English profiles

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

Amsterdam, 10 March 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WB: Did you play it more often?

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

WB: Are there more pianists who play it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WB: But there was the copy....

LF: Thank God!

WB: Was Hindemith a pianist?

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

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

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

WB: Did you do that?

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

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

LF: No, the business has deteriorated.

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

LF: In the mid 90’s.

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

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

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

LF: Ecstatic!

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

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

WB: Was it just bad luck in your case?

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

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

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

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

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

WB: Because they require evenness?

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

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

LF: It’s a favorite piece of mine..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LF: He has played for me several times.

© Willem Boone 2006

Lugano, 19 July 2003

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

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

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

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

LZ: Yes, I think so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WB: What do you like most about Martha?

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

WB: Does she speak about repertoire with you?

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

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

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

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

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

WB: What do you think of this festival?

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

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

LZ: Of course!

WB: How did you like it?

LZ: It was fantastic!

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

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

WB:What are your plans for the future?

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

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

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

WB: That is quite a challenge!

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

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

LZ: That’s difficult to answer...

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

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

 © Willem Boone 2003


Paris, 1 December 2011


“So you only came for the concert?” Luis Fernando Perez asks me, the day after his recital at the Auditorium du Louvre in Paris. (Well, “only”, it was enough reason and going to Paris is never a tough decision for me ). “It’s an honour for me, since you spoke to so many people, like Alicia de Larrocha”, he continues. (Unfortunately, I have not interviewed her, much to my regret. I remember I spoke to her after a concert in 1997 in the Netherlands, but I wasn’t doing interviews yet. It is definitely one of my huge regrets!)

Willem Boone (WB) : I am a bad pianist, but suppose I would be a good one and I wanted to play Spanish music, which qualities do you absolutely need to have for this repertoire?

Luis Fernando Perez (LFP): A sense of rythm,  big hands, a wide range of colours and feeling for the country, the landscape, the folklore, the people, the dances...

WB: The big hands were something which Alicia de Larrocha, who was probably the greatest pianist in Spanish music, clearly didn’t have!

LPF: It’s not true; she had tiny hands of course, but she did a lot of stretching exercises, therefore she could play a 10th without problems! She had great flexibility between the fingers.

WB: What about your hands?

LPF: I have big hands, I can play a 10th. Rachmaninov said big hands were a virtue, but you have to work much harder! 

WB: Larrocha said that “Spanish music is very difficult” and that you first had to play a lot of Bach and Mozart in order to excel in the Spanish repertoire. This is something I do not understand well, because to me they don’t seem to have much in common?

LPF: Yes, you need to play Bach and Mozart, as well as a lot of Scarlatti or baroque composers. Both Granados and Albeniz were big lovers of Scarlatti! You can hear this in the fioritura in their music.. , but there are also other influences, such as the density of Rachmaninov in Albeniz, impressionistic music , the virtuosity of Liszt, Chopin, Schumann and Grieg in the case of Granados.

WB: So you need to be pretty versatile to excel in Spanish music?

LPF: Yes, that’s correct.

WB: I was wondering about the difference between the music of Liszt and Albeniz, since you played music of both composers during last night’s recital. With a piece like Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody you hear right away that it is very virtuosic and with Albeniz, this is less apparent, although his compositions are not less difficult!

LPF: In Spanish music the rhythm and the singing melody should sound easy, clear and all the rest should be very well balanced. Liszt was the great developer of a modern piano technique, so all difficulties were more evident for the public. Liszt was the “great virtuoso”, whereas Albeniz, who was a virtuoso as well, only wanted to show the folklore and freshness, albeit with diabolic difficulties.

WB: How difficult is Iberia really? It is generally considered as one of the biggest challenges for a pianist, isn’t it?

LPF: Yes, it is often considered as a titanic composition and most pianists are scared of it. It is somehow in my blood now. I began to study Iberia when I was young and usually pieces you practice a lot when still young and flexible remain easier for you for the rest of your life!

