Amsterdam, 4 June 2009
Alexander Gavrylyuk is the ideal artist for an interviewer: friendly, articulate, highly knowledgeable and his answers are always insightful. I was impressed to speak with a 25 year old pianist who already knows so well what he wants to achieve and bring across.
Willem Boone: My first question would be about your job; people may think the life of a musician is full of glory, acclaim, you are playing beautiful music and you make a lot of people happy, but of course there are downsides too, such as the constant travelling, the jetlags, the practicing and maybe most of all the expectations of the audience you have to live up against. I have to think of an old colleague of yours, Aldo Ciccolini, who will play in Amsterdam at the end of next week (7 June 2009, WB). He has undergone surgery a few years ago and the doctors thought he probably wouldn’t survive, but he did and he took up concertizing again. When someone has played so much as he did, there can be only one reason for a return on stage: it must be addicting. How addicted are you to giving concerts?
Alexander Gavrylyuk (AG): With regard to Mr Ciccolini, if I look at my own experience, I am unemployed in a way! I don’t have a job; music is a huge part of my life, like oxygen, food or other central things. It is more than a habit. It is so wonderful to exist in such a world, so tempting! About the downsides you mentioned, the jetlags are probably the hardest part. As to high expectations from the audience; that is good. It is a motivation as you realize there is no end to musical development.
WB: Do you never feel pressure?
AG: The only pressure I feel has got to do with my own personal satisfaction on stage. If I don’t reach a feeling of truth, I feel guilty when it doesn’t happen. Euphoria is the ultimate goal.
WB: How often does that happen?
AG: Not every time, but I feel a connection with people in the audience. People who are not educated may feel as close to the music as people who are musically educated.
WB: You have had a horrible accident from which you thankfully recovered. Did that make you even more eager to play concerts?
AG: I can’t say. It is a passion that grows every year. As of the age of 17, I have had a wider concert career and my passion is constantly growing ever since.
WB: What inspires you?
AG: People, more than anything! It is fascinating to see that music can erase difficulties and problems e.g. in politics. It can unite people from such different nationalities and upbringings! With music, you share beauty of spiritual heights. It is probably the highest human creation, although you can wonder if it is human (laughs)
WB: In an interview in a Dutch newspaper (NRC Handelsblad, WB) you said you went to Australia, although there are hardly any famous Australian pianists. Why did you decide to go there?
AG: At the age of 13, I lived in Ukraine, which was depressing in the 90’s. Besides, there were not many opportunities to study. I received a scholarship to study in Australia. Although I experienced some personal difficulties there, Australia gave me a different outlook on life. It was not always a positive experience, but the country opened my eyes. The nature, the freedom, the complete isolation, the independence from the rest of life were enriching and helped me to understand music better.
WB: In what way did that help you musically?
AG: The overall freedom of spirit was important. Boundaries limit performances. Inner freedom is another thing that is essential. It is like the kind of breath in between notes we hear in interpretations of great pianists from the Golden age of the piano: Horowitz and Rubinstein....
WB: Would you have been less successful if you had stayed in Russia?
AG: Who knows?
WB: You are a pianist with no (technical) limits, none whatsoever. I read in the programme of Tilburg University that you will play a concert in Tilburg next year during which you will play both Islamey and Pétrouchka, which is an incredible achievement. Don’t you have any fears?
AG: I never see technical difficulties as priorities. Of course, it is something that needs to be worked on, but for me it is mainly a tool to make music. As to the programme you mentioned, I like to challenge myself.
WB: Do you enjoy playing highly virtuosic music?
AG: Yes, to some extent. Virtuosity is a huge part of music, it is also an expression of human emotions, rush, energy or electricity in music. It can be highly effective in concerts.
WB: Like the Wedding March by Mendelssohn transcribed by Liszt and Horowitz you played as an encore after your recital in Amsterdam?
AG: Yes, that’s a fantastic transcription!
WB: In the same interview I quoted before, you said it sounded actually more difficult than it is; is a piece like Islamey harder to play?
AG: O yes, Islamey is definitely much more difficult to play, but the most difficult piece I have ever performed are the Paganini Variations by Brahms. It is very deep music with so many hidden things behind the dynamic storm...
WB: You sometimes hear Brahms is uncomfortable pianistically speaking, what do you think?
AG: I have to disagree! His music is symphonic in almost every piece he wrote!
WB: You started your recital in Amsterdam with Mozart, do you agree that he is some sort of test for pianists?
AG: Yes, one can look at it that way. Mozart requires a very high pianistic and also a very high musical level. His music is spiritual and very open and direct. This directness is the most difficult to achieve. I pay attention to differences in sound, as Mozart can be played with many sounds. He is much less conservative than he is often thought of...
WB: But how come that some very great pianists seem to have problems to play Mozart naturally, Pogorelich, Pletniev and Horowitz seemed ill at ease and sounded affected?
AG: He is a very intimate composer who comes straight to the heart. Perhaps the pianists you mentioned connect through their own lens of seeing Mozart...
WB: Do you have any favourites in Mozart?
AG: I like Horowitz for his timing and quality of touch, although not everybody might agree.
WB: By the way, is it true that Pletniev quit piano playing altogether?
AG: Yes indeed!
AG: He wishes to conduct. The orchestra he founded is so fantastic. I played with them and with Pletniev last week. I stayed after the intermission when they played Tschaikofsky’s 5th Symphony and then I understood why he wants to conduct!
WB: You will be playing the First Piano Concerto of Liszt this week. A lot of people consider Liszt as “empty” or “cheap” and say his music is less balanced than Chopin’s. What is your opinion about this composer?
AG: I like him a lot! He has had a big influence on Russian composers. In a way, you can compare him with Bach. Bach was the foundation for classical music and Liszt for romantic music. In the music of the latter, you find extremes such as dark and light inside the human soul, besides the struggle between evil and good. And there is of course the passion of love that is quite direct. His is electrical music that is full of life. That makes him great.
WB: When I interviewed Aldo Ciccolini, who is a great interpreter of Liszt, he said that some of Liszt’s music shouldn’t have been printed since they were musically uninteresting. What do you think?
AG: I haven’t heard many of those bad pieces yet....
WB: Do you consider the First Concerto as a rewarding piece? It is quite short as opposed to, say Prokofiev’s Second Concerto?
AG: They are very different! Prokofiev’s Second Concerto has so many notes that hide pain, sorrow, inner beauty or the dark glory of pain. Perhaps Prokofiev was not so brave as to express everything directly. My goal with this concerto is to uncover the pain beneath the virtuosity. On the contrary, Liszt is very open in his First Concerto, although that too is a very virtuosic piece. It brings up emotion, passion and enforces the main breath of passion. Prokofiev was influenced by Liszt.
WB: Still, isn’t the First Concerto a bit frustrating? By the time you are “on”, the concerto is over....
AG (laughs) It reminds me of Richter who writes in his Mémoires that once Neuhaus played a long piece that was quite boring, but the two minutes of his encore were worth the whole concert....
WB: Speaking of Prokofiev, you will be playing all of his concertos with Ashkenazy, won’t you?
AG: Yes, we will record the whole cycle.
WB: Is the Second Concerto your favourite?
AG: It is... although I also like the Fifth and the Third very much. The Fourth is a difficult piece...
WB: Is it an advantage to work with a conductor who is a pianist himself and who knows these scores inside out?
AG: Yes, it is definitely an advantage to work with Ashkenazy. It is very comfortable. There is a lot of understanding with him.
WB: He had a lot of praise about your playing...
AG: He was kind enough to say very nice words about me. I admire him enormously. I don’t know a musician who did so many things!
WB: And he is such a nice and unassuming person... He has been one of my idols since I was a teenager and I have been very touched when I could interview him.
AG: He is a very kind and sincere man.
WB: He really was one of the best technicians, if you listen to the treacherous leaps in the First Mephistowaltz by Liszt, almost every pianist slows down and he plays them at full speed!
AG: He must have worked incredibly hard to play that piece by Liszt and the Chopin Etudes, he doesn’t have big hands...
WB: What about yours?
AG: They are medium seized. I have to pay attention, sometimes I have to do exercises for my back too.
WB: Are your hands ensured?
AG: No, I don’t believe in ensuring your hands. When something is bound to happen, it happens.
WB: I read that you had a problem with a finger when you played in Amsterdam, did you hurt it when you or someone else closed a door of a car?
AG: How did you know that?
WB: It was mentioned in the same interview in NRC Handelsblad.
AG: Yes, it turned black, it was a bit painful, but somehow it was also motivating, since I had to push myself harder. I think belief is much stronger than any physical condition...
WB: How do you look back on your debut recital in Amsterdam?
AG: It was a big challenge and a big honour. It is a famous hall and series. And the audience was very fair and honest.
WB: And the concert was filmed too! Did that bother you?
AG: I know, but you tend to forget as long as they don’t get too close...
WB: Did you see the film? Was it painful to see yourself on a film?
AG: Yes, it was, but it shows what can be improved...Live performances can be slightly tricky; the microphones make adjustments to the sound, but I have to say that the quality of the film was good.
WB: In the interview in NRC Handelsblad, you said music is about beauty. Does that mean though that “all music” is beautiful and that you don’t know any hideous music?
AG: No, not at all. I probably didn’t express myself correctly. As I said before, music touches spiritual heights. People do not always realize why they are touched or why they are crying. Sometimes people can be united with religion or in times of war or sorrow, but other than that, I can’t think of anything that unites people in a way as music does. It can bring people of such different upbringing together in a sphere of beauty, but of course it can also express pain and evil things, for instance Prokofiev described in his music the evil and nasty characters that appeared with the revolution! Music can touch many different angles.
WB: Exactly, I was going to mention Prokofiev too, he has different sides that can be lyrical but also ruthless!
AG: He was trying to extend the ruthlessness of his time: the arms, the tanks, forces, all that came with it. Shostakovitch did too, but in a completely different way.
WB: So you may agree with what Ashkenazy said about the Precipitato from the 7th Sonata, when he compared the rhythm to a tank that gains speed?
AG: I agree. The first movement is a battle, the evil force of ugliness, you almost hear the sharp pain of people who lost everything... The second movement is an impression of the Russian soul that you could probably find far in the province, people who feel love in their heart, whilst experiencing a lot of pain, the third movement is the counterforce, the positive battle...
WB: The melody of the second movement always vaguely reminds me of a blues or is that something very different?
AG: Maybe a little bit, although Prokofiev didn’t express it in such an elegant way.
WB: You come across as such a wise person, who seems to have done so much thinking about music. When do you find time for this or is it something that happens unconsciously?
AG: It is more something that happens unconsciously, but it may arise during conversations too. That’s why it is so good to have drinks with friends!