Andrei Gavrilov in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My twenty-sixth interview is with the Russian concert pianist Andrei Gavrilov, who I met at Monkton Combe School near Bath (in the UK) a couple of weeks ago, before he gave a series of master classes in the West Country.

Andrei Gavrilov was born in Moscow in 1955 into an artistic family.  His father Vladimir Gavrilov was a great painter, his mother a pupil of Henrich Neuhaus, was his first teacher. He graduated from the central music school in Moscow in 1973 where he studied with Tatiana Kestner. Later that year he entered Moscow conservatory where his teacher was Lev Naumov.

Andrei won first prize in the 1974 International Tchaikovsky Competition at the age of 18 and in the same year made a triumphant international debut at the Salzburg Festival, substituting for Sviatoslav Richter. He has subsequently enjoyed a distinguished international career which has included performances with many of the world’s greatest orchestras.

He made his London debut in 1976 with Paavo Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. In 1978 he performed with the Berlin Philharmonic in a major European concert tour of 30 concerts. By 1980 he had performed in all the major cultural centers in the world.

Andrei made a triumphant return to the British concert platform in 1984, after a politically enforced absence, giving recitals at the Barbican and the Royal Festival Hall. He successfully petitioned Mikhail Gorbachev for his freedom, and became the first Soviet artist to be granted permission to stay in the West without having to file for political asylum.

Following his Carnegie Hall debut in 1985, Andrei was proclaimed as a major artist by the New York Times’ Donal Henahan. He has since performed with orchestras in New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia, Montreal, Toronto, London, Vienna, Paris, Berlin, Munich, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Moscow, St-Petersburg and many other major orchestras with conductors including Abbado, Haitink, Muti, Ozawa, Svetlanov,Tennstedt, Rattle and  Sir Neville Mariner among numerous others.

Between 1976 and 1990, Andrei was an exclusive artist with EMI, winning several international prizes including a Gramophone award in 1979, Deutscher Schallplattenpreis in 1981, Grand Prix International du Disque de L’Academie Charles Crois in 1985 and 1986, and International Record Critics Award (IRCA) in 1985. Among his other awards are the 1989 Premio Internazionale Accademia Musicale Chigiana (the jury of music critics proclaiming him as the greatest pianist in the world). In 1998 Andrei Gavrilov was selected as one of the pianists to be featured in Philips Music Group’s Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century collection.

In October 1990 Andrei signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Gramophone, leading to acclaimed recordings of Chopin, Prokofiev, Schubert, Bach and  Grieg. From 1994 until 2001, Andrei had a 7 year pause in his career and virtually ceased performing. He studied philosophy and religion and was searching for new ideas in his approach to music.

In 2001 he made his triumphant comeback to Russia after 16 years, playing four piano concertos in one evening in the Moscow Conservatory. Since then he has played more and more regularly around the world with great success.  In 2008 he came back for a concert in the United States and in 2009 he undertook a world tour which included a four month long all Russian tour with enormous success. In February 2010 he was invited to the Vienna Philharmonic Golden Hall to play four concerts in a row after a 14 year break. The concerts were received with great critical acclaim. Gavrilov is planning numerous CDs and DVD recordings for the first time since 1993 with works by Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and others. Forthcoming engagements include performances throughout the world.

Foror those who prefer to read the interview, the transcript:

Melanie Spanswick: “My classical conversation today is with Russian concert pianist Andrei Gavrilov. Andrei came to the public’s attention in 1974 when he won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and he’s been playing to great acclaim ever since. I’m delighted that he’s joining me here at Monkton Combe School in Bath. Welcome.”

Andrei Gavrilov: “Thank you very much.”

Melanie: “Lovely to be here talking to you. I’m going to start by asking: How old were you when you began? What was the catalyst? Whether you come from a musical family?”

Andrei: “Yes, that’s very trivial, err the musical mum, she was a pupil of Neuhaus, a very famous teacher in Moscow Conservatory, and I constantly was surrounded by music, but it happened accidentally. I heard a live radio transmission of Mozart’s Requiem and was absolutely shattered. I was three-years-old. I was scared by “Confutatis” and absolutely crushed by “Lacrimosa”. I cried and cried and cried and cried. Really, a very sensitive kid was I. Then next day I just came to the piano and started to play “Lacrimosa” and “Confutatis” to a great surprise to my Mum, and I had never touched the piano. She was – I had an older brother and he was already in the Central Music School and my Mum was very busy with him because Central Special Music School is the very school from where all big Russians came and so it’s very difficult to learn there from the very beginning, from the first day, it’s a very hard programme.”

