A Conversation with Pianist Hristo Kazakov Print E-mail
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Written by Radu A. Lelutiu   
Friday, 29 March 2013

A Conversation with Pianist Hristo Kazakov

I fell in love with Hristo Kazakov’s playing after hearing his recording of the Goldberg Variations , so when the editor asked me if I was interested in interviewing Kazakov I did not hesitate. At the beginning of the interview, I asked Kazakov, who grew up in Bulgaria around the same time I was growing up in neighboring Romania, to share his first memories involving the piano. He replied: “When I was three years old, my grandfather gave me a beautiful gift—a piano he had bought after the Second World War. I am not sure if he truly foresaw my musical aptitude or just wanted me to pick up a nice hobby. But whatever his motivation, my connection to music and the instrument became apparent after I began taking lessons at age four. After a couple of years of study, some of my mother’s friends suggested that she should consider sending me to music school. Although my mother was not a musician, she listened to her friends’ advice and enrolled me in the State Music School in Sofia. After taking a short exam I was accepted.”

Did you know right away that you would end up a musician? “Not really. It actually took me quite a while to choose a career path. The studies at the State School were rigorous and took up most of my time. We did a lot of solfège, which I enjoyed very much. Unfortunately, I did not quite enjoy my piano lessons as much as I enjoyed the solfège exercises! The main problem at that time was that my teacher and I didn’t see eye to eye. She was very set in her ways, and we just did not get along. In turn, that caused me to become reluctant to practice and, naturally, my progress stalled. Eventually, however, when I was around 14, she unexpectedly left the school. She was replaced by a new teacher whom I liked very much right from the start. She was a remarkable educator and had an unconventional, open-minded way of thinking, much like my own. My new teacher made a very big difference in my artistic development, encouraging me to study not only classical music, but also the world of jazz and improvisation. So I split my time between learning staples of the classical repertoire—things like Schumann’s Kreisleriana , Liszt’s Sonata, or the Rachmaninoff C-Minor Piano Concerto—and deciphering complex jazz harmonies and experimenting in ‘Free Jazz.’ After a little while, when I was around 15, I formed a jazz quartet with a few (older) friends, and we performed in clubs all over Sofia. It was a ton of fun, and the affair lasted for four years until I had to decide whether to continue with jazz or focus exclusively on classical music. It was not an easy choice: On the one hand, you have the freedom and unconstrained creativity jazz and improvisation offer, on the other hand, you have the noble, restrained beauty of classical music, which frankly I had not even begun to fully understand. The decision was wrenching, but after much contemplation, I concluded that my true calling was to become a classical pianist.

“At age 19, I enrolled in the National Academy of Music in Sofia, where I had the good fortune of studying with Professor Dimo Dimov. Professor Dimov, a former student of Lili Kraus, is a great artist and a brilliant teacher who played an important part in my artistic development. To this day, I still remember one of my early lessons with him. He played a single note to make a point about sound production, but he played it with such inward intensity that it was simply unforgettable. Without saying as much, Professor Dimov taught me a fundamental principle I’ve tried to follow in my own performances—never play a note until you first hear it within you; and never play a note unless it feels ripe and ‘right’ in your heart. I find that much too often (and that was certainly the case for me before I worked with Professor Dimov), pianists approach the score inattentively without asking themselves what the printed notes should sound like.”

I asked Kazakov how he ended up in Switzerland, where he lives today. “After my graduation from the Conservatory in 1996, my life went through a fairly chaotic stage. I was young, unemployed, and full of dreams that were out of my reach. I searched for an imaginary uncomplicated life. Although I did not know it at the time, in retrospect it is clear to me that I went through a spiritual and existential crisis. In the late 1990s, I discovered the works of Rudolf Steiner and developed an interest in anthroposophy. Around 2002, I found out that the new Goetheanum (a center for anthroposophical studies) was opening in Dornach, Switzerland. So I decided to leave Bulgaria to broaden my knowledge, and I ended up staying in Switzerland.”

I asked Kazakov if he sees a connection between music and anthroposophy. “I do. Music and anthroposophy have a lot in common—they are both concerned with the spiritual. I believe that my studies in anthroposophy have helped deepen my understanding of music, making me also aware of how important and relevant ‘breathing,’ the sense of space, and silence—the absence or anticipation of sound, that is—are in music-making. Since moving to Switzerland, I have gradually had more opportunities to give recitals and perform with ensembles and orchestras. Unfortunately, I have also experienced some personal tragedies that prevented me from participating in a number of piano competitions and playing as much as I would have liked to do.”

Does he have musical heroes? “Everyone has heroes. There are many great musicians, both classical and non-classical, who have influenced me in different ways. Claudio Arrau is perhaps the one who has influenced me the most. To me, he is a truly universal pianist who wonderfully integrates the soul and the mind in music-making. Besides Arrau, I admire giants like Rachmaninoff, Rosenthal, Friedman, Michelangeli, Richter, Cherkassky (particularly for Chopin), Rubinstein, and Horowitz.” Any pianists who are still active today? “Of course: Leon Fleisher, Emanuel Ax, Mikhail Pletnev. There are also non-pianists who have had a great influence on me, particularly Sergiu Celibidache. And, as I mentioned, I’ve been influenced by non-classical musicians such as Keith Jarrett and Sufi musicians.”

Do you feel closer to music from a particular era? “My tastes are eclectic, and I make it a point not to specialize in particular repertoire. Arrau never limited himself to one style, composer, or period, but insisted that a pianist should be open and work consciously with compositions he is not familiar with and does not have a natural tendency towards. In Joseph Horowitz’s book Conversations with Claudio Arrau , Arrau is quoted as having said that ‘a true artist is someone who can transform into something he is not.’ I subscribe to this view and I have made it one of my artistic credos.”

I asked Kazakov if his playing of Bach’s keyboard music was influenced by other pianists. “In Bach, I am a great admirer of the so-called Russian tradition. Two particular pianists I have in mind are Samuil Feinberg and Maria Yudina. Of course, they could not be more different. Feinberg has an exceptional and elastic, almost ethereal quality to his sound. Yudina, on the other hand, lived a tough life and I think that shows in her playing. I also admire Richter’s approach to Bach, particularly his Well-Tempered Clavier , which is calm and restful compared to, say, Friedrich Gulda’s.”

What role, if any, does scholarship play in the way he approaches Bach’s scores? “I’ve read a number of books and articles concerning how music from the Baroque era should be played. That said, I do not think of myself as a ‘scholar’ and frankly I am skeptical that scholarship will ever be able to elucidate the way in which Bach expected his music to be performed. The truth is that, while it was written 260 years ago, Bach’s music is timeless and its spiritual essence transcends any and all performance strictures. At the end of the day, getting to the essence of the music is what really matters.”

I asked Kazakov when he began learning the Goldberg Variations . “I began to explore the piece when I was 23 without any expectation that I would eventually learn it for actual performance. I worked on the music at my own pace and after a few months I discovered that, much to my surprise, I had learned the whole thing by heart without even trying. I’ve performed the work fairly often since, and I’ve made it a tradition to perform it every year shortly before Christmas.”

How difficult is it to perform a work that has been recorded so often? “It is not easy. I grew up listening to Gould’s 1951 and 1981 recordings and, like many musicians I know, I was captivated by his playing. When I began to work on the piece, I had to free myself of Gould’s vision so that I could regain my own insights and interpretation. While I believe I now have my own vision of the work, I continue to enjoy what others have had to say about it, among them Maria Tipo, Murry Perahia, András Schiff, Rosalyn Tureck, Wilhelm Kempff (who plays the theme in a striking way, without any ornaments), Grigory Sokolov, Tatiana Nikolayeva, and Pierre Hantai.”

Did he feel any misgivings about selecting the Goldberg Variations for his debut recording? “Not at all. I feel close to this music and I was eager to share my vision of the work with others. The truth is that, as Artur Schnabel once said, this is music that is better than it can ever be performed. It is music one can study over the course of a lifetime. My recording represents my current thinking, but of course the creative process will never be complete.”

What’s in store for the future? “I would like to perform Beethoven’s piano sonatas in a series of live recitals. And I would very much like to record Schumann’s C-Major Fantasy and Chopin’s nocturnes.”

BACH Goldberg Variations Hristo Kazakov (pn) NO LABEL NO NUMBER (45:02) Available from the artist’s website hristokazakov.com

It is not easy to meet an artist for the very first time, and first encounters tend to be even trickier when they involve works you’ve heard played dozens of times by the likes of Glenn Gould, András Schiff, Murray Perahia, or Evgeni Koroliov. And yet one of the marks of a true artist is to make you immediately forget all externalities, draw you into the performance, and leave you moved and inspired. The young Bulgarian pianist Hristo Kazakov is a true artist and, at least in my book, his performance of the Goldberg Variations —easily one of the most recorded works in the pianistic repertoire—stands alongside the finest I have heard.

There are many reasons for my conclusion, some of which are susceptible to explanation and others for which words would not suffice. Let me begin with the few observations at which I arrived relatively early on in the 10 or so hours I’ve spent listening to Kazakov’s recording. This is a reading that is remarkably free of the kinds of mannerisms, artifices, and contrivances that are oftentimes deployed by pianists who play Bach nowadays. I suppose that one way to characterize Kazakov’s approach is to say that he lets the music speak for itself. So characterizing Kazakov’s art, however, would be grossly misleading, because in a work as complex and as difficult to sustain as the Goldberg Variations , there is no such thing as letting the music speak for itself. For one thing, Bach’s score provides no instructions concerning dynamics and virtually no tempo indications, and thus at the end of the day the pianist must first figure out what this mysterious music means before finding a way to bring it to life. This is where Kazakov succeeds admirably, and under his fingers the Aria and 30 variations emerge with the kind of wisdom, naturalness, and sincerity that elude all but the finest of pianists. Indeed, during the 45 minutes required to get through this performance, I often found myself listening not as a critic, but for pure enjoyment. This truly is a performance that has it all—vitality (e.g., variations 1, 8, 14, and 29); scintillation (e.g., variations 5, 17, 20, and 23); lyricism (e.g., variations 13 and 25); and wit (e.g., variations 18 and 22, how I love this little variation!). It is also apparent that Kazakov does not view the 30 variations as isolated units, but rather as links in a larger, unitary whole. This is no doubt the correct view to approach this score (the best proof is the return of the Aria when all is said and done), but something that gets lost in many other performances that fail to appreciate the logical and emotional progression of this extraordinary music, and most notably the spiritual surge of the last 10 variations. (One small criticism, which has nothing to do with Kazakov’s playing, is that the recording engineers left a little bit too much space between the tracks, which may make it harder to fully appreciate just how seamlessly Kazakov moves from one variation to the next, let alone the subtle tempo relationships that make those transitions seem organic.)

The quality of the recorded sound, while perhaps not up to the standards of more established labels, is still very good. Kazakov’s sonority is reminiscent of the gaunt, unvarnished sound made famous in Bach by Gould. Also like Gould (and many others), Kazakov takes very few of the repeats. Because he plays so beautifully, this is a pity. P.S. Apparently, Kazakov’s repertoire includes The Art of Fugue . Could he be persuaded to record it? Radu A. Lelutiu

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 26 March 2013 )
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