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Fanatical about the violin

As Aleksey Semenenko prepares for a Wigmore Hall recital with Artem Belogurov on 8 November, including American repertoire from their new SACD, Crossroads, he explains how the programme came about and reveals the influences on his violin playing

What was your experience of making your new recording?

One of the great things about playing modern music is that you can get to know and understand the composers, and it was a privilege to work closely with Tony Schemmer and Paul Gay. They were both present at the recording sessions and were able to explain how they wanted details. They had precise comments and wishes for a certain stroke or character, or they would describe what the music is about. Sometimes they even agreed with our suggestions.

The process of working with a composer is fascinating and proves that there is a freedom of interpretation, whether you’re working on pieces from the 21st century, or the 17th or 18th centuries. As artists, we sometimes think we are restricted by the notes on the page, but when you work with living composers you realise that many things are open. A composer can’t transmit everything they mean through the score, and that’s as true now as it was 300 years ago – a score is basic and if you only play what it says, the music is dead. Sometimes composers even change the score if they like what you’ve done. You have to know the rules of the time, but within those rules you are afforded a freedom – it’s all a question of taste.

How do you go about learning new music?

When I first learn a piece I take the score and try to analyse what it’s about – to feel it. Some players do it from their brains first and then go into the music – I try to do it with my heart right away, but also analysing the score, without the instrument. Where does the phrase lead, what is the mood, what is the structure, what is the harmony?

At school I enjoyed studying harmony and it is one of the essential aspects of my approach to playing. I work from the orchestral score on the piano. By playing the whole harmony and hearing all the voices, you can understand and feel it in several dimensions rather than one flat plane. That makes it easier to be open to change your mind as you shape phrases, so although when I'm on stage, I usually have a plan, I'm not afraid to turn away from it.

You have to be open to other people, interpretations, imaginations, personalities. It’s teamwork, and something different always happens

What do you enjoy about chamber music?

I enjoy chamber music because performances never turn out as you imagine in your practice room on your own. You have to be open to other people, interpretations, imaginations, personalities. It’s teamwork, and something different always happens. It teaches you how to collaborate with people, how to feel a whole bouquet of sounds, rather than it just being you. It’s very special, and nothing like playing with an orchestra.

How did you discover classical music?

My father brought me into classical music. He was a bass clarinettist in the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra and it was his choice for me to start the violin when I was 6. I was lucky to have a great teacher in Odessa, Zoya Merzalova, who taught Yuri Bashmet. She’s now in her 80s and we’re still in touch. She has an incredibly effective method for teaching beginners how to hold the violin and get the most out of the instrument. She was always searching for a warm, unforced sound, even in wild, dramatic places. She never pushed her own interpretations on us, but taught us how to phrase music, and the elements of good taste, so that all her students could find their own way. She developed within us a way of playing with feeling but also intelligence, so that the lines and structures are always logical.

My father and I would watch Perlman playing chamber music and solo pieces in amazement, and that was a trigger

I wasn’t a wunderkind when I started. I wasn’t playing the violin for myself at that stage. When my father was away I didn't practise – I would sit at home and only pick up the violin when he came home. We had a VHS documentary about Itzhak Perlman – ‘I Know I Played Every Note’. There was no translation, so I didn’t understand a word he was saying, but I felt it very deeply. My father and I would watch Perlman playing chamber music and solo pieces in amazement, and that was a trigger. My father also had audio cassettes with selections of music, including one with excerpts of Mozart operas and concertos. He would sit there, stunned by it, and I would see that and feel the music as well.

When puberty started, the violin was far from my mind. Back then there were no mobile phones and I would go out and spend the whole day walking. It was only when my dad passed away when I was 15 that I started to play the violin for myself, and that I became fanatical about the violin. From that point my teacher helped to bring me into a deeper, more musically developed world.

How do you feel when you’re on stage?

I’m mostly an introvert – with some ambitions to be an extrovert – but when I’m on stage I feel the flow of energy with the audience. It’s an active process, but the energy also comes back from them. I love that moment on stage and the morning after a successful concert – they make all the work and mental worry pay off.

Aleksey Semenenko’s Wigmore Hall recital will be live streamed on the venue’s YouTube channel and broadcast as BBC Radio 3’s Lunchtime Concert at 1pm GMT, Monday 8 November. He also performs chamber music at the Bath Mozart Festival on 18 November.

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