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Eldar Nebolsin—Romantic Pianist Extraordinaire

June 17, 2009

RACHMANINOV Complete Preludes for Piano
Eldar Nebolsin, piano

Spanning 45 years of the composer’s life, Rachmaninov’s piano music has become a staple of the repertoire. His first set of Preludes, Op. 23 begins a series continued in the thirteen Preludes, Op. 32, completed in 1910, that makes use of all major and minor keys, with the exception of C sharp minor, a key used in the famous Prelude, Op. 3, No. 2. This dramatic and melancholy piece, with its ominous descending chords leading to one of Rachmaninov’s most memorable tunes, rapidly became one of his most famous compositions. It is even more well-known today through its use in numerous arrangements, in music-hall sketches and in the film Shine.

STEPHEN:  Your Naxos recordings of Rachmaninov’s Complete Preludes (8.570327) and of Liszt’s Piano Concertos and Totentanz (8.570517) have gained excellent reviews, and your future recording projects for Naxos include Chopin’s complete works for piano and orchestra with the Warsaw National Orchestra and Antoni Wit, a solo album with works by Schubert and Ernst von Dohnányi’s Variations on a Nursery Theme with Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Faletta. So the Romantic piano repertoire is central to your career. What attracts you to this music? Have you always had a passion for the Romantics?

ELDAR:  I fell in love with Romantic repertoire when I was very young. I remember that one of my favorite recordings that were available in my home town, Tashkent, was a tape with a small mazurka by Chopin, the A minor Op 17 No 4, played by Horowitz, that would always bring me to tears every time I listened to it. Somehow in my childhood my earliest impressions on Romantic piano repertoire were often ‘served’ by Horowitz. Later I started to discover Sofronitzky, Katchen, Sherkassky, Lipatti. But it was Horowitz who first introduced me to this magical, passionate world full of colors and emotions. He made me admire the endless possibilities of the piano as a singing instrument and gave me a strong desire to become a musician.

Eldar Nebolsin with his first teacher, Natalia Vasinkina, (left) and his mother (right)

But I must say that I always feel confused when someone asks me that famous, eternal and unavoidable question: who is your favorite composer? And I always felt a strong temptation to reply something similar to what used to say Mr. Gould: “My favorite composer is Orlando Gibbons”…I can imagine the expression on the face of the interviewer…In other words, when I openly express my love for the Romantic piano repertoire of course it doesn’t mean that I get less excitement playing or listening to Bach, Haydn, Bartók or George Crumb…

Chopin is like a ‘touchstone’ or like litmus paper: even few bars of his music immediately reveal what material you are made of as a performer.
STEPHEN:  Well, Orlando Gibbons was a wonderful composer! I generally reply to that ‘eternal question’ that anyone whose music I want to listen to repeatedly is great, and my favourite is probably the composer I’ve just been listening too…

With your recording of the Liszt Piano Concertos already released and the Chopin works for piano and orchestra forthcoming, could you tell us about what these two great Romantic composers mean to you?

ELDAR:  It wouldn’t be any exaggeration to say that (‘pianistically’ speaking) many things in the modern piano tradition, for instance—our technical resources (take Chopin, or Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes), our associative  perception of colour in the piano’s sound (think for example of late and very descriptive Liszt works), our ‘rubatos’, use of pedal as an expressive resource and of course even our pianos themselves—are a result of a large path that to a great extent was influenced and enriched by both of them. They remain as a strong antidote to certain segments within the world of classical music which disdain everything that in their opinion, lacks a deep and juicy intellectual ingredient.  We live in the world where everything seems to be explainable, where the ‘scientifics’ claim to be able to answer the eternal questions of the humankind and in the society where the practical, objective goals seem to be the only engine to the understanding and therefore progress of the human being.  And sadly this philosophy penetrates and poisons the musical world.

I was very sorry to read some of the reviews to my recent Liszt CD, where my playing was praised but with a disclaimer about the poor quality (literally) of my beloved Liszt concerti. Of course one cannot compare them to Brahms or Beethoven concertos (if we speak about formal proportions, melodic and thematic development) but why should we do it? Isn’t enough for us an incredible light that warms up our soul when we hear the modulation from F-sharp major to A-major in the slow movement of Liszt 1st Piano Concerto?  Is it ‘bad music’? Or maybe we are losing our capacity to enjoy the pure beauty that even the simplest melody can contain?

