Strad Magazine

Chasing perfection

After deciding to become a violinist at the age of eight, Nikolaj Znaider doggedly pursued his dreams through successes at numerous international competitions. Paul Cutts meets the Dane as he continues to reap the fruits of his archievements.

When violinist Nikolaj Znaider won the coveted first prize at the 1997 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium, critics were unanimous in their praise for the young artist. The Strad’s reporter went so far to insist Znaider was ‘ready to conquer the music world’, while Yehudi Menuhin heralded the young Dane as ‘successor of Ysaÿe’.

Clutching a list of top-level concert dates into the millennium, Znaider is fulfilling his initial promise. Since 1998 he has appeared as a concerto soloist, chamber musician and recitalist in The Netherlands, Sweden, Israel, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Japan. This month sees appearances in the UK with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra before he jets off to Denmark, France, the US and New Zealand – all in three months. Simultaneously, negotiations are underway with a major record label to record two discs – one of concertos, the other a recital.

Such a hectic schedule would be difficult for even the most seasoned international artist to deal with – and Znaider is only 23. The eldest child of Polish and Israeli parents, he has a maturity that belies the relative youth and inexperience. There’s a wisdom and philosophical depth to him, reflected in his playing and a career fueled by numerous competition successes. He initially came to attention when he took first prize at the 1992 Carl Nielsen International Violin Competition. A confidently poised performance at the Sibelius International Violin Competition in 1995 secured him a shared third plaze. But it was his victory at the Queen Elisabeth in Brussels – widely regarded as one of the most exhausting and rigorous contests on the circuit – that cemented his future.

Znaider has been well served by competitions and sees them as ideal opportunity for young unknowns to achieve recognition: ‘If you do not have the luck at an early age to be discovered by someone, a record label or an agent, then you have to go out and look for that luck. If you do not have enough concerts, competitions give you something to work for all year. They are there to prepare you as much as possible for the life of a touring violinist.

‘The Queen Elisabeth Competition was very hard’ he recalls. ‘But I was lucky. I had some financial support from Denmark and I was able to bring my pianist and my teacher with me. We just worked constantly the whole time we were there. I remember it being a very long process. It really was intense, just working and working very, very hard towards one goal. I think that even if I had not won the first prize for my playing, I would still have one personally just by preparing a huge range of repertoire and getting up to play the compulsory contemporary piece. I’m sure every person who went there came back a winner.

‘I though I was prepared when I went into a professional concert career,’ he admits, ‘but it’s incredibly lonely work – especially when you’re doing your first rounds of concert halls. Most places I visit, I’m visiting for the first time. It’s very difficult for a young person, but that’s where the competitions help – if you’ve done more than one, you’re not a stranger to the prohlems.’

For Znaider, though, ‘it’s not just about the career’: ‘Either music is your whole life or it’s not. If it is, it’s something always on and in your mind.’

It wasn’ t, however, always the case. The infant Nikolaj was more interested in sports than musical pursuits, His parents were not involved in class ical music, although his mother had played the piano when she was younger and his father had fronted a rock group in the 1960s, They recognised the benefits of a musical education and when Znaider was seven his mother
hinted he should’do some thing other than ‘running and playing foothall ‘, so he tried the violin, ‘My mother was always making jokes that one day I would be playing Beethoven in front of the fireplace!’

It was seeing Itzhak Perlman playing solo on television about a year later that convinced the youngster of his future: ‘From then on, the idea of being a soloist never got out of my head. Watching and hearing Perlman – well, something inside me just clicked and I have never changed my mind, I suppose it’s strange that a child of eight made a decision like that. But there was never any external pressure, the decision came from me.’

Znaider ‘s progress was so rapid that at the age of nine, while visiting relatives in Israel, it was suggested he play for the late Ilona Feher, one of lsrael’s most respected teachers – she counted Shlomo Mintz, Pinellas Zukerman and Shmuel Ashkenasi among her former pupils – she wanted Nikolaj to stay in Tel Aviv to study.

Although my grandparents lived in Israel, my parents weren’t able to live there at the time and they weren’t very happy about leaving their nine year old son behind,’  Znaider remembcrs. ‘So  Ilona told us to go back to Denmark and find the best teacher possible.’

Still too young to enter a conservatoire, Znaider played for Milan Vitek, a professor of violin at the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen. It was Vitek’s unpatronising teaching methods that first drew out Znaider’s huge potential.

