Pianist Ruth Laredo
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Ruth Meckler Laredo was born
on November 20, 1937 in Detroit, Michigan. Following early piano studies
with her mother, she continued her training with Rudolf Serkin at the Curtis
Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Laredo graduated in 1960 with a Bachelor
of Music degree. The same year she married Bolivian violinist Jaime Laredo.
[The couple was divorced in 1974.] During the next several years both musicians
made numerous joint appearances throughout the world. In 1962 Ruth Laredo
made her debut in New York with the American Symphony Orchestra conducted
by Leopold Stokowski. Since then she has played all over the United States
with many orchestras including the National Symphony, Boston Symphony, Cleveland
Orchestra and the Indianapolis Symphony. She has also played in many foreign
countries, giving tours in Japan, Holland, and Germany, among others. Ruth
Laredo has been a regular participant at the Marlboro Festival in Vermont,
collaborating with numerous colleagues in virtually all major chamber works
involving the piano.
Laredo has been particularly identified with the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff
and Alexander Scriabin. She has recorded the complete solo piano works of
Rachmaninoff for Columbia/CBS/Sony. As a result of these recordings, she
was commissioned by C. F. Peters to edit an edition of the twenty four Rachmaninoff
Preludes. She has also earned a reputation as a specialist in Scriabin, having
recorded all ten of his sonatas (for Connoisseur Society) along with other
smaller works, and including this music frequently on her recital programs.
In addition, Ms. Laredo has made recordings of works by Ravel, Debussy, Barber,
Chopin, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and many other composers.
Laredo won several awards throughout her career including a Grammy nomination,
and was chosen as one of five pianists to perform at Carnegie Hall for its
90th anniversary celebration.
Laredo died on May 25, 2005.
Ruth Laredo was in Chicago in June of 1993 for a concert with the Grant Park
Orchestra, the outdoor summer festival on the lakefront. We met for
the interview in her hotel room, and the first thing I noticed was an electronic
keyboard, so that is where we began our chat . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You
have an electronic keyboard in your room, and my first reaction was that
it might not be the same kind of touch as a grand piano. You said that
you were very pleased with it, so tell me about using the electronic keyboard.
Ruth Laredo: What
I have in my hotel room today is something made by Yamaha called the Clavinova.
One of the many wonderful features of this little instrument is that it replicates
the feel and sound of a piano as close as I’ve ever heard in any instrument
that isn’t actually a piano. I think the technology has enormously
improved in the past year or so; even the Yamaha people say so. One
of the nicest things about it is that if anyone complains about hearing the
piano next door, I just plug in my little earphones and it’s completely silent.
You can also make it sound like a harpsichord or an organ, or any number
of other instruments, but I’m really not interested in anything but the piano.
BD: If you changed
it to the harpsichord sound, could you also change it to the harpsichord
RL: I’ll try it;
I don’t really know. I didn’t even experiment with it, but it’s really
a remarkable little piece of equipment. Plus it’s small, and you never
have to have it tuned. I’ve used it quite a few times because a pianist
in a hotel room without a piano is really an unhappy creature! [Both
laugh] This is something that’s just come to my attention, actually,
within the last year, and I’m really very happy that I can make use of such
a little gadget.
BD: I would think
that in big cities and even in smaller cities, you can probably arrange to
get one of these from a store.
RL: Yes, much more easily than if you ask somebody
to allow a piano in the hotel room. Every hotel automatically assumes
that you mean a nine-foot grand and that it will make an enormous amount
of noise, and all the other guests will be horrified. This is small.
It doesn’t take up very much space; it’s like a little desk, and it doesn’t
make a sound if you don’t need it to.
BD: Would you be
happy with, say, a five-foot Steinway, rather than a nine-foot Steinway to
RL: I don’t know.
I don’t need a five-foot Steinway, I just need an eighty-eight key keyboard
when I’m practicing. I have plenty of time on a large piano wherever
else I go. It doesn’t matter.
