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Keeping the Music Alive: Alexey Botvinov, the unusual pianist who is currently artistic director of Odessa State Opera and Ballet, speaks about his unique career (BM)



Alexey Botvinov

His native city, the beautiful Ukrainian seaport of Odessa, where he was born in 1964, has brought forth more than one legendary pianist - Sviatoslav Richter landed his first job as a piano coach at the city’s opera house, and Emil Gilels lived just around the corner from it. But it is hardly common knowledge that Alexey Botvinov is due to go down in history as the pianist holding the world record in live performances of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations: over two hundred twenty to date and counting…

So why is he not more of a celebrity in the music world? The answer is simple: because not all of these performances have been in recital, but rather with the Zurich Opera Ballet’s production of the Goldberg Variations choreographed by Heinz Spoerli. As we sit down in the lobby of his downtown Athens hotel, I mention that the first time I saw this ballet at Deutsche Oper in Berlin, the person sitting next to me inquired who ‘the gentleman in the suit’ was when he joined the dancers on stage to take his bows... and I remember being hard put to concentrate on the ballet when I realized what an astonishing live performance of this fiendishly difficult piece was coming from the orchestra pit.

First, however, we go back to the beginning, when he was growing up in a family of musicians in Odessa. Did he know all along that he wanted to become a pianist? “Certainly not, and I was no child prodigy,” he says dismissively, although in fact he gave his first public recital at only 13 and performed Prokofiev’s piano concerto no.1 at the age of 15 (so that the definition of what a prodigy is would need to be fairly restricted for him not to qualify). “My parents never pressured me, and I played football and did all the things children normally do. Then, having moved on from Odessa to the Moscow Conservatory, he was a winner and the youngest entrant at the Rachmaninov-Competition, held every 2-3 years at the time, and attracted a fair amount of attention. “Competitions are more about sport than about art, I’m afraid, but they are a useful way of winning recognition, and besides, it seems to me that 20-something years ago they were still fairer and the winning titles were more significant, which is why I went on to compete and win at the eighth International Bach-Competition in Leipzig and the very first Clara-Schumann-Competition in Düsseldorf.

“This was a privilege during Soviet times, when being a successful musician meant belonging to the ‘elite’ who were allowed to travel, and the conditions for classical musicians were much better on the whole – whoever showed talent received excellent training and scholarships. It was after the 1994 competition in Düsseldorf, with Argerich and Weissenberg on the jury, that Heinz Spoerli approached me about becoming involved in his productions. The first one we did was a ballet based on Schumann’s Kinderszenen, after which we went on to collaborate on the Goldberg Variations. I had never performed them before and learned them for the ballet, but 95% of what I play for the dancers is also my recital version.”

I tell him about how I was annoyed to hear the odd remark during intermission at the previous evening’s performance, comparing his rendition unfavorably to Glenn Gould’s landmark recordings. “That kind of thing doesn’t bother me at all,” he chuckles, “everyone is entitled to their own opinion and Gould’s interpretation, which I admire greatly but do not attempt to emulate, was very unique. I would say that mine is an answer to his. My approach is to play this work as a contemporary artist who has experienced the influence of Romanticism, even of post-modernism, of composers such as Ligeti, and to do justice to a piece so unique in styles, to the great wisdom of Bach, who with this music even predicted the flowery Wiener style.”

But at the same time, isn’t it mportant to keep in mind that this is also a down-to-earth sequence of variations, notably written to cure a nobleman’s insomnia? “Absolutely!, and it demonstrates how Bach succeeded in combining his intellectual mastery of harmony and counterpoint with more mundane influences, the final variation – the ‘as you like it’ quod libet – being an intermingling of two simple folk songs, one of which is even a little crude. Let’s not forget that Bach was not a man of the intellect alone, otherwise he would hardly have produced all of those children.”

