Zaltbommel, 19 September 2011

“I hope I can be of any help, because my memory is not so good”, says violinist Emmy Verhey at the beginning of the interview. She has clearly been too modest, because during the conversation she,fortunately, remembers a lot of things about the Russian master pianist Youri Egorov who died at the tragic young age of 33. He lived in Amsterdam between 1976 and 1988. At the end of the 70’s and the beginning of the 80’s, they played concerts together and made a recording for EMI. I was curious about her memories of this pianist. I was fortunate enough to hear him five times between 1979 and 1987 and always kept a soft spot for his playing.

Willem Boone (WB) : Recently, I saw a film on internet from the TV archives in which you play the last two movements of the Third Violin Sonata by Brahms with Youri Egorov. Hans Hafmans referred to the two of you as “The Dutch girl and the Russian piano lion”, whereas you were well in your thirties at the time. Doesn’t it annoy you to be described in such a way?

Emmy Verhey (EV): Did they recently say that?

WB: Yes, not long ago, when it was broadcasted.

EV: Maybe that was what it looked like at the time. It didn’t bother me, it still doesn’t.

WB: And referring to Egorov as a “piano lion” doesn’t seem accurate to me!

EV: No, he was not at all like that. It is difficult to find a qualification that does him perfect justice; maybe the best would be to say that he was a “fantastic musician”.

WB: Or a poet?

EV: Yes, exactly!

WB: How did you get to know each other?

EV: Via our mutual manager at the time, Rob Groen. He worked at the Nederlands Impresariaat and brought us together.

WB: And it worked from the beginning?

EV: We were both very shy, but that doesn’t matter when you make music together. You try to achieve a common vision you both have in mind. We both happened to have the same phobia: the stage, he was even more afraid of it than I was, but it created a bond. I remember that we were sitting in a big room in Utrecht, waiting before we could go on stage to play the Second Violin Sonata by Bartok. It had been postponed a lot of times, because he again hadn’t had time to practice. It was actually part of him that he had practiced too little.  He wasn’t someone who worked fast anyway; it took a long time before he really had a firm grasp on a musical composition. 

I can imagine however that he wanted to discover a lot of things once he was in the Netherlands! We were both very nervous before that concert. The same evening I had to play the Sonata for Violin Solo by Bartok, one of the most beautiful pieces for solo violin from the 20th century, but also one of the most difficult ones. It was really one of these nice evenings! (laughs). When things worked out well, the euphoria was huge at the end, but stage fright remains something very hard to handle.

WB: Can nerves not just be a last push to give the best of yourself during such a concert?

EV: That is often the case, but there have been concerts when I thought: ‘Well, well, I made it, but don’t ask me how I did it!”

WB: Have you played other pieces than the Third Brahms Sonata, the Duo by Schubert and the Second Violin Sonata by Bartok, all of which have been issued on CD?

EV: No, we didn’t get any further than that, I can’t remember we have ever played Beethoven or other composers. By the way, the Bartok on the CD you referred to is illegal, because it is a live performance, whereas the rest was recorded in a studio. It’s actually quite annoying that this was issued on CD!

WB: Even though the two of you may have been nervous, the playing looked (and sounded!) very solid on television, I had the impression that you knew very well what you were doing!

EV: It was difficult because we played it on television, but in this case we were both sure we knew the piece well.

WB: How did you see him: as a colleague or as a friend of yours?

EV: We didn’t have time to develop a friendship, since we were constantly rehearsing or playing concerts! However we shared the same sense of humor and we had the same view on music. My husband and myself got along well with his partner, Jan Brouwer. He was original from Limburg, just like my husband. I was amazed though at all the people that always surrounded them! I had the impression that they walked all over Youri, but on the other hand he also enjoyed the attention he got and he obviously needed it. I must say I didn’t enjoy the “after concert parties” at their place very much.

WB: You went there too?

EV: Yes, I have been a few times.

WB: I am not that much into astrology, but in the book “In het huis van de dichter” by Jan Brokken, Egorov comes across as a true Gemini because of his inner conflicts. Brokken describes that even to his best friend, Egorov could be both nice and mean, sensible and hard, charming and even frightening. What was your experience?

EV: I haven’t witnessed his dark sides and I am glad I didn’t. There was obviously no reason for him to behave in a bad way. Maybe the extremes were reinforced by the drugs and pills he used, they do not help you to make your character any nicer...

WB: Did you know he used drugs?

EV: No, I didn’t, I read about it in the book of Jan Brokken! Again, I am glad I didn’t experience any unpleasant behaviour from his side. I do have a bad memory, but I would have definitely remembered that!

WB: You were quoted in the book calling Youri “both a sweetheart and a naughty boy”

EV: Well, the “naughty boy”referred to the fact that he was surrounded by a lot of men. I wonder what Jan thought of all that. I remember that Youri often showed up with yet another, totally different person whenever we had to play somewhere.. (suddenly remembers) he had such a nice giggle (shows).. It’s such a shame that he didn’t survive this disease....

WB: The ironic thing is that he probably would have survived ten years later, when they had better medication...

