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Antal Szalai: I think a classical musician should rather be like a good actor


Ilinca Bernea, un interviu cu Antal Szalai

01.01.2007
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Motto: "The creation of art is not the fulfillment of a need but the creation of a need. The world never needed Beethoven's Fifth Symphony until he created it. Now we could not live without it".

Louis Kahn.

Paraphrasing Louis Kahn, before hearing Antal playing for the very first time, I used to be happy with the interpretations of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concert that I knew. After that, I found them awkward, full of faults or tasteless and inane... I couldn't find my peace until I discovered an interpretation that resembled the way I was remembering Antal's concert. This was a recording with David Oistrakh. But even so, I couldn't live without having aside a record of Antal. Therefore, one day, I took my chance and I wrote straight to the source, asking him to give me, please, the object of my cult.



An interview taken by Ilinca Bernea
Ilinca Bernea: Do you have any model? Is there for you, a musician from another generation that influenced somehow your interpretation style?
Antal Szalai: In my earlier years, I was influenced by Jascha Heifetz. I remember, his recordings impressed me so much that I wanted to do everything exactly the same way he did. Later I discovered Leonid Kogan and David Oistrakh - their recordings gave me a lot of inspiration. I think their influence on me was quite significant in building up my own interpretation style.

I.B.: Do you agree with Jackson Pollock statement: "Art means to meet with yourself?"
A.S.: Yes and no. It can be completely true in arts like painting, poetry or music composition, where the artists create something new, totally based on their own ideas, emotions and experiences.
I think a classical musician should rather be like a good actor. We have to understand the thoughts and emotions of the composer of the actual musical piece which we play and we must try to interpret and transmit these thoughts and emotions in the most authentic way to the audience.
For this, we need to have enough self-knowledge, of course.

I.B.: Is there a musical current that you consider you have more affinities with than others? In other words, do you feel more yourself playing the compositions of the great classics, of the romantics or of contemporary musicians or do you simply try to resonate as much as possible with the spirit of each musical époque without special preferences?
A.S.: I think my general violin-playing style is the most suitable for compositions of romantic composers such as Brahms or Tchaikovsky, but I love to play Bach and Mozart, too. I play less contemporary music because a lot of composers are trying to find out something brand new in music composing. They want to write something very interesting and new, and not something beautiful. I prefer those contemporary composers who write real music - there are a few.
I.B.: I couldn't agree more.

I.B.: From your point of view a good interpret is the one who succeeds to get closest to composers' spirit or that one who is able to give an original interpretation to a consecrated musical-sheet, even though not so precise reflecting the original vision or expressivity intended by its author? Do you agree the interpretations that give a new breath to the music of other centuries, for instance? Or do you consider that the true master proof is to give life again through music to the soul of some distant, faded away times?
A.S.: In the last few decades, the science of musicology improved a lot. Due to this, a lot of new information came up about baroque music and it became easier for musicians to presume how musicians played in that age. This information changed many musicians' points of view about baroque music playing and they started to play in a different way. Many new ensembles specialized on historical playing were established. I think that these improvements are important and very useful and there are a lot of excellent musicians who play baroque music on the historical way wonderfully. But I feel a tendency that playing baroque music on the historical way is becoming a rule for every musician; otherwise they would be called "old fashioned". My opinion is that music is not about rules and fashions. For example, I have very old, original recordings of the greatest violinists of the 19th century, such as Sarasate, Ysaye or Auer. Their playing is incredibly magnificent but compared with the violinists of today, their playing is much more sentimental and gushy. So, do we have to play the music of their age, the romantic music such as Brahms or Tchaikovsky on the same way they played? Of course not. I strongly believe that it is possible for a talented musician to play everything in the right style, and authentically based on his/her good musical taste and not based on rules.

I.B.: If you had, by chance, the possibility to start again your musical journey, to make once more a choice, what instrument would be the exquisite? Still the violin?
A.S.: Yes, I am sure about it.