BD: Have you experimented
with adjusting the touch or anything else on this gadget?
RL: You can!
There are three different levels of sound — bright,
mellow or soft.
BD: That’s the
sound rather than the touch. I’m asking about the feel of the keys,
the response to your fingers.
RL: Oh, I just
like it! It feels like a piano. It feels like a good piano to
me. It’s very even; it’s terrific!
BD: That’s good
that it feels like a good
piano, not just a piano.
RL: No, it feels
like a good piano! I enjoyed it, practicing today, really.
BD: When you are
traveling all over the world, I assume you don’t take your piano with you.
RL: Heavens, no!
BD: So you have
to get used to each piano. How long does it take you to adjust to each
new piano that you have on the various stages?
RL: As fast as
BD: Are you talking
two minutes, or two hours?
RL: Just a couple
of minutes; never two hours, no. You can really spot what goes on very
quickly. You usually don’t have that much time on a piano before a
concert unless you’re very, very lucky. But what good does it do if
you have more time? You just dislike it more, if it’s not a good piano!
[Both laugh] So I just learned how to get used to whatever there is,
and just go with it and do my best.
BD: Are most of
the pianos you encounter good pianos, or not good pianos?
RL: It varies from
one city to another. It’s very hard to anticipate what you will find.
One really doesn’t know, and everybody’s taste in pianos is different.
I know what I like, and sometimes I find one!
BD: Can you describe
what you like, or is it just that you know it when you feel it?
RL: I know it when
I feel it. I don’t think it’s possible to really explain it in words.
A certain kind of sound is part of what I like and a certain touch is what
I like, but I don’t know how to describe those things.
BD: So you couldn’t
tell the technician to do this or do that?
RL: No, I don’t
like to talk to technicians. They ought to know what I want without
describing it, and they usually do. There’s a marvelous technician
who was at the Chicago Musical College this morning, Mr. Fujiwara, and he
knows exactly what I want. He fixed both of the pianos for the master
class this morning, and I didn’t have to say a word. It was just beautiful.
BD: I wonder how
much is he adjusting to you, and how much are you adjusting to each piano?
RL: He doesn’t
have to adjust to me. What’s good is what I like, that’s all.
It’s clear, isn’t it! [Laughs]
BD: Perfectly clear!
RL: I’m not interested
in the technology of it. Mr. Fujiwara knows what’s good, and I like
what pianos he has fixed for me here in Chicago year after year.
BD: You’re teaching
some master classes. Should young pianists coming along know anything
about the technique of adjusting and maintaining the instrument itself?
RL: If they want
to be piano tuners as well as pianists?
BD: I mean shouldn’t
they know about fiddling with it, or know what is right or wrong more than
just the interpretation of Chopin and Rachmaninoff?
RL: I suppose so.
Sure, it’s good to know as much as you can, but I don’t really enjoy having
to know those things. I have taken courses at various times on the
inside of pianos, and it just leaves me cold. I have to know other things
much more important to me, and I think that people who are piano technicians
ought to know their trade just as I know mine. I don’t really want
to know theirs; it doesn’t appeal to me.
BD: So it’s sort
of like driving a car — you don’t have to tinker with
the engine to drive a car well.
RL: I’m not mechanically-minded,
and I’m sure there are a lot of people who know plenty about car mechanics.
Piano technicians really need to know those things, and we should be able
to depend upon them. [See my Interview with Franz Mohr,
Chief Concert Technician with Steinway & Sons, 1968-1992.] But
of course there are other pianists who like to tinker around with pianos.
I don’t; I like to play them.
BD: You said there
are other things that you have to know. What do you have to know to
be a pianist?
RL: I couldn’t
tell you on the radio! [Both laugh]
BD: Well then,
what kind of suggestions do you have for the younger pianists coming along
now? As you are doing the master classes, what kinds of things do you
put in their ear?
