Violinist Nikolaj Znaider's Search for Perfection

Virtuoso had to unlearn the violin to reach for his ideal

It is said that Jascha Heifetz was never satisfied with his own playing. Despite accolades from critics, colleagues, and audiences, he never managed to still his inner critic, the one that told him, "It could be better!" Is it the onus of the great artist, this nagging discontent, the restless search, the Sisyphean pursuit of an unreachable ideal? If this burden is the mark of a great artist then Nikolaj Znaider is destined for big things.

Born in Denmark in 1975 to Polish-Israeli parents, Znaider studied with some of the world's greatest violin teachers. Popular Israeli teacher Ilona Feher provided Znaider's instruction during his childhood. At the Royal Danish Academy of Music, Znaider's principal teacher was Milan Vitek, who was knighted three years ago for his contributions to Danish cultural life. At the Juilliard School of Music, legendary teacher Dorothy DeLay began tutoring Znaider at 16.

But then in 1994, at the age of 18, already with the first prize from the Carl Nielson International Violin Competition under his belt and on the threshold of a solo career, Znaider chose to go back to the drawing board. "I wasn't happy with the way I was playing at the time. I felt that something was lacking and that I wasn't entirely going the right way," explains Znaider.

He went to the Russian pedagogue Boris Kuschnir in Vienna who had established a certain reputation through his other students, among them Julian Rachlin. Znaider played for 15 minutes. Kuschnir talked for 15 minutes. "I felt instinctively that something was wrong," Znaider says, "but I didn't know what. He was able to pinpoint it and put it in words."

Their work together would begin with four lessons a week—on open strings only! "At first you feel like you're two years old and trying to walk suddenly," he adds. "It's something that you've been doing all your life yet suddenly it feels strange to you."

What could an already accomplished violinist possibly learn from weeks of playing on open strings? "Oh, you can learn a lot!" Znaider observes. "The quality of bow change, for instance—how to distribute the weight throughout the strokes, which is very important for the sound production, and also to kind of train the right hand. What I was lacking at the time was the flexibility and the strength in the right hand. So we broke down all the movements you make in a bow change and did them separately.

"If you watch soccer, tennis, or golf players train, they break down the end result that they wish to smaller motions and train those in the extremes. Then when they put it together it gets a result at an entirely different level. It was an entirely new way of thinking about sound production, articulation, intonation, phrasing—exactly what I want to do, to really think it through, also to be able to defend it."

Kuschnir recalls their encounter well. "Yes we did about three weeks of open strings," he says. "I need simple situations for the right-hand technique. At the beginning, that was the open strings."

Znaider's training continued with a full year's work on Saint-Saëns' Violin Concerto No. 3. It was the start of a new way of working, which suited Znaider's highly analytical, yet passionate, style.

People quickly took notice.

"I first knew of him after he came to Vienna—everybody was talking about him then," says Mariss Jansons, the conductor on Znaider's recently released recording of Prokofiev and Glazunov concertos.

Znaider's work was paying off—he was finding himself as a violinist and an artist.

In 1997, three years after having essentially relearned the violin, Znaider won the most coveted and respected prize of the violin world, the first prize in the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. "After Brussels, he was big!" declares Jansons. Yet to this day, his method hasn't changed. "He's very demanding of himself," Jansons adds.

"He often says, ‘I had a concert, lots of success, but for you it was probably very bad!'" says Kuschnir. "I say, ‘not necessarily,' of course. But he says, ‘No, no, I hear it myself!' He hears very well, and that helps him in his further development."

If one could compare the violinist Yehudi Menuhin to Mozart the composer—boy geniuses both, for whom making music was an easy and God-given talent—Znaider would more likely be compared to Brahms, who worked diligently and was known to destroy any work that didn't meet his uncompromising standards.

In Pursuit of an Ideal

This rare glimpse into the mind of a budding star shows that he isn't motivated by fame or money. His naturally commanding stage presence, the drama and intensity one sees and hears from him, are all the result of an idealistic pursuit of artistic merit.

When asked why he plays, for that matter why any of us plays music, his three-part answer demonstrates a characteristic mix of philosophy and pragmatism. "I think we as instrumentalists, in a certain masochistic way, enjoy the practicing, the slaving over details, the scales, the relentless scales and exercises," Znaider explains. "I also have a definite wish and need to communicate with the audience: I feel that I have something to say, that I can say it best on stage with a violin in my hand. Finally we want to do justice to the music, we want to serve the music."

