On Putin playing the piano, rubbing shoulders with the powers that be, parental heroism and sold apartment
- Have you heard Vladimir Putin play the piano while he was waiting for a rendezvous with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping? What would you say about the performer?
- He touches the keys far more softly that before. Anyone familiar with the instrument will surely take note of the progress he made.
- Would you say the test was passed?
- One hundred percent!
- Wasn’t it you by any chance who gave him music classes?
- No, it wasn’t me. Not a single hour or minute. You have my word for it!
- And what if Putin himself asked you for a master class?
- I would’ve recommended him a more worthy teacher.
- But you’ve chanced to perform for the president, haven’t you?
- Putin repeatedly visited classical music concerts with my participation. The opening of the Tchaikovsky Competition and the inauguration of the new stage of the Mariinsky Theater… I can’t remember everything.
- And for the selected few?
- On one occasion Yelena Obraztsova and yours truly were invited to the Bocharov Ruchei residence. Our president was in the company of the then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his wife.
- What did you play?
- Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky…
- At the audience’s request?
- Not without that.
I can tell you quite honestly that it makes no difference at all for me where to play and what audience there is in the hall. It does not matter how many people there are listening to me – just three or two thousand and what my listeners’ social status is. I always perform to the best of my ability. Otherwise I would’ve stopped respecting myself.
I have my own, subjective yardstick. If I’ve lost a couple of kilograms during one recital, that means that I did it the right way. Yesterday, for instance, I lost three kilograms. I’m still curious how a performing artist can leave the stage with one’s shirt being dry. It’s always different with me. Somebody has taken the trouble of calculating that Rachmaninoff’s Concerto N. 3 consists of fifty five thousand notes. It’s not like going out for a weekend picnic with only a tiny backpack to carry! It’s like scaling Mont Everest.
- Have you ever given private recitals in front of the heads of state apart from Putin?
- To begin with, in 1991 I became a laureate of the charity foundation New Names and over a very short period of time I toured several dozen countries. Ivetta Voronova, the foundation’s first president, regularly included me in different programs. Imagine: when I was just sixteen I played not only at Carnegie Hall or Vienna’s Musikverein, but also at the headquarters of NATO in Brussels, at the United Nations in New York, for Queen Elizabeth II, of Britain, and for the Pope. I performed for Pope John Paul six times. And on one occasion the King of Thailand and me played the piano four hands. He was a composer and wrote music himself. Quite melodic, decent pieces…
- Does your proximity to the Russian authorities create problems for you in the West? After all, the attitude to our country has changed, let us say, not in the best of ways.
- What do you mean by “proximity”? I am a member of the presidential council on culture, where I can share with the head of state the problems that trouble me and to draw his attention to certain issues. I remember on one occasion I briefed him on musical education for children. Under the existing standards the special educational establishments for future musicians, such as the Central Musical School at the Moscow Conservatoire, and the Gnesin School of Music were allowed to enroll students starting from the age of twelve. Although it is clear that the basics of music are to be taught at a far younger age. I felt obliged to discuss that with Putin. And my message wasn’t left unanswered. Some amendments have been made. Pre-school education at the Central Musical School begins at the age of four.
Regrettably, music classes are being ousted from the secondary schools, while I am certain that alongside the alphabet and numbers our minors must be taught musical notes, too. Regardless of whether they are destined to become musicians in the future or not. Basic musical knowledge helps people keep an open mind and develop a different type of associations. I’m prepared to press for this at any level, high or low, just for the sake of getting things going.
Incidentally, the fact that the decision regarding the Central Musical School was made so promptly was fresh evidence that the presidential council is not just a discussion club, although some have been trying to portray it this way. It addresses some very specific, crucial culture-related matters.
But this is certainly not a reason to speculate about “proximity” to the authorities. I have no theater or orchestra of my own. I don’t get government grants of budget financing. It is true that the Ministry of Culture does provide some funding for the contest called Grand Piano Competition and the festivals Crescendo and Stars of Baikal festival. But that’s where the federal subsidies run dry. The authorities of the Irkutsk Region contribute a certain share. As for the rest of the money needed, I raise it on my own. I visit sponsors, acquaintances and friends, I keep persuading donors and inventing plausible options. For instance, the Russian government’s award that I received last year was spent entirely on the Stars of Baikal festival.
- And so the financial 'tide' goes
- I can’t complain. I enjoy recognition in my home country. For many years I’ve had the title of the People’s Artist and of the State Prize laureate. Just recently I was awarded the Order of Merit, in which I take very special pride. This is my country and I’ve never had thoughts of leaving Russia, although invitations have been many. Starting from the 1990s. I was invited to the United States, France, Spain and Britain… I wish to live in my home country and to go to bed with this thought.
Believe it or not, but in our two-room apartment on Lenin Street in Irkutsk, the same featherbed I used to sleep on when I was a little boy is still there. Besides that, I refuse to let the apartment be refurbished. Everything there is the way it was nearly 30 years ago. Even my favorite toy lion sporting green overalls is still intact. And there is no place in the world where I can sleep better than at home. Home, sweet home.
Do you know how many recitals I did last year? Can you believe it? 264! I enjoy touring the world provided I know that my home country waiting for me. In contrast to many other people in my profession I’ve never had any second or third passports or residence permits. I’ve never made arrangements for any “safe havens” elsewhere. Although I can tell you that getting Israeli citizenship would not be a great problem for me, because my mother is half-Jew. But it never occurred to me to do that. Why should I? And my daughter Anna, who is about to turn one, is a Russian citizen. This is a matter of fundamental importance.
It is true that the world’s attitude to Russia has changed, but my foreign tours still gather capacity audiences, and I don’t feel that the people have begun to react differently. There’s never been anything like this.
