Profile of Violinist Lydia Mordkovitch
Recalling her tenure as a student of the Russian violin master David Oistrakh
Famous soloists are always interesting, but it's a particular pleasure to chat to Lydia Mordkovitch. As I wait for her at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she's served as a professor of violin since 1995, I think about how many British works I know and love only because she's recorded them. Today, though, I've come to ask about her new CD of Russian music and, a hundred years after his birth, what it was like to be a protégée of the great David Oistrakh.
Her strong features, familiar from the photos in her many CD booklets, are immediately recognizable, and she greets me in a manner that's both businesslike and warm. Smartly dressed and with violin case in her hand, she explains that she has a break between lessons, and so, after buying coffees from the Academy's refectory, we take the elevator to the top floor practice room where she teaches. She speaks English fluently, but with a heavy accent, and I'm reminded that the Russian language is as mellifluous as Italian—if rather different in character. She begins by discussing her recent recording of Taneyev's Suite de concert for violin and orchestra, which she describes as "unique, because it has many different movements. The first is a very substantial introduction, then comes the gavotte, and then the magical 'Fairy Tale.' The fourth movement, the theme and variations, could almost be a concerto in itself. And lastly there's the very fiery tarantella.
"The piece hasn't been performed much, and I think that's because it's very difficult and very long. But it's an incredible piece—out-of-this-world passionate."
On the new Chandos CD, the Taneyev is coupled with Rimsky-Korsakov's Fantasy on Russian Themes, a work that she gives to students who can't yet play the Tchaikovsky Concerto, "because it has the real, pure Russian spirit."
Mordkovitch is in no doubt that this spirit still exists.
"Russia has a dramatic history, and the people, who are very deep, very warm, very emotional, have always expressed their feelings in song and dance. In general, they're emotional people. If they're happy, they're very happy; if they're sad, they aren't afraid to show that they're deeply upset.
"And this is expressed in the music."
But what about contemporary Russia? It's now 35 years since Mordkovitch emigrated, and nearly 30 since she settled in England. "It's true that Russia has changed a lot since then, and that the world is now more mixed," she says. "In the old days the greatest players went to America and Europe, where they had a big influence on international violin playing, and today there are many foreigners in Russia. But whatever Russian music I'm playing, I still feel my roots very strongly."
After graduating from the famous Stolyarsky School of Music in Odessa, Mordkovitch continued her studies at the Nejdanova Conservatory and then, in 1968, joined the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow as a postgraduate student. It was there that she came under the most important professional influence in her life. In November 2004, Gramophone magazine asked eight of the world's top violinists to nominate their Expert's Expert—the forebearer whom they most revered; five of them voted for David Oistrakh. When I ask Mordkovitch what made him so special, the tone of her reply reveals a mixture of awe and affection.
"He had the most amazing brains. When he was young, there were many talented violinists, but he was the brightest of them all—and he never stopped developing. By the time I went to study with him, I was married with a four-year-old daughter. And he said, 'Why did you come so late?' That's why, for me, every moment with him was very important, very precious. Immediately, before my entrance exam, I had seven lessons with him in ten days. That was an unbelievable experience—what Oistrakh said in one hour, nobody else said in a lifetime.
"He was often away on tour for weeks at a time, and during those periods I assisted with his work with a few other students. But mainly I continued to study with him myself. I was always at the conservatory while he was there—every minute, every second. I wouldn't miss a word."
And how did Oistrakh teach? "I learned a lot about technique," she says, "because he had his violin with him and was always showing us, in the most impeccable way, how to play whatever pieces we were working on. But it was mostly about interpretation, style, purity. Of course, he made us work on a lot of virtuosic repertoire because we have to be ready to play whatever is written."
And what was his own style of playing? "Very natural—serving the music," she says. "What I think influenced Oistrakh a lot in childhood was that he grew up in the opera house. His mother was a member of the chorus, so every evening he was in the theater, sitting near the conductor. When he was punished for something, he was left at home, and this is when he could nurture all evening his dream of being an opera conductor!
"It's not surprising that, as a violinist, he made such a singing sound with his instrument."
Nor is Mordkovitch surprised that Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, and Myaskovsky all wanted to compose for him. "I was at the concert of the Union of Soviet Composers in 1969 when Shostakovich's Violin Sonata was first performed," she says. "Shostakovich was sitting at the back of the hall, and after the performance he said, in a very shaky voice, how lucky and how happy he was that such a great violinist as David Oistrakh played his sonata, and he cried. It was an unforgettable, and most moving, experience to see Shostakovich crying in front of everybody. There were some fantastic violinists in Russia, but none with the stature and the truth of interpretation that David had.
"That's why all those great works were written for him."
Part of Oistrakh's greatness, she emphasizes, lay in his determination to continue developing throughout his career. "He never stopped growing and changing. We used to rehearse with an accompanist before our first lesson with him on a new piece—it was like a concert performance, because you didn't play to David Oistrakh casually, with your head stuck in the music. And she used to say to us, 'David will want to hear it like this....' But in the lesson he'd sometimes stop us and say, 'Oh no, I played like that five years ago; I don't play like that anymore.'
It's time to draw our conversation to a close—a student whom Mordkovich earlier waved away and told to come back later for his lesson has done just that. I therefore ask her how she'd sum up Oistrakh. "In life he was a very simple, modest man—so kind and so warm," she replies softly. "Everybody loved him. And in music he was very sincere, very pure, and at the same time very great." As I stand to leave, she thanks me for Strings' interest in her, and I'm suddenly aware of the extent to which she, too, embodies the personal and artistic qualities she's just been describing.
What Lydia Mordkovitch Plays
Lydia Mordkovitch has owned a 1746 Niccolo Gagliano since the 1970s. "It had been kept in a cupboard for about 30 years, and it took me two or three years to develop the sound. I like it, but over the years, I've borrowed a variety of Strads and a Guadagnini for recordings and very important concerts because they have something more 'special.' For example, for the Taneyev recording, I borrowed a Strad from the Royal Academy of Music, because I like its very clear sound. I have it with me at the moment, because I'm recording next week and I need to get used to it again."