A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Being a front-rank musician these days can mean several different
things, and some of the best combine different aspects into one
outstanding career. Mikhail Pletnev was — and remains
— an extraordinary pianist. To this, he has added the role of
conductor, and is becoming as accomplished with the baton as at his
keyboard. He has even founded the Russian National Orchestra, the
first independent orchestra in the history of Russia, and remains its
For more details about Pletnev, see the biography at the end of this
A contemplative artist, he was also thoughtful in his
responses to my questions. It was not just that he was hunting
for the right words, he was thinking over the ideas and considering how
best to reply. He would often check words with me for
pronunciation and for appropriateness of use. And while he felt
his English was not good at all, it did convey his thoughts and
intentions quite well. As usual in these kinds of situations, I
have edited somewhat, but have changed as little as possible to make
sure that his ideas come across correctly. I have left some
slight imperfections to give a flavor of how he sounded rather than
simply correct all the grammatical and structural mistakes.
As you can see, he was hesitant at first, but he quickly warmed to the
situation and almost immediately seemed pleased to respond to my
Mikhael Pletnev: I hope
it’s not radio, no.
MP: It is
BD: Yes, yes.
MP: Oh, God!
going to only talk about music.
MP: Oh, this
BD: Why is it
worse to talk about music?
because I cannot say yes or no. You ask
me, I say, “Yes. No.”, if I understand the question.
But to talk about music, you must be a poet.
BD: Are you a
MP: No, I’m
not a poet, especially not in English.
BD: But when
you conduct, or when you play the
piano, are you a poet?
MP: Yes, of
course, I am. But here, there’s no
piano, and no orchestra.
BD: Is the
music always in your heart and in
BD: How do
you divide your career between piano and
I divide my career... Well, it’s a
good question. I never thought about career in my life.
Only now. Some people, like managers and journalists ask me,
this word. It’s very hard to answer this question, because the
thing I want is just to enjoy music. I didn’t expect to go
through obstacles to become something. I
just enjoy it.
BD: You enjoy
the music and the performing?
MP: I enjoy
music in every form; sometimes as
listener, sometimes as a composer, sometimes conductor,
performer, anything. And how do I divide? Well, it’s one
thing. I don’t divide. When I take baton or I sit as the
it’s one thing.
BD: Do you do
more piano concerts, or more
question. I have to count, because
sometimes it’s more conducting. Just now I was in Europe
conducting orchestra. Then I played a little bit. Then
again, I’m going to conduct the Russian National Orchestra’s jubilee
concert, ten years. Beethoven’s Ninth
Symphony. But before that I
play piano. Then what do I do? I think I play piano
else, and then in the beginning of January I’m doing another
project, a concert version of — you know Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev?
the pupil of Tchaikovsky
and the teacher of Scriabin, and very important. He’s fantastic
composer. I am doing his opera, Oresteia.
BD: I know of
MP: In fact,
it’s three operas in one, you
know. It’s a trilogy.
short evenings, or one long one?
MP: It’s one
long evening, yes. So my life is like this, back and forth.
BD: This is
very good. Sometimes when a pianist goes to
conducting, they no longer get to play piano. You’ve balanced it
MP: I try
to. I try to, thank you very
much. I try. In fact, I don’t dare make
comparisons with great ones, but as an example, let’s say, who was
Bach? A composer? Organist? He also conducted his
and Liszt were great composers and conductors.
BD: So you’re
a complete musician?
MP: Well, I
am just a musician! [Laughs]
BD: Then from
all of this music, how do you
decide which pieces you will play or conduct this, and which you will
MP: This is a
privilege, you know. When I was
younger, I was sometimes forced. Especially when being a chief
conductor, you are sometimes forced to do something that you don’t
want, and in the quantities that you don’t want. You must conduct
symphony by, say, Tchaikovsky, and do it twenty times in a row, going
tour. It’s horrible! But now I have this choice. I
can do what I want. A little bit late, but...