I.B.: How did you find the American Music School from Manhattan compared to the European schools that you graduated previously? Are there clear differences in the way of approaching or teaching music?
A.S.: There are differences, but I think the music education system in Europe is becoming more and more similar to the American system. I spent just one year in New York, so my experiences cannot be as deep as the experiences of someone who spends many years there.
Otherwise, I think every school in the world is different a little bit. For example, I spent a great time as a student of the Bela Bartok Conservatory, I had wonderful teachers, I felt there at home, I even spent my free time there, having fun, making music and meeting with friends. The Franz Liszt Academy was totally the opposite of this. Every time I went in, I had the feeling that I had to protect myself from some offense. Most of the teachers and the student office were haughty and unsympathetic. It is interesting that they were the harshest with some of their most exceptional students, like I was.
So, it is a good example that every school is different, even in the same city.

I.B.: Have you ever played with your father on a stage?
A.S.: Unfortunately not. He is not a classical musician, so we are not on the same field of music. That is why we have no possibility to play together.

I.B.: Do you consider yourself rather a Hungarian, an European or a citizen of the world? This is a stupidly formulated question. What I aim is finding out if the chance of traveling and living in some other countries influenced somehow the way you see and represent yourself.
A.S.: By now, I have performed in 25 countries in the world. I am always excited to discover a place where I have never been before.
I think, even if you travel a lot, there has to be a place which you call your home. Of course the place which you call "home" can change once or for a few times during a lifetime...

I.B.: It is not a secret that you also enjoy playing piano and contrabass and that you also approached jazz. Do you take yourself seriously as a jazzman? Is this kind of music another side of yours or just a way of recreation and a meaning to play with music? For me, jazz is the sonic expression of the sense of humor.
A.S.: For me, jazz is a kind of hobby. I started to be interested in jazz very early, when I was about 10-11 years old. But I don't remember at all why I wanted to play jazz, I probably heard something on TV or on the radio. I started to collect recordings of great jazz pianists such as Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarrett. At home we had an upright piano, so it was natural that I started to try to play jazz. I never studied in order to play the piano or play jazz, I am just doing it for myself.

I.B.: Do you think that jazz music could be deep and romantic?
A.S.: Of course.

I.B.: Let me address a delicate question to you. Do you think one could talk about major and minor types of music? In other words, do you agree with that view according to which the generically named classical music - including contemporary compositions - and the traditional one (I have in my mind various people folklore) are the only truly perennial kinds of music while all the other genres that record on a certain moment a significant public success belong only to the specific sensibility and mentality of a certain generation and are fated to disappear along with it?
A.S.: Classical music is an art and it is also a science. Folklore music is a kind of imprint of a nation or an ethnical group. It must be very difficult to create something perennial in other kinds of music, such as entertaining music - time makes the decision.
I.B.: It's my opinion, too...

I.B.: Do you think that rock and roll, for instance, or jazz will survive in the next centuries? They have suffered major changes in time and keep on transforming. The former styles sound already old fashioned while Mozart's music never grows old, never gets obsolete. I'd add that jazz, rock and the other cult types of music are organically tied on a particular interpretation, they subsist in a conditioned way and are inherently dependent on the immediate reality, on the domain of "here and now". They live under the sign of the unrepeatable. I can't figure out that Pink Floyd's songs, for example, would record the same success if being played by other musicians. They are meant to remain somehow suspended in time, in that unique moment when their authors gave them birth for the first and last time on a stage. From this perspective it seams that all jazz and rock tunes are some sort of ephemeredes. Maybe this is the price to pay for the improvisational music, the price for the freedom of letting yourself, as an artist, be guided by instant inspiration. It's also true that, in the classical zone, things are pretty similar concerning the live performances, but at least the music-sheets remain as referential, they don't let room for improvisation and, once more, the great bet is to make them sound better and fresher and more exciting with every new approach. So, after this long introduction, a short hard question: from your point of view, what does freedom in music mean?
A.S.: I think there is a lot of freedom and improvisation in classical music. Nobody can play a piece on exactly the same way twice. Thoughts, emotions are always in change.
When I am on tour with several concerts on the same program, it is very interesting to listen a recording of the first concert and a recording of the same piece at the last concert. There can be huge differences.
Good musicians are always listening to each other's playing very carefully while performing together. So, new ideas are always born, performing on stage - somebody is playing some notes on a new way, the other continues on the same way - this gives the improvisation in classical music.

