What does Rachmaninov mean to you?
He means a lot to me as a composer, because I’ve loved him since my childhood. I feel fulfilled by his music – you feel like you’re on top of the world. It’s like taking a really good, full breath of air.
Perhaps it’s because of the fullness of the sound that he gets out of the piano. It goes through my whole body. But he’s a complex composer to interpret, and performing his concertos is a great responsibility.
What are the musical challenges of the Paganini Variations, which you’re performing on this month’s cover CD?
As with any piece that’s hugely popular, I was always taught that it’s important to stay true to the score – the main ideas are written there. You have to keep the logic in the music, and its naturalness. In both the Second Piano Concerto and the Paganini Variations I try to make every lyrical theme sing and dance. I’ve never tried to over-exaggerate in my playing.
In the Variations one place you’re able to show real musicality and your more romantic side, for example, is the 18th Variation. But this is a complex piece overall, and as always it shows Rachmaninov’s breathtaking imagination. The task is to bring the sparkling, lively and joyful atmosphere to life, and to keep the sense of the piece’s structure.
Can you tell us about the concert in which this performance was recorded?
I made this recording with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Davis in 2003, and I was surprised – in a good way – that it’s here on the magazine and there’s a chance to listen to it!
We had a fun time in this performance. The orchestra was great. It’s such a tricky piece – not only because of the metre changes, but because of the technical challenges and bringing out the joy and fun. The magic is there from a live performance.
Who did you choose for our greatest pianists of the recorded era survey in our August issue, and why?
I picked the pianists Sergey Rachmaninov, Arthur Rubinstein and Sviatoslav Richter. I felt guilty having to pick just three. If I have to put one quality together for all three it’s their beautiful sound. Rachmaninov and Richter are part of the Russian school, though the Polish-American Rubinstein had a slightly different background.
Still the beauty, fullness and soul of the sound is one of their shared characteristics. When you hear a beautiful sound, it’s like it’s caressing you, like a touch on the skin. I don’t even know how to describe it because it’s beyond words.
Interview by Rebecca Franks