- Written by Willem Boone
Zeist, 22 February 2015
German pianist Ragna Schirmer became well known with her recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She is also known for several “unusual” projects, focusing on the music of Händel and Clara Schumann and playing both as an actor and as a pianist in a puppet show, devoted to the life of Maurice Ravel. But what she probably likes best: playing in an intimate venue and explaining her audience about the works she plays. We spoke after her concert at the castle of Zeist (Slot Zeist) in February 2015.
Willem Boone (WB): The leaflet in which your concert was announced said that you were “honoured to play in a sold out Philharmonie in Berlin, but that you preferred to play in a more intimate hall where you could establish a direct contact with your audience” Yet, I would say that Berlin is a more important venue for an artist, isn’t it?
Ragna Schirmer (RS): There are different occasions with different aspects: I really enjoy playing piano concertos with orchestras in big halls. But for the recitals- as the composers were often performed in small rooms at their time- I like a very intimate atmosphere.
WB: Don’t you try to change the Berliner Philharmonie into a more intimate place?
RS: If it is possible to reach every single person in a hall and create intimacy and intensity, I am happy. Light is very important, and of course the soft notes in the music...
WB: On your website, you said in the films about your trip to China that “you feel lonely before the concert and also afterwards and that there are many things you cannot share with anyone. You have to come to terms with yourself” How do you manage that?
RS: As a musician I mostly study alone. Sometimes it is a very lonely job, travelling, practicing... I often question myself, am I good enough, do I stand all this. But I also need these phases with myself: concentration is very important. Music always deals with emotions: there are pieces that tell about death, there are pieces that feel so joyful, I have to feel all these emotions to translate them into music. Before a concert I ask myself: what is the story I want to tell today?
But being a musician is the most wonderful job I could ever imagine!
WB: You said you are someone who likes to practise a lot. I often have the following experience as an amateur pianist: there are certain passages that scare me or that don’t come off well. You can practise a lot, but often the fear comes back whenever you play such a passage. How does it work with you: can you work until you master a piece perfectly well?
RS: It is like in sports: you have to train as hard as you can, and then win the race. Hopefully.
WB: And when you don’t succeed, do you say: „O well, tough luck, next time, I’ll do better” or are you disappointed?
RS: It depends on what happened. The intention is to interpret the music as the composers felt the piece. If I manage to achieve this authenticity, I am happy. In times of perfection- CD recordings etc., we often forget that in former times music was performed spontaneously.
WB: You spoke about stage fright, do you suffer less from this as you are getting more experienced?
RS: I got to know myself very well. But whenever I step on stage, I have an intensity. So- some people need Bungee, I need to perform.
WB: Wilfried Eckstein from the Goethe Institut Shanghai said about you: We’ll have to build up an image.” What would be yours?
RS: Oh, I hope I have the image to be familiar with Handel, or I am known for unusual projects e.g. with theater. If my listeners tell me, they felt something special, that is the best image.
WB: You said on your website you had “an insane amount of ideas”, but that you just wished “to have time to realize all of them” Which ideas are you thinking of?
RS: The next big project is a CD with pieces by Clara Schumann. She was not only a wonderful pianist but also a gifted composer. I feel responsible to play her pieces and I am looking forward to make them more popular.
WB: I read about Clara Schumann that she left out the slow movements of Beethoven sonatas!
RS: If you look up the recital programs in the 19th century, you will find several single movements of sonatas or symphonies. It was usual to play "best of".
WB: You are always looking for a leitmotif, what would be the leitmotif in this recital?
RS: I always try to have an idea in my program. In this case it was the tension between severity and lightness of improvisation.
WB: Is Gaspard de la Nuit indeed one of the biggest challenges ?
RS: Scarbo is one of the most difficult pieces, yes. In the theater-play about Ravel's life I even have to play it with a mask on my face. Today I could see everything!
WB: Could you imagine that Martha Argerich learnt this in only 5 days and said: “I didn’t know it was supposed to be difficult?”
RS: She was young?
WB: Yes, she was 14 years old.
RS: Then it is possible. When I was 14 years old, I learned the Goldbergvariations within 2 months. When I -years later- realized the significance of the piece, I could already play it.But Argerichs Scarbo: a legend!
WB: How difficult is it to play „without expression“ (sans expression”) as Ravel explicitly writes in the score of Le Gibet?
RS: He probably meant the atmosphere of death, emptiness, desolation. I try to imagine the gibbet in the wind. And play without any rubato.
WB: Aren’t the Miroirs about as difficult?
RS: They are in a way more intimate than Gaspard. I found it very intense today: in this room in the castle.
WB: Your recording of the Goldberg Variations received a lot of praise. How difficult is it when you always have to fight especially with these variations against the shade of ……..
RS: Glenn Gould? He was a genius, outstanding, but it must be allowed to play the piece after him. The Goldberg Variations are so important for me, I absolutely wanted to record them. Although I did not have a label-contract at that time.
WB: It struck me how difficult the Goldberg Variations are when you play them on a piano!
RS: Sure, you have only one manual.
WB: What could you say in favour of Bach played on a piano?
RS: I am sure he heard an orchestra or a choir also when he composed for harpsichord. So I just use the possibilities I have now. Hopefully he would have done so, if he knew our modern instruments.
WB: And what could one say against playing Bach on a piano?
RS: Nothing. But of course it is also interesting to hear the music on historical instruments. I do so myself. The CD with Clara Schumann I will play a piano from 1856. Either ways are right, if they serve the composer and the music.
WB: You did a lot of work in order to make Händel more popular, would you put him on the same level as Bach?
RS: Bach is the biggest genius, his perfection in horizontal and vertical musical lines is unreachable. But Handel is more vivid, he wrote operas. At that time he was more popular than Bach. I enjoy playing them in recitals and show the differences and the similarities.
WB: Not all musicians will share your opinion, the harpsichord player Gustav Leonhardt once said: “Händel wrote for mass audience.”
RS: Great. Celibidache said about Karajan, he was like Coca Cola: the crowd like it. Good to polarize... Listen to Handel, and your mood will improve. My opinion.
WB: His suites are played by relatively few pianists: Richter, Perahia, de Larrocha, Cherkassky. Why is that?
RS: In contrast with Bach, Handel did not write anything into the score, he wanted the interpret to improvise. Pianists normally do not improvise, looking at our traditional education.
WB: What do you mean by „improvise”? He wrote down the music, didn’t he?
RS: Some parts are only harmonies, sometimes he leaves out a middle voice, also the fugues are not completely built with all voices. Handel was not as exact as Bach.
WB: You don’t want to imitate the sound of the harpsichord, but take full advantage of the sound of the modern piano. How can you realize that?
RS: Many people tell me, they love Baroque Music, but they do not love the historical instruments. So I try to imagine an opera singer, when I play a cantilene by Handel, or I try to imagine the sound of an orchestra on the piano.
WB: You played his organ concertos on a Hammerflügel, isn’t that hard? An organ has more power, hasn’t it?
RS: Sure. But the organ concertos are so great, I absolutely wanted to interpret them. So I developed different ways, from Baroque Orchestra to Jazz-Band with Hammond Organ.
WB: Why actually?
RS: Because Handel has the groove! He swings.
WB: So does Bach!
RS: Yes. No groove, no music.
WB: Just a few questions about this „Puppenspiel“ „Für eine taube Seele” (= for a deaf soul), that is about the life of Maurice Ravel, who is this “taube Seele”?
RS: "Seelentaubheit" is the medical term for the disease Ravel had: he could not control his motorics any more.
WB: What exactly do you do in this production, are you also an actor?
RS: Yes. I play and perform "the music". In this way I can serve the composer in a special way: not only by playing his pieces but also by showing his love to the music. And serving the composer is my job.
- Written by Willem Boone
Amsterdam, 16 March 2004
I agreed to meet Stephen Hough at his hotel in Amsterdam at 10.30 a.m We agreed to combine the interview with (a belated) breakfast, but much to my embarrassment it wasn’t possible to find a place, where a decent breakfast could be served... We finally ended up in café Wildschut for some coffee and the interview....
Willem Boone (WB): What was your first musical impression?
Stephen Hough (SH): There was no classical music in our house and I only remember nursery rhymes like “Jack and Jill went up the hill”. When, on one occasion, I went to a friend’s house and saw a piano, I became fascinated and tried to play these nursey rhymes on it. I then began to ask for lessons so we eventually got a piano. Within a year I participated in the National Junior Piano Playing Competition and made it to the finals at the South Bank in London. I was the youngest competitor and although I didn’t win a prize, Gerald Moore, who was the Chairman of the jury, made a special point in his speech of saying that he thought I showed great promise and had a future ahead of me. A lot of hyped up things happened – someone wrote about me in the Daily Mail:“Could this be the new Mozart?”, but my parents were very wise. They said “no”to all offers of concerts and managers and that was the best thing they could do at the time! They wanted me to have a normal life. I then became quite obsessed with the piano and sigh-read lots of repertoire. I also composed a lot of music.
WB: Have there been any determinant musical experiences?
SH: On recordings I was impressed by pianists from the past, e.g. Rachmaninov, Paderewski, Cortot, Godowsky. I found the playing of contemporary artists less interesting. In live concerts, I remember being thrilled by Richter and Ogden- this was at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall.
WB: When were you sure you wanted to become a professional musician?
