Fanfare Interview and Review “Of Lands and People Far Away”

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Talking with Blue Griffin’s Sergei Kvitko

by Peter Burwasser

Sergei Kvitko began his musical career as a pianist, and is currently immersed in the world of audio production, as the founder, and chief cook and bottle washer of Blue Griffin Recording. So it would seem natural that he would get around to producing himself as a pianist at some point. He finally decided to do it on the occasion of his 40th birthday, in a program of music by Schumann, Debussy, and Mussorgsky. In retrospect, he could have picked a nicer gift for himself, for as a practical matter such a project is fraught with challenges. It turns out to be somewhat akin to trying to play against yourself in a game of ping pong, and according to Kvitko, is actually a rare endeavor. “You ask why it was so difficult to self-produce and self-engineer an album, since it is being done quite frequently. I was trying to come up with names of artists who had done that and could not think of one! Would you please point me in the right direction if someone comes to mind—I’d like to investigate that further, and maybe start a support group or something.”

Kvitko’s quick sense of humor barely masks the intensity and passion with which he approaches his projects. His previous Blue Griffin recordings have been widely praised for their rich and natural sound as a result of Kvitko’s perfectionist engineering standards. At the same time, his goal is to achieve a spontaneous, live sound, and so he aims to limit the post editing he has to do. He is also a gracious guide through the process with his artists. “I’m always happy—even if I’m not—but they don’t have to know that.” In the case of self-production, there is no need for any such niceties. “Maybe I’m a special case—wouldn’t I like to be—to take it so painfully, but it seemed like every possible difficulty emerged when I started working on this project, from the elemental—I push the record button and go play and in the middle I’d think, ‘Well, that was quite nice, wonder if it is still recording or it has stopped for some reason’—to more esoteric: editing my own performance seemed like doing a surgery on myself.”

And yet, as Kvitko describes the process, he reveals a side of his personality that makes both his own playing and his producing style unique in a sometimes monolithic seeming industry. “Arguing with myself during the performance was something I had never done before. One of those moments was actually captured on recording—in the middle of ‘The Poet Speaks’ (from Kinderszenen) there are those little notes in a diminished chord cadenza that I played unexpectedly a little louder than usual, and the beauty of those notes hanging on a pedal stunned me, like I saw the sky full of stars and stopped whatever I was doing and stared. So I’m sitting there, holding the pedal and thinking, ‘This is gorgeous, check out this sustain, but no, you can’t do that, there is no fermata! Oh well, who cares? They will know why I stopped.’ And so on. I left that moment in, and since then performed that way in public to great effect!”

This ability to take a “mistake” and make it part of the way the piece is played is a quality that Kvitko is very conscious of. In a way, he is released from certain common standards, especially literalism, because he is no longer a practicing concert pianist, although this maverick streak, by his telling, is not new. “In Russia, I had to fight to make music my way. Even if I wanted to play my own Mozart cadenza, my teachers would say, ‘Who do you think you are?’ Now, I have no need to please anyone. I can change a few notes, add a fermata. I would feel awkward adding notes, but I can be both reverent and creative.”

When Kvitko came to America to continue his studies at Michigan State University, he auditioned for his future teacher, Ralph Votapek (who has since become a Blue Griffin recording artist, favorably reviewed by this writer in these pages), with Pictures at an Exhibition. “After I finished, he asked me to play it more Russian. I asked him what he meant, and he couldn’t say. I think a lot of pianists here have that experience, since there are probably more Russian teachers in America, and in places like Israel, than there are now in Russia.” Still, when pressed, Kvitko does agree that there probably is a special Russian sound. And sound is what it is all about; “I call it sound with resistance, phrases flowing with connected notes. We were taught this kind of legato as children.” In the one Russian piece on his new CD, none other than Pictures at an Exhibition, Kvitko also recognizes Slavic language influences. “I can hear him talk in the music, even make out some words.”

With his own CD recital now behind him, Kvitko can get back to his full time obsession, at the recording console. It is a career he embarked upon when he was unable to find recording facilities for his own playing that met his expectations, when he was still on stage. He started acquiring equipment, and before long, “it took over my life.” Blue Griffin’s range of recordings includes a good dose of new music, with an upcoming CD of the music of Ricky Ian Gordon, which Kvitko predicts will be “the greatest CD ever made.” The Verdehr Trio, famous for their remarkably ambitious Making of a Medium series of commissions, has been to the studio, and Kvitko was recording a Japanese jazz pianist at the time of our interview.

At the heart of his studio is his baby, a Steinway nine footer that he discovered after tireless auditioning of other instruments. “I have an instrument which I think is the best ever. I tried a bunch of pianos at the Gilmore Festival in Kalamazoo. I sat down at this one and played the Mozart Fantasy in D Minor and started crying. Everything about it seemed perfect.”

So Sergei Kvitko is not a man to mince words. He certainly has a refreshing perspective on the wonder of music within an industry that can tend to numb the true beauty and awe of the art. He is not expecting to cause any walls to tumble down with his work at Blue Griffin, but wishes to connect to an elemental appeal. As for his own CD, he admits that it probably breaks no new ground. “Who really needs this? Nobody plays this music badly, and there are a lot of spectacular performances. But it is something close to my heart, music I really love and love to play. So for me these are the best interpretations that I know. They are totally to my liking!”

SCHUMANN Kinderszenen. DEBUSSY Children’s Corner. MUSSORGSKY Pictures at an Exhibition • Sergei Kvitko (pn) • BLUE GRIFFIN 169 (72:44)

Sergei Kvitko has been quite vocal over the reality that these are not the performances of a practicing concert pianist. Some liberties are taken, he warns us in advance. Please don’t listen to this CD with the score sprawled across your lap, he intimates. I would suggest that this pre-emptive defensiveness is not at all necessary. Kvitko may not be performing publicly these days, but he is no amateur. This is masterful, intuitive playing, albeit not without some interesting quirks. His program is united by a pianism that embraces the instrument as an ensemble of strings, as opposed to a row of hammers. You almost never hear the front of the attack; everything has a plangent profile and a cantabile momentum. Perhaps the most arresting artistry occurs in the quiet, slower moments in the Schumann, where Kvitko finds profound poetry. He is never in a rush, and so his “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk” is almost a slow dance, and the cattle cart in Mussorgsky’s “Bydlo” lumbers as lugubriously as I have ever heard it. This is an interpretive choice, not a safe one. When the material calls for alacrity and tension, such as in the mad rush to the “Great Gates of Kiev,” Kvitko delivers. There is, elsewhere, an iconoclastic sense for rubato rhythm and phrasing, but never in a self-serving way. Kvitko loves the music more than he loves himself.

The missing element in Kvitko’s stylistic arsenal is electricity. It is a trade off. You are not going to get the edge-of-the-seat tension of, say, Richter in the Mussorgsky here. That is the stuff of legend, big and brassy. Kvitko is more of a salon performer, playing before a small but focused audience that just wants to hear great music encountered by a serious and practiced performer. At the risk of revealing my weaknesses, I would conjure a metaphor from the world of fine wine. There are countless sensational, often very expensive quaffs out there that reap the attention of the cognoscenti, but then there are the behind-the-headline vintners who consistently produce the kinds of wine that you can curl up with for a pleasant evening. Kvitko is such a bottle of wine.