Arts Review: The Rachmaninov Third with pianist Cristina Ortíz

Hola. Speed, banging the keys and theatrics seem to be the goal of some pianists who play the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3 in d minor, Op. 30 (also known as the Rachmaniniov Third), as if it’s some sports competition. The ultimate goal for many pianists seems to be how quickly one can rip through the concerto and demonstrate how showy one can be. And the devotees of each internationally well-known pianist playing the Rachmaninov Third gush over their preferred celebrity artist and support the artist’s breakneck speed and keyboard calisthenics.

There’s at least one exception to all of that. Over the years I’ve heard many pianists perform the Rachmaninov Third, and my favourite performance is by Cristina Ortíz. After her CD of the Third Piano Concerto and three Etudes-Tableaux was released some loco from Grammaphone Magazine in the UK wrote a very undeserved and bad review of her CD. The reviewer had little positive to say about her playing. Even when I have some critical things to say about an artist, I try to find something positive to say about them.

The Grammaphone review began with this nonsense:

“Rachmaninov may have once called this “a concerto for elephants,” but that has not prevented pianists of more modest physique from bringing it off. Still, the definitely more elfin than elephantine Cristina Ortiz is just about the last person you would expect to be recording the Third Concerto.”

And why is that? Why would you say that? Are you always sexist? Why shouldn’t Doña Cristina record this concerto?

I don’t think this idiot would have made the same sexist comment about a male pianist. This reviewer reminds me that there are still quite a few outdated fossils vegetating as self-appointed high authorities on all matters musical in the screwed-up classical music field. They’re usually called The Classical Music SnotsTM. I also think this reviewer thought Doña Cristina should have been focused on pounding the keyboard and ultimately excessive speed. He said she lacked power. He didn’t listen to her CD, or he slept through it. I heard no lack of power. And is he being anti-ethnic as well? Does he not like that una Latina recorded this concerto. Or is he of that dated twisted thinking that only Russian pianists can perform Russian music well/properly, or to give another example, only Germans can perform Bach properly? Loco. While writing this I was wondering what this loco had to say about Alicia de Larrocha when she recorded the Rachmaninov Third?

From listening to the CD of Doña Cristina play this concerto, she brings artistry, polish and lots of sparkle to her interpretation of the concerto and the Etudes-Tableaux on the CD. Her playing is very smooth and matches the orchestra extremely well, as if she’s part of the orchestra. I listened to Doña Cristina play The Third during the time I was writing this post. I heard no lack of power from her, and I don’t really understand what this “power” thing is about? The Rachmaninov Third takes stamina, endurance and “power” like some other pieces but not in some macho sense. Maybe it’s the placement of the mics in this recording — placed somewhat at a distance for both the piano and orchestra — that this reviewer was talking about. It doesn’t sound like there’s a mic in the piano to me the way some concerti are recorded these days. I don’t know what this reviewer’s problem was, other than being sexist and possibly anti-ethnic. Her CD is hard to find but you might be able to find it somewhere, preferably from a smaller, independent, non-corporate chain. You can download it from here. (I don’t recommend that anyone give any business to Am***n especially after reading about their horrific work environment and I’ve read this from multiple sources.) Her CD is a Collins Classics CD. Here’s the CD information:

Collins Classics 12462
Cristina Ortiz
The Philharmonia
Ivan Fischer
Recorded in Henry Wood Hall in April 1990

The reviewer also wrote about the Ortíz performance:

“for me the end product does not carry full conviction.”

“does not carry full conviction?” And what does that mean? Do you always talk in vague, pretentious riddles where one has to keep asking questions of you to figure out what the hell you’re talking about? So now a concerto performance is considered an “end product?” And this: “Does not carry full conviction?” Are we in church/cathedral or something? Is “full conviction” the same as the overused and predictable, “convincing reading” and “sublime performance” that these snooty, self-appointed omnipotent authorities (The Classical Music SnotsTM) like to go on about in their pretentious classical music reviews? I can picture some pretentious classical music snot sitting around with his/her nose in the air writing this know-it-all drivel critical of Doña Cristina. This review of her CD performance was most assuredly written by a Classical Music SnotTM. He didn’t like anything on her CD, including the Etudes-Tableaux, so why did he even bother writing a review about it then?

