An interview with the renowned Bulgarian pianist, composer and teacher, Prof. Yovcho Krushev on the occasion of his 60th anniversary
1. Prof. Krushev, you are a long-standing concert pianist and teacher both at home and abroad, which involves a lot of travel. What have been the greatest challenges you have faced in your career?
The years flew past and you are now talking of a long-standing career and not without reason too. I have given over 2,000 concerts. It is frightening sometimes to think that all this has passed through my mind and hands. What were the challenges faced in my career is hardly a subject matter suitable for a brief interview…
It is enough to watch, say, Mezzo channel for several hours to become fully aware of the fact that challenges facing those who are meant to hand the art of music down to posterity, are growing in numbers.
Over a century or so even the piano as a musical instrument has become endlessly subjected to all sorts of experiments and is rarely used for its intended purpose. The perverse idea that everything in art has to undergo changes all the time at any cost or else it will die away is behind this problem. This claptrap has gained quite a few admirers, champions and even martyrs, in fact so many that the term ‘challenge’ is far from all encompassing for the problem in its entirety.
The Roman motto ‘Grow or die’, has been known ever since the ancient times, but what the Romans meant was to achieve spiritual growth, toward which a relatively small number of humans strive, too small indeed, rather than technological innovation.
How could we change for the better, say, a Guarneri violin? By making it electric? Well, that definitely didn’t work. I thing that we should, first and foremost, try and gain insight into its qualities and then change it provided we have the valences to do it. It is true, in fact, of all aspects of human life. It is a matter of principle. Our predecessors suggested growing rather than just changing. It makes all the difference. The ancient Romans had a good knowledge of the world, very good indeed.
2. What makes a professional pianist?
It is, first and foremost, good taste!
Great and noble Haydn said about Mozart:’I say to you before God and as an honest man, that your son is the greatest composer known to me by name or by reputation, he has impeccable taste and beyond that the most profound knowledge of composition’. As simple as that! Nowadays we are hearing only of ‘professionalism,’ meaning by this mostly an impeccable technology, while impeccable taste is not a talking point. Why so? Well, because everyone without exception is flattered at the vain thought of having it. It’s such a delusion!
Years ago it was funny, but now it is not funny anymore.
Recently, mutilating works onstage has been all the rage and the reviewers are prompt in calling this ‘a quest for novel art ideas’.
This is in fact ‘…the most dangerous form of feeble reviewing…’ as great Bulgarian poet Yavorov has defined it in a letter.
3. It is a long and hard process depending more often than not on unknown parameters that makes a concert pianist. Which are the major stages in this process judging from your experience of a performer and a teacher?
A teacher with full knowledge has to be found, first of all. Or else the student would, all his or her life, multiply the faults of their teacher in the public domain.
It is a lifelong learning with pianists. One finds out many things in the process of self-education. Listening to recordings. No matter how critical a look we take at recordings, the latter can provide useful information. This is especially true of those made at the turn of the previous century.
A pianist should have light, distinct and lissom technique to begin with. Still, their spiritual level, their inherent nobility is a decisive factor. I myself do not believe that a good style can be shaped only thorough the efforts of the intellect. A talent is needed! A talent is a great power. Outstanding individualities demonstrate outstanding playing style. Humble spiritual gifts wane on the stage.
4. The Eastern or the Western school is a much-discussed topic: Austria and Germany, France, Italy or Russia? What the principles and methods of work do you adhere to in teaching? When do you experiment?
Presently, those, who have established the tradition of pianism, are about to profane it. If there is anything left of the art of piano playing, it now flickers in some places in the east of Europe. Playing became sports of a kind, a competition between technologies. Showbiz has played its part in this.
In my teaching activities, I adhere to the Taoist principle of personal example and of encouragement. Back in the days when I was a student I swore to never scold my own students if I became a teacher. There is no point in scolding them.
5. What an approach do you take to build an artistic performance? What principles do you adhere to in sound emitting, the specifics of a style, rendering the form, etc.?
The piano under the hands of a master has the wonderful ability to change its timbre. Anton Rubinstein said about the piano: ‘You think it is one instrument? It is a hundred instruments!’ i.e. a full orchestra. Unfortunately, less and less pianists have the senses needed for such changes. It takes hard work at the keyboard to reach such a level. Almost nobody now minds clattering away at the keyboard. I am saying this with a heavy heart. A matter of senses.
It is impossible to speak of form and style in a linear succession. Everyone is free to attend my lectures to receive such an amount of ‘concreteness’ that’ll keep them going for a long time. I plan to stay in Bulgaria for another year. I don’t know what I am going to opt for after that.
6. Which practices are good in the art of playing the piano and how do you see the role of the Bulgarian school?
The Bulgarian school was brought to the fore as late as 1978, when several very good pianists were invited to the International Tchaikovsky Competition. I was privileged to be among the invitees. The world became aware at long last of the fact that we were making true art. We should though give credit to the first teachers. I was not acquainted with many of them, though I got to know closely Pancho Vladigerov, Dobrin Petkov, Konstantin Iliev, Ivan Marinov, Vasil Kazandjiev, Georgi Robev, Vasil Arnaudov, Alexander Raichev, Parashkev Hadjiev, Zdravko Manolov, etc.
Of the pianists, I have been influenced by the Ganevs, Julia and Konstantin; Luba Ehcheva; Nikolai Evrov; Vera Gornostaeva; Sviatoslav Richter; Yevgeny Malinin; Alexei Nasedkin; Sergei Dorensky; Ludwig Hoffmann; Kyoko Edo; Takashi Yamazaki, etc. These are artists whom I view as exemplary models.
7. What are the new trends in the art of playing the piano?
The new trends fail to follow and still less to develop the tradition. I’m very concerned about it. Watching the new ‘experts” on Мezzo and their ‘masterclasses’, one can only sigh heavily. Such contemporary virtuosos as Garrick Ohlsson, for example, are increasingly rarely heard of.
8. Is playing the piano an exact science?
Thank God no, it isn’t. Which does not mean that there are no precise principles and criteria proved right over the centuries As mentioned above, intellect and the ability to think analytically is far from enough. The senses are much more needed.
Even in pure science we cant’ make any progress onboard the old horse drawn carriage of the analytical method for it imparts no knowledge, but just multiplies the questions (Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics). We are in want of a new scientific paradigm to meet the heuristic and empirical front at the turn of the twenty-first century.
 Garrick Ohlsson (1948) is a classical pianist, the first American to win first prize in the International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition, in 1970. He also won first prize at the Busoni Competition (1966) in Italy and the Montreal Piano Competition (1968) in Canada. He received a Grammy Award in 2008.