NIKOLAJ ZNAIDER is a rare bird – equally well known, and gifted, as violinist and conductor. He’s appeared with the Hallé in both roles over recent years, and on November 5 he’s back to conduct – five years after he made his UK debut as a conductor with them.
That concert was notable for a very thoughtful account of a Tchaikovsky symphony (the fourth). This time he’s conducting another, the Manfred Symphony – so called because it’s story-telling music and Tchaikovsky didn’t give it a number.
But Znaider is full of enthusiasm for it. “Its subject is dark and deep,” he says (it’s based on a poem by Byron). “But he infuses it with an incredible imagination. Until I started working on it I didn’t have a real sense of how great it is.”
It’s still not as often programmed as the popular Tchaikovsky symphonies, though. “Perhaps that’s because it has a soft ending,” he suggests, half-ironically. “Some conductors want music with a loud ending, to make a big impression!”
Programme music (with a storyline) often gets a bad press now, but Znaider says the important thing with the Manfred is still its architecture. “It’s not difficult or untraditional – perhaps the problem with some interpreters is that every climax is played as if it’s the last – because then where do you go?”
His feeling for Tchaikovsky’s music is to do with balancing its nationalist-cum-emotional and its more traditional, even academic, content. “The challenge is that if one is not careful it can become banal and vulgar – you have to combine the emotionality and an understanding of the structure.”
He likes to speak of music’s ‘challenges’. When I asked about his dual career as solo violinist and conductor, the Danish-born son of Jewish parents (his father was an émigré from Poland to Israel) used the same language.
“Sometimes, as I plan my engagements, there’s a period that’s playing-heavy or one that’s too much filled with conducting – and though not conducting for three or four weeks is not a problem, not playing the violin for three or four weeks is … a challenge. I try to make sure that neither aspect gets over-weighted.”
In this concert his colleague is cellist Jian Wang, with whom he’s worked in performances with the Hallé before.
“He is a wonderful soloist,” he says, “in the great tradition of string playing. He is, as the American says, the real deal.”