The unknown world-class pianist

Music: Peter Roesel's name may not ring a bell with music-lovers, but conductors insist on having him perform with them.

September 16, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Peter Roesel is the best pianist nobody's ever heard of -- including people who ought to know.

Last year, conductor Gunther Herbig asked for Roesel as his soloist in Prokofiev's Second Concerto in this week's season-opening Baltimore Symphony concerts. The orchestra's knowledgeable artistic administrator, Miryam Yardumian, had never even heard of him.

"I drew a blank," Yardumian says. "But Herbig told me that Roesel was wonderful and that he played the Second Prokofiev better than anyone else alive. I listened to some of Roesel's records -- and Herbig was right."

Hearing the story, Roesel shrugs.

"I can live with that," he says.

Roesel has learned to live with a lot in the 30-odd years he should have (but hasn't) been a star.

The German-born, Russian-trained pianist, 54, is certainly the greatest pianist Germany has produced since the end of World War II. He's not only a superb interpreter of the Austro-Germanic classics, he's also the only German who plays the Russian repertory as if it were in his bones -- with passion and brilliance that matches, and sometimes surpasses, the best of the Russians.

But even in his own country, Roesel is, as he himself admits, "a nobody."

That's because Roesel was born, and still makes his home, in Dresden. And Dresden is in what used to be called -- before the Berlin Wall came down -- East Germany.

"People from the [former] Eastern bloc countries have always had a tough time of it," Roesel says. "But if you were from Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia or Hungary, you were, at least, considered a Russian, a Pole, a Hungarian or a Czech. But when you came from East Germany, you were -- and still are -- a nobody."

Roesel laughs. While he's not bitter about it, he's not kidding, either.

In 1966, the 20-year-old Roesel, then a student at the Moscow Conservatory, came within a 16th-note of winning first prize in the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition, still winning acclaim (and a medal) because he finished near the top of the six finalists who had been winnowed down from the more than 70 outstanding young pianists, from all over the world, who were competing.

Twenty years later, in 1986, in a Tchaikovsky Competition much diminished from its former glory, a West German pianist named Bernd Glemser made headlines back home when he was eliminated in the semi-finals.

"The newspapers said he was the first German to finish that high in the Tchaikovsky," Roesel says.

He smiles.

"But I can live with that," he adds. "For careers today, competitions are meaningless."

Although Roesel doesn't say it himself, what is important to a pianist's career today is how highly he or she is esteemed by important conductors.

In that respect at least, Roesel's talent has been rewarded.

He is among the favorite soloists of several internationally renowned conductors who once worked primarily in East Germany. They include Herbig, Herbert Blomstedt and Kurt Masur, who has engaged Roesel five times with the New York Philharmonic and with whom Roesel may be entitled to a place in the Guinness Book of World Records because of their more than 200 performances together. The grand old man of Germanic conductors, Kurt Sanderling, resurrected the pianist's American career in 1986 by inviting him to perform all five Beethoven concertos in a single week with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

"That was not an easy thing for Sanderling to do," Roesel says. "Ernst Fleischmann [the Philharmonic's manager] had never heard of me, and he pleaded with Sanderling to find another pianist."

But after Roesel's first concerto performance, a very surprised and pleased Fleischmann rushed backstage to congratulate both musicians.

"You were right -- he is good," Roesel overheard Fleischmann say to Sanderling.

"What? You think I would insist on someone because he was bad?" the dour conductor replied.

The pianist also considers himself lucky because he had the opportunity to spend six years at the Moscow Conservatory, the world's premier pianistic training ground.

In 1963, Roesel won second prize in the International Robert Schumann Competition in Zwickau. Dmitri Bashkirov, one of Russia's best-known pianists and the only Russian on the jury, took the 18-year-old Roesel aside after the awards ceremony.

"Bashkirov said it would be great for me to go to Moscow -- to study with him, of course," Roesel says, with a chuckle.

He left for Moscow in 1964, spending two years with Bashkirov, the teacher of Dmitri Alexeyev, Nikolai Demidenko and Arcadi Volodos, and another four with Boris Zemylansky, from whom -- aside from their parents -- such pianists as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Alexander Toradze and the late Youri Egorov have said they learned most of what they are not ashamed to know.

Gunther Herbig, who has known him for more than 30 years, says that Roesel's six years in Moscow transformed his piano playing.

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