Alexandre Kantorow: the electrifying pianist born to play Saint-Saëns

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

As Alexandre Kantorow releases a second volume of Saint-Saëns piano concertos, Tim Parry meets a virtuoso on a compelling path of discovery

Alexandre Kantorow (photo: Libre De Droit/Sasha Gusov)
Alexandre Kantorow (photo: Libre De Droit/Sasha Gusov)

When Alexandre Kantorow walks on stage he exudes a curious combination of shy bewilderment and casual self-assurance, as if he can’t quite believe that he’s in front of all these people yet knows that everything is going to be OK.

When he plays the piano, the music seems to flow through his body; he never looks under pressure or physical strain, even when performing the most demanding repertoire.

See also: Inside Brahms’s Piano Sonata No 2 with Alexandre Kantorow

His movements are free and loose yet precise, like a well-coordinated rag doll. He is one of the most relaxed pianists you could imagine.

Casual self-assurance can easily tip over into knowing arrogance. But with Kantorow it never does, and speaking with him only enhances this impression.

We meet first at his UK debut recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London’s Southbank Centre at the end of January. The concert is sold out, the reception enthusiastic bordering on ecstatic.

Audiences have been deprived of live music-making for long enough to have a renewed gratitude for the experience, and this concert triumphantly reinforces a reputation already built on recordings for BIS and his Grand Prix success at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2019.

Alexandre Kantorow

Alexandre Kantorow (photo: Sasha Gusov)

A week later, the French pianist was back in London to play Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall with the Philharmonia and its young Finnish conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali in the popular 3pm Sunday afternoon slot. Another warm reception.

After the concert he was straight on the Eurostar back to his home in Paris, and we agreed to talk further as soon as time allowed.

Inevitably, so it seems nowadays, the next time we speak we are on Zoom, Kantorow looking as relaxed in front of a screen as he does at the piano.

Kantorow has just turned 25, although he seems older. He was born into an eminent musical family: his father is the violinist and conductor Jean-Jacques Kantorow, with whom Alexandre has made his concerto recordings for BIS, and his English mother is also a violinist.

Such an upbringing has obvious advantages, but does it also come with expectations? ‘My parents were a bit afraid of my being a son of musicians,’ Kantorow says.

‘They were afraid of applying parental pressure. You’re right, there are a lot of advantages, but there can also be a backlash, so they waited a bit. It was my mum who took me to lessons and helped to sort my musical education, but my parents were really focused on my results in school. Of course, music was there all the time when I was young – I heard my dad practising and went to concerts – but it was never the main focus. We had a piano at home and I just wanted to have fun on it. I tried the violin, but it wasn’t my thing, whereas the piano felt like a bit more of a brain game – I was into logic and maths, and with the piano you had to get the notes into your brain and know exactly where they were on the keyboard. My growing into music went gradually from the age of five to 16. When I was 12 I had an amazing teacher called Igor Lazko. He was the first one to establish important aspects of technique into my hands, and also the first to interrogate whether I wanted to be really serious about music. He made it clear to me that if I wanted to be professional then I had to work harder.’

Alexandre Kantorow

Alexandre Kantorow (photo: Libre De Droit/Sasha Gusov)

This isn’t the usual tale of a hot-housed prodigy rattling their way around the keyboard with tiny hands. But young Alexandre clearly had ability and inherited a highly developed ear. ‘Yes, I had a good ear,’ he says, ‘and a good facility and coordination, and my parents of course noticed this early on. I was very floppy. I was never tense at the piano, always really relaxed.’

I mention that this doesn’t seem to have changed, and he laughs. ‘It’s true that I’m very comfortable on stage and mostly the body is very relaxed, but what matters is what happens inside and that can vary from concert to concert.’

Kantorow talks fluidly, jumping from one thought to another as a result of an abundance of things to say rather than through any struggle to articulate in a second language.

As well as responding to questions and relating his own experiences, he is keen to engage in a genuine exchange. He not only tolerates but reciprocates my attempts at humour. He’s a very easy conversationalist.

‘I had a good ear, and a good facility and coordination, and my parents noticed this early on. I was very floppy. I was never tense at the piano, always really relaxed’

Having an established musician for a father brought huge advantages in accelerating the next stage of Kantorow’s development. He made his first recording when he was 16, an album of French violin sonatas with his father on the NoMadMusic label, issued in 2014.

‘At the time my dad wanted to stop playing the violin and I was playing the piano,’ he explains, ‘and we thought this would make a nice memory together and we wouldn’t have the chance again.’

The first recording for BIS followed a year later, with Liszt’s two piano concertos and the youthful Malédiction for piano and string orchestra, his father conducting the Tapiola Sinfonietta. ‘That’s the good thing when you’re 17,’ he says with a wry smile.

‘You don’t realise how big a mountain some pieces are. At this time I was playing quite a lot of Liszt, including not so well-known pieces like Malédiction. Then we had this idea for the project, and my dad put it together, and Robert von Bahr at BIS listened to it, and wanted to take it and to carry on working with me.’

This was the real breakthrough. BIS is an excellent home for a talented young musician, allowing space to grow and develop, with a vision and expectations geared towards sustained excellence rather than short-term goals.

It helped that Jean-Jacques Kantorow already had a relationship with the label, having made many recordings including the three violin concertos and other works for violin and orchestra by Camille Saint-Saëns.

This leads us very neatly to the companion project – the complete works for piano and orchestra including the five piano concertos and four smaller works, on two very well-filled discs – where Kantorow is again partnered by the Tapiola Sinfonietta with his father conducting.

The first volume, containing the Third, Fourth and Fifth Concertos, was an Editor’s Choice in June 2019 (as it happens, the month that Kantorow won the Tchaikovsky Competition).

There is a danger that this release was slightly overshadowed by Bertrand Chamayou’s recording of the Second and Fifth Concertos on Erato, which was issued a few months earlier and won Gramophone’s Recording of the Year in 2019, but its qualities still hold firm.

The follow-up album – containing Concertos Nos 1 and 2 and the four smaller works with orchestra – has just been issued, making this a desirable complete survey quite different from Chamayou’s recording.

The most obvious comparison is Stephen Hough’s much-lauded set on Hyperion, which is now more than 20 years old.

‘The First Concerto is charming … As it’s Saint-Saëns it’s orchestrated in a clever way and makes you smile’

Listening to the new recording, the first thing to strike you is how spaciously Kantorow takes the famous opening of the Second Concerto. This was a feature of his performance at the Royal Festival Hall in early February – where the opening solo was measured, inflected, sonorous and deeply expressive – but it’s even more marked on the recording.

I wonder what the thinking is behind this approach. Kantorow’s response is characteristically humble: ‘Actually, today I would probably play it faster than I used to. At the time I was preoccupied with the idea of characterising the different styles in this music, so in the first movement the change between the opening organ prelude and the more Schumannesque or Chopin-like music that follows.’

I mention Saint-Saëns’s own recording, a truncated solo version of the first movement set down acoustically in 1904, which includes this opening cadenza taken at a surprisingly rapid tempo and with inimitable freedom. Kantorow knows the recording of course.

‘When I played it in London it was different,’ he says, ‘and today it would be different again, perhaps closer to the recording of Saint-Saëns. This music is so fresh and at the time I really wanted to characterise this opening prelude in quite an extreme manner. I wanted to amplify the contrasts in the music because even with all the fun and the lightness and bravura, there is a darkness in this work that somehow resonated with me at the time.’

This suggests that Kantorow’s interpretative responses are malleable and something he sees as part of an ongoing journey.

He clearly knows the composer’s own recordings, but when learning a piece like this how much is he aware of other interpretations?