STEPHEN:   Mendelssohn famously wrote that music expresses thoughts and feeling that are too precise to put into words. And I read somewhere, I forget who said it, that music is about emotions not concepts. So the impact of music is inherently difficult to analyse. It may even be impossible to reduce our understanding of the feelings music provokes to anything more basic than the feelings themselves. Hearing, or where music is concerned listening, seems to me very like our other senses (sight, smell, touch, taste and so forth). So, call the impressions music makes ‘magical’ if you like. That doesn’t make them less ‘real’…

But we’re getting a bit metaphysical. Regarding Chopin and Liszt: How are they similar? How are they different? What challenges do they pose? And why do they remain so important to us today?

ELDAR:   Challenges? Chopin: One of the most popular composers, he will always remain, in my opinion, one of the most demanding. Chopin is like a ‘touchstone’ or like litmus paper: even few bars of his music immediately reveal what material you are made of as a performer. Something similar happens in Mozart’s music. It’s impossible to lie when playing Chopin. His music makes you tell the truth, so to speak. In every sentence of Chopin’s music there could be a different soul gesture. It is very important to understand how the harmonies are interrelated and what they mean in each case. One must maintain the fragile balance between an inner emotional and ‘agogical’ freedom (that is, the sense of wonder of his music), on one hand, and, on the other hand, clearly conveying the formal proportions of his works, especially in his concertos and sonatas. In this sense he is a very Classical composer.

By contrast, Liszt demands a kind of ‘orchestral’ imagination, so the pianist’s goal is to learn to hear an extra- pianistic dimension and therefore to convince listeners that Liszt’s fast and difficult passages go far beyond simple typewriting machine noise, which sadly happens too often. His virtuosity is primarily a means to and end, not merely an end in itself. That’s what I think is meant by the ‘transcendental’ character of his writing for piano: it opens into a sublime realm of music.

STEPHEN:  You perform as a recital soloist, in chamber music performances and in concert with many of the world’s leading orchestras. What do you seek to achieve in each case?

ELDAR:  When the conditions are favorable, each case can be a supreme pleasure. In other words, when in chamber music you have sensitive and intelligent partners, when you find a fluent and wordless musical relationship with a conductor, when the orchestra responds to your emotional message, when the piano and acoustics are decent and, of course, when you are in a good shape, then maybe you are satisfied with the results. And this ‘maybe’ is because we all are human, and fortunately not CD players, and this is what makes it so incredibly exciting and magical.

STEPHEN:  Do you ever get nervous before a concert?

ELDAR:  Yes, in every single concert. Nervous or excited or both. I don’t envy people that are not nervous before the concert because they claim to know how they will play. Every concert involves known, objective factors, but at the same time our subconscious plays an important role and sometimes some insignificant things or thoughts that we had on the day of concert can affect our playing (for good or for bad) without us even knowing it. I usually play better in concert than at home and sometimes find a right, convincing phrasing or dynamics only on stage (after having struggled for hours and hours at home) which can be very exciting.

STEPHEN:  How does teaching fit in with performing? What do you try to instill in your students? What do you learn from them in return?

ELDAR:  It’s not easy, since I like to practice long enough to feel confident during the performance (especially when a new piece is involved) but students need time and attention as well. Teaching has a lot of great and rewarding moments (a lot of difficult and discouraging moments as well) and I feel privileged to work with some really gifted people.

I think that a final goal of a teacher is to reach a point when a student knows what he has to do without your help. That’s why it’s so dangerous to tell them ‘do this or that’. This approach can block students and make them feel that you are a policeman and they are ignorant and useless beings. That can kill their freedom to express themselves and be creative. I prefer that they try different options and make terrible mistakes rather than wait till the teacher gives them the recipe. I found that a better way is one that makes the student seek a solid reason for doing certain things. And I feel very happy when a student during a lesson starts to argue (intelligently) with me: that means that he or she started to think by themselves and reached a higher level of survival in the ‘deep forest’ of a score. A simple question like ‘Why do you think Beethoven does this or that here?’ can unlock their reasoning capacity and next time they will be happy to find the answer alone.

And for me the best way to learn and understand a new piece is to go through it with my students. I am forced to think not only for myself but also in a way that I can clearly explain it to the student. This helps a lot when I have to play it myself later. And working with students also teaches you humility. Sometimes you are wrong in your reasoning and when the student tells you about it you have to admit it and apologise, exactly as a good conductor should do to gain respect of an orchestra.

