Arnhem, 4 October 2014

Thanks to my friend Benno Brugmans I was able to interview Nelson Goerner, while he was having breakfast at his hotel in Arnhem, the day after his recital. Goerner was especially impressive in Beethoven's towering Hammerklavier Sonata. But what probably struck me most, was this pianist's dedication to his job, his intelligence and the self-assurance of an artist who knows very well what he does.

Willem Boone (WB): How do you compose a recital programme?

Nelson Goerner (NG): Sometimes programmes are articulated around a theme or a composer, but for yesterday’s recital, I was free to play what I wanted.  I mostly play pieces that I have lived around with for a long time, e.g. the Bach Partita nr 6. I learnt it when I was 17, then I didn’t play it for many years and I picked it up again a few years ago. I also learnt the Hammerklavier Sonata a long time ago, I would be frightened to learn it now!

WB: Why?

NG: There are pieces you should start with when you are young and more fearless! The sooner you start to learn this repertoire, the better. It takes a long time before you feel you are ready.

WB: But isn’t this the kind of repertoire that requires wisdom that you probably don’t have when you are 20?

NG: That is also a cliché, you can be mature at 25, with time things can only grow, they will be different at 30..If you start to work on this repertoire when you are 50, it’s too late!

WB: Does that apply to any repertoire?

NG: For a lot of repertoire you need years, as with the Hammerklavier Sonata I put it aside and took it up again. I was able to look at it with freshness. It’s an ongoing process in your mind and your soul.

WB: When you take up a piece again, is it always with new insights?

NG: Yes, most of the time it is.

WB: The Fantasia by Mendelssohn you played last night is an interesting piece, Mendelssohn is neglected as a piano composer, isn’t he?

NG: Yes, unfortunately, his output for piano is wonderful. I haven’t done much of it, but I’d like to play more of his solo piano music.

WB: What I find interesting in Mendelssohn’s music is that it is on the verge of romanticism and classicism..

NG: Yes, that is correct. As you can hear in his music, he worshipped the classic composers. It is classic in its proportions, but decidedly romantic in its feeling. The middle movement of the Scottish Fantasy makes me think of Schubert, whereas the first movement is perhaps the most romantic of all, it’s very passionate!

WB: You already mentioned the Hammerklavier Sonata, I’d like to ask you a few questions about this sonata, could we call it a “monster”?

NG: We can think of it as a monster, but no…actually this piece is more about the elementary, raw forces of nature.  As Wilhelm Kempff pointed out, the adagio is the longest monologue Beethoven ever wrote. It is on top of everything he ever wrote: it is so full of pain and sorrow, only a movement like the fugue can make sense after such a moment of introversion. The fugue is almost needed to liberate forces.  For me, Beethoven represents the inner fights of the human being.

WB: As to the fugue, is it difficult to come to terms with a moment of such fury?

NG: Of course it is, you need a big virtuosity, but nothing should be there for mere display. You also need a lot of clarity to make all the lines come out.

WB: How difficult is it to get this sonata programmed in a recital? I gather a lot of agents prefer other sonatas like the Waldstein or the Appassionata?

NG: So far, I haven’t encountered any problems, people obviously want to hear the Hammerklavier Sonata and maybe the other sonatas you mentioned are played to often (laughs)

WB: Would you call it his most inaccessible sonata?

NG: Certainly, because of its complexity! It’s at the pinnacle of all sonatas ever written!

WB: What could Beethoven have intended with this particular piece, can you say he wanted to transcend the instrument?

NG: He certainly did, the first movement goes beyond the possibilities of the instrument! He had a deep transcendental message with this sonata..

WB: What could that message be?

NG: Beethoven was such an example for all generations to come because of his faculty of overcoming struggles and all contradictions in ourselves! (thinks).. I don’t want to put this in words, it’s impossible!

WB: Do you know whether he ever played the Hammerklavier Sonata in his lifetime?

NG: I can’t say..

WB: Would you ever consider playing it on period instruments?

NG: No, I don’t think so, you need a modern piano with all its possibilities. I don’t think you should go backwards.

WB: Did you respect Beethoven’s metronome markings in the first movement?

NG: No, they are impossible! I am puzzled by his indications, as they are almost impossible to follow. However, I think metronome markings give us an indication of something, in this case that it should be played with a lot of excitement and raw energy.

WB: Yes, but that’s about the energy of the music, not about the tempo?

NG: Probably Beethoven intended the first movement not to be poised or majestic, but energetic!

WB: What’s the tempo indication, allegro risoluto?

NG: No, it’s just allegro. I know Gulda came close to Beethoven’s metronome markings, Schnabel probably played them the way Beethoven intended, but as I stated before, I think they give us rather an indication of the composer’s drive. His struggle has an expressive value, more often than not difficulty in itself has expressive power. Literacy in music is not the key thing…

WB: You spoke about the fugue, what is the character of this movement, is it cataclysm?

NG: Yes, it is. In the adagio you are plunged in despair and sorrow. In the fugue Beethoven unleashes his powers

WB: But how can you find a sense in such fury?

NG: It makes sense by its contrasts, Beethoven’s music is based on incredible contrasts.

WB: There is also a lot of humanity in his music, sometimes even in one single chord, I like his music more and more…

NG: Of course…

WB: You mentioned period instruments before, you made a few records of Chopin on old instruments, why was that?

NG: I was tempted by the experience, it meant a lot to me. It gave me other insights about the sound, I thought: “That’s what the composer had when he wrote this music”
Authenticity is a word I don’t like, because we can never be sure of anything. It was not meant as a musicologist’s adventure, but I will occasionally pursue this experience.

WB: Didn’t you feel you were walking on egg shells, holding back all the time?

NG: No, I didn’t feel I was restraining myself. In the beginning, I was afraid of touching the instrument, it you play too loud, it shouts at you.. You need to know how to supply by means of articulation and subtlety in shadings. You are increasingly aware of the power the instrument cannot give…

WB: Do period instruments get easily out of tune like harpsichords?

NG: Yes, they get much easier out of tune than Steinways, having said this, the instruments from Warsaw I played on were jewels and it was an incredible chance to work with a conductor like Frans Brüggen. The experience was exhilarating!

WB: He was a much admired conductor, yet it has been said that he was not a “real” conductor and that his musicians had trouble “reading” his gestures!

NG: He was more than a conductor, he was an inspirational figure! He could communicate to his musicians what he wanted, they were all transcended by the originality of his ideas and his sheer aura.  I was very impressed with him, we only did Chopin and I have seen conductor who were not at all interested in Chopin’s music, but Brüggen had studied the scores so thoroughly, he knew them inside out. Everything was so clear, precise and beautiful, he didn’t consider the orchestral part as a screen for the pianist..

WB: Were there other conductors you had such a good rapport with in Chopin’s concertos?

NG: Emanuel Krivine was wonderful too, he cared for what Chopin wrote. He didn’t consider his music as mere accompaniments or a show piece for pianists.

WB: Your colleague Ivo Pogorelich called period instruments “an anachronism”, do you agree with him?

NG: No, absolutely not, “anachronism” means something that is dead! It all depends on who is at the instrument and on how he uses the instrument to express his ideas..

WB: Would you play on period instruments again in other music, Liszt for example?

NG: It might happen, but I have no plans for now. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility though..

WB: Speaking of Liszt, you played all the transcendental studies in one recital, speaking of challenges! Did you play other works during that same recital?

NG: Yes, I played two Wagner transcriptions, one at the beginning, then all the études and I ended with another transcription. A programme that consists of “only” the études would be a bit strange…

WB: Which one of the études would you consider as the most difficult?

NG: Feux follets, without a doubt, it is one of the most difficult pieces ever written, you have to transcend materiality… It’s something flying (shows on the wall ) , it’s a vision, you cannot touch it and it’s gone..

WB: And it’s such a delicate piece too!

NG: It’s untouchable..

WB: I must say that I haven’t heard many good performances of it…

NG: No, the best one is Richter in Sofia in the famous live recording from 1958!

WB: Do you know Ashkenazy’s recording? It is amazing too!

NG: Yes, I heard it.

WB: How often do you learn new repertoire?

NG: Always, it’s essential for me, because of a need to play many different pieces and composers.  Many of my idols like Richter and Arrau had an all-encompassing repertoire. I can understand that some pianists want to limit themselves to a certain repertoire, but I have never wanted to do that.

WB: Are there pieces you deliberately don’t play?

NG: There are many pieces I don’t play, I haven’t performed much music of the last 50 years, although that isn’t by lack of interest. I feel you should only play music when you feel you have something to say.

WB: On the BBC, there is a programme called “Building a library” in which they choose the “best” performance of a certain composition. I remember your performance of Chopin’s Third Sonata was hailed as the “best”, how do you feel about such praise: can you accept it or do you put it in perspective?

NG: I feel flattered but I put everything in perspective. It’s in the nature of human beings to compare, but you cannot go far in art! I don’t think my performance of the Chopin sonata was “the best”, however it’s important to know what you do is appreciated.. On the other hand, vanity can hinder the development of an artist!

WB: You studied with Maria Tipo, why did you chose to come to Europe to study with her?

NG: I got a scholarship to come to Europe, I could choose my destination. I decided to study with Maria Tipo after I asked Martha Argerich for advice. She mentioned a few teachers I didn’t know, but also the name of Maria Tipo. I knew her by name, she played a lot in Argentina, although I didn’t hear her in concert at the time.  As you might probably know, the Argentine piano school is Italian..

WB: Scaramuzza…

NG: I studied with three of his pupils. I had a very good pianistic education, but I tried to avoid “contradictions” and thought Maria Tipo would give me a feeling of continuity.

WB: Can you tell more about the importance of Scaramuzza’s teaching?

NG: He had the most incredible knowledge of the anatomy of the human body. The main thing was to avoid any form of contraction. You have to be completely free physically and at the same time have to control the sonority to a very expressive degree. You have to know where the sonority comes from. I have many of his notations and I am struck by his accuracy!

WB: Most of what you are saying is about the physical element of the playing, how did he teach to control the sound and bring songfulness to the playing?

NG: The sonority depends on how you use your arm. You cannot get the right sound if the tool you have is not used in a proper way. One of his main achievements is the dissociation of non-technical and musical elements in interpretation. Everything comes together in a way, piano and pianist are one… Scaramuzza considered sonority as the ultimate aim to be achieved by the most natural means.

WB: Is Martha Argerich the perfect example of this?

NG: She is one of the best and plays in the most natural way, although Scaramuzza had many fantastic musicians among his pupils who are not known outside Argentina.

WB: Do you agree that she never plays  anything the same way twice?

NG: With Argerich, a lot depends  on the mood of the instant, but what she does is very refreshing all the time..

WB: It’s often said that she is “spontaneous” and Pollini is “intellectual” for what is worth. Yet, I have two performances of Argerich and Abbado in the G-major concerto by Ravel where she plays the last movement (presto) in 3.59 which proves that she has a concept after all?

NG: Of course she has a concept, otherwise she wouldn’t be that great! Such characterizations are often clichés.

WB: You have played with her, does she ever talk to you about solo repertoire?

NG: I don’t know about Martha playing for herself..

WB: Did you actually need more lessons with another teacher after such excellent training in Argentina?

NG: Yes, I did. I was 19 years old, Tipo brought me a lot of development of continuity.

WB: She stopped playing before the audience, why was that?

NG: She didn’t want to travel any more, it was a decision that came litte by little.

WB: Does she still teach?

NG: Occasionally, yes.

WB: Is being a pianist fun for you?

NG:  It’s my life! There is both enjoyment and suffering. I put everything in my music, it is deeply connected to what I encounter. There is probably fun too (laughs), it’s another element of life…

WB: My last question: does it matter in which hall you play?

 NG: You are always playing with the acoustics and try to adjust to a different sound world.