Toradze's playing underscored by passion

Most pianists do not bring a string quartet half-way across the country at their own expense simply because they feel like playing Brahms. But then most pianists are not like Alexander -- "Lexo" to his friends -- Toradze.

Baltimore music lovers are still talking about his take-no-prisoners performances of Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3 with the Baltimore Symphony last season. Toradze expanded the scope of the piece dramatically, transforming what is usually a velvety-sounding virtuoso concerto into something resembling a piano vs. orchestra Armageddon. It was a performance so intense and personally revealing that it was as dangerous as it was intriguing.


Thus it is not exactly a surprise that Toradze's solo recital this evening in Kraushaar Auditorium at Goucher College has been transformed into something out of the ordinary. Two weeks ago the pianist decided to jettison the second half of his program to play the F Minor Quintet of Brahms with the members of the Chester Quartet, colleagues of his at Indiana University at South Bend -- because he had been rehearsing the piece with them and couldn't get it out of his head.

"I had other things in mind -- like getting ready for solo appearances in New York and Europe -- but once I began to rehearse [the quintet], everything else went to the back burner," he explains in his fluent, though still Russian-accented English, in which words tumble out with the kind of unrestrained passion one hears in his playing.


Pummeling and cajoling

A hulking man who resembles a sawed-off sequoia when seated the keyboard, Toradze alternately pummels and cajoles his instrument into producing sounds that even longtime piano aficionados say they have never heard before. Reactions to the way he plays are as marked by contrasts as his performances themselves. The well-known critic Joseph Horowitz, for example, calls Toradze "a pianist in a million." But the prominent conductor Yevgeny Svetlanov has publicly called for the pianist's "arrest" so that "he may never give another concert." Except for two remarkable discs on the EMI label, record companies have shied away from Toradze, choosing other, blander pianists -- perhaps for the same reason some people prefer processed cheese to Camembert or brie.

"I always anticipate outraged attacks," the pianist says. "When I bring the Rachmaninoff Third to New York this February, I expect what will be in the newspapers will be painful to me."

The history of the 40-year-old pianist -- born in Soviet Georgia, but Moscow-bred and trained -- in this country dates back to the 1977 Cliburn Competition. Although he was the favorite of the audience and was said to be the first choice of a majority of the judges, he had to settle for second prize because of the implacable opposition of a few -- one of whom reportedly said that "first prize should never go to anyone who batters the instrument the way he does."

In his native country Toradze also endured a number of humiliations. After several successful world tours in the late '70s, his career began to wither because of hostility in the Soviet concert bureaucracy to his free-speaking ways and his individualistic playing. In the summer of 1983 he was sent to Spain with a Soviet orchestra for a three-week tour only to discover that the Spaniards had never been informed that he was coming and that the outdoor pavilions where he was supposed to play were not provided with pianos. After sitting in Spain without concerts -- his repeated requests for permission to return to Moscow had been ignored -- he made headlines when he requested asylum in Spain and was granted refugee status by the United States.

But Toradze is not bitter about the Soviet Union. He became what he is, he says, because of some of the excellences of the Soviet system -- which included the best musical training in the world and a great pianistic tradition that had been preserved from imperial times.

"You hear a lot about why Russians win so many competitions," he says. "The reason they do is that they are better." Russia has produced so many great pianists because so much great music has been written for the instrument in that country, he adds.

A fire inside


But all the excellences of Soviet training and tradition do not explain Toradze's particular brand of individualism. There's a fire inside him that -- when he is not playing the piano -- sometimes threatens to engulf him. And it's something that occasionally worries his friends.

At a Fells Point eatery last winter after one of his performances of the Rachmaninoff Third, he was so pumped up he couldn't bring himself down. He ate a huge portion of boiled shrimp as an appetizer, two entrees and two desserts, finally topping it all of with an order of potato chips and cheese. Then he proceeded to chain-smoke cigarettes with cup after cup of coffee. The evening ended only when his exhausted companions took him back to his hotel.

And while there is more to Toradze than music, he sometimes -- seized as he is by the desire to surrender to the directions the life force takes in music -- seems surprised that it takes directions outside music.

Toradze's wife, Susan, whom he met and married three years ago, gave birth last year to a son, David, who is named after the pianist's late father, a well-known composer. Last year, as he passed around pictures of his beautiful young wife with their baby, Toradze seemed almost nonplused -- as if he couldn't believe that he could give birth to anything but music and that he could actually be happy and content.

But he is. It used to bother him, for example, that he was passed over by record companies.

"It doesn't any more," he says. "I still wish that I could record certain pieces so that they are there, but I think there's a certain fate in the fact that I learned the Rachmaninoff Third in the 40th year of my life. There are some things that are more beautiful in middle age and, for that matter, in old age, too."


Toradze concert

Who: Alexander Toradze and the Chester Quartet.

Where: Kraushaar Auditorium at Goucher College.

When: Tonight at 7:30.

Tickets: The concert is free. All tickets have been given out, but a large number of no-shows are expected.