and several string orchestras arranged according to age; Znaider coaches the senior orchestra of conservatory students.’ I feel incredibly fortunate to have been in a position to have such mentoring from Barenboim and Rostropovich myself and I wanted to find a framework in which I could pass that on and also develop my own philosophy and my own approach to music. Unfortunately it’s only one week a year, but it’s a week to which I devote a great deal of thought the rest of the time.

‘I work with the students on all the musical details that normally you don’t have time to study when you have one-and-a-half rehearsals and then a concert: for example, the awareness of the relationship between melody, harmony and rhythm, or the relationship between content and speed. Throughout the week we have rehearsals every day where I can work with them and explain why certain things need to be done in a certain way: for example, “Here the harmony is changing in the cellos and double basses, so change the vibrato in the second half of the long note sustained over the harmony change.” I fear these elements are not being taught enough e1sewhere; perhaps this is why orchestras sound more and more the same today. I think in the old days there was more of that harmonic awareness.

‘It’s a luxury for me to rehearse that way with them and see that it actually works! At the end we have a farewell cancert and I’m always astonished that in just one weck, my God, they can play like that! The results are there, I’ve seen it year by year. The musical approach is nothing new or groundbreaking, if you read how Celibidache thinks about music, or Barenboim or Furtwängler or even Wagner to a certain extent – and it works. This kind of awareness is SO important; I think it’s vital we keep that, otherwise classical music ends up being a fringe entertainment industry, or, as I think Barenboim put it, “a coincidental gathering of nice sounds”. That’s not what music should be. Music should have more relevance than that.’

Znaider’s passion for learning extends in many more directions, whether it’s martial arts – he’s taken up Kenpo – or a new absorption in science, which has found him ploughing through literature on the theory of relativity. ‘I’m fortunate to have a curiosity about life, thanks to my upbringing. My parents always gave me books for my birthday and I was so disciplined – everyone else got a football! – but they’d say, “One day you’ll thank us.” Now I thank them!

‘I find it so fascinating that in this universe everything is connected. We’re part of a conneeted whole. For instance, when I started to do martial arts, I was fascinated to see how many of the learning processes were exactly the same as the way I would study a new piece or learn a new technique or a certain move –the brain works in exactly the same way. I’m very excited about life and excited about discovering all these things.Everything is a discovery and I think really the most important thing for me now is to try to remain a student, to be able to find all those paralleIs. They’re all there for us to find.’

The website for Znaider’s Nordic Music Academy is headed with a quote from Proust: ‘The real art of discovery consists not in finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes.’ One suspects it’s a motto not just for his summer school.

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