RL: Becoming a
musician is a lifelong process, and you never really learn enough no matter
how long you live or how well you play. Having a background in music
is something that has to start very early, and has to do with the luck of
a child — what family he is born into, what concerts
and what events he’s taken to as a very young person, and what is available
on records or in the family itself. One of the tragedies of our life
in America today is that public school music has all but been eliminated.
I think that’s one of the most serious problems we face today. It’s
going to put a lot of people out of business, and it’s far more serious than
just business; it has to do with the cultural life of our country.
If the kids don’t hear music and appreciate music and know something about
music at a very young age, there’s no point to all the things that we are
trying to do because it’s just going to die away. The audiences are
getting older and older, and the young kids must know something about it.
I was at a school today here in Chicago, and we had eight hundred elementary-aged
kids at a concert that I played. It’s an outreach program that’s sponsored
by the Grant Park Festival, and it was really marvelous because the Principal
of the school — Dr. Lawson, who I feel is some kind
of a missionary — feels as strongly as I do that we’ve
got to get the kids to be interested in music right away, as fast as possible.
There were kindergarteners there at a full-length concert, and they asked
questions later. They learn how to attend concerts when they’re small,
and that’s the way it should be! I don’t think it’s funded by the government;
it’s because this very enlightened man is interested enough to make sure
that this happens, and I’m really very thrilled by such people.
BD: So hopefully
these eight hundred kids will remember that nice lady who came and played
piano one day?
RL: And I’ll remember
those kids, too! They have lots of things going on at that school.
They make a point of having musicians and other cultural events as much as
possible. They also have a little piano lab with several little keyboards;
they’re not even eighty-eight keys. But that’s a new project they have, and
it’s fun for the kids to put on earphones and play on their little keyboards.
And evidently their reading scores are going up because they’ve learned how
to apply themselves so diligently to the musical problems they face.
I think it’s a very beautiful idea and I hope it lasts. I hope it spreads
BD: Maybe you’ve
hit on something we could talk to school boards about — increase
the music and the reading scores will go up.
RL: Yes, there’s
a connection between having discipline in one area and another. I believe
BD: But doesn’t
there have to be a musical discipline all to itself, really?
RL: Well, discipline
is discipline. If you learn how to play the piano, you apply yourself otherwise
much more easily. It has to do with living, it really does.
* * *
BD: When you come
to a concert and play a piece for the first time in a year or two, do you
approach it fresh with a clean score?
RL: You never really
start over again if it’s been in your mind before, but it takes on a new
freshness because you’re not the same person you were when you started it.
You can’t really start it again at grade one; you start somewhere else but
you have the past to draw upon. And it’s always changing. Nothing
really stays the same if you’re a musician.
BD: So then every
concert grows and builds for you?
RL: One hopes so, sure!
BD: This brings
us to the question of recordings. Once you’ve made the record, it’s
embedded in plastic and it’s exactly the same every time.
RL: Every time.
Yes, I know.
BD: You say that
with a little trepidation.
RL: It’s just a
fact of life. Of course, everybody who makes a record always says this.
We always have to do it at that time, and we listen to it and sometimes feel,
“Oh, if only we had done it this way or that way.” But there’s no help
for that; we just have to do it. I also think that there are benefits
from listening to recordings and learning from what you’ve done, or learning
from what other people have done, but always knowing there’s another way
to do it. That’s not the only way. A lot of people listen to
records and feel that since it sounds so “perfect,” it means that it has
been sanitized. There are no obvious errors, but does that mean the
standards go up in performance? I don’t really know if that’s so.
I think it means that people learn to expect no mistakes, and that’s an inhuman
expectation. As one recording producer once said to me, “It’s like
if you leave a wonderful take which has some note-errors in a recording,
it’s like seeing a piece of dirt on somebody’s face. You just see it
every time, and you learn to expect it every time you listen to the record.
