English profiles

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..)


Amsterdam, 28 May 2015

It was interesting to talk to Rafal Blechacz since I could finally ask a lot of questions about the composer he is probably most associated with: Chopin. A long interview with a young pianist who was a clear winner of the Chopin Competition in 2005. 

Willem Boone (WB): How do you look back on the past ten years?

Rafal Blechacz (RB): October 2005, when I won first prize at the Chopin competition, was a very important moment in my career. It was the most important musical experience in my life, because from that moment on, I could play with great orchestras in great halls.

WB: Were you prepared for such a career?

RB: It was my dream to play for people all over the world. However, I was not used to signing contracts and I had no experience with agents. That was different from what I was used to: everything was new and I did not know what to do: I wanted to get in touch with conductors,  to work on repertoire and I had a lot of interesting concerts coming up!

WB: How difficult is it to be categorized “Chopin specialist” after winning the Chopin competition when you are Polish?

RB: Maybe I was not considered “specialist” everywhere, but in Japan and Poland, I was! I played a lot of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven before I won the competition and I find it important to perform music of other composers too in concerts or on records, therefore,  I focused on Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy and Szymanovsky too.

WB: What does being Polish add to your Chopin-interpretations?

RB: Maybe it is easier to play and understand the character of music that requires a specific rhythm, such as the Mazurkas and the Polonaises. I feel the rhythm when I play these pieces, but then again, there are so many pianists who are not Polish and who play his music so well! Having the right sensibility is the most important..

WB: What was your first contact with Chopin’s music?

RB: I was 10 or 11 years old and I prepared the programme for my first competition that was only for young children. I studied a lot of Bach and one composition by Chopin, his Nocturne opus 32/2. I remember being fascinated by the harmonies and wanted to play more of his music. However, Bach was my first fascination, I actually wanted to be an organist!

WB: Do you still play Bach on the piano?

RB: Yes, quite a lot: several Preludes and Fugues, the Italian Concerto, Partitas and the E-major concerto with orchestra.

WB: How do you see his music? Do you feel he is a “strong” composer, if so, how come his music is often sentimentalized?

RB: Yes, he is a strong composer who is very universal!  A lot of people play his music, especially from Asia and they understand him (laughs). Chopin is a composer with very different emotions, you can see that in his Polonaise-Fantaisie, its final is fantastic.
As to people sentimentalizing his music, maybe they have a bad understanding of it.. I listen to my heart, it’s the most important.  Of course, a lot depends on my mood, the piano and the acoustics of the hall too.

WB: Can you say that Chopin is a “tricky” composer: some pianists don’t play him at all (Schnabel, Curzon , Brendel),  others almost exclusively play his music (Haraciewicz, Askenase) and others who play varied programmes (Argerich, Freire) say he is “jealous”.

RB: The most important is to feel inside what you can play: sometimes I feel I should wait with certain pieces. You can see something similar with someone like Glenn Gould, who recorded a lot of Bach and Mozart and only one piece by Chopin. Chopin’s style is not easy to understand, especially in his dance-like music. It’s not easy either to create the right atmosphere in his Nocturnes. As I said before, there are international pianists who understand his style very well: Pollini plays him well and he is Italian.

WB: Your colleague Barry Douglas said in an interview that Chopin is good for your technique, what do you think?

RB: Absolutely, his music is not easy. It’s interesting to tell you that Debussy made me more sensitive to Chopin’s music! Thanks to him I can play Chopin better, Bach’s polyphony helped me a great deal too. For me, it has always been important to play other composers as well, both before and after the Chopin competition. Not long ago, I did the Brahms First Piano Concerto, it is a great piece, but it took me 8 years!

WB: Is it that difficult to learn?

RB: No, but I felt it was important to get close to Brahms’s music and sometimes it is difficult to combine with other concerts and trips..

WB: Your colleague Christian Zacharias said when comparing Chopin’s and Schubert’s melodies that Chopin’s were “corny” and “predictable”?

RB: I don’t know, Schubert is close to Mozart,  for me, Chopin is close to Mozart. He admired Mozart’s operas, but the influence of bel canto is another important element in Chopin’s music. There are some interesting links between Mozart, Schubert and Chopin..

WB: Alfred Brendel said more than once that Chopin requires such a technique that you can either play his music or “the other composers”, do you agree?

RB: Again, I don’t know. As I said before, Debussy made me better in Chopin’s music, Liszt helped me too. Thanks to Liszt, I improved my technique.

WB: What do you think of pianists who played only or a lot of Chopin, like Askenase? It is often suggested that they were not the best Chopin performers?

RB: Askenase also played Mozart and Brahms, but now he conducts.

WB: No, that is Vladimir Ashkenazy, I meant Stefan Askenase!

RB: It is difficult to say what is “the best” or “the worst”, each musician has a different understanding, I like Haraciewicz but I like Rubinstein too, especially his live recordings.

WB: And what do you think of completists like Magaloff?

RB: I only know his Mazurkas, but I like them very much, he had a good sound and he played the right tempos!
There was a pupil from Paderewski, Szomptka, who had an understanding of the Mazurkas that was very close to Chopin’s style. His rhythm was fluent, neither too fast, nor too slow. Also, there is Karl Koczalski, a pupil from Mikuli, who studied with Chopin. Koczalski was very good in Chopin in general.

WB: Who would you call the best Polish Chopin pianist?

RB: Rubinstein was an amazing pianist and not only in Chopin and Zimerman , everything he plays is interesting. Anderzewski is interesting too, but he doesn’t play a lot of Chopin, he concentrates more on the classic composers and Szymanovsky.

