English profiles

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

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

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

SK: So they found you a teacher.

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

SK: Did you go to school while being trained?

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


SK: When did you first perform in public?

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

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

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

SK: You made a fresh start?

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

SK: Without knowing the test pieces?

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

SK: Did you know the concerto?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Arnhem, 4 October 2014

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

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

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

WB: Why?

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

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

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

WB: Does that apply to any repertoire?

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

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

NG: Yes, most of the time it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WB: Would you call it his most inaccessible sonata?

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

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

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

WB: What could that message be?

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

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

NG: I can’t say..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NG: Of course…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NG: It’s untouchable..

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

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

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

NG: Yes, I heard it.

WB: How often do you learn new repertoire?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WB: Scaramuzza…

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

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

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

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

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

WB: Is Martha Argerich the perfect example of this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WB: Does she still teach?

NG: Occasionally, yes.

WB: Is being a pianist fun for you?

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

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

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





Amsterdam, 4 April 2015

His own manager “warned” me when I asked him whether he could ask Nicholas Angelich about the possibility of doing an interview: “He doesn’t read his email and he doesn’t call back”,  so it didn’t look all too promising.. However, a few days later, I received an email that he agreed. Still easier said than done, since I couldn’t get hold of him at the hotel in Amsterdam where he stayed. I then decided to try my luck and go to the concert hall in the afternoon. An employee told me he just went back to his hotel (next to the venue thank God!), where I still couldn’t find him… until I realized he was probably sitting in the restaurant. That was indeed the case. When I introduced myself, he told me he wanted to go back to the hall and rehearse until 6.30 PM, I really wasn’t too confident, but thankfully he showed up. We then had a fascinating interview that impressed me, especially because of the moving tribute he paid to his teacher Aldo Ciccolini, who passed away not long before we spoke.

Willem Boone (WB): How do you like the hall of the “Muziekcentrum aan het IJ” where you played before?

Nicholas Angelich (NA): It is a beautiful hall with a good atmosphere and a nice audience.

WB: Martha Argerich recently said that you need a hall about the size of La Salle Gaveau in Paris or the Conservatory of Milan for recitals, the others are too big. Do you agree?

NA: Probably, yes. It is a combination of things: the atmosphere counts, but also the acoustics, the instrument, how you feel at that moment. It depends on the repertoire you play. It is better to have a more intimate hall where you can project something and that has something refined at the same time.

WB: So Carnegie Hall is not a good hall for recitals?

NA: I haven’t played there, so I can’t comment. It is a very subjective matter. You can have a very good feeling in a big hall. I can’t say one hall is good and the other isn’t. If you like a certain venue, it’s like being with an old friend…..

WB: Have you played at the Philharmonie de Paris yet?

NA: I will play there next year, although I was there to rehearse. I haven’t seen the hall yet, from the outside it’s a very impressive building!

WB: Parisians often complained that they didn’t have a proper concert hall, were the Théâtre des Champs Elysées and la Salle Pleyel really that bad?

NA: I liked both very much! I was very attached to both halls for different reasons. Anyway, it is important that the Philharmonie was opened, they put a lot of work in it.

WB: I’d like to ask you a few questions about one of your teachers, Aldo Ciccolini, who recently passed away. In an interview, you said: “He helped me to become myself. At age 13, I arrived from the USA and entered his class at the Conservatoire, but it was really around my 30’s that I realised how much he had influenced me.” In what way did he influence you?

NA: It’s hard to say, I was 13 when I studied with him and it was a huge privilege to work with such an incredible artist. He was so genuine … he was a very good teacher, a “grand maître”, an impressive maestro, which is not easy to find. Around my 30’s, I understood to what extent he was important in my musical development. He gave me an outlook on a lot of different things and on life in general, also on questions such as “What is it to be a musician?” or “Why do you do this?”. He had a very specific way of looking at things and we shouldn’t forget that he came from a different time period, he had known Alfred Cortot, Marguérite Long, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli..
I admired his sense of discipline and his respect of music.  In this profession, you have to work a lot and you have to be very committed. You have to continually learn.

WB: He kept playing in spite of his bad health!

NA: Yes, he played quite a lot in recent years and he kept playing even better and better with such deep understanding! As soon as he sat at the keyboard, he was a young man. He was very useful in his energy, there was never anything blasé, he loved studying and listening to music. There are so many impressions, they are all very important to me. And most of all, he was a very humble and intelligent person!

WB: You said about his teaching that “he took his part in the event (= lessons) by playing for us himself”. Did he show you a lot at the piano?

NA: Yes, he would play a lot when there was free time. He asked me: “Do you know this?”and then he played for me.

WB: He had a huge repertoire!

NA: Incredible…

WB: Your colleague Philippe Cassard said about Ciccolini that “he put younger generations to shame with his cantabile, virtuosity, subtlety, depth, exuberance, pugnacious, almost frenetic joy that are the signs of the true epicurean.”

NA: Ciccolini was unique and someone who couldn’t be compared to other people.. His playing was quite special: you could sense that he was from a different time period and his playing was beyond fashion or trends. That’s what you should be as an artist!  He was a true artist, there was nothing pretentious about him, I can only say that he was very simple, humorous,  he had a lot of humour!
As to younger generations, it’s a question of outlook: you can understand things later in your life. Young artists are surrounded by other problems. We can always learn from the past.

WB: Maurizio Pollini once said about Ciccolini that he never had the career he deserved?

NA: O, God, I don’t know, I can’t answer this question.. Some people become famous fast and others are not interested…It depends on what happens in your life, it’s mysterious… it’s always easier to analyse later on in your life. It’s often difficult to understand what is going on in a career, it can be different things to different people..
As to Ciccolini, he was very “normal” in the best sense of the word: understandable, simple.

WB: Is it true he never slept?

NA: He was very insomniac, he spoke about it a lot.

WB: That must have been hard, because you also need to recover from all these experiences?

NA: After a concert, it’s difficult to sleep; your rhythm changes. A lot of pianists are insomniac by the way!

WB: When did you last see him?

NA: I can’t remember, I think it was last year. He was a very impressive person…

WB: He was also a very wise man I think. I interviewed him back in 2004 and I was impressed too!

NA: Yes, absolutely, he was the opposite of a “prima donna”, yet he had incredible class and statue. At the same time, he was very natural.

WB: And he wanted his students to say “tu” to him!

NA: I didn’t do that, I had a problem with that.

WB: Regarding tonight’s programme: are Beethoven and Rachmaninov good “bed fellows”?

NA: These two composers are interesting as a programme, they are very contrasted. It’s good to do something very different and to have two different sound worlds. Rachmaninov is not always well known and he has a special way of writing.

WB: In what way?

NA: Harmonically, there is nothing obvious in this music. In his younger works, he was easier to understand.

WB: Richter once said you couldn’t play anything else after opus 111, but you obviously disagree?

NA: Right after, no, but with a break it is possible! I don’t know if I want to go on with this programme. Brendel said certain pieces lead into silence, this is one of them, you need time after that..

WB: Louis Kentner once said about opus 111 that there are pianists who play the first movement well and others who play the second well, but rarely pianists who play both well. What do you think?

NA: I don’t agree, I heard several pianists who were amazing in both movements. They work together.

WB: Can we say that Beethoven was ahead of his time in this last sonata, e.g. in the jazzy variation of the second movement?

NA: He was far ahead of his time, it sounds like contemporary music, it can even be shocking. Some of his late music wasn’t even played during his lifetime and it can still be shocking..

WB: Could Beethoven have written a thirty-third sonata?

NA: No, the way it is now, there is a progression in the sonatas that is absolutely unique. The last sonatas take on a meaning.

WB: It is amazing that he could write such profound music while being completely deaf..

NA:  I think it was a necessity to write the music he wrote. The suffering of this person is very moving. It is more than human, he went beyond what was expected!

WB: Rachmaninov is sometimes called “old fashioned”, what is the reason people still play his music then?

NA: I don’t think he is old-fashioned! His music speaks to you when you are ready to invest your time and try to understand what he wrote. If you don’t believe in music, you simply shouldn’t play it! Rachmaninov was incredibly talented and versatile and he wrote beautifully for the instrument. He had something very special to say. His recordings are not old-fashioned at all, they are very modern in many ways.

WB: More modern than Horowitz?

NA: No, I don’t think so. Rachmaninov was classical in a way, he had a lot of emotions, but he always remained expressive.

WB: Why are these études called “Études tableaux”, was Rachmaninov inspired by paintings, like with the Isle of Death?

NA: It is a strange term he used. He was inspired by certain painters, but also by literary things he had read. The first of the Etudes Tableaux of opus 39 is based on a painting by Arnold Böchlin, “Le jeu des vagues”. It is a very interesting painting.

WB: Originally, you were announced in both books of Etudes-tableaux, would you consider playing both in one recital?