EV: I am not sure... you have to be very strict and disciplined with such medication, the way I knew him, I am not certain whether he would have managed it, since he lived a very irregular life. I have a friend who has medication for the same disease and who was extremely disciplined. He is doing really well now.
I remember Youri’s partner Jan as a very sweet man...

WB: It is quite clear from Brokken’s book that he must have had a tough life, because he had to take care of almost everything in Youri’s life: meals, transportation, he did his management...

EV: Yes, he had to arrange a lot of things and he must have had a lot of worries!

WB: A long time ago, Jan Brokken has written a portrait about Egorov for the Dutch magazine Haagse Post/De Tijd, where he worked as a reporter. Youri suggested that he would not only interview him, but that he would also join him on a tour to England. This article has been translated and published in the French magazine “Le monde de la musique”, where I read it for the first time. For me, it was a real eye opener, for the first time, I read about all the downsides of the job of musician: the uncertainty, the hypersensitive nature of Egorov and all the inconveniences, such as bad pianos and uninspired musicians in orchestras...

EV: Yes, life of a musician is not always easy; sometimes, you are received very nicely, the next time there is nobody at all. I remember a trip to Venezuela: I arrived in the middle of the night and happened to remember which taxi I should take and which one I should definitely not take! Nothing had been taken care of, not even the hotel where I was supposed to stay...
And the pianos were often a problem. Usually, we had very little time to warm up before a concert, maybe half an hour and exactly at that moment the piano tuner would show up and we would lose even those precious 30 minutes. Life of a concert pianist is not easy, life of a concert violinist is not easy either... (laughs).

WB: Did you know about his craving for extremes?

EV: I knew there was a lot of alcohol involved. He sometimes looked shabby at rehearsals and I had no idea what he had been doing the night before...

WB: Suppose he would have been a good friend of yours and that you would have known about his use of drugs, would you have said something about it?

EV: We would have certainly discussed it or I would at least have asked him questions like “Youri, how on earth do you manage to live your life like this?” or “How do you think this will go on?”

WB: Still I think this story is not unique, I have heard about other musicians (and not the least famous ones) that they couldn’t cope without drugs!

EV: I think you can’t cope if you abuse drugs! Alot of orchestra members need alcohol or pills like beta-blockers... It’s true though that playing before such a huge audience remains a very strange phenomenon!

WB: Would you call it unnatural?

EV: Yes, indeed. It is fantastic when things go well, but it goes often against your nature.

WB: Strangely enough, Egorov was very disciplined in his music making and he really served the music. At such moments, he was not at all the acrobat who got a kick out of the salto mortale...

EV: Thank God he didn’t! He was a very musical guy and his excesses had nothing to do with music..

WB: Brokken describes in his book that Egorov “had to be in the mood for anonymous (sex) contacts, mostly when I despised myself”. Did he indeed have such feelings about himself?

EV: I never noticed!

WB: You already said that he was sometimes under-rehearsed. He used to have a habit that drove a lot of musicians crazy, when he said beforehand he hadn’t had enough time to practice and that he feared the worst for the concert.

EV: That didn’t work with me, as I was already insecure myself! I remember a concert at Wigmore Hall in London with a wonderful audience. We were both nervous, he even more so than me, but at such a moment I tried to support him by saying: “Come on, Youri, we are just going to do it!”

WB: Nerves never prevail in such a way with you that you are afraid to walk out on stage?

EV: I can remember concerts where I thought “This is not going well”, but nowadays, I can relativize better.

WB: Did you stay in touch with him until the end of his life?

EV: During the last years, we no longer performed together, I haven’t witnessed his illness. I have seen his new apartment at the Keizersgracht once,  he seemed to be doing not so well at that time. In which year did he pass away?

WB: In 1988.

EV: Oh yes, that was a very difficult year for me as well... I sometimes heard that he was doing badly.

WB: Is it true that he had a lot of sex appeal?

EV: Yes, definitely, he was a very attractive guy who flirted a lot!

WB: Strange for someone who was that shy?

EV: Especially in the beginning he was very shy, the flirting started later...

WB: Was he, at the end of the 70’s, a few years after he had moved to Amsterdam, indeed as they call it “the talk of town” and where there stories going around about him having the looks of a ballet dancer?

EV: I don’t remember any more, I didn’t live in Amsterdam at the time, but I heard about him from my manager.

WB: Did you hear him play solo?

EV: Yes, I was at that recital in Amsterdam during which he played all Etudes from Chopin (31 January 1980, WB), he was so nervous that he hardly dared to walk down the long stairs! I find it difficult to talk about in an objective way, since I was shaking from fear at the sheer thought that he might get off the rails. I saw him squeeze out every note so to say. I can also recall a performance of Tschaikofsky’s First Piano Concerto. I had to play during the same concert and remember that he played a lot of wrong notes, but at the end the audience went mad!

WB: Which of his performances did you like best?

EV: He was great in Schubert, I love that sonata that was recorded (A life performance of the C-minor Sonata D 958, published by the Youri Egorov Stichting, WB).

WB: What did you admire most in him?