SH: At the age of 6! I didn’t want to do anything else... although in my early teens, I did become less interested and didn’t listen to classical music. As I said, my parents were very wise, they wanted me to go to school. A lot of prodigies burn out in later life. Solomon, on the other hand, withdrew and came back later as a mature pianist. I often ask myself where you draw the line between art and circus.
WB: Can you ever get prepared for this job?
SH: I am not sure. Everybody deals with this in a different way. You definitely need a certain strength. You need to find resources for inspiration under the most uninspiring circumstances, e.g. a rehearsal straight after an 8 hour flight! You also need sensitivity and some natural originality. Performing is often a balancing-act, on the one hand you don’t want to be original in a self-concious, artificial way on the other hand, you don’t want to follow mindlessly what everyone else does. It has to be natural from the inside. I try not to listen too much to other pianists- you have to leave space for your own ideas to develop.
WB: Do you never listen to other pianists at all?
SH: Not very often, but it can be good if I am stuck with something. I sometimes wonder what others do with a problematic passage and it can be inspiring, even when it’s a bad performance. If even x or y plays something badly, then it’s less intimidating when I am not at my best!
WB:But if you listen, do you mainly listen to the same pianists?
SH: Yest, to Cortot or Friedman, whom I find very inspiring. Horowitz too, he has such creativity and sheer presence. I heard him only once in concert in 1982 at the Met in New York, and he knew exactly how to make the piano sound..... He was like a cup of espresso, a piano-energy boost!
WB: You an insatiable pianist who is curious about a lot of things, but is it always gratifying if you study for instance Godowsky’s Chopin Studies? No recording company seems interested in it, no agent asks you to programme this, so you hardly get the opportunity to play it or do you sight read very fast?
SH: I learn very thoroughly and don’t learn anything I won’t perform or record. Having said this, I have to choose very carefully, since I can’t play as much repertoire as I like. For instance, there was no way I would have learnt the Ghost Variations by George Tsontakis without intending to perform it in concert. Although I have never played the Von Sauer Concerto in concert, it was a coupling on record for Scharwenka’s 4rth Concerto.
WB: Don’t you have trouble to programme the Hummel Sonata you played in Amsterdam the other day (14 March)?
SH: No, everybody seems curous about the Hummel Sonatas since they were played so much by pianists from the past like Chopin and Liszt..
WB: Do you have carte blanche from your recording company?
SH: Hyperion is a wonderful company, they never seem to say no. Although the more obscure, the better. I actually do play mainly standard repertoire, even though I haven’t recorded all of it, say Beethoven sonatas. For my previous recording company, Virgin, I recorded more well known repertoire: Schumann, Liszt, the Brahms concertos, yet a lot of people think I only play obscure repertoire. I think it’s important to play many different things. For example, I played Hummel Concertos and think it’s vital to know them in order to know the Chopin concertos properly. Chopin took so many of his ideas from Hummel and we can learn something about the way Chopin would have played his own concertos from understanding the earlier prototype. Liszt played Hummel’s concertos everywhere. To me it’s inexplicable that pianists don’t know Hummel’s music! People often see Chopin as a genius, whose ideas come from nowhere. That’s not true, of course. He was a genius, of course, but there is a clear link with the past. Chopin’s style is a continuation of the Classical, forward looking in its romanticism, not a kind of early model of a big romantic concerto. For instance he took the idea from Hummel of making the coda more virtuosic instead of writing a cadenza. I find it also inexplicable that pianists play Rachmaninov and don’t know his recordings!
WB: Speaking of Rachmaninov, you will record all his concertos on CD, maybe the question is rather forward, but do you think you can contribute anything to such a huge discography? They have been recorded so many times already....
SH: If I didn’t, I wouldn’t record them! And they have never been recorded as a “live concert”set yet. Frankly, I haven’t listened to many cycles. But many performances I hear do not satisfy me. There is a tradition since the 50’s to take heavy, slow tempi for instance the 3rd movement of the 3rd concerto where the coda of the 3rd movement is marked “vivacissimo”and often played too slowly. The 2nd Concerto can sound mundane and ordinary. It can work in a confortable sort of way, but I want to go beyond that.
WB: Is it true that the rythm of the 3rd movement of the 3rd concerto is particularly difficult to bring off?
SH: I don’t think there is anything in the rythm itself which is unusual or difficult, but the whole concerto is complicated because of the intricate inner figuration and the necessity of complete control of colour at every dynamic level. The 4rth Concerto is harder to bring off with the orchestra as a unified piece. But then again, everything is difficult! Mozart concertos are difficult too! Or Saint Seans’s 3rd Concerto, it’s one of the hardest pieces I ever studied. You hear every detail unlike Rachmaninov’s 3rd Concerto... Hummel Sonatas are difficult too, because the enormous technical demands are so audible and awkward. That’s one of the reasons Liszt was such a genius, he made things easier to play whilst sounding more difficult!
WB: You seem to have much affinity to Saint Seans, how is he considered in the UK, better than in France as your colleague Jean Philippe Collard said?
SH: He is underrated, although less and less as the years go by. It’s interesting what Collard said about Saint Seans being more popular in the UK than in France!
WB: Do you think you need to be French in order to understand Saint Seans?
SH: No, but you need at least knowledge where the music comes from. You could also ask the question “What is typically English music?”Does “English”mean Saxon? Viking? Elgar’s music has some deeply nostalgic quality, but is it typically English? Or is Byrd? Or Vaughan Williams? Gieseking was one of the greatest pianists in French music, whereas he was German, Cortot was great in Schumann, whereas he was Swiss-French.
WB: Is there any English piano music that si worthwile by the way?
SH: Yes, from a quite recent past, there is Ades, Birstwistle, Maxwell Davies amongst living composers. From the past, Bowen and Ireland also wrote beautiful music. Britten is not as impressive in his piano music as in his other works, Tippett also wrote for piano – four fine sonatas and a gorgeous concerto. It’s actually interesting that the first body of music written for a keyboard instrument comes from England – The Elizabethan virginalists Byrd and Gibbons. There were both perios of richness and huge gaps!
WB: You play contemporary music, do you feel it is the duty of a pianist to defend music of his own century?
SH: I haven’t commissioned anything myself directly, but I have been involved in commissions, e.g. the 2nd Concerto by Lowell Liebermann that was commissioned by Steinway. And Tsontakis and James MacMillan are both writing concertos for me- for Dalls Symphony and Minnesota Orchestra. I find it interesting to see works by contemporary composers, no matter how unknown they are, but I receive so many scores.....I have to be sure it’s a good piece though I program a new composition with an orchestra.
WB: During your previous recital in Amsterdam, you played a contemporary work by Tsontakis, “Ghost Variations”, how did you get to know this piece?
SH: It was written for the pianist Yefim Bronfman, but it’s a very long piece of about 70 pages. He didn’t have time to learn it and the score had not been looked at since then. I discovered Tsontakis’music in an orchestral concert and spoke to him. He sent me the score and I looked at it and started to play it through and gradually fell in love with it. For me, it’s a greater piece than Prokofiev’s sonatas, which I feel are almost overrated, although the 7th Sonata and parts of the 6th and the 8th sonatas are wonderful. I have played the Ghost Variations dozens of times, and when I performed it at the Philharmonie in Berlin, for example, some of the orchestra players were really enthusiastic about the music and said it was one of the most extraordinary pieces they had heard. It’s a mixture of the heart and the head, and I think that’s what makes a piece great. I also heard a CD of his String Quartets and liked them. I thought they were fascinating pieces, real masterworks.
WB: Many former composers, e.g. Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Debussy, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev were excellent pianists, what about contemporary composers? Do they have any understanding of the instrument?
SH: During the 20th century, there was a point when one became either a performer or a composer. However, Shostakovitsj was a good pianist and Strawinsky was a decent pianist. Of the contemporary composers, Thomas Adès is a wonderful pianist. .
WB: How does it work when someone dedicates a piece to you, do you have a say in this? Do you give suggestions?
SH: I haven’t worked enough with composers. With Liebermann, who is an excellent pianist, I made suggestions – some he liked, others he rejected. Some composers who don’t play the piano confuse complexity with virtuosity. They need to learn something from Liszt!
WB: Does it ever happen that a composer comes to you with a score and that you don’t understand the score and feel unable to perform it?
SH: In contemporary music, different skills are involved sometimes. For instance, I couldn’t bring anything to the 2nd sonata of Boulez. I am glad that some people play such intensely complex scores- Pollini is extraordinary in the Boulez sonata of course. Although some modern music sometimes sounds as if has not been written for humans to perform!
WB: Shura Cherkassky was very positive about your playing, what are your memories of this legendary pianist?
SH: I met him at the end of his life, but he was not a close friend. He was very supportive and warm. I was told recently that he said he was very flattered and honoured when he saw his picture hanging next to mine in Steinway Hall in New York! I was touched to hear this anecdote about someone I admired so much. For me, he was the ultimate instinctive player, he didn’t have a cerebral approach to music. He worked very hard and practised very slowly in a very detailed way. He actually never wanted to talk about music, but rather about holiday resorts and gossip!
WB: Who else do you admire?
SH: I mentioned Horowitz before, furthermore there is Richard Tauber.His rythmical freedom was so liberating and outrageous whilst remaining balanced! I also admire Kreisler, Kleiber and there is a Russian cellist, Shafran.
WB: Do you have any friends among pianists?