I remember that not long ago I witnessed a beautiful lesson of this humility when during a rehearsal one very talented conductor, a good friend of mine, in a tremendously difficult place made a mistake and when the orchestra stopped and pointed him out his mistake I was expecting him to say something to avoid the obvious like many others would do in his place. But he just smiled and with a slight and authentic confusion written on his face said to the orchestra: ‘You know, when I practice alone at home it is so easy for me but here...’ Everybody laughed and the problem was solved.

STEPHEN:  Pianists need to play on many different instruments. Unlike a flautist or violinist, say, you can’t take your favourite piano with you on tour! Do you prefer a particular type of piano overall, or does the music you’re playing influence your preferred instrument?

ELDAR:  I played on both great and bad Yamahas, Kawais, Bechsteins and of course Steinways.  It’s not so much a question of the brand but of the nature of the instrument, and having a good technician to hand. Pianos are like people, no two are identical.

What I really hate is when there is not any piano in a concert venue besides the one on stage. You see, the public starts to enter the hall half an hour before the concert, long enough for your hands to cool down. Ask a violinist or cellist to put his instrument in the box half hour before the concert and take it out only on stage (without trying any single note before the first one of the performance) and he will refuse to play a concert. But pianists still have to deal with this nonsense in so many occasions! And sometimes all that is needed is an inexpensive, small, second-hand upright piano.

I love the harpsichord and would love someday to move in that direction, especially with Baroque repertoire. Wanda Landowska’s books and recordings made me appreciate much more the sound and possibilities of playing harpsichord... but that’s a different and a long discussion in itself!

STEPHEN:  You’ve won prizes in a number of competitions. How important were these for you?

ELDAR:  I only took part in four competitions and I think it was far too much. In all of them I was lucky to get 1st prizes and I always was wondered why it happened…

STEPHEN:  Well, perhaps you deserved to win because you were the best!

ELDAR:  Listening to my own recordings from competitions I would never give myself any prize, really. And it is not a fake pose, believe me: I suffer enormously listening to my recordings, especially from the studio. I want to change so many things.

I know some pianists that have taken part in more than 50 competitions. Maybe some of them now should try for the Guinness Book of Records!

STEPHEN:  That brings us back to the importance of both the balance between the sense of wonder and discipline you mentioned apropos Chopin and the importance of ‘nervous energy’ that you feel when playing a concert…competitions are different?

ELDAR:  Regarding competitions I think that, first, there are too many of them and, second, the very idea of a competing in music is nonsense. It may sound idealistic and of course, we are speaking of different dimensions but still…who was a better musician Sviatoslav Richter or Glenn Gould? Who was more talented, Pablo Picasso or Salvador Dali? Which color is more beautiful, green or blue?  In order to find who is ‘better’ in a competition, the jury must use certain objective, narrowed criteria in a field that is naturally not objective, music or art in general.

Eldar Nebolsin playing at the 2005 Sviatoslav Richter Piano Competition

And sometimes the most sensitive or creative musicians don’t fit into this somewhat tight corset. Performances with technical imperfections are discarded immediately. That means that there’s an enormous pressure on the young competitors which often makes them forget about the music.

Still I have to admit, competitions (especially the one in Santander that didn’t feel like a competition at all) were important in my life, at least in the sense that they gave me an opportunity to perform more. And for some people they can mean a lot if they don’t get obsessed with the idea of competing.

I know some pianists that have taken part in more than 50 competitions. Maybe some of them now should try for the Guinness Book of Records!

STEPHEN:  A couple of your competition prizes were for performances of Mozart—quite a contrast to the Romantics. And you have many of his great concertos in your repertoire. Do you plan to record any Mozart?

ELDAR:  I don’t plan to record any Mozart at the moment but it would be my dream to do it, especially his concertos, and to play some of them without conductor, particularly the early ones. They should sound like a chamber music pieces. What a jewels are these rarely played concertos! The C major KV. 415 or B flat major KV. 450!

STEPHEN:  Absolutely. I think it was Karl Barth who remarked that ‘whether the angels play only Bach praising God, I am not quite sure. I am sure, however, that en famille they play Mozart.’

