The words tumble out with the same impunity as the notes that flow from Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s violin when she plays one of her idiosyncratic improvisations. “People are very focused on perfection and the polished surface,” she says, referring to modern music-educational ideals and performance standards. “They like to see a cake brought to the stage, all nice and ready-made. I don’t bring a cake. I bring the ingredients and bake it on the stage. We have to take the risk that it will go wrong – we need mistakes because they make us rethink and find new ways.”
Kopatchinskaja, 34, does not make a secret of her disdain for convention. She prefers to play barefoot. She improvises her own stylistically controversial cadenzas (the portion of a concerto where the soloist plays alone in free time). She favours spontaneity – a bewitching quality for those who like their music close-to-the-edge but unsettling for collaborators who favour a more predictable style. Tradition, she says, is a cage. “Sometimes I feel I’ve fallen from the 20th floor and feel totally broken when I see people don’t understand me.”
But her message is getting through to the top of the music business. This week she won Recording of the Year at the Gramophone awards, the Oscars of the classical record industry. Her disc of violin concertos by Bartók, Ligeti and Peter Eötvös eclipsed the claims of better-established artists such as Simon Rattle, András Schiff and Jonas Kaufmann. Her next disc, released next month, features concertos by Prokofiev and Stravinsky. She will also play the Stravinsky in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra.
And it’s not just the post-romantic repertoire that responds to her quicksilver artistry. When I first heard her in Geneva in May, she brought a similarly unaffected intensity to Mozart’s D major Concerto.
The Moldovan violinist’s sudden rise to prominence is an acknowledgment that it is precisely her nonconformity that makes her special. Music-making, she says, “is an experiment. I hope never to become a finished product – even when I lie in my grave. I don’t want to be a Pharisee, I want to stay a heretic. I want to be a student all my life.”
Kopatchinskaja’s family background helps to explain her defiant attitudes. Born during the Soviet era, she spent much of her childhood with her Romanian-speaking grandparents in the countryside while her folk-musician parents – one a pianist, the other a cimbalom player – toured for a living. Aged six, she started violin lessons. When she was 13 the family moved to Vienna to enable her to study music and composition. At 21 she won a scholarship to study in Bern, Switzerland, where she now lives with her neurologist husband and seven-year-old daughter. In her own words, she is “very seriously educated”.
Did she learn her improvisational skills from her parents?
“I’m not typical of any zoological breed,” she replies impishly. “My parents were classically trained but they never played from a score, and I never played folk music. My mother had to write it down so that I could play with them. I don’t say there’s a right way and a wrong way to play music but it’s very right to follow your instinct. That’s something civilisation takes away: ratio is the enemy of instinct. This is why we have music, because we find a way to explain things you can’t explain in words.”
When Kopatchinskaja talks about music, intuition and intellect walk hand in hand but when she starts playing, the earth-spirit takes over. She says she takes “great care” to analyse the music she plays but, in the moment of performance, “there is a strength that takes [hold of] me: I don’t know anything any more. It’s not me – it’s my soul in touch with the piece. I feel that, sometimes in classical music, we think it’s a stone monument. I’m not interested in this. I’m interested in the act of creation – I try to create the moment of the premiere.”
She admits she does not always succeed, partly because she is dependent on creative surroundings and sympathetic collaborators.
“My technical machine does not work without imagination. I can’t play a scale in tune for you: I need always a pictorial imagination. If you ask for a scale to heaven, then I can play it. Not many conductors let me play [the way I want to play]. If you go to the borders, to the edge of something dangerous, you meet resistance. Some orchestras look at me, see that I am young and don’t take me seriously. I observe the reaction. Are these people magicians or bureaucrats? How far can they deal with something so unpredictable?”
Just now her favoured collaborators are Philippe Herreweghe’s Orchestre des Champs-Elysées and Vladimir Jurowski’s London Philharmonic, with whom she will be reunited in December for a concert tour of Germany and France. “They are like the best acrobats: every time it’s different, it’s developing. I need this quality. I can’t copy something that was done before. I’m not a guide showing the building. I’m rebuilding the building,” she says.
As for the future, Kopatchinskaja seems ambivalent about being swept up in the whirl of international concert-giving. She still enjoys composing but when asked how she finds the time, she replies “I don’t. I lose the time. I’m never at home. I ask myself every day if I want this life. At the moment I feel I am needed, to show we can make the next step to a different world, not the reproductive, mechanical routine. Maybe when I’m older I’ll become a monk.”
Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s new recording of the Prokofiev No 2 and Stravinsky Violin Concertos will be released next month on the Naïve label