BD: But how
do you decide yes, or no?
MP: When I
just think about some projects I can be
inspired by the ideas. And how do they come to my mind? I
don’t know. They just come all of a sudden. Maybe
association, maybe I just discover something, and then I have a wish to
play or to conduct a certain composition. Let’s put it in the
BD: Do you
only conduct great works?
MP: Well, I
don’t know about great. I try
to conduct and to play what I understand, what I value.
BD: When you
play these pieces, though, do you value
them even more each time?
yes. There are some
artists who are specialized. Maybe even me. I’m
I’m not that narrow specialized, such as only Baroque or only another
period. I like
music from Bach and Scarlatti to, let’s say,
Shostakovich. That’s my specialty, including Schumann, Liszt,
Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, something more, something less.
So it’s a lot of material.
three hundred years’ worth!
MP: Maybe a
bit less. And for modern music, I
am not very keen of doing this music. So from the twentieth
it’s Prokofiev, Shostakovich — Russian composers.
Rachmaninoff, but he splits eras. He’s a Romantic.
would it take to get
you to play a new piece?
MP: A new
piece... [pauses a moment] I
think that first of all I must be touched by this. “Touched”
the right word?
touched by the piece. I must feel it
and let it through my heart. If it works, if it responds to the
vibration of this piece, then I take the piece. Sometimes
I had to conduct some pieces which I didn’t understand. There are
some other conductors who like modern stuff. They can
do it much better, then why should I do it?
BD: But how
do you know, until you get into the
piece, if it touches you?
MP: I can
read the score, you know. That’s
a good thing.
MP: I can
read the scores. Unfortunately,
the modern musical language is more tending to be not touching, you
know, because when even I see the score, I see more constructive
things. I see more sonorous experiments. I see more
mathematics. And this is not what I’m attracted to.
Okay. We’re kind of dancing around it, so let me ask the
very easy question.
BD: What is
the purpose of music?
MP: Well, from my
point of view, I am not going to
generalize. I think there are two purposes, two reasons why to
play or not to
play. First is enjoyment. You play nice tune, you
enjoy. It’s lovely. Second, and this more when we talk
more sublime — like Beethoven’s last
sonata or Ninth Symphony
— it tends more to be more
spiritual. It constructs, somehow, the relationship between God
and humans. That’s a serious task. And from this point of
view I accept very much light music, which I enjoy, if it is good —
all this kind — even by great composers, like
Chopin and the many
nice waltzes; they’re not pretending to be sublime. Even Strauss,
I like this
also, but there is a greater music which has more
spirit and which is unreachable, like Mont Blanc, you know.
Sure. Should it always be unreachable, or
is it possible eventually to reach that top?
MP: No, I
think that it’s something else. For me, the Ninth
Symphony by Beethoven has something inhuman. It’s inspired
God, like the evangelists who wrote the Bible. It’s
not a human act. I can feel that it’s so deep, there are no
BD: So you
yes. The more you plunge, the more you get
more; it’s great.
BD: Are there
some pieces that you play
that eventually you do get to the bottom, and then abandon them?
MP: Yes, and
that is disappointing, sometimes.
There are some pieces, of course, you can get very easily to the
bottom. A lot of modern music is like this. The proof of
music is if you would like to re-listen to
it or not. Sometimes you enjoy the music, but if
people say, “No, I have understood it well; it’s
enough,” I guess it means that it’s meaningless.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of music?
