Utrecht, 24 October 2003
Although he won a major piano competition (Marguérite Long/Jacques Thibaud) in Paris in 1955, Dmitri Bashkirov is probably not best known as a concert pianist.. He suffered from the severe Soviet regime and was not allowed to travel abroad until the early 90’s. However, in the meantime, he gave many concerts in his native Russia and built a solid reputation as a teacher, who trained many famous, sometimes internationally acclaimed pianists such as Arcadi Volodos, Nikolai Demidenko and Jonathan Gilad. He currently teaches at the Queen Sofia Academy in Madrid.
He also gives worldwide master classes. I attended a few of his lessons between 21 and 23 October 2003, when he visited Muziekcentrum Vredenburg in Utrecht.
Although he announced at the beginning that he was “very ill”(and he was indeed coughing dangerously!), he showed an unusual energy for a 71 year old pianist. When students, mostly prize winners from international competitions, played for him he clapped in his hands or tapped on the floor. He came across as severe, yet not harsh. His bewildered looks or disapproval whenever he heard something he didn’t like were sometimes quite obvious. However, he also showed a lot of warmth and understanding for his students and never publicly humiliated them as the famous soprano Elisabeth Schwartzkopf once did during her notorious masterclass in Amsterdam in 1987.
Bashkirov emphasized what counted most for him; absolute fidelity to the printed score(s) and consistent ideas about tempi. He frequently stopped students to point out that Chopin or Liszt (to whom his master classes were dedicated) hadn’t written any change of tempi in their scores. He was genuinely surpised when a Russian student, who had just played Chopin’s 4th Scherzo in a very whimsical way, asked him: “But do you want to hear all the notes?”
On the other hand, he was sometimes flexible and acknowledged that pianists were allowed to freely interpret indications like “piano”or “forte”in a score, as long as they realized what a composer had originally written down. He emphasized that such indications can sometimes be relative and only get their true sense in the context of an entire composition.
Furthermore, he put a lot of emphasis on the harmonic aspects of a composition. With a lot of pianists, left hand passages in Chopin’s and Liszt’s music tend to remain unnoticed. Bashkirov showed that you should not just play the melody, but that you should above all emphasize the harmonic audacities of both Chopin’s and Liszt’s writing.
His diverse knowledge was impressive. He was particularly able to convey compositional elements in Liszt’s music and how these should be reflected in the interpretation. He explained for example how the last bars of the transcription “Auf dem Wasser zu singen”(after a song by Schubert) should sound “clear as water”. To another student who started the Etude “Chasse Neige”, inspired by falling snow flakes with great effet, he said: “Why do you play with so much emotion? This piece is about nature!”
Of course he made a lot of other interesting comments, that proved useful for students or amator pianists.
* Never play a recurrent motive the same way twice.
* When you phrase, always think of the last note, because this will enable you to see the phrase as an arch or build up tension.
* Try to always hear the sound inside yourself, play with your ears instead of your fingers
* Always play with colour and imagination, there is not one “piano”or one “forte”, there are 40 different “forte”or “piano”
* A pianist has to make a piano sing,if you move your hand forward on the touches, you will get a more beautiful cantabile sound.`
During the same week, I managed to arrange an interview with Bashirov. He was very willing and immediately said yes, but on the Friday the interview was supposed to take place, I noticed how hectic his schedule was. He was nowhere to be found in the Muziekcentrum and finally someone called him at his hotel. When he arrived, there were still a lot of things to take care of. Then he saw us (I was with a friend) and said: “OK, I have only 20 minutes, we’ll have to be efficient”. He still wasn’t feeling great and sometimes had to cough, but apart from that, he made the same lively, energetic impression. An interview with a great personality.
Willem Boone (WB): You said during your master class that there are only two composers you can play “naturally”, Mozart and Chopin. What about Beethoven?
Dmitri Bashkirov (DB): You shouldn’t exagerate what I said, Beethoven is a genius, but structure and construction play a more important role in his work than with Mozart and Chopin. With Beethoven, you can build his pieces in a constructive way and it sounds beautiful. A lot of pianists play his music superbly, for instance Pollini. He is not a spontaneous pianist, but he shapes Beethoven’s music wonderfully. It works with Beethoven. Mozart and Chopin don’t allow pression. You can’t manipulate with Mozart. There are great pianists like Schnabel and Edwin Fischer who have never played Chopin, they had problems with his music, although they were intelligent musicians, they understood that it didn’t work for them. Universal musicians are not the best ones, when I hear “He is good, because he is universal”, I don’t think he is an interesting musician...
WB: Do you know universal musicians?