SH: I have had wonderful times with Steven Osborne, Imogen Cooper, Jean Yve Thibaudet, Olli Mustonen, Howard Shelly to name a few. There is a general friendliness I experience.
WB: Does classical music have a future?
SH: Certainly, although I am not sure whether it will be the same (a mobile phone rings with the melody of Für Elise, WB), but you see, as long as people still want Für Elise on their cell phone, although the future of classical music will be more profound than that I hope! It is slow but long in its life, whereas pop music is quick and fast, the latter is created to be disposable. People may come to classical music later in their lives. Young people rarely want to do socially what their parents do. What I do reject is the excessive marketing and manipulation by some of the big recording companies. This is a form of abuse by people who look solely to make money at the expense of music.
When we walk back to the hotel, Hough says something very interesting: “Do you realize that in the entire history of music artists have only actually been concertizing for one and a half centuries? That’s curious, isn’t it?”
© 2004 Willem Boone
- Written by Willem Boone
Arnhem, 12 July 2004
Stephen Kovacevich has just played Beethoven’s 4rth Concerto with the Gelders Orkest (They record for Naxos and are better known under the name of Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra) and the excellent, but very modest, German conductor Berhard Klee. Kovacevich impressed with his concentration, and the way he sits at the keyboard vaguely reminds me of the late Emil Gilels. “Just give me your number so that I can call you in case it doesn’t work out”says Kovacevich, when I ask him for an interview. We agree to meet the next day at the same venue. I sincerely hope that my mobile phone will not ring on the Saturday morning and indeed it doesn’t. There were a few other complications, I almost ended up in a traffic jam (on a Saturday morning 11.30 a.m!) and I almost got locked in the hall, but thankfully I managed to escape and meet Stephen Kovacevich for an exclusive interview, in which we focused on his relationship with the Beethoven concertos and sonatas, favourite pianists and his studies with Myra Hess.
Willem Boone (WB): You played Beethoven’s 4rth Piano Concerto last night, were you asked to play this concerto or did you choose it yourself?
Stephen Kovacevich (SK): I can’t remember, they wanted the Emperor Concerto, but I will play Beethoven 4 next week in New Zealand. I also played a lot of recitals lately, so there was no time to properly rehearse the Emperor.
WB: What is your relationship with this concerto?
SK: I am still in love with it!
WB: What makes this piece so special for you?
SK: Beethoven normally has an incredible energy, it doesn’t happen often that he is so gentle. Brahms hated to write vivace, if he used it at all, it was always “vivace ma non troppo”. Similarly, Beethoven must have hated to write “moderato” and the first movement of the 4rth concerto is an allegro moderato. The two other movements are different; the second is full of imagination and the third is hardly moderato, it’s vivacious. I have been working very long to find a consistent tempo for the first movement and last night I played with a very musical conductor, Bernard Klee, I think we found something together...
WB: Do you agree with Claudio Arrau who said the first movement was tragical?
SK: No, I don’t.
WB: Did you combine two of the Beethoven cadenzas in the first movement?
SK: No, I combined three, Beethoven’s and my own!
WB: You didn’t want to play your own cadenza?
SK: I did, there were a few moments from my own one, I think cadenzas shouldn’t always be the same.
WB: You made a second recording of the Beethoven concertos both as a soloist and conductor. Was that easier than playing them with a conductor?
SK: In a way, the ensemble of a soloist who conducts is easier, because you can put the piano in the middle of the orchestra and you are part of it. On the other hand, with a good conductor like Bernard Klee last night, I am happy too. As long as it’s not with a “Kapellmeister”.
WB: What do you mean?
SK: Routine... someone who is not inspired!
WB: EMI recently issued your set of complete Beethoven sonatas, would you consider this as a mile stone in your recording career?
SK: It is my mile stone, for sure!
WB: It took you a long time, around ten years...
SK: Longer, it was eleven or twelve years I believe. The biggest challenge was to learn the Hammerklavier sonata.
WB: What is so difficult about that particular sonata?
SK: It’s a monster... It’s difficult to be able to play all the notes... there are some moments, for instance in the final fugue where nobody really plays all the notes or trills, we almost do! The intensity of the whole piece is extremely difficult.
WB: Wouldn’t you say that it is equally difficult to sustain the slow movement since it is so long?
SK: Ah, that is the cri du coeur of Beethoven , along with the two arias of opus 110. Well, you either have the intensity and then it’s not difficult, or you don’t and then it is difficult...
WB: Is it true that the tempo marking of Czerny in the score of the first movement is impossible to play?
SK: Schnabel tried and I think Gulda too, although I am not sure about the latter. Peter Serkin also did, but I think it’s terrible. When I play it at tempo marking 132, it simply sounds ridiculous. I often had the same experience as a student: when I choose a tempo away from the piano, it was always too fast. We should bear in mind that Beethoven only heard the internal sound when he wrote this piece. We do have recordings from Bartok and Strawinsky and they didn’t always take their own tempo markings. Once I played the Piano Concerto of Michael Tippett with Michael Tilson Thomas and I played according to the required metronome marking and Tilson Thomas asked me why I played so fast. We shouldn’t be too strict with this, I think we want to be like good boys and girls and always respect the “good”tempo!
WB: Is it true that you rerecorded a few sonatas for the set of Beethoven sonatas?
SK: Yes, we were not happy with the sound of a few recordings and EMI wanted to offer the best possible sound. I remember we worked in a studio that had just been painted and things didn’t work at the time.
WB: How did that affect your playing?
SK: Some of the old recordings had a very heavy sound. The paint wasn’t hard and it obviously affected the sound.
WB: Do you have any particular favourites among the Beethoven sonatas?
SK: The Hammerklavier and also opus 2/2 and opus 109.
WB: Do you agree that the complete cycle is coherent in its variety?
SK: You can understand that opus 111 was the last one, the harmonies have become more chromatic and there is more pianistic virtuosity. For me opus 109 and 111 radiate some sort of faith that life begins again... maybe that’s philosophy and if it’s religion, then you call it religion. The darkest music by Beethoven I know is opus 110. The arias make me think of someone who is dying and who is almost unable to speak, especially when the aria comes back...
WB: The final fugue is so monumental too... So much concentration in hardly 20 minutes..
SK: Not even...
WB: Are you ready to take up other long term projects since you have finished this Beethoven project? All the Mozart concertos for instance?
SK: I am actually not interested in big projects, I’d like to learn a lot of chamber music, such as the piano trios and quartets by Brahms and the violin sonatas by Bartok.
WB: Have you already chosen partners for these projects?
SK: I am not thinking of a partner in particular, but yes, I have thought of some.
WB: I remember I heard you many years ago in a superb concert of Beethoven sonatas with Kyung Wha Chung. I thought EMI wanted to record it, but it unfortunately never worked out.
SK: Did you hear that in Holland?
WB: Yes, it was in Amsterdam around 1991.
SK: I’ll be playing in Amsterdam in November with Truls Mork, I love him as a cellist.
WB: I read in a French magazine that Rachmaninov is one of your idols. Why do you admrie him so much?
SK: He was a genius, his recording of Schumann’s Carnaval is phenomenal. Quite interestingly, he played a surprising amount of Beethoven sonatas, but he only played the first of the five concertos. The others gave him no pleasure, can you imagine?
WB: Do you also admire him because he played the kind of virtuoso repertoire you are usually not associated with?
SK: It could be....
WB: Have you ever played Rachmaninov in concert?
SK: No, I haven’t . I learnt all his concertos and I love them, but I haven’t played them in public. I don’t know if it is my music on stage...
WB: Are there any young pianists you adimire?
SK: Kissin is not young now, but he is marvellous. And the young English pianist Freddy Kempff, who is extremely gifted. The critics are against him, but I think he is very good.
WB: Do you understand the success of someone like Lang Lang who is so hyped up nowadays?
SK: Let’s wait and see....
WB: You studied with Myra Hess. What is the most important thing you learnt from her?
SK: The inside of the music. To produce a beautiful sound with a lot of variation. She was fantastic in Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mozart, Brahms. And she used to be very popular in Holland and the USA. She could fill Carnegie Hall!
WB: Wasn’t she unusual in her repertoire? She used to play the Brahms concertos
SK: Gina Bachauer also played them. It was unusual at the time, but not today.
WB: Speaking of feminine pianists, you lived together with a pianist who happens to be one of my idols, Martha Argerich. This is maybe a forward question, you are a very good pianist yourself, but wasn’t it sometimes difficult to live with someone who is that gifted? Have you never been jealous of Martha’s technical abilities?
SK: No, I haven’t, I think they are fantastic!
WB:She is rumoured to never pratice, is that true?
SK: O no, that is not true, on the contrary, she works very hard!
WB: Have you ever worked on the same pieces when you were together?
SK: Good question... Actually no, our repertoire is quite different.
WB: The two of you made a recording in the 70’s with Mozart, Debussy and Bartok and if my memory serves me correctly you never played together ever since. Martha plays a lot with other pianists, is there any chance that you will team up together in the future?
SK: That was when we were still together, I don’t know. It might happen.
WB: Martha and yourself have a daughter, Stephanie. She is a photographer, but suppose she would have liked to become a concert pianist, would you have encouraged her? What particular advice would you have given her?
SK: No, I wouldn’t. There are already two in the family, there is no need for another!
WB: You occasionally give concerts as a conductor. What are your ambitions as a conductor?
