English profiles

Amsterdam, 15 September 2010


“I like an honest audience”, says Hannes Minnaar when I tell him that I will go to a concert in Amsterdam where Maurizio Pollini should have played (He cancelled his concert and was replaced by Till Felner). His reaction referred to a recital of Pollini in Amsterdam during which he was booed by a dissatisfied listener.
With this comment, Hannes Minnaar sets the tone of the interview, a pianist who is not only modest, but also one who is down to earth.

WB: Again, congratulations with your victory during the last Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels! I normally do not feel national pride when, for instance, our football team wins, but this time I felt proud! Do you realize in retrospect how unique your third prize was and still is?


HM: Yes, I do realize this, but of course things are relative: two years ago, I participated in the Geneva Competition and won the second prize (that year, no first prize was awarded, WB). The same happened to the aforementioned Pollini. At that time I fully realized that I had achieved something unique. The second time something similar happens to you, it is a bit less special. But Brussels is closer by and has an ever bigger reputation. The organization manages to generate much media attention, therefore the overall impact was bigger.

WB: Did you expect to come third?.

HM: No, it seemed almost impossible to beat such massive competition coming from such successful traditions. On the other hand, I knew after Geneva that even unexpected things can happen and I did not want to exclude anything beforehand. It felt a bit like a gamble to register for Brussels, so shortly after Geneva and I could have ruined the limited reputation I had established (during the latter competition). You only have to play one wrong note and you can be kicked out, although it does not mean you are a bad pianist when that happens.

WB: Were there moments during the competition when you thought: “Now I am doing really well, I could be a potential winner?”

HM: No, of course certain things went ok (reasonably well), but the feeling of “I am doing really well” is rare when you are a perfectionist.

WB: Are you?

HM: Obviously!

WB: And how are you doing now? Are you being approached by people who had not contacted you before?

HM: Yes, I have received a lot of attention in the Netherlands, although certain people thought I could have achieved more. The competition certainly paid off and the end is not near. My name is getting better known and I have the feeling that something good is in store for me. A few things have changed, e.g I have an agent now. Before Brussels, contacts with CD labels and orchestras were not within reach and to make contact with the management of an orchestra you need an agent.

WB: Do they select concerts for you?

HM: Not yet, but since there are agents involved, I can concentrate on the “manual work”. The first week after Brussels, I hardly had time for anything because of all the requests for interviews.

WB: What was your motivation to participate in Brussels, was it the feeling “now or never”?

HM: To a certain extent, it did play a role. I graduated last year and decided at that time not to pursue my studies. I wanted to make my own plans and a competition was the big stick in order to set clear goals for myself, otherwise you easily forget important deadlines or do not find time to study new compositions. Furthermore, I am 25 now and I would have been 29 by the time of the next competition which is two years too old, so this was indeed my last chance!

WB: Are you satisfied when you look back on the whole experience?

HM: How can I be not positive about the result?

WB: I meant “satisfied” about the phenomenon “competition”, about which you hear a lot of negative comments?

HM: There is a lot of suspicion about competitions, for instance, stories about political games in Brussels. That may have happened in the past, but I can hardly imagine that people still decide that “X or Y should win”. I had only one teacher, Jan Wijn, if there is one teacher who does not take part in the competition mafia or who does not use his elbows, it is him! That could not have been the reason to award me the third prize. I have never had the idea that I am the most reliable pianist, so they must have chosen me for another reason.

WB: What could have been the reason then?

HM: You should ask them..

WB: Did you get to read the jury reports afterwards?

HM: I have not read any reports, but one of the members told me that he would have bought a ticket for one of my concerts, but not for many of the other competitors.

WB: Who was that?

HM: Tamas Vasary, I think the jury selects according to the criterion “Do I find him or her interesting enough to listen to another time?”.

WB: How difficult was the work you were assigned to perform?

HM: There were two of them: first of all in the semi final. We received it mid-March, approximately 1,5 months before the start of the competition. I received the second work for the final round one week before I had to play it. It was the product of a competition contest, written by a Korean composer, ………

 

WB: Does an required work that you do not know cause even more stress than you normally have?

HM: Yes, it does. The amount of repertoire for this competition was, of course, considerable. Fortunately, you have time between the rounds. The first round, I played on a Wednesday evening and the results would be announced on Saturday. One would think that it gives you three days to practise more. However, for the second round, the jury could choose from two different programmes and this was announced only one day before the performance. This means that you studied one of the two programmes for nothing. That was only half of the second round, the other half consisted of a Mozart concerto with an orchestra. It was a completely new concerto for me, the concertos I had studied were not the ones we were asked to play. You had to be very focused to pay attention to several aspects at the same time. Every time you thought you had everything under control, it appeared you had forgotten something. The required work for the semi-finals was one of the things I could not find time for and for which I had to work very hard at the last moment. The results of the second round were announced on the day I had to play my Mozart concerto. In the meantime, I had no time to work on the programme for the finals. And, at the time you arrived at the chapel, you were assigned another work on top of that for the finals, which you had to study within a week. In short: the whole schedule was so tight that I was constantly stressed, because it was a bit too much.

WB: To come back to the second  assigned work, was it a difficult piece?

HM: Technically speaking it was ok, but it was very complex to play together with the orchestra. The orchestral part was more difficult than that of the piano, so I had to depend on the conductor.

WB: Marin Alsop…

HM: Yes, that is correct. You were obliged to play from the score, but that did not make sense because it was so complicated that you often had to look at the conductor. As a result of that I still played it by heart!

WB: Is it true that you played for the first time with an orchestra during this competition? Isn’t it a huge risk to do so during such a difficult competition?

HM: Of course, I had played with an orchestra before, but it was the first time I did the 5th Saint Seans Concerto. That might explain the misunderstanding that arose in previous interviews.

WB: You have received a lot of praise for your choice as this concerto had not been played since the 50s. It was indeed refreshing to hear something else than Tschaikofsky First Concerto, Prokofiev Second Concerto or Rachmaninov Third Concerto. Why did you decide to play the Saint Seans concerto?

HM: First of all, because I find it a beautiful piece, I already thought so when I first lent the score from the library of the conservatoire.  For this competition it seemed a good occasion to study this concerto, I thought: “If I am lucky, I can play with an orchestra”. In the meantime, I have played it eight times, after the finals there were seven laureate concerts, I have the feeling that it really suits me!

WB: It is not an easy piece..

HM: No, but nothing is really easy and I was running out of time to study a piano concerto.

WB: Do you know who last played it in Brussels?

HM: No, but it should be possible to find out. It was in 1952 or 1953 I believe. I happen to know, because I read a book by Willem Andriessen. He was a member of the jury and described his experiences.

WB: A delicate question: nowadays it seems that you can only win this competition with Prokofiev Second or Rachmaninov Third. Would you, if put under pressure have played such concertos or are they, as they say, “not your thing”?

HM: I have not played a lot of Prokofiev, but Rachmaninov is definitely my thing, I am very fond of his music. For my final exam, I played his First Piano Sonata that was written in D-minor, the same key as the Third Concerto. I also love The Bells and the symphonies. I would have loved to study the Third Concerto. Last year, I was very busy with my exam and with a lot of concerts. This did not leave me a whole lot of time to study new concerts, but “Rach Third” would not have scared me off! However, it is a concerto that is very much part of the collective memory: every member of the jury knows it or plays it and has an opinion about it, therefore it might have been an advantage that not every member of the jury has performed Saint Seans Fifth Concerto. I had the feeling that I would stand out with this choice.

WB: Another delicate question: what did you think of the first prize winner?

HM: I did not hear everyone play. He played last and I remember hearing him on the car radio when my host family drove me to the presentation of the awards at the Paleis der Schone Kunsten. He played Prokofiev Second Concerto and he gripped me right from the beginning, it was clear even on the car radio..

WB: What distinguishes you from the first prize winner?

HM: It is not up to me to judge! I only heard part of his final concert. Later on, I heard him perform Brahms’s Second Concerto during the laureate’s concert and that was also excellent. If you ask me, I think all laureates have a right to exist as a pianist. I am glad I was not asked to rank them.

 

WB: How unreal is it to win such a prize?

HM: It was a special moment! You are not allowed to listen to the radio when you are living in isolation (the week before the finals). I had noticed though that there were a lot of differences in interpretation between the second prize winner and myself. When his name was announced, I expected to come eleventh

WB: The jury obviously appreciated different interpretations?

HM: They did indeed!

 

WB: You also played Ravel’s Miroirs, do you like playing French music?

HM: I like a lot of styles, but yes, I am fond of French music.

WB: I saw that you will perform Chausson’s Concerto for piano, violin and string quartet shortly?

HM: That is a wonderful piece, but it is very difficult to play, it is sometimes almost unfrench, it is even darker than Franck’s music. It is definitely a difficult job for a pianist. Other than that, I like Saint Seans and especially Fauré, but Brahms and Rachmaninov are also close to my heart. I would have loved to do Rachmaninov’s First Sonata during the competition, but it is too long unfortunately, you were not allowed more than 35 minutes for the solo repertoire.

 

WB: How important is it for you to learn new repertoire?

HM: I have been scheduled for more concerts for the next season, most of the planning has been finalized now. I especially want to focus on learning new concertos, because there are not many of them in my repertoire yet.

WB: How fast can you learn a new concerto?

HM: It depends on the piece itself.

WB: For instance, how fast can you study a Beethoven concerto?

HM: It depends on which one  of the five we are talking about: there is quite a difference between the Second and Fourth Concertos!

WB: I would like to ask you a completely different question: I saw a film on Youtube the other day, in which pianist Jorge Bolet was interviewed. By then, he was around 70 years old and he told us that a performer (in his case a pianist) often knows a piece better than the composer himself. After all, a composer goes on to write different compositions after he has written a piano sonata, e.g. an opera or a symphony, whereas an artist studies his entire life on that particular sonata. Bolet did not think his assessment was pretentious, what do you think of this?

HM: Interesting, I have not heard of a pianist who ventilated his opinion in a similar way. I value the notes themselves and I do not approve of artists who impose ideas that are not there. You must not pretend to be interesting or go against a composition. On the other hand, I do not mind pianists who allow themselves liberties like Cortot, while remaining faithful to the character of the composition. There is room for interpretation. Bolet had his own interpretation, but did not “sin” against the composition. Tamas Vasary said something similar in Brussels: a composer gets his ideas from somewhere, but sometimes you feel as a performer that there are things in the score that should not have been there. It is the kind of gut feeling that is more important than being 100% faithful towards the score.

WB: I can remember that you participated in Menahem Pressler’s master class at the Concertgebouw one year ago!

HM: Pressler is of small stature, but otherwise he is an enormous personality with  invaluable experience! He knows how to convey things. Maybe that has to do with his age: he has been through so many experiences. If he sits down at the keyboard and plays three notes, you hear his entire life time experience.

WB: Isn’t it your own ideal to have felt every note as deeply as well?

HM: It may sound stupid, but I have! That is why I did not want to pursue my studies after six years; I wanted to follow my own path.

WB: But were you not eager to study more with Pressler?

HM: Yes, we had another lesson that was as inspiring as the first one. He always knows exactly what he wants to achieve.

WB: How difficult is it to do what someone asks you to do on the spot, whilst playing before an audience?

HM: You can only try to do what someone asks you to do and mostly it works. It is much more difficult to play things in a musical way! I often feel ill at ease during master classes: you are in an dependant position and the teacher is “always” right. As a participant, you can hardly defend yourself. I have to admit that I found some of these public master classes inspiring. However it is a fact that things often work better the second time than the first time. That also happens when you are rehearse and during a master class, it is the teacher who gets the credits for this.

WB: When did you know you wanted to become a pianist?

HM: Right from the moment I heard music, I loved it. You become aware that you want to pursue a career in music. In my case it happened when I was 13 years old. At that age, I started to take private lessons with Marien van Nieuwkerken and I had to work hard. It was not always easy and once, when things were not gong smoothly, he said: “You want to become a pianist, don’t you?”. I had never thought of it, but it was the first time that I became aware of this and he was right. I did not know anybody at the time who was a pianist and I did not know what the profession was like.

WB: You do know now, so what are you current thoughts about the job: is it what you expected it to be?

HM: I do not have any clear defined ideas about this. What I find disappointing about the job is how often you are busy to sell yourself!

WB: How well do you succeed?

HM: The attention I have got was not due to PR, but to my playing! I notice that people expect more from you and I am not good at these things. You need to have a good network and you need to say the right things to the right people at the right moment. They can be of a lot of help, more importantly: you cannot achieve anything without these conditions.

WB: In an interview in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad you said that your faith in God helps you, in what way?

HM: I liked the way the journalist expressed these things. Otherwise, it is difficult to describe faith in words; maybe it will become easier when I am as old as Menahem Pressler (laughs). Theology shares common ground with music, e.g the way you interpret the “text”.

WB: Do you mean that one should not always take biblical texts literally either?

HM: You should take a score seriously; it is not the same as taking it literally. Most important is to grasp the essence, but the notes are what you should hold on to, so you should not be messy with the score.

 

WB: Who are your favourites?

HM: Pianists or composers? The latter would be easier..

WB: Go ahead with the composers!

HM: Bach comes first, then, although not necessarily in this particular order, Brahms, Ravel, Fauré, Rachmaninov and the works for keyboard by Sweelinck.

WB: And who are your favourite pianists?

HM: I find it difficult to say, but I’d definitely want to mention Cortot, Kempff and Edwin Fischer. Furtermore, Zimerman and Brendel in Mozart concertos, Paul Lewis is fantastic in Beethoven sonatas, Gilels too. I would have loved to hear Richter live.

WB: Finally, how do you see your future?

HM: That is the most difficult question of this conversation! There will be a lot of concerts and nobody knows how things will go exactly. I look forward to playing more piano concertos and there are plans to record a CD

 

 

 

 

 

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!

 

Utrecht, 16 October 2017

Interviewing Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska, a major interpret of Liszt and member of the jury during the 2017  Liszt Competition in Utrecht, was also an excellent oppotunity to remember her legendary mentor Arthur Rubinstein. A fascinating interview that took place in the lobby of the hotel Karel V in Utrecht..


Willem Boone (WB): What is it like to be on the jury of the Liszt competition: is it hard work, is it fun or is it both?

Janina Fialkowska (JF): I have been on quite a few jury’s but this is one of the most pleasant and harmonious ones! There are seven of us, which is a nice number. I know most of the others and we get along well, even if we disagree. Everybody admires everybody, which is unusual. There are no tensions and that’s heavenly, because we have enough stress dealing with decisions!

WB: Aren’t you tired of Liszt yet?

JF: You are prepared, but sometimes you get tired of certain pieces of Liszt ( very few), I got “sick” of La Contrabandista.. There are only a few composers that I could listen to all the time: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, but other than that, no!

WB: What are you paying attention to when listening: sound, technique, interpretation or everything at the same time?

JF: There are different levels, but on a very basic level I am looking for a clean performance in good style. Beyond that, I am looking for colour, imagination and beautiful sound. I haven’t heard any banging during this festival, it’s extraordinary! The pre-screening must have been wonderful. The real thing is someone who makes my heart stop.. It happens sometimes when you are exhausted and right from the first note, you feel awake and light!

WB: How often does that happen? I remember that I attended most of the semi-finals of the 2nd and 3rd edition and one day, I heard the B-minor sonata six times in a row. There was only one performance that struck me, the others were fair but nothing out of the ordinary..

JF: It happened once in this competition, one candidate was really strong and made my heart jump. It’s great when you feel that someone is going to be successful! During competitions, you often hear nothing that is going to change the world or make it a better place. By the way, in general those who played the other programme (the one that didn’t include the B-minor sonata, WB) fared better!

WB: How difficult is it to listen objectively to pieces that are played so often like the B-minor sonata?

JF: It’s smart to avoid the sonata, because it’s a monster work! It’s a dangerous piece: you should learn it at an early age, because it can develop. It’s hard to be objective, but hopefully we are grown up enough to have a lot of tolerance. I understand these kids as I have been through competitions myself. It’s only when I feel that they don’t give everything, that I am not interested. You really should be exhausted after you have played the sonata!

WB: Do the members of the jury vote independently like at the Queen Elizabeth competition in Brussels or the Chopin Competition in Warsaw or do you discuss performances?

JF: It’s the same as in Brussels and Warsaw: no discussion officially . Also here there are no points but it’s a simple voting system with either a yes or a no.

WB: As far as the music of Liszt is concerned, you often hear that his is acquired taste, do you agree?

JF: Everybody’s music is acquired taste, I remember that my father didn’t like Mozart! Liszt has been little known for a long time and his music, often only a handful of works, was often badly played.  That’s different now because of competitions and thanks to people  great Liszt pianists like Leslie Howard, Gyorgy Cziffra, Barenboim,  Argerich  , and even myself. I was considered a specialist until I injured my arm. After my recovery I had no problems with Mozart, Chopin and Beethoven, but I thought Liszt was over, since I can’t play pieces like the concertos, the sonata, the Dante sonata and the Mefisto Waltz any more. I was very unhappy about it until I realized that Liszt wrote thousands of pieces that I could still play so I recorded another cd with some of this music. It’s impossible that people say they don’t like Liszt, because he is so multi-faceted: there is the religious, the cruel (Well no, never cruel, demonic), the happy Liszt.. He had an attractive personality and as a colleague he was great. I didn’t get bored for a second during this competition, except for La Contrabandista. The latter was a dedication to George Sand, whom Liszt didn’t particularly like.

WB:  Can you give examples of the happy Liszt?

JF: The Valse-impromptu, some of the etudes, some of the transcriptions are hilarious. He has a sense of humour, for instance the Bagatelle sans tonalité.

WB: Almost nobody dislikes Chopin, yet a lot of people have a hard time with Liszt, why do you think he often has the reputation of a composer who wrote a lot of empty and loud music?

JF: I know people who don’t like Chopin! Liszt needs more people who play his music and he needs more variety: not always the same works, some of the lesser known music such as the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses is fabulous. Chopin is the composer I feel closest to, Liszt liked Chopin and they both understood the modern keyboard so well, their music is exquisitely written. Liszt took much longer to find the perfect way of writing for the piano, but he lived much longer. The first version of his études was impossible, but he made them playable. The late pieces sound incredibly hard, but they fall beautifully under the hands, that’s what these boys Chopin and Liszt had in common! I adore Schumann, but he is always a bit awkward to play, Brahms is definitely difficult to play, Ravel also had a great understanding of the piano.