‘He always treated me like an adult. First, he gave me a sense of discipline – we made a gentleman’s agreement that I would practise for two hours each day. Suddenly, there was an adult demanding something of me, an authoritative figure who would not be happy unless I did what 1 had agreed to do. He did that from the beginning – nothing like playing childish games – and that proved to be very important.’

It was under Vitek’s tutelage that Znaider was entered for and won the 1992 Carl Nielsen Competition. After seven years with the same teacher, the victory prompted him to think about his future direction. Still only 17, he opted for the Juilliard School in Manhattan and lessons with Dorothy DeLay.

‘I come from a very protected environment,’ Znaider says, ‘and I went at the age of 17 to New York – a jungle of a place where you really have to fight every day. 1 was just a baby! Miss DeLay is a very dedicated teacher. I can’t speak for other people’s experience, but I had a lot of lessons with her and she always took a lot of time for me. But the kind of teaching? I think I was simply too young or not developed enough or lacked the control over the instrument that would have helped me digest all of the information from her on things such as musical structure. We had long philosophical talks – she’s very knowledgeable about people and music. But I was not really ready for it at that time.’

Returning to Denmark, Znaider heard the young Lithuanian-born virtuoso Julian Rachlin playing a concert in Copenhagen, which proved to be a revelation . ‘Rachlin was a student of Boris Kuschnir at the Vienna Conservatory,’ Znaider recalls. ‘There was something in the playing in which I felt the strong stamp of the teachel; but in a very positive way. It was exactly what I was looking for: that sense of a school, of something taught very well. I went to see Kuschnir and he was very nice and not very enthusiastic about me and I liked that as well!’

In the spring of 1994, at the age of 18, Znaider moved to Vienna: ‘We started with many things from point zero – it was like keeping the foundations of a building but tearing all the balconies apart. We concentrated a lot on the right hand; I remember in the ueginning doing three. weeks of work just on open strings – for four lessons every week. You have to be a little fanatical to do tllat! I learnt to be fanatical in the sense of working and working to come as close as you can to perfection. But it’s still a very long process of understanding the instrument.’

Kuschnir went with his student to Brussels for the Queen Elisabeth Competition, working with him seven hours a day. But Znaider is now learning on the job, mastering his craft as a practising artist, and admits to finding the initial challenge daunting: ‘Winning the Queen Elisabeth committed me tQ a series of engagements and I didn’t quite realise how many there would be. Then there were tile media interviews, photo-shoots and meetings. I simply played on and on until the end of July.’

An accident last November – a glass bowl he was carrying shattered, embedding slivers of glass in his right hand and forcing him to cancel engagements – gave Znaider some welcome breathing space. ‘It’s very important that you stop in the middle of all this rushing around to really think what you want and where you want to go. How do I want to develop? I always want to be doing and discovering somelliing new in my music. It does not have to be always better, it just has to be different. A genuine tllOught process has to be going on. You have to be thinking further ahead tllan the next concert. I still have to get used to solo playing regularly. It’s not something you get used to in one week or one year.’

For now, Znaider is concentrating on expanding his repertoire. With the Sibelius, Nielsen and Brahms concertos under his belt, he has his sights set on the Beethoven: ‘It’s the violinist’s bible and a piece I have enormous respect for. It’s in my 2000-01 season, so I can’t avoid it any longer! ‘

At least he can learn the work on the 1708 Stradivari ‘Huggins’ violin, donated by the Nippon Music Foundation as part of his Brussels first prize: ‘Obviously the cost of Strads and otller great instruments is not in my ballpark, but I have been lucky with violins. The Augustinus Foundation in Denmark loaned me a Guarneri in the run-up to the Queen Elisabeth Competition, and instrument dealer Dietmar Machold lent me a wonderful Strad (from 1703) for the event.’

It’s all a far’ cry from his first violin, bought by his parents when he was nine: ‘I still have it – it’s the only violin I own. It’s German, one of the Mittenwald School, the sort of violin you can acquire for around £500. It’s pretty good sounding, and I even showed up at an orchestral rehearsal with it once when the Guarneri was in for repair.’

Such a down-to-earth approach will stand Znaider in good stead, given his talent, charisma and the sort of tall, dark looks that are a record label’s marketing dream. But the allure affame leaves him unmilled: ‘I think the only thing tllat has changed is the way other people see me. The way I am changing is part of a personal process. Development is a life-long thing. Some people ask what my goal is. I hope I never reach it, because the day I reach my goal, I will have stopped developing.’

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