For violinist Ilya Gringolts, It's Bach and Beyond
Gringolts plumbs the depths of Baroque and surveys the future of modern music
"It is in vogue to compare good music to good wine," says 21-year-old Ilya Gringolts, "but I think that is inappropriate because once you have tasted the wine, you have 'gotten' the taste, no matter how good it is. I'd say playing good music is like reading a great book—each time you read it you gain more understanding by reading between the lines. Each word can have a double or triple meaning and you will never reach the bottom. That's how it is with good music—it is completely boundless and thats why, in the case of Bachs solo violin works, it is still being played more than 300 years after its creation."
With the recent release of his Bach (Deutshe Grammophon)—featuring Partitas Nos. 1 and 3, and Sonata No. 2—this young Russian prodigy has shown that he can indeed read between the lines and infuse these paramount solo violin works with remarkable verve. His unorthodox approach, often aggressive and sometimes sublimely lyrical, has sent some critics into a spin, especially those expecting a more honeyed interpretation of these polyphonic masterworks.
"There's something distinctly Glenn Gould-esque in [Gringolts'] approaches to Bach: His terse turns of phrase and his overwhelming focus on rhythm and line rather than depth of tone or texture," the Rough Guide opined recently of the Gringolts recording.
Others find Gringolts' unique emphasis on rhythm refreshing in its raw musicality. "Above all, Gringolts invests his interpretations with uncommon attention to the rhythmic complexities in these works . . ." notes music critic Michael Liebowitz of Classics Today. "But [he] is too fine a musician to let these pieces become mere motoric exercises of virtuosity. . . ."
During a midnight phone interview from his Swedish hotel room, an exhausted Gringolts fights off jet lag after a daylong recording session to discuss his approach to Bach, as well as the role of Russian composers in his career and his intense love of modern music.
Throughout the interview he is bright, self-effacing, amiable, and blessed with a dry wit that is rapidly gaining him popularity with audiences, conductors, and the media.
The Big Arc
In June, before returning to Europe and Russia for the summer, Gringolts (who now calls New York his home) performed a program of Bach solo violin works—his first ever all-Bach recital—at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. "It was quite strange," he says. "I was quite tired afterwards, but having listened to a recording of the concert, I can say that the overall effect was quite nice. I have a nasty habit of hating everything I do afterward, and this wasn't really an exception. Still, an all-Bach recital is a huge challenge, especially a solo violin performance, and I'm glad I did it. There will be more occasions in the future to do it."
Beyond the rigors of the music, he adds, performing alone onstage requires a degree of mental preparation not needed in duo, trio, quartet, or other settings. "It has its downside and its upside," Gringolts says of his solo work. "The downside being that you are in the spotlight and all the pressure is on you and youre the only one responsible for all that is going on."
He adds with a chuckle, "The upside is that you are in the spotlight, you are the only one responsible for everything you do . . . It can be a very liberating experience because you are given much more freedom.
"At the same time, you are standing there like a big magnet and attracting all of the attention.
"So it's very straining and quite liberating at the same time."
For his recent Bach disc, Gringolts selected both "big" and "small" pieces: Partita No. 1 in B minor, with its achingly beautiful Sarabande, stands as one of the major works, a towering monument of Baroque polyphony; Partita No. 3 in E major and Sonata No. 2 in A minor are more relaxed though certainly not without their weightier moments. Yet he approached all three pieces from the same relative perspective, keeping "the bigger canvas" in mind at all times.
"The thing about Bach's violin fugues—which are a strange creation because you have just four fingers instead of, in the case of the organ, ten or even a pair of feet—is that they are very limiting," he explains. "So it's already amazing what Bach did with his polyphonic writing for four fingers, and much has been said of that. But once you master all the huge technical difficulties that have to do with having just four fingers to deal with the polyphony, you have to think of the form. When you have four or five voices available, you can elaborate and get more versatile, more diverse throughout. If you write a fugue for organ and play it through using different registers and different colors, then it will come through and it will be beautiful.
"With the violin you don't have as many colors at hand or as many means to create them. This means that you have to eliminate coloring altogether because otherwise with Baroque music, and the violin specifically, one is prone to ruining it. In other words, the more colors the less shape. When you look at the Baroque violins and see how poor in color they are, you realize that is not a bad thing.
"Most critics emphasize the sound, but I think that in Baroque music one should take this emphasis off the sound. Once you do that, the most important thing that is left is shape."
