Prior to his 92Y recital debut on March 24, Nikolai talked with 92Y about his recital program, his thoughts on American audiences and other topics.
How did you choose this recital program? Is there a relationship between Schubert and Tchaikovsky?
There is, though I’m not playing these two composers as a deliberate pairing. In creating a new recital program every year, I generally I don’t have a particular method or system. I just choose music that I love and want to work with. I try to play works that I haven’t played before in the past.
For example, I love the Schubert C-minor Sonata. I hadn’t played much Schubert until about two years ago, and I had heard an incredible performance of this Sonata years ago by Radu Lupu. After that, I knew I knew I wanted to play it someday; this season is the first time I’m playing it publicly.
What similarities do you see between the composers?
First of all, neither composer was really prepared for the severity of life, especially Schubert. Both were unbelievably nice people, and rather naïve. Being a classical composer can be hard, and there have been strong, sometimes even dictatorial, composers. Schubert and Tchaikovsky were never like this—in many ways they were defenseless against the realities of life.
Also, neither were piano virtuosos. Their music is genius, but they were not particularly great instrumentalists. Their music is not always accommodating to the pianist, in contrast to Chopin, Liszt, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, even Beethoven.
This is especially true with Tchaikovsky. One of the reasons why his Sonata in G major isn’t performed more often is that it is physically very uncomfortable to play. Because Rachmaninoff was a pianist, he knew how to write for a piano. Even though Rachmaninoff’s music is extremely difficult, in terms of physicality, it is a joy to play.
Tchaikovsky however wrote symphonically—the “Grand” Piano Sonata is really a big symphony for the keyboard. So when he was writing it, he wasn’t thinking about the pianists who would have to play it! I played it for my 1994 Tchaikovsky Competition, but I haven’t played it since.
Do the similarities extend to the program?
Yes, in both the Schubert and Tchaikovsky sonatas the theme of life and death is very important. This theme is almost intuitive in Schubert. You can hear death in much of his music—it’s very strong. We know that so much of his greatest music was written in the last year of his life, though we do need to remember that that Schubert didn’t know that. In fact, just before he died, he was starting a study of counterpoint and polyphony.
For Tchaikovsky, the struggle of life and death is also important, but in this case life is victorious. The second movement is very tragic, but the Sonata ends in joy; life has won over. Ironically, that may also partly explain why this Sonata is not played very much. People seem to like Tchaikovsky’s darker music; this joyous side of Tchaikovsky isn’t always so successful with audiences.
How did you fill out the rest of the program?
Initially I wanted to open the program with Schubert’s Allegretto in C minor, but that would have meant an entire first half of minor music, and I didn’t want that. So I chose these two delightful Scherzos, which also aren’t performed very often. Schubert wrote them when he was young—there are no life or death issues here.
Tchaikovsky’s Seasons is very popular in Russia but not so well known elsewhere. And happily, Tchaikovsky is much more pianistic in this work, so it’s more of a pleasure to play.
You mentioned Radu Lupu. Are there other performances or artists that have particularly moved you?
There have been many, and I’m reluctant to name them, but certainly Sviatoslav Richter. I saw him several times, including an unforgettable performance in Amsterdam. I also had the great pleasure to have heard Martha Argerich play the Schumann Piano Concert a month ago in Walt Disney Hall. And my teacher, Tatiana Nikolayeva, was a fantastic pianist; I got to play some piano four-hand with her.
What do you listen to? What’s on your iPod right now?
Actually, I don’t have an iPod. I admit I’m rather lazy when it comes to the new technologies. I’m very happy with my CD player. In terms of recordings, above all there is Rachmaninoff. I also enjoy Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and Emil Gilels out of the former masters, and Nelson Freire and Krystian Zimerman of the living ones.
I’ve just discovered a composer that I never really knew—Ralph Vaughan Williams. His Fifth Symphony is one of the greatest pieces I’ve heard. I also enjoy listening to Bruckner, Sibelius and lesser-known Russians like Glazunov.
Is there any difference between audiences in the US and Europe or Russia?
Yes, American audiences are very friendly, but I have noticed that American applause is very loud, with lots of “Bravos,” and then it ends quickly. In Germany there isn’t as much shouting but the applause lasts much longer. I have noticed that New York audiences seem very respectful of their great tradition: Rachmaninoff gave 15-20 recitals here, and Tchaikovsky opened Carnegie Hall.
What do you like to do when you’re in New York?
I’ve been to New York several times. My last time was October 29, 2012. It was to be my New York Philharmonic premiere with Charles Dutoit, and I was scheduled to play Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. I was coming from Birmingham, Alabama—and then Hurricane Sandy hit. By the time I finally arrived, we had lost rehearsal time. Luckily, I had just played Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto with Maestro Dutoit a few weeks earlier in Boston, which meant less rehearsal time would be required. So we changed the program and I played the Concerto instead of the Rhapsody.
When I’m here I enjoy walking through Central Park and visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I have performed, and I love Carnegie Hall. However, there are just too many buildings here for me—I like to see the sun or sky without hurting my neck.
I have never really tasted New York, though. When you’re a classical artist, you arrive in a city, sometimes on the same day; you rest; you perform; and you usually leave the next day. There is much I want to do here—I still have never been to the Metropolitan Opera!
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