But what happens when a musician performs such a demanding work so often? I noticed that he now plays with the score, as opposed to during the 1990’s, although there is certainly nothing wrong with that – it hardly detracted from Richter’s greatness that he did not always play from memory in later years. “I only use the score as a safety net, but obviously performing music like this for even just a number of evenings in a row is physically and intellectually taxing. What helps me in general is that I do not play for experts or critics. I play to keep this music alive. Although I have performed it hundreds of times, it has never felt boring to me, there is always something I can do differently, some aspect which has remained undiscovered.”

I recall hearing him comment on the significance of being able to attract younger audiences as an artist: “Yes, that is very important to me. The monotonous techno music youngsters listen to these days in a threat to all of our societies, it contains nothing of the kind of music that make us grow. This is why it is so important to reach out to younger audiences in a way that speaks to them, something I believe I am achieving with my multi-media project “The Virtual Reality of Music”, on which I have collaborated with two young DJs (a promotional video can be viewed on Facebook Here). We use webcam video clips and I play various pieces, including a fair amount of improvisation. And then there is also the new ballet at Odessa Opera House, “Nureyev Forever”, involving classical and modern music with a multimedia background, which premiered successfully in January. I play the piano on stage for about one third of the time, while the rest of the music comes from the orchestra. As an artist, I feel it is my duty to do something to counter the aggressive pop culture our young people are exposed to. Naturally there are flashy young pianists such as Lang Lang who have expressed an interest in youngsters as well, which is gratifying, but in his case I have my doubts about his honesty.”

This sounds very original, and I ask him what he plans to do next at ‘his’ opera house. “Our new production of Turandot was the first contemporary staging of an opera in Ukraine, and it was well received by our audiences despite the enormous resistance to anything novel on the part of the theater’s management and the ensuing scandal (see review). But I will also continue to speak out on the radio and on television in favor of more funding for the arts, and in particular for innovative approaches designed to draw in young people. Our next projects are Pique Dame and Eugene Onegin with an avant-garde director from Moscow.”

And what will all of this mean for his personal plans as a pianist? “I may need to restrict the number of solo concerts I give for the time being, but Heinz Spoerli and I are already preparing a new ballet based the Chopin Nocturnes, and of course there will be more guest performances of the Goldberg Variations production as well.”

Does he still enjoy traveling, or has the novelty worn off now that he lives in a ‘free country’ – or two?, since he divides his time between Zurich and Odessa. “Not at all, I would say that traveling is the best part of being a pianist - apart from the music of course! I have absolutely no regrets about having chosen this profession, I am doing precisely what I love most.”

What about his role models? “Well, if you are still thinking in Goldberg terms, it has to be András Schiff, my greatest role model with respect to Bach and musicianship in general. I know of no other musician so deep or so sincere. He himself has said that Gould is his idol, but has nonetheless never tried to imitate him, even remarking that recording the Goldberg variations twice was too much. I think that this is our best bet as artists, to be sincere in what we do. It is our only hope if we wish to convey to our audiences that classical music is not a dusty museum of centuries past, that it is alive and fascinating, waiting to be discovered time and again. This is why Spoerli’s abstract choreography of the Goldberg Variations as variations on human relationships, so to speak, is so ingenious and appropriate to this music, written long ago by such a passionate, outgoing, even gregarious composer.”

Bach has dominated our conversation, owing to the performance here in Athens, and therefore it important to point out that Alexey Botvinov is also one of the most acclaimed performers of Rachmaninov worldwide, and his broad repertoire features over 30 piano concertos, including rarely played works such as the Prokofiev concerto no. 2. So one can only hope to hear much more from him in concert halls in future, and for a look at his discography, including not only Rachmaninov, but also Chopin and Brahms’ Händel-Variations, visit his website at What’s more, the intriguing Swiss film “Vitus” (you guessed it - the story of a child prodigy pianist) features part of his recording of the Goldberg Variations, which, by the way, was made in one single take. You can’t get much more prodigious than that.

Bettina Mara

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