An interview with Yevgeny Sudbin: potentially one of the greatest pianists of the 21st century

‘I don’t think it’s particularly healthy to focus on just one thing for the most part of your life. I try to give myself a variety of other challenges. This helps me as a person – and it helps me stay sane.’

primephonic’s Rina Sitorus had the chance to talk to Yevgeny Sudbin: hailed by The Telegraph as ‘potentially one of the greatest pianists of the 21st century’.

What sort of response to your recent Scarlatti album did you experience?

I don’t usually have expectations of any kind whenever I release a recording as I simply focus all my energy into the making of the recording. However this particular record has beaten all my (non)expectations! I hope it has exceeded BIS’ expectations since the response has been quite stupendous. For me, it’s not so much the reviews and awards (which are wonderful to receive) but the many personal messages sent to me by people to share how much the music has affected or even changed aspects of their lives. It is very humbling and no amount of prizes can top this.

You were also nominated as Gramophone’s Artist of the Year. Congrats! How important are awards and acknowledgements to you?

I have mixed feelings about this. Because I have no control over these things, I try not to get distracted and focus on my performances and recordings. There used to be a time when reviews would make me more nervous and anxious, especially overly positive reviews. I have observed that for every reaction, there is usually an anti-action and there were times when I felt that too much positivity and high praises would only make others annoyed or create strong and unnecessary polarisations. Everyone feels that their opinion is the right one and people like to be given a chance to make up their own minds. The solution for me was obvious: not to read them! Nowadays I have stopped worrying! I am also more relaxed about these things I think. Opinions come and go but recordings however are here for posterity, at least one would hope so.

Your Scarlatti recording is also a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the collaboration with the label BIS. What have been the highlights of the past 10 years?  

It’s difficult to pick one out of so many. The process of recording felt like a highlight at the time, for every single album I made with my producer. I usually work  with Marion Schwebel who is wonderful but I have also worked with Rob Suff; he is the Artistic and Repertoire Director at BIS. We worked on the Beethoven concertos project and he’s also fantastic. For chamber music projects, I worked with Jens Braun. BIS are known for their unique producers and the resulting quality of the recordings – I believe they are the leading label when it comes to sonics and they would never compromise these things which is really unusual nowadays. They make sure we have enough days to record, good venues, good pianos and take time to make sure that the best edits are selected. I feel very grateful to have this partnership and I look forward to many more recordings with BIS.

Do you have any new projects you can already share with us?

There are a number of new recordings that are about to come out: Beethoven First and Second Piano Concertos with Tapiola Sinfonietta, conducted by Osmo Vänskä , completing our Beethoven cycle. I have also just recorded Beethoven’s late piano sonatas and Bagatelles as well as the Brahms Quintet and the Schumann Quartet which I recorded with wonderful colleagues (Boris Brovtsyn, Diemut Poppen, Alec Chaushian and Hrachya Avanaseyan). There will be more Russian solo repertoire coming out by Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, Scriabin, Tachaikovsky…As a pianist, I am fortunate to never have to worry about running out of repertoire. Only about running out of time. I’m also recording Rachmaninov’s 2nd and 3rd Piano Concertos soon with the BBC Symphony conducted by Sakari Oramo. This is going to be a tough project as these concertos are too popular and physically daunting [chuckles]. But I really am looking forward to it. It is a fantastic orchestra and it’s not often that you get to record with an orchestra of this calibre together with such a wonderful conductor.

What do you say to those who think that there is no need to record classical music any more, that it’s all been done before?

In that case: what is the point of doing anything at all? You could argue that everything and anything has already been done before so why bother getting out of bed each morning? On the other hand, you can always at least try doing things better, find freshness or new perspectives. Actually I am very selfish and stubborn that way: in the sense that I set out with a project simply wanting to play certain music and not because I necessarily think it’s going to be better. I am also generally an obsessive person and my brain tends to become focused heavily on one thing at a time, with quite large extremes, whether I want to or not. I can’t control it very well (I can only direct it in the hope that it doesn’t focus on pointless tasks instead).

In terms of recording classical music: it’s fairly obvious that the sound quality today is already quite different than five or ten years ago and it’s constantly improving, and also for me, as a classical performer, I feel there is always something new to discover. So I’m not quite as pessimistic as the question implies.

Do you think that people need to be educated about classical music before they can appreciate it?

In some countries you see younger people in the audience whereas in other countries, you mostly see a sea of grey hair. There is nothing wrong with either and I am grateful when there is anyone listening at all! But I guess it partly depends on the upbringing and culture and how quickly one starts to respond to classical music. Although I believe that people who are genuinely curious will discover classical music for themselves eventually, regardless of their background or age. I also believe that, as is the case with most complex art, you learn to appreciate it more intensely, the longer you spend the time being alive. I don’t especially buy into the doom and gloom prophecies for classical music. Nor do I feel the need to be some kind of ambassador for classical music or force it onto people. The point is, if it is good and useful for the world, it will stick around as long as people need it. Of course having classical music as part of education is very important in any case and children should be made aware of it from an early age.

What’s the hardest thing about being a musician?

For me, one of the hardest aspects of being a performing musician is also being able to keep a more or less normal life intact: to have a family and just to be able to do regular things in life. Having spoken with colleagues about it, I know I’m not the only one. There is always a price to pay for anything that offers extremes: if you become too successful in your profession, then you just end up sacrificing a lot in your personal life. There are rarely any shortcuts. As a result it can be a real challenge keeping a healthy balance between an active career and some sort of satisfying personal life.

