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BILL NEWMAN talks to pianist Igor Tchetuev


Every so often, an outstanding young artist joins forces with the chosen elite to perform in such a way that one immediately realizes that musical truth is not so elusively unattainable as the experts make out. On three occasions that 28-year old Igor Tchetuev, born Sevastopol in the Ukraine has performed at London's Wigmore Hall I have felt a steadily increased interest, not only in his professional attitude towards the pianoforte but also the ways he sets about revealing the essential character of the masterworks that comprise his wonderfully balanced programmes. Having already notched up two of the highest prizes for his instrument: the Grand Prix at the International Vladimir Krainev Young Pianists Competition (Ukraine) at the age of 14, then in 1998 the First Prize Laureate of the Ninth Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, where he was also voted 'Audience Favourite', his massive itinerary between 2007-2010 reads like some veritable Who's Who and Where to Next? right across the globe. Following this year's notable recitals at the Wigmore and Cadogan Halls I wasn't going to allow the lousy tube strike to prevent our talking with each other.

What I already find incredible is your willingness to take a large portion of the classical repertoire: Chopin and Beethoven Sonatas complete in recordings and the remainder in your concerts and recitals where you receive rave critical reviews. You are still young, and that is really some achievement ... 'Not quite complete in the Beethoven, and unfortunately not yet in this country. I am not doing this for the critics, and not yet for the people, but -- for me. I like to teach myself! At present, I don't worry what the critics think about my Beethoven, and there are several versions by other artists.' Looking into your eyes, I see this ability to relax and concentrate -- important to any artist -- to play from the heart with total confidence from the moment you are seated on the piano stool. You also like to choose where you want to perform, without being pressured. 'Thank you for your kind words. Not to look tensed is how I should like to be. But being tense is correct and necessary because you have to be at pressure to give something at the right moment. We can never be completely relaxed as we have to consider deeply our own feelings for that phrase, and so on ... I am not sure everybody knows that'. I quoted what a critic saw in Sviatoslav Richter, seemingly performing in his own cocoon ... 'Then in later years, with the hall lights switched off -- I liked that very much. But, from the other aspect I like to see the musician when he is playing. It becomes more an aesthetic enjoyment when you can study how he concentrates on the score. The whole thing is more beautiful as he shows his true self'.

Shortly before his death, Yehudi Menuhin said in a television interview that listening to music was as much seeing as hearing. You notice the expression on the artist's face and sense the audience behind you with their murmurings of delight or disapproval. There is also this mysterious alchemy where you find yourself among a mass of people, and not caring what they think. Yet sometimes you are affected by their moods and feelings. 'Some casual artists may not care about audiences, but others wish to share their emotions. For me it is quite important to feel the public and learn their reactions. The moment I play -- it's strange because I am not thinking directly about this -- if I am not having their attention on me it doesn't open up something in my mind which should always be working. If their expressions are not natural -- as in artificial theatre -- I won't care; otherwise it is fine for me.'

Who influenced you to perform piano originally -- your parents or a teacher? 'It was Mama. She loved music, of course! When she was pregnant and I was moving around, she was coming to my concerts. That is why I became so musical! Papa was totally skeptical about it. He had to give all our free monies towards traveling. Competitions, festivals -- he had to pay out almost all his savings. But now he is so proud! I went to Sevastapol. No, I didn't go to the Conservatoire, but I had a fantastic teacher -- a pupil of Goldenweiser'. God, I have been talking to Nelly Akopian Tamarina, who wants to provide me with a complete description of the man and musician ... 'Really! Well, for that generation it was either him or Neuhaus. Goldenweiser was a very great teacher', but my younger generation became the godsons of these older teacher pianists. I didn't require to go to Moscow as I found another marvelous teacher in Vladimir Krainev.' It was a great year for the Tchaikovsky Competition: Krainev tieing with Britain's John Lill, Gidon Kremer winning the violin section, Karine Georgian (Krainev's first wife) for the cello. 'Krainev sent me direct to Germany. Harmony, Solfege, Musical History were all taught at high levels in Moscow, but not so high in Germany. So that was what I was missing. Therefore, I am trying to read and learn them myself.' How about the concerts? 'Look, if I don't have the intellectual subjects, the concerts are nothing.'