SK: I have no ambitions, I just want to conduct about ten or fifteen concerts a year, that’s all.
Stephen Kovacevich says he will play the Beethoven 4rth Concerto this evening in Nijmegen and says he has heard good things about the hall of “De Vereeniging”. He asks me whether it is indeed a good hall. I reassure him and answer that it is quite nice and that I like it actually better than the hall where he played last night (Musis Sacrum in Arnhem)... but he says he was quite happy last night...
© 2004 Willem Boone
- Written by Willem Boone
Amsterdam, 27 May 2006
The eminent Dutch pianist Tan Crone is mainly known for her collaboration with many Dutch and international musicians, among which Roberta Alexander, Arleen Auger, John Bröcheler, Miranda van Kralingen, Tibor de Machula, Theo Olof, Marien van Staalen, Carolyn Watkinson, etc. She also has a reputation as a teacher. And, something that few will know, she knew the legendary pianist Clara Haskil quite well. She received letters from the famous Haskil, was asked to turn pages during recording sessions and accompanied her during her only American tour in 1956. I had previously heard Tan Crone on the radio when she spoke at length about Haskil so after a pre-concert talk in Rotterdam when she spoke about Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto, I decided to ask her for an interview. She accepted and one month later, I visited her, listened to her stories in her beautiful appartment in Amsterdam with view of the Amstel river and the Skinny Bridge. I hardly needed to encourage her, I barely sat down and she started reminising about her great colleague, with several handwritten letters by Haskil on her lap....
Willem Boone (WB): Looking at the biography of Jerôme Spyket, it appears that Haskil wrote an enormous amount of letters during her life...
Tan Crone: That was at a time when travelling took much longer than nowadays and when artists stayed longer at the same hotel. Haskil was actually only well known during the last fifteen/twenty years of her life, before that period she was often ill and therefore she had a lot of time to think and reflect.
WB: Yes, but even when she was well known, she still wrote a lot of letters!
TC: That’s true, but in general they were much shorter.
WB: How did you get to know her?
TC: That was in the 50’s when the Brabants Orkest had just been founded. They played the Schumann Concerto under Hein Jordans with Clara Haskil as the soloist. They played four concerts in Den Bosch, Breda, Eindhoven and Tilburg, but unlike nowadays, these were not four consecutive performances. They rehearsed in a building called “Het Kruithuis” in Den Bosch, the city where I was born. I used to play with orchestra too and Jordans asked me whether I wanted to prepare the rehearsals of the Schumann Concerto. I had played this concerto for my final exam and thought it was a great experience as a young pianist who was not even 20 years old to help the orchestra. I asked whether I could attend the rehearsal with Haskil. The Kruithuis was not far away from the city center and at that time, there were no taxis or cars to take musicians to their hotel or to the station. They just walked to the station. When I went to my bike after the rehearsal, I met Haskil outside. I told her that I had heard her play, she was interested to hear that I studied the piano and that I had prepared the rehearsal with the orchestra. She knew my piano teacher Nelly Wagenaar, which was a good recommendation. We walked together and I carried her bag, I almost asked her if she wanted to ride on the back of my bike. She was a lady with a slight handicap, so of course I didn’t ask her. Jordans invited me for the concert in Eindhoven and I had to promise Haskil to come round after she had played. By chance, we both took the same train to Paris shortly after. She often stayed in Paris, where her sister Jeanne lived, whereas she lived in Vevey with her other sister Lily. She travelled first class, I travelled 2nd class, but she begged me to stay with her. She liked talking and was very interested. She spoke French very well. In Paris, her sister Jeanne was waiting for her, she introduced me to her. At that time, I studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, that was another good recommendation.
She invited me for her recital at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. I remember only two of the pieces she played, Bach’s Toccata in E minor and Schubert’s Sonata in B flat major, D 960, I don’t remember the rest of the program. After the concert, a lot of Romanians flocked to her dressing room. She asked me whether I wanted to have coffee at her hotel and Jeanne gave me a pass to attend the concerts of the orchestra in which she was playing, the Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux. It was a nice acquaintance, but I wouldn’t call it a friendship.
Later, she made recordings in the Netherlands with Grumiaux at the Kurhaus in Scheveningen and in the Bachzaal in Amsterdam. I turned pages during the recording sessions and concerts. I still remember that she was never satisfied, wheras I thought she did amazing things. At that moment, I realized there are degrees of excellence. Sometimes, she closed the lid of the piano and said: “I won’t play any more and I don’t want this to be kept”. It sometimes irritated me, when you are turning pages for someone, you tend to listen less well. By the way, Grumiaux and his wife were always extremely nice to her. They always brought her gifts and always accompanied her to her hotel.
Sometimes I wrote to her and I also got letters in return. I gave the originals to her sister Jeanne after her death and made copies for myself. In the book “Frauen mit Flügel”, they included a short letter from Haskil to me. “The first time, I opened the book, I just saw the page with my own name”!). Sometimes, I went shopping with her, because she had little confidence. I remember we went to the Bonetterie in The Hague. After she had seen herself in a mirror she would sometimes suddenly walk out of the shop, due to her lack of confidence.
In the mid 50’s, I studied in the Unites States (Boston). Coincidentally, Haskil played there in 1956 with the conductor Charles Münch three times Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto and once Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor K 466. He was a charming man, who loved women, regardless whether they were beautiful or not. The orchestra adored him. Haskil was completely unknown in America. She toured with the Boston Symphony Orchestra to Philadelphia and New York. She sent me a letter and asked whether I wanted to accompany her. She wanted me to help her with the language, since she didn’t speak English very well. She stayed at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in New York and I stayed with friends. She created a sensation and was surrounded by journalists. After the intermission, she wanted to listen to Tschaikofsky’s Pathétique. She was so impressed at the end she didn’t want to leave. She got angry when I tried to guide her through the audience when the applause started. Münch invited her to come over to eat spaghetti after the concert, but she was also invited to a chique party. She refused to go there “There will be a grand piano and of course they will want mo to play’. I had to excuse her and say that Madame Haskil had become unwell and couldn’t come, which made it possible for her to go and see Münch! She had already been invited for a second tour and I even managed to get time off to accompany her again.
WB: Did that tour take place?
TC: No, she was not feeling well at the time, she had to cancel.
It struck me that I seldom heard her practice, I asked her “Clara, (I had to call her Clara), I never hear you practice”, to which she answered “No, I used to do that when I was young”. The only thing I heard her play in her dressing room was the Chopin study opus 10/2 in chromatic scales and it was flawless. She had huge, “meaty” hands and a natural talent for the instrument.
For every performance with a different conductor, she got a new score in which she noted his remarks. She didn’t want to show Szell for instance that she had played the same concerto with Münch one week before...
WB: Is it true that she never had scores with her?
TC: She sent me to a shop in Amsterdam, Broekmans en van Poppel to find her a score. She always wanted to look at a fresh score.
One of my teachers, Rudolf Serkin, studied with the same teacher as that of Haskil. As a young girl, she had been very ill and was forced to stay in bed for a long time. She had hardly experienced anything in her youth. However, she played the music of Granados and Albeniz with the temperament of someone who had experienced a thousand love stories. You see, you really don’t need to have lived through anything to play well...!
She was very interested in everything I did, I was very young and unexperienced at the time. At first she wrote “Liebes Fräulein”, later on she wrote “Ma chère Tan”, I have a letter she wrote on the train (“Dans le train de Paris à Amsterdam”). I even have a picture on which she had written “Pour ma chère Tan, que j’aime de tout mon coeur”( To my dear Tan, whom I love with all of my heart). I was quite proud of that.
WB: Do you have pictures of Haskil and yourself?
TC: No, I was the one who took the pictures. Later on, I received her records with a dedication. When she recorded the Mozart Double Concerto with Anda, she said I would only get the record once I guessed whether she played first or second piano.
WB: And what happened?
TC: I don’t remember, but she gave me the record anyway. We stayed in touch until her death. I heard about it on the radio, it was a tremendous shock.
WB: Her death at the Antwerp’s Central Station, when she accidently fell off one of the stairs, wasn’t that just unfortunate?
TC: We’ll never know, it could have been a small stroke..
WB: When I was doing my “homework”, while listening to her performance of Mozart’s Variations on a theme of Duport, K 573, I was struck by her extremely clear left hand playing!
TC: That’s true, I recognize her playing because of her left hand. Her jeu perlé is very characteristic. It has focus, like a singer is supposed to have in his voice.
TC: She loved doing normal things, for instance, I once took her for a bus ride in new York. The pianist Geza Anda, who happened to be in New York at the same time, was furious and said: “How could you take such a fragile woman for a bus ride?”But she wanted it so badly! I also took her to museums. She hated pretentiousness, she had experienced too much of that.
WB: What kind of a person was she? She comes across as a pretty pessimistic person in Spyket’s book
TC: That’s correct, but she needed joy. And she had a great sense of humor.
WB: How did you find out about that?
TC: She could laugh about small and silly things. It has to do with intelligence when you can laugh about such things. She was egocentric though, always concerned about how she felt. A lot of colleagues like Serkin, Stern and Anda were married and had families. She was by herself and lived with her sister Lily in Vevey. Her other sister lived in Paris.
WB: Didn’t she feel the need to marry? Spyket is not very explicit about that in his book!
