A Grandson Reflects on the Russian Master

Interview Alexander Rachmaninoff

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

How would you describe your grandfather stylistically?

In lectures I give, I like to talk about his ability to make the notes "sing." Do you know the difference between a Mercedes 500 and a Fiat 500?

It is not that the Fiat can only go 80 m.p.h. and a Mercedes can go 200 m.p.h.; that isn't the way to understand who Sergei Rachmaninoff was. The way is to drive both cars at 40 m.p.h., so the Fiat and Mercedes can run together. But nonetheless, at 40 m.p.h. the feeling you get on the same street ... is completely different. It means that if you have a pianist who is tall and has big hands like my grandfather, he plays the notes like a Mercedes runs; it's in the style.

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So there are physical limitations to pianists?

Yes, it is partly a physical thing; the notes sound different depending on how you play them and how much effort is required. You know Anton Rubinstein - he sometimes had to jump, so the sound is different than if you just put your hand down with calm determination. Vladimir Horowitz came close, but even he could only reach two notes less. The point is that my grandfather was able to cover so much ground with what seemed to be no effort.

Did you have the chance to see him play in person?

Yes I did, once, on the 13th of August, 1939, at the last concert he gave in Lucerne, Switzerland. My mother took me, and I sat close to listen.... It was an international festival which continues to this day. He didn't need to use his body or fall away from the piano [as some pianists do].

His moves were absolutely smooth.... It was exhilarating, agreeable. If something is agreeable, it looks better, more efficient. Everything is convergent. Efficiency goes with beauty.

He played with [Arturo] Toscanini directing the orchestra.... It was the close of the festival, the last one before the war.

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