And what’s the best part of it?

Just being able to do something you actually enjoy doing and also setting yourself goals and attempting to reach them. Not many people can have this combination when it comes to their jobs. It’s also immensely satisfying playing these masterpieces. And to travel the world, which has its good and bad parts. There are many positive aspects otherwise it would be hard for me to justify and keep doing it!

How is it with your family? Do they understand your life as a performing musician?

My daughter started playing piano a year ago, when she was 5. She asked me last night whether I actually enjoy playing concerts and what it is that I like about them – she often asks me difficult but carefully worded questions. For example she will never ask why I have to be away so much, instead she asks me when I have to go away and whether I will be back for her birthday or Christmas etc. We have been performing a little together and she seems to be very similar to how I was, when I was her age. She often gets anxious before concerts but never shows it. She worries she will make mistakes. I think she understands exactly what I have to go through but so do I, with what she has to go through. One should never underestimate how important these things are in children’s minds. There are certain areas where I think I know how to help her and how to make things slightly easier. Of course my wife understands it also too well because she’s a pianist herself but she does all the ‘heavy lifting’ with the children. It’s much harder than what I have to do in any case and you don’t get prizes for that! [laughs] I’m very fortunate to have a family who are familiar with certain aspects of this profession. It’s definitely not a normal life but it’s also not a bad life.

How do you keep that balance in your life?

Playing piano is something I have always done, something that was always part of my being. I am not sure when it became a ‘job’ exactly as it was always like breathing to me: something you continuously do except at some unspecific point, I started to derive an income from it. For other things, I make a conscious effort to give myself the time. I make sure I have enough time for my family, or for some hobbies, like photography. Since I travel a lot, I can easily include a day or two to stay on and take photos if I wanted to. It’s not necessary to accept every engagement so I pick the ones that interest me either geographically or aesthetically. Yes, we do have very limited time in general, so we have to make choices how we want to spend it. I don’t think it’s particularly healthy to focus on just one thing for the most part of your life. I try to give myself a variety of other challenges. It has often happened that an experience from one aspect of my life has helped me solve a problem in another, seemingly unrelated walk of life. This helps me as a person – and it helps me stay sane.

What is a good live performance in your opinion?

There is a certain feeling when you come off stage, if it is a certain way, then I know it was a good performance. If it’s not this way, then I ask myself how I could do it better. 99% of the time I ask myself that very question, if that answers your question [chuckles]. But this last 1% is worth striving for.

What is your approach to performing on stage?

To be as prepared as possible. You try to stay focused, make sure you sleep and eat well but perhaps not too close to the concert. The main challenge is to pace and focus all your mental energy on the one thing that is going to happen: the performance. It’s not very easy actually: for the human brain it’s completely counter-intuitive and unnatural to anticipate and sit through a relatively lengthy stressful situation in front of thousands of people. Of course it all depends on how you look at it and it doesn’t have to be stressful! Meditation can help focus the mind better and I try to do this when I can.

How do you handle mistakes during a live performance?

I try not to make them [laughs]. But a live performance is a live performance and anything can happen. This is also the reason why people enjoy going to concerts: there is a certain energy and a prevailing sense of danger where things can happen, good or bad. But you just have to go with it as these things are mostly beyond anyone’s control. Plus it doesn’t matter to anyone else as much as it does to yourself, as pianist Steven Osborne once said to me, when we chatted about it once. It is true, if you think about it: it is actually quite silly and assumes too much self-importance to presume that the audience has nothing better to do than continue thinking about the one note you may have missed!

You just can’t be too hard on yourself afterwards and it is still natural to agonise over these things afterwards for some reason. I think every mistake I ever made in a live performance sticks with me. There usually is no specific cause and effect that can be instructive for the future but the probability of something going wrong is higher whenever you are less prepared or if the piece is too new and anxiety can augment this.

I remember a story about a famous conductor, who observed that one member of the orchestra was always getting so anxious about making a mistake in a particular spot every time to the extent that it was paralysing for him to go through with the performance. With some sympathy, the conductor then instructed him to play a wrong note in the concert in this passage deliberately in order to realise that it’s not a big deal and apparently the guy felt much better afterwards! Of course it’s possible they just tried to get him fired too [laughs].

What are your fondest musical memories?

It’s difficult to say because I don’t retain that many specific memories from my performances on stage. When you’re out there, your brain seems to be in a different universe. Like with sleep, you wake up often not remembering your dreams. And also, like with sleep, the time seems to flow differently in performance. It’s difficult to describe it as it is an almost otherworldly experience, unlike anything else. I have very fond memories of listening to great concerts of course. When I was a child I used to listen to Evgeny Kissin and Grigory Sokolov a lot (and still do).  Perhaps one of my fondest musical memories was going to the Verbier Festival for the first time in 1998. I met almost all of the musicians I always admired on the first day.

How would you describe your perfect day?

There are two parts of my life, one is being a musician and one is being a person. After I have been away for a very long time touring, I dream to spend a day with my family as I miss them too much. This would be a perfect day for me. However I also try not to forget the time when my career was less active in the earlier days and I imagined the perfect day would be to play at Carnegie Hall. Perhaps it depends what time of the day you ask me but it’s worth living for those two days, whenever they come along.

Yevgeny Sudbin in conversation with Rina Sitorus

Photos: Peter Rigaud

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