WB: I spoke to your colleague Marc André Hamelin who also performed the whole cycle of Iberia and who said that most of Albeniz’ style is unpianistic, what’s your opinion on this?

LPF: I don’t think so, with all due respect for Marc André Hamelin, whom I admire, I think for me it’s the opposite. In Albeniz there are never unpianistic passages, he was a great pianist, virtuoso and developer of the technique for our instrument. You’d be surprised to find out that there are many unpianistic passages in Beethovens works!

WB: Which part of Iberia presents most challenges for you?

LPF: The 3rd and 4rth book are increasingly difficult as the language becomes denser. Few pianists play all 12 pieces in order. It is of course very tiring,  especially the beginning of Lavapies! 

WB: Which of the 12 pieces is your favourite?

LPF: All, but  maybe El Alabacin and Almeria, which are probably not considered as important as, say, Triana. Someone said to me Almeria was Albeniz’s favourite. WB: I have a soft spot for Almeria too..

LPF: In Almeria you hear that Albeniz expresses pain for the first time in this cycle. El Polo is also special; it is one of the most particular compositions of Iberia.  Albeniz was sick while composing Iberia, I believe he felt his ending was imminent. Iberia was his “life travel”, his requiem, his testament.  

WB: Did you study Iberia with Larrocha?

LPF: Yes, I did. 

WB: Did she show you her “tricks”?

LPF: Yes, many of them. She was very meticulous about balance and rythm. She was always very sweet and loving. It was a great treasure to be able to work with her.  

WB: Albeniz was known as an excellent pianist, how good was Granados as a pianist?

LPF: Albeniz was a child prodigy and remained a great virtuoso and one one of the few pianist-composers who created new paths, new effects, a new technique (or a new art, as technique is art in piano playing). Granados was a great improviser. He was a great pianist too. It is maybe true that between them Albeniz was the older brother and also one of the first ones to compose Spanish music and take care of our folklore

WB: Who writes more pianistically: Albeniz or Granados?

LPF: Both are very good pianists, if they write quite differently. Albeniz caused a revolution in the way he wrote for piano, just as Liszt and Rachmaninov had done. He also paved the way for Messiaen, who took a lot from him. Granados was more part of the Schumann/Liszt tradition. 

WB: How important is it to know Goya’s paintings when you interpret the Goyescas?

LPF: It’s crucial, not only to know them, but you should be able to feel the light, the darkness, the colours and the aesthetics ! You should know what these pieces are “speaking” about. If you take for instance El Pelele, that is about a straw puppet, you have to picture a “fiesta” where women tighten a blanket and throw up this puppet /doll, children try to catch and burn it.  In Goyescas, you also need to feel the atmosphere of Madrid during the 18th century, its typical traditions and folklore. It is difficult to describe , I have to think of the Spanish word “chulo” , which means something like “tough guy”, I think of the way these “chulos” behave towards women and the way they say “You are beautiful” in a very “gallardo” way. 

WB: And how this come back in the way you play the music?

LPF: You should be able to hear it in every phrase and in the way you “say” and sing the melody. It all has to do very much with Madrid and the very particular style and traditions that we have. 

WB: But how does someone like myself who is from a nordic country ever develop this feeling, something I am clearly not familiar with?

LPF: There are no countries in music! A lot depends on your sensibility. I’d say in order to play the Goyescas a visit to Madrid and the Prado are compulsory. I have to think of what was said about Albeniz: he knew all corners of Granada and with every type of light! I was born in Madrid, however I think I manage to understand, feel and play Russian music!

WB: How good a pianist was de Falla?

LPF: He was not a great virtuoso, but a fair pianist.  Probably he used the piano as a medium to be a composer, rather than a pianist. Granados and Albeniz had concert careers, this was less the case with de Falla. He was the more versatile of the three, since he didn’t only wrote piano music but also orchestral scores

WB: And regarding Mompou, have you met him?

