English profiles

Den Haag,  5 March 2014

The German pianist Christian Zacharias has been called “an eternal student” in France. Up until ten years ago; indeed, at 40, he looked like 25. At 64, he now looks more like an “elder statesman” (the name of George Clooney comes to mind), but apart from that, he still resembles a young boy or student, especially when he enthuses about music..

Willem Boone: When I think of you, I think directly of Scarlatti, Mozart and Schubert. There are of course other composers, but do you mind when I mention these three composers first of all?

Christian Zacharias (CZ): I have to almost fight to play other composers, but yes, these composers are still central to my repertoire. I don’t want to abandon them completely, but my repertoire has grown substantially. I want to learn new scores all the time and I do not want to become a specialist. Also as a conductor, I am often asked to perform Mozart. However it would be bad to be a specialist of Hummel or Field…

WB: When I think of you, I am also reminded of Wilhelm Kempff, not only because of the repertoire, but also as far as your playing is concerned. How strong is your connection with the German school?

CZ:   That’s interesting, since I used to reject him when I was young. His playing was lucid and elegant, he was not the titan in Beethoven. His Schubert and Schumann recordings were almost more interesting. His recording of the Schumann Concerto is one of the best I know, yet it is never mentioned in selective comparisons.  His clear sound is not very German and in that way, I feel related to his playing.

WB: Could one say there is a German piano school?

CZ: There were pianists like Backhaus or Elly Ney, but it is difficult to say what they have in common. But when it comes to work discipline or a certain firmness, I do feel at home in this tradition.

WB: Alfred Brendel said, when he was asked why he didn’t play Chopin: “Either you dedicate yourself to play his music, that requires a specific technique, or you play “the other composers”. Would you be the exception to this rule?

CZ: I think he was being polite, in a way he didn’t like Chopin! I played a lot of his music and almost every year, I play his second Piano Concerto. When I started to play a lot Mozart and Schubert, I said to myself: “Put it away, it is disturbing..”. Playing Mozart’s Piano Sonatas is more difficult than Chopin’s Nocturnes! However I do play Chopin again now and it is beautiful!

WB: You studied with Vlado Perlemuter, could we therefore say that you are also (partly) a “French pianist”?

CZ: He was not only French, but also Polish and jewish.

WB: How was he as a teacher?

CZ: He was a very demanding teacher. I still have a score of Beethoven ‘s Piano Concerto nr 5 with all of his comments. He could be incredibly picky when your tempi were not correct.

WB: He was not as famous as Arrau, Kempff or Backhaus though?

CZ: He was very respected in England or Italy, but you are right, he was only known locally. His playing was unaffected yet strong. My first record was Perlemuter playing Chopin. I remember several of the pieces: the F-minor Fantasy, the second scherzo, the berceuse. It was nor dry nor too elegant, it was exactly “in the middle”.

WB: Have you benefitted from the fact that he knew Ravel well?

CZ: We spoke a little about it, but not very often.

WB: Do you remember examples?

CZ: Yes, for instance in the Sonatine. He showed me his tricks there and told me that Ravel always said: “Cela, c’est votre cuisine” (That is your business, WB), it is important though how it sounds after all!

WB: I spoke to your colleague Louis Lortie and he said that Perlemuter played Ravel and Chopin equally well, which seems to be rare. Is it indeed that rare?

CZ: That’s correct, Ravel and Chopin are two different worlds! His Chopin spoke to the heart, it was clear, not unromantic. Mozart was not far away.

WB: Do you mean Perlemuters Mozart and Chopin?

CZ: Yes, indeed.

WB: You won the Ravel Competition in 1975 in Paris, nonetheless I cannot remember you playing him very often, is that correct?

CZ: The stupid thing is that people only know my CD’s, I performed all his piano works and both concertos. There should even be a recording from 1976 of the G-major Concerto with Celibidache!

WB: He was very critical, wasn’t he?

CZ: Yes, it was almost sickening!

WB: Did he ask you to play with him?