We just have to clean everything up.” I agree, but you also have to
understand when you go to a concert that people make mistakes; people are
human, and when you play a concert in public it should not have to be the
way it sounds on the record. But I think the expectation is there for
it to be.
BD: So the expectation
RL: I’m sure, because
of the recordings. It’s changed the way people listen to others who
play in public.
BD: Is there no
way to make a recording straight through three or four times, and just take
the sections which are not perfect but they still have the sweep of the movement?
Well, theoretically, I suppose so, but I don’t know if that’s really what
can happen. It’s an art and a science combined.
BD: Do you play
differently when you are facing a microphone instead of an audience?
RL: You’re damn
right I do. Sure.
BD: How so?
RL: In public it’s
once and it’s over, assuming there aren’t microphones hiding all over the
place. That’s usually what happens nowadays; there’s almost no such
thing as a concert without a microphone, and I deeply dislike this practice,
I must tell you. I really, really would like for a concert to be a concert
and a recording to be a recording, because I think they’re two different
sciences or arts. But assuming there are no microphones at a concert,
it’s once in a lifetime; it’s an event with a beginning and an end, and one
is more — I don’t know — more daring, perhaps.
You just go for the moment and you do what you feel, and if a note gets lost
here and there it doesn’t matter because the most important thing is the
performance itself and the interplay between the audience and the music and
the performer. On the other hand, a recording session is something
quite different. You have to be terribly meticulous. You’re listening
to yourself after you make the takes, and you hear everything. Believe
me, I am sure that anyone who makes a recording is his own most severe critic.
You can be as passionate or as exciting as you can be for the microphone,
but when the wrong notes come through on the tape, you tend to want to clean
them up. So, it’s quite a process; it’s quite different.
BD: When you want
to clean up a wrong note, do you insert the note, or do you retake the whole
RL: It depends
on what it is. It’s different every time. It depends on what
else is on each side of the mistake. I always like to do complete takes
of a movement, if possible. I always try that.
BD: You’ve made
recordings over a number of years. How has the process changed?
RL: Now we have
these digital machines, and all the technology is so improved and grown since
I used to make recordings with large tapes on those huge, giant reels.
You remember those.
RL: Now they’re
on little television sets with screens and numbers and what not. I
don’t know how they do it, but it’s very quick. If you want to hear
something, they push the button and you know exactly where you were when
you stopped. It’s remarkable! It’s just wonderful!
BD: So the process
of making records has changed very quickly.
RL: Yes, sure.
BD: Has the process
of making music changed at all in your career?
RL: I hope not.
No, I don’t want it to change. I think it’s the most wonderful thing
in the world. I don’t see why it should change.
BD: So, music is
music is music?
RL: As long as
we have what we now call the acoustical piano! [Both laugh] To
play it on, I don’t see why it should change. No.
BD: Will there
ever come a time when we give concerts with this electronic gizmo that you
have here in your hotel room?
RL: I’m sure they
already do. I have a feeling this instrument is used in jazz or in
recordings. Pop music has all kinds of electronic instruments which
I don’t know anything about, but which I see pictures of in magazines.
This one is not as complicated as those synthesizers that we see, but it’s
really quite good! I wouldn’t turn my nose up at it. I think
it’s a very lovely little gadget, and it sounds beautiful, too.
* * *
BD: We talked a
little bit about your playing on different pianos. Does your playing
change at all if you’re in a very small, intimate hall, or a great big barn
of a hall, or even outdoors, as you are here at Grant Park?
RL: I’m sure it
must, subtly. I was talking about that this morning at the master class,
because I think you have to learn how to scale your playing for the amount
of space that’s between you and the audience. You have to know when
it’s necessary to really expand your playing. It’s like being an actor;
if you’re an actor on the stage, you do a different kind of acting than if
you do screen acting or television acting. Although I’m not an actor,
I know that’s what they talk about.
BD: And yet you’re
still playing the same notes in each location.