ELDAR:  I hope I don’t need to wait until I have wings before I can record some Mozart…

STEPHEN:  Had you not become a musician, what alternative career path might you have taken?

ELDAR:  Difficult to say but I know what I wouldn’t be: a politician, a sportsman or a businessman. I don’t particularly like these words that end in ‘-man’ and what they represent. I love to play tennis from time to time, though, but sports as a profession never attracted me. I love animals and maybe I would work in something related to the animal world, zoo, veterinarian or something like that.

STEPHEN:  So when you’re not teaching, performing or recording, what do you like to do?

ELDAR:  I love reading, ‘YouTubing’, eating (Japanese, Spanish, Russian, Italian and of course Uzbek food) and hiking with my wife and friends (to compensate for my passion for food).

LISZT Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2, Totentanz
Eldar Nebolsin, piano
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko, conductor


Franz Liszt’s two piano concertos amply display both his extraordinary pianistic ability and his originality as an influential Romantic composer. The first, premiered in Weimar in 1855 with Berlioz conducting, is a path-breaking tour de force whose four movements, played without break and thematically linked, moved Bartók to acclaim it as “the first perfect realisation of cyclic sonata form”. The second, equally brilliant but more integrated, exemplifies Liszt’s belief that “New wine demands new bottles”. The Totentanz (Dance of Death), perhaps inspired by an Italian fresco, is a powerful series of variations on the Medieval Dies irae chant.

STEPHEN:  Your Naxos recording of the Liszt Concertos is conducted by Vasily Petrenko. What is he like to perform with? Do you share a ‘musical vision’?

ELDAR:  Vasily is one of the most talented musicians I have ever known. He has an incredibly sharp ear, perfect technical skills, deep musical knowledge and an infinite richness of gestures to express the most subtle musical nuance or colour. I also admire his spontaneity, his sense of humor and his human qualities both on and off stage. It was an unforgettable experience to work with him both on stage and in the recording studio and I hope I will have more opportunities to record something else with him, maybe Russian or German repertoire.

STEPHEN:  Who were (or are) your role models and inspirations, and why are they important to you?

ELDAR:  Beethoven, Mozart,  Brahms, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Chekhov, Bulgakov, Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Thomas Mann, Gilels, Wanda Landowska, Clara Haskil, Daniil Shafran, Philippe Hirshhorn, Glenn Gould…and many others each in his or her own particular field and context. From our time, Grigori Sokolov, Robert Levin, Thomas Quasthoff, Cecilia Bartoli and many others. Once again, this is a very big topic that would need its own discussion…

STEPHEN:  During 2009–10 you are the Artist in Residence in Music Sacrum in Arnhem. Could you tell us what this will involve?

ELDAR:  Project of all kinds: solo recitals, performances with orchestra (Prokofiev’s 2nd Piano Concerto with my dear friend the fantastic conductor Nicolaj Alexeev), a contemporary piano duo program with Alexander Melnikov (which includes an incredible piece by George Crumb, Macrokosmos III) chamber concerts with my regular trio partners, the fantastic musicians Denis Goldfeld and Wolfgang Schmidt, and a recital with Leipziger Quartet.

STEPHEN:  If you could meet anyone at all (either from the past or present, from any field at all) who would they be and why?

ELDAR:  My wife says that if Brahms were to resurrect she would love to give him a big hug. Me too! I would love to attend a concert of Rachmaninov, Liszt or Art Tatum, hear Mozart improvise his cadenzas and embellishments, have a discussion on the New Testament with Tolstoy or to attend one of the original Schubertiades. The dreams and possibilities are endless.

I think Naxos is doing a fantastic job in the educational field and especially in promoting new and unknown music.

STEPHEN:  Are you enjoying your recording program for Naxos?

ELDAR:  Yes, indeed.  I feel very grateful to Naxos and would like to thank Klaus Heymann for opportunities to record and work with people like Vasily Petrenko, JoAnn Falletta and Antoni Wit, with whom I will be recording Chopin Concertos in September. I think Naxos is doing a fantastic job in the educational field and especially in promoting new and unknown music. It has a tremendous importance in our practical and cynical society because music makes us better and helps us to develop a higher spiritual level and understanding of the world we are living in.

STEPHEN:  Eldar, thanks very much for your time.

ELDAR:  My pleasure.

Eldar Nebolsin Biography & Discography


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