Phillip Kawin, Paul Carasco and Gerard Schwarz


Phillip Kawin & Gerard Schwarz set to return to Moscow

Phillip Kawin has told Colin Clarke of Fanfare Magazine in an interview that he will continue recording and filming the Beethoven Piano Concerti with the Russian National Orchestra in Moscow. In this next installment, filming will take place at Zaryadye Concert Hall near the Kremlin. 

Paul Carasco (Left) Phillip Kawin (Centre) Gerard Schwarz (Right) Steinway Hall NY, Photo by Evgeny Evtyukhov

Kawin meets Beethoven: A New Film of the Third Concerto
By Colin Clarke

Renewing acquaintance with Phillip Kawin is always a pleasure. This time we discuss his recent brilliant Blu-ray release of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto on the Master Performers label (reviewed below).

I wonder if we could have a look at your history with Beethoven. I’ve praised your performances of his music before for Fanfare, and of course we are approaching Beethoven 250 in 2020. Is this part of your homage to the great man?

Yes, I am unequivocally committed to Beethoven and the uncompromising combination of structure, deep emotion, and humor that exist in his works.

Why this orchestra and conductor? Have you worked much with Gerard Schwarz?

I have long been an admirer of the Russian National Orchestra and of Gerard Schwarz. My recording company, Master Performers, originally suggested this collaboration, which turned out to be a great joy. Believe it or not, this is the first time that I have worked with Gerard Schwarz, although it felt like we have been making music together for a very long time! He was fantastic to work with, and highly instrumental in making this recording a joyful and gratifying experience.

How did your pairing with the Russian National Orchestra come about? I personally love their playing—particularly the sound of their woodwinds. What do you most admire about it?

Paul Carasco [Artistic Director of Master Performers] has uncanny and brilliant intuition. Paul suggested this collaboration between the Russian National Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz, and me. I absolutely concur that I love the sound of their woodwinds, plus the warm expressive quality of the strings, as well as their strong sense of unity and engagement.

The film is directed by Carasco, who is also the co-founder of the Master Performers label. Paul’s work has been much praised, and indeed the filming is highly impressive. What was Mr. Carasco’s directing style (he’s also a pianist, so I imagine there was much resonance!)? How did you two discuss what the end result would look like? (I particularly like the close-up on your fingers just before the fugato in the finale, for example.)

Paul is a visionary and tremendously inspiring director to work with. Very rarely is a film made in this way. The ability to choose the best take is often limited by budgetary constraints. For example, in a film the best shots do not always fit with the best takes that may resonate with the artist. As Richard Wenn, the co-producer, stated: “It is necessary to marry sound with image.” That is where the difficulty lies. Paul Carasco was uncompromising in terms of the artistic quality, authenticity, and originality of the presentation. It is indeed a pleasure to collaborate with Gerard Schwarz and the Russian National Orchestra.

You give the piece space to breathe (I have to confess the one time I played this, I took a similar tempo)—and Schwarz definitely conducts the first movement in four, yet the score is marked cut-time, implying two in a measure. Also, personally I love the combination of C-Minor dynamism coupled with a sense of peace one doesn’t find in many other performances—the woodwind dialogues with piano underneath them, for example (and I hear their connection to the same idea in the slow movement). In your “Appassionata” Sonata recording, I referred to you “offering technical polish married to a superb grasp of the musical structure.” Would you say your performance here reflects that, too?

Thank you for your generous and most insightful thoughts, Colin. It is hard to say objectively that my performance of the Beethoven C-Minor Concerto reflects those qualities, but suffice to say that I always do endeavor to achieve the very qualities that you describe in my performances.

Is there a Richter influence here? (We’ve mentioned him previously in reference to your Prokofiev Seventh Sonata.)

Richter has always been an inspirational force in my evolution as an artist. However, this particular repertoire was not specifically influenced by him or other performers. I wanted my vision for this piece, which I have known and played for many years, to remain pure and unaffected.

It’s nice to see an antiphonal layout for strings here. Did you experiment with various layouts, or was this your preferred one?

I trusted Gerard Schwarz’s tremendous experience and relied upon his judgment. The historical precedent for this goes back several centuries and reflects the way the orchestra was set up during Beethoven’s time. This was referred to as Orchestral Disposition in Gerard Schwarz’s book Behind the Baton, which explains this important tradition. Basically, this arrangement is with the first and second violins separated at the conductor’s left and right, the cellos are placed next to the first violins, and the basses are behind them. The violas are placed between the cellos and second violins. This had been the arrangement until approximately 1950. The other advantage to this arrangement is that the distribution of the sound of the strings is more even, and the treble voice is spread over the front of the stage. It also allows one to hear the second violins as a separate voice, which adds wonderful texture to the string section and consequently to the whole orchestra.

The cadenza is Beethoven’s, as is expected these days, and is beautifully played. Have you considered any others?

I once considered the relatively unfamiliar cadenza by Liszt as an option. However, I finally settled on the Beethoven cadenza, which felt the most authentic and complete.

The second movement seems to be taken at the perfect speed—your top line in that opening solo sings almost like a forgotten aria from Fidelio. Do you think almost vocally (in that aria-sense)?

Generally, I consider Beethoven as a highly instrumental composer. The opening and the first solo passages of the second movement are for me a combination of an aria and an eloquent vocal recitative.

Towards the end of this movement there’s quite extensive (and magical) pedaling. Could you expand about this?

Yes. I must quote my great teacher, Dora Zaslavsky, with whom I studied at the Manhattan School of Music and who was such a profound influence upon me. (Dora was a pupil of the great German pianist, Wilhelm Backhaus.) She taught me that the foot should be like a finger. Pedaling is an art, and when it is used creatively it allows the sound to breathe. It involves using the big toe as a contact point on the pedal, which allows absolute control, as opposed to the ball of the foot.

Again, in the finale you give the music space to breathe, and yet the underlying dynamism of the C Minor is most definitely there; the tempo does allow the more relaxed moments to really make their mark. It also means that for the coda you don’t need to have a headlong rush to the end!

Character and momentum are far more important than mere velocity. Too many pianists confuse speed with excitement. I believe that arriving at the right tempo involves careful pacing and a much-defined sense of rhythmic pulse. One must experiment extensively to find the exact tempo that feels right. For example, in the finale, which is a rondo, there are many contrasting episodes and transitions between the sections. There must be a sense of proportion between the main body of the movement within its various sections and the coda at the end. The coda must be exhilarating, but not breathless or Lisztian.

You’ve talked in the past about Beethoven’s structural use of dynamics. Do you find that’s the case here as well?

In this phenomenal concerto, the dynamics are closely intertwined with several primary elements: the harmonic structure, the modulations, and the sequences.

Is there more Beethoven to come? A cycle of concertos, perhaps, also with the same forces?

Absolutely, there is more to come! This recording is the first chapter in my collaboration with Maestro Gerard Schwarz and the Russian National Orchestra. As part of my homage to Beethoven, the Master Performers label, with which I have an exclusive recording contract, is planning to release an all-Beethoven CD in the coming months, which will include the audio from my DVD/Blu-ray recording of the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto, combined with a few other solo works in celebration of the 250 year anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth.