Russian violinist, teacher and conductor Igor Bezrodnyi gave his thoughts on the Russian method of string playing before his death in 1997
What is most characteristic of the Russian school? Firstly, the maximum naturalness of the handwork †• I mean the violinist's motor process. I think the best Russian violin teachers were trying to instill in the violinist an exact realisation of the fact that each hand had to be extremely productive †• which part, which muscle or group of muscles to use. That's the way to achieve naturalness. I remember one of Abram Yampolsky's phrases: 'Remember that the muscle which works when you play must be elastic.'
The second feature is that a great deal of attention is paid to the violinist's feeling for acoustics and its possibilities. I mean the sound of the violin. Yampolsky and several other great Russian teachers made great demands on the sound, on its purity, richness and colourfulness.
Another feature which is unusual and I think important, is the Russian school's full freedom of execution. In my opinion, all variations of interpretation are possible, apart from tasteless ones.
The typical Russian school is perceived in an inexact way. It was distorted by representatives of the school now teaching in the West. Today's representatives use individual superficial devices of the Russian school and assert them dogmatically. I have to listen to people saying that what is characteristic of the Russian violin school is that it dictates. That is, it makes categorical demands on how to play, how to move one's arms, how to interpret music. And the violin must be played only like that, not in any other way, they say. The Russian violin school is also accused of playing very fast and loudly to the point of aggressiveness.
You need to know where all this stems from. This gives rise to the question of international competitions, which I have experienced both as a participant and a juror. A competition jury is made up of various musicians of different schools with different views as to how the violin should ideally be played. Marks are awarded. I can give the highest mark to a violinist with a vivid individuality who fascinates me, but next to me another professor will not accept this and gives a low mark. Our marks are added together, and as a result the interesting, promising violinist ends up with a lower mark than someone who corresponds to all the criteria, but who did not move or enthral anyone. Say for instance a very young violinist who is still studying learns about the results of the competition. He says to himself, 'I don t really like that violinist, but he won the first prize so that's probably how I have to play at competitions, to achieve recognition and get on to the stage via these competitions and give concerts.'
So that's how one layer goes on top of the other (there are a lot of competitions) and gradually an urgent style develops, which, unfortunately, has often justified itself by receiving the first prize. The style of playing has been standardised and an upbeat, penetrating style has developed. And it's just that style which is now often perceived as containing the main chalacteristics of the Russian violin school. It is an annoying misunderstanding.
I would like my pupils to understand that the violin is an aristocratic instrument. I sometimes say to them: 'If you want to mess around and make impressive sounds which will shock the listener †• go for a different instrument, don't touch the violin.' I think the violin is basically a singing instrument. We all know what has been happening to the violin lately: it sounds like a saw, a percussion instrument. I don't think that is native to the violin.
Naturally, there are works or sections of works which demand a genuinely virtuoso violinist. I often use the example of two remarkable violinists who have gone down in history: Heifetz and Kreisler. Listen to Heifetz and Kreisler play the finale of the Mendelssohn Concerto. Both are virtuosos, with just one difference: Kreisler plays the finale of the Mendelssohn Concerto about twice as slowly as Heifetz. And they are both virtuoso players! This means that it is not simply a matter of speed, but the masterly manner in which they play. We see that nowadays many young violinists are fascinated by speed alone. I don't think this is necessary.
Nowadays everyone is worried about the environment. They are afraid of perishing. But what about perishing spiritually? I would compare the current situation in Russian art with a poisoned ocean. There are still small islands of sincerity and truth, but these islands are getting smaller. My musician friends tell me that the attention-seeking performances of today are a result of people's needs. But if music is a gift from God, can you imagine a minister in a church before beginning his sermon, which is going to be on something lofty and eternal, saying to the worshippers, 'What would you like to hear today? What would you like me to talk about?' I think that would be an unnatural situation.
This interview, conducted by Bezrodnyi's pupil Aciel Bekova, first appeared in The Strad's March 1998 issue as part of a larger tribute to the Russian pedagogue. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase single issues click here.