Launching himself as a Deutsche Grammophon soloist with Beethoven's Violin Concerto, Vadim Repin is also notching up a personal “first": in spite of the fact that he has loved this work since he was very young, he had not previously recorded it. “I have been reserving it for a special time", he says. “If I had recorded it earlier in my career, I would now need to do it again. A recording is a document that stays with you, but it only represents your view on that day - it's only true to that moment."
He had wanted to perform the Beethoven in public when he was 13, but was not allowed to by his teacher. “I didn't start to work on it seriously until long after my studies were finished. And before touring with it, I played it first, privately, for Yehudi Menuhin, who gave me some invaluable advice: not just about the work, but also about life in general for an artist - about what you can give people, and about being receptive, about the public's response as an essential part of the creative chain."
“I always think of Menuhin in terms of this work", he says. “He played it when he was eight, and recorded it for the last time when he was 65. He felt that his interpretation was shaped by his teacher Enescu. The concerto has a childlike simplicity and at the same time the most mature spirituality. I see it as a love story about life itself. The second movement is like a confession in church, with the strings at the opening sounding like a soft choir: it ushers in a time for self-knowledge, a time to understand what's real in life, as opposed to what is just brilliantly sparkling surface. Playing this work, one is totally exposed and vulnerable. The performer can hide nothing. His true nature is revealed."
In the run-up to this recording with Riccardo Muti and the Wiener Philharmoniker, Repin says he has been either practising it or thinking about the concerto every 15 minutes. “And all the time it has been opening new doors to interpretation. Singing it - or fantasizing about it - has been a very intense experience, full of different tastes and colours. The quest is endless: every bar is an experience in itself. There are thousands of little notes that you don't at first notice, but once you start attending to them, living them, each becomes full of significance. This applies only to this concerto - there is no other work like it."
This becomes apparent to the listener. Repin's solo entry in the first movement is so sweetly concentrated, and its tone so perfectly rounded, that despite its dynamic reticence it effortlessly dominates the orchestra. His pace in the second movement is unusually measured, exuding a ruminative tenderness: his sound descants over the orchestra's hushed support like the finest, purest thread. He considered playing Beethoven's cadenza for the third movement, but decided to opt for Kreisler's instead: “One moment near the end knits it all beautifully together, and expresses the whole point of the concerto."
“I've played this concerto with many conductors", he continues, “but never with such intensive dialogue as with Muti and the Wiener Philharmoniker." Indeed this partnership, though recent, seems a marriage made in heaven. They worked together last year when Muti needed a major violinist for the Italian youth orchestra he had created. “I wanted the young players to understand what it means to make music with a great soloist", comments Muti. They performed the Beethoven concerto, and Repin also gave a masterclass with the young musicians. After he, Muti and the New York Philharmonic had a big success with Tchaikovsky's concerto, Repin invited the conductor to collaborate with him on this recording of the Beethoven.
“Accompanying an instrumental soloist is in principle like conducting for a singer", says Muti, adding that it's essential for the conductor to have an exact grasp of the soloist's intentions. Repin says he racked his brains for a long time over which work he could couple with the concerto on this album - his first solo recording for five years. “You could not put any other concerto with Beethoven's", he comments. “Finally I realized that the 'Kreutzer' Sonata would be the ideal counterweight."
Repin had gravitated to the violin almost by accident as a child growing up in Novosibirsk in the 1970s. When he was five, his mother sent him to a specialist music school, but it wasn't her plan that he should study the violin. “It just happened that the school's one free place was for a violin student", he explains. “I was curious about the violin - it just seemed like another toy for me to experiment with. But after three or four days, I no longer thought about any other instrument. I was hooked." Six months later he made his first stage appearance, in a local competition.
At six-and-a-half he was accepted as a pupil by Zakhar Bron, with whom he was to spend the next twelve years, and who put him firmly on the road to stardom. By the time Repin was eight he was practising four hours a day; he began to listen to the records of Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman and David Oistrakh, to whom, with his immaculate purity of tone, Repin is now routinely compared today. Bron encouraged him to give concerts for local audiences. When he was eleven, Repin won the Wieniawski Competition in Poland and began to play regularly throughout the Soviet bloc as well as in West Berlin, West Germany, Japan and New York's Carnegie Hall. In 1987 he won his first “adult" competition - the Concours Tibor Varga in Sion, Switzerland. Two years later he won the first prize and gold medal of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, and was thus set on his international career.