That bold approach has allowed Gringolts to build "the big arc of the fugue" based on harmony. "That is the key for a successful construction [of a Bach fugue]."
Since the violin is primarily a singing instrument, he adds, the polyphony of these pieces presents a special challenge for string players. "In a way, you are twisting the nature of the violin to play the kind of stuff that Bach wrote," he says. "You have to be able to imitate polyphonic writing that is best suited to the harpsichord or the organ and make it sound un-violinistic, so that all the voices come through equally."
In practicing Bach's solo works, Gringolts sets up an ongoing series of rehearsals during which he analyzes the individual voicings in order to bring out separate lines. "It's just great," he says. "It's like an organist working with register. It's a huge challenge but to me it's fascinating."
He speaks enthusiastically about this process of examining the labyrinthine contrasubjects that have mesmerized audiences but daunted so many string players over the centuries. As he speaks, his earlier comparison of great music to great literature makes perfect sense, with the fabric of musical subplots emerging in seemingly endless combinations.
"In some parts of the fugue these contrasubjects are even more important than the omnipresent main subject, which you can get tired of," he says. "So at some point you start bringing out these contrasubjects, which you don't normally hear sometimes on the violin.
"That requires a lot of skill, a lot of right-arm flexibility, a lot of practice in that way."
It also requires a lot of research. "For me, researching is what leads to the authentic interpretation because you don't want to make the composer turn in his grave," he says. "If you love the music then you should have some sort of respect for it and the more respect you have the better. If you perform contemporary music, research is really not required—you can just pick it up. The further back you go the less reference you have.
"My goal always has been to get as close as possible to a composer's intentions—that is my credo. While having my own ideas, I always check on the authenticity—and here again, that's not a good word, since it's hard to establish what's authentic and what's not after several centuries or to get as close to the source as possible.
"Still, the more I learn about the piece, the more I learn about myself as a player," he concludes. "I discover myself through this music, through any music that I perform."
Gringolts has had plenty of time to prepare for these challenges. He started playing the solo Bach works at age 13 and in some ways the pieces are milestones, revisited again and again, in his own personal journey toward understanding music and the violin. "Coming to terms with these Bach works," he says, "you could dig forever and never reach the bottom."
Yet his journey—marked by a combination of good luck, hard work, and sheer talent—very nearly derailed at the start. Gringolts grew up in St. Petersburg, the son of an amateur violinist, and took up the instrument at age five. After a year of instruction, his teacher sent the child home with the message that Gringolts had no talent and should not be wasting the teacher's time.
"I have told this story so many times that it's probably not even true. In fact, it was probably the other way around," he says with a laugh. "The teacher that I found after that episode was a very lucky find," he says of Tatiana Liberova. "Our collaboration lasted a very long time."
Under Liberova's tutelage, Gringolts entered a special music program for children at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He continued studying with Liberova for another ten years, winning the 1995 Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition before leaving for the Juilliard School at age 17, where he eventually began studies with Itzhak Perlman.
"He's a constant source of encouragement," Gringolts says of his new mentor. "Even when I was having a bad lesson, with him, I always had the hope that things would get better, which is not always the case with teachers. He always made me feel good about my playing and I think that's something he has carried over from Dorothy DeLay—the warmth, the hospitality, her ability to make you feel good about your playing."
Indeed, Gringolts' first meeting with Perlman was a lucky break. In 1997, a cousin living in Ottawa showed a videotape of Gringolts in concert to a close friend who is a violinist in Canada's National Arts Centre Orchestra. The friend then showed the tape to the orchestra's conductor, Pinchas Zukerman, who mailed it to Perlman. The following year, Perlman invited the then 16-year-old Gringolts to attend his summer music camp, where the maestro readied the youth for the prestigious Premio Paganini Violin Competition in Italy. Gringolts took first prize that year (1998) as well as a special prize for the best interpretation of Paganinis "Capriccio."
Despite his competitive successes, Gringolts has mixed feelings about the experience. "I always had pressure from my parents and my teacher, but even at that age I knew I would be in music one way or another," he says of life as a prodigy. "I really couldn't do anything else, and it wasn't as though I didn't like it, although I didn't know why I did since I couldn't really analyze anything at that age.
"But you know, competitions are not necessarily a good thing. I'm happy to be done with them once and for all. The sad truth is that you can't skip the competitions these days because they lead to contracts and engagements. I had to do it. And many of my friends have to do it now. And that's the way it is," he adds with a sigh.