- But in the United States some calls were made for cancelling your tour last year, weren’t they?
- It was just a rumor some tried to turn into breaking news. In Boston a handful of picketers could be seen standing in front of the concert hall for a while. That’s a normal scene in the United States. There’s no day there without somebody protesting against something some place. Including the area near the White House. There were minor pickets before concerts by Valery Gergiev and Vladimir Spivakov. That incident in Boston would’ve surely remained unnoticed, had some not blown it out of proportion. First, in the social networks and then in the mass media. In the meantime, The Washington Post carried a complimentary review of my performance. Sadly, commotions sell better than good news.
Very few media outlets write about such matters, so I have to remind you that it was me who prompted the purchase of more than50 new Steinway&Sons pianos for various regions of Russia over the past few years. Mind you, a new concert instrument costs 160,000 euros. A hefty sum of money, isn’t it? A Steinway piano’s normal life cycle is up to 30 years provided that it’s taken care of properly. And how many more good pianos from other manufacturers have been purchased around the country? Hundreds! There was a time when many pianists, including myself, had no chance of touring some cities because there were no instruments to play on. The situation has changed. I believe that this “piano purchase campaign” is an achievement of mine to an extent and I take special pride in it. Orenburg Governor Yuri Berg’s efforts have helped 18 district centers around the region acquire Yamaha salon pianos. They were bought not with budget money, but with donations from private sponsors. On one occasion, Governor Berg and I toured four cities in one day: Gai, Buzuluk, Buguruslan, Belyayevka. In each city, I tested the instruments’ quality myself…
Now there is another problem to address. We have just five concert halls across the country where the proper air temperature and humidity levels are maintained. For a musical instrument, the conditions in which it is kept are critically important. Sharp swings in temperature and humidity may cause the soundboard to crack. There have been times when after visiting some place that I had last just been to the previous year, I find the piano has changed beyond recognition. Purchasing a good instrument is not enough. Proper upkeep and maintenance are crucial. A great deal of persuasion is involved. Steinway piano tuner Vladimir Spesivtsev and I travel from place to place and explain that they need a special Damp-Chaser (a system of climate control for pianos – TASS) to be placed under each instrument. It costs 20,000 rubles ($345)…
The way I see it, the presence of a top-notch piano in a region is an indicator of the level of culture and a mandatory condition for tours by renowned performers. Media support is essential in this respect, too. This problem is to be highlighted and sponsors’ attention drawn to the problem.
- I may be mistaken but I have the impression that there is only one person capable of keeping abreast of your tight performance schedule. Valery Gergiev.
- Correct. He is my elder brother in this sense. We even compete with each other, unofficially, of course, who will do more concerts in one year. I must confess with regret that Valery is in the lead, although he is some years my senior. His record is hard to beat. On one occasion he conducted an orchestra in Amsterdam only to perform in New York in the evening of the same day. Sometimes I have the impression that Gergiev has the ability to keep time under control and even to stop it.
We also had some joint accomplishments: at the Easter Festival in 2016 we began with a Tchaikovsky concerto in Belgorod at noon, at 5 p.m. we performed a piece by Shostakovich in Kursk and in Oryol at nine in the evening there was Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Three appearances on stage in one day with three different programs.
- I must address words of sympathy to the Oryol audience, who had to put up with the presence of exhausted Gergiev and Matsuev on stage.
- How very wrong you are. There was a standing ovation. And we had a great steam bath party afterwards. Gergiev is a great steam bath enthusiast.
I’d say more: I like this pace of life. I hate coming to a city several days before the recital to have a good night’s sleep, to leisurely have breakfast and then rehearse without any haste. This knocks me off my feet. I have to hurry all the time in order to be everywhere.
- What’s the right term for this? Money-raking?
- It’s utterly wrong. Money-racking implies hackwork, pre-recorded soundtracks and other tricks used so often to make a fast buck.
- But you don’t perform gratis, do you?
- Naturally. But that’s not the main driving force that makes me appear on stage. As I’ve already said, part of the money is spent on arranging festivals, on the New Names Foundation, which I took over from Ivetta Voronova, and on charity. I would not like to speak about that in greater detail. It would be wrong and not very modest of me of me if I would. Before my mind’s eye I have good examples of my senior colleagues, real masters of their trade, who have long indulged in this type of activity and who almost never speak about that aloud. You know, I still have this inborn Siberian habit: never offend and always help.
- You were in a somewhat similar position once, when you grandmother sold her apartment in Irkutsk to let you go to Moscow to study music?
That decision was made by the whole family. My mom and dad were about to take a dive into the unknown. The future looked so unclear that it will be hard for you to imagine. Nobody could say for certain if something good would come of that risky venture. Hoping for good fortune and the lucky star was all we could do then. It may sound too pathetic, but my parents displayed true heroism. My father and mother were perfectly aware that I had already overgrown the local level. I needed a fresh impetus. Fifteen is a critical age. Sadly, many potentially talented musicians stop developing precisely because they do not make a step forward at this crucial moment. True, suspense may look scaring, but you have to overpower your own self, if you wish to achieve something serious in the future.
One should be aware that in the late 1980s cultural life in Irkutsk was pegged to my father somehow. He authored music for many local stage productions. My mother was a piano teacher. My grandmother sold her apartment for $13,500 and gave the money to us to go to Moscow. We lived on that money for several years. My parents abandoned their well-established life to move into a single-room apartment.
My father offered his services to Moscow theaters, gave private lessons, and worked as a teacher at an amateur music class at a children’s creative center. Supermarket shelves were mostly empty in those days. To put it in a nutshell, those were turbulent years, yet I recall them as one of the brightest periods in my life.
