Classical: The other Solzhenitsyn

With his London debut tonight, Ignat Solzhenitsyn takes another major step in his burgeoning pianistic career. So has the celebrity of his father Alexander been a help or a hindrance?
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All concert pianists walk in the shadow of gods, but few are as darkly overhung as the 26-year-old Russian who will make his London debut tonight. Keyboard deities - at least two of whom will be in attendance - are only a part of it; the expectations of Mstislav Rostropovich, who supervised his musical start, represent a more serious challenge. But this pianist also bears a unique burden, in that his father just happens to be one of the greatest political heroes of the century.

"When I began performing in public, I used to feel that the audience had come out of curiosity," says Ignat Solzhenitsyn. "And I suppose that curiosity will always be there. It's inevitable: it comes with the territory." To meet this boundingly eager young man, who apologises in a quintessentially American manner for smoking during the interview, is to banish all thoughts of Russian gloom. And when our talk threatens to get stuck on the doings of Alexander, Ignat politely but firmly wrenches it back on course: he's living his own life, pursuing his own career, and that should be our subject- matter today. But with a family that is so indissolubly linked in its singular destiny, it is no surprise that the father's tale should permeate the son's.

When I ask for the story of his musical life, Ignat Solzhenitsyn launches into what is clearly a well-worn routine. His parents always had music on and when he was six he began to experiment with the piano they had accidentally acquired with their Vermont farmhouse. The real beginning came when Rostropovich heard him, and asked who was teaching him. "My parents said no one, so he said they'd better find someone, as I clearly had talent." The person they hired was hopeless - a ski-ing instructor who taught music on the side - and it was Rostropovich who found a teacher worthy of his abilities. "I was 10 when I first realised that a life without music would make very little sense." When he was 14, Rostropovich suggested that he go to London to study with the legendary Maria Curcio, and that was where he spent his next three formative years.

Was that another exile? "Well, the separation was more painful for my parents than for me. But I did find London hard to adjust to." Like his brothers, he'd adjusted happily to Vermont, and outside the Solzhenitsyns' 50-acre domain he could easily pass as an all-American kid.

Inside the palisade was a different story: they'd put up barriers because fame had brought intolerable consequences. "Every day we had to fend off journalists, well-wishers, autograph-seekers, kooks, enemies - don't forget, they tried to murder my father the way they murdered Markov [with a poisoned umbrella] a few years later. And my mother was constantly getting threats on the phone, threats against all of us. We children weren't shielded from reality: we knew at every stage what the true situation was, and exactly what our father had been through. I read The Gulag Archipelago when I was eight. It's important to read all three volumes - to read only the first is like listening to the first movement of a symphony. The whole thing is about the triumph of the human spirit over the unspeakable."

Inside the palisade, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was an adored despot. "We had lessons with him every day in maths, algebra, physics, geometry, and Russian history, and he loved playing tennis with us. He was, and still is, enormously dynamic. And he was great fun, a brilliant mimic and a fabulous story-teller - his first ambition had been to act. He was nothing like the stock image of the stern Old Testament prophet - though that element was of course there too."

Were they frightened of him? "We had tremendous respect. He had the authority of someone who'd been through the war, the camps, cancer, and a 10-year fight against the Soviet monster. And he worked as devotedly as anyone I've ever seen - he never had to tell us `work is important'. It wasn't just the force of his personality, it was the example of his life."

Speaking Russian at home, as they still do, they absorbed Alexander's Orthodox religion and his determination that their exile should not be permanent. "Russia was present with us all the time. Not a day went by when we didn't speak about going back. He really was a prophet; he really did have the ability - even in the darkest days when the Soviet system seemed impregnable - to look into the future."

Ironically Ignat went home first, on a tour with Rostropovich; Alexander followed later and settled. Ignat now lives with his doctor wife in Philadelphia. Might he too go back to live in Russia? "I don't know. The future is cloudy. But it's more important for a writer to be attached to his soil and surrounded by his language, than it is for a musician, because music is universal." There is also the little matter of practicality: running a concert career from Moscow is these days almost impossible.

And Ignat's career is burgeoning. He's not yet signed up with a record label, but he's averaging 70 concerts a year, many of which he conducts - and sometimes from the keyboard. "It's the best way to perform Mozart's concertos - that way, you can achieve the kind of spontaneity which is far more difficult when you've got a separate conductor. I intend to keep both these areas of my life going, because I'm greedy for both areas of the repertoire. I can't imagine life without the Beethoven symphonies, or without the Beethoven piano sonatas. Both are oxygen to me."

If he were to make a record now, it would be of Schubert sonatas, "with their unfathomable content". He dwells firmly in the tonal era - happily playing Prokofiev - and is emphatically not greedy for Schoenberg. "I struggle desperately to find meaning in his music, but I think he and his ilk will eventually be seen as a glorious dead-end. I don't play them, because I think we should only play music we love and about which we have strong convictions. On the few occasions when I've broken this rule, I've felt like a con-man, a fraud."

The monastic Rudolf Serkin was one of Ignat's early mentors, and there's more than a whiff of monasticism about the way he now goes about his work. Like many other performers, he doesn't eat before playing, but he also prefaces a concert with a sleep. "I wake up a different person, completely focused and ready. It's a bit like iconography. The most important thing every iconographer must do before starting work is to fast and pray.

"The ultimate goal of every musician should be to dissolve himself in the personality of the composer. But to achieve that one has to have a strong personality of one's own. The same rule applies in hypnosis: it's very difficult to hypnotise a weak-willed person, but very easy to hypnotise a strong one. I saw that in action in Sviatoslav Richter's 1989 concert at the Barbican. The hall was completely dark, with just one tiny light over the score. At that moment it was just Schubert, 2,000 people, and him - and he had made himself the least important part of the equation. Yet he was a man of immense personal power."

His cheerfully open appearance may belie it, but the more this young man talks, the more one discerns an ascetic will which can only derive from the father.

Ignat Solzhenitsyn and the Brentano Quartet play at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London (0171-960 4242) tonight at 7.45pm