Alexandre Kantorow

A portrait of Alexandre Kantorow

»Liszt reborn« – a young pianist from Paris takes the piano world by storm.

A soloist's dressing room at the Elbphilharmonie, furnished with simple elegance; floor-length windows look out on to the Hamburg city centre. A paper bag with salad-to-go is standing on the white wooden table, with a dark jacket and an old rucksack next to it. A young man wearing a plain linen shirt and old Chucks is seated at the grand piano. His dark hair falls across his forehead and he looks towards the window as he plays Brahms. He moves his hands over the keyboard as if unconsciously, cautiously playing quiet chords and listening to the music while his gaze wanders over the skyline outside.

He has just given a video interview, and now he has been asked to sit at the keyboard for a spot of material to edit: can he play a couple of scales, or just run his hands across the keyboard? But why only play scales? When this man sits at the piano, he plays. And when he plays, he plays properly. For a minute, the world in the dressing room seems to stand still. The camera team is motionless; everyone is just listening to this young man who captivates the listener so directly, free of any vanity.

»Liszt reborn«

Alexandre Kantorow is no inconnu in the world of music. His name is well-known, and the international critics praise him as the top pianist of the young generation – or even today's top pianist without qualification. He has been referred to as »Liszt reborn«, with his technical virtuosity and versatility making him the ideal interpreter for the music of this Romantic composer. But of course he doesn't only play Liszt: elsewhere he has been described as »born for Saint-Saëns«, he has won laurels for his sensitive readings of Brahms, and his Rachmaninov has likewise elicited acclaim.

Alexandre Kantorow in the Elbphilharmonie

The young star pianist is returning to the Elbphilharmonie twice in the 2022/23 season: one of the concerts is a solo recital in the new series »FAST LANE«.

Alexandre Kantorow
Alexandre Kantorow © Elbphilharmonie Hamburg

Childhood in a family of musicians

Whether he was born to play Liszt, Brahms or Rachmaninov – Alexandre Kantorow was born in 1997 in the small French town of Clermont-Ferrand. Both his parents are musicians: his mother plays the violin, while his father Jean-Jacques became known first as a violinist and later as a conductor as well. But that doesn't mean that their son Alexandre spent more of his childhood in concert halls than at the playground, on the contrary. »We didn't go to many concerts,« he says, »and for years playing the piano was basically something I enjoyed doing after school.«


The first concert

His parents gave him plenty of space and the freedom to develop his own interests. »They probably knew that it wasn't easy growing up with two musicians for parents. They were very careful, and kept in the background,« Kantorow recalls. »It wasn't till I expressed interest in a career as a pianist that they got more involved and started giving me tips.«

Alexandre Kantorow was 14 at this time. Asked what prompted his decision at the time, he describes a concert with his school orchestra. During rehearsals he felt surrounded by many kindred souls for the first time. The programme included Franz Liszt's Hungarian Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, and the pianist likes to think back to that day: »I really enjoyed it! I remember exactly the special feeling of going on to a big concert platform for the first time and forgetting everything around me. I suddenly knew without any doubt at all that this was what I wanted to do.

Interview with Alexandre Kantorow

Rocketing on to an international career

No sooner said than done: it wasn't long before he was making big public appearances and his first recordings. When he won the prestigious Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition in 2019 aged just 22, Kantorow hit the piano world with the impact of a comet. He bypassed the status of an upcoming star, so to speak, and went straight into the top league of international soloists. He was soon appearing with such leading orchestras as the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Staatskapelle Berlin. And at the Elbphilharmonie, too, he conquered the audience's hearts within minutes when he made his debut in the Grand Hall alongside Teodor Currentzis and musicAeterna, playing just the slow movements of several different piano concertos.

Alexandre Kantorow in der Elbphilharmonie, April 2022
Alexandre Kantorow in der Elbphilharmonie, April 2022 © Daniel Dittus

In the 2022/23 season, he returns to the Elbe twice, presenting Rachmaninov's First Piano Concerto together with the Munich Philharmonic in November 2022, then giving a solo recital in the Recital Hall in March 2023 as part of the new Elbphilharmonie series »Fast Lane«. The recital programme features music by Schubert and Brahms.

What else is he doing? Summer 2022 saw him putting on his own chamber-music festival for the first time,  assisted by two close friends, in Nîmes in the south of France. For three days they performed music at different venues in the city that was well outside the normal repertoire. »It was a marathon,« Kantorow later said, »but the atmosphere was great, and the audience responded very well to many of the unknown works.«

Alexandre Kantorow Alexandre Kantorow © Sasha Gusov

»A world in which music stays alive is always a better world.«

Father and Son

Alexandre Kantorow regularly appears together with his father Jean-Jacques – sometimes as a violin and piano duo, sometimes as a soloist with his father conducting. »We plan to do as much as possible together while we are both appearing in concert.« And with positive results: in addition to a duo album with French violin sonatas, they have also released recordings of the Liszt piano concertos to much acclaim.

In the spring of 2022, Kantorow père et fils gave what will be their last joint concerts for the time being – following them up with recordings of Saint-Saëns's works for piano and orchestra. »I probably grew up unconsciously with my father's artistic ideas and instincts,« Alexandre says. He is happy that they have managed to do so much together. »We often understand each other without talking at rehearsals. It's always a special experience playing with him.«

Jean-Jacques und Alexandre Kantorow (2014)

It's worth listening

When he's not touring, Alexandre Kantorow lives in an apartment in the centre of Paris. Even though he grew up in the suburbs – »in places where there there are more chickens than people«, as he puts it –, urban Paris is where he feels at home. Whenever he is travelling for a longer period of time, he misses the city on the Seine. What's his favourite place? The Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in the 19th arrondissement. When he is at home between concerts, he surrounds himself with friends and family when he can.

He says they are »a good adjustment«, with a smile on his face. »They know me best of all. I need to have people around me, otherwise I'll become even more introverted than I already am.« And he needs to have music around him as well: »You can't be introverted on the concert platform. As soon as I walk on stage, I turn into a slightly different person: when you're performing, you have to open up completely.« Anyone who sees Alexandre Kantorow perform soon finds out that it's worth listening when he opens up.

Text: Julika von Werder; last updated: 13.09.2022
Translation: Clive Williams

»Fast Lane« is supported by Porsche.

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