Fasten Your Seat Belts: Pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk in Conversation with Geoffrey Newman

CanadaCanada Fasten Your Seat Belts: Pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk in Conversation with Geoffrey Newman 7.4.2014

Alexander Gavrylyuk
Alexander Gavrylyuk

The title is inspired by the apt comments of a Gramophone critic, reviewing one of pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk’s earlier CD’s.  And what a formidable talent he is: from the sheer firmness and weight of his tone, to the cleanness of his articulation, to his range of pianistic colour, to his poetic sensibility and intelligence.  One might also go on for a long time talking about his prodigious virtuoso skill, but it was more the natural passion of his playing and his complete concentration and involvement in the music that struck me most forcibly when I saw his Wigmore Hall debut just under a year ago. While some pianists seem separate from their instrument, Alexander seems literally fused to the piano –a truly intense love relationship.

Talking with Alexander during his current visit to Vancouver to perform the Rachmaninoff concertos reveals a very romantic young man (just 30 this year), absolutely enthusiastic and passionate about everything music but otherwise wonderfully modest and humane.  When we started to talk about how to build music scholarship foundations for the young, he said that he was so excited about this that he was almost getting ‘goose-bumps’ just thinking about the prospect.  Alexander supports a number of charities including Theme and Variations Young Pianist Trust, which encourages young Australian pianists, as well as Opportunity Cambodia, which has built a residential educational facility for needy Cambodian children.  But he can also be very candid.  When I jokingly asked him if he remembered coming back on stage for a bow at Wigmore Hall from one door but trying unsuccessfully to exit by another, he simply laughed and said, ‘ I am always awkward on stage’.

The pianist won First Prize and Gold Medal at the 1999 Horowitz International Piano Competition and First Prize at the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition in Japan in 2000. In 2005, he took the coveted Gold Medal at the renowned Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Masters Competition.  Debuting in 2010 with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Alexander Gavrylyuk has returned to Amsterdam each year, either in recital in the Master Piano Series or as soloist with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.  In May 2013, he performed the complete Rachmaninoff concerti and Rhapsody with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under Neeme Järvi.  Having a Ukrainian/ Australian background, he often returns to play in both Russia and Australia.  In 2009, he made an acclaimed recording of the complete Prokofiev Concerti with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony.  He has recorded a number of superb recitals for Piano Classics, the most recent being a coupling of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ and Schumann’s ‘Kinderszenen’ (2014).

Geoffrey Newman: I remember your exciting debut recital at Wigmore Hall, London at the end of April last year, where you were called in at short notice to perform Mozart, Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’.  How did you feel about that concert?

Alexander Gavrylyuk: It was certainly a very big event for me artistically — and I only had four or five days to prepare!  But in many respects, I felt the same after this concert as I have after many others: that I had done my best to completely immerse myself in what I was playing and to selflessly share the music with the audience.  I have always believed that it is only if you are selfless that you can communicate the spirit of the music.  As soon as you get in the zone and pursue artistic truth, it is almost euphoric.  You do not carry the music; the music carries you.

GN: Everyone has remarked on the weight and solidity of your tone and the cleanness of your articulation.  Did this type of sound production just come naturally or were there certain things you have done over time to achieve this?

AG: I had to work on it.  I used to not know how to use my full body weight when playing and would sometimes injure myself.  I now am physically better balanced and can use especially my upper body strength more effectively.  All this has been part of a continuous process of development: my tone is bigger than it used to be and I have replaced a previous stiffness with greater flexibility.

GN: You are playing a complete Rachmaninoff concerto cycle with the VSO at this time.  How is preparing a full cycle different from just doing one concerto?

AG: Well, you must practice more!  But, truthfully, it can be quite difficult.  I was just preparing the 3rd concerto for performance and suddenly themes from 2nd (that I had just performed) entered my mind and would not go away.  I felt quite uncomfortable, almost sick when this occurred — and had to stop practicing completely for a time until the 2nd went away.  The emotional world of the 3rd concerto is so different than that of the 2nd!

GN: So many people think of Rachmaninoff as an extremely emotional, passionate composer.  How do you see this?

AG: Of course he is, but you must recognize that the essential quality of his works is that they convey an ‘inner struggle’, reflecting his doubts, his deep hopes and his joys, his intimate feelings, and so on.  That is why the concertos usually build to something triumphal at the end, signifying the liberalization of spirit from a previous agony.  But again, his works are more about the struggle within than any external adversity.

GN: You clearly think of each of the four piano concertos as very different, and each must be interpreted on its own terms?