TC: I don’t know whether she felt the need to marry. Maybe nobody ever proposed to her. She was not approachable because of her handicap. She was a simple, unassuming woman. Clothes were not as important as nowadays. And right after the war, there were less clothes. She often wore a long skirt and a blouse, it had to feel confortable. Only in the 70’s, was there more luxury.
WB: Was she an innocent person?
TC: I can’t tell you, the age difference was too important.
WB: What made her so unforgettable for you?
TC: Her touch, the lyricism. It was magical. The other day, I heard someone say on the radio that nobody can be compared to her when it comes to Mozart Piano Concertos. She was simply spellbinding and created a very special atmosphere.
TC: Because of her touch, the timing and the honesty of her playing. She had a lot of temperament, just like Martha Argerich, whom I admire, although Haskil didn’t walk on the edge, as Argerich sometimes does. Haskil had an enormous, flexible hand. Huge, but not unelegant? They were like those of the harpist Phia Berghout.
WB: Spyket’s book lists all the compositions she played throughout her life, her repertoire must have been huge!
TC: At the end of her life, it wasn’t that big any more and she often played the same pieces. That’s still the case with certain musicians..
WB: Did she ever hear you play?
TC: No, she was convinced it was ok. There was no time for it.
WB: Would you have been intimidated if she had found the time?
TC: Probably, yes. I was less convinced of my solo playing.
WB: Did she ever say anything about colleagues?
TC: She never said anything bad about other musicians, never anything good either.. She mostly avoided the subject, although she asked me whether I listened to others like Anda and Istomin.
WB: May I ask you a few questions about yourself? Do you still play concerts?
TC: No, I stopped playing concerts. I wanted to stop when things were still going ok. I was getting increasingly tired of having to schedule concerts long in advance. In addition, I was the one who had to plan all the rehearsals. I planned to stop playing concerts by no longer accepting engagements. A lot of my “customers” like Theo Olof had stopped playing, and singers like Bröchler and Alexander were increasingly focusing on opera. Rehearsing means a lot of work. You can’t afford to be ill. I also wanted to do other things, like travelling and gardening.
WB: Don’t you play the piano any more at all?
TC: Yes, I do, but I need to be encouraged. I play piano trios and quartets with friends at home or pieces I don’t know very well. We pianists can go on for a long time!
© Willem Boone, 2006
- Written by Willem Boone
Hilversum, 25 April 2005
Meeting Vladimir Ashkenazy for an interview can seem a daunting task. How to squeeze in an appointment in his very busy schedule? After his concert in Amsterdam in July 2004 with the NHK Symphony Orchestra he was willing, but immediately asked: “The question is when and where?” Thankfully, he came with a solution himself: “I will be in Hilversum in the Netherlands to record a CD at the end of April 2005.” Willem Boone and Jeroen Vonhögen spoke with Vladimir Ashkenazy, who was recording Respighi with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in one of the Dutch radio studios in Hilversum. The interview took place in the canteen, where the conductor and pianist had lunch, together with his wife Dody.
Willem Boone (WB): If I look at your achievements, the number of records you have made, the concerts for many decades both as a pianist and a conductor, the amount of works you have played, it is simply mind-boggling. Where do you get the energy from to do all this?
Vladimir Ashkenazy (VA): From my parents, I suppose (laughs)... Let me get my wife, she is lost (walks away and comes back with his wife Dody)
WB: Are you indeed such a well-organized person as they say? Someone has said: “If you give Ashkenazy one hour, he’ll work for two hours”
VA: People talk too much, I don’t know...
Dody Ashkenazy (DA): Yes, you are extremely organized!
WB: Are you a quick learner?
VA: Fortunately, yes, I am, but many people are, that’s nothing special... All my friends are quick learners. I am a quick sight-reader, that’s a gift.
WB: I am reminded of a Dutch conductor, who does a lot of music on period instruments, Frans Brüggen. He once said he always heard music in his head, even when talking to someone, for instance the first movement of a Haydn Symphony at the beginning of an interview and half an hour later he heard the last movement.... What about you, do you always hear music in your head?
VA: No, when you interview me, I think of what you are saying!
WB: In the past, you conducted several substantive projects at the same time, such as the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, all the Chopin piano works and the Mozart piano concertos. Let’s take Beethoven, you also played all his concertos, the violin and cello sonatas, the piano trios. Is it necessary for you to know the entire output of a composer?
VA: Yes, of course it is, but the main reason was that both Decca and myself were interested in these projects. It is a challenge to play a lot of music.
WB: Do you read correspondance and biographies of composers to know more about them?
VA: Sometimes, you basically find out that they too were human beings. They were gifted, but they had problems too. It can be informative, for instance I found out that Beethoven had such an incredible warm heart, the way he helped his nephew.... but reading biographies doesn’t always help you to play better...
WB: Have you ever thought of visiting the room where Schubert lived in order to understand his music?
VA: The music speaks for itself, biographies only confirm what you find in the music. You have to understand music by itself.
WB: I’d like to talk about a few things that strike me when I listen to your piano playing. One of the things is that you are not only a great technician and an architect, but also a sculpter. You are always shaping the sound, is that something you are conciously working on?
VA (surprised): I don’t know, I don’t comment on my own activities!
WB: You are one of the most prolific recording artists, may I conclude that you obviously feel at home in a recording studio?
VA: Yes, it’s interesting and good to listen to how terrible you are. You can try to improve....
WB: You said in an interview not too long ago that you probably recorded too much, yet you are still doing it, why is that?
VA: It’s my life, if I am asked to record, I do it. It’s fun and I just love music so much. I also have a big record collection.
WB: How many records do you have?
VA: A few thousand CD’s
WB: Do you have time to listen to CD’s?
VA: It’s not that I always want to listen to all of them, but I like to have things when I need them.
WB: There are very few live recordings of yours, are you against it?
VA; No, I am not against it, but you don’t achieve the same result in concert as in a recording studio. A live recording is seldom perfect.
WB: Can you achieve spontaneity in a studio?
VA: Of course you can, otherwise there is no point. Music can’t be just clinical!
WB: Which role do recordings have in your life, do you want to document certain stages throughout your career?
VA: No, I don’t listen to my CD’s, if I am asked to record things, I do it.
WB: Why did you choose to re-record a lot of things?
VA: You try to improve things..
WB: There is something that strikes me in your recordings, particularly those from the 70’s and 80’s, they sound slightly agressive and very closely miked. Is that on your request?
VA: I have no idea what you are talking about, I have no answer to it..(asks his wife)
DA: He usually is not very particular about getting a certain sound, but in recordings from the 60’s, the sound used to be very muted with the piano in the background. Maybe Decca got complaints about that and changed things? The only thing he basically asks when he is in a studio is: “Can we record? “
WB: Do you listen to tapes after you recorded?
VA: Yes, I have to
WB: Is that painful to you?
VA: No, normally, it’s OK.
WB: Did/do you have carte blanche from Decca?
VA: I have/had a wide choice, normally they agreed with a lot of things I asked. Things are difficult now, because the market is low.
WB: Suppose you would have asked to play piano works by Dvorak or Kodaly, would Decca have agreed?
VA: They have other pianists too, but I had a good choice, I can’t complain. There were priorities though, such as the Beethoven sonatas. The most important is that I was able to play great music, I have been lucky to record the basic repertoire.
WB: An exclusive recording contract must have been a powerful back up for your career, how should young pianists make a career nowadays when contracts are being constantly discontinued?
VA: I don’t know, life changes, there are no prescriptions...
WB: You said in a public interview before your concert in Amsterdam in August
Last year that you hardly played the piano in public any more..
VA; No, I didn’t say that, I said I played much less, but I still practice every day and learn a lot of repertoire.
WB: And do you still play piano concertos?
VA: Yes, I direct Mozart and Beethoven concertos from the keyboard.
WB: And you are still recording solo repertoire, some of it being fiendishly difficult, e.g the Rachmaninov transcriptions. Would you still be able to play that in recitals?
VA: I don’t play recitals any more, I have no time.
WB: When did you stop giving recitals?
VA:About three years ago.
WB: I attended a few rounds of the Liszt competition in Utrecht earlier this month, where pianists had to play, among other things, the first Mephisto waltz. I can’t remember one memorable performance, but when I came home and listened to your disc, I couldn’t believe how you played those treacherous jumps at such awesome speed. Was that “difficult” to you?
VA: It’s slavery and a gift (laughs)
WB: You have of course worked with many conductors. Was there any conductor from whom you really learnt things that were of use when you took up conducting yourself?
VA: It’s difficult to say how much you can learn..
WB: You must have learnt things when you watched them?
VA: I couldn’t watch them, I was to busy to learn, when I had to play! In the end, you can’t imitate, you have to do your own thing. You get ideas and you try to work them out, you try this or that and try not to do anything stupid. Klemperer already said (Ashkenazy quite funnily imitates how the great conductor spoke when he was paralyzed) “You can’t teach someone to be a conductor”
WB: One of my favourite recordings is your first reading of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto with Kyrill Kondrashin. Do you remember him?
VA: (smiles), yes, I do!
WB: I have the impression that he is a rather underrated conductor, was he famous in Russia at the time?
VA: Yes, I think so, he was great.
WB: Are there any pianists with whom you particularly enjoy working?
VA: I like many pianists, as a conductor, I accompanied many colleagues, Pollini, Zimerman, Lupu, Perahia, Richter...
WB: Did you work with Argerich?
VA: Yes, I did, she’s a very warm person
WB: Isn’t it difficult to keep up with her?
