We mourn the loss of the great Russian pianist VLADIMIR KRAINEV (1944-2011) who passed away on 29 April 2011 in Hannover, Germany. He was the runner-up in the first ever Leeds International Piano Competition in 1962, and was joint winner of the 1970 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition (sharing 1st prize with John Lill). A juror at the 1st Hong Kong International Piano Competition in 2005, he was a treasured member of the Hong Kong Chopin Society and The Joy of Music Festival family.
Below is a review I wrote in 2006 of a Krainev's performance at The Joy of Music Festival and a masterclass I attended. His musical generosity and wit will be missed.
The Joy of Music Festival in Hong Kong features members of the London Chamber Orchestra alongside some “star” pianists, big names of the keyboard firmament. The 2019-seat Cultural Centre Concert Hall is the home of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, but there could not have been more than 400 people attending this concert featuring Vladimir Krainev, the joint-winner of the 1970 International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. What’s happening in Hong Kong? Where were all the music lovers? Were they admiring Disneyland fireworks or preoccupied with Christmas shopping?
Nevertheless, those who came to hear Krainev were not likely to be disappointed. He has a very secure technique, which allowed him to storm through the Two Rhapsodies Op.79 by Brahms without too much of a strain. I would consider him an almost ideal Brahms player – one who combines power with sensitivity, and feels the sweep of the music.His ability to paint the highly passionate music, and its alternating moments of highs and troughs, with many shades of colour, was admirable. The pianissimos were luminous, ringing like a clear bell, while the fortissimos roared like thunder. The latter however sounded congested and clangorous, not helped by the over-reverberant wood paneling that encased the hall and the all too small audience. But it was certainly not a bash-fest, and certainly not ugly.
And that was the full extent of his solo contributions for the evening.There was more Brahms in the Clarinet Trio in A minor Op.114, which comes from the same autumnal period (inspired by the same dedicatee) as his lovely Clarinet Sonatas Op.120. The London Chamber Orchestra’s Mark van der Wiel coaxed a warm and full-bodied tone from his clarinet, which blended in perfectly with Robert Max’s cello and Krainev’s sensitive pianism. There were no questions of balance whatsoever as Krainev was more than happy to be part of the ensemble rather than to dominate it.
The slow movement was probing, yet not plodding while Brahms’ subtle humour came through in the Andantino grazioso, serving as an interlude rather than merry scherzo. The Hungarian-flavoured finale however came across as rough and ready, reaching an apogee with a passage of missed notes from the pianist. Three out of four would not have been a poor score, but one only wished it had been perfect (who doesn’t?). Ultimately, it was the innate musicianship and sheer professionalism of the performers that saved the performance, which otherwise had an enjoyable outing.Presumably all the musicians had performed this work at least more than once in their lives, otherwise it would have not been committed in the festival programme. But one wonders how many rehearsals took place before this performance. My suspicion was that the performers only rehearsed it together while in Hong Kong.
Krainev was in his element in Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G minor Op.57. The opening G minor chord of the Prélude struck like a bolt of lightning, not unlike the chords of Verdi’s Dies Irae (Requiem), a portent of high tragedy. Clearly he had much to say about the Soviet-era work and here there was little doubt as to who was the boss. Serving as both soloist and accompanist, the piano heightened the tension in what amounted to Shostakovich’s sixteenth quartet. The Fugue suffered somewhat from first violinist Rosemary Furniss’ brittle entry, which played on high registers was more than occasionally intonation-challenged. However as a group, the ensemble maintained a very fine control throughout, building up to an impressive climax.
The madcap Scherzo that ensued teetered on the brink of sanity, with deliberately fluffed notes and violent pizzicatos flying in all directions, closing with multiple repeated chords that recalled the end of the First Piano Concerto. The alternating between farce and seriousness – a hallmark of Shostakovich – was well captured in this performance. The funereal procession of the Intermezzo (expertly helmed by Robert Max’s cello pizzicatos) found the perfect release in the faux-gaiety in the “easy music” of the finale with its major key tonality, played with the superb irony to be found in the deadpan faces.With each faux-triumphant step towards the close, yet more of Shostakovich’s inner tension and wry humour is revealed. Such is the journey that is taken by musicians with each performance of a work such as this (which also includes the 15 quartets and the Second Piano Trio).
ILYA RASHKOVSKIY ON HIS TEACHER VLADIMIR KRAINEV
At thirteen, Ilya Rashkovskiy (left) participated in the Vladimir Krainev Piano Competition in Kharkov, Ukraine, where he was awarded the First Prize. Vladimir Krainev spoke with him for the first time after an impressive opening round performance and after the finals, he was invited to study with Krainev in Hanover, which began in late 2000. This was the first time he had travelled to the West without his mother. For one and a half years, he stayed in Krainev’s household, tended by the great pianist’s mother! What is Krainev like as a teacher? “Very tough!” he gives a wry smile. He also added that all his students become very anxious on the days leading up to his lessons, and begin practising very hard.
VLADIMIR KRAINEV IN MASTERCLASS (Hong Kong, 2006)
I was fortunate to catch master pianist Vladimir Krainev in masterclass for an hour at a recital studio at Tom Lee Piano, Cameron Lane. A young Chinese pianist was showing his wares in the finale of Prokofiev’s Sixth Piano Sonata and Liszt’s First Piano Concerto. Krainev listens to long takes (an entire movement and more) before making his comments. And he does not mince words or pull punches, which are not lost in translation either. “You play too many wrong notes!” Ouch. “It is marked Vivace, but you play Allegretto, so it sounds very boring. Do you know what boring means?” Double ouch.
He is firm but not cruel. His remarks are pointed but are not meant to destroy. And there is something avuncular about his overall style of tutoring. He does demonstrate on the piano, but very briefly. Instead he prefers a pianist to reach his own conclusion on how a passage should go, rather than to slavishly imitate. Every pointer he gives is to be taken in the larger context of a piece and not merely at that point of instruction.
In the Liszt, he accompanies on a second piano, and quite perceptively so despite some trouble turning the pages of a new and untouched score. He later remarked that it was his first time playing the second part! Despite the morass of notes, he listens intently to the pianist’s notes and nuances. Capitalising on a passage marked dolcissimo, he asks the young man what it means. His translator says “beautifully” or “refined” (you mei in Putonghua), but nyet, Krainev gives this analogy instead. “Do you drink coffee or tea? Add seven spoonsful of sugar and you get dolcissimo. Very sweetly!” As they play that passage again, he emphasises, “Dolcissimo! Dolcissimo! Make me sound like Cassius Clay!” (Now you know which generation he comes from. The young man is unlikely to have heard of Muhammad Ali, let alone Cassius Clay.)
Finally, the young pianist misreads the timing of a note – repeatedly – in the second movement of the Liszt. Despite the master’s exhortations, he still does not quite get it. The wrong note has been hardwired into his system, and will need some serious debugging. They conclude the Liszt eventfully with the young man making several degrees of progress. However it is this remark from Krainev – a double-edge sword - that might make him rethink his work (and perhaps future profession), “Your Prokofiev. Very good!” Triple ouch.
The above articles were first published in The Flying Inkpot in 2006.