LPF: No, I haven’t and it is a sorrow in my life. He died in 1987, when I was 10 years old. He lived in Barcelona, which was a great intellectual center at that time when musicians like Mompou, Montsalvatge and Alicia de Larrocha as well as several painters lived there. I unfortunately wasn’t aware of his music by then, but I later met his widow and studied all of his works with her. 

WB: What do you think of Mompou’s recordings? As with Rachmaninov, we have reasons to be glad to have their own interpretations but isn’t there also the risk that you tend to imitate them?

LPF: Rachmaninov and Mompou have both left important “evidence” and in both cases, it was marvellously done. Rachmaninov was of course a very great pianist, everybody says he is the greatest of history, along with Josef Hoffman.  Mompou on the other hand was very old when he recorded his piano music. Yet his interpretations are so fresh, you should listen to them, because they are the only reference and the best one! However, you can’t play like him nowadays 

WB: In what way?

LPF: He would be critisized now because he didn’t play with both hands together. you can’t do that now any more, but there was a lot to it: the aroma, the rubato, the jazzy swinging he had in his vains.. Unfortunately his wife died too. She was  a fair pianist herself, but she knew everything about Mompou’s music, she was actually the greatest source after he had died, along with Alicia and Carlota Garniga, best friends of the composer and great players of his music after he died. 

WB: Aren’t you, just like Larrocha, facing the risk of being pigeonholed in the way that people mainly want to hear you in Spanish music?

LPF: It already happens! There may be 2000 pianists who can play Liszt well and maybe only a few who play Spanish music well. I would be sad though if people would claim I can’t do Rachmaninov or Chopin well, but they probably have heard me less in this music! I remember that Alicia was fed up to be considered as “the only pianist in Spanish music”. Yes, she is considered in Spain as the hero in Spanish music, but she also played a lot of Mozart, Schumann, Liszt and a lot of other composers.

WB: Did you also study non-Spanish composers with her?

LPF: No,I did that with Bashkirov and Galina Egyazarova and my other teachers. There is a lot of Spanish repertoire though, so there was a lot of work to be done..

WB: What was the most important lesson Larrocha taught you?

LPF: Many, probably the most symbolic one was during one of the last lessons I received at her home. She first asked me about a concert in which I had played the Goyescas. Then I played “El amor y la muerte” for her and I still remember so vividly that I looked over the piano and she was sitting in the salon, very quiet and very attentive to what I was doing.  I thought: “Wow, this is very special”. Other than that, she was very practical and would ask a lot of questions after I had given concerts, e.g “How was the memory in ....? “ or “Was ,,, poetic?’” 

WB: Did she teach a lot?

LPF: Yes, somehow she felt obliged to perpetuate the work of Granados and Marshall at the Marshall Academy in Barcelona and worldwide in masterclasses. She was endlessly patient, even with mediocre students. 

WB: What about Dmitri Bashkirov?

LPF: That is another question altogether! He is a fish swimming in the musical world. He is a pianist, a teacher, a critic, a cultivated musicologist at the same time. He is the last teacher of a big tradition and one of the best piano teachers alive.

WB: I am often struck by the subtlety of your playing, did you learn that from Bashkirov?

LPF: Yes. It is a personal development, but he was my greatest influence for sure. He is a great artist and a virtuoso, his pianism is very refined.  He saved my life as a pianist and he is my greatest influence.

WB: You also worked with Menahem Pressler?

LPF: Only for a short period of time.

WB: Do you play a lot of chamber music?

LPF: Yes, I do and I love it!

WB: Do you like to teach?

LPF: Yes, I love it as well. 

WB: I remember you told me two years ago that you were scared to record Chopin. This composer evokes a lot of different emotions: some pianists didn’t play his music (Brendel), others say they don’t feel a real pianist if they don’t play Chopin regularly (Argerich), what makes his music so ambigious?

