People often ask me how I select my repertoire, and why I choose certain compositions over others. The answer is simple - I only play pieces to which I feel an intense emotional connection. That is exactly how I felt when I heard Rachmaninoff’s Musical Moment No. 5 for the first time. I would even call it a kind of musical chemistry. Although a quintessential Rachmaninoff piece in terms of harmony, character-wise this composition is filled with calmness and serenity, which is quite opposite from Rachmaninoff’s usual tumultuous and restless music. I found that very appealing, and I knew exactly how I wanted to play every single note and what kind of emotions I wanted to convey.
To me this musical moment represents finding inner peace and quiet after years of fighting, struggling, making mistakes, having regrets, celebrating victories and mourning losses. I find it to be a great metaphor for life itself. The piece is written in D flat major, but as is often the case with Rachmaninoff, his major sonorities sound achingly nostalgic. I would call it a musical equivalent of an old black and white family photo that you stumble upon in the attic decades after it was taken: you remember the moment and the faces, you can almost recall the joys of those days…and yet you are painfully aware that there is simply no going back.
Feeling a strong connection to this music, I began researching previous recordings of it (something I always do when preparing a new composition), and was surprised to find that most pianists play it nearly twice as fast as the metronome indication suggests. I must say I respectfully disagree with them. In my view, the faster tempo alters the character of this piece and not for the best. It is common knowledge that in slow works it is technically much easier to "connect" the phrases in faster tempo. While it is never a good idea, in this particular case it seems especially criminal as faster tempo destroys the essence of the music, disrupts its calm and soothing flow, and most importantly brings its emotional impact from divine heights to zero.
I believe that choosing the right tempo can make or break an interpretation or character of any piece of music. It is especially true with Rachmaninoff whose music consists of thickly textured endless melodic lines, syncopated rhythms, and fluctuating climaxes, all of which can be lost or sound disastrously in the wrong tempo. Now, those of you who are familiar with my views on music interpretation (in short: play the way YOU feel) know that I am not the type to blindly follow to the score for the sake of being academically accurate. But I do insist on being familiar with composer's suggestions as they frequently give great insight into his or her intentions and thoughts. Luckily, Rachmaninoff is quite generous with his markings of tempo, dynamics, etc.