WB: When did your relationship with Liszt start?

JF: Not early, not until I was 19 years old. I studied in the school of Cortot, who did play Liszt, but his pupils were snobby about his music. I played a few of his études d’exécution transcendante, then I discovered the sonata and that’s how it started. In 1986, the year of the celebration of Liszt, I toured with the 12 études d’exécution transcendante and the Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Sagen. I might have been the only woman by then to play such a programme. That’s how I got known. Later, I was asked to do his Third Piano Concerto, an unfinished short piece that I performed a lot.

WB: Is that the concerto that Liszt wrote for Sophie Menter?

JF: No, that’s another concerto, this one is shorter. It was written at the same time as the other two concertos, that were revised by Liszt, but not this one. In 1989, a young doctoral student found it either in Budapest or in Weimar, I am not sure. I premiered it in Chigaco and recorded it. It  is extremely difficult and lasts only twelve minutes,  it can’t be played by itself. It has a lovely melody in the middle.

WB: Were you the only to have ever performed it?

JF: No, there are other Hungarians who did it, Jeno Jando as well. It’s not a terrific piece, it’s more a curiosity. It’s so hard that you think: “What’s the point?” I did it for three years and then people didn’t ask for it any more.

WB; What’s Liszt most important quality according to you?

JF: The many facets of his music, he composed more than anyone. There is such variety of styles, as well as the development of his personality. He was a lady killer and he was religious, he was a fascinating character who wrote fascinating music. The theme of Faust is recurrent in his music, like Florestand and Eusebius for Schumann.

WB: Which performances of Liszt impressed you the most?

JF: Maybe unexpectedly,  I love Rubinstein. He didn’t do a great deal of Liszt, but he understood his style, for instance in the 12th Hungarian Rhapsody, but then again, he played anything like no one else, with nobility. One of the best Liszt recitals I heard, maybe 30 or 40 years ago, was by Barenboim, when he still practised! I admire my friend Leslie Howard and go to any of his cd’s when I want to know how a certain work should be played. Apart from that, I blank, which pianists would you mention?

WB: At first, I had a hard time with Liszt and felt as if I sinned while listening to his music, but the first pianist I can remember was Nelson Freire with the sonata (Janina nodds), but the one who won me over was Claudio Arrau!

JF: Arrau, he was definitely up there! I heard him in the 70’s at Lincoln Center and it was absolutely the greatest sonata I have ever heard!  And I am crazy about Cziffra, he was so captivating in his madness: he had an understanding that was fabulous.

WB: Ashkenazy who didn’t really care about Liszt, did one of the most incredible Mefisto Walzes and his Feux Follets too was amazing!

JF: Yes, I know that recording. I was not too fond of Lazar Berman, but when he showed up in New York to play all of the 12 études d’exécution transcendante, it made a huge impression, it was a blast! And I heard Martha Argerich play the sonata live!

WB: (enthuses): Really?! Wow, I am probably her biggest fan and I envy you!

JF: It was do die for, it just poured out with such instinct! She also played the Fantasiestücke by Schumann.  Her Bach is  sensational too. The live Liszt sonata must have been in 1971 or 1972, she came every year to New York. I went with Jeffrey Swann, Emanuel Ax and Garrick Ohlsson. Martha is so natural  and every note is alive!

WB: Again, I envy you, whereas I heard her about 70 times, even the first time in a full recital (April 1979 in Utrecht, the Netherlands, WB). And last year, I was lucky enough to hear he play Gaspard de la nuit in Lugano… Are you actually jealous of her abilities?

JF: NO, not in the slightest. I know my place and she is somewhere else...way above me.

WB: Ohlsson is also a heck of a pianist if not very well known…

JF: He is fine and yes, he should have had a better career. You mentioned Eugen Indjic earlier, he should play more in the US, he is American!

WB: Your colleague Leslie Howard once gave a masterclass and a young girl played the Faust Paraphrase. He asked her what the opera was about and she had no clue. He was obviously gobsmacked, is that unforgivable for you too?

JF: Yes, absolutely. You should at least listen to a cd with the highlights. People take incredible slow tempi, whereas in the opera it goes faster!

WB: But you can still play it well if you don’t know the opera?

JF: No, you have to know the opera, you have to be a complete artist. People like Horowitz knew a Beethoven quartet, all the great pianists had a certain culture. I was once in New York with Rubinstein and Emil Gilels and his wife were invited for lunch. Rubinstein had stopped playing and he loved listening to chamber music. He asked Gilels whether he knew the Dissonant Quartet by Mozart, Gilels didn’t know it, so he put on the record and Gilels’s face lit up, there were tears on his face. He was in his 60’s, but he didn’t know the music.

WB: As to the B-minor sonata, would you call it his greatest masterwork?

JF: Among his works for piano, yes. There are certain pieces I have a passion for, like the 2nd Ballade. It breaks my heart that I can’t play it any more…

WB: Do you agree that it is a tricky piece to bring off, maybe not so much technically, because a lot of young kids play it flawlessly, but more in terms of structure, to play it as a whole, unified piece and pay attention to all the transitions. Arrau is one of my heroes and he succeeds very well, but I heard Cherkassky, another great pianist, who was much less successful!

JF: Yes, it’s a piece where you need maturity and overview of the piece to know where it’s going. It can be a big bore, you can certainly kill it!

WB: What are the highlights of the sonata for you? For me, one of them are the descending scales just before the fugue.

JF: The entire middle section and the ending are extraordinary. The long ending is perfect, you can’t go too slowly, you have to keep it fluent. Yes, these scales are magic.

WB: Another impressive moment for me is the stretta, just before the final pages, where I often regret that pianists don’t held the pedal long enough, since the piano can sound so orchestral here!

JF: Yes, it can seem hollow at the top if you don’t keep the pedal!

WB: Do you know that Saint Seans transcribed it for two pianos?

JF: Yes, Leslie told me about it, I haven’t heard it. Saint Seans and Liszt together, that must have been curious.. All those transcriptions that Liszt wrote: Rossini, Chopin, Berlioz, he covered such a stretch of people. And Salieri taught Liszt harmony for Christ’s sake! Liszt said he didn’t teach him about musicality, but he learnt a great deal from Salieri.

WB: A few questions about Chopin…

JF: Oh boy, I love him!

WB: Rubinstein qualified you as a `born Chopin player`, that´s no mean praise coming from him?

JF: Unbelievable, he was so very generous, he helped me launch my career and got my career going!

WB: The magazine Piano News wrote that you have “a soul connection” with Chopin, do you feel the same way?

JF: That’s nice! Yes, I do. Unabashedly, not because I want to sound arrogant, but when I play Mozart or Chopin, I am not afraid. I may be wrong, but I feel comfortable, whereas with others, I am searching, particularly with Beethoven. I never play a programme without Chopin, I relax with his music 

WB: On your last cd, you play among others the 4rth Ballade. The Gramophone mentioned your performance “ a triumph”. Would you call it one of his most glorious pages?

JF: It’s Chopin’s Liszt sonata!

WB: Are the last pages as difficult as they sound?

JF: No, it’s not difficult, the only difficulty is not to panic and keep my tempo down. Every note is part of a melody, it’s very vocal. If you slow down the coda of the 4rth Ballade, it’s a beautiful melody. Sing it in your head and play melodically as you would sing it, but the tempo is a bit faster. You wouldn’t believe it, but that’s where my French training helps, I did a lot of solfège. I just imagine Christa Ludwig or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing it.

WB: Isn’t that effective with any composer you play?

JF: No, Chopin has very subtle inflexions you can figure out by singing, other composers are not as vocal.

WB: I always wonder about the climax at the end, then there is a silence, then the five descending chords and finally the last pages. Is it true that this silence shouldn’t be pedalled? Is it in the score? I understood that Rubinstein pedalled them to avoid that people start applauding.

JF: That’s it! I just played it in Portugal and they started applauding, I couldn’t believe it! I don’t pedal them, I put my head down and hope they don’t clap.

WB: Did you read the comment on YouTube about your performance of the 4rth Ballade saying “risk-taking, uncompromising playing, she reminds me of Gilels”?

JF: I never read comments on YouTube, I am bad with computers, my husband is much better. The comment is nice! Any of these old boys were so extraordinary, you hear a recording and say: “That’s Gilels or that’s Argerich!”

WB: Rubinstein thought very highly of you, what was he exactly for you: a mentor, a teacher, a colleague?

JF: He was a mentor, he would dispute he was my teacher, but still.. I played the Barcarolle for him and he played it for me, that’s a pretty good lesson! At the end of his life, he was blind, but he still demonstrated things at the piano. I was like a granddaughter to him and stayed with him. He was entertaining, well read, funny, generous and I was nervous and shy. Half of me adored being with him and the other half didn’t. Because I was afraid I could not live up to his expectations..

WB: How did you get to know him?

JF: During the first Rubinstein Competition. I had no expectations whatsoever and didn’t make it to the finals. One person in the jury gave me a zero and Rubinstein said he would leave as the chairman if I dodn’t make the finals. He sought me out and wanted to know more about me. I told him I was about to start law school.

WB: Did you really want to give up?

