The press calls him the “Tsar of piano”, but the nickname fails to capture the gentleness of Alexandre Kantorow’s playing. Appointed the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic’s artist in residence for 2020, the 23-year-old pianist is not indulging in his overnight, head-turning success.

“I actually have very few memories of consciously listening to music growing up.” Even if Alexandre Kantorow is the son of two violinists, a career as a performer was not always in the books.  For a while, the pianist considered going into science and keeping music as a hobby.

Then came studies at Paris’ Schola Cantorum. “It was the first time I shared music with others,” says Kantorow. There, he met a teacher, Russian pianist Igor Lazko, who made him realise that piano would not be just for fun. “I was late to the game and had a lot to catch up.” Kantorow says that technique was the hardest part. “My fingers, they weren’t very strong.”

Alexandre waltzes in just to see what piano competitions are like and ends up winning it

A debut for the history books

About a year and a half ago, Kantorow was relatively unknown outside the Parisian music scene. Then in 2019, he won first prize at the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. Held in Moscow every four years, the Tchaikovsky competition is one of the most prestigious titles up for grabs in classical music.

“He had a meteoric start to his career,” says Didier de Cottignies, Artistic Manager of the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra, who appointed Kantorow as the orchestra’s new artist in residence. “Along with the Chopin competition, the Tchaikovsky is the hardest piano competition to win.”

It was Kantorow’s very first competition and winning it seemingly an impossible feat. “Some pianists work for years in order to be ready for the Tchaikovsky competition. Alexandre waltzes in just to see what piano competitions are like and ends up winning it,” adds Didier de Cottignies amused.

Alexandre Kantorow was the first French winner in the history of the Tchaikovsky competition, enough to make him the new darling of French classical music. In 2020, he won the French Victoires de la Musique Classique – the French equivalent of the classical music Grammys – in two categories: Recording of the Year and Instrumental Soloist of the Year.

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I never really believed that I would make it, and even today I don’t feel like I have

The question of self-doubt

Kantorow himself only mentions the Tchaikovsky piano competition in passing: “Thankfully, there was the competition, so I’ve been able to book concerts despite coronavirus.” Unlike music critics, Kantorow is hesitant when talking about his own playing. “I never really believed that I would make it, and even today I don’t feel like I have. I suppose when you don’t see yourself play, you can’t look at your performance objectively.”

It’s not stage fright, but rather real doubt about how he goes about his craft. “I think my greatest fear is not evolving any longer, reaching a stalemate. I constantly have doubts about my playing,” explains the young pianist.

Alexandre Kantorow says that performing regularly is the only cure: “It’s only once I am on stage that I’m able to put self-doubt behind me. At that moment, something else takes hold of me.” Does the audience have a therapeutic effect? “The audience certainly plays a role. And then there’s the event in itself. There’s a specific mental preparation that comes with knowing that you’re going to play in the evening.” 

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Contemporary classical music struggles to get an audience

Where does he find his inspiration?

Voice has got around that Brahms is Kantorow’s favourite composer, but when asked who inspires him, the pianist answers Liszt. “He had an incredible life, the kind of life that will never be lived again. To think that someone could be so curious, and until the end of his life…! He started out as a pianist, delved into composition, then locked himself up and became religious.” Kantorow also mentions Alexandre Austier, a French writer, filmmaker, scriptwriter, and composer. “I am attracted by curiosity, the desire to do it all.”  

Does he himself compose? “I would like to. I don’t know, I have a lot of trouble. Whenever I do try, it always ends up sounding like a copy of a composer whose music I play. I admire the few people who are capable of combining the work of a performer with that of a composer very much, I find it incredible.” He mentions Lucas Debargue, a classical pianist, and friend, who is known for performing his own compositions at concerts.  

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“Contemporary classical music struggles to get an audience. If musicians were also to play their own works at concerts, it would inject some life back into it,” suggests Kantorow.

His playing can never leave you indifferent

An “exceptional musician” in Monaco for the first time

Previous artists in residence of the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra include internationally acclaimed musicians, such as Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov. However, after Didier de Cottignies joined the Monte-Carlo orchestra in September 2019 as Artistic Manager, the philharmonic’s programme started to feature many young virtuosos, such as violinist Daniel Lozakovich and the newly-formed Zeliha trio. The same goes for the orchestra’s artistic residency, which Didier de Cottignies says he sees as a wonderful way of promoting emerging musicians. “I wanted to nominate a young artist, rather than an established one,” he explains

Didier de Cottignies, who previously worked in Paris as the Artistic Manager of the Orchestre National de France, has known Kantorow since the pianist was 16. “I like him a lot,” he says with a tone that suggests he is not the kind of person to give praise easily. “He’s an exceptional musician who has developed beautifully.” 

The first time Didier de Cottignies saw Alexandre Kantorow, the pianist was playing at a church in central Paris. “You could hear ambulances go by.”  He says that he was struck by the teenager even then. “He’s a true artist. Nowadays, you see so many artists that are formatted, but in Alexandre’s playing, you can feel true creation. It’s a feeling that you sense from the very start. His playing never leaves you indifferent.”

I wanted to nominate a young artist, rather than an established one. He is an exceptional musician who has developed beautifully

As Monaco’s new artist in residence, Alexandre Kantorow will be in the Principality for three concerts. It is Kantorow’s first artistic residence, and he calls the appointment a “beautiful sign of trust in me”. 

The first of the pianist’s three concerts is on Sunday 17 January. Alexandre Kantorow will play Rachmaninov’s Sonata number 1, Sofia Gubaidulina’s Chaconne and Brahms: Ballades opus 10, and the German composer’s adaptation of Bach’s Chaconne for violin.