An Irishwoman’s Diary about Miceal O’Rourke, Russia’s best-loved Irish pianist
Encore after encore in St Petersburg
Irish concert pianist Miceal O’Rourke. A statue of the Russian composer Glinka stands in the background. Photograph: Anne-Elisabeth Credeville
The Irish composer John Field played a concerto in aid of wounded Russian veterans of the Napoleonic War on November 16th, 1813, in the Glinka Hall of the St Petersburg Philharmonia.
Miceal O’Rourke has lost track of the number of times he’s performed in the same white and gold baroque hall. In early March, the audience cheered O’Rourke’s rendition of Mozart’s piano concerto in C minor, and the D minor fantasy, demanding encore after encore. Then they queued backstage to seek autographs and lavish gifts on the Irish pianist.
Also in the Glinka Hall, Franz Liszt interrupted a concert in the early 1840s because the czar was talking with his ministers in the front row. The czar told him to carry on. Liszt replied: “When the Czar of all the Russias speaks, even Liszt listens!”
Sometimes before a concert, O’Rourke says it give him “an eerie feeling” to know he is about to perform on the stage where Field and Liszt played. He looks like Franz Liszt, and also bears a resemblance to President Michael D Higgins.
Field had moved to St Petersburg in 1802. In Russia, Field separated from his exploitative mentor, Clementi, and spent most of the years until his death in 1837. These two centuries later, O’Rourke has taken up Field’s mantle as Russia’s best-loved Irish pianist.
“Their piano school goes back to John Field and nobody else,” he explains. The Moscow and St Petersburg conservatories were founded by students of Field.
O’Rourke is in his element in Russia, which he has visited two or three times a year since 1979. He travels around St Petersburg in jeans, anorak and knit cap, adopting the local practice of hitching lifts from motorists in exchange for a few hundred roubles. Fellow musicians address him affectionately as “Tovarich (comrade) Rurk.”
When O’Rourke began touring the former Soviet Union, he was paid in roubles which could not be taken out of the country. He had no choice but to squander concert fees on laquered boxes and caviar as gifts for friends in the West.
O’Rourke found his vocation at the age of 10, on hearing the French pianist Samson Francois play Chopin’s first concerto at the Gaiety Theatre. He left Dublin in the late 1960s, returning briefly to complete his music degree at UCD and marry fellow music student Catherine Hanly.
They settled in France, where they live in a former carpenter-joiner’s atelier and dwelling, half an hour outside Paris. O’Rourke practices six hours daily. It’s a peaceful life, punctuated by visits from children and grandchildren, and epic concert tours to the US, South America, western Europe and especially Russia.
In the 1970s, O’Rourke focused on Mozart. Then he was “grabbed, bitten, smitten” by Chopin, who occupied the central place in his life for 15 years. He played all 21 Chopin nocturnes at one sitting in what was then the Leningrad Philharmonia, and in west Cork and Wexford.
“Chopin is a disease one never wants to be cured of,” he says.
Field’s influence on Chopin led O’Rourke back to the Irish composer. “Field was like a bridge between Mozart and Chopin, placed chronologically between the two,” he explains. “I realised there’s a hole in there, and in that hole there’s an Irishman.”
In the 1980s, O’Rourke spent years scouring Field archives in the British, French and Soviet national libraries, and the Polish library in Paris. Field’s concertos had been out of print since the 1850s. In an exhilarating “eureka” moment, he discovered Field’s hand-annotated scores in the Lenin library in Moscow. O’Rourke’s eight CDs of Field’s oeuvre for piano won several international awards.
Before the present war started in Ukraine, O’Rourke played concerts in the flashpoints – Lugansk, Kharkov and Kiev.
“Not many of my Russian friends show any inclination to talk about it,” he says. “It’s a very delicate moment.” If Europe went to war with Russia, or if sanctions were extended to cultural exchanges, it could mean the end of his Russian concerts.
The Irish pianist has a sense of déjà vu. He toured the Soviet Union in the wake of its December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, and was surprised to find the US and British ambassadors chatting amicably with a high-ranking Soviet official at a dinner at the Irish ambassador’s residence in Moscow.
“I sensed that bridges were being maintained or built,” he says. “It’s better to keep talking while you can. Culture may be a way to do that.”