Melanie: “Yeah, sure.”

Andrei: “Hard training. They – All mothers and all families are involved when their kids are at Central Music School. Those days, now it’s different, and so, I was still mostly having a fun time, with my toys! but since I played these couple of numbers from the “Requiem” and my Mum said can you go, can look forward, can continue and I started to continue. Well, of course, it was not the full scale two handed playing, but it was still quite impressive and that’s how I started. Next day I was already there.”

Melanie: “Which teachers then? There must have been a teacher or teachers. What teachers are crucial in your development?”

Andrei: “You know, there were several because I mean there are many paths, many dimensions of developing a musician. It’s – there’s pianistic mastership, this is – there’s also their musicianship which is totally different. I mean, the pianist is mostly, it’s training. It’s about training; it’s about pedology and things like this. And, for that, irreplaceable was Central Music School because they are based on the best combined traditions of German, French, and Russian schools in the 19th century. This school was created by Goldenweiser, a very important teacher, friend of Tolstoy, beautiful, beautiful pianist of the 19th century. He lived a long life and even I reached him when he was in the conservatory. He was in his 80’s or 90’s or so but he grounded the Central Music School. In 1928 as a new era of those days, new soviet free state. There were a lot of ideas invested in there. There were a lot of hopes in the beginning of the Soviet Union, which all unfortunately went down it was too  – The idea was good but it was still too early. It needed to wait a couple thousand years for such a state where there was no money, everybody’s honest, everybody’s respecting each other, everybody’s loving each other, everybody’s giving. A total giving society. Maybe one day. So this school was combining the best of the best, and it was crucial for – in the developing as the pianist. After finishing this school, you can play everything, I mean you can play like this. You can play like this. You can play like this. You can play with your legs, feet, whatever.”

Melanie: “Yeah, I can imagine.”

Andrei: “We were trained like monkeys. Then, the rest of the Russians they hated us, because when– the team from Central Music School was going to the conservatory, ‘they came from central’ They’re going to take 99% of the places, no chances. And it’s true, it was true.”

Melanie: “But how did you develop your technique?”

Andrei: “You know, it’s difficult to explain because – well, it is not difficult to explain, but for that you have to go through the whole process which is – the process of education at Central Music School was 12 years. They were putting in all these 12 years. It’s a very special programme which was developed during almost a hundred years. It’s the position of the body, the position of the hands, training your nerves, with very special tricks and there are so many- millions of different dimensions of preparing. The best athlete if you wish. The best of the best, who could stand any pressure, playing in space. So, it’s really difficult to tell in the interview. So half a year was dedicated to finger technique, half a year was dedicated to elbow technique, shoulders technique. Then it was every quarter of the year we had a special exam for a special technique. Let’s say in the 7th grade, 7th class as they say, 7th year of our education we had a – and after each exam a filtration like 20 people would be taking the exam, the next day 10 people would be out of the school. It was brutal, brutal.”

Melanie: “Wow that’s interesting.”

Andrei: “Yes, very brutal. Then it would be another 10 entering from next year and then – the filtration was really – and no mercy.”

Melanie: “And hours and hours a day I presume?”

Andrei: “Yes.”

Melanie:  “Exactly how much?”      

Andrei: “We were in school since the very first class from 8 o’clock in the morning until 7 in the evening. It was all in one building, and it all about all kinds of education.”

Melanie: “Amazing.”

Andrei: “Yes, very special. It was – and the school was built in the backyard of the Moscow conservatory. It was also done on purpose so we, the little kids, could be inspired seeing – let’s say – people like Shostakovich or shaking their hands. They were coming to us, into our backyards having cigarettes. In those days they all smoked. So we constantly were seeing Rostropovich chatting with Shostakovich. All these kinds of people and it was becoming normal for us being among those Gods. So, when we were in our early teens we were already kind of a part of this family. There is also the psychological thing which worked very well.”

