English profiles

Nijmegen, 16 October 2009

Willem Boone (WB): I really loved your Scarlatti recording. On your website you wrote about Scarlatti and Haydn that their music is “a luxury, because there are not many instructions in the music”. Is that the reason that you play Scarlatti in a rather bold, pianistic way with different dynamics in the repeats, embellishments, etc?

Yevgeny Sudbin (YS): I wanted to bring him to life through the piano. His sonatas were of course written for different instruments such as the harpsichord and sometimes for organ. Playing them on a modern piano is some sort of a transcription in a way, which allows you much more freedom. A piano offers so much variety! Haydn’s music is similar; he doesn’t like rules, he breaks them all the time. It’s full of life and humor.

WB: What do you like most about Scarlatti’s music?

YS: The overwhelming feeling of life-force he injects into his music. He captures Spanish life so well, you hear people dancing, guitars, drums... The variety of moods is incredible.

WB: And what about the melancholy in a lot of his sonatas?

YS: Some of the sonatas I recorded are very poignant and painful. In these pieces, as Horowitz remarked, he clearly speaks to God, in other ones he speaks to the people. I played so much Scarlatti lately, I need a break from his music. Some people tell me I have to play more big encores, therefore I didn’t do Scarlatti tonight (instead of this, he played his own transcription of Rachmaninov’s song Floods of Spring, WB).

WB: What you said about indications in Haydn’s and Scarlatti’s music goes for Bach too, doesn’t it? He allows you a lot of freedom as well.........

YS: Bach is different, he always communicates with God. Unlike Scarlatti, he is not portraying people’s life, there is always a spiritual dimension. Although I am not religious, I clearly feel this while playing his music. You are right in a way that you can perform his music with freedom too. I don’t like pianists who perform Bach in a detached way and without pedal. That’s the way it’s sometimes taught in Russia. I noticed that many young pianists make their debut recordings with Bach. If it is done well, it can be a big success. Bach can sound very well on a modern piano, but Scarlatti allows more variety in approach I feel.

WB: How do you feel about the music of Padre Antonio Soler, which is more or less from the same period as Scarlatti’s?

YS: I haven’t played any of it at all; can you recommend good recordings of his music?

WB: Alicia de Larrocha made an early recording with a selection and the excellent young pianist Luis Fernando Perez just released an album with Soler sonatas.

WB: A friend of mine heard your recital at Wigmore Hall a few years ago, where you played two Haydn sonatas. He liked it so much that he wouldn’t have minded an all Haydn recital of yours. Would you ever consider such a thing?

YS: No, I am afraid maybe only four people would stay for that! I have been asked to do all Scarlatti recitals, but it is maybe a bit too much for the audience. For my Wigmore debut, I did two Haydn sonatas, which takes about 35 minutes. It is possible to play Haydn during the first half of a recital. You have to pay attention to the programme of a recital. If they are not well programmed it may be difficult for the audience to stay focused.

WB: There is an eminent Dutch conductor of music on period instruments, Frans Brüggen, the conductor of the Orchestra of the 18th Century, who said the other day about Haydn’s music and more specifically about his humor that it is for “connaisseurs” as opposed to Mozart’s . What do you think of this?

YS: Humor is humor, if you are able to tell a joke, people will understand it.. Of course, you can make it overly intellectual or sophisticated, but it’s not necessary. Haydn’s music has very earthy elements, he had a big connection to life. His music can be very outrageous, but sarcasm and humour is always prevalent.

WB: Your next CD will be released soon, which includes the Second Piano Concerto of Medtner. I did my “homework” for this interview and listened to your recording of his First Concerto. However, I must confess that I still have a hard time with this piece......

YS: You managed to listen to the whole piece?!

WB: Yes, I did, I think it lacks coherence in spite of some beautiful moments!

YS: It is difficult to understand when you hear it for the first time. It is not for everybody. Medtner was a genius in my view and his compositions are very logical. Rachmaninov was sometimes envious of Medtner, however they admired each other and never copied each other’s music. The structure of the First Piano Concerto is strict, it is one big movement. The problem is that the melodies are so difficult and the thematic elements are complex that it’s easy to lose attention. There are no big tunes either unlike in Rachmaninov. Have you tried to listen to his Second Concerto?

