“Freedom is a question of life, not of talent”: Maestro Semyon Bychkov’s Thought-provoking Interview


Semyon Bychkov photo credit: Sheila Rock

Semyon Bychkov spoke with The Huffington Post's Dionysios Dervis-Bournias in advance of his 60th birthday in November 2012.  In this brilliant in-depth interview the great Maestro shares his charm, wit and profound knowledge on a fascinating range of subjects from his Russian roots and conducting philosophy to Berio and Dutilleux to birthday dinners and volleyball. The original features was published in French, but may now be read here in its English translation for the first time, or click here to read the original.

How should one present one of the greatest conductors of our time? Extremely modest in his way of life, Semyon Bychkov could almost lean to impudence on the Conductor’s podium when the work requires it. He is capable not only of what is known as a ‘great palette of expression’ (others equally so), but especially of a ‘different’ classicism. This is a new classicism, since it is inspired and informed by all contemporary musical movements, of whatever type –whether ephemeral or not. It is a classicism which both integrates and stabilises – at the heart of a structured and structural reading– the notion of violence, and even that of ecstasy. This is not with the intention of interpretation (a rock star would be just as capable), but as an opening of expression which will have the possibility to be present in the right moment; and without which there can be no art, no tragedy and no catharsis.

Simply a family birthday

Dionysios Dervis-Bournias: You are celebrating your sixtieth birthday on the 30th November, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra…

Semyon Bychkov: This invitation is marvellous proof of the mutual affection which exists between the orchestra and myself. We have collaborated for years, and it was their wish to celebrate my birthday by making music together at the Musikverein. They also thought that it would be most fitting that my… family were on stage with me, so they invited Katia and Marielle [his wife] Labèque.

From Leningrad to Vienna with just one hundred dollars in the pocket

SB: But there is equally an extraordinary symbolism for me in this concert.  Vienna was the city in which I landed as a refugee from Leningrad on 5 March 1975.  It was the first time I had been to the West.   A few days later I was wandering through the streets and completely by chance, found myself in front of the State Opera.  A performance was about to begin. I looked at the poster, which announced a new production of Lohengrin.  To go in was out of the question. I had left the USSR with a total of one hundred dollars, and with this I had somehow to survive.  I stayed there, looking at people as they entered the building.  I waited right up until the last person, then walked away. In 2005, that is to say exactly thirty years later, I was at the very same place for the premiere of yet another new production of Lohengrin.  The only difference was that this time I was inside the house, conducting it!  So as well as the love which I have for this orchestra, there is a strong sentimental link with Vienna.

Real Russian roots

DD-B: May we speak about the programme which you have chosen? In an evening which carries so many symbols, this cannot be attributed to chance…

SB: To include Tchaikovsky seemed obvious to me: Russia is where I was born. My roots are Russian.  Mozart too was an obvious choice. Even though he was born in Salzburg, to those in Vienna he is Viennese.  And because I was to perform together with my wife and sister-in-law, I also had to put the question to them. They immediately thought of Mozart as the most obvious composer to play with the Vienna Philharmonic.

A love for Wagner

DD-B: And then of course, Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser:

SB: I am deeply devoted to Wagner’s music which is an important part of my life, so  I thought it very natural to include him in the programme.

Wagner and Israel

DD-B Let’s discuss the three composers who you have chosen for this concert, and who are special to you in so many respects.  Let’s start with Wagner, of whom you are one of the greatest contemporary interpreters. For your anticipated tour of Israel [recently cancelled], you decided to replace Tannhäuser with Strauss (Don Juan). Is it still difficult to conduct Wagner in Israel?

SB: It is not difficult, it is unacceptable. Some of my colleagues have tried unsuccessfully to break this taboo. But I think that as long as the generation which survived the Holocaust is living, the ban on performing Wagner’s music in Israel will remain.  Of course it is a great loss for the country’s musical life, yet I can’t help but feel empathy towards those who were forever traumatized by the events of history. They identify Wagner’s music with his hatred of Jewish people, whereas the Nazis identified Wagner’s hatred of Jewish people with his music. In this circle of pain, the very idea of Wagner’s music being performed in Israel becomes unbearable. I hope that in time this will change, as has happened with the music of Richard Strauss.

An anti-Semitic composer interpreted by Jewish conductors

DD-B: Let’s return to Wagner: there is no possible doubt as to his virulent anti-Semitism.  That said, there is a great complexity in his relationship with Jews. For Parsifal’s premiere (his absolute masterpiece for a good number of Wagnerians), he chooses out of all the conductors, Mr Hermann Levi, moreover the son of a rabbi.  There was I think a friendship between them…

SB: You know, there is nothing unusual in this contradiction. It is not rare for anti-Semites to have met Jewish people for whom they felt a lot of empathy and with whom they would maintain cordial relations. This occurs wherever anti-Semitism exists. In the Soviet Union, the apparatchiks who decreed the quota of Jews that were acceptable in any institution not only held certain Jews in a very high esteem, but often also protected them. The contradictions of anti-Semitism are simply part of the many contradictions of human nature. It is worth reading the letters Wagner wrote to Mendelssohn:  they are full of esteem, at times verging on the obsequious. It is not for me to judge what happened in Wagner’s life that led him to become so vehemently anti-Semitic. One would have had to be present in the historical context to understand this.  Yet it did not prevent him from entrusting Levi, the son of a rabbi, with the premiere of Parsifal.

DD-B: And this complex Wagner/Jewish conductors relationship continues. How many great Wagnerians are Jewish…! The first Tetralogy on disc is thanks to Solti. Barenboim began his conductorship of La Scala with Tristan. Wagner occupies a large place in your own musical life. Is this not a revenge re-claimed by Nazism?

SB: I think that this simply conveys the power of art in general.  You see, with regard to musical creation in the history of Western civilisation, very few composers have attained the heights of Bach and Wagner who were able to recreate the entire universe – not just a part of it - in all its complexity. In the same way as I choose to make a distinction between Wagner’s creative genius and certain reprehensible flaws of his character. Wagner himself was not always inhibited by anti-Semitic prejudice.  As long as Levi managed to make Wagner’s music sound right, his origins did not stand in his way.

Historical interpretations

DD-B: And Mozart? I remember you fifteen years ago paying close attention to the study of historical interpretations: you followed in minute detail the work of Harnoncourt and of Goebel, you scrupulously studied every musical source and every possible manuscript. What is your approach towards his work today?

SB: It is not only about Mozart, but early music in general and continuing long after. My interest in historical interpretation is pragmatic but not ideological, for in every ideology lies the notion of dogma. Paraphrasing the words of the first Buddha to his disciples: ‘Today you believe in what I teach you and find it convincing, but if tomorrow science proves otherwise, it is indeed this new voice which you must follow.’  The wisdom of this is that it excludes dogma. We progress with what is convincing in a given moment, whilst keeping open the possibility of an evolution and re-evaluation of our initial point of view. Applying this principle to musical interpretation is the least one can do.

Period or modern instruments?

SB: You mean concerning the well-known dilemma? Playing with period instruments? Yes, of course. Playing with modern instruments? Yes, equally so. Yet this debate should not make us forget something much more fundamental: instruments are only a means of expression. Focusing our attention on the means as a priority can lead away from the principal objective, which is obviously the message of a musical work, the spirit of its genre or the rhetoric through which this message needs to be expressed. It is a case of trying to understand how people ‘breathed’ music at that time. Regardless of instruments, only those interpretations which reveal the complex emotional and intellectual depth of music remain unforgettable. One example was Missa Solemnis, which Harnoncourt and the Concertgebouw Orchestra performed in London some months ago.  A miracle. It was played with modern instruments.  And so what?

DD-B: Even Reinhard Goebel conducts almost exclusively using modern instruments over the last few years.