I.B.: Have you ever felt a strong urge to modify a classical sheet? I reformulate: did you have the feeling that a page or some rows from the consecrated musical literature are perfectible, that certain passages from a concert could be continued in some other way than the composer decided? Did you ever feel the need to write differently a music-sheet but holding in the meantime its main theme, for instance?
A.S.: Sometimes I have thoughts during practicing a piece that I could continue an actual passage in another way, but of course I never change it.

I.B.: Is there a connection between music and one's capacity of loving? You know that Mozart has been asked once what he considers genius to be and he retorted that it consists in the love resources of one's soul.
A.S.: There is a connection, I am sure. Without knowing the feeling of love, I would not understand most of the musical compositions, so I wouldn't know what the composer felt, or why he composed his piece. It is especially true for the romantic composers. The musical compositions are about human feelings.

I.B.: I will ask you now to make some choices. I will give you some couples of names and I want you to indicate your preference. I know it's hard to pick up just one name of two and that is somehow abusive what I ask you to do, but it would be relevant for a certain subjective-sensible side of yours. So, chose one from each pair of musicians:
a. Beethoven or Schubert
b. Bach or Vivaldi
c. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy or Dvorak
d. Beatles or Deep Purple
e. Pink Floyd or Jan Garbarek

A.S.: Beethoven, Bach, Dvorak, Beatles, Jan Garberek.
I.B.: He, he, I'd choose all the other names, excepting the couple Mendellsohn-Dvorak (otherwise the most difficult for me to deliberate).

I.B.: Another category, this time with abstract concepts:
a. Realism or idealism
b. Romanticism or postmodernism
c. Belief or philosophy
d. Myth or individual fiction
e. Passion or contemplation

A.S.: Idealism, romanticism, belief, myth, contemplation.
I.B.: My choices are also: idealism, romanticism and contemplation, but for the other couples, even though I'm prone to choose belief because of its "power of seduction", I consider philosophy more necessary for a deep understanding of the human kind and of the world's diversity. And, maybe because I'm addicted to fantasy and because I use put my dreams on paper, I'd choose the individual fiction as particular way to experience the substance of the myths.

I.B.: Antal, what do you think talent is? Or let's say it less categorically: what does it mean for you to have an artistic vocation? Is it something rather native or cultivated?
A.S.: I have always wanted to be a violinist, since I was 4-5 years old.
My approach was as serious at my first public performance at the age of 5 as it is now.
The improvement of my playing quality was always very fast - maybe this is talent.

I.B.: How much time do you spend daily for study?
A.S.: It depends on my actual schedule. If there are a lot of concerts in the near future, I practice more - maybe 4-5 hours. But if I don't have to work so hard, sometimes I stop practicing for one or more days. These days I rather think about the pieces or examine them with the scores or just in my mind.

I.B.: How many times have you been in Romania? I know that you played with Transilvania Orchestra from Cluj last year. Have you been impressed in a special way by something in our country or by the Romanian people?
A.S.: During the last 2-3 years, I was in Romania for a few times. I played with conductors Ovidiu Balan, Emil Simon, I.Ionescu-Galati and Alexandru Lascae, with the Cluj Philharmonic, Iasi Philharmonic, the Bacau Symphony and Arad Philharmonic Orchestras.
I always go to Romania with great pleasure. I got to know excellent musicians and warm, very friendly people there. During most of my visits in Romania I drove, even from Budapest to Iasi, which means around 900 km. I was amazed by the beautiful, untouched nature, the deep forests, high mountains and the area of the Lake Bikaz.