‘Generally,’ he begins, ‘when playing something, you have usually heard recordings so you already have sounds in your ears that aren’t created in your own imagination but are created by hearing someone else. There is a bit of a balance involved in reading what is written in the score and setting that in the context of your own experience – you will probably come up with things that are not written down, where you deduce that certain things are meant to be played in a certain way. I spend enormous amounts of time at the piano going from one extreme to the other, feeling convinced one day that something should be played a certain way, allowing the harmonies and rhythms to reveal themselves, and then the next day feeling that a piece needs more help to make it special. I go back and forth. I don’t know whether it is a good thing, but when I practise I play works in quite different ways. Sometimes I don’t have my mind fully settled until I play something on stage. It helps to perform with an audience – then you really get to feel what at the time is right for you.’

‘I didn’t know if I wanted to enter the Tchaikovsky Competition. It took more than a year to choose the programme. It was tough, but so exciting’

We are so used to artists talking about the certainties of their convictions and the truths behind their interpretative choices that this openness is refreshing.

Kantorow continues: ‘It’s as if there is a triangle, with each side representing deepness, structure and braveness, and generally it’s hard to get more than two of these right. You never have it complete. Maybe in the opening of the Second Concerto I forgot the structure part of it.’

Such an exploratory approach must help to enable a sense of spontaneity in performance. ‘Absolutely,’ he agrees.

‘It’s an amazing thing – although it’s a tiring and restless thing. I think it’s good be able to listen to your own playing from three months earlier and think, “I don’t have a lot in common with this person anymore”. I feel this is something important in music and in life in general.’

Perhaps this is a youthful perspective. I can see that striving for such musical and personal growth is healthy, but it presents a challenge when it comes to making records. Kantorow nods. ‘Definitely. It also makes you realise how subjective we are. You can listen to a recording and think it’s good, and a few months later you think, “Who is this?”, and it turns out it’s you. It’s so bizarre the way we hear ourselves.’

Given the importance Kantorow places on playing things with an audience as an essential part of shaping his own relationship with a work, I’m curious whether he managed to perform all six pieces on his new album in concert before recording them.

Saint-Saëns’s Second Concerto is of course hugely popular, but one rarely hears the First in the concert hall, and the smaller works are difficult to programme, although Wedding Cake makes a pleasing encore.

Kantorow acknowledges the advantages of having a father with longstanding associations with various European orchestras, which certainly helped when it came to running in some of these works.

Sure enough, he has played them all in public at least once, as indeed he had with the three Saint-Saëns concertos on the earlier recording.

I have never heard the First and Third Concertos in concert, although I’ve always had a soft spot for the Third, sometimes rather unfairly cited as the weakest of the five.

Kantorow tells me that he toured this concerto with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra and everyone loved the piece. He’d love to play it more.

What about the First Concerto, written when the composer was in his early twenties? ‘I’ve played No 1 twice in concert,’ Kantorow says.

‘It’s extremely charming and it has unique moments; the second movement especially is really elegant, a bit Baroque. The first and third movements are showpieces from a young composer, but as it’s Saint-Saëns it’s always orchestrated in a clever way, and it always makes you smile. It’s a tough piece to programme in concert, but it feels like a gift to pianists – because it’s not so often played you don’t have too much of a performing tradition already in your head, and you can imagine that a friend has composed it just for you. You feel you have leeway to make it your own and you can just have fun with it.’

On the same day in June 1904 that Saint-Saëns recorded parts of the Second Concerto, he also set down an improvisation on themes from Africa, a fantasy for piano and orchestra elaborating on North African melodies, finalised in Cairo in 1891.

Less than three minutes long, this recording is a testament to Saint-Saëns’s prodigious pianism, a snapshot from another age.

‘It’s incredible,’ agrees Kantorow. ‘Especially the timing that he has. He has a unique way of keeping the rhythm, keeping the structure, and playing with the timing without it feeling like he’s consciously doing so. This is also what I love about his playing of the opening of the Second Concerto. Even though it’s very fast, the way he slightly plays with the timing is really special. In the end, the tempo we choose isn’t the most important thing. What matters is what we do with the sonorities and the timing within this overall tempo.’

This takes me back to Kantorow’s recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The importance to him of colour, sonority and musical space were evident throughout.

Whether in the descending tritones that open Liszt’s Dante Sonata or the ever-intensifying tremolos of Scriabin’s Vers la flamme, Kantorow allowed time to create the most ravishing sounds from the gorgeously regulated Steinway.

