A new CD on the UK Quartz label, Dance of Shadows (QTZ 2013), brings together an intriguing program for solo violin: Ysaÿe’s Violin Sonata, op. 27/2, Obsession (1923); the Tango-Étude No. 2 by Piazzolla (1987); Schnittke’s homage A Paganini (1982); and Silvestrov’s Postlude No. 2 (1981–82), which suitably brings up the rear. And there’s a fascinating novelty, the first recording of Dobrinka Tabakova’s Spinning a Yarn (2011), for what is almost certainly history’s first duo for violin and what is billed as a kolesnaya lira—a hurdy-gurdy.
On a Skype video link to Moscow, Roman Mints and I talked about his new recording.
Q: Are you now based permanently in Moscow?
A: Now that we have family, we are here, for the moment, anyway. We have twins of two years and five months.
Q: I think our paths first crossed when you were playing in the ASCH Trio, with [violist] Maxim Rysanov and [cellist] Kristine Blaumane around 2000.
A: We set it up even earlier, at school, in 1995 or 1996. But it would be safe to say that we don’t exist anymore as an ensemble. Even when we made the ECM recording for Dobrinka [the CD String Paths, with music by the Bulgarian-born, London-based composer Dobrinka Tabakova, on ECM New Series 2239], we went under our own names. We’re old friends, but there’s no time for it anymore; everybody does his or her own things.
Q: How long have you been based in Moscow by now?
A: That’s not an easy question to answer. When I met my wife, she was working in a bank, and I had to spend more and more time here, since she could not just take time off and fly to London. So at some point I realized that I lived in Moscow, not London.
Q: As far as I can see, this seems to be the first CD you’ve made for a while.
A: Yes, the last one I made was the Desyatnikov, three or four years ago [Leonid Desyatnikov, The Leaden Echo, on Quartz QTZ2087]. The story of this one is that I knew we were having twins and I knew that, being the kind of person I am, I would be busy, because twins is a different story. So I thought: “What can I do before I have this long sabbatical?” And I ended up doing this solo album, since in my mind it was easier than assembling another group and doing another group thing. I finished it a week before my wife gave birth to the children.
Q: That’s a neat link to the music itself, since Dobrinka Tabakova’s Spinning a Yarn was written for your twins in utero, so to speak.
A: That’s a story in itself, since the instrument you can see there [he beckons over his shoulder to what looks like a Swedish nickelharfa, keyed fiddle, hanging on the wall] was a present from my wife for one of my birthdays. When she was pregnant, we had to go to Lithuania to record for Dobrinka’s album. I suggested to Dobrinka that she might be interested in writing something and she got enthusiastic for this instrument; I told her I wanted to do a solo record and so she wrote this piece. When she gave it to me, she said: “This is a piece for your children.” For me it was an extremely touching moment. I’m not sure, of course, but I think I can probably say that my children are the only ones to have been born with a piece of music already dedicated to them!
Q: Tell me about the instrument. It looks very old.
A: No, it was made specially for me. It is made from one piece of wood.
Q: It’s billed on the CD as a koleznaya lira, with hurdy-gurdy in brackets; what does the adjective mean?
A: It means the wheel. It’s pretty basic. There’s a big tradition for it in Russia for the last 300 years that was almost completely wiped out during the Stalin era, both in Russia and Ukraine, so all of these instruments are reconstructed. You can find a very similar thing in a Bosch painting The Garden of Earthly Delights—it’s exactly the same: It has the same number of keys here, and it’s very similar in the way it looks. It’s much more primitive than the hurdy-gurdy and the rest.
Q: What attracted you to start playing it in the first place?
A: I was showing the instrument to my wife and saying: “Look how cool it is!” I never would have imagined it, but she found a good maker. Some of the makers just take a cheap half-size Chinese cello, take the fingerboard away, and use the body.
Q: So you double-tracked yourself playing the lira and the violin?
