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The 23-year-old French pianist Alexandre Kantorow is understandably happy to admit he had stars in his eyes after winning the 2019 Tchaikovsky Competition. Buoyed by this triumph, he is now determinedly forward- looking, a mix of plans and reflections: ‘For me, the competition was an essentially happy occasion. I looked forward so much to playing in Moscow’s beautiful hall, embraced by so much tradition and, of course, recalling my own Russian ancestry.’

Any nervous tension, he admits, occurred in the first round, which is traditionally devoted to short solo pieces, including a Bach Prelude and Fugue and a Chopin Etude. ‘I felt happier on larger canvases,’ says Kantorow, ‘most notably in the finale with Brahms’ and Tchaikovsky’s Second Concertos. Then I could let go, find space to breathe and be myself.’ I suggest that his robust virtuosity would be ideally suited to Busoni’s massive five- movement concerto. Is it in his plans? ‘No,’ he chuckles, ‘at any rate not yet! Right now I’m looking forward to completing my Saint-Saëns concerto cycle with Nos 1 and 2 plus the miscellaneous works for piano and orchestra – Africa fantasy, Wedding Cake caprice, etc.’ His first instalment of this cycle offers a beguiling mix of poetry, inwardness and virtuoso glitter in Nos 3-5, so I look forward to hearing what he does with the others. ‘I’m glad you feel that because I believe Saint-Saëns has been misrepresented,’ explains Kantorow. ‘While hardly a “French Mozart”, as he was once called, I wanted to make listeners think again about his character and place in music. At the same time I would willingly call the Wedding Cake caprice more fun than substance.’

Returning to his success in Moscow, what does he think about the role played by competitions in today’s music world? ‘I don’t think competitions are “God’s curse on pianists” as Barry Douglas has claimed, though there are downsides if you let them happen. The leap from relative obscurity to international fame or – that dubious word – “celebrity” needs to be handled with care and foresight. I am aware of several pianists who have found this physically and psychologically difficult. An element of routine can enter, and the gilt comes off the gingerbread.’

In this respect, Kantorow has a distinct advantage. Both his parents are musicians – his father, Jean-Jacques Kantorow, a celebrated violinist and conductor – so they know how to handle the sudden incursion of avaricious managers and the glare of publicity. ‘That’s true,’ he acknowledges, ‘although my father has always allowed me my own space, my own character. He was my conductor for both my Liszt and Saint-Saëns discs and, of course, I have played a lot of violin and piano repertoire with him. We are a French family (I am embarrassed to say I don’t speak Russian – a source of disappointment to people who make assumptions about my name) so Fauré, Debussy and Ravel are central to our thinking.’

This wide-ranging exposure to diverse repertoire has undoubtedly sharpened Kantorow’s ideas about programming. His selection for the competition final in Moscow is a case in point, making him the only pianist ever to have won with Tchaikovsky’s Second Concerto. ‘That may look like a tactical move, but it came about firstly because of my love for this work, and secondly because at the time I felt uneasy with the First Concerto,’ he explains. ‘Somehow it didn’t feel right, possibly because there were too many other performances crowding my mind.’

I recall how Rafael Orozco played Brahms’ First Concerto in the 1966 Leeds Competition final, while his three competitors all chose Tchaikovsky’s First. For Orozco, this was also a choice made from affection rather than more pragmatic reasons. ‘Yes, repertoire is all-important and I think I can go a little further than Evgeny Kissin, who when asked how he chose his programmes responded after a prolonged silence with, “I play what I like”. Playing music you don’t like or to which you are unsuited is not an option. I should add that it is a good idea to play certain works when you are young. The high-octane virtuosity of Balakirev’s Islamey, for example, is not for the elderly!’

Indeed, every stage of an artist’s evolution offers something valid. Their approach will doubtless change as time passes, though it is a cliché to think it automatically improves. ‘Yes, I agree with that, while adding that each of us must go our own way,’ says Kantorow. ‘I also take your point that audiences and, alas, some jury members only like what they know and look askance at unfamiliar repertoire. This is a sad state of affairs. I hope my recording of Malédiction alongside the other Liszt concertos alerts interest in some prophetic and extraordinary music.’

Although still young, Kantorow is already becoming a seasoned recording artist. His fourth album for Swedish label BIS, released in October, offers a blazingly virtuosic programme of works by Brahms, Bartók and Liszt. How does he feel about listening to playbacks of himself in the recording studio – does such scrutiny risk the performer’s subconscious emotional life becoming conscious? ‘I have to say that I am blessed with an outstanding producer, Jens Braun, who understands what I want and knows when I fail to hit the spot. Also, I’m still studying with my teacher Rena Shereshevskaya, who is a wonder of both disciplined and imaginative insights. She always tells me, after hours of meticulous planning, to go out there and play as I genuinely feel, and then it will sound right.’

Schnabel once told an over-meticulous producer, commenting on some smudges in his octave outburst in the opening movement of Brahms’ D minor Concerto, ‘I could play it more accurately, but I couldn’t play it more brilliantly.’ Speaking of Brahms, I put to Kantorow the title of Françoise Sagan’s 1959 novel, Aimez-vous Brahms? ‘Oui, j’aime absolument Brahms! I have recorded the Second Sonata in F-sharp minor and the first of the Op 79 Rhapsodies, and plan to follow these with the C major and F minor sonatas plus the Four Ballades. I’m also thinking of the late, deeply introspective works – the capriccios and intermezzos of Opp 116-119.’ Th is bittersweet repertoire was once described by the poet William Ritter as ‘like the golden lustre of parks in autumn and the austere black and white of winter walks.’ ‘Well,’ says Kantorow, ‘now you really are tempting me!’

Kantorow’s outsize technique ranges from elemental uproar to the merest whisper. Th e fullness and grandeur of his sound in the Liszt concertos reminds me of the young Emil Gilels. ‘Sound is a vital component of every pianist’s character,’ affi rms Kantorow. ‘All truly great pianists are recognisable by their sonority. Th ere has to be a fusion between the fingers and relaxed arm and shoulder weight.’ Another Russian great, Vladimir Ashkenazy, went so far as to claim, ‘I play from my toes’. It’s a curious description Kantorow endorses:

‘That is absolutely right. Your whole body is involved. It’s something I learnt when I was studying with Igor Lazko.’ ‘More generally,’ he continues, ‘finding your own identity and how to express it is diffi cult and takes time.’ Indeed, I once heard a competition recital by one of Horowitz’s students, whose playing was like a carbon copy of his teacher’s – though without the charisma. Kantorow concurs: ‘Yes, there is always a danger of being swamped by such a powerful personality. Really, you don’t have a choice, for better or worse you have to be yourself.’ I wager that Kantorow would agree with Polonius’s advice to his son in Hamlet: ‘This above all: to thine own self be true/ And it must follow, as the night the day/ Thou canst not then be false to any man.’ Cue Kantorow: ‘Th at is, of course, memorably expressed. With a continuing sense of wonder and inspiration it is surely the way forward. But now I must return to work. Do you realise that as a pianist of Russian ancestry I have yet to learn the Rachmaninov concertos?

You’ve also reminded me that the music for Tom and Jerry cartoons was among my first loves, so I should look at Copland’s Th e Cat and the Mouse – a relaxing alternative to Rachmaninov!’

Bryce Morrison Read the full review on Agora Classica

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