Amsterdam, 27 September 2010

Willem Boone (WB): How do you feel after last night’s concert?

Jonathan Biss (JB): Very tired, both emotionally and physically it was a huge programme (an all Beethoven programme with the sonatas op 10/1, 109, the Bagatelles opus 126 and the Appassionata, WB), that takes out everything of you . The Concertgebouw is an incredible place to play at, something one can only look forward to, so I feel satisfied and spent.

WB: Are you always capable of assessing yourself after you have played?

JB: I try not to! The beauty of a concert exists only in the moment; when it’s finished, it’s finished.. You allow things to happen, but of course there are always things that you are less happy with.

WB: Your colleague Krystian Zimerman is known to be a perfectionist and take notes after each concert about what could be improved. Would that work for you?

JB: It happens that you think about things that have happened in a concert and that could be adjusted. However, I think that the work of trying to improve is meant for the practice room!


WB: In the brochure of Riaskoff Management I read that you were looking forward to this concert a lot, why specifically to this one?

JB: It is my favourite hall. I played here many times and every time I find it miraculous that a large hall can give you a feeling of intimacy. It happened a few times that I sat in the audience and felt that the pianist was sitting next to me. Both the acoustics and the intimacy of this hall are great.

WB: It’s not that big, is it?

JB: 2000 seats for a recital is big! Beethoven would have never imagined something like this..

WB: Your colleague Maurizio Pollini has said several times that the Amsterdam audience was one of the best in the world, but what makes it so good?

JB: They are cultured and they know what they are listening to.

WB: How can you feel that as a musician?

JB: That’s something I cannot put in words. They are very open, there is no sense they are not willing to listen to other ideas. You feel the music is in their blood stream.

WB: I guess people may have asked you the next question many times; how did you end up playing the piano when both of your parents are string players?

JB: That’s a good question! My older brother played the piano therefore I wanted to play the piano as well. I am happy my parents were string players, it made things easier. There was a healthy separation; my parents were not my teachers and that created an independance.

WB: Were they able to help you?

JB: Absolutely. I am lucky, as they let me develop my own career. However, they have been incredibly supportive since they know what the life of an artist is like. They are a great resource.

WB: I have a DVD at home of Daniel Barenboim teaching Beethoven masterclasses, in which you play the last movement of opus 109. After this session, someone in the audience asked Barenboim whether there was a difference between being a pianist and a string player/singer. He answered that it was “hard to become one with the instrument” as it is “such a monster”. How can you become one with a piano indeed?

JB: It’s very difficult, the piano often feels like a machine. It is maybe the least natural instrument. Dynamically speaking nothing can equal it, but you sacrifice a lot in the directness of the music making. However, all pianists try to create a singing sound on a piano, whereas it is maybe not its tendency. Singing is the essence of music. When I am wrestling with a passage, I sing it away from the instrument, after that I can go back and work on the piano.

WB: That’s very interesting what you are saying! I remember Cherkassky said he couldn’t be a teacher, not even for a minute, but once, when someone said he was struggling with a passage, he advised the pianist to “first sing it” , which I think is great advice...

WB: Of course, I’d like to ask you a few questions about Beethoven. On your blog you wrote: “I am trying to come to terms with the most affirming, yet unfathomable music I know to exist”. Yet you played an all Beethoven programme last night, why was that?

JB: That is the reason I cannot stay away from it! His music is so human, you hear the struggle, the idealism and the beauty. It is beyond imagination, you never come to a point where you know him.

WB: What about Mozart? Do you have the feeling you know him or his music?

JB: It’s different. I don’t think he was interested in imagination. His music deals with the way he sees it, whereas Beethoven sees the world as he wishes it to be. With Beethoven, there is a great deal of idealism and utopia. If you take opus 109, you can speak of a pure, advanced vision. I hope there is nothing negative about saying his music is unfathomable.

WB: You also wrote on your blog about setting up recital programmes and mentioned all Beethoven- or Mozart programmes as opposed to programmes with “confrontation” , during which you played more than one composer. You mentioned “stilistic evenness” as one of the risks of the former programmes. Would you say that Beethoven is most “stilistic evenness proof”?

JB: The language evolved so much, if you look at the recital I played last night, from opus 10/1 to the Bagatelles of opus 126! You almost wouldn’t recognize Beethoven as the same composer, but the concerns are the same in both works. In the slow movement of the Sonata opus 10/1, he was already questioning the universe.

WB: That’s true, I often have the feeling that his 32 piano sonatas are very different and yet they form a coherent cycle in their diversity!

JB: There is indeed an unbelievable variety of tools. It really is a miracle.

WB: You said that Beethoven “took so much space in your head that he leaves you little room for anything else”. Does that make you the opposite of a colleague like Sokolov who says he loves the piece he plays most?

JB: It happens to me as well. Beethoven and Mozart are opposites, usually I feel closer to one than to the other. It depends on the one I play. Schubert and Schumann can make me feel the same way, but Beethoven is the biggest in sheer terms of personality.