In the Scriabin, increasing the volume and ferocity of the tremolos without your wrists stiffening is a huge physical challenge, and I was reminded of his performance at the Tchaikovsky Competition of Liszt’s ‘Chasse neige’, another work built on sustained tremolos, where he again conveyed power and potency without obvious exertion.

After the concert, our conversation turned to this Liszt Study – Kantorow’s choice of it in Moscow over more popular competition pieces such as ‘Mazeppa’ or ‘Feux follets’, his intense work on recalcitrant tremolos that behave differently on each piano, and our shared belief that it is a mark of Liszt’s genius that he concluded the Études d’exécution transcendante with a piece of such bleak desolation.

Later, with more time to talk and as a kind of epilogue to our Zoom call, we pick up the threads of this conversation.

I ask him why he entered the Tchaikovsky Competition in the first place. He was already an established name, with high-profile, well-received recordings for BIS alongside a growing concert career. Was there a risk that entering the competition could backfire?

‘I think the first time I really thought about the Tchaikovsky was listening to the previous competition [in 2015],’ Kantorow begins.

‘I watched Lucas Debargue playing, and I remember this incredible story of his not playing the piano for so long, and the way he made everyone notice him. There was this frenzy in his playing. I was very curious about who his teacher was. I found out that it was Rena Shereshevskaya, who studied in Moscow alongside Mikhail Pletnev’ – Pletnev is another pianist Kantorow singles out for his mastery of sonority and timing. ‘I asked her to come to a concert of mine, and afterwards the first thing she said to me was, “You’ve had a Russian teacher”, which is true. “I know,” she said. “No French pianist knows how to play with this Russian technique.”’

Watch Alexandre Kantorow in the final round of the Tchaikovsky Competition:

I am immediately curious. From what I’ve experienced of Kantorow’s live playing, with my amateur eyes and ears, his style is not obviously Russian. Was this something in his sound or in his technique?

‘I think it must have been a mixture,’ Kantorow says, although he seems as mystified as I am. ‘She would have heard something, maybe an attention to notes that sustain, or a certain way of getting into the keyboard with weight. I don’t know how she figured this.’

With widespread international travel and the sharing of influences, not to mention the all-pervasiveness of the internet, national characteristics in playing styles are not so marked, or indeed so relevant, as they used to be.

But Kantorow points out that it remains the case that in Russian culture the teacher is more important than the student.

Those family trees of teacher-student relationships stretching over decades are a peculiarly Russian phenomenon, so that even Emil Gilels was routinely described as a student of Heinrich Neuhaus as a way of reinforcing his credentials.

Shereshevskaya agreed to work with Kantorow, although he tells me that she got mad that they didn’t get enough time together as he was always off playing concerts.

He continues: ‘I didn’t know if I wanted to enter the Tchaikovsky Competition. It’s true that I was already established, and there was a lot of talk about whether the competition was necessary or could backfire if I didn’t get through the first round. Two years before the competition was when we really started to work. It took more than a year to choose the programme. We tried a lot of different pieces, and she got to understand where my strengths lie. I’d never worked so much on individual pieces before. She showed me that preparing for a competition is different from preparing for a recital, even though in the moment each performance should feel like a concert. It was tough, but so exciting.’

Kantorow looks back on the intensity of this preparation with fondness and satisfaction. He learned a lot, regardless of the outcome of the competition.

As with all such prestigious events, winning brought a slew of concert engagements and wider recognition, not least in Russia.

Never again will he get to perform Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto in such a heightened state, having just played Tchaikovsky’s Second Concerto – an extraordinary feat of stamina and musicianship displayed in the concerto final.

I wonder if Kantorow can recall how he felt as he sat down to play the Brahms in such unique circumstances.

His reply is simple: ‘A mixture of extreme tiredness and extreme relaxation.’

Read the review: Alexandre Kantorow’s BIS recording of Saint-Saëns’s First and Second Piano Concertos and four smaller works

This interview originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Gramophone magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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