Catching Up with Hristo Kazakov Print E-mail
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Written by Radu A. Lelutiu   
Sunday, 11 August 2013

Catching Up with Hristo Kazakov

I last spoke with Bulgarian pianist Hristo Kazakov late last year. Since then, his recording of the Goldberg Variations has continued to earn rave reviews in various publications, prompting Kazakov to release two new recordings—a CD featuring various Debussy works (including 11 of the 12 Preludes of Book II) and a DVD featuring works by Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, and Scriabin. I was delighted to be given an opportunity to catch up with Kazakov.

To start things off, I asked Kazakov what was new in his artistic life. He responded: “I am enjoying the beginning of summer in Switzerland, but also working intensively to prepare three programs I will be performing in the fall. One will include works by Debussy and Chopin; the second will include Bach’s Art of Fugue ; the third will mark the beginning of a Beethoven sonata cycle that I expect to perform over the course of two seasons.” Will he play Beethoven’s sonatas in chronological order, like András Schiff did a few years ago? “No, my plan is to skip back and forth in the chronology. I believe that a non-chronological survey of the 32 sonatas is more interesting than merely following the order in which the works were written. The first installment will include the sonatas in F Minor, op. 2/1, B♭, op. 22, and the other F Minor, the ‘Appassionata,’ op. 57.”

I asked Kazakov if the impetus for the release of his two new recordings was the critical acclaim he received with his Bach album. “I was of course thrilled to see that my recording of the Goldberg Variations was received warmly, but my artistic life has never been driven by the reaction of the critics or even the public. The Debussy recording was made a couple of years back, during an actual performance, but I only recently got around to listening to it with sufficient care to determine if it was worthwhile sharing with a larger audience. Of course, one is never fully satisfied with a live recording, but for the most part I am happy with these recordings. As for the DVD, I’ve been playing Schubert’s last sonata for quite some time, and despite there being tens of recordings available, I felt that I wanted to share my vision with the world even though it will no doubt change as I grow older and continue to ponder and perform this masterful work.

I asked Kazakov if he prefers working in the studio to making untouched recordings before a live audience. “It is hard to say. The experiences are entirely different and both have advantages and disadvantages. Playing before a live audience feels a lot more spiritual than making a recording in a studio, which to me is more akin to an intellectual exercise. When you play live, music becomes much like a liturgy, where the routine and the trivial are dispelled in favor of a different language that you only rarely get to speak. On the other hand, in a live recital there is no opportunity for a do-over, and the idea of having only one shot can be daunting in and of itself. Overall, I find that making recordings during actual performances is easier, even though the opportunities for mistakes and thus dissatisfaction are a lot more numerous.” I asked Kazakov if the perils of a live concert were responsible for the omission of “Les tierces alternées” from his recording of the Second Book of Debussy’s preludes. “When I made this recording in 2009, I did not feel comfortable with my interpretation of this piece, so I decided to skip it altogether. Hopefully one of these days I will be able to record all 24 Preludes and include it as well.”

What attracts him to Debussy’s music? “I’ve always been fascinated by how Debussy’s music reflects artistic developments occurring in the plastic arts around the end of the 19th century, as well as myriad other influences. Last year, I visited an exhibition about Debussy’s life at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, which is of course most famous for housing Monet’s late masterpieces, Les Nymphéas . In walking through the museum surrounded by works of Monet, Picasso, Cézanne, and many other contemporaries, it was fascinating to see how Debussy was influenced by these artists and how he must have influenced them as well. For the exhibit, the museum also prepared an assortment of artwork from the composer’s own collection, some of which is usually stored in Debussy’s house in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. I was inspired by the composer’s collection of Buddha statues, furniture, paintings, and various other art collected from all over the world and dating from many different epochs. The diversity of taste and cosmopolitan interests are reflected in Debussy’s scores—as he wrote at the time he composed Estampes : ‘When one can’t afford to travel, one must make do with the imagination.’ I can think of no other composer whose music drew inspiration from so many sources and yet manages to sound so original.”