MP: You know,
my opinion would be also
split here. My feeling is if one can enjoy
music, like I do now, then why not to enjoy it? Several
centuries after this time, the people then might enjoy today’s
music the way we enjoy antique tragedies of many years
ago. But my mind tells me that when I
analyze the greats, or what we call music, we must ask why you are
here. Even the term “genius”
came only maybe
less than two hundred years ago. Bach, who was a genius, would
never think he was a genius. Genius was not an apply-able term
for musicians. He did his job; he didn’t think
about it. It was only in the nineteenth century that this sort of
something a little bit crazy” became what we call
genius. So from the whole history of humanity, we have only two,
maybe two and
a half centuries of very intensive development of what we call
music. It came almost from scratch, from some
religious-folk-things transformed into the primitive compositions, then
more and more
polyphonic. We all know the history of it. And then it came
back to scratch because when you listen to this modern junk age
— which is not
modern anymore — it comes back to these
sonorities produced by any object, even a stapler.
[Laughs] So we’ve come full circle?
MP: Yes, and
I see this circle and I cannot see any
future development of this circle because if we’re talking about
melodies, which for me is important, which
touches me, the modern composers are afraid of melodies. I mean
this in terms of so-called classical music because there is, of course,
music. In classical music, they don’t allow melodies to get into
their music because it
reminds them of something. If the melody comes, it comes in a
distorted way, somehow. The whole feeling is sort
of frustration. I don’t know. I don’t know.
you’re not frustrated when you’re playing
Chopin or Beethoven?
MP: Of course
not! Of course not. It is
such a pleasure. It gives you always a joy of
understanding. So many people do nasty jobs; they deal with
materialistic things and they get annoyed.
But playing music is such a beautiful métier! It’s full of
fantasy, full of inspiration, full of exploring this relation between
human and divine. I am so happy that in the past time such
a great music was created, and in such various ways. If you take
on the Beethoven, this is a world! You take Chopin, it’s another
world. Take Tchaikovsky, it’s another world. It’s really
BD: So you’re
bringing the materialistic people who
are in the audience into this world?
MP: Yes, and
they do appreciate it, you know.
If you play well, they get very involved and touched and moved by the
BD: Are you
conscious of the people who are on your
right as you play?
The first thing, I try to forget who is
in the hall because I am not playing for the audience. I am not
playing for the audience. It’s senseless.
BD: For whom
do you play?
MP: I am playing for
myself. And when I am
playing for myself, I must concentrate all my forces, and focus only on
taking all my forces to do my best, to be with the music and to
scale up with this. I know that other people are there, but
they watch, and the more they watch, the more they get involved and the
better I do it.
BD: So we’re
more than just eavesdropping?
BD: Are we
MP: Yes, of
course. Of course. If I go on the stage and I play, and
nobody’s is moved at one concert and the next concert nobody’s moved,
play one year and people are yawning, I better stop this
BD: I assume
that will never happen!
MP: Well, I
is when you are at the keyboard. Are you also
conscious of the audience behind you when
I concentrate on orchestra musicians to bring
the best out of them, to inspire them, to make them what I want.
I cannot spend time thinking about other people. If I do this
well, it’s my niche, you know. I have to concentrate
on my niche.
BD: When you
sit down at the piano, are
you playing an instrument or does that instrument become part of you?
MP: For me
it’s very important to
establish the relationship with the instrument. I meet with the
tuner before each concert. [See my Interivew with Franz Mohr,
Chief Concert Technician for Steinway & Sons, 1968-1992.]
please me; I must do everything with the instrument. I just think
it’s the way it can
respond to everything that I do. And then, even more, I must like
sound. The more it inspires me, then the circle
spirals upward. If I don’t like the instrument, it’s very
bad. It will be bad concert. It will be a struggle with the
instrument. If I don’t like what I produce, then it’s not good.
BD: Are most
of the instruments you encounter around
the world good ones?
MP: You know,
again, it’s a privilege. Before, I
had to perform in small stupid halls and on lousy pianos. It was
sometimes very disappointing. If you would like to play softly,
pianissimo, make a divine sound in Beethoven, instead
we had these ugly sonorities. You cannot do anything. It’s
torture. Now, maybe because of this “career”
— which is a stupid word — it is
possible for me to choose the places and
instruments, and be more demanding on what I play. But it’s not
only for the sake of this métier that I am being my best; it is
to prove that it’s not for nothing that I
go on the stage.
