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Laurie Niles interview with Vadim Repin

March 31, 2009 at 9:09 PM

Out of Siberia came violinist Vadim Repin, under the guidance of Zakhar Bron and from the same studio and generation as violinist Maxim Vengerov.

Perhaps as a child he struggled to get the spotlight to shine on an artist in Siberia; by now his artistry has achieved a level of international respect and he is warmly welcomed on stages the world over.

Photo by Anastasia Chernyavsky

Born in what was the Soviet Union in 1971, Vadim Repin brushed elbows with many of that country's finest artists: cellist Msislav Rostropovich and pianist Sviatoslav Richter among them, not to mention the many artists he collaborated with all over Europe. His relationship with Yehudi Menuhin, at the end of Menuhin's life the beginning of Repin's career, is woven into his work with the Brahms Concerto.

Last week, Repin released his new recording of Brahms, both the Violin Concerto and the Double Concerto, with Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra, with cellist Truls Mørk.

Repin spoke to me several weeks ago, over the phone from Amsterdam – early afternoon for me in California, and nearly midnight for him in Europe. He's been on the road: in Netherlands, Denmark, and this week the United States, playing the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Seattle Symphony and also giving a master class on Saturday.

Laurie: Tell me about your earliest teacher, Zakhar Bron.

Vadim: He was a young man when I first met him; he also was a brilliant violin player. His passion for teaching was extremely strong. His violinistic skills and pure level of violin playing was probably one of his strongholds, to be able to show just about anything in the whole repertoire to make a point.

I think I've learned probably everything about the teaching of violin playing (from Bron): the way you work on any kind of difficulties, the way to learn new pieces, and the way to get rid of handicaps.

Bron doesn't say too many words, but if you are attentive enough and can analyze what he's saying, it's always direct and to-the-point.

Laurie: You were only seven years old when you went to him, he must have been pretty good with children.

Vadim: I think I was his first experiment with that age! Most of his students by then were already 17, 20 years old, because he was teaching in the conservatory, not at the school.

Laurie: Do you enjoy teaching?

Vadim: I think what I do in the master class, when I'm visiting, for example, is more like encouragement. I meet young people, and I give them the advise and support that I can. True teaching requires you to be with them, to lead them for years, like raising children. That's why I don't really call it teaching, but for me it's just a chance to encourage some of them, probably to practice more seriously, or give their ideas direction and be helpful, that's all.

Laurie: What are your thoughts about competitions? I know you were the youngest-ever winner the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels...

Vadim: Well, I did the Queen Elizabeth, and the Wieniawski when I was 11. Being in Siberia, it's kind of tough to get a spotlight on yourself...the only way we could see us getting the spotlight was trying our luck in something major, the most difficult competition.

In general, competition is something really weird, because how can one judge the artist? It's quite difficult. It's not running, and it's not football. Probably the general level of playing is important, and then a little bit of luck as well.

Laurie: What was it like to grow up in the Soviet Union?

Vadim: Novosibirsk (in Siberia) is a great city. We had, and still have, a great symphony orchestra, opera, theatre, poetry, and one of the three major music schools (the Novosibirsk Conservatory) that was done on the model of the Moscow school for young, talented, musical students. So we had good fortune. From a very early age I was traveling and playing concerts in different places in Russia, also outside, went to Germany, Japan, America.

Laurie: So you were not limited in your ability to travel, as a Soviet citizen.

Vadim: It was not the '30s or '40s. We never had troubles, in fact I never emigrated. I still have a Russian passport as well. I lived in Europe for many years now as my base, but I'm constantly in Russia, every year.

Laurie: The notes for your new recording of the Brahms mention that your played this concerto for Yehudi Menuhin back when you were first learning the piece. What kinds of things did he talk about?

Vadim: The Brahms concerto was the first thing I learned myself, when I finished studies with Bron – I never learned this concerto with him. By then, I had a very important relationship in my life, that I consider like a godsend, with Menuhin, so I asked him to be the first listener, to give me advise. He was kind enough to give me time. It was interesting. He would not change dramatically, or turn anything upside-down, because he was a very sensitive personality. We had very long talks about the concerto, about some of the fingerings, about some of the ideas. He would share with me, but it was always in a proposition state. So for me it was very interesting but at the same time, there was never pressure.

Laurie: So the Brahms Concerto was the first one you learned on your own?

Vadim: Not exactly...Part of Bron's education was that he would ask me to learn many of the pieces by myself. Then I would play the piece in a concert, and he would appear at the concert. I learned some of the concerti, some of the sonatas, the Bach...many things this way. And then after the concert, we would go in the classroom and start that part of (the process).

Laurie: What was Menuhin like?

Vadim: He was a humanitarian, in the first place. He was extremely educated, with a great knowledge of life in general, of art. So it was an enormous pleasure to travel together, going places as we did, and playing concerts together, when he was conducting, for example. To see a grand maestro that has been one of your heroes through your whole childhood and youth, to have a chance to spend time together – it's invaluable, priceless.

