English profiles

Eindhoven, 22 January 2008

Before the interview starts, Peter Frankl is still rehearsing Mozart’s Double Concerto and Saint Saens’s Carnaval des Animaux with pianist Bart van de Roer of the Storioni Trio. I have seldom done an interview that started in such a relaxed way; Frankl comes in, shakes hands and... starts telling me about the upcoming Storioni Festival in Eindhoven, in which he takes a prominent part, playing no less than 9 works, like the above mentioned works for 2 pianos and orchestra, besides a lot of chamber music: Brahms Horn and Clarinet Trios, Mozart’s Quintet for piano and winds, Schumann Adagio and Allegro for Horn and Piano, 2 Schubert Songs with wind instruments and the fiendishly difficult set of Variations on Trockne Blumen for Flute and Piano.

Peter Frankl (PF): Not bad for an old man, right?

Willem Boone (WB): I have dear memories of your playing, going back to  1978, when I was still a teenager...

PF: What did I do?

WB: You played Mozart’s Concerto K 503 in C major, it was the first time I heard that concerto and I have loved your playing ever since!

PF: That must have been with the Nederlands Philharmonic Orchestra: I alternatively played this concerto and the Double concerto with Andras Schiff. I had some marvellous experiences in the Netherlands, two appearances with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Haitink, in the rarely played Mozart Concerto K 451, and the Third Bartok Concerto. And another unforgettable experience was the Mozart Concerto K 459 with the Nederlands Kamer Orkest under Szymon Goldberg. Not only the performance itself, but all the rehearsals were so special. Goldberg was such a great musician..

WB: I hear a lot of warmth in your playing, do you think the character of a musician always shines through the playing?

PF: I think so, but there are some exceptions for sure. Michelangeli for instance: he looked like he hated everybody in the audience, but he could produce miracles. He was a fantastic pianist.
 First of all, you have to love what you are doing, even if you have done it a few hundred times. It’s not a profession, but a vocation. I had a piano trio (with violinist Gyorgy Pauk and cellist Ralph Kirshbaum, WB) for 28 years. We often played together and knew each other’s thoughts and intentions.  It was wonderful. In a different way, it can be also satisfying to play chamber music with excellent musicians, as long as there is musical understanding between them. At this festival for instance, we had a rehearsal for Mozart’s Quintet K 452, one of his most beautiful pieces. I have never played with the clarinettist, Emma Johnson, and she was wonderful. I knew the excellent bassoonist, Etienne Boudreault, from Canada, whom I recommended for the Festival. The horn player, Hervé Joulain was also wonderful, so was the Belgian oboist, Piet van Bockstal.  The first rehearsal went so well that we decided that the general rehearsal will be sufficient to give a spontaneous performance. In this case the chemistry worked!
PF:  Today, there was a memorial concert for Artur Rubinstein in London, to which I was invited, but I couldn’t go. It would have been an honour for me to be present at this event.

WB: Did you know Rubinstein?

PF: I met him on a few occasions, but I didn’t really know him.
PF: I feel sometimes sorry for young musicians, when they are playing in competitions. They often meet the same jury members everywhere. I am not often in a jury. 2 years ago Ashkenazy started a competition in Hong Kong and invited me to be among the judges in 2008. I thought I couldn’t refuse his offer.

WB: Is Ashkenazy a friend of yours?

PF: I have known him since 1955, when we both participated at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw and we met again a year later at the Queen Elisabeth Competition which he won (I got the 12th prize!) More recently I played the Schumann Concerto with Ashkenazy conducting in Cleveland and the Schnittke Concerto with him in Berlin. We even played football together with Barenboim in the early 60s, when we all lived in London!
I will also be in the jury in Cleveland - I have fond memories of that city, where I played several times with George Szell. He was a great musician, a wonderful conductor from whom, as a young pianist, I learned a lot. I cherish those concerts enormously.

WB: I’d like to ask you some questions about your great compatriot, the composer Bela Bartok. Is his music daily bread for you?

