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Toradze’s Piano Stories

Behrouz Jamali has created the kind of film I had always hoped to see about Alexander Toradze. 

I permits Toradze to speak for an hour without abridgement or abbreviation. It abjures soundbites. 

I believe it should be seen by all devotees of the piano, and to fledgling pianists at music schools and conservatories.

Born in Tbilisi in 1952, Toradze graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, toured the West as a Soviet artist, defected to the United States in 1983, and has since taught and lived in the US while maintaining an international career. His father, David, was the leading Georgian composer.

In sixty minutes, Toradze tells three stories.

The first is about why his father had to quit playing jazz in a famous Moscow restaurant in 1940. This is a story about Russian pedagogy and the generosity of Reinhold Gliere. 

The second story (at 18:16) explores how jazz represented American freedoms to Soviet musicians of Toradze’s generation, and how as a touring Soviet artist in 1978 he refused to fly to Miami from Portland, Oregon, because he insisted on hearing Ella Fitzgerald (“a goddess”) and Oscar Peterson.

The third story – and, to me, the most important – is about how Toradze applies stories to music to achieve a kind of “authenticity” having nothing to do with literal adherence to the score. The focus is Prokofiev’s Seventh Piano Sonata (33:43), which Toradze performs in a manner unknown to Prokofiev and yet conveying its own kind of truth. 

Toradze’s reading is invested in the experience of wartime. One repeated-note theme, for instance, is for Toradze “drops of tears” (41:00). I comment that Toradze interprets the Prokofiev sonata via a process of “infiltration” of thought and feeling. “You can’t just surrender to the composer,” I suggest, “or you surrender yourself.” 

Typically, Toradze needed to find a “story” when returning to Beethoven’s Op. 109 Piano Sonata (52:00). I tell him: “It’s not important whether your story is true. It’s true for you. It’s an instrument of interpretation; it lets you inhabit the music.” 

If you want to hear more Toradze, I recommend his singular recording of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinski Orchestra. Here Toradze’s story is that the concerto remembers and mourns Prokofiev’s friend Maximilian Schmidthof, who committed suicide. This detailed reading transforms and amplifies the music in surprising (and controversial) ways. In music, an “agogic” accent is achieved not via loudness, but a slight delay. The tremendous agogic accent Toradze interpolates at 11:42 (just after the first movement cadenza), and which Gergiev thunderously absorbs, is not to be found on the page.  

A superb recent zoom interview with Toradze by the conductor Gerard Schwarz may be found here.


  1. I have encountered Alexander Toradze at several key moments in my own career, including at the 1977 Van Cliburn Competition (Toradze didn’t win, but the controversy he created did for him what Martha Argerich and not winning did for Ivo Pogorelich in 1980 in Warsaw), his debut with the L.A. Phil in Ravel’s G Major Concerto ( I was a prof at UCLA then, and just happened by the symphony that evening) and a fun recital at which both of us played as part of Ilana Vared’s Rutgers Summerfest.
    Behrouz Jamali’s brilliant documentary, narrated by Joseph Horowitz- one of the few musical writers to combine a deep knowledge of a variety of musical subjects with a wonderfully creative outlook- captures the essence of Toradze.
    Lili Kraus once compared Toradze’s talent to the force created by the splitting of an atom. I would add that 44. years later, a certain poise, perspective and wisdom place Toradze uniquely on a perch, seemingly without piers.
    Watch how skillfully Horowitz leads Toradze into intimate reminiscence -of touring the States with his personal K.G.B. agent by his side, refusing to play the next gig because Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson would be missed by him in a live concert, and so much more.
    And listen to Toradze as he plays Prokofieff -before it’s placed in the next space capsule for extra terrestrial interception.

  2. David Bondy says

    This is wonderful, Joe. Thank you for your sensitive and revealing interview. I too have been mesmerized by Toradze’s recording of the Prokofiev 2. The first movement unfolds like no one else’s. Others who tackle this work grab it as though it will slip through their hands if they give it any room to breathe. Toradze suspends time at the start, which requires absolute concentration and confidence that the listener will stick with him. I remember the first time I heard the recording. It was as though it were a different piece but so much more nourishing than the typical interpretation — thought-provoking and deeply felt. It has become hard to hear this work otherwise.

    I agree with you about authenticity. Anyone who argues that an interpretation must reflect that of the composer’s wishes (assuming we could ever know them) must explain why we need further performances of Rachmaninoff’s concerti when we have his extraordinary recordings of them. If we play them anyway, is it “authentic” to copy precisely what Rachmaninoff did? And if you don’t copy what he did, are you playing authentically? When you consider the problem, you realize how ridiculous it quickly becomes.

    Lastly, Ella and Oscar. What a wonderful story. I hope Mr. Toradze knows that there are Americans — at least a few — who revere these great artists as much as he does. I understand they mean something different to him than they can to me, growing up here where they were part of my cultural inheritance. But life would be dramatically less rich without their work, as it would be without Mr. Toradze’s.

    Thank you again, Joe. Who will you interview next?

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