A: Yes—which was not an easy thing to do, since it is not reliable in concerts. It’s a folk instrument; it’s not made to stay in tune. Let me get it and show you. You can see that there are little pegs, and you can move each one of them to correct the pitch. It [Spinning a Yarn] features a B♭, which isn’t here (it only has B♮), so I went back to the maker and asked him to drill another hole specially for that piece! I also showed it to my friend Elena Langer—she’s a very successful composer of operas nowadays—because I was hoping she might write something for it. She hasn’t, but she mentioned it to the Kronos Quartet when she was talking to them, and they insisted on her writing something for the Kronos with that; they commissioned it. The premiere of her work will be in May in France. All thanks to me!
Q: Of all the pieces on the CD, Spinning a Yarn is perhaps most concerned with atmosphere and color rather than with line.
A: I can’t say: This piece is very personal for me, and it’s so connected with people who are dear to me. And because of the whole story of the piece I can’t be objective about it. But there’s also interest from other musicians to play it, but of course they need a hurdy-gurdy!
Q: What governed the choice of repertoire as far as the other pieces on the CD are concerned?
A: In this particular case it wasn’t like I chose the music; it was the other way around, for some reason. Sometimes you can’t say why. I know there are pieces that work in my performance, and some that work better than others. It’s not so much that you like some pieces more than others; it’s a different story—you may like one thing but be good at something else. I would say that with these particular pieces it was something that I felt would work well. I had this feeling that, with each particular case with this music, I am actually convinced by my own interpretation when I listen back to it, which doesn’t actually happen often. Of course, there are a lot of examples of people going back and rerecording something they recorded in their youth because they feel differently about the music in 20 years time. The most famous example is Glenn Gould and the Goldberg Variations: he regarded the first recording as something funny—he was laughing at himself. I listened to his interview about the first recording, where he said one of the slow variations sounded more like Chopin than Bach. People do tend to come back to things they feel are important.
Q: I’m not the most ardent fan of the music of Astor Piazzolla, since he seems basically to plow the same field in different directions, but I was surprised how good the Tango-Étude No. 2 was.
A: I will take that as a compliment to me! But you are right: The hype about Piazzolla did him a disservice, because he’s probably a more serious composer than he is considered to be now. As you say, he is narrow, but there are lots of composers who are writing the same piece all their life—you put another record on and it’s the same music—and not all of them struck gold as much as he did. What’s important for me is not just him as a composer but the way he performed his own music. He was really a brilliant performer as well, and the notes that he wrote are actually just a very little part of the music, and the rest was just played in concerts or on record. You have to listen to a lot of his stuff done by him to try to understand how this music should be played. I think it’s right to say that this exploitation of his music really began after his death.
Q: So you listened to a lot of his playing before you recorded the piece on the CD?
A: Exactly, yes. And fortunately my wife likes Piazzolla. Indeed, as a wedding gift for her I wrote down one of his pieces: I transcribed what he played on bandoneon for violin and played the bandoneon part on the violin—and it’s completely different from the published music. So when I was doing that, I had to listen to a lot of his playing, and it’s all about doing something between the written notes. It’s a different experience to what you’re used to doing when you play classical music. We’ve all been taught to be faithful to the text, but maybe that’s not such a right idea in the first place. You have to have a different approach for each composer; you have to try to understand the mind of a composer first to know how important the notes are.
Q: I often find that performers who are also composers are far less obliged to the written symbols, since they know how much freedom they’ve had to abandon to get the notes on the page.
A: Yes, but it also depends on how good a performer the composer is. If you compare Rachmaninoff to Shostakovich, for example, you could say that Rachmaninoff is rewriting his pieces while he plays, while—for me, at least—Shostakovich is just showing you the material rather than performing the piece. It’s always very interesting to listen to composers themselves, no matter whether it’s a positive or negative feeling that you come out with. Sometimes composers neglect their own music because they’re shy, but I don’t usually listen to records of other people doing Rachmaninoff, because I don’t see anyone doing it better.
Q: Are the Schnittke and Silvestrov pieces works that you’ve had in your repertoire for a long time and wanted to get down on CD?
A: In particular the Schnittke, yes. The Silvestrov I’ve learned relatively recently. The Schnittke is one of the pieces I feel for, and playing Schnittke comes easily to me, although now I can’t say that he’s a composer I listen to every day; if I have a choice, I might listen to something else.
Q: But the ASCH Trio was named after him and Schoenberg, wasn’t it?
