Five pianists tackle Rachmaninoff, in honor of the composer's 150th
Shout the name “Rachmaninoff!” in a roomful of pianists and watch what happens. You’ll see faces ashen with terror, or awestruck in wonder, or caught in meditative bliss. (Hopefully nobody flees.) Few composers elicit such a broad swath of feeling, in performers and listeners, with such devastating efficiency.
Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose 150th birth anniversary will be commemorated on April 1, was the preeminent piano virtuoso of the early 20th century. The composer tailor-made his piano music for his own gargantuan hands (he was able to cleanly strike the interval of a 13th) and superhuman technique, with little consideration for the abilities of would-be interpreters.
Mastering Rachmaninoff’s most difficult pieces grants pianists a place into the highest echelons of piano performance, and legions have dedicated their careers to the challenge. But his appeal extends well beyond the mere ability to play the notes. “Rachmaninoff’s music has been at the center of the piano repertoire for a long time, and I don’t think it will go away anytime soon,” says Meng-Chieh Liu, the Sondra F. Matesky Chair of Piano Studies at the Curtis Institute of Music. “There is not only its technical achievement but its emotional range.”
Veda Zuponcic, a Professor of Piano at Rowan University, who has been performing the composer’s music for more than 50 years, explains further. “Rachmaninoff’s legacy is one of having been able to capture essential emotions. He speaks to people because his music is really raw… his climaxes are so impactful.”
Professors Liu and Zuponcic are two of five Philadelphia-area pianists who visited WRTI’s Performance Studio in late February, in collaboration with our partners at Jacobs Music, to celebrate Rachmaninoff’s sesquicentennial. Tune in to WRTI every day this week at 3 p.m. to hear these exceptional musicians perform Rachmaninoff, and watch their performances below.
Professor Meng-Chieh Liu is the Sondra F. Matesky Chair of Piano Studies at the Curtis Institute of Music. He also teaches at the New England Conservatory and is a Steinway Artist. Prof. Liu relishes the vulnerability of Rachmaninoff’s music: “For me, it’s about placing yourself in his emotional spectrum and being able to reach a certain depth he’s trying to describe.”
Professor Liu performs Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in B minor, Op. 32/10 and Rachmaninoff’s transcription of Fritz Kreisler’s Liebesfreud.
Dr. Igor Resnianski is a Professor of Piano at West Chester University, an instructor at the Nelly Berman School of Music in Haverford, PA and a Steinway Artist. He explains that Rachmaninoff’s music is unique in the way it lends itself to new interpretations with every performance: “You add your own touch, that’s your perception of it. The performance is based on where you are in your life and that changes and depends on how it resonates with you in the moment.”
Professor Resnianski performs Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 3/2 and Etude-Tableau, in C minor, Op. 39, No. 1.
Lynn Ye is a first-year piano student at the Curtis Institute of Music, where she studies with Professor Meng-Chieh Liu. She began her studies at the age of four in Ningbo, China, and performed her first solo recital at age seven.
Ms. Ye performs Rachmaninoff’s Lilacs, Op. 21/5 , Daisies, Op. 38/3 and Moment musicaux in E minor, Op. 16/4.
Adrian Zaragoza is a first-year piano student at the Curtis Institute of Music, where he studies with Professor Michelle Cann. He began studying piano at the age of four, and was first introduced to Rachmaninoff by his childhood teacher. “At the time, I couldn’t fully comprehend what his music meant,” he recalls, “but the little I did understand really moved me and gave me a sense that there is so much there.” Today, he is drawn to Rachmaninoff’s cathartic power: “His music is almost like a musical stress ball. If I’m having a hard day, I can just play it. It’s so fulfilling to put all of my emotions into it.”
Mr. Zaragoza performs Rachmaninoff’s Etude-Tableau in E-flat minor, Op. 39/5.
Professor Veda Zuponcic has been on the piano faculty at Rowan University since 1972. An inaugural inductee into Steinway & Sons Teacher Hall of Fame, Prof. Zuponcic describes Rachmaninoff as a “big friend”: “Playing Rachmaninoff feels wonderful. None of us have his very special hands, but it feels good to practice his music. It’s not frustrating, it’s just the work that we have to do to bring it up to performance level.”
Professor Zuponcic performs Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in D major, Op. 23/4 and Etude-Tableau in E-flat minor, Op. 39/5.