LPF: Mostly the fact that it has been so well played! You can’t fake with Chopin, he is such a sensitive soul..

WB: Who have played his music well according to you?

LPF: There are many names: Arrau, Rubinstein, Brailovsky, Perlemuter, Gelber, Argerich, Weissenberg..

WB: Weissenberg? He is such a banger!

LPF: I love the electricity of his EMI recordings of the Nocturnes. It’s a great recording.

WB: They are tricky pieces, aren’t they?

LPF: Yes, there are very difficult.

WB: Will you do all of the Chopin Nocturnes?

LPF: Yes, I still have to record the second part, but I don’t know when.

WB: What are your recording plans in general?

LPF: My Mompou disc has been released very recently and I have just recorded two Mozart concertos with maestro Chumachenko and the Soloists of the Reina Sofia Chamber Orchestra. Rachmaninoff is probably next..

WB: You did play Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole last night, I remember you said a few months ago you were nervous about it?

LPF: I had to learn it in very little time and it’s not easy to make it sound as if I had played it for many years.. 

WB: You said the piano was not particularly good last night, would you refuse to play a certain piece with a lesser piano? I have to think of Claudio Arrau, who never tried a piano except the octave glissandi if he was to play the Beethoven Waldstein sonata. If the piano didn’t react well, he cancelled the Waldstein!

LPF: I usually suffer and go on, but if a piano is really bad, then yes!

WB: Two months ago, you told me a funny story of you doing something completely different, can you tell it again?

LPF: I accompanied a friend of mine, a jazz singer who will release a CD with Christmas songs shortly. He asked me and I wanted to do him a favour, but I won’t play with my own name, I took the psydoniem of Alexander Goldmann, because I don’t want people to say: “Look, he is also doing other things than classical music!”








Utrecht, 25 February 2018

I had an interview with the winner of the 2017 Queen Elisabeth Competition, about an hour before he was to play the 3rd piano concerto by Prokofiev. A candid conversation with a shy and humble musician..

Willem Boone (WB): How are you doing since you won this important prize?

Lukas Vondracek (LV): It changed my life quite a bit, I played a lot more than before, more than a hundred concerts! I feel very fulfilled. I went through a child prodigy phase, I had some experience, concerts with maestro Ashkenazy but I realized that winning this prize was life changing.

WB:  How surprised were you to win?

LV: I was not really surprised although I didn’t expect anything. I didn’t know what the jury was looking for and I decided for myself to make music as well as I could. It’s out of your hands. It was not the first competition I took part in.

WB: But this was the toughest one?

LV: Yes, for sure. First of all, it’s very long, which is mentally demanding. The repertoire is varied, you had to learn a new piece. On the other hand, it was also most rewarding, even if I hadn’t won 

WB: How could it have been rewarding if you hadn’t won?

LV:  I tested myself because I had to play under stress and I had to be prepared for new challenges, such as learning a new piece within a short time. I forget the public, throughout the entire competition, I felt a special connection with the audience. They brought out the best in me in a stressful situation.

WB: In Utrecht, the Liszt competition is held every three years and one of the first prize winners said to another pianist who won later “You either have to play the 2nd Concerto or the Totentanz.” Is there anything similar for the Queen Elisabeth Competition where a lot of pianists won either with the 3rd Rachmaninv or the 2nd Prokofiev concerto?

LV: You have to strategize the repertoire a bit, these two are among the most challenging and complex concertos, but you mentioned Frank Braley before who won with the 4rth Beethoven concerto.  However, I played the 3rd Brahms sonata, which is not the most flashy piece I know! “Rach 3rd” is a magnificent piece, musically it’s very rich, it has everything..

WB: How do you look back on your performance of Rach 3? I remember it as an incredibly intense performance! 

LV: I am an intense player , I felt very free. That came as a surprise: I expected to be nervous, but it just seemed to happen. I just let if flow and didn’t have to try harder. I played with Marin Alsop before, she has been a good friend since I was 18.