NA: It is a bit much for the public. It’s very long, so no, or it would have to be a different programme without Beethoven.

WB: I have a DVD, devoted to  Yvonne Loriod, where you play one of the 20 Regards in the presence of the composer. You played it very well and she is very supportive, whereas he sits there, quiet. Weren’t you terrified to play his music when he was listening?

NA: No, he was a very nice man, impressive and generous. He had a huge success in later years, a real triumph. He was almost surprised about it. It was special to play it for the person who wrote it.

WB: She was an amazing pianist too, but we hardly know her in other composers than Messiaen?

NA: Yes, she was amazing and believe me: she had a huge repertoire. She was a generous person and a very good teacher!

WB: I know you have to get ready for the recital (it was around 7.00 p.m, WB), but before I let you go, I probably have to tell you something that amazed me about a Dutch critic. He wrote in the Dutch magazine “Luister” about one of the boxed sets of the Lugano Festival that “Martha Argerich played with her son Nicholas ”,whereas she has three daughters and no son…….

NA: I didn’t know that, but I have to tell her, she’ll find it funny! You don’t have to take yourself too seriously though, you do have to take seriously what you are doing and you have to show a bit of humanity.

That’s where the interview unfortunately ended. Something unexpected happened: Nicholas Angelich shook my hand and said: “We’ll have to talk some more, when you are in Paris” Needless to say that I am more than interested and I do go to Paris from time to time, so who knows there will be a longer interview….


Utrecht, 1 October 2005

Willem Boone (WB): I was intrigued when I read in an earlier interview with you that you attended conferences of Bela Bartok

Noel Lee (NL): That was in 1943 at Harvard. I was 18 years old and waiting to be called up to the army. I finished my first year and he was doing a conference on Transalvanyan folk music. He was a fine man, very quiet, except when he played exemples at the piano. The chairman wanted to keep him at the Faculty, but Bartok was too proud. The plan was to finish the lectures in 1945. But he fell ill, although he composed some other masterworks like the sonata for violin solo and the concerto for orchestra.

WB: Did you ever hear him play as a pianist?

NL: No, I didn’t, but he was an excellent pianist. In Budapest, he taught piano, not composition. I recorded his Rhapsody opus 1 and was the first pianist in France to record his Sonata, Out of Doors suite and Etudes in 1958. And I gave the first performance in France of his sonata for two pianos and percussion with an American pianist of Armenian descent, Luise Vosgerchian, who eventually became the chairman of Harvard Music Department. She was quite well known in Boston before she went to Paris.  We even had a conductor, Karl Husa, simply because no one knew the work. It had never been played and no one could give us a clue about it. This is something they don’t do any more nowadays. Of course, now everyone knows the work and there are many recordings of it. One of the percussionists was Serge Baudo, who became a conductor.

WB: You played for Strawinsky...

NL: Yes, that was in 1957 in Darlington in the UK. I did the concerto for two solo pianos with Paul Jacobs, Strawinsky was sitting in the audience.
After the concert, the director of the festival invited me to meet the composer afterwards.

WB: What was he like? You always read that he had a nasty character.

NL: He was a nervous, short and boney man. Very energetic too. He must have been around 75 years old by then.

WB: What did he think of your playing? He could be quite dimissive musicians who played his music!

NL: He could be nasty, but one evening around with wodka.. He wasn’t mean to us, he said he was happy, but he said it in a non-committed way. He clearly didn’t want to dwell on the subject.

WB: Earl Wild played in Amsterdam last weekend and was interviewed about his upcoming memoires, in which he also mentioned Strawinsky. He said that the composer was only interested in one thing: dollars...

NL: He had the reputation of being stingy, yes....I studied with Nadia Boulanger, who was a close friend of Strawinsky. She showed us the corrections she had made in his Sérénade en la and sonata. That was around the time I was supposed to record them. And she would analyse his latest pieces in class. She spoke of Mass, the first 12-tone piece he composed. That was hard for her, but she said: “It’s Strawinsky, no matter what style it is written in, it’s still Strawinsky!”

WB: Was he a good pianist?

NL: I never heard him play. His Sérénade en la was recorded though. By the way, I recorded an unpublished work of his, which the violonist Samuel Dushkin gave me, Tango for violin and piano. I recorded it later with Gérard Poulet on an all Strawinsky record.


WB: Were there other composers you have met or known well?

NL: Copland. I met him at Harvard when I was still a student. He was very generous with musicians. I never studied with him. I was the first pianist to record his three main piano works: the Variations, Fantasy and Sonata. He asked me in 1970 to play his concerto in New York for his 70th birthday. It was recorded on the Dutch label Etcetera. Then he had me come to New York later in the year for a concert of his chamber music. The last time I saw him was in 1980, when he conducted the Orchestre de Paris. The musicians said his rehearsals were very disorganised. He was already suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. In 1948, I got a scholarship and I went to Europe. Later, in the 60’s, Copland suggested I might return to the US, but I never did.

WB: One of your teachers was Nadia Boulanger, who taught many musicians. What did she exactly teach?

NL: She taught harmony and counterpoint, but her whole approach was based on making young musicians aware of what they were doing. She was going through the bottom of things. And she surrounded her pupils with an aura of confidence. I remember coming out of her lessons and feeling exhilirated. She was also a very good psycologist; she knew how to get out the best of each person. She didn’t do things superficially.

WB: Did you attend group lessons?

NL: I had private lessons mostly. She even gave lessons on Sundays sometimes! I also attended lessons in the class at the Paris Conservatory and also in the famous Wednesday afternoons at her home, where all her pupils gathered, plus other friends of hers, to read Bach Cantatas or study the latest Strawinsky work.

WB: How long did you stay with her?

NL: About five years.

WB: What was the most important thing she taught you?

NL: She put me on a road. I wasn’t sure of becoming a pianist, I was studying composition with her. I got confidence in myself and took my musical life in my own hands.

WB: Did you manage to keep that confidence in yourself?

NL: Yes, I think I did. Her mother had been very strict with her and used to ask: “Have you done everything that was possible?”. One shouldn’t take the easy way out, she passed that on to me.

WB: Wasn’t her sister Lily a very gifted composer?

NL: Yes, she was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome in 1913. Nadia made sure sure Lily’s music was played. She used to compose herself, but after her sister died she felt she had nothing more to say.

WB: She was very complimentary about you calling you “one of the most beautiful musicians I have ever heard”

NL: Ah, she wrote that about a recording of Beethoven sonatas I made in 1956 with the violonist Paul Makanowitzky who had been a student of hers.

WB: Does that mean anything to you, recognition of fellow musicians or teachers?

NL: Yes, especially at the time. I was a little nervous what she was going to write. She could be very possessive, if she liked you, she wanted you to stay in Paris.

WB: Quite interestingly, you played a few pieces by Gottschalk last night. What is your relationship to his music?

NL: I was asked to play a programme of American music in France in 1976 for the centenary of the American Independance. Gottschalk was the first important American composer in the 19th century. Then I went on to McDowell, Amy Beach, Griffes and Copland. Someone from Erato asked to make an all Gottschalk record. It’s no longer available in Europe, but you can get it in the USA now. The chairman of the Gottschalk association in the Netherlands heard that I would play some of his pieces and said: “I come!”. He brought me copies of all Gottschalk’s songs, harmonically they are quite conventional.

WB:Wasn’t he a contemporary of Chopin who also lived in Paris?

NL: Yes, he went to Paris at age 13. His mother was French, but he was not accepted at the Conservatoire, because he was not French! Théophile Gautier wrote about him. Later, he travelled by train through the USA with his cook, valet and piano...

WB: Would you say that his music is about as difficult as Liszt’s or Rachmaninov’s?

NL: It’s more the Chopin technique. The piece of last night was very Chopinesque. Souvenir de Porto Rico is a good piece, but he often wrote square 8 major phrase, which he repeated. I object to that, but that happens with many composers. Schubert did marvellous things without the conventional length of phrase.

WB: Schubert must be very close to your heart after you played all of his sonatas, included the unfinished ones, which you completed?

NL: Yes, I was the first one who did that. A critic said that completing unfinished works was like putting arms to the Venus de Milo... The original versions of the works still exist, no matter what one does to them. Many musicians have finished the works, the Henle Edition vol III, proposes completions by Paul Badura Skoda (which are not at all in a Schubert style, but more akin to Beethoven, but Badura Skoda is not a composer).  There will certainly be other versions in the future.

WB: Isn’t it difficult to compose in the style of Schubert?

NL: I had never a problem with his music. The base lines and harmonic system are very clear. You absorb his style.

WB: Could you compose in any style?

NL: No, for instance I couldn’t compose in the style of Ravel.

WB: Does it help that you are a pianist when you compose?