I asked Kazakov if his approach to Debussy, which in some respects I found unorthodox, was influenced by other pianists. “As I mentioned the last time we spoke, I am a huge fan of Arrau, and his singular approach to Debussy has helped shape my views. In addition I was also influenced by Michelangeli’s interpretations, which, although a little bit cold and detached, are fantastic, monumental, and impressive in their control of the music’s architecture. I also like Mitsuko Uchida’s recording of the Etudes, and it is interesting to note how Japanese this music sounds in Uchida’s hands. And, of course, Gieseking’s classic recordings and Debussy’s own spectacularly unique piano-roll recordings have had a deep influence on me, as they did on many of my colleagues. Ultimately, however, I hope that I’ve succeeded in bringing something new with my interpretations.”

Does he feel a similar connection with Scriabin? “I do, although my relationship with him is more visceral. Playing his works feels totally natural to me, and the only explanation I can think of is our common Eastern European melancholic psyche. That said, I don’t feel completely at home in all of Scriabin’s works, and I favor his earlier works, rather than his late works where he tends to dissolve in abstraction and mysticism.”

Does he see a connection between Debussy and Scriabin? “Both loved Chopin’s music, of course, but I feel that their aesthetics are entirely different. One could say that Debussy is obsessed with the visible world, as his music is woven out of imagery representing the elements and the physical world. Scriabin, on the other hand, is focused entirely on the invisible, by which I mean his own inner world. Debussy is at peace with the world and its harmony. Scriabin’s soul is torn by disharmony and rarely can find a resting place.”

What is it like to perform music in the Goetheanum? “The architecture and the whole environment around it provide a lot of inspiration and a sense for music interpretation. An architect once said: ‘Architecture is a big educator because its forms unconsciously influence the mind.’ The Goetheanum itself is a work of art and I feel that making music within it instantly elevates my interpretations.” Does the size of the hall make it challenging to perform music that requires subtlety and softness, such as Debussy and Scriabin? “I’ve never had difficulty playing Debussy in a large hall, including the Goetheanum, although some large halls suffer from acoustic problems. I once played Debussy in a French cathedral and it was not the best idea because the place had an enormous echo.”

What is in store for the future? “Over the next two seasons, I will focus on the Beethoven sonata cycle. Long term, I just hope to be able to meet new audiences and bring music to interesting new places.”

DEBUSSY Images , Books 1 & 2. SCRIABIN 24 Preludes, Op. 11 Hristo Kazakov (pn) HRISTO KAZAKOV (63:03)

Available from the artist’s website

A few months ago I reviewed pianist Hristo Kazakov’s recording of the Goldberg Variations , hailing it as one of the finest I had come across. As it turns out, Kazakov’s mastery extends far beyond the rigor, objectivity, and inner logic of Bach’s scores, as these remarkable new recordings of Debussy and Scriabin amply demonstrate.

In the Debussy works, Kazakov impresses with his flexibility of tempo, control of dynamics, and firm grip on the music’s subtle emotional trajectory. He thinks across bar lines, at times rejecting the surface allure of the music for the sake of achieving a true narrative structure. What’s most remarkable is that, as he did in his recording of the Goldberg s, Kazakov is able to make this oft-played and elusive music sound as fresh as I’ve ever heard it. Of the six works that make up Images , I am particularly taken with the pianist’s hypnotic traversal of “Hommage á Rameau,” the harmonic ambiguity he brings by pushing slightly the tempo in “Mouvement,” and the pointillistic and infinite subtlety of “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut.”

Sviatoslav Richter, whose recording of excerpts from the op. 11 Preludes is for me a yardstick by which to judge all other pianists in this repertoire, once remarked that Scriabin “isn’t the sort of composer whom you’d regard as your daily bread, but is a heavy liqueur on which you can get drunk periodically.” Kazakov’s recording got me very drunk indeed. Even using the great Richter as my yardstick, Kazakov rarely falls short—just listen to the ravishing shades of the C Major, the gentleness of the D Major, the irrepressible melancholy of the F♯-Minor, the yearning of the B Major, and the mystery of the B Minor, and you will understand precisely what I mean.The quality of the recorded sound is very good, although Kazakov’s instrument was probably not world-class.

In sum, this superb disc is further evidence that Kazakov is an enormously talented pianist whose artistry deserves to be known by a wider audience. Radu A. Lelutiu

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 24 July 2013 )
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