Melanie: “So, you won the Tchaikovsky prize, what impact did this have on your career, because this must have-“

Andrei: “Jumped. Next week I was in Salzburg replacing Richter, who couldn’t go there and I had a fantastic success and it all started I was invited everywhere.”

Melanie: “So, do you believe the competitions are still good for youngsters today? Or do you think – yes- do you think – do you think we’ve moved on from that now?”

Andrei: “Yeah, I think that was a different era, those days. It was just the beginning of competitions I mean you cannot run thousands of competitions and producing all the time geniuses. I mean for example look at the history of the Tchaikovsky competition, there were only 5 competitions that survived on the level which was established in the first competition in ’58 when Van Cliburn won the first prize, then it was John Ogdon, Ashkenazy and – then my competition in ‘74 where Andras Schiff was only fourth and hardly survived until the third round. It was so strong. Really. But we were all post Second World War generation and a lot of the moral and psychological, metaphysical forces related to the great suffering of the whole planet. And that produced as well in street culture like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and all these stuff, hippie movement. It was a very creative time. But then, when it became regular and the number of competitions grew enormously in the space of 10-12 years. It turned to be very corruptive. Instead of promoting the real talents, it just became an industry, a part of the so called music industry, which I hate. People say music industry not understanding that it’s a contradiction. I mean, the industry and music does not go together. I mean music – the industry goes with the tracks or tanks or whatsoever, but industrialization of music making – it’s just absolutely crazy. This is still a very rare product. And it’s still done by unknown forces and an unknown combination of circumstances, but definitely not on the belt. And in our days it’s just a running belt, like the cheap Ford productions. Doesn’t go. I think in the 21st century we need a total rebranding of music. First of all we have to get rid of music industry, of all this stupid combination of senseless words. We have to get rid of music-money connection, because there are a lot of musicians who are just going to this business for well, living and not understanding what they actually ought to do. What they have actually – to my opinion, the beginning musicians, they have to play for years for free. Like a priest, sort of.”

Melanie: “Absolutely.”

Andrei: “And when they will acquire the love and need from people, people will be needing them. Then, they can be paid for their services, just a little. Instead, we have completely priceless crazy situation. The teenager who is running fast passages, paid enormous fees all over the world, travelling around and spoiling and corrupting all the young audiences, because they all think that’s all about music. Just to play fast and precise. And if music is industry or at least nice entertainment. We have to come back to the values of music is, in fact, a secular  religion. If after the concert, my philosophy is, after the concert of people who came together as union and you’re transmitting the geniuses to them. If they’re not changing for good after the concert, during the concert, if it’s not a lifetime event for the audience, every concert, it’s a bad concert. It’s a charlatan, nothing else.”

Melanie: “Do you have a particular practice routine?”

Andrei: “Yes I do, as much as possible.”

Melanie: “What do you do? Do you have a specific way of warming up or do you just go straight to-“

Andrei: “I’m always warm, hot hot hot! You know, it says in the Bible, one of the beautiful passages. I think it is from Apocalypse, yeah. There is a verse which says ‘because you’re warm I hate and reject you. If you are cold or hot I would, I would have loved you. But, because you are only warm, I rejected you.’ “

Melanie: “Which composers do you love to play?”

Andrei: “You know, there’s so few.”

Melanie: “Really?”

Andrei: “Geniuses, really few, a handful. Since Bach, I mean how many we could really call geniuses? We all know Wagner, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin. And, well it would be- I don’t want to give numbers but there are every few for three hundred years”

Melanie: “You retired from the concert platform for a while, and then you came back. What prompted your return and why did you decide to stop performing”

Andrei: “ Because it was a very important decision and a crucial decision of my life. And in the beginning of 90’s I started realizing that I’m becoming a part of the music industry and I became a perfect industrial boy. Having what I always – loving it  – as the big and important agents like to say that you have a solid and steady career. That’s what I had, a solid and steady career, the regular recordings, regular tours, and no development at all. And you’re just getting older, you’re just getting more and more experience, you’re slightly developing in the way of being master of manipulating and pleasing audiences. But it has nothing to do with art. And in this phase of being part of music industry you cannot move. First of all, you can’t be free with your spirit and your ideas because you have to follow certain rules, and there are many.