PF: Yes, definitely! I regret I didn’t play some of his solo works, like his Sonata and Suite “Out of Doors”, but I played Bartok's own piano version of the Dance Suite, one of my favourites. I did all of his Piano Concertos, the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, also in the orchestral version. And I even played the Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra in the Netherlands, with Roberto Benzi conducting. I also did a lot of his chamber music like the two Violin Sonatas, the Rhapsodies for violin, Contrasts. His Concertos are standard repertoire, I played the Third Concerto maybe a hundred times, and the other two maybe fifty times each. I think Hungarians may have a better understanding of his music,  it may be easier for them to find the right accents and declamation. On the other hand, Bartok was a  universal composer, more so than Kodaly. His music doesn’t “travel” as much as Bartok’s. Bartok’s human behaviour was so special.. He left Hungary because of the Nazis though he wasn’t Jewish. He had a very hard life in America. At the end of the war, he was very negative about returning to Hungary fearing communism, though he loved his country very much.

WB: What are the typical features a good Bartok performer should have according to you?

PF: Difficult to say.. There are some misunderstandings though, especially about the percussive elements in some of his music. (He demonstrates this by singing parts of the first movement of the First Piano Concerto and the way the repeated notes should be played). Some pianists are only pointing out the rhythmic character, which of course has to be very precise. However, it’s not only about being percussive, it’s also the colouring of the notes and the accents that count. I have heard wonderful performances of the outer movements of the Piano Sonata, but less so of the second movement. They make it sound as if there were only dissonances and percussive elements in this movement, and miss out the “parlando” character, the kind of speaking of this music. You know, some of Bartok’s music were not allowed to be played in Hungary in the early 50’s! Pieces like his First and Second Piano Concertos , the 3rd and 4th String Quartets, as they were not socialist realist music! He was very harshly criticized by the authorities in that time.

WB: Whom do you consider as a great non-Hungarian performer of Bartok’s music?

PF: I heard Pierre Boulez conduct the Dance Suite, that was great. As a pioneer for modern music, Boulez is worshipped in Hungary, but strangely enough, they don’t like his Bartok performances. And I saw this young Wunderkind, Gustavo Dudamel from Venezuela on television wonderfully conducting the fourth and fifth movements of the Concerto for Orchestra.

WB: You only mentioned conductors now. Which non-Hungarian pianists do you rate in Bartok?

PF: Richter played the Second Concerto fantastically, although he was maybe not the ideal performer for this piece. I think Perahia plays the Sonata very well and Lupu does the Suite Out of Doors most beautifully. Kremer is great in the Violin Sonatas and of course Menuhin played wonderfully the Second Violin Concerto and the Solo Sonata. I played the Third Concerto in one of his last concerts, it was an uplifting experience. After all, he knew Bartok in person! Maybe he wasn’t a great conductor, but he knew the piece inside out and loved it. I am also fortunate that I had the opportunity to play the First and Second Concertos with Boulez.

WB: How do you consider the Third Concerto? Like Mozart’s  Concerto K 595?

PF: Definitely, a swan song.  It is a piece of someone who looks back. As with Mozart’s K 595, it’s not a pioneering work, like for instance K 271, in which the piano enters at the beginning of the piece. Or it doesn’t have important wind divertimenti elements like K 482 and 491. There is a lot of serenity in both pieces. Interestingly, the Third Bartok Concerto is, in many ways, a straight continuation of the Second Concerto. They have the same form, the second movement in both concerti start like a choral and both middle sections are "night music".

WB: Speaking of Mozart’s K 595, would you call it a bitter-sweet composition?

