"I know a lot of music," says Russian conductor Alexander Lazarev as he sits in the lobby of a Wellington hotel. But Lazarev, who conducts the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra on Saturday, isn't making a boast. Rather, the acclaimed maestro and world authority on his countryman, the great Dmitri Shostakovich, is explaining why he only conducts a set number of composers.
The scores for all the rest, if piled one on top of each other, would weigh a "thousand kilograms", he says. "It's because it's not mine. I like to listen to music. For example, I love the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. But I will never conduct it."
Fortunately, Lazarev, 68, is passionate about the composers he does want to conduct – and he's sought after by many of the world's top orchestras. For Lazarev, who won first prize in a national competition for conductors in the Soviet Union in 1971 and a prestigious gold medal at the Karajan Competition in Berlin the following year, conducting works goes beyond a knowledge of the score. It is about knowing the composer.
"You should know what were the circumstances around a composition, or [a] composer. It is what happened socially in the country. It's everything – and [it's] very important to understand what happened. There is only one answer, 'I should know as much as possible around this'."
And Lazarev does. The NZSO concert, entitled Russian Fire, not only features Shostakovich's Symphony No 15, his last symphony, but Caprice Bohemien, by another Russian great, Rachmaninoff.
Shostakovich, who died in 1975, wrote Symphony No 15 while in hospital over a few weeks in 1971. It begs the question whether Lazarev, a student at the Moscow Conservatory during Shostakovich's last years, ever met the man. Lazarev says he didn't get to speak to him, but he did see Shostakovich at concerts for his own and other composers' works.
"I was a student when it was announced that Shostakovich was to present his new symphony. It was of great interest," he says, explaining the excitement and anticipation among students at the conservatory. "It was the Moscow Radio Orchestra under the direction of his [Shostakovich's] son."
The composer himself attended rehearsals. "Me, with my friend, we visited all the rehearsals to see the reaction of the composer. I can't say now what my impression was after the first performance. But I remember it was a very interesting time."
The work he and others heard was Symphony No 15 – a work the NZSO last played in 1989.
Lazarev, who first conducted the NZSO in 1994, says it's a masterpiece and that Shostakovich "used his huge experience as a composer and a lot of connections with his previous symphonies" to complete it.
But over the years Lazarev has also conducted the composer's other 14 symphonies. He's very clear on the ones he prefers, but has an in-depth knowledge of them all and how they were created.
One of the most important influences on Shostakovich was the works of Gustav Mahler. Shostakovich's first three symphonies have their moments, the conductor says. No 3 is "fine, it's gifted". But then Shostakovich was advised to study Mahler and Mahler's influence is obvious from that point. Lazarev then mimes looking at two sheets of paper and jokes that some sections of scores by Mahler and Shostakovich are indistinguishable. But studying Mahler took Shostakovich to another level, he says.
"When Dmitri was 28 years old he composed Symphony No 4 – ba- bam!" says Lazarev. "This is Shostakovich. I cannot understand how a young man [at] 28 years composed the end of Symphony No 4. It is so deep, so tragic, so hopeless. But this symphony was deep – it was the biggest symphony in the world."
Lazarev sums up Shostakovich's other symphonies. But it's not a dry history lesson. It's stories and anecdotes, peppered with asides and jokes which make Shostakovich and other composers come to life. The fact that he'll conduct Rachmaninoff generates stories not only on that composer, but Lazarev's own theory on why fellow Russian great Prokofiev returned to Russia in 1936.
And Lazarev loves a good story. One doesn't even have any connection to the concert. There was the time Aram Khachaturian, composer of Sabre Dance, visited Salvador Dali at his home in Spain. Dali kept him waiting for an hour, during which the composer relieved himself in a vase after drinking too much cognac. Dali then charged into the room, riding a horse. He was also naked and waving a sabre.
Of his own career, Lazarev, who lives near Moscow, can surprise. He's a prolific recording artist, but these days sees recordings as increasingly irrelevant. For him they're just "important to see in a shop window. It's like meat in cans".
But he loved his period as chief conductor and artistic director of the Bolshoi Theatre, the only person in 30 years to hold both positions. "I took the position only for one reason. Not for money, not for publicity. I was interested in making new productions."
Alexander Lazarev conducts the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, Saturday, 7.30pm.
- The Dominion Post