A rendezvous with Chopin: Andrei Gavrilov performs in Cairo

Andrei Gavrilov (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)
Andrei Gavrilov (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

On 10 February the historical Manasterly Palace in Cairo hosted Andrei Gavrilov, the world-renowned Russian pianist, who performed Chopin and Prokofiev.

Published in Al Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online

At the historical Manasterly Palace, Cairo’s International Music Centre gives recitals by pianists handpicked by Ramzi Yassa, the internationally renowned Egyptian pianist — and the artistic director of the centre. For over a decade, once a month, audiences are thus invited to the crème-de-la-crème of classical music by winners or finalists of prestigious piano competitions and veterans of the world’s celebrated concert halls. Though the Music Centre also offers small-ensemble concerts, piano no doubt remains its trademark.

On 10 February the Manasterly Palace hosted Andrei Gavrilov, the Russian pianist, a protégé of Sviatoslav Richter, who hailed him as genius, and the winner of the first prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1974 as well as the Gramophone award in 1979, the Deutscher Schallplattenpreis in 1981, the Grand Prix International du Disque de L’Academie Charles Crois in 1985 and 1986 and the International Record Critics Award (IRCA) in 1985, among many others. In the 1970s and 1980s Gavrilov worked exclusively with EMI, the British multinational music company, but later on he recorded with Deutsche Grammophon; he also performed with many first-class orchestras and with some of the best celebrated international conductors.

Gavrilov is described by many reviewers as “one of the world’s great concert pianists”. His performances are technically impeccable, but they still mesmerise and shock, raising not only eyebrows but, at times, also controversy. Imaginative, refined, masterful: critics have used an abundance of adjectives to praise Gavrilov’s performances. Occasionally they also point to his polemical approach to both the piano and composers. But there is much more to Gavrilov. A short look at the final rehearsal at the Manasterly Palace, followed by the concert, revealed a pianist who is sui generis musician, with a unique understanding of music.

In Egypt Gavrilov performed nine Nocturnes by Frederic Chopin and Sonata No. 8, in B flat Op. 84 by Prokofiev. There won’t be enough space on these pages to talk about the whole programme, so let us look into Gavrilov’s encounter with Frederic Chopin. I use word “encounter” deliberately, for  Gavrilov’s performance cannot be looked at from the perspective of interpretation and skill, the standard parameters of judgement. His performance showed a very distinctive approach to the work in which the pianist and the composer became one. Whether we agree or disagree with Gavrilov’s understanding of Chopin, the presence of Chopin in the hall was palpable in each and every note, and so the musical experience was one of a kind.

And there is something magical about Chopin — ethereal, touching, inspiring, calming yet provocative, and intangible in its beauty. Being internationally accessible and cherished, Chopin’s music is also soaked in Poland. Apart from several patriotic accents, Chopin’s compositions evoke the trees, the fields, the air, the golden autumn leaves and chilly winter winds of the country. With his historical weight, Chopin is a challenge for many pianists who may find rendering all of Chopin’s values tricky. While pianists fall into several clichés in performing Chopin, they are judged by audiences who approach the music with a set of preconceptions and personal preferences — so much so that to surprise the audience with a performance of Chopin is a skill that surpasses both technique and interpretation.

Gavrilov used nine Nocturnes of Chopin to tell us a specific story – or perhaps Chopin used Gavrilov to address us: Nocturne Op. 9 No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 27 No. 2 in D flat major, Op. P 1 No. 16 in C sharp minor, Op. 15 No. 2 in F sharp major, Op. 32 No. 1 in B major, Op. 15 No. 1 in F major, Op. 55 No. 1 in F minor, Op. 32 No. 2 in A flat major and Nocturne Op. 48 No. 1 in C minor. With this selection carefully chosen and organised, Gavrilov took the audience on an emotional journey through Chopin’s life. While Gavrilov encounters Chopin and builds a story, he gives the impression of communicating with the composer. At the same time Chopin embraces the pianist, sharing with him  joy and anger, the strength of a man and the weakness of a human soul; he jokes with Gavrilov, laughs and cries with him. Utterly immersed in this experience, we no longer know which is following the other: is it Gavrilov reaching in to Chopin or Chopin speaking directly through Gavrilov?

During a short meeting that I had with Gavrilov the day after the concert, he described this unique connection as the natural role of a musician. “The performer is a transmitter of composer’s soul, nothing more. When you go on stage saying you play intimate pieces by Chopin, you are just a medium opening the door — and Chopin starts talking through you.” But as simple as Gavrilov makes it sound, this procedure would never have worked if not for his profound musicianship and his studies of Chopin as a composer and as a man — apparently something he undertakes with every composer he performs.

