In the Spotlight: Nikolaj Znaider

Violinist and conductor Nikolaj Znaider returns to direct the London Symphony Orchestra in a cycle of Mozart's elegant Violin Concertos alongside the dramatic symphonies of Tchaikovsky. 

On Sunday 14 May, Nikolaj Znaider will embark on the second instalment of his Mozart & Tchaikovsky project – an ambitious series that pairs the violin concertos of Mozart alongside Tchaivkosky's late symphonies.

Back in June, we had a chance to chat to Znaider about the pieces, the links between the two composers and balancing his career as both an established performer and renowned conductor. 

'There's something that unites their music; there's a lightness of the motion and there's a feeling of drama.'

Why does the music of Mozart and Tchaikovsky work so well together? How do the pieces complement each other? 

I always think that Mozart, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky are somehow related. It feels like they are kindred spirits each writing in their own times and their own geographical areas. There's something that unites their music; there's a lightness of the motion and there's a feeling of drama, in the sense of stage music, of a story unfolding. 

Mozart's violin concertos were written in such quick succession. Do you see Mozart's approach to the genre evolve at all or do they provide a really good snapshot of his life at a time?

Although I think that there is a breadth of maturity in these pieces – you have the Fifth Violin Concerto which has a maturity that belies Mozart's age when he wrote it, especially the slow movement – I would rather say that the two early ones are underestimated in a way. For some reason, at some point in music history every violinist decided that it's only Three, Four and Five that will be played. It's a great pity and that's why it's going to be interesting for us, for me, and hopefully for the audience to go on this journey through the five concerti and perhaps to rediscover the first two and to see then in their proper light. 

In an almost opposite way, the Tchaikovsky symphonies that you're playing were written very much towards the end of the composer's life and in time of great turmoil. Do you think that this is reflected in the music?

With Tchaikovsky it is quite interesting is because, as with many composers in fact, the music he wrote doesn't necessarily reflect the state of mind he was in. On the contrary, composers like Tchaikovsky find an optimism and a joy of life that they didn't have outside music. I think with Tchaikovsky this is very much the case. I think the symphonies of Tchaikovsky have a very real sense that there is a play unfolding, of some kind of programmatic idea being developed or playing out in front of the listener. That intensity of the emotion will be the biggest contrast with the Mozart. The concerti still have the gallantry and the elegance of early Mozart. By the time of the Tchaikovsky symphonies, we are well into the romantic era; we are well into the age when it was acceptable for humans to feel strongly as individuals. I think it's going to be an interesting journey to have Tchaikovsky's Symphonies No 4, 5 and 6 paired with the Mozart Violin Concertos. 

'Conducting is more tolerant of infidelity; I can be away from it and do other things and I won't get punished for it.'

How do you find balancing your dual roles of conductor and soloists? Do they play different parts in your life or do they feed into one another? 

I think I have advantages as a conductor that I wouldn't have if I weren't playing and vice versa, I learn things about music I wouldn't have been able to learn if I hadn't conducted. So they very much coexist in a mutually beneficial synthesis. The only difficulty is the practicality. There are only 52 weeks of the year and it feels sometimes like I'm doing two separate jobs at the same time. Conducting is more tolerant of infidelity; I can be away from it and do other things and I won't get punished for it. However, if I return to played after not having played for five weeks I can very much feel that. 

Because you have these two major roles, I suppose it feels like a natural decision then to play-conduct the Mozart Concertos. Does that give you a different perspective on the music, taking full responsibility of the music? 

I suppose unless you have a particular affinity with a conductor that feels strongly that you have to be perfectly together, this music doesn't really require a conductor. So I don't really see myself as conducting these pieces. With the Mozart I think it's perfectly fine for it to have a chamber music feel to it. So I actually think of myself less as a conductor in that role. It's an independent orchestra and we just happen to not have a conductor for the violin concertos. 

Nikolaj Znaider will conduct and perform with the London Symphony Orchestra on Sunday 14 May at the Barbican, performing Mozart Violin Concerto No 5 along with Tchaikovsky Symphony No 5.