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ARTS: A peculiarly Georgian genius

Friday, May 16, 2003
Andrew Clark - Financial Times

It is the morning after the night before. Alexander Toradze is not only shattered; he has hit the depths of depression, and nothing – not even vodka – will lift him.

Toradze is at his sister’s apartment in London, mulling over his performance of Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto the previous evening. What had seemed an unqualified triumph to the Festival Hall’s capacity audience was, in Toradze’s eyes, an unmitigated disaster. In one of those twists that can sometimes electrify a performance but equally send it awry, soloist and orchestra lost each other in an exchange of angular cross-rhythms a few bars into the third movement. Toradze, arguably the greatest living exponent of Prokovief’s keyboard music, could have got away with faking it and picking up the thread. But Toradze does not believe in faking it. “Valerica”, he called quietly to the conductor, his longtime friend Valery Gergiev. “We have to start again.”

It happened so quickly that few even noticed. Far from being thrown by the incident, Toradze plunged back into the music, picking up his edge-of-seat momentum and finishing with a hair-raising stream of cascades. The performance was typical of Toradze’s creative daring, while remaining totally at the service of the music.

That was three months ago. Toradze is back to his beaming, big-hearted self, and Prokofiev remains top of his agenda. On Sunday he takes part in a marathon recital of all nine piano sonatas at the Wigmore Hall. To subject an audience to so much Prokofiev, even on the 50th anniversary of his death, seems almost perverse.

But Toradze believes the musical journey is sufficiently revealing to justify the marathon. Best of all, it gives Toradze a chance to showcase his Studio – the multinational handful of pianists he has guided over the past 10 years at University of Indiana South Bend in the US. Several are embarked on solo careers, none is a Toradze clone, but all represent the big-boned Russian school for which Prokofiev’s music is meat and drink, and Toradze the exemplar.

A Georgian who trained at the Moscow Conservatoire, Toradze says the Russian style is a reflection of history and temperament. “Just as you expect a certain reserve from Anglo-Saxon culture, the Russian style is more open, more prone to some things you might not want to see. Maybe it’s because of the size of Russia, and the suffering that has been destined for it. To seek support under these conditions, stronger statements from the stage are encouraged. The drama of our history calls for a stronger medicine, which exhibits itself in this style of playing. You can’t generalise, but it tends to be more emotionally free, geared to a different listening experience. It’s not designed for entertainment or pleasure. The goal, if any, is to make you feel something almost physically.”

Toradze, 50, has had his share of life’s drama. Frustated by the political strictures of the Soviet music system, of which he was a prize-winning product, he slipped from his KGB minder while in Spain in 1983. He had planned nothing. After a precarious period in hiding, he made his way to Madrid and presented himself at the American embassy. It took another 43 days before he could formally defect, eventually completing asylum papers in Rome. American friends rallied round, and Toradze was soon crossing the US on tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Although Toradze has never looked back, he paid for his decision in raw emotional terms. He was cut off from his family in Tbilisi; his father Georgian composer David Toradze, died shortly afterwards. It wasn’t until last year in St. Petersburg that Toradze finally had the chance to play the concerto his father wrote for him.

That was a long wished-for a dream. Another, so far unrealised, is to play the two-hand arrangement of Le Sacre du printemps, which Toradze himself made in the 1970s. Next to Prokofiev, Stravinsky is probably the composer Toradze feels most in tune with: he made his name in the west with the two-hand version of Petrushka, made his Studio’s Russian reputation with Stravinsky marathon in 1996, and makes his belated Berlin Philharmonic debut next month with the Concerto for piano and winds.

In Toradze’s formative years, Stravinsky “was the music of today and yesterday, not the day before yesterday. I know my Chopin, but the challenge, the great waltz of his music, was a bit distant to me and remains so to this day – it doesn’t really tickle my ears with enough bite and tension.”

And it’s the bite and tension that has always attracted him to Prokofiev – even in the “hugely jumping Fifth Concerto, where you always have a chance to misfire. Everything in that middle movement is so fast and it’s all built on accentuation and resistance, the orchestra dragging on the downbeat while I play on the offbeat. There’s a dramatic change in Prokofiev that requires great physical involvement, and so many awkward jumps. Rakhmaninov, Skryabin, even Bartok – none juxtaposed things the way Prokofiev did. It’s on the verge of being unpianistic.”

Come again? “If you really play it the way I think it should be played, it’s physically damaging. I mean, I can’t touch my finger-tips because they’re hurting, my wrist is going crazy. We know from recordings and the schooling he went through that Prokofiev himself was not so physically involved, but it’s what the rhythmic drive of his music suggests. Prokofiev used to complain to musicians, including my teacher Yakov Zak: “Why does everyone call me a bravura noise-maker and nobody notice my lyricism?’ But this drive is very much part of Prokofiev. From the first cadenza of the First concerto, already you’re going to change with moderation, you’ll get a moderate result.”

Not everyone warms to the exaggerated contrasts of Toradze’s Prokofiev: “unashamed vulgarity” is one of the barbs that has been thrown his way. Toradze is unapologetic.

“I’m not out to convince anybody. I’m doing it because this is how I fell it, this is what I think it demands. I need to hug it with all of my strengh and ability.” Wigmore Hall, London W1, Sunday at 5pm; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, June 6-8



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