RL: It’s the same
notes, but the length of time it takes to get from one note to the other
changes. It has to do with articulation and projection and timing.
You have to know that if you’re playing in Grant Park, it’s going to be a
little bit longer distance between you and the people way, way, way out there
in that huge audience than if you were to play in a chamber music hall.
So you have to think about sound all the time.
BD: How do you
divide your career now between solo performances, orchestral concerts and
RL: Like that.
BD: Some of this,
some of that, like a Chinese menu?
RL: Yes, that’s
right. I have a little of everything, and I like that very much.
BD: Is there ever
an over-balance of one or another, and do you try to adjust it, or do you
just take what comes?
RL: No. I
just take it as it comes because you never know from one year to the next.
I seem to have managed to do some of each every year, and I like it that
BD: Each brings
its own particular pleasures?
RL: Oh, absolutely,
yes. I would be very, very unhappy if I just played solo all the time.
I love to play chamber music, and I have such interesting colleagues who
are chamber music players in string quartets, and I love the challenge of
playing with different people all the time.
BD: Is playing
in front of an orchestra a different challenge from playing behind a string
RL: It is a real
leveler if you play chamber music with a string quartet. That’s the
way of keeping honest, if you’re a pianist, because if you play with a really
good string quartet, they express themselves freely and openly and talk about
everything very honestly. You can’t be a musician and not accept the
criticisms of your colleagues; that’s why I really love and welcome the process
of chamber music. There’s no ego involved with string players, the way
I find it may have to be with other forms of music-making. There’s
not a power struggle; there’s none of that. Everybody is in the trench
together, and you try very hard to tell the truth about each other’s playing,
and I like that very much.
BD: You don’t get
that so much with a conductor waving a stick?
RL: It depends
on the conductor, I’m sure, but it is possible that you must relinquish some
kind of power. It’s not necessary to have a power struggle whatsoever,
but I think it may be seen as such by some. It should be an equal partnership
between an orchestra, a conductor, and a soloist. It’s just very nice
when that can happen.
BD: Then it becomes
chamber music once again?
RL: Yes, that’s
the ideal. If you can play with a big orchestra and make it sound like
a big chamber group, then you’re in good shape. That’s what I like.
* * *
BD: You have several
hundred years’ worth of piano music to select from for each year’s groups
of concerts. How do you decide which ones you’ll play, which ones you’ll
postpone, and which ones you’ll say, “I don’t ever want to play that piece”?
RL: Wouldn’t it
be nice if you could decide everything on your own? There are repertoire
lists that exist, and an orchestra will take a look and say, “We would like
you to play this, this, or this.” It’s not easy to just say, “I will
play X, Y or Z this year.”
BD: But you have
decided what will go on that list, so presumably you’d be happy with anything
from that selection.
RL: Except for
the fact that there comes up all kinds of different circumstances such as
traveling and stress. If you’re playing the Brahms C Minor on the west coast and then the
next day you have to go all the way to the east coast and play another big
concerto, what do you do then? You can’t look into the future and know
where you’re going to be. It would be so nice if you could play the
same piece two times in a row in two different cities, so it’s always a toss-up
and there’s always some kind of compromise you have to make. For example,
if one city has had a certain piece one year, they don’t want to have it
again the following year. You can’t insist upon it; you have to let
them make their choice. It’s necessary.
BD: I’m looking for even something more basic.
How do you decide which pieces will go on your list?
RL: Gosh, I don’t
know. I have studied a number of pieces and they’re perpetually interesting
to me. Then there are times when some orchestra will say, “We want
you to play this,” and if it’s on my list or not, I may just wish very much
to play it and never thought of doing it myself. So it’s always something
BD: Okay, they’ve
suggested that you play a piece you’ve never played before, and perhaps never
even heard before. When you get the music in front of you, how do you
decide whether you’ll say yes or no?
