Zeist, 22 February 2015
German pianist Ragna Schirmer became well known with her recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She is also known for several “unusual” projects, focusing on the music of Händel and Clara Schumann and playing both as an actor and as a pianist in a puppet show, devoted to the life of Maurice Ravel. But what she probably likes best: playing in an intimate venue and explaining her audience about the works she plays. We spoke after her concert at the castle of Zeist (Slot Zeist) in February 2015.
Willem Boone (WB): The leaflet in which your concert was announced said that you were “honoured to play in a sold out Philharmonie in Berlin, but that you preferred to play in a more intimate hall where you could establish a direct contact with your audience” Yet, I would say that Berlin is a more important venue for an artist, isn’t it?
Ragna Schirmer (RS): There are different occasions with different aspects: I really enjoy playing piano concertos with orchestras in big halls. But for the recitals- as the composers were often performed in small rooms at their time- I like a very intimate atmosphere.
WB: Don’t you try to change the Berliner Philharmonie into a more intimate place?
RS: If it is possible to reach every single person in a hall and create intimacy and intensity, I am happy. Light is very important, and of course the soft notes in the music...
WB: On your website, you said in the films about your trip to China that “you feel lonely before the concert and also afterwards and that there are many things you cannot share with anyone. You have to come to terms with yourself” How do you manage that?
RS: As a musician I mostly study alone. Sometimes it is a very lonely job, travelling, practicing... I often question myself, am I good enough, do I stand all this. But I also need these phases with myself: concentration is very important. Music always deals with emotions: there are pieces that tell about death, there are pieces that feel so joyful, I have to feel all these emotions to translate them into music. Before a concert I ask myself: what is the story I want to tell today?
But being a musician is the most wonderful job I could ever imagine!
WB: You said you are someone who likes to practise a lot. I often have the following experience as an amateur pianist: there are certain passages that scare me or that don’t come off well. You can practise a lot, but often the fear comes back whenever you play such a passage. How does it work with you: can you work until you master a piece perfectly well?
RS: It is like in sports: you have to train as hard as you can, and then win the race. Hopefully.
WB: And when you don’t succeed, do you say: „O well, tough luck, next time, I’ll do better” or are you disappointed?
RS: It depends on what happened. The intention is to interpret the music as the composers felt the piece. If I manage to achieve this authenticity, I am happy. In times of perfection- CD recordings etc., we often forget that in former times music was performed spontaneously.
WB: You spoke about stage fright, do you suffer less from this as you are getting more experienced?
RS: I got to know myself very well. But whenever I step on stage, I have an intensity. So- some people need Bungee, I need to perform.
WB: Wilfried Eckstein from the Goethe Institut Shanghai said about you: We’ll have to build up an image.” What would be yours?
RS: Oh, I hope I have the image to be familiar with Handel, or I am known for unusual projects e.g. with theater. If my listeners tell me, they felt something special, that is the best image.
WB: You said on your website you had “an insane amount of ideas”, but that you just wished “to have time to realize all of them” Which ideas are you thinking of?
RS: The next big project is a CD with pieces by Clara Schumann. She was not only a wonderful pianist but also a gifted composer. I feel responsible to play her pieces and I am looking forward to make them more popular.
WB: I read about Clara Schumann that she left out the slow movements of Beethoven sonatas!
RS: If you look up the recital programs in the 19th century, you will find several single movements of sonatas or symphonies. It was usual to play "best of".
WB: You are always looking for a leitmotif, what would be the leitmotif in this recital?
RS: I always try to have an idea in my program. In this case it was the tension between severity and lightness of improvisation.
WB: Is Gaspard de la Nuit indeed one of the biggest challenges ?
RS: Scarbo is one of the most difficult pieces, yes. In the theater-play about Ravel's life I even have to play it with a mask on my face. Today I could see everything!
WB: Could you imagine that Martha Argerich learnt this in only 5 days and said: “I didn’t know it was supposed to be difficult?”