A stroke of luck certainly played a role. In the autumn of 1990 the New Names Foundation invited me to Moscow for taking part in a Morning Star TV show. That was my first appearance on TV. I played my own jazz piece called Paris Memories. A year before that I had performed in Sorbonne. It was a sensation. A youngster from Siberia plays before an audience of university professors and students in the capital of France. That trip had produced the strongest impression on me. I still recall the day when I first saw Place du Chatelet. I was instantly overwhelmed.
Upon return from Paris I wrote this jazz piece which I would later play on TV. In Moscow we used to stop at the home of my father’s good old friend, Igor Kopyrin. The Central Musical School was next door. Sheer coincidence. Kopyrin suddenly had an idea: “That’s the place for you to go! Go and ask. What if Denis is good for them.” Frankly speaking, the idea looked utterly weird. The academic year was already well in progress and all classes were full. But Kopyrin was very insistent. Strangely enough, we were granted an audience with the school’s director, Valentin Belchenko. He listened to us for a while and then asked me to play something. I performed Rachmaninoff’s prelude and that very same jazz phantasy about Paris. Belchenko stayed silent for a moment and then said: “OK, you’re in. Join us. Right away.”
I left his office without having the slightest idea what to do next. We returned to Irkutsk and gave the proposal some thought. I hated the idea of leaving my school, let alone leaving Irkutsk. I literally turned hysterical!
Oddly enough, but my love of football and the Spartak football club, of Moscow, decided it all. Pretty bored with my hysterical screams about my friends and Baikal I would be unable to live without my mother tabled this mighty argument: “But then you will be able to go to Luzhniki to see Spartak matches.”
In a moment I turned silent. My farsighted mother knew how to bait the trap right! Now you can see that I went to Moscow not for the sake of studying music but for the sake of seeing Spartak play live.
On Spartak, broken hands, jazz and swimming in Lake Baikal
- How come you are such a great football fan?
- It made me crazy! My other grandma, Vera, my father’s mother, is to blame for that addiction of mine.
For the past ten years we’ve been close friends with Stanislav Cherchesov. He was my guest on Lake Baikal once and I took him to the yard where we, young kids, played football for days on end, and even asked him to take the place of a goalie for five minutes between the two trees we had used goalposts.
These days the occasions when I can go to a stadium are very rare. This year Spartak grabbed the national title for the first time in sixteen years, but I saw only two games. What a disgrace!
The day when Spartak earned the champion’s title I was performing together with Yuri Temirkanov in Vienna’s Musikverein. I was playing Rachmaninoff’s Concerto N. 3. I’d played it hundreds of times. Suddenly, in the middle of part two I had a very strange feeling, as if some strange shiver raced through me and I started playing like never before. Later, after the applause, I turned my mobile on to see more than two hundred missed text messages and phone calls. My friends were hurrying to congratulate me upon the triumph of my favorite team. As if I became the champion! At such moments you cannot help but have faith in some supreme forces that govern you.
- Are you going to see Champions’ League matches?
- As soon as the lots-drawing ceremony was over I checked my own schedule. Alas, our schedules – Spartak’s and mine – don’t match. Up to December 15 I will be visiting Moscow only for stopovers or for recitals.
I can only wish my favorite team to qualify for the spring stage of the competition. Then we may have a chance to be at the same place at the same time. Although honestly speaking I did not like all this talk about the possibility of winning third place in the group that would let the team play in the Europa League. One should always seek to attain the highest goal.
I was able to see all seven Olympic Games as a member of the Russian team’s support group. In Sochi I played at the closing ceremony. I happened to visit the world’s ten greatest stadiums – Camp Nou in Barcelona, Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, Wembley in London, San Siro, in Milan… To Stamford Bridge I was invited together with a group of Bolshoi soloists by Roman Abramovich. But don’t you think that I can be seen only in VIP boxes. A quarter of a century ago (time flies!) I toured Europe together with Spartak fans. In 1992 I went to Liverpool, where we won by two goals to nothing, and in 1993 to Rotterdam, where Andrey Pyatnitsky scored a game-winning goal in a clash with Feyenoord. Those were the days!
- When a boy you had your hands broken thrice. Could’ve that cost you your musical career?
- Surely it could. Sometimes it is enough to place a finger on the key in a wrong way to damage a tendon. And that’s the end of it. I had my both hands broken.
First time it was a displaced fracture. I was ten years old then. I’ll never forget that terrible sound when two surgeons were pulling the bones away from each other to put them back in place. And do you know what caused that fight with another boy in the class? The guy kept telling me that Modern Talking are great musicians. I got so angry that I thought of no better argument than giving him a good punch.
Next time I had a bad fall while playing ice hockey. And lastly there was a girlfriend involved… Amazingly, each of these bone fractures were real tragedies for my parents, but not for me. I recall while my right hand remained plastered, I learned to play Ravel’s piano concerto for the left hand. In a word, it was an occasion to turn weaknesses into strengths. I never got upset.
Let me say once again: in my profession the parents’ contribution is decisive. So are their faith, support and self-sacrifice, if you wish. My mother and father knew all along when I had to be whipped up and when better left alone for a while. In other words, I was never forced to remain seated at the piano for too long playing scales. Usually one hour was enough for me. And when I was eager to get outdoors to join a company of local boys, nobody locked me up with only musical notes in front of me on the piano. Violence could’ve brought about the reserve effect – annoyance and rejection. My folks knew that a boy would be a boy.
In Irkutsk I was the neighborhood’s doyen in a sense. I made a skating rink in winter and in summertime I took care of the football pitch. In Moscow, too, I assumed the role of an organizer and go-between. The local punks were the musical students’ arch foes and never missed a chance to give us a punch or a kick. I suggested settling scores not in hand-to-hand affairs but on a football pitch. My dad and granddad always told me that force is not the sole way of achieving justice. You know, after sometime the street brawls died down, we made peace and even played in one team. I ruined certain stereotypes and showed everybody that musical students were not infantile cry-babies who play their violins all day long. That most of us were normal guys just like me. We tried to find the time for all the good things in life – to study music, to do the homework, play football, read books and go to the movies and the theater.
- And how does a little kid develop taste for music?
- It’s hard to explain in a few words. When I was three, I learned to play the signature tune that in those days accompanied the weather forecast ending the main evening news at nine. The familiar melody of the song called Manchester et Liverpool. Mine was a musical family. My great-granddad played the violin, my grandpas and grandmas played the guitar and the accordion. I can play ten different instruments myself. Not so well as I play the piano, but I can play them. At jazz shows I venture to play the double bass, just for fun.
- You do take part in jam-sessions with professional jazz musicians and sometimes appear on stage. Aren’t you afraid of hearing critics from classical music devotees, who may begin to despise you for this swap of real talent for cheap entertainment?
- Firstly, I’ve never cared about what snobs and other vulgar types might say to stick labels to other people. Secondly, my participation in jazz concerts is minimal. These cannot be called purely jazz concerts. Thirdly, there have been quite a few examples in history of how classical musicians changed their original genre for lighter music.
But I don’t go anywhere. I do not neglect anything. I by no means downgrade my status. It’ll be silly to think otherwise. I play jazz with the hands of a classical musician.
Here’s a story worth telling. For the first time in my life, 25 years ago, I came to Professor Sergey Dorensky, who had given classes to more than200 laureates of international musical contests. An achievement worthy of being included in the Guinness Book of Records! Professor Dorensky is now 85 but he still teaches. I was his student at the Moscow Conservatory and I regard him as my father.So how did our classes begin? Somebody had told him that I play jazz. “Show me something,” he said in a stern voice. I played a piece. Then Dorensky started proposing musical themes for me to improvise. The he stepped out and invited another professor into the room, then a second, and a third… In the end, a dozen famous instructors gathered in Room 28 of the Moscow Conservatory. I played a slew of jazz fantasias for two hours in a row. That’s how we met.
Participating in common concerts with jazz musicians is my own interpretation of this type of music and my tribute to this great musical genre. My father used to collect recordings of outstanding jazz musicians. I listened to them all my life as far as I can remember myself and I always tried to improvise. I like it and I do not see any reason why I should renounce this pleasure. And sometimes I feel like taking it easy and making fun on stage to put smiles on people’s faces.
- Given the number of your recitals, do you have spare time to learn to play new pieces?
- I’ve long developed a procedure that enables me to annually complement my repertoire with two major concertos with orchestra and one solo program. I have squeeze the hours when I can memorize new works into my crazy concert schedule.
- I don’t know. I’ve managed somehow so far. Whenever I have an hour to spare, I don’t stay idle on the sofa watching TV, but I leaf through a new score. For instance, I started memorizing Rachmaninoff’s Concerto N. 4 in Tel-Aviv last May. I had an electronic piano brought to my hotel room. That enabled me to rehearse at night with headphones on without causing problems to my neighbors next door. This is the only one of Rachmaninoff’s five concertos I’ve never played. Now I’ve filled in this blank spot. The public debut was in Vladimir late last August.
The regional symphony orchestra is not very well known to the wider audience, but it is the place where our outstanding soloists, such as Nikolay Lugansky, Boris Berezovsky and many others like to go to perform… Conductor Artyom Markin’s orchestra is remarkable.They are capable of playing any concerto after just one rehearsal. Any! It was in Vladimir that I for the first time performed Alexander Scriabin’s Prometheus: the Poem of Fire, Karol Szymanowski’s Symphonie Concertante, Alfred Schnittke’s concerto, and Igor Stravinsky’s Capriccio. That time I phoned Artyom and we settled everything.
So for a second time, I played the Concerto in my hometown of Irkutsk on September 16. I already feel I’m developing some chemistry with this piece by Rachmaninoff. Written in the United States, it is very unusual and very different from Concerto N. 3 I love so much. Its language, rhythm and harmony are very different.
Rachmaninoff was terribly nostalgic in his forced emigration…
The Concerto is incredibly hard to play with an orchestra. This makes the challenge still more thrilling. Gergiev and I are heading for the so-called Rachmaninoff marathon in Japan. I’ve rehearsed Concerto N. 4 precisely for this tour. Earlier, even five years ago, I never felt I was good enough for it.
Something similar happened to Sergey Prokofiev’s Concerto N. 2. It took me a while to figure out how to approach it. It was Gergiev who persuaded me. He’d told mean endless amount of times: “Why don’t you play this concerto. It appears to have been written especially for you? It’ll become your calling card.” Part one is a really powerful piece, it’s like a volcanic eruption, a lava river! I kept beating around the bush on it, unable to make up my mind.
It quickly ended one day when Gergiev phoned me, saying: “Come on! Prokofiev’s Concerto N. 2 is on the billboards in Munich. November 26, 2015. Get ready.” There were just six weeks to go. No chance of backtracking any more… And you know, it worked. This concerto has been on the tips of my fingers ever since. A CD with “two twos” - Concerto N. 2 by Rachmaninoff and Concerto N. 2 by Prokofiev - is due to be released later this year. As performed by the orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater, naturally.
- Do you need an instrument to memorize the notes?
- I can memorize music without having a keyboard in front of me. I spend much time flying from place to place, so I work a lot on board a plane. Yamaha makes fantastic headphones Digital Limited. There’s nothing like this gadget. The sound is wonderful even on the iPhone. You have the feeling you are in a concern hall or are listening to an opera live. It conveys the slightest details.
