Artur Pizarro in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My twenty-ninth Classical Conversation features Portuguese concert pianist Artur Pizarro. We met recently at Blüthner Pianos in London to chat about his life and career.

Born in Lisbon, Portugal in 1968, Artur Pizarro gave his first public performance at the age of three and made his television début on Portuguese television at the age of four. He had been introduced to the instrument by his maternal grandmother, pianist Berta da Nóbrega, and her piano-duo partner, Campos Coelho who was a student of Vianna da Motta, Ricardo Viñes and Isidor Philipp. From 1974 to 1990 Artur studied with Sequeira Costa who had also been a student of Vianna da Motta and of Mark Hamburg, Edwin Fischer, Marguerite Long and Jacques Février. This distinguished lineage immersed Artur in the tradition of the ‘Golden Age’ of pianism and gave him a broad education in both the German and French piano schools and repertoire. During a brief interruption of his studies in the USA, Artur also studied with Jorge Moyano in Lisbon, and in Paris worked with Aldo Ciccolini, Géry Moutier and Bruno Rigutto.

Artur won first prizes in the 1987 Vianna da Motta Competition, the 1988 Greater Palm Beach Symphony Competition and won first prize at the 1990 Leeds International Pianoforte Competition, which marked the beginning of an international concert career.

Artur Pizarro performs internationally in recital, chamber music and with the world’s leading orchestras and conductors including Sir Simon Rattle, Philippe Entremont, Yan Pascal Tortelier, Sir Andrew Davis, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Yuri Temirkanov, Vladimir Fedoseyev, Ilan Volkov, Franz Welser- Most, Tugan Sokhiev, Yakov Kreizberg, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Libor Pešek, Vladimir Jurowski, Ion Marin, John Wilson and the late Sir Charles Mackerras.

Artur is an active chamber musician and has performed at chamber music festivals throughout the world. Artur Pizarro has recorded extensively for Collins Classics, Hyperion Records, Linn Records, Brilliant Classics, Klara, Naxos, Danacord, Odradek Records and Phoenix Edition.

Artur Pizarro has received various awards from his native Portugal for services to classical music and culture including the Portuguese Press Award, the Portuguese Society of Authors award, the Medal of Culture of the City of Funchal and the Medal of Cultural Merit from the Portuguese Government.

Here’s the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews:

Melanie: Portuguese concert pianist Artur Pizarro won the Leeds International Concert Pianist Competition in 1990, and he’s been playing all around the world to great acclaim ever since. He has a huge discography, and this year he’s performing all of Rachmaninov’s solo piano music here in London at St. John’s Smith’s Square. So I’m so pleased he’s joining me today at Blüthner Pianos for a Classical Conversation.


Artur: Thank you very much! Lovely to be here.

Melanie: Great to chat to you today. I’m going to start by asking you all about your musical education.

Artur: Ok.

Melanie: How old were you when you started? What was the catalyst? Did you come from a musical family?

Artur: Umm. My maternal grandmother played the piano. Um, and right at about the time when I was born, she had just started up a piano duo with her teacher. So we lived in a, both families lived in one apartment building – various floors. My parents and I were on the ground floor, my grandparents on the second floor, the landlady was on the first floor. It was all very nice and near Lisbon on the coast. And so she would have rehearsals up on the top floor, and I would try to climb these huge, perilous marble stairs that would give my family panic attacks – if I fell and cracked open my head on the marble staircase. And basically, since the age of, what, one and a half, two I would sit and listen to their rehearsals. So my first contact was actually two pianos –

Melanie: Uh-hum…ok.

Artur: – as opposed to one, and what you could do with two, and how the only thing more fun than one piano is two pianos! And so, from about the age of two I started sort of going to the piano and try to imitate the things that I would hear them play, and I guess that I was accurate enough and successful enough in rendering my, my improvisations on what they were playing that I started having little lessons after their practice sessions with  my grandmother and her piano, duo piano player. And I did my – he was also a professor at the Conservatory in Lisbon.

Melanie: Ok.

Artur: Uh, my grandmother had her own private studio, but she also fed him some of her students, so that his end-of-year class auditions at the Conservatory were huge. Like forty to sixty students playing in one night –

Melanie: Wow!

Artur: – in their little five minute pieces, and all that.

Melanie: Yeah!

Artur: And I did my debut in one of those evenings when I was three-

Melanie: Goodness!