DB: Yes, a lot, and for me they are not the greatest musicians. Rembrandt, Van Gogh or Raphael were great painters, yet they were not universal. Strong personalities always have some dominant features in their art .There used to be a famous painter in Russia, ...... (I unfortunately couldn’t hear the correct name on the tape, WB) who painted wonderful landscapes, but who couldn’t paint human beings. His painting “The bears in the forest” is very famous, it was even used for chocolate boxes!
WB: Can you tell me something about your teacher(s)?
DB: I studied for 11 years with a wonderful teacher in Tblisi, she was a pupil of a world famous pianist, Anna Jezikov, Theodor Letschitiski’s wife.
WB: How was Goldenweiser as a teacher?
DB: Very intelligent, but also traditional in the best possible way. He was over 80 years old and had played before Rachmaninov at the conservatory. Rachmaninov dedicated his Suite for 2 pianos opus 17 to him, they had even played it together. Medtner and Tolstoi were among his friends. He represented a very lively tradition of typically Russian artists and culture.
WB: Did he still have a good technique when you studied with him?
DB: As I said, he was already very old when I got to know him. He was never a true virtuoso, but even at 80, he used to play demanding programmes, maybe not always with virtuosic repertoire. He was very serious and cultivated. After I finished my studies, I immediately started to play concerts and he hired me as his assistant. That was completely unexpected for all young musicians, because he had his own pupils, for instance Lazar Berman, who had thought up till then that he would be hired for the job. I was totally unknown at that time. Obviously, Goldenweiser had heard something in my playing that he liked and I became his assistant. They all said: “The old Goldenweiser needs fresh blood!”
WB: How old were you when that happened?
DB: I was 24 years old when I won the Marguérite Long/ Jacques Thibaud Competition and six months later, I started teaching, first as an assistant, then I got a few students myself. After his death, I became independent.
WB: What did he teach you most of all?
DB: Discipline and especially understanding of the music of (the) Viennese composers. He was always so responsible, he was never late and worked with all sorts of students, regardless of whether they were highly gifted or mediocre, almost no teacher in the world would do that nowadays. With me, it is the same thing, regardless of whether the student is Volodos, Demidenko or an average student. Either I accept a student in my class, or I won’t. When I accept a student, he or she has the same rights as all the others. I used to say: “You are my student, you are all equal, that is my principle and I have inherited that from Goldenweiser”
WB: Which compositions did Volodos study with you?
DB: Almost everything he played during the first two years of his career, the transcriptions he played on his first CD, the G-major Sonata by Schubert, Schumann’s Bunte Blätter, Scriabin’s 5th Sonata, Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto. He has a god given talent, he is exceptional. Richter was one of the greatest artistic personalities during the second half of the 20th century, however people always said he had no god given virtuosity and he needed to work hard for everything. Volodos practices very little, everything goes automatically and that’s dangerous. You cannot and should not be lazy! He has incredibly harmonic hearing. When he studied with me, there were a few things that were very important to me: I told him “Please Arcadi, do not play in such a way that critics write that you are “a second Horowitz”, you shouldn’t be a second, third or fourth Horowitz, you should be Arcadei Volodos, so please do not copy anything. Of course, Horowitz is wonderful, but it is better to listen to old masters like Hoffman, Rosenthal, Godovsky and Friedman to hear this esthetic virtuosity. I also told Volodos to never play loudly, and he succeeds in this, he can play ffff without making it sound harsh. I hate that!
WB: Why does Volodos never play Chopin?
DB: He is very random in his choices. When he doesn’t want to, you can’t do anything about it. I have told him: “Arkadi, you should play the Hammerklavier sonata or Brahms Sonatas or Mozart. When you understand the principles of interpreting music from Viennese composers, you can play Mozart’s music beautifully, but he doesn’t want to, so what can I do? At the moment, I work with a very gifted young Russian, a 14 year old pianist, to whom I can say: “You have to do this or that”, but Volodos was already 24 years old when came to work with me. His career started late. I think it is a pity that he doesn’t play any classical repertoire. There a few things he would do superbly, I hope he will come to it later....
WB: Another really gifted student of yours is Jonathan Gilad...
DB: Fantastic, that is a completely different story! He has had a problem with his left hand since he was born. He can only play in one position and underwent surgery twice, his parents discussed much with him. I said right from the beginning: “I do not work with such young students, I can’t, I don’t have enough talent for that. My daughter (Elena Bashikirova, WB) is a concert pianist and I started teaching her when she was 14, 15 years old, I couldn’t have started any sooner. However, Gilad was so serious and showed such great understanding for music that I thought: “Ok, I’ll try it once in my life, but just one thing:”Not a word about his handicap, never! He should forget about it, because it will always be there and never go away. He has to accept himself because he is so gifted, so he will find possibilities, if not, he can become an excellent conductor!”.
He never spoke about his handicap any more and now he plays the most difficult pieces. Did you know that he is an excellent student at Polytechnique in Paris, alongside his music studies? When he finished high school, he came to me and said: “Maestro, my teachers said I am gifted for maths, probably I’ll study maths”. “As you like”I said, but he replied: “I like music better, so I will study that”. He has been an example in my entire career (that started in 1957), he is unique. He has come all the way from Marseille to Madrid, one weekend per month since he was 11,5 yars old, that’s why he already plays all kinds of masterpieces at age 17. It is amazing how he plays Beethoven, not even Kissin played so well at 25 as Gilad at 15/16! Like all great pianists, he also has his weaknesses, but he has a strong personality with a lasting influence.
WB: People say they do not exist any more in our time..........
DB: Not as many as in the 20’s, 30’s or 40’s of the last century, but that is how it works in the world, also with poets and painters. We are living a bad period now, everything is urban, practical, mercantile.... kids only think in terms of awards and career.... When I was young, things were different. When I participated in the Marguérite Long/Jacques Thibaud Competition, I didn’t care whether or not I would go through to the finals, I only knew that one of my favourite pianists, Annie Fisher, was part of the jury, I didn’t care about the rest. Nowadays, these kids are saying: “You should play there or there, because so and so is part of the jury!” They are like mafiosi who calculate everything!
WB: Are you pessimistic about the future?
DB: No, there are wonderful young talents, much more than in my youth, children of 9, 11 years old who are major talents. The question is though “What will happen to them later when they find good teachers who do not care about winning awards?
One of my former students, Demidenko, came to visit me the other day and showed me a review of his last CD. It was a recording of the Hammerklavier Sonata, which received rave reviews in Germany, people said it was the absolute Olympus . Why do my students last so long? Because I prepare them for the future instead of competitions! They can go through occasional crises, but in general they know what they have to do in life. You know, there are so many prize winners who have simply disappeared and we never hear of any more...
WB: There is another thing I’d like to ask you, I am a really bad pianist myself...
DB (interrupts): These bad pianists are the best audience! When I go to a concert, I do not listen as a professional pianist, but as a music lover, who plays a little bit, I want to listen to music, so I don’t care whether triplets come out perfectly, I only want to hear music!
WB: A last question, you mentioned this during your masterclass already, could you give any tips to obtain a beautiful sound?
DB: That’s what every pianist wants to know! I discussed this a lot with my own teacher. It is a problem of this generation, often it does not sound beautiful, it all sounds the same without colours, prozaic. The old school had their own unique tradition, it sounded beautiful. I always tell my students: “Don’t play with your fingers, but with your ears!”
At the end, I ask Maestro Bashkirov what I should do with my notes of the interview and whether I can send him the text, but then he answers: “You look so intelligent, I am sure that it will be correct!”
© Willem Boone 2003
PS During this master class, I had one major regret: that Baskirov didn’t play himself, apart from some examples at the piano. These short passages made it more than clear what a master pianist he is and showed both his technical command and his personal sound. Thankfully, I got the opportunity to hear him in concert three years later (21 May 2006), during the famous Rhein und Ruhr Piano Festival in Germany. I was overjoyed when I saw that he would be playing on a Sunday evening in a small concert hall in Bottrop. Somehow, I forgot to book my ticket right away and when I checked the internet a few days later, the concert was sold out.... I couldn’t believe it and was so disappointed that I wrote to the organization of the festival (without much hope), begging them to put me on the waiting list, hoping there would be one. By sheer luck, they decided to put extra chairs on stage, near the piano. It was a truly memorable experience, I remember sitting so nearby and yet, there was hardly one harsh or ugly sound. Bashkirov was already 75 years old, but played with great authority and excellent technique. However, what impressed me most was his phrasing that was utterly beautiful and original. I can still recall the beginning of Mozart’s rarely played Fantasy K 396 where he almost sounded like a singer or an oboeist.. Another highlight was Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, hardly an original choice, but to hear the first movement played with such intensity and such expressive left hand chords was simply breathtaking.. After other works by Haydn, Chopin and Debussy, Bashkirov played many encores. I cannot recall all of them, but once again, there were wonders, such as the last movement of Mozart’s Sonata K 570, played with an ideal simplicity, pieces by Mompou and Chopin or a ravishing Melody by Gluck, transcribed by Sgambati, a piece that sounds simple but appears to be very complicated. Bashkirov does not play many concerts, generally no more than 20 or 30 per season, but he is definitely one of the most original and powerful personalities around!
Almost two years later, April 2008, Bashkirov gave master classes at the Conservatory of The Hague and also took part in an orchestral concert during which he played the Schumann Concerto. He was 77 years old and still looked energetic, sometimes even tense. There was occasional flaws, but his personality sounded in every note. As an encore, he played (again) the Gluck/Sgambati Melody so exquisitely that these few minutes alone were worth coming to the concert.....