On a terrace, just a few steps from Maison de la Radio, Nemanja Radulović has arrived well in advance and is sitting calmly with a coffee in front of him. He welcomes us with a big smile and the interview quickly becomes relaxed conversation. He talks about the connection he has with his repertoire and being on stage, his training as a violinist, his future projects and much more, approaching every subject with honest sensitivity. It’s hard to believe we’re in front of a star of the prestigious label Deutsche Grammophon, a virtuoso at an incredibly busy time, who, just two days earlier, returned from a tour around Asia and is currently preparing for meetings and interviews on his latest album which will be released on the 9th November. 

Nemanja Radulovic © Tristan Labouret
Nemanja Radulovic
© Tristan Labouret

Your tour with Laure Favre-Kahn has just finished. What are your impressions of the experience, having come (almost) straight off the aeroplane?

It really was a beautiful fortnight. A tour is always a very moving experience, particularly in Asia, in Japan. The concert audience is always very respectful. One evening after the last few notes of Poème by Ernest Chausson, there was a meditative silence which was held for at least a minute. The audience didn’t applaud at all, our minds remained in the music, way up in the clouds… It was a very moving moment.

In the tour programme, which was dedicated to French music, there was Tzigane by Ravel which you have never recorded before…   

I would like to one day… Each time, at the start of the piece, I imagine a gypsy who doesn’t have an easy life, who has to look after his family and live in impossible conditions. He has slung on his rucksack and is beginning a journey. Then, the piece has a humour only found amongst gypsies; things that seem unbelievable but are actually profound truths.

Nemanja Radulovic © Marie Staggat | Deutsche Grammophon
Nemanja Radulovic
© Marie Staggat | Deutsche Grammophon

When you play then, stories unravel in your mind… is that why the title of your album is Baïka – “tale” in Serbian?

It’s true that I always try to find a story to tell in a piece, it’s not just a series of notes. I imagine many different things, inspired by what I hear in the orchestra or by the atmosphere in the hall… [a motorbike engine roars from a few metres away and he reacts to it instantly] even that could inspire me! In Khachaturian’s concerto, in the third movement, there are several pages where the violin doesn’t stop once. You have to be extremely focused, from start to finish, you need to know exactly when to slow down and next, when to speed up… it’s like a Formula 1 race! If your mind wanders, even for just a millisecond, you lose track and it can be dangerous.

In Baïka, there are stories which are already there, like in Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov. But Khachaturian’s concerto and trio also inspires lots of images and imagination. The second movement was where film music originated from. Khachaturian draws on traditional Armenian music which has a lot of character. In this album then, we have one foot in the real East and another in the imaginary East.  

 

Your version of Scheherazade was arranged by Aleksandar Sedlar. This mix of repertoire concertos and personalised arrangements is found in all your three albums. Could we say that you have found your perfect recipe?

Now you mention it, it’s true that there are a lot of arrangements! I don’t want to limit myself to the original score. When I like a piece and when I think of a new arrangement which can give it a new life, I always want to try. If my attempts aren’t conclusive, we stop working in that direction. But when you can depend on an arranger like Aleksandar Sedlar, it’s fantastic! He has an incredibly open mind. He is very much living in our times, but in his music you can find Classical and Romantic features, echoes of Stravinsky and Prokofiev… And he adds a personal lyricism, harmonies and accompaniments with a touch of humour. I love it!

What upcoming projects do you have? Looking at your previous albums, are you going to continue on with Bartók, Shostakovich, Prokofiev…

Why not? But after Baïka, I will probably wait. I want to take a break from recording because I’ve already done a lot! Next, I think I’m going to go back to solo repertoire. At one time, I played a lot of works for solo violin and lately, I have to say, I‘ve missed them.

Are there any works you are itching to play?