A keyboard is necessary to feel the notes with your fingers. Incidentally, when I perform I always play better than during a rehearsal. I’ve experienced that more than once. The stage environment and the audience wind me up.
I never memorize notes mechanically. A very useless pastime it is! Music is to be heard. Your soul must fly. Incidentally, in classical music, too, there is room for interpretations. For this reason Valery Gergiev and Yuri Temirkanov both can be called jazz musicians of genius. They rise onto the conductor’s podium to improvise. So does my older colleague and friend Zubin Mehta, who has been in charge of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra for nearly half a century.
He is a true guru in the music conductor profession! Suffice it to say that he performed with Horowitz and Richter. Mehta’s decision to move to Israel deserves a special story. After the six-day war of 1968 the orchestra remained without a conductor. Many musicians preferred to leave the country. The Israelis issued a global call. Mehta was the first to respond. Born in India, he had worked in Italy, Canada and the United States, but he displayed his potential to the full in the Holy Land. Israel worships him. And not only Israel.
Last year I flew to Mumbai (formerly Bombay), the city of his birth, for his 80th birthday. I played Tchaikovsky’s concerto. An unforgettable trip it was!
- Did you take a swim in the Indian Ocean?
- You bet! That was a mandatory item on the schedule. We didn’t get as far as the holy waters of the Ganges, though. Possibly, I will someday. Mehta always brings me mangos from India which I love. They taste great! In Mumbai I literally gorged on them.
- And at what places on the globe do you feel particularly well?
- Who keeps you company is far more important than where you are at the moment. It is not buildings but people that matter for me in the first place. Take New York, for instance. Carnegie Hall, where Pyotr Tchaikovsky was present at the inauguration ceremony, and where Sergey Rachmaninoff played a record number of recitals in its history – more than a hundred.
- How many times have you performed there?
- Twenty eight so far. I believe Valery Gergiev is approaching the 100th mark.
In Paris, I played at least 60 times. For the past six years I’ve held a festival in Ansi, Upper Savoy. A wonderful place it is. I feel great in Italy, particularly so in Rome and in Florence.
And still Irkutsk is beyond comparison. That’s a holy place! I feel obliged to be there at least twice a year. It goes without saying. And no matter how long I stay there I feel it’s not enough. On the eve of the departure I always feel sad, literally with tears rushing to my eyes.
Seven years ago, in a London hotel room I saw a report from Russia on TV. I took a closer look and realized it was Irkutsk. Snow-clad streets and familiar buildings… My heart jumped with nostalgia. And do you know what the story was about? It was about homeless freezing to death on the streets in remote and cold Siberia, where air temperatures drop to 50 degrees below zero. I still remember how very angry I was and I swore I would not leave it unnoticed. British TV crews would later come to Irkutsk many times for the festival to film our wildlife and show our culture and our history. I believe that this is the way of fighting for justice. Classical music is a unique remedy. I’m a peace-maker. Real art does not require translation. Everybody understands it well enough.
On Matilda, Forbes list, vanity and Rachmaninoff’s villa
- Starting from 2012 you led the public council under the Ministry of Culture. Now you’ve stepped down. Was it fatigue behind you decision or?..
- I hate holding a post without doing something real. I cannot just simulate activity. I discussed that with Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky and decided that it would be far better to make a replacement. But over the previous five years a great deal was achieved. One has to recognize, though, that in culture there are still very many problems and scandals. It is hard for me to get rid of the impression that some are determined to create a negative background on purpose. It’s a sort of evasive action, a means to switch public attention.
- One cannot but take note of the arrest of Kirill Serebrennikov or hysteria over the film Matilda.
- I’ve been asked such questions many a time. Honestly, I don’t see any subject for a comment. Really, I’m not trying to be evasive. I always speak what’s on my mind if there is something I can say. How can demands be made for banning a film nobody has seen yet?
I would like to see Matilda very much myself to have my own opinion.
As for Serebrennikov, who is an acquaintance of mine… At a certain point we even discussed a joint project, but it did not work then. True, it is very unpleasant that such a celebrity and a talented stage production has proved the center of such a row. It is to be hoped those responsible for the investigation will be able to stay impartial. I do hope the affair will have a happy ending and Kirill will treat his audience to more outstanding stage and cinema productions.
- You have a personal interest involved, don’t you? Yekaterina Shipulina, a Bolhsoi prima ballerina, is engaged in the main female role in the ballet Nureyev, which has been suspended indefinitely.
- I’m getting insider information about this production not only from Katya. Everybody I’ve been able to have a word with says that it is an unusually bright, literally magical show. Yuri Posokhov is a great choreographer and Ilya Demutsky is a talented young composer, one of the best in his generation. Together with Serebrennikov they make a creative trio capable of achieving a lot. In 2015 the same cast staged the Hero of Our Time ballet in the Bolshoi. I went to the first showing to find it wonderful. It was a great pleasure to enjoy the great music, choreography and the director’s ideas. So I’m looking forward to another such experience and do hope that the ballet will premier soon. In the context of the scandals we are talking about I find it very worrisome such high-profile rows greatly harm the reputation of our art in general. Not only inside the country, but around the world as well. Russian culture still rates highly in the West. It is one of the few spheres where we still retain a firm foothold.
- Do you keep track of classical music ratings?
- Are there any?
- According to Wikipedia in the world ranking of the best pianists of today available from the portal ranker.com Matsuev holds 36th place among the former and current Russian piano players, following Evgeni Kissin, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Grigory Sokolov, Nikolai Lugansky, Daniil Trifonov, Mikhail Pletnev and Marina Yakhlakova.
