Ilya Gringolts: The Man, the Myth, the Musician on the Move

At 28, Russian violinist Ilya Gringolts has crafted a career rich with possibilities

Ilya Gringolts

photo: Tomasz Trzebiatowski

When I first catch sight of Ilya Gringolts, he’s sitting on the ground just outside the entrance to Wigmore Hall in London, typing away on a laptop. It’s a couple of hours after a lunchtime concert that featured Gringolts’ performance of Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in D minor, Op. 121, a neglected Romantic-era piece he recorded on his recent CD of Schumann sonatas. But the conversation quickly turns from pleasantries to key moments in Gringolts’ distinguished career—ten minutes into the interview, it becomes clear that the Russian violin virtuoso is eager to dispel a few myths, or at least he wants to ensure that the details are correct.

Yes, it’s true that he met legendary violinist and educator Yehudi Menuhin when he participated in the competition that bears the great man’s name, but it was not a life-changing moment. “I can’t boast as many people do about him saying wonderful things about me—I think I might be the only musician about whom Menuhin said nothing,” Gringolts says mischievously.

Yes, he did study with Itzhak Perlman for three years, but the experience was not unambiguously positive (of which more later).

After a little more time in the 28-year-old violinist’s company, I realize that he’s happiest when not being pigeonholed as The Great Violinist, a mythic figure whose career takes a predestined trajectory from freakishly talented prodigy to globetrotting, audience-wowing superstar.

Yet, there is truth to this myth.

Gringolts did come in second at the All-Russian Junior Competition when he was ten, and in the 1998 International “Premio Paganini” Violin Competition, he was the youngest finalist ever and walked away with two additional prizes. This all happened after his studies in his native St. Petersburg with Tatiana Liberova and Jeanna Metallidi, but around the time he spent at the Juilliard School with Perlman.

Ah, the Perlman years.

Perlman is a great teacher, Gringolts says. “The little problem was that perhaps I needed something else than he was willing to offer,” he explains. “I was also at a crossroads musically, where I was questioning everything.”

Their first year together—Gringolts was 17 at the time—was fine, but then something changed. “I was not happy with my playing in many respects,” he says. “I was looking around, trying to absorb a lot of influences and trying to make sense of them. I don’t know if any teacher would have helped at that point.

“He was there for me, but he didn’t really know how to handle me at that time because I was really kind of a mess. At the very end, we were kind of doing things past each other a bit.”

Still, he and Perlman have remained in contact.

“He came to Zurich about a year and half ago and conducted the Tonhalle, and we had dinner together. It’s always nice to see him,” Gringolts says. “He’s a wonderful person, and has a great sense of humor.”

As for that 1995 Menuhin competition, although the then-12-year-old Gringolts placed sixth—“It wasn’t exactly my hour of glory,” he muses—he did get to meet fellow future violin stars, including Julia Fischer, who won the junior division in which Gringolts was also competing, as well as Corina Belcea-Fisher, who placed second in the senior division. The leader of the Belcea Quartet is a good friend, and Gringolts seems pleased when I tell him that I saw her in the audience at his concert that day, at which Gringolts and pianist Ashley Wass performed not only the Schumann Sonata, but also Grieg’s Sonata No. 1 in F, Op. 8, and Schumann’s Romance as an encore. That latter piece was memorable for the simple and unaffected way Gringolts plays it.

For someone who has fought The Great Violinist mantle, Gringolts has amassed an impressive catalog during his brief career. He has recorded ten CDs, including the Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich concertos with the Israel Philharmonic, conducted by Perlman; Bach’s Partitas and Sonatas for solo violin; chamber music by Max Ernst (of the Ernst disc, Strings’ Edith Eisler wrote, “The playing must be heard to be believed”); and a pair of Arensky and Taneyev concertos.

The 2002 Bach disc came in with particularly high critical acclaim. Typically, Gringolts waves away the praise, saying the recording was a “real transition, meaning that I just started moving in one direction and I was still moving as I was recording. But later I did really explore period performance and Baroque playing.

“I think a lot of things make much more sense if you play them on period instruments,” he says. “The fingerings are different when you play on a violin without a shoulder rest or a chin rest; you have to be very careful shifting around. Fingering is also a huge means of expression, it’s not just a technical tool.”

I ask if his Baroque studies made him rethink vibrato.

I’ve touched a nerve.

“Vibrato is sort of my personal neurosis,” he says.

His pet peeves: vibrato that’s too wide or is the same all the time. “There are people who can’t think of a note without vibrato. For them, it’s a dead note,” he says. “For me, a note without vibrato is already a living being, and you use vibrato to color it differently, to give it character.

“If you hear the greats, people like Thibaut or Ysaÿe, there is vibrato, but it’s so delicate and so discrete and kind of grows within the sound. I think very few people can emulate that. In way, it’s one of those things that maybe has been lost.

“I’m trying do it,” he adds. “I’m not sure if I am succeeding.”

