Saturday 31 July 2021

A strong affinity for Russian music: I chat to pianist Sonya Bach about her recent Rachmaninov disc, studying with Lazar Berman and more

Sonya Bach
Sonya Bach

The Korean pianist Sonya Bach recently released an album of music by Rachmaninov, her third album for Rubicon Classics following a disc of music by JS Bach in 2017 and Chopin's Études in 2020. Her new album combines Rachmaninov's Piano Sonata No. 2 with a selection of his Preludes Op. 23 and Moments Musicaux Op. 16. Sonya gave her first public concert at the age of five and at nine made her debut with orchestra with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra in her native Korea. Her teachers and mentors have included the Russian pianist Lazar Berman (1930-2005), whose youngest pupil she was, and the Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha (1923-2009). I recently caught up with Sonya via Skype to find out more about her Rachmaninov disc.

Sonya Bach with Lazar Berman
Sonya Bach with Lazar Berman

Rachmaninov's Piano Sonata No. 2 is a work she has been playing for years, since she was a teenager, and she finds the very beginning of the sonata tremendous. It took her breath away the first time she heard it and she wanted to play it, so the work has played a big part in her life. 

The piece has a somewhat complex history, Rachmaninov wrote it in 1913 and premiered it himself, but he was dissatisfied with the piece. He wanted to revise it but had no time, finally doing so in 1931, making significant cuts and generally tightening it up. When Sonya started to study the sonata it was the first version she looked at, but she also learned the second version. She feels that the second version, which is more compressed, is better for a recording whereas the more extended first version might be work in recital.

When I ask how she selected the pieces to accompany the sonata on the disc, Sonya uses the analogy of clothes, choosing an outfit that goes together. So her other pieces on the disc are shorter works by Rachmaninov which she feels go together, but she also wanted to bring in some contrast as well as stylistic differences, and she feels the programme enables you to see the variety of Rachmaninov different styles.

Rachmaninov notoriously had enormous hands, so that for other pianists his piano music can be something of a technical challenge. Sonya admits that she both does and does not enjoy the technical challenge, it is sometimes frustrating that she can only reach a tenth, yet she is confident of the strength in her fingers. And she sees Rachmaninov's music as a large picture so that she is painting something and has a clear idea of what it sounds like. She does hope to record more of Rachmaninov's piano music, and in fact, before the pandemic hit she had the idea of recording his concertos and that hopefully may still be in the future.

Her three discs for Rubicon, Bach, Chopin and Rachmaninov, demonstrate her varied repertoire and enable her to present different aspects of her playing. But she has a strong affinity for Russian music, particularly that of Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. The sound of the music appeals, and she admits that she finds Rachmaninov's music glamourous and sumptuous, with a richness of sonority and noble atmosphere. Prokofiev's piano music is ostensibly different, but there are aspects common to both composers, both have a Russian soul and there is sorrow, sadness, anger and warmth of character in their music.

Alicia de la Rocha and Sonya Bach
Alicia de Larrocha and Sonya Bach
Sonya has been playing in public since she was five but has never thought about stopping. But she takes breaks, she might listen to herself and think 'how horrible' and rest by doing her hobbies such as cooking and gardening, but the piano will always be at her side. She has worked with some significant figures in the piano world, perhaps the two most intriguing being Lazar Berman and Alicia de Larrocha.

When she tried to study with Lazar Berman, even though he was known not to take young students, he initially said that he would not listen to her. But she travelled from New York to Florence, and he finally agreed to listen. She was years younger than his other students but was technically well prepared and he accepted her. She would spend weekends at his home in Florence. He did not strictly teach her the score but shared music with her, and besides this, she learned about his experience of concerts along with anecdotes. And after their sessions together he would sometimes play something to her, such as one of Rachmaninov's Moments Musicaux and ask her opinion.

Alicia de Larrocha was over 80 when Sonya worked with her, and Sonya used to see her in her home where she would listen to the great pianist playing Spanish music. From Alicia de Larrocha she learned how to be rational at the piano whilst still being emotional in her playing.

When I ask about her musical heroes, Sonya laughs (in fact, she laughs a lot during our interview) saying that she has so many. First comes JS Bach, whom she regards as a god, then Mozart, who is amazing and she never stops getting emotional when listening to his music, whilst the symphonies of Beethoven are a complete universe in their own right. Prokofiev and Rachmaninov are there too, and she comments that she loves Prokofiev as a pianist.

Sonya Bach
Sonya Bach
 During lockdown she brought back a wide selection of pieces into her repertoire, Prokofiev's sonatas and Romeo and Juliet, music by Ravel and Godowsky's arrangement of Bach, and any one of these projects could be her next recording. She is still evaluating what she might release next.

Sonya Bach on Rubicon Classics

  • Rachmaninov: Piano Sonata No. 2, Preludes Op. 23 nos. 4, 5, 6, Moments Musicaux Op. 6 nos 1-6 - Sony Bach - Rubicon Classics
  • Chopin: Études - Sonya Bach - Rubicon Classics
  • Bach: Keyboard Concertos, Italian Concerto - Sonya Bach, English Chamber Orchestra - Rubicon Classics

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