Memories - Dmitry Makhtin

I will begin with my arrival in The Netherlands at age 17. My mother entered the Hague orchestra and at the time I was studying in America. Once mama heard how I play – and she was a very experienced and professional person – she said: “That’s enough. Let’s go to Liberman. That’s the Petersburg school and just what is needed.”

We arrived. At the time, Liberman was giving master classes, i.e., the school year had already ended. And he put it this way – I remember his words: “Good, I’ll audition him, but even if he plays like Heifetz, I won’t take him, because the school year is over and, in general, I don’t have any free places.”

The only thing that remained for me to do was to go back to America. But he did agree to listen to me. I played and after that Liberman said: “Good, I’ll call Philippe and tell him to take you.” By that phone call, he helped me a lot, because I landed straight with Philippe. At that moment, they were great friends. They had practically a common class. Students of Hirshhorn could play for Liberman and that was normal. After a while, I got a phone call that it was OK, Philippe had agreed to take me.

That’s where the matter ended, because it was already June. In August, I submitted my documents and was enrolled in the Conservatory.

Philippe began to teach towards the end of September. He gave me a repertoire, or, to be more correct, he called my mother, whom he knew still back in Leningrad, and said that I should study the Sibelius concerto, some piece of Bach, etc. And then I came to my lesson at the end of September.

We got acquainted right on the staircase. I remember that Philippe said: “Aha, so this is your name? Ok, my boy.” Right there the word “boy” came into play and it then stayed with me forever.  “Viktor Semenovich says that you don’t play badly. Now, let’s see.”

Later I remember how I entered the class.  It was a very small room with traces of cigarette smoke. Probably 12 square meters, in which 20 students were already seated. Some were sitting on the window sills, others on seats. They hung on the chandelier, so to speak, and wherever else possible. And there was a pianist. I had prepared the Sibelius concerto, but it never came into my head that I would have to play it right away with piano accompaniment. I had never even heard this music.

Philippe said: “Well, get going!”  And so I started to play. You have to enter somewhere, and I didn’t even know where to enter. But I just entered and played.  I played the first part, as I had studied it. I did what I could do. 

Philippe said: “Good, today’s lesson is cancelled. Come tomorrow morning when there is no one here.”And from that cold shower began my five years of studies with Philippe, which I truly will remember forever, because he worked with me not simply well, but very particularly.  

First of all, because he had no sense of set hours for lessons. There were lessons lasting two hours, and three hours, and on Saturday, and on Sunday, that is, at times when he should not have done this. You studied not as measured in time but as much as was needed. This is a quality which generally and usually is absent among teachers. If Philippe felt that there is a payoff and the person understands what he is saying, then he did not count the time – he worked until he saw results.

Secondly, there was the human side. Sometimes, he let me spend the night in Utrecht. We had no money at all. We had just arrived in the country and even these trips from The Hague to Utrecht presented a financial problem for us. Philippe arranged for me to spend the night in Utrecht and sometimes even gave me money for a ticket.  In principle, these are things that are unbelievable in our world. Back then they were special, and now as well. That’s worth a lot…

Our relations were not cloudless right away.  From the start, Philippe seemed to me to be a bristly personality, who could make stinging remarks, and you might also get that from him. But people always understand that he said something not because he wanted to offend someone but because he wanted to force you to really and truly serve art. That was understandable to us and no one ever got offended. However, the things he said were something… For example, there was one female student who now works in the Berlin Philharmonic. That tells you about her level, because there are not so many women but the orchestra is outstanding. Before that, she worked in Cologne as the Concertmaster. Alina Champion. She is a talented person who could play brilliantly.

Once Alina arrived and she had prepared Bach. She came from a privileged family, from Switzerland. On that day, she did not play very successfully for herself, for Bach, for music in general. Philippe went on the attack… I remember it to this day. “Strictly speaking, why did you come? Go get married, have kids… why should you play Bach?” That and more. But it didn’t mean that he did not love his students. He was crazy about them.

As for me, I could never get it into my head that if you play a violin concerto you have to look over the scores and know what is going on in the orchestra. It seemed to me that this is not so important. But for Philippe, it was very important. 

There was one situation which occurred later, but I will tell you about it now, because it was directly related to the issue of scores. A competition was announced for performance of the Berg concerto with a school orchestra. As it happened, Philippe gave me just one lesson on this concerto, so that I prepared for this competition practically all by myself. There were other students, several people.  Here’s how they declared the result. In the jury sat Liberman, Philippe and someone else. Liberman came into the room where we were awaiting the result and began with the following sentence: “We all know that here Mitya is our very best violinist, but he did not learn it by heart and we prefer Johannes.” However, there remained a half-year until the performance, and it was possible to learn it by heart a hundred times over. 

Well, I made a terrible scandal, a scandal with Philippe. You cannot imagine it. I simply shouted at him. I was so offended! They tell you that you are the best, and then you don’t get it. That really sounds strange, right?

Philippe couldn’t stand it. He called us that evening to say that I should not come any more. He struck me from the class for such behavior. “I am not going to work with you.” But he got my mother on the phone, and my mother is a very strong person.

She told him: “Philippe, strictly speaking, why are you surprised? Why is he in the wrong?” That’s what my mother was like!… They had a chat in which they arrived at some kind of agreement. In a word, I was not expelled. But when I came to the lesson, we worked together for two hours (on the Sibelius concerto), after which Philippe said: “Go into the next room. You will continue there without me.” And then he added, just like a little kid: “Still, I was right. There is no need for you to play the Berg concerto right now. You will learn it and will play it with some normal orchestra.” I replied that each of us remains with his own opinion, and I went out. Forty minutes later, suddenly the door to our class opens and sheet music flies in my direction – the Sibelius score – with the remark on it: “Well at least learn the score next time.”

After that moment, I don’t know why, our relations changed. We began to talk with one another on an entirely different level. It was as if this situation were some kind of catapult. This was not even the “professor-student” relationship. It was rather more and a lot warmer. I could call him and talk about everything, not only about how I had to work at the violin. It especially etched itself on my memory, and this was when he already fell ill, after he had his operation, and I left for the competition in Montreal. I won at this competition and had to return home passing through Brussels. Philippe came out to meet me. My plane was delayed and he sat at the airport for three hours waiting for me. It is impossible to imagine.  What teacher does that? Only someone very close to you can behave that way.  When we arrived and sat on the sofa, Philippe embraced me and said: “My boy, thank you for doing this for me.” Can you ever forget something like that?

I also remember my last lesson with him. We were playing the Fauré sonata – Zhenya Sinaisky, the son of the  conductor, and me. It was a week before Philippe learned about his diagnosis. He was already feeling badly. He was in pain – his head hurt, and there were some unpleasant things with his hands. They were giving him massages, etc.  But we spent three hours on the first part of the Fauré sonata and a bit of the second part.

This was a fatally ill man standing there! He worked on each note, on each phrase. “Try this, and now that.” He fully gave of himself, which in such cases, when a man is so talented, is very rare by itself. People like that are usually concentrated on themselves, but here he was giving it his all – such things are not supposed to happen.

Philippe could work a great deal with those people who understood him. Though that is the task of any teacher – to find that contact by which whatever you say the other person will understand what you are talking about. Sometimes he could say that music is not just sounds but also color. Black, white, and, for example, violet. Play this in a violet sound. Someone will understand what he meant, and someone else won’t. At age 16-17, not everyone can understand. But it seemed to me that I understood what he was saying.  No questions ever arose for me over what he meant to tell me. Sometimes I tried to imitate him; it was impossible to avoid doing this. Not only I – everyone wanted to do that, for example in the Paganini concerto. Everyone listened and will listen to this. There are only two recordings which violinists are obliged to know as regards the Paganini concerto – Kogan’s and Hirshhorn’s. If you are studying under him, you cannot avoid this. I have to say, that he did not like that. The same year as Montreal, I took part in three competitions, including the Paganini Competition, where I won the third prize. You had to play this concerto naturally. I arrived having heard enough of his recording.  Philippe stopped me and said:  “Do you want to be a normal sized Makhtin or a very small Hirshhorn?” That’s a good example of how he spoke. What is not clear in that? In the final analysis, if you did not understand, he took the instrument in his hands and showed you.  That is also something that teachers do not always do, especially now.

