You have just released the album The Landscapes of the Soul, dedicated to the complete Préludes of Rachmaninoff, a composer for whom you are particularly fond of. Why does this music go to your heart?
This music touches on my emotions because it speaks directly to my heart. It is straightforward and very nostalgic; it follows on from the Romantics, and this repertoire has always spoken to me. In the words of Rachmaninoff, “Music talks only to the heart: it is love! Music is the sister of poetry, and her mother is sorrow”. That sums up perfectly the atmosphere of this repertoire.
How would you define Rachmaninov’s soul?
Actually, Rachmaninoff had several souls. The soul of an exile, as he left Russia for the USA in 1918 without ever returning. The nostalgic soul, as he had an unhappy childhood. In fact, we can find all this suffering very early on in his music, which remained nostalgic throughout his life. Also, the soul of a Romantic, in the tradition of Chopin, Schumann and Liszt. The soul of a poet as well, because his music is poetry. So these are all the souls which define the personality of Rachmaninoff.
Tell us about your interaction with the piano and the Préludes during lockdown.
This time was indeed peculiar, as it involved a change of organisation and time management. I wasn’t touring anymore, I saved on travelling time, so I used this time in the best possible way to work on my piano playing, like a research scientist in a lab. I managed to find the necessary time to perfect my playing of the Rachmaninoff Préludes so that they could be recorded.
What do the Préludes represent for you?
The Préludes are full of miniatures in which one must infuse a lot of emotions. It’s also the testimony of a Russian soul. You can smell there the perfume of Russian nature, of the steppe, of the East because there are hints of oriental and folkloric influences in this music. It’s music that speaks to the soul. As Rachmaninoff said, “Every note is important, but what’s most important is the soul, this spark of the soul”.
Why did you call the album The Landscapes of the Soul?
The landscapes of the soul conjure up many contrasting landscapes, with feelings of nostalgia and sadness. As Lugansky said, “We can see there all kinds of landscapes. It’s an encyclopedia of piano technique, with rich and varied contrasts”.
In which way is it a challenge?
It’s challenging to work on this repertoire because it’s very long: 80 minutes. It requires a lot of energy at a muscular level. The entire body is involved. It’s also a challenge compared to the previous recordings; I mean recordings of pianists like Weissenberg and Ashkenazy. So I inevitably compare myself to them.
In three words, how would you define Sergei Rachmaninoff?
Sergei Rachmaninoff was imposing, had big hands and a very massive handspan. He was also generous. I heard he gave money and time to his homeland. Lastly, he was humble. These are my three words: humble, imposing, and generous.
How far can you take this music expressively as a performer?
Playing this music is exhilarating! The danger is that you lose control of your emotions and yield to the temptation to pile on the pathos in music that is so naturally expressive, particularly in the slow Préludes. You have to keep a clear head and maintain a natural touch without forgoing a genuinely physical engagement.
Rachmaninoff’s writing is so richly polyphonic that the sostenuto pedal would seem to be called for. Is that your experience?
“The pedal is the soul of the piano”, Rachmaninoff stated. I use the sostenuto pedal liberally, for example, to hold the bass notes in Op.23, No.7. In Op.32, No.10, I ‘juggle’ between all three pedals simultaneously, a trick I learned from Vladimir Viardo. I could give many more examples, such as in Op.32, No.3 I find it helpful in bringing out the minims in the left hand. But all these technical devices must not intrude on the poignant expressivity of the music, nor its freshness of inspiration or its narrative aspect, nor, a fortiori, that inimitable cantabile style that never ceases to captivate me.