VA: No, she is very easy to work with!
WB: Have you never considered playing duos with her? She works with so many pianists!
VA: Yes, I know that, but never thought of working with her as a piano duo
WB: Your colleague Zoltan Kocsis played and conducted Liszt’s first concerto from the keyboard and the conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos even did Prokofiev’s third piano concerto in this double role. Is that the limit of what you can do both as a soloist/conductor?
VA: You can do anything if you have enough rehearsal time, but playing and conducting Liszt and Prokofiev is not always advisable..
WB: Isn’t that the problem nowadays that you don’t get enough rehearsal time? Zimerman complained about that last year!
VA: Well, then you have to do it in one rehearsal!
WB: I have a few questions about some composers, you announced last year a recording of Bach’s Wohltemparierte Klavier. Is that correct?
VA: Yes, I just finished that.
WB: You said previously you were in awe of Bach, but somehow afraid to tackle his music, what made you change your mind?
VA: I am still afraid and still in awe, but I like challenges. And you know, I got used to playing many voices at the same time... I think it’s not so bad, some of them were really well played..
WB: Does it probably have something to do with your traversal of the complete Preludes and Fugues of Shostakovitch?
VA: O no, they are so different!
WB: Did you ever hear Shostakovitch as a pianist?
VA: No, I didn’t, but he wasn’t a good pianist, he never practized. There is a recording where he played his piano concertos and it isn’t very good. When he was young, he used to be better and even did silent films.
WB: You have said more than once that you dislike Liszt
VA: Yes, but some of it is fantastic! He was a strange man... (thinks).. he had a controversial character. On the one hand, there was the purity of expression, but something went against it. Sometimes, he was fantastically inspired, for instance in the B-minor sonata or the first Mephisto waltz, but a lot of his music is over the top. But what counts; he was incredibly devoted to music, he taught so many musicians and promoted Beethoven on the piano. And his imagination was amazing.
Jeroen Vonhögen (JV): What do you think of his late piano works?
VA: There is an attempt to get to another level, but he was at his best in his diabolical works , the first Mephisto waltz is fantastic.
WB: And what about the Totentanz?
VA: Mephisto is better! (laughs)
WB: And the concertos? You did his first concerto when you won the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 1956
VA: They are allright, but it wouldn’t be my first choice.
JV: Did you do the symphonic poems as a conductor?
VA: No, I never conducted any symphonic works by Liszt. Nobody asked me to do that, but I would like to do the Faust Symphony. Maybe it’s not totally convincing, but it’s a genuine piece. Liszt was definitely a genius.
WB: Is Chopin more your man?
VA: Ah, unbelievable! (looks up) He was really economical in his music. His late music is beyond comment, both on a spiritual and musical level. It’s organic, it makes sense. He was not going ahead of his time for the sake of going ahead. He was unlike Schönberg with his dodecaphonic music. I don’t like Schönberg’s attitude to art. Alban Berg was gifted though..
JV: Do you remember the first time you heard Chopin’s music?
VA: No, I don’t...
WB: There is one work though, which you didn’t include in your set of complete Chopin works, the Andante spianato and grande Polonaise brillante.
VA: That’s a brillant piece of a young composer, I like it, but it’s mostly played with orchestra. I didn’t get to it, I apologize for my omission, but it was not delibirate... there are many great recordings, they won’t miss mine...
JV: You also played Chopin’s first sonata, which is a rare piece
VA: It’s a student piece, Chopin was about fourteen or fifteen years old when he composed it. It’s embryonic and not very good.
JV: Was there any modern music dedicated to you?
VA: Yes, John Ogdon composed five Preludes for me, I played them.
JV: Does that make them special?
VA: No, but they are very idiomatic musically! Rautavaara also composed a piano concerto for me, that’s a very interesting sound world. And Andre Previn also composed a concerto for me.
WB: Didn’t he say when you played his Piano Concerto, which he dedicated to you, “It is a difficult piece, but the son of a bitch (Ashkenazy) read right through it”?
VA: No, that’s not true, Andre exaggerated my ability to learn. He is a good friend. Besides, of course it took time to learn the concerto which I liked very much. You see, that’s how legends get created. Don’t trust everything you hear! I will give you an example of how unreliable the press is. I was reading the Herald Tribune of last Monday (18 April 2005, WB) and in the section “People” I saw my name. I had been nominated conductor laureate for the season 2007-2008 of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. I agreed when they asked me, because it’s a good orchestra. The newspaper wrote: “Ashkenazy heard the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time when he was eleven years old and he was so moved when he heard them do Mahler first Symphony”. Now in 1948, I was living in Russia, and at the time I had never heard of Mahler or the Liverpool Philharmonic! It appeared that the editor of the Herald Tribune confused the biographies of Sir Simon Rattle and myself! It’s not a crime, but why? Why can’t they be accurate? It’s just unprofessional to write such things!
WB: Just one of my last questions, how is your oldest son doing? He is also a pianist, isn’t he?
VA: He is fine. We just played Ravel’s La Valse on two pianos at a Steinway gala in Hamburg. He now teaches in Angoulème, in France.
WB: Isn’t it just terrible to have a father called Vladimir Ashkenazy?
VA: Yes, it’s difficult... it doesn’t help things!
WB: What are you recording in Hilversum at the moment?
VA: Respighi’s Feste Romane, a very loud piece! But the orchestra is very good!
© Willem Boone 2005
- Written by Willem Boone
Nijmegen, 16 October 2009
Willem Boone (WB): I really loved your Scarlatti recording. On your website you wrote about Scarlatti and Haydn that their music is “a luxury, because there are not many instructions in the music”. Is that the reason that you play Scarlatti in a rather bold, pianistic way with different dynamics in the repeats, embellishments, etc?
Yevgeny Sudbin (YS): I wanted to bring him to life through the piano. His sonatas were of course written for different instruments such as the harpsichord and sometimes for organ. Playing them on a modern piano is some sort of a transcription in a way, which allows you much more freedom. A piano offers so much variety! Haydn’s music is similar; he doesn’t like rules, he breaks them all the time. It’s full of life and humor.
WB: What do you like most about Scarlatti’s music?
YS: The overwhelming feeling of life-force he injects into his music. He captures Spanish life so well, you hear people dancing, guitars, drums... The variety of moods is incredible.
WB: And what about the melancholy in a lot of his sonatas?
YS: Some of the sonatas I recorded are very poignant and painful. In these pieces, as Horowitz remarked, he clearly speaks to God, in other ones he speaks to the people. I played so much Scarlatti lately, I need a break from his music. Some people tell me I have to play more big encores, therefore I didn’t do Scarlatti tonight (instead of this, he played his own transcription of Rachmaninov’s song Floods of Spring, WB).
WB: What you said about indications in Haydn’s and Scarlatti’s music goes for Bach too, doesn’t it? He allows you a lot of freedom as well.........
YS: Bach is different, he always communicates with God. Unlike Scarlatti, he is not portraying people’s life, there is always a spiritual dimension. Although I am not religious, I clearly feel this while playing his music. You are right in a way that you can perform his music with freedom too. I don’t like pianists who perform Bach in a detached way and without pedal. That’s the way it’s sometimes taught in Russia. I noticed that many young pianists make their debut recordings with Bach. If it is done well, it can be a big success. Bach can sound very well on a modern piano, but Scarlatti allows more variety in approach I feel.
WB: How do you feel about the music of Padre Antonio Soler, which is more or less from the same period as Scarlatti’s?
YS: I haven’t played any of it at all; can you recommend good recordings of his music?
WB: Alicia de Larrocha made an early recording with a selection and the excellent young pianist Luis Fernando Perez just released an album with Soler sonatas.
WB: A friend of mine heard your recital at Wigmore Hall a few years ago, where you played two Haydn sonatas. He liked it so much that he wouldn’t have minded an all Haydn recital of yours. Would you ever consider such a thing?
YS: No, I am afraid maybe only four people would stay for that! I have been asked to do all Scarlatti recitals, but it is maybe a bit too much for the audience. For my Wigmore debut, I did two Haydn sonatas, which takes about 35 minutes. It is possible to play Haydn during the first half of a recital. You have to pay attention to the programme of a recital. If they are not well programmed it may be difficult for the audience to stay focused.
WB: There is an eminent Dutch conductor of music on period instruments, Frans Brüggen, the conductor of the Orchestra of the 18th Century, who said the other day about Haydn’s music and more specifically about his humor that it is for “connaisseurs” as opposed to Mozart’s . What do you think of this?
YS: Humor is humor, if you are able to tell a joke, people will understand it.. Of course, you can make it overly intellectual or sophisticated, but it’s not necessary. Haydn’s music has very earthy elements, he had a big connection to life. His music can be very outrageous, but sarcasm and humour is always prevalent.
WB: Your next CD will be released soon, which includes the Second Piano Concerto of Medtner. I did my “homework” for this interview and listened to your recording of his First Concerto. However, I must confess that I still have a hard time with this piece......
YS: You managed to listen to the whole piece?!
WB: Yes, I did, I think it lacks coherence in spite of some beautiful moments!
YS: It is difficult to understand when you hear it for the first time. It is not for everybody. Medtner was a genius in my view and his compositions are very logical. Rachmaninov was sometimes envious of Medtner, however they admired each other and never copied each other’s music. The structure of the First Piano Concerto is strict, it is one big movement. The problem is that the melodies are so difficult and the thematic elements are complex that it’s easy to lose attention. There are no big tunes either unlike in Rachmaninov. Have you tried to listen to his Second Concerto?