BD: Is it
possible you ask too much of yourself?
MP: Well, you
must demand always more, maybe twice or triple as
much as you can do. Only in this case you can go a little
bit above your usual ordinary abilities.
it special for you to bring Russian music to
the rest of the world?
[Photo at left: with Mstislav
Rostropovich. See my Interview with
Russian music is not a
complex thing, you know. Russian music is very various.
Scriabin is Russian music. Tchaikovsky is Russian music.
But Scriabin hated Tchaikovsky, you know! There’s
Mussorgsky which is Russian music, but Tchaikovsky hated Mussorgsky,
know. We must respect it, somehow, because there is a
difference. Composers, they are more individuals. It’s very
usual that composers think only in terms of their own music. They
don’t accept the music even of fellow composers or colleagues.
Sometimes it’s very funny to think that Tchaikovsky, perhaps, was a bad
composer, but we think, “Oh, we are so
clever.” We can see that Brahms was a genius and Tchaikovsky was
also a genius and Rachmaninoff was a genius and Scriabin was a
genius. We are clever to understand this; they are not clever,
no. Scriabin lived in his world, and for him, Rachmaninoff was
out of his
world completely. But we performers now make the
program, and we start with Mussorgsky, then we play Tchaikovsky, then
play... [both laugh] We are all consumers, you know. We
have to be more objective. This is the
difference between composers and performers. To a certain point,
as I told you already, I cannot do
everything. Some kinds of music is beyond my understanding, so I
let others do it. But what I feel is close to me, what evokes
feelings and desires, that’s what I like to present. And about
Russian music, I seem to also not present Russian
music as a package, but as a variety of different individual views,
from the spiritual point of view because Russia is a very
spiritual country, no? This is what is valuable in this music.
BD: Do you
feel that when you play or conduct
Tchaikovsky or Scriabin or Rachmaninoff, that they are happy?
try. I don’t know. Sometimes I
listen to my interpretation and I hate it; I hate my recordings.
All recordings I hate, because for me the only thing I really enjoy is
the moment when I play. To listen to these concerts
is very bad for me.
BD: But you
don’t mind that we listen to your records
and enjoy them?
Yes, but sometimes it’s very strange for
me. I do not share this enjoyment at all because for me,
it’s only the moment of creation which matters, when I am guided by
certain forces which I am not aware where they come from.
One last question: is playing music fun?
course. Of course, but only under
conditions when you have a good instrument. I think it can be
torture if the orchestra is bad. Stupid people are unable
to make a good phrase, good sonority. They only spoil
music. And the same thing when the piano is horrible, then you
cannot do anything; you’re unable. It’s despair. It’s not
fun at all.
BD: I assume,
since you formed the Russian National Orchestra, you didn’t let stupid
MP: They are
not there. Most of them are very
nice musicians. What I appreciate in this orchestra is that this
a very open orchestra. It has no routine approach. There
are some orchestras, when you come to conduct,
they think, “We know how to play! What can you tell us? We
played it for a hundred years. We did that, that, that, that,
that.” The Russian National Orchestra will be interested when I
say, “Listen, guys. I
have fantastic new ideas. I recently saw the manuscript of
Beethoven. Let’s try this like this, maybe.” Not every
orchestra is like this.
BD: Do they
play for guest conductors as well as they play for
depends. It depends if conductor has
something, has a talent, has a view, and has a power to
convince — they’ll follow. But, not always.
Founder and Artistic Director
Photo Mikhail Pletnev is an artist whose genius as pianist, conductor
and composer enchants and amazes audiences around the globe. His
musicianship encompasses a dazzling technical power and provocative
emotional range, and a searching interpretation that fuses instinct
with intellect. At the keyboard and podium alike, Pletnev is recognized
as one of the finest artists of our time. Pletnev was Gold Medal and
First Prize winner of the 1978 Tchaikovsky International Piano
Competition when he was only 21, a prize that earned him early
recognition worldwide. An invitation to perform at the 1988 superpower
summit in Washington led to a friendship with Mikhail Gorbachev and the
historic opportunity to make music in artistic freedom.