“I think that Chopin created the modern, intelligent and sensual man in his music. Music was different before Chopin. It is he who brought about the image of a modern man. There is a lot of irony, humour, beautiful teasing and of course a great deal of patriotism in his compositions. But above all, Chopin’s music is also so cinematographic and this is what needs to be brought to the surface and what many fail to notice.” Gavrilov considers Chopin to be extremely expressive and compares his works to paintings that reach our senses on almost visual level; it was in this context that he explained how the  nine Nocturnes he chose were a depiction of Chopin’s life: nine intimate stories. “It is not difficult to see the biographical material in Chopin’s work. He makes what he means to say very clear. He says so much in his music that you don’t need to go back to the history. He provides enough data — and the rest is anatomy.”

The opening Nocturne Op. 9 No. 1 in B flat minor was written by Chopin before he left to Paris, when he was 17 years old and still in Poland. In it, Chopin’s youth comes through the passion apparent in many passages. Gavrilov also performed Nocturne Op. 15 No. 2 in F sharp major composed in 1832. “This Nocturne is a great self portrait of the composer. At times he is lazy, in a good mood, at times he teases. The music is full of jokes, as obviously Chopin is having a very good time with somebody. There are two places with special figurations that represent Chopin’s laughter. In the middle section his thoughts go to Spain, maybe Chopin is fantasising before he goes back to the situation of the beginning and closes with a pearl laugh,” Gavrilov comments. He adds that those realisations are so important that they prevented music from being performed in clichéd manner for over 150 years.

The following piece, Nocturne Op. 32 No. 1 in B major, was composed in 1873. It represents a love triangle, as Gavrilov puts it: “We can clearly hear two women and Chopin in the middle. He wants to break this triangle. His presence is underlined with the Polish phrases that characterise the composer, like a signature.” Gavrilov goes on to say that Chopin struggles with the triangle concept and the music ends with the possible death of one of the persons participating in this situation. He stresses how every note and every phrase of Chopin carries important information about the composer. Nocturne Op. 55 No. 1 in F minor – with a beautiful middle section: a heroic Polish movement – is nicknamed by Gavrilov “a lonely wanderer”, a statement that usually accompanies descriptions of Franz Schubert’s song cycle for voice and piano Winterreise (Winter Journey).

“Though it is a similar idea,” Gavrilove says, “Schubert needed over 40 minutes to express what Chopin said in a few minutes. When Schubert writes, his mind can be read through long phrases and big repetitions. Chopin is the opposite: when he writes one line, we learn about a whole part of his life. This is the magic of this man that not many people realise.” Gavrilov points to yet another interesting element in Nocturne Op. 32 No. 2 in A flat major (1837): “Chopin inserts many commas, which nobody notices. It’s not just a cute waltz, as commas mean a slight interruption. When you do it using all the skill you have, you find Chopin is portraying how the heart stops, because of the enormous tension. This is fantastic tool of the composer’s which I find to be hugely experimental and difficult to execute. With all the predictable melody, once you manage to get the commas, the audience can get a heart attack.”

Gavrilov is smiling proudly yet cunningly as he says this. Chopin was known to be extremely meticulous in his notations. He could add commas, brackets or slashes to give additional meanings to some phrasings. The last Nocturne in the series was Op. 48 No. 1 in C minor, composed in 1841.

“Many musicologists say that this Nocturne was written under Liszt’s influence, calling it Hungarian, due to its rhythm. All this is based on a wrong reading of the composition. The Nocturne was written after one of the bloodiest entries of Russians into Poland. For three months, Chopin did not receive any letter from his family and believed they were all killed. In his music he presents, with cinematographic clarity, how desperate he was. Look into the strong deep bass notes and hear the explosions – Poland under bombardment – on top of which Chopin’s voice is crying. It’s very obvious, you can’t miss it. There is a lot of pride in the middle section, typical of Chopin and the concept of resistance he believed in. The last part (A1) depicts the Polish uprising with this tremolo turning the situation against the invasion.”