RL: By now, I should
think it’s not a piece I’ve not heard before. I’ve been at it for a
while, so I think I know most of the piano concertos. But if there’s
a piece that I haven’t played in a long time and hadn’t intended to put it
back on my list for this year, the very suggestion makes me think about it.
What is the work saying? Necessity is the mother of invention, and
sometimes it’s a good idea. It wouldn’t have been my idea, but I usually
wind up doing it.
BD: Is there no
real curiosity about something that you literally have never heard before
— perhaps something that hasn’t been played in a hundred and fifty
RL: Oh I’m curious
as can be, but I’m also human and I can’t play everything. I have a
very large repertoire, and I have been learning pieces ever since I began
to play. There comes a time when you feel like you’d like to play something
you’ve known for a while and not have to keep playing something so new.
I do play new things often — constantly
— but you cannot expect people to learn new things all the time.
It’s just not a good idea. It’s really good to play something that
you know. It’s hard for you to understand that, having never been a
concert pianist before, but trust me, it’s true. [Both laugh]
BD: I assume you
try to balance the repertoire wherever possible.
BD: So if you’re
setting up a solo recital, you have, presumably, almost complete control
over what you’re going to put on it.
RL: Yes, that’s
true. I think the days of having anybody suggest what one plays on
a recital, if they existed before, they’re gone now. I like to
make up my own recital programs from my own feeling of what I need to play,
and what I feel works well with other works.
BD: Does that change
from moment to moment and season to season?
RL: Yes, of course
BD: Do you also
play any new works, premieres and such?
RL: There are some
pieces being written for me right now, and I certainly hope to be doing the
premieres of these two piano concertos. There’s one by a woman named
Michelle Ekizian, who has gotten a grant. I don’t think it’s a good
idea to talk about it before it’s finished, but she’s at work on it.
Then there’s another young man in New York who’s promised me a piano concerto.
I haven’t seen it yet, but I look forward to it very much.
BD: Do you have
any suggestions for someone who wants to write music for the keyboard these
BD: [Somewhat surprised]
Not even just write it?
RL: No, I wouldn’t
say that. It’s very hard to be a composer now. I don’t know how
to give anybody advice on how to be a composer, I really don’t. It’s
a terribly difficult thing to do, assuming that they’re good. It’s
very hard to get premieres. Orchestra budgets are getting cut all the
time; we’re trying very hard just to keep going. It’s a hard time for
the arts, and if somebody is gifted enough to write something, good for them!
I hope they have much success, but I don’t know how they get grants for supporting
themselves. It’s just a different time than it used to be when there
were Ford Foundation grants for young composers.
BD: Now there’s
Meet the Composer, and that’s about it.
RL: I guess so.
BD: What advice
do you have for audiences of today and tomorrow?
RL: Come to the
concerts! [Both laugh] That’s all. I hope they keep coming!
In New York, where I live, there are some very interesting new concepts.
I don’t think they’re that radical at all, but there are a number of concerts
at the Metropolitan Museum, at the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, where
I have been asked specifically to speak about the music and to speak about
the composer for the sake of younger people or audiences who are not as confident
about their ability to enjoy the music. I began this five seasons ago,
and I am happy to tell you that my series at the Met — originally called
“Concerts With Commentary” and now under the heading “Speaking of Music”
— have sold out. We have stage seats; we have standing room only.
People like to hear about the music and they like to hear the musician speak.
It’s not a lecture and it’s nothing terribly formal, but I do a lot of research
to learn as much as I can about whatever I’m going to be playing.
BD: Is it more
than just living program notes?
RL: I think so.
Program notes, by definition, are not alive. It’s something quite different
when you have a performer actually speaking to an audience. It’s not
just information; it’s a lot more than that. It’s just like playing
the piano — there’s more than just the notes.
You have a rapport with the audience, and the response really shows that
people are hungry for some personal connection with the music. They
could read the program notes, I suppose, but we don’t have any at the Met.
We don’t give any. So I think that is an indication of what the concerts
of the future are leaning towards. This is much more common now than
it ever used to be. When I used to go to concerts as a child, if the
performer even announced what his encore was, we would be so excited!
I remember when Jascha Heifetz told us what he was going to play as an encore
and I was so thrilled! The voice of the performer is now being heard
in the land. It’s much more common, and audiences seem to expect it
and want it.
BD: Does it surprise
them that you’re a human being and not an automaton?
RL: I don’t know
if it should, but for some reason it gives them another dimension, and it
makes it more comfortable for them to go to a concert.
BD: Is this going
to help be the bridge for the performer to the MTV generation that may or
may not come to concerts very often?
RL: Oh, heavens,
I don’t know! I don’t know about the MTV kids. As long as people
come to concerts, we need ‘em. We want ‘em. It’s important.
I don’t know who goes to concerts anymore, but somebody’s going to them.
We’ve got a lot of people in New York, and lots of other places, too.
We have a great concert-going public here in Chicago.
RL: Oh, I know
that! What an extraordinary city you have here. I love it!
Is it a little easier if you rehearse for two days, and then play three or
four concerts of the same piece?
RL: I would say
so. It’s always better to do it more than once. We’re only going
to do it once here in Chicago, but sure, it’s nice to have more than one
crack at it.
BD: Do you ever
get it right?
RL: Parts of it.
There are moments when you feel and you think that’s the way I want it.
It doesn’t last very long.
there are lots of those moments.
* * *
BD: May we delve
a little bit into Rachmaninoff? You’ve made a special study of his music.
RL: I love to talk
BD: What is it
about Rachmaninoff that grabs you?
RL: Everybody loves Rachmaninoff who loves melody,
passion and romance. Those are the obvious externals of his music.
His music was not expected to last; that’s what it said in Grove’s Dictionary many years ago, but
it has lasted, and it’s more popular now than it’s ever been. [See
my Interview with Stanley
Sadie, Editor of The New Grove Dictionary
of Music and Musicians.] Those few concertos and certain pieces
of his are played constantly! Had I not embarked upon the process of
doing the complete piano solo works on recording, I would not have known
that there is such a wealth of music that he has left us! There is
so much music by Rachmaninoff besides the famous C Sharp Minor Prelude, the Second Piano Concerto, the Third Piano Concerto and the Rhapsody. There’s so much more
than that. He really was an extraordinary musician! There are
ten CDs that have just come out on RCA, The Complete Recorded Works of Rachmaninoff,
including a lot of works that he played of other composers, plus, of course,
some of his own music. There are all the sonatas that he played with
Fritz Kreisler; there’s the piece that he plays with a gypsy named Nadezhda
Plevitskaya and it’s really cool. It’s wonderful! I just love
those records, and it gives some hint of his depth as a musician. He
BD: Do you learn
as much or more from his recordings as you do from his notes on the page?
RL: I think both.
I think it’s one and the same. To hear him play is really an education,
and it’s very interesting because there is more than one version of several
pieces on these recordings. You hear him play the same thing twice
or three times.
BD: Over different
RL: Yes, and that’s
what’s really interesting because he doesn’t play it the same way!
It’s always super-human; everything he does is spectacular and unlike anyone
else, but he varies it and he creates something new each time. When
he plays something like the Chopin Funeral
March Sonata, the B Flat Minor, he does not observe the markings that
Chopin wrote. He, being a composer, puts his own special stamp on the
music, and that’s very interesting!
BD: Does that,
then, encourage you to put your stamp on his music?
RL: If I can, yes.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to follow what he put on the paper.
He left a blueprint besides the notes. The dynamic markings
or whatever else may be on the page gives you some hint as to what he might
have wanted, but it’s a blueprint at best.
BD: You have to
decide how fast to take his allegro.
RL: Mm-hm. Oh,
sure. Nobody can tell you that.