There is, indeed, something about Gringolts’ playing and personal style—the respect for tradition, the swept-back hair, the neatly trimmed Van Dyke beard—that harkens back to an earlier era. A musician friend in London says simply, “He always plays things in an interesting way.”

The Guardian newspaper concurs: in its review of his recent Onyx disc of the three Schumann sonatas with pianist Peter Laul, the publication opined, “Ilya Gringolts’ dark, smoky violin tone suits the introspection of the three works perfectly.”

Why did he choose the neglected Schumann sonatas?

Ever the contrarian, Gringolts says he doesn’t think they’re neglected, especially with the Schumann anniversary year (and he may be right). Besides, he says, letting music be forgotten isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “That’s why you always get this feeling of discovery when you play something like this,” he says.

Does he find that Schumann’s writing is awkward for the violin?

Of course, but “the rule of thumb of the violin, in any case, is unless it’s bad music, it’s awkward,” he says.

He is, for the moment, sticking with Schumann, having just recorded the piano trios with Laul and cellist Dmitri Kouzov, for an upcoming release on Onyx. He says, apropos of discussing trios, that there’s a piano trio by Arensky he’s never played. “It’s in memoriam to somebody, like any other Russian trio,” he notes, citing trios by Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninov.

Does this say something about the Russian character?

“I hope not!” he replies. “They wrote all the other things without this sort of catalyst. But somehow, with the trios, there has to be a body somewhere.”

The conversation leads to Gringolts’ ties to London and its place in helping to shape his career. His pianist at today’s recital, Ashley Wass, was, like Gringolts, a member of the prestigious BBC New Generation Artist program, which provides performing opportunities and career advice to promising young artists. As a member of this program almost a decade ago, Gringolts regularly graced the stage of the Wigmore and other UK halls, on his own and with colleagues. “I was living in New York at the time,” he says, “so there was a lot of flying involved!”

The BBC New Generation Artist “scheme” was new then. “It was just a chance to meet new people, which was good enough, really, whereas now,” he says, “it’s this huge thing that everyone has to do if you want to be anybody. Back then it was quite cozy—we saw each other and we played together.”

For Gringolts, just living in the UK had its own rewards, particularly because of the country’s orchestras. “I think there is something very special about British orchestras, the discipline, the work ethic, the quality—it’s incredible,” he says.

He dismisses Nigel Kennedy’s frustration with the limited orchestral rehearsal time. “That’s a problem for all orchestras these days,” he notes. “The pace is just incredible, so obviously some things are under-rehearsed.”

These days, Gringolts himself leads a fast-paced life, giving 50 to 60 solo performances a year, a less grueling pace than experienced by some star soloists. But since his last profile in Strings, in December 2003, he has become a family man. He and his wife, violinist Anahit Kurtikyan, have two daughters, aged two-and-a-half and one. Because of the young family, he says, “I try to be home 50 percent of the time.”

Luckily, his chosen base is Zurich. “The good thing about being in Zurich is that it’s sort of in the middle of things,” he says.

Any other pluses?

“It’s a good place to raise a family,” he adds, “it’s sort of quiet.”

Family life has had another effect: the man who told Strings in 2003 that “I have a nasty habit of hating everything I do afterward” has disappeared. “Now I’m the biggest fan of myself!” he laughs. “You start liking yourself better when you have children. Because before you think, who needs me? But then you have children and you think, oh, they need you, and your self-esteem goes up like crazy.”

The next storm on Gringolts’ horizon is the Schöenberg Concerto: an “ultimate challenge.” At press time, he was scheduled to perform it in London in January. And he has more concertos to prepare, including those by John Adams, Alexander Glazunov, and Swiss composer Michael Jarrell. “There’s lots of great music being written today,” he says of the two contemporary works, “and I’m always very excited about exploring it. The lack of one single direction these days is great, because composers can basically do what they want.”

Gringolts is also ramping up his teaching, with his recent appointment as violin professor at the Basel Hochschule Conservatory in Switzerland. “My first continuous teaching job!” he marvels.

It turns out the day after our interview is his first day teaching, and he is excited.

Another stimulating new venture is the Gringolts String Quartet, which includes his wife on second violin, violist Silvia Simoniescu, and cellist Richard Harwood.

And if he ever gets bored or has a spare moment—unlikely in both cases—he can always spend another August as a member of the elite Lucerne Festival Orchestra: he played in the first violin section in 2007 and loved every minute. “I always wanted to play a big Mahler symphony, and it was Mahler Three that year. I hadn’t really played in a big symphony orchestra since my college days, and I always enjoyed that a lot, especially sitting somewhere in the back of the second violins, in the middle of the orchestra, where you get this stereo effect—it’s fantastic.”

I try to picture Gringolts playing his violin in the back of the seconds, as an ocean of orchestral sound washes over him. With that image, The Great Violinist myth, at least for now, has been laid to rest.


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