English profiles

Utrecht, 5 November 2014
Meeting up with Paul Badura Skoda is like a trip down memory lane: he has worked with luminaries like Wilhelm Furtwängler and David Oistrakh, Frank Martin dedicated compositions to him. He was one of the first musicians to play on period instruments and on top of that, he did an enormous amount of research, especially about Mozart. It was most of all an encounter with a very cultured artist, who – in spite of his 87 years – still maintains a busy schedule. When Badura Skoda was in Utrecht as a jury member for the Liszt Competition, we managed to speak at his hotel Karel V in the city centre. He actually forgot our first appointment, but thankfully we could reschedule the interview.

Willem Boone (WB): How long have you been playing the piano?

Paul Badura Skoda (PBS): 81 years, I started at the age of 6!

WB: What keeps you going as far as music is concerned?

PBS: Music is a reflection of life, there is always something new to discover. A life is much too short to know all these wonderful poetic works!

WB: Your colleague Vladimir Ashkenazy once said practising is “sweet slavery”, what do you think?

PBS: No, I experience practising as a natural form of learning, it’s a training that can be compared to a sport, for me it feels like jogging for others. It’s a joy, a travel during which I learn new things all the time, also in compositions that I have played for 70 years. 

WB: Does playing music make you intelligent at an old age? I heard a few colleagues of yours this year, who are also really old, such as Menahem Pressler or Christa Ludwig (as a teacher!)

PBS: Pressler is even older than I am … Of course, music doesn’t make you more intelligent, but it requires intelligence. The constant challenge of the memory activates the brain cells. Alzheimer among musicians is rare!

WB: Are you never tired of music?

PBS: Definitely not! I constantly change my repertoire and that’s why I don’t have the feeling of “déjà vu”. I recently played the wonderful sonata in D major D 850 by Schubert again that I hadn’t played for 30 years.

WB: What is your relationship with Liszt?

PBS: I am not happy about the label of „classical pianist“, since I also played a lot of Chopin, Schumann and Brahms. In terms of quantity, I may not have performed a lot of Liszt, but I owe him my first huge success with his First Piano Concerto when I was 20 years old. Thanks to him I became a Mozart specialist! At my first competition, I won first prize and Ingrid Haebler won second prize. A critic wrote at the time that “Badura Skoda deserved the first prize for his virtuosity, but musically speaking we liked the Mozart interpretations of Ingrid Heabler better.” I was so furious then that I wanted to play Mozart better than Haebler!
My teacher Viola Thern came from the school of Liszt. Her grandfather had been a friend of Liszt’s. She was always angry when his music was played in a superficial way, she hated “special effects”. She always said that Liszt was something distinguished. I also learnt a lot about Liszt from Edwin Fisher, he knew his works very well and he showed passages at the piano in a masterly way. Of course, we know him as a predestined interpreter of Bach and Mozart, but he also played the Bach Variations by Reger magnificently, that was unique.

WB: How genius was Liszt?

PBS: He was not as genius as Mozart, but you cannot measure geniuses! Liszt was as productive as Mozart, but the latter was a class in itself. Mozart can only be compared to Bach, his world is more human than Beethoven’s, whom I admire immensely. 

WB: What does a good Liszt pianist absolutely need to have, except for a transcendent technique?

PBS: personality, the willingness to communicate and the ability to do so. 

WB: Are these only needed for Liszt?

PBS: No, for any composer! Edwin Fisher said Schubert pulled his heart strings,  he felt as if in a better world. Great performers or artists such as Furtwängler or Frank Martin were people of great humanity, they tried to improve the world and themselves.

WB: Are there still similar artists around?

PBS: Yes, during this competition, I heard at least two or three pianists who have the same artistic principles. Jorge Luis Prats has all these qualities and a personality that pulls you along. Cyprien Katsaris is someone whom I also admire very much. We met again in 2013 after 30 years. He remembered that I had shown him a wrong note he had studied in Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. Marc André Hamelin is also fantastic! I admire Leslie Howard very much, he has an incredible memory, his recordings of the complete piano works by Liszt are a huge merit!  

WB: The music of Liszt is often called „empty“ or „pompous“, to what extent is it misunderstood?

PBS: There are works where the effect or the circus-like element plays a considerable role. A legitimate part of making of music is pulling the audience along. That takes me once again to Edwin Fischer: he told that Rastelli juggled with five bludgeons. The same elegance inspired Fischer for his Mozart interpretations. Chopin said about Liszt, without mentioning his name, “When you can’t win the audience over, you can kill them!”, but in fact, he was referring to Liszt. I find that delightful! Liszt was a versatile composer, sometimes excessive, sometimes deeply religious, his Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude is a highlight. Bartok lauded the futuristic Liszt, who went towards atonality. On top of that, Liszt was one of the noblest persons, who always helped out colleagues, for instance Smetana or Grieg.

WB: You wrote an article called “A few personal thoughts to the problem of “competitions.”, so you consider them as a problem?

PBS: Yes, of course, it is the only occasion to get a lot of publicity and start a career when you are lucky. That is also the moment where you notice rivalry. At this Liszt competition, I had encounters with artists and they were so nice to each other, not at all like hyenas! Fair judgment is a problem though. I tell you about a statistic observation of mine: “The one who plays first, is unsuccessful”. He does not get a fair rating, since the members of the jury think they can’t trust their judgment yet after they have just started listening or there will be other contestants playing later on who are better… The American pianist Malcom Frager, who won the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels was the exception: he had to play first und he won!

WB: You did an amazing amount of research regarding the way to play Mozart. I should have read your book of course, but could you nonetheless tell me what you “discovered” with regards to the way of interpreting Mozart?

PBS: I discovered a lot! The first version was written 60 years ago. We have a lot of knowledge thanks to Mozart’s own hand writing and his letters. He often takes a clear stand in matters of  interpretation, he had guidelines, for instance “A tenor does not sing naturally.” For him, music had to speak to the heart, he was very clear about that.

WB: I have the impression that Mozart frightens pianists more than Liszt, is that correct?

PBS: He doesn’t frighten me! Mozart can express something …..(unauslotbar..) with little notes, you never touch the ground in his music. It sounds as if it were the simplest thing. Artur Schnabel said about Mozart it was too easy for children and to difficult for grownups!

WB: Was he right about that?

PBS: To a large extent, yes. When you play Mozart with simple, unaffected musicality, you mostly play everything correctly. 

WB: You completed a piece by Mozart, Larghetto and Allegro for two pianos. How do you do this?

PBS: It’s my specialty. I became so familiar with Mozart’s music that I have the feeling I could put myself in his situation. I also rewrote the accompaniment of the 2nd movement of the Coronation Concerto (Krönungskonzert) and I wrote cadenzas for the piano concertos for which Mozart didn’t provide any himself. A French critic wrote about my last recording of the concertos KV 466, 491 and 503: “One would think these cadenzas are Mozart’s own.”

WB: Could you compose in the style of Beethoven or Schubert as well?

PBS: I also completed incomplete works by Schubert, in 1969 I recorded the sonata D 840. That is a great work, but it has only two completed movements, the others are incomplete. I have completed them with youthful energy. I am especially proud of the 3rd movement, where only 16 bars are missing. I worked like someone who restores a painting! 

WB: What is the most common misunderstanding about Mozart?

PBS: I can’t say that in a few words. Perhaps there are misunderstandings when people do not see him as a uniquely talented person or when they don’t love his music enough..

WB: Is Mozart also in his piano works a vocal composer?

PBS: Yes and no, the vocal element plays an enormous role, but Mozart was also the Liszt of his time, there is a parallel to Liszt. 

WB: Do you think one has to know his operas really well in order to play his sonatas and concertos?

PBS: You have to know other works too! Among Mozart’s music both the piano concertos and operas are central. Certain characters from his operas, such as Figaro, the Count, Susanne, the Countess or Zerlina come back in his instrumental works.  

WB: Can you explain that?

PBS: The last piano sonata starts with a powerful unisono motif, followed by a mellow, charming melody. This dialogue is repeated. It is like the duet “La ci darem la mano” between Don Giovanni and Zerlina. 

WB: Could we say that the final of the Piano Concerto nr 17 reminds of “Le Nozze di Figaro”?

PBS: The theme of the last movement can’t be found in his operas!  However, the final presto has a clearly operatic character, it reminds us maybe more of “Die Entführung aus dem Serail”. In the Concerto KV 503, the last movement sounds like a scene from “Idomeneo”, the theme shows similarities. 

WB: You wrote an article about tempi during Mozart’s life, can it be that they were slower back then?

PBS: Not at all! The fast movements were played equally fast, there are studies that show this. The slow movements were played considerably faster than nowadays, an andante was truly “gehend”. I can mention Furtwängler and myself as positive examples (He explains that “Adagio” in Italian means “ad agio”= at ease! WB). When one gets older, it is often said that tempi become slower, I play without emotional difficulties in fluent tempi. 

WB: You also play on period instruments and called that a „conversion”. In what way was it a conversion?

PBS: Not in the sense that I switched instruments for ever. I like both: the old and the new ones. A lot of species got through an evolution, others survived billions of years, almost without any changes.

WB: But don’t sonatas like the Appassionata or the Hammerklavier benefit more from the dynamic potential of modern pianos?

PBS: I once had a personal experience in London, I held a lecture and then played the Appassionata both on a Hammerflügel from 1804 and on a modern grand piano. All those who were present thought it sounded more beautiful and exciting on the old instrument! I recorded the sonatas on historic instruments twice, for Harmonia Mundi and for Astrée. I really liked the experience. Beethoven walks on the edge, the instrument has to be almost destroyed. The second recording was on a Broadwood piano. During a session, one of the hammer heads broke off and you can actually hear it on the recording, which is very exciting! Both recordings of the Hammerklavier sonata are equally interesting: the one from 1985 is on a Conrad Graf piano, the live recording from Warsaw on a Bösendorfer, I can’t say which one is better!

WB: Isn’t it actually a dilemma: the modern instruments are probably too powerful for Mozart and Beethoven, whereas the old ones are not powerful enough for our halls and orchestras? Is that the reason that you play both?

PBS: With my own recording of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with Anner Bijlsma, there was a problem when we were playing together: the piano sounded so soft, that hardly anybody could hear it any more. In Beethoven’s time, this was “normal”. Nowadays, the instruments sound artificially louder, but I tell you: authentic recordings have been falsified (manipulated), mine included…. 

There the interviews officially ended: Paul Badura Skoda had to go tot he concert hall Tivoli Vredenburg for a master class. I came along and he asked me to carry his bag (“It is heavy and I’ll have to show things on the piano”). He tells many anecdotes while walking through the city center, about Furtwängler (“The greatest one without a doubt, he told me that it is important to walk a lot. I also admired Hans Knappertsbusch because of his Bruckner and Wagner interpretations”), Josef Krips (“His teacher, Felix Weingartner, said: “There is only one tempo, the tempo!”), the Concertgebouw Orchestra (“My last performance with this orchestra was 40 years ago in the Second Piano Concerto of Frank Martin.”), I asked him whether he heard Rachmaninov as a pianist (“No, I didn’t, but I studied his recordings. He was very good in his own music, but he wasn’t good in Carnaval by Schumann or Chopin’s Second Sonata, it all sounded like Rachmaninov. I prefer Cortot!”)