WB: You also played Mozart’s Concerto in C major K 467, could you have won with that piece as well?

LV:  That’s not up to me, but I adore Mozart, he is one of my heroes! I can say that Mozart is a lot harder to play, since his music is so transparent, you can’t hide anything.. It’s good for your soul to play Mozart, he is one of the composers I love most.

WB: People say Mozart is harder to play than Rachmaninov, what do you think?

LV: I agree. I heard many inspiring Rachmaninov performances, whereas with Mozart I rarely heard crystal-clear and inspiring interpretations. He is often associated with lightness and divinity, which is true, but there are also (other) layers in his music that need to come out.

WB: Who plays him well in your opinion?

LV: Uchida would be my number one choice.

WB: How did you feel after the competition: relieved, glad, elated, ..?

LV: Exhausted, there was a lot of media attention I had to take deal with. Back home, it was very special, since I was the first pianist from the Czech Republic to win that prize, I got a lot of attention there too. It was special to be taken to the Royal Palace and it was wonderful to meet the king and queen. Then I had to prepare the tour that was set up for the prize winners when I played almost every day, 21 concerts in total. It was an unforgettable time.

WB: You wrote on your Facebook page: “On May 26, something really special happened: it was as if I was finally unlocked. .. left my comfort zone, allowed myself to be vulnerable as an artist. The music suddenly felt free, inspired, the spirit was soaring. That’s how I felt at least. At that point, I couldn’t care less about the result of the Queen Elisabeth Competition.” Was that regarding the Rach 3? And isn’t it special it happened at such an important stressful moment?

LV: I almost never felt that way before and I played around 1500 concerts! We practise so much, most of the time, you think it’s decent, but often something is missing and now it all came out.

WB: Strange it happened under such pressure?

LV: It was unexpected, but maybe it was what I needed at the time. It meant a lot to me.

WB: Another passage from your Facebook page: “.. played Rach 3 in Cape Town. I have tears in my eyes when I perform it. So many emotions, so many memories. What can be better than playing one of the most incredible pieces of music in the world’s most beautiful city.” It is clearly a concerto that evokes very strong feelings in you, isn’t it?

LV: Yes, it does. A lot of people like the 2nd concerto, which is wonderful of course, but nr 3 is so much more complex, its climaxes in the finale are unique, it’s a life time of a piece!

WB: Do you also play the 4rth piano concerto?

LV: Yes, I play all four concertos. Nr 4 is a great piece too, although it’s quite overlooked. It is not only tricky for the pianist, but also for the orchestra. Rachmaninov was accused of being traditional and composing in the style of Tschaikofsky, however, in this concerto, he tried jazzy elements that were not noticeable before. Yet, he remained nostalgic at heart. It’s very interesting to hear him play with tremendous drive and conviction, yet he was never sentimental or overly emotional. 

WB: A quote from YouTube about you: “This man is a personality. He created a new Rachmaninov. We see bursts of energy, passion, anger, but also witness lyrical passages and romance. This experience was a rollercoaster for me, my heart was beating so fast, I almost got a heart attack at certain moments figuratively speaking. I was amazed at his use of certain effects and accents, sudden tempo changes, innovative use of pedal and even improvised passages. All traits of someone who is more than a virtuoso. He deserves to be the winner of this competition.” This was written by Albeto Ferro, being on a near second place. This is some high praise!

LV: I believe he won 6th prize, he also got prizes from the Dutch and French radio. I don’t like to judge my own music making. If you become too complacent, it is the end of your development as an artist. It should be about music, I see myself as a messenger and that should be done successfully.

WB: But you are also the one who unleashes passion, which in my eyes is more than only the messenger?

LV: Yes, music should be only be played if you can’t spend your life without it. I couldn’t, it’s essential to my soul. To do these things, you need a certain amount of charisma!