A: Yes. The reason for that was in the string trio repertoire we considered the trios by these two composers the cornerstones of the 20th-century repertoire.
Q: It does mean that you’ve been identified with Schnittke’s music right from the beginning of your career.
A: Possibly. I’m still planning to record the complete Schnittke violin and piano music, which I’ve done in concert already, because it’s also something which has been with me for a long time, and I was supposed to record it—I had a date set up, but then a ganglion just popped up on my wrist and it was postponed. And then the label was sold, so it never happened, but I’m still planning to do it.
Q: What governed the choice of the Silvestrov?
A: Well, there was another piece I was supposed to play, but it was withdrawn by the composer! I was supposed to do a duo with a Russian folk-singer. We recorded it and edited it, but the composer said she wasn’t happy with it and it was withdrawn. So I was thinking what to substitute, and then I remembered the Silvestrov, because I’d had the music for a long time already and I knew the piece. I just suddenly thought it would be the proper ending. It’s a piece I like to play, but it turned out to be a terribly difficult task to play Silvestrov. I don’t know if you’ve seen his music, but there’s some kind of mark on each note. It’s very similar to the way that serial music is written up, except that this is tonal. You try to observe all the indications but it becomes so difficult. In the end, when you have already played it a few times, you get used to it; you end up doing very delicate, subtle things, which I enjoy very much.
Q: Is it rather like Enescu, whose scores are covered with performance indications which—paradoxically—seek to make the music sound more spontaneous?
A: I think that Silvestrov has a very structured mind. He used to be a serialist before he turned to tonality, like some others of his colleagues, like Pärt, and I think that this attitude, where each note has a separate meaning, comes from there. I can’t say it for him, but that’s my feeling.
Q: We haven’t yet touched on how the recording uses perspective as an element of the music itself in the Ysaÿe.
A: That’s the main thing which came to me when I was searching for the right ways of interpreting the Ysaÿe at first. The “Obsession” [first movement] needed some interpretative decisions which would translate what Ysaÿe was actually thinking of, but that was obviously impossible. I couldn’t figure it out for a long, long time, but at some point I just realized that if you were to teach how to play this sonata, you’d say of the beginning to a student: “Imagine the Bach quotation sounding from afar”—and immediately I thought: If it is supposed to be sounding from afar, then it should be played from afar. And in the recording this is exactly what I have done: I was playing in different places in the hall, and then we put it together. At some moments I was imagining a camera moving through the space. That’s the image that I translated to the sound engineer, and she really got my idea. There’s one little passage which Ysaÿe writes as a transition between the Bach and his own material—just one bar—and I asked her: “Can we have an effect like a zoom where the camera gets closer to you?” And she thought about it and said: “Yes—why don’t you turn around from the microphone and turn back while you play it?” And it’s in there. Our whole approach with this piece was as if we were doing a movie and editing it with the camera being in different places in the room.
Q: You talked about Glenn Gould earlier on and he famously experimented with microphone placement in a recording of piano music by Sibelius, to suggest a sense of aural perspective.
A: It’s good that I didn’t know about that, because he’s so overwhelming! He’s one of the people who have influenced me the most. I must find out about this recording, because it’s very interesting for me. In our case we weren’t moving mikes about; we were moving myself, the source of the sound.
Q: I guess it’s easier with a violin than with a piano….
A: Absolutely right! For me, the important thing is not that this idea came first. I had a need to translate things that I heard in my head in this particular piece. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to do this always; it’s just that I’m interpreting this piece the way that I feel right, that I feel suits this music. Later on, when I was doing A Paganini, I actually thought that the collage of Paganini caprices is a kind of obsession as well, so it makes an arch from the beginning of the album to Schnittke. So I recorded that also in the same way. There are persistent notes in between the quotations of Paganini that are Schnittke’s, which I recorded staying in front of the microphone, whereas the quotations from Paganini were recorded all over the studio. And then they were put together so that at some points some quote would be a little bit on top of another, which of course you can’t do in live performance. I’ve kept that approach for these two pieces of music; for the other pieces there was no need for it. But if there is an approach which helps us translate our thoughts better, then we should use it.