Kirill Gerstein is a pianist and has performed with the world’s leading orchestras. He is professor of piano at the Musikhochschule in Stuttgart, and received a Gilmore Artist Award in 2010. He is on Twitter at @kirillgerstein and his site is kirillgerstein.com.
Radu Lupu’s piano playing, especially when experienced live, resists my professional habit of analyzing the elements of interpretation and performance —exactly how he achieves the results that he does. Trying to understand his phrasing, timing, or the effect his bear-like posture at the keyboard has on the sound yields only partial results. The whole is greater than the sum of its ingredients. The instrument, the craftsmanship, even the compositions themselves recede into the background, and there remains a lone figure communicating not just music, but something deeply humane. As Lupu plays, the experience of the composers, earlier encoded into sounds and preserved on paper, seems to be revived from the deep freeze of notation.
Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, with its grand opening chords, is one of the most recognizable and popular pieces in the classical music repertoire. Van Cliburn’s recording of the concerto, made after his victory at the First International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at the height of the cold war, became the first classical album to go triple platinum, and the first LP that many classical music lovers owned. For many, the concerto is the sound of classical music. Yet the piano’s famous opening chords are not, in fact, what Tchaikovsky wrote at all.
Recently, the British pianist Stephen Hough reported on his blog that he had made “The most exciting musical discovery of [his] life: Tchaikovsky’s wrong note finally corrected.” The article questioned a note in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, a large-scale, virtuosic piece that makes striking use of Russian folk themes. At the start of the concerto’s slow movement, the flute plays a phrase that consists of the notes A-flat, E-flat, F, A-flat. But is that F a mistake?