NL: All composers have been pianists, except Berlioz and Paganini!

WB: Do you always know why you wrote certain things and how you intended them?

NL: Not necessarily. IN songs you have to follow the text, which gives you a form.

WB: Can you play all of your works unlike Schubert who couldn´t play his own Wanderer Phantasy?

NL: Yes, I could, although I wrote in 1961 an Etude on rythms of Bartok, which I also played last night. I had no problems with this, but now it’s difficult... A firend said my music was diffcult. Maybe I would have a problem with my own concerto from 1973. The most important is to get the idea of the piece across. I might change hands, but the essential point is to have it sound. I don’t play the Ravel Left hand concerto, I love it, but it’s awkward, especially in the upper registers. It would sound better with two hands. I have often wondered whether pianists don’t cheat in recordings....

WB: I noticed in last night’s concert in Schubert’s song “Mirjam’s Siegesgesang”a phrase “Wehen, Murmeln, Dröhnen, Sturm” and you literally changed your playing. Are you aware of all the texts a singer has to sing?

NL: Yes, you must know the text if you play with a singer. The composer was inspired by the text!

WB: You worked with a famous Dutch bariton Bernard Kruysen.

NL: Yes, he was best known in the French repertoire. In 1978, we did a Winterreise in Paris and it was extraordinary. I was so moved... I played from memory, I don’t see why I shouldn’t do it if the singer performs from memory!


WB: Are there any musicians who are dear to you?

NL: Yes, a few. First of all, the violonist Paul Makanowitzky, with whom I formed a duo for ten years. We travelled a lot and played a lot here (= in the Netherlands, WB). He went back to the USA in 1965. In that year, I started teaming up with Bernard Kruysen. Then there is the pianist Christian Ivaldi and the violonist Gérard Poulet.

WB: What kind of relationship do you have with music?

NL: It’s very intense. Ever since I was a child, I knew there was no matter of doing anything else. I knew that I would never have a family and asked my mother how to iron....

WB: Is it a calling for you?

NL: Yes, it is.

WB: Can you live a day without playing the piano?

NL: I always try to practize. There are very few days a year I wouldn’t do that. After I finish practizing, I might read about music or compose.

WB: Last week, Earl Wild played in Amsterdam at almost age 90. What do you think of that?

NL: That’s fantastic!

WB: Would you still like to play at such a high age?

NL: If I were able, I suppose so! Many friends are very nice to me,they probably think: “O why doesn’t he stop?”but they don’t say it. There are a lot of things I could do if I couldn’t play the piano any more. I would orchestrate a few pieces, chamber music or piano music that sound very orchestral.

WB: Do you have any particular things in mind?

NL: Souvenir de Porto Rico by Gottschalk and Debussy songs. The colours are so obvious!

© 2005 Willem Boone

Utrecht, 11 November 2008

Paolo Giacometti is a pianist who communicates and not only when he’s seated at the piano. During a recital he gave in September 2008 in the “Theater aan het IJ’ (Amsterdam), he explained the works by Ravel and Debussy that were on the programme. This was a pleasant surprise which also helped to reduce the distance between the artist on the stage and the audience in the hall. This interview took place in a cafe in Utrecht, near the conservatoire. The cafe got busier and busier and I sometimes had problems understanding the pianist. However, since his answers were always pertinent and interesting , I was naturally more than willing to make the effort to listen. Giacometti spoke with a lot of sensibility and feeling about his profession and hardly needed encouragement.

Willem Boone (WB): How important are your Italian roots?

Paolo Giacometti (PG): They are increasingly important as the years go by. We used to speak Italian at home, my grandparents lived in Italy. It is my second home country. When I was one year old, I moved to the Netherlands with my parents, we came from Milan and were supposed to come for a year. It was a period of insecurity with the red brigades and student protests. Eemnes was an enormous culture shock. We had neighbours for the first time, in Milan you saw your neighbours probably only once a year! It was fantastic to have neighbours, I still call them uncle Cor and aunt Mies. At school, I never suffered from any bullying because of my Italian background. My parents taught me respect for architecture and beauty. They moved back to Italy after twenty years in the Netherlands and now they live in Como again. I realise how much this region of Italy still evokes the 19th century. Liszt lived there for six months, that’s where he wrote his Dante sonata. The atmosphere of the Années de Pélérinage has still survived. It also reminds me of my youth. I have kept my Italian passport for a long time, but when I heard that I would receive the Dutch Edison award, I thought it would be nice to also adopt the Dutch nationality. I must admit I was scared for a short while that they would withdraw the prize if I didn’t, so now I have a double nationality.

WB: What does Music mean to you?

PG: The same as religion to a vicar.. I couldn’t live without it, music is not only something you experience, it also carries you away. At the same time, you should be able to take a break from the music. When I was young, music came very naturally to me. My parents were both enthusiastic amateurs and I listened to many great pianists at home. I remember my first public performance in Hilversum. A lot of students were scared and nervous, I didn’t understand that at all. I was excited, but not nervous and thought it was a great thing to do!

WB: So nothing much has changed over the years?

PG: Actually not, no, although I did have doubts during puberty, when I thought: “Wait a moment, am I really a pianist, am I good enough?”I knew I had a talent and was able to achieve something whilst playing, but so many people wanted to become pianists. Why would I have the right to do this? It took me while before I could come to terms with it. It wasn’t certain whether I would be able to survive as a pianist or whether I could deal with the feelings of insecurity. But on the other hand, even in moments of great uncertainty, I still had the conviction: “This is the only thing I want to do, I can’t do anything else” and then if felt natural again.

WB: Are there moments that you get fed up with music?

PG: No, I  never get fed up with music, but there are moments when it is wise to not play all the time. Obsession can also become frustration, although it happens less and less to me know. Sometimes it is good to stay away from the piano for one or two weeks, it is healthy to take a break from music and it also allows you to see old friends again...

WB: You studied with Jan Wijn, who taught a lot of Dutch pianists. Do his students have something in common despite their obvious diversity?

PG: No, that’s what we have in common! It shows the importance of Jan Wijn. He is an exceptional teacher who knows what to say and what not to say. He was also very strict and honest. That’s what I now intend to do with my students now. He has been one of the biggest influences on my playing. The fact that I had to make my own choices, was not a reaction but a logical consequence. Wijn and my other teacher, György Sebök were complementary. They admired each other and therefore Wijn never felt threatened by Sebök, every year he invited him to give masterclasses in Amsterdam. I often went to Ernen in Switzerland where Sebök taught. His festival still exists, it is great honour for me to return to Ernen and play there.

WB: What made Sebök so great?

PG: He understood students and made sure they understood themselves. That was his exceptional and unique talent. He could solve problems and as a result, spectacular things would happen. Every lesson was different. There was simply no room for tricks or lies, even the slightest narcissism disappeared when he was teaching you, just the way he looked at you...

WB: How can you make someone understand themselves?

PG: That’s difficult to explain, but the key to this is the music. Sebök was a great pianist himself. Because of this, he had nothing to hide himself. You can only understand by seeing what happened during one of his lessons, it is too bad that this is no longer possible.... On top of that, he was very knowledgeable. This basis plus his greatest intuition could cause miracles.

WB: In an interview with you, we have to bring up Rossini, I have some questions about your recordings.

PG (enthuses): I’d love to speak about that!

WB: Who came up with the idea to record all of his piano works?

PG: I did. I was grateful that Channel Classics offered me the opportunity to record solo CDs. My first CD was dedicated to Schubert. Then I discussed further plans with Channel Classics. It wasn’t always easy. As a pianist, you can spend your entire life with works of lesser composers, not everybody is waiting for your Beethoven if there are already 15 other recordings available, that doesn’t mean that you are not entitled to give your vision of his music! In Milan, I often went to the shop of Ricordi, unlike the Netherlands, you can look around and read scores. I saw a whole cupboard with piano music by Rossini and didn’t understand at first.  These weren’t transcriptions or opera excerpts, but original piano scores. I sometimes bought sheet music and played pieces during my studies at the conservatoire. It is music with a special character, written by a genius. Later I asked Channel Classics with some apprehension whether I could record Rossini’s music and they were very positive. No one had ever done this before, but meanwhile I have two competitors. One of them, Stefan Irmer, has become a close fried, I haven’t met the other yet.

WB: Is there a market for this kind of CD’s?

PG: Obviously! The press gave my project a lot of attention. At the start of my career, I received a lot of support from my cooperation with cellist Pieter Wispelweij, but after that Rossini was the first big step.

WB: On your website, one of your CD reviews reads “major works of a genius”, could you give an example of this?