In most of the comments under the videos I’ve seen of this concerto on YouG***leTube, the cadenza the pianist plays it usually talked about. This so-called critic said nothing about Doña Cristina’s cadenza, or did he even listen to it? With Doña Cristina, her cadenza is unique in that she uses both cadenzas written by Rachmaninov. She begins with the main cadenza (bringing out certain notes for a nice effect) and then she merges into the ossia/alternate cadenza and it works very naturally that way, as if it were written that way. It’s a very creative approach she uses.

I also like the way she pedals the Più mosso of the third movement (Editions: Boosey & Hawkes – Authentic Edition – page 51 and again on page 71). It’s rare to hear those sections pedaled exactly that way and it creates a “gallop” effect. Instead, most pianist I’ve heard use more pedal in those sections which blurs those big difficult (at that tempo) chords together much more so, even though the score doesn’t indicate to do that. And even though pedaling is not indicated in the score, the score is marked (in a phrasing sense) the way Doña Cristina plays it in those sections. In her performance, the section “a tempo come prima” on page 61 (Editions: Boosey & Hawkes) absolutely sparkles on the Homborg Steinway she’s playing. It’s beautiful.

Leif Ove Andsnes

I also like Leif Ove Andsnes and his interpretation, which is different than the Ortíz. But the camera work for his video is terrible. I found his performance very frustrating to watch — not because of him; his playing is superb — but because of the inept and insipid camera people (reminded me of the camera crew at Trinity Wall Street in Lower Manhattan). I don’t know where they get these camera people who seem to think that the viewer has a short attention span or something and needs frequent camera shots/changes and gimmicky graphic images. From my experience, the classical music audience or anyone who would seriously be watching these videos of the Rachmaninov Third does not have a short attention span so there’s no need for quick shots, shots from the ceiling or anywhere else. In one angle, the camera was up at the ceiling (like Trinity Wall Street) looking down at the stage which may have been alright if the camera had been on the keyboard side, but it wasn’t. Also, whenever Leif Ove was playing the most difficult passages the camera was not on the keyboard at all but rather off somewhere else. Ugh. Sigh. It’s clear to me that many camera crews are not pianists or even musicians.

One thing I’ve noticed on YouG***leTube (other than the obnoxious ads which I never watch) is that whenever a female pianist is performing, some of the comments are sexist. I had thought (wrongly) that people were there for the music and not for “checking out” the (female) artist sexually. People write things about female pianists that they wouldn’t ever write about male pianists, such as “the best set of legs to play Rachmaninov” (tacky) and “love the way she swings her hair back,” and other juvenile comments.

I also watched parts of one performance with Marta Argerich. Most people were gushing over her in the comments. She’s a superb pianist, but unlike many other people I don’t necessarily like everything she plays, but many people do and they worship her and anything she touches and seem to see her as The Holy and Indivisible Trinity God Argerich. She’s known for her fast playing and speed and some people are very easily impressed by how fast someone plays something. I’m more interested in a beautiful singing tone and accuracy than fast, breakneck speed. One of the frequent judges at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition said he much prefers a beautiful singing tone over speed any day. What I watched of Doña Marta’s performance was good, but there were splats/mistakes in her cadenza — which her devout disciples conveniently didn’t hear or they ignored — and her splats could have easily been avoided by her not storming through it. What’s the rush, Doña Marta? One person in the comments did ask why she was playing so fast throughout the concerto. But predictably the sheeple loved it probably because (let me tell it like it is):

1) if one wants to come off as a supposed “expert” and high authority on piano playing one will automatically love Argerich and frequently drop her name in conversations regardless of how she plays (it’s the equivalent to a status-symbol), and

2) fast speed is the ultimate goal with the sheeple. Well, not with me it isn’t. I have a recording of her playing the Rachmaninov Third and I enjoyed it but I don’t listen to it often. I did notice her overuse of pedal — it sounded like she had the pedal all the way down for extended periods — because she had the piano “ringing”/reverberating the orchestra (if you know what I mean by that) at times which was an interesting effect. Ortíz and Andnes are light on the pedal and both of them play very accurate cadenzas. No splats that I heard. Mistakes can be avoided by slowing down some. That’s what well-trained piano instructors teach their students.

