Alexander Paley interview: ‘Classical music is not for everybody’

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, International Piano and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 09.02.2016

Pianist Alexander Paley’s new CD of Medtner and Rachmaninov couples the works of two great friends whose lives evolved in similar ways. Both enjoyed early success but Rachmaninov’s sense of melody won larger acclaim from the international public. In this interview, Paley explains their similarities and differences. He also expresses his views on the attitudes of disaffected youth and acknowledges that “music is a temple and not everybody should be allowed in”.

A review of the new CD is available here.

We communicated by email while Paley was on tour abroad.


Why has Medtner been so neglected, compared to his friend Rachmaninov?

Medtner was actually very popular during his lifetime. He recorded a lot, gave many concerts and his music was regularly played. But Medtner's music is very difficult to remember and absorb. His melodies are complex and not easily retained. In comparison, Rachmaninov composed so many great themes; his sense of the melody is truly unique. 


In what way do these two composers fit together in a CD program – both musically and historically?

Both pianists and composers have many things in common. Sergei Rachmaninoff and Nikolai Medtner are the most significant representatives of the Russian piano school founded by Balakirev, Anton Rubinstein and Mussorgsky in the 19th century. Bound by close ties of friendship, their lives and artistic journeys were so similar that they were in many respects brothers in art. For both of them, there is a great importance of what we can call the “humanity” in music. They were in a way afraid that music would evolve to become mathematical concepts lacking in emotion and feelings.


Do you also play these pieces together in recitals?

It has not happened yet but I really hope I will have to opportunity to present that program.


How long have the Medtner sonatas and the Chopin Variations been in your repertoire?

I first learned Medtner's music in Russia for a concert in Bulgaria in 1987, just before I escaped to the West.  Chopin Variations I learned specifically for this CD project.


What initially attracted you to Medtner?

I was first attracted to Medtner music when I heard a recording of him playing Beethoven's Appassionata. The complexity of his music is also very interesting. To grasp it you need to understand the 19th century German philosophy that greatly inspired Medtner.


What technical challenges did you face in mastering his musical challenges?

In his compositions there is a great sense of Russian phrasing you need to master. The polyphony is very complex as are the harmonies. Medtner makes extensive use of counterpoint in his writing, a direct reference to Bach, late Beethoven and Schumann. Rhythmically, Medtner’s music is also very complex. Medtner is mentally very German but he had a very Russian soul.


Is Russian music your main specialty? What is the essence of the Russian piano music you bring to the public?

I of course love Russian music because it is part of my roots, but being from that part of the world does not mean it is the only music I love to play it in concert or should play: this is a very European/American cliché. When my career started, Bach was said to be my specialty. I was born with Russian music so it is naturally a part my soul and I always love to play it I concert. But what I truly enjoy is bringing to the stage music that was neglected or forgotten, like Enesco or Vladigerov.

Russian music, painting and literature are intertwined and inseparable. And this is what one should convey to the audience while playing this music. There is also this great sense of the never-ending melody, endless like Russia itself. This is to me the most important aspect of Russian music that I try to share with the public.


Have your musical preferences evolved over time? In what direction?

I do not have preferences. The piece I play on stage is always my favorite. I am always in the moment. Every piece I work on becomes my preference. But if I really have to name a few I would say Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Liszt or Brahms...


How are you greeted in today’s Russia when you perform there?

Every time I play in Russia I always feel extremely welcome. It is always a great emotion for me. Wherever I play in Russia, you can feel the importance of classical music and culture. The public is always very knowledgeable about music and listens with great concentration. This does not exist in any other country. I have stage fright in Russia more than anywhere else. There are still people who remember me from my first concerts as a child!


From which of your activities do you derive most satisfaction – recitals, chamber ensembles, concertos, or your festivals?

The school from where I graduated, Tchaikovsky Conservatory, is to me the best in the world and will remain the best in the world. We are all raised to become soloists. Chamber music was neglected. I feel the greatest on stage when I am alone, whether in a recital or concerto. Chamber music became with time another great love of mine and I learned this repertoire in the West.

I have a very particular view of this music and this is one of the reasons why I founded my festivals: to discover and play this music. Even though being a soloist is what I love most, I need all these mixed repertoires to feel complete as a musician.


Have audiences changed during you career? Are young people losing interest in serious music?

You have to understand I have a very strong and personal view about this. To me classical music is not for everybody. Music is a temple and not everybody should be allowed in. It is a privilege to play and listen to it and it should be earned through hard work and study. As for the audience, you should not go to the audience; they should come to you. The quality of a festival /concert series should not be lowered to try and get more audience.

As for young people, it seems it is not only in classical music that they lose interest but in culture as an entire entity: literature, painting, theater....

Related article:

A perfect pairing: Rachmaninov with his friend Medtner

by Michael JohnsonAdded 09.02.2016
Pianist Alexander Paley brings together some rarely heard and nicely coherent pieces by Sergei Rachmaninov and Nikolai Medtner, close friends from their Moscow student days, in a new CD (La Musica LMU005). The 14 selections call for a wide range...
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