CZ: Yes, it was after the Ravel Competition, he was asked: “Wouldn’t you like to play with the winner?” He rehearsed like mad and once, when we didn’t agree about something, the last comment he could think of was: “Michelangeli played it like this”. Well, the comparison is not too bad (laughs).

WB: Can you remember the orchestra?

CZ: It was the Südfunk Symphonie Orchester Stuttgart.

WB: I’d like to ask you a few questions about Scarlatti now. I find your recordings of his music fabulous. How did you get to know his music?

CZ: (remembers): There was a musician in the orchestra (Residentie Orkest, WB) who came to see me with the first Scarlatti recording, it was so sweet. I must have been 14 or 15. My father had a recording by Lipatti with some sonatas. Michelangeli also played a few and I heard the recording by Horowitz, who took Scarlatti very seriously, it was the first time that a musician made an all-Scarlatti recording.

WB: Can we say that his music is often misunderstood in the sense that his sonatas are only played as encores or as a starter?

CZ: Exactly, he is not taken as seriously as Bach or Händel, whereas his music is first class! I once played an all-Scarlatti recital at La Roque d’Anthéron, it was one of these programmes that René Martin loved! In my forthcoming recitals, I will play 7 sonatas by Scarlatti, combined to some Soler Sonatas and a French Suite by Bach. So yes, his music will feature in my concerts again.

WB: What exactly makes his music so genius?

CZ: That’s the main theme of music! Great geniuses write less than you expect, they limit themselves. Scarlatti wrote sonatas in two movements, but sometimes, something strange or unexpected happens, for instance these irregularities: 3 … (tact), 3…., 5 t…. You wouldn’t encounter this in Galuppi’s music. With Scarlatti, the surprises occur occasionally, he knows what music needs in itself.

WB: Are all of his sonatas suited for the piano?

CZ: No, there are very clearly sonatas you should only play on the harpsichord, I could not make them work on a modern piano. There are a few I do not play.

WB: How did you come to your selection from the 555 sonatas?

CZ: There are a few pianists who inspired me. I selected my own pairs, not always according to the way Kirkpatrick suggested. I discovered again a few sonatas I did not know yet. It also happens that I play a sonata I know and think: “This is amazing!”.

WB: There is also a recording of yours on which you play around 20 times the same sonata. Was that your idea?

CZ: It has to do with a different form of art. I often played that sonata in the 70s as an encore and I found at least 20 recordings from all over the world. That piece has accompanied during my entire life. The CD shows the impossibility of a definite performance, but something happens internally. 

WB: Could we say that Scarlatti is a genius since he can say so much with so few notes, just like Mozart?

CZ: Yes, it is the same with all great composers! One thinks: “These notes are absolutely necessary.” They don’t write more nor less than necessary.

WB: What is the style of Scarlatti like?

CZ: It is terribly difficult to describe this! I gave lectures about “Why does Schubert sound like Schubert?” I think it becomes increasingly easy to describe “style” after Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann. Scarlatti marks the start of harmony. The way he perceives time is different from Bach’s.  I have a feeling of urgency: “It has to be this long (it has to last so long?). The Spanish source is undeniable, nobody writes Malagenia-basses like he does.

WB: Scarlatti sounds sometimes like Schumann..

CZ: Yes, the feeling of being ahead of his time and “empfindsame Musik” is more typical of Scarlatti than of Bach.

WB: What do you think of the Soler sonatas?

CZ: There a few master works, there are real “hits”!

WB: Then a few questions re Mozart, is his music good for your technique?

CZ: It is very demanding. He wrote to his father re his concertos K 450 and 451: “They will make the pianist perspire” and that is still the case. You really have to work hard to play them well. In K 451 and 456, there are some very fast tempi.

WB: Do you have favourites among the Mozart concertos?

CZ: Yes, a few: K 238 is seldom played, but it is a remarkable composition, I love K 453, 456 and 459 very much, K 488 that I will play in Den Haag is unique in music history.

