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A Mind on the Move – Eldar Nebolsin Talks to Jeremy Siepmann

May 16, 2011

Eldar Nebolsin

To be described in the press as the Sviatoslav Richter of your generation is a mixed blessing. There was, after all, no more legendary pianist in the whole of the 20th century. Eldar Nebolsin, happily, has borne the burden well. As his conversation, like his playing, makes clear, the comparison, while gratifying, is ultimately meaningless. The truth of the matter is, he is abundantly, and happily, the Eldar Nebolsin of his generation. His love and command of the piano are manifest, as is his love of music. And the former exists for him solely as a vehicle for the latter. Like all true artists, his imagination is perennially engaged. Born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in 1974, he was trained both there and in Madrid, where he went to study with the celebrated Russian pianist and pedagogue Dmitri Bashkirov (for whom he continues to play, when time allows). I asked if he could recall a time when music wasn’t central to his life.

‘To tell you the truth, and as odd as it might sound, I’m not sure if music is the centre of my life. Of course it plays a core role in my everyday existence. In one way or another it occupies over 90% of my day. When I’m not practicing, teaching or listening to music, it’s still sounding in my head, sometimes directly affecting my mood, sometimes spinning obsessively in search of a convincing phrasing or fighting against an outside rattle that fills the air. In order to fall asleep in bed I have to force myself not to play music in my head—otherwise a silent night becomes a dreadful platform for a musical invasion! And definitely music is a kind of spiritual “door” that unlocks the best and deepest dimensions in life and offers some protection from banality and materialism. But music is not the only “door” of this kind. Family, friends, reading, nature—all this, together with music, is interrelated and equally meaningful to me.’

What, I wondered, was the music he loved most as he was growing up? ‘My very early musical impressions were often related to opera. My mother used to hold a vocal accompaniment class in my home town Tashkent, so we often had many singers at our place rehearsing with my mother or her students. It was Verdi, Puccini, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Borodin and so on. Once, when I was still very young (maybe around 10 or 11 years old) I had the privilege to accompany a famous aria from the Bach St Mathew Passion. I remember it as if it were yesterday. The soprano was very good and for me it was an unforgettable joy! Other impressions came from old tape recordings of Horowitz. Of course we knew many other musicians, but somehow Horowitz was different. On many occasions my piano schoolmates and I used to get together and listen open-mouthed to this great master playing Schumann, Chopin or Mozart. These moments were crucial for us and softly but inexorably determined our future. All those friends with whom I used to share these moments are now active and wonderful musicians.’

And how long has Schubert been among his great loves? ‘I always loved his shorter pieces, but it was only later that I really fell in love with his sonatas and symphonies. I believe we must allow ourselves time to grow into certain pieces. The B-flat major sonata, for instance. You simply cannot fully understand this piece if you’re a teenager—no matter how mature you may think you are. You need to have lived, to have loved—and maybe even to have experienced some loss, or faced the tragic side of life.’

What is it, at least in part, that most draws Nebolsin to Schubert’s music? ‘This feeling of what I can only describe as “endlessness”, the eternal and miraculous beauty that results from every modulation, every turn of melody. One of my absolute favourite pieces is his E-flat major trio, with that huge, “eternal” last movement. And even though the cut that’s often made in the middle of this movement is perfectly legitimate (Schubert seems to have sanctioned it, out of consideration for the audience), I can’t help being disappointed whenever I hear (or must perform) the shortened version. One of the reasons I love the original so much is precisely this “everlastingness”. It’s one of those very special things that sets him apart from other composers. I also find it very interesting that in many cases some of his most wonderful harmonic developments were added later. The same goes for the expansions that he made. Schubert didn’t just give himself up to inspiration. He was extremely self-critical, and in many cases he made lots of revisions. Another thing I love is the incredible emotional depth of his music. He seems to have lacked any desire for worldly success, but his artistic ambition was immeasurable. There’s no doubt that he was very conscious of his genius.

‘The incredible wealth of his emotional life, I think, was the fruit of his inner search, if I can put it that way, and of his very rich friendships with lots of wonderful artists, writers, poets and other musicians. The introverted side of his music was completely uncontaminated by the outside world. Another vital aspect of his music, I think—not so often talked about—is its symbolism. We have to remember that he lived at a time when free expression in Vienna was often officially persecuted. As a result, his circle of friends and artists developed a kind of secret language. Take the famous “Trout” Quintet—which doesn’t have much to do with the fish! It’s a very symbolic piece—the river and the water symbolising humanity’s urge to freedom. And it’s only when the river reaches the ocean that freedom is really achieved. As for the trout, which is very hard to catch, this was probably the symbol of Schubert, his friends and their social circle in their quest for liberty. And one of the things that make this all so interesting to me is that the tone of the Trout Quintet is very light. The emotional content seems predominantly joyful. But at the same time, there’s this constant undercurrent of ambiguity. Actually, I find some element of ambiguity in virtually all of Schubert’s music, which is never one-sided or monochrome (just think how often the most tragic moments in Schubert’s music are rendered in major mode, like the beginning of G-major sonata). And this lends itself to so many different angles of interpretation—as, of course, does the musical symbolism. It’s not only wonderful music, it’s fascinating music!’

Pianistically, is it entirely self-sufficient, completely idiomatic, like Chopin, or does it benefit from mental ‘transcription’? Does Nebolsin ‘orchestrate’ the music in his mind? ‘Oh absolutely. But not just Schubert’s. In my opinion, for pianists, as a general source of interpretative guidance, it’s always important to orchestrate the music—even if it wasn’t originally conceived that way. With Beethoven, it seems obvious that many piano works were conceived with a symphonic palette. In some sonatas You can practically hear the oboes or the flutes or the clarinets or the horns. In Schubert, it’s not so pervasive, but there are definitely some very orchestral-minded pieces, most famously the Wanderer Fantasy, which Liszt actually did orchestrate. But for pianists the mental orchestration of any music reveals other dimensions of sound, stimulates our imagination and takes us beyond the intrinsic limitations of the piano.’

