A pianist’s stunning win at a Major Competition held in Cincinnati reverberated through the international music cosmos with a singular, attached recording opportunity. The first place winner, Marianna Prjevalskaya, who had already put herself on the map as a globe-trotting recitalist of major import, added to her list of kudos with a notable recording of Rachmaninoff’s two sets of Variations. (Her previous disc release on Naxos, 2012, contains the works of Haydn, Scarlatti, Schumann and Zarate.)
Prjevalskaya’s most recent, Rachmaninoff-centered CD comes with an added perk of the pianist’s own inserted Program Notes that shed light on the form, structure, and musical essence of the two epic sets of Variations based on themes of Chopin, and Corelli.
Put in clear historical context, these Notes are a reflection of the performer’s dedication to communicating the composer’s intent through her well-conceived artistic lens.
Recently, I framed a set of interview questions around the pianist’s recording experience in Cincinnati, and how it compared to LIVE music-making.
1) You took on a great challenge when you decided to record two monumental sets of Variations composed by Rachmaninoff. How and why did you decide to select these particular works for a CD that was produced as part your first prize award in the World Piano Competition?
M.P. I have always felt that very special relationship with Rachmaninoff’s music. I should probably say that his music for me is like breathing, it is very natural, and at the same time so genuine.
I was about 18 years old when I first heard Variations on a Theme of Chopin. I was still a student in London, and I remember it left a tremendous impression on me. It was probably, at least at that time, one of the most beautiful compositions by Rachmaninoff I had ever heard. Instantly, I fell in love with the piece, and immediately started working on it. Some years later I performed it in major cities in Italy and in Salzburg in the big hall of the Mozarteum. After this tour, I decided to set it aside, but a few years later I realized it was a piece I would always return to. When I found out I would be recording a CD as winner of the Cincinnati World Piano Competition, I firmly knew I would record this set of Variations. The question was, what else would go together with it? As it happened, at this time I was working on Variations on a Theme by Corelli. Obviously, it was perfect timing.
2) How would you compare the recording experience to presenting a LIVE recital?
Incidentally, in this regard, Pletnev and Perahia have both weighed in negatively about recording. Pletnev likens a disc revisit to perceiving his ugly reflection in the mirror. Murray Perahia expresses similar disdain for an interpretation that’s fixed in time and inalterable. He insists he would play nearly everything he’s previously recorded in a new and novel way, not stratified by CD and Mp4 technology.
Do you possess some of the same feelings about the recording process?
M.P. Yes, I would strongly agree with Perahia. Whenever I made a recording and would listen to it some months later, I would always feel that now I would play that passage differently! Or I would think: “Why haven’t I taken time here or there?” And the feeling would be quite unbearable because you can’t change it. It’s there forever!
In a live recital it is different, you share your interpretation of the score in the moment and then you’re finished–it is gone!
It was your honest and spontaneous interpretation, and you do not have the option of going back to redo it to the level you are satisfied. Performing on stage is creating in the moment, and that is what I love about a live recital. Recording, however, nowadays is different than what it was before. You cannot release a CD with wrong notes. We live in an age when everybody is obsessed with very clean playing, and that obsession is very stressful and unnatural, in my opinion.
3) How is preparation for recording different from that which applies to giving a recital? Is your concentration interrupted by retakes? Did you have more than one day to record nearly 52 minutes of music?
M.P. I had several days to record, but surprisingly we finished a bit earlier. Yes, I do think the concentration is often interrupted, and sometimes it feels like you cannot get into the right mood after repeating the same section several times. I also think that preparation for a recording is somewhat different. In my experience, I realized that some ideas that worked on stage in concert did not work for a CD. On a few occasions, I changed my interpretation of a certain passage or section after listening to my first take. This happens because very often what your ears hear is not what comes out in a recording, and you need to have a certain flexibility to adjust your interpretation accordingly.
4) Were there any big or unexpected surprises within the recording environment?
M.P. No, I don’t remember anything unexpected or surprising. I should say everything went very smoothly. I will be always immensely grateful to my team – producer, Elaine Martone and recording engineer, Chelsea Crutcher who made it a fantastic experience. I was greatly supported throughout our sessions together, and had the freedom I needed.
5) How do you adjust to a contrived, techno-supported setting without an audience to communicate with? (except for the producer and recording engineer)
M.P. For me it is similar to practicing in a room without an audience. When I practice, I dive deeply into music. I don’t care if there’s an audience or not, so that was never an issue, or at least that is what I think and how I felt. What is important for me is to maintain strong concentration for many hours. Nevertheless, I am pretty sure that if these works were recorded live, my performance would be different.
6) How did you select your piano? Did you have a choice of instruments to try before embarking upon this undertaking?
M.P. It was a Steinway grand that I had performed on during the Cincinnati Competition. I remember this piano pretty well and I liked it, so I was happy that it was available for the recording sessions.
7) I noted that you have a Naxos disc (2012) that was a maiden solo recording venture. You recorded the works of Haydn, Scarlatti, Schumann and Zarate. How did this particular experience compare to the more recent one.
M.P. It was definitely a very different experience. The disc was recorded in Jaen Music Conservatory. They had a wonderful Steinway and a beautiful concert hall with fabulous acoustics, however the team did not give me sufficient time to record all those works, and it was quite a stressful experience, to be honest. The fun part was that I was told the bells of the church next door would ring on every hour, and I had to manage to record between their ringing. In the end, it was not an issue, because eventually the bells were not heard, but I thought it was quite an unusual setting.
8) What is your overall preference: to record or present LIVE recitals? And why?
M.P. Of course, my preference would be presenting live recitals, because it is less stressful, and much more natural, and I can communicate with my audience, something that is really important for me. Being on stage is a very special feeling that cannot be experienced during a recording session even if you record on stage and not in a studio. But I also want to have good quality recordings published; so far, I have three, including Naxos CD released in 2012 and another album with works for violin and piano by Spanish Romantic composers that was released many years ago, in 2002.
9) I admired the detailed Program Notes you prepared which help the listener navigate through the many variations in each set. You have a thorough understanding of the music from a theoretical, harmonic, and structural dimension, and you’ve included historical context.
Did you approach the initial study of these variations with framing perspectives that you reveal in your commentary?
M.P. I would say yes and no. There were many things I discovered while working on the Variations. It is like a two-way street, you discover from learning, and you also apply your knowledge while working on the piece. I also think that when I was younger I did not appreciate this music in the same way as I do now, and as I mentioned earlier, I started working on Variations on a Theme of Chopin for the very first time when I was much younger. I don’t think I perceived the structure in the same way, and I also did not work on Corelli at that time in order to realize how different these works are and how his language developed throughout thirty years.
10) The Variations seem to be well-ripened. Did your mother (your first teacher) mentor you on these variations, or were there other formidable teachers who did?
M.P. I had a chance to learn Variations on a Theme of Chopin with Alexander Toradze, and Corelli with Boris Slutsky. I am tremendously grateful for their time, their help, advice and inspiration. I also always play for my mother, and of course she had put her seeds into these works too.
11) What are your plans for the future as far as balancing LIVE recitals with recording?
M.P. Making recordings is not something I do very often, so most likely I will concentrate on performing concerts, and hopefully there will be another CD coming in the near future, I definitely have many ideas about what would be my next recording project.
12) How does your teaching expand your musical understanding, especially when you might be working with advanced piano students on this music?
M.P. When I teach, my concentration primarily is to expand a student’s musical understanding by sharing with them my knowledge and my experiences. We explore together the musical score and discover the treasures. It’s a mutual collaboration that works for them as well as for me.
13) Have you given any Masterclasses on these two sets of Rachmaninoff Variations, and do you plan any in the future?
M.P. Not yet, and if I do, that will be dangerous I am afraid of teaching pieces that have grown deeply in my heart.
Thank you, Marianna, for your generous time and thoughtful answers.
Samples of Prjevalskaya’s exquisite performances at the International Chopin Piano Competition in Poland. (2010)
The Pianist’s Website
My previous Word Press postings about the artist:
RECORDINGS with the performer as soloist