Nemanja Radulovic © Charlotte Abramow | Deutsche Grammophon
Nemanja Radulovic
© Charlotte Abramow | Deutsche Grammophon

I really like Ysaÿe’s music, it’s very expressive. Bartók obviously too and Bach’s music is always with me, every day… it would be great to bring these three composers together. I like making links between things and I’ve realised that I do the same in my private life: I always look to put people in contact with one another, gather everyone together! Maybe it’s because of my personal history. I come from a country which has a very varied and rich culture with oriental and Austro-Hungarian influences, in a region between the West and Russia. When I arrived in Paris with my culture, I had to create and explore new connections… 

Taking a step back, how do you look on your years of training in Serbia as well as in France?

Firstly, I was very lucky to work with Dejan Mihailovic in Serbia. He was from the Russian school, a student of David Oistrakh. He had a side to him which was very intellectual, but he had such an open mind that every one of his students turned out differently to each other. He helped and accompanied us with our own creativity, he didn’t force anything on us.

Then I had two great years with Patrice Fontanarosa at the Conservatoire de Paris. He had a unique generosity, his teaching could last up to three and a half hours, with the whole class there. Again, he never forced us to use the same fingering or use the same bowings… he showed us his vision but, above all, helped us discover our own vision of the music.

So I had the freedom to choose what I wanted to play. Patrice believed in something very important in my view: when you want to play something and then when you think about whether you’re able to play that piece, your desire to play impacts your technical capacity or your artistic maturity… It was he who gave me the green light to go ahead and work on Beethoven’s concerto at fourteen; I had been told that I was too young to play Beethoven! When I arrived in France, after the Yugoslav wars, I realised there is a nostalgia in the piece, a melancholy which moved me deeply. I still associate this work with that period of my life. Patrice then encouraged me to work on the concerto for different competition finals, even though it’s not a work that’s normally chosen in those circumstances to make students shine.

What’s your current way of working?

That depends on the day. I always like playing a bit of Bach and Mozart. I warm up with that repertoire, with pieces that aren’t necessarily those I’m going to perform in my next concerts. I try to keep two hours a day for physical training, which isn’t always easy when you’re travelling…and sometimes I take a break. Recently, I went on holiday, twenty days without my instrument and it was good… for me and for my violin!

 

So you always use repertoire when you work, do you ever play scales or use other purely technical exercises?

No, because my teachers have never insisted on them. My first teacher gave all his students two études, one by Bériot and the other by Campagnoli, which we all still know off by heart [he laughs]! But that’s all, the essential part of our studies was repertoire and he used to give us pieces which weren’t for our level, they were sometimes a lot more difficult. I remember being eleven and working on The Last Rose of Summer by Ernst…I would need a bit of work to play it now but the crucial points have stayed with me, thanks to him.

We know you always build good relationships with the musicians you meet and those that play with you… what’s your relationship like with your instrument?

I had a Vuillaume for many years which I adored… and then, all of a sudden, almost from one day to the next, I decided not to play it anymore; there was something in the sound that no longer agreed with me and I could physically feel it. Basically, I started to find it difficult to play. I was surprised to fall in love with my new violin; a French instrument, anonymous, from the 19th century. That also happened suddenly. Right now it suits me perfectly, I’m very happy with it! Its colours remind me of a viola, which I like a lot; the tone can be soft whilst also being deep.

Regarding the musicians I play with, loyalty is really important to me. I think it’s excellent that the musicians in Double Sens [a string ensemble he founded nearly ten years ago: ed] are the same as when the project started. We are like a family, very happy to meet on stage and off. Les Trilles du diable [a string quintet he regularly sees: ed], Laure Favre-Kahn, Susan Manoff, Marielle Nordmann, are also people who are part of my life, of me as a person. I am lucky to have met these extraordinary people. And with Aleksandar Sedlar, we’ve been good friends for several years, we have a very open friendship – we can tell each other anything. In music, just like in general life, I think that as more time passes, the more you can deepen a relationship and discover beautiful things.  

 

 

Translated from French by Melanie Webb.