Teaching and Teachers

I feel quite fortunate to have been exposed to both the Russian music education system, while studying in Russia, and to the Western training, while pursuing my Postgraduate degree at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Along with my own lifelong fascination with the Russian piano school as represented by the pianists of the Golden Era, these invaluable experiences allowed me to benefit from both performing traditions.

I am often asked what the difference between the two approaches is. It is well known that there is quite a rigorous technical and academic training in place in Russia, which is in a league of its own. Regardless of how much talent a student has, having gone through that system, one has quite a solid technical and theoretical foundation. It is, for example, unthinkable for a Russian trained pianist not to know how to play single or double-note scales, arpeggios, etc. In the West I have come across quite a few students studying at the conservatoire level, who didn’t know the fingering of some rudimentary scale. In Russia already in the early teens one is not allowed to progress to the next year unless these basics are taken care of. I described this system in detail in my Gramophone Magazine article "The Agony and the Ecstasy: My Musical Training in Soviet Russia”. However, the Russian Pianistic Tradition itself is more concerned with singing tone production, colour and vocal phrasing than simply with finger dexterity. 

 

As far as the general approach to music making is concerned, at the risk of some inevitable generalisation, I would say that the main difference is that the question that matters to the Russian musicians most is, “Why was this music composed?”, whereas the Western approach deals more with “How was this music composed?”. I believe that both approaches are not only absolutely valid, but also mutually complementary.

 

The idea of searching for the music’s narrative, its central message, so to speak, is without doubt the cornerstone of the Russian way of listening to and performing music. Such musicians, for example, as Mstislav Rostropovich or our contemporaries Daniil Trifonov and Maxim Vengerov are the advocates of this way of music making, but perhaps the greatest representative of this approach was Heinrich Neuhaus, a musician of unusually broad education and culture with highly developed associative thinking. He helped his students to get to the core of a piece by drawing inspiring parallels between the music performed and works of literature, poetry and art. His method was successful: the list of his students headed by the likes of Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels reads like a “who’s who” of the great Russian pianists.

 

My Moscow Conservatoire Professor Lev Naumov studied with him and became his teaching assistant, later taking over Neuhaus’s class upon the latter’s passing away. He continued teaching according to Neuhaus’s principles, exploring the world of imagery and using metaphors in order to aid a better understanding of music.

 

In the West, by comparison, there is a stronger emphasis on the awareness of structure and compositional principles. Such different musicians as Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel and Murray Perahia, to name but a few, represent this approach. My lessons with Perahia were a real eye-opener. When we worked on Mozart and Bach, he talked to me a lot about Schenkerian analysis and counterpoint. While I can’t say that I am as deeply involved in Schenker’s theories, I am indebted to Perahia for teaching me to think more horizontally and to be more aware of voice leading and structure. He changed my way of hearing and performing music in a very significant way. 

 

My Professor at the Royal Academy of Music Christopher Elton had studied with Maria Curcio, a former student of Artur Schnabel. He is also quite unique amongst his colleagues in another way: before becoming a professor of piano he freelanced in major London orchestras as a cellist (as well as winning prizes in several international competitions as a pianist). This gives him the advantage of an additional vantage point as well as profound knowledge of a lot of music besides piano literature.

 

I find quite amusing the thought that while my Russian musical lineage goes back all the way to the legendary Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein, who taught Joseph Hoffman and Felix Blumenfeld, who taught Horowitz and Neuhaus, who in turn taught my teacher Lev Naumov, my Western musical heritage can be traced back to the great piano pedagogue Theodore Leschetizky, who taught Schnabel, who taught Maria Curcio, who taught my teacher Christopher Elton. And from 1852 to 1877 Leschetizky taught at the St Petersburg Conservatoire at the invitation of its founder Anton Rubinstein...

 

I am happy to be able not only to amalgamate these distinct approaches in my own music making, but also to try to pass on these principles to my students.