Amsterdam, 4 April 2015
His own manager “warned” me when I asked him whether he could ask Nicholas Angelich about the possibility of doing an interview: “He doesn’t read his email and he doesn’t call back”, so it didn’t look all too promising.. However, a few days later, I received an email that he agreed. Still easier said than done, since I couldn’t get hold of him at the hotel in Amsterdam where he stayed. I then decided to try my luck and go to the concert hall in the afternoon. An employee told me he just went back to his hotel (next to the venue thank God!), where I still couldn’t find him… until I realized he was probably sitting in the restaurant. That was indeed the case. When I introduced myself, he told me he wanted to go back to the hall and rehearse until 6.30 PM, I really wasn’t too confident, but thankfully he showed up. We then had a fascinating interview that impressed me, especially because of the moving tribute he paid to his teacher Aldo Ciccolini, who passed away not long before we spoke.
Willem Boone (WB): How do you like the hall of the “Muziekcentrum aan het IJ” where you played before?
Nicholas Angelich (NA): It is a beautiful hall with a good atmosphere and a nice audience.
WB: Martha Argerich recently said that you need a hall about the size of La Salle Gaveau in Paris or the Conservatory of Milan for recitals, the others are too big. Do you agree?
NA: Probably, yes. It is a combination of things: the atmosphere counts, but also the acoustics, the instrument, how you feel at that moment. It depends on the repertoire you play. It is better to have a more intimate hall where you can project something and that has something refined at the same time.
WB: So Carnegie Hall is not a good hall for recitals?
NA: I haven’t played there, so I can’t comment. It is a very subjective matter. You can have a very good feeling in a big hall. I can’t say one hall is good and the other isn’t. If you like a certain venue, it’s like being with an old friend…..
WB: Have you played at the Philharmonie de Paris yet?
NA: I will play there next year, although I was there to rehearse. I haven’t seen the hall yet, from the outside it’s a very impressive building!
WB: Parisians often complained that they didn’t have a proper concert hall, were the Théâtre des Champs Elysées and la Salle Pleyel really that bad?
NA: I liked both very much! I was very attached to both halls for different reasons. Anyway, it is important that the Philharmonie was opened, they put a lot of work in it.
WB: I’d like to ask you a few questions about one of your teachers, Aldo Ciccolini, who recently passed away. In an interview, you said: “He helped me to become myself. At age 13, I arrived from the USA and entered his class at the Conservatoire, but it was really around my 30’s that I realised how much he had influenced me.” In what way did he influence you?
NA: It’s hard to say, I was 13 when I studied with him and it was a huge privilege to work with such an incredible artist. He was so genuine … he was a very good teacher, a “grand maître”, an impressive maestro, which is not easy to find. Around my 30’s, I understood to what extent he was important in my musical development. He gave me an outlook on a lot of different things and on life in general, also on questions such as “What is it to be a musician?” or “Why do you do this?”. He had a very specific way of looking at things and we shouldn’t forget that he came from a different time period, he had known Alfred Cortot, Marguérite Long, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli..
I admired his sense of discipline and his respect of music. In this profession, you have to work a lot and you have to be very committed. You have to continually learn.
WB: He kept playing in spite of his bad health!
NA: Yes, he played quite a lot in recent years and he kept playing even better and better with such deep understanding! As soon as he sat at the keyboard, he was a young man. He was very useful in his energy, there was never anything blasé, he loved studying and listening to music. There are so many impressions, they are all very important to me. And most of all, he was a very humble and intelligent person!
WB: You said about his teaching that “he took his part in the event (= lessons) by playing for us himself”. Did he show you a lot at the piano?
NA: Yes, he would play a lot when there was free time. He asked me: “Do you know this?”and then he played for me.
WB: He had a huge repertoire!
WB: Your colleague Philippe Cassard said about Ciccolini that “he put younger generations to shame with his cantabile, virtuosity, subtlety, depth, exuberance, pugnacious, almost frenetic joy that are the signs of the true epicurean.”
NA: Ciccolini was unique and someone who couldn’t be compared to other people.. His playing was quite special: you could sense that he was from a different time period and his playing was beyond fashion or trends. That’s what you should be as an artist! He was a true artist, there was nothing pretentious about him, I can only say that he was very simple, humorous, he had a lot of humour!
As to younger generations, it’s a question of outlook: you can understand things later in your life. Young artists are surrounded by other problems. We can always learn from the past.
WB: Maurizio Pollini once said about Ciccolini that he never had the career he deserved?
NA: O, God, I don’t know, I can’t answer this question.. Some people become famous fast and others are not interested…It depends on what happens in your life, it’s mysterious… it’s always easier to analyse later on in your life. It’s often difficult to understand what is going on in a career, it can be different things to different people..
