16 November 2011

I was keen on doing an interview with Imogen Cooper for my site, since I have known her for a long time. I heard her for the first time in 1989 in Utrecht and remember I went around to see (and thank) her. I was struck, not only by her kindness, but especially by her question whether I would come back to listen to her recital during the next season. I did and she remembered me. The same happened a few weeks later in Amsterdam and we became friends. I heard many of her concerts in the Netherlands. It was not easy to find a moment for an interview until she suggested to do a phone interview, which worked out fine. I was impressed by her eloquent answers and her honesty, those of an artist who has been around long enough to know what she wants..

Willem Boone (WB): How was your trip to Japan?

Imogen Cooper (IC): Wonderful! It was moving to go there after the catastrophies.. I felt lucky to get on a plane and leave after ten days, but the people in Tokyo have no choice... The Japanese are so resilient, patient and hopeful, it moved me. I enjoyed the experience more than before and I have travelled to Japan since 1986. A lot of things have changed, e.g the position of women travelling alone. I also noticed that they are more western in their understanding now. It was quite a hectic tour with several recitals, but I loved being in a bubble of work.

WB: They say that Japanese audiences are very cultivated and attentive, what was your experience?

IC: Good question.. the character of the audiences was different in several cities, especially between Osaka and Tokyo. In the former city the audience was into being “wowed”, whereas in the latter they were happy to be drawn into the music of Schubert and I sensed these differences! The earthquake in Tokyo had an enormous impact, people still don’t take the risk of going out in the evening..

WB: You studied in France and you once said in an interview that going to France was “the obvious choice”, however, I could imagine that you would have got along really well with someone like Sir Clifford Curzon, who excelled in much of the same repertoire as you?

IC: I did work with him, but that was when I was older. Curzon would never have taken on an 11-year-old student. That was the moment when I decided I wanted to become a pianist and for that I needed more fundamental training. In the 60s, there were no schools like the Menuhin School that specialized in young people. Conservatoires and schools in the United Kingdom were for people from 17 year and up. For young children like me, there were only two choices: Moscow and Paris. Paris was far away, but Moscow was definitely too far away.

WB: In Paris you studied with Yvonne Lefébure?

IC: I studied with tons of people! The reason I wanted to go to Paris was that I wanted to work with Jacques Février, but he taught exclusively chamber music. I only found out about this after I arrived in Paris, so I had to find another teacher. I studied with Lucette Descaves, but I am not sure what I learnt from her. I was still seeing Jacques Février at that time and he and Descaves would write each other cynical notes and not very complimentary remarks about each other on my scores. I remember that Février wrote on a score of Ravel “Ravel says... “ in a spirit of one-upmanship. After three years, I went to see Yvonne Lefébure and her assistant Germaine Mounier, who was wonderful.

WB: Was Lefébure famous at the time? I had the impression she was not really well known outside France?

IC: Oh yes, she was! There is a recording of her playing the Mozart D-minor Concerto with Furtwängler, which means that she was showing her stars everywhere. I also heard her once at the London Proms.

WB: Did she differ a lot from the school of Marguérite Long?

IC: I am not sure whether I can tell you that, but she was always bitchy about Long, so I guess she did differ indeed! She studied with Cortot, who had been her main influence. There is a video where she plays the posthumous variations of Schumann’s Etudes Symphoniques. There you can hear very clearly how she was influenced by Cortot. There was something quintessentially French about her teaching. And she could be fairly devastating.

WB: In what way?

IC: Let me think, what did she tell me? That I was “molle” (soft) and like a “robinet d’eau tiède”(tap of running tepid water). I was probably more introverted then, but you shouldn’t say that to a 15-year old! She was not psychologically clever in her teaching. She preferred teaching boys anyway...

WB: And then you went to study with Brendel?

IC: Before that, I came back to London at 18. I was really more French at the time and rarely saw my parents while I was in Paris. After that, I had very different teachers, among others Peter Wallfish, a German pianist who helped me to understand the music of Brahms better. I also worked with Sir Clifford Curzon, but we fell out. I did nothing to offend him, but he was a very touchy man. As a performer, he was nervous and had his on and off days. My father used to work as a music critic and once we heard Curzon on an off day. My father wrote an honest review and I received a letter from Curzon saying “Your father obviously thinks I have nothing to teach you”. I guess he didn’t take it very well in the beginning when he heard that I could study with Brendel, but later he was pleased and said: “Go and have a wonderful time!” I also played five or six times for Rubinstein, which was as much a human experience as it was a musical one.

WB: How distinctive was the stamp Brendel left on you?

IC: I definitely feel a clear line from Edwin Fischer down through Brendel, more than with anyone else. The timing of everything was right. He was 40 when I went to work with him, but not yet a household name. He was learning Schubert sonatas and wanted me to learn them at the same time. He did travel, but he was also often in Vienna during these years 1969 and 1970. I saw him twice a week during a period of seven or eight weeks. The lessons took long, sometimes an entire afternoon. I also played second piano for him when he was working on Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto and other concerti. And we listened to a lot of recordings by different artists like Cortot, Lotte Lehmann, the Busch Quartet...  He was an extremely strong influence; he was articulate, eloquent, he knew why he did things and wanted me to do them the same way. That is valid, but you shouldn’t stay too long with such a person. I was honoured when he played me new works and wanted me to write down anything I didn’t like, so I was sitting with the  score and had to be “on my mettle” , because not anyone can criticize Brendel! Later, we recorded Mozart’s concerto’s for two pianos (K 365 and Mozart’s arrangement of the Concerto for 3 pianos K 242) with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

WB: I have a lot of questions about Schubert. You have done a lot of things, but one of the composers I very closely associate you with is Schubert. He must be very close to your heart, is he your favourite composer?

IC: (sigh) I don’t think I can answer that question, but I will answer obliquely: he has a unique place in my heart. On the other hand, I am working on a lot of Schumann now and I have such a passion for him.

WB: The next question is corny..

IC: Try me!

WB: What do you like most about Schubert?

IC: How long have you got? (laughs) First of all, his humanity. He was such a human being.. the way he manages to convey so much emotion in music through the most glorious melodies that range from the imaginitively dark to the devastatingly simple. The way he switches between the dark and the light in his psyche. I have a theory that people get illnesses that suit them. Schubert’s illness alienated him from what he most wanted: love of a partner, therefore he had to dig deeper in his reserves of emotions. Would he have written so many masterworks if he had been married with five children? He wasn’t without love, as he had close friends, but he suffered from a horrible disease, like Aids now. He was only in his 20’s when he got ill and didn’t know he was going to die, he could have expected to live another six or seven years.. At the end of his life, he was weak as a result of the amount of work he did..

WB: Your late colleague Claudio Arrau once called Schubert “the ultimate challenge”, what do you think of his assessment?

IC: I wonder why he said that? I wouldn’t associate him with Schubert and don’t think he ever recorded any of his music?

WB: Oh yes, he did, at the end of his life he recorded the last three sonatas among other things!

IC: I’d love to hear what he did in the C-minor Sonata (D 958, WB)!

WB: I can send you a copy of his recording!

IC: Some of his works are enormously long, for instance the A-major Sonata (D 959) or the String Quintet, it is a challenge for a pianist or a string player to hold the span. If Arrau meant that, I agree and I think he is also right from a pianistic point of view. You need a huge palette of colours, physical means, imagination and most of all you have to tell a story. When I perform with Wolfgang Holzmaier, he always says to me “Erzähle die Geschichte!” before we walk out on stage!

WB: You have played many of the big Schubert song cycles and a lot of other songs, how important is it for a pianist to have performed them if he wants to play his piano music?

IC: It certainly helps, because the songs are a major part of Schubert’s make- up.

WB: Do you study the texts of Schubert’s songs as well when you have to accompany a singer?

IC: Of course, especially when you work with someone like Holzmaier. I am very careful to understand what I play, a pianist has to provide the light and darkness in the piano parts.

WB: What can you learn from a singer?

IC: How to tell a story and how to make long lines if he or she has impressive breath control. Singing is the most natural way to shape a melody

WB: Can a singer also learn from a pianist?

IC: You would have to ask the singer! It never occurred to me, but probably I wouldn’t be the worst guide for Schubert, I have been on this journey for so long...

WB:I have always wanted to ask a question about the B-flat major Sonata (D 960), the last one Schubert wrote. Although it was written in a major key, I have always had the feeling that it is a tragic piece. I don’t know whether this is odd or not?

IC: Compared to the other two late Sonatas (D 958 and 959), it is not in essence a dramatic composition. It’s lyrical and there is nothing of the drama you find in the second movement of D 959. It is certainly a big piece, though! By the way, I don’t play the repeat in the first movement of D 960, I think these eight bars don’t belong to the piece. Had Schubert lived two years longer, he might in my view have moved from the shadow of Beethoven and he would have reviewed the structure of this sonata. For me these eight bars don’t make sense.

WB: How would you describe the overall atmosphere of the whole sonata?

IC: Edwin Fisher said about Mozart’s last concerto K 595 (which is written in the same key, B-flat major, WB) “It is an endless outbreath”, that’s what it is. The atmosphere is slightly autumnal, but the scherzo is spring-like. Other than that, I can’t tell you the general feeling.

WB: You have conducted Mozart concertos from the keyboard, why would you do that? Isn’t it making the task very difficult since it is not easy to play his concertos anyway?

IC: I am about to do it again (laughs), but I don’t move my arms at all, not like Ashkenazy or Uchida. Pianists who conducted his concertos from the keyboard made a lot of gestures. If you play with a top chamber orchestra, it works. I don’t want to conduct, I’d rather go to the musicians and say: “How do we do this?”. I am planning to play concertos with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and love the experience.

WB:I like your repertoire and heard you in a lot of different styles, I remember the first book of Iberia or music by Janacek, Liszt and Smetana. Are you a curious person?

IC: No, I am not and this probably doesn’t do me credit. I don’t do the obvious things such as whole Beethoven cycles. Well, I do the concertos, but not all of his sonatas, it doesn’t interest me. If I fall in love with a work and want to convey something that I haven’t heard before, I go for it, but I don’t go on the internet to search for rare scores, absolutely not! I don’t feel the need either to play music by Stockhausen.. It is healing to play music on a deeply spiritual level. We all need healing, since we live in a very frightening world.

WB: Do you have challenges ahead?

IC: Certainly, but I don’t know what they are! I have to fall in love with a work and I need to block time in my agenda to learn it, it’s difficult..

WB: Didn’t you want to tackle Brahms’s First Piano Concerto or was I thinking of another pianist?

IC: No, I haven’t got the build for it. I have left it, but I can hear it,  it will survive the fact that Imogen Cooper hasn’t played it. I would like to take up his Third Sonata, which I love and played many years ago. And maybe for myself, I would like to play Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit again, that I studied in Paris...

WB: What’s the biggest sacrifice in this job?

IC: What other people would call “a normal life”: to go for a long walk, to mix with the world more.. I need to be alone after ten years alone, I am happier alone than not, but I missed out on quite a few things! Sometimes I long for a more normal life, since mine is completely dysfunctional.

WB: Is it worth all this?

IC: Sure! Whether I can say that in twenty years when I probably can’t play any more, I don’t know. I don’t know any other life,  music has been at the center of my life and humanity. But yes, I am one of the blessed 5% whose sense of life and work is intermingled. I sometimes fight to the instrument, but ultimately I don’t know any other life...

WB: What’s the nicest thing anybody has ever told you with regards to your piano playing?

IC: I am not sure whether I can answer your question, therefore I will answer in a more global way. I don’t often read reviews,  but I am really happy when people start hearing what I am doing at greater depths. I am moved when people in the audience describe what music has done to them in terms that I would use myself. That gives me more pleasure than anything, more than people telling me “I played very well”.When everything is flowing, it is circular and you come out better!


Amsterdam, 27 September 2010

Willem Boone (WB): How do you feel after last night’s concert?

Jonathan Biss (JB): Very tired, both emotionally and physically it was a huge programme (an all Beethoven programme with the sonatas op 10/1, 109, the Bagatelles opus 126 and the Appassionata, WB), that takes out everything of you . The Concertgebouw is an incredible place to play at, something one can only look forward to, so I feel satisfied and spent.

WB: Are you always capable of assessing yourself after you have played?

JB: I try not to! The beauty of a concert exists only in the moment; when it’s finished, it’s finished.. You allow things to happen, but of course there are always things that you are less happy with.

WB: Your colleague Krystian Zimerman is known to be a perfectionist and take notes after each concert about what could be improved. Would that work for you?

JB: It happens that you think about things that have happened in a concert and that could be adjusted. However, I think that the work of trying to improve is meant for the practice room!


WB: In the brochure of Riaskoff Management I read that you were looking forward to this concert a lot, why specifically to this one?

JB: It is my favourite hall. I played here many times and every time I find it miraculous that a large hall can give you a feeling of intimacy. It happened a few times that I sat in the audience and felt that the pianist was sitting next to me. Both the acoustics and the intimacy of this hall are great.

WB: It’s not that big, is it?

JB: 2000 seats for a recital is big! Beethoven would have never imagined something like this..

WB: Your colleague Maurizio Pollini has said several times that the Amsterdam audience was one of the best in the world, but what makes it so good?

JB: They are cultured and they know what they are listening to.

WB: How can you feel that as a musician?

JB: That’s something I cannot put in words. They are very open, there is no sense they are not willing to listen to other ideas. You feel the music is in their blood stream.

WB: I guess people may have asked you the next question many times; how did you end up playing the piano when both of your parents are string players?

JB: That’s a good question! My older brother played the piano therefore I wanted to play the piano as well. I am happy my parents were string players, it made things easier. There was a healthy separation; my parents were not my teachers and that created an independance.

WB: Were they able to help you?

JB: Absolutely. I am lucky, as they let me develop my own career. However, they have been incredibly supportive since they know what the life of an artist is like. They are a great resource.

WB: I have a DVD at home of Daniel Barenboim teaching Beethoven masterclasses, in which you play the last movement of opus 109. After this session, someone in the audience asked Barenboim whether there was a difference between being a pianist and a string player/singer. He answered that it was “hard to become one with the instrument” as it is “such a monster”. How can you become one with a piano indeed?

JB: It’s very difficult, the piano often feels like a machine. It is maybe the least natural instrument. Dynamically speaking nothing can equal it, but you sacrifice a lot in the directness of the music making. However, all pianists try to create a singing sound on a piano, whereas it is maybe not its tendency. Singing is the essence of music. When I am wrestling with a passage, I sing it away from the instrument, after that I can go back and work on the piano.

WB: That’s very interesting what you are saying! I remember Cherkassky said he couldn’t be a teacher, not even for a minute, but once, when someone said he was struggling with a passage, he advised the pianist to “first sing it” , which I think is great advice...

WB: Of course, I’d like to ask you a few questions about Beethoven. On your blog you wrote: “I am trying to come to terms with the most affirming, yet unfathomable music I know to exist”. Yet you played an all Beethoven programme last night, why was that?

JB: That is the reason I cannot stay away from it! His music is so human, you hear the struggle, the idealism and the beauty. It is beyond imagination, you never come to a point where you know him.

WB: What about Mozart? Do you have the feeling you know him or his music?

JB: It’s different. I don’t think he was interested in imagination. His music deals with the way he sees it, whereas Beethoven sees the world as he wishes it to be. With Beethoven, there is a great deal of idealism and utopia. If you take opus 109, you can speak of a pure, advanced vision. I hope there is nothing negative about saying his music is unfathomable.

WB: You also wrote on your blog about setting up recital programmes and mentioned all Beethoven- or Mozart programmes as opposed to programmes with “confrontation” , during which you played more than one composer. You mentioned “stilistic evenness” as one of the risks of the former programmes. Would you say that Beethoven is most “stilistic evenness proof”?

JB: The language evolved so much, if you look at the recital I played last night, from opus 10/1 to the Bagatelles of opus 126! You almost wouldn’t recognize Beethoven as the same composer, but the concerns are the same in both works. In the slow movement of the Sonata opus 10/1, he was already questioning the universe.

WB: That’s true, I often have the feeling that his 32 piano sonatas are very different and yet they form a coherent cycle in their diversity!

JB: There is indeed an unbelievable variety of tools. It really is a miracle.

WB: You said that Beethoven “took so much space in your head that he leaves you little room for anything else”. Does that make you the opposite of a colleague like Sokolov who says he loves the piece he plays most?

JB: It happens to me as well. Beethoven and Mozart are opposites, usually I feel closer to one than to the other. It depends on the one I play. Schubert and Schumann can make me feel the same way, but Beethoven is the biggest in sheer terms of personality.

WB: I once read a review in which the critic wrote that Beethoven had “no particular style” or much less than Mozart or Chopin. Do you agree and if so, is that maybe why you called him “unfathomable”?

JB: He has less of a fixed style, he was involved in so much all of the time. Beethoven was less interested in style than Chopin. However, Beethoven’s music has a searching quality and a forcefullness that are unique in their own rights.

WB: Is that searching quality one of your aims as well?

JB: My aim is searching for what is beyond what I can do. He is doing the same. I cannot understand him even when I am a mortal. His belief in the power of music was unshakable.

WB: May I confront you to a few opinions colleagues of yours have expressed about Beethoven: first Daniel Barenboim who said that “Beethoven is (still) constantly contemporary”?

JB: Absolutely! He went so far in terms of language; it’s still something to reckon with and so unrelated to anything else because of the questions he asked in his music.

WB: Which questions do you mean?

JB: About humanity, life and death, human feelings. Yes, music like his will always be contemporary.

WB: Again Daniel Barenboim, who said”Out of chaos, Beethoven created a new order”.

JB: The chaos was of his own making! I wouldn’t use the word “chaos”, but he certainly created a universe. Beethoven wasn’t interested in creating anything neat, yet his music was very complete and fullfilled. Probably I am saying the same thing as Barenboim in other words now...

WB: Vladimir Ashkenazy said that Beethoven “had such an incredible warm heart”.

JB: O, yes! His opus 109 is so human, even if the ideas are sometimes lofty.

WB: When I asked Menahem Pressler what he liked most about Beethoven he answered: “Everything, there is no composer like he who can express everything from the most noble until the most vulgar”

JB: That’s true! Beethoven is not above the earthiness of everything. If you take the Archduke Trio, it has one of the most philosophical slow movements, it really transports. The last movement almost makes fun of you for believing it..

WB: I liked what Barenboim said in the masterclass about your performance of the variations of opus 109 about recollection versus remembering.

JB: I was very touched by what he said and he was right about this. In the end the variations have a past and in the beginning they only have a future. He really clarified something for me.

WB: Would you consider to immerse yourself even more in Beethoven’s universe and study all of his sonatas?

JB: One day I will, definitely. I played 17 sofar and by the time I play 24 of them, I will plan to play all of them.

WB: Have you tackled the Hammerklavier Sonata already?

JB: That’s for next year for when I have planned a 4-month sabbatical leave.

WB: If you are speaking of Beethoven being unfathomable, that sonata may be one of the most difficult to interpret!

JB: It’s supposed to be daunty, but it doesn’t scare me. I relish that sort of challenges.

WB: I’d like to bring up another composer that is very close to your heart: Schumann. You said he was “love at first sight” and that “nobody expresses loneliness more beautifully”. Could you give an example of this?

JB (His look when I mention the name Schumann is quite telling!): The end of Dichterliebe is unbelievable, it’s the ultimate expression of loneliness. Or the Davidsbüundlertänze when the theme of the Ländler comes back. It’s the thought of someone who feels completely alone. I could give many other examples. Schumann didn’t write for the audience, he wants only one person to be changed by his music, probably his wife Clara. The intimacy of his music is even more important than with Schubert. With Schumann, you have the feeling you are listening in on a private conversation.

WB: I can understand quite well how you feel about Schumann. I feel the same way, I even have the feeling (although this may sound very arrogant) I could have written his music...

JB: He was a meeting point between the universal and the personal. You feel you know him, but never in a navel gazing way. Maybe he expressed his feelings more intensely than others.His voice is unique and powerful.

WB: Yet Schumann is not hugely popular, why is that?

JB: His music isn’t popular in the same way as that of other great composers. People are generally uneasy about romantic feelings. It is difficult to immerse in his world, as he goes so far. To go with him means the risk of losing control. There is a danger to feel so deeply! Schumann suffers a lot from comparisons, nobody looks to Schumann on his own merits. It’s a big shame, since his music has such vivid imagination.

WB: Tom Deacon, the artistic director of the project Pianists of the XXth century once told me “Schumann doesn’t sell”, what do you think of this?

JB: It depends on the numbers.. The idea that a few thousand people love something passionately is enough for me. I notice that people are truly moved when I play his music and that happens a lot. I refuse to measure things.

WB: Isn’t Schumann’s music even more chaotic than Beethoven’s and therefore terribly difficult to interpret?

JB: Yes, again Schumann was not interested in order, just like Beethoven. He didn’t feel order, but he was most interested in life, in things that are contradictory or difficult to fathom. There is a basic difference between his music and Mendelssohn’s, another great composer who did express order in his compositions. He was someone who valued symmetry.

WB: With whom do you have more in common: Florestan or Eusebius? Your colleague Eliso Virsaladze said you shouldn’t have more in common with one than with the other, as otherwise you wouldn’t be able to play him well?

JB: You can’t separate them, one makes the other possible. Eusebius is necessary because of Florestan. Florestan can also break your heart and Eusebius can also be powerful!

WB: You quoted Schumann on your blog: “Music is the language that permits one to converse with the Beyond”. Is that your aim too?

JB: Yes, it is. Music expresses feelings that are not equal to words. When you play music, you feel connected to something larger, be it God or the “Beyond”.

WB: Doesn’t that sound slightly arrogant: “I am conversing with the Beyond”?

JB: No, it’s not arrogant. All of us want to converse with something bigger,music creates that kind of awareness. It helps me to ask the questions.

WB: Which questions?

JB: The big ones: what are we here for? How do we relate to one another?

WB: Which piece by Schumann do you like the best?

JB: It’s very difficult to answer. I started to take back the Fantasy, so it would be the Fantasy if you ask me now. But I love everything by Schumann, even the late works, e.g the Gesänge der Frühe or the Violin Concerto.

WB: Who are your favourite Schumann pianists?

JB: I grew up with Cortot, whom I still value a lot. He would definitely be my first choice. I also like the poetry of Murray Perahia in his early CBS recordings.

WB: Do you believe that one can get to “know” the personality of a composer through his music?

JB: Schubert and Schumann are the only composers I feel I understand through their music.

WB: Suppose you were allowed to ask Schumann one question, what would it be?

JB: The answer is so corny that I almost don’t want to say it.. I wouldn’t ask him a question, but I just want to say him that everything will be ok.. I find it unbearable to feel how much he suffered...

WB: On your blog you wrote “In order to play a piece, I must love it”. May I conclude from that that you don’t like Chopin since I haven’t heard you play his music?

JB: I do and I love him! I worship his music, especially the late pieces like the Barcarolle and the Polonaise-Fantaisie. Maybe I haven’t played his music in Amsterdam...

WB: What is your relationship to his music?

JB: He was one of the first composers I loved. His music is so well written for the instrument, it is a physical pleasure to play. He allows you to use the body in a natural way and never works against you. And he offers an incredible combination of purity of line and depth.

WB: You don’t play a lot of purely virtuosic music, like Rachmaninov, Tschaikofsky or Liszt. I hope you are not offended when I say this, but are you too “civilized” a pianist to play this kind of music?

JB: I used to play quite a bit of it... As to Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto, I didn’t feel there was enough to practise it, although I like to listen to it. I like what Schnabel said: “I play music that is greater than any performance of it ever could be”. With a piece like Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto, I have the feeling that there is more.

WB: What do you mean?

JB: With Beethoven, I feel there is always another level or layer to penetrate, Rachmaninov doesn’t ask the same questions, but what the latter achieved was very honest and pure.

WB: Piano is a very virtuosic instrument, does not every pianist have a “hidden wish” to release the animal inside and show his claws?

JB: You need your claws and guts for Beethoven and Brahms aswell, but I feel that you are at the service of something. Maybe I am embarrassed to show only my claws..

WB: You studied with Leon Fleisher, who had high praise for you when I interviewed him a few years ago. How was he as a teacher?

JB: Great! Some artists are either eloquent musicians or eloquent speakers, he was both. He didn’t play much in the lessons, but I certainly got another level of understanding. He is the greatest musical person I have encountered.

WB: What is the most important you learnt from him?

JB: He has tremendous integrity and never faked a feeling. He taught me to never take the easy road and not shy away from difficulties. His sound is extraordinary; it is shining, pure, penetrating, I still have it in my ears. I admire the intuition with which he can shape a line or place a note. He has one of the most amazing musical intuitions, there is something deep inside him he knows.

WB: Did he transmit that to you?

JB: Yes, he transmitted the importance of listening to your own intuition, it’s very primal.

WB: I know you are good friends with the Dutch violonist Liza Ferstman. She said in an interview that the two of you participated in a performance of Brahms’s Second Piano Quartet during her last festival in Delft (the Netherlands). She also said that both of you had unhappy memories of previous performances of this piece, how did it go this time?

JB: It was a very happy experience, there was a lot of mutual sympathy.

WB: It is such a shame that she hasn’t the career she deserves, do you have any idea why she isn’t more famous?

JB: It’s difficult to explain, I think she is living a very fulfilling life, but I agree with you that she is an artist and that she has something to say. There are not that many musicians who are so open. We want to protect ourselves on the one hand and allow ourselves to be open on the other hand, she does that.

WB: My last question is about what I read in the leaflet of the Meesterpianisten Series, that you know a lot about tennis and love to eat icecream. How do you feel when people write such rather trivial things about you?

JB: It is a bit of an adjustment, I felt for a long time that there was nothing about me that was worth knowing about and at my core I still feel that. I am still careful, but people have curiosity. It’s my life, but I don’t think it harms me when people know about me that I love tennis and icecream. It doesn’t make it difficult to come to my concerts.. I try not to be fanatic about protecting myself!

(When I tell Jonathan Biss at the end of the interview that I love watching tennis matches too and that we maybe should schedule another talk about tennis he answers:” I could go on for a very long time about tennis!”.)

Rotterdam, 3 December 2010

Kristian Bezuidenhout is one of the most brillant artists on the fortepiano nowadays, he made himself a name with his refreshing interpretations of well known masterworks. However, an interview with this artist is as refreshing and inspiring. He showed the same passion and commitment..

Willem Boone (WB): What are you: a harpsichord player, a fortepianist, a pianist or all three at the same time?

Kristian Bezuidenhout (KB): I play all three instruments, although I don’t play the harpsichord and the Steinway much nowadays, 90 % of the time I am asked to play the fortepiano. I do only one or two concerts per year on the Steinway, I try to be careful about it. I have a modern piano at home, it is the first instrument I started on. It reminds me of various aspects of the fortepiano.

WB: In what way does playing on a Steinway gives you clues for interpretation on the fortepiano?

KB: It is very informative, especially in terms of colour and quality of sound. It is not easy to play beautifully on a five octave fortepiano. Playing on a Steinway gives you wonderful tools to strive to make a truly lovely sound on the fortepiano. Furthermore, a Steinway is more colourful than a fortepiano and its pedals have a dramatic effect on the sound. It’s very grounding.

WB: I very much enjoyed your first Mozart solo recording on Harmonia Mundi. The instrument was beautiful and it was very well recorded. However, I had a bit of a hard time when you played the Beethoven Triple Concerto with Isabelle Faust, Jean Guihen Queyras, the Orchestra of the 18th Century and Frans Brüggen in the Theater aan het IJ in Amsterdam last month. I thought there was a problem with the balance, I heard the violin and the cello, but I had trouble hearing you, whereas the hall wasn’t gigantic or overly reverberant. I was just wondering: why would you want to play on an instrument that can be hardly heard with an orchestra that has to hold back in order not to overpower you?

KB: You are right, it was frustrating that we used that instrument (a Lagrassa) in that particular hall. I played Mozart concertos in the same venue on three previous occasions and each time I was told that the balance was not good. It was tricky to play the Triple Concerto in this venue. We made a small tour with the orchestra and in the other four halls, there were no problems with the balance. It is thorny issue, but I take your point. Anyway, it was a great experience to work with such great soloists.

WB: Were you unhappy about the Amsterdam performance?

KB: No, when I saw the film on internet, it came across really well. And it was the first time in many years that Frans Brüggen conducted the Triple Concerto.

WB: Is the piano part difficult?

KB: It is indeed! It is challenging, especially since everyone thinks it is easy...
It is sometimes unpianistic and it is tricky to find the right balance between the two other soloists and the orchestra.

WB: I think your colleague, the Dutch pianist Ronald Brautigam (who also performs on period instruments) has said that he could really let his hair down in Mozart on a fortepiano, whereas he felt limited on a Steinway grand. Isn’t that a strange paradox: to let yourself go on a relatively frail instrument, whereas you can do anything (or even more) on a Steinway in terms of dynamics?

KB: It is true what Ronald says. You feel liberated on a fortepiano and you can play with extremes in a less inhibited way! Mozart’s concertos in D and C-minor can sound grose and overdone on a Steinway, almost like Rachmaninov Concertos. On a period instrument, you can play forte and it doesn’t sound overdone, the instrument doesn’t swallow you up like a Steinway. Having said this, I had to get used to fortepianos in the beginning, because the keyboard was so tiny..

WB: You do compromize and you did play Mozart’s Concerto in E flat major K 482 with the Concertgebouw Orchestra last summer, didn’t you?

KB: Yes, that’s correct, but I would never do the D-minor concerto on a modern instrument, as I couldn’t express its tempestuousness. For the late concertos, it is different; it was wonderful to play with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. We took the lid off and the balance wasn’t an issue any more. The orchestra sounded flexible and transparent. The balance problems simply went away. Eventhough the concerto sounded gorgeous on a Steinway, I still feel that Mozart’s incredibly suave writing for winds and keyboards comes across better on the more human and idiosyncratic instruments of Mozart’s time.

WB:Still, the concerto in E flat major also sounds quite dramatic even if it is written in a major key, so why not do the D-minor concerto on a modern piano?

KB: It is more overly solistic, whereas in the E flat major you are more submerged by the orchestra. It struck me how well it worked on modern instruments...

WB: Was this performance recorded?

KB: Probably the concert in Wiesbaden was. Maybe there is also a video of the Luzern performance.

WB: You don’t like to listen to your own performances?

KB: Yes, I do listen to my own live recordings, but not always right after the concert...

WB: I have some questions about Mozart, are you going to record all of his solo works?

KB: Yes, that’s correct, there will be nine volumes with mixed programmes: sonatas, variations and miscellaneous pieces. I am leaving out a few things though, some transcriptions, otherwise there would have been more than 10 volumes.

WB: How do you consider Mozart’s output for piano solo as opposed to his Piano Concertos? The solo pieces are often considered as “minor pieces” or “study material”.

KB: Yes, his operas and Piano Concertos rank at the top, but still his keyboard writing for solo piano is among the best of his time. Especially the Variations are examples of virtuosic and sophisticated keyboard writing. One could say about the sonatas that they are “just” tuneful and melodically genious, but it is hard to find better keyboard writing in the 18th century. They are more intimiate than the Concertos, where Mozart is sometimes almost operatic and pulls out all the stops. He is at his most brillant in the Concertos, they are his number one calling card. You are right, people are quick to dismiss his piano sonatas.

WB: What would you consider as his best work for solo piano?

KB: It would be a tie between the C-minor Fantasy K 475 and the C-minor Sonata K 457. Or the A-minor Rondo K 511, where he ignores the natural tendancy of the Rondo. It is one of the only times he writes for solo piano in A-minor.

WB: I thought the Sonata K 310 was also composed in the same key?

KB: Right, that is another piece that was years ahead of its time!

WB: I agree that the C-minor Fantasy is an amazing work, it made me think: suppose Mozart would have lived longer, how do you think his style would have evolved: more towards a pre-Beethovenian way (One could say Mozart paved the way for Beethoven in the Fantasy) or more towards the lyricism of the last Piano Concerto in B-flat major, K 595?

KB: That is such a good question! Unlike Beethoven, Mozart played until the very end of his life. He was a virtuoso from the first until the last moment. Beethoven stopped playing in public after 1809 and his style changed a lot as of that moment. However, it is impossible to predict how Mozart’s style would have evolved if he hadn’t played until the end of his life. The differences would probably have been more radical. As to the C-minor Fantasy, I see it as an hommage to Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, where Mozart created a new world. He didn’t want to shock the world, whereas Beethoven deliberately created scandal and lost touch with reality. Mozart was driven by what people wanted, I see a deep pragmatism in everything he did or wrote.

WB: I was struck by the freedom of your Mozart playing. Is it “easy” in a way to play Mozart with freedom since there are obviously little indications in terms of dynamics or tempi in his scores?

KB: There are hardly any indications, but there is Mozart’s obsession with articulation. He is very specific about articulation, e.g two note slurs. There is this myth to look at the Urtext and play his music in a simple and refined way. It is considered as cheap and cheesy to play him in a dramatic way. I strive for a more personal and human approach to this repertoire.

WB: How do you manage to create freedom in a written text?

KB: I remember one of my teachers, Malcolm Bilson, spoke about operatic terminology in Mozart’s music. He sometimes introduces a new key unexpectedly, almost without warning, there are places where you can stretch and give it an “aha quality”. There is the music, the framework, and there are magical moments of departure. Sometimes it is funny when people tell me about things I have done, when you come to think of it, you indeed “did” certain things...

WB: Are you normally not aware of what you are doing while playing?

KB: You want to play notated music liked it sounds made up as in the C-minor Fantasy.

WB: Do you have total freedom with ornaments?

KB: Less and less. Mozart has an unmistakably sophisticated ornamental style, you wouldn’t confuse him with Beethoven. The ornaments should reflect the stylistic ornementation of the composer. And in this respect, I cannot think of someone who better understands the true characteristics of Mozart’s style than Robert Levin. I don’t do as much on the spur of the moment as I would have done some time ago. I want to make sure that people could think of me as a gifted contemporary of Mozart...

WB: Do you consider Mozart’s ornaments as harmonic or melodic variatons?

KB: I think his ornaments tend by large to a melodic style, 95 % I would say. There is a strong rythmic element in his ornementation and there is rich harmonic underpinning. He adds dissonants where he can, but it makes sense from a melodic standpoint.

WB: I often have the feeling whenever Mozart writes in a minor key, also for piano solo, e.g the D-minor and C-minor Fantasies, the A-minor Rondo, the B-minor Adagio, that something very special happens, maybe it would be exagerated to say that he transcends the instrument?

KB: Transcend is not an exageration at all, I totally agree with you, something gets unlocked in these compositions. They are cataclismic. As with Schubert, dramatic shifts between major and minor happen a lot.

WB: How would you rate Mozart’s Variations? Do they give the best impression of the virtuoso he was?

KB: From a pianistic standpoint: yes. Although his Concertos are unbelievably brillant, the Variations are just as brillant in technical display. There are technical aspects, e.g entire variations in broken octaves that are unusual in the Concertos or Sonatas. They give the most vivid glimpse in Mozart’s outrageous gifts as a keyboard player.

WB: I read that you said in an interview you would never play the C-minor Fantasy on a Steinway.

KB: I did, I listened to some great pianists on CD, it often feels as if they hold back. You almost hear the brainwork before they play the first note. You can’t play it with the abandon of a fortepiano on the Steinway. On a fortepiano you can play that same chord so loudly! In conservatoires you are told that the culture of Steinway playing is about beauty of tone, evenness, delicacy and nothing too extreme. They way the Steinway reaches to extreme emotions is that it sometimes goes over the top. It made us nervous to play Mozart in a dramatic way. On the other hand, I can’t think of many performances of his symphonies that were life changing.

WB: Is this evenness, delicacy and careful approach of Mozart not the biggest cliché that exists about his music?

KB: Yes, it is and there is another one: that his working process was always easy. He was an unbelievably crafted composer.

WB: Which modern pianists do you like in Mozart?

KB: I heard Leif Ove Andsnes play and conduct a few concertos and it was wonderful. One of them was the D-minor Concerto, it had energy, it was dramatic and not weird or over the top. I also remember Piotr Anderzevski who played Mozart really well. Other than that, I don’t listen much to piano recordings.

WB: Have you heard Wanda Landowska in the E-flat major Concerto? You’d probably find her interesting, since she was also (and mainly) a harpsichord player!

KB: Right, someone gave it to me, it’s very interesting!

WB: Where would you draw the line in terms of repertoire?

KB: That’s a very good question, it’s more than anything a technical issue. It would be great to play the Chopin Concertos on gut strings and with a 19th Century Pleyel, but I am not yet ready for it. I didn’t do a lot of romantic music, but mainly Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. I didn’t learn the Brahms Concertos, it was way beyond my grasp, it would take me a few years if I want to do them now. I would love to play Brahms at some point.  It would be great to do Ravel, Debussy or Poulenc on a lovely Erard, but I like to take one step at a time!

WB: And now (tonight) you are doing Schumann with the British singer Mark Padmore?

KB: Yes, it was such a good idea to record and perform Dichterliebe! I play on an Erard from 1837, it is a beautiful instrument from the collection of Edwin Beunk. We’ll use the same one tonight. It sounds so great on record; it has a rich and velvety sound. And Dichterliebe is one of the most amazing cycles Schumann has written...

WB: You have been quite lucky in the choice of your partners, did they always come to you?

KB: Sometime they did, but Mark and I were put together by the violonist Daniel Hope. I approached the violonist Petra Mullejans and we recorded Mozart sonatas. Another great collaborator is the superb soprano Carolyn Sampson.

WB: Your duo with violonist Victoria Mullova is quite interesting!

KB: She is wonderful, both as a musician and as a person, very easy to work with.

WB: It’s amazing that she switched to play on period instruments!

KB: She was very quick to change, she just jumped in the deep end and took it all on board. The way she changed her style is very impressive. It suits her well!

WB: Are there plans that you will record Beethoven?

KB: Yes, there are, although they have not been 100% confirmed yet. I will probably record a disc with early Beethoven sonatas and pieces, but another thing I’d really like to do is the Concertos. I think they need to be done in a new way: led by the orchestra. It would be so different from what you normally hear: a big symphony orchestra with a big soloist. There was a proposal to record them with the Freiburger Barock Orchestra and I’d be delighted!

WB: Why are you so keen on doing them without a conductor?

KB: Although I have had wonderful experiences doing the Beethoven concertos with conductor, I think it's vital that there be a recording of these pieces that recreates the danger and volatility of Beethoven's own performances of this repertoire.  Namely, that the soloist is joined by a team of first-class instrumentalists who are led by a strong Konzertmeister.  This balance of power - in which the soloist and Konzertmeister co-direct the concerto - creates a feeling of 'maxi chamber music' which I think is essential for the drama and effect of these pieces.

WB: Isn’t it tricky to play them without conductor, especially the Emperor Concerto?

KB: I agree too that pieces like the Emperor concerto are tricky without a conductor, but I am convinced that with enough rehearsal time and with the right attitude of commitment and dedication from the orchestra, it is certainly possible.


Utrecht, 28 December 2006

Willem Boone (WB): Were you happy about last night’s concert?

Leif Ove Andsnes (LOA): Yes, I like this hall (main hall of Muziekcentrum Vredenburg in Utrecht, WB), it’s one of the best modern concert halls

WB: Do you like it better than the Concertgebouw?

LOA: That’s a magical hall, but it’s impossible to compare them!

WB: Was there a problem with the piano?

LOA: Yes, one of the strings broke, which hasn’t happened to me in a few years!

WB: Was it fixed for the Brahms (The Piano Quintet was played after the intermission)

LOA: Yes, it was.

WB: You played chamber music last night with a group of musicians with whom you probably don’t play very often, isn’t it a bit frustrating with relatively little time to rehearse?

LOA: It can be frustrating, but it can also be fulfilling!  There can be the excitement to meet other musicians for the first time, it’s a lot of give and take. You loose something, but you also gain something. The other musicians were wonderful last night, which made the performance special.

WB: You said in an interview from 1997 that you liked playing the piano so much that it made up for all the travelling, practising, loneliness and jetlag. Do you still feel the same way?

LOA: Yes, of course! Playing the piano is a source of energy and gives me inner calm. I don’t think in terms of stress.

WB: But it’s still a very hard life after all?

LOA: Many lifes are hard....

WB: How long in advance are you booked for concert dates?

LOA: We are now speaking about the year 2009, so I am booked three years ahead.

WB: Isn’t that frightening in a way?

LOA: Yes, it is... Next year, I will play Brahms’s 2nd Concerto for the first time. The pressure can be hard if you think of something you haven’t done before.

WB: It’s certainly a difficult concerto, but then again, you said that Rachmaninov’s third concerto wasn’t that difficult and very well written....

LOA: There is an enormous amount of notes, but they are so well written for the hand that I feel a physical pleasure when I play it. Brahms’s writing is more vertical by comparison.

WB:  It doesn’t stop you however to play the Brahms 2nd concerto!

LOA: No, that’s because of the music...

WB: How long can you stay away fromt the piano without touching the instrument?

LOA: I can stay away from the instrument, but if I don’t practise my muscles feel less supple. On the other hand, I got so used to practise, it’s almost a kind of meditation. If I don’t play, something is missing, I start to feel stressed.

WB: Do you feel unwell?

LOA: No, it’s more a mental thing.

WB: Can you learn scores away from the piano? It seems that Rubinstein learnt Franck’s Variations Symphoniques during a train ride!

LOA: I can’t entirely learn a piece without the piano, but I can go through a piece when I sit in an airplane. Or before a concert, I think through the movements of the hands. If you can remember the movements, you know a piece really well, a lot comes from the physical movements.

WB: Do you have a good memory?

LOA: I don’t have too much trouble, although mine is not photografic.

WB: Speaking of the life of a pianist, there are a few cases of musicians who suffered from a nervous breakdown, such as Ivo Pogorelich and Andrei Gavrilov. This may be a very personal matter, but could it have anything to do with the constant pressure you are experiencing as a performing artist?

LOA: Every case is individual indeed, but there is certainly a lot of pressure. You can get very absorbed in your own world. If you can’t reach out to other people, you get into trouble.. I like being on my own, but music is also about communication. It’s a two way thing. If I play a Rachmaninov concerto, I am sitting alone at the keyboard, but at the same time I am communicating to 2000 people, it’s a paradox. That’s also the beauty of music, it can draw a lot of people together!

WB: Are you aware of the presence of an audience when you play? You may get very absorbed and focused on your performance..

LOA: I am aware of the silence of the audience or of the non-silence when they are coughing. If I listen to myself in the hall, I also listen to what goes on in the hall.

WB: Do you manage to find that balance you just described between being on your own and reaching out to others?

LOA: The balance is not always perfect. That’s why musicians love festivals like this one (chamber music around the Dutch violonist Janine Jansen, WB). It’s fantastic to come together and perform after so much time spent alone. The work on the music has been very intense during this festival.

WB: And you have your own festival now, why did you start with that?

LOA: I didn’t start, I joined during the third year. It takes place in a fishing village, Risor. During a week, there are 20 concerts, that are always very crowded.

WB: Are you artistic director of the festival?

LOA: Yes, along with a viola player, Lars Anders Tomter.

WB: Do you have carte blanche for the programmes?

LOA: Yes, I do. We do not only invite friends, but also musicians we hear about. I got to know a lot of people through this festival, which is wonderful.

WB: Did you have any pleasant surprises?

LOA: Yes, for instance the Artemis String Quartet. When I got to know them, they weren’t that famous and now we regularly perform together. A lot of musicians have met each other thanks to this festival.

WB: In the French magazine Répertoire, I read a column by the French critic André Tuboeuf, who compared you to both Arrau and Serkin, because of your seriousness, sound, depth and intensity. Does that mean anything to you or does it leave you indifferent?

LOA: I take it as a compliment, knowing how much Tuboeuf admires these two pianists. I admire them too. I feel part of a pianistic tradition.

WB: Which tradition are you refering to?

LOA: Richter, Michelangeli, Lipatti, Schabel.

WB: But what do they have in common, since they are very different? In what way do you feel part of this tradition?

LOA: They are very different, but they found all truth in music, they played very well and they were all serious..

There are also other pianists I admire, like Horowitz.

WB: Tuboeuf also said that your Schubert reminded him of Serkin’s, he called it “strict, austere and without concessions”. What do you think of that?

LOA: (laughs): I never heard any Schubert by Serkin!

WB: That’s funny, because Tuboeuf indeed wrote that he wasn’t sure whether you were familiar with Serkin’s Schubert...


WB: I have a few questions regarding Grieg. In the same interview I quoted earlier, you said you stopped playing the Grieg Concerto around 1997, because you weren’t sure people invited you to play it as a fellow Norwegian or simply because you are a good pianist. Does that mean you were bored with the piece?

LOA: No, I wasn’t bored with the piece, as I still find it a very fresh and amazing concerto. I did get bored with practising this piece, that’s why I stopped playing it in 1994, I said: “I am an established artist now, they should ask for other pieces than the Grieg Concerto”.

WB: However you took it up again, what made you change your mind?

LOA: That was in 2002, I was curious to see how it felt to play it again and it felt very good. I also recorded it again and occasionally play it, but not very often. Next year, I will do it three times.

WB: It’s often coupled to the Schumann concerto on CD, why is that? I can’t see many similarities apart from the same key and the beginning of the first movement.

LOA: There are formal similarities, especially in the first movement. In both concertos, there is a middle section with a dialogue between the piano and wind, in Schumann it’s with the clarinet and in Grieg with the flute. For Grieg, Schumann was a model, he was only 25 years old and needed a model. He also stole from Beethoven’s fourth concerto, the slow movement and the way he starts the last movement. He took from his classical ideals... What is interesting to me is to see how emtionally different both concertos are; the Schumann is schizofrenic, it pulls you in two directions, although it’s mainly inwards, the Grieg is not so advanced in compositon technique, it’s more outwards.

WB:  Do you consider it as his best piece?

LOA: Yes, I do, it’s virtually the only big piece that was really succesfull. Maybe the third violin sonata (opus 45) we played last night is another succesfull work. He had problems to write large scaled compositions.

WB: That’s interesting, because I had the same feeling when I listened to the violin sonata last night; it sounded as if there were no real themes, but a lot of fragments..

LOA: It’s true that there are a lot of episodes in the first movement, although there are some beautiful melodic finds in the slow movement.

WB: Back to the Concerto, I spoke to a colleague of yours the other day, Elisabeth Leonskaja. She said regarding the Schumann concerto that the last movement should be played like a waltz and that a lot of pianists don’t do this, are there any passages in the Grieg concerto that are “misunderstood” in your eyes?

LOA: It sounds often too sentimental and it suffers from that image. If that happens, it becomes sirop and kitch... Grieg was a strong man and there is a lot of sincerity in his concerto.

WB: Who are your references in this work?

LOA: Lipatti. Michelangeli is very good too.

WB: You recorded  CD on Grieg’s own piano, did that add any new “dimensions”?

LOA: I knew the place, since I lived in Bergen. I know the museum, the instrument is very beautiful, if not very big, it’s a Steinway B, but it has a beautiful sound, it’s kept in good shape.

The room also added to the sound with a lot of wood.

WB: What about his input for piano solo, apart from the Lyrical Pieces? The Sonata is a youth work, there is a Ballade, which I am not familiar with...

LOA: Yes, it’s interesting that you mention that work, I will play it for the first time in January (2007). It’s his most personal piece, that he wrote when he went through a personal crisis: his parents died and he had problems in his mariage. It’s a very strong piece I feel.

WB: What do you think of Gilels’s selection of Lyrical Pieces on Deutsche Gramophon?

LOA: It’s one of the recordings of the past I really like!

WB: Richter also played a large selection of Lyrical Pieces, didn’t he?

LOA: Yes, I heard that live, he was very old, it was at the end of his life, it was a bit uneven...

WB: Do you feel playing chamber music, a recital or a concerto is very different?

LOA: Yes, it is. As a soloist, you have to shine among seventy other musicians, but ultimately, you listen to your surroundings and it’s the same music making, accompanying a singer or playing a recital is not a different profession!

WB: Your colleague Martha Argerich does not want to play recitals any more, as she suffers from the loneliness on stage. What about you?

LOA: (laughs): I quite like being by myself during a recital, it’s just me and the piano, I am more in control.

WB: I heard all of your recitals in Amsterdam in the “Meesterpianisten series”, you played last year the Moussorgsky Pictures and was wondering which version you used, was it the Pletniev arrangement?

LOA: No, I did my own arrangement, I feel the original writing is quite thin. No wonder that people are intrigued to make their own versions or orchestrations.

WB: What do you think of the Horowitz version?

LOA: It’s very convincing, although it still sounds very much like Horowitz..

WB: Speaking of Pletniev, you worked with him as a conductor, what is he like as a person? I don’t think I would ever ask him for an interview as he seems to be a rather moody person...

LOA: He probably wouldn’t say much.... but I feel very confortable playing with him. His orchestra, the Russian National Orchestra is wonderful! We performed during a commemoration of Richter’s birthday (who would have become 90 this year) in Moscow and I did both the Grieg and Rachmaninov second concertos. It was very special to do the latter piece with that orchestra. Pletniev listens very well when he accompanies.

WB: And what do you think of him as a pianist?

LOA: There are unique aspects in his playing, especially his creativity in passage works, he creates colours and waves I haven’t heard with others.

© Willem Boone 2006

Amsterdam, 10 March 2006

An interview with a legendary pianist like Leon Fleisher is not something you should pass up.. When I went to ask the master after his concert, one day prior to the interview, it proved difficult to find the right moment, until he came with the solution. What about the next day (Friday) at 12.00 am at the Concertgebouw? Hmmm, very tempting, but that was during my office hours at work! But then again, how often would I get this chance again? Thank God I grabbed the opportunity and I managed to get a few hours off from work to quickly go to Amsterdam. I met mr Fleisher in a small room underneath the stage of the main hall of the Concertgebouw, that just offered enough room for a grand piano and two chairs..  

Willem Boone (WB): You have played a lot of left hand repertoire. Do you now pay more attention to your left hand when you play two hand repertoire?

Leon Fleisher (LF): No, I always did. The left hand is the fundament of the music!

WB: The programme of last night’s performance said the Hindemith Klaviermusik mit Orchester you played was a world premiere, does that mean that you were the first pianist who ever played this piece?

LF: No,it was a Dutch premiere instead of a world premiere! , but it has a fascinating story to it. Paul Wittgenstein commissioned the piece in 1923 and nobody could find a trace of it, although it existed in the Hindemith Verzeichniss. 3 years ago, his widow died. They lived in a farm in Pennsylvania and his children found a copy in a closet, along with a lock of Beethoven’s hair, which is weird, because that would make him Samson... but it could be true, since Wittgenstein was an avid collector. The piece was lost since 1923 and the copy was not the manuscript of Hindemith.  There are sketch books in Hindemith’s hand with sketches of the piece that match, as I noticed when I had the chance to see them in Frankfurt.

WB: When was the piece performed for the first time?

LF: One year ago, in December 2004. I played with the Berlin Phillharmonic Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle.

WB: Did you play it more often?

LF: Yes, I also gave performances of it in San Francisco, Vienna, Lissabon and Prague.

WB: Are there more pianists who play it?

LF: I think I am still the only one...

WB: Wittgenstein didn’t play it after he received the score....

LF: He was a difficult man who had terrible fights with Ravel. He said he hadn’t paid all that money for an orchestral piece. He never performed the Prokofiev 4th concerto, which he also commissioned, either and even locked it up. It wasn’t performed until the second world war. Siegfried Rapp, a pianist who had only one arm, just like Wittgenstein, was the first one who managed to persuade Mme Prokofiev to unlock the safe where the score was kept. It is a wonderful piece, Prokofiev wrote it in Paris.

WB: I heard a few reminiscences of the second concerto (the scherzo) last night

LF: It’s a different piece. The 4th concerto has an airiness, a particular lightness, whereas the second  concerto is very Russian. The left hand concerto ends with a reminiscence of the 1st movement. It takes great courage to write an ending that fades away and almost evaporates...

WB: It has been said that Wittgenstein wasn’t a very good pianist, is that true?

LF: No, he wasn’t a particularly good pianist, but thank god, he was wealthy! He came from one of the richest families in Vienna. His brother Ludwig was a famous philosopher. They weren’t a happy family though, two of his brothers committed suicide...

WB: Do you know the recording that exists of the Ravel Left hand concerto by Wittgenstein?

LF: It’s from the late 30’s and it’s rather disappointing.

WB: Is it true that Cortot made a two hand version of it?

LF: I heard that story... The Ravel is incredibly written for the left hand. One of his goals was that you wouldn’t discern anything unusual if you listened with your eyes closed.

WB: There are rumours that pianists sometimes cheat during recording sessions and use their right hand  to play awkward notes?

LF: I don’t think so. In public, you would be discovered! The writing is not awkward. You have to sit higher at the keyboard to get to the treble. The center of gravity shifts to your right buttock.

WB: Do you consider the Ravel as the biggest masterwork of left hand compositions?

LF: That’s undeniable. It’s one of his greatest works, but the other pieces for piano and orchestra are masterworks in their own right, for instance Britten’s Diversions on a theme. The Hindemith is a wonderful piece, it’s written in the Concerto grosso style. There is an isolation that comes with the slow movement. He was a man of great wit who had a wonderful sense of humour. The ostinato is repeated every three bars, there are four quarter notes per bar, that would make twelve tones, but no, he wrote an eleven tone row. And you know, he was a great fan of model trains! There is a picture of Schnabel and him lying on the floor playing with model trains.

WB: Are there any influences of Bartok in the Hindemith piece?

LF: I couldn’t say. Hindemith used the theme of the slow movement in a string quartet, as if he wanted to say: “I use the material in another composition if Wittgenstein doesn’t want to play it”. Wittgenstein paid 1000 dollars for it, which was an enormous amount at the time. He insisted on keeping the manuscript, that’s why nobody else could play it. Then he had a copy made of the original. The story goes that Mme Wittgenstein was a little gaga at the end of her life and used it to light the fire in her farm....

WB: But there was the copy....

LF: Thank God!

WB: Was Hindemith a pianist?

LF: He played the viola, but also the piano and he conducted. There was a piano quartet at the time with Schnabel on the piano, Flesch on the violin, Hindemith on the viola and Casals on the cello! Not bad, I would buy a ticket to that.....

WB: Are there actually any pieces for the right hand alone?

LF: No. The left hand is peculiarly made for the piano. The base line is the most important. You can play chords and tap out the melody with the thumb, but the reverse is not possible. It is a challenge to write for the left hand alone. Sometimes when composers are given limitations, the greatest creativity comes out. I was lucky to have works written for me. Lukas Foss wrote a concerto for me. And Gunther Schuller wrote a concerto for three hands on two pianos, one part for two hands and the other part for me. There is also a fascinating piece by William Bolcom, that was commissioned by the conductor David Zinman. He would have loved to ask Bartok, but he was dead. Bolcom was a student of Milhaud and followed an example of his teacher. He composed two different concertos, one for Gary Graffmann and half of the orchestra, the other one for me and the other half of the orchestra. They can be played together and separately. Milhaud did the same with the 13th and 14th string quartet. It’s interesting to play all three concertos in the same programme.

WB: Did you do that?

LF: Yes, we did it in New York and Philadelphia.

WB: Is there a recording of this? That would be interesting!

LF: No, the business has deteriorated.

WB: When did you start playing with two hands again?

LF: In the mid 90’s.

WB: How did you find out that you still could?

LF: I spent all those forty years trying. I was looking for therapies and went from western medicine to eastern medicine to northern to southern.. eventually I found two modalities. One is a physical therapy that is called rolfing, it’s a powerful manipulation of a tissue that is contracted. As of 1996, I get botox injections at the National Institute of Health outside Washington. Botox weakens the muscles a tad and it enables me to play with two hands again.

WB: How did you feel when you played with two hands again?

LF: Ecstatic!

WB: Did you still have the ability in your right hand?

LF: I tried every day, my muscles didn’t atrophy. I suffered from dystonia, a neurological movement disorder. There are two sorts, genetic or specific, what I have. Focal distonia means one specific spot in the body. French horn players get it in the lip and there Botox won’t help! There are 10,000 musicians who suffer from this.

WB: Was it just bad luck in your case?

LF: They don’t know what causes it. They don’t have a cure for it. Botox just relieves the symptons.

WB: You played Brahms 1st concerto again, isn’t that a particularly taxing piece?

LF: I have more problems with scales... Brahms’s writing is more chordal, which causes no problems for me. I also did a new recording of the Piano Quintet with the Emerson Quartet.

WB: Don’t the trills in the 1st movement of the First Concerto require tremendous rotation power in the hands?

LF: Not if you know how to do them. Scales are problematic for me now.

WB: Because they require evenness?

LF: Yes, exactly, but I constantly experiment. I also took up Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and Brahms’s second concerto.

WB: You re-recorded Schubert’s last sonata the other day, is there any particular reason you choose this sonata?

LF: It’s a favorite piece of mine..

WB: The programme of last night mentioned that you played these concertos with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam more than fifty years ago, do you still remember these performances?

LF: Oh yes, they were very happy experiences, I did both Brahms concertos with Pierre Monteux and Beethoven’s G-major concerto with Van Beinum.

WB: Szell was notorious in Amsterdam as a conductor (I tried to explain a Dutch pun; members of the orchestra used to say they had “Szellstraf”, szell= jail, straf = punishment)

LF: He was not easy to make music with, because his standards were so high. He expected everybody to adhere to his standards, but I got along fine with him. I don’t know what is says about me.... Maybe because he adored my teacher Schnabel. And for some reason he liked my playing! I was the first soloist he had in Cleveland. He asked me to do the whole repertoire with his orchestra, the five Beethoven Concertos, Mozart K 503, the Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody, the Grieg and Schumann concertos, both Brahms concertos..

WB: I remember a funny story when André Previn met Szell and was asked to play the Strauss Burleske, although there was no piano. Previn asked Szell how he was supposed to do this and Szell ordered him to play on the table....

LF: And André’s reply was that he never played this table before....

WB: You taught a lot of students, would you accept any student?

LF: No, of course not, only those who are highly talented and understand my language. I had some very gifted students like Yefim Bronfman and young pianist, Jonathan Biss, who will make his debut in the Meesterpianisten series in Amsterdam next season.

WB: Would you accept someone like Lang Lang if he sought for your advice?

LF: He has played for me several times.

© Willem Boone 2006

Lugano, 19 July 2003

I asked Lilya Zilberstein at the second edition of the Martha Argerich festival in Lugano, when I met her backstage, just after I congratulated the wonderful young French cellist Gautier Capuçon with his performance of the Grieg Sonata. She responded in a very friendly and willing way to set a time for an interview on Friday 20 June at 4.00 p.m at the RSI studio.
I noticed that it wasn’t very hard to get in (The receptionist let me in after I told him in my very approximative Italian that I was looking for Lilya Zilberstein, the pianist!). She smiled at me when she came in and said: “Ah, you managed to get in”. We got the key of the room where she normally practices and spoke for about an hour. She proved a friendly and witty conversation partner.

Willem Boone (WB): What is the most important thing you have learnt during your training in Russia?

Lilya Zilberstein (LZ): I went to a special music school in Russia and the most important thing I learnt there was disciplin. I notice nowadays that I am quite disciplined: yesterday (Thursday 19 June, WB) was a day off in Switzerland, I went to the RSI-studio and practiced from 10 a.m until 6. p.m It’s my profession. My children also play music, the oldest one is 12 years old. He plays the piano.

WB: Were you always motivated when you were that young?

LZ: Yes, I think so.

WB: If you were to judge your own playing, would you say that there is a specific Russian element in it? If so, which one?

LZ: People say there is indeed a Russian school. In Russia, I have learnt about piano playing, theory and history of music and harmonics, but I couldn’t describe if there is anything specifically Russian in my playing. The only thing that counts is whether you are playing well and it doesn’t matter where you come from!

WB: The fist time I heard you live (December 1991 in Amsterdam, WB), I was struck by the intimacy (“Innigkeit”as the Germans say) of your playing in the Brahms Intermezzi opus 117. Did your teachers pay special attention to that?

LZ: No, I think it’s just a quality of my playing (laughs)

WB: Do you notice a difference in teaching methods between Russia and Western Europe?

LZ: Not really, no. Either people teach well or they don’t....

WB: You have recorded several times rather unfamiliar repertoire, e.g pieces by Medtner. I also saw a recent disc of works by Clementi on the Hänssler label. How did you discover these unknown scores?

LZ: In Russia, Medtner is played quite often, my teacher told me about his music. He is often considered as “second class Rachmaninoff”, but that is not fair. Medtner is simply “first class Medtner”!
As to Clementi, students play his music frequently in Italy. I found a few pieces of his in Torino (among others the Capriccio), that was an opening. I learnt two of his sonatas and got to know his music better. I always try to programme new music I have recently studied. There are some cliches about the music of Clementi, people tend to say it is too simple, e.g. because there are too many Alberti basses, but that is not true! I have suggested several times to agents to play his music in Italy. When people complain about his music, I ask them to listen to my CD and comment on the music after they heard it.

WB: Quite recently, you recorded a rather peculiar version of Brahms’s 1st Piano concerto in a four hand version (with Cord Garben). Why did you choose to record this transcription when there are so many performances of the original version available?

LZ: Cord Garben found this version, where solo and orchestral parts are mixed. I have always had problems with this concerto, since I don’t manage to play all of the octave trills in the 1st movement. I have always wished to play this piece, but didn’t want to do it in the simplified version. This one is an arrangement for one piano and this was my chance to play it!

WB: Do you try to learn a great number of new pieces all the time?

LZ: Yes, I try to do that, but there is something of a paradox. You can’t record certain things like the Beethoven sonatas any more, because they are too well known. On the other hand, you can’t record Clementi either, because he is not well known enough.. In my recitals, I alwasy try to combine famous and unknown music. I recently managed in Turino to play 45 minutes of Clementi in the first part of the concert, in the second part, I play either Rachmaninoff or Brahms. When I finished the Clementi pieces, I saw people in the audience smiling, because they had really enjoyed the music!

WB: Can you easily learn new pieces? Can you for instance learn in a train or an air plane?

LZ: Usually, I learn quite easily, but I need to concentrate. Only once, I learnt a composition without a piano, Chopin’s 1st Ballade. In general, I think it is not necessary to learn without instrument.

WB: You have quite small hands and so have Martha Argerich, Alicia de Larrocha and Maria Joao Pires. The latter said she couldn’t play Brahms since her hands were too small, yet you seem to play Brahms, Moussorgsky, Rachmaninoff.. Is it true that all depends on the span between your thumb and your index? Or is it true what Shura Cherkassky once said, that it doesn’t play a role at all?

LZ: My hands aren’t that small! Kissin has the same size of hands, whereas he is much taller than I am! (she shows the span between her fingers and it is indeed considerable!). The most important thing is not the span of your hands, but how you feel and think about music...

WB: You have performed Rachmaninoff’s notorious Third Piano Concerto, could you play all the chords?

LZ: I try and if I don’t manage, I play the appogiatura.

WB: What is the most difficult work you have ever tackled?

LZ: First of all, every piece has its own difficulties. Up till ten years ago, I would have said Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto or the Brahms Paganini Variations, but I have played them for more than 10 years now, I have them in my fingers. Of course, they are still “difficult’, but from a different point of view. In the Rachmaninoff concerto for instance, I find it more difficult to build up the climaxes in the right manner.

WB: I have heard that Moussorsgky’s Pictures at an Exhibition are “unpianistic”, is that true for you?

LZ: Technically, they are not that difficult to play, but it is very difficult to “picture”the paintings and play with the right imagination. The pictures are difficult (laughs)

WB: You have played concerts with Martha Argerich in recent years, what is it like to play with her? Is she indeed as unpredictable as you sometimes read and is it true for her music making that she never plays anything the same twice like Horowitz?

LZ: It is very exciting to play with her. It’s true that she she never plays the same way twice, although she tries too! In 2000, we played two concerts in Saint Denis and Ludwigsburg. The last concert was recorded and I got a CD of it. Last year, we played in Bolzano, I gave the CD to Martha and noticed she was listening extensively. I asked her why she did and she said that it was a tape of a concert that took place two years ago. She said she was studying her own interpretation and wanted to know what she did at the time. Maybe she wanted to recreate the same atmosphere. Yes, she is unpredictable, but in a good way. I hope I am unpredictable too, so we should be, artists shouldn’t play like machines.

WB: How did you get to know her? Did she approach you?

LZ: I first met her in Hamburg many years ago, when she played with Gidon Kremer. I went to see her afterwards, then met her again in Norway in the chamber music festival in Stavanger, back in August 1999. The last evening, we played the 6 pieces for four hands opus 11 by Rachmaninov and Ma mère l’oie by Ravel during a gala concert. After that, Martha said she would like to play more often four hand music with me and we talked about pieces by Mozart (K 381), Ravel and Rachmaninov. I realized that we were both very busy, but the day after the last concert, our manager, Jacques Thélen, came up with two dates for 2000 and that’s how it started.

WB: Were you intimidated to play with someone who is that famous?

LZ: No, it wasn’t intimidating. We are colleagues, she has her reputation and I have mine. Maybe I would have been more intimidated ten years ago. By the way, she doesn’t behave like a star, she is very friendly.

WB: You don’t hear these pieces by Rachmaninov very often!

LZ: No, Martha told me she didn’t know them either until we studied them. Last time she said she likes them more and more.

WB: The other day, Martha and yourself replaced Radu Lupu in Paris (23 May 2003), how does that work, do the two of you play on a regular basis?

LZ: We got a phone call, only eight days before, I was in the USA at that time and Martha was in Japan. She arrived only one day before the Paris concert and was making fun about it: “Look at me, I just arrived from Japan!”. It is difficult though, since we are both fully booked. When it happens, it happens. We have now played five concerts in one month, which should be a record!

WB:Are the two of you preparing new repertoire like the Sonata for 2 pianos by Mozart that was announced on the door of the Théâtre du Châtelet?(and replaced by the four hand sonata K 381, WB)

LZ: That was a mistake. We have talked about new repertoire, e.g the Variations on a theme of Haydn by Brahms and maybe the Mozart 2 piano sonata.

WB: What do you like most about Martha?

LZ: O well.... again, it’s exciting to play with her.She has a fantastic sound!

WB: Does she speak about repertoire with you?

LZ: No, we don’t have that much time to talk anyway... When we travelled to Ludwigsburg by train, we spoke about our children. She knows mine and even heard my oldest son play the Polka Italienne by Rachmaninov in Stavanger.

WB: Is this kind of residential festival in Lugano more relaxed for you since you can stay for a longer period, play with friends and have a nice alternation of chamber music, recitals and orchestral music?

LZ: It’s different from other concerts. Last year was very intensive and tiring: I had to rehearse a lot for Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata with Gautier Capuçon, Mozart’s Double Concerto with Gabriela Montero, a Dvorak Trio... This year was easier, as the festival was spread over two weeks, I mainly played in the first week with one concert on the final day of the second week, which left me more time to practice and go to other performances.

WB: Last year, you played among other things the beautiful Cello Sonata by Rachmaninov with the gifted Gautier Capuçon. Who decided with whom you were going to play?

LZ: Jurg Grand put us together, he set up the first and the second edition of the Lugano festival (He passed away in February 2003, WB). It was the first time I played with Gautier. I don’t play chamber music very often, sometimes in special festivals, as the one in Stavanger or in Delft (The Netherlands). In two weeks, I will play at the Lockenhaus Festival, not with Kremer though... (Later on, when Lilya called me to discuss the text of this interview, she told me that after all, she played the 2nd movement of the Strauss Violin Sonata with Kremer during a special Strauss evening concert, this was decided at the last minute, WB).

WB: What do you think of this festival?

LZ: It is very intensive. Last I year, I felt I wasn’t well prepared, because I had concerts the week before in Dallas. I had one week left, but lost a lot of time with flights. It was very stressfull. After my last concerts, I didn’t want to listen to music for a while.

WB: Did you attend the concert of Argerich and Pletnev with the Cinderella transcription?

LZ: Of course!

WB: How did you like it?

LZ: It was fantastic!

WB: Do you think the score was indeed that terribly difficult?

LZ: I think so. Martha mentioned the whole week she had to work hard and since she seldom finds anything difficult....

WB:What are your plans for the future?

LZ: My future will be like my past with a lot of concerts (laughs)

WB: Is there anything you are particularly looking forward to?

LZ: Next year, I will play in three evenings the complete works for piano and orchestra by Rachmaninov with the Stuttgarter Philharmoniker in Stuttgart and Munich.

WB: That is quite a challenge!

LZ: Well, I played all of them already....

WB: Maybe this is a strange question, but could you remember the best piano you have ever played on?

LZ: That’s difficult to answer...

WB: Have you never played on a piano about which you’d say: “I wish I could take it home”?

LZ: That would be the one I have home now! That is quite a funny story: when I moved to Germany,I had no piano. My husband and I lived in a small appartment in Hamburg and the contract stipulated that I couldn’t practice on the piano at home. That’s why I got an electronic piano, a Clavinova. At that time, I was supposed to play some concerts with the violonist Gil Shaham. We were also supposed to record for Deutsche Gramophon, but that eventually didn’t work out. I told Shaham that we couldn’t practice at my place since I didn’t have a decent piano, therefore I called Steinway and asked them if we could practice elsewhere. They pointed me to a hotel, Die vier Jahreszeiten, where they had a grand piano in the bar. After the rehearsal, I told my husband that it had been such a great piano to play on. Some months later, I got a phone call whether I could play Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic and Abbado. I called Steinway again and told them I urgently needed tofind a grand piano. First I had to go to Italy for some concerts, but then they called me and said they found a piano. I was taken to the same hotel again and they sold me the piano I had liked so much. We happened to move to a house and that’s why I could have a piano. It was a Steinway A and I still have it, although I now also have a Steinway B.

 © Willem Boone 2003

Amsterdam, 19 January 2006

Contrary to what one would expect, meeting up with the 81 year old pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio is probably more difficult then setting a date with a pianist of half his age.  His life seems to consist of extensive travelling, concertizing, master classes, recording sessions.... I first asked Mr Pressler for an interview in January 2005. We set a date for March 2005. but unfortunately it couldn’t take place. It proved difficult to find a moment, but when I tried to ask him a last time one year later, he said “This time I will do it”and we found time to speak about his life and career in the Washington hotel in Amsterdam, where his daughter was present to film the entire interview..

Willem Boone (WB): Mr Pressler, thank you so much for your kindness, I have always considered you as one of the most inspirational pianists and was, once again, amazed at your energy last Sunday (15 January), when you played two concerts on the same day in Rotterdam with both Schubert trios, Dvorak’s Dumky trio and Beethoven’s Geistertrio....

Menahem Pressler (MP): You always hope it will be good, but that it will be special, you don’t know. Those concerts were special! That reminds me of a good friend of mine, Julius Kätchen. He invited me to come to a concert where he would play Beethoven’s 3rd concerto. He said: “I will be better than anybody and better than I ever did myself”. I went and it was bad, I went to see him after the concert and asked him: “How could you say you were going to be better than anyone when you were bad?”, he answered: “I was prepared to do the best...”

WB: Are you never exhausted, like after these two Rotterdam concerts?

MP: You gain strength from the music!


WB: Let me ask you a few questions about things that strike me about you. When you walk on stage, you always look so confident and radiant, as if you thoroughly enjoy playing concerts....

MP: It’s a must! We psych ourselves up. I know I am 5 foot 2, but if I walk on stage, I feel 5 foot 3. The confidence is based on experience. I also have great confidence in my two colleagues, who are wonderful. It is a privilege to play at my age, it is no longer a proof. It’s sharing what I have acquired..

WB: Is every concert a joy for you? It’s a very hard job after all....

MP: It’s a pain and a joy! There are moments that come out well and moments that we scurt the borderline. You think life on earth is sometimes like paradise, but on earth, there is no life without humiliation!

WB: Is music like daily bread or like oxygen to you?

MP: Yes!

WB: In “Preludium”, the magazine of the Concertgebouw, you said in an interview that you felt completely upset if you hadn’t played the piano for over two days...

MP: I don’t feel myself if that happens. It’s a strange thing. That’s why I don’t need holidays. Whenever I went on holiday, I always thought after two days: “The holiday has to go past!”.

WB: Do you feel physically unwell?

MP: Yes, as if I didn’t wash... my hands need to play. It feels as if something is missing.

WB: Did you never take a holiday?

MP: Some,but very few. Once, I took one of five days. We played during a festival in Athens. In order to get a cheap ticket, I had to stay for a week. I played the first two days, then I took a boat tour along the Greek islands, it took five days up til Turkey (Istanbul). That was great!

WB: Was that your longest holiday ever?

MP: Yes, it was! (laughs)

WB: I attended some of your masterclasses, where you taught young musicians. One of your remarks to a pianist was that he didn’t look at his fellow musicians while playing. This is something you do a lot. When you look at at violist and the cellist, what exactly do you see?

MP: I am looking at the bow. I see how he sneaks into the note and I learn how to sneak into the note with the player. You use your ears to play together. Everybody has a certain emotion, you see how he relates to his phrasing.

WB: You play with the score, but do you know them by heart after so many years?

MP: More or less, yes.

WB: If you would play without the score, you could look even better at your colleagues while playing...

MP: The score is like a great speaker, it contains points of reference. You see different connections every time. Richter told me that I must play with the score. We do so many programmes, if we would play without the score, we could only do one programme. The ideal has to be in your ears. Music is the language of the ear. It’s true you never get it, but you can get close to it. You think you are flying up to the sky, you go to heaven and you discover that there are more and more different layers. The more you hear, the better you play.

WB: You have such a superb sense of balance!

MP: Balance, that’s the ear!

WB: Are you born with it or can you develop it?

MP: You are born with it, but you don’t know it! I had a hard taskmaster, Daniel Guilet, the first violinist of the Beaux Arts Trio. He was very hard, but he had a superb knowledge and sense of balance. When we started with the trio, the piano was always half open and the pianist had to play as softly as possible. There is a funny story about this, we were rehearsing and Bernard Greenhouse, the first cellist of the trio said: “You are too loud”, we tried it again and he said the same thing. Then the third time I didn’t even play and he looked at me: “You are still too loud!”. ‘But I didn’t play!”I protested and he said: “No, but you look too loud!”. Things have changed, now the stake of the piano is open. My two youngsters only want me to play with the lid fully open, even when we play sonatas.

WB: Stil piano and strings is a tricky combination, isn’t it? The piano could easily drown the string players

MP: It is tricky indeed, but the Beaux Arts Trio convinced people that piano trios could be played as chamber music.

WB: Is chamber music a specialism? Can any pianist do it?

MP: No, it’s not a specialism. In the past, great pianists like Schnabel and Arrau played chamber music. Rubinstein too at the end of his life. It’s true though that you have to cut your ego, like a tree.

WB: Does that mean that you have no ego in the trio?

MP: No, you should have plenty of ego! You should have the feeling: “Whatever you do, I can do better” but whithin a unified conception. That takes time and as they call it in German “Verzicht”...

WB: Speaking of which, what do you think of one of the reviews after your concert at the Concertgebouw of last Monday, where the critic wrote that you were “the leader of the trio, a giant at the keyboard and that Mr Hope was in awe and therefore sounded almost modest”?

MP: A musician is delighted if the critic calls his concert good and he is sad if it is called bad. He is even sadder if he agrees with the critic, because that confirms whithin yourself that it was bad and that even he heard it! But even after a bad review you are not lost....

WB: But what do you think of the comment that Mr Hope was in awe of you?

MP: I don’t think he is in awe! Yes, he is young, but he is great talent. He is an exceedingly fine person and I am thrilled to have him in the trio. If he is in awe, I like it!

WB: Couldn’t it be meant in the sense of “He was intimidated”?

MP: No, he was not intimidated! In which newspaper did you read that review?

WB: It was the NRC Handelsblad.

WB: Was Daniel Guilet the oldest musician when you started playing in the trio?

MP: Yes, he was

WB: And now you are the oldest person. Can that make you a dominant person?

MP: Yes, because I have more ideas. I have been playing and teaching this works for so many years now. I have done it before and at a great heigth. Sometimes, I listen to old recordings and they are pretty good!

WB: Do you have any favourite recordings?

MP: You know, I don’t sit down and listen to them, but sometimes I hear them on the radio. For instance when I hear the Haydn trios, that’s something to be proud of!

WB: I always think of you like an icon. You are like Gerald Moore, who was a special figure too. Does such a comparison make you happy?

MP: Why not? I love him, so if I am compared to him, that’s great!

WB: I can’t think of any other pianist who has done so much for chamber music as you did...

MP: I understand what you mean.

WB: Are there any good trios at the moment?

MP: There are some good trios: Kalichstein/Laredo/Stone and in Holland, there is the Storioni Trio, that I coached. I hope they are growing.. They all play well, the technique is always good, the repertoire is fine.. but it’s all about the creative aspect of playing. When you play, you should feel as if you are composing, that’s what I look for! It also depends on the teachers you worked with: I studied with Egon Petri, Guilet studied with Enescu, Greenhouse with Casals... I didn’t stop feeling creative! People often ask me: “How is it to play the same piece for the 150th time?”It’s always an experience to go through it and find things. It’s always an adventure!

WB: Are there any composers you would have loved to compose a piano trio?

MP: Bartok and Schönberg!

WB: There is a transcription of Schönberg’s “Verklärte Nacht’for piano trio, do you know it?

MP: by Steuermann! Yes, I know it, we intend to play it. It’s no true Schönberg, it’s easily accessible.
Kurtag also wrote a piece for us, which we premiered at the Concertgebouw last year. It was a very short piece and therefore we played it twice, it hardly lasts for more than 2,5 minutes. Last night, we received an award, the price of the Concertgebouw during a gala dinner. We played the Kurtag again. I love it, he promised me to write more pieces for us. He is not only a great composer, we can play Beethoven for him and learn a lot. He has a very strong inside.

WB: Can you ask him questions about his intentions?

MP: Of course you can. It’s like Alexandra du Bois, a young American composer by whom we played a composition two days ago, you can ask her: “What do you mean?”

WB: Can these composers answer your questions? Or did they write their works subconciously?

MP: They can answer our questions more or less. Rorem did, Müller Wieland did... these are composers who are thinkers! If they don’t know, I won’t have questions, they give up their birth rights... and I do what I think is right...

WB: You mentioned Rorem, he wrote some beautiful music!

MP: He is a very important American composer. For the 100th season of Carnegie Hall, I played a piece of his for piano and violin. I was asked which composer I would like to write for us and I said Rorem..

WB: Do you never long to play highly virtuosic music?

MP: I did for many years! But then piano trios took over and they became main stay...I am still playing, more than I like sometimes...and I am still concerned with piano litterature.

WB: Are you still studying solo repertoire?

MP: Yes, I am still doing that, but less. There are time constraints....

WB: When you play trios by Rachmaninov or Tschaikofsky with very elaborate piano parts, do you approach these works as piano concertos?

MP: No, when I play trios, I play them like trios. My two friends wanted to play the Rachmaninov, they loved it, not because the piano part was pre-eminent

WB: You mentioned Richter before. In his note books, that have been published, he was unusually positive about your playing. Does that mean anything to you when a great colleague pays you a tribute?

MP: It was the most important compliment. Of course it is! He was one of the greatest pianists. We played four times during his festival in Moscow at the Pushkin Museum. He was a great icon in my life! His diaries were not intended to be published. Some of my friends told me: “Did you read it? You should, it is very positive!”.
Once we played in Menton, he played in Italy, near the French border after our concert. I went and spoke to him afterwards. He was not very happy about the way he played. He told me he would love to go to France, but he had no passport. You know, it was before 11 September, they didn’t check very carefully at the border, so I said: “Why don’t you come with us?”. He was lying in our car and we took him to France... I asked him whether he knew the Schumann Trios, he said no. He came to our concert the next day, when we did one of the Schumann Trios. Then he invited us to his festival near Tours and also to Moscow.

WB: Did you also think that he was incredibly hard on himself?

MP: Enormously! His talent was so big, he reached out further than most of us. His repertoire was bigger than any other pianists, he played more than Michelangeli or Pollini. Only that Hungarian pianist has a large repertoire nowadays, I can’t think of his name.

WB: Jeno Jando?

MP: No...

WB: Do you mean Andras Schiff?

MP: Yes, exactly!

WB: Really? He leaves out a lot of things; he doesn’t play any Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, nor contemporary music!

MP: He does the complete Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and a lot of other things, like Janacek..

WB: A last question, do you remember your first concert in Holland?

MP: Yes, that was a recital in the Hague, it was during my honeymoon! I had a good success, but it had no great echo. I was invited to come back though. The first concert with the trio was in the late 50’s. We couldn’t get used to this Dutch attitude of getting up after the first piece! We were overwhelmed and thought: “O , how should we get on with the second and the third composition?”, but now we are used to it! Do you know that last night we played our 50th performance at the Concertgebouw?

WB: You played an enormous amount of concerts with the trio!

MP: As you can see!

The Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire revealed his outstanding gifts and strong artistic personality at an early age. His international career, begun when he was very young, has taken him to cities on every continent, where he has given solo recitals and concerts with some of the world’s leading orchestras and conductors. He often performs piano duets with Martha Argerich, whit whom he made recordings. Here he talks about his life and art.

Stany Kol (SK): How does a person become a great performing artist?

Nelson Freire (NF): In my case, it all started very early. I was a child prodigy. I was born in 1944 in Boa Esperança, a little town in Minas Gerais state, the youngest of five children. There were no musicians in the family, but my mother was a music lover and bought a piano with her first wages as a teacher. I think there were only three pianos in the whole town. She made my elder sister practise. I began to play a little myself, by ear, copying what I heard. I was rather sickly as a child and had several illnesses, but I loved the piano. When I was four, I toldmy parents that I wanted to take lessons.

SK: So they found you a teacher.

NF: Yes, but he lived a four-hour bus ride away. I went to him once a week and had to get up at four in the morning. In those days, there were no motorways. In fact the road was a dirt track, often drenched with rain. After twelve lessons, the teacher told my father there was nothing he could teach me and that I’d have to go to Rio de Janeiro, which was then the capital of Brazil, to get a decent musical education. And so we moved to Rio. It was a big decision for my parents, who had always made their home in Boa Esperança, where all their family lived. My father, who was a pharmacist, had to give up his profession and take a job at a bank.
I took tests at the Rio school of music. The professional musicians were impressed and said I was a child with “golden hands’. But I was still only playing by instinct. I had a hard time finding a teacher. I was a rather unruly child. For two years I went from teacher to teacher, I even kicked one of them because he kept touching my ears, and I hated that. My parents were getting fed up and were thinking of returning to Boa Esperança, and then I was introduced to Lucia Branco, one of  the few piano teachers in Rio I hadn’t met. She was a well known teacher who had been trained by a pupil of Franz Liszt. She advised my parents to send me to one of her students who, she thought, was mad enough to agree to work with me. That’s how I met Nise Obino, her assistant. It was love at first sight. With Nise, I went right back to square one, including even the position of the fingers on the keyboard. She managed to get me to make remarkable progress. My relationship with her was very strong, the strongest in my life. One day when I was very ill with a very high fever, she came to see me and put her hand on my forehead, and my temperature went down immediately. We were very close until her death last January, which was a terrible blow for me.

SK: Did you go to school while being trained?

NF: Yes, just like any other child. My parents didn’t want me to be uneducated. I only practised the piano a couple of hours a day.


SK: When did you first perform in public?

NF: When I was four. Then when I was twelve, Brazil organized a big event, Rio’s first international piano competition. I was intived to take part and was one of eighty contestants. Several of the others were already in their thirties and had a lot of experience. Some had even won prizes in other competitions. Lucia warned me that it would be a good experience for me but that I shouldn’t set my hopes too high. Even so, I was among the finalists. The final was an extraordinary event, a bit like a big soccer match. The Brazilians are mad about the piano. The hall was packed, and the audience was very excited. The president of Brazil, Juscelino Kubitschek, who had followed the preliminaries, offered me a two-year scholarship to go and study wherever I wanted to.

SK: And that’s how you went to Vienan..

NF: Actually, I only went there two years after the competition, when I was fourteen. I chose Vienna because I wanted to work with Bruno Seidlhofer, an Austrian pianist who was very well known in Latin America. I’d played for him in Rio. I set off on my own because my parents couldn’t go with me. I took the boat with Seidlhofer, who was returning home.
In Vienna, I was alone for the first time in my life. I was still quite young and didn’t know a word of German or anything about the city. I found out what it meant to be independant. Those two years were very important for my personal development. It was then that I met Martha Argerich. I didn’t do much work, though, and didn’t enter any competitions. I didn’t live up to expectations. Then the time came when the scholarship ended and I had to return home. Returning to Brazil wasn’t easy. At seventeen I was in the middle of an adolescent crisis, and I had to live with my family again after acquiring a taste for independance and living on my own. During the next year I entered a few competitions but never turned up on the day. Then in 1962 I was offered the opportunity of giving a concert in São Paulo. The concert was a big success and I recovered my enthusiasm and desire to play.

SK: You made a fresh start?

NF: Not yet. Another failure was waiting around the corner, in Belgium where I’d gone at the age of nineteen to take part in the Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians International Musical Competition. When the results were announced, my name wasn’t even mentioned. It was a bitter disappointment. But Martha Argerich was there too. Neither of us felt on top of the world, but we were together and that helped a lot. Going back to Brazil after a flop like that wasn’t very enticing. Then I  remembered that Anna-Stella Schic (1) had suggested that I should take part in a competition in Lisbon where she was a member of the jury. I called for information and was told the competition was starting in two days time. I said I’d be there.

SK: Without knowing the test pieces?

NF: I knew everything except for a compulsory piece that had to be played at the beginning of the competition, Carlos Seixas’Sonata in G-minor (2). When I got there, I asked for the score of this sonata, and they gave it to me but thought I was mad.  What’s more, when lots were drawn for the order of performance, I had to play first. Anyway, I got down to work and threw myself into the competition. I walked off with the first prize! Things really changed for me after that. For six pleasant months I was asked to give a number of concerts in Austria,  Portugese speaking Africa and Madeira.
But other countries were a closed book for me until early in 1965 I received a telegram from Brazil from Ernesto de Quesada, an old man who had been Arthur Rubinstein’s first  agent and went on to found the Conciertos Daniel We had never met, but he’d heard about me from a member of the Lisbon jury. In his telegram he proposed that I should give three concerts in Mexico as a last-minute replacement for Alexander Brailovsky  That was my first contract. After that, I returned to Brazil in style, I did tours in Spain, Argentina, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Peru and other countries. In short I started to earn a living. One day I was in Caracas when Martha Argerich’s agent contacted me and asked whether I would fill in for Shura Cherkassky and play Tschaikofsky’s Second Piano Concerto with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra.

SK: Did you know the concerto?

NF: When the Germans asked me that question, I said yes of course I knew it, whereas in fact I’d never seen the score in my life. And I had two weeks to learn it! I raced to music shops in Caracas, but no one had it. I had to get it from New York. Then for fourteen days I worked on it. When I arrived in Schweinfurt I wasn’t all that sure I could do it by heart, so before going on stage, I asked them to place a closed score of it above the keyboard, just in case. The next day the papers said “a new star is born”. That’s how I got a foothold in Germany in 1966 and began receiving concert offers. I had a terrible experience in 1967. I was going to play in Brazil, at Belo Horizonte in Minas Gerais state, and my parents decided to go with me. Along the way, the bus drive fell asleep at the wheel, and the bus plunged into a ravine killing everyone else on board, including my parents (silence)

SK: When did you start playing duets with Martha Argerich?

NF: Publicly, in 1968 in London at a festival run by Daniel Barenboim. Martha was invited to play a piano duet, and she accepted on condition that I should be her partner. We’d often played four-handed pieces at the house for the fun of it, but this was the first time we did so in public. We weren’t very well prepared, and the performance was not excellent. We didn’t play together again until 1980, twelve years later, in Amsterdam. From then on we really began playing together in concerts and for recordings.
SK: How do you explain the quality of your relationship?
NF: First of all we have know one another very well for a very long time. You know, the best piano duettists are often brothers and sisters or couples. People have to be very close in their personalities, tastes and sensibilities. What’s more, Martha and I have always been open to new discoveries. I think we’ve kept clear of ruts and routines.


SK: Is there a typical style of Brazilian piano playing?

NF: After soccer the piano is the second great love of Brazilians. But while Brazilian pianists have mostly worked in Europe and have certainly been deeply influenced by Europe, it is generally accepted that they have a certain rhythm,  a kind of  vibration that you don’t find elsewhere. For the same reason, some Brazilian pianists have inhibitions and inferiority complexes. They try to deny themselves by becoming more European than the Europeans!

SK: Doesn’t that lead towards a certain standardization?

NF: There is a certain standardization of styles today, especially, I feel, in the United States. In my opinion it’s due to changing ways of training musicians, to the increase in the number of international competitions and their growing importance in musician’s careers, to the money that is now involved in music and to the somewhat haphazard development of compact-disc production. In other parts of the world, including Europe, things haven’t gone so far, and musicians seem to be resisting this move towards standardization. When I sity on competition juries, for example, I am struck by the quality and artistic temperament of many young Russian pianists.

SK: Do you think that Brazilian composers, especially Heitor Villa Lobos, are performed as often as they deserve?

NF: No, Brazil has a lot of fine composers, but Villa Lobos is about the only one who is widely known. And even he, who produced a considerable body of work, isn’t performed very often. I like his music and think I ought to play it. I do so in my recitals. I also play works by Santuro (3) and Mignone (4)., but I’m not sure that this great tradition of Brazilian classical music has remained as active today as it used to be.


SK: You performed all over the world. Is the public always the same?

NF: Clearly there are different publics in different countries and continents. I love to play in Germany. Music seems extraordinarily naturals with German music lovers, almost as if they become part of the music during a concert. In Asia – in Japan, for example – the public is always very enthusiastic, but it has a particular way of listening and communicating. Certain audiences, like the Germans, are open to all performers, well known or otherwise. In Paris,  on the other hand, people will only go to listen to a star. I have a fondness of Brazilian audiences that I feel intensely when I play for them. But I believe that music is and will always be an international language. At most the same works are not heard in the same way in different places. There is another kind of problem. I sometimes wonder whether concerts and live performances aren’t experiencing a kind of crisis because of the extraordinary development of compact discs. I think too much is made of them, and I feel that people are gradually losing the desire to go to concerts.

SK:  Talking about the United Nations, Villa Lobos once said that if world leaders listened to more music, there would be fewer wars.....

NF: He was right. Certainly it is hard for a Brazilian to imagine life without music. Such a life would be a dreadful prospect. Talking of Villa Lobos, the last piano work he wrote, in 1949, was Hommage à Chopin in commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of the composer’s death. Who commissioned it? Unesco!

1)    Anna-Stelle Schic, a Brazilian pianist born in 1925, was a close friend of Heitor Villa Lobos, many of whose works she premiered.
2)    Carlos Seixas (1704-1742), a Portugese composer whose work for the harpsichord is especially well known.
3)    Claudio Santoro (1919-1989), Brazilian composer. A student of Olivier Messiaen and friend of Heitor Villa Lobos, he explored the possibility of atonal music and then turned to musical forms closer to Brazil.
4)    Francisco Mignone (1897-1986), Brazilian composer. He assimilated the style of the Brazilian waltzes that the pianeiros played in cafés at the turn of the century.

Stany Kol, Secretary of Unesco’s General Conference until 2004.

This interview was published in Le Courrier de l’Unesco of September 1995.