February 1983


Dimitris Sgouros: Phenomenal Prodigy

by Dean Elder


"I wrote it for elephants," said Rachmaninoff of his Third Concerto; and if Dimitris Sgouros, even at his young age, took the words as an invitation, nobody is arguing. No one with less than an elephant-sized talent could have performed the work as this Greek prodigy did given only a few days notice before his Carnegie Hall debut last April.
That achievement generated a great deal of curiosity about Sgouros' recital at the 1982 University of Maryland Festival and International Piano Competition. Rachmaninoff reincarnated? The refrain is too restrained for some. Why not Liszt? Or...dare it be said.. .Mozart? Mstislav Rostropovich, who introduced the young phenomenon to this country at Carnegie Hall, sounds responsible by comparison, saddling Sgouros with nothing weightier than "genius" and Sviatoslav Richter is positively curmudgeonly with his "phenomenally gifted musician" rating. Sgouros may or may not be the equal of Mozart, Liszt, or Rachmaninoff, but for the time being at least, it is certain that he is an extremely gifted 12-year old. It is likewise certain that he is no Dumbo but that he is flying by a musically magical, eerily unnatural ear. To carry the analogy a step too far, his memory.. .well, you know what they say about elephants.

Sgouros launches into his music with arms flying as if he were on a skateboard, careening at breakneck speed through a thrilling and joyous amusement park of a score. His athleticism excited the audience of pianists at the Maryland Festival, but it was the musicianship granted that he plays too fast which twice brought them to their feet cheering. Most impressive were his incredible instincts, emotional and physical.

He opened with a Scarlatti Sonata in F that displayed an innate individuality and feeling for color. In Beethoven's Appassionato Sonata he gave out emotionally and physically to a rare degree. There was almost palpable worry that his entire slim frame would fly apart or that his muscles would fail to last, and it was with mounting alarm that the audience listened to Liszt's Mephisto Waltz reach record speeds.

Twelve-year-olds can be a daunting lot. Sgouros is a free spirit who seems impish and unconcerned. An hour before his recital found him in the cafeteria, dressed casually, eating and conversing earnestly. Then backstage he took time to plague Jean Brubaker, head of public relations for the festival.
Dimitris dramatically exclaimed, "I have to have a piano; I have to practice; I can't go out and play unless I have a piano." After a good deal of rushing about, Brubaker located a key to a practice room.
"Oh, I was only kidding; I don't need to practice." Brubaker brushed aside this greeting by Sgouros, took him by the nape of the neck and said "After my struggles you are going into this practice room whether you want to or not." So the young genius found himself locked in a practice room before going onstage to play Chopin's Fantasy in F minor and Schumann's Etudes Symphoniques with gusto. He also sailed through Scarlatti and Liszt and finished with two encores, Prokofiev's Scherzo from Op. 12 and Liszt's Feux Follets.

Stewart Gordon, Festival Director, told me of teaching Dimitris for two weeks prior to his Maryland appearance, "I have said, without trying to be cute, that it's like dealing with someone from another planet. His perception is so rapid, it makes believable the stories about Mozart going to a concert, hearing a new composition for the first time, coming home and writing it down. Dimitris has that kind of ear."

"When I first met him at the Greek Embassy he was to begin his lessons with me the following day. He said, 'I would like to bring the Bartok Second Concerto to you.' That took me back a little, but I said, 'Fine.' The next day he brought the music for the concerto, apologizing, 'I have read through this only once.' Using the score he immediately got into the spirit of the piece. He literally read it up to tempo, missed almost nothing, and took the technical difficulties with the multitude of double notes, time signature changes, and complex rhythms in stride. Occasionally there was a misconception of a rhythmic change, a dynamic, or a phrasing. When I pointed out these things, he caught on instantly and continued.

"Skeptical, I queried him. He stuck to the story that he had just begun the piece, although it was close to being ready for performance. Halfway through he stopped and said, 'This piece is going to be difficult to memorize. Usually if I read something two or three times, I know it. I don't think that will happen with this piece.'
"The next day his sight-reading of the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which he said he had wanted to look at for a long time, was a 95 percent polished performance. It was finished not only in a technical sense but also in its musical perception which I judge has come to him from the teacher in Greece with whom he studied for five years. The musical insight was sensitive, close to being right most of the time.