JF: I had no career and had to make a living! I was 22 and didn’t want to teach kids.. I was accepted in a very prestigious law school in Canada. Rubinstein went on a farewell tour and asked that I played the next year in all the cities (44 in total), that traced my career.

WB: He was unusually candid about his own shortcomings, since he said he couldn’t play the Chopin études. Yet he had no mean technique either and until the end he maintained his abilities!

JF: He was a funny man and had this complex about his technique, it’s ridiculous! He had a most natural technique, he couldn’t see the point of working so hard when it all came so naturally. He never practised more than 20 minutes, he also wanted to have fun,  he read a lot for instance.

WB: I saw pictures of his hands and his pinky was a long as the other fingers, is that correct?

JF: Yes, it’s true. He was not a good practiser. I once came to his hotel in New York when he was practising Chopin Second Concerto that he knew very well of course. He made a mistake, then redid it, made the same mistake, redid it again, made the mistake for the third time and went on without stopping. That evening during the concert it went well!

WB; And yet, with all his qualities, I thought he lacked a certain amount of diabolism à la Horowitz?

JF: It’s a myth that he heard Horowitz and had this complex, o please…He probably worked for two hours and thought it was a lot. His son Johnny also said he never practised! I have the most fun when I practise, I have  problems on stage, because I am not a stage animal, but he loved performing. I heard him a lot, around 15 or 20 times. He was my idol, it was he I loved the most. Otherwise I admire Horowitz a lot too, as well as Michelangeli, Serkin, Richter, Pollini, Argerich, Lupu, Zimerman…

WB: As I asked before, I had the feeling that he was always walking on the sunny side of the road, didn’t he have a demonic side?

JF: There was a dark side, but he had a happy philosophy. I have one particular memory though, he didn’t get along with his wife and had marital problems. Once I came back to his apartment in Paris and the house was dark. He was sitting in a room with all the lights off, I didn’t believe it, but he, the happiest man, had been crying. I was shy and tried to cheer him up. He said: “You are sweet, but I enjoy being miserable!” . At the end of his life he went blind, almost overnight, but he took it so wonderfully. I never saw him depressed, except for that day. He was a lucky man, he didn’t worry, even blind he wanted to go to movies and sit on the first row..

WB: He was a model of longevity!

JF: Indeed, he was 96 when he died, and he was really well until 92, he had no old men’s brain. There was this healthiness and sanity to his playing, you don’t know how much I miss him…. And there was such honesty, no “me, me, me”, first there was the music. He was revelling in beautiful music. I have never been to concerts where people left more happy, not frantic. It was wonderful, I didn’t feel that with anyone else. He had the most beautiful sound, it filled your heart. I really miss that guy… And he had charisma, there was an aura, light around him, something supernatural. His recordings are nothing compared to his live concerts. The live recording from Moscow comes closest, he did practise a lot for that concert, since Richter and Gilels were in the audience, he had to..

WB; I hope you don’t mind me asking this question, you have been quite severely ill, which kept you away from the instrument, you thankfully recovered but to which extent did this change your attitude on life or on music making?

JF: (touches wood): I thought it might take away some of my nerves.. People say you take things less for granted after such an experience, but I still get nervous and I never took things for granted. I hope to not get sick again. I get tired much quicker and as the French say, “Il faut ménager ses forces”, but other than that, things are going fine.

WB: In an interview that I found on YouTube, you said your goal was not music, but a vegetable garden…

JF: I got a flower garden, because vegetables need daily attention. I got 500 bulbs waiting for me.. It’s a beautiful garden, my husband got really frantic about it.

WB: Were you serious when you said that?

JF: No, I meant I wouldn’t add new repertoire and I am reducing now. However, my European manager asked me whether I wanted to play the Panufnik Concerto next March and I had to say to myself: “You can do it!”

WB: You could have said no, right?

JF: I haven’t said yes yet..

WB: I don’t know any composer by the name of Panufnik?

JF: He is part of the generation of Lutoslawski and Penderecki. I met him. I premiered his concerto in the USA.

WB: Is it a modern concerto?

JF: It’s a crossing between Bartok and Penderecki.

WB: In your bio I read that you played around 60 concertos?

JF: Not only concertos, there are also pieces like the Totentanz and the Chopin Fantasy on Polish airs.

WB: That’s pretty much all the Mozart, Beethoven concertos and…?

JF: both Brahms concertos, Rachmaninov 2nd and 3rd and a lot of French repertoire. When you are young, you can do it, you are fearless. You don’t really know it’s not possible, you just do it..

WB: I was pleased to see that you played the Moszkofski concerto!

JF: Yes, it’s great, you know what else is great? The Paderevski concerto.

WB: In an interview you said: “The more control you have over everything, the more spontaneous you sound.” That sounds contradictory to me!

JF: It’s a complete contradiction! Take a pianist like Zimerman: you just think he composes when he is on stage, he knows every note exactly.

WB: Is there music that makes you truly happy? I listened to Saint Seans’s Carnaval des animaux today and it always makes me smile…

JF: Anything by Mozart or by Schubert is heaven. In the music of Schubert there is something very powerful, the simple beauty of it all..

WB: You don’t often play in the Netherlands, do you?

JF: Only once, Liszt First Piano Concerto in Amsterdam with Kondrashin conducting and Rubinstein in the audience. I remember they also played Sheherazade, Rubinstein came round and said: “I took a nap during Sheherazade.” I also remember Kondrashin was very nervous, later on I heard he defected the next day..

 


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!”.)

Amsterdam, 5 November 2016

Willem Boone (WB): I’d like to start with a quote by Gustav Mahler who once said:”The most important thing is not in the notes”, do you agree with him?

Joseph Moog (JM): This goes more for certain composers, e.g. Haydn, Mozart and Scarlatti. They knew how to play their music with very few indications. Some music is overloaded with indications, including Mahler’s own. With such music, it is difficult to make it all happen and to grab the intentions of a composer.

WB: If the importance is not in the notes, where is it?

JM: You’ll never be able to put everything there. Most importantly,  you should try to express an emotional context.

WB: Can musicality be taught?

JM: There is a lot you can’t learn, e.g. to project your sound or the ability to be spontaneous. You have to live in the moment. A lot of instinctive things are happening on stage.

WB: I have a few questions regarding your debut recital in Amsterdam on 27 September 2015. I was surprised this programme was accepted, since it included a few unknown compositions, for instance I thought it was more the kind of repertoire for the Husum festival?

JM: It was a co-production, I offered a more conservative programme, but Marco Riaskoff (the promotor who organizes the Meesterpianisten-series at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, WB) preferred this programme and it worked quite well. It was an exceptional situation, because these were merely works you normally don’t hear. It is great that they wanted me to play it!

WB: Can you play such a programme anywhere?

JM: No, it is especially difficult in Germany! There are some festivals with an audience that appreciates unknown repertoire, like the one in Husum you mentioned or the Klavierfestival Ruhr, but in cities like Berlin, Hamburg or München it would be difficult, since the audiences are conservative. It would even be hard to play the Tschaikofsky Sonata there. They miss some interesting repertoire.. Amsterdam was a special opportunity, especially for my debut.

WB: Can we discuss some of the pieces you played? The Beethoven Fantasy in G minor opus 77, what kind of a piece is it to you?

JM: It is a rare piece, I had seen it before, I had read about it. I recently played the Choral Fantasy and saw parallels in the opening of both works. There are quick changes that are very close to Beethoven’s improvisation skills if we may believe what Czerny said about it. It’s a very noble opening of a recital, but also a confusing one because of the unexpected wandering through several keys. It is a nice piece to open a recital with, just like Haydn’s Fantasy.

WB: Then the Tschaikofsky sonata (opus 37), I love his music (1st Piano Concerto, Violin Concerto, ballets, Piano Trio), I even love the less inspired Tschaikofsky (2nd and 3rd Piano Concertos, Fantasy for piano and orchestra), but I dislike the uninspired Tschaikofsky (Manfred Symphony and this sonata). I have always had the feeling that he wanted to write an orchestral piece but he didn’t succeed: the first movement is very long and even a pianist like Richter (who rarely ever disappointed me) can’t make it work for me. What makes it worth while for you?

JM: That’s a good association, it is indeed a very orchestral sounding sonata. The beginning consists of unusual motives you wouldn’t write for piano, but more for string players. It is difficult to make it work, since there are a lot of repetitions, just like Schumann. He went through a crisis in his personal life  (it was mainly due to his unfortunate love to his former student) and didn’t write anything for a year. This was his comeback piece. The first movement is long and bombastic, that’s why I chose to play the Beethoven Fantasy before.

WB: Are they written in the same key?

JM: That’s an interesting question, Beethoven starts in G minor and ends in B major, in between it’s not logical, there are no significant keys at all…

WB: A critic wrote about your Tschaikofsky performance: “Even Moog couldn’t avoid in these masses of sound that you missed an oboe or a horn”, what do you think of this assessment?

JM: It’s legitimate. It helps to interpret this sonata when you think like a conductor. On the other hand, it’s also tricky when you are actively playing! You have to be emotionally involved too.

WB: Is it well written?

JM: Its writing is unconventional: some of the intervals included 5ths and 6ths,which is usually the way you write for a violin. But overall it’s not one of the most difficult pieces.

WB: The same critic wrote about your performance of Hexaméron: “..but exactly in Hexaméron and Godovsky, he stumbled over his own virtuosity. It was so prominent that there was no room for the most important feature of this specific repertoire: having fun on the piano.”