- If there existed an official list like this I would certainly compete for a higher place. Mine is a sporting character, don’t you know! I’m joking, of course. In what way are the winners determined, by the by? Is the one who plays Rachmaninoff’s concerto faster given the champion’s title? It would’ve been too simple and easy. This explains why I never envy the Tchaikovsky Contest judges, who have to sit and listen to the very same piece eight times in a row. Naming the best performer is always hard and the choice is extremely subjective.
Any ranking is to be reaffirmed by your daily routine and concerts in front of a live audience. There is no other way of proving your professionalism and good shape. In Britain there is a monthly magazine called Gramophone, dedicated entirely to classical music. It does draw up its own unofficial ranking of symphony orchestras. Russia’s orchestras under Gergiev, Temirkanov and Pletnev are in the world’s Top 20. As far as individual performers are concerned… To my knowledge there has never been anything of the sort. There are no impartial criteria. Possibly, in the past it might have been possible to count the number of CDs sold, but now the record industry is dead, as a matter of fact. Fortunately or unfortunately, I really don’t know. I still record sound tracks each year. Against all odds.
- Ok, let me put it this way then. Who would piano player Denis Matsuev point to as the best in his profession?
- I’ve never stopped to think about that. I can try to name the top five, if you wish. But I will consider musicians of today and of yesterday, OK?
Sergey Rachmaninoff is indisputably number one. He is way ahead of all the rest. For me he is an icon and idol. Only he was a genius in three capacities – as a pianist, composer and conductor.
Then… Really it’s rather hard to rank people, because each of those I’m going to mention was my idol during a certain period of my life, for whom I felt real adoration and affection. Svyatoslav Richter, Vladimir Horowitz, Emil Gilels and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, a great Italian performer.
- What about those who are with us today?
- Certainly, I must mention Martha Argerich, a unique Argentinian pianist who has ruined the prejudice a women has no chances of ever becoming a pianist of genius. Radu Lupu is a remarkable concert pianist from Romania, who studied at the Moscow Conservatory. The Neuhauses – farther and son – were his teachers. He is over seventy now. One of the last Mohicans. A living genius. Next, Grigory Sokolov and Mikhail Pletnev, my old-time partner on stage. I’ve performed with his Russian National Orchestra many times. And I’d place Italy’s Mauricio Pollini in fifth place. He is seventy now.
- There is a ranking you’ve surely heard about. The Forbes list.
- Somebody sent me a magazine item from which I learned that I make several million dollars a year. I’d like to get in touch with those who made the calculations to ask them for a tip where should I go to pick up the briefcases with my cash. Surely I would not find it redundant. Promise! Seriously speaking, those who suspect I must be making millions must have summarized all of my recitals and concerts. But nobody knows how many of them are charity events, right? Now it turns out again that I have to speak about myself, to find excuses or to try to produce a nice impression. I can say frankly: being rich in a poor country gives you a rather awkward feeling. Even though you’ve worked hard to earned the money and paid all the taxes. You know, the attitude to people with much money in our country is not the very best. It’s all rooted in the 1990s. I still cannot understand people who can boast about their luxury mansions, yachts and private jets. At a time when rural school teachers, librarians and museum attendants work for next to nothing. That’s unfair!
Helping others for me is far more important than making money. In the 1930s Rachmaninoff was one of the wealthiest performing artists. He was paid fabulous royalties. If I’m not mistaken, his personal wealth exceeded $200 million, today’s equivalent of billions. He sponsored Sikorsky’s helicopter project. He regularly sent up to one-third of his royalties to the Soviet Union. When the war with Nazi Germany began he was purchasing military equipment for the Red Army. Far from everybody cares about one’s own luxury alone. I believe the media deliberately exaggerate some people’s attempts to show off and play on the mean emotions to encourage vanity in some and envy in others.
I try hard not to get stained myself. I’ll never kowtow, cheat or try to be flattering. I often see people who seem to have put a mask on to hide their real feelings and thoughts. So I have to stay on guard all the time to filter away lies and insincerities.
Honestly speaking, it makes me feel strained. But there are also those whom I can trust unconditionally, thank God.
- You’ve mentioned Sergey Rachmaninoff several times. I know that at a certain point you asked President Vladimir Putin to buy out Rachmaninoff’s Villa Senar in Lucerne and make it Russian property.
- We’ve failed so far. Switzerland’s legal obstructions have turned out hard to overcome. After the death of Rachmaninoff’s grandson Alexandre there have emerged no end of relatives, each contesting one’s share in the composer’s heritage. Formally, there still is some time before the end of November. If Russia does not buy out the villa by then, the Canton of Lucerne will take over. This is a rather large property – two mansions, ten hectares of land with a garden, a waterfront and a pier… Who would support all this. For the time being the Serge Rachmaninoff Foundation governs the assets. It has promised that the composer’s archive, his manuscripts and piano will not be auctioned. This is good. What is still more important, the villa will be open to visitors and a museum of our great compatriot will be created there. I am certain that Villa Senar will become a pilgrimage center for music lovers.
- What’s the price tag?
- Of a likely buy? Some mentioned twenty two million Swiss francs. It’s not an astronomical amount of money, to tell you the truth. Legal nuances constitute a greater problem. Let me say once again: it is very important that everything has been preserved intact, for there’d been a risk the property and the archive would be auctioned piece by piece. Alexandre Rachmaninoff took care of the tiniest artefacts there, including the original curtain clips and door and window bolts.
- Is it true that Alexandre Rachmaninoff told you he’d let you into the archive on the condition you quit smoking?