WB: Is it easier to listen to?
YS: Easier to listen yes, easier to play no!
WB: On your site you wrote something interesting about Medtner: “One only needs to hear the same piece twice and a few more times and something might just happen. Addiction sets in”. How addictive is his music really?
YS: If you listen more to it, you feel it makes sense after a while. I listened to all of his music and it is not easy for the first time. But the more I heard it, the more addictive it became. Furthermore, his music is very pianistically written. Medtner was tormented between a career as a pianist and as a composer. He didn’t know what to pursue. He switched back and forth between these two careers.
WB: Why is he not better known if he writes that well for piano?
YS: That has more to do with the audience than the pianist I would suggest. The music is difficult to sight read of course, but the onus is with the audience whether something is popular or not. The concertos though are rarely played, not many pianists championed them in the past either which has maybe to do with the programming and orchestras. Horowitz apparently played a lot of his music when he was still in Russia, but he recorded only one short piece. He had plans to record the First Concerto, but they never materialized.
WB: Another composer I have difficulties to relate to is the late Scriabin. I love his first sonatas, but after the 5th Sonata, I really have a hard time to understand his music!
YS: Actually, his music is much less coherent than Medtner’s! For my Scriabin CD, I started with early pieces and ended with late works, maybe that way you can relate better. Surprisingly, the late pieces are much easier to play than the early ones! The Waltz opus 38 or the early Etudes are very difficult, roughly all his compositions until opus 30 are awkward to play from a technical point of view while the late works are more emotionally demanding. Scriabin is like Szymanovsky, they both established their style at the end of their lifes. As a musician, you know what you have to do. For Scriabin’s late music, you have to read the adjectives in the score, he wrote little poems for some of the pieces, that may help as well to understand his music better. Actually, it doesn’t matter whether or not you do, since the late pieces are full of mystery and sometimes entirely insane...
The Piano Concerto I played tonight is very difficult too, have you heard it before?
WB: Yes, I did. By the way, you used to score but you hardly looked at it!
YS: It is still fresh music for me and it’s the second time I am playing it in public.
WB: The other composer you will play on your last CD is Rachmaninov, most interestingly you play it in the original version from 1926 which, according to your website, is “glorious but almost unheard of”. Isn’t that actually a reason in itself that it is probably not a good piece if hardly anybody plays it?
YS: It could be, although it is not always the case when a piece is neglected. There are also quite some neglected compositions by Chopin!
WB: Which ones for instance?
YS: The Impromptus, not the 4th of course, but the first three Impromptus are rarely played. The same goes for a lot of Mazurkas, many pianists prefer to play the Scherzi and Ballades.
WB: Back to the 4th Concerto by Rachmaninov, you wrote on your site that there are three versions of it?
YS: Probably a lot more, he was constantly revising his compositions. In the revised version we know nowadays, he made most changes in the last movement. He tried to make it more popular with a big tune at the end. But either versions, are not considered to be one of his strongest works.It is on the border of modern music and still very romantic.
WB: In what way is it modern?
YS: The rhythm is very jazzy. There are a lot of syncopations, Rachmaninov took this example from Medtner who often used interesting rhythmic patterns. In the original version, the orchestra sounds sometimes chaotic, it is a potpourri of different things.
WB: The original version is substantially longer than the revised one!
YS: Yes, it’s much longer, over 100 bars.
WB: The revised version is the one Michelangeli has played?
YS: Yes, indeed.
WB: You actually wrote that apart from him no other master pianists of the past championed this work, like they did with his Third. That’s not completely true, is it? Ashkenazy, Wild, Orozco and Kocsis included the Fourth in their recording of the complete piano concertos?
YS: All the pianists you mentioned are considered contemporary. I was referring to the Golden Age pianists. Some clearly had it in their repertoire but it was never performed.
WB: Which version did Rachmaninov himself play on the recording we still have?
YS: It is the revised version with some slight variations in the orchestral part.
WB: Rachmaninov revised his First Concerto too, did you play that in the original version too?
YS: No, I haven’t. The notes are different, but the thematic differences are not huge. I am not sure whether his revisions were always an improvement in general. He was very paranoid, he revised so many things that didn’t need revision. I think for instance that the original of the Second Sonata is a much better piece.
WB: You said the technical difficulties in the original Fourth Concerto were “insanely difficult”. How difficult are they really as opposed to the Third Concerto, that is generally considered as the most difficult of the four?
YS: It is much more difficult than the Third, which is actually very comfortable to play! The Second Concerto has some awkward moments too.
WB: And what about the Paganini Rhapsody?
YS: It is very pianistic, but I don’t like it very much.
WB: Why not? Don’t you find it spellbinding?
YS: It doesn’t offer much freedom for a pianist, it is as if you are accompanying the orchestra. I feel the piano part is constrained by the orchestra.
WB: In your recording of the Chopin Variations, you left out a few variatons, why was that?
YS: I omitted the fugue-like twelfth variation and the coda, which destroys the tranquil atmosphere of the previous meno mosso section. Rachmaninov in fact made variations VII, X, XII and the coda optional for performance. He only wrote the cascading coda as a crowd pleaser, it has no musical reason really.
WB: The Daily Telegraph hailed you as “potentially one of the greatest pianists of the 21th Century”. What is your reaction to such praise?
YS: It is crazy, I feel embarassed and don’t like it being quoted. Agents however often like finding catchy quotes.
WB: Does that put a strain on you?
YS: Yes, it does. It is not like in sports, it’s a highly subjective matter and everyone will have a preference.
WB: But aren’t you flattered either that people write this about you?
YS: No, I am terrified! I can’t read positive reviews nor can I read negative ones. I wish positive reviews made me as happy as negative ones make me miserable, so I try not to read any at all! I was so nervous when my Scarlatti CD came out before my Wigmore Hall debut. It was a very positive review, but after that I never read any of them any more. I am terrified of extreme reactions and you know, things can turn very quickly. There have been pianists who were first praised and then heavily critisized...
WB: Can you mention examples of this?
YS: No, I don’t want to mention names.
WB: I read that your recording contract with BIS has been renewed for another seven years and that you will do 14 new CD’s. Can you reveal any of your new plans?
YS: I will do a Haydn disc and the Beethoven Concertos with the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä. There will be Chopin and probably Liszt. Then a CD with solo works by Medtner. I have already done the 7th Sonata by Prokofiev, but I am not sure what else will be on the CD. I’d like to do a recording with all of his war sonatas. I also recorded Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, probably coupled to the Miroirs... Do you prefer CD’s with only one composer?
WB: Well, I don’t mind if there are two composers on the same CD!
YS: I am sometimes constrained by the idea that it is hard to categorize them in a shop when there are two composers on the same CD. They don’t know where to put them!
WB: Another thing I’d really like to know, what do you think of playing encores?
YS: I don’t like it. Did I look like I enjoyed it after tonight’s concert?
WB: Probably not, but you played one after all!
YS: The audience usually likes it, but ideally I wouldn’t. You don’t need them, they often trivilize concerts as they are often flashy.
WB: But then again, you could do like Claudio Arrau who never played any during his career?
YS: I respect Arrau, and wish I could do it, but I also have a responsability towards the audience and if they enjoy it, and I think they do more often than don’t, it is not a huge issue. When I feel it is a huge issue, I don’t play encores.
WB: How do you practice? Do you have any rituals?
YS: You could write a book about that; 90 % of my practice is slow. Depending on whether I know a piece or whether I don’t, it is combined with fast practice. I hate when people listen to me practise.
WB: Does your wife (who is also a pianist and who teaches in London, WB) listen to you while practising?
YS: She probably hears me practise, but I don’t think she listens.
WB: On your website you told that your colleague Stephen Hough advised you to play in the dark? Why on earth would you do that?
YS: The idea is that we have so many senses, if you switch off one, the others will compensate. I don’t do it very often though.
WB: What did it bring to you?
YS: It could be useful, for instance with Liszt who sometimes writes big jumps. I sometimes practise without sound too, on a silent keyboard.
YS: Because then I won’t be distracted by the sound.
WB: Are you the type of musician who can learn pieces in a plane?
YS: Yes, I often do that, looking at the score helps the memory. I sometimes go through scores before I go to bed, although it makes you sleepy too which is a good thing as I can’t fall asleep after concerts...
WB: Do you have a good memory?
YS: Normally yes, but two weeks is short to learn a new concerto or piece. It normally takes up to five or six weeks.
WB: Do you ever suffer from stage fright?
YS: My confidence is always at the lowest before I play. I would like to have more confidence in general. You are never completely relaxed, but I usually get more confident during the actual performance. On the other hand, it is good to be nervous and excited, since it also helps you to give the best of yourself.
WB: Do you have any pianistic fears, certain composers you don’t like to play?
YS: I don’t play much Bach in public, but generally my fears are not related to composers. Not having enough time to prepare is more of a real fear. Or not being well prepared physically or being overbooked...Sometimes, I am not confortable with Rachmaninov’s music in concert, e.g his Fourth Concerto, Second Sonata or Chopin Variations, etc.
WB: It doesn’t stop you from playing them...
YS: No, because I like challenges.
WB: I really like that you write your own texts in the booklets of your CD’s!
