I’ve just had a terrific Skype chat with the young Russian violinist Alena Baeva, ahead of her London debut at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday. She and I have a little Schumann-related project together in June in Oxford and it’s splendid to get to know her. Here she is, talking about her turbulent background in central Asia, her first-rate musical training, her passion for historical recordings and all we can learn from them, and a few particularly wonderful concertos…
JD: Alena, you’ve recently been playing a very special piece in Katowice to mark 100 years of Polish independence…
AB: It was a major event for me because I’d wanted to play the Karlowicz Concerto for a long time. It’s hardly played anywhere but Poland, which is a pity because it’s a great piece. It’s quite difficult! Someone brought it for me to play in a masterclass in Poland and I was fascinated. I’m happy we did it this summer.
JD: Where are you from and where did you grow up?
AB: That’s the most difficult question! I can’t say one place I’m from. I was born in Kyrgistan, by chance because my parents’ parents were sent to work there - they were sent to random places in the Soviet Union. I lived in my grandmother’s small house with a garden the first five years, which was a very happy time. Then civil war broke there and I remember we were hiding underneath the storage in the basement. I don’t remember many things about it, but my dad, when there was the first possibility to take a plane, he sent us to Almaty in Kazakhstan because his mother lived there at the time. We came to her because we had no other place to live and we were there for another five years. I started to learn the violin there.
Almaty is a very special place for me, because I was at an important age when you start to discover the world around you. People there are so warm, so nice and so kind. I missed this a lot when we moved to Moscow when I was 10. The violin was going so well and I needed some education to go and study somewhere so my parents chose Moscow because of great Soviet school of playing. I entered the Central Music School, which was a big contrast. Moscow is somehow more than a metropolis.
AB: I was studying from the age of 10 with Eduard Grach, an accomplished violin player and student of Yampolsky – a great, great school. I continued studying with him at the Moscow Conservatory, so it was for 12 years! When I was 16-17, I started to seek some other ideas and influences too. It was thanks to Mstislav Rostropovich, who supported talented children in Moscow. He had a foundation and he sent me to Paris to study. This was a whole big change because it was too late to enter the Conservatoire, but his French friends organised private lessons. I lived in the house of his good friends who are fantastic people and became my French family. It was so enriching just to be with them and discover this great country and great culture. I was staying several months of the year and it was in Chartres, a fantastic place with a rose garden, just in front of the cathedral - a dream! Now I appreciate it even more than I did before.
I had lessons there with Boris Garlitsky, a Russian violinist who had moved more than 20 years before to Europe and became a very European style of musician - it was so helpful to study Mozart and Brahms with him. It was such a change from old-style Russian School teaching with big sound, big vibrato and big emotion all the time. It was quite opposite, what I learned from Boris, so that was very important for me. And going to concerts and exhibitions, I fell in love with everything French! I connected to the French language and the French style of life - they can enjoy life so well, better than many people…
JD: And you’ve settled eventually in Luxembourg?
AB: I really wanted to move to a French-speaking place! So I ended up here eight years ago. It’s easy to remember because it was three weeks before giving birth to my daughter. I didn’t really care about what was a good moment to move, I just kept going! She is eight now and my son is ten. It’s a very good base - calm, beautiful, central and efficient. The airport and train station are very close, especially compared to Moscow, where the way to the airport takes longer than the flight!
JD: Which violinists have you most admired?
AB: It was changing all the time, I had my favourites every month! Most things I discovered on CDs at the time because there was no Youtube and not many people used to come to play concerts in Moscow. I remember my father presented me with a Michael Rabin box of CDs: that was fantastic - he’s not as known as he deserved to be. I was in love with Menuhin for a long time. And what is most important, I think, is the variety of expression, the different languages performers and composers speak to us: it’s impossible to be stuck with something. Like life itself, it continues and changes.
JD: You’re quite a recording buff?
AB: I am lucky to know a great collector of old 78s in Paris who happens to be my ex-uncle-in-law. He’s a fantastic person and every time I go to Paris I try to see him and listen because there are such treasures, unknown and unpublished recordings. One of many impressions I had was from the Casals Festival in Prades: a live performance of Christian Ferras playing Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in the church and you can hear a thunderstorm outside. The C major fugue – I never heard anything like that on the violin!
JD: This Wednesday, 5 December, you have your debut with the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski, playing Tchaikovsky...
