“Rachmaninov is my idol in every way”
Vitaliy Petrov was born in Saint Petersburg in 2003. He studied music at the Saint Petersburg Children’s M.L. Rostropovich Art School (where Elena Schwarz was his instructor), and at the Secondary School of Music of the N.A. Rimsky-Korsakov Saint Petersburg State Conservatory (where he studied with Irina Ryumina and, beginning in 2015, with Alexander Sandler, Honored Artist of the Russian Federation). In 2021, Vitaliy matriculated at the N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov Saint Petersburg State Conservatory, continuing his studies with Professor Alexander Sandler. By the age of 18, Vitaliy had won a number of prestigious awards. He won the gold medal in the 3rd Berlin International Music Competition and 15 special prizes from the 2019 Munich Piano Youth Competition. In 2020, he won second prize in the Young Talents of Russia Competition. In 2021, he won the Second International Svyatoslav Richter Online Piano Competition (South Korea) and the second prize at the International Piano Competition in San Jose, USA. And this is by no means a complete list of Vitaliy’s victories, which have come consistently to the musician since the age of six. Vitaliy Petrov has appeared in the Great and Small Halls of the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic, the Mariinsky Theatre, concert halls in Pskov, Karelia, Kaliningrad, Tula, Nizhny Novgorod and Vyatka, the Astrakhan Opera and Ballet Theatre, the Winter Theatre in Sochi, concert halls in Vienna (Musikverein, Ehrbar Saal, Kaisersaal), Nuremberg, Cologne, Belgrade and Athens. He participates in many international festivals. He has taken part in the programs of the Saint Petersburg Music House since 2020.
Saint Petersburg Music House (SPMH): You come from a family of musicians; your father is a composer. Was there ever any question about whether or not you would make music?
Vitaliy Petrov: My parents did not set out to make a professional musician out of me when they sent me to music school. Rather, they were trying to give me a well-rounded education. At the age of three, I started attending kindergarten classes at an art school, and at the age of four, preschool classes at a music school. My first piano lessons came when I was five years old, and I didn’t think about my future at all back then. My first teacher, Elena Schwarz, played a major role in me choosing to go to a secondary music school. It was all so natural for me that I don’t even remember when I realized I was going to be a pianist. It probably happened when I was six years old and won two, quite significant competitions for my age—one of which was international.
SPMH: What is your most vivid musical impression from your childhood?
Vitaliy Petrov: I remember the first time I played with an orchestra. We performed my father’s Italian Carnival, a concertino for piano and string orchestra. I was nine. Everyone was happy that I got the chance to play with an orchestra at such a young age. But I didn’t look forward to that concert. It was very scary to go out on stage with so many musicians already sitting there. I was already playing to full audiences at my shows by then, but this was different. It seemed absurd to me that all these grownups were playing with me, and I was sort of in charge. But I ended up enjoying that performance—it wasn’t so scary after all—and these days, playing with an orchestra is by far my favorite thing to do.
SPMH: You perform your father’s compositions. Have you ever had professional disagreements with him?
Vitaliy Petrov: My father, Evgeniy Petrov, does not compose for piano much. He is more inspired by large ensembles; the bulk of his work is choral and orchestral music. I played all his piano compositions. I wouldn’t call them hard, since Dad never focuses on technical challenges. There are no disagreements; on the contrary, Dad happily accepts the pianist’s ideas when it comes to piano music. The most important performance at which I played my dad’s music was the 2021 Film Concerto, a double concerto for contrabass balalaika and piano and orchestra, with Mikhail Dziudze and the Saint Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Titov at the Saint Petersburg Capella. For this performance, my father composed an extended cadenza for piano at my request. Indeed, I encourage my dad to compose for piano, and I hope to update my repertoire with his new compositions soon.
SPMH: Do you compose music?
Vitaliy Petrov: I don’t consider myself ready for serious compositional practice right now. I composed miniatures as a child, and I even have a cycle of piano pieces called Winter Children’s Album, inspired by Tchaikovsky, naturally. Arranging is closely related to composing. This year I had the idea to create a concert suite for piano from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and to combine concert suites from three of Stravinsky’s “Russian” ballets—The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, arranged by Agosti, Stravinsky and myself respectively—into a single program. I’m currently working on this arrangement, and only time will tell whether my idea comes to fruition.
