EVEN before Philippe Bianconi won the Silver Medal at the 1985 Van Cliburn Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, he was considered one of France's bright young talents - a performer thoroughly schooled in the qualities of French pianism, yet able to do full justice to the German Romantic and Russian literature as well. Among other notable achievements had been first prize in the Robert Casadesus Competition in Cleveland in '81, a New York recital debut in the same year, and recordings of Schubert song cycles with famed German baritone Hermann Prey on the Denon label.
Mr. Bianconi makes his Carnegie Hall recital debut tonight, as part of the elaborate schedule of performance dates the Cliburn Competition guarantees its medal winners. He noted in a recent interview that, while certain competitions get you performance dates because of the prestige of the prize, the Cliburn literally fills up your calendar.
This crowded schedule has given Bianconi a chance to get to know the United States, to perfect his English (which is excellent), and, with all the time spent in airplanes and hotel rooms, to pursue one of his hobbies - reading. He played 40 dates last year, and will play 40 this year and a few more next season. On the average, two-thirds of his concerts have been recitals and the rest performances of piano concertos with orchestras. His broad concerto repertoire includes two by Mozart, Beethoven's Fourth, Brahms's D minor work, the Liszt in A major, and Chopin's in F minor.
As for the competition itself, he says, ``It was a great experience. It was very hard; the tension was difficult to deal with. I had not been in competitions since '81, at the Casadesus Competition. That was very good for me to position myself in the concert world. The [Cliburn] program is very big - comparable to the Tchaikovsky [in Moscow], Queen Elisabeth [Belgium] ....
``To have all these pieces and to play them in two weeks ... was difficult, challenging, and also very good for the career, because you sometimes have engagements very close to one another ..., and you have to do different programs. You have to deal with these sorts of difficulties.''
Bianconi is no stranger to the pressures of performance. He gave his first concert in Nice - where he grew up and where he first studied piano at age 15. He says his professional career began at 18. Among his teachers was Gaby Casadesus, whom he describes as ``a wonderful teacher.''
There is a tendency among some French pianists to be somewhat brittle of tone and to excel in the intimate literature - a quality that marks much of the piano music of such quintessentially French composers as Faur'e, Debussy, and Satie. I ask Bianconi why this should be so.
``It may be a matter of culture and the environment, and the way French people are raised and educated,'' he says. As to the clarity and elegance, he adds, ``I think that is part of our culture, in general.''
Of course one would expect a Frenchman to love to play French music, but Bianconi stresses that he does not want to be considered just a French pianist, because of the connotations of that term. To be French, he says, you must play with clarity and elegance, which is usually a euphemism for being a cold musician. He views his own relationship with the piano and the literature as passionate and tries to communicate that passion.
``You can't play everything,'' he explains. ``Your own personality drives you more to certain composers. ... I almost always play some French music on my recital programs. Whenever I play Debussy or Ravel, people like it very much, and I enjoy playing this music. [However] I don't like to picture myself as a specialist. Maybe later. I'm still learning, and trying to touch everything. Mozart is definitely one of my favorite composers, and all the Romantics, especially the German Romantics - Schumann and Brahms. I like to play Liszt also very much.''
His Carnegie Hall program includes works by Liszt as well as Mozart and Ravel.
With so much being made today of ``period'' instruments, does he have any interest in this side of performance?
He replies with a candid ``no.'' He says he plays no Bach and has yet to try early instruments or modern approximations of them. To sum up his feelings, he resorts to French, which translates: ``One can find the sensibility of each period in a work of art from the past. That's why I think it's not absolutely necessary to play the works of a certain period on the instruments of that period. To me the sensibilities have changed. And because they have changed and because we perceive the works of art that do last over the centuries, we can perceive - and they allow themselves to be perceived - with different [i.e., contemporary] sensibilities.''
Bianconi is not very fond of contemporary music unless he can work with the composer, he says. And that kind of collaboration takes too much time at this formulative point in his career.
As to future hopes, he would like to limit his concert dates to 45 or 50 a year, ideally with one-third each for chamber music, solo recitals, and performances with orchestras. He would like to spend the remainder of his year, resting, learning, and growing.
A too-busy schedule forces one to think of music as a job, not an art, he says, and he never wants to be in a position of regarding the concert hall as an office. ``I want each performance to be a unique event - not just the same program I did yesterday and will do again tomorrow - and that's not possible when you give 150 concerts a year.''