Artur: and then again when I was four. And then, um, when I was four, a former student of his had a programme on Portuguese television where he discussed the history of music, and invited his teacher to play some music, and his teacher invited me. So I had a little sort of five-minute spot on that programme for my television debut, um, and then I retired –

Melanie: [chuckles] Oh!

Artur: – at the age of five –

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: – and went to study with another student of this particular, um, teacher. Um, both had studied with – now, I have to give a little background of theirs, so you can know where it all comes from. Um, both studied with [José ] Vianna da Motta, who is a Portuguese pianist and composer/conductor, who studied um, with Franz Liszt and Hans von Bülow. Um, Campos Coelho, who is my grandmother’s partner, then also studied with Isidor Philipp and Ricardo Viñes. So you see the kind of, the pedigree that was going on. My teacher, Sequeira Costa, who was really my second teacher, then also studied in London with Mark Hamburg, in Switzerland with Edwin Fischer, and in Paris with Marguerite Long and Jacques Févrie. So between all of those, all the traditions that I was getting, um, I felt like a dog at the pet store with all this pedigree coming at me. Um, [chuckles] so there was lots of interesting, contrasting and complimenting traditions going on, into me from very, very early childhood. Not only in things they would teach me, but the repertoire that they would play. There was a lot of French music, there was a lot of Spanish music, um, but, then again, a lot of the Germanic school. So to have those all side-by-side was a little bit unusual.

Melanie: Hmm.

Artur: Um, and then so from the age of five, I retired from the concert stage, and started studying with Sequeira Costa, who I would study with for, roughly, fourteen years.

Melanie: So, your main, your main teacher? Yes.

Artur: [nodding] Um, my main teacher –

Melanie: Your main teacher?

Artur: Yes

Melanie: Yes.

Artur: – I followed him to the United States, where he was given a distinguished professorship at the University of Kansas, lived in the United States for twenty-one years. Um, took a couple of years off, went back to Lisbon to get my diploma at the Conservatory in Lisbon, where I studied with another Portuguese pianist, called Jorge Moyano, who had studied with Gary Graff at the Julliard, so, yet another branch of schooling, um, and is still a very good friend to this day. Um, and one year in Paris at the Conservatory with Aldo Ciccolini. So another Marguerite Long…

Melanie: Yes.

Artur: – lineage and French/Italian side slant of things. Then also worked with Géry Moutier who is now at the Conservatory in Lyon, who was Ciccolini’s assistant at the time, and also with Bruno Rigutto. So those two years that I was away from the United States completely blew my mind wide open as to what else you could do –

Melanie: Hmm.

Artur: – after studying with one person, with one point of view for 14 years.

Melanie: Yeah, sure.

Artur: So, although I didn’t have that much time with them, um, all those gentlemen really threw my horizons wide open, that there was an entire different –

Melanie: Yes.

Artur: – universe out there that could be explored. By that point, uh, reaching my late teens, I started doing competitions: at the Vianna da Motta Competition in Lisbon in 1987 and won that.

Melanie: Um-hmm.

Artur: I did the 1988 Palm Beach, Greater Palm Beach Symphony Invitational Piano Competition, a long, long title – I don’t even think it exists anymore.

Melanie: [chuckles]

Artur: Um, but it, um, basically, it was a small competition that offered you bucket-loads of money, uh, which we all needed in student days –

Melanie: Quite!

Artur: Scholarships were not around –

Melanie: No.

Artur: Um, but it was, it had to be six first prize winners of competitions members of the International Federation. So, six first prizes of six competitions, battling it out. And I won that one.

Melanie: [chuckles]

Artur: Then I went to Tchaikovsky in 1990, one Tchaikovsky Competition in 1990. Basically, did not wait for the results to come out first round because it was apparent that it was so problematical – lots of problems going on that were a little bit too apparent.

Melanie: Hmm.

Artur: and I think that in documentaries that have been done of that year’s competition, it was even more apparent what was going on.

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur: Jury members were coming out and saying, “I’ve just been handed a check by a competitor’s father –

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: – saying, you know, “Will you help out my daughter?” that kind of thing. So, just as well. Um, so, obviously, I was eliminated because I left –

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur: -before time –

Melanie: ok.