RS: She was young?
WB: Yes, she was 14 years old.
RS: Then it is possible. When I was 14 years old, I learned the Goldbergvariations within 2 months. When I -years later- realized the significance of the piece, I could already play it.But Argerichs Scarbo: a legend!
WB: How difficult is it to play „without expression“ (sans expression”) as Ravel explicitly writes in the score of Le Gibet?
RS: He probably meant the atmosphere of death, emptiness, desolation. I try to imagine the gibbet in the wind. And play without any rubato.
WB: Aren’t the Miroirs about as difficult?
RS: They are in a way more intimate than Gaspard. I found it very intense today: in this room in the castle.
WB: Your recording of the Goldberg Variations received a lot of praise. How difficult is it when you always have to fight especially with these variations against the shade of ……..
RS: Glenn Gould? He was a genius, outstanding, but it must be allowed to play the piece after him. The Goldberg Variations are so important for me, I absolutely wanted to record them. Although I did not have a label-contract at that time.
WB: It struck me how difficult the Goldberg Variations are when you play them on a piano!
RS: Sure, you have only one manual.
WB: What could you say in favour of Bach played on a piano?
RS: I am sure he heard an orchestra or a choir also when he composed for harpsichord. So I just use the possibilities I have now. Hopefully he would have done so, if he knew our modern instruments.
WB: And what could one say against playing Bach on a piano?
RS: Nothing. But of course it is also interesting to hear the music on historical instruments. I do so myself. The CD with Clara Schumann I will play a piano from 1856. Either ways are right, if they serve the composer and the music.
WB: You did a lot of work in order to make Händel more popular, would you put him on the same level as Bach?
RS: Bach is the biggest genius, his perfection in horizontal and vertical musical lines is unreachable. But Handel is more vivid, he wrote operas. At that time he was more popular than Bach. I enjoy playing them in recitals and show the differences and the similarities.
WB: Not all musicians will share your opinion, the harpsichord player Gustav Leonhardt once said: “Händel wrote for mass audience.”
RS: Great. Celibidache said about Karajan, he was like Coca Cola: the crowd like it. Good to polarize... Listen to Handel, and your mood will improve. My opinion.
WB: His suites are played by relatively few pianists: Richter, Perahia, de Larrocha, Cherkassky. Why is that?
RS: In contrast with Bach, Handel did not write anything into the score, he wanted the interpret to improvise. Pianists normally do not improvise, looking at our traditional education.
WB: What do you mean by „improvise”? He wrote down the music, didn’t he?
RS: Some parts are only harmonies, sometimes he leaves out a middle voice, also the fugues are not completely built with all voices. Handel was not as exact as Bach.
WB: You don’t want to imitate the sound of the harpsichord, but take full advantage of the sound of the modern piano. How can you realize that?
RS: Many people tell me, they love Baroque Music, but they do not love the historical instruments. So I try to imagine an opera singer, when I play a cantilene by Handel, or I try to imagine the sound of an orchestra on the piano.
WB: You played his organ concertos on a Hammerflügel, isn’t that hard? An organ has more power, hasn’t it?
RS: Sure. But the organ concertos are so great, I absolutely wanted to interpret them. So I developed different ways, from Baroque Orchestra to Jazz-Band with Hammond Organ.
WB: Why actually?
RS: Because Handel has the groove! He swings.
WB: So does Bach!
RS: Yes. No groove, no music.
WB: Just a few questions about this „Puppenspiel“ „Für eine taube Seele” (= for a deaf soul), that is about the life of Maurice Ravel, who is this “taube Seele”?
RS: "Seelentaubheit" is the medical term for the disease Ravel had: he could not control his motorics any more.
WB: What exactly do you do in this production, are you also an actor?
RS: Yes. I play and perform "the music". In this way I can serve the composer in a special way: not only by playing his pieces but also by showing his love to the music. And serving the composer is my job.