By Sigurd Neubauer
Anna Fedorova is known as one of the greatest contemporary interpreters of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s (1873-1943) music. In our tribute to the great Russian composer, who is known for his glorious piano concerti and symphonic works, this is the third part of our multi-part series dedicated to celebrating Rachmaninoff’s life and legacy.
In our first part, we cover the restoration of the composer’s villa in Switzerland overlooking the magical Lake Lucerne and its idyllic surroundings. It is formally known as Villa Senar.
In our second, we discuss the composer’s artistic legacy with one of Britain’s preeminent classical music critics; Fiona Maddocks of The Observer. She’s out with her new book: Goodbye Russia: Rachmaninoff in Exile (Faber, 2023).
Fedorova, who is originally from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev but lives in Amsterdam where she frequently performs at the magnificent hall the Concertgebouw, is one of the most influential interpreters of Rachmaninoff’s Piano concerti No. 2., and No. 3., respectively.
Her 2013 recording of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie under the baton of Martin Panteleev has over 38 million views on YouTube.
She was 23 years old at the time and it was one of her very first times performing any of his four piano concerti, she reveals in a wide-ranging interview. “At the time, I developed an instant connection to the concerto.”Fedorova’s 2015 live performance recording of Piano Concerto No.3 with the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie under the baton of Gerard Oskamp has over 4 million views on YouTube.
Fedorova’s recording of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 has been viewed over 38 million times. Photo credit: Courtesy
After the enormous success at the Concertgebouw and on the Dutch classical music channel Avrotros with Rachmaninoff’s 2nd and 3rd Piano concerti, the Concertgebouw Sunday Morning Series tasked Fedorova to complete the cycle of all the Rachmaninoff’s Piano concerti plus Paganini Rhapsody at the Concertgebouw with live broadcast on NPO Radio4, Avrotros’ Youtube channel.
Fedorova together with founder, recording engineer and producer of Channel Classics label Jared Sacks also felt that the best way to celebrate Rachmaninoff’s 150th anniversary would be to record and release all of his Piano concerti.
Fedorova found a wonderful and inspiring partnership with Modestas Pitrenas and St. Gallen Symphony Orchestra, “her partners in crime in realizing this project,” she says.
Responding to what Rachmaninoff’s music means to the virtuoso pianist, Fedorova explains that she’s loved his music ever since childhood.
I have loved Rachmaninoff's music ever since I was a child
“His music requires strong technique and already quite developed hands,” she adds, pointing out that she was 12 years old when she first was introduced to his Études-Tableaux, Op. 33, “which was challenging to play at the time but I have loved his music ever since.”
“Rachmaninoff’s music is so special to me, especially his melodies and harmonies, they are simply out of this world.” When performing his piano concerti, Fedorova prefaces that she’s left with the distinct feeling of “having the wings growing behind my back combined with the power of emotions that his music provides. There’s nothing quite like it,” she explains, adding that some of his music also somehow embodies “the deepest sorrow.”
During a 2012 tour in Mexico, Fedorova performed Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 – which was arranged for piano and orchestra. “It was very difficult to perform,” she recalls, comparing it to his piano Concerto No 3. The latter became much easier to perform afterwards, the virtuoso pianist explains.
Referring to the “intensity” of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto, Fedorova equates it to “45 minutes of constant intensity with no place to rest. It is not just technically difficult, but it is also physical and emotional. But performing it is also liberating, it puts you in kind of ecstatic state.”
Next, we discuss how Fedorova’s long-standing artistic relationship with the Concertgebouw came about. “I first performed at its venue when I was 16. Dutch manager, Rob Groen, came to visit the Kiev Conservatory where he selected me for a performance in Leiden.”
She was about to have a rendezvous with destiny while performing in Leiden. A pianist had to cancel his performance at the very last moment at the Concertgebouw and Groen offered the young Ukrainian to step in, she recalls.
“This was my debut. I performed Frédéric Chopin’s (1810-1849) Piano Concerto No.2,” who she concedes is one of her other most favorite composes, next to Rachmaninoff.
