Lukáš Vondráček is a singular and, shall we say, strong-willed person, a remarkable artist, pianist. His phenomenal victory at the Queen Elisabeth Competition (2016) hasn’t gone to his head in the slightest. The first-ever Czech gold medallist at these musical Olympics, Lukáš triumphed with a performance of his beloved Piano Concerto No. 3 by Sergei Rachmaninoff. His masterful command of this repertoire is admired globally. The idea of making the present unique set emerged in September 2020. In a café, with the sun shining outside, but the outlook was grim, with another lockdown looming. The motivation to record music was all the more significant, as Lukáš enjoys giving concerts much more. Prior to the release of the double album featuring the complete Piano Concertos and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Lukáš talked to the musicologist, musician and programme director Martin Rudovský. Let us now hear from the pianist himself, a quiet and contemplative person, whose words reflect his experience of playing Rachmaninoff’s works at venues worldwide. His spoken account may be far more revealing than a customary musicological or other analysis.
What was the first Rachmaninoff piece you performed, the one through which you began discovering the composer’s world?
I think it was the Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2. One of his most famous works. The story goes that when Rachmaninoff was told to “play IT”, he knew exactly what IT was. He is said to have not particularly liked the Prelude, since it was an early piece of his. Yet everyone loved it, and he had to keep playing it as an encore. I must have been about ten when I first got to it, as otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to play the wide chords. When it comes to Rachmaninoff’s concertos, the first one I learned was definitely No. 1, which is rather strange, as precious few pianists play it. It was recommended to me by Vladimir Ashkenazy, with whom I would then perform the piece. It was soon after we met, when I was 14. I remember that Ashkenazy and I played the concerto within a Czech Philharmonic tour of Italy.
Did you have any inkling at the time that Rachmaninoff would become your great love, that his music was destined for you?
I’ve been really fond of his music since the very first encounter. Back at the time, I found it more graspable and more emotional than any other music. And in this respect, nothing much has changed. At the age of 14, I was no intellectual; I apprehended everything through instinct. And Rachmaninoff perfectly fitted in this regard.
And what came next?
I went on to learn the Études-Tableaux, and more Preludes. When I was 17 or so, I got to Concerto No. 2. At the ages of 19 and 20, I constantly played Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody, which was in great demand at the time. And I liked it too! Then came Concerto No. 4. I remember performing it in Brazil, with Marin Alsop. The last Rachmaninoff concerto I learned was No. 3. I think I was 22 then. I had wanted to learn it for ages, and I’d had plenty of invitations to perform it. But when I opened the sheet music, it scared the hell out of me – too lazy to grapple with it, I put the score aside. Yet in the course of time, I decided to tackle it, realising that it was now or never. Well, I must admit that I definitely wouldn’t feel like learning anything as difficult as the concerto these days. After all, when you grow older, your intellectual and technical capacities certainly don’t get better! I understand why many pianists have never learned the piece. Not that they would not want to! They have rather missed the right moment to do so. On the other hand, it is also due to the concerto’s reputation. Ever since I was little, I had been told that it was the most challenging concerto out there. So I was frightened of it even before looking at the sheet music. My awe was simply immense.
Do you still deem Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 to be the most difficult? Even after having performed it so many times?
It is the most difficult concerto owing to the sheer quantity of notes. Remembering it all so that the structure makes sense, while concurrently retaining the uttermost tension, is quite a challenge! Yet nowadays I of course try not to think of it that way. You just can’t go on stage with trepidation.
What differences do you perceive between Rachmaninoff’s concertante works?
