Alex Karpeyev, pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up piano and pursue a career in music?

At the age of six I attended a kindergarten in Russia that had a music club. There were all kinds of musical activities there: clapping, singing, playing drums etc. At some point I learnt how to play a well-known Boccherini Minuetto on a xylophone — this was a highlight of my musical experience at a time. I clearly remember enjoying playing and having fun finding the right pitches in the Minuetto. Later I begged my mother to take me for an audition at a music school. I’m so grateful she did. At the school I applied to study the piano, and although it was the most popular instrument, I passed all tests and was accepted. Since then I’ve never stopped playing.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I still recall the recordings I listened to as a child. The selection wasn’t great — we only had a couple of good LPs at home, but among them were Beethoven’s piano sonatas with Maria Grinberg and Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto with Van Cliburn. I also enjoyed listening to concerts at the Saratov Philarmonic Orchestra; among the visiting artists were Eliso Virsaladze and Natalia Gutman. Later I acquired the Tchaikovsky Symphonies with Mravinsky, Chopin’s Concertos with young Kissin and Chopin’s Etudes with Pollini. Then there were years of getting to know Wagner, Verdi, Mahler and the Brahms. These composers and performers set a high standard in mind for what great music and musical performances could and should be.

The five years I spent at the Moscow Conservatory were another major influence. I had the privilege of learning from Russia’s finest teachers and absorbing the living traditions of conservatory’s professors and alumni of the past: Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Medtner and Neuhaus to name just a few. I will always treasure the opportunity to study there. But I can hardly think of a Russian artist who was not in one way or another influenced by the London musical scene. Now, living here, I know that London shapes my artistic life, too.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

My greatest challenge so far is trying to find time for everything I really would like to do. So far, the challenge has been in combining writing a dissertation, teaching, performing, curating and festival organising. I am privileged to be entrusted to organise music events at the Pushkin House, a historical centre for Russian culture in London. So far this resulted in a rather successful series of concerts that we called Pushkin House Music Salons. We aim to promote and celebrate Russian music there. In 2016 I set up an annual festival dedicated to the music of composer-pianist Nikolay Medtner (1880-1951). The aim of the festival is to provide a chance for Medtner-enthusiasts to gather together and to widen the circle of the admirers of his music the UK. The Second Medtner Festival is taking place Sunday and Monday 26-27 November 2017.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I am working on my first recording at the moment. It will be piano music by Russian émigré composers Grechaninov, Rachmaninov, Medtner, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. I initially performed this programme at London’s Kings Place, and was pleased receive a standing ovation and two positive reviews. The programme commemorated the centenary of the Russian revolution. I then performed it in France, Canada and Russia.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I recently decided to specialise in music of Russian composer-pianist Nikolay Medtner. I spent five years studying his music and style in greatest possible detail. In 2011, I discovered an archive compiled by Medtner’s British pupil, Edna Iles at the British library. The most valuable part of the archive was her own notebooks, which she wrote in immediately after lessons with the composer. The lesson notes cover more than 20 years of her artistic relationship with Medtner and shed unique light on how Medtner wanted his music to be performed. Having compared and contrasted Iles’ notes with all existing evidence on Medtnerian performance practise, I wrote a doctoral dissertation which since its publication on have been viewed in 40 countries. I think I might be able to call myself a Medtner expert now.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

It is important to create programmes that are appealing to an audience. A brilliant piece at the end of the concert is a must, and so is a combination of crowd pleasers and pieces by lesser known composers. Apart from promoting Medtner by including his works in my recitals, I am currently taking an interest in the piano music of other lesser known Russians: Nikolay Roslavets and Nikolay Golovanov. It is vital, though, to place their music in the right context within a recital.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I think whoever plays at the Wigmore Hall will never forget the experience. All artists I know want to return there. There is something magic about its acoustics.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Of the living pianists there are: Pletnev, Kissin, Perahia and Lugansky. Among musicians of the recent past, George Solti’s musical personality and the range of his career were incredible. But if I really think about a model for a musician’s life and career, it is Sergey Rachmaninov. Not only was he one of the greatest ever concert pianists, a successful conductor and a composer, he also found time to remain approachable and enjoy simple, everyday life.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

It was my Wigmore Hall debut, because it was as if I was somehow linked with all the other artists who have played there.

Of the more terrifying experiences, there was the unexpected absence of the last two pages in Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death during a live performance – luckily, I knew the ending off by heart!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I think a performer has to be faithful to the ‘tradition’. It is important to know the achievements of the artists of the past, be aware of the performance traditions existing at time of the composer, but also aware of the time in which we live today. An artist must strive to summon something new to the ‘tradition’ to keep it alive. For this a strong personality is a must. A keen interest in the visual arts, literature and even psychology have helped me personally.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Living and teaching in London, performing everywhere as much as possible!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Having a well-balanced artistic, personal and social life.

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