PG: The “Hachis romantique”is fantastic! I played it so often! A lot of people are surprised when they hear his music, they don’t know who wrote it. The subtlety of his music takes you by surprise and stays with you.  I am surprised about its emotional impact. He can also be very stubborn. Take his “Petit caprice d’après Offenbach”, that’s Satie at his weirdest! His music sounds frivolous and easy, but it’s also treacherous. Sometimes enthusiastic amateurs tell me that they bought the music after one of my concerts because it had sounded so cheerful and light. They concluded that the music was much more difficult than they thought and that it wasn’t that easy to play. He didn’t write big scaled, long works, but his compositions are not inferior compared to those of Beethoven and Schumann.   Among his 250 character pieces, there are about 30 or 40 that are incredibly beautiful.

WB: Could you see Rossini as a sort of Poulenc who also wrote satiric music with strange titles?

PG: Absolutely, that’s a good comparison! You see the same thing with Saint Saens and Satie. Rossini always had a reason to use these titles, sometimes he did this because he wanted to fool an editor. For instance he poked fun in one of his “Petits riens” “Oh! La fricaine”at the name of an operette by Meyerbeer “L’Africaine”. This made the editor believe that the piece had something to do with a transcription of a successful operette! Another example is “L’Album du chateau”, which includes no references to any castle! Rossini was a good business man. He knew about commerce. These weird titles were his way to distance himself from the world of editors.

WB: When playing a concert, how easy is it to include his music in the programme?

PG: People take a keen interest in his music: he is a successful composer and it is fantastic to show this element of his work! I often chose to dedicate a third of the programme to Rossini. It is always rewarding to play his music. The alternation of Rossini and French composers is especially rewarding.

WB: Which French composers specifically?

PG: Ravel especially. Both his music and Rossini’s have a certain silverly-like quality that is rather unique.

WB: How should one view Rossini from a technical perspective? Can his music be compared with any other music?

PG: It can be compared to that of Liszt especially, although Liszt had a much more complete idea of what could be done on a piano. Rossini called himself a fourth rate pianist, which he most certainly was not. It has been great to study Rossini in order to improve my technique. If I play Liszt now and to a lesser extent if I play Chopin, I notice that I benefit from having played Rossini.

WB: You play more unknown music, you recorded a CD with the Schumann Concerto coupled with the Dvorak Concerto, didn’t you feel like combining Schumann with the Grieg Concerto?

PG: It was a suggestion of Benno Brugmans, the artistic director of Het Gelders Orkest. The Dvorak concerto is fantastic, in fact it is a copy of Grieg’s style. I didn’t know the piece, but when I started studying it, I immediately fell in love with the concerto. It is monumental and very long. I remember the score was massive.

WB: The first movement is particularly long.

PG: Yes, that’s true. It is a very ambitious concerto, Dvorak wanted to prove something, like Schubert did with his Wanderer Fantasy or Ravel with his Gaspard de la Nuit. Technically, you can’t compare the concerto with his Piano Quintet. If you can play the latter, there is no guarantee that you can play the Concerto aswell!

WB: In what way is the Dvorak concerto amibitious?

PG: It has many notes: the piano is almost a second orchestra. The style is sometimes awkward, although Dvorak knew what he was doing. The third movement is particularly demanding technically speaking. It is easier to study a Liszt Concerto, as his material is based more on standard forms.

WB: Do you still play the Dvorak?

PG: I played it twelve times when I was making the record. It was a physical challenge: it felt like a Tour de France! I noticed that I had to refrain from certain things, like carrying heavy suitcases. Normally I am not obsessed by these kinds of things, but at that time, I was.

WB: Is there more unknown music you’d like to explore?

PG: At this moment, I love to work on the standard repertoire. As a contrast to Rossini, I recently recorded a Schumann CD with the Davidsbündlertänze and the Gesänge der Frühe on a beautiful Steinway in the Frits Philipshall in Eindhoven.

WB: I am a true Schumann fanatic, which seems to be rather rare, a lot of people find his music “weird”

PG (Pleasantly surprised): I am not at all surprised that people find his music strange, Schumann doesn’t compromise and is confusing in his music.

WB: With whom do you have more in common: Eusebius or Florestan?

PG: More with Eusebius. Every pianist has his own “basic” character, Lupu and Pires lean more towards Eusebius, Richter probably leans more towards Florestan, but even they can play very differently at times. I’d love to be like both, as a child I was overwhelmed by the Fantasiestücke opus 12

WB: Just the first of them, Des Abends...!

PG: Yes, I was very much attracted to the character of this piece, however Aufschwung is also fantastic.

WB: Which composers do you feel little or no affinity with?

PG: I have to be careful now, when I say “none”, that may sound arrogant. To continue with the last question, there is a link between Schumann and French composers: there is no country with as many Schumann lovers as France. My connection with the classical masters has been helped by studying Rossini. I feel more at ease with Mozart and my parents gave me a deep love of German romantic music. The only composer about whom I say “One day, but not yet”is Bach, although I love to play his Italian Concerto. I am not sure in which style I’d choose to play his music in. Gould is fantastic, but I wouldn’t approach Bach’s music in the same way. His music is so absolute that it offers many options and provokes one to make choices. All of these options and choices creat the risk of stressing your own personality too much. There has to be a symbiosis between his genius and the ego of the artist and I haven’t worked that out yet. I don’t have the same problem with Beethoven or Schumann, with their music I worry much less about whether my ego may be too big.

WB: Who are your favourite pianists?

PG: Most of my favourites are linked to certain performances, for instance Richter when he played the Diabelli Variations in Amsterdam in 1986 was unforgettable. One year later, Alfred Brendel played a Schubert cycle of four concerts, which I couldn’t tire of. It was a gift, a moment of grace. As an Italian, you cannot leave out Pollini.

WB: You don’t find him cold as many others always find him?

PG: He is an incredibly good pianist and a great pioneer of contemporary music. He is very politically engaged and a figurehead of the Italian intelligentsia. He combines his extreme intelligence with an aversion to cheap emotion. It is not always easy to warm to his playing, he knows no compromise and you have to take the time to savour his playing. Speaking of Italian pianists, there is of course Michelangeli. He stands for the obesession with the sound of the piano and (also) had a fantastic technique. Other than that, I am a great admirer of Perahia and Zimerman. They both show great responsability in their relationship with the composer, more than someone like Martha Argerich. She is of course phenomenal when playing Prokofiev, but when she plays Chopin I find her too whimsical. The emotional range of Pollini, Zimerman and Perahia seems bigger to me.

WB: Do you personally know Pollini?

PG: No, although we accidentally met. Not so long ago, I saw him at an airport, when he and I took the same plane. I was impressed when I discovered who was sitting in the same bus as me travelling to the terminal. I went over to see him and thanked him for everything he means to me. He  was very modest and friendly. 

WB: You are teaching yourself at the Conservatoire in Utrecht, do you have certain topics that you favour?

PG: I have no specific method, but I try to be very conscious of what happens and try to react in an intuitive way. My own teachers showed me that a life with the piano becomes more fun if you can make your own choices well. I try to make  students aware of the options that he or she wasn’t yet familiar with. 

WB: Are there things that you learnt by doing? For instance, Claudio Arrau said that he learnt to use the weight of his arm by looking in a mirror while practising.

PG: You learn many things: it has to do with being conscious. You become increasingly conscious of your fingers and your hands, your wrists and arms... I learnt to be no longer afraid of the mechanics of playing and my playing became more natural. Students often have problems with their posture and their technique which can to fears and tensions.  The most important moment for me has been to undergo a total physical experience as an extension of the musical emotion. After that I have no longer been frustrated when things didn’t work out straight away. The secret is to be patient.

Utrecht, 5 November 2014
Meeting up with Paul Badura Skoda is like a trip down memory lane: he has worked with luminaries like Wilhelm Furtwängler and David Oistrakh, Frank Martin dedicated compositions to him. He was one of the first musicians to play on period instruments and on top of that, he did an enormous amount of research, especially about Mozart. It was most of all an encounter with a very cultured artist, who – in spite of his 87 years – still maintains a busy schedule. When Badura Skoda was in Utrecht as a jury member for the Liszt Competition, we managed to speak at his hotel Karel V in the city centre. He actually forgot our first appointment, but thankfully we could reschedule the interview.

Willem Boone (WB): How long have you been playing the piano?

Paul Badura Skoda (PBS): 81 years, I started at the age of 6!

WB: What keeps you going as far as music is concerned?

PBS: Music is a reflection of life, there is always something new to discover. A life is much too short to know all these wonderful poetic works!

WB: Your colleague Vladimir Ashkenazy once said practising is “sweet slavery”, what do you think?

PBS: No, I experience practising as a natural form of learning, it’s a training that can be compared to a sport, for me it feels like jogging for others. It’s a joy, a travel during which I learn new things all the time, also in compositions that I have played for 70 years. 

WB: Does playing music make you intelligent at an old age? I heard a few colleagues of yours this year, who are also really old, such as Menahem Pressler or Christa Ludwig (as a teacher!)