AB: I’m so much looking forward to that! I learned the concerto when I was 14 and since then I have played it regularly, as it is one of the best concertos ever written for violinists, one of the most masterful and perfect pieces. With Vladimir Jurowski it’s a very special story because we met first several years ago when we worked on the Strauss concerto, which was v interesting. Then we played Tchaikovsky in Moscow and we had three hours of rehearsal with orchestra which is itself a luxury, but especially for this concerto and the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra. It was the way only Vladimir can make it: totally different way than what I was doing before, and it was incredible to feel these new connections which make the phrases and the whole mood sound totally different. I like very much his idea of this concerto, which is that it’s not so heavy, as stuffed and middle of 20thcentury in style. It’s closer to Mendelssohn. That’s exactly what I feel about this piece too - it’s very light. The second movement is very intimate, but not going too deep. It all finds resolution in the tempos we take & the accents we try to make. So I very much look forward to discovering it with LPO.
JD: What’s your violin?
AB: A Guarneri del Gesù, a wonderful instrument of 1738, and it’s a whole new world to discover. It’s very interesting to see how much you can observe and learn from the instrument - I still don’t understand how that works. I was playing a modern instrument previously, also a wonderful instrument which got lots of compliments and I really enjoyed playing it. But the Guarneri somehow has something bigger. It’s really a mystery how time and the violinists who have played it before do change it. This violin was discovered relatively recently and has not had many owners, but still it’s very rich. It is lent to me by a private sponsor who wished to stay anonymous - he’s a fantastic person and I’m grateful to get to know him.
JD: You’re working a lot with the pianist Vadym Kholodenko?
AB: His playing is very special for me. We were in the conservatory studying at almost the same time and for our first sonata together he suggested Beethoven No. 10, one of the most complex sonatas ever written! I learned so much from him, first of all because he’s a great musician and for a teenage violinist when we started to play it was very important, because violinists especially in the early years are obsessed with practising and have to invest so much time… so this was a whole new world. We’ve played together for more than 12 years already.
JD: In June, you and I are working together - hooray! We’re doing a concert with the Oxford Philharmonic called The Ghosts of War, in which I’ll narrate the story of Jelly d’Arányi and you are the soloist in the Schumann Violin Concerto. Tell us about the concerto - what’s it like to perform? How do people respond to it?
AB: Since I first played the Schumann, I’ve tried to schedule it everywhere I can, which was not as simple as with Tchaikovsky! But I’m playing it several times before Oxford and I’m very much looking forward to that.
The most common answer when I suggest programming the concerto is ‘Oh, the public doesn’t like it so much’… but that’s absolutely not true, because also important is the way it’s played, because it is so personal and so intimate.
There are some most precious moments in the concerto - the second movement I adore, and going up to the third movement, it’s absolute magic. I think the fact that it’s not being accepted as it deserves to be is just because it’s not being heard much. That’s the only reason. It can be difficult to find the balance with the tempi, but it is possible. I’m convinced that at that time performances involved much more natural changes of rubato and a much more natural flow which makes much more sense in the finale and in Schumann in general. Of course he was improvising a lot, but I don’t think we should consider his pieces improvisations, especially the later ones: it’s very well thought and well shaped music, and he managed to find such a spare means of expression to express so much emotion. It’s a miracle.
JD: The metronome marks are quite controversial…
AB: The finale makes sense when you swing it a little bit. Obviously it’s a polonaise, but it makes most sense when you don’t play it too strictly, in terms of movement. And of course I think it should be natural: if something is written unplayable, you can take it and bring sense to it, and that’s how I’m trying to manage this concerto. I think the tempi should be taken into consideration, but you can also change the tempo within the movement. If you listen to how Auer played this melody of Tchaikovsky… the old recordings were so much more free - it was like talking, like a conversation. I also heard a CD included in a book called How to Play Brahms, which had recordings of Brahms symphonies, the same excerpts with the same Berlin orchestra every 10 years - from the 1910s, 20s, 30s, 40s, and it’s absolutely shocking how much it changed. The early recordings had a flow like a flock of birds flying - it’s hypnotising, this feeling of time. Gradually over the decades it was more and more squared within time and slowed down. This can give us a thought about how to better play it. And before, the composers were so much more open to the performers…
JD: Alena, thank you so much for making time to talk. See you on Wednesday, and toitoitoi!