I was looking for an old recording of mine, and found this video from June 1, 2012. Since 2005, I have been on the jury of the San Jose International Piano Competition every June. The competition always opens with a gala concert from members of the jury. Among the selections I performed on this occasion are movements from the “Annes de Pèlerinage” (Years of Pilgrimage) by Franz Liszt. Two of these pieces are so incredibly contrasting, and placed right one after the other in the middle of the 9-movement suite. They are both about water, but the first is called “Au bord d’une source” (Beside a spring), and the second is titled “Orage” (Storm). The former is so wonderfully peaceful, lively yet infusing an inner calmness, brightly shimmering, glittering, the drone of spring water inducing the most pleasant of feelings; the latter is such an outburst of nature’s violent and fearsome might. Both beautiful in their own way, I think. The audio quality is not first rate, what with all the compressions. Nonetheless, I hope they’ll be enjoyable to whomever wants to listen!
The Fourth Piano Concerto by Sergei Rachmaninoff is an extraordinary composition, and perhaps the least appreciated of the Rachmaninoff Concertos. I feel it is a dark piece, and for me it should not be played too “brilliantly”. The development of the first movement, and most of the last, in my opinion, cannot be fully appreciated when the piece is played at breakneck speed.
The most important traits of this piece are the heart-wrenching sadness, nostalgia, and melancholy. Even the “Dies irae” theme, so recurring in Rachmaninoff, is heard here at the end of the first movement, in the piano left hand, in such a melancholy way.
Compositionally, it is by far the most complex of Rachmaninoff’s works, with hundreds of passages where the piano and the orchestra play in cross rhythms, irregular groups, syncopations. The composer makes this sound purposely “out of sync” most of the time, which gives the piece a feeling of great instability. The climaxes, those gorgeous explosions of passionate lyricism, are also present here as in other more popular Rachmaninoff works, but for once they are not the most significant traits, although they greatly enrich the whole. The harmonic language is far more daring than that of all the other Rachmaninoff Concertos, more modern, if you will. In that respect, maybe this is the only truly modern piece Rachmaninoff wrote for the piano. Yet the work still offers a romantic allure, creating a combination of old and new that holds an immense fascination for me.
This is a very difficult work to perform, I find, requiring a heightened state of concentration on the part of everyone involved, at all times. I didn’t notice it as we were performing it, but in the recording I can actually hear some of the musicians counting! I promise you it wasn’t me, although I was doing it in my head.
It was exciting to play this work with Maestro Theodore Kuchar. I find him to be an amazing musician, deeply committed to his Art, very humble although his level of artistry is up there with the best of them, and an incredibly gifted accompanist, too.
As always, it was a privilege to perform with the musicians of the Cape Town Philharmonic, truly a fantastic ensemble.
These recordings are from one of the most intense nights of my career, in Cape Town, South Africa. Performing Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos 1 and 2 on the same program with an ensemble I truly have come to love, in an amazing Country, and in a city which I find utterly beautiful. There is also something very special about the magnificent venue, Town Hall, where one is surrounded and enveloped by the audience, left, right, front and back.
I remember how that morning, as I arrived for the dress rehearsal, the rumor that Nelson Mandela had died was spreading at the speed of light. It turned out not to be true, but we did not know then. I remember the Conductor, Maestro Yasuo Shinozaki from Japan, deciding on the spot to add the “Nimrod” Variation from Elgar’s “Enigma”, in memory of Mandela, at the beginning of the program. The dress rehearsal was public, attended by hundreds of people, mostly elderly audience members who preferred not to leave their homes at night. It was more a concert than a rehearsal. As the orchestra started running through the Elgar, all these people stood and wept. It was all very emotional, very moving. At the end of both videos, I included one picture from this moment, which I took with my phone. It shows a partial view of the audience, with people standing and paying their respects to the great man.
After the rehearsal, basically a run-through of both Concertos, I got back to the hotel and opened the TV. CNN was saying that Mandela was still alive! It was surprising, and strange.
Finally, that night I played these two gorgeous pieces for a packed house (again, I included pictures at the end of each video, of me bowing in every direction to acknowledge and thank the audience). I felt inspired by the large crowd and their enthusiasm, and by my fellow musicians with whom I shared this experience. It is far from a perfect performance, of course. After all, it is live and unedited, and there is even a cell phone that went off during the first movement of the First Concerto, but for some reason that night nothing mattered, nothing bothered me.
In both of these works, but especially in the First Concerto, I like slow tempi. I guess this is true, for me, with all the Rachmaninoff Concertos. There is so much to love, to hear, to absorb. Melodies, countermelodies, harmonic gems, cross rhythms, little chamber music dialogues within the massive context. Also, I think faster tempi take away the depth and beauty of the sound, forcing the pianist to shorten the motions and “whip” the keys to get power, rather than dig deep and with a fluid, naturally weighty approach. Something very personal, or course, and therefore debatable. Furthermore, there is only so much that an archival recording, or any recording, can catch in terms of the actual sound heard live. At any rate, I truly love these Concertos, and I particularly loved playing them on that night of June 27th, 2013.
Two years. It’s already been that long since our beloved Van Cliburn passed away. Aside from the geopolitical implications of his victory in the 1958 Tchaikovsky competition, which made him an American hero, why is Van Cliburn one of the greatest pianists of all time? After all, there are many others who played more concerts, made more records, had longer careers, a larger repertoire…
For me, the answer is simple. From the first time I heard his sound, I felt a real human being was speaking to me, baring his soul without mannerisms or sentimentality. A sense of purity, nobility, the perfect mix of the emotional and the rational pervaded his every phrase. I did not know much about him then, I did not even know what he looked like. Yet, when I met him many years later, he was exactly as his sound had told me he would be. A great human being who also happened to be a fantastic pianist.