PBS: Pressler is even older than I am … Of course, music doesn’t make you more intelligent, but it requires intelligence. The constant challenge of the memory activates the brain cells. Alzheimer among musicians is rare!

WB: Are you never tired of music?

PBS: Definitely not! I constantly change my repertoire and that’s why I don’t have the feeling of “déjà vu”. I recently played the wonderful sonata in D major D 850 by Schubert again that I hadn’t played for 30 years.

WB: What is your relationship with Liszt?

PBS: I am not happy about the label of „classical pianist“, since I also played a lot of Chopin, Schumann and Brahms. In terms of quantity, I may not have performed a lot of Liszt, but I owe him my first huge success with his First Piano Concerto when I was 20 years old. Thanks to him I became a Mozart specialist! At my first competition, I won first prize and Ingrid Haebler won second prize. A critic wrote at the time that “Badura Skoda deserved the first prize for his virtuosity, but musically speaking we liked the Mozart interpretations of Ingrid Heabler better.” I was so furious then that I wanted to play Mozart better than Haebler!
My teacher Viola Thern came from the school of Liszt. Her grandfather had been a friend of Liszt’s. She was always angry when his music was played in a superficial way, she hated “special effects”. She always said that Liszt was something distinguished. I also learnt a lot about Liszt from Edwin Fisher, he knew his works very well and he showed passages at the piano in a masterly way. Of course, we know him as a predestined interpreter of Bach and Mozart, but he also played the Bach Variations by Reger magnificently, that was unique.

WB: How genius was Liszt?

PBS: He was not as genius as Mozart, but you cannot measure geniuses! Liszt was as productive as Mozart, but the latter was a class in itself. Mozart can only be compared to Bach, his world is more human than Beethoven’s, whom I admire immensely. 

WB: What does a good Liszt pianist absolutely need to have, except for a transcendent technique?

PBS: personality, the willingness to communicate and the ability to do so. 

WB: Are these only needed for Liszt?

PBS: No, for any composer! Edwin Fisher said Schubert pulled his heart strings,  he felt as if in a better world. Great performers or artists such as Furtwängler or Frank Martin were people of great humanity, they tried to improve the world and themselves.

WB: Are there still similar artists around?

PBS: Yes, during this competition, I heard at least two or three pianists who have the same artistic principles. Jorge Luis Prats has all these qualities and a personality that pulls you along. Cyprien Katsaris is someone whom I also admire very much. We met again in 2013 after 30 years. He remembered that I had shown him a wrong note he had studied in Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. Marc André Hamelin is also fantastic! I admire Leslie Howard very much, he has an incredible memory, his recordings of the complete piano works by Liszt are a huge merit!  

WB: The music of Liszt is often called „empty“ or „pompous“, to what extent is it misunderstood?

PBS: There are works where the effect or the circus-like element plays a considerable role. A legitimate part of making of music is pulling the audience along. That takes me once again to Edwin Fischer: he told that Rastelli juggled with five bludgeons. The same elegance inspired Fischer for his Mozart interpretations. Chopin said about Liszt, without mentioning his name, “When you can’t win the audience over, you can kill them!”, but in fact, he was referring to Liszt. I find that delightful! Liszt was a versatile composer, sometimes excessive, sometimes deeply religious, his Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude is a highlight. Bartok lauded the futuristic Liszt, who went towards atonality. On top of that, Liszt was one of the noblest persons, who always helped out colleagues, for instance Smetana or Grieg.

WB: You wrote an article called “A few personal thoughts to the problem of “competitions.”, so you consider them as a problem?

PBS: Yes, of course, it is the only occasion to get a lot of publicity and start a career when you are lucky. That is also the moment where you notice rivalry. At this Liszt competition, I had encounters with artists and they were so nice to each other, not at all like hyenas! Fair judgment is a problem though. I tell you about a statistic observation of mine: “The one who plays first, is unsuccessful”. He does not get a fair rating, since the members of the jury think they can’t trust their judgment yet after they have just started listening or there will be other contestants playing later on who are better… The American pianist Malcom Frager, who won the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels was the exception: he had to play first und he won!

WB: You did an amazing amount of research regarding the way to play Mozart. I should have read your book of course, but could you nonetheless tell me what you “discovered” with regards to the way of interpreting Mozart?

PBS: I discovered a lot! The first version was written 60 years ago. We have a lot of knowledge thanks to Mozart’s own hand writing and his letters. He often takes a clear stand in matters of  interpretation, he had guidelines, for instance “A tenor does not sing naturally.” For him, music had to speak to the heart, he was very clear about that.

WB: I have the impression that Mozart frightens pianists more than Liszt, is that correct?

PBS: He doesn’t frighten me! Mozart can express something …..(unauslotbar..) with little notes, you never touch the ground in his music. It sounds as if it were the simplest thing. Artur Schnabel said about Mozart it was too easy for children and to difficult for grownups!

WB: Was he right about that?

PBS: To a large extent, yes. When you play Mozart with simple, unaffected musicality, you mostly play everything correctly. 

WB: You completed a piece by Mozart, Larghetto and Allegro for two pianos. How do you do this?

PBS: It’s my specialty. I became so familiar with Mozart’s music that I have the feeling I could put myself in his situation. I also rewrote the accompaniment of the 2nd movement of the Coronation Concerto (Krönungskonzert) and I wrote cadenzas for the piano concertos for which Mozart didn’t provide any himself. A French critic wrote about my last recording of the concertos KV 466, 491 and 503: “One would think these cadenzas are Mozart’s own.”

WB: Could you compose in the style of Beethoven or Schubert as well?

PBS: I also completed incomplete works by Schubert, in 1969 I recorded the sonata D 840. That is a great work, but it has only two completed movements, the others are incomplete. I have completed them with youthful energy. I am especially proud of the 3rd movement, where only 16 bars are missing. I worked like someone who restores a painting! 

WB: What is the most common misunderstanding about Mozart?

PBS: I can’t say that in a few words. Perhaps there are misunderstandings when people do not see him as a uniquely talented person or when they don’t love his music enough..

WB: Is Mozart also in his piano works a vocal composer?

PBS: Yes and no, the vocal element plays an enormous role, but Mozart was also the Liszt of his time, there is a parallel to Liszt. 

WB: Do you think one has to know his operas really well in order to play his sonatas and concertos?

PBS: You have to know other works too! Among Mozart’s music both the piano concertos and operas are central. Certain characters from his operas, such as Figaro, the Count, Susanne, the Countess or Zerlina come back in his instrumental works.  

WB: Can you explain that?

PBS: The last piano sonata starts with a powerful unisono motif, followed by a mellow, charming melody. This dialogue is repeated. It is like the duet “La ci darem la mano” between Don Giovanni and Zerlina. 

WB: Could we say that the final of the Piano Concerto nr 17 reminds of “Le Nozze di Figaro”?

PBS: The theme of the last movement can’t be found in his operas!  However, the final presto has a clearly operatic character, it reminds us maybe more of “Die Entführung aus dem Serail”. In the Concerto KV 503, the last movement sounds like a scene from “Idomeneo”, the theme shows similarities. 

WB: You wrote an article about tempi during Mozart’s life, can it be that they were slower back then?

PBS: Not at all! The fast movements were played equally fast, there are studies that show this. The slow movements were played considerably faster than nowadays, an andante was truly “gehend”. I can mention Furtwängler and myself as positive examples (He explains that “Adagio” in Italian means “ad agio”= at ease! WB). When one gets older, it is often said that tempi become slower, I play without emotional difficulties in fluent tempi. 

WB: You also play on period instruments and called that a „conversion”. In what way was it a conversion?

PBS: Not in the sense that I switched instruments for ever. I like both: the old and the new ones. A lot of species got through an evolution, others survived billions of years, almost without any changes.

WB: But don’t sonatas like the Appassionata or the Hammerklavier benefit more from the dynamic potential of modern pianos?

PBS: I once had a personal experience in London, I held a lecture and then played the Appassionata both on a Hammerflügel from 1804 and on a modern grand piano. All those who were present thought it sounded more beautiful and exciting on the old instrument! I recorded the sonatas on historic instruments twice, for Harmonia Mundi and for Astrée. I really liked the experience. Beethoven walks on the edge, the instrument has to be almost destroyed. The second recording was on a Broadwood piano. During a session, one of the hammer heads broke off and you can actually hear it on the recording, which is very exciting! Both recordings of the Hammerklavier sonata are equally interesting: the one from 1985 is on a Conrad Graf piano, the live recording from Warsaw on a Bösendorfer, I can’t say which one is better!

WB: Isn’t it actually a dilemma: the modern instruments are probably too powerful for Mozart and Beethoven, whereas the old ones are not powerful enough for our halls and orchestras? Is that the reason that you play both?