SB: The main interest for all these artists is the spirit of music they interpret and how to communicate it.  And as to the means of doing so . . . you know, if they had at their disposal nothing but spoons and forks they would still manage! Of course, one could say that the choice of instruments has an influence on the expression.  And this is correct.  But, when all is said and done, it depends on the instrumentalist. The question, which I find to be much more important is simply: can we really continue to interpret old music as if period instruments never existed? No, we cannot. Much more than the dilemma concerning the choice of this or that instrument, it is a question of staying informed about what is happening in the world of research and interpretation.  After that, each will find their own path regarding the choice, not only of instruments, but also of tempo, phrasing and articulation. There is such plurality in all these choices: let’s not forget that Harnoncourt and Gardiner will have studied exactly the same sources and still sometimes come to diametrically opposed conclusions.

Tchaikovsky and the West

DD-B: Let’s speak about Tchaikovsky.  He has been considered as a secondary composer in the West for decades - the interpretations of his symphonies have indeed been so. I ask myself whether this might not be linked to Hollywood’s use of his music.  The musical background to many station scenes are frequently Tchaikovsky, badly played by studio orchestras, or directly Tchaikovskian ersatz.

SB: I profoundly love his music. Does it make my taste dubious in some people’s eyes? Maybe so, but we should really resist this temptation (which we all have, by the way!) of pensée unique. 

DD-B: Do you think that this prejudice continues to exist for those who have listened to Tchaikovsky by Mravinsky?

SB: Yes, some are still not convinced – but then again, there are many people who are not convinced by many things. I cannot think of a subject on which everybody agrees. The only thing that is unacceptable is to try to impose our point of view on others believing that being ours, it must be right for everyone else.  This position is frankly not very democratic. It belongs to an approach towards musical composition and interpretation that is characteristic of the 20th century:  the desire and the capacity of some to devalue or even cause harm to others, simply because their music is not ‘politically correct’. I find this unacceptable.


SB: In an extraordinary way, Tchaikovsky managed to combine enormous melodic and harmonic gifts with great complexity of composition.  It is this mixture which makes him so hard to interpret. Let’s draw a parallel with Brahms. The two men came from different cultures. And they lived diametrically opposed private lives. Yet something draws them close: the organic unity between a highly romantic character of their music and very classical means of expressing it. Succeeding in this fusion between romanticism and classicism is Brahms’s and Tchaikovsky’s greatest accomplishment, which in turn presents the interpreter with a never ending challenge. 

DD-B: I find Karajan’s Tchaikovsky beautiful, Mravinsky’s theatrical, and yours tragic. Would you like to talk to me about your vision?

SB: I am reticent and even unable to define my way of interpreting any composer. In terms of personal taste, however different though they may be, Mravinsky and Karajan are among the most convincing interpreters of his music.

Tchaikovsky and homophobic clichés

SB: What I believe with great certainty is that Tchaikovsky was the complete opposite of a weak, effeminate and continuously complaining person. Everything that we know about his life assures me that the man, while being a homosexual, was the opposite of this homophobic cliché and his music justly reflects this personality held up by a solid spinal column. He reminds me of Verdi: a very reserved and dignified man, but with absolutely unswerving beliefs. Beauty and tenderness should not be confused with weakness and indecision.

Luciano Berio: a rather animated first meeting

DD-B: You have just mentioned Verdi: I think that it was after a performance of Un ballo in maschera at the Maggio Fiorentino when I heard Luciano Berio say to his wife about your conducting : “It is only he who can achieve this miracle with this orchestra.” You were very close, both as colleagues as well as friends.

SB: It’s an incredible story. Well… I have a whole chapter for you if you are ready! I first met Luciano in the United States when he was conducting Katia and Marielle [Labèque] in his Concerto for two pianos with the Cleveland orchestra.  

DD-B: A concerto which he had composed with them in mind.

SB: Exactly, they were still adolescents when they went to the Paris premiere of his Sinfonia, which he conducted. They were so overwhelmed by this music that they went to see him afterwards and asked if he would write a concerto for two pianos. Well, he composed it. So when Marielle entered my life and when I found out that she would perform it with Berio in Cleveland, I flew there to attend the concert. At that time I was quite distanced from the language of his music and felt rather excluded. So I told myself that the only way to develop a connection to it could be by listening to a concert conducted by the composer himself. By the end of the performance, something began to shift inside me. Just after, the four of us went for a drink and we started to speak about politics. I can tell you that it was rather lively and spirited as conversations go! Luciano was still a member of the Italian Communist party.  The USSR experienced from the outside and the inside

DD-B: Still at that time?

