Life & Culture

Pianist Tom Borrow: ‘Having Ravel deep in my bones is good’

The young Israeli musician makes his debut at the proms on Sunday


Tom Borrow makes his debut at the BBC Proms on Sunday playing the Ravel Piano Concerto in G major. This is the work that marked the extraordinary moment, in January 2019, when he was 18 years old and was asked, with only 36 hours’ notice, to replace the indisposed Khatia Buniatishvili and play the concerto with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. He not only did so, to sensational public and critical acclaim, but went on to play in a series of 12 more concerts.
“I suppose it does have a special significance,” he says, over the telephone from Israel, “because it’s part of a major twist in my life, but I love it anyway. It’s always been significant and it’s a work with which I’ve had a long relationship — it’s been with me at so many different times in my life and to have that music deep in my bones is good.”

Born in Tel Aviv in 2000, Borrow began playing the piano as a small child and studied at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, with regular mentoring from the pianist Murray Perahia, who has been an important influence. “He comes to visit a few times a year and has a class at the Jerusalem Music Centre, a series of workshops. My first encounter with him was when I was 15 and there were six or seven of us invited to participate. He has this unique approach to music by using Schenker theory and analysis, which he encourages us to use as well. It takes a lot of study but it’s amazing, it changes your mental approach and makes you more aware of the bigger picture, giving you a sort of grand view from above rather than being overwhelmed by the detail. I find that it helps enormously with focus and learning, towards reaching a coherent interpretation.”
That 2019 jump-in catapulted Borrow into an international career. He was building his way up to this, winning numerous competitions and prizes in Israel, giving recitals and performing in concerts but all of a sudden he was being invited to play with the Cleveland Orchestra, the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, Rome, the Czech Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and in recital in Verbier and Toulouse, Aldeburgh and Cheltenham.
“It was quite a drastic change, going from building up a career in one place to travelling a huge amount but I haven’t really changed the structure of the way I work. I’m still learning, working on pieces, practising, building my repertoire. Nobody really wants to spend hours on a plane but it can be useful switch-off time. Of course I quite often use the time to go over the score yet again but actually just reading a novel can in some way help my Ravel — the learning continues at a subconscious level. I can become very obsessive when I’m working on a piece, trying to crack those nuts that composers have left us. On a long journey the fact that there is no choice but to sit in your seat and let yourself be carried along can be very helpful. You can get closer to what Perahia teaches — if you’re paying close attention to absolutely everything, then you’re not really paying attention to anything properly.’

When you watch Borrow at the piano he has a way of appearing immersed in and at one with the music but not distanced or cut off by that; he is somehow at the same time open, giving and communicative. “That balance is something I struggle with, to be both a facilitator and a generator. I find it difficult but I do listen to myself play sometimes. It’s healthy, and you can hear the more objective truth of the way you sound. I rarely watch myself though. One thing that’s immensely rewarding about being one of the BBC New Generation Artists is the opportunity to practise the art of recording. I’m being given a certain time slot to provide a certain programme to be recorded in a certain amount of time. It’s so different from a live concert. I can be really fussy about recordings, agonising over little details that seem horrifying to me in the moment but objectively mean very little. The time frame forces me to be more productive in recording, more efficient and more realistic. That needs practice.
“Another wonderful element of being an NGA is being introduced to other musicians. I’ve been put together with a French string quartet, the Quatuor Arod, and I probably wouldn’t have met them otherwise. We’ve just played the Dvorák Quintet No. 2 in Cheltenham and that was a brilliant experience, preparing chamber music with other players.”
So, after Ravel at the Proms, what next? “Ah, well, I’ve left myself a gap. An important one. I’m starting my journey with Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto — I like a challenge! I haven’t started learning it properly yet and it might sound bizarre, but as a way of refreshing myself, I sometimes have a little go at it. Even though I’ve only just started looking at it, have only scratched the surface, I already feel as if I’m stepping on holy ground. When you read that score, feel it in your hands, you get an insight into the way Rachmaninov thought. It’s an amazing use of the instrument — and of course he played the concerto himself, he gave the first performance [in New York in 1909]. I can’t wait to get really stuck into it. And it’s astonishing to me how anyone can compose, can put down notes on paper. For me as an interpreter it’s a privilege to be able to witness his genius from a unique perspective.”
Borrow finds it impossible to pick a favourite composer or a period of composition. “I try to have a universal approach and to be open to anything. Of course Beethoven is quite hard to neglect as a pianist, as is Mozart, but it’s good to mix. And in a way, when you practise Beethoven you’re also advancing in your Bartók and your Bach. I just try to play as much as possible.”

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