Andrei Gavrilov is a Swiss pianist of Russian descent.
According to critics, he is among the world’s greatest concert pianists. His father was an eminent painter but it was his pianist mother who not only encouraged and taught him to play the piano but, more importantly, taught him to throw himself emotionally into his performances; something that has distinguished him from his counterparts. In 1974, he won first prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition and in the same year made a triumphant international dèbut at the Salzburg Festival.
Since then he has enjoyed an impressive international career which included performances with the world’s greatest orchestras. After 1979, Gavrilov had to struggle with years of persecution at the hands of the Soviet KGB which included at least four known murder attempts. Fortunately for his fans he made his way to the west in 1984 calling both England and Germany home before he moved to Switzerland in 2001.
In early February of 2017, he gave the below interview to Asteroid Publishing Company (USA/Canada) a few weeks after Asteroid published his book Andrei, Fira and Pitch: Scenes from a Musician Life
Asteroid: In your book I came across an interesting thought that a performer “needs to know the personal life of every composer inside and out.” In general, the concept of thorough investigation is applicable to anything we do. But in practical matters it is information and logic that make the dots connected and bring clarity to our understanding of the subject matter. How the knowledge of a composer’s life would affect your interpretation of his work on the stage?
Andrei Gavrilov: While performing music we are trying to articulate in sounds the information that is coming from a composer’s consciousness and subconsciousness. Accordingly, the better such a “musical interpreter” knows all the details of composer’s life – the more chances are that he will not miss the punchline of an opus. For example, Chopin’s nocturnes are nothing but his musical diary. Each nocturne is, in fact, an intimate story of his life.
Asteroid: In simple terms, what is the difference in understanding of classical music between European and Russian cultures?
Andrei Gavrilov: There is no major difference in how representatives of various cultures or peoples belonging to Western civilization understand serious music. And Russian culture also belongs to Western civilization. However, there are some minor ethnic differences. E.g., for the majority of Germans and Russians classical music is a sort of “secular religion”, if I may put it so. On the other hand, for the English, French, or American audience it is rather an aesthetic pleasure. Et cetera… But, generally speaking, it is all the same as it appeals to human consciousness and tries to meet the craving for beauty.
Asteroid: In your book you mention that there was an interruption in your musical life: you did not perform and did not touch your instrument for seven years. That was quite a long period. What were you doing during that break? What were you filling your days, months and years with?
Andrei Gavrilov: Recently I defined music as “sensual philosophy of life”. That presumes that a good performer has to be a very experienced person. Meanwhile, we musicians usually start our professional life pretty soon after we start walking. And since then, we are constantly absorbed by practicing our instrumental skills. As a result, no time is left for us to enrich our experience through “simple ordinary human life”. Thus if I agreed with my own definition of music I had to fill that gap. And so I did. I was filling up that break with everything beginning with religion and philosophy, and ending with geopolitics and love.
Asteroid: There is an opinion that classical music has nothing to do with politics and ideology. And yet, as you tell us on many pages of your book, pressure on and harassment of musicians by KGB and political apparatus were enormous. This is inconceivable not only for the Western mentality, but, to some extent, even for the young Russian generation. How would you explain the reasons and motivation of such Soviet policy?
Andrei Gavrilov: Oh, that opinion is absolutely wrong! It is marked with dilettantism of those who naively believe that serious music exists separately from our real life. First and foremost, music as one of the most reactive arts tends to reflect in tones all aspects of human life including the politics. The compositions of all the famous music writers from Beethoven to Shostakovich, reflect the most significant political events of their lifetime. Secondly, any outstanding musician was and still is at risk of becoming a subject of manipulating by various forces, some of which are quite dangerous. And, believe me, all of those forces are very well aware of how important is music in our life. Therefore, any political system tends to use outstanding musicians as a sort of “cultural weapons”. Look, in contemporary Russia, for example, Mr. Putin possesses the whole arsenal of musicians, from Netrebko to Gergiev, used at all western fronts of the war that is fought for the sympathies of international community. And, believe me, those weapons are quite effective.
Asteroid: You happen to know many top echelon Soviet politicians. Regardless of their ideological orientation, how would you assess their intellectual capacity?
Andrei Gavrilov: Well, in our days, most of the politicians around the world seem to suffer the same “illness” known as the extremely low level of culture.
Asteroid: How many hours per day do you practice?
Andrei Gavrilov: It all depends on the goal you set. Just to keep up with good muscle shape 3 hours per day will suffice. However, for deep penetration into a major piece of music it can go up to 15-17 hours.
Asteroid: At the time of the Soviet Union, when harassment of culture and arts was on its peak, there were many famous composers and musicians in that country. Now, in Russia, such political control of art and culture is much less. And yet, the musical landscape is scarcely populated with the world class talents. Can you somehow explain that?\
Andrei Gavrilov: I hate saying that but it is nowadays the general trend all over the big world, not only in Russia. We are now living in the transitional period. The old renaissance is coming to an end while the new one is yet to be born. It is now the period of accumulating. The new music is coming soon. It is on its way. On the other hand, during hard times, creative individuals in all forms of art tend to express themselves more vividly as art is the most “free zone” of human self-expression.
Asteroid: You live now in Switzerland. Do you have any hope that Russia, your homeland, would ever become the country you would like to live in?
Andrei Gavrilov: Well, Russia still lags far behind in time. It is stuck somewhere in the Late Middle Ages. I take the liberty to guess that it may take quite a long time before Russia finally finds its modern form of existence. By that moment, it will have different mentality and totally different geographical shape.
Asteroid: In your book you mention that nowadays here in the West the industry of music promotes mediocrity while blocking excellence and real talents. How could you explain that and are there any ways to get things changed?
Andrei Gavrilov: Unfortunately, this is a fact, take it or leave it. Business cares about money and only about money. It cares exclusively about financial gain. That presumes that it does not care about the contents of creative arts. No wonder that under such circumstances many young people are trying to exploit the existing situation. They don’t have any experience to share. Many of them cannot boast any serious talent whatsoever but they are still hungry for financial success. That explains why these days we can often see, for example, naked girls playing music to please the erotic cravings of certain segments of the audience rather than to make serious music. Today there are lots of really strange people on the world stage. All that tends to undermine the whole concept of art as an important form of study of the nature of human existence. Not to mention that it is bringing the world into a very dangerous decadent phase marked by the absence of taste, morals and intellect. We lost the understanding of the importance of true art in our society, in our culture.
How can we stop all that? I guess we have to work out certain mechanisms to prevent the destruction of our culture. Such mechanisms still do not exist, while the situation is becoming critical. In other words, right now we are losing European culture, and this is an alarm-call. Our beloved Western civilization is in danger!