Laurie: Do you feel you changed from the experience?

Vadim: I did not change, but of course things like that shape your personality, shape your taste in a way, and add different things that you may not even notice it the first time, but in general it is something you have in the back of your mind, that you don't necessarily control that much.

Laurie: What cadenzas did you use for this version of the Brahms?

Vadim: Those are the Heifetz cadenzas. That goes back to my very early years, when I was nine years old, Bron gave me the CD of Heifetz and Reiner, to listen to Brahms concerto, which I had not heard before. I had such an explosion in my mind after listening to that, I was so amazed. I think that's partly why this cadenza became probably my favorite, through the years. I just can't stop loving it. And finally I made the decision to make it part of the recording.

Laurie: Did you play the other one as well?

Vadim: Yes, I know the other one, of course. But I feel that the exercise of the material in the Heifetz is somehow appeals to me very well, the shape of the cadenza, the breadth of it and the combination of underwater movement, let's say. I really appreciate it.

(The Joachim cadenza) is almost considered part of the concerto, but well, there's always room for something new. I hope it's enjoyable.

Laurie: I noticed that a while back you had performed the Brahms Double Concerto with Rostropovich conducting. Did playing the Brahms Double concerto under Rostropovich give you any insights on that work?

Vadim: Oh absolutely, we spent so much time working on it, many rehearsals, without orchestra as well. He wanted to listen to everything and to know what's happening, and he also gave a great deal of advise. He even played cello a little bit, making points. Absolutely priceless, too.

Such a few memories of the greatest musicians...Once I went to Sviatoslav Richter's house, with my pianist, Sasha Melnikov at the time, we went to play sonatas for him. At some point (Richter) said, "Let me play something," and so we played the movements of the sonata, straight.

These things were most amazing, spectacular experiences. They will never go away from my memories.

Laurie: Tell me about the cellist you are playing with on the recording, Truls Mørk.

Vadim: I've been his fan for many years, and love his taste. I like the way his technical abilities are endless, and I feel a personality that's like a soulmate. I really enjoyed playing it with him. He was my first choice to record it in the first place, and I'm really happy he found time and was interested in doing so.

Laurie: What is the greatest challenge in performing the Brahms Double Concerto? It's very orchestral...

Vadim: Yes, it's very symphonic. Violin and cello, most of the time, are like two halves that are trying to become one whole, something complete. You're not fighting the cello, in fact, but rather you dialogue with each other, and you are trying to fulfill each other.

Laurie: I'm always amazed, at the beginning, there's a spot where the entire orchestra drops out and it's only a cello and a violin, and yet it still sounds like a whole orchestra. It's so full.

Vadim: It's another perfect creation of Brahms.

Laurie: Is Brahms one of your favorites?

Vadim: Most definitely. It's a treat to perform his music. Each time it's very special.

Laurie: On another matter, what is the most important thing when you are working on technique?

Vadim: You hide it. So that technique is something of your language. The more work, the less you notice it. To make a point, to express what you have in your thoughts, in your dreams. If someone says, 'Oh, that's great technique,' – unless you're playing something really virtuoso and hitting all the notes -- it's something that should not be noticed, in a way. Music is in front of everything.

Very often, it's like conducting. Conductors hear music with their ears, and instrumentalists, unfortunately, are tied up to muscles, to difficulties, to the challenges of the instruments. So the farther you can get away from those, the better for the music. You can say that is a "technique."

Laurie: You almost get to a point where you just let go of technique, where it's just there.

Vadim: Where you don't notice it, that it's just serving you and not become the main aspect of your playing.

Laurie: Otherwise it comes off as a struggle.

Vadim: There are things that should sound as a struggle, that is also a very special technique. But at some points, when there is no struggle but something pure and simple, that's what requires a great amount of technique, to make it sound this way.

Laurie: What is your aim to sound like in Brahms?

Vadim: This concerto is probably the most varied, in expression, thoughts, colors and emotions. There is plenty of everything: the places you really have to make it flashy, the places that you really do it so tender and loving and unbelievably intimate. So it requires a great amount of technical ability, just about the whole range of it.

Laurie: I noticed you changed to a del Gesù violin in 2005. What was the reason for the change?

Vadim: I was always a fan of the del Gesù violins. I was blessed playing fine violins, but they all were Strads. So finally, I have a very good personal friend who happened to own one (the 1736 ‘Von Szerdahely’ by Guarneri del Gesù) and, knowing that I adore playing Guarneri violins, he let me play it. So I feel extremely grateful and happy.

Laurie: What kinds of things are possible with a del Gesù?

Vadim: It requires a very good professionalism and a very high standard of technical abilities, because they're not easy to play. Strads are much easier, they begin to sound by themselves. But Guarneri requires a little bit more knowledge, a little more effort. But once you create a friendship with the violin, I think the results can be even more varied and great .

Laurie: When you say they are harder to play, what do you mean?

