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“You Are Human First”

Interview with Mariusz Patyra, a violinist, winner of the 2001 International Violin Competition “Premio Paganini” in Geno, Italy

By Bożena U. Zaremba

Bożena U. Zaremba: When people talk about the violin, the word “virtuoso” is often used, probably more often than with any other instrument. Why, do you think?

Mariusz Patyra: Mainly because many people associate the violin with Niccolo Paganini, a phenomenon who really started a new era. It was a revolution. Techniques like pizzicato, staccato, or double flageolets, which we owe to Paganini, had been unheard of before him. At that point our understanding of virtuosity came into new light.
In your interpretations, one can hear incredible technical skill but no flashiness, while in Romantic pieces, there is powerful emotion but no sentimentality. Is this balance between technical prowess and expression intentional?

I am really proud that you think this way. I had to work hard to achieve this sound. Being very self-critical, I have always been raising the bar higher and higher. I owe this to my mom, who had never let me skip a note till I was 19. At the age of 15, I was able to take on pieces with the highest degree of virtuosity. I worked on my technical skill for many years, but life experience has had a significant influence on the expression in my interpretations.

Did this process affect the way you play Paganini?

The difficulty of interpreting Paganini’s music lies in the understanding of his fundamental approach to music. Paganini did not aim for virtuosity, strange as it may seem. If you want to play Paganini well, you need to remember that he loved opera bel canto. My mom always stressed that his music conveyed the beauty with the highest degree of virtuosity. As long as I can discover and admire this beauty, I will be able to understand Paganini’s music and its message. The additional difficulty lies in making it sound as if it were light and easy.

During your U.S. concert tour, you will be playing nocturnes by Chopin, who is associated practically only with the piano. Chopin on the violin? Sounds like blasphemy [laughs].

Chopin’s music has found its place in the program to honor the Chopin Society’s mission. In my opinion, Chopin should, of course, be played only on the piano. Transcriptions can be dangerous, but if you understand the soul of the composer’s music, you can show its genius, even on a different instrument. And this is what I am trying to accomplish.

Which is not easy since everyone has his or her own theory about how Chopin should be played.

Art is immeasurable. There is no one method, no golden key to playing his music. After all, who truly knows how to play Chopin? The world knows only the most famous renditions of the greatest pianists. None of us has ever heard Chopin play. We can only imagine his intentions, especially that the music itself—through its dynamics, phrasing—suggests the character of each piece.

Talking about the dynamics, you have an incredible piano, which is so difficult to play.

I have to admit that piano is one of my fortes [laughs]. Anybody can play loud and fast.

Giovanni Casella is your regular accompanist. What do you appreciate about him the most?

Giovanni is extremely alert. I have never felt more comfortable with any accompanist. We have known each other for years and understand each other without words. We work in a very similar way, too. We have reached the point when hours of practicing together are not necessary. Before the concert, the musician needs to rest and accumulate energy.

Let’s talk about the Paganini Competition, which you won in 2001. Winning such a prestigious competition usually opens the doors to famous concert halls and recording studios. Did this happen with you?

Times have changed. A competition gives you a chance, gives you an interesting biography entry, but does not guarantee anything. Fifteen or twenty years ago, only a few violinists would enter a competition, so sometimes there were more prizes than participants. Today, there are millions of great violinists, and there are around 300 competitions each year. That is, in my opinion, far too many. Besides, the participants are judged not by soloists but teachers, who have not held an instrument in their hands for twenty or thirty years. Let me give you an example: In times when the famous Vadim Repin won the Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels, the jury included such artists as David Oistrakh, Henryk Szeryng, Ruggiero Ricci, and Ida Haendel. Each one knew exactly what it means to perform in front of the audience and how to cope with the adrenaline, but most of all, each one could go up on the stage and play any musical piece from the competition’s repertoire—something that is so rare nowadays. It is easy to judge, to criticize, but to step on the stage and electrify the audience—only few can do this.

Why is this competition so important then?

The Paganini Competition is legendary, and not every violinist can bear its pressure. I am very proud of this award, especially that I am the only Polish violinist who has won this competition, though many have tried. I had dreamt of winning this competition since my school years.

Which violinist do you consider to be your mentor?

There are many. I have always been a great admirer of the old violinist school. The first artist I would bring up is Michael Rabin, who played with a most beautiful, substantial sound, and with such an inhuman force. Then there is Josef Hassid, who died tragically so young. Someone said—I cannot remember who—that a great violinist comes around every 100 years, a Hassid every 200. Hassid played with so much passion and so much maturity, unusual for a young man. Of course, Jascha Heifetz has always been for me, just as for most violinists, a great example to follow. He was phenomenal. I learned timing from Henryk Szeryng. I must also mention Itzhak Perlman, whom I have always admired for his melancholy. When I think about the difference between the old and the new generation of violinists, I realize that the old ones could be instantly recognized just after few first notes, and now…?

What is the significance of the kind of the instrument you play?

None, really. There are two names associated with the violin that every violinist dreams of, that is, Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu and Antonio Stradivari. Why not dream? But even those instruments will not play by themselves. You need the soul and skillful hands.

You are a great fishing enthusiast. Where does this interest come from?

From my childhood. I remember summer nights that I spent with my older brother, fishing. It was only a year ago that I returned to this hobby. And now I can even say that fishing takes as much of my time as the music. I even have a double case, which, instead of the second instrument, can hold a folding fishing rod and small accessories necessary for spin fishing. Of course, not always is this possible.

What else nourishes your musical imagination?

The surrounding world and the path I follow. Every experience in my life has changed something in me, and thanks to that, my music is more “saturated.” Someone once told me, “Mariusz, remember that you are human first, then you are a man, and only in the third place, an artist. If you are not ‘clean’ as a human being, you will never play clean.”

June 18, 2008

The concert took place on October 4, 2008, at the Roswell Cultural Arts Center in Roswell, Georgia.
To learn more about the artist, visit

Photo: maxresdefault