And what can the solo pianist learn from Schubert’s Lieder? From those amazing 600-plus songs? ‘In Schubert it’s vital to have a very close connection with the Lied. Of course. It’s Schubert’s very essence. The Lieder are like his musical confessional. But even if we don’t study the songs as such, it’s very important for all players to be familiar with the voice: to learn how to breathe at the piano. Singers can’t sing a single first note, can’t start a single motif, if they don’t inhale. Many pianists overlook this. One of the first things singers reveal to us is that there should always be something that precedes a first note—an idea, a concept, an intention—a breath!’

Even if I didn’t already know that Nebolsin teaches, I would deduce from the way he talks that he actively loves teaching. ‘Oh I do. I do. But I teach chamber music, not piano. And I learn so much from it—particularly from the process of explaining. If I’m teaching a piece I’ve never played, I try to remember some of my own spontaneous ideas, as put into words for the pupil, in order to apply them to myself. When we practise, or perform, everything is much more intuitive. The process of explaining is revelatory. Fascinating ideas often appear that I’d never have had just playing for myself. When you’re an outside listener you notice totally different things. And sometimes these things get neglected when you practise.’

Nothing, of course, gives one a greater opportunity to be an ‘outside listener’ than recording. Is this a process Nebolsin enjoys? ‘Recording, I have to say, is not a very easy process. It has a lot of positive and negative aspects. The positive aspect, of course, is that you have the opportunity to try out different options. Different dynamics, even some totally opposite readings of certain material. And yes, you do get to listen to yourself objectively. But sometimes the lack of direct contact with the listener can make it less spontaneous. Two weeks ago, we had a very interesting recording session of the First Piano Concerto by the neglected Portuguese composer Fernando Lopez Graça. First we recorded the general rehearsal, then we recorded the live concert, and then we wanted to have a so-called patch session. And from one performance to another there was a huge difference—between the general rehearsal and the concert. Suddenly, in the concert, all kinds of new ideas arose from this really very unfamiliar music. In the patch session, again, I found many new ideas. And I think in the final version, most of the material will be taken from the latest takes, the ones that were made after the concert. I think it’s very important that before you record a work, you have to perform it before an audience, as many times as possible. When you test them in this atmosphere of energetic contact with the audience in the hall, the pieces come alive. When you feel a passion for the music you’re playing—when you really want to convey this to somebody else—you do it in a special way. The desire to convince the people in front of you gives rise to ideas that would never appear otherwise. Just as with teaching.’

Looking back over his recordings to date, are there any that stand out for Nebolsin as particularly memorable, particularly enjoyable? Any that he feels particularly proud of? ‘One would definitely be the Rachmaninov Preludes. Partly because I love the music so much, but partly, too, because that disc marked both my return to the studio after a long absence and the start of my very happy association with Naxos. I feel enormously privileged that I have the opportunity to record. It’s an indescribable feeling that a tiny piece of your soul is preserved, to know that your thoughts and feelings at a given time are not lost—that you can nostalgically return to them, as to a place you haven’t been to for a long while. At the same time—I know many artists have experienced this—when we listen to ourselves later, we don’t always recognize the recording as our own. The pieces I play, especially those I play often, remain in a state of constant evolution. My approach, my thoughts, my feelings, change almost by the month.’

And what’s coming up in the pipeline? ‘Well the first thing is the Second Piano Concerto of Lopez Graça, whom I mentioned. He’s an almost unknown 20th-century composer, whose music has a very interesting language. Sometimes it has some French influence, sometimes a rather Bartókian language—it’s actually a really interesting project. And for next year I’m preparing with colleagues some marvellous chamber music—the Brahms piano quartets—which is really tremendously exciting. So those are the two most immediate things.’

And to end with (why not?), a real journalistic-type question: what are Nebolsin’s greatest unfulfilled ambitions? ‘Simple! To be a vet! I’ve always been in contact with animals, and it’s always been one of my dreams to be a vet. One of my favourite books when I was young was All Creatures Great And Small, one of James Herriot’s books which had been translated into Russian, and like all his books it was about his life as a vet, in Yorkshire, England. Ever since then, I’ve just loved this profession and have been tremendously jealous of my veterinarian friends!’

In the meantime, Mr Nebolsin can remain in his current profession (as we must very much hope that he will) and still keep company with dogs (courtesy of Chopin, Elgar and Morley), cats (Rossini, Scarlatti, Ravel, Stravinsky and Mussorgsky), an elevated cow (Milhaud), foxes (Janáček, Stravinsky), horses (Rossini, Copland, Satie), elephants (Debussy, Stravinsky, Poulenc), oxen (Haydn, Ireland), the odd mouse (Copland, Ravel), sheep (Bach), two donkeys (Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns), a squirrel (Ravel), innumerable birds (Beethoven, Respighi, Daquin, Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky, Grieg, Liszt, Messiaen, Mussorgsky, Messager, Rautavaara, etc), at least one bumble-bee (Rimsky-Korsakov), unspecified butterflies (Schumann, Grieg, Elgar, Offenbach, Couperin) and possibly sundry other species that even James Herriott never encountered. Will Nebolsin settle for a purely fanciful menagerie? Watch this space.

Eldar Nebolsin Biography & Discography


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