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Violinist Vadim Repin: 'The score is our bible!'

At five, he started playing the violin, and after only six months he gave his first performance. At 17, he was the youngest participant ever to win the prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition. In 2002, the 1971 Novosibirsk-born Vadim Repin at Willem-Alexander and Máxima's wedding concert, together with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Three years ago, Repin started his own Trans-Siberian Art Festival, which begins next week. On 31 March and 1 April, he will be a guest of the North Netherlands Orchestra, as soloist in Sergei Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto. I spoke to him at Schiphol Airport on Wednesday 30 March.

Prokofiev wrote his Second Violin Concerto in 1935, just before he returned to the Soviet Union for good. At that time, he was embracing a "new simplicity". How simple is this piece?

Well, this is not such a simple concert at all. Take the genesis alone. He started it in Paris, wrote the second movement in the Russian city of Voronezh, orchestrated it in Baku in Azerbaijan and also worked on it in Spain. It was premiered in Madrid. At first glance, the concert looks like one big chaos, but on closer inspection it turns out to be perfectly organised.

Indeed, despite its very different elements, the piece is characterised by a particularly poetic, ballad-like style of writing. Take just that endless melody, the main theme at the beginning of the second movement, which returns at its end. That infinitely drawn-out theme gives the movement a perfect structure, a beautiful bridge is created. I think it is the most brilliant melody of the 20th century.

In the third movement, castanets give the music a Spanish touch, and at the end the whole thing degenerates into total, wild chaos. Very impressive and expressive, simply fantastic. It's one of the most perfect violin concertos I know, the more often I play it, the more I come to love it and the more strongly I want to bite into it. Every note has amazing meaning.'

How many times did you play the concert?

'I started it about 10 years ago, but it was a bit of a rough start. I played it a few times, but I was busy and there were other concerts I loved at the time. Then something special happened. The American Orpheus Chamber Orchestra asked me to tour with this Second Violin Concerto, which would end with a concert at Carnegie Hall. They wanted to play it without a conductor, so I would have to lead the orchestra myself from my instrument.

I was shocked, but after thinking about it for a long time, I decided to accept the challenge. It has become one of my most memorable musical experiences. It made me think completely differently about all kinds of details in music, about the orchestral score in general. Because I was not only a soloist but also a conductor, I had to know it inside out. I could reproduce it by heart overnight now. Maybe with a few mistakes, but still, I know the score inside out and know exactly what which instrument is doing at what time.

I have to be honest (apologetic chuckle): even studying the orchestral score makes the word perfection come to mind. The piece not only lets the solo violin shine, but is also an absolute showcase for the orchestra an sich. Each instrument has such extraordinary material to play, which makes it even more of a gigantic masterpiece.'

Does this concert by Prokofiev touch on violin concertos composed for you by composers still living such as James MacMillan and Lera Auerbach?

'I think anyone who does anything in music conceives a love for Prokofiev, is touched and influenced by him. And above all: inspired. But you cannot compare him to James MacMillan, who is a Scotsman, a warm personality besides. His music is rooted in Scottish folklore and gives space to the magic of these folk melodies. Lera Auerbach is Russian and again has a very different musical language, uses a different harmonic spectrum.

Their pieces are fantastic in their own way and totally twenty-first century, but Prokofiev is classical. And whatever he writes, after only three bars you know: this can only be Prokofiev. Take the Second Violin Concerto, in which he broadened his horizons geographically enormously. Yet his own voice can be heard in every fibre. It did not matter to him where or under what circumstances he composed, there is always that inalienable recognisability.'

He takes centre stage at your Trans-Siberian Art Festival starting in April, along with Yehudi Menuhin. Why them?

'Menuhin was one of the most special blessings in my life, as a personality, as a musician, as an icon. Although I never received violin lessons from him, he taught me an awful lot, in what I call the school of life. I often worked with him. For instance, we recorded a Mozart violin concerto together with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra.

Of course, I could not let his 100th birthday pass without doing something special, which is why I honour him during my festival. The same goes for Prokofiev, who was born 125 years ago. I never knew him, but he is definitely one of my favourite, if not my most beloved composer.'

During a master class, you admonished a student to take more freedom. But surely there is a score to follow?

'It depends on the context, freedom is very important in music. But only when you know the notes to perfection and know exactly what you want to say can you afford some freedom. What is your playing about, what is your message, you have to know that very well. Thus, every performance can tell a different story, but the goal, the journey you take is always determined by the composer. The score is our bible.

By the way, I have a theory about composers. In the eighteenth, early nineteenth century, the score contained only notes, they are, as it were, empty, simple. From the Romantic period onwards, more and more written directions are added, the closer you get to our time, the more. Don't stop playing, don't go softer, not this, not that. Especially things you not may do.

I think this has to do with the development of travel and of our lifestyle in general. Composers increasingly got the chance to hear their piece performed and then grabbed their heads in dismay: how far can this go? We need more control over performance. On the one hand, it's a help for us while playing, on the other, it also has something comical.'

You talk more often about the difference between making the violin sing or speak. What should we imagine with that?

'While playing the violin, speaking is perhaps even more important than singing. Of course, you associate the violin with bel canto, with beautiful singing; we imitate singers, as it were. But on the other hand, letting your instrument speak has several layers of meaning. I remember well when I was a boy reading the memoirs of the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and being enormously moved by one story. I remember that like yesterday.

Piatigorsky tells how he first meets the famous Russian bass Fyodor Shaliapin. He addresses him: maestro, how wonderful to meet you, a huge honour! Then he continues: you should know, I play the cello and while playing I imitate your voice, that is my ideal. Shaliapin is silent for ten seconds and then says: You are an idiot. You should not sing on your instrument, but speaking! A simple and at the same time complex message, which I still cherish as a musician.'

Vadim Repin at NNO, find the playlist here. The 1 April concert is part of the AVROTROSFriday Concert and will be broadcast live on Radio 4. 

Thea Derks

Thea Derks studied English and Musicology. In 1996, she completed her studies in musicology cum laude at the University of Amsterdam. She specialises in contemporary music and in 2014 published the critically acclaimed biography 'Reinbert de Leeuw: man or melody'. Four years on, she completed 'An ox on the roof: modern music in vogevlucht', aimed especially at the interested layperson. You buy it here: In 2020, the 3rd edition of the Reinbertbio appeared,with 2 additional chapters describing the period 2014-2020. These also appeared separately as Final Chord.View Author posts

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