YS: I like to write texts. I don’t like to only play the piano, there might be other things I enjoy doing!
WB: You made me laugh with a comment in the booklet of your Scarlatti recording,when you wrote about the so called “Cat’s Fugue” and said you unsuccesfully experimented with your own cat...
YS: My cat hates the piano!
WB: Someone wrote in the guestbook of your website “You could have a second career as a fashion model”. How flattering is that?
YS: It isn’t.. I am not sure it is a compliment if the looks impress more than the playing! But I know that’s not what was meant.
WB: But even in classical music, it can’t harm to be good looking?
YS: Anybody can be famous in classical music. It is one of the few things you can do in public, be a kind of celebrity, while still looking hideous... Being handsome could be a disadvantage sometimes! Maybe for cross-over artists, it might play an important role, but in classical music it doesn’t make any difference!
Before the interview started, during the intermission and the second part of the concert (I was able to hear the Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra play Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances!), Yevgeny Sudbin was worried about the taxi that was supposed to drive him back to his hotel in Arnhem. Since Arnhem is not very far away from Nijmegen, I offered to drive him back. He agreed and the taxi was cancelled. The good thing about this was that it allowed me to continue the interview and ask him all sorts of other questions even while walking back to my car and driving to Arnhem. Questions about his favourite pianists (“Sokolov, to whom I’d like to play, Pletniev, whom I admire, even if I don’t like everything he does, Kissin, Argerich for whom I’d like to play too and among the pianists of the past Horowitz, Cherkassky, Moiseiwitsch”), chamber music (“I like it, but don’t do it often, a few times a year”), instruments (“I’d like to take my own piano with me if I had the money, I first would have to get a full-size piano, since I “only” play on a Steinway B, which is still a wonderful instrument”), the difficulty of having to play on different pianos every time (“Espcially in the USA, although I got a good Hamburg Steinway in New York, which I ask for when I am there, unfortunately they couldn’t take it to Minnesota when I recorded Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto”), his Proms Debut with Rachmaninov’s First Concerto (“The Albert Hall is extremely tricky, you can’t project your sound and you hear the orchestra as if they are playing in a small room”), masterclasses he attended (“Bashkirov was nice to me, I think he liked me, although I know he has an incredibly powerful personality, he is my favourite in the Scriabin Concerto actually! Fleisher was great, paid a lot of attention to sound, Perahia was very strict about structure), and the job of being a pianist (When I said to him “It is quite a profession”, he answered “It is an unhealthy profession, but somehow I seem to need it. I try not to stay away too long from the audience, the longest was two months I think”).
- Written by Willem Boone
Arnhem, 24 May 2013
Yuja Wang took the world by storm, only a few years ago. At the piano, she is fearless and actually during interviews she is not afraid either to give her opinion on a lot of different subjects. She was a delight to speak to: self-critical, realistic, yet very witty. And disarmingly honest. She made me smile when she said in the middle of the interview: “Wow, I am talking a lot, which I sometimes don’t do during interviews, you must be nice!” I took it as a compliment…
Willem Boone (WB): You played a recital that one could call “challenging” from a technical standpoint, how important is technique for you?
Yuja Wang (YW): I don’t think of music and technique separately, there is no dichotomy. If I am good in technique, I am good with the music too. The programme of this recital covers a short period of time, except the first piece, Gargoyles by Lowell Liebermann. It is a bit of a schizophrenic piece.
WB: In what way?
YW: In a schizophrenic way (laughs). I like Scriabin; I know his second sonata, which I recorded. However, the 6th sonata is very new to me, its character is unfathomable. It evokes a scary, mysterious and alien world. I was so scared to play the first chord, since it is so dark! Everything seems to crumble down there … Something similar happens in La Valse, at the end everything seems to collapse.
WB: The programme note described Scriabin’s 6th sonata as “horrible”, how horrible is it really?
YW: I think it is meant in the sense of “terrifying”. There are a lot of indications in his music like “concentrated” , “hysterious” and sometimes also in French, for instance ”ailé”, but what do they mean after all?
WB: Do they give you clues for interpretation?
YW: Yes, very good clues. The more I play the 6th sonata, the more I find it really genius. Scriabin adds a lot of colours. The whole composition is formless, it is assembled in a crazy way. It is disorganized and in this respect it is the opposite of La Valse. I am curious about discovering such a new sound world and I like it.
WB: Did he write this sonata in the period when he had “lost it?”
YW: He was in the beginning of losing it… The 6th, 7th and 8th sonatas are really hard to play, the 9th and 10th are easier to understand.
WB: How do you memorize a piece like the 6th sonata?
YW: It was really hard, but once I know the harmonies and hidden melodies, I am ok.
WB: And how long did it take you?
YW: I started at Christmas, but it hardly took me two weeks. I had to, because it was in my schedule!
WB: Do you put yourself tasks timewise?
YW: I hate to do this, but agents always ask me certain pieces in advance, so I scheduled it when I did not know the piece yet!
WB: You do not seem to be afraid of anything and you play the most challenging repertoire like Rachmaninov Third Concerto, Bartok Second Concerto, Prokofiev Second Concerto, Petrouchka… at such a young age. Is there anything left for, say, the next ten or twenty years?
YW: O yes, so much! There is a lot of Brahms I have not done and someone suggested Kapustin which I have never tried. I am also interested in Iberia and new composers…
WB: Is there anything that scares you in the piano repertoire?
YW: Yes, I am afraid of Bach! He was the first composer I learnt when I was young. It may sound as a cliché, but his music is peaceful and good for the soul. However, Bach is something I’d like to play for myself. I would be so scared to play one of his Partitas! By the way, I am a big admirer of Glenn Gould..
WB: Mozart is also a composer who seems to scare a lot of pianists, what about you?
YW: I love his operas, but right now I am not into Mozart. He is maybe overrated, since people always call him “a genius” , I think he is for people before 12 and after 60 (laughs). Compared to Mozart, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov are way easier! I have to say that I like Horowitz’s Mozart playing…
WB: You do?
WB: Speaking of great pianists, have you often been compared to Martha Argerich?
YW: We are both women and have black hair, but other than that, it is a cliché. She was the best of her generation and I want to be the best of my generation. In Tokyo they compare me to Kissin and Pollini..
WB: And what do you think of such a comparison?
YW: The only comparison I like is with Horowitz, although I do not like his Beethoven and Chopin. People think he had a brilliant technique, but it was not all about technique. He was basically a magician, there was a very strong theatrical aspect in his playing.
WB: It has been said about Horowitz that he was “a great pianist but a shallow musician”
YW: You cannot say that, as soon as he plays, you know it is him, that is not something everybody has! There was this concert in Tokyo where he played very badly (It was in 1983 when Horowitz was on medication).. I watch it every time I feel bad about my own playing…
WB: I managed to watch the entire concert the other day on Youtube and even though the playing was messy and technically insecure, there was some of the old magic in Chopin’s Polonaise Fantaisie…
YW: I never went that far.. Horowitz took risks during concerts, he risked himself..
WB: You just mentioned that the Japanese compared you to both Kissin and Pollini, why is that?
YW: I have no idea, ask the Japanese (laughs). I love Pollini, he and Kissin are both perfection
WB: A lot of critics seem to refer of Pollini as a “cold technician”, what is your opinion on his playing?
YW: They say the same about me!
WB: Does that make you angry?
YW: No, it does not really matter, during a concert, nobody is playing but myself and only I know how good or bad I am doing! As to Pollini, he was the first pianist I heard when I was young, Kissin is one of my idols, too. It is probably true that both became colder and more intellectual over the years. There are other pianists I like: Pletniev, Pogorelich, Volodos, Sokolov..
WB: I once read that you met Kissin and that it was a “catastrophe”? In what way?
YW: He can hardly talk. However, I took a lesson on Prokofiev 6th sonata with him in Verbier. Interestingly, his teacher who always travels with him heard me practise and she thought it was him..
WB: How did you like that lesson?
YW: It was amazing, all difficulties disappeared when he taught. It was really vivid and inspiring. He is also very intuitive. I was in love with his lessons!
WB: When did this happen?
YW: It was back in 2010. He was there when I played Rachmaninov Second Concerto. But you know, I do not like my own Rachmaninov playing, I like myself better in Prokofiev.
WB: That is surprising, since you played Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata tonight?
YW: The music should be giving back to you when you play, when I perform Rachmaninov I put in so much, but nothing comes back…
WB: How do you manage to keep up with this job?
YW: I do not think in terms of “a job”, I do not have a job, it is my life. I have lived a lot more years than my age!
WB: You seem quite together!
YW: Probably because I like it. It is a fulfilling life; I have been playing the piano for ever, but I do not want to be a piano player. I want to do something through music. Classical music offers so much variety; you fall in love with music and you enrich people’s lives (thinks) … this sounds like bullshit, she knows how to do smooth talk (laughs).
WB: Are you nervous about the Amsterdam concert on Sunday (2 days later in the “Meesterpianisten” series at the Concertgebouw, WB)?
YW: Yes, it is the second time I will play there. The first time I did Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Before this concert, I gave a recital at Carnegie Hall.
WB: What did you play there?
YW: The same programme as tonight and after Amsterdam, I will go to Vienna.
WB: Wow, you play in all the important venues of the world, one after the other! When will you be back in the Netherlands?
YW: I will be playing Shostakovitch First Piano Concerto with Maris Janssons, but that is another composition I have not studied yet…