No matter what Pavel Nersessian plays at the piano—and his repertoire is un-endingly large and varied—his rich sound easily puts one deeply into the musical world of the composer. “The more polyphonic the character of the music,” he explains, “the better it facilitates balanced playing, bringing out the subtle coloring of each voice. Tureck, for example,” he says, referring to Rosalyn Tureck, the daughter of a Kiev cantor, harpsichordist, and pianist, who earned a world-renowned reputation as a particular proponent of Bach’s work with a mix of erudition and at-ease command, “was a master in bringing out the very subtle differentiations in such a dynamic scale…just phenomenal,” he says as he sits down at the piano and dreams up some beautiful subtle coloristic changes, testing different weight nuances of his fingers on the keys before he plunges into some of his operatic arrangements of Strauss. It’s mesmerizing to watch and listen to.
Loving and understanding music to such an existential degree and performing for an audience, disseminating that passion while so intricately interconnected, has often become for many performers, especially those who struggle with overcoming stage fright, painfully at odds with one another. “It always depends how many concerts you perform,” explains Nersessian “Hand memory and what’s happening in your head are just two different things, and sometimes during performance, you simply don’t recognize yourself,” he says.
Piano performance and pedagogy have always been closely interwoven facets of his world, since his early days in Soviet Russia. It was a special culture, perhaps more actively influential than any political structure: an overarching ethos of heroic protagonists, the world of music and its composers on a pedestal, imposed on the soul of the land. And in close pursuit, disseminating their prevailing message, the performers and pedagogues—as much implementers of the celestial as they were purveyors of better apartments with pianos to practice on.
After finishing at the Central Music School with honors, Nersessian entered the Moscow Conservatory in 1982. As teaching assistant, he followed early on in his mentor Sergei Dorensky’s footsteps, whose studio he was officially leading from 1987. In 1997, Dorensky was appointed Dean of the Piano Department, and his students included next to Nersessian many brilliant talents and star performers of today’s classical music scene, among them Ramzi Yassa, Stanislav Bunin, Alexander Shtarkman, Nikolay Lugansky, Vadim Rudenko, Olga Kern, and Denis Matsuev. Many of them completed their studies under Nersessian’s tutelage; teaching always stayed an important part of his music making. “Through teaching, it was possible to me to find a healthier relationship to the stage—if there is any—as I was able to convince myself, ‘it’s not about you, it’s about the music,’ and often performing in chamber music with partners on stage, was helpful,” he explains. He is getting excited just talking about the music that certainly has center stage in his life. “I am always keeping my concentration by finding little details, unexpected genial moments, to marvel about,” he says. When practicing, he feels it’s best homing in on detailed study from two “borders,” as he describes them, one being the border of physical limitations, the other expressiveness: “the slowest movement still containing the musical message, phrasing, color…everything except for the actual tempo, which allows me to change things that don’t work and go into the smallest details. Staying flexible, according to my physical preparedness, its like driving on a twisted road. If there are struggles you need to slow down,” he says, and it certainly beats the usual stop and repeat way of practice, which according to him is a waste of time.
“I am a much better teacher due to my own experiences of concert preparations and while I won’t make every student a price winner, I am hoping to be able to instill good musical priorities into each of my students.” As a 1st Prize in the GPA Dublin International Piano Competition in 1991, he understands what it means to prepare for Olympic standards, but to achieve musical quality and technical perfection, is always a challenge:”The slow tempo investigation especially enables one to anticipate one’s abilities and anticipate problematic passages. One learns much faster that way, too, and can prepare for any tempo. It still takes me weeks sometimes, to figure out good fingerings that allow for the most comfort. But it’s also important to get out of one’s comfort zone, challenge oneself, and bring something memorable in performance.” ( Photo : During jury panel at Tsai Concerto Competition at Boston University)
And he certainly brings that “memorable” experience to the stage. Holding a professorship for piano at Boston University, Nersessian also continues to teach students at the Moscow Conservatory. One of his current students there, Artur Vorojtsov, just won the first prize at the Vera Lotar Shevchenko Competition, a new competition implemented by Boris Yeltsin’s widow.
Nersessian finds himself often in-between generations; while he exudes an open-minded and current, international flair, he is also part of the “old tradition,” and fondly remembers past times, which formed his own playing and that of his students in Russia. Nersessian did perform with orchestras and chamber musicians, but he also often writes his own transcriptions of music he loves, transforming it for solo piano. His lyrical Chopin Concerto I transcription was recorded for piano solo. “We all loved doing transcriptions,” he says, recalling Nikolas Lugansky’s Wagner transcriptions, “they were unbelievable,” he recalls, “he is a great guy,” and he adds, “I am lucky to know him personally.” When Lugansky came to Dorensky’s studio, after his teacher had suddenly died, he played for Nersessian. Many years later he had confessed to Nersessian that he had felt the sting of Nersessian’s criticism during the first lesson. As I happen to know both performers personally, it seems hard to imagine today, especially considering the professor’s respectful and generous demeanor; it confirms a widely prevailing occurrence that teachers very often do not understand the impact of their criticism, otherwise they would most certainly tone it down. Nersessian belongs to the kind that is admired by generations; many of his former students have build musical careers in the US and he is a sought after guest artist at many of the series, curated by his expats. I heard him perform in New York City at Aza Sydokov’s Eurasia Festival and at the Sparkill Salon Series, curated by pianists Vassily Primakov and Oxana Mikhailoff.
After being a teacher and adjudicator on the jury of many international competitions, however, Nersessian is first and foremost a master pianist and performer, even if his performance schedule does not compete with the insanity of some of today’s star performers. His programs are chosen thoughtfully, and his performances are devoted to the highest level of musical intensity and spiritual elevation. His intrinsic mastery leaves his audiences not only mesmerized with the clarity of the musical message, but often in that rare state of reverie, only evoked by the finest moments of artistry in which true craftsmanship meets inspiration.
Of all his collaborations, Nersessian confides that he loves working with singers the most, “I find voice so communicative,” he says. He especially enjoys the presentation of “Lieder,” the most intimate genre of the voice and accompaniment. “I just love listening to that genre myself, and love of listening inspires joy of making music,” he says.
On September 21st, Pavel Nersessian will be performing an inspired choice of program with the German Soprano Katrin Bulke at St. John’s in the Village for GetClassical In School. A collaboration with St. John’s and the Foundation for the Revival of Classical Culture, the concert will support GetClassical In School’s initiative to bring first class performers and educators into the classroom to spark the flame for classical music in the next generation. Link to the event
“I am very happy to join Ilona’s ideas and efforts. We still have a chance not to become the last generation that cherishes classic art. First of all, art is a great, powerful resource of pleasure, which remains always with you. Even more important is that it stays with you all your life once you start enjoying it. And the best is that you can enjoy it any possible way—making it or just watching or listening to it. I wish these plans of Ilona’s to live long and to have great success!” Pavel Nersessian, Pianist, Educator.