AG: Yes, each comes from a different phase of the composer’s life.  No. 1 is a much tighter, classical work, full of youthful joy and energy and less complicated emotionally.  No. 2 has much more doubt, yearning and hope in it possibly because it was the first work he attempted after a long period of inactivity.  In my opinion, the 3rd represents the composer at the peak of his powers, having much more intimacy and triumphal feeling than the others.  I also think that it was Rachmaninoff’s display piece for America, since it was the first work he premiered there, and he really wanted to convey the full meaning of Russian culture.  The last concerto is quite different again.  The composer is now comfortable, famous and prospering in America, but there is something wrong: he strongly misses his homeland.  This concerto is about the survival of spirit.  Each concerto says something quite different!

GN: What lessons do you think Rachmaninoff himself gave to you through his own legendary concerto recordings, still wonderfully preserved on CD?  Are there other great pianists that you might mention?

AG: One learns so much from the composer’s interpretation: about the length of phrases, rhythmic structure and, perhaps even more important, the natural poetic flow of the music and the ‘space between the notes’.  Of others, probably Horowitz, Rubinstein and Joseph Hoffman were great influences in general.  Rubinstein teaches you so much about lyrical phrasing while Hoffman teaches you fascinating things about time and rhythm.  If I ever might become a combination of Horowitz and Rubinstein, I would be a very happy man.

GN: What feelings do you have on tempo in these works?  Rachmaninoff himself was fairly quick, yet Ashkenazy and Richter often liked slower speeds.

AG: The tempo I pick has mainly to do with the natural flow of the work as I see it.  One must be able to make phrases hold together in a way which communicates their meaning.  If you are too slow, phrases simply fall apart.  I usually aim for the slowest tempo that still allows all the phrases to cohere naturally.

GN: Many performers have told me that no matter how they do a work in rehearsal, it always seems to come out differently when you are on stage.  Is that true for you?  Why do you think that is?

AG: Yes, it is probably true.  I am convinced that it is the connection to the audience.  If the audience seems to get excited by my playing, the orchestra may get excited too and, before long, everybody’s emotions are playing off each other.  Or perhaps it will work the other way around: exciting conducting may get me to push harder or be more imaginative.  An interesting side effect of all this is that you do sometimes come up with new ideas right as you are playing. You would have never thought of these before.  Other examples involve Russian orchestras, which do not rehearse very much.  Then you can get on-stage results that are really different.  Or take a very distinguished conductor such as Neeme Järvi, with whom I performed the complete Rachmaninoff cycle last year.  We hardly rehearsed at all, and I was not sure at all that we would come together in performance.  When we walked on stage, like magic, everyone was completely together.

GN: You very successfully recorded the Prokofiev concerto cycle with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony a few years ago.  What was it like playing with a conductor who has himself performed all the works on the piano?

AG: It was quite amazing: he knew every note of the piano score.  So he could really make things easy for me.  Actually, I was initially sort of scared to be working with an artist I had revered since childhood.  But, after ten minutes, I relaxed completely and started enjoying myself.  He is such a kind, gracious man.

GN: Did he suggest that you follow his path and start a conducting career soon?

AG: No, and I have never conducted so far.  But I played a Mozart concerto fairly recently with the Sydney orchestra, led only by the concertmaster.  Here I actually did start directing the orchestra a bit from the piano, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  I am now slightly infected with the fever to try this again.

GN: You obviously have shown a great commitment to playing the Russian repertoire so far.  What non-Russian composers would you really like to study and perform?

AG: You should understand that while I was born in the Ukraine, I moved to Australia when I was a young teenager.  This certainly allowed more freedom in my individual direction than if I had spent most of my life in Russia. I had full exposure to all composers of different national schools and their styles.  Right now, I love playing Mozart.  But the composer I really want to explore is Brahms.  Then Schumann, Liszt and Schubert…  I guess I will go through different phases of love for all these composers.  And I am not forgetting Beethoven, although he is one composer that requires a great deal of time and study.

GN: What is upcoming for you on the international concert stage next season?

AG: One thing I am really looking forward to is returning to Amsterdam to play at the Concertgebouw this coming fall.  I have appeared every year since 2010, and I am so pleased and honoured to be invited back again.  I get excited every time I walk into that building; there is so much history there and it is like you inherit the spirit of all the great composers.  I will also play again with the Sydney Symphony, and collaborate with young Dutch violinist Janine Jansen.

© Geoffrey Newman 2014

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