Artur: – which is what happens if you leave the premises where you are allowed to be, before you are kicked-out, or before the end of the competition, you are immediately disqualified, so, I was disqualified. Um, I came back home, uh, licked my wounds –

Melanie: [Chuckles]

Artur: – and thought, “Why don’t I do Leeds instead?” and won that. Sounds simple; it wasn’t. [Laughs]

Melanie: No, But, what impact did that have on your career? It must have –

Artur: Well, Leeds kind of turned my life upside-down and sideways and diagonally. And did exactly what it said in the tin. And all those things that people tell you that you don’t really believe like, however much you think you’re prepared, you’re not. Um, it took me a long time after that, that all happened for me to realize what had happened to me, because those first six, seven, eight, ten, fifteen years, um, you are living, um, in a parallel universe, and you’re not prepared for it.

Melanie: No.

Artur: Because up until that time, you’re living at home, you’re going school, you have your practice schedule, you have a very programmed, organized life. And as soon as you go out into the real world, you’re dealing with people whose interests aren’t necessarily yours, and sometimes are yours, but there are other things to consider. And you’re not socially, intellectually prepared to deal with them.

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur: You’re not prepared to make huge decisions about your life because you’ve never had to, and nobody’s really guessed what those are going to be. That organization and rigidity of scheduling goes straight out the window, all of a sudden you’re practicing where you can, how you can on whatever you can because you’re not at home all the time. Um, repertoire, you’d better learn quickly, because you think, and I did, I had a, I was very lucky in a sense, that I had a much larger repertoire than a lot of my colleagues at the time, so I thought I was going to be safe – no. The learning curve is still as huge as anything.

Melanie: Sure.

Artur: and, um, (ahem); pardon me. So it was a lot of – you get lost. You get lost, and you no longer know who you are, and you’re not quite sure you know how you want to do things and what’s important to you. And you don’t really have the time to figure it out.

Melanie: Because you’re always on the road?

Artur: Yeah.

Melanie: And I guess you got a lot of concerts –

Artur: Yeah

Melanie: in the years afterwards?

Artur: For about seven years there was a lot and a lot of work.

Melanie: Uh-hmm, I can imagine.

Artur: After that, you start your transition and that’s where it gets interesting!

Melanie: So, how did you develop your technique?

Artur: Um, let’s see. First couple of years, still with my grandmother and my first teacher. What they really concentrated on was just getting my hands, I mean, my hands are tight. I think I could do about a fourth or a fifth; that was about it, and that was with my hands wide open.

Melanie: Um-hmm.

Artur: So they just made sure that my hands weren’t doing anything that would hurt the development, or hurt them. So I think they concentrated on my being as relaxed in front of the instrument as I could be. But it wasn’t until I started working with Sequeira Costa, that, and my hand was already a little bit bigger, that we really started on the correct position of the hand, uh, and creating the support arch.

Melanie: So important! Yeah!

Artur: – knuckles, making sure that the knuckles were the highest point of the hand, making sure that the wrists were never blocked, so, creating strength in the hand but not blocking the wrist, making sure the wrist was –  in permanent use, um, keeping this part, you know the nice circle that you have in this part of the hand, so, you know it doesn’t look flat, or –

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur: – make sure that the thumb is loose, all that kind of thing, that started from five onwards. And we didn’t do the really repetitive motion things, so, like the Brahms’ exercises were never big; the Pischna exercises were never big; the Joseffy exercises. None of those seriously repetitive, mechanical things. We used a lot of the various books of the Czerny exercises –

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur:  – from the Five-Fingers to the School of Velocity to – for example, the Daily Exercises, the ones that repeat every two bars –

Melanie: I love those, yes! They’re great!

Artur: – forty times, and all that, we didn’t do those so much.

Melanie: No?

Artur: We did do for example, The Art of Finger Dexterity.

Melanie: Yeah?

Artur: That is kind of where I wound up with the Czerny exercises. We did a lot of Gradus ad Parnassum the Cramer exercises and the Clementi exercises. And that was it. Lots of scales, lots of arpeggios, and doing scales correctly, so not only doing parallel octaves, parallel thirds, sixths, tenths,  um, not parallel, but at the distance of octaves, at the distance of thirds, sixths, tenth –

Melanie: Um-hmm.

Artur: – sometimes, parallel thirds, chromatic, the arpeggios, and all the inversions –

Melanie: yeah.

Artur: – and all of that. And legato, at various speeds, at various dynamics, all of that. So that the idea would be  by the time that I was ten or eleven, I would have physical command of the instrument; I would know how to play the piano.

Melanie: hmm.

