At the age of 18, Andrei Gavrilov became the youngest winner of the prestigious Tchaikovsky piano competition in Moscow in 1974. Feted on the international stage, Gavrilov rose to great heights before crashing improbably quickly. Fatigued from the intense pressures of performing, Gavrilov, who was put under house arrest in Russia for four years, disappeared for nearly a decade. Now back on his feet, and in front of the piano, he spoke to Lounge about winning, the pressures of performing young and becoming the first “free” Russian citizen. Edited excerpts:
Cross cultural: Gavrilov grew up watching Bollywood movies in Russia. AFP
You started playing the piano when you were very young. Did you ever feel the pressure was too much?
At first, you don’t really feel it. Mainly because when you are too young you don’t understand the responsibility. So, from 18 to 25, I was enjoying playing and travelling, meeting interesting people and interacting with different cultures.
More and more, I started to feel that the time had come to develop from a so-called “young star” to a serious musician. To become a great artist who has to develop his own style and philosophy, it took another 25 years. That was the painful process which many fail to survive. The bigger natural talent you have from birth, the higher the bills you are paying later in life for developing and shaping it.
You were under house arrest in Russia, then you left the country for Switzerland. You told Mikhail Gorbachev that you would not leave Russia forever. Do you ever see yourself moving back?
I left Russia for London with the help of Gorbachev and (Margaret) Thatcher in 1985. Then, I lived for two years in New York and for 11 years in Germany, near Frankfurt.
Only in 2000, I settled in Switzerland. When I gave my word to Mr Gorbachev, it meant that I would never ask for political asylum and will belong to Russia forever as a citizen to set an example for others. I still have my apartment in the centre of Moscow and go there when I have time. For permanent residence in Russia, I don’t see any possibility because of geography, because it’s too tiring to travel, because my entire activity is in other parts of the world, and because of the unstable political situation.
Can you tell us what you’ll be playing at the NCPA this month?
I will play the best of Chopin nocturnes, etudes, and the 4th Scriabin sonata, which is related to Chopin’s aesthetic but with the new language of Scriabin, which he has found in this piece. It’s a very interesting transformation and the only case when Chopin’s musical language was developed to a modern form of the 20th century. Then I will play the 8th Prokofiev sonata, which pianist Svyatoslav Richter called “the best sonata of the 20th century”. I agree with him.
With the orchestra, we will present Rachmaninov’s 3rd concerto in D minor, which is known as “king of piano concerts”. In short, the best of piano literature.
You were the first “free” Russian citizen. What does that mean, and how did that come about?
I was, in those days, the first “free Soviet citizen”. That was a product of two-year-long painful negotiations with the Soviet government. I stressed that if one wants to leave the country for a while for different reasons, one shouldn’t always have to apply for political asylum. I convinced Mr Gorbachev that we were entering a new era of development in our country and that step by step we have to ease the restrictions on people’s freedom. There was no other way, I pointed out, and was almost screaming in my letters and meetings with important people, including heads of KGB, until Gorbachev heard my case. I started freely moving between East and West, and in a couple of months, almost all artistes had the same “privilege”. I am very proud of that achievement!
You were a protégé of the great Russian pianist Svyatoslav Richter. What was it like to work with him?
We were both excited when we met. Richter was always confessing that he had much more to learn from me than I from him! He initiated our first musical meeting, which later developed into a very close friendship. It’s difficult to say now who influenced whom the most. For me, the most important thing was to learn from his general knowledge about life, his worldly wisdom and his fanatical dedication to the arts. From me, he was trying to copy my warm-hearted approach to music, the quality of my tone and my spontaneous and expressive manner of playing.
However, after an intense relationship of six years, we went our own ways. Our relationship became counterproductive because both of us are strong personalities, too strong for each other. In the short term, our collaboration was very fruitful, but then it came to a dead end.
Andrei Gavrilov will perform at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai, tonight and on 24 September at 7pm. For tickets, call 022-22824567