Arnhem, 7 February 2014
Willem Boone (WB): How did the rehearsal of Tschaikofsky’s First Piano Concerto go?
Dmitri Alexeev (DA): Quite nice!
WB: Were you on the same wavelength as the conductor, Nikolai Alexeev (they are not related, WB)?
DA: I would say so. We often played together, at the end of last season we performed Brahms’s First Piano Concerto.
WB: Do you have any idea how often you have played the First Tschaikofsky Concerto?
DA: It’s difficult to say, sometimes I perform it a lot, sometimes less.
WB: It is for sure one of the most popular concertos of the repertoire, yet I have the impression that it is often considered as a tool to display virtuosity. Could one say that it is misunderstood?
DA: Yes and this is not what music should be about. Virtuosic display is something secondary.
WB: Even with a composer like Liszt?
DA: Yes, definitely. He was a great composer, he used virtuosity to compose great music, even though there are sometimes a lot of notes. He was very talented.
WB: So, if Tschaikofsky 1st is not about virtuosity, what is it about according to you?
DA: There are a lot of lyrical and epical moments. It is a very difficult concerto and its writing is often unpianistic. I understand why Rubinstein found it difficult. Tschaikofsky’s music is often perceived as “sad’ and “depressed”, not so in the First Concerto. It’s the opposite of dark.
WB: Could you give examples of unpianistic writing?
DA: There are quite a lot of examples in all three movements, although I don’t know exactly in which bars they occur. I am not criticizing Tschaikofsky, for it is a great piece, but he didn’t write well for the piano. Every great soloist makes slight adjustments in this score. Rachmaninov was told to play this concerto in a slightly different way too, but you need the talent of Rachmaninov to do so!
WB: Is Rachmaninov’s writing more pianistic?
DA: Yes, definitely!
WB: Tschaikofsky was not known as a good pianist, how come he was able to write in such a virtuosic style?
DA: He wasn’t a violinist either, yet he wrote a wonderful violin concerto! He wasn’t a cellist either and his Rococo Variations are fantastic. Nor was he a woodwind player, yet he composed great symphonies. He was simply a fantastic composer and he knew what he was doing, that’s what counts.
WB: I once heard Lazar Berman play the original version of this score and it started with arpeggios instead of chords..
DA: Yes, he wrote arpeggios indeed and he wrote mezzo piano in the score, even though everybody plays them forte. I must say I prefer the way it’s played nowadays. You know, music leads its own life once a composer has finished a composition…
WB: Nikita Magaloff once said he regretted the first waltz theme – the tune that everybody knows – doesn’t come back later, what do you think of his assessment?
DA: For me, it does not sound like a waltz, but yes, it is strange that the most memorable moments do not come back later..
WB: This concerto has often been called “typically Russian”, do you agree? What are the “Russian” elements?
DA: I would say so. There is a lot of Russian, even Ukrainian folk music. Tschaikofsky had friends in the Ukraine. There are examples in the first movement, for instance, the beginning of the main subject, also the beginning of the finale, which is quite a well-known tune.
WB: Did you hear Van Cliburn when he won the Tschaikofsky Competition in 1958? I was told that many Russians were shocked that a non-Russian pianist won the first prize, what made his playing so memorable?
DA: Yes, I am lucky enough to tell you that I heard him and no, they were not upset that Van Cliburn won. It was an absolute sensation, something I will never forget. It is unfortunate that his further career did not develop the way it could have. People were absolutely ecstatic about his playing. Maybe the official authorities were upset, but otherwise everybody loved him. His interpretation was “different”, but then again, every great performance is “different.” Strangely enough, he was more “Russian” than most Russian pianists!
WB: In what way?
DA: In every way. We had the feeling that he belonged to us!
WB: Isn’t that the ultimate compliment for a non-Russian pianist?
WB: Did John Ogdon create a similar sensation in 1962?
DA: He was very different, although he too was an absolute genius. He was a fantastic musician too, but in a very different way, he had an intellectual approach to the music. It is very sad how his career ended…
WB: Can you understand that Ogdon and Ashkenazy were joint winners in 1962?
DA: They both were outstanding pianists and musicians, both in their own way. So it was not a surprise that the jury decided to have a joined First Prize.
WB: Do you also play Tschaikofsky’s Second Concerto?
DA: Yes, I do, I played it in Arnhem a few years ago.
WB: It is often considered as “weak” opposed to the First Concerto…
DA: No, it is a different concerto, but it is not “weak”. Actually, Tschaikofsky preferred it to the First Concerto, he complained in a letter: “Why does everybody like the First Concerto and not the second?” All in all, I must say I prefer the First Concerto too, but there are a lot of great moments in the first and third movements, the second movement is very beautiful, it sounds like a piano trio.
WB: Do you play it in the original version?
DA: Yes, I do.
WB: What do you think of Tschaikofsky’s solo piano works?
DA: He left a lot of piano works, I play some of them. Maybe I do not like everything, Tschaikofsky was a workaholic who wrote music every day. Not all of it is equally good, but on the whole they are worth exploring.
WB: You recorded all of Scriabin’s piano sonatas, were you asked to record these?
DA: Yes, I was and I gladly accepted. He is one of my favourite composers and I play his music often.
WB: How often do you get the opportunity to play his Sixth and Eighth sonatas for instance?
DA: I never played these two sonatas live to be honest, but I played many other pieces of his. These two sonatas are very unusual music, especially number eight is a total enigma. I was very happy to learn it, though, since I got acquainted with another world, which was very important for me.
WB: In the early sonatas the influence of Chopin is perceptible, is there anything the later sonatas have in common?