Groen subsequently became her manager and the Concertgebouw’s concert hall remains her favorite of all time.
“It is so unique, beautiful, and historic. The acoustics is what makes the Concertgebouw so special,” she adds, pointing out that she’s performed there over 50 times.
Over the past several years, Fedorova has collaborated with Switzerland’s Sinfonieorchester St. Gallen under the baton of Modestas Pitrėnas, a Lithuanian. In October 2019, they recorded their first of three CDs of Rachmaninoff’s music. On the first, they recorded Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
The second CD was of Rachmaninoff’s Piano concerti No. 2 and 4, which was released in September 2022. And the third album, which has just been released on May 5, 2023, features Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and his ‘Youth Symphony’, as well as a gorgeous solo piano piece by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov entitled ‘The Messenger.’ All of Fedorova’s albums are released on Channel Classics Records / Outhere Music.
“I enjoyed working with the Sinfonieorchester St. Gallen so much, the musicians are so inspiring.”
She’s also drawn to the orchestra’s “warm and friendly” atmosphere, but what makes it so special is that its musicians are “so free and musically flexible. They were open to ideas and suggestions,” Fedorova adds.
War in Ukraine
Responding to what it means to be a Ukrainian artist whose career is dedicated to celebrating Rachmaninoff’s music, who was after all, a Russian.
“I often have this conservation,” Fedorova explains diplomatically, then emphasizes with clear delicacy as she lowers her voice. “Rachmaninoff’s music is not connected to the horrors that the Russians are inflicting on Ukraine.”
She points out that Rachmaninoff, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and many others also suffered from the repression of the different Russian governments at the time.
“They were all victims of the Russian regime, which is why we should perform their music now,” she adds but outright rejects calls made to her – and to other Ukrainian artists – to boycott their respective music.
Rachmaninoff, she points out, was also forced to flee his native Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The music of those composers “belong to the humanity and not to Russia,” she says, then quips: “If they were alive today, they would be on our side by supporting the good of humanity.”
A week after Russia launched its brutal invasion of Ukraine on February 24 of last year, Fedorova organized two concerts for refugees fleeing her homeland at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and Amare in The Hague, respectively. It was the beginning of many more similar initiatives. “Something had to be done, which is why I reached out to the director of the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Simon Reinink, who was very supportive.”
Next, Fedorova and the Concertgebouw put on a concert that immediately sold out, filling up the hall to its full capacity of 2,100 people. “In one evening, we raised over € 100, 000 for humanitarian organizations; there was an intimacy between our musicians and audience,” she recalls, pointing out that this became the first of many concerts she has participated in to support Ukrainian refugees.
Fedorova’s support for Ukrainian refugees didn’t stop there. She participated and performed in over 50 benefit concerts for Ukraine during the last year, also together with husband Nicholas Schwartz they inaugurated the Davidsbündler Music Academy in June of last year. “We started the academy before we even had a building as music was helping the refugees getting through a very difficult period. Fathers and sons had to be separate from their families to defend the homeland against the Russians.”
Fedorova rejects calls for boycotting Rachmaninoff's music
Born into a musical family, where both parents were professional pianists and professors at the Kiev Conservatory, where Fedorova once studied, the three – along with Schwartz – are now collaborating by managing the newly established Davidsbündler Music Academy, based in The Hague.
“It is quite an ambitious project,” Fedorova explains as the Academy organizes concerts on a regular basis that feature a combination of high-profile musicians performing alongside students. “We also have some student concerts and offer masterclasses, side-by-side projects, lesson bundles and in depth sessions for young talented pianists and string players.”
But it doesn’t end there, the virtuoso pianist turned entrepreneur. She explains that the students are also introduced to people who could potentially help them with launching careers, including from the music industry and media. “We provide masterclasses and private lessons along with many performing opportunities.”
Since the academy was first launched less than a year ago, Fedorova herself has performed between 120-130 concerts around the world, “which is quite a lot,” she says with a laugh. Her academy has offered over 60 concerts for the students, including for radio and television.