Interview with Rustem Hayroudinoff – Part I: A Tale of Three Cities

Vantage Music | October 2021 | London & Hong Kong

Described by Classic FM Magazine as a “sensationally gifted” musician of “stunning artistry”, and by Gramophone as “a player in the great Russian virtuoso tradition”, professor at the Royal Academy of Music and concert pianist Rustem Hayroudinoff is a man of two worlds – born and raised in Kazan, he studied in both Moscow and London, absorbing all the best that the two highly different places have to offer. In this first of two interviews, Rustem tells us about his Soviet upbringing, recounts the events that led to him becoming the first ever Soviet student at the Royal Academy of Music, and shares with us his recent endeavours.

Photo credit: Andrew Palmer

A Window of Opportunity

Rustem Hayroudinoff had all the trappings of early success – his mother was a teacher at a medical school, while his father was a professor of cello at the Kazan State Conservatoire. Given this upbringing, Rustem’s parents naturally had high hopes for Rustem. “My parents enrolled me into a specialist music school, and when they were going out for work, they would lock me up in our apartment, promising to let me go out after work if I practised hard enough.”

The plan would have succeeded if not for the fact that the apartment was situated on the ground floor. “The moment they were out of sight, I would leap out through the kitchen window into the backyard, where my friends were already waiting for me.” Rustem’s friends would stand guard for him and, once they saw his father coming back, he would be helped to crawl back through the window and would seat himself back at the piano, dirty and sweaty, just in time for his father to unlock the door. “My dad would give me this stern look to ensure I was telling the truth, and he would ask me if I had practised hard while he was out. I of course said yes, and he took my word for it.” “Okay, now you can go and play with your friends,” his father would say, and Rustem would be back to football within three minutes. “There was naturally little progress with this sort of industrial attitude, and my playing was mediocre, to say the least.”


Red Amber Green

As the saying goes, one cannot wrap paper with fire, and Rustem’s daily excursions were eventually exposed. “One day, I was playing football with my friends when somebody kicked the ball so hard it went flying into the road, where all the cars were crossing. I was the youngest amongst my friends, so I went after the ball, and I stupidly ran right in front of a speeding taxi, forcing the taxi driver to brake so hard that he broke his brakes. He was naturally very angry with me for that, as he nearly knocked me over, so he wanted to grab me. I started to run away with the football, but I stupidly ran back into the backyard, with him chasing after me in his taxi. Of course, as is normally in this case, there was this granny sitting in the bench, eating sunflower seeds.” The taxi driver asked the granny if she knew who that reckless kid was. “Of course, he is the son of the Professor Hayroudinoff from the conservatoire.” The taxi driver wrote everything down and silently went away, leaving Rustem oblivious to his impending doom.

Bad news struck the coming Sunday morning. “The family were sitting in the kitchen, you know, where all the most important conversations in Soviet Union were happening, and we were listening to this traffic news programme on the national radio, Red Amber Green. All of a sudden, there was this voice through the radio, announcing that ‘the son of the irresponsible parents the Hayroudinoffs was nearly killed.’” With the cat out of the bag, Rustem tearfully admitted to his misdeeds. “I still remember my father turning green with anger.”

Rustem was given an ultimatum. “The classical music scene is not a place where you just do something and you’ll still get paid; if you are a mediocrity, you will not be able to survive or provide for your family. And so, I was told that if I don’t start practising properly and get my act together within the next year, I would be taken out of the specialist music school. I was extremely upset with that, not because I loved music so much that I didn’t want to leave but because I didn’t want to lose my dear friends at the school.”

Rachmaninoff Records, Part I

Rustem’s parents may have persuaded Rustem to go through the motions of practising, but it was his piano teacher, Marina Arbuzova, who got the youngster to study in earnest. “That same year, my piano teacher asked me to learn the cadenza from Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Concerto over the summer, and told me that, if it was good enough, she would allow me to play the rest of the concerto.” To give Rustem an idea about the music, the piano teacher gave Rustem an LP record of Rachmaninoff playing the concerto himself. “I didn’t think much of it until one day during lunch I slapped the record on the turntable and started listening.” Within ten minutes, Rustem had already welled up. “The recording changed everything. The music affected me so much, I became so passionate about the piece. I even started loving music.”

