May 1, 2013
Sturm und drang
The great pianist Krystian Zimerman once remarked that Sergei Rachmaninoff's earlier Piano Concertos were "young concertos for young pianists"--that is, these concertos are laden with the violence and ecstasy of youthful emotions, before said youths learn to control and hide their emotions on the path to what is deemed 'maturity.' In Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, for instance, we listeners experience everything from the sweet tenderness of first love (Adagio sostenuto) to the violence of hormonally-charged lust (Moderato) and the soaring heights of first forays into onanistic pleasures (Allegro scherzando) in an intensely visceral and personal way. Accordingly, Mr. Zimerman noted that when playing such concertos, control is the one thing he is not aiming for in his performances: "You don't play the Rachmaninoff concertos; you live them."
Transpose that sentiment into figure skating ("you don't skate the Rachmaninoff concertos, you live them"), and that to me captures the number-one thing that is missing from the vast majority of the many, many figure skating programs (however competently choreographed on paper) set to Rachmaninoff's Piano Concertos (almost always the Moderato and Adagio sostenuto movements of Piano Concerto No.2): the lack of emotion, intensity, abandon, life. The music demands that heartstrings be rended and emotions put through the blender, but what we often get instead is a disconcerting disconnect between the intensity and passion of the music and the precise, measured movement and projection of the skater. Before we leap to blame the erstwhile punching bag that is the IJS, it should be noted that dull figure skating programs set to Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 were a dime a dozen even before the IJS was a glint in Mr. Cinquanta's eye. Moreover, in some ways, we can hardly blame skaters for not going emotionally all-out in a competitive setting as figure skating is a sport that demands technical precision and concentration by virtue of the extremely difficult task of launching onself up into the air and rotating multiple times using only a slender metal blade.
One example of the very, very few skaters who I feel have done Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 justice is the great pairs team of Natalia Mishkutenok and Artur Dmitriev, specifically their performance to the Moderato and Adagio sostenuto movements of the concerto on the night of the long program performances at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, one of the greatest nights of pairs skating ever. The wily Tamara Moskvina, knowing that Miskutenok/Dmitriev were up against the technically proper and classically beautiful team of Gordeeva/Grinkov, chose the one piece of music that would display Mishkutenok/Dmitriev's comparatively wild, passionate and less orthodox style to their fullest advantage. "Perfection or passion," opined Scott Hamilton when comparing Gordeeva/Grinkov with Mishkutenok/Dmitriev, and for once he was correct. If there ever was a piece of music in which it felt artistically "right" for Mr. Dmitriev to fling Ms. Mishkutenok wildly into the air like a sack of potatoes in their throw jumps or have a small stumble on his footwork due to his complete emotional abandon in the performance, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 was it.
I of course adore the entire program, but my favorite part is the stormy conclusion. The closing choreography of this program is pure Moskvina Magic and is also one of my favorite bits of pairs choreography ever: Natalia spin, Mr. Dmitriev ripping open his costume to reveal a ~dramatic~ red panel (Yuko Kavaguti can only dream of ripping open her costume with the panache of Mr. Dmitriev), dual back arches, Mr. Dmitriev flinging himself into a wild flying leap into the air while Ms. Mishkutenok prostrates herself in the face of his gloriousness, before the pair comes together again in the final, slam-bang ending pose, all of this set in the midst of the sturm und drang of the Moderato's conclusion.
Perfection or passion? For me, I'd have to agree with Frost: From what I've tasted of desire/
I hold with those who favor fire.