PF: Maybe not bitter-sweet, as there is nothing bitter about it, it is very lyrical. In the last movement, he has tears in his eyes…. And if you take the first movement, there is one bar before the main theme enters, it’s exactly like the start of the G minor Symphony (K 550). This sets the mood and creates an atmosphere that is very special.
PF: There is another Hungarian composer, who was greatly admired by both Bartok and  Kodaly: Dohnanyi. He wasn’t looking for folkloric music, he was mainly inspired by Brahms and Schumann. He was also a phenomenal pianist, he played all the Beethoven Sonatas and Mozart Concertos and premiered some of Bartok’s and Kodaly’s works. He became a legend in Hungary, Bartok looked up on him as a pianist and musician. I believe there are some pirate recordings of Bartok and Dohnanyi playing together. I don’t play his solo piano output, but I do play his complete chamber music. I recorded his two Quintets with the Fine Arts Quartet.

WB: Another composer I’d like to talk about is Schumann of whom you played all the piano works!

PF: I adore Schumann! His Concerto and Carnaval are popular, but some of his output is very much neglected. As they say, he is no box office composer. In the 80’s, I finished the cycle of  all of his piano works, of which the Concerto and the two Konzertstück for Piano and Orchestra were issued on CD. I also did a CD with works for two pianos and 4 hands with Andras Schiff; all the rest were issued on 15 LP’s ( 5 boxes of 3 LP’s each). There have been some attempts – so far unsuccessful - to issue everything on CD. I particularly love some of his late chamber music: the F major Piano Trio was one of my first loves, but I also adore the Märchenbilder, 5 Stücke im Volkston, the Fantasiestücke.. It’s all so original! Some people dismiss him, saying that he lacks in form or is only good in cyclical pieces. Moreover, Schumann was such an incredible polyphonic composer! Take the 6 Canons for Pedalpiano for instance, that were transcribed by Debussy. It’s pure canonical writing. Tears come to my eyes every time I hear or play them...The same is true of the slow movement of the Second Symphony, it’s practically one melody, it’s gorgeous..

WB: What would you call his greatest piano work?

PF (thinks): Difficult to say... maybe the most perfect piano composition is the Fantasy, but there is also Kreisleriana or Davidsbündlertänze...A work that should be played more often is his Second Violin Sonata, it is so neglected, yet it is so beautiful!

WB: I heard you play that with Kyung Wha Chung in the Netherlands (Utrecht, 1996, WB)

PF: Once, on a European tour, we also played it in Lisbon and she got very upset, probably because we didn’t play to a full house. During the intermission she said: “Peter, I am so angry, we will now do all the repeats!”, so she "punished" the audience!

WB: How is Schumann’s piano writing, I heard it could be rather awkward?

PF: He was a pianist composer. Maybe at the very end of his life, he was awkward, the Gesänge der Frühe are very hard to play. Basically, his compositions are very difficult and string players find him too pianistic!

WB: How can a violin or cello part be pianistic?

PF: Schumann’swriting style doesn’t come easily on a violin or a cello. You have to work hard. It doesn’t happen by itself, unlike with Brahms. It is fantastically rewarding though, if you have enough time to rehearse, like I had one summer in Marlboro. There I played for the first time the G minor Trio. It is great when you can work out the polyphony and balancing of these pieces. Like very often, when the composer writes forte, it is not necessarily in volume, but in intensity that he means it. My students sometimes ask me: “I have to play forte, how should I do that?” and I ask them; “What forte? “Liszt occasionally writes several pages with three fff’s, but he means grandeur, not non-stop banging! You have to build it up, like in the Grandioso of the B minor Sonata.

WB: Do you agree with Claudio Arrau who said that even in Schumann’s most intimate pages, there was a current of turbulence underneath?

PF: Definitely, yes.

WB: And do you feel that Schumann is some sort of “intimate friend” as Martha Argerich once called him?

PF: There have been times when I got tired of Chopin and stopped playing it for a while, but then I went back to him and rediscovered his genius. But Schumann never left me. He is so personal and so moving all the time! And you know, he was very much influenced by Beethoven, he often quoted him in his compositions. Some references are very well known, like the Emperor Concerto in the Finale of Carnaval or Die Ferne Geliebte in the Fantasy. There is also a set of Variations on the theme of the second movement of the 7th Symphony, where he also quotes from the 6th and 9th.

WB: Debussy should be another favourite of yours, since you also played his complete piano works!