WB: Another comment I read on YouTube concerning your Rachmaninov: “(…) his working too hard shadowed the music.” What do you think of this?

LV: I respect any opinion. I can only say I believe in the journey I chose and rely on my instincts. It is the result of a lengthy study of a difficult piece. It’s an approach I believe in no matter what comments I receive. I can’t wait for someone to tell you what to do. 

WB: You wrote “I was happy to win in a repertoire that is not necessarily mine.”, but you chose the repertoire, didn’t you?

LV: There were a few restrictions, such as the commissioned piece. I had virtually no experience with modern music, it’s repertoire I don’t particularly enjoy. I wouldn’t chose it for myself and that was exactly one of the reasons I wanted to play in Brussels. The repertoire there is a bit of everything contrary to the Chopin and Tschaikofsky competitions that focus on one period. 

WB: I have a few questions regarding the concerto you are going to play this afternoon, the 3rd Concerto by Prokofiev. Can you remember the first time you heard it?

LV: It was probably the first recording of Martha Argerich, who is a really special lady and an incredible virtuoso. The orchestra chose this concerto that I have done many times, but I am still finding my way with it. It’s great of course, yet I am not entirely comfortable.. Prokofiev can be overwhelming: his style is very convincing, however, it’s difficult to find a balance as it is lyrical, ironic, sarcastic.. You can easily sound too aggressive.

WB: I think it’s the perfect example of a piano concerto: virtuosic, but it also has an important orchestral part, it’s lyrical, playful, sometimes with a lot of bite. What do you think?

LV: There are many times when it sounds lovely, but that’s not what Prokofiev meant. There is also fake beauty and sarcasm, he is unpredictable and can kill you any moment..

WB: I think it’s very representative of Prokofiev’s style, more so than in the 2nd concerto. Would you call it the most classical of his piano concertos?

LV: Yes, indeed. The 2nd has tremendous power, but the 3rd is a better composition. You can’t play his 2nd concerto on any given day!

WB: How difficult is Prokofiev 3rd as opposed to Rach 3rd?

LV: It’s not that difficult, actually a lot easier than Rach 3rd. The style is very different, Rachmaninov fits the hand, Prokofiev was a good pianist, but not as instinctive. You need to practise more to get it.  Prokofiev 3rd was written in a mathematical way. You have to be very alert mentally. It’s mostly about chords and octaves, there are not so many scales. It’s certainly not easy, but it sounds more difficult than it is, although there are some unplayable passages!

WB: Where for example?

LV: For instance the hand crossings in the first movement. It has to do with the seize of my hands: my fingers are fat and that makes things sometimes uncomfortable. In the second movement, there are some tricky passages too. The top register chords at the very end are uncomfortable as well.

WB: I love the end of the second movement with the gong!

LV: Of course, it’s hard to place it together, it almost never happens. 

WB: The structure of this concerto is interesting: three movements that each have lyrical intermezzi.

LV: I love the lyrical variations of the second movement: it sounds mysterious after all the drama. It shouldn’t sound overly romantic though, the simpler, the better. Many people add extra rubati. I think you don’t need to add anything, if you follow his instructions, it makes perfect sense.

WB: The variation that comes after the lyrical one is almost scary in its violence!

LV: Exactly, I love the way Prokofiev builds up the intensity. It’s exciting, but you have to make sure not to rush. This sometimes happens when nerves kick in..

WB: I always wonder at the end of the third movement, do you need to play these fast passages as glissandi or as rapid scales?

LV: The way he wrote them is unplayable! You have to play two keys with one finger at the time and it looks like an octopus (laughs). I try to come as close as possible to his notation. It’s not that important though to hit every note, what you need is a clustered sound.  These passages are more effective when played with rhythmical precision.

WB: Martha Argerich rushes there too!

LV: Yes she does, but with such huge charisma!

WB: She owns the concerto…

LV: Absolutely!