Secondly, you cannot move forward the music itself. If you look back for the performing arts, we have been doing the same for 200 years. It’s rattling and rattling and rattling again, and it doesn’t go forward, therefore I decided that I have to do something radical, say goodbye to wellbeing, start my life from the scratch and die or find a new way of developing music, developing performing arts. And I knew that I would be alone. Bye bye wealthy life, hello poverty. But it was difficult, I was suffering, I was suffering a lot because I spoilt a lot – for a certain life style for a couple of decades. Then, I got accustomed to it, my new situation, and I was starting to search and listen to myself and I didn’t find much interesting.”

Melanie: “But you found a way back, you came back.”

Andrei: “Oh yeah, it was also decided those days in the beginning of the 90’s that I come back only when I will be so rich in a different way.”

Melanie: “In a different way.”

Andrei: “In a different way.”

Melanie: “Yes, of course.”

Andrei: “Then, I could share with the rest of the world for a thousand of years. The ideas, the new things, new sounds and turn every single meeting with an audience into a lifetime event. Only when I am feeling confident that I can do it then I’ll come back. So I had to work hard to achieve that, I didn’t though for a long time. In ’93 I quit. The first try I’ve done in 2001 already the 21st century, but I started only really working only in the well, last couple of years.”

Melanie: “That’s interesting. You’re giving master classes here today. What do you love about teaching?”

Andrei: “Oh, that’s the same, part of the sharing, sharing. Sharing what I learnt. Being able to share, knowing that what I’m sharing – sharing with guys and students – nobody can. Nobody went through this, really. I mean the guys from the music industry, they can share different things. And therefore me, who was always rejecting the idea of teaching, I do it only 2 years. I do it only 2 years and do only master classes, and do it no more than – let’s say – four or five times a year. But this is kind of different a dimensional space flight, what I try to achieve during our gathering together with these youngsters. It’s not like you have to play this like this and this and this and that. I mean, this is all scholarship. What I try to share is – first of all, give the keys to the guys to be able to read the texts, because nobody can read the texts. Reading the text is the crucial thing. We all know the word interpretation and this is a very tricky one, because interpretation is mostly appealing to your intuition. One is feeling like this. Another is feeling like this. Another is feeling like this. To where we have thousands of interpretations that have nothing to do with the piece, but – they’re all expressing themselves in different ways, which is wrong. It’s the wrong perception. What I’m positive, and I’ve proven that it’s possible to do, it’s to grab from the text the real meaning of the composer. The composer, when he put something on paper – the genius composers, the real composer, who are rich, those kind of composers – from those composers, you know, every note has a meaning and content and from text- if you’re able to read the text – enormous amount of information and knowing how to read the text and knowing what composer is using a special – which technique to express a particular thing. Every composer has different tools for expressing themselves. Beethoven or Chopin or Rachmaninoff – but for reading Rachmaninoff for example, you ought to know the Orthodox culture. If you don’t know the religious culture of an orthodox believer – I mean forget about Rachmaninoff, because Rachmaninoff himself and all his music is a Russian religious song.  Nothing else. With all the quotations from the church services from the Russian nature and also filtered through the Christian mind, through the Christian conscious, but a very special one, the mixtures byzantine – the Russian, Eastern, Mongolian mixture of what is a very strange phenomenon as a Russian Orthodox church. And he was actually himself he was representing the church and that’s what the 99% percent of his music is. Except of some jokey or jazzy stuff, which is, would be 1% of the entire literature of Rachmaninoff. The rest would be this, and they have to know that. How would they have to know that? First of all, they have to study this. Second, you have to go to Russia and live there. Then you can, then you’re able to. If you don’t do this, forget about Rachmaninoff. Same with any other composer. If you are not drinking beer with a German Bauer in the German village, you wouldn’t know what Wagner’s written about. Half of Wagner is German songs. Still living, still singing, still being sang. And also, you have to know the protestant approach and all the things which are connected with the Lutheran and the time, and going deep in the Bach mind through the prism of being rejecting Catholicism on the German soil. That’s the environment where it was all created, but you have to know where the seeds are to be able to read the text. Again, this is a very very, very complex task. And that’s what I share.

Melanie: “What does playing the piano mean to you?”

Andrei: “Sharing love.”

Melanie: “Thanks so much for joining me today. Thank you.”

Andrei: “My pleasure.”


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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