WB: And who do you find particularly interesting among the non-Polish pianists?

RB: I already mentioned Pollini, Michelangeli is Italian too and his 2nd Scherzo is fantastic and his 2nd Sonata is interesting. I like Argerich’s Preludes and 2nd Sonata.

WB: I have a friend who can’t listen to Martha Argerich in Chopin, especially in the Concertos,  since she never plays the same tempo and changes almost in every bar..

RB: Yes, her tempi are very fast in the Concertos, especially in the last movements, but I like it, I prefer her recording of the First Piano Concerto with Abbado.

WB: I heard an amazing performance of the 3rd Sonata, back in 1987, by Radu Lupu. It was a bit of an uneven reading and he started banging in the last movement, but I will never forget the magic of the 3rd movement….

RB: Where did he play that?

WB: In Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

RB: That’s a very nice hall!

WB: What are qualities a good Chopin player must have?

RB: A beautiful sound and a good technique, although that’s not the most important. And you must understand Polish rhythms.

WB: Can you learn the latter?

RB: Yes, there are some interesting books by Kochalsky and also letters from Chopin’s pupils describing their lessons with him.

WB: Do you remember interesting advice?

RB: Yes, for instance, the first Mazurka should not be played too fast in order to respect the rhythm. Also for the 2nd movement of the 2nd Piano Concerto where the fast passages should be played ppp. You should not forget that they had different instruments back then..

WB: How essential is rubato in Chopin?

RB: A lot of journalists ask me about how to use rubato, especially in Japan! Sometimes, I feel it should sound in a romantic or in classic way.

WB: Can that feeling change?

RB: Yes, sometimes I choose a different tempo, for instance in case of dry acoustics. Those circumstances can influence the rubato. It is difficult for a conductor when a pianist plays with a lot of rubato. In the recitative of the 2nd movement of the 2nd Concerto, it is difficult to be together!

WB: Liszt had a beautiful description of what rubato means: he pointed at a tree, its  branches moved in the wind, whereas the tree itself stood still…

RB: You have to remember the first tempo, if not you can lose the right atmosphere! Chopin said the left hand is the conductor. By the way, there is a different rubato for the Nocturnes than for the dance-like music. You can use more freedom in the Nocturnes.

WB: Who of the non-Polish prize winners of the Chopin competition do you rate as most interesting?

RB: I remember in 1995, when I was 10 years old that the first prize was not awarded, Alexei Sultanov, who died very young, won second prize. I remember him well, he played the 2nd Concerto. I thought it was important to listen to other pianists. I remember Yundi Li very well, when he won first prize in 2000.
For Poland, it was important when Zimerman won in 1975, it had been 20 years since Haraciewicz won first prize in 1955. The Polish were waiting for Zimerman, who won a lot of different awards, among others for the best Mazurkas, Polonaises and Concerto.

WB: I’d just to like to hear your opinion about the Chopin interpretations of a few really famous colleagues of yours: what do you think of Hoffman?

RB: I like his Waltzes and his 2nd Concerto a lot!

WB: Horowitz…

RB: He is interesting, but compared to Rubinstein, he had a completely different understanding of his music! His Polonaise opus 53 is nice, although it is not the way I would play it: he almost uses no pedal and some chords are very short. The octaves in the middle part are fantastic and his tempo is very good. As far as the dynamics are concerned, his fortes are too big, they are more suited for Tschaikofsky. Furthermore, I like his Mazurkas and I like his sound and the atmosphere of his live concerts.

WB: Rubinstein..

RB: My favourite in Chopin, along with Zimerman. I “accept” his tempo, feeling, sound, everything!

WB: Arrau….

RB: Fantastic, I like his performance of the 2nd Concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra a lot, especially the 2nd part of the 2nd movement, in spite of his slow tempo. His Preludes are fantastic too.

WB: Do you know his Nocturnes?

RB: No, I haven’t heard them.

WB: I’ll send you a copy of them, his sound was always so great!

RB: Beethoven and Brahms by Arrau were wonderful too. I like the DVD of Beethoven 4rth Concerto with Muti and another one from Bonn where he played (among others) opus 111.

WB: Kempff, who has recorded only a few CDs with Chopin….

RB: No, I don’t know his Chopin

WB: Do you know Glenn Gould in the 3rd Sonata?

RB: Yes, and I don’t like it. Do you like his Mozart?

WB: No, I hate it!

RB: Me too!

WB: Ashkenazy…..

RB: He uses strong dynamics and contrasts are very big, his approach is interesting.

WB: Would you consider studying and performing all of Chopin’s works?

RB: In the future, why not? I have to prepare more Mazurkas, although maybe not for a recording. It would be very difficult to record all of them and to play the same rhythm for two weeks… It is important to be fresh every time. It’s difficult anyway to decide in a studio about the “right” tempo!

WB: Isn’t it as difficult in a concert?

RB: Yes, but each concert is different anyway!

WB: Which music of Chopin is the most difficult to grasp?

RB: The Mazurkas and the Polonaise-Fantaisie. The Polonaise opus 44 is hard too, since its middle part is a Mazurka…

WB: The 3rd Sonata is difficult to bring off too, isn’t it?

RB: Yes, indeed, since it is a big scaled composition, more classical than the 2nd Sonata. Especially the 4rth movement is very different from the 3 preceding movements, it calls for a completely different atmosphere.

WB: What would you consider his greatest work?

RB: Maybe the Polonaise-Fantaisie, it’s his testament (laughs). Horowitz