It is a great pleasure to listen to Gavrilov explaining every phrase and note written by Chopin. There is a powerful vision in the pianist, a depth articulated at the musical and the general cultural level. In the first half of the concert, Gavrilov accompanied the composer through his life stages, from Chopin’s 17th year almost to his death bed. At times, it seemed exhausting for the pianist to bear the emotional luggage that Chopin was throwing onto him. Every Nocturne was met with strong applause from the audience, and this was when I wondered whether it would have been different had the audience refrained from clapping, as Gavrilov’s vision created a complete cycle. But the pianist replies:

“Of course it can be taken as a musical cycle. However, it is also a chain with different stories. Like in the theatre, they can be interrupted by a curtain; nine separate scenes that still form one whole.” Gavrilov has very strong ideas about music and his visions are generated by obvious readings of the composers’ lives, and of history and culture at large. Approaching music from a deeply cultural perspective, he rejects the business side of the musical world. This is why in 1993, at the peak of his career, while in his mid-thirties, he suddenly cut all his contracts, cancelled all concerts and embarked on a 15-year-long self-search. “This is when I left the music industry. The expression ‘music industry’ cuts me like a knife. How can it be called industry? Industry can be tanks, trucks, computers but not works of genius,” Gavrilov points to how the world of music became a profitable trade to many “dirty businessmen who have humiliated it for over 50 years now”.

It was this vicious circle of concerts and the “music industry” demands and expectations that made Gavrilov question his role in life. “I was so far from the composers. It was all so against my idealism. I decided to start searching for myself. The first three years of this self-imposed break from the limelight were a total frustration filled with primitive childish moods. I even went to Nazareth trying to gain something from the holy places. It was so childish, but this was just because of frustration. There is no recipe for raising your soul; I had to keep looking.” This period of Gavrilov’s life is included in his book, to be released in September 2013; its working title is “Dangerous Artist”. Coming from a multinational family, Gavrilov carries eight bloodlines and masters three languages: English, German and Russian. He explains that he wanted to make sure all idiomatic expressions and jokes are transferred with utter precision and make sense in other languages. “Now any translator can have three languages to choose from.” The publisher of Gavrilov’s book is one of the departments of Bertelsmann, the German multinational mass media corporation. “The branch that will publish my book also published works by Thomas Mann. They told me I was offered the same kind of contract as Mann. My God, I don’t need a Nobel Prize! This is enough to me.”

Today, not only does Gavrilov perform, he also writes, producing articles on music and composers that can be found at his web site. There he shares his understanding of music and the compositions he performs. Gavrilov is a man of culture who believes that it is his duty to carry this culture and spread it around the world, as otherwise we will move back to “barbarian times”. He looks at present-day politics and is worried about global unrest: “The times are very dangerous now because people want radical changes everywhere, from USA, to Latin America, to Africa etc… But sometimes people do not know what changes they want and this is what leads to anger and frustration. We are opening a new century and there will be a lot of changes that we cannot predict. As a sensitive man, I can hear many angry voices and many dangerous thoughts, even in very prosperous countries.”

Among those dangerous thoughts, Gavrilov sheds light on fundamentalism and authoritarianism sweeping many countries. He says that every fundamentalist power is and always will be against culture, because culture makes people free and free people are dangerous since they cannot be manipulated. “Culture gives you the food for thought and for your free spirit; every ingenious performance, or a piece of music – and especially music, as it goes straight to your heart – extends your spirit and opens many doors in your heart. People of culture are dangerous to anyone who seeks power,” he says.

Gavrilov left Russia over 30 years ago, he lived in Germany for over a decade, and since 2001 he has resided in Switzerland. He says however that his heart is always with Russia, a country which over past couple of decades went through many difficult political developments. “It’s weird that 30 years after ‘Gorbachev’s revolution’ we still have political dissidents as well as political prisoners. Everyone who is against the ruling people goes to jail. Now Putin is seeking power. They call him authoritarian, but of course he is totalitarian. My friend Garry Kimovich Kasparov (chess master and political activist), the pride of Russia, one of the brightest geniuses and one of the greatest souls, gets detained every second week. He was also beaten many times. We are back to the Soviet Union, some sort of caricature of it. It is not, as they proclaim, a developing capitalism. Several families capitalise the wealth of the country and give their leftovers to the people. It’s slavery as it was during the Soviet Union, only a different variation.”

Gavrilov looks at the problems that shatter many countries: on the one hand, growing totalitarian thought and, on the other, fundamentalism. Under such circumstances, Gavrilov sees that culture is the tool we need to use and emphasise. He believes that those dangerous trends will die, sooner or later, through a process of self-extermination. “People who do not have refined culture always end with self-destruction.” No doubt, Gavrilov’s message is very hopeful. Being an internationally renowned pianist, he has tools to promote the best kind of culture. After his 15 years of self-artistic-rehabilitation, he returned to concerts and tours with a new spirit. He continues to captivate listeners with his unique performances, while inviting audiences to many encounters with composers and their music. Gavrilov’s Cairo performance included Prokofiev’s sonata in the second half – yet another journey through a different cosmos that depicts the atrocities of totalitarianism and the bloody, barbaric events witnessed by the composer.

But that requires a completely new article…

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