SPMH: In 2019, you won 15 special prizes at once at the Munich Youth Piano international competition in Germany, a very unusual feat.
Vitaliy Petrov: This competition is but one of many in my biography, and somehow it’s the one that catches everyone’s attention. It is special in that there is no prize division, but there are many awards granted not only by the main jury, but also by various artists, sponsors, and organizers. Among other things, there is a separate youth jury that awards its own prizes. I really did end up winning 15 prizes. The most valuable of them was the chance to perform in the 2020 MUSICAÈ concert series, playing half-hour recitals in Nymphenburg Palace in Munich and in Teatro La Fenice in Venice. Unfortunately, these concerts never took place as a result of the pandemic.
SPMH: One of your upcoming performances is the Piano Marathon of Saint Petersburg Music House soloists, which will be held on April 12 at Zaryadye in Moscow. You will perform works by Scriabin and Stravinsky. Do you like to compete on stage?
Vitaliy Petrov: Competing isn’t central to music. In some ways it helps to keep up, although I feel better playing when there are no negative emotions around, and competition implies otherwise. I take events like The Piano Marathon not as a competition, but as a joyful opportunity to perform with other pianists, my peers, at famous venues. I love concerts much more than competitions just because their essence is not in comparing performances to determine the best one, but in the music itself, in the joy of creativity. Each artist performs great music, and each performance is unique and valuable. In addition, joint concerts give me the opportunity to learn something from my fellows, to share experiences, and I think this is very necessary for all young musicians.
SPMH: You have often played Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 at events hosted by Saint Petersburg Music House. Does this composition have any special meaning for you?
Vitaliy Petrov: It’s not enough to say that Rachmaninov is my favorite composer. He is my idol in every way—and in all three of his musical capacities as composer, pianist, and conductor. I adore him as a person. His music touches me like no other and is very dear to me. This is especially true regarding Piano Concerto No. 2. There is so much brightness in this work, so much love of life, so much faith in the beautiful, that it cannot help but take your breath away. At the same time, I cannot say that my path to understanding it was easy. My main challenge was to find a balance between restraint and excessive emotionality. There is no limit to comprehending this great music, so each time I perform it in concert, on stage, is unlike the time before and opens up a new level of understanding for me.
SPMH: Which era in music is dearest to you as a performer and as a listener?
Vitaliy Petrov: The turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The music of that epoch is not as clearly defined as the Silver Age of Russian Poetry in literature. And yet the composers of this era, too, were searching for a new language in a variety of directions, which is all documented in the piano literature of that day, primarily that of Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Debussy, and Ravel. Each of these composers had a different perception of the world and a way of expressing himself. It was through the relative freedom of their time, as well their reliance on old traditions, that each of them managed to express himself so sincerely and reveal himself so fully in his art.
SPMH: In the last two years, art and life itself have changed a lot. Digital formats have begun to displace other types of communication almost by force. How do you feel about this?
Vitaliy Petrov: On the one hand, it is good when people from distant cities can tune into your next broadcast, but it is worth remembering that digital formats can never replace live performance, both in their power to influence listeners and the degree of inspiration that they offer to artists. It seems to me that the ideal way to put on concerts is with an in-person audience and a digital broadcast at the same time. I forget about the cameras and microphones at such concerts and feel freer than at recording sessions. Music requires live contact between performer and listener.
SPMH: Can you imagine spending a day, a week, or a month without a piano? What would you devote such time to?
Vitaliy Petrov: Sometimes it’s good to be without a piano for a couple of weeks, so that the exercises maintain their freshness and your mind and ears maintain their acuity of perception. I usually only allow myself to do this during the summer when I go to the countryside—a village in Novgorod Region. I devote this time to walking in the wilderness, biking, swimming, picking berries and mushrooms, and generally indulging in all the pleasures that life in the countryside has to offer. I really like to go there, to feel how nature cleanses and energizes me for the year to come.
Interview by Tatiana Mikhailova