More and more, Znaider is getting the opportunity to do just that. Not every winner of a major competition goes on to a successful performing career, but Znaider already is playing around 100 concerts a year. Apparently a favorite of conductor Daniel Barenboim, he is a frequent guest with the Chicago Symphony, has already had his debut at Carnegie Hall with the Phildadelphia Orchestra, and performed with the Cleveland Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. His European credentials are even more impressive, being already an established star throughout Europe. American audiences will increasingly have the pleasure of hearing him as he makes his debuts with the Seattle, Dallas, and Detroit symphonies in the 2002–2003 season and goes on tour with Valery Gergiev and the Rotterdam Philharmonic, including performances in Washington, DC, New York, and Chicago, as well as some smaller cities.

And then there are the recordings: Bruch and Nielsen concertos with the London Philharmonic; the recently released Prokofiev Concerto No. 2; the Glazunov; Tchaikovsky's "Meditation," with Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony (the first for his exclusive recording contract for RCA Red Seal); and a just-finished recital disc with a mix of his favorite short pieces.

"Everything that made me fall in love with the violin," is his description of the music he chose for the latest project. "Most were things that I've been listening to since I was a little boy." Those include the famous Polonaise in D-Major and the "Variations on an Original Theme" by Wieniawski; three solo pieces: Milstein Paganiniana, Ysaye Sonata No. 3, and Kreisler "Recitativo and Scherzo"; a couple of fun Chopin nocturnes: the D major that Michael Rabin recorded and an E-flat major in a transcription by Heifetz; Achron's "Hebrew Melody," and some Sarasate.

A Personal Style

This repertoire reflects the impression by many who hear Znaider that he is an artist and a virtuoso in the mold of the great violinists of the 19th and 20th centuries. He is, in fact, very conscious of the long tradition of violin playing and enjoys hearing recordings of the old masters. "I think it's important to know where we come from," he explains. "There's so much love to be harvested in those recordings, so much greatness in them. It's like a treasure, a legacy that shouldn't be forgotten."

Specifically, Znaider refers to an early Menuhin recording. "I just bought the Elgar concerto that he did when he was 15. What struck me was the intensity that a 15-year-old could keep for—how long is this concerto? Fifty minutes? Incredible! And not just physical intensity but mental intensity as well," he says. "That was so impressive, especially if you think about it—a 15-year-old child."

His own soon-to-be-released recital CD could perhaps be seen as his tribute to the great names that appear on it in one form or another: Wieniawski, Sarasate, Ysaye, Kreisler, Heifetz, Milstein, Rabin.

According to Kuschnir, Znaider could be added seamlessly to this list. "[Znaider] is for me one of the best violinists in the world in this generation because his tone quality is unique. Technically he can play anything, absolutely perfectly, but I think that's not the most important thing. How he presents this technique—tone, depth, vibrato—this I find unique. In earlier times, there was Oistrakh, Grumieux, Heifetz, Kreisler, Milstein, and Menuhin—so many great personalities. In our times there are very few personalities, very few. What Nikolaj is doing now can only be compared to those times. He's a violinist that you can always hear and say 'yes, that's Nikolaj Znaider.' That's something the others don't have, it's a very personal way of playing."

The Right Tools

Having equipped himself with the tools to do anything conceivable on a violin, the next thing Znaider would need is the proper instrument. "To express yourself in the best possible way, you need a great instrument . . . if you have a great instrument, it inspires you to be better than you are," he says.

Since soon after his parents bought Znaider his first full-size violin, to this day the only instrument he personally owns, his talent has been so obvious that foundations, collectors, and dealers have been offering him an assortment of great old Italian violins to play. For many years, until the age of 20, he played a Giuseppe Guarneri Filius Andreae. "After that I was back and forth between borrowed instruments," he says. "I had a wonderful Strad that was lent to me just for the [Queen Elisabeth] competition. Then there was a Strad that you get as the first prize that I had for a little over a year. Then I played a Guarneri del Gesu from the Strad Society, also for just a year. I have been playing over the last two years a wonderful Guarneri del Gesu. It's from 1732, so it's relatively early, but it's magnificent. I've had a drama surrounding what will happen with this in the future [if I am not able to continue borrowing it]. Hopefully not, but it looks a bit like I'm in an in-between phase right now."

True to his nature, Znaider is still searching, be it for the right violin or the best way to express himself with it. His already brilliant playing coupled with that inner voice, saying "it can be better . . . it will be better" makes for great anticipation.

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