SB: It was 1987. Don’t forget that the Wall still existed, and Gorbachev had only been in power for two years. The world was certainly beginning to change, but to which extent was not yet obvious, and in the Italian intellectual establishment of the time, communists were in the majority. Profoundly idealistic like Luciano, or equally profoundly opportunistic like some of the others. It was precisely because Luciano idealistically believed in communism that our conversation was particularly lively. I would speak about communist texts and dogmas, most of which were unknown to him. Finally I said: “Listen, the communism which you believe in is a very attractive idea, but I have lived it in the USSR, and the reality there has nothing to do with the image which you have of it.” We continued talking for a long time and that night began a very beautiful friendship. Sometimes, we would spend entire hours on the phone as I had many questions to ask him concerning the Sinfonia, Rendering, the Concerto for two pianos, Canticum Novissimi Testamenti. Luciano was not meticulous in his notation and I had to clarify questions of tempo, articulation, and even verify certain notes. He was very patient, for it means a lot to a composer when an interpreter takes a real interest in translating his true intentions. What I must add about Luciano was his joyful way of discussing music, every  kind of music. He had this gift of being able to explain to everyone, even those who weren’t familiar with his world, the most complex thoughts on musical process in simple words.  In this sense, he was one of the rare people who remind me of my own father who was a scientist. During the last decade of his life the subject of holographic medicine became a focus of my father’s attention. So, one day I asked him: what is it exactly? And he was able to explain it in a way that helped me understand and connect to the subject. Luciano had this ability when speaking about music.

Schumann with Alfred Brendel

DD-B: Another personal memory is of Alfred Brendel telling me after your concert (Schumann, Piano Concerto): “Rarely have I been so well conducted. It is a shame that I have not played with him earlier.”

SB: Yes, it was in Hamburg. Alfred has a great generosity of spirit - and spirit…he possesses it in the highest degree possible! But what I most admire in him is that he loves art in himself even more than himself in art.

Henri Dutilleux

DD-B: You have extensively collaborated with another of the greatest composers of our time, Henri Dutilleux.

SB: He is one of the creators who make me feel privileged to be alive in the same era as them. And to have been guided by him in his own music also gave me more confidence to confront the music of the past.

Uniformity of great orchestras

DD-B: I have chosen four of the orchestras that you frequently direct: New York’s Metropolitan, Milan’s La Scala and the Philharmonic Orchestras of Vienna and Berlin. The opinion that, nowadays, there is a standardisation of major orchestras is very fashionable. Do these orchestras still have strong and very different identities?

SB: Absolutely. In the case of institutions with great tradition, it is the institution which remains stronger than the individual.

The uniqueness of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

SB: The Vienna Philharmonic is a superb example of this. They are determined to protect the uniqueness of their tradition. But take care, for when they speak of ‘tradition’, they are referring to ‘speaking the language’ of the music which is important to them.

DD-B: Would you be willing to play some Shostakovich with them?

SB: Yes of course, and I will. They are open to exploring a wide range of repertoire. But their prime responsibility is, as they see it, to preserve the great Austrian and German tradition, which is part of their genetic makeup. What also makes them special is that they are both a symphonic and an operatic orchestra.

DD-B: An equal share of symphony and opera, just like in your own work since the beginning.

SB: We come together on this point. I started making music with them in 1999, conducting Elektra. We continued with Tristan and Isolde.  New productions of Lohengrin and Daphne followed, as well as Der Rosenkavalier at the Salzburg Festival.  And there were also symphonic programmes. Even Bach’s Mass in B minor, which they were curious to interpret in what was, for them, a very unusual style!

Such a great tradition is never static

DD-B: You managed to persuade them to work towards an historical reading?

