Petronel Malan is hardly the only pianist who reveres Franz Liszt, but she’s probably the only one who lists him as her husband on Facebook. Even if she and the composer/performer aren’t really hitched, she does own his original signature and collects the signatures of composers and performers past and present.
A native of South Africa, Malan debuted at age 10 with the Johannesburg Symphony and subsequently won all the major piano competitions in South Africa. She then swept up five gold medals in U.S. international competitions in 2000. Her 2003 recording Bach Transformed was nominated for three Grammy Awards including Best Instrumental Solo Album.
After high school she moved to the U.S. in 1992 with no specific plans.
“I really had no idea what I was going to do, but my father said I needed to get a degree so I went to get a degree,” she says. She actually got several, earning a bachelor’s degree at Michigan State University and then a master’s and doctorate from the University of North Texas. She has remained in Texas.
“After I earned my doctorate I could move back home or somewhere else, but I really had nowhere to go and 40 concerts to play the next year,” she says. So she stayed in Texas.
“The Dallas-Fort Worth Airport is fantastic and I’m in the center of the country,” she says.
She’s on the road and in the air from Florida to South Dakota to Germany and South Africa performing with orchestras, in solo recitals and chamber music settings and giving master classes. Her favorite places to play are those that “have a piano that works.”
She spends several months each year in South Africa visiting family and friends and performing.
Since the Bach CD, Malan has recorded transcriptions of music by Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, the last released in 2012 and all on the Hänssler Classic label. Although the Bach transcription project was brought to her by the record label, it wasn’t her first encounter with transcriptions.
“I’ve always been interested in transcriptions – ever since I was a kid,” she says. “I have files and files and files of transcriptions on hard drives. I could do volumes two and three of these all the recordings.”
The term “transcriptions” doesn’t quite do justice to the variations these reworkings involve. Each CD title includes the word “transfigured” – “Transfigured Bach,” “Tranfigured Mozart” and so on – which is an apt description for what composers, including Stephen Heller, Joachim Raff, Max Reger, Mikhail Glinka, Isaac Mikhnovsky and Samuil Feinberg, have done with them. The transcription recordings tap into her love of music history and she does all the research for her CDs, although she wasn’t a great music history student when younger.
“I didn’t like traditional music history as it was presented to me in college, then I started reading up on the pianists and realized how they all lock into one another in a linage of teaching,” she says. She’s tracked the influence of Theodore Leschetizky through his many students including Ignaz Friedman, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Artur Schnabel and frequently gives a lecture on the legacy of Leschetizky.
“I don’t think it’s essential to know about a composer’s life, but you will approach the composer differently once you know about their life,” Malan says.
She has never performed in Columbia, but this will be a return visit to the city. When she first came to the U.S., she came to Columbia where her family had friends.
“My very first Christmas in the U.S. was in Columbia,” she says, “and my first New Year’s Eve here was in Charleston.”