I.B.: Eventually, I'll ask you a difficult question, the most difficult. For the last years I have been following it in my literature, trying more or less successfully to give it an answer, but I'm still hunting its ghost. The question: "what is music"?
A.S.: I think music means a different thing for everybody. In my case, music is my profession, my hobby, my art, my science. The easiest way to express my thoughts and feelings is through music. Music is also a common language, and it connects the whole world. To me, it is impossible to imagine the world without music.

I.B.: Now I'm going to say myself some words about how I feel Antal's music. The most intriguing is the fact that, even though his interpretation is deeply dramatic and often racking, it doesn't hurt, it is rather healthful, it's like an antidote for all suffering. It is bright even within the expressions of pain or of restlessness. It holds an amazing interference of force and delicacy and it spreads out the energy of catharsis. The breath of his music expresses a very subtle sense of splendor, a state of flying. It is both extrovert and introvert and it's a proof for an exceptional inner autonomy, for the freedom of spirit. I associate it with the manifestation of the joy of living, with the capacity of touching the essences, the core of things.




Antal Szalai is certainly one of the most gifted violinists of our time. The public of Bucharest had the chance to listen to him playing in 2005, during the days of "Enescu" Festival, when he was awarded the second prize. We hope that he will come again to Bucharest this year to delight us with his extraordinary interpretative talent.
At the age of 25, violinist Antal Szalai is one of the most exciting and suggestive artists on the musical scene. Renowned for his dazzling technique and intellectual maturity, he is indeed a young master of our time.

"One of the most wonderful young violinists I have ever heard", proclaimed Yehudi Menuhin in Budapest, in 1996, after the 15-year-old artist's performance of Bartok's Violin Concerto.

Antal was born in Budapest, on 31 January 1981. He inherited not only his father's name, but also his talent. Antal Szalai senior is a great Hungarian violinist on his turn and was the first teacher of his son. Antal junior began his musical career at the age of five. He graduated three music schools of exceptional reputation: "Bela Bartok" Conservatory from Budapest, "Franz Lizst" University of Music, also from Budapest and Manhattan School of Music from New York.

He started his musical career as a child prodigy, giving his first public performance at the age of five. When he was eleven, he performed Mozart's Violin Concerto in A major with the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra. One year later, at the age of twelve, he played Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in e minor in Budapest. From age seven to fourteen, he studied in Budapest with Laszlo Denes. From age fourteen to twenty-four he studied with Peter Komlos (1st violinist of the Bartok String Quartet). In addition, Szalai attended master classes with Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zukerman, Shlomo Mintz, Erick Friedman, Tibor Varga and Lewis Kaplan.

He is the First prize winner of the Rodolfo Lipizer International Violin Competition, the Tibor Varga International Violin Competition and the Valsesia Musica International Violin Competition.

In the 2007/2008 season Antal Szalai will make his debuts with the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester in Berlin and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in Liverpool. In addition, his engagements include tours in Chile, Mexico, Italy, Turkey, Croatia and China.

In 1989 and 1992 he was awarded the first prize on the "National Violin Contest Janos Koncz". He also gained the first prize on "Leo Weiner Sonata" Contest and became soloist of the Philharmonic of Budapest.
He was also awarded:
The first prize on "Web Concert Hall" Contest - USA, 2002
The first prize on "Valsesia Musica" Contest - Varallo, Italy, 2004
The first prize on "Rodolfo Lipizer" Contest - Gorizia, 2004.

In addition to an accomplished career performing with orchestras, Mr. Szalai has given recitals in some of the most prestigious venues in the world.
In February 2003 he made his Carnegie Hall debut at Weill Recital Hall. In addition, he has given recital performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, the Moscow Conservatory, the Philharmonic Hall in St.Petersburg, the Victoria Hall in Geneve, the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts in Vancouver.

In London, he performed in the presence of Charles, Prince of Wales and in 2002, as a recipient of the Sir George Solti Foundation, he was invited to play in the air recital of Jose Carreras in Lausanne, Swizerland, in the presence of Edward, Duke of Kent.