BD: I assume this
changes, maybe even minute to minute?
RL: Oh, it changes,
BD: Have you played
all of his works for piano?
RL: Yes, I have,
and right this very week the recordings that I made are due to come out again
on CD for the 50th Anniversary of Rachmaninoff’s death. It’s 1993 and
he died in 1943, so they’ve just put out a special edition of all of the
Romantic and other works of Rachmaninoff on five CDs.
BD: I assume you’re
proud of those recordings.
RL: Oh, I’m very
happy that I did them! Yes, I really am.
BD: But there is
no desire to make a new set?
RL: Why would I
want to do that?
BD: It seems like
every performer wants to record everything twelve times.
RL: Not me!
[Both laugh] No, once is enough for those.
BD: And yet you’re
happy to play them again in concerts.
RL: Oh yes, of
course, but it’s too much of an ordeal to go through the recording process
BD: Is there any
other composer that you have become so identified with — perhaps
RL: I always find
Scriabin extremely intriguing and wonderful, and I keep playing Scriabin
as much as I can. There’s an enormous amount of music that he’s written
that has still not been recorded. I did a lot of recordings of Scriabin
— the complete Sonatas
and a bunch of Etudes and Preludes, but there’s still much more.
Do you know that he wrote several volumes of Mazurkas?
BD: No, but I always
enjoy the ones by Chopin.
RL: He was very
intrigued with Chopin as a young man. He did lots of early mazurkas,
and there are late ones, too. There’s lots and
lots of music that we don’t know!
BD: So is all that
part of your future recording projects?
RL: I don’t know.
BD: Do you like
the life of a wandering minstrel?
RL: I suppose;
it’s the only life I know. It’s always interesting. You don’t
have office hours, but you sure do work hard!
BD: Do you ever
feel that you’re a slave to your fingers?
Yes, I am. Like any dancer would say, they have to do their work or
else they can’t live. It’s a two-edged sword. It’s very important
to keep working, yet you can’t get away from it.
BD: Without mentioning
names, are you optimistic about the future of pianism in this country and
in the world?
RL: Yes, I think
so. I’ve heard some very outstanding and wonderful young players, and
I think that as long as there are human beings and pianos, there are going
to be great artists around, there really are. The great ones have died,
and in the very recent past, Mr. Horszowski, who was one of my teachers,
died at the age of officially a hundred, but I’ve heard people say that he
was really a hundred and seven! [Note: Mieczysław Horszowski lived
from June 23, 1892 to May 22, 1993, a month shy of 101 years!] But
with his death goes the end of an era. Mr. Serkin and Horowitz and
Arrau are all gone now, and we have new ones. We have Kissin and other
ones who are marvelous.
BD: Are they ready
to take the places of the old masters?
RL: I don’t think
anybody ever takes Rudolph Serkin’s place or Horowitz’s place. It doesn’t
BD: But I mean
are we getting new artists who continue that high level of work.
RL: There’s always
a chosen one. There’s always someone who has something very special
to say, and I think that there are inevitably those very special human beings
somewhere in the world. There are very few of them, but we find them
somehow... or they find us!
BD: One last question.
Is being a performer fun?
It’s more complicated than just fun. It’s very hard work, but it’s
fun when you give a good concert and people like it. I really enjoyed
myself today at that school. I loved those kids and they seemed to
enjoy what I did. That’s a good feeling.
BD: Thank you for
all the concerts and all the records, and thank you for speaking with me today.
RL: Thank you,
Bruce. It was nice to meet you.
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© 1993 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Chicago on June 21, 1993. Portions
(along with recordings) were used on WNIB the following year, and again in
1997. This transcription was made and posted on this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical
97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment
as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews
have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.
You are invited
to visit his website for
more information about his work, including selected
transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of
his guests. He would also like to call your attention
to the photos and information about his grandfather,
who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.
You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.