PF: Yes, indeed. I discovered him in Paris, where I lived between 1958 and 1961. I had some lessons with Marguerite Long after I won the Long Competition in 1957. She liked my playing very much and tried to introduce me to French music, but she didn’t succeed always. For instance, Fauré.. I played some of his chamber music, but not his solo works. His style somehow is alien to me. Most pianists love the pianistic bravura of Ravel and want to play Scarbo, but not me. However, I play the G major Concerto, the Violin Sonata and the Trio, which is one of the hardest pieces pianistically. I have always felt that Debussy was more intimate, which I love. At a time I used to play the Etudes quite often, they are so forward looking.

WB: I listened to your performance on CD this weekend...

PF: Interesting, they are from 1963 and the recording has been reissued many times. I don’t understand why this sells and Schumann doesn’t.. I am still playing Estampes, Images and Pour le Piano and the Preludes.

WB: Pianistically, he is as difficult as Ravel, isn’t he?

PF: No, it is probably easier than Ravel, but the Etude Pour Les Accords is practically unplayable with all those jumps in it...

WB: The Toccata from Pour le Piano is also very difficult, isn’t it?

PF: I don’t think so.

WB: Do you have friends among pianists?

PF: Yes, many, but everybody is so busy, it’s difficult to meet regularly. There is Schiff, Perahia, Lupu, Fou Tsong, Ax, Boris Berman, Claude Frank and of course there was Annie Fischer, whom I miss so much..... Vasary is also a great friend. We didn’t only record the complete Mozart four hand works, he also conducted me in the Brahms Concertos at concerts, which were issued on CDs.

WB: Does Vasary still play the piano?

PF: Yes, but he is more at ease when he conducts, he gets nervous when he plays the piano. We all are nervous! Argerich hasn’t played solo recitals for years now and I remember Ashkenazy’s wife listening to her husband's recitals from the wings...... My wife does the same! I admire cellists when they come on stage all alone to play Bach solo suites!

WB: Finally, maybe a bit of an odd question, you still play quite marvellously and hopefully you will go on for a long time, but are you satisfied when you look back on your career?

PF: Yes, I am satisfied, very much. I have a very big repertoire and still learn new chamber music pieces. As far as concertos are concerned, I have played everything I wanted to play. I never tackled Prokofiev or Rachmaninov Concertos - though I like them - because they don’t suit my playing. There are a few big regrets though: I haven’t played all Beethoven Sonatas and I would have loved to play many more of the Schubert Sonatas. I make it up by teaching them, but, of course, it is not the same. And I did very little Bach, which I regret very much.

WB: Did you never play his music?

PF: Very little.  It’s maybe nerves, I don’t feel confident, as much as I love him. I take every opportunity to listen or to teach his music. Maybe he is the greatest. He should be bread and butter every day as Andras Schiff says, like Mozart is for me.

WB: Your colleague Alfred Brendel has announced that he will retire at the end of this year at (almost) 78, what about you? For how long would you like to go on?

PF: I don’t know really, it is a difficult question. Maybe I am not a perfectionist who is always playing at 100%., but when I am in form, I can still play as well as in my younger years. On good days, I can give a lot to my audience. I play much less with orchestra now, but I can go on for quite some time yet with chamber music. Richter played with the score in his last years: he felt too much pressure to play by memory. I would be disturbed by the score and a page turner though, if I had to play a concerto or a recital with the music that I have always played by memory. Many string players play with the score nowadays, even when they play a Mozart Concerto…
As a general rule, pianists keep performing longer than string players. My life is performing, more so than teaching. I didn’t start teaching until I was 50. I teach at Yale School of Music now. It attracted me, because it is relatively small and intimate, not like the many times bigger Juilliard School or Indiana University. In Yale there are about 24 piano students, shared by Claude Frank, Boris Berman and myself. We are very good colleagues and great friends. When I am there, I am really there, working 7 days a week. Still I consider myself a better performer than a teacher....

© Willem Boone 2008