From that moment on, Rustem practised feverishly, sometimes even skipping school to practise nine hours a day. “Whatever I missed out with those years of not working properly, I very quickly caught up and made up for it.” By the time Rustem was graduating from the specialist music school, he was awarded a 5+ mark (the top mark usually being 5), to show how good his performance was compared to the rest of his fellow pupils. “In a way, this saved me, or condemned me to be a classical musician, depending on how you looked at it.”

Entering the Conservatoire

With a 5+ in hand, Rustem set out to Moscow in search of tertiary education. “The Soviet Union was a closed society, so people were not allowed to travel abroad. We knew that if we were to make anything out of our lives, we had to go to these great schools in Moscow, and work as hard as we could, so that we can win a competition and eventually be allowed to play concerts not only in Russia but also in countries of the West.” The Moscow P.I. Tchaikovsky Conservatoire was the go-to school for the music discipline, and Rustem soon found himself accepted into the conservatoire, studying under Lev Naumov, one of the most sought-after piano pedagogues in the Soviet Union at the time.

To many, entering a conservatoire was a shock to the system, and Rustem was no exception. “After being admitted, I checked myself into the dormitory for students, and before I even went into my room I was already scared beyond my wits.” On his way to his lodgings, Rustem had passed through the rehearsal rooms, where he heard some students practising. “They weren’t even first prize winners; they were just normal conservatoire students, and it was already intimidating to hear them practise.” Rustem immediately realised that he was severely outclassed. “The realisation sank in that I was a nobody; I couldn’t do much at the piano at all, and I had much to learn if I wanted to measure up to them.”

Rustem’s first lesson at the conservatoire reaffirmed this realisation. “When I came to Naumov’s first lesson, I brought to him, freshly learned, Rachmaninoff’s second piano sonata [a piece that would later become Rustem’s warhorse piece]. I remember I played it to him, and after I finished he was silent for a long time. He eventually said, in a grainy voice, ‘Yes, Rustem, you probably have some ideas about this music, but at the moment this idea is so far from what it should be that I almost feel a little bit scared.’ That was my first lesson, in case I didn’t understand I wasn’t measuring quite up yet.”

Rustem was both quite depressed and devastated, and this pushed him to enter his second period of intensive practising. A few months later, he played the same sonata in his first half-term exam, and the verdict came out that he had good potential. “I must have worked quite hard, I think, if I went from something that my professor said was so far from ideal that it was scary to him, to something quite acceptable, within a few months.”

The Big Collapse

Rustem’s graduation from the Moscow Conservatoire in 1992 coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union. One would expect drastic changes following this change of regime, but it was actually business as usual within the conservatoire. “The only thing that changed in the conservatoire was the communist subjects that were all cancelled after the students rebelled against them.” Outside the conservatoire, however, the dissolution had a much more far-reaching impact. “Now, all of a sudden, you could travel to the West yourself to take part in a competition.”

Taking part in a competition used to be a hassle in the Soviet era. “When you were studying within the regime, you were not allowed to travel to the West by yourself. If you did go to a competition in the West, it was because you were already selected; you passed through a lot of internal competitions, and by the time you were sent abroad you were already representing the Soviet Union.” To give us an idea, Rustem listed off the typical competition process. “First, they would put up a poster on the wall, stating the programme and deadline for application of the competition. A lot of people would apply, and in the first round of auditions, you competed with your faculty classmates (there were four piano faculties in the conservatoire). If you managed to win that, then there was the all-conservatoire audition, which lasted another three rounds, then the Russian Federation competition, and eventually the all-Soviet Union competition. At the end of all these competitions, usually only three to four people were left, and they would call you to the KGB headquarters, where they had to decide whether you were a politically reliable element. If you passed through that, then you finally can go.” It was no wonder, then, that Soviet pianists dominated the competition scene back in the days. “By the time the likes of Vladimir Ashkenazy or David Oistrakh reached the actual competition, they were prepared considerably better than their Western counterparts, who were pretty much just representing themselves.”

Every Man for Himself

Another key change appeared in the form of initiatives. “Whereas Chinese communism still allowed a certain amount of endeavour by the people, you were not allowed to show any initiative in the Soviet Union. Everything was decided for you by the government. You could not become a concert pianist on your own terms; you could only be allowed to be a concert pianist if you were approved of and were a member of the concert organisations run by the government. You could not achieve anything by yourself; you had to be very much part of the team, in every part of the society.”