WB: Some colleagues of yours, Abdel Rahman el Bacha and Plamena Mangova, said that Bartok’s piano concertos are difficult to put together with an orchestra, what about this concerto?

LV: It’s not easy, neither for the orchestra, nor the soloist. You have much less freedom than in Rach 3, where the piano is more prominent. I think my performances of Friday and last night went well!

WB: Dmitri Mitripolos and Van Cliburn both conducted and played this piano concerto, would you ever consider doing this?

LV: It’s nowadays becoming fashionable, but at the moment, I am not interested. It’s quite an art to be a great conductor..and it is not my calling. I have no time to dedicate myself to conducting, it’s the same with composing. There are so many wonderful conductors and composers, I don’t know what I could contribute to either of these..

WB: Couldn’t Ashkenazy convince you?

LV: He is a wonderful person, I learnt from him to be inspiring, to stay humble, to work hard and to enjoy the journey. He told me one day I’ll be successful. 

WB: He must be one of the hardest working persons in the business!

LV: Yes, his repertoire is so huge. He loves practising, but now he has arthritis.

WB: Where does he find the time to do all this?

LV: He is a very fast learner, he is almost like a child, always with this enormous  energy and joy. It is quite touching to see. His wife is a big help in his life, she keeps him in touch with reality.

WB: He is a heck of a pianist!

LV: His colours and sound are unique, they are so full and rounded. I can recognize when I hear him on the radio, he has a very special way of approaching the piano. You can say he has a symphonic understanding of sound. 

WB: Beethoven once said that music can make you a better person, do you agree?

LV: Yes, I think so, although it is hard to generalize. You can really grow with music and project your struggles, joy, sorrow. For children, it is a wonderful tool to learn patience. Structure, beauty, discipline are all present in music. 

WB: What are your plans for the future? Are you going to make recordings?

LV: Yes, I think with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, but we are still working on the repertoire. I must say I am not that much of a fan of the recording process. Nothing can replace a live performance. I feel I sound better live than on recordings. 

WB: What is your relationship with the instrument?

LV: I am happy when people see me as a musician first and then as a pianist. The piano is just a beautiful box to realize your ideas. Many people indulge in the possibilities of the piano and there is nothing wrong with that but sometimes I wonder whether the essence of music shouldn’t be more universal. Music is all encompassing and the piano has probably most possibilities. I wouldn’t say I am in love with the instrument but I am in love with music. It can be frustrating: you have sounds in your mind, you try the instrument and it’s badly regulated. You still have to try and make the best of it. Then again, great music can sound on any instrument.

WB: But are you still happy to play the piano?

LV: Yes, it’s still one of the best decisions to play the piano! I wouldn’t call it a “job”, sometimes  members of the orchestra say that they need to get “the job done”, I find that a horrible attitude, for me it’s a pleasure! 

WB: What should  I say to you: “Break a leg”?

LV: I remember a concert in Paris where I actually broke a leg before I entered on stage!

WB: Then I’d better not say anything at all! :-) 



Amsterdam, 19 January 2006

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

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

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

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

MP: You gain strength from the music!


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

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

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

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

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

MP: Yes!

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

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

WB: Do you feel physically unwell?

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

WB: Did you never take a holiday?

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

WB: Was that your longest holiday ever?

MP: Yes, it was! (laughs)

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

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

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

MP: More or less, yes.

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

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

WB: You have such a superb sense of balance!

MP: Balance, that’s the ear!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WB: It was the NRC Handelsblad.

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

MP: Yes, he was

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

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

WB: Do you have any favourite recordings?

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

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

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

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

MP: I understand what you mean.

WB: Are there any good trios at the moment?

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

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

MP: Bartok and Schönberg!

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

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

WB: Can you ask him questions about his intentions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WB: Are you still studying solo repertoire?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WB: Jeno Jando?

MP: No...

WB: Do you mean Andras Schiff?

MP: Yes, exactly!

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

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

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

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

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

MP: As you can see!