DA: In the earlier sonatas, there is some influence from Liszt too, but for the late sonatas, I would say there is not really something they have in common, no. His development was very fast, but the roots of the late works are still in his early music. He did not develop the same way as Strawinsky, who turned to neo-classical music later in his life. In Scriabin’s late works the influence of Wagner is present too, the harmonies are Wagnerian, although there are no quotations from his music.
WB: Could one say that Scriabin’s style evolved like Beethoven’s?
DA: I cannot compare, they are so different!
WB: Scriabin died young, at the end of his life he experimented with colours and sounds. Do you have any idea how his style could have evolved had he not died?
DA: Nobody knows.. His death was mysterious, people say he died because he went too far and God stopped him..
WB: Vladimir Ashkenazy once said the most difficult Scriabin was even more difficult than Islamey, is that true?
DA: Yes, that is correct.
WB: What would you consider his most difficult work?
DA: Difficult to say, the Sixth sonata is very tricky and some of his Studies are very difficult too.
WB: Vladimir Sofronitzky has been hailed for his extraordinary Scriabin, how do you rate him in this composer?
DA: I agree, he was a genius in the history of piano playing. His world was very close to Scriabin’s life, he married his daughter. I never heard him play live unfortunately.
WB: Didn’t Sofronitzky die very young too?
DA: He was sixty I believe.
WB: And what do you think of Vladimir Horowitz in Scriabin?
DA: I like him very much, but needless to say, nobody is perfect. Sofronitzky was sometimes uneven and so was Horowitz. His video of Vers la flame is fantastic!
WB: Why is the Ninth Sonata called “Black mass”?
DA: Scriabin did not add the title, he referred to it in his letters.
WB: You made a beautiful recording of Rachmaninov’s Preludes, we have the advantage of having CDs with Rachmaninov’s playing. Would you take him as the reference?
DA: Yes, I do.
WB: He tended to play rather fast, what do you think of his tempi?
DA: First of all, it was a different time. Sometimes for us, they may seem strange, but fashion changes. It’s as if you are reading a book about the 18th century, times and characters were different. Of course, he was one of the greatest pianists.
WB: I have the feeling that his music is often misunderstood, even more so than Tschaikofsky’s. I think it is even worse, it’s often sentimentalized. How do you “desentimentalize” his music?
DA: I agree with you, and yes, it is difficult to take away the sentimentality (smiles).I do not know how to do that, but his music should not be sentimental. People mix up the notion of “emotional” and “sentimental” or they play his music in a very dry way.
WB: What do you emphasize in your interpretations of Rachmaninov: its strength or its nostalgia?
DA: That’s difficult to say, I try to express everything I know and I feel in his music and everything he put inside his music. I want to recreate what is written in the score.
WB: Was he as exact in his markings as Ravel?
DA: He was precise enough. His music has a strong improvisatory character though. Even when you play what is written, there are traces of improvisation. His markings are sometimes sort of loose, I experience the same with Chopin’s music.
WB: You won the Leeds competition in 1975, how big was the culture shock when you first played in the UK?
DA: It was a culture shock, yes, although I had played a couple of times in the West before. It was the greatest competition I won and it had a great impact. Maybe the 1975 edition was the greatest, because Uchida came second, Schiff third and Myung Whun Chung fourth!
WB: Your colleague Bella Davidovich said people noticed her playing had become freer after she had moved to the West, did you notice something similar?
DA: I understand her point of view, but she immigrated to the United States, I never did that. Since the 90’s, I was sharing my time between London and Moscow. Of course, the overall (musical) atmosphere between both cities is very different!
WB: Do you teach?
DA: I never did, but I started a few years ago and I like it.
WB: If a student plays for you, what do you mostly pay attention to?
DA: It should be a complex of features: musicality, technique, sound, but the most important aspect is personality..
WB: You have carte blanche in Arnhem for several concerts this season, did you know right away what you wanted to choose or were some of the combinations put together for the occasion?
DA: Basically, I knew what I wanted to do, since I did similar projects in the UK. I also play chamber music on a regular basis.
WB: Next month, you will play orchestral scores by Shostakovitsj with Nikolai Demidenko, are these original transcriptions by the composer?
DA: No, they are my own. The programme will consist mostly of my transcriptions of suites for jazz orchestra and of Porgy and Bess by Gerschwin.
WB: Are you happy as a musician?
DA: Yes, I am, sometimes, I am not, but it is a wonderful world, full of great composers that I am happy to explore.
WB: What do you consider highlights in your career?
DA: There are quite a few, I would not say that there is “one” in particular. The Leeds Competition obviously was a major achievement, I also remember concerts at Carnegie Hall, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. I remember performances in Philadelphia with Muti that were very memorable and something I will never forget: I had to play Beethoven Third Concerto in Russia and I was told that Emil Gilels would attend. I was shivering! Gilels was sometimes strange: he wouldn’t talk to people and ask for a ticket, he paid his own. When he was asked by musicians of the orchestra whether he liked my playing, he put up his thumbs, that was the greatest praise!
WB: Do you also have regrets?
DA: Yes, a lot! There is a lot of music that I should have played or recorded, maybe I will do so in the future..
WB: If you were to do it again, would you be a pianist again?
DA: Who knows? I know what I cannot be: physics or mathematics are not my world. It would have to be arts, literature or humanitarian things..
WB: How do you find the discipline to practise?
DA: If you love music, you should do honour to the music, and therefore, you should practise the best you can!
WB: How long can you stay away from the piano without practicing?
DA: Approximately ten days, maybe a couple of weeks.
WB: You are not like Martha Argerich who is rumoured to sometimes stay away one month from the piano?
DA: No, I don’t stay away that long from the instrument.