JM: I take Hexaméron seriously, it is not a fun piece as far as I am concerned. There is no such thing as virtuosity for me. That word is often used in the sense of “superficial”. Virtuosity demands a lot of techniques, not only pyrotechnics. Schubert or Chopin can be virtuosic too, they manage to do different things at the same time, also in terms of pedalling and left hand writing. As I said, Hexaméron is not a fun piece, on the contrary, it’s very demonic. There is a lot of rivalry hidden in it, since it was written  by six different composers. It’s even furious and only the Chopin nocturne is an oasis.
Godovsky is more of a fun piece, the way he wrote it is very decadent. He was on the brink of the end of an era. There is a lot of sarcasm, you can somewhat feel that the war is knocking on the door. (It was written in 1910). It’s more than fireworks: the harmonic ideas are incredible and Godovsky turned them into something noble.

WB: Would you say that he did the same in his transcriptions of some of Chopin’s etudes?

JM: That was an experiment, for some of the etudes he wrote four versions and changed them into new characters.

WB: I can’t help to find them “trashy” and not as good as the originals!

JM: He admired them and didn’t mean to replace the originals! He didn’t try to surpass them, maybe he had a war worm and this was his way to deal with it. He was an autodidact and you should consider these transcriptions as collages, probably like those of Andy Warhol. They are called “studies” or “experiments” and there is no intention to surpassing the originals behind it. That’s what I find wonderful about music: there is always a secret left, pieces don’t belong to performers, you rent them!

WB: You play virtuosic rarities from the golden age of Hoffman, Godovsky, Moszkofski, Friedman, Rachmaninov, Rubinstein. Do you feel close to the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century?

JM: Yes, I do. It was a rich era and we have forgotten about many great composers and performers. We look at Schoenberg and Berg who moved further, Medtner and Rachmaninov were geniuses as well. Reger was on the limit of tonality, but it doesn’t mean that his music was less than the atonal pieces by Schoenberg. One of my favourites is Scriabin, his works move me the most. They are like a drug! It’s a pity he died so early. The development in hardly 30 or 40 years was amazing. I  tried to demonstrate that on my CD “Divergences” with works of Jongen, Reger and Scriabine, they were all born in 1872/73, but they couldn’t be further apart. I also like modern repertoire like Messiaen or Xenakis.

WB: You made a recording of the Moszkofski concerto, why did you chose this complement to the Grieg concerto? Is there a link between them?

JM: I did some research, I love the Moszkofski concerto and wanted to offer my own version. They knew each other and both worked with Edition Peters. Grieg wrote a letter to Peters that he had heard so much about Moszkofski and that he was worried to meet him. Moszkofski was the Wieniavsky of the piano. He wrote big pieces like symphonies and a violin concerto. He worked hard on the big forms, whereas he is only known for short pieces like Etincelles.

WB: Was he a big virtuoso?

JM: Yes, he was. He had an unusual way of playing, very elegant, like a mix of Chopin and Mendelssohn. He was Polish, like Scharwenka, his student, who wanted to be considered as a German.

WB: Are there any recordings of Moszkofski playing the piano?

JM: I don’t know, probably some piano rolls? I only know from quotes, you can see in the way he writes that he was not a “chord composer” but more a melodic writer.

WB: like Chopin?

JM: Yes, but maybe not with the same genius!

WB: Is it true that Moszkofski wrote two piano concertos, opus 3 and the one you recorded (opus 59)?

JM: Yes, that’s true, opus 3 was recently discovered. For me, there is no question as far as quality is concerned, I wouldn’t want to play opus 3.

WB: Is there a chance to perform the Moszkofski in concert or did you learn it for the recording?

JM: Good point, I never played it live but everybody was positively surprised when they heard it.  I am negotiating to play it in Warsaw. It was great to record it: the work is very strong and the orchestra was enthusiastic about this project. I wouldn’t have missed it. My motive was pure enthusiasm, not to make money. I am lucky with partners at Onyx who trust me. By the way, it’s one of the few concertos to include a harp in the 2nd and 3rd movements. When we recorded it, there was no harp on the list, since the orchestral administration only checked the instruments that were needed for the 1st movement..

WB: You also recorded the 4th Rubinstein concerto, was he a great composer? I read that he was a great pianist and thought himself a great composer?

JM: It’s a different story: Rubinstein’s 4th concerto as well as those of Rachmaninov and Tschaikofsky used to be played all the time. After the Second World War, the Rubinstein disappeared from the repertoire. The 4rth concerto was written in the same key as Rach 3rd and Rachmaninov actually played the Rubinstein. The latter is a lot more classical, whereas Rachmaninov’s concerto is rich in its writing with a lot of ornaments and cadenzas. I know that Rubinstein is not considered to be a great composer. This concerto is the best of the five he wrote, it lasts for 30 minutes, which is not too long. His problem – contrary to composers like Mozart and Chopin – is that he went on for too long. He would have been more successful had he had more sense for form and proportion. When you write music, it takes a lot of time. It’s difficult to maintain a feeling of proportion.

WB: You mentioned Scharwenka, who is also one of these “forgotten composers”!

JM: He was a fascinating personality, typical of his time: he was a composer, a conductor and a great teacher. He wrote four marvellous piano concertos of great proportions as well as solo repertoire. His brother Philip was better known for chamber music. I fell in love with his (Xaver’s, WB) Second sonata, that was written in 1871, like Tschaikofsky’s. It includes the lyrical parts that we are missing in the Tschaikofsky sonata.

WB: You recorded a CD called “Scarlatti illuminated”. Are these romantic transcriptions by Tausig and Friedman?

JM: It seemed a crazy idea that wasn’t so crazy after all. I was amazed by the amount of Bach transcriptions that you can find and thought: “What about Scarlatti? Why isn’t there a cd of transcriptions of his sonatas?” They are like jewels, miracles. I started my research on his music. There had been no significant interest for his music for over 200 years and then there were musicians like Landowska and Horowitz who played his sonatas. It was a difficult research, since I couldn’t find much, I had to go back to Tausig. He only changed a few chords and called his arrangements “adaptations for the modern concert use. Friedman made two marvellous arrangements, they are free and full of humour. Then there is the Gieseking Chaconne, an 8 minute piece. He occasionally composed and someone gave me a copy of the handwritten manuscript. It is an unusual mix of Reger, Debussy and Scarlatti. It’s the centrepiece of the CD.

WB: I believe Granados made some arrangements of Scarlatti sonatas too, didn’t he?

JM: That’s true, but they are more an edition and I don’t find them really interesting.

WB: When you play Scarlatti, is it in these transcriptions or do you play the original versions?

JM: I mostly play the originals, but sometimes I play the arrangements as an encore, people sometimes don’t notice the difference!

WB: Not long ago, you made a recording of the Chopin Sonatas, saying “There have not been many recordings and none in the past five years to my knowledge.” How can you say that? There are probably a thousand recordings, maybe not in the past five years, but the amount of recordings of these pieces is massive!

JM: I meant the complete set, including the First Sonata!

WB: Weren’t you terrified to play them when the competition is so stiff?

JM: There have always been traditions and references, but we have to go on and they do not belong to anyone! I felt the urge, I had to do it.. I played them all in concert and spent almost ten years on them. I normally don’t listen to recordings and take the score as a reference.

WB: Do you agree with Schumann who said regarding the Second Sonata that they were four of Chopin’s most different children put together?

JM: Yes, I agree, he said: “Four of the most beautiful children he put together.”

WB: However, it is a much less balanced piece than the Third Sonata in my opinion..

JM: The Third is the most melodic of his three sonatas. The Second is terrifying and uncomfortable to listen to. Its 1st movement is a hunt, the scherzo is scary, the Marche Funêbre is torturing and the last movement is madness, desperation, not a satisfying sonata for a listener. It’s getting worse and worse..

WB: Concerning its last movement, what do you make of it? “Gespenster” as Schumann said? Or I spoke to your colleague Benjamin Grosvenor, earlier this week, who said that “Chopin probably didn’t want us to understand it”?

JM: There is nothing to be understood, it’s like a wind, madness. There is not much in the score: sotto voce, only one crescendo, one diminuendo and one forte at the end. It’s not like an etude, it’s not like fog either. It’s an impressionistic conception, an atmosphere, a colour… We are so used to the short forms with Chopin, he is nice to consume, but he was also brilliant for the big forms. The sonatas are the essence of his music, they are rough experiences, both the First and the Second sonatas are stormy pieces.

WB: Do you know about the repeat of the introduction of the first movement of the Second Sonata? The score actually indicates that you have to repeat the introduction as well. Practically nobody does this, except for Pollini in his second recording.

JM: No, I didn’t know, but I think it’s simply wrong. Maybe Pollini used an old edition? I used the Paderewski edition.

WB: What do you think of the First Sonata that is rarely played?

JM: It is a funny piece, it sounds more like Beethoven and Weber than like Chopin. It has no popular melodies, still it is fascinating for a 17-year old composer. The third movement has a few moments that announce the late Chopin, it has a bizarre rhythm with five beats in every bar. It confuses you when you listen to it.

WB: I wish I could play pieces like his 1st Scherzo, the 4rth Ballade or the 3rd sonata, is it euphoric to play these works?

JM: There is the same danger for all of us: it is very hard to find the right balance. It often happens that you rush too much, therefore you have to be very strict  in order to bring out the beauty of it. We go through all the emotions and you have to think about being the conductor, which is exhausting at times. It’s like taming tigers!

WB: What is your relationship with the Ravel G-major concerto you played last night?

JM: It’s a long story! It’s one of the first piano concertos I got to know, when I was on holiday in Bretagne. I was six years old at the time and my sister was four years old. I played a little bit. My mother brought a few famous records, Ravel’s G-major concerto by Martha Argerich, Tschaikofsky’s 1st Piano Concerto and Liszt’s Années de Pélérinage by Lazar Berman. We listened to it, I played “piano” on the table and my sister “played” the flute. The Ravel was our favourite, it’s a captivating and witty piece, yet very classical in a way. Two years later, I got the Durand score. Last night was my first public performance of it!

WB: Were you happy about the performance?

JM: It was not bad for a first time! You need a good orchestra and a great conductor. Antony Hermus (the conductor, WB) was simply brilliant. I played the Gerschwin Concerto and I can see how Gerschwin influenced Ravel in his concerto. However, Ravel created his own harmonic system.

WB: Isn’t it frustrating that it is such a short concerto, like Liszt 1st Concerto which is even shorter..?

JM: The outer movements make it so short. The development section is “missing”, it feels like playing a Mozart concerto, although it’s a different style. Ravel is very baroque in the instruments he uses and the main theme is sort of Bach like.

WB: Do you agree with Messiaen who said Ravel “spoilt”the concerto with the jazzy elements?

JM: That’s the salt and the soup! Messiaen was a genius and at the same time a very strict person. He could be stubborn, inventive and also tough. The Ravel G-major concerto is a stand alone piece, maybe the most brilliant French concerto. Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody is a comparable piece. By the way, I agree with you that it could have been longer..

WB: Do you listen to a lot of recordings?

JM: I do or maybe I did. Cziffra was among the “younger” ones I listened to. He was misunderstood, a very noble person who had a tragic life. He had a demonic talent and an inner fire. He was not a showman, but people accused him of being cold..

WB: I grew up with his records of the complete Hungarian Rhapsodies by Liszt (the 2nd version). However exciting they were, there was something predictable about the way he speeded up in the climaxes.

JM: They are so loved, but only few get them right. I also love the golden tone of Friedman, his sense of freedom within certain frames..

WB: I know you also admire Hofman, but sometimes I find his playing ruthless, especially in the 1st and 4th Chopin ballades..

JM: They didn’t have any urtext, now it’s all about urtext.. We can have doubts now about the way Cortot or Horowitz played Mozart, but it was a different time. They had a certain wildness, they wanted to show what they were capable of. There were no opportunities to do retakes. Their way of playing has been lost a bit nowadays, it’s not good! We don’t sing as much, maybe we think too much now!

WB: I remember that Arrau said about Godovsky, another pianist from the past, in the book “Conversations with Arrau”: “He was a fabulous technician, but a boring pianist who hardly ever played beyond mezzo forte”

JM: Godovsky as a pianist was a story in itself. He was an autodidact, which was specific of his approach of music. He was nervous and unable to play in public, therefore he only played in salons. He had a fragile way of playing the piano and a light touch. Arrau was very different: he had a sonorous baritone-like way of playing so I can imagine that he didn’t like Godovsky. I have sympathy for Arrau as a person, he was more of an operatic performer. Bruno Leonardo Gelber has a similar concept of piano playing.

WB: What do you think of Paderewski?

JM: He was a brilliant PR-man and a talented musician, but he was a “Salonlöwe” as they call it in German (salon lion). He was very aware of how to present himself.

WB: I heard piano rolls of Paderewski and thought his playing was very sentimental!

JM: Yes, I don’t believe what he did, it was kind of calculated, not genuine sentiment.

WB: Which pianist(s) you’d travel very far for?

JM: So many people! Simon Barere for example, he was maybe not so tasteful, but incredible, he changed my life. Gelber, especially in Brahms, Rubinstein who was unforgettable in Chopin, I love Weissenberg, who was also talented as a composer. He had very special moments, sometimes brutal when he could go wild, but at the same time he was skilful and well trained. He composed a sonata “en état de jazz”and more, even under false names,  such as Sigi Weisenberg (with one s) or mr Nobody. Maybe today he would have dared much more. There was something very modern in his playing that reminds me of the Strawinsky/Dali era.
Cyprien Katsaris is another pianist I admire, he is a bit like I imagine Mozart would have been like . He is small, full of skill, a certain irony, a demonic ability, it’s a bit lost nowadays.. If you hear his Bach transcriptions, you think the devil is in the room! He is also a very tasteful Mozart player, one of the last of a lost generation.  There is something brilliant in his sound, like with Heifetz or Kagan. I used to love Volodos but I haven’t heard him for a while. He plays the same programme for two years, I wish he’d be more adventurous. I liked his Mompou disc though.

WB: It is often said that there are no great pianists any more who are immediately recognizable, not like in the golden age. I think things are not that bad, what do you think?

JM: It’s very simple, they have to die and become legends  There are two fenomena: fist, there are more pianists than ever, there is an inflation, second, the pianos have changed. They are more balanced than before, they are not as individual any more. You need to have a great technician to work on it. I have a favourite technician in Germany, I work with him to support my personal sound. In the end it’s my job to create “the voice”.
People are hesitant, since everything is being observed today. You can find a lot on YouTube. This can block creativity, the pianists of the past lived in a different time, there was no globalization.

WB: I listened to your transcriptions on YouTube and I really liked the one for the left hand.

JM: Thank you, it’s a funny story. I admire the jazz pianist Art Tatum and listened to a lot of his recordings. I loved his version of Cherokee. I couldn’t let go and was fascinated by it. I decided to improvise and wrote a cycle of etudes. Art Tatum was almost blind and I thought I needed a limitation too, that’s why I wrote number four for the left hand! It was very inspiring and very easy to write. It was creative processing to get rid of this idea that was haunting me, it was like a meditation, maybe the way Godovsky processed Chopin.. My managers wanted it to be on YouTube.

WB: I really liked it!

JM: Thank you, that’s nice to hear. It’s difficult to play pieces for one hand and for two hands in one concert. It’s an interesting feeling for the brain: it’s weird but possible!
 

 

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.

 

Rotterdam, 3 October 2020

Lahav is a gifted young conductor, on top of that he is an excellent pianist, he regularly conducts the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra from the keyboard, since he became their principal conductor in 2018. One year later, he played a full recital in Rotterdam with a demanding program: Scriabin, Prokofiev and Moussorgsky. He seemed as determined and as self-assured at the keyboard as before the orchestra and this sparked my curiosity. I wanted to know more about his background as well as his ambitions and I was lucky enough to speak to him on a Saturday, in the middle of concerts with pianist Daniil Trifonov and his Rotterdam Philharmonic.

Willem Boone (WB): I’d like to ask you a few questions about your career as a pianist if you don’t mind. I am very intrigued by that, I heard you about one year and a half ago when you played a recital here in Rotterdam and that was not exactly an easy programme..

Lahav Shani (LS): No, it wasn’t!

WB: The question that keeps haunting me: how do you find time to learn such demanding scores as the Scriabin 9th sonata when you also conduct Mahler and Bruckner symphonies?

LS: It’s a good question, I am not sure whether I know myself, but somehow you find the time when you know what’s ahead of you, you just find bits of time here, bits of time there, you grab whatever you have, but it’s more a matter of how intensive you get into the music. It’s not the quantity of time, but how deep you get into it, so if you really become involved with the music, interested, curious, you’ll find your way and just out of curiosity, you’ll find also more time, you will make more time. 

WB: Are you someone who can be very concentrated right away when you sit at the piano?

LS: Yes, sometimes I catch myself if there is a score lying on the table for instance, I take it just to see something and I find myself standing for half an hour all of a sudden, I wanted to look at one detail, but then I get carried on without noticing, I have to get myself to the score, to the piano, this is the lazy part, but once I am there, the curiosity takes over. 

WB: And if you are seated at the piano, for how long do you practice?   

LS: I don’t have a minimum or a maximum, it’s just whatever feels right, it’s never mechanical.

WB: And are you a very well organized person?

LS: No, on the contrary! I am very disorganized.

WB: Then it’s even more admirable.. What was the reason you played this one off recital in Rotterdam: do you like challenges or did you perhaps want to prove to yourself that you were able to do it?

LS: I was offered to play a recital in Berlin in the Boulez Saal, and of course I was very happy about my recital debut as a solo pianist and I liked to repeat it more than once so I was happy that they wanted it also in Rotterdam and other places, for instance in the Beethoven Haus in Bonn. When I started conducting in Berlin in my early 20’s, I didn’t completely neglect the piano, but I put it on the side and it was Daniel Barenboim who pushed me back to the piano, I played for him and he said: “With your skills, you have to keep playing” and since then, I took it very seriously and I am very glad he pushed me back in this direction. Now I can’t really imagine to do just one thing, just conducting or playing, I am happy to be able to combine both tasks. 

WB: If you play the piano, do you feel more nervous than when you conduct?

LS: A little bit, yes. Naturally, when you make small mistakes as a pianist, it’s heard and it’s resonating in the hall, when you make a small mistake as conductor, nobody knows (laughs), well, the musicians know.. 

WB: As a conductor, is it great to play the piano because you can produce your own sound?

LS: Yes, but it’s not easy to describe. When you conduct the orchestra, you also get your own sound in a way, I mean whatever you imagine in your mind, you should be able to put it into reality. It’s not so much about the sound, but this direct link between you and the music, the physical connection of course, any idea you have in your mind, you can put, theoretically at least, into practice at the moment. When the connection is so strong, like with the Rotterdam Philharmonic,  you have the same feeling as a conductor, you feel whatever is on your mind, you can put into practice, it can happen in reality. It’s such a great feeling when this connection is there.

WB: In what way does it help you as a conductor to be a pianist as well?

LS: I think it’s crucial, honestly I don’t understand how you can even become a conductor without even having at least the experience of performing on an instrument. I am not saying you should be a great soloist or instrumentalist, but to know how it feels to perform on an instrument, because then you conduct the orchestra. You can’t have any abstract ideas of the music, you should know how it feels for the musicians to play. If you ask them to take more time or to make a special sound, you need to be able to imagine how it is for them to breathe, to fill in the space. You are always somehow limited in the amount of expression if you don’t play an instrument yourself.

WB: Can it be what Vladimir Ashkenazy said, who was not a mean pianist himself, “It’s good that I play the piano because when I ask them to do something, I know what I ask them.”

LS: In my case, I also play the double base, so I have a special relationship with  string instruments, it’s something that I understand not only theoretically, I also feel it in my hands, so I can talk to musicians about bowings, fingerings, what strings they should use, I can get very technical with them, which actually is very helpful. 

WB: So the only thing that is still missing in your skills is a wind instrument?

LS: For this, I have my wife who is a clarinettist..

WB: That’s pretty complete! What impressed me so much when I saw you play, you seemed very self-assured as if you were conducting, as if it was common practice!

LS: Well, it’s the same thing, plus the sportive elements of course, the muscles have to react to you, but in your mind, it’s the same thing. The piano should sound like an orchestra.

WB: Ashkenazy also said you have to be careful when you are both a pianist and a conductor, because you use your muscles in a different way, when you play the piano, you need to be relaxed, as a conductor..

LS: You have to be relaxed as a conductor too!

WB: Is it a dangerous combination?

LS: No, I don’t think so, it’s a good combination, technically speaking with all the instruments and also with singing, they all have in common that you need to have an inner tranquility to control your instrument, so if you are tensed, if there is one tensed muscle in your body, you cannot play the piano well. Maybe until a certain limit, but once it gets more difficult, you have to be free, the same happens with the orchestra, if you get tensed, the orchestra gets tensed immediately. It’s like a telepathic connection, if you are free, then all the musicians are free, you can breathe with them, they trust you more, they see that you are relaxed and they get relaxed as well, so in that sense, technically, it’s very similar. 

WB: Do you consider yourself as someone with a double career or are you a conductor who also plays the piano?

LS: No, I am a musician (laughs). It’s not a career, it’s life to make music, that’s it!

WB: How difficult is it to keep up your piano playing to such a high level when you are so busy? 

LS: It’s not easy at all, but for this I should really thank my first piano teacher for 11 years, Hannah Shalgi, who gave me some very good basics of technique, if I don’t play for months and then I have a few days to get back into shape, I can do it pretty quickly because of this relaxed muscles and posture, you need to train your fingers again. It takes a few days for the muscles to remember what’s going on, however, it’s not like lifting weights, it’s finger muscles and flexibility, I think there is more in your mind to train than just the fingers.

WB: And these basics you were talking about, are they technical basics or is it also relaxation?

LS: Well, the relaxation is the father figure of all the technical aspects, without that you can’t do anything.

WB: Do you practice scales or octaves?

LS: No, well, when I was younger, yes, there are enough scales in Beethoven! I don’t need to separate them.

WB: True! And you started as a pianist, yes?

LS: That’s correct.

WB: And when did you come to conducting?

LS: I started as a pianist, then I started playing double base on top of that, in high school, and that brought me to conducting. I was very curious to feel what it was like to play in an orchestra, I loved the repertoire, I just wanted to take part in it. We had a wonderful high school orchestra in Israel with very talented young musicians, that’s where I started my orchestral career. By knowing the repertoire and knowing how it feels to lead a section, I got more into the idea of leading the orchestra. It happened so many times when I played in the orchestra that in my opinion musical elements were missing, “Why are we playing this passage so loudly when it’s so intimate?” “Why do we rush?”, “Why don’t we listen to the horn when he plays a solo?”. I said: “I can’t sit here and complain, I have to maybe try it once to see if I can put this into the shape that I think is the right one and if not, I am fine playing in the orchestra.” And I loved it directly, I missed it! 

WB: Later on this season, you will tackle another amazing challenge, you will perform the 3rd Prokofiev concerto both as a soloist and a conductor, although you are not the first one to do this, I also remember Dimitro Mitropolis and Van Cliburn, but my question is: why would you do that? It’s a very difficult concerto where you play almost all the time and the orchestra has a rather important part too, it’s a very symphonic concerto, so if I put it cynically, a lot of things can go wrong..

LS: A lot of things can go wrong too if you walk in the street…why bother? I like the adventure, I like to play and conduct in general, especially with the Rotterdam Philharmonic. Now they are used to it and we do it at least once or twice a season, mostly Mozart or Beethoven, but we also did Shostakovitch, Gerschwin. We have done the Prokofiev concerto once, with Martha Argerich as a soloist, so I was conducting the piece already with the orchestra, we worked on it when I was only conducting. It was important to do so before I play-conduct, and I knew that once we are used to it, it would be much easier, I know the problems that can occur when you don’t have a separate conductor. This concerto has such a clear inner rhythm, it’s something that the orchestra is supposed to control on their own, they don’t need someone to tick like a metronome,  they can feel it themselves. The tricky thing usually is tempo changes, because when you have a conductor, you establish a new tempo very easily, and when you play, you can’t do it with your head, so this is something you have to rehearse with the orchestra, maybe more than usual, but you can make it!

WB: Would you do it with any orchestra or with this one because you know it so well?

LS: With this one, because I trust them and they trust me. I feel with this orchestra, I can try whatever I want since they are not afraid of anything.

WB: I could imagine it would be perhaps more comfortable to do it once with a good conductor like Chailly or Jurowski?

LS: Yes, why not? It also works the other way around, I usually play-conduct Mozart, we did K 595 together in Rotterdam and last week, I collaborated with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and for the first time, I conducted this Mozart concerto and didn’t play it on the piano, and that’s also a great experience. 

WB: Who was the soloist?

LS: Francesco Piemontesi, he made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic, and I must say, it was a really great experience, not to play and just conduct, but it’s different. Playing, conducting, playing and conducting at the same time are all different experiences.

WB: I am extremely curious to see what it would look like when you do both in the Prokofiev 3r!

LS: I am also curious!

WB: There are also pianists who do the Brahms concertos both as a conductor and soloist, are you tempted by these two concertos?

LS: I would love to, because I miss playing these concertos so much. Everything is possible, but I am not sure if I should do it, but it’s something to consider later. And yes, I like to play with other conductors, I played with Barenboim a few months ago, with Gergiev in Rotterdam, of course it’s a great experience and it releases you from a double responsibility obviously. On the other hand there is something very special when you combine both tasks, a chamber music quality..

WB: But not for the Prokofiev I suppose? Do you also consider that as chamber music?

LS: Of course, everything is chamber music on the stage, it should be! For me a conductor should be part of the orchestra, he is not an outsider who dictates something. 

WB: Is that also what you want to do when you conduct a symphony?

LS: Absolutely! The greatest feeling when you conduct and also when you play with other musicians, is when you sense that everything goes by itself, and you don’t have to worry about anything, you don’t have to show anything. Karajan had a wonderful image about this, it’s like you see birds flying in the sky, you don’t see one that leads and the others that follow, they all change directions at the same time.. This is how it feels, spiritually.

WB: I have to give you a compliment, I went to the last two performances of the Brahms 1st Piano concerto with Daniil Trifonov and I’ll be there tomorrow too, because there are so few concerts now that I’d better go when there is something special. The way you conducted the second movement was memorable, because all the musicians played as one. This is one of my favorite piano concertos and the second movement can sound like a prayer, the way you made them play was amazing, the whole performance was amazing actually..

LS:  Thank you very much! It’s also one of these moments that you let it happen, you indicate what’s important in that moment and then if it goes, you don’t interrupt.. That’s the art of conducting: to know when to be there and when to step out and let it happen. Sometimes you have to make these changes within seconds, you need to have a very strong feeling for it. 

WB:  You mentioned Barenboim a few times, was he your mentor?

LS: Yes, I can say so. He was never my teacher, I never showed him how I conduct and he didn’t give me any comments, but he always wanted to see me in his rehearsals to know that I am there. Of course, I was very curious, I went to many of his rehearsals, especially in the opera, and learned a lot: just what you can achieve with an orchestra and how you can achieve it, what are your possibilities? Sometimes, I asked him questions about the score and we discussed it, when I started to conduct my own concerts, he was always there to support me and give me advice. I was very proud that he played in Rotterdam as my first soloist, we became very good friends. 

WB: Do you consider him as a model?

LS: In many ways, of course. Most of what I know as a conductor comes from him, in terms of what you can achieve with an orchestra. It doesn’t mean that I do everything the way he does, not at all, we are different musicians and personalities with different tastes sometimes, but still.. I learned most of my tools from him. From other conductors too, as well as from my teachers. But his knowledge, his instincts are so rich and they cover so much: different styles and different repertoires. You can really learn when you sit in a rehearsal and hear him say something, how he achieves something. You are not supposed to copy that and do the same thing afterwards, but you should really take it inside, think about it, process it, and then it comes out from a different angle in a different piece, you know that something is possible now, you can use it. 

WB: I admire him for his stamina and also for the amount of works he tackled in his life, it’s mind boggling, 

LS: It’s inhuman!

WB: But if I may be a little bit critical, I don’t think that his piano playing is up to the highest standards any more, I read once in an interview and I was shocked when he said, referring to his piano playing, “When I play a recital and when I had time during the flight to look into the score, the audience is lucky!”, he literally said that!

LS: I didn’t hear that, but I still regard his piano playing, especially for Mozart and Beethoven, as absolutely ideal! It was wonderful to have him here as a soloist, not only because of the way he played, it was also the inspiration he gave the orchestra, the things he told the orchestra during the rehearsals, he is so inspiring as a musician!

WB: Deutsche Gramophon will shortly release I think his fourth cycle of Beethoven sonatas, I was wondering why would you ask a 78 year old pianist to record them all again when he did them probably better when he was younger?

LS: But then again, you can ask: why would you record any piece again? Why would you record the Brahms symphonies again, there are enough recordings of it.. If an artist feels he has something to say and especially someone like Barenboim, through the years he always developed, he was always rethinking what he already knew, I hope when I get to his age, that I still have the same amount of curiosity and ability to change my mind and rethink what I thought was obvious and not fall into a trap of routine or repeat what I know and what the public knows, just in order to please them..

WB: Just a few questions about Martha Argerich, you mentioned her before, was that Prokofiev concerto in Rotterdam the first time you played with her?

LS: I think it was, yes, it was the first time. 

WB: I was there and it was electrifying, I think she owns the Prokofiev 3rd!

LS: Yes, of course, I grew up with her recording! 

WB: How difficult is it to play with her as a conductor? I heard it’s very difficult to keep up with her.

LS: First of all, I knew her personally before and we get along very well. She is someone who absolutely needs to trust the musicians with whom she is working and we had a very good communication. I know the concerto very well, because I played it, I know from the recordings how she plays it, but she too, she changed over time! She actually changes from one rehearsal to the other, when we repeat a passage two or three times, it will be different each time. 

WB: Maybe that’s what can be intimidating..

LS: For me, it’s not intimidating, it’s what I hope to get from any artist! 

WB: I remember the legendary pianist Shura Cherkassky, conductors were terrified  of him, because he was very unpredictable, once he said to a conductor: “Don’t worry, I’ll play differently tonight”, 

LS: That’s a way!

WB: I saw a film with Martha rehearsing a concerto and she said to the conductor: “Well, probably, I’ll play it faster tonight”, that wouldn’t give me a very good feeling if I were to work with her!

LS: That’s the fun part, when I rehearse with an orchestra, I don’t tell them: “This is how we are going to play”, that’s not the ideal for a rehearsal at all. The concert is the moment to discover millions of things that you couldn’t do before, just by the fact that you are in a different atmosphere with a public. In the rehearsal you have to prepare all the conditions, everybody should know whom they should listen to, what is the balance, what are the problems that might occur, where do you need extra concentration to make a transition work, etc, all of this to make it possible in the concert to be totally free and spontaneous within the framework that you set for yourself. Then you let things happen, you explore new territories every time. 

WB: Can you be unpredictable too in a concert, like Martha?

LS: For me that’s the essence of music making! Just repeating what you know doesn’t work, what’s special for music, is that it happens in time, when you do it, when you perform it, unlike painting. In the moment it happens, therefore it must be different every time. 

WB: I can imagine that it must be frustrating when you are very well prepared and sometimes the result turns out less well, whereas you were really well prepared!

LS: You have to accept that a performance is never perfect, never! There is no such thing, nothing is perfect in life. You can approach it, that’s what you try to do in rehearsals and from one concert to the next, you get closer and closer, but the closer you get to perfection, the more you realize that’s it further away than you thought. That’s also the beauty of it, you realize it can always develop more..

WB: You also played duets with Martha, didn’t you?

LS: Yes, we did, we even played a two piano recital in Israel. 

WB: Was that her idea or yours?

LS: We had a day off in Tel Aviv and we said: “What should we do? Let’s have another concert!”

WB: How is it to play the piano with her?

LS: Wonderful, it’s like being one mind! 

WB: She is one of my heroes obviously, and I once read that she feels the other person and that she knows exactly what he is going to do.

LS: She is very sensitive and has great instincts, she is with you and then she takes you with her, it’s a wonderful game in a way, it’s a constant give and take. 

WB: She still plays fantastically, she is turning 80 next year, do you have any idea what can be the reason of her longevity because she even plays better than before, she played in Hamburg at the festival that was cancelled, but then she played the 3rd Chopin sonata and it was very different from what she did  before and yet it was..

LS: extraordinary!

WB: What can be her secret?

LS: It’s a combination of things: a very good basic technique, a very strong mind, everything is new and yet to be discovered, for instance when we did the Prokofiev, she didn’t reproduce what she had done for decades, even though she feels very confident with the piece. She is always searching for details that can still be different, not better, but different. 

WB: It is indeed different every time!

LS: If that’s your approach, if you always try out things, you will never stop! 

WB: Her tempi were exactly the same as in the 1967 recording with Abbado.

LS: I don’t know, we also played it in Vienna and it was different, she is reacting to the orchestra, of course. 

WB: There not many pianists who can play the 3rd Prokofiev concerto at almost 80!

LS: Not many can play it at 20! (laughs) 

WB: Do you have any other challenges coming up as a pianist?

LS: You know, for all of my future plans, there is a question mark in this period, we used to plan things three, four years ahead and now we are lucky to plan the next three, four weeks! 

WB: How many concerts do you have scheduled now?

LS: I lost all my concerts in the last six months like everybody else, I am lucky to play concerts in the Netherlands, it’s not obvious. The musicians are very much aware of the fact that they play and that it’s not obvious, I am grateful for that now, what we can do, is already a lot in these times. In America, it’s worse, no concerts in some places, they don’t even intend to open the season at all, it’s a nightmare. I feel so sorry for the musicians.

WB: What you did last night and the night before, it was so uplifting, when I entered the hall, it looked horrible, I had the feeling there were hardly 30 persons, there were more seats where you couldn’t sit than were you could sit, but actually when the playing started, you forget about all this. 

LS: You know, in June, we literally played for 30 persons, we played the Pastorale. Of course, I thought before: “Playing for 30 persons is like playing for no-one”, but then I realized: even if there is one person listening to you, you play completely differently, you perform. I also thought of Beethoven, if there had been 30 persons listening to this symphony, it would have been over the top. That might have been the maximum in his days, there was never an attendance of hundreds or thousands of people. The idea is to make music for people, period! 

WB: It’s such an incredible piece, this 1st Brahms concerto! How was the cooperation with Daniil Trifonov?

LS: Very good, he is a real searching artist. He is another one who does things completely differently every concert, he really listens to what comes out of the piano. He is constantly thinking of developing the sound world, to see what fits in a very honest way.

WB: I remember the first time I heard him was during a recital in Amsterdam and he started with “Reflets dans l’eau” by Debussy, there are not many pianists who grab you right away and he did. In every concert I heard by him, there were moments of heart-stopping beauty. The end of the second movement or in the cadenza in the third movement, he slowed down..

LS: He slowed down a lot…

WB: But it didn’t matter…

LS: And during the second concert, he didn’t, I don’t know if you noticed? He did it very differently yet again. In the first concert, it almost came to a stop, but it felt right. For him a concert is not only a performance, it’s also an experiment. He is trying out things every time and I think, for him, he has try it out with the public, because you can’t know when you practice if it’s the right way. You have to do it with people listening and see what takes them and then you try out things. He is constantly developing as an artist. His approach is really beautiful.

WB:  How happy are you to be the conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic?

LS: More than ever before! First of all for the fact that we are able to play. I talked a lot about our chemistry since our first concert and it’s still there. Even in these times with social distancing, one has to experiment, one has to stay flexible, one has not to be afraid of changes. This is just the perfect orchestra for that, because they want to try out music, they are curious, they don’t want to play safe and do what they already know for many years. They are very experienced musicians, talented, they know what do, still they want to develop, they don’t mind sitting in different ways, we tried circular sitting a few weeks ago, everything goes, as long as it serves the goal of better music playing and better delivery to the public. 

WB: I think they are about as good as the Concertgebouw Orchestra!

LS: I think they are as good as any orchestra in the world and for me definitely it’s a huge pleasure to play with them, because they are completely fearless, they take risks and they don’t mind taking risks and falling off the cliff, it’s not the end of the world in musical terms. I agree with Harnoncourt, who said: “Beauty can only be achieved on the edge of catastrophe!”

WB: O! And how often did you face catastrophe?

LS: During every concert! I absolutely agree with Harnonourt, it’s the essence of music making.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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