Since then, Antal Szalai has given concerts in 25 countries in the world, appeared with some of the world's most prestigious orchestras, including the Belgian National Orchestra, the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra, the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, the Ukrainian National Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestre National d'ile de France, the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra, the Musica Vitae Chamber Orchestra and the Royal Chamber Orchestra of Wallonia.
He has collaborated with eminent conductors, such as Yoel Levi, Paavo Järvi, Gilbert Varga, Paul Goodwin, Rico Saccani, Shlomo Mintz and Mykola Dyadyura.


Antal Szalai has already recorded three albums for BMC Records and Hungaroton Classic.
His first album, featuring solo violin works of J.S.Bach, Fritz Kreisler, Eugene Ysaye and Emil Petrovics garnered "Editor's Choice" from Gramophone Magazine as well as praises from many publications including BBC Music Magazine and Classics Today.
His second BMC Records disc features the world-premiere recording of Leo Weiner's Violin Concerto.
His most recent album, released in 2003, features a selection of Leopold Auer's violin transcriptions played with his longtime recital partner Jozsef Balog.


"A born violinist who has a great future ahead of him" Tibor Varga

BBC Music Magazine, September, 2002

"...The sound he makes is refined and smooth and he possesses a fabulous technique. In Bach's d minor Partita he demonstrates an enviable ability to afford the music plenty of space - partly through his strict control of tempo heard in the Corrente-and a relish for building the broadest of structures in his majestic reading of the famous Chaconne..." Stephen Petitt

Wolfsburger Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany, Nov.29,2002

"... Finally the audience could admire the exceedingly talented Hungarian violinist Antal Szalai performing his interpretation of Paganini's 1st violin concerto in D major. The "Cantilenen" filled with great intensity, full force of expression and a radiant tone enchanted the audience with all his demonstrated breath-taking technical knowledge and excellently dynamic style.
The Cantabile by Paganini was performed in a clear tone in the encore...". Marion Etienne

Diverdi, Spain, January 2003

Discovering a real star in BMC
"...Technical mastery is of course always indispensable, all the more so in the case of such solo pieces, in which an essentially melodic instrument - the violin - is faced with concise counterpoint, however Szalai expounds it with full delight. His eloquent but sober musicality is most surprising, a feature rather characterizing a mature musician than a young man of 21. Keeping the repetitions, he performs Bach's Partita No. 2 with flowing rhythm and reserved but intensive expression to which a well measured vibrato is added..." R.A.

La Libre Belgique, May 3, 2005

" Szalai the Hungarian Giant ... as calm force in a gigantic body, he appears as an eloquent violinist. He was brilliant in the Dvorak and so regal in the two capriccios by Paganini that it seemed he just flew over it without any effort..." Nicolas Blanmont

The Strad Magazine, September, 2005

"Szalai garnered audience approval with his fluency, unfailing vibrato and calm demeanor whilst delivering one of the speediest renditions of the Tchaikovsky Concerto's finale on record...Szalai proved that it is the performer and not the violin that produces a memorable sound." Heather Kurzbauer

Crescendo Music Magazine, Belgium, May 2005

"In the second part we could hear the Hungarian Antal Szalai: a colossus whose figure silhouette and clothing is reminiscent of Oistrakh. Right from the first bars of Brahms' 3rd Sonata we could feel that we were faced with a young master here. The art of phrasing, the shades of colours cannot keep any secrets before him. His calm self-confidence and unaffected behaviour were especially captivating. He stands firm, steady as a rock, letting music flow freely, naturally, graciously. The clarity of the high pitched tones, the discrete but elegant strict vibrato were elements that reminded us of the regal David... Nevertheless, Szalai demonstrated the full scale of his talent in the Concerto by Tchaikovsky. He played the three movements in a bewilderingly gracious way... He performs the rapid scale passages with perfect serenity, great virtuosity and musicality. The cadenza was a great poetic moment... The Canzonetta was bashful and reserved, however it conveyed profound emotions: filled with nostalgia and gipsy reminiscence. Behind the cool appearance, he reveals considerable sensitivity: another similar trait with Oistrakh. The 3rd movement is simply enthralling and was greeted with great applause..." Bernard Postiau
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