Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor Op.30; Prelude Op.23 No.1; Automn Song Op.37a, No.10
They spoke about it
Recorded live at the 1978 Tchaikovsky International Music Competition in Moscow
Performing at an international competition is one of the most exhilarating moments in the life of a young pianist. There is, of course, the excitement of discovering new artistic and cultural milieus: Paris, Leeds, Geneva, Sydney, Moscow. But there is also the knowledge that the competition can be the scene of one’s first triumph, as it can be the scene of one’s greatest dissapointment. Always, however, it is a place where a pianist—or any other instrumentalist—learns about his or her true potential, discovers, as André Laplante says, unknown—and at times unforeseen—strengths and weaknesses.
International competitions generally follow the same pattern: first, two solo programs, in which the pianist must show a perfect command of the purely physical aspect of piano playing, as well as a complete—and imaginative—understanding of the composer’s intentions; then comes the final event, where the pianist must now be able to both confront and blend with an orchestra. André Laplante’s powerful, controlled and dynamic performance of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto had such tremendous success that a recording of it is still quite popular in Russia.
Unfortunately for the American and European public, the CBC recording was only available for a short time. On the occasion of its release on compact disc, we asked André Laplante to relive for us a few moments of the Moscow experience, from the perspective of twenty years.
— André Laplante, before we talk specifically about the Tchaikovsky competition, could you tell us a little about your musical education?
I started playing when I was six, with the nuns, like many pianists of my generation. I had my first “serious” piano lesson—so to speak—much later, at thirteen, with Yvonne Hubert in Montreal. Before her, teachers had come and gone, and as a result a few stages were missing in my development as a musician. This is why I auditionned for Yvonne Hubert at the Vincent d’Indy school—because I felt it was time for me to really start learning, to acquire a certain work ethic.
I must admit that I had very poor discipline in those days. Pianistically, things were quite easy for me—I could start, for example, a scale on the fifth finger and still make my way around it—but to have a certain ease is not necessarily to have discipline. What I did not know was how to translate pianistically what I felt about the music. I started to work on this with Yvonne Hubert. Things happened very quickly after that.
The autumn following my admission to Vincent d’Indy, I won the Matinées Symphoniques competition of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, playing Richard Strauss’ Burleske. For me, this was a little strange because, on the one hand, playing a piece as difficult as the Burleske at fifteen was not a problem, but, on the other, I knew there were still many things I did not understand. But everybody was impressed.
People then persuaded me that this should be my repertoire—romantic and post-romantic music. That’s when I started working on the Rachmaninov concertos, sonatas by Rachmaninov, Schumann, the Liszt Sonata, among others. This was the repertoire I studied in Paris with Yvonne Lefébure, and also later, at Juilliard.
— You entered the Geneva and the Sydney competitions, winning prizes in both. What else—or what more—were you looking for when you went to Moscow?
I guess I understand the reasons why I wanted to go to Moscow better today than I did twenty years ago. Part of it was simply that I loved practicing the piano—a bit of a maniac, in fact, the kind who goes on vacation and who becomes nearly sick if he doesn’t do his “hour-a-day.” But after all this work there was always the need for a release, the need to perform. Also, in Moscow the repertoire was essentially the one I had worked on since my teens—romantic and post-romantic.
I had perfomed most of the program on different tours—for the Jeunesses Musicales du Canada, organizations like that—and even if I did not have many professional engagements, I was nevertheless able to perform here and there with orchestra. I would also add that Moscow was a way of “measuring myself,” so to speak.
When I was younger, I used to go listen to the Montreal International Competition. The Russians always created a big sensation. I was fascinated to see how well trained, how well prepared they were for such an event. So, as I said, Moscow was a way for me to see where I stood next to the “big boys.” I would be lying if I told you that I did not also expect something concrete from the competition, a certain recognition of my talent. But what I also came back with was a certain realization of my strengths and weaknesses, and of what impact my playing had on others.
— And what were your strengths and weaknesses?
I knew that I could play very difficult works, but I also knew that there were many aspects of my playing that needed polishing, especially in the areas of the baroque and the classical style. So I went to Moscow very conscious that I was at a certain level, at a certain stage of my own development. As far as the competition was concerned, I had worked hard, and now it was time to play—not only play, in fact, but take some risks, and for me that meant offering a concert performance.