The flip side to this was better social welfare. “To compensate for the lack of endeavour, there was a certain amount of safety net. For example, even though food shortages were pretty bad at that time, we were assured that we would not starve to death, nor lose our jobs in such a way that we could not support our family. In fact, we didn’t even have unemployment in the Soviet Union. We could only read in the newspapers that, in the West, people could be unemployed, but it was a concept so foreign to our society that we couldn’t understand.”

This system collapsed along with the Soviet Union. “The society went from this communist ideal, virtually overnight, to the idea that nothing is provided, nothing is guaranteed, and that anything can happen to you now. We were a society where people were sharing with each other very freely, but, all of a sudden, we became a society where we had to fend for ourselves. Suddenly, everyone had to care for themselves and their families only, because no one else will. It was a shocking experience to many people, especially to the older generation, and people were reacting very badly to it.”

Criminality inevitably shot up. “I once tried to earn some money by offering to play some light music at a Moscow restaurant. The musicians at the restaurant were impressed by my ability to pick up any tune by ear, so I was accepted and the other band members started filling me in on the requirements of the job: ‘The best gigs are on Fridays because the restaurant is the favourite hangout for prisoners who have just been released’, they said. ‘They have quite a lot of money to burn and they are usually in a generous mood, so if someone shouts, “hey, pianist, play my favourite song,” you better do a good job’ (the songs in question are typically songs glorifying the criminal life, with lyrics like ‘I found my girlfriend with Simon and I put my knife between his ribs’). ‘By the way, when people start shooting and stabbing each other, don’t leave the synthesiser behind. Grab the synthesiser and run through the kitchen.’” The synthesiser was especially valuable in Soviet Russia, as it was only available on the black market via hard currency (dollars), and it allowed two to three musicians to do the job and share the profit of a six-piece band. “I still vividly remember the way the last part was put to me. They did not say ‘if’! I needed cash badly, but after some serious consideration, I decided not to take the job.”

All these factors influenced Rustem to go to London to pursue his further studies. “Although the conservatoire’s adjudicating panel gave me a number one recommendation to enter its post graduate degree that year, I decided to go to London instead, because I had heard that music in the West was much less homogenous, and had more room for different approaches. Also, I felt that, in order to understand how to play Beethoven or Mozart or Bach, I have to go to the West to soak it up, to have more access to the different traditions.” After much logistical difficulty, Rustem became the first student from the Soviet Union to be admitted into the Royal Academy of Music, which understandably upset his teachers in Moscow quite a bit. “Naumov didn’t take very nicely to the idea at that time, and almost viewed it as an act of betrayal, because a lot of people were leaving at that point. I didn’t think I was leaving, and to date one of my citizenships is a Russian citizenship. I can freely go to Russia, and I do go back very often.”

Landing on the Moon

Rustem initially had a hard time adapting to the capitalist capital. “London was such a different society that going there was, to me, like landing on the moon. I came from a society where I didn’t have that many rights to a society where I didn’t know the laws nor how it worked. I was completely clueless; I didn’t know how the society functioned at all, and I was making one mistake after the other.”

Rustem recounts one such incident. “When I first moved to London, I had nowhere to stay, so I tried to rent myself accommodation. I paid the deposit, but then I realised it was too expensive and I tried to ask for a refund, but they told me that they will not be giving me back my money.” Rustem was quite upset, but one of his classmates, Gabriela Montero, told him the reason. “‘Of course they are not giving you back your money; you’ve already signed those contracts!’ I had never signed a contract in the Soviet Union, I didn’t know what it was, but she was very supportive and her explanation was a valuable lesson.”

The loss of money was a huge blow to Rustem, given that he had not had much to begin with. “At that point, the Russian government wanted to make sure that there is no huge brain drain, so they only allowed people to go abroad with a hundred dollars. Can you imagine coming to study in London for one year with only a hundred dollars in your pocket? I had to literally smuggle out with me ten jars of Russian caviar in order to sell it to a restaurant to survive for the first three months, because otherwise I would probably have had to go back to Russia on the same flight.” This seemed to be quite a common experience in the Soviet era. “I was really delighted when I heard a Horowitz interview where he said that, when he was leaving Russia, he had to hide some dollars in his shoes, and he was petrified that they would find him out. I am very happy to be linked to Horowitz, even if by way of mild criminal activity!” Rustem graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in 1997, and eventually settled in London, making a career teaching and performing.

Rachmaninoff Records, Part II

Rustem had been inspired by Rachmaninoff’s own recordings since his youth, and in 2003 he finally had the chance to go full circle, producing his own recordings on the composer. “It was Chandos Records that came up with the idea to record the complete Rachmaninoff.”

Rustem and Chandos’s relationship had started in 2001, when they produced a critically acclaimed CD of Shostakovich’s Theatre Music. The Shostakovich CD did so well that Chandos agreed to let Rustem record the Rachmaninoff Preludes (2003), and thus the Rachmaninoff project was born. In the following years, Rustem would go on to record the composer’s whole cello and piano repertoire with Alexander Ivashkin (2004), the Etudes-Tableaux (2007), and, after a ten-year hiatus, the composer’s two monumental piano sonatas (2017).

Rachmaninoff had extensively rewritten his Piano Sonata No. 2 since its first publication, and most people today only play this revised edition. “It was sad to see that, even today, Rachmaninoff’s music is not appreciated by a lot of people. I think his music is such an honest expression of the Russian culture that it came across as alien to most people in the West, leading to people like Alfred Brendel, for example, to say that Rachmaninoff’s is music for teenagers. I suppose, then, that I am one of those teenagers who will always love this sort of (emotionally charged) music.”

“In Rachmaninoff’s lifetime, he was kicked a lot for composing this overtly passionate music that some people couldn’t relate to, and he consequently felt very insecure about a lot of his music. On top of that, he was hugely self-critical, so when he revised his pieces, I think sometimes he went about it too mercilessly. This is certainly the case with the second sonata. The first version, of 1931, is 27 minutes long. I do concede that it might be too long, and there is this thick texture that goes on for such a long time, it is difficult for the piece not to sound too complex. However, I believe that Rachmaninoff went too far in the revised edition, cutting it down so mercilessly that in some places it sounds like it is missing some very important bridge passages.”

Rustem was not the only performer to notice the overcorrection. “The legendary Horowitz himself had noticed the same problem, and he told Rachmaninoff his observations. The composer agreed with him, and authorised Horowitz to produce his own version of the sonata. To me, however, Horowitz’s edition was too much a tilt of head to the gallery, with those big passages and huge sounds, and I wanted to come up with a version that makes more sense to me. I don’t claim that that’s how it should be; I just wanted to reinstate certain passages which I felt are important to understanding this music, and that’s the reason I did it.”

With the completion of the piano sonatas, Rustem felt he had completed most of what he envisioned about Rachmaninoff. “When Chandos initially proposed the complete Rachmaninoff cycle, I was delighted with the idea because Rachmaninoff’s music is very close to my heart, and I feel that I do have something to say about his music. Now, I realise that maybe you don’t necessarily have to record everything by the composer. It’s like, however great Dostoevsky is, you would not want to read everything by him in one go. The piano sonatas are a huge part of Rachmaninoff’s oeuvre, and, with that done, I don’t feel a particular itch to record any more solo repertoire by Rachmaninoff in the near future.”

The Goldberg Project

Everyone was affected by the global pandemic, and Rustem was no different: his concertising plans ground to a halt amidst all the lockdowns and travel restrictions. Intriguingly, however, Rustem readily accepted this forced change of pace. “Being a professor and a performer at the same time is not always easy. You are performing on borrowed time; every time you are travelling, you are cramming your future schedule with lessons that your students missed while you were away. Now that there is no travelling, I have more time to tackle some bigger pieces, and my Covid-19 project, if you will, is the Goldberg Variations. The piece is so mammoth; it takes so much time to learn, to think about, that, if it had not been for the pandemic, I would not have tackled it for quite a few years. Even Richter never found the time to learn it.”

In the next issue of Vantage, Rustem goes into detail about the music education systems of Moscow and London, and shares with us his thoughts on some current issues. Stay tuned! 

Interviewed by Vantage Music, written by Chester Leung