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‘The violin was really something very deep in myself’

Tedi Papavrami’s long journey into virtuosity began in totalitarian Albania before moving as a child prodigy to France

Violinist Tedi Papavrami was born into a musical family in the Albanian capital, Tirana, in 1971. He was tutored by his father, a celebrated violin teacher. He was a willing pupil and became a child prodigy who was awarded a French government scholarship to study at the Paris Conservatoire under Pierre Amoyal. He performed a Paganini concerto with orchestra at a ridiculously young age and won his first international competition, the Rodolfo Lipizer Prize, in Italy in 1985.

This may look like a normal trajectory for a rapidly rising young musician. But the reality was quite different. The Albania he was born into was a politically isolated, closed communist country which, in the 1960s, had distanced itself from the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries which, as Papavrami puts it, “we regarded as not being real communists any more, and we were the true ones”.

The French scholarship was awarded to the nine-year-old Papavrami at the suggestion of French flautist Alain Marion. But no one in the corridors of power in Tirana could bring themselves to authorise the boy’s relocation to what was regarded as a corrupt, capitalist country. He finally got the all-clear after two years, when the dictator Enver Hoxha made a personal intervention. “He was the only one who could make the decision,” Papavrami explains.

He was initially sent to Paris on his own, to live with an Albanian family, but later, to ease his stress, his mother was allowed join him. Only one parent at a time was allowed leave Albania; the other remained as a kind of hostage against defection. His success at the Italian competition – which occurred in the year Hoxha died – created such a stir that his father was allowed to join mother and son in the French capital.


But the family had already considered how his father might escape, including the idea of swimming to Greece. Their decision to stay in France created a scandal with major ramifications at home. Papavrami’s uncles and aunts were rounded up at night and the house where they lived, their grandparents’ house, was flattened. They were relocated to remote villages – those with links to the north were brought south and vice versa – sent to work in mines, and forced, under penalty of death, to report to the police three times a day.

This information is all offered in a 10-minute answer – part in Albanian, with Irish-based cellist Sokol Koka acting as interpreter – to a question about whether, as the son of a great teacher, the violin was his destiny or his choice.

He was 15 at the time his father chose to stay in France, and, he says, “music and violin was my deep passion. But at the same time, it would have been very difficult for me to just choose that moment to say, ‘Oh, the violin is not for me. I would like to do something else.’ It’s a little bit difficult to separate choice and destiny in that case. The violin was really something very deep in myself. And, finally, it was probably what saved me. Because, with those kind of external pressures, you can imagine that my pleasure as a musician could have been completely lost.”

He describes his father as “a very strong personality with a very good sense of teaching violin, something very special. And at the same time he was a very theatrical, very dramatic person, impressive, very strict, violent sometimes… All the other students in our school, the Liceu Artistik, were afraid of him. It was not only me.”

Papavrami senior was in favour of continuing the Russian approach to musical schooling in Albania and, says his son, “He understood one thing, which is very simple to understand, that the violin must be learnt very early and very intensively if you want to have good results as an adult. For him, and he’s right, physically and technically you become a violinist between five and 15 years old. Later you can still achieve something of course. But it’s like a language. You will have an accent if you learn too late. It’s difficult to explain what makes a teacher good. Even in France, he was really able to make people work. They really followed him. He was a little bit like a guru.” The limitation in his own early training, he says, was that too little attention was given to matters of style.

Both Papavramis have a certain ambivalence about France. The father has been quoted as saying, “Albania is a joyful hell, France is a sad paradise”, which his son says has something to do with the difference in male dominance between the two countries. But he also remembers that he initially found France “sterile, like a hospital. The French are so polite” – he demonstrates with a string of greetings and responses in French.

His command of that language is profound enough that he has translated novels by the multiply Nobel Prize-nominated Ismail Kadare into French, and those translations have in turn been translated into English. He has also published an autobiography, Fugue Pour Violon Seul, in French, which includes a 1983 photograph of him standing beside a seated Enver Hoxha, with a statuette of Karl Marx in the background.

His personal world as a boy in Albania was not as circumscribed as you might think. He had a grandfather who was educated in Greece (Thessaloniki), the US (Harvard) and Paris (the Sorbonne) and who was a successful dermatologist. He had married and settled in Albania before the advent of communist rule and, for Papavrami, he was an important window to the outside world. It was a distorted outside world he saw, coloured by Charlie Chaplin films (officially approved because of the poverty they showed in America), French films with swashbuckling Jean Marais, and lots of reading – Jules Verne, Victor Hugo, Jack London, Mark Twain.

“I have only good memories of this period,” he says. Quite apart from anything else, he was in the throes of youthful love. And in the absence of private cars, which were not allowed, “It was a completely other atmosphere. People walked, used a bicycle. You could really listen to conversations in the road, people speaking or laughing. This was precious. It was like a forced ecological environment. It was really good.”

Musically, along with the virtuoso pieces he mastered so early in Albania, he also studied Bach and performed in the Double Violin Concerto at the age of six. He listened to recordings by Jascha Heifetz, Ivry Gitlis, Julian Sitkovetsky, David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan and “just tried to imitate them”. But there were very few foreign musicians who could be heard in the flesh.

Once out of Albania, his challenges were to “stabilise” and develop a more classical approach to bowing (advised by Viktoria Mullova), and pay more attention to intonation and security. He had been pushed too much in the direction of virtuosity. As he puts it, he “needed to grow up” and to “learn style” because he had been “working just by instinct”.

His upcoming solo recital for Music for Galway concentrates on just two composers, Johann Sebastian Bach (including the Partita in D minor with the celebrated Chaconne) and Eugène Ysaÿe (the solo sonata that is obsessed with Bach). Bach, he says, “became really important to me when I was about 15”, but his style of playing has changed radically over time due the influence of developments in baroque performing style. The set of six solo sonatas and partitas entered his repertoire, and he played the entire set as a single programme at the age of 23.

He’s one of those musicians who plays Bach every day. “Technically and musically, everything you could wish is just there,” he says, and then dismisses the subject, “but I am only saying something that everybody knows.”

Ysaÿe’s set of solo sonatas was composed in 1923. Each of them is dedicated to a distinguished violinist, and draws on the musical character of the dedicatee. “With Ysaÿe I started much, much later. Actually, for many years, I played only Ballade [the third of the six solo sonatas]. Then I started to practise the second and I thought, ‘That’s really strange.’ Because in any recording I listened to, the interpretation did not correspond to what Ysaÿe wrote. He’s very precise, especially in tempos. Like Debussy, he wrote down everything. It’s a kind of violinists’ illness, probably. When a violinist plays alone, he thinks it’s ad libitum. It’s really very difficult for violinists, even the very good ones. Pianists know how to have a structure. On the violin, as we are doing a lot of singing and melody, when we play polyphonically, sometimes we lose it.”

He sees the Bach sonatas and partitas as “a spiritual journey”, and charts a route from the passions and desires Chaconne in the Second Partita (at one point he reaches for the French word deuil, grief), to the metaphysical chill of the Third Sonata and on to the “pure joy” of the Third Partita. At no point does he mention the sheer technical difficulty of any of these works. The strict parental training all those years ago is obviously still paying off.

Tedi Papavrami frames Ysaÿe’s Bach-infused Sonata No 2 (dedicated to Jacques Thibuad) with Bach’s Sonata in A minor, BWV1003, and Partita in D minor, BWV 1004, at St Joseph’s Church, Presentation Road, Galway, at 8pm on Wednesday, February 15th.

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor