Maria João Pires and Augustin Dumay

Music First

Two stellar pianists, cognoscenti may seldom hear under one roof, were brought together as part of the latest SOI season. Vastly different in their musicality, they share in common what ties together all great artistes. By Jehangir Batiwala

The SOI Spring 2020 Season was unique, as audiences in Mumbai got to witness not one, but two legendary pianists in performance. These pianists are household names in Europe and even around the world, especially amongst connoisseurs of classical music and piano aficionados. To have them perform in Mumbai at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, during the same month, in recital and in concert with the Symphony Orchestra of India, was truly an admirable achievement for the NCPA.

Dream team

Maria João Pires and Jean-Philippe Collard have both had international careers for more than five decades. Though their styles and choice of repertoire are quite different from one another, they share one thing in common that makes them such great musicians and pianists. Musicians first, as their goal is to serve the music and respect the score, and their great abilities on their instrument, are only a means to that end. This ability comes from years of training and encounters with great masters who taught them not only how to play the piano and manage successful careers, but also how to live life as normal people and share their art freely.

Pires’s encounter with music was at the age of four, when she heard a concert of violinist Ginette Neveu and her pianist brother in Lisbon. Shortly after that, Neveu died in a plane crash, but she still remembers that even though Neveu had a personal sound, it only spoke of the music. This is what Pires has maintained throughout her career, to serve the music and not herself. This honesty has paid off very well and today, she is regarded as one of the greatest pianists of her generation and a legend. She began her studies with Campos Coelho and Francine Benoît in Portugal, continuing later in Germany, with Rosl Schmid and Karl Engel. Even earlier on in her career, what she had to say about the music she played made audiences all over the world listen to her, and agree with her. Her mastery of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin are all documented in recordings for Erato and Deutsche Grammophon.

Jean-Philippe Collard

For her concerto performance with the SOI, it was fitting that Pires chose Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor. This is a work that she has lived with for many years. It was almost miraculous how a petite person like Pires, with such small hands, could navigate not just the notes but also express each bar and phrase with such conviction that even Beethoven would whole-heartedly approve. The opening of the second movement was magic beyond words. One could see that each orchestral musician was mesmerised and transported by what they heard in the first 11 bars, before they had to join in.

It was also fitting that Pires was accompanied by her long-time musical colleague and friend Augustin Dumay, conducting the SOI. Even though Dumay is primarily known as a great violinist, his global perception of music, of the musical language of certain composers and his ability to work out the right bowing and accents to obtain the desired effects in a score, has made him a sought-after conductor amongst some circles. And if that was not an advantage enough, Dumay and Pires agreed to a long-pending request from Chairman Khushroo N. Suntook to do a joint recital which featured three Schumann Romances, the Schubert Sonata in A minor and Beethoven’s 1st and 5th Violin-Piano sonatas. Their legendary recording of the complete Beethoven Violin-Piano sonatas stands amongst the greatest recordings of this music and some of that magic was recreated at the Tata Theatre that evening.

New directions

Jean-Philippe Collard took the musical world by storm as a young pianist, winning first prize at Paris Conservatoire, the Fauré prize, and prizes at the Long-Thibaud-Crespin and Cziffra competitions. His many recordings of Fauré, Chopin, Saint-Saëns, Brahms and Rachmaninoff on EMI are considered definitive versions. Throughout his career, Collard has only used his legendary virtuosity at the piano as a means to serve the music. A gentleman pianist who rarely talks of himself or his achievements, and more about his friends, family and places he has visited. It was his friendship with Horowitz that helped him cure himself of a bad habit of overworking his right hand. Horowitz noticed the way Collard sagged his shoulder to get more out of the right register of the piano, because he was naturally left-handed. This awareness helped Collard make corrections and avoid injuries that affect many pianists and this has served him in good stead in his long and illustrious career.

Laurent Petitgirard

For his recital at the Tata Theatre the repertoire included Chopin’s 24 Preludes, something that Collard has made a speciality, Fauré’s Ballade in F-sharp minor, which no one can play like him, and a selection from Granados’s Goyescas. His recent recording of Goyescas has earned Collard rave reviews and awards, so it was truly a wise choice to include this beautiful music in the programme.

The repertoire choice with the SOI was Saint-Saëns Concerto No. 5, the final of the composer’s five concertos. Collard has recorded them all and of course, played the work with great magic and authority. This is a special concerto with effects on the piano that make the piano sing, dance and imitate other instruments like the gamelan, and the orchestra could not have found a better pianist-concerto match than this. The choice of conductor for this work was another distinguished gentleman musician, Laurent Petitgirard, who is a long-time friend and musical colleague of Collard. Petitgirard’s knowledge of this repertoire and flawless baton technique made this one of the highlights of the many SOI seasons.

After setting such a high standard, we can only hope that the NCPA and SOI are consistently able to invite such great musicians who perform for us the music that they are not only leading exponents of but have lived with and loved.

This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the May 2020 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.