Vadim: Just knowing the secrets of making it sound. Usually they are much more down-to-earth instruments, a little more human rather than heavenly beautiful. So to make the full range of it, one should know how to get along with those.

Laurie: I noticed you were on a Strad for some 10 years – you had Sarasate's Strad.

Vadim: It was a wonderful instrument and I loved it. I played it during very important years of my musical life. But when you have something in the back of your mind, it stays forever, no matter what.

Laurie: When was the first time you played a del Gesù? There must have been something that made you fall in love with that.

Vadim: Well yes, a long time ago I played the violin of Isaac Stern's, the "Panette," for some months. I made even one recording with it, the Ravel Sonata.

But then there are my sympathies, my adoration for Jascha, and Isaac Stern, Menuhin and Kreisler – they all have Guarneris as their main and favorite instruments.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on March 31, 2009 at 10:37 PM

Thanks, I'm so happy you did this Interview!!!


From Mitchell Pressman
Posted on March 31, 2009 at 10:55 PM

I agree, a really nice interview and a pleasure to read.  In addition to being one of the best violinists on the planet, Repin sounds like a very generous and engaging personality, very open about his enthusiasms, influences, perceptions, etc.    I found his comments comparing the violins quite interesting.

From Rosalind Porter
Posted on April 1, 2009 at 12:09 AM

Another fascinating interview to read!  Good work!   Interesting to hear his thoughts about Brahms and also the comparisons between Strads and del Gesus... 

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on April 1, 2009 at 12:58 AM

Anyone can go to the Seatle Master class? 


From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 1, 2009 at 8:19 PM

Enjoyed reading this, Laurie! (And the pic is quite nice to feast my eyes on as well! : ) ) 

From Carol .
Posted on April 2, 2009 at 4:27 AM

 I am going to the concert tomorrow and hope to be at the masterclass on Saturday.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on April 3, 2009 at 12:14 AM

Carol please tell us news if you can!


From Royce Faina
Posted on April 3, 2009 at 5:15 PM

Please forgive me: But if it were not for this interview I do not know how long it would have been until I first heard of him!  These interviews are worth more than gold!  I hope that those that  teach studio classes include these!  They would make a great addition!  I only wish that when I was in public school orchestra, our teachers would have spent more time telling and teaching us about violin masters past and present.  So far there has always been some little gem that I get out of these interviews that I can actualy apply and my playing improves!  I love the conversation about technique!!!!!!!!


From Drew Lecher
Posted on April 4, 2009 at 2:30 PM


It's like sitting at the table with both of you.

Thanks, D.

From Bram Heemskerk
Posted on April 4, 2009 at 9:00 PM

In the musiclibrary of Rotterdam you can choose between 114 cd's of a recording of the violinconcerto of Brahms. Soon they will get the 115th version of Repin. Why do Repin record this again? Has he something new to add to those 114 cd's? A new interpretation perhaps? Or perhaps he has no artistic aim, but thinks: I have played it a lot, everbody knows it and normally it sells better than an unknown violinconcerto?

Just like  the interview with Janine Jansen (after her "new" Tjsaikovsky version) , Sophie Mutter ( "new" Mendelssohn) and Joshua Bell (""new" version of 4seasons) those interviews are superficial pr-interviews. OK they must sell their products and make money, but sometimes it gives me a feeling of cultural poverty. Earlier Repin recorded the violinconcerto of Myaskovsky (together on a cd cd with the inevitable "new" version of the violinconcerto of Tsjaikovsky). That was something special.

Perhaps the questions of Laurie are too smooth and sweet, because perhaps she is afraid to hurt the feelings of the big names of today. A question in an earlier interview of Janine Jansen ,in 'Discussion' on this website, whether she liked the violinconcerto of Karlowicz was even not asked for some reason. Or perhaps Janine did not want to answer that question for unclear reasons. How many rare violinoncerto's Repin knows apart from the well known, often played and often recorded "big" violinconcerto's apart from Myaskovsky? And why he don't record them? Are they 2th rank in his opinion, does he only known the  well known violinconcerto's and is his violinconcerto-repertoireknowledge poor? Is his recording company forbidding him to record rarities, because they sell bad? Does he dislike to search in old libraries to sheetmusic? Another big name like singer Cecilia Bartoli even sang things that never were printed on sheetmusic. Even from this manuscripts her cd sells very well and she also have a busy life touring around the world. She really ADDS something to classical music, like Repin did with his Myaskovsky.

From benny atkinson
Posted on April 5, 2009 at 11:21 AM


There was the Myaskovsky VC, also John Adams VC

Then a commissioned concerto written by Daniel Brewbaker which unfortunately I did not get to hear , if anyone has this broadast let me know! and next year a commissioned concerto by Scottish composer James Mc Millan will be premiered in GB.

 There are only so many hours in the day and Vadim Repin gives many concerts around the world for our greatest pleasure. By the way I think the new Brahms Cd is well worth having. Personally I do not get tired of listening to the best violinists, no matter what they perform.

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