WB: Is it easier to listen to?

YS: Easier to listen yes, easier to play no!

WB: On your site you wrote something interesting about Medtner: “One only needs to hear the same piece twice and a few more times and something might just happen. Addiction sets in”. How addictive is his music really?

YS: If you listen more to it, you feel it makes sense after a while. I listened to all of his music and it is not easy for the first time. But the more I heard it, the more addictive it became. Furthermore, his music is very pianistically written. Medtner was tormented between a career as a pianist and as a composer. He didn’t know what to pursue. He switched back and forth between these two careers.

WB: Why is he not better known if he writes that well for piano?

YS: That has more to do with the audience than the pianist I would suggest. The music is difficult to sight read of course, but the onus is with the audience whether something is popular or not. The concertos though are rarely played, not many pianists championed them in the past either which has maybe to do with the programming and orchestras. Horowitz apparently played a lot of his music when he was still in Russia, but he recorded only one short piece. He had plans to record the First Concerto, but they never materialized.

WB: Another composer I have difficulties to relate to is the late Scriabin. I love his first sonatas, but after the 5th Sonata, I really have a hard time to understand his music!

YS: Actually, his music is much less coherent than Medtner’s! For my Scriabin CD, I started with early pieces and ended with late works, maybe that way you can relate better. Surprisingly, the late pieces are much easier to play than the early ones! The Waltz opus 38 or the early Etudes are very difficult, roughly all his compositions until opus 30 are awkward to play from a technical point of view while the late works are more emotionally demanding. Scriabin is like Szymanovsky, they both established their style at the end of their lifes. As a musician, you know what you have to do. For Scriabin’s late music, you have to read the adjectives in the score, he wrote little poems for some of the pieces, that may help as well to understand his music better. Actually, it doesn’t matter whether or not you do, since the late pieces are full of mystery and sometimes entirely insane...
The Piano Concerto I played tonight is very difficult too, have you heard it before?

WB: Yes, I did. By the way, you used to score but you hardly looked at it!

YS: It is still fresh music for me and it’s the second time I am playing it in public.

WB: The other composer you will play on your last CD is Rachmaninov, most interestingly you play it in the original version from 1926 which, according to your website, is “glorious but almost unheard of”. Isn’t that actually a reason in itself that it is probably not a good piece if hardly anybody plays it?

YS: It could be, although it is not always the case when a piece is neglected. There are also quite some neglected compositions by Chopin!

WB: Which ones for instance?

YS: The Impromptus, not the 4th of course, but the first three Impromptus are rarely played. The same goes for a lot of Mazurkas, many pianists prefer to play the Scherzi and Ballades.

WB: Back to the 4th Concerto by Rachmaninov, you wrote on your site that there are three versions of it?

YS: Probably a lot more, he was constantly revising his compositions. In the revised version we know nowadays, he made most changes in the last movement. He tried to make it more popular with a big tune at the end. But either versions, are not considered to be one of his strongest works.It is on the border of modern music and still very romantic.

WB: In what way is it modern?

YS: The rhythm is very jazzy. There are a lot of syncopations, Rachmaninov took this example from Medtner who often used interesting rhythmic patterns. In the original version, the orchestra sounds sometimes chaotic, it is a potpourri of different things.

WB: The original version is substantially longer than the revised one!

YS: Yes, it’s much longer, over 100 bars.

WB: The revised version is the one Michelangeli has played?

YS: Yes, indeed.


WB: You actually wrote that apart from him no other master pianists of the past championed this work, like they did with his Third. That’s not completely true, is it? Ashkenazy, Wild, Orozco and Kocsis included the Fourth in their recording of the complete piano concertos?

YS: All the pianists you mentioned are considered contemporary. I was referring to the Golden Age pianists. Some clearly had it in their repertoire but it was never performed.

WB: Which version did Rachmaninov himself play on the recording we still have?