Artur: Um, and even in lessons – lessons started with that, scales and arpeggios, then you had your Czerny exercises, or whatever other exercises; that was usually the first hour of the lesson, and then the last half hour would be, um, little Mozart Minuets, Bach Two- and Three-Part Inventions, slowly graduating into French Suites; hmm! Sorry! Slowly into, graduating into French Suites – this is all because of my cough; I apologize. Um. What else did we do? Little Beethoven Sonatinas, the Clementi Sonatinas. So, slowly and very progressively and methodically layering not only the technical issues, because also my hand had to grow.

Melanie: Hmm, yes.

Artur: So, very much like singers: singers have a certain age where they can start singing, and then there’s a certain age where they do a certain repertoire, otherwise you ruin the instrument. And we’re all very aware that singers are hyper-aware of their instrument because it is in their body, and they’re the only ones who have that instrument; well, no (motioning to the piano; holding up fingers). This is our instrument, and it’s part of our body, and it grows the same way. Our hands only really mature in our twenties –

Melanie: [nods]

Artur:  – and if you don’t layer the work very carefully, and if you don’t layer the work not only technically, but musically, so that as a person you develop and you develop your emotional output, you can cause problems. And if you give things too soon or too late, you’re out of whack, and you never really recover.

Melanie: yeah.

Artur: That I saw when I, when I then started teaching, and I did a few years at Guildhall, and I saw people in their late teens who were either doing repertoire that was well above what they should be doing, because they hadn’t been given the foundation to get there, or they were still playing things like Beethoven Sonatinas because they hadn’t been given enough. So, it’s a tightrope.

Melanie: yeah.

Artur: It really is a tightrope, and I have to really give thanks to the fact that everybody I had that worked with me, were actually performing musicians.

Melanie: So important! [nodding]

Artur: Makes a huge difference!

Melanie: Makes a huge difference!

Artur: Because you’re not only teaching how to play the instrument, you’re not only teaching the repertoire, you’re also having to teach and condition from a very early age what it’s like to be on stage and prepare the repertoire for that – whether you get there or not. Um, it is a slightly different path, and there is a slightly different confidence to it. And I find that the modern separation of you either play or you teach, I find it very, very toxic.

Melanie: Hmm.

Artur: Um, and a lot of information is being lost, unnecessarily.

Melanie: Absolutely.

Artur: so…

Melanie: Which composers do you love to play, which music, which pieces?

Artur: [chuckling] Let’s put it this way: if I was going to be stuck on a desert island and I had to take my scores, it had better be the size of Australia! So, lots!

Melanie: Lots!

Artur: And probably the ones I love the most are the ones that I’m playing at that very minute. So at the moment, I’m in Rachmaninov-mode.

Melanie: yes! Everything!

Artur: A few years ago, I was in serious Chopin-mode. I’m always in Bach-, Mozart-, and Beethoven-mode; and Chopin and Schumann, and, you know, the, the core repertoire is always there, and has to be there. And for example, at this moment since I’m doing all this Rachmaninov, and I need other things to keep me in balance and perspective.

Melanie: sure, sure!

Artur: otherwise I feel like a painter who sits in front of a blank canvas, and only has green on the color palette.

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: and if you only have green, you lose the meaning of that green, because there’s nothing to compare and contrast with. Um, but, lots! I think probably, what do – probably easier to say what I don’t like. Um, and then it’s not even so much that I don’t like, it’s that I don’t feel I have a place in it; it doesn’t speak to me, therefore, I leave it to all those other fabulously talented people out there that do that repertoire justice. For example, Second Viennese School, Schoenberg, Webern, not really me. Although, I love playing Berg; I love playing the Berg Sonata, love playing the Clarinet Pieces, love some of the songs. Schoenberg, I’ve done the chamber version of the First Kammer Symphony, and I loved doing that. But, it’s not something that I’m gonna go run to. I do, however, love playing the Schnittke Concerto for piano and strings. At this stage of my life, — the Second Viennese School is probably where I feel the least comfortable. That doesn’t mean I’ve closed the door; it probably means Schoenberg Piano Concerto, don’t hold your breath. At least not at the moment; I’ll let you know if that changes.

But otherwise, I think also because of all the other teachers I had with all the different backgrounds –

Melanie: Yes.