WB: I once read a review in which the critic wrote that Beethoven had “no particular style” or much less than Mozart or Chopin. Do you agree and if so, is that maybe why you called him “unfathomable”?

JB: He has less of a fixed style, he was involved in so much all of the time. Beethoven was less interested in style than Chopin. However, Beethoven’s music has a searching quality and a forcefullness that are unique in their own rights.

WB: Is that searching quality one of your aims as well?

JB: My aim is searching for what is beyond what I can do. He is doing the same. I cannot understand him even when I am a mortal. His belief in the power of music was unshakable.

WB: May I confront you to a few opinions colleagues of yours have expressed about Beethoven: first Daniel Barenboim who said that “Beethoven is (still) constantly contemporary”?

JB: Absolutely! He went so far in terms of language; it’s still something to reckon with and so unrelated to anything else because of the questions he asked in his music.

WB: Which questions do you mean?

JB: About humanity, life and death, human feelings. Yes, music like his will always be contemporary.

WB: Again Daniel Barenboim, who said”Out of chaos, Beethoven created a new order”.

JB: The chaos was of his own making! I wouldn’t use the word “chaos”, but he certainly created a universe. Beethoven wasn’t interested in creating anything neat, yet his music was very complete and fullfilled. Probably I am saying the same thing as Barenboim in other words now...

WB: Vladimir Ashkenazy said that Beethoven “had such an incredible warm heart”.

JB: O, yes! His opus 109 is so human, even if the ideas are sometimes lofty.

WB: When I asked Menahem Pressler what he liked most about Beethoven he answered: “Everything, there is no composer like he who can express everything from the most noble until the most vulgar”

JB: That’s true! Beethoven is not above the earthiness of everything. If you take the Archduke Trio, it has one of the most philosophical slow movements, it really transports. The last movement almost makes fun of you for believing it..

WB: I liked what Barenboim said in the masterclass about your performance of the variations of opus 109 about recollection versus remembering.

JB: I was very touched by what he said and he was right about this. In the end the variations have a past and in the beginning they only have a future. He really clarified something for me.

WB: Would you consider to immerse yourself even more in Beethoven’s universe and study all of his sonatas?

JB: One day I will, definitely. I played 17 sofar and by the time I play 24 of them, I will plan to play all of them.

WB: Have you tackled the Hammerklavier Sonata already?

JB: That’s for next year for when I have planned a 4-month sabbatical leave.

WB: If you are speaking of Beethoven being unfathomable, that sonata may be one of the most difficult to interpret!

JB: It’s supposed to be daunty, but it doesn’t scare me. I relish that sort of challenges.

WB: I’d like to bring up another composer that is very close to your heart: Schumann. You said he was “love at first sight” and that “nobody expresses loneliness more beautifully”. Could you give an example of this?

JB (His look when I mention the name Schumann is quite telling!): The end of Dichterliebe is unbelievable, it’s the ultimate expression of loneliness. Or the Davidsbüundlertänze when the theme of the Ländler comes back. It’s the thought of someone who feels completely alone. I could give many other examples. Schumann didn’t write for the audience, he wants only one person to be changed by his music, probably his wife Clara. The intimacy of his music is even more important than with Schubert. With Schumann, you have the feeling you are listening in on a private conversation.

WB: I can understand quite well how you feel about Schumann. I feel the same way, I even have the feeling (although this may sound very arrogant) I could have written his music...

JB: He was a meeting point between the universal and the personal. You feel you know him, but never in a navel gazing way. Maybe he expressed his feelings more intensely than others.His voice is unique and powerful.

WB: Yet Schumann is not hugely popular, why is that?

JB: His music isn’t popular in the same way as that of other great composers. People are generally uneasy about romantic feelings. It is difficult to immerse in his world, as he goes so far. To go with him means the risk of losing control. There is a danger to feel so deeply! Schumann suffers a lot from comparisons, nobody looks to Schumann on his own merits. It’s a big shame, since his music has such vivid imagination.

WB: Tom Deacon, the artistic director of the project Pianists of the XXth century once told me “Schumann doesn’t sell”, what do you think of this?

JB: It depends on the numbers.. The idea that a few thousand people love something passionately is enough for me. I notice that people are truly moved when I play his music and that happens a lot. I refuse to measure things.

WB: Isn’t Schumann’s music even more chaotic than Beethoven’s and therefore terribly difficult to interpret?

JB: Yes, again Schumann was not interested in order, just like Beethoven. He didn’t feel order, but he was most interested in life, in things that are contradictory or difficult to fathom. There is a basic difference between his music and Mendelssohn’s, another great composer who did express order in his compositions. He was someone who valued symmetry.

WB: With whom do you have more in common: Florestan or Eusebius? Your colleague Eliso Virsaladze said you shouldn’t have more in common with one than with the other, as otherwise you wouldn’t be able to play him well?

JB: You can’t separate them, one makes the other possible. Eusebius is necessary because of Florestan. Florestan can also break your heart and Eusebius can also be powerful!