YS: It is the revised version with some slight variations in the orchestral part.

WB: Rachmaninov revised his First Concerto too, did you play that in the original version too?

YS: No, I haven’t. The notes are different, but the thematic differences are not huge. I am not sure whether his revisions were always an improvement in general. He was very paranoid, he revised so many things that didn’t need revision. I think for instance that the original of the Second Sonata is a much better piece.

WB: You said the technical difficulties in the original Fourth Concerto were “insanely difficult”. How difficult are they really as opposed to the Third Concerto, that is generally considered as the most difficult of the four?

YS: It is much more difficult than the Third, which is actually very comfortable to play! The Second Concerto has some awkward moments too.

WB: And what about the Paganini Rhapsody?

YS: It is very pianistic, but I don’t like it very much.

WB: Why not? Don’t you find it spellbinding?

YS: It doesn’t offer much freedom for a pianist, it is as if you are accompanying the orchestra. I feel the piano part is constrained by the orchestra.

WB: In your recording of the Chopin Variations, you left out a few variatons, why was that?

YS: I omitted the fugue-like twelfth variation and the coda, which destroys the tranquil atmosphere of the previous meno mosso section. Rachmaninov in fact made variations VII, X, XII and the coda optional for performance. He only wrote the cascading coda as a crowd pleaser, it has no musical reason really.

WB: The Daily Telegraph hailed you as “potentially one of the greatest pianists of the 21th Century”. What is your reaction to such praise?

YS: It is crazy, I feel embarassed and don’t like it being quoted. Agents however often like finding catchy quotes.

WB: Does that put a strain on you?

YS: Yes, it does. It is not like in sports, it’s a highly subjective matter and everyone will have a preference.

WB: But aren’t you flattered either that people write this about you?

YS: No, I am terrified! I can’t read positive reviews nor can I read negative ones. I wish positive reviews made me as happy as negative ones make me miserable, so I try not to read any at all! I was so nervous when my Scarlatti CD came out before my Wigmore Hall debut. It was a very positive review, but after that I never read any of them any more. I am terrified of extreme reactions and you know, things can turn very quickly. There have been pianists who were first praised and then heavily critisized...

WB: Can you mention examples of this?

YS: No, I don’t want to mention names.

WB: I read that your recording contract with BIS has been renewed for another seven years and that you will do 14 new CD’s. Can you reveal any of your new plans?

YS: I will do a Haydn disc and the Beethoven Concertos with the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä. There will be Chopin and probably Liszt. Then a CD with solo works by Medtner. I have already done the 7th Sonata by Prokofiev, but I am not sure what else will be on the CD. I’d like to do a recording with all of his war sonatas. I also recorded Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, probably coupled to the Miroirs... Do you prefer CD’s with only one composer?

WB: Well, I don’t mind if there are two composers on the same CD!

YS: I am sometimes constrained by the idea that it is hard to categorize them in a shop when there are two composers on the same CD. They don’t know where to put them!

WB: Another thing I’d really like to know, what do you think of playing encores?

YS: I don’t like it. Did I look like I enjoyed it after tonight’s concert?

WB: Probably not, but you played one after all!

YS: The audience usually likes it, but ideally I wouldn’t. You don’t need them, they often trivilize concerts as they are often flashy.

WB: But then again, you could do like Claudio Arrau who never played any during his career?

YS: I respect Arrau, and wish I could do it, but I also have a responsability towards the audience and if they enjoy it, and I think they do more often than don’t, it is not a huge issue. When I feel it is a huge issue, I don’t play encores.

WB: How do you practice? Do you have any rituals?

YS: You could write a book about that; 90 % of my practice is slow. Depending on whether I know a piece or whether I don’t, it is combined with fast practice. I hate when people listen to me practise.

WB: Does your wife (who is also a pianist and who teaches in London, WB) listen to you while practising?

YS: She probably hears me practise, but I don’t think she listens.

WB: On your website you told that your colleague Stephen Hough advised you to play in the dark? Why on earth would you do that?

