"If you are going to play Schubert sonata in the evening you are not supposed to fly in the morning from one hemisphere to another. You are supposed to stay one year in one city, and think about it for twenty minutes every day."
Do you like the process of making a recording?
There are different musicians, and some of them are my closest friends, who find playing concerts somehow easier than the recording, and there is someone like me, who finds exactly the opposite. There are a lot of difficulties associated with performing on stage, and I enjoy the recordings more because of one simple fact: if you know what you want to say and how you want to do it, if it doesn't work the first time you just do it again. And that's something you can't do during the concert because you have only one chance. That's why I feel much more comfortable in the studio.
But doesn't the audience give you inspiration?
When I play for the microphone, I am also playing for all these people who are listening, so the audience is there anyway, but an imaginary one, so for me, it is more about the interaction between you and a piece than between you and the audience. I feel a great responsibility and gratitude towards the people who come to my concerts, but it doesn't mean that I wouldn't be able to do this in an empty hall. But again, some people need this and some people don't, there is no right or wrong.
You mentioned that concerts are always associated with certain difficulties and nerves, so do you have any special rituals before going on stage?
There are certain things that are supposed to help, and sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. For example, Mikhail Pletnev told me the ways how to warm up before the concert. I worship things like that because it comes from him, and he always knows what he is talking about. But rituals? No. Try not to do too many stupid things before the concert. Once I severely injured my finger before the concert. If you don't do that, the chances of a success are much higher. (laughs)
I am currently reading a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro about a pianist who arrives in a city he cannot recognize for a performance he cannot remember agreeing to give. Maybe it is not a very serious question, but with such a tight schedule like yours, have you ever felt lost while being on tour?
In many ways, it's extremely perverse how much travel musicians have to do. In this small, constantly shrinking island of classical music only very few famous musicians have to do a lot of work, and an incredible ocean of others have absolutely no work at all. And there is nothing in between. And everybody tells me, “Yeah but you are doing too much, take a bit less, why not.” For many reasons, it is actually not possible. Because of the way how this market works, it doesn't leave us a lot of possibilities. And if you are going to play Schubert sonata in the evening you are not supposed to fly in the morning from one hemisphere to another. You are supposed to stay one year in one city, walk in the forest and think about it for twenty minutes every day. When you are young, you are excited with all this travelling, but with age, your perspective starts to change. On the other hand, it changes you as well, because it is also some kind of a bad poison, and eventually, you get used to it. I can only talk about myself, but if I am not in this constant motion, it also becomes strange, and I don't have a home feeling anywhere.
This will be my last question... How do you see the music industry and classical music in the future?
The short answer is I don't know. But classical music is complex, listening to it is an acquired skill, that is why you have to educate the listener and yourself. It has already changed its role so many times: in the 19th century, it was much more about the entertainment. Now you need a lifetime to actually learn this language to know how to enjoy it. And maybe not enjoy it, but how to be enriched by it. Of course, if you listen to Matthäus-Passion the sheer aesthetic properties of this music are so strong that people feel they are dealing with something big, even without knowing about it, but you cannot say that about every piece of classical music. However, music is such an important part of this civilization that if it really goes, it will be a pity, because our society will turn into something else. And I also think it will be objectively poorer than it is right now. So I have a lot of heavy thoughts about it. And the problem lies in trying to understand what it is that we are looking for.
But to end on a positive note: what Teodor does in Perm, in terms of educating the audience, is incredible. I just came from there, and we did a 3-hour program of obscure works by Debussy, Alban Berg, Hindemith and Shostakovich. You had to see the number of people who came and how they listened! This is all because of this one man and what he does there. And he did it all in 10 years, so it is all possible, and there is hope.
Alexander Melnikov in conversation with Primephonic's content editor Maryna Boiko