Reading between the notes

An interview with in-demand pianist Igor Tchetuev, who will work the keys at the Israel Conservatory of Music, November 5 to 7.

Winner of the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition while still a teen: Igor Tchetuev (photo credit: Courtesy)
Winner of the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition while still a teen: Igor Tchetuev
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As meteoric career starts go, Igor Tchetuev’s took off like a rocket.
In 1998, at the tender age of 18, the Ukraine-born pianist won the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, which takes place every three years in Tel Aviv. “It was quite an amazing experience,” says the now-35-year-old internationally renowned artist. “I was probably the youngest winner of the competition.”
I caught up with the much in-demand pianist the day before a concert in Ukraine. He will be bringing his prodigious talents back to this part of the world November 5 to 7 when he takes part in the Piano Festivities event at the Israel Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv.
Three years is a long time to wait between editions of the Rubinstein competition, so 12 years ago the organizers remedied the time-lapse problem by initiating the Piano Festivities event, which features various previous competition laureates. In addition to Tchetuev, next week’s roster includes 2008 Taiwanese competition winner Ching- Yun Hu and, for the first time, the gold medalists will share the spotlight with a couple of budding artists who are even younger than Tchetuev was when he landed first prize in 1998: 16-year-old Tom Zalmanov, who took first prize at the 2014 Young Artist Competition and Piano Forever in 2013, and 13-year-old Eden Agranat-Meged, who won this year’s Pnina Salzman competition.
All four pianists will be kept gainfully occupied over the three days of the festivities – in solo, duet, and chamber ensemble formats. In addition to the four keyboardists, the program includes a heavyweight “sideman” lineup with veteran cellist Zvi Plesser, Russian-born violinist Sergey Ostrovsky, Guildhall School of Music-educated violinist Tali Goldberg, and the Tel Aviv Collegium vocal and instrumental outfit.
Tchetuev will participate in a diverse spread of works, including Beethoven’s “Archduke” Piano Trio in B-flat Major Op. 97, alongside Plesser and Ostrovsky; a solo rendition of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition; and a duet performance, together with Zalmanov, of Little Ugly Girl, Empress of the Pagodas, from Ravel’s Mother Goose, before teaming up with Ching-Yun Hu and the Tel Aviv Collegium for the closing slot of Brahms’s Liebeslieder Waltzer, Op. 52.
The bejeweled and varied program is designed to provide the public with an eclectic aural and emotional experience, and to allow the star performers to display a wide range of skills and sensibilities.
“Each year, in the three concerts in the Piano Festivities, I try to present the musical listening experience from a different angle,” says Arthur Rubinstein Competition artistic director Idit Zvi.
Tchetuev says that the win back in 1998 was a profound kick-starter for him, even though, in hindsight, he thinks he might have done better at the time. “It was very important for me. It was a big crazy time because I was very young, and I was probably not as perfect as I could be, because I was not so experienced. But the win has helped me a lot in my life. It was fantastic. I felt very honored.”
It was not just a matter of beating off illustrious rivals. Tchetuev says that he felt flattered by the stamp of approval he received from the seasoned members of the competition jury. “When you are appreciated by people like Aryeh Vardi, [Argentinean-Swiss pianist] Martha Argerich and [American pianist] Jerome Lowenthal, you feel you are not completely on a wrong way,” he says with tongue in cheek. “Even if you might not [later] be very successful in life, you still remember shaking hands with these people and it gives you great support.
That was very important for me.”
That must have been a thrill, but also a bit hard to handle for one so young.
When you’re just 18, all the kudos and media attention – not to mention the ensuing offers of star turns that flooded in from prestigious venues all over the world – can go to one’s head and, possibly, get in the way of one’s creative growth. Standing on the stage of the Mann Auditorium in 1998, the young man might have been forgiven for thinking that the world was truly his for the taking. In fact, the pianist says he felt a bit overwhelmed by the roller-coaster ride that followed his success in Tel Aviv. “Yes, I felt I had almost conquered the world but, of course, that was not the case,” notes the Ukrainian.
“I had a lot of concerts after the competition, but at one point I needed to keep the concerts going, but I needed to be myself. I was playing all those concerts, which was great, but then I realized I was just emptying myself, so I needed to have a break and to find myself, and to come back to real work in music.”
Being out there on stage, apparently, is not enough to maintain the learning continuum. “When you play concerts, it is not always the case that you are really doing music,” he observes somewhat surprisingly. “You can be just running like a horse.”
Presumably, now at the “grand old” age of 35, Tchetuev brings far more to his pianistic plate, both in terms of polished technique, but possibly more importantly, accrued experience of life and wisdom. “It is, of course, very important to bring my ideas to the music.
That was very difficult for me to find [at the age of 18]. It was probably four or five years after the [Arthur Rubinstein] competition that I had probably about 10 concerts a year, which is nothing for artists who want to play. But it was also good for me to stop and to understand what I am doing – I don’t mean to stop playing, but to stop running and to understand what I really want and how much I want to play music.”
Tchetuev is certainly managing to do that, both on the stage and in the recording studio. His expanding recorded oeuvre includes half of Beethoven’s sonatas, as well as works by Brahms, Chopin and Liszt, and, although he admits having a preference for the classical masters, recordings of all Prokofiev sonatas for violin and piano are in his discography, as well as the Complete Piano Sonatas by 20th-century Russian composer Alfred Schnittke.
Naturally, works written centuries ago, and compositions created much nearer contemporary time bring very different cultural and social baggage, and energies, with them. That implies the need to approach the scores with differing mind-sets. “I try to look at them in a different way,” says Tchetuev, “but I don’t know how well I can do that,” he adds with a laugh. “Even if you know something about the time of the composer, and about his way of composing or way of understanding life, you are still projecting your ideas and your vision of the music. I think you can say that I approach the works differently, but still from my perspective.”
Fair enough.
For tickets and more information: (03) 546-6228, *9066 and piano.