I do not review performer’s work often as being a composer myself, I am much more inclined to listen to the creative side of a piece of work rather than its interpretation. So it often goes to music performed by the composer himself or herself — and it is the substance which I tend to look at the most. It is therefore a challenging yet exciting exercise for me to look at Matthieu Bergheau’s Ailleurs — a work which focuses on the solo piano music of Rachmaninov. It is not the Russian composer which is under my microscope, but his interpreter, Bergheau. I have to admit too, if I admire Rachmaninov for his genius and participation in the development of the piano as we know it today, his music is not the one I listen to or seek the most. I am far from being a Rachma-connoisseur. Therefore the challenge is dual, and exciting.
Let’s answer the question of why Rachmaninov first. Bergheau discovered the composer at the young age of six and through the excellent movie Shine. His third concerto had such an impact on the pianist that Rachmaninov kept a special place in Bergheau’s heart. In 2023, we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth year, and to celebrate the occasion Odradek and Bergheau have released Ailleurs.
The musician decided to look at Rachmaninov’s sonatas for piano, namely the first Op. 28 and the second Op. 36. The central theme of the album is the notion of being abroad, and both these sonatas have been written outside of the composer’s homeland; Dresden for the first, and Rome and Berlin for the second. The first sonata is perhaps the least well-known of the two, and is often underperformed. The second sonata, in contrast, is often performed and much better-known by most. A revelation of Rachmaninov’s stylist approach to piano, these sonatas are built on a balance of climaxes and fast intense moments contrasted with slower tender ones, with technique always being a centre of the work — not as an end, but as a medium for creativity, This is where Bergheau — a self-taught pianist — gives a well-controlled interpretation of the work, avoiding to fall into the risk of over-exaggerating nuances and their extremes and a flawless maitrise of the instrument. One gets carried away very easily in the narrative of the music. Both these sonatas are to me a great mise-en-bouche for the following work.
The theme of La Folia — which contrary to popular beliefs has not been composed by Corelli — as a basis for a musical work has been, over the centuries, used by many composers. Liszt, more recently Richter in his Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works, and of course Rachmaninov through his theme and variations. On a personal note it is this second part which I relate the most to. Indeed, to my ears, the theme and variations is the most intriguing of Ailleurs. First of all, because a theme and variations always brings this fascination of the multiplicity from the limited — and how one can express the most out of very little material. And Rachmaninov does it so well in this particular work. And secondly because the interpretation of Bergheau is also extremely creative. Indeed, as the variations grow from conformist to less conformist, his playing evolves. He is composed and somehow retained in the first moments, and slowly allows his expression to develop and reach finesse in the feelings and the respect of the composer’s intentions.
Ailleurs is an intriguing musical voyage, and a beautiful homage to Rachmaninov. Bergheau’s choice of works is well thought and exciting enough, both for the well-educated amateur or the curious ear, like mine. Through one composer only, the French pianist manages to make us travel through the life of Rachmaninov, the places where he lived — but also through a little history of Western classical music, with the Baroque of the theme and variations, the classical of the first sonata, and the romanticism of the second. All through an expression on the piano which shines with a sense of natural, an absence of artefacts and a focus on the narrative the musical journey. Right before Autumn arrives, Ailleurs is a ticket for more musical travels.