Music With Muscle

For concert pianist Misha Dichter, Beethoven demands stamina as well as artistry MUSIC INTERVIEW

HE looks like a tennis pro in the red knit shirt that shows the massively muscled back and the strong upper arms he uses to lob Brahms and Mozart into a concert hall. Misha Dichter charges the net musically, as the concert pianist who plays three Mostly Mozart concerts in a month this summer and sometimes practices up to 14 hours a day.

When the Mostly Mozart Orchestra appeared for a long weekend at Kennedy Center at the end of June, Dichter was soloist for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1, the same concerto he plays with Mostly Mozart at New York's Lincoln Center July 27 and 28. In between he played the Rachmaninoff/Paganini Rhapsody with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl last night and will play the Schumann Piano Quartet with the Emerson Quartet, again with the Mozart festival at Lincoln Center July 23.

The boyish-looking Dichter will have some musical sprinting to do to get through a summer that also includes performances at the Ravinia, Aspen, and Saratoga festivals as well as recitals with soprano Arleen Auger. Being a concert pianist can be a rigous workout, like bench-pressing a Steinway, as Dichter hints:

With Brahms's concerti, he says, ``there are big statements that require all your upper-body muscles for chordal playing and vast sonorities. ... When playing the [Beethoven] First or Third Piano Concerto, you have to make ... declamatory, heroic statements. But the writing is still linear and very Mozartian, and that ... is one of the problems posed by these pieces - big statements, small material.''

Dichter, who plays fierce tennis, says that some of the concertos can be so physically demanding that just playing them is a major workout. ``For example, when I recorded both Brahms concerti in Germany about 13 years ago, ... I almost couldn't lift my arms at the end of that week, because it's not just playing through the concerto after practice sessions but repeated takes of things. And those are two of the most strenuous things ever written.''

The most demanding concerto? ``Certainly physically the Third Rachmaninoff Concerto. I would put right at the top, and the Second Brahms Concerto.

``But you know, even the most delicate Mozart concerto in its own way can be the most demanding and impossible, because so much meaning is contained in one note that it can be mentally draining....

``It also relies very much on context, because if I've come out of a series of playing recitals every other night and I arrive in a city to play, say, a Brahms concerto, somehow it seems very lighthearted only to be playing the 45-minute piano concerto instead of a two-hour-and-15-minute recital.''

There was an exquisite recital by Dichter in the free concert Kennedy Center offers before each ``Mostly Mozart'' main course. Wearing his black-tie duds, he played the Schubert Piano Sonata in B-flat, the composer's last, with such poignancy it would have made a stevedore weep.

Barely half an hour later, he was on stage with Mostly Mozart's lively conductor, Gerard Schwarz, in a gleaming, fluid performance of Beethoven's First Piano Concerto. There were lightning flashes of virtuoso technique. Washington Post critic Gordon Sparber wrote, ``Dichter, a true professional, communed with Schwarz in a brilliant, at times voluptuous, consistently stylish Beethoven First Piano Concerto....''

The day before that performance we chatted in the Green Room of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Dichter sat at one end of a long and talked about how he got here. He was born, not in Poland, from which his parents fled the Holocaust, but in Shanghai, a way-station en route to their ultimate destination: California. His pianist wife, Cipa, was born in Brazil, after her parents fled from Russia during the war.

Dichter started to learn the piano when he at age six and played as wildly as a gypsy, he admits, until his first teacher, Aube Tzerko, took him on at 12. ``He just started me over, patted me on the back, said, `You've had a lot of fun, and now we're going to get serious.'''

Dichter says Tzerko instilled in him ``all the mainstream values of German musicmaking in the [Artur] Schnabel tradition.'' After that, Dichter decided on an abrupt change, studying at Juilliard with the legendary piano teacher Rosina Lh'evinne. She was ``the personification of 19th-century Moscow Conservatory pianism, which I hold in the highest regard,'' says Dichter.

Music critic James Oestreich, commenting in the New York Times on a Dichter recital, wrote, ``it seems unlikely that Mr. Dichter will ever be a pianistic fire-eater. But then, neither was Schnabel.''

Dichter remembers that review vividy and says he finds that pianists are discriminated against by people who want to brand them as either technicians or musicians. ``I don't know that to be true of any other instrumentalists. ... ``As as for fire-eating, if I'm playing a Hungarian rhapsody, I think I can roar. I just choose it accordingly, if the music calls for it. I don't apply it as a broad brushstroke to the music.

``[Rudolph] Serkin had it all. ... He would start the `Hammerklavier Sonata' of Beethoven, and you thought you were in the presence of Beethoven himself, just storming the heavens. That's an example of fire-eating in musicmaking.''

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