WB: I also spoke with a few fortepianists, like Andreas Staier and Kristian Bezuidenhout and the latter told me whenever he plays Mozart on a Steinway grand (which he occasionally does) that he has the feeling to walk on eggshells.  Do you never have that feeling?

CZ: I have a lot of respect for Staier! His Scarlatti recordings are amazing too, but no, I feel very much at home on a Steinway, it is my instrument.

WB: You never need to be overly careful?

CZ: No, I play with real orchestras sometimes with 12 violins. Because of this, you have to play with enough power without becoming harsh, you really have to make an effort!

WB: Your first recordings of the complete cycle was with several conductors, why didn’t you record all of them with the same conductor?

CZ: It started with the Polnish Chamber Orchestra, but there were concertos that I could not play with them (since they required a bigger orchestra, WB). David Zinman was a fantastic partner, one of the best I have ever had and also Wand was a great collaborator. Of course, I already knew Sir Neville Marriner from the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

WB: Is that the reason that you have re-recorded the cycle later, both as conductor and soloist?

CZ: Some of the orchestras with whom I worked were not so great, they sounded more like Schubert. In Lausanne, everything was right and sounded natural. We didn’t rush things, it took us 12 years to record all the concertos.

WB: You sometimes play non-legato, where a lot of your colleagues play legato, for instance in the first movement of K 453, the first entry of the piano. Is that what Mozart wrote down in the score?

CZ: That is very interesting, I could swear that Mozart did not write legato. Too bad I do not have the score with me. The violins play non-legato. I find the theme of the first movement difficult to understand and slightly odd. (*)

WB: The end of the G-major concerto is genius!

CZ: So is the 2nd movement, it becomes more and more interesting towards the end, but it starts with nothing. The first entry of the piano really irritates me, it is the worst start of all Mozart’s concertos!

WB: I can understand what you mean and have the same feeling with the slow movement of K 482. It starts beautifully but after approximately five minutes, you get these endless trills…

CZ: You have the right to ask:”What is he doing now?” With the menuet in the last movement of K 482, he wanted to repeat the Jeunehomme concerto, but it turned out a bit mediocre whereas the Jeunehomme concerto was fantastic!

WB: How do you see his last concerto?

CZ: I love it very much. Mozart is not so active any more in this concerto, it reminds me of Schubert. The start of the first movement is unique.

WB: Didn’t he do the same in the G-minor symphony?

CZ: With K 595 it is a full beat, not an upbeat like in K 550!

WB: How would you call the overall atmosphere in this concerto: sunny? Bitter? Resigned?

CZ: He didn’t know that this was supposed to be his last concerto, but it sounds more like the Zauberflöte than like Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Mozart did not need to show that much anymore, but the light that emanates from this music is incredible.

WB: Don’t you like the first four concertos?

CZ: No, these are transcriptions, the first concerto for me is K 175.

WB: You said about Beethoven that he was less modest than Mozart: “Here I am!”, does that disturb you?

CZ: No, it is funny, especially when you do the same as a conductor (laughs). I have not played all of his piano sonatas, I have performed all of the piano trios and violin sonatas though. There are piano sonatas I do not play, since I either don’t like them or cannot play them. At the moment I play opus 26, which I love, it really suits Schubert’s Moments Musicaux and Schumann’s Kreisleriana well. And at the end of the same recital programme, I play opus 14/2. Nobody does that, but it works really well, especially at the end of your concert. It fades away in a very peaceful way…

WB: You once called Bach’s Wohltempariertes Klavier a “horrible work”?

CZ: You cannot say that of course, but it shouldn’t be played through like an encyclopaedia or  a dictionary. I still stick to that opinion.

WB: What do you have against fugues?

CZ: Apparently, I have something against them when I play them! “Selection “ or “Choice” is part of our job; we can love something and sometimes it can also happen that we do not love something. The Preludes though are among my dearest pieces, I consider my recordings of Bach Preludes as my best one, but unfortunately nobody ever mentions it. Radu Lupu told me he had never heard the E-flat Prelude played better. You know, Bach gave his son Willem Friedemann only Preludes, no Fugues! (laughs)

WB: Do you think that Bach can be played on a modern piano?

CZ: I suppose so, but sometimes I prefer to hear his music played on a cembalo, rather than Scarlatti’s music.

WB: You are a sensitive pianist and sometimes there are these little “surprises” in your recordings, for instance in the Bach recording you just mentioned, where you played the last chord in one of these Preludes on the organ..

CZ: I always think of the organ there, since it was originally written for organ.

WB: And in your Mozart cadenzas, there are surprises too!

CZ: But Mozart’s music is full of surprises, it is theatre! All cadenzas that were written after he died (e.g. Hummel), are failures, Mozart would never write in a different key, ever! And sometimes I write for other instruments in my cadenzas, but Mozart did the same: in his Konzertone for two violins, he introduced the oboe!

WB: Could it also be your sense of humour?

CZ: It was meant to be serious, not funny.

WB: And in  Soler’s Fandango, where you clapped your hands?

CZ: That’s what was missing! Soler is Spanish after all and your hear the sound of people clapping their hands really often in Spain!

WB: I saw in your repertoire list that you also play the Third Piano Concerto by Prokofiev, how often have you played that?

CZ: That is long ago, it was after the Van Cliburn Competition. I also played Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody at the time and it was a challenge, but now I ask myself: “What can I play?” and “For which music do I have time?”

WB: What about the Liszt sonata?

CZ: I have played it and I even studied it again, but nowadays 80% of my concerts are as a conductor. Playing the piano is an incredible effort. I still play both Brahms Concertos and Chopin’s Second Concerto, but with certain pieces I think:  “This is not necessary anymore.”

WB: Why did you take up conducting?

CZ: I wasn’t so happy anymore to sit in front of my piano alone.. Dimensions are bigger with an orchestra, it has nothing to do with one single instrument anymore, when the members of the orchestra play.

WB: You were not bored with the piano like your colleague Ashkenazy?

CZ: No, I wanted to extend my musical horizon, just the piano was getting a little limited.

WB: Does that mean that you practise less than before?

CZ: I have to pull myself together and have to know exactly when I practise. I need two or three hours every day and five hours when a recital is coming up. That also means that I no longer play certain pieces like the Liszt Sonata or the Diabelli Variations.

WB: Just a question re reviews, the French critic Alain Lompech once wrote about your Mozart Sonatas: :“il rappelle ces enfants ou ces amis que l’on voit arriver avec joie et partir avec soulagement jusqu’à leur prochaine visite et dont plus tard on ne garde que de bons souvenirs »(He reminds  us of those children you love to see coming with joy and you love to see leaving with a feeling of relief until their next visit and of whom you keep only good memories after all). What do you think of this?

CZ: Thank god, I don’t read most reviews, it is pointless. Bad reviews are at least a source of irritation. I do ask myself often: “What does he want?” or “What difference does it make?” Sometimes I am really devastated by what they write. In my orchestra, the best listeners are sitting in front of me! It is a shame that critics never attend rehearsals and do not know about all the hard work we have done..

WB: Would you truly like them to come to your rehearsals?

CZ: I wouldn’t have anything against it, in fact the rehearsal is the most interesting moment!

WB: A last question: some time ago I saw a film on Youtube in which you played a Haydn concerto and in the audience a mobile phone went off…

CZ: Finally I am getting famous for not playing (laughs).. I didn’t scream, I only said: “Do not pick up the phone!” I hate to have to interrupt what I am doing or to have to tell the orchestra: “Let’s start again at beat ..”. I was lucky though, since I was just playing the cadenza.

WB: But didn’t you completely lose your concentration?

CZ: Yes, but that’s what I am a performer for: the worst thing is to have to stop in the middle. It was also a training in anger management.




(*) When Cristian Zacharias re-read the text of the interview, he wrote the following comment re this question: I play it exactly the way it was written in the score.