PBS: With my own recording of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with Anner Bijlsma, there was a problem when we were playing together: the piano sounded so soft, that hardly anybody could hear it any more. In Beethoven’s time, this was “normal”. Nowadays, the instruments sound artificially louder, but I tell you: authentic recordings have been falsified (manipulated), mine included…. 

There the interviews officially ended: Paul Badura Skoda had to go tot he concert hall Tivoli Vredenburg for a master class. I came along and he asked me to carry his bag (“It is heavy and I’ll have to show things on the piano”). He tells many anecdotes while walking through the city center, about Furtwängler (“The greatest one without a doubt, he told me that it is important to walk a lot. I also admired Hans Knappertsbusch because of his Bruckner and Wagner interpretations”), Josef Krips (“His teacher, Felix Weingartner, said: “There is only one tempo, the tempo!”), the Concertgebouw Orchestra (“My last performance with this orchestra was 40 years ago in the Second Piano Concerto of Frank Martin.”), I asked him whether he heard Rachmaninov as a pianist (“No, I didn’t, but I studied his recordings. He was very good in his own music, but he wasn’t good in Carnaval by Schumann or Chopin’s Second Sonata, it all sounded like Rachmaninov. I prefer Cortot!”)


Eindhoven, 22 January 2008

Before the interview starts, Peter Frankl is still rehearsing Mozart’s Double Concerto and Saint Saens’s Carnaval des Animaux with pianist Bart van de Roer of the Storioni Trio. I have seldom done an interview that started in such a relaxed way; Frankl comes in, shakes hands and... starts telling me about the upcoming Storioni Festival in Eindhoven, in which he takes a prominent part, playing no less than 9 works, like the above mentioned works for 2 pianos and orchestra, besides a lot of chamber music: Brahms Horn and Clarinet Trios, Mozart’s Quintet for piano and winds, Schumann Adagio and Allegro for Horn and Piano, 2 Schubert Songs with wind instruments and the fiendishly difficult set of Variations on Trockne Blumen for Flute and Piano.

Peter Frankl (PF): Not bad for an old man, right?

Willem Boone (WB): I have dear memories of your playing, going back to  1978, when I was still a teenager...

PF: What did I do?

WB: You played Mozart’s Concerto K 503 in C major, it was the first time I heard that concerto and I have loved your playing ever since!

PF: That must have been with the Nederlands Philharmonic Orchestra: I alternatively played this concerto and the Double concerto with Andras Schiff. I had some marvellous experiences in the Netherlands, two appearances with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Haitink, in the rarely played Mozart Concerto K 451, and the Third Bartok Concerto. And another unforgettable experience was the Mozart Concerto K 459 with the Nederlands Kamer Orkest under Szymon Goldberg. Not only the performance itself, but all the rehearsals were so special. Goldberg was such a great musician..

WB: I hear a lot of warmth in your playing, do you think the character of a musician always shines through the playing?

PF: I think so, but there are some exceptions for sure. Michelangeli for instance: he looked like he hated everybody in the audience, but he could produce miracles. He was a fantastic pianist.
 First of all, you have to love what you are doing, even if you have done it a few hundred times. It’s not a profession, but a vocation. I had a piano trio (with violinist Gyorgy Pauk and cellist Ralph Kirshbaum, WB) for 28 years. We often played together and knew each other’s thoughts and intentions.  It was wonderful. In a different way, it can be also satisfying to play chamber music with excellent musicians, as long as there is musical understanding between them. At this festival for instance, we had a rehearsal for Mozart’s Quintet K 452, one of his most beautiful pieces. I have never played with the clarinettist, Emma Johnson, and she was wonderful. I knew the excellent bassoonist, Etienne Boudreault, from Canada, whom I recommended for the Festival. The horn player, Hervé Joulain was also wonderful, so was the Belgian oboist, Piet van Bockstal.  The first rehearsal went so well that we decided that the general rehearsal will be sufficient to give a spontaneous performance. In this case the chemistry worked!
PF:  Today, there was a memorial concert for Artur Rubinstein in London, to which I was invited, but I couldn’t go. It would have been an honour for me to be present at this event.

WB: Did you know Rubinstein?

PF: I met him on a few occasions, but I didn’t really know him.
PF: I feel sometimes sorry for young musicians, when they are playing in competitions. They often meet the same jury members everywhere. I am not often in a jury. 2 years ago Ashkenazy started a competition in Hong Kong and invited me to be among the judges in 2008. I thought I couldn’t refuse his offer.

WB: Is Ashkenazy a friend of yours?

PF: I have known him since 1955, when we both participated at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw and we met again a year later at the Queen Elisabeth Competition which he won (I got the 12th prize!) More recently I played the Schumann Concerto with Ashkenazy conducting in Cleveland and the Schnittke Concerto with him in Berlin. We even played football together with Barenboim in the early 60s, when we all lived in London!
I will also be in the jury in Cleveland - I have fond memories of that city, where I played several times with George Szell. He was a great musician, a wonderful conductor from whom, as a young pianist, I learned a lot. I cherish those concerts enormously.

WB: I’d like to ask you some questions about your great compatriot, the composer Bela Bartok. Is his music daily bread for you?

PF: Yes, definitely! I regret I didn’t play some of his solo works, like his Sonata and Suite “Out of Doors”, but I played Bartok's own piano version of the Dance Suite, one of my favourites. I did all of his Piano Concertos, the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, also in the orchestral version. And I even played the Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra in the Netherlands, with Roberto Benzi conducting. I also did a lot of his chamber music like the two Violin Sonatas, the Rhapsodies for violin, Contrasts. His Concertos are standard repertoire, I played the Third Concerto maybe a hundred times, and the other two maybe fifty times each. I think Hungarians may have a better understanding of his music,  it may be easier for them to find the right accents and declamation. On the other hand, Bartok was a  universal composer, more so than Kodaly. His music doesn’t “travel” as much as Bartok’s. Bartok’s human behaviour was so special.. He left Hungary because of the Nazis though he wasn’t Jewish. He had a very hard life in America. At the end of the war, he was very negative about returning to Hungary fearing communism, though he loved his country very much.

WB: What are the typical features a good Bartok performer should have according to you?

PF: Difficult to say.. There are some misunderstandings though, especially about the percussive elements in some of his music. (He demonstrates this by singing parts of the first movement of the First Piano Concerto and the way the repeated notes should be played). Some pianists are only pointing out the rhythmic character, which of course has to be very precise. However, it’s not only about being percussive, it’s also the colouring of the notes and the accents that count. I have heard wonderful performances of the outer movements of the Piano Sonata, but less so of the second movement. They make it sound as if there were only dissonances and percussive elements in this movement, and miss out the “parlando” character, the kind of speaking of this music. You know, some of Bartok’s music were not allowed to be played in Hungary in the early 50’s! Pieces like his First and Second Piano Concertos , the 3rd and 4th String Quartets, as they were not socialist realist music! He was very harshly criticized by the authorities in that time.

WB: Whom do you consider as a great non-Hungarian performer of Bartok’s music?

PF: I heard Pierre Boulez conduct the Dance Suite, that was great. As a pioneer for modern music, Boulez is worshipped in Hungary, but strangely enough, they don’t like his Bartok performances. And I saw this young Wunderkind, Gustavo Dudamel from Venezuela on television wonderfully conducting the fourth and fifth movements of the Concerto for Orchestra.

WB: You only mentioned conductors now. Which non-Hungarian pianists do you rate in Bartok?

PF: Richter played the Second Concerto fantastically, although he was maybe not the ideal performer for this piece. I think Perahia plays the Sonata very well and Lupu does the Suite Out of Doors most beautifully. Kremer is great in the Violin Sonatas and of course Menuhin played wonderfully the Second Violin Concerto and the Solo Sonata. I played the Third Concerto in one of his last concerts, it was an uplifting experience. After all, he knew Bartok in person! Maybe he wasn’t a great conductor, but he knew the piece inside out and loved it. I am also fortunate that I had the opportunity to play the First and Second Concertos with Boulez.

WB: How do you consider the Third Concerto? Like Mozart’s  Concerto K 595?

PF: Definitely, a swan song.  It is a piece of someone who looks back. As with Mozart’s K 595, it’s not a pioneering work, like for instance K 271, in which the piano enters at the beginning of the piece. Or it doesn’t have important wind divertimenti elements like K 482 and 491. There is a lot of serenity in both pieces. Interestingly, the Third Bartok Concerto is, in many ways, a straight continuation of the Second Concerto. They have the same form, the second movement in both concerti start like a choral and both middle sections are "night music".

WB: Speaking of Mozart’s K 595, would you call it a bitter-sweet composition?

