Feb 9th 2016

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

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

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...



TO FOLLOW WHAT'S NEW ON FACTS & ARTS, PLEASE CLICK HERE!

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Nov 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "One of the most durable tales in Western civilization – the legend of Faust – is brilliantly rendered in a piano adaptation, performed this week by the multi-talented Australian musician of German/Slovenian parentage, Ashley Hribar. A new recording of the music, now available digitally, will appear as a CD in the New Year. Hribar calls his recording, “Faust: A Mortal’s Tale”.  It is a personal musical reflection on the Faust story, loosely based on the 1926 silent film by Wilhelm Friedrich Murnau."
Aug 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "For 60 minutes, my mind was clear, the air was clean and the sound heavenly. It was my honor and privilege to have been there."
Jul 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "Scarlatti sonatas are enjoying a popular surge in recent years, tempting pianists –Europeans, Americans, Asians -- to try to master their broad range. Margherita has some advice: “Don’t be afraid to slow down, to speed up, to play the truly singable melodies with a quasi-Romantic feeling.” "
Jul 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "The dizzying output of John Cage the musician, the poet, the writer, the thinker, the artist, was so prolific that one of his sidelines – his interests in wild mushrooms -- has been almost overlooked. A new a two-volume set of books, beautifully designed by Capucine Labarthe, packaged in an elegant slipcover, seeks to fill this gap."
Jul 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "In our chat by telephone, Paley spoke from his Paris apartment and asserted his belief that Rameau was “the greatest French composer ever. Pure genius and very special colors.” He acknowledges his extensive research into the period of Rameau’s life (1683-1764) in order to recreate the spirit of the time."
Jul 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "In A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and subsequent films, Morricone opted for an unprecedented fusion of archaic-sounding lines in the melody, reminiscent of medieval modal music. He intermixed this sound with contemporary pop touches (the Fender electric guitar), wordless choirs, unusual instruments (Jew’s harp, ocarinas, mariachi trumpets…) and ambient sounds (whip cracks, whistles, gunshot, coyote’s howls). He also infused scores with his trademark humour. This can be heard in the comedy western Il Mio Nome è Nessuno (My Name is Nobody, Tonino Valerii, 1973) where a toy trumpet toots bits of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries."
Jul 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: Are you collaborating with living composers? Answer: Yes, Scott Wollschleger sends me unfinished new works every month. Keeril Makan is working on a piano concerto. Melaine Dalibert has dedicated several recent works to me. There are more names on the horizon. But these are the three where I feel I can have a big impact on their careers, and all three write music that I feel born to play. That combination of things is important to me."
Jun 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: How do you see your musical mission today? Answer: My real passion in music is to resist popularity rankings and market forces. In my view, these currents impoverish our cultural richness........."
May 1st 2020
EXTRACT: Alessandro Deljavan: "I bought a former convent 40 kilometers from Pescara, in Villamagna. It's very important for me to breathe clean air and live as simply as possible. Life in a giant city full of cars and smog is hard for me to imagine. My perspective is always to live fully. My aspirations for the best musical experiences guides my decisions and over the past several years I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with some wonderful musicians—these experiences have brought me a sense of optimism for what might lie ahead.”
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Federico Mompou, the reclusive Catalonian composer whose calm, spare piano writing is currently enjoying a rebirth, might well look askance at any effort to pull him forward into modern mode. Such was never his genre but that’s precisely what one of his ardent admirers, pianist Maria Canyigueral, proposed to do. The result is her intriguing new CD, Avant-guarding Mompou."
Mar 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "In our interview, Prof. Réach says he cautions his students in Barcelona to approach the Variations with care, warning them “the path will be long and will require great patience”. He has personally overcome his fear of this “masterpiece of masterpieces”, having recorded them three times and performed them in about 15 countries a total of about 150 times."
Mar 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "The 88-key piano looks headed for a major transformation in the coming decades. The mechanism under the lid is based on a 130-year-old design and many specialists believe it is time to dispense with those delicate moving parts.  As innovative Australian piano builder Wayne Stuart says, “The piano has been crying out for a rethink for over a hundred years.” "
Mar 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: You have a Paris background. What do you bring to Granados to ensure Spanish flavor? Delicacy? Momentum? Singing and dancing undertones? Rubato?........Answer: First, I am profoundly European........."
Feb 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: You have said that you are plagued by doubts. Is this true?.........Answer: Of course I am plagued by doubts. This is part of the artist’s life. But I continue to work and perform. I have moments of depression but I try to transform these doubts into positives. Many artists have these doubts. Some don’t talk about it. But doubt is always there."
Jan 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "QUESTION: Wouldn’t young composers of today benefit from aligning themselves with a philosophical ethos in order to find their musical voice -- as opposed to trying merely to find their own voice by drawing on imagination or personal experience?.......... ANSWER: It’s an interesting question, but open to interpretation. My impulse is to answer yes. When young I did a tremendous amount of reading in the history of aesthetics, and as a result my sense of artist -- ethos, necessity, whatever -- is not limited to post-WWII influences. One result is that I’ve never had any patience for the late-20th-century idea that art is about “personal expression.” The ancient and more enduring view is that the artist expresses what is out there to be expressed. As T.S. Eliot admirably wrote, art is an escape from personality, not an expression of it. Likewise I’ve never warmed to the idea of “finding one’s voice,” which sounds to me too much like creating an instantly recognizable trademark style that will make your music easier to market commercially."
Jan 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "It has been a long journey I enjoy re-living as I take note this year of the great Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday. As a practicing music critic and journalist from American corn country, I call myself a hick hack but I experience meltdown at almost everything the great man wrote. How can one not love Beethoven?"
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Judith Juaregui, based in Madrid but peripatetic in her concertizing around Europe, is gaining an international audience of admirers, boosted by the brilliant pianistic colors of her Debussy, Liszt, Falla, Chopin and Mompou in her fifth CD, “Pour le Tombeau de Claude Debussy”, just out. This album was recorded at a recital in Vienna last year, her first foray into live recording, and she is  rather pleased with the result, which, she says in our interview (below), captured a “moment of honesty”. She left everything in, including the vigorous applause from the audience."
Dec 11th 2019
EXTRACTS: "The young tousle-haired pianist from the distant Minnesota, Reed Tetzloff, is building a performance career in the U.S. and Europe by steering a course through rare repertoire that is both challenging and attractive for the listener........In our email question-and-answer discussion he explains his priorities as a musician and his attraction to a wide range of repertoire."
Dec 9th 2019
Extract: "Then the house lights came up and the rest of us rushed out, relieved that it was all over."
Nov 15th 2019
Extract: "Question: Mompou was modest, yet one of his famous comments is similar to Handel’s remark that he was writing down what God dictated. Mompou said he did not think up music, he simply transmitted it. Answer: The Mompou’s idea about God was interesting. God was a great force that also could destroy his own creation, like a child who in a moment of joy treads on an ant without noticing. Mompou explained that, in his case, the music was not coming from inside to outside, but the opposite way, from outside to the inside, with him being the intermediary of this flow, as a kind of medium. Mompou felt embarrassed to be called on stage after a performance of his music. He was convinced that if the work was really good, it was not entirely created by himself.