"Ultimately, you have to keep in mind that you might not win and still have the courage to do it again. You have to believe in yourself."
Mood for Moderns
Earlier this year, and in a nod to his Russian heritage, Gringolts released his major label debut—a widely acclaimed pairing of Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor and Tchaikovsky's Concerto for Violin in D major—with Itzhak Perlman conducting the Israel Philharmonic. Gringolts has described the concertos as representing two sides of the Russian soul: "[The] Tchaikovsky is a romantic hymn from the age of innocence," he notes, "with many beautiful melodies. The Shostakovich is an expression of pain and solitude, of torments of the soul."
For his next recording, Gringolts will feature Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius' oft-recorded Violin Concerto in D minor, and four Sibelius humoresques. U.S. audiences will have a chance to preview his Prokofiev performances when Gringolts returns to the States for a series of dates this month that will take him as far afield as Buffalo, New York, Fargo, North Dakota, and Eugene, Oregon. More U.S. dates are scheduled for the spring.
"I have been catching up lately on Prokofiev, but there is a lot of Russian repertoire that I haven't played," he says. "Still, I am hoping to perform a lot of Prokofiev because he is increasingly becoming one of my favorites. Almost everything he wrote is good music, which is not the case with most composers. Often you have to write a lot of trash to produce a jewel. For me, his music is a great combination of humor and lyricism. He's like the Mozart of the 20th century in a way; so classically oriented yet so avant-garde at the same time. That's such a great combination. Possibly only Stravinsky and Bartók could match him in that respect, though neither of them had the lyricism that Prokofiev had and that's important to me."
But Gringolts also remains committed to new music. Earlier this year, he premiered the solo violin piece "Pulsar" by Augusta Read Thomas, 39, a professor of composition at Northwestern University. The work, commissioned jointly by BBC Radio 3 and the Royal Philharmonic Society, debuted at Wigmore Hall in London. "That was the highlight of my contemporary music experience for the year," he says.
Read, who couldn't attend the concert but heard a recording of Gringolts' performance, is no less enthusiastic about the results. "I thought he did a splendid job—musical, sensitive, and elegant," she says. "He is a wonderful player and I felt very privileged to compose for him."
Gringolts is seeking more commissioned works and feels a duty to promote new music as well as preserve the past. "We have to perform that stuff or else the music will get stale," he says. "We need to remember that 100 years ago people performed mostly that music that was contemporary to those times—'old music' wasn't performed at all with the exception of Beethoven and a few others that you just couldn't keep out of the program. But nowadays there is so little contemporary music that its just a shame. People are afraid of it somehow—they seem to think its difficult to understand. But you really have to get people used to it. In Finland, a country that spends a lot per capita on the arts and has one of the fastest growing orchestral music scenes in the world, each concert has a premiere or a new work. The audiences go to hear the contemporary works rather than the warhorses that are performed every now and then. And that is the new perception of music that you have to breed. It will not come by itself."
"The best fingerings for these are the ones that can be done semi-automatically, so that I can continue to monitor my sound."
Zazofsky agrees that warm-up sessions are a good time to explore new sounds, and he warns against relying too heavily on vibrato. He starts his warm-up with slow scales, looking for maximum sound in terms of clarity of tone with the least effort. "If you start practicing after a really good nap, your muscles are nice and relaxed. That's when you get your best sound," he says. "When you've had a good rest, you get your natural arm weight. I try to get that feeling all the time. Listen to each string without vibrato. A beautiful sound has to be that of bow against string. Vibrato is a color, an enhancer. Vibrato won't make up for sound thats lacking. We really have to produce sound with the bow, so don't go automatically to vibrato.
"I carefully listen for the core of the sound when I warm up. I like really slow double stops, fingered octaves, fourths, and fifths, which stretch the left hand and let you hear the overtones really clearly. In the double stops, I aim to allow the instrument to ring as if I were playing on open strings. Also, you want a slow bow with enough pressure to produce a big sound, right on the edge of becoming scratchy."
Hagner reminds us always to keep the musical context in mind when considering vibrato. "Something marked dolce is very different from espressivo in terms of vibrato," she says. "I think dolce means a slower, more relaxed kind of vibrato. If something is espressivo, though, you press your fingers more on the fingerboard, and increase your vibrato speed."
In your search for your own great sound, it might be helpful to keep this thought from Kavafian in mind: "In terms of sound, your imagination is the most important component. Keep an open mind and explore every possibility.
"A person's imagination is his or her biggest asset."