About a month ago, someone e-mailed me and asked what was my favourite video for the Rachmaninov Third on G***leTube. They asked me about one pianist that they liked. I watched her as much as I could. There’s no need to give her name. She has awful posture at the piano. She’s all bent over like a wilted flower. Watching her play made my back hurt. She doesn’t support her back and I would imagine at some point she will have major back problems. How could one not have back problems being consistently that bent over for hours? Even though she’s well-trained in piano pedagogy, somewhere along the way she missed the part about “Good Posture at the Piano” meaning: Sit up tall and support your back. She does the opposite of that, yet she won a major international piano competition. Or was the thing rigged as is the case with some competitions? I can hear someone say now: “Piano competitions are rigged? I’ve never heard such a thing.” Well they are. The reality is that piano competitions are no different than anything else. Some of them are thoroughly corrupt, sleazy, full of disgusting politics with big heads/egos involved and have a predetermined set of finalists, especially if one or more of the competitors has a (former) teacher on the jury (wink, wink). Assuming what I read is true and I have no reason to doubt it considering what I’ve read over the years about international piano competitions, I read a comment on a piano forum recently. The comment said that someone’s teacher pulled all kinds of strings to get her student into the Van Cliburn and before the jury announced any results they called that teacher and ran their decision by that teacher first to make sure their decision met her approval. Wouldn’t surprise me at all. There was a time where Cristina Ortíz did not like serving on the jury of piano competitions which I completely understood, but I see she’s doing that now according to her engagement schedule, perhaps at the request of her agent, Harrison Parrot, Ltd, en Londres.

Then I saw another pianist play this concerto recently and I listened to his cadenza mainly to see what cadenza he used. His cadenza also had splats because he was rushing. I noticed that the leader/concertmaster was watching him closely as he (the pianist) was bouncing around on the piano bench. Lots of needless theatrics. Well-trained artists are taught that an artist is supposed to make his/her playing “look easy” or “look effortless” to the audience. I’ve often heard audience members say, “He/She makes it look so easy.” Well that’s how they’re supposed to make it look and that’s the sign of a well-trained artist, and when a pianist is bobbing up and down on the bench and almost in orbit in some places in the piece, such playing does not make it look easy. In that case, the pianist it making it look quite difficult (intentionally) and as if s/he is struggling some, which is how this pianist I saw recently appeared to me. I thought to myself while watching him: Why do you need to do all of that? It takes away from your playing and from the music. And it also takes so much energy to do all of that theatrics nonsense and that energy could be better directed into accuracy and controlling your playing by slowing down a bit rather than bouncing around on the bench and making sure your hair bounces. What’s the rush, chico? By contrast, Lief Ove wasn’t doing any of that theatrics stuff. In the video with Marta Argerich, the viewer is subjected to staring at either her face or the conductor’s face for extended periods of time. I frankly don’t know what that’s about. I asked many times while watching that performance: Why are we staring at his face? It seems to be more about their face and facial expressions than the music.

Of the performances I watched on G***leTube, these performances with pianist Rémi Geniet are my favourite. One is conducted by Marin Alsop and the other is conducted by Robert Trevino. Rémi plays in a non-rushed manner and without banging and with no theatrics. He takes his time. What I’m about to say is not a criticism of Rémi, but rather an observation: He plays some sections better in one performance than the other. I also got the sense that he’s not necessarily easy to accompany and the reason I say that is because I didn’t see him watching either conductor very much or at all really, other than maybe 2-3 times during the performance. From what I could tell, both conductors had to watch Rémi closely and at times it didn’t seem that the piano and orchestra were exactly together. I suspect each orchestra had only one rehearsal with him or maybe not even that much. If it were me, I would have been watching the conductor much more closely to make sure we stayed together as best we can. For quick tempo changes it looked like the conductor mainly had to watch Rémi’s hands. I didn’t like the camera work in the Alsop performance. The camera work in the Trevino performance is quite good. I believe the Alsop performance was held in the same concert venue that the Octopus Symphony Chorus performs in there in Brussels. Enjoy. Chau.—el barrio rosa

Piano – Rémi Geniet
Conductor – Marin Alsop
Orchestra – National Orchestra of Belgium

[Note: Both of the videos I selected with pianist Rémi Geniet have unfortunately since become "Private" on G***leTube. Ugh. I suspect there were copyright issues with them. So that's that.]