SB: But they were already very open: I arrived at the first rehearsal, greeted them and explained that there were certain parameters that I wanted to adopt in the reading of this work. I explained that I didn’t subscribe to a ‘baroque ideology of interpretation’, but that I was searching in this direction for a convincing phrasing and articulation. We started the reading. Later, one of the musicians said to me: “Listen, when you arrived and spoke to us about an interpretation which would bring us more towards a historical reading we couldn’t help smiling, and it was precisely because it represented everything that we had hoped to hear from you.”

DD-B: The complete opposite of the cliché concerning the inflexibility of the Viennese…

SB: Exactly. They bear no resemblance to the image of conservative orchestra. Deep down, it’s a group of artists who constantly find themselves in search of authentic expression. It is very moving to see how they can suddenly reveal such folly, verging on the obsessional, that enables a miracle to happen. No one can explain the whys and wherefores. It is this need to discover what hides behind the notes and how to express it that nurtures and conveys their great tradition.

There is no absolute sound

DD-B: Does this orchestra have today’s most clearly identifiable sound?

SB: They are certainly one of the most identifiable orchestras, especially within a specific repertoire. When you speak of sound (just like when we spoke of period instruments), don’t forget that sound still remains the means through which expression is generated. There is no such thing as an absolute sound. Different composers, styles and periods require specific, and thus variable, sound. Nowadays, we no longer have an excuse for playing Stravinsky with the same sound as Brahms. Each piece of music belongs to its own culture and to the period in which it was composed. This means that within the same performance the sound of an orchestra might have to change according to the work being played. It is not the same with a human voice, the only instrument that is not man-made, even if it has to be man-trained. An individual voice remains uniquely distinct and consequently best suited for a particular range of repertoire, but not all. This creates a limitation which an instrumentalist doesn’t have. Yet who wouldn’t trade his instrument for the voice of a Callas or a Pavarotti?!

A musical dialect

SB: Back to the Vienna Philharmonic: while rehearsing Mahler’s Third Symphony, it suddenly occurred to me that in their manner of phrasing this work, they were actually playing as if speaking a dialect. And this made me even more conscious than ever just how important for musical phrasing dialect is. Not just the Hochdeutsch, not Pushkin’s Russian, nor Shakespearean English, but a dialect! In all countries people speak the language in different ways according to the region - a dialect. The words may be the same, but the way in which they are enunciated will vary. And as a piece of music, just like its creator, is born in a particular place, there will be some form of dialect in which it will be expressed. Vienna in Mahler’s time was already a New York of Europe: a melting pot, a city of tensions, neuroses and contradictions, but also a city in search of harmony, longing for beauty and the need for acceptance. All of these would have been expressed through local dialect, including music. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra ‘speak’ their music in a dialect. So do other great orchestras in the music of their own culture. It is impossible to notate, but indispensable to preserve!

British orchestras

DD-B: Don’t British orchestras have a character, which is different to all other orchestras?

SB: Britain is an island where people have their own unique mentality.  You need to know and understand the British in order to get closer to English music, which expresses the national character and temperament. However solid collectively, British orchestras are at times viewed as undemonstrative and reserved.  I find this image to be incomplete and very superficial, as it does not explain their ability to achieve important results when given the opportunity, and a capacity to be credible in the entire range of repertoire.  Yes they are remarkable professionals, but most of all… how can I put it… Well, it is not a coincidence that the British are a nation with an extraordinary tradition of theatre. It really isn’t a coincidence that they have this talent to transform themselves in order to become someone else. All you have to do is think of Laurence Olivier to Daniel Day-Lewis, Anthony Hopkins, and many others.

DD-B: Judi Dench…

SB: Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, you see, there is no end.  Even those who went on to work in cinema started off in the theatre.  There must be a reason for this ‘national gift’. When you play a role, all inhibitions have to evaporate - the same inhibitions which, as a result of an education which respects individual conventions and particular modes of expression as required by society,  are omnipresent in our private lives. This way of behaviour is ingrained from infancy, so when they act they can let the inhibitions drop in a way that is socially acceptable, because after all it is a role. Well, it’s the same with British musicians, who have a similar capacity for transformation. The Covent Garden Orchestra and Chorus for example are capable of entering diametrically opposed worlds as required by each composer and be genuinely believable.

DD-B: Let’s return to you, and this time to the very tools of your profession, your hands, your conductor’s technique. When you came to the West, everyone spoke about this technique, which was not only incredibly precise, but which was simply ‘something else’.  I have the impression that the more the years go by, the more this technique becomes abstract, that it is less and less concerned with precision. Just like a handwriting which progressively distances itself from the original printed letter in order to reach the boundary of what remains legible.

SB: You mention something that has been constantly on my mind over the last few years. I had the great privilege to study with Ilya Musin who formulated conducting as a form of visual performing art which expresses the character of music and tells the story with the help of unmistakably clear gestures. I have learnt all these things from him.

Freedom is a question of life, not of talent

SB: But the years have passed, and there has been a metamorphosis in the way that I feel music, how I ‘see’ music, how I want to ‘speak’ it, and more specifically those works which I have lived with all my life. At some point I began to feel freedom in expressing music spontaneously, which I was unable to do earlier. This has nothing to do with talent, but with living. With what we call maturity, a term which I do not particularly like since it often presupposes that we have attained a certain level at which we feel comfortable, and I don’t believe in this. Everything has to move constantly, to evolve organically. The manual technique is meant to be a blessing and to provide the tools which enable the musical process to unfold organically and spontaneously. Yet it can become a trap by creating the temptation to micromanage everything.

Transmitting to the young 

DD-B: You spoke to me about the great influence of your teacher Ilya Musin on your development. The Royal Academy of Music in London recently attributed the ‘Otto Klemperer Chair of Orchestral Studies’ to you…

SB: I like working with young musicians enormously. The greatest responsibility of my generation is to engender in them a positive attitude to music making. When they see me sweat and fight for each note, each phrase, each transition, they see for themselves just how happy all these efforts make me.  That someone who may seem to them a bit of a ‘dinosaur’ has not lost his idealism, his belief in art and in the joy it brings.

Do you really want this profession?

SB: First of all, they need to reflect on whether they really want this profession. Thereafter, I can show them different paths which for me and to this day seem valid. In time they will discover that other paths also exist. And then, when you speak of my joy in what I do… we can only love if we are loved in return. The music has to also love you. It’s really terrible to have to fight to declare one’s love for a musical work and find that it in return remains silent. You end up fighting against yourself.  Initially it is inevitable, but one day we must start receiving back and that is the beginning of the way to freedom. Music becomes part of your being, just as you are part of the city in which you live. You know exactly where you are heading and you know the multiplicity of paths which can take you there.

DD-B: You would not have chosen a multitude of paths twenty years ago…

SB: It is not that I would not have chosen them.  It is a lot simpler than that, twenty years ago, I did not know as many of them! I only knew one, or two. And then I found a third, and a fourth. The recording process helped me enormously.

Working conditions in Cologne

SB: During my 13 years in Cologne, I had microphones and cameras present for everything that I conducted.  And all the time in the world to work! Furthermore, I had an extraordinary technical team who understood both what I was searching for and what I wanted to find. What was important to me was just as important to them. And it is indeed in Cologne that I finally understood what makes a vibrant recording. How for example, a constancy of tempo affects the continuous flow of music, which in turn sustains the tension of a performance. If the tension disappears, it is clear that something must have gone wrong with the tempo.

Succeeding in self-observation

SB: It is only in the laboratory conditions of a recording studio that all the details can be observed. You have to be comfortable with the idea of coming out of your own body to observe yourself as if you were someone else, which means forgetting your own ego. Yes, we are never objective. But all the skill lies in the ability and desire to judge in an instant: does it sound right? What seems convincing today may not necessarily be so tomorrow. But if already today it is not, then something has to be done about it immediately. 

Leonard Bernstein and West Side Story

DD-B: In my adolescence, I admired Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke, considering them to be very complex. And I despised West Side Story, considering it to be simplistic. Presently, it is more the opposite, but for the same reasons: Klavierstücke bore me; Bernstein’s complexity is precisely what amazes me.

SB: I think that in our desire to establish someone we need to resist the temptation to demolish someone else. I don’t have any comment to make concerning Stockhausen.   On the other hand, I can honestly say that for me, West Side Story is a miracle. The last time I was aware of it  was while listening to the recent Labèque recording.  As so many times before, I became aware that the process of artistic creation can never be understood or explained: how did these sounds come to Bernstein? Where did they come from? The Labèques' interpretation reveals the complex beauty of Bernstein’s creation.

The piano

DD-B: Few people are aware of your abilities as a pianist. You played Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto in public at the age of thirteen. Why do you never play in public? Even if only to accompany the singers, which you perhaps like more than anything?

SB: But I do play piano while rehearsing with singers.

DD-B: I have indeed noticed that you do so, especially when you are annoyed by the performance of accompanists in opera houses…

SB: No, no, you are exaggerating.  It has been years since I can remember this happening.  Why don’t I play in public? I don’t see why we should burden the world with another pianist who is not in shape, when there are so many with absolutely no limitations.

A twenty dollar debt

DD-B: Very few people know the discretion and modesty with which you help an incalculable number of people. Relax, we are not going to speak about that. Rather, speak to me about the people who have helped you when you left the USSR, there must be some link.

SB: They are so numerous.  It’s such a long list. How can I name one and not another?  But all the same… I would like to mention one, because this story served as one of life’s great lessons. Pianist Vitalij Margulis was a professor at the Leningrad conservatory when I studied there. We did not know each other well, but would always exchange greetings. He had the generosity to come and congratulate me when I won the Rachmaninov competition with a performance of Symphonic Dances. He left the USSR a few months before me. And so it was in Rome that we met again and formed a close friendship while waiting for our respective visas. One day Vitalij was invited to Freiburg for a recital and master classes at the conservatory. They were so successful that he was immediately offered a professorship. Thus he became the first among us who had a clear future. He returned to Rome, and we greeted him at a train station like a hero. That evening Vitya invited all of us to a party at his home.  I arrived very late at night in the midst of a celebration, filled with lots of food, wine and laughter. At some point, Vitya turned to me and said: “Come here, I want to tell you about Freiburg.” So he did and in great detail. Then all of a sudden he offered me a twenty dollar bill, saying that as he had earned a bit of money, he wanted to share some of it with me. Twenty dollars was no small sum of money and I could have fed myself for several weeks with this gift. I felt very ill at ease and embarrassed.  Seeing this, with tears swelling in his eyes, he said: “Listen, I know why you find it difficult. Please accept this gift, and when one day somebody is in need of help, you will be there for them. That way we’ll be even.”

Some years went by.  One day, when I was conducting in Dresden, the phone rang. There was Vitya at the other end of the line. “I am in Dresden, he told me, visiting churches…” It was something which he loved doing. We met, and there was so much to catch up on… Finally, as he was taking leave he said: “Ah, and as for the twenty dollars, I know for a fact that we are even.”

No more volleyball

DD-B: Shall we speak a bit about volleyball? It was just after the concert with Brendel in Hamburg. It was incredibly cold and we were obliged to walk fast in order not to freeze. I don’t smoke, but at the time you were on several packets per day, and I am a few years younger than you. In spite of this, I was several dozen metres behind, trying to catch my breath… rather embarrassing! I did a little research: in your youth, you were also an athlete, a member of the Leningrad Dynamo team.

SB: Conducting is athletic. Nowadays, I very much like walking.  Long walks. And it’s a beautiful thing, both physically and spiritually.

DB: One final question. We know the menu of your birthday concert. Do you know the menu of the dinner, which will follow it?

SB: The only thing that I know for certain at the moment, because it is Marielle who is preparing everything in secret, is that I will be seeing friends, a lot of friends. I suppose that we will talk, eat, drink and laugh, for as long as the restaurant will let us!

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