As the teenage violinist releases his second Deutsche Grammophon album, he talks Tchaikovsky, chess, Bach and boxing with Hugo Shirley.
It's been an early morning for Daniel Lozakovich. When we first meet in the lobby of a Berlin hotel, he's already been up performing Bach on German breakfast TV. He nevertheless proves a generous interviewee, relaxed and easy-going, and not necessarily what you'd expect from a performer still in his teens – or, indeed, the youngest person ever to sign a contract with Deutsche Grammophon. There were doubters at the time: a gimmicky decision by the prestigious label, some suggested. But his first album, of solo and concertante works by Bach, largely silenced those voices. "If his next disc is as good as this one," declared Gramophone magazine in the UK, "there'll be much to celebrate."
That next album is out now, and it finds the young violinist at the heart of the Romantic repertoire with Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. The rest of the programme features smaller pieces by the composer, including a transcription of the much-loved song "None But the Lonely Heart", which gives the album its slightly sentimental title. But why Tchaikovsky, I ask, when almost everyone in the classical world is spending this year dusting off their Beethoven? "Beethoven is coming," Lozakovich reassures me with a laugh. It's clear that recording the Tchaikovsky wasn't just a matter of ticking off one of the big concertos in the repertory. "With Tchaikovsky I wanted to show my Romantic side," he says. "Tchaikovsky is really someone I have in my heart – my teachers, my family, they are all Russian tradition, and culturally I'm so close to Tchaikovsky."
It was important for Lozakovich, too, that the couplings showcase the composer beyond the well-known concerto. "Evgenii Onegin was my first opera, so I wanted to record Lensky's aria, and the other great pieces. They show Tchaikovsky's soul – the moods, the style and the sound." From the start, he also was determined to record the concerto live. "I did my first recording in the studio and I really had to challenge myself. But in concert, I don't know, you have the energy of the people who are really listening. It's more alive. Something of the soul can be taken away in the studio."
The album has a further personal element: the concerto was performed in the very same hall where the even younger Lozakovich had made his concerto debut, shortly before he turned nine. Not only that, but the conductor was Vladimir Spivakov, with whom he'd made that debut. "He's my favourite violinist for the concerto," Lozakovich says of Spivakov, "and to perform it with him is such a joy. He knows all the tricks for a violinist and it's pure pleasure. For many people he's No. 1 for the Tchaikovsky concerto, and after the performance he came to me and said: 'I had this concerto for 50 years, now it's yours for the next 50.' I was very moved."
Talking to Lozakovich, one has the impression, if not of a reluctant prodigy, then at least of someone whose desire first and foremost is simply to serve the music – his headline-grabbing record contract, it seems, is incidental to what he'd be doing anyway. He's no normal musical prodigy, either. Lozakovich didn't grow up in a musical household and his stumbling upon the violin – and music in general – was in many ways just a happy accident after hearing a concert at his school. "The first thing I heard was Bach's A minor Concerto. It was the first time I ever saw the violin, the first time I heard it, and I fell in love. I was almost in tears that first time, and I knew it would be my instrument."
His mother, however, initially had different plans. "She was shocked, because everyone knows how bad the violin sounds when you're a beginner! At first she said no, because she wanted me to become a tennis player, but I replied: 'I can only play tennis until I'm 30. The violin I can play my whole life.'" Does he still play tennis, I ask? "Less now. I had to stop when I was really little, because my first teacher said it was bad for the wrist." He has picked it up again now that he's older, but says he doesn't have much time for it.
"I do more boxing," he adds casually, "and chess." I rewind a little: "Boxing?" Yes indeed. And here we return to Spivakov. "He was almost a professional, and he inspired me." Lozakovich boxes less now, he admits, and has to devote more and more time, when he's not at school, to his music. But he lays out the sport's benefits. "It's very good for you mentally; when you're drained physically, the mind just takes over. It really helps you challenge yourself. And it's about strategy. Boxing is like a chess game – just more physical!"
And that brings us on to another string the young violinist has to his bow. Lozakovich's chess playing even predates his violin playing: he started when he was five and played competitively, he tells me, all across Sweden. "It was the only thing my mum really forced me to do – that and school – and I hated them both!" He used to get nervous in chess tournaments, he admits, and hated losing. When he no longer had time he gave up, and only started again in the last couple of years. "I got back into it and I love it now."
If he got nervous playing chess, I wonder, does he ever get nervous performing? "When I perform I just really enjoy it," he says. "I get a bit excited – butterflies of course – but I quickly got used to it and just deal with it. And when I'm in the hall I just forget about everything and get lost in the music. I become the composer." For the last few years Lozakovich's enjoyment in performance has been helped by the developing relationship he enjoys with his Strad. "I have my sound and I'm always working on it, always finding something new, which is what's great about such an instrument. But it's also what makes it harder, because there are so many possibilities."
"Pianos die like humans, but violins, if they are played, just get better the better you get to know them. If you give, they give back – especially with a Strad." How his current Strad came to be in his hands is a story of surprises, involving an encounter with the teacher and violin dealer Eduard Wulfson from Geneva. Less than enamoured of the violin Lozakovich was playing, Wulfson apparently announced one day, "Oh you need a violin – I will give you a Strad!" A try-out in Geneva followed, after which the young violinist found himself with a priceless instrument in his hands. "He gave me a violin, I tried it, and said: 'Oh my God!' He said I could take it home. I was shocked. He was just like, 'Ciao!' And I just set off back home with a Strad!"
That first instrument, he explains, proved challenging to master, and had to be returned just as he was getting to grips with it. "After a debut concert with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony in Tanglewood, my teacher Eduard Wulfson and his partner Christopher Reuning in Boston invited me to Reuning’s and Sons and said I needed to give back this violin. But they offered me an even better Stradivarius violin, the Ex Rothschild 1713. I had to work on it too, but it's so much broader, brilliant and with more projection." And, happily, there's no sign of this one having to be handed back anytime soon. "I quickly got used to it and now I'm in love with it and so grateful! Each performance and every day I'm finding something new."
Listen to Daniel Lozakovich's 'None but the Lonely Heart' here.
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