Artur: and also, one very important thing that I remember from one of my students. Sequeira Costa did one thing to me, which I was always very grateful. He always made me have, whatever programme we were working on at the time, and it was usually three or four per year, about three or four concertos per year, equivalent to about three or four recital programmes per year – [snapping fingers] You had to have it ready.

Melanie: Yeah, yeah.

Artur: there had to be per programme, or two of the four concertos, there had to be pieces I really didn’t like. And pieces that I really hated.

Melanie: Interesting, interesting.

Artur: And I’d say, “No, no, no, no! Please don’t make me play it!” and he’d say, “Yes, you are going to have to play that piece because you are going to be asked to play pieces you don’t like. And if you don’t do them, you may never get invited again. So, I want you to learn how to get over it. And even if it isn’t a piece that gets through to you intuitively, you’re going to learn how to build that piece, anyway.

Melanie: Hmm.

Artur: and how to put that piece together and how to figure out what it means, even if it’s not a piece that’s speaking to your heart, you’re going to have to learn how to play it well enough to convince an audience that this is a piece you’re playing and you’re giving 100% to it.

Melanie: Hmm

Artur: That was an incredibly useful tool.

Melanie: I’ll bet.

Artur: Because I find so many, you know, youngsters out there that have a very limited repertoire, and I say, “Why don’t you do this?” “Oh, I don’t like that.” And what happens if, you know, I mean, you happen to be in Hamburg and the soloist that night, and, were, you know, they find out that a week earlier, he’s late and you could have that week to get it ready, what are you going to say? “Oh, sorry. I’m not gonna play with the Hamburg Symphony because I don’t like the piece.” Really?! You’re gonna do that?

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: Uh-uh. You sit down; you work for twenty hours a day, and you get it ready. And you’ll learn how to do it. So that was a very useful thing. So, I guess that also made my love of the repertoire that much stronger and that much more encompassing.

Melanie: Hmm. I hear you have a huge collection of pianos.

Artur: Not big enough!

Melanie: So tell us how you acquired them. Where do you keep them?

Artur: I’ve run out of room

Melanie: I was going to say, do you, do you keep them all at home?

Artur: [nodding] Most of them. If people have any extra warehouses, airplane hangars that I could borrow, then I can keep going. At the moment at home there are five, and then there’s one in Portugal and one in the States. The one in the States went from Portugal, which was my original baby Petroff upright. You know the ones that are about that tall?

Melanie: Oh, yes!

Artur: And that was a present when, for my fourth Christmas from my grandmother, and that was the piano that I practiced on until my mid-teens. And it was lovely, because it was really dark, rich sound, heavy action – you know, Petroff’s usually –

Melanie: yeah.

Artur: very heavy action. So it was a good instrument to learn, and start on. And then, in Portugal, I still have my great-grandmother’s old Gavot  upright, 1890’s Gavot upright. It still has the brass candelabras and all that kind of thing. It’s beautiful.

Melanie: yeah.

Artur: I’m hoping to get that properly rebuilt in the next two years. And then at home, I kind of have one piano per century. The oldest one is a Lowman & Broadwood square from 1780.

Melanie: Wow.

Artur: – fully restored, ready for performance.

Melanie: Oh, how beautiful.

Artur: Then I have, next century, 1884 Broadwood concert grand. Straight strung, under-dampered old English concert action, the two big wooden paddle pedals, also fully restored, ready for concert work. Um, then I have a 1969 Hamburg Steinway D, which I bought with the money from the Leeds competition. Yes!

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: – used to belong to the British Music Society of York. I then found out it was a piano originally picked by Sir Clifford Curzon for the Litchfield Festival when it was new. Then it went to British Music Society of York, it became the hire piano for that part of England. So if you did concerts in Bradford and Wakefield and Scarborough, and all those places, that was the hire piano that went around until 1990, when I bought it.

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur: And I apparently upset a lot of people. “I used to have a piano that I could hire, and apparently you’ve bought it and took it.” And yes, I took it. I’ve had a lot of work done to that instrument, and it, she’s in great, great shape. She’s just had a facelift, so she looks all new, and casework’s been all done. Then, I have a 1990 Estonia 9-foot grand, so Tallin built, 9-foot concert grand, which has also had a lot of changes done to it: new soundboard, new pinblock, new strings – the action’s original, but has had a lot of replacement done to it. Um, because it’s basically a very good design in a company that, up until recently, it’s now seriously changed, mine is one of the last, if not the last Communist-era built 9-foot grand. So, the design was good –

Melanie: Um-hmm, yeah.