PF: Maybe not bitter-sweet, as there is nothing bitter about it, it is very lyrical. In the last movement, he has tears in his eyes…. And if you take the first movement, there is one bar before the main theme enters, it’s exactly like the start of the G minor Symphony (K 550). This sets the mood and creates an atmosphere that is very special.
PF: There is another Hungarian composer, who was greatly admired by both Bartok and  Kodaly: Dohnanyi. He wasn’t looking for folkloric music, he was mainly inspired by Brahms and Schumann. He was also a phenomenal pianist, he played all the Beethoven Sonatas and Mozart Concertos and premiered some of Bartok’s and Kodaly’s works. He became a legend in Hungary, Bartok looked up on him as a pianist and musician. I believe there are some pirate recordings of Bartok and Dohnanyi playing together. I don’t play his solo piano output, but I do play his complete chamber music. I recorded his two Quintets with the Fine Arts Quartet.

WB: Another composer I’d like to talk about is Schumann of whom you played all the piano works!

PF: I adore Schumann! His Concerto and Carnaval are popular, but some of his output is very much neglected. As they say, he is no box office composer. In the 80’s, I finished the cycle of  all of his piano works, of which the Concerto and the two Konzertstück for Piano and Orchestra were issued on CD. I also did a CD with works for two pianos and 4 hands with Andras Schiff; all the rest were issued on 15 LP’s ( 5 boxes of 3 LP’s each). There have been some attempts – so far unsuccessful - to issue everything on CD. I particularly love some of his late chamber music: the F major Piano Trio was one of my first loves, but I also adore the Märchenbilder, 5 Stücke im Volkston, the Fantasiestücke.. It’s all so original! Some people dismiss him, saying that he lacks in form or is only good in cyclical pieces. Moreover, Schumann was such an incredible polyphonic composer! Take the 6 Canons for Pedalpiano for instance, that were transcribed by Debussy. It’s pure canonical writing. Tears come to my eyes every time I hear or play them...The same is true of the slow movement of the Second Symphony, it’s practically one melody, it’s gorgeous..

WB: What would you call his greatest piano work?

PF (thinks): Difficult to say... maybe the most perfect piano composition is the Fantasy, but there is also Kreisleriana or Davidsbündlertänze...A work that should be played more often is his Second Violin Sonata, it is so neglected, yet it is so beautiful!

WB: I heard you play that with Kyung Wha Chung in the Netherlands (Utrecht, 1996, WB)

PF: Once, on a European tour, we also played it in Lisbon and she got very upset, probably because we didn’t play to a full house. During the intermission she said: “Peter, I am so angry, we will now do all the repeats!”, so she "punished" the audience!

WB: How is Schumann’s piano writing, I heard it could be rather awkward?

PF: He was a pianist composer. Maybe at the very end of his life, he was awkward, the Gesänge der Frühe are very hard to play. Basically, his compositions are very difficult and string players find him too pianistic!

WB: How can a violin or cello part be pianistic?

PF: Schumann’swriting style doesn’t come easily on a violin or a cello. You have to work hard. It doesn’t happen by itself, unlike with Brahms. It is fantastically rewarding though, if you have enough time to rehearse, like I had one summer in Marlboro. There I played for the first time the G minor Trio. It is great when you can work out the polyphony and balancing of these pieces. Like very often, when the composer writes forte, it is not necessarily in volume, but in intensity that he means it. My students sometimes ask me: “I have to play forte, how should I do that?” and I ask them; “What forte? “Liszt occasionally writes several pages with three fff’s, but he means grandeur, not non-stop banging! You have to build it up, like in the Grandioso of the B minor Sonata.

WB: Do you agree with Claudio Arrau who said that even in Schumann’s most intimate pages, there was a current of turbulence underneath?

PF: Definitely, yes.

WB: And do you feel that Schumann is some sort of “intimate friend” as Martha Argerich once called him?

PF: There have been times when I got tired of Chopin and stopped playing it for a while, but then I went back to him and rediscovered his genius. But Schumann never left me. He is so personal and so moving all the time! And you know, he was very much influenced by Beethoven, he often quoted him in his compositions. Some references are very well known, like the Emperor Concerto in the Finale of Carnaval or Die Ferne Geliebte in the Fantasy. There is also a set of Variations on the theme of the second movement of the 7th Symphony, where he also quotes from the 6th and 9th.

WB: Debussy should be another favourite of yours, since you also played his complete piano works!

PF: Yes, indeed. I discovered him in Paris, where I lived between 1958 and 1961. I had some lessons with Marguerite Long after I won the Long Competition in 1957. She liked my playing very much and tried to introduce me to French music, but she didn’t succeed always. For instance, Fauré.. I played some of his chamber music, but not his solo works. His style somehow is alien to me. Most pianists love the pianistic bravura of Ravel and want to play Scarbo, but not me. However, I play the G major Concerto, the Violin Sonata and the Trio, which is one of the hardest pieces pianistically. I have always felt that Debussy was more intimate, which I love. At a time I used to play the Etudes quite often, they are so forward looking.

WB: I listened to your performance on CD this weekend...

PF: Interesting, they are from 1963 and the recording has been reissued many times. I don’t understand why this sells and Schumann doesn’t.. I am still playing Estampes, Images and Pour le Piano and the Preludes.

WB: Pianistically, he is as difficult as Ravel, isn’t he?

PF: No, it is probably easier than Ravel, but the Etude Pour Les Accords is practically unplayable with all those jumps in it...

WB: The Toccata from Pour le Piano is also very difficult, isn’t it?

PF: I don’t think so.

WB: Do you have friends among pianists?

PF: Yes, many, but everybody is so busy, it’s difficult to meet regularly. There is Schiff, Perahia, Lupu, Fou Tsong, Ax, Boris Berman, Claude Frank and of course there was Annie Fischer, whom I miss so much..... Vasary is also a great friend. We didn’t only record the complete Mozart four hand works, he also conducted me in the Brahms Concertos at concerts, which were issued on CDs.

WB: Does Vasary still play the piano?

PF: Yes, but he is more at ease when he conducts, he gets nervous when he plays the piano. We all are nervous! Argerich hasn’t played solo recitals for years now and I remember Ashkenazy’s wife listening to her husband's recitals from the wings...... My wife does the same! I admire cellists when they come on stage all alone to play Bach solo suites!

WB: Finally, maybe a bit of an odd question, you still play quite marvellously and hopefully you will go on for a long time, but are you satisfied when you look back on your career?

PF: Yes, I am satisfied, very much. I have a very big repertoire and still learn new chamber music pieces. As far as concertos are concerned, I have played everything I wanted to play. I never tackled Prokofiev or Rachmaninov Concertos - though I like them - because they don’t suit my playing. There are a few big regrets though: I haven’t played all Beethoven Sonatas and I would have loved to play many more of the Schubert Sonatas. I make it up by teaching them, but, of course, it is not the same. And I did very little Bach, which I regret very much.

WB: Did you never play his music?

PF: Very little.  It’s maybe nerves, I don’t feel confident, as much as I love him. I take every opportunity to listen or to teach his music. Maybe he is the greatest. He should be bread and butter every day as Andras Schiff says, like Mozart is for me.

WB: Your colleague Alfred Brendel has announced that he will retire at the end of this year at (almost) 78, what about you? For how long would you like to go on?

PF: I don’t know really, it is a difficult question. Maybe I am not a perfectionist who is always playing at 100%., but when I am in form, I can still play as well as in my younger years. On good days, I can give a lot to my audience. I play much less with orchestra now, but I can go on for quite some time yet with chamber music. Richter played with the score in his last years: he felt too much pressure to play by memory. I would be disturbed by the score and a page turner though, if I had to play a concerto or a recital with the music that I have always played by memory. Many string players play with the score nowadays, even when they play a Mozart Concerto…
As a general rule, pianists keep performing longer than string players. My life is performing, more so than teaching. I didn’t start teaching until I was 50. I teach at Yale School of Music now. It attracted me, because it is relatively small and intimate, not like the many times bigger Juilliard School or Indiana University. In Yale there are about 24 piano students, shared by Claude Frank, Boris Berman and myself. We are very good colleagues and great friends. When I am there, I am really there, working 7 days a week. Still I consider myself a better performer than a teacher....

© Willem Boone 2008


Amsterdam, 12 February 2014

Both Plamena Mangova and myself were happy when the interview could finally take place after several attempts to meet earlier. She had kindly offered to answer my questions by mail, but hadn’t got round due to her hectic schedule and she mailed me one day before her recital at the Concertgebouw on 11 February that she’d be available most of the next day, but I had to teach….. until I remembered that there was a 3 hour break in between, which left me time to come to Amsterdam. Thank god, everything worked out fine and when Plamena Mangova showed up, she said to me: “It is surrealistic that we are meeting!”.

Willem Boone (WB): What is your relationship with the piano? Is it your “friend”?

Plamena Mangova (PM): It is supposed to be my friend ! But it is my biggest passion at the same time.For pianists, it is much harder than for string players with their permanent friends! They can almost become “lovers”.. It is always risky for pianists to play on a different instrument each time, you also have to take into consideration that every hall has its own specific character and acoustics. But to answer your question, in an ideal situation pianist and instrument have to go hand in hand, that is what we all dream to achieve. On the other hand, string players have to face other problems, such as the problem of humidity that can damage their instruments, to search for a best possible luthier in every city,etc

WB: You told me last night after your recital in Amsterdam that you were still “completely into the music”. I was wondering how long this feeling lasts?

PM: Sometimes, after a truly memorable experience (after you have played in a prestigious venue or with a great conductor or inspiring partners), the feeling can last a couple of days or you will even remember it for the rest of your life!

WB: Can you give examples of such experiences?

PM: There are many examples, because of several great partners with whom I performed. I also remember great halls, e.g. the music hall in Saint Petersburg where I played with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. Another example is the château de George Sand in Nohant, it was such a romantic place, where I saw some of Chopin’s instruments. Or one year ago, I went to Mantova, yes, Mangova went to Mantova (laughs), where I played with the Orchestra di Mantova, the best Italian string orchestra. We performed a Mozart concerto in the Theatro Babiena. It was such a beautiful hall and by coincidence, I found out that Mozart had played there himself at the opening of the theatre! In December 2012 I was on tour with the English Chamber Orchestra in Baku (Rostropovich's native city) and had the greatest pleasure to perform at the festival named after the great musician ,the Shostakovich Piano Concerto n1 under the baton of Maxim Vengerov - a special moment to play on stage with the huge portrait on stage of this genious of cello and music , the feeling he is still there with his unbelievable high energy,poetry and emotional impact on each one of us. Many years ago when I met him during a master class ,I remember he left the cello for a moment and  played Rachmaninov 2nd piano concerto on the piano in an unforgettable way, what a personality he was...such a honour for me to take part first at the festival in Baku ,and later at the Rostropovich Festival in Moscow this year with Radio France Philharmonic and Maestro Myung-Whun Chung. Another fantastic experience recently- I participated at  the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival , an extremely high standard chamber music event in the holy city ,artistically directed with great enthusiasm and dedication by renowned pianist Elena Bashkirova. The concert hall YMCA there ,where we participate is a dream for any musician, most incredible athmosphere. Sometimes ,the experience from concerts as the mentioned before can be so powerful that one cannot sleep until the next morning.

WB: On the other hand, I can imagine that it must be hard to be in a hotel room once the magic is over…?

PM: When it is over, you know there will be a next beautiful experience!

(We talk about several things, e.g. piano series, for instance the “Meesterpianisten” series at the Concertgebouw. I compare it to similar series like Piano 4 étoiles in Paris or the Southbank Piano Series in London)

PM: Funny you mention the Southbank Piano series, a few years ago, I played there Mozart’s Concerto K 482 with the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Sir Colin Davis. It was very memorable, one of my most fantastic and memorable experiences, because of his very special relationship with Mozart's music and also because this brilliant orchestra is almost forever traditionally known for their baroque and classical style performances and recordings, notably with artists like Daniel Barenboim, Sir Colin Davis, Murray Perahia, etc.

(After this question, Plamena Mangova says some very nice things about my website and previous interviews. She mentions in particular the one I had with her teacher Dmitri Bashkirov).

WB: It’s good that you bring up Bashkirov, because I have a few questions about him. What kind of a teacher is he?

PM: That is a complex question, he is actually my ex-teacher now,only officially, but he still remains my teacher and he will always be..He has an ever lasting influence on me. We do not meet every day any more, sure (he still has an incredibly hectic schedule) but whenever I can, I play for him and that's always so helpful.

WB: Does he still see you as one of his students?

PM: Maybe I would say more as a young colleague, I am not the same little girl any more, although I sometimes still feel very young. Anyway, he will always be my highest critic.

WB: Is he always positive as a teacher? I remember one of his master classes where he said to one of his students: “What you are doing now, is criminal!”..

PM: Of course, he loves students, such things can happen in the teaching process, but he never says them with a bad intention, in fact, he always has an incredibly positive intention! He really likes when musicians have fantasy or really try to develop that,so to speak when music has wings , yet he remains very faithful to the score of a composer.

WB: I have said this earlier to some of his other students, however different from each other they may be, they are all excellent!

PM: Yes, you are right, and you are not the first one to say this. It is something that makes Prof. Bashkirov always very happy, he’d be glad to hear such praise. His students are not the same, it is not a factory. He leaves room for artists to develop themselves and to show their best qualities as well.

WB: Which pieces did you study with him?

PM: Plenty, it is a very long list, I have known him since I was 15 years old. I met him through my teacher Marina Kapatsinskaya, she was my main teacher at the Sofia Academy and she had studied with Bashkirov at Moscow Conservatory.We went to his master classes in Salzburg 18 years ago (“O, my God,l is it that long ago?”, she exclaims) and that was such an incredible turning point for me, I woud always remember that !

WB: Did he show you things on the piano?

PM: Yes, always. But he was expressing himself sometimes even without touching the piano at all ,and that was  not less interesting . Also ,he says often ,that once you are almost ready with a new piece ,it is fantastic just to take the score and to learn it that way as well - just like if it would be that you are reading a book . I might say this incredible advicer, helps enormously as any of us could develop a great visual relationship with the score for studying its dramaturgy.

WB: What did he most focus on?

PM: He wanted you to be free at the piano and he insisted a lot on the aesthetic of sound.

WB: Your sound is amazing!

PM: Thank you..

WB: You are a true poet at the piano..

PM: That is very kind of you. You cannot always be poetic at the piano though. In last night’s programme, there were a few diabolical pieces, e.g. the first Mephisto Waltz by Liszt or the third of the Danzas Argentinas by Ginastera. You should have a very big palette of sounds. When you play Chopin, it shouldn’t sound like Bach, therefore you should use the most appropriate technique, colours to serve each specific style.

WB: But how do you manage that? In what way is Chopin different from Liszt?

PM: To discuss that, we would need at least three hours.. You need talent of course, but a lot depends on how much great music you listen to. For instance, if you play Brahms, you should also listen to his symphonies in order to discover analogies.. It is all about a developing of an appropriate taste ,we call it good music taste ,towards the different styles .

WB: You also worked with other teachers, e.g. Abdel Rahman el Bacha, how different was he from Bashkirov?

PM: He has a different temperament, but he is an extremely intelligent musician in many ways. He said: “You were quite ready already when you came to see me”.

WB: Did you actually need another teacher after Bashkirov?

PM: It is always useful to receive advice from another great musician.

WB: How important is music for you?

PM: Music represents a very solid basis in my life, I can’t imagine my life without music! It is more than a passion. I love sharing that with people ,with other colleagues on stage.

WB: Could you live without music?

PM: Impossible! In another life maybe.. (laughs).

WB: Are there people who inspire you?

PM: There have been great conductors or amazing chamber musicians I have learnt a lot from.

WB: For instance?

PM: There are many names, I have had plenty of fruitful collaborations ,which had enriched my soul and view about music and life in general.

WB: How do you practise? Do you have any “rituals”?

PM: I never practise scales or passages, because they should be integrated in the music. I do not want to repeat the same passage 500 times.

WB: So you prefer Chopin etudes?

PM: Everything is inside the music of course! There are days when you can’t rehearse properly. Sometimes you have to take two air planes and a concert on the same day.

WB: How long do you rehearse per day?

PM: There is no general number of hours.. As I said, there are times that your schedule is hectic. I remember a tour in New Zealand where I played Tschaikofsky’s First Piano Concerto five times within eight days, each time in a different venue, so it was difficult to find time to practise other repertoire at the same time ,for example. Actually when I come now to speaking about New Zealand ,I have to say that this place counts as one of the most exceptional and beautiful places in the world I've ever visited ,with their fantastic New Zealand Symphony ,with some amazing concert halls like the one in Wellington , such warm and welcoming people ,an astonishing nature landscapes...

WB: What do you find particularly challenging in the repertoire ,technically speaking?

PM: It depends on what you find difficult. Rachmaninov’s Fourth Piano Concerto is extremely difficult to put together with an orchestra or Strauss’s Burleske is one of the most beautiful pieces ever, but so difficult... I recently studied Bartok’s Third Concerto, even if it is more tonal than the other two concertos, it is not always so obvious to make it work with orchestra. You need a really high class orchestra.

(At the end of the interview Plamena Mangova remembers with enthusiasm that the Queen Elisabeth Competition has taken her to quite a few Dutch venues already: the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Doelen in Rotterdam, Arnhem, Nijmegen (she is fond of the hall of De Vereeniging!), Tilburg, Eindhoven..)