In 1990 Pletnev formed the first independent orchestra in Russia's
history. The risks of this step, even with Gorbachev's endorsement,
were enormous and it was Pletnev's reputation and commitment that made
his long-held dream a reality. Sharing his vision for a new model for
the performing arts, many of the country's finest musicians joined
Pletnev in launching the Russian National Orchestra. Under his
leadership, the RNO achieved in a few short years a towering stature
among the world's orchestras. Pletnev describes the RNO as his greatest
joy and today serves as its Artistic Director and Principal Conductor.
In 2006, he launched the Mikhail Pletnev Fund for the Support of
National Culture, a non-profit organization that supports major
cultural initiatives and projects, including the RNO's annual Volga
Tour and, in collaboration with Deutsche Grammophon, the Mikhail
Pletnev Beethoven Project.
As a guest conductor, Pletnev appears regularly with leading orchestras
such as London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, Mahler Chamber Orchestra,
Tokyo Philharmonic, Concertgebouw Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra,
Los Angeles Philharmonic and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. In
2008 he was named first guest conductor of the Orchestra della Svizzera
Italiana in Lugano, Switzerland.
As a solo pianist and recitalist, Pletnev appears regularly in the
world's music capitals. His recordings and live performances have
proved him to be an outstanding interpreter of an extensive repertoire.
The London Telegraph remarked, "from Pletnev's fingers and brain come
ideas that vitalise the music and make it teem with freshness and wit.
[He] made the music positively leap for joy." The Times describes his
playing as "born of a prodigious virtuosity of imagination outrageous
in its beauty."
Pletnev’s recordings have earned numerous prizes, including a 2005
Grammy Award for the CD of his own arrangement, for two pianos, of
Prokofiev’s Cinderella, recorded with Martha Argerich and Pletnev at
the keyboards. He received Grammy nominations for a CD of Schumann
Symphonic Etudes (2004) and for his recording of Rachmaninov and
Prokofiev Piano Concertos No. 3 with the RNO and conductor Mstislav
Rostropovich (2003). His album of Scarlatti’s Keyboard Sonatas
(Virgin/EMI) received a Gramophone Award in 1996. BBC Music Magazine
called the recording "piano playing at its greatest... this performance
alone would be enough to secure Pletnev a place among the greatest
pianists ever known." In 2007 he recorded all of Beethoven's piano
concertos with Deutsche Grammophon, and the recording of concertos 2
and 4 was named "The Best Concerto Recording of 2007" by the Tokyo
As a composer, Pletnev's works include Classical Symphony, Triptych for
Symphony Orchestra, Fantasy on Kazakh Themes and Capriccio for Piano
and Orchestra. His unrivalled transcriptions for piano of Tchaikovsky's
Nutcracker Suite and Sleeping Beauty were selected, along with his
performance of Tchaikovsky's Second Piano Concerto and The Seasons, for
the 1998 anthology "Great Pianists of the 20th Century" (Philips
The son of musician parents, Pletnev was conducting and learning
multiple instruments as a young child and entered the Moscow
Conservatory as a teenager. Today he is one of Russia's most respected
and influential artists. An advisor on Russia’s Cultural Council, in
2007 Pletnev was awarded a Presidential Prize for his contributions to
the artistic life of the country. Pianist, conductor, composer and
cultural leader — all are significant facets of Mikhail Pletnev's life
as an artist. Yet he considers himself, simply, a musician.
of the Russian National Orchestra]
© 2000 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Chicago on October 27,
2000. Portions were used on WNIB
(along with musical examples) on January 27, 2001. The
transcription was made in 2008 and posted on this
website in November of that year.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.