Artur: the materials to which they had access without hard currency, without having any money to move around, strangled by a Communist economy –

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur: – were not very good quality. And they were jerry-rigging things because that was the only way they could do it. So we cleaned up the piano and brought it back to what Estonia would have done had they had the resources. And, I’ve even used it in two piano recitals with a Steinway, and you can’t really tell which one’s which. And that’s a fabulous company in England that does amazing piano restoration work. If you ever want their name, I’ll happily pass it on to you.

Melanie: [chuckles] Very useful I’m sure.

Artur: And then I have my 21st-century piano, my Yamaha AvantGrand Hybrid, the “N1” model.

Melanie: Wow, yes.

Artur: Which is the one I now do my hard practice on, and it’s the one I bash, because it’s the one that can take it, and it’s never out of tune, and the voicing never goes.

Melanie: Yes. The Yamaha’s are great for that.

Artur: Yeah, and it’s a proper acoustic action. It’s the same that comes on the “C” series.

Melanie: ok

Artur: So, if you have a C3, for example, or a C5, and you have an AvantGrande next to it, it’s the same action. You won’t feel a change –

Melanie: That’s interesting.

Artur: – going from one to the other.

Melanie: oh.

Artur: And the sound is about the highest sampling rate that you can have on any digital piano. And it’s a sampled CFX concert grand, so they actually sound really – I mean, between that and a cheap even baby grand, or an expensive upright, I would go for the sound and the quality and the touch that is most stable. But that’s the one I really do my hard practice on, and when it’s time to go rehearse, then I swap to the, to the concert grands, which has brought my maintenance bill down a lot.

Melanie: Ok, yeah. Amazing collection! Wow.

Artur: So that’s my growing and one of these, you know, one of these would be nice, but I don’t have the room for them, or a lottery ticket, but you know, you live in hope, you live in hope!

Melanie: So tell us about the Rachmaninov project that you’re doing here in the U.K.

Artur: Right.

Melanie: It’s six recitals, I think. How did you, how did it materialize, and how did you decide what to play in each concert, with such virtuoso music?

Artur: Well, we’re doing it, I’m actually doing it at St. John Smith’s Square and at two other places.

Melanie: Oh, ok.

Artur: So I’m doing the series three times –

Melanie: Three times? Oh!

Artur: – and then I’m really doing it a fourth time, and I’m also recording it.

Melanie: Oh, I was going to ask about that, yes, I’m sure.

Artur: I’m also doing it at Dame Cleo Laine’s Theatre, in Milton Keynes, at the Stables, then at St. John’s, and then in Lisbon at the Gulbenkian Foundation –

Melanie: Yes.

Artur: – in their brand new refurbished concert hall, which is opening… just opened, just re-opened, fully refurbished. Um, so that’s a lot of Rachmaninov.

Melanie: It is! How did you decide what to play, which to play and what order?

Artur: It was actually my just former manager’s, um, idea, because I had done a Beethoven cycle at St. John’s, and then various other places. And then I did a Debussy and Ravel joint one, and then I did a Chopin one, and I always like to give breaks in between these otherwise I’m going to be known as the marathon man – that wasn’t quite the plan.

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: But, those have been works, where even doing a complete cycle I have had, I’d say, about 90% of the repertoire ready. And with Rachmaninov, it’s not quite been the case.

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: I had all the concerto work; I had quite a bit of the two-piano repertoire ready; I had very little of the solo work ready. Because we think we know Rachmaninov –

Melanie: yeah.

Artur; – but we kind of don’t. I think what we really think we know about Rachmaninov probably covers about 20% – in the solo piano work.

Melanie: Um, yes.

Artur: We know the Concerti a lot better. We actually know some of the orchestral works, but a very small part again. Um, so I knew the Second Sonata; I played the Corelli Variations, I played a couple of the Etudes … that’s about it.

Melanie: Hmm.

Artur: So I had maybe half of one recital of a six recital series. But he talked me into this, he said, “Oh, you play Rachmaninov so well, you should do this; it’d be fun. Not something a lot of people do – and boy, can I tell you why!

Melanie: [laughs] —  It takes some serious practicing.

Artur: I keep telling him that by the end of this year, I will either be dead of a heart attack, or have a fabulous technique, or both! [laughs]

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: Here lies the corpse of a man with a great technique – hmm! Um, so it’s been a lot of practice; it’s been a lot of new repertoire; it’s been listening to a lot of that –

Melanie: Um, yes.

