Interview with Rustem Hayroudinoff – Part II: The Russian Tradition and the Western Way

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 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 second part of the interview, Rustem Hayroudinoff goes into detail about the music education systems of Moscow and London, and shares with us his thoughts on some current issues.

What is the Soviet music education system, and how has it shaped you as a musician?

The foundation of the Soviet education system for ballet and music, one of the few systems that the Bolsheviks fortunately didn’t touch when they came to power in 1917, is this network of specialist music schools all over the Soviet Union. The syllabus at these schools is uniform, so, no matter whether you started studying in Kiev, in Moscow or in Yerevan, you were guaranteed to study along the same principles, and that makes the way I started music not that different from how great musicians like Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and Prokofiev started.

The specialist music schools are tough. Alongside normal academic subjects, we also have to study music theory, analysis, written and aural harmony, solfeggio (sol-fa), rhythm, music literature, and even subjects like the history of the Communist Party (which we absolutely had to pass!). To get into the Moscow Conservatoire, you had to pass all of them; if you ever fail one, you are out of the game. 

This emphasis on non-performance subjects is, I think, one of the most important aspects of the Soviet music education. I’m frustrated to find out, here in the West, that a lot of conservatoire students can’t even resolve a dominant seventh into the tonic. It’s not that they are not talented but it’s because they had not been given the necessary exposure when they were children. Music theory is an indispensable part of education, because once you learn it you then think about music completely differently; you start to hear the harmonic tensions when you listen to a piece. Trying to learn music without theory is like trying to be a Shakespearean actor without knowing know how to read – instead of properly understanding the structure, you end up painstakingly gluing one note to another in your mind, which is a terrible and very anti-musical process.

The second factor that led to my growth and development as a musician is the dormitories at the Moscow Conservatoire. Due to all the aspiring young musicians flocking from all the republics to the conservatoire, I’ve had the honour of being under the same roof with this huge pool of like-minded talents, practising, exchanging ideas and sharing the latest recordings that we could get hold of. I even remember that there was a communal shower much like a Roman bath – we were standing there stark naked, with a lot of other guys, and we would discuss music, performance and philosophy with each other.

Another important factor is the sternness of the teachers. In the West, people paid enormous amounts to study. They feel a certain entitlement to their lessons, and of course they should be treated with respect; we cannot tell somebody that “I’m sorry, but that’s just terrible. How dare you play like that”. But in Russia they could.

It was a completely different system in the Soviet Union, where education was completely free; in fact, if we studied well enough, they even gave us some spending money. In return, there were no concessions made. If you came unprepared, playing a piece you haven’t thoroughly memorised and performed up to tempo, your teacher would mercilessly cut you off and refuse to teach you until you’ve practised enough. It’s certainly quite tough, but they didn’t mince their words, and you didn’t waste your and their time.

I remember I was working on La Campanella once, and my teacher Naumov told me, “Yes, you played it very well, Rustem, but you know Gavrik [the nickname of the pianist Andrei Gavrilov, who won first prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1974 and had already risen to international fame at that time] played it better.” Of course, Gavrik did play it better; you can go to YouTube and listen for yourself. But, from this, I feel that we were not being treated as children. I felt I was being told, “you are one of them, you are measured against the greatest of the greatest. I will not be measuring you as a first-year student. You are now studying with me at the conservatoire, and the other guy who had studied with me, by the way, was Andrei Gavrilov, who also played this piece, and I remember how he played it, and I liked it, and I think you are not quite there yet, so keep working.” Eventually, Naumov arranged for me to play the piece as the finisher to his evening concert, so I probably did work hard enough!

Can you tell us more about the teachers at the conservatoire?

There are four piano faculties in the Moscow Conservatoire, and each piano faculty continues the traditions of one of the great Russian pianists of old – notably, Neuhaus, Goldenweiser and Igumnov. Each faculty advocates its own principles and prioritises certain aspects of piano playing, which is passed through unbroken chains of tutelages. My teacher, Lev Naumov, studied with Neuhaus himself and was one of Neuhaus’s assistants (every professor had two assistants that would help with practical matters of interpretation and occasionally pianistic issues), so that puts me firmly in the Neuhaus tradition.

Neuhaus was perhaps the most cultured musician that existed; instead of concrete instructions like “can you play this passage louder?” he constantly spoke about metaphors, bringing up parallels from literature, poetry, paintings, or art, to make a student understand the atmosphere of this music. For example, my father once heard Neuhaus teaching a student after he played a very tumultuous piece. It went as follows:

Neuhaus: “Have you read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina?”

Student: “Yes”

Neuhaus: “How does it start?”

The student luckily remembered that it starts right in the middle of the story.

Student: “It starts with the saying that ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’”

Neuhaus: “And the next sentence is?”

Student: “Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house.”

Neuhaus: “You see, we know nothing about the Oblonskys yet, but we are already in the epicentre of the events, and sometimes music starts like that as well.”

This reminds me of an anecdote about Rostropovich: once, in a masterclass, Rostropovich wanted a certain passage to sound happy and relaxed, so he told that student, “Imagine that you had haemorrhoids and you couldn’t sit for a long time, and all of a sudden they cured you and now you can sit, and you sit down in a sigh of relief.” It’s comical and perhaps somewhat indecent, but it immediately conveys to the student this huge sense of release that Rostropovich had in mind. This is a very Neuhaus way of getting students to think, to understand.

What is the Russian tradition? Do we need to study at the conservatoire to learn this tradition?

We have to distinguish between the conservatoire and the Russian tradition. You don’t have to go to Moscow to play in the Russian way – there are many great pianists whose playing is extremely Russian but who are not Russian through and through, like Neuhaus who was a German by origin, or even people like Ignaz Friedman, who was neither a Russian nor studied with Russians; on the other hand, there are those conservatoire alumni, like Richter, who had more Westernised ideals.

The Russian School represents a particular set of principles that applies to piano playing. It is, first and foremost, based on this premise that piano playing should be very singing, very vocal. It doesn’t have much to do with speed or accuracy; it is about playing the piano with a singing tone; it is about using your body in a particular way, producing a lot of colours on the keys to enhance your playing.

The most difficult thing to overcome on the piano is the fact that we cannot sustain the sound; the moment we play a note, it already starts to die away. However, when you listen to bygone masters of the Russian School, people like Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, Sofronitsky or Neuhaus, the thing that strikes you most is not just the beauty of their tone but also the long vibrating sound that we can hear despite the imperfections of those old recordings. It’s incredible how they seemed to have changed the nature of the instrument itself. In practice, there is a particular method and principle that you can use to produce such a tone, and teachers of the Russian School would teach you how to produce a tone that will have the least amount of attack, and teach you how to make the hammer strike the string with the least speed and yet bring about the most volume and power. That’s one of the hallmarks of Russian playing.

Another indispensable feature is the very vocal nature of phrasing. If you compare, for example, Rachmaninoff and Richter playing the second movement of Rachmaninoff’s first piano concerto, you will immediately be struck by how Rachmaninoff structures his phrases. It’s almost like hearing a live speech pattern, quite distinct from the Western idea of bel canto. Bel canto is this very smooth, long line, but Russian phrasing is quite different. It comes from the fact that, when you start a phrase, you take a lot of air into your lungs, and you start the phrase with the most amount of air coming out of your vocal cords and your lungs, with the fullest volume. By the end of the phrase, the air is gone, so the phrase dies away. Then you take a breath and you start again. That’s how Rachmaninoff wrote his music, and that’s how Russian pianists of the golden age played as well. 

How is studying music in London different from in Moscow?

One big difference, and the first thing that surprised me, is the concerts. In Russia, to hear a concert by a famous orchestra or great musician, you had to queue up all night long, writing which number you are on the queue on the palm of your hand, and they would be checking your numbers every three hours, reassembling and so on. The day I landed in London, however, I opened the newspaper and I could see all these incredible musicians playing on the same night in different halls. That’s partly why I decided to stay in London: I felt like I could usher in the next phase in my development if I could hear so much incredible music every day. It isn’t to say that there wasn’t incredible music in Moscow – there is – but the sheer number and variety in London is staggering.

Another thing that was different was the casual atmosphere at the academy. Within my first three days at the academy, my teacher Christopher Elton had already invited me to a drink. I was practising at the time, but he said that it’s okay, “we can lock up the room, go and have a quick drink, then you can come back and practise again!” In Moscow, the only time we could have a drink with Naumov would be at his birthday party, where all of his loving students would drink to his health.