WB: You quoted Schumann on your blog: “Music is the language that permits one to converse with the Beyond”. Is that your aim too?

JB: Yes, it is. Music expresses feelings that are not equal to words. When you play music, you feel connected to something larger, be it God or the “Beyond”.

WB: Doesn’t that sound slightly arrogant: “I am conversing with the Beyond”?

JB: No, it’s not arrogant. All of us want to converse with something bigger,music creates that kind of awareness. It helps me to ask the questions.

WB: Which questions?

JB: The big ones: what are we here for? How do we relate to one another?

WB: Which piece by Schumann do you like the best?

JB: It’s very difficult to answer. I started to take back the Fantasy, so it would be the Fantasy if you ask me now. But I love everything by Schumann, even the late works, e.g the Gesänge der Frühe or the Violin Concerto.

WB: Who are your favourite Schumann pianists?

JB: I grew up with Cortot, whom I still value a lot. He would definitely be my first choice. I also like the poetry of Murray Perahia in his early CBS recordings.

WB: Do you believe that one can get to “know” the personality of a composer through his music?

JB: Schubert and Schumann are the only composers I feel I understand through their music.

WB: Suppose you were allowed to ask Schumann one question, what would it be?

JB: The answer is so corny that I almost don’t want to say it.. I wouldn’t ask him a question, but I just want to say him that everything will be ok.. I find it unbearable to feel how much he suffered...

WB: On your blog you wrote “In order to play a piece, I must love it”. May I conclude from that that you don’t like Chopin since I haven’t heard you play his music?

JB: I do and I love him! I worship his music, especially the late pieces like the Barcarolle and the Polonaise-Fantaisie. Maybe I haven’t played his music in Amsterdam...

WB: What is your relationship to his music?

JB: He was one of the first composers I loved. His music is so well written for the instrument, it is a physical pleasure to play. He allows you to use the body in a natural way and never works against you. And he offers an incredible combination of purity of line and depth.

WB: You don’t play a lot of purely virtuosic music, like Rachmaninov, Tschaikofsky or Liszt. I hope you are not offended when I say this, but are you too “civilized” a pianist to play this kind of music?

JB: I used to play quite a bit of it... As to Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto, I didn’t feel there was enough to practise it, although I like to listen to it. I like what Schnabel said: “I play music that is greater than any performance of it ever could be”. With a piece like Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto, I have the feeling that there is more.

WB: What do you mean?

JB: With Beethoven, I feel there is always another level or layer to penetrate, Rachmaninov doesn’t ask the same questions, but what the latter achieved was very honest and pure.

WB: Piano is a very virtuosic instrument, does not every pianist have a “hidden wish” to release the animal inside and show his claws?

JB: You need your claws and guts for Beethoven and Brahms aswell, but I feel that you are at the service of something. Maybe I am embarrassed to show only my claws..

WB: You studied with Leon Fleisher, who had high praise for you when I interviewed him a few years ago. How was he as a teacher?

JB: Great! Some artists are either eloquent musicians or eloquent speakers, he was both. He didn’t play much in the lessons, but I certainly got another level of understanding. He is the greatest musical person I have encountered.

WB: What is the most important you learnt from him?

JB: He has tremendous integrity and never faked a feeling. He taught me to never take the easy road and not shy away from difficulties. His sound is extraordinary; it is shining, pure, penetrating, I still have it in my ears. I admire the intuition with which he can shape a line or place a note. He has one of the most amazing musical intuitions, there is something deep inside him he knows.

WB: Did he transmit that to you?

JB: Yes, he transmitted the importance of listening to your own intuition, it’s very primal.

WB: I know you are good friends with the Dutch violonist Liza Ferstman. She said in an interview that the two of you participated in a performance of Brahms’s Second Piano Quartet during her last festival in Delft (the Netherlands). She also said that both of you had unhappy memories of previous performances of this piece, how did it go this time?

JB: It was a very happy experience, there was a lot of mutual sympathy.

WB: It is such a shame that she hasn’t the career she deserves, do you have any idea why she isn’t more famous?

JB: It’s difficult to explain, I think she is living a very fulfilling life, but I agree with you that she is an artist and that she has something to say. There are not that many musicians who are so open. We want to protect ourselves on the one hand and allow ourselves to be open on the other hand, she does that.

WB: My last question is about what I read in the leaflet of the Meesterpianisten Series, that you know a lot about tennis and love to eat icecream. How do you feel when people write such rather trivial things about you?

JB: It is a bit of an adjustment, I felt for a long time that there was nothing about me that was worth knowing about and at my core I still feel that. I am still careful, but people have curiosity. It’s my life, but I don’t think it harms me when people know about me that I love tennis and icecream. It doesn’t make it difficult to come to my concerts.. I try not to be fanatic about protecting myself!

(When I tell Jonathan Biss at the end of the interview that I love watching tennis matches too and that we maybe should schedule another talk about tennis he answers:” I could go on for a very long time about tennis!”.)