Artur: – music. It’s been reading a lot about Rachmaninov, which has been fascinating –

Melanie: Yes.

Artur: – which I also thought I knew a lot about, but with more research coming in and more works being found , it’s really fascinating. And it shows you how much the perception we have of him is still completely wrong, because we’re still being coloured, our opinions are being coloured by … Groves, for example, which still has the most asinine article on Rachmaninov ever created, and they still haven’t come up with something to replace it. Please, Groves, live up to your standards and your reputations. Re-do it! Please! It is so unfair to the composer, and to you! We have this outdated idea of oh, Rachmaninov, it was easy, it sounded like Hollywood film, it has all the tunes. You should hear some of the Etude Tableau; they’re positively bizarre!

Melanie: Um.

Artur: – really bizarre!

Melanie: Yes!

Artur: And really modern.

Melanie: Yes, it’s a cryptic language.

Artur: And then at the same time, you know, they speak about the Fourth Concerto, which is the least understood of them, which is probably my favorite, actually. Um, and people don’t understand it because it isn’t the Second Concerto with all the big melodies and the Hollywood tunes, because it is actually much more modern, therefore people refuse to accept it. So, there’s this big, huge conundrum going around Rachmaninov that I find fascinating. You know why I find it fascinating? Because after all these years, it’s still not easy to put him into a box. It still causes all kind of conversations, and arguments, and differences of opinion. And that, to me, is exactly the mark of a great artist that goes outside expectations.

Melanie: Um, yes.

Artur: Um, a lot of repertoire. So I said, Yeah, let’s try it! And then as soon as I said it, I started kicking myself and I’ve been kicking myself ever since. How did I plan the recitals? I really planned them as six individual recitals. I tried not to do it chronologically; I try not to put all the Preludes in one, and the Etudes in one and then the Sonatas in one, because I didn’t want it to turn into a scholastic experience.

Melanie: Um.

Artur: I want people to come and listen to Rachmaninov, and it’s a recital, and it happens to be in six series. If you want to hear all of it, you’re gonna have to buy six tickets. But, um, you know some have sonatas, variations, preludes, little salon pieces; there’s a lot of variety. I tried to put at least one big modern, one big very well-known piece in each programme –

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur: – so there’s something to attach it to.

Melanie: And is one of the programmes a transcription?

Artur: That is the only one that is (thematical ?). I said, No, there’s too much here. Why? Because there’s Bach, there’s Mendelssohn, there’s Bizet, there’s Schubert, there’s Schumann, there’s Tchaikovsky, there’s so much variety that that one is really going to be a basket full of lollipops. So that was the one that I thought could survive the thematic treatment. And that one will be in November. Which is great, because that’s the one that’s going to take me to get it into my fingers, because those transcriptions are horrendously difficult, but so much fun! When you actually get to sit down and play one of those from beginning to end and think, “Wow! I’m not only can I play it, I’m having fun with it!” It is such a rush!

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur: But you earned them; you earned every single note. It’s like climbing Mt. Everest. But, the other interesting thing is, however virtuosic Rachmaninov’s writing is, I find that it’s so ergonomic.

Melanie: Yes.

Artur: Unlike, for example, somebody like Brahms, which I find much less ergonomic. It doesn’t fit into the hands nearly as much. Rachmaninov, although it’s much more demanding from a virtuoso point of view, he knows exactly what the hand is supposed to do, he knows exactly what the piano does. It’s just that if you imagine you’re a track runner, and you’re running hurdles, it’s just that he puts hurdles with sort of a 3mm interval.

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: So, the difficulties of Rachmaninov are up here [motioning to the head]. It’s pacing yourself mentally. Because when you get to the end of the day, your hands, if you’re doing this properly, and not panicking, like this (tensing body up), your hands are not actually tired. Your brain, there are little clouds of smoke coming out of your ears – your ears, your eyes –

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: – you know, you can dry towels on top of your head, but the body isn’t being asked to do anything unnatural.

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur: And that’s been very fascinating, too. I suspected it, having played enough Rachmaninov, but I hadn’t had the 1000% proof that I, you know, feel that I’ve had from Rachmaninov. So, a very interesting composer that was much more searching and was much more forward-leaning in asthetic and impulses than a lot of people give him credit for.

Melanie: Um. Do you have a particular practice regime?

