Zen maestro

Violinist Nikolaj Znaider tells Geoffrey Norris how deep immersion in music has brought about his current high-flying status

Nikolaj Znaider, still only in his late twenties, is already being spoken of in the same breath as some of the great violinists of the past – Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, David Oistrakh, Yehudi Menuhin.

The point is not so much that he sounds like any of them but that he is in that illustrious line of musicians who are able to use technique with wisdom and sensibility to exert a strong personality in their playing. Znaider’s recording of the Glazunov Concerto and Prokofiev’s Second was among my top 10 CDs in 2002; his performance of the Nielsen Concerto at the Proms that same year was hailed by a colleague as one of “love, caprice, artistry – in short, irresistible”.

Next week, there is another chance to witness his exceptional musicianship when he tours England with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. He is playing the Sibelius Concerto, a physically and technically demanding work and one with the additional challenge, as he puts it, “of carving all three movements out of one giant rock”.

Ten years ago, in 1994, Znaider came up against a metaphorical rock of his own, a problem that seemed to be blocking the way to where he wanted to be musically. At first, all had seemed to be going smoothly. Born in Denmark in 1975 of Polish-Israeli parents, he decided to become a violinist at the age of eight, abandoning earlier ambitions to be a football player.

He had been learning the violin for a year – “without any great enthusiasm” – when he saw a violinist on television, and “from that day, all I ever wanted to do was be a violinist”. He studied at the Royal Danish Academy, won first prize at the Carl Nielsen Violin Competition in 1992 and went on to the famed Juilliard School in New York.
But then he hit an obstacle. “What I found at Juilliard,” he says, “was that everyone was extremely concerned with careers and very few people were concerned with music. I may be completely wrong, because a lot of great musicians came out of Juilliard, but it bothered me, the whole atmosphere. In my opinion, it was unhealthy for music.
“I was listening to myself, and I wasn’t feeling comfortable. I didn’t feel like I was really in control. For me, technique is a tool to express the musicality. So if you’re not comfortable technically, you can’t in my opinion be comfortable musically. And that’s when I decided to leave New York.”

He chose to go to Vienna instead to study with the Russian teacher Boris Kuschnir, and more or less had to begin again from scratch. “Kuschnir is a phenomenal teacher and started to unbuild things in order to build them up. It was a frustrating process in many ways, but I could see where we were going.

“We did a month of four lessons a week on open strings only [reassessing questions of balance and bowing]. And then we did a year on one concerto, four lessons a week on the Saint-Saëns Third. Before that, I would learn a concerto every three weeks. It was a completely different approach, a different philosophy – a sort of Zen of music-making – because now I take my time.”

To hear Znaider play, you can tell that this measured, in-depth tutoring has paid dividends. That is not to say that he might just have become a production-line violinist had he not found Kuschnir, but his own need to delve and ponder, probe and discover was clearly something that his mentor both favoured and fostered. Znaider’s name became more widely known when he won the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 1997.

He then signed up with RCA, for whom he has produced two discs so far, the one coupling the Glazunov and Prokofiev’s Second Concertos and another of virtuoso and romantic encores, entitled Bravo!. And, although he gives as many as 100 concerts a year, Znaider maintains his regime of study.

‘The whole process of learning gets quicker as you do it more and more times, but the system is the same. You learn a new piece at first on two levels. One is without your instrument, reading the score, trying to figure out the music and what you want to say with it. The next level is with your instrument, working out every detail, fingering and bowing, to suit you and what you believe will suit the music and serve it best. Every phrase has to be exactly thought out, discussed and tried.

Then you end up playing it for the first time, and of course it’s a little bit too self-conscious. You’re very conscious of everything you do but then, after five or 10 performances, you start to be able, as they say, to forget everything you’ve learned. On this basis, you know that if you do something spontaneously it will make sense.

“What I had found previously,” says Znaider, “was that people tended to skip the first part, the hard part, the detailed work, and go straight to the ‘Let’s forget what we learned’ stage. That way you might end up doing something that doesn’t make sense in the big structure.

“I can’t remember who said ‘Opportunity passes most people by because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work’, but it’s true. It’s hard work, and it’s gruelling and it takes time. But I would not do it any other way.”

Geoffrey Norris — January 2004, Telegraph UK

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