The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music interview: Pianist Philippe Bianconi explains why he thinks Rachmaninoff is a great composer – and why others don’t. Part 1 of 2.

April 12, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

French pianist Philippe Bianconi (below), who won the silver medal at the Seventh Van Cliburn International Competition, will perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain this coming weekend in an all-Russian program that will close out the current symphony season.

Bianconi will solo in Rachmaninoff’s popular “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” Other works include “Russian Easter Overture” by Rimsky-Korsakov and excerpts from Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” with Metropolitan Opera bass Dean Peterson (below) and the Madison Symphony Chorus.

Performances are in Overture Hall; in Friday at 7:30 pm.; Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $75. For information, call the Overture Center box office at 608 258-4141.

As he prepared to tour the US and then do a recital tour of China – where he will play Beethoven, Liszt and Ravel — Bianconi spoke about his upcoming concerts in Madison from his home in Paris:

The Austrian pianist Till Fellner, who plays a lot of Bach and Beethoven, recently said that life is too short for bad wine and Rachmaninoff. What is it about Rachmaninoff that makes some pianists love him and others loathe him?

I think Fellner is wonderful pianist, but I’m not surprised he would say such a thing. He was a student of Alfred Brendel and he really is an intellectual pianist in the good sense of the word and a sensitive musician. But I just don’t see him playing Rachmaninoff. It’s not in his temperament.

It’s hard to say why some pianists do not like Rachmaninoff (below). There are probably several reasons.

One reason is that he was not with his time. Schoenberg and Stravinsky start off traditional, but early on they go off into new worlds and explore new things, while Rachmaninoff always remained a Romantic in his temperament and musical language. Richard Strauss and Sibelius are other composers who were not so modern.

For some reason it is something people blame on Rachmaninoff – that his music does not belong to his time.

For some people, Rachmaninoff is almost like a caricature of Romantic music. He has a shameless display of emotional and the schmaltz, He writes easy melodies that sound like folk songs abut aren’t. People will say his music is Hollywood movie. And Hollywood used some of his music. But he didn’t write Hollywood music, he wrote his own music.

I understand why some people think his music is too easy and not serious enough. On the other hand, we cannot doubt it is very sincere. It comes from the heart and goes to heart. It works. Some people love to play Rachmaninoff and I am one of them. But I wouldn’t specialize in him. I love to play Beethoven and the German Romantics. Rachmaninoff is just a small part of my repertoire.

But it is so rewarding to play, once you have mastered the technical difficulties of playing it. It is such incredible pianistic writing. It sums up writing for the piano from Chopin and Liszt and everybody. Once you’ve mastered the technical difficulties, there is exhilaration when you play Rachmaninoff. That’s why I personally love to play it. But I can understand people who want to have an encounter with more serious, more intellectual music.

In the Rhapsody, especially he gets close to Prokofiev in the rhythmic vitality. It is more angular. But when Prokofiev gets more lyrical, he can sound like Rachmaninoff. The middle section of the Prokofiev Third Concerto is pure Rachmaninoff.

How do you see Rachmaninoff’s place as a composer and why do you think the public loves him so much? Will he last and is he a great composer?

Why do people love him so much? It’s because his melodies are so gorgeous. He had a genius for melody. You don’t need any preparation to enjoy Rachmaninoff (below). It just speaks to you. Some composers you need to study more to appreciate their music.

With Rachmaninoff, it’s immediate. You either dislike it, like Ravel and people who think it is tasteless and has too much schmaltz don’t like his overboard passion and emotion. But if it speaks to the public, that’s why. The pianists who love Rachmaninoff love him because of that.

I think he will last. He is a great composer because he wrote great music. But if he had not existed, it wouldn’t make any difference to the history of music.

There are some composers who made the history of music and changed the language and made it evolve, while others didn’t. Rachmaninoff didn’t. If we didn’t have his music, the history of music would be the same.

But to me he wrote some wonderful music.

Tomorrow: Bianconi on his favorite Rachmaninoff works, the Paganini theme and Madison. Here’s a link:

Read Part 2 of Bianconi’s interview

Posted in Classical music

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