As to Ciccolini, he was very “normal” in the best sense of the word: understandable, simple.
WB: Is it true he never slept?
NA: He was very insomniac, he spoke about it a lot.
WB: That must have been hard, because you also need to recover from all these experiences?
NA: After a concert, it’s difficult to sleep; your rhythm changes. A lot of pianists are insomniac by the way!
WB: When did you last see him?
NA: I can’t remember, I think it was last year. He was a very impressive person…
WB: He was also a very wise man I think. I interviewed him back in 2004 and I was impressed too!
NA: Yes, absolutely, he was the opposite of a “prima donna”, yet he had incredible class and statue. At the same time, he was very natural.
WB: And he wanted his students to say “tu” to him!
NA: I didn’t do that, I had a problem with that.
WB: Regarding tonight’s programme: are Beethoven and Rachmaninov good “bed fellows”?
NA: These two composers are interesting as a programme, they are very contrasted. It’s good to do something very different and to have two different sound worlds. Rachmaninov is not always well known and he has a special way of writing.
WB: In what way?
NA: Harmonically, there is nothing obvious in this music. In his younger works, he was easier to understand.
WB: Richter once said you couldn’t play anything else after opus 111, but you obviously disagree?
NA: Right after, no, but with a break it is possible! I don’t know if I want to go on with this programme. Brendel said certain pieces lead into silence, this is one of them, you need time after that..
WB: Louis Kentner once said about opus 111 that there are pianists who play the first movement well and others who play the second well, but rarely pianists who play both well. What do you think?
NA: I don’t agree, I heard several pianists who were amazing in both movements. They work together.
WB: Can we say that Beethoven was ahead of his time in this last sonata, e.g. in the jazzy variation of the second movement?
NA: He was far ahead of his time, it sounds like contemporary music, it can even be shocking. Some of his late music wasn’t even played during his lifetime and it can still be shocking..
WB: Could Beethoven have written a thirty-third sonata?
NA: No, the way it is now, there is a progression in the sonatas that is absolutely unique. The last sonatas take on a meaning.
WB: It is amazing that he could write such profound music while being completely deaf..
NA: I think it was a necessity to write the music he wrote. The suffering of this person is very moving. It is more than human, he went beyond what was expected!
WB: Rachmaninov is sometimes called “old fashioned”, what is the reason people still play his music then?
NA: I don’t think he is old-fashioned! His music speaks to you when you are ready to invest your time and try to understand what he wrote. If you don’t believe in music, you simply shouldn’t play it! Rachmaninov was incredibly talented and versatile and he wrote beautifully for the instrument. He had something very special to say. His recordings are not old-fashioned at all, they are very modern in many ways.
WB: More modern than Horowitz?
NA: No, I don’t think so. Rachmaninov was classical in a way, he had a lot of emotions, but he always remained expressive.
WB: Why are these études called “Études tableaux”, was Rachmaninov inspired by paintings, like with the Isle of Death?
NA: It is a strange term he used. He was inspired by certain painters, but also by literary things he had read. The first of the Etudes Tableaux of opus 39 is based on a painting by Arnold Böchlin, “Le jeu des vagues”. It is a very interesting painting.
WB: Originally, you were announced in both books of Etudes-tableaux, would you consider playing both in one recital?
NA: It is a bit much for the public. It’s very long, so no, or it would have to be a different programme without Beethoven.
WB: I have a DVD, devoted to Yvonne Loriod, where you play one of the 20 Regards in the presence of the composer. You played it very well and she is very supportive, whereas he sits there, quiet. Weren’t you terrified to play his music when he was listening?
NA: No, he was a very nice man, impressive and generous. He had a huge success in later years, a real triumph. He was almost surprised about it. It was special to play it for the person who wrote it.
WB: She was an amazing pianist too, but we hardly know her in other composers than Messiaen?
NA: Yes, she was amazing and believe me: she had a huge repertoire. She was a generous person and a very good teacher!
WB: I know you have to get ready for the recital (it was around 7.00 p.m, WB), but before I let you go, I probably have to tell you something that amazed me about a Dutch critic. He wrote in the Dutch magazine “Luister” about one of the boxed sets of the Lugano Festival that “Martha Argerich played with her son Nicholas ”,whereas she has three daughters and no son…….
NA: I didn’t know that, but I have to tell her, she’ll find it funny! You don’t have to take yourself too seriously though, you do have to take seriously what you are doing and you have to show a bit of humanity.
That’s where the interview unfortunately ended. Something unexpected happened: Nicholas Angelich shook my hand and said: “We’ll have to talk some more, when you are in Paris” Needless to say that I am more than interested and I do go to Paris from time to time, so who knows there will be a longer interview….