Concerto No. 4 and the Rhapsody markedly differ from his first three concertos. That is, to a great extent, down to the fact that when writing them Rachmaninoff was no longer in Russia, which he really pined for. During his time in America, he was constantly lambasted for his style, which was branded antiquated and overly sentimental, for not moving with the times, for being stuck within the Tchaikovsky tradition, whereas such contemporaries as Stravinsky and Prokofiev were innovative. Consequently, Rachmaninoff strove to evolve and, even though it was against his grain, he succeeded fairly well. As for the Rhapsody, it is a perfect piece of music, in which not a single note is superfluous. Everything makes perfect sense. I would recommend it to all fledgling composers, as a model composition. Yet when it comes to melodies and Rachmaninoff’s soul, the first three concertos are more natural. When the composer was younger, his melodies were soaring, ascending. They start on the lowest note and then keep rising, whereas it’s the exact opposite in his final two pieces. This also holds true in the case of the Variations on a Theme of Corelli. The harmony of his early works feels like hot chocolate, a drink I love. It is poignant, you want to listen to it over and over again. The chocolate in his final pieces gets more bitter.
Do you have your own personal characterisations of Rachmaninoff’s concertos?
The First strikes me as innocent. And not only because it’s Rachmaninoff’s earliest work – everything in it fits together naturally, everything is as it should be, and it does not harbour any profound ideas. As regards the Second concerto, it took me longer than with any other to comprehend its nature. Many people approach it as a sentimental and highly romanticised piece, yet I have a different opinion. But the Second is not as virtuoso and comprehensive as the Third. The Second is definitely the most sentimental, the most lyrical of Rachmaninoff’s concertos, but you can’t overdo it. From the opening of the third movement, it does not feature a single virtuoso passage; it almost comes across as chamber music – I don't mean the orchestration, intimate is its nature. And the Third? In a nutshell, it is comprehensive, I would say, allembracing. It is actually my favourite Rachmaninoff concerto, as it affords me great freedom in all respects. It contains numerous ideas. I have played it on a hundred or so occasions, yet every time I discover something new. The Fourth is sombre, at times spooky even. A really energetic piece, it rushes on, never coming to a standstill. Unlike with other works, I definitely don’t need to add fuel to the fire, as Rachmaninoff is continuously stoking. The composer was never content with the piece, he kept revising it. He and the critics alike continued to have doubts about the concerto. The first version was eight minutes longer than the revised one. The final version comes across to me as now and then missing something – breezy, romantic passages – but I like how it hurtles forward. In the final version, all the lyricism is concentrated in the very short slow movement.
Would you ever return to the concerto’s first or, say, second version? Wouldn’t it be sacrilege?
Not at all, I certainly wouldn’t deem it sacrilegious. God knows what the composer would make of it today. Or the public would respond to it differently. Oddly enough, Rachmaninoff doubted himself throughout his career – both as a composer and pianist. No matter how extensive his knowledge and how great his genius, he still questioned himself. If someone today lauded the first version, he may leave it as it was. Who knows? Nevertheless, I am attracted to the early versions. The first version is occasionally performed – Vladimir Ashkenazy, for instance, likes it more than the final one, claiming that it is the only version that makes sense. By the way, the Fourth concerto brings to mind Schumann, whom I really love, especially of late. His music, which now and then makes no sense, features enthralling, even magical, passages, though they soon disappear. Such flashes are not customary in Rachmaninoff’s pieces – they mainly possess great gestures, everything is pompous and dramatic, from the beginning to the end. Yet the Fourth concerto is different. It does have a few empty, almost meaningless, passages, yet they suddenly give way to beauty, unexpected, out of the blue. Fragments of beauty, I would say … and mystery. The slow movement is truly sublime, almost like a prayer – intimate and sad. But it also bears within hope. I can feel the composer’s despair, his anguish that he was not being duly recognised and understood, as he imagined he would be. I feel bitterness in the music.
How would you assess the Rhapsody? Is it easier to perform?
No, not at all. Yet, given that, besides the Third concerto, it is the piece I have performed most frequently – perhaps a hundred times – I feel more comfortable about it. I know the Rhapsody inside out, and I really enjoy playing it. It too is of a dark nature. Yet the piece is also like fireworks – it is truly astonishing what Rachmaninoff was capable of coming up with within the 20 minutes and based on a relatively primitive theme. The Rhapsody has indisputably the most amazing instrumentation, which is exceptional with Rachmaninoff – as for orchestration, I’d give preference to Prokofiev, a true genius in this regard. But the Rhapsody is extraordinary! So many sound effects! So many unexpected twists and humorous surprises – I just love it.
How important is it for you to know what kind of person Rachmaninoff was? Are you interested in the extramusical context?
Definitely, I believe that one should be interested in composers’ lives, but to a certain extent only. Admittedly, music needn’t always reflect one’s fate. A prime example is Beethoven, who was contemplating suicide at the time when he created some of his most cheerful pieces. When it comes to Rachmaninoff, he was tormented by depression and low self-esteem, fretted over receiving insufficient appreciation and understanding throughout his career. He was significantly afflicted by the notorious failure of his Symphony No. 1. We know that he saw the psychotherapist Nikolai Dahl, whose treatment was so beneficial that, after a long period of not being capable of composing, Rachmaninoff started writing again, with the result being Concerto No. 2. And the concerto’s success lifted his spirits a great deal. He is said to have loved his summer residence in the village of Ivanovka, where he enjoyed ideal conditions for composing. After leaving Russia, he would never find so inspiring a place. In the USA, he had no time off and, so as to sustain his family, he had an extremely busy schedule as a touring performer – over the more than two decades between his arrival and death, he only completed a few pieces.
Does such information help you when learning and performing music?
I primarily focus on the score. Composers of such calibre as Rachmaninoff are able to express everything through their music. It may sound silly, but I try to establish with every composer a mental connection, owing to which we can “converse”. So as to understand their inner worlds. Yet universally everything is encoded in music. Reason and sensitivity suffice. And additional information can help you comprehend more, lead to more profound understanding. That is always beneficial. In Rachmaninoff’s case, however, I think I can grasp his music even without knowing details of his life. He is very close to my heart, perhaps closer than any other composer. Which is most likely down to the fact that I have performed his music so frequently. It was love at first listen.
How significant do you consider the recording of the same set Rachmaninoff himself made?
His recordings are seminal for me; I keep returning to them. Not just of the concertos, but also of the preludes and miniatures. And when we take, for example, his transcriptions of Fritz Kreisler’s pieces, they attest to all his extraordinary qualities as a pianist. What amazing keystrokes, what spontaneous expression! In his time, he was a true phenomenon. Only Horowitz was on a par with him, but he came later. Rachmaninoff loved Horowitz, the two were friends. Rachmaninoff’s sound was absolutely unique, wonderful, and he was also technically immaculate, which was not common at the time. His contemporaries would rather struggle with technique. When performing his own concertos, Rachmaninoff never sweetened them – as he often said, his music was complete, there was no need to add anything. And he wittingly eschewed any sentimentality, so much so that years ago I even found his playing stringent. Only later did I fully realise that in simplicity rests the virtue. His music is quite intricate, encompassing as it does plenty of notes, some of them unnecessary. The most difficult task for the performer is to separate the essential notes from the inessential ones. And Rachmaninoff’s performances serve as splendid instructions in this respect. For now, I want to bathe in hot chocolate, perhaps more than he might wish. But I believe I will gradually arrive at the modest style. As regards tempos in his recordings, they strike me as pretty borderline. Rachmaninoff played his Concerto No. 3 incredibly fast – and that was almost a century ago. His playing is full of tension, he isn’t afraid of anything, he does not rely on certainty, which I think serves as proof of his being primarily a pianist. In this domain, he evidently had no doubts about himself. His style of playing is edgy, or, to put it another way, highly contrastive, which I like. I also like all his nuances between the stillest and the most tempestuous passages, by which he provides great scope, great possibilities. By the way, that is why he chose for the recording the Philadelphia Orchestra, who, in his opinion, possessed the greatest range of low dynamics. And he was right, as I can confirm from my personal experience with them.
Does playing Rachmaninoff’s music bring you joy?
Yes, absolutely! I find his music truly beautiful! What’s more, it sounds more challenging than it actually is, so my performances meet with an enthusiastic response. I enjoy astounding audiences. Playing Rachmaninoff’s music is certainly more rewarding than torturing your fingers for 40 minutes to a muted response. Yet, besides affording the opportunity to showcase one’s technique, it impresses by being contrastive and having an immense dynamic range … What more could a person keen on tone colour wish? It’s sheer beauty!