There is also this difference in attitude towards honorifics. The Russians had a very strict hierarchy, and we had to address our teacher by first name and patronymic. It’s not just “Lev”, for example, but “Lev Nikolayevich”, out of respect. But in London, “Yeah, I am Christopher, I’m your teacher.” It was something I couldn’t get used to immediately. Now that I am a professor at the academy, I observe the same unease in some of my Asian and East Asian students – despite my insistence, they still never drop the act, and they will keep calling me Professor Hayroudinoff until their last day.

It is a very Western way, I think, to be able to have a drink with your teacher and call them by their first name, and I think this contributes to the idea that you don’t have to spend an enormous amount of your energy on respect. It goes without saying that you should respect your teachers, but here you can exchange ideas more freely with them.

Do you find teaching rewarding? Do you think we as musicians all need to teach in order to be better musicians?

I believe so. Sometimes you can learn as much from your students as you could teach them. You see, as performers, we have spent hours, weeks and months trying to think of better ways to bring out the emotion, to make that emotion appeal to and understandable to the audience. So, when you teach students to try to do that, you draw on everything you can, on life situations, on literature, on other pieces of music, or sometimes you even end up dancing in front of them to make your point. Once in a while, you might find yourself articulating some ideas that were lurking somewhere in your subconscious mind, and when you say that, you learn something about yourself as well, and you feel “wow, that’s true, and I’ve just said that”.

There are certain things you may feel intuitively, but if somebody else does not feel that intuitively, then you will have to put it into words; you have to articulate and verbalise it, and you have to keep pushing it from different directions until you get through to them – that’s when these revelations happen. That’s why I think teaching is rewarding, though it can also be exhausting if you have to teach somebody who is completely not receptive.

You can only give to a student what they are able to take, and there are students who are technically not as advanced but who are very receptive to actual music ideas; other times, you have somebody who is digitally well equipped but who is too arrogant and unreceptive. The latter came to my class with huge promises but they didn’t manage to take anything from me. They left the same way they came, and I couldn’t instil in them any understanding of what music is really about. Sure, they may even sound quite polished and show off this shell which is so sparkling and perfect, but there is nothing inside the shell, no story to tell. If music is a language, then they are the people who know all the grammars and rules, speak it fluently, but it is all blah-blah-blah; they have nothing to say.

The Russian tradition emphasises the “why”, whereas the Western approach is more about the “how”. Ideally, we need to use both, and I often draw upon this distinction, asking my students “what are you trying to say here? What is the emotion you are trying to depict? What is your character?” Sometimes, it will be the very first time the student did stop and think about it, so I’ll tell them, “You see, you never thought about it before, and that’s exactly the way it sounds; it sounds a bit generic and bland.”

There is a saying that music starts where the language stops, but I often feel that, if you cannot even explain the main emotion of what you are playing right now in two to three words, then you don’t know what you are doing. Is this music desperate? Is it dark or commanding? Or is it pompous, nostalgic or dreamy? If you can’t say that, then whatever it is that you are doing will unlikely be able to touch anyone. You have to at least be able to tell yourself what it is about.

In an interview in 2013, you stated that your biggest challenge as a pianist is overcoming the lack of imagination, commercialism and snobbery in the classical music scene. Has it improved since then?

Sadly, not much have changed. Let’s face it, classical music does attract a lot of snobbery.

Snobbery is of two kinds. One is of the kind from the audience, from people who only listen to classical music because they believe it singles them out as beings with superior taste. Often, they come to concerts with predetermined ideas, and are not emotionally open to what’s going to happen. They can come backstage and tell you about all the recordings they’ve heard, which interpretations they like, but I much prefer people who will admit that they know very little about classical music but who will respond emotionally to what is played in the concert.

It is important to remember that, as a performer, we are not really creating but recreating. However, if we ever only play in the same way, then classical music has no justification for existing. Looking at the recordings of Glenn Gould, for example: it’s quite clear that a lot of what he did was not so much Bach as it was Gould, but it doesn’t make it less valuable to me. I much prefer extreme ideas to some middle-of-the-road interpretations, and I think we should be more open-minded to it, otherwise classical music is in danger of dying.