Artur: Yes. Whenever I can, however I can, for as long as I can.

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: It’s called cram. I mean, how do I do it? Ideally I would have my little sheet of paper telling me what I’m doing at that month, and that year, and I would assign a little bit of time to each –

Melanie: Hmm.

Artur: – so that by the end of the week … it doesn’t work that way! You try, and you try, and it doesn’t work that way. So I try to… If there is a piano available, a decent piano, because I find that when you get below a certain level of instrument –

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur: – you’re gonna do more damage than good. So there’s no point. If there’s a, “Oh, there’s my great grandmother’s upright. It was last tuned by Queen Victoria’s piano tuner…  No, let, let it go –

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: It’s, it’s only gonna frustrate you. So if there’s a decent instrument, and you’ve got half an hour, use that half an hour. If you have a decent instrument, but you’re too tired, no. Go to sleep, come back the next day; you’re fine. That’s something that happened to me since the Leeds competition since I was telling you, when rational behavior goes out the window. So, if I’m at home, I really try to get as much as I can. Usually it’s practice in the morning, your brain is still fresh –

Melanie: Yes.

Artur: – get three hours of really hard practice, and it’s also organizing your practice before you even sit down at the piano. Because there’s a lot that you don’t need the piano for: there’s a lot of reading, there’s a lot of listening, there’s a lot of even going through a score and finding out which pages are going to be problematical and which aren’t going to be problematical. For example, if you’re panicking about a whole piece, but it’s only because of 3 passages in that piece, why are you practicing the whole piece, if 75% of it you can practice without a problem? Mark the exact spots, focus on those. The rest will be fine.

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur: Um, I don’t have a problem with listening to other people’s performance of the same performance. It’s because, it will tell me what I’m looking towards, it sometimes tells me what I don’t want to look towards The risk of imitation is, (ahem) at this stage of the game is so far-fetched, because even if you’re trying to imitate, the fact that it’s going through your hands, a different instrument –

Melanie: Hmm.

Artur: – your experience, your culture, your age, your heartbeat; it’s all gonna come out differently. I’ve actually sat down with friends, you know, concert pianists, mutual admiration society, all that, and said, “You know, I really liked what you did that! This is…” and you play it, and the other person doesn’t recognize it. “Well, let me try again, I’m going to do it again. I’m going to try to do it exactly the way you do it.”

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: and they sit down, and do it for me, and, no. We don’t recognize it. So, that, that fear for me isn’t there. And if a person has dedicated 15, 20, 25,30 years of their lives to that particular interpretation of that piece, and they’ve studied that much, why should I discount it? Why should I not learn from it? I treat, very much, listening to somebody’s recording or somebody’s performance as a Master Class. Because I’m not just listening to it and saying, Ok, this is how I’m going to do it. I’m constantly asking myself, “Why? Why did they do that there? Why did that person to that there? Why is the pedal there? Why is their mezzoforte different from my mezzoforte? Why?” And it’s when you start to figure that out that it gets really interesting. And that’s when those worries of, “Am I going to sound like that person?” they immediately disappear and cease to exist. So, I use a lot of recordings as lessons because I ask the questions. I make myself ask the questions. And then I don’t have to get in the car and go up to EPTA’s latest organized thing, although, I like to complement those too, because there’s nothing as live, you know. Having that live interaction is also so important. So, for the kids who stay home, saying ‘Oh, I can just listen to the CD, or download it off Spotify, or whatever’, no. Go and be with somebody.

Melanie: Yeah. Absolutely.

Artur: Go and talk; go do it live. It’s such a rush, and you make contacts, and you meet incredible people. So, all of the above.

Melanie: What does playing the piano mean to you?

Artur: Speaking. I think if some – I think if my hands fell off, or if my tongue was cut off, it would probably feel exactly the same. It’s me, telling a story, it’s me… I think it feels, for me, playing the piano for me feels what acting would feel for an actor, what painting would feel for a painter. It’s telling a story, it’s sharing something. Whether that story I’m telling actually has to do something, actually has to do with something that I’ve lived. Or, it’s just a story that I’ve particularly enjoyed sharing, it’s, it’s how I would express myself.

Melanie: Thank you so much for joining me today.

Artur: You are so welcome, and thank you for having me.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Perry says:

    Really interesting convo, I enjoyed this!

    1. Thanks Perry, Really pleased you enjoyed it 🙂

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