Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is a popular piece. And in Russia, where pianist Asiya Korepanova grew up, even more ludicrously so.
“You hear it constantly, people play it all the time. You hear on the television, radio, everywhere, everywhere,” Korepanova told Humanity. As such, the famous showpiece becomes almost background noise. To musicians, it can feel overplayed.
It wasn’t until Korepanova opened the score with her own hands that the music revealed to her what she hadn’t heard before.
“I discovered that the score actually, when you read it the way it’s written, there are certain details that sound different than what a lot of people play on stage,” Korepanova said. “That’s how I first discovered how strong the performance tradition can be.”
Following the Score
Korepanova, like all musicians today, grew up in the age of recorded music—it has undeniably changed not only the way classical music is consumed and digested, but the way it is performed.
“Somebody prominent plays a concerto or records a concerto, and hundreds of people listen to that [recording],” Korepanova explained in a phone interview on Aug. 24.
Inevitably, the famous musician’s interpretation takes hold in our psyche, and two things happen: audiences henceforth expect the piece to be played a certain way, and musicians may begin to interpret an interpretation—the recording—rather than the composer’s original work as written.
A famous example of this is the controversies about the tempos at which Beethoven symphonies should be performed; people used to the slow, sweeping renditions of his works as interpreted by some famous conductors are sometimes shocked or skeptical when a musicologist explains the movement was meant to be quite brisk.
Korepanova was very young when she made this discovery via Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1—and the revelation was incredible. (Incidentally, Tchaikovsky was one of the first composers to witness a preview of Edison’s sound recording technology.)
“Playing through this piece, I was amazed—it actually sounds really fresh for me,” Korepanova said. Despite having heard it hundreds of times, it was “as if I am discovering it the very first time of my life, because I’m just playing what’s written in the score.”
Korepanova now sight reads voraciously, frequenting the library to meet as many scores, both popular and obscure, as her busy schedule permits.
That “fresh” feeling of discovery guides her as a performing artist.
“When I’m touched by the music, I’m touched by the music in a very particular way and I’m trying to convey that feeling to the audiences,” Korepanova said. “I’m trying to make them hear the music the way I hear, which is very difficult because we all have different perceptions.”
One of Korepanova’s biggest influences is undoubtedly Franz Liszt, the superstar virtuoso whose time was just before the advent of sound recording technology.
“I think Liszt is a victim of objectifying,” Korepanova said with a laugh.
The Romantic composer left behind an incredibly diverse body of work, but is sometimes thought of as that author of some “show-off” pieces meant for showy encores (or, perhaps, as the pianist who would play so hard in concerts he would literally break pianos, or challenge other pianists to duels in front of crowds of thousands).
Korepanova is noted for having performed all 24 of Liszt’s etudes in one recital (S.139, S.141, S.143, S.144, S.145), a project that had her delving into Liszt’s mind and character through studying the body of his work.
“[Liszt] of course made his name as a virtuosic performer and really expanded what’s possible on the piano and was really creative about it,” she said. “But at the same time Liszt had a very deep and colorful and prominent side that is often overlooked.”
Beyond the duels and smashed pianos, Liszt was actually a deeply religious man as well as a nationalist and a philanthropist who gave much of his earnings to charities and contributed to the building of cathedrals and monuments and music schools. Liszt’s rich and storied life is no doubt accessible, in some way, through his music.
Liszt. Mazeppa transcendental etude
“The initial work on [the Transcendental Etudes] really changed my perspective of him just being a showoff composer—he’s extremely serious,” Korepanova said.
Korepanova looks forward to performing the 24-etude cycle again in the future, as well as an exciting piano battle she will participate in in September.
In the 1830s, the piano fans of Paris were divided between Liszt and Sigismund Thalberg. and the rivalry resulted in a “duel” between the pianists—in concert, before the Princess Belgiojoso as a part of benefit event.
The Opera Atelier is putting on a similar recital in which Korepanova will be performing Liszt’s works against another pianist performing Thalberg, on Sept. 27 at the Maurice Gusman Concert Hall.
Writing Her Own Path
Another similarity Korepanova shares, perhaps, is her transcription work. Liszt is also famous for further popularizing masterpieces—everything from Baroque madrigals to operas to all of Beethoven’s symphonies—by transcribing them for piano.
Transcribing a piece originally written for other instruments—even multiple instruments, or an entire symphony and choir—into a work for piano is akin to taming a wild animal, according to Korepanova.
But the depth and breadth of the piano allows it to be done.
“If you’re really attentive to the sounds and tempers of the piano, you can sound like an orchestra,” Korepanova said. “I really like the power and colors a piano can give.”
The transcription work began with Korepanova’s love for Rachmaninoff.
The Russian composer is a staple in Korepanova’s repertoire, but when it came to his Cello Sonata, she was stumped.
“Rachmaninoff was a genius pianist and he wrote mostly for the piano, and when he wrote that sonata for piano and cello he failed—I mean, it’s a gorgeous piece, don’t get me wrong—but he failed to give the cello as prominent a presence as the piano,” Korepanova explained. “Every measure for the cello would have three to six notes, and the piano could have 30 to 80—I counted!”
“So when you play with the cellist you basically cannot play with your full powers and colors, because if you play as you normally play, you cover up the cello,” she said. “Cellists love to argue that if the cellist is really good it’s not a problem, but no, because Rachmaninoff also wrote some episodes in the weaker registers for cello.”
As such the work has always been both a joy and challenge for Korepanova, unable to fully express herself on the piano for fear of overpowering the cello.
It got her thinking—what if she could play the entirety of the piece, both voices, by herself?
It was a consuming and passionate process, but after thinking about the work for years, she turned out the transcription—the first of this piece for piano—in two months.
“I enjoyed the process so much I’m constantly writing something [now],” she said.
Sound recording has reached unprecedented quality and immediacy and Korepanova, in her early 30s, is part of the first generation of musicians who are able to transmit their performance from nearly anywhere at anytime, to the world at large.
Korepanova first began her transcription work in earnest four years ago, though she had been ruminating over the idea for over a decade, and many of these works are viewable in an ongoing YouTube series she began to showcase short pieces.
These 2-minute, 5-minute pieces are otherwise too short to be able to be easily programmed into a recital, but Korepanova thinks they deserve to be shared. At midnight Pacific Standard Time, Korepanova streams live from the piano a little gem of a piece that reminds us that—just as she finds her own voice in each piece she loves—there is always something more to be discovered in the rich works of classical music.
Franck-Korepanova “Le mariage des Roses”
She follows a 4-work cycle in programming: one is always a very famous piece, one is by a Russian composer, one is a transcription of Korepanova’s own work, and the other is a complete unknown—whether it be a lesser known composer, or a neglected piece from a well-known composer.
Brahms. Sonata for viola and piano No.2, with Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola
This article was first published on Humanity.