Unfortunately, this is an uphill battle. The classical music scene nowadays is run by this cohort of agents and record labels, these “gatekeepers” that represent the second kind of snobbery. Many of them would not even talk to a musician unless that musician had won some big prizes and therefore had some commercial credibility. There used to exist a class of people that were called impresarios, who would promote artists because they truly believed in their artistic greatness – not because they considered them to be a commodity that would quickly make them money. These impresarios often risked their own reputations and were even at times prepared to take big financial losses for their beliefs. They had no need of competition prizes, as they could trust their own knowledge and intuition: they could “smell” a great talent. Serge Diaghilev and Sol Hurok are just two names that immediately come to mind. This class of people are now sadly extinct.

I know a lot of hugely talented people of all ages who have so much to offer, but they don’t even have a chance to be accepted into a competition today. You have to send them a very impressive CV with many prizes; if you don’t, they might not even allow you to enter the pre-selection round. Adding to that, a lot of agents and journalists only come to the finals of the competition, where they will applaud with all their might the winners, but they are rarely interested in anyone who played exceptionally well but didn’t make the cut into the final.

Musicians like Busoni or Horowitz never got first prizes in any competitions, yet no one would doubt their great artistry. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who did win a lot of competitions, but, after you listen to one, you usually feel that you have not taken much away from it.

Music is not about money. I don’t think any art, especially music, should be gauged by its commercial worth, because, if that’s the case, then the least successful of the artists should be Mozart. He died destitute. If we only judge music by how much money it could make, then classical music will very much be dead.

Many pianists have turned to online concerts amidst the pandemic. Do you think this will be the way forward?

Since 2019, I have only been asked two times to pre-record something to play it online, and neither were live streams. Often, I would rather postpone the performance than stream the concert online, because streaming gives me very little pleasure but so much stress. It’s the same stress you’ll have when you are recording something, minus the chance to redo anything. You are also very much at the mercy of technology: the speed of the internet at both ends, the quality of your microphone and their computer speakers, etc.; you don’t know how much of what you do could actually reach the other end.

The problem with recordings is that the audience is not there; you are playing for the microphone, for the red light that turns on during recordings. I remember Rostropovich once saying that, when he takes a bow to the audience, he always chooses one person in the audience who he believes might be the most receptive, and he will direct his whole performance just to that person. That way, his playing will come across as very personal and very emotional. If you compare that to the idea of sitting in front of just the microphone, you see that it can be such an anti-climactic experience.

I still remember that time I was supposed to record the Dvorak piano concerto with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. I originally had three days to record, but the label squeezed it into one day due to resource constraints. The Dvorak is one of the most pianistically awkward concertos, and neither me, nor the conductor, nor the orchestra had played it in a concert hall before. We recorded it in six hours on that day, but at the end of it the conductor already looked like his eyes were going to pop out. The closest I can describe it is like being thrown into a professional boxing match at the end of the twelfth round. You know that you are not going to win, but you are still trying your best to endure through all the punches to your head, just trying to stand and not be knocked down, otherwise you will lose the match. Despite such a great team of musicians, it was a very anti-musical experience, and it made me hate the whole situation. It’s so emotionally draining.

In a pop recording, musicians come to the studio, just knowing what song it will be, and then they would be messing around for days, experimenting with different arrangements, instruments and backtracks and what not. In classical music, it is not done like that at all. You come to the recording studio with the huge pressure to make a recording in as short amount of time as possible and to make as many perfect takes as possible. The human brain is not very good at obeying negative commands, so it’s unbelievably difficult, and every time at the end of a recording I felt devastated and spent. The great Italian film director Federico Fellini said that, once his film was out of the editing desk, he’d never watch it again, because it was too frustrating for him to see what didn’t work in that version. I often feel the same way, and once I’ve recorded the piece it takes many months for me to be able to listen to that recording again, if at all.

I remember reading that Rubinstein and Glenn Gould once had a conservation about the pros and cons of recording versus live concerts. Gould had this idea that, in the future, music will only be made in the recording studios, because in the concert hall you have to distort the fabric of the music due to having to project it to the person sitting in the last row of the venue. Rubinstein strongly disagreed, saying that there was a very special magic in a concert hall that was missing in a studio; he would play very differently depending on the audience and acoustics – sometimes he would cling on to one note far longer than he would in a recording studio, just to make his audiences hold their breaths. I agree with Rubinstein very much – with an audience, I also play very differently. Of course, we have to make do with what we have, and sometimes something is better than nothing, but in the end, nothing beats a live performance.

Interviewed by Vantage Music, written by Chester Leung