Alessandro Deljavan plays Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Boston Philharmonic under Benjamin Zander in Sanders Theater on October 17th and 20th (matinee) and in Jordan Hall on October 19th. The program also includes the Overture to Mozart’s ‘Die Zauberflöte’ (The Magic Flute) and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra.
A few years ago, after a piano competition jury failed to advance Alessandro Deljavan from the semifinals to the finals, a prominent teacher and musician approached the young Italian and attempted to buoy him up. “You should come back for the next competition,” she said. “If you play like a normal pianist, it is absolutely certain that you will win.”
Deljavan says he really didn’t know how to respond to such a remark beyond saying that the way he plays is normal to him. “To do anything else is just not possible.”
To today’s audiences Deljavan — who pronounces his name with the accent on the second syllable, del-JA-van — is certainly unusual, but what he does would have seemed perfectly normal to audiences of a century ago, when the public expected an instrumentalist to exhibit as much individual personality as a singer, to have an unmistakable voice, sound, and approach to music. He does boast a colossal and comprehensive technique, but he also has something to say with it.
I first experienced Deljavan in preliminary auditions for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009 and in the competition itself, as well as in subsequent prelims and competition four years later. He didn’t win either competition, but garnered discretionary awards in both. The effect of his playing stuck with me, and I started buying his recordings both on CD and as downloads — by now I have more than 50 of them, chamber music and solo repertory. Benjamin Zander heard some of these and called Deljavan to discuss the second Brahms piano concerto, and following that conversation engaged him for the forthcoming Boston Philharmonic Concerts.
Probably not many people in Boston will know what to expect — Deljavan is not a famous pianist, yet, even though he has made all those recordings and performed in 20 countries. His career has not developed in the traditional ways. He does not have the backing of a major international manager or a contract with one of the big record companies and their publicity departments or a personal press agent.
But it remains entirely possible that there are some local music-lovers who are familiar with him – millions of people followed the Cliburn competitions on the internet, for example. Last year Spotify reported that Deljavan has 957,000 fans worldwide, and his recordings on the service were streamed more than four million times. His most recent recording, Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, streamed 300,000 times in the first month of its release. There are also hundreds of Deljavan clips on YouTube and Vimeo, many of his commercial recordings and many live performances too.
I still don’t know what to expect. Deljavan is a man who thinks for himself. His playing is the result of profound pondering, an open heart, and spontaneous combustion in the presence of an audience that usually responds with eruptions of grateful applause because his playing is about the search for meaning — and finding it. Each performance is provisional and a preparation for the next one. He excels at the miniatures of Grieg or Mompou or Reynaldo Hahn, but also commands the sweep for major works like Schumann’s Fantasy or the Liszt Sonata.
I spoke to Deljavan only once and briefly in Fort Worth. The competition allowed jury members to mingle with contestants on only one occasion, a party at the Fort Worth Zoo where everyone pulled on cowboy boots and western wear; the jury was allowed to speak only to contestants who had already been eliminated. I approached Deljavan to tell him how rewarding I had found his playing, but at that moment it was obvious that he was in no mood to encounter a member of the jury.
So it was recently a pleasure to talk at length to him at home in Villamagna Italy via Skype. Now 32, Deljavan says he plays about 30 concerts a year, makes recordings, teaches at the Umberto Giordano Conservatory in Foggia, and cooks up a storm in his kitchen.
He unnecessarily apologizes for his lightly accented English, which is in fact exceptionally precise and colorful. He says he tries to divide his concerts between solo recitals and chamber music — he frequently tours and records with the violinist Daniela Cammarano. He plays concertos less often because he has sometimes found the experience less than satisfying. “The problem,” he says, “is that I study and practice these works for hours, days and weeks, and sometimes years. Then I meet the conductor and orchestra and we try to put everything together one or two rehearsals before the performance. When I hear something that doesn’t work, I suddenly lose control of my ideas. I really need to listen with two ears.”
He feels reservations about some of Brahms’s solo piano music and performs only the later pieces. “I think Brahms’s best writing for the piano comes when the instrument is interacting with other instruments as in the violin and cello sonatas and the larger chamber music. There is something about the connections within the music for piano and other instruments, or for piano and orchestra, that for me is not that present in the solo music.”