And I remember that from the beginning of the first round, people reacted very warmly to what I was doing on stage, they were responding to what I was giving emotionally, which made me very happy. It was a public who wanted to be touched, moved. We have to remember how much the lives of Russians, at the time, was different from ours. I really think that the more they lacked freedom in their everyday life, the more important it was for them to be able to indulge in the music, and to be free to express their pleasure. The support I felt was incredible.
Later, between the first and second rounds—with 91 pianists, it took some time to get through the first round—I had the opportunity to meet people from the Conservatory, students, other professional musicians, and I was able to witness how intense the musical and artistic life was, how strong was their love of art, aesthetics and expression. I also met other pianists, people I knew from the Montreal competition, who would tell me how such or such piece was “really great.”
This is not to say that there was less pressure—you know things are serious when you see Tatyana Nicolaieva sitting on the jury, or when you realize that there are over 90 million people listening to you on the television or the radio. But it is true that the public’s reaction—as the jury’s—made me much more relaxed, and gave me the desire to “let go” even more, to simply think about making music. I actually believe that I made tremendous progress between the first and second round—a progress equivalent, perhaps, to a whole year of study—in the sense that I understood for the first time what it really meant to go on stage and not be afraid to take risks. — What did you play in the second round? Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata, Liszt’s Sonata, a sonata by Beethoven, a Prelude and Fugue by Shostakovich, and also a commissioned work by a Russian composer.
— And it had as much success as the first?
You know, at the Moscow competition, you’re only allowed to come back on stage once after your performance. But they applauded an empty stage for 15 minutes afterwards… so yes, it was a great success. People came to see me later and it was not “Monsieur Laplante” any more, but simply “André.” They adopted me like a son.
— In the third and final round, you played Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3, a work which must have a special resonance in Russia. Why choose this one, instread of a Liszt or a Brahms?
It was, for me, a concerto that was both musically and pianistically satisfying—there is an immense pleasure in having your fingers dig into the rich Rachmaninov texture. It was also a piece that I had worked on and played since I was 15 or 16 years old, and it had become “second nature” for me. It was a unique moment, one that I will never forget, because I felt that I had been able to express everything it was possible for me to express at that time of my life.
I had a few weeks to reflect after the competition, and when the dust settled I realized more how big a responsability it is to learn to express one’s own voice, and become a better artist in the process, through exploring new repertoire and gathering new musical perspectives, while surviving the hectic schedule brought on by the competition.
— You also started playing more chamber music…
In the early 1980s, I started playing with Menuhin. It was important for me to work and perform with musicians of such great stature, to question them, ask them what they thought of such phrase, how they heard this or that rhythm, this or that nuance… Menuhin, who had so much depth, really inspired me. — The tradition he represents is very important for you, as is that represented by a Cortot, a Horowitz… I do believe a sense of history is important. Cortot, Horowitz, Rubinstein possessed incredible imagination, and also a great freedom in the expression. It is important to go back and listen to what these people had to say—as it is to listen to what Klemperer did with the Beethoven symphonies, to what Gieseking did with Mozart, with Debussy, which is absolutely fabulous.
I think we also have to listen to Kempff and try to understand what he was thinking about when he approached the piano, be sensitive to what was truly spiritual in him, to the atmosphere he could create. I am not saying that these musicians possessed some absolute Truth, but simply that they created unforgettable musical moments, because their intention was to express something with a maximum of imagination, and not simply offer a “good” and “clean” performance.
I notice that on this subject, today there is a great deal of confusion between what I would call “technology” and “technique.” Technology is only the means by which we can do something. True technique, the technique of a Rubinstein for example, is not precision, but the capacity to express what one wants to express. What is difficult when speaking of “tradition” and “modernity” is to find out exactly where we, as individuals and musicians, belong. It’s all part of the learning process—one which never ends—meaning that we not only learn through solitary practice, but through listening to how things were played before, how they are played now, and exchanging ideas with other musicians.
We must always remember that what is important is not what we can do with music but what music does to us—it is not the music that must open itself to us, but we who must open ourselves to music, and in order for this to happen, one needs a lot of formal and also emotional education. To me, this is absolutely fundamental.
—You have listened to your Moscow performance of the Rachmaninov. How do you hear it today?
What I hear now is an extremely important moment in my life. What I particularily enjoy hearing is the breadth of the performance. There are, of course, a few things here and there—we didn’t have much time to rehearse, 15 minutes for the Tchaikovsky and 15 minutes for the Rachmaninov, so we weren’t able to work on all the links, all the tempo changes. That was difficult, but at that point it reinforced my desire to take responsability for a freer and more direct performance.