"We proceeded from the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody to the Rachmaninoff Etudes Tableaux and the Scriabin Etudes Op. 8 to which I provided the music. He preferred to sight-read these things at the lesson and seemed to be searching for pieces he wanted to do.
"Finally we hit upon the Brahms Sonata in F minor. During the two weeks he read through that work three times, working occasionally to clean up a passage. By the end of the third reading he had memorized the piece and considered it ready for performance.
"The next day after playing the Scriabin Etudes, he played through the Etude in D-flat from memory, the one in thirds near the end of the book, as a warm-up. To my knowledge he had played it only once when he had read through it the day before.

"Dimitris is very ear conscious. He has to know what key he's in. The minute the reading begins to fail he'll ask, 'What key am I in?' I would play the scale for him, and off he'd go. When he gets into late Scriabin, he has some difficulty in the reading. There, key relationships are not always obvious because of the notation. He does better with Prokofiev because the notation is clearer in this regard.

"Dimitris' fingering is automatic. I showed him a few tricks in terms of fingering thirds and sixths when I thought he had selected the wrong thing, and he picked them up quickly. He does these things without thinking about them. As other children throw a ball or run, Dimitris plays the piano. He does it joyfully; he responds to the music. He loves the emotional intensity of music and he often says, 'This is very beautiful. I like this piece.'

"In reading through the three Brahms sonatas he commented, 'The F minor is the best; that is the one I am going to play. There are beautiful passages in the other sonatas.' When he would come to a good spot in the Sonata in F# minor, he would say 'This is very moving,' later on adding 'This part is not as good.' He has this kind of taste and perception."

To Gordon the most remarkable feat was Dimitris' performance of the Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata Op. 106.
"We all know the extreme difficulties of the Hammerklavier Sonata. People whose stock in trade is this sonata say that it has to be practiced hard. Since Sgouros had said he'd like to perform it, I had asked him to bring it in. Granted he had seen it before, but he read the entire thing, including the fugue, up to tempo. When he started the slow movement he said, 'This is very beautiful.' He loved and responded to every note of it. While he doesn't play like a mature 60-year-old artist, his response is genuine and moving. His understanding and execution of the fugue absolutely knocked me out. The kind of security and stamina this piece requires because of its skips and trills is legendary, yet he slighted nothing. He tossed it off as if he were joyfully playing a performance."

Upon such evidence, a potentially great pianist was indeed among us at Maryland. "Handle with care" is stamped all over Sgouros and, alarmed at his almost frenzied style, some pianists in the audience predicted a burnout. Gordon has a different concern.

"Obviously varying degrees of awareness will have to come in about eight years or maybe sooner. When Menuhin became aware enough to ask that fatal question, 'How do I do this?', he had to take several years off to relearn his instrument."

Gordon and many others are glad that Sgouros is headed to the Royal Conservatory in London. He will study privately with Vladimir Ashkenazy.

"His parents cannot stop him from playing," Gordon said. "On the other hand, I'm convinced that they do not exploit him. He plays because he wants to play, and they use his vacations for his performances. He's graduated from the Athens Conservatory and completed his secondary schooling. He speaks four or five languages and is a whiz in mathematics. His parents are taking him to the Royal Conservatory in London to seek further regular training away from the concert stage. His father is a well-known physician in Athens: it's not a matter of finances. His parents are trying to do the right thing by him."

* Dean Elder, Consulting Editor for Clavier, served on the judge's panel for the Gina Bachauer Competition.

Arthur Rubinstein featured on the cover (Dimitris Sgouros played a 3-hour private recital for Rubinstein only 2 months before the great pianist's death)



April 1985

Clavier Magazine -  "Sgouros, on the basis of this performance, seems to have the makings of one of the century's great pianists" 


Vladimir Horowitz featured on the cover of Ovation Magazine (March 1983 edition)



 Ovation Magazine Special Tribute Edition -  Dimitris Sgouros awarded First Prize for his recordings, "strikingly outdistancing the competition..." 


 July 1984   From left to right:
John Patrick, Vice President of Angel Records L.A.; Erick Friedman ; Jean-Philippe Collard ; Dimitris Sgouros ;
Dr. Mark P. Malkovich, III, Director Newport Festival, Rhode Island ; Anthony Caronia, Angel Records New York
[special thanks to Mark Malkovich IV for this photograph, drawn from the personal collection of Dr Mark P. Malkovich III]


"Dimitris Sgouros is surely on his way to recording all the standard repertoire.  But for once I don't mind the duplications.  What a piano player he is!  I can't wait to hear his next recording."

- Roger Milton, Beverly Hills, CA   [High Performance Review]



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