His repertory list includes almost 60 concertos, including all 27 by Mozart. Both Brahms concertos of course are there. “So far, I have played the first concerto only once, when I was very young, and it was an incredible, amazing experience. The second I have played more recently in Israel, but only with a reduced arrangement with chamber orchestra, so I am looking forward to performing it with Benjamin Zander and the full orchestra.”
Zander in turn has been promoting Deljavan with whirlwind energy, sending out news and recordings to everyone on his mailing list nearly every day.
Deljavan recalls the “very interesting conversation” he had with Zander about the first movement of the Brahms Second Concerto. “We think the same way about it – the importance of the long phrases and even the solo passages are a part of the larger whole, of what is happening. We believe this will make a difference in the idea of the first movement; we want to present it an ongoing dialogue.”
Zander says, “I am bowled over by Alessandro’s range, passion and artistry, as well as the subtlety and sheer visceral excitement of his playing. I am happy to report that in the one long conversation we had about the Brahms, we seemed to agree about everything. He shares my belief that the first movement’s wide variety of moods can be held together in a single, overarching tempo by the use of rubato, rather than the bad habit of constantly changing the tempo and he agrees that the third movement is most beautiful when played as a true Andante, as Brahms intended, instead of the Adagio we often hear. Now it remains for us to fit it together with the Boston Philharmonic’s distinctive style. I am immensely excited to work together and then introduce this extraordinary musician to Boston audiences for the first time.”
Deljavan’s imposing discography does not include recordings that he was not satisfied with and declined to release, like Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Klavier or the complete Fauré Nocturnes. It is unlikely that any other pianist of his age has recorded more extensively – there are only six CDs by his almost-exact contemporary Yuja Wang, and Lang Lang, who is six years older and probably the most famous pianist in the world, has recorded 20.
Deljavan has been criticized for “making faces,” although this doesn’t affect people who are listening to his recordings. In the concert hall, this is just a visible sign for what he is hearing and feeling as he plays, as it was when Rudolf Serkin or Glenn Gould or Emil Gilels performed. Cameras exaggerate this one aspect of performance and shift attention away from what the ear is hearing. “This is something that nobody can control – and that nobody in a big hall can see,” Deljavan says.
Deljavan thinks about everything he is doing, which is what has sometimes made his playing controversial. “I am not doing anything strange and I always respect what the composer has written. Of course I have my own ideas, but they arise from respect for composers.” In some respect he is an interventionist pianist – he merges his own feelings and ideas with those of the composers.
He goes on to remark that “the ears are the most amazing gift for a musician.” And by “ear” he isn’t just talking about hearing — he’s talking about imagination, insight and emotion. And his criticism of the current piano world is that it is losing its sense of hearing. “The new generation of popular teachers doesn’t really care about listening, about what you are actually doing, about how to imagine and produce sounds. This situation has deteriorated over the last 10 or 15 years; within the next 20 we are in danger that everyone will play everything in the same way, and that will be the end of classical music.”
Deljavan cannot remember much of his life before his discovery of music. His father was Persian, from Tehran, and his mother is Italian, and most of his musical education has been in Italy. “My family tells me it all started when I was a year and 8 months old. I was ‘conducting’ a CD my mother was playing, and when she turned off the machine, I continued to sing the song. She was shocked and found this a bit strange; then she was told that maybe there was something in me for music. I gave my first recital on the piano when I was three — just a few small Chopin Waltzes.” In other interviews Deljavan has said that his major ambition until he was a teenager was to become a soccer star, and in our conversation said he also played the violin for four and a half years. “Then it was time to decide which instrument I would concentrate on.”
Deljavan studied at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan and the Instituto Gaetano Braga in Teramo before he was accepted into the prestigious International Piano Academy at Lake Como which takes only seven young pianists each year – he was a teenager when he first went there and remained affiliated with the Academy for eight years, working with the school’s founder, the American pianist William Grant Naboré, and its prominent faculty — among then Menahem Pressler, Dmitri Bashkirov, John Perry, Claude Frank and Fou Ts’ong.
His regard for each of them remains strong and the esteem became reciprocal. Perry, a great teacher who has worked with young pianists virtually every day for half a century, wrote “Deljavan is one of the most major talents of his age that I have ever heard and one of the few pianists I would go out of my way to hear.” Deljavan says Fou developed his “passion” for Mozart, and Fou has written that “Deljavan is one of the most interesting pianists I have ever heard in my life.” Deljavan is particularly grateful to Naboré. “He made me discover my own sound, the beginning of the growing of my personality at the instrument. I am still in touch with him.”
In addition, Deljavan feels he has been taught by historic pianists whose recordings he has studied. His favorites? “My first idol was Carlo Zecchi, who remains by far my favorite Italian pianist. [Zecchi studied with Busoni and Schnabel and after an auto accident gave up solo playing and concentrated more on conducting, although he continued to play chamber music; interestingly Deljavan has begun to play the Mozart piano concertos while conducting from the keyboard.] Among his other heroes were three French pianists Alfred Cortot, Samson Francois, and Robert Lortat (“his is my favorite recording of the Chopin Waltzes”). Edwin Fischer and Artur Schnabel among the Germans, and Dame Myra Hess from England.
He is guarded speaking about his contemporaries. One of them, he says “can play the piano very well and she has an unbelievable number of fans. What she does is not my idea of what music is – but the way she does it has earned all my respect.”
Throughout his life Deljavan has accumulated an astonishing breadth of repertory – virtually the complete keyboard music of Bach and Mozart, wide swaths of Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Grieg, Liszt and the other giants of the repertory. He has performed most of the standard repertory for violin and piano as well as trios, quartets, and quintets with piano. And the list of less familiar music is no less substantial — the complete keyboard music of Reynaldo Hahn, for example, and Francesco Margola (a composer I had never heard of) and the complete chamber music of the Russian Sergei Taneyev as well as works by composers as diverse as Albeniz, Janacek, and Ives.
It is clear that Deljavan would have interesting and significant things to say about everything he has studied and performed. When I complimented him on his most recent recording, the Lyric Pieces of Grieg, he replied, “This is extremely intimate music that I probably wouldn’t play in public. There is one sentiment for each piece – as soon as you move into that feeling you can make the piece yours. You can say the same thing about Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. But Chopin is different and more difficult because there are more feelings than one. Some people did not like my recording of the Chopin Etudes [Listen to them HERE] because for me they are no longer a mechanical exercise, but something that speaks, there is expression in every note and something new to find every time you play it. At one point I fantasized about becoming a Chopin specialist, but I just couldn’t do it – playing Chopin is just too complicated.”
Perhaps Deljavan’s most unusual recording to date is of Satie’s Vexations, a short piece printed on less than one page of music paper. But the composer requested that it be played 840 times in succession. The world premiere in 1963, almost 40 years after Satie’s death fielded 10 relay pianists and lasted 18 hours. This is the only Deljavan recording I haven’t bought, partly because it’s a download that costs $100 and partly because I don’t think I have the stamina to listen to it!
“This was the idea of my record producer at the time,” Deljavan says. “We had a venue and a piano and we had finished recording the complete Chopin Mazurkas in less than two days. My producer asked, “Why don’t we record Vexations?” So we did it — it took 11 and a half hours — finally I found a right tempo, somewhat faster than others have done it. My mind and my body found it a bit strange and I will never forget how playing it 840 times made me feel. I can’t believe 5000 people listened to it nonstop—an act of bravery on their part.”
The pianist’s future plans include recording all the Mozart Sonatas followed by the concertos — Deljavan has started performing them while conducting from the keyboard. “It is too complicated to be thinking about what I will be doing in two or three years, so I don’t want to talk about it.”
Deljavan has a hobby that made him a bit of a local hero during the Cliburn competitions in Fort Worth. He loves to cook and started preparing meals for his host family, which loved how everything looked, smelled and tasted, and kept talking about it, so much that Deljavan found himself cooking in an Italian restaurant where Van Cliburn himself hung out most evenings . He also cooked for the crew that was filming him for the competition documentary. Now his manager wants him to write a cookbook and accompany it with a CD of appropriate piano music.
Deljavan, always game for a challenge, thinks this is a terrific idea. “Maybe I am much better as a chef than as a pianist. Not everybody thinks I am a good pianist. But nobody can say that I cook badly!”