The Well-Tempered Ear

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

April 13, 2010
1 Comment

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 or visit :

As he prepared to tour the US and then undertake 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. Here is the second of two parts:

What are your favorite solo works and concertos by Rachmaninoff?

I play very few solo works and I should play more. I’ve studied some of the preludes and Etudes Tableaux. I think the “Corelli” Variations, which are late, are outstanding. It is so touching. There’s a kind of detachment to the music. It seems purer. I feel Rachmaninoff (below) gets simpler as he gets older; it is purified. It’s great piece.

I play all the concertos but the fourth. I love the Third. And I love the First Concerto. It was revised. So it has the material of the young Rachmaninoff but the skills are more mature Rachmaninoff.

My least favorite concerto is the second, maybe because it has been played so much. The third is great, but it is a monster and took me long time to learn it, though mastering it is a great achievement.

I personally think the Rhapsody is probably the best of his concertos. It’s a late work. It has great sense of structure and again it is pure Rachmaninoff but because of the structure of the theme, he doesn’t go overboard. But it’s all there – it is witty and intelligent. It never goes overboard with emotion s he does in the second and third concertos.

It’s still very tonal but a little bit more modern. You can tell he has heard some Stravinsky and maybe some modern American music – he had been living in the States for several years. There is not too much pathos – just a little bit. It is almost like a quintessence or distillation of himself without becoming a caricature.

It’s very fun to play. There are a few really tricky parts. But it isn’t as hard as the Third. It’s also a great orchestra piece, which I love. The colors he gets out of the orchestra and the piano are absolutely great. It’s much more developed than in the earlier concertos. It’s a great piece for the orchestra.

What is it about the Paganini theme (below) from his Violin Caprice No. 24 that has attracted so many others composers (Liszt, Brahms, Lutoslawski, Robert Muczynski as well as Rachmaninoff) to do variations on it?

Even Paganini himself wrote variations on the theme, so he set the pattern to show off its plastic qualities and rhythms. The harmony is very simple, which allows each composer to develop his own personal language for this very simple canvas.

I think the plastic quality of the theme allows such a variety of moods and colors and styles. All composers since Paganini were challenged to try it for themselves because they wanted to emulate the previous ones who had used the theme.

You have performed several times in Madison with the symphony. What are your impressions of the orchestra, the hall and the audiences as well as the city?

This will be my third time I’ve played in Madison with the symphony. In 2001, I played the Ravel G major concerto and the Faure Ballade, and in 2003 I played the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto, both in the old Civic Center.

I don’t know the new hall, but I am so much looking forward to it. I’ve heard wonderful things about it. I had a great time with the symphony. When I first came to Madison, I didn’t know what to expect. I had no idea. But I was so impressed with the quality of the orchestra and even more so when I came back to do the Prokofiev with a guest conductor who was very good.

I’m very happy to come back with the Rhapsody. I’m really looking forward to working with them on that piece and to work again with John DeMain.

I have recollection of a very warm and enthusiastic audience. I love Madison. I think it is a great city with a university and a lot of young people. It’s very alive. I was surprised by it. I didn’t know what to expect when I first played there.

I also think it’s a great program. I love the all-Russian idea but I also love opera and especially Mussorgsky. I will in the audience listening to the opera excerpts.

I’m really looking forward to it. The Rhapsody is the piece that goes well with the Mussorgky because of its dark humor and the Daes Israe (Day of Wrath) theme. There is something a little devilish and cutting about it. It goes with the darkness of the piece. It’s a great program. The artists should love it.

As a bonus, here is Bianconi, playing with technique worthy of Rachmaninoff, the difficult Toccata from Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin”:

Posted in Classical music

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