EV: The range of his sound, the musical lines and the naturalness of everything he touched... you don’t hear that so often! His playing was not affected and he wasn’t the artist to use tricks in order to get noticed, wonderful...He actually didn’t need it, since he let the music speak for itself.

WB: At the end of his life, he was supposed to have said: “I lived as a sinner”, what do you think of such a comment?

EV: It probably was a bad translation of what he possibly may have said in Russian. He probably regretted a few things...

WB: And what do you think of the comment “The most important thing in my life is music, the rest is of secondary importance”?

EV: I believe that is true!

WB: Does that go for you too?

EV: Almost, but I have children! Youri loved children by the way, he really liked them.

WB: Did he know yours?

EV: It didn’t happen very often that he met them, but the few times he met them, he was very sweet.

WB: The mother of Youri, Eleonora, was supposed to have said after his death: “He hardly learned anything since he left my house”...

EV: I think it has to do with a certain, Russian way of educating, where people tend to emphasize the negative things, rather than the positive. You shouldn’t forget the Russian background!

WB: Egorov said he was first and foremost interested in the structure of music, intervals and the relation between intervals. “Every interval has a meaning and I want to make that clear”, was that indeed clear in his interpretations?

EV: Yes, absolutely! That made his performances so great: the colors, the harmonic changes whilst he maintained the musical line... he was great at showing this and this is what music is based upon!

WB: You studied with the legendary violinist David Oistrakh, do you feel related to Egorov since you were drilled in the Russian tradition as well?

EV: I studied one year with him, but before I had lessons with Wolfgang Schneiderhan, who taught more or less in the same way.I wanted to experience the incredible sound of Oistrakh and imitate it. It’s actually a strange thing, you are young, you get lessons, you hear recordings and you “choose” with whom you wish to study...

WB: Wasn’t it extremely difficult to enter in the class of Oistrakh?

EV: Very difficult, but I had won a prize in the Oscar Back Competition: a scholarship to take lessons abroad. I remember that my parents were against the idea in the beginning. The Dutch Embassy in Russia had made a lot of effort for me. I had to deal with a lot of bureaucracy: there was no “arrangement” for students who were self-supporting! They loved dollars, but it apparently didn’t happen often that students had their own money! Incidentally, I didn’t know at the time whether I would study with Oistrakh, I can only say that I have been extremely lucky! Not long ago, I found programmes of concerts at the conservatoire and the overall level was very high. There were violinists like Gidon Kremer who would play during such concerts. I was gob smacked at the high level in Russia: I used to be a “hero” in the Netherlands, but it can be really healthy to be surrounded by other heroes! (laughs). I remember from the lessons of Oistrakh that they were very inspiring and that we were accompanied by a wonderful pianist, but I unfortunately forgot her name.
I had already worked out with whom I wanted to study in case it would prove impossible to study with Oistrakh: Arthur Grumiaux, another violinist I tremendously admired. Everything he played sounded so effortless, in such a way that I sometimes asked myself: “Why doesn’t it work with me?”.

WB: You sometimes hear about Russian musicians that they can be very demanding towards themselves and even ask the impossible, in what way does this apply to you?

EV: It has to with the music, when things go well, they have to go even better the next time!

WB: But does it happen to you that you think: “I did that really well”?

EV: Yes, it happens, but maybe only once a year! The last time was during my festival in Zaltbommel (September 2011, WB), I was very proud of that!

WB: You have been performing for a long time now, what did all these years bring you?

EV: Wow, a lot actually, but I can’t really answer your question. There have been fantastic memories and less fantastic ones. If I think of the concerts I played with mastercellist Janos Starker, they were all so special! I also keep great memories of pianist Maria Joao Pires. And I played under Yehudi Menuhin, that was an incredible experience, I already realized that during the concert itself. He radiated so much love and wanted you to play at your very best. Such experiences are uplifting and because of that you reach out to everybody in a concert hall, even to those who are seated in the back of the hall. You leave with a happy feeling when you feel that people are touched.

( I tell Emmy Verhey about a few musical memories that were truly life changing: a performance of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto in Rotterdam by pianist Pi Hsien Chen when I was only ten years old, Bach by Sviatoslav Richter and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein).

EV: It is fantastic when this happens to you and when other musicians can give you such feelings. I am glad to have heard so much music. And yet, there are still new discoveries, there is no end! The other day I heard the Piano Quartet by Julius Röntgen, wonderful music! Another discovery was Bartok’s Piano Quintet, I was not familiar with this piece, but it was such an interesting composition! Yesterday, I even discovered something new in a solo sonata by Bach, which I have played for so long now. Even that goes on... such experiences make you a grateful person!

WB: I have a last question, although I am not sure whether I remember this correctly. I heard you say in an interview on the radio that you wanted to study the Schönberg Violin Concerto one day, did you manage to do that?

EV: Yes, I did, although I used to find it such an ugly piece that I swore to say no when they would ever ask me to play it. Then I got a request, from Paris of all places! They asked me well in advance and I had one year to study it and then I gradually got over my dislike of this concerto, on the contrary: I liked it so much! However, it is a very awkward piece to listen to. There are many technical problems, but I had never thought that I would enjoy working on this particular concerto so much!