He and Liberman were a splendid duo. As for me, that was especially remarkable. Philippe was a poet, an artist. He embodied music itself. Liberman was more concrete in terms of the structure of producing the sound. Furthermore, he knew orchestral matters extremely well. He is one of the best Concertmasters in the world. For example, Abbado was all the time inviting him to work with the string section. Those certain elements which Philippe truly did not busy himself with and did not speak about were provided by Liberman. Thus, taken together this was the greatest body of knowledge that you could receive. Not only did they communicate some idea but also its practical realization… For example, Liberman would say:  “Here is where the clarinet plays and you must listen so that it coincides.” This has great importance when you still do not have much experience. Latеr you yourself acquire this when you go out and play one work several times. But that has still not happened and this is a colossal help.

In the evenings, the students had some parties, and Philippe could casually arrive and take a seat, as if this were absolutely his milieu.  You did not have the feeling that he represented another generation. He was absolutely young, as if he were 20.

I really heard Philippe performing only two times.  One time in the Konzertgebouw with Lenonskaja – I was at this concert. And the second time, when he played the completely stunning concerto of Chausson, before the third round of the Brussels competition during the concert of members of the jury. Recordings are always very good, but Philippe had unbelievable magnetism. You never could sit back and relax or get distracted by something. The Prokofiev Sonata – from the first note to the last – held your attention. Even now I can see how it was.

Philippe very genuinely did not like to talk about his playing. Still more, he would never speak about it in some positive way. So you had the feeling that he was devouring himself somewhat. But this was not correct.  I once even dared to tell him: “Philippe, in the final analysis, you cannot be this way. You are a musician of outstanding quality and what are other people supposed to feel if you relate to yourself this way?” It may sound strange when a man says “I played like shit” or “it didn’t work out’” and something more. Then what are those who cannot achieve such results supposed to feel?  It appears that he could not find something to say by way of objection… But for some reason, if not this then something else was not right. A musician who is not satisfied with his playing and wants to achieve something, shouldn’t he also find some positive moments in his playing and not only look at the negative. Concerning the Paganini concerto, he himself did not consider that it was a great achievement. Generally, if you look at the issue more broadly, Philippe did not like to speak about himself.

They say that Stern wanted to help two people, Philippe and Shlomo Mintz. Philippe, of course, was better than Mintz from all points of view. But Stern gave Philippe such a provocative question, as, they say, he loved to do. Apparently, something about how Philippe relates to Zionism, and Philippe also somehow “answered” him. But Stern was a complex and vengeful man.

There are those rare situations when you act as you have to, because you cannot act otherwise, but then nothing works out as it should. On the other hand, no one can say about Philippe that he would bend down to suit someone, and that is right, and it is noble. I am speaking about situations which I did not witness but only heard about. All the same, life puts things in their proper place, and if we speak about Philippe, then it is not surprising that now, when the man is gone already so many years, it turns out that interest in him does not fade, and, all the same, people know who Hirshhorn was. Not many, but they know. There are violinists who did not achieve great career results on the world stage, but interest in them remains all the same. And there is the opposite, when a career is made, disks etc., but time passes and the man is forgotten. The amount of money earned is another measure and it has no relation to what the man really represents. 

Despite the fact that Philippe taught for relatively few years – as far as I know, he began when he was around forty and he died at fifty – the productivity of his students is amazing, I believe. If you look at who achieved what, then very many achieved great results.  Alina is in the Berlin Philharmonic. Giovanni Fabris sits in Toulon as Concertmaster. Gregor Sigl is in the Artemis Quartet. Janin Jansens has to be named. Although she studied with him for just two years and did not take many lessons with him, she considers herself his student and with reason. But all the same, you cannot fail to mention her.  David Grimal.  Philippe Graffin.  All this in just ten years! Usually you get one or two such cases over your entire life…