Brazilian pianist Cristina Ortiz was all of two years old when she first sat down at a piano keyboard. Ortiz has made a name for herself as one of the most moving interpreters of Romantic music, a champion of lesser known works in the piano repertoire and a must-see performer.
Ahead of her performance as part of the International Piano Series later this month, we’re having a look at what makes her career so interesting.
While most of us were struggling with simple nursery rhymes, Ortiz proved herself a prodigy. She had her first lessons aged four, telling one interviewer: “I was taken to the young sister of a colleague of my father, who used to be a concert pianist . . . we didn’t do exercises, it was all music, music, music, and that’s why I am what I am! She just gave me tunes and music to play; Bach and Mozart and everything, a little Chopin, everything. No scales.”
Aged just eight she was enrolled in the Brazilian Conservatory of Music, in Rio de Janeiro – where she did learn scales. Still in her teens she won a scholarship to study in Paris and in 1969 she won a gold medal at the Van Cliburn Competition in Texas, leading to a period of study in the United States where she focused on German repertoire, having previously focused heavily on French music.
Ortiz is often thought of as a specialist in Romantic music, and it’s easy to see why, with lucious, soulful performances such as this 1997 recording of Debussy’s Poissons d’or.
It’s one of the reasons her concert here is going to be so exciting, as she plays works by Chopin ranging from a selection of Études published in 1837 to Barcarolle in F sharp, Op. 60, written three years before the composer’s death.
Throughout her career she has recorded works by Romantic greats from Beethoven to Rachmaninov, all to great acclaim.
As well as performing well-known piano music, Ortiz has made it her mission to bring the works of some her Brazilian compatriots to wider attention. This has included performing and recording five piano concertos by Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887 – 1959), as well as a lot of his solo piano music.
She also performed the US premiere of Camargo Guarnieri’s Chôro in a Carnegie Hall performance in 1996. In 2006 Ortiz released an album called Brazilian Soul, featuring music by Villa-Lobos, Guarnieri, Fructuoso Vianna and Oscar Lorenzo Fernandez.
This includes recording an entire album of Clara Schumann’s music, and another of works by the English composer York Bowen (1884 – 1961).
Bowen is probably familiar to most lovers of the piano repertoire (and not a few of the instrument’s students) but if his work has passed you by until now, you’re in for a huge treat. Described by Saint-Saëns as ‘the most remarkable of the young British composers’ back in 1903, Bowen was inspired by the likes of Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and, of course, Chopin – all the while managing to create music with its own, distinctive style.
In 2014 Ortiz released an album of Bowen’s 24 Preludes, Berceuse, Op.83 and Suite Mignonne on Naxos Music. It won rave reviews – here’s an excerpt from that recording.
In a 1989 interview, Ortiz was discussing the a performance of a complex piece by Stenhammar with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when she revealed she’d taken a specially devised version of the music on stage for the first performance (the second she did from memory).
“I have prepared scores; they are tiny, reduced, so I don’t need a page turner, which is less of a distraction for the public than the normal situation,” she told the interviewer. “I devised this way of preparing the score so I have the whole movement in front of me. Then I take that sheet away and have one for the second movement and another for the third movement. It’s fantastic; it’s just changed all my life!”
We’re thrilled to welcome Ortiz back to Southbank Centre and the International Piano Series here on Thursday 18 October. There’s still time to get your tickets and discover this brilliant, intelligent musician for yourself.