Describe the big break-through into the concert scene. 'It was winning the Rubinstein Competition, 1998. It was a very big thing, and I must admit that afterwards I had a lot of very good concerts. But they stopped, suddenly.' Why? 'The Competition stopped promoting me, and I went through a difficult time after three years. That is the way with artists who always wish to be on stage in the big cities, the big halls. I didn't play badly -- of that I am sure. But this, I think, gave me the impulse to go further -- to come up to another level.' It took about two and a half years. 'I began to teach, play chamber music, until I reached high standards again -- not without complications. In the meantime, there were many more pianists. So, getting people interested in you is unbelievably complicated. Treasures to me are those whose interests I have gained, and who continue to support me. For them I am grateful, and I don't need millions of public like some pianists. I like those who understand my language and are happy to come back again.'

This appears to me something you are capable of doing naturally, simply on the basis that you communicate directly and instinctively. To give one example, I refer to your outstanding recording of Chopin's Three Piano Sonatas on the Orfeo d'Or label: C 619 041A. Apart from stunning performances of the Sonatas -- No 2 in B flat minor and No 3 in B minor, there is your interpretation of the First C minor Sonata by the seventeen-year old composer, studying at the Warsaw Conservatoire. Unpublished until two years after Chopin's death, it is described as 'an inconsequential work' by one J Robison. Neither the Polish Prizewinner Wladyslaw Kedra (on Westminster) at the 1955 Chopin International Competition, or the eminent pianist Nikita Magaloff on the Philips label, who made a complete recording of the composer's solo piano music, succeeded in revealing any positive case for this student work. The present day generation of pianists, I think likewise.

Not so yourself. I, and a few discerning critics, regard your performance as a major triumph of re-evaluation, while certain musicologists continue to dismiss it as a weak work. 'No way. The way of taking up, then admiring the scores is quite a long process. How do I describe it? Yes, you have to love the music, falling in love with the work as you play it more, then eventually becoming its lover!' OK. Was it a challenge coming to terms with certain ambiguities in the opening movement, concentrating instead on an intimate balance between melodic strands and rhythmic ideas? 'In that Sonata? No. Actually the Second Sonata was the problem for me,' and understandably so, for many pianists '... and then the B minor Sonata -- an even bigger problem. You play it, and go on playing it, then start to go back. You realize that it becomes bigger and still more so as you work through it.'

At this point I realized that certain musical success secrets were not about to be revealed. I turned the attention towards Chopin's repeat markings in the Second and Third Sonatas, and their importance in maintaining the musical structure. 'I think I possibly leave out the one during the first movement of the B minor' ... He observes it on the CD. 'I am not sure whether Chopin made reprises in his own performances. A possible view is that he included the markings in his scores as part of his own tribute to the Classical Era.' It is generally felt that a repeat of the exposition should sound different from the first time round. 'It should sound right! If the performance is badly played ... ugh! Some competitions do not include them.'

Competitions. The feeling is that they are outmoded. The atmosphere created is unnatural -- totally unlike the real concert scene, they used to be regarded as a starting point towards a career, but what is actually achieved? 'I accept that they are useful if they promote you, but otherwise it becomes a sport. Everyone rose from a starting point of tense prizes, but it only lasted for a short time -- a year, maybe. I think, and hope, that we come back to the old system of personalities. Never exaggerating the status or the meaning of music. Another big enemy has entered the scene: Money! But I hope that we will continue to make music, properly.

Forward planning. You receive invitations to go to many places, very fast. This must be alarming for you! 'Yes, it is. Of course, they want me to take everything. To win public, you have to be with public, all the time, without a break. The rules of life make me follow those rules. But, if I do that, I will lose myself -- be somebody who everybody wants to see. I don't want that. I wish to be with people who understand what I am. How do you have music without competitions? Why are there so many musicians now who are not composing? I like to see and hear those who play instruments, but does everybody want to earn money doing that?!'

Pletnyev -- playing piano, conducting and composing? 'Why does he do that? Musicians used to do everything, and he is a genius. We are rather like piano or violin idiots; to fight for money we have to play all the time. He is probably trying to build back the past picture of composer -- conductor -- instrumentalist (the order of priorities makes more musical sense). It makes you feel richer.'

Igor Tchetuev. Photo © Jack Liebeck
Igor Tchetuev. Photo © Jack Liebeck

'No, music is the soul based on the intellect. You achieve results by hard work, before you bring it to the people: What do you think about this kind of music -- that is what I am looking for'. Can we continue this at some future occasion? 'With great pleasure -- if I am alive!'

Copyright © 10 September 2009 Bill Newman,
Edgware UK







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