YS: The idea is that we have so many senses, if you switch off one, the others will compensate. I don’t do it very often though.

WB: What did it bring to you?

YS: It could be useful, for instance with Liszt who sometimes writes big jumps. I sometimes practise without sound too, on a silent keyboard.

WB: Why?

YS: Because then I won’t be distracted by the sound.

WB: Are you the type of musician who can learn pieces in a plane?

YS: Yes, I often do that, looking at the score helps the memory. I sometimes go through scores before I go to bed, although it makes you sleepy too which is a good thing as I can’t fall asleep after concerts...

WB: Do you have a good memory?

YS: Normally yes, but two weeks is short to learn a new concerto or piece. It normally takes up to five or six weeks.

WB: Do you ever suffer from stage fright?

YS: My confidence is always at the lowest before I play. I would like to have more confidence in general. You are never completely relaxed, but I usually get more confident during the actual performance. On the other hand, it is good to be nervous and excited, since it also helps you to give the best of yourself.

WB: Do you have any pianistic fears, certain composers you don’t like to play?

YS: I don’t play much Bach in public, but generally my fears are not related to composers. Not having enough time to prepare is more of a real fear. Or not being well prepared physically or being overbooked...Sometimes, I am not confortable with Rachmaninov’s music in concert, e.g his Fourth Concerto, Second Sonata or Chopin Variations, etc.

WB: It doesn’t stop you from playing them...

YS: No, because I like challenges.

WB: I really like that you write your own texts in the booklets of your CD’s!

YS: I like to write texts. I don’t like to only play the piano, there might be other things I enjoy doing!

WB: You made me laugh with a comment in the booklet of your Scarlatti recording,when you wrote about the so called “Cat’s Fugue” and said you unsuccesfully experimented with your own cat...

YS: My cat hates the piano!

WB: Someone wrote in the guestbook of your website “You could have a second career as a fashion model”. How flattering is that?

YS: It isn’t.. I am not sure it is a compliment if the looks impress more than the playing! But I know that’s not what was meant.

WB: But even in classical music, it can’t harm to be good looking?

YS: Anybody can be famous in classical music. It is one of the few things you can do in public, be a kind of celebrity, while still looking hideous... Being handsome could be a disadvantage sometimes! Maybe for cross-over artists, it might play an important role, but in classical music it doesn’t make any difference!

Before the interview started, during the intermission and the second part of the concert (I was able to hear the Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra play Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances!), Yevgeny Sudbin was worried about the taxi that was supposed to drive him back to his hotel in Arnhem. Since Arnhem is not very far away from Nijmegen, I offered to drive him back. He agreed and the taxi was cancelled. The good thing about this was that it allowed me to continue the interview and ask him all sorts of other questions even while walking back to my car and driving to Arnhem. Questions about his favourite pianists (“Sokolov, to whom I’d like to play, Pletniev, whom I admire, even if I don’t like everything he does, Kissin, Argerich for whom I’d like to play too and among the pianists of the past Horowitz, Cherkassky, Moiseiwitsch”), chamber music (“I like it, but don’t do it often, a few times a year”), instruments (“I’d like to take my own piano with me if I had the money, I first would have to get a full-size piano, since I “only” play on a Steinway B, which is still a wonderful instrument”), the difficulty of having to play on different pianos every time (“Espcially in the USA, although I got a good Hamburg Steinway in New York, which I ask for when I am there, unfortunately they couldn’t take it to Minnesota when I recorded Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto”), his Proms Debut with Rachmaninov’s First Concerto (“The Albert Hall is extremely tricky, you can’t project your sound and you hear the orchestra as if they are playing in a small room”), masterclasses he attended (“Bashkirov was nice to me, I think he liked me, although I know he has an incredibly powerful personality, he is my favourite in the Scriabin Concerto actually! Fleisher was great, paid a lot of attention to sound, Perahia was very strict about structure), and the job of being a pianist (When I said to him “It is quite a profession”, he answered “It is an unhealthy profession, but somehow I seem to need it. I try not to stay away too long from the audience, the longest was two months I think”).