- It is. The composer’s grandson blamed his granddad’s death on cigarettes. Sergey Rachmaninoff smoked heavily and died of cancer. I’ve never been a chain smoker myself, but in 2007 I took the pledge and I still hold on. The prize was really worth it. It all happened in Paris at the Champs-Elysees theater. Alexandre Rachmaninoff came to my dressing room to bring me two scores – suites and fugues. And he addressed me with an offer I could not reject. How would I like the idea of recording these works on the composer’s own piano? In exchange he asked me to do him a little favor – to stop smoking. I put out my cigarette at once and has not lit another one ever since. That’s how the solo album called Unknown Rachmaninoff came into being. Alexandre Rachmaninoff’s was a truly royal gift. He was a remarkable personality, an extraordinary and very extravagant one.
- Was that piano so special only because Rachmaninoff himself played it in his day?
- Even from the technical point of view it is larger than a standard instrument. It’s about ten centimeters longer. A gift to the composer from the Steinway Family. Its sound is incomparable. None of the modern pianos is good enough for achieving the same effect.
Also, the very thought that in fact very few people had touched the piano after Rachmaninoff made me still more emotional. When Alexandre Rachmaninoff brought the piano from Senar to Lucerne where I could make a good recording, I had the feeling my hands were playing Concerto N. 3 all by themselves, without me making any effort. It was a magic feeling. As if I lost control of my own body.
I’d also chanced to play Tchaikovsky’s piano in his museum house in the town of Klin, near Moscow. Naturally, I felt the very same veneration and awe, but Tchaikovsky was not a piano player after all. Rachmaninoff is the idol I worship.
In Budapest, I played Ferentz List’s piano on the day of his 200th birth anniversary, Edvard Grieg’s piano in his home in Bergen, Norway, and Dmitry Shostakovich’s instrument in the home of his son Maksim near St. Petersburg.
- And what instrument do you have at home?
- A Yamaha.
- But you cannot have it with you while on a tour. In contrast to, say, a violinist or cellist, who even has to buy an extra air ticket to prevent the instrument from travelling in the luggage compartment.
- That’s true, there’s no way of carrying it around by the handle… Richter used to say, “I play what I have on the stage.” The most terrible thing is when you can choose. In London or Berlin five instruments are rolled out for you to choose and it is up to you to decide which one is better. That’s a real torment. All of them are top class instruments, but it is hard to say in advance how they will behave during the recital. But you know, I even like the process of “taming the shrew.” Playing a good, responsive instrument is a great pleasure, of course, but in the 1990s I sometimes had to extract musical sounds from what was good only for firewood. No words can speak what I mean!
In reality, pianos are often brought especially for me. When I know that the instrument where I am going to play is of poor quality, I ask some well-established manufacturer – most often it is Yamaha – to bring a piano for me to a certain place. They deliver it several days beforehand.
It is a matter of principle for me to avoid concluding any exclusive contracts with recording companies, or piano manufactures, or producer agencies. There are only local partners. All of them are different – in the United States, in Europe and in Asia. I do not wish to be dependent, to belong to somebody. I prefer to run my own affairs myself and to decide what I am going to play and record, when and where. It is far better this way. Regrettably, these days you will not find a single impresario like those the world had in the past. Persons like Sergey Dyagilev or Sol Hurok, who brought to the United States almost all stars, from Anna Pavlova to Svyatoslav Richter, Maya Plisetskaya, Galina Vishnevskaya and Mstislav Rostropovich. I still have one excellent manager, Douglas Sheldon, of Columbia Artists, who worked with Horowitz. But his services cover only the territory of the United States. Globally, the impresario as a profession is no more. All agents are mostly focused on making money on you. And that’s a little bit different…
- Are there any composers you don’t play?
- Frederick Chopin. Something is wrong. For some reason I can’t have a true romance with music authored by this composer of genius. I can play both concertos or 24 preludes by Chopin, but there’ll be nothing but emptiness left. I know it. I feel it. When you appear on stage, it is the culminating moment. The chemistry of relations with the piece you play is to develop much earlier. But such things do not occur at the push of a button. It either happens or it doesn’t. My relations with music authored by this great Pole have not taken shape yet.
Incidentally, in one concert it is easier for me to play several pieces by one composer in a row. Say, Tchaikovsky’s three piano concertos. Next year Gergiev and I plan to play all of Rachmaninoff’s concertos in just one day. Nobody else has ever done that before. Will it be hard? Possibly, yes. But I prefer to have it this way.
- Have you ever happened to perform without rehearsing?
- Together with Gergiev. Our flight to Yerevan was delayed and we managed to get there only at the very last moment. We were playing Rodion Shchedrin’s Concerto N. 5 with the author himself present in the audience. Just a couple of minutes before appearing on stage I briefed Gergiev in the dressing room on the most crucial moments of that most intricate piece for an ensemble. Gergiev is a great improviser and working with him gives you real pleasure. Possibly no other conductor in the world possesses such a skill to interpret an unfamiliar score off-hand.
- Do you keep a diary?
- So far I’ve preferred to rely on my memory, although I’ve been advised to start writing things down more than once. There’ve been some amazing stories and it would be a disgrace if they are forgotten with time and their details are erased from my mind. I’ve been trying to be an active blogger in the Internet, I share some emotions and impressions, and I upload different things, including videos, although not all things can be discussed in public. I like social networks, I like to communicate with my listeners online, but such accessibility is fraught with certain risks. Some begin to abuse my openness.
Although I’m from Siberia, my temper is far from being close to the Nordic one. I may lose self-control. Particularly so, when I see injustice happening in front of my eyes in relation to someone who is weaker – a woman, a child, or an old person. I hate scoundrels. Several years ago we were playing hockey. There was one type on the rink in the habit of hitting opponents with his stick stealthily, without the referee seeing it. After two such incidents, when I saw my partner hurt again I decided it was enough. I dropped my gloves and challenged the bad guy to sort things out in a manly way.
- How about your fingers?
- I tried to be careful.
- This reminds me of a good old joke. About a pickpocket…
- Who was leaving a concert hall after my recital and mumbling to himself all the way: “Or Lord, what great hands and what great fingers the guy has! What a waste of human talent!” When I heard it first time I burst out laughing.
- Have you ever canceled recitals?
- For the first time I had to in January 2014, when I came down with pneumonia. I did not cancel them, though, but postponed them for four months. Carnegie Hall, Berliner Philharmoniker, and several other major sites… Practically nobody returned the tickets. But I dropped out of my concert schedule for two weeks.
I know, what I’m about to say may sound pathetic, but it is also true: music is a healer. When you appear on stage, all ills suddenly vanish. Yet, figuratively speaking the battery may lose some of its charge once in a while. Your stamina is not infinite. Then I seek to avoid redundant contacts and unnecessary pressures. I cannot be everywhere and manage to accomplish everything. That’s an objective reality.
- You’ve been talking a lot about your very busy schedule. Yet during the latest festival Stars of Baikal you flew to Paris for just one day for a recital and then got back to Irkutsk at once. How many hours did you spend in flight then? And was the adventure worthwhile?
- That’s the Siberian trait of my character. If I know that I’m being waited for and I realize that I can get there, although not without problems, I do agree and go. This explains the crazy things that could have been avoided in principle, such as: you spend thirty hours on the way to Australia to arrive at the performance site with only one hour to spare, you cross the Atlantic to play a recital in Europe and then instantly get back to the United States for going ahead with a tour with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. True, this is real self-torture, but it is far easier to go than to rebuke yourself afterwards for saying NO. “Live in the moment” is my rule. Never postpone anything.
A few words to explain my Paris adventure. The timetable of my tours is clear five years ahead. The date of the Champs Elysees performance had been set back in 2012. I’d thought that Stars of Baikal would be held on September 1-11, 2017. After that I’d easily fly from Irkutsk to Paris, which I had done on many occasions in the past. But the schedules of Yuri Temirkanov’s and Yuri Bashmet’s orchestras, who were my guests this year, made me move the festival’s dates. What else could I do? That was my own problem. So right after the concert in Irkutsk I flew to Moscow and from there, to Paris. My way back was through Frankfurt. Two days without any chance to have a good night’s sleep, twenty hours spent on a plane, a journey across six time zones… I’ll tell you more. My father was by my side all along. Ours is a crazy family!
I played in France and I got back. I’ve already told you that I love Paris. I have many bonds connecting me with that city, but then I was able to feel just one more time that home is the best.
- On September 17 you were awarded the title of honorary citizen of the Irkutsk Region. Another token of respect.
- I became an honorary citizen of Irkutsk in 2008. The youngest ever. I’m very grateful to my fellow countrymen for praising what I do, but as you may have guessed, I do all that not for the sake of rewards, but from the depths of my heart. And I can’t help being different.
While on stage, I always seek to perform what I really want to. Fortunately, I have a rather vast repertoire – twenty two solo programs and 43 concertos with an orchestra. True, I’m asked to play something special sometimes, but nothing will come of it if there is no inner surge.
That’s why I describe my festivals as concerts of my favorite music. Those whom I invite are free to choose what they will play.
It is a great thrill for me to experiment. Sometimes I deliberately take liberties and make little jokes at least for retaining self-irony.
When I’m asked what I would like to be doing in twenty years’ time from now, I reply without a shade of doubt: “I’d like to be on stage with Rachmaninoff’s Concerto N. 3.” This piece of music is the best indicator. It is my hope my mind and body will stay in good shape till the end of my days. Nothing would be more terrible for me than losing the ability to play. There is an important nuance, though. Galina Vishnevskaya was a great personality in all respects. She ended her singing career of her own accord, without waiting for the alarm bell to ring. Vishnevskaya quit when she was in her prime and this decision was worthy of a musical genius. Regrettably, there are far more examples of how people resort to no end of tricks just for the sake of remaining on stage just a little bit longer.
Each musician has at least one culminating point in one’s concert career. Those exceptionally fortunate have several peaks. Take jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. He played and recorded his best pieces when he was fifty five. Horowitz reached his summit by 65 to remain there for ten years. Arthur Rubinstein died at 95. Up to his last days he played Chopin’s concertos and did so brilliantly. And he was half-blind already, mind you! But it may also happen a performer exhausts one’s potential in childhood or in youth. There’s been no end of examples of how young talented performers lost the ability to play. Playing music is not just tapping the right keys with the right fingers at the right moment. It is far more important what you wish to tell your audience and if it is prepared to listen to what you are telling it.
- What keeps you in good shape?
- First of all, my parents. They are still present at most of my concerts and they keep briefing me on the flaws they notice. They are certain it’s other people’s business to tell me about my merits. My father, who has tutored me from the age of three, and my mother may say something flattering about a successful performance, but they will never miss the chance to mention the drawbacks.
This debriefing may last for a while. I have absolute faith in my parents and I never feel insulted. I just go and try to correct my flaws right away. As I’ve already told you, they take most of the credit for turning me into a musician. Nothing has changed, thank God, although I’m a grown-up boy now.
For the stick-and-carrot formula to succeed the “stick” part should be far greater than the “carrot” one. Hard work without any guarantees. Success is unpredictable. It is difficult to reconcile oneself with this, but my sense of humor and the certainty everything will be OK have been the lifeline that saved me many times.
- For now your life seems to be proceeding in this direction.
- Hopefully it will go on moving the way it does. I won’t mind.
- And what’s your most secret dream?
- The most secret one? I’d like to play a piece by Rachmaninoff with Rachmaninoff. Four hands. Although I must acknowledge that the great composer preferred to have one-on-one rendezvous with his piano. To tell you the truth, so do I. But it is just a dream that you’ve asked me about…