Interview with Philippe Quint: the Glazunov and Khachaturian Concertos, and the Bochum Symphony Orchestra

October 19, 2016, 12:02 PM · "There is no question that this is the music I grew up on," said Russian-born violinist Philippe Quint of his most recent recording of the Khachaturian and Glazunov violin concertos. "Glazunov was introduced to me by Jascha Heifetz, and Khachaturian was introduced to me by David Oistrakh -- not in person, but both in those records that my family had. You can't just help but instantly fall in love with this music."

Philippe Quint
Philippe Quint. Photo by Kirill Bashkirov.

For Quint, this was his second installment of Russian recordings, the first one being Tchaikovsky and Arensky. While the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto was always on that list of must-learn, must-play pieces, neither the Glazunov nor the Khachaturian quite fell into that same category.

"It took me a while to get to both concerti, I think I was in my late 20s," Quint said. "Both were not on the priority list in Ms. DeLay's studio (at Juilliard), they were sort of pushed aside in favor of Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Mendelssohn, Bruch....Glazunov was lurking here and there but was never a piece that you must absolutely study."

The fact that both are lesser-played makes them all the more appealing to Quint.

Glazunov wrote his violin concerto around the turn of the 20th century, for Leopold Auer -- the very same violinist who allegedly declared the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto "unplayable" upon first receiving it. "By the time Glazunov completed the score, he was dreading the idea of showing it to Auer," Quint said. "He knew what Auer had done with the Tchaikovsky violin concerto!" For a time, Auer's judgment hung over the Tchaikovsky concerto like a wet blanket. What if he called Glazunov's piece "unplayable" or "unviolinistic"? Fortunately for Glazunov, he didn't.

"To his great surprise, Auer came to Glazunov's home and basically sight-read the piece, with the composer at the piano," Quint said. Auer assured the composer that his piece posed no great difficulties.

Later, however, Auer revised his opinion, remarking on the concerto's "daunting virtuosity." Quint agrees with that part. In fact, Quint has no problem saying what Auer wouldn't: "Glazunov is a short piece, only 22 minutes, and because of its density, this piece presents a lot of technical difficulties. It's awkwardly written, it's uncomfortable, it's tricky, it's twisty, it's not as violinistic as we would want a violin concerto to be."

Also, he loves it.

"It remains one of the great concertos in the Russian repertoire," Quint said. "Glazunov wrote this concerto in 1905, and this was a very interesting time in the development of Western music. You had Brahms, you had young Schoenberg -- the second Viennese School was about to pick up around that time. And you had the death of Mikhail Glinka, who was the father of Russia's nationalist movement, which was picked by Tchaikovsky, who was also still working at the time when Glazunov was around. I think a lot of composers felt pressure over which way to go: Do we go with the traditional, nationalist movement of exploring Russian folklore, Russian folk melodies, like Tchaikovsky and Glinka? Or do we try to come up with something else and perhaps use Western influences from Wagner, Brahms? Glazunov's music is a bit of a hybrid. I think he successfully was able to implement the German Romantic school with Russian folklore; especially in the violin concerto. It's all over, you hear the lush, Wagnerian sound; there are certain parts that are over-the-top, German-Romantic. And then, suddenly you get to the last movement, and it's this very simple, very familiar Russian folk melody."

Khachaturian's Violin Concerto in D minor, written decades later in 1940, is another story. Aram Khachaturian was a Soviet composer. Born in eastern Georgia of Armenian descent, he lived most of his life in Moscow.

"Khachaturian was one of those composers who had to answer to Stalin," said Quint. "It was important to capture the Soviet idiom in music, and if you could implement something that could relate to the great Joseph Stalin, then you also needed to do that. You didn't ask twice, because if you asked a second question, you might have ended up in Siberia!"

At the time, violinist David Oistrakh was the top Soviet violinist. "Khachaturian admits he had David Oistrakh's sound in mind, when he was writing this piece," Quint said. "He particularly points to the beginning, which sounds almost like the industrial, Soviet machine."

"You can almost imagine the black and white movies, and the communist propaganda about the Great Success and the Best System in the World," he said. For Quint, the Soviet message hits close to home. Quint was born in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and left as a teenager to study in the U.S., where he became a citizen in the early 90s. "Our generation is only 20 years away from this insanity, absolute insanity," Quint said. When the Soviet Union sent its best athletes and musicians abroad for international competitions, they were expected to win. "There were great musicians like Oistrakh, and like Kogan, who won first prize at the Queen Elisabeth competition," Quint said. "Those who did not get prizes were forever in trouble -- we don't even know some of those destinies. But if you were the winner, then this was not the victory of an individual; this was a victory of a system."

"This was a very important point, applied to all the artists, all the athletes, all the public persons at the time: You needed to be the best, to show the world that we're part of the best system. Right now, it seems like a dream, but I grew up in the '70s and '80s, I was 17 when I left the Soviet Union. I witnessed a huge amount of the Soviet propaganda," Quint said. "We all believed in it; we were all brainwashed about who is the best and who is the worst, and whom to fear in the world."

Both Glazunov and Khachaturian managed to mix the traditional and the modern, all while skating around the icy politics of the moment.

"You have Glazunov, who created that hybrid of Western and Russian music -- which was a dangerous thing to do, because Russia was always very nationalistic country," he said, "then you have Khachaturian, who created a hybrid of Communist propaganda with Armenian folk melodies!"

"The important thing is that the work does not lose its soul," Quint said. "It's important for composers not to lose their dignity, their soul, their talent. Look what Shostakovich had to deal with. It's incredible that they were able to preserve their message, despite difficult times."

Philippe Quint and Steven Sloane
Philippe Quint and Bochum Symphony Orchestra conductor Steven Sloane.

Quint recorded this music in Germany with the Bochum Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Steven Sloane, an American-born conductor. The orchestra, already making headlines for its high quality, is about to celebrate an exciting event that will likely transform its future: the opening of its new Music Center (Musikzentrum Bochum) with a gala concert on Oct. 28. Built around the mid-19th-c., neo-Gothic St. Mary's Church, its €35 million cost was paid half with funds from 25,000 donors and half with public funds.

Philippe Quint and Steven Sloane
The new Bochum Music Center (Musikzentrum Bochum), new home to the Bochum Symphony Orchestra, officially opening Oct. 28.

"It's a very special group," Quint said of the orchestra. Located near Dusseldordf, Bochum is a small city that has suffered its share of economic challenges. Sloane has conducted the orchestra for some 20 years. "He has built this orchestra into a world-class ensemble," said Quint, who praised the group's hospitable attitude and democratic leadership. "With this type of environment, you can truly create music; it becomes a music-making on a completely different level. When I see that, my heart melts. I think we will be hearing a lot more about this orchestra."

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