Arts: His other one's a Porsche

Vadim Repin loves cars, billiards and tennis - but music is his life. Robert Cowan meets a Siberian violinist who likes to keep on the move
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It's early Sunday afternoon in a small Amsterdam restaurant. I sit sipping a beer, my eyes fixed on the door for any sign of the 24-year- old Siberian-born violinist Vadim Repin. Half an hour goes by and in he walks, casual and relaxed, a cross between Robbie Coltrane and the young David Oistrakh. He offers his apologies. "I'm so sorry I'm late," he says as we shake hands, "but my car was stolen this morning. It's a Porsche." I thank him for bothering to turn up at all. "Ah, it's nothing..." he laughs, waving dismissively. "Worse things happen. At least I have my health!"

Repin is just three years older than his friend and fellow violinist, Maxim Vengerov. Both studied with Zakhar Bron, yet they sound quite unalike - Vengerov, confident, boldly virtuosic and with a gleaming tone; Repin, brilliant certainly, but rather less out-going, marginally more subtle. Vengerov was voted Gramophone's 1994 Young Artist of the Year and awarded Jascha Heifetz's bow; Repin still awaits his due measure of popular acclaim. So, did Bron actively encourage their differences? "Once you've got a personality, you can't push it back," says Repin; "and if it grows, all the better! Professor Bron saw us as different players and let us develop in our own ways - both musically, and in our physical handling of the instrument."

Repin, an only child of music-loving parents, is married, now lives in Germany and plans to move to Amsterdam. He travels a good deal but tires of flying. "Air travel can be depressing: you lose a lot of time. But on the train, you can read, play computer, make phone calls that you don't want to make from the hotel!" Although keen on cars, billiards and tennis, music is his life. "I hate to be 'unemployed'. If I am, I become too quiet, and if the music isn't there in my head, I miss it. I don't like to stay in one place for too long; I never plan, because I can never tell how I'm going to feel at any time. Sometimes I'm afraid of new places, but once I get there, it's usually a phenomenal experience. I'm what you might call a 'difficult' character!"

He enjoys his own company and knows his own worth. "You play your concert, go back to the hotel and feel that nobody needs you. But it isn't always like that. Someone once suggested that I must be very generous to give my talent to everybody, that I never play for myself. I disagree: if you do something in life, you do it as much for yourself as for anyone else."

Gentle though tough-minded, Repin follows his mother's example. "She put all her life into mine," he says with quiet earnestness; "even when we were in need in Russia. She would do night jobs so that she could spend the day-time with me, see that I was OK and travel with me when I was young. It was a really hard life for her; she was very tough and I feel a great deal of love, respect and appreciation." Although he has only returned to Siberia once in four years, Repin meets his parents on a fairly regular basis - in Moscow, for example. "If I'm bored, I can fly home for a day - between the rehearsal and the concert!" But boredom is a very rare experience.

Repin is an extraordinarily conscientious musician. He is greatly concerned about achieving a proper "balance" - in terms both of interpretation and programming - and takes heed of a score's every detail, often worrying over a particular phrase. "You go to sleep and sing it in your head," he says, wistfully; "sometimes you just can't sleep for thinking how you might tackle it. Of course, it's far worse with dead composers; at least with the living, you can pick up the phone and ask them about it!" He laughs. "It's our sickness, us musicians - you have to live with it, especially with new pieces. If I don't sing the music at night, then I feel worried: there must be something wrong with me - perhaps I'm not deep enough into it, or I'm not working hard enough. And yet I know that, if I force myself, the results will be artificial."

His repertoire is growing virtually by the day. He finds the Beethoven Concerto the "most difficult piece ever written - wonderful, yes, but difficult. You learn it all your life and yet you can never fully master its 'soul'. It is so simple, and so incredibly rich." So does he ever feel the need, as some younger interpreters do, to radically re-think the piece? "Why, do the older players do it wrong?" he exclaims, somewhat nonplussed. "OK, if you decide to perform a piece, you should play it your way - that's what makes for personality. You go with your instinct. But I don't think that anyone knows the right way. The most important thing is to find out exactly what you do want, then make sure that's what you deliver."

Of course, Beethoven carries the burden of a long recorded tradition, unlike modern music. Does he tackle new works? "Yes. I play Gubaidulina - her Offertorium. The difference here is that you are free to do whatever you want. You look at the music, practise and have a conception; then you go on stage and 'make a new building' - right there! It doesn't have to be great: what counts is the sense of improvisation, of moulding something entirely new. It could never really be like that with Beethoven."

Repin adores Shostakovich. He considers the First Concerto to be one of the "three giants" (the others being by Beethoven and Brahms). "It's more like a symphony," he says. "There are four movements instead of the usual three and, although the first and fourth keep violin and orchestra in dialogue, the rest is completely integrated. It's like some big machine." Is it important, though, for listeners to understand the political wellsprings of Shostakovich's musical language? "Very much so," he says emphatically. "Not so much the specific facts, as the emotions that they inspired. Even if you don't read about it, you'll feel it." The Second Concerto is next on his agenda: "It's a very different sort of piece, dark, serious; and, once I learn it, I think I'm going to love it as much as the First. But I can't say for sure: it isn't 'in me' yet!"

Repin loves to listen to the records of his feted forebears - Jascha Heifetz ("the king", as he calls him), Mischa Elman, David Oistrakh, Henryk Szeryng. He'd study their interpretations with Bron, but he also attends to art and literature. "You read Hesse or Thomas Mann, and you know what's been around; you go to Remarque in Germany, you can sense what life was like during the Great War. It's very interesting and you appreciate the ideas, but I don't think you should make too many parallels between literature and music. Music is a very special art that can reflect specific crises without you even noticing. Not with Shostakovich - his goal was to express these things - but with, say, Medtner and Prokofiev, who preferred 'sweet dreams', fairy-tales and fantasies. You must keep an open mind, balance your knowledge and your intuition. Ah! all these balances..." he exclaims, lighting another cigarette. "You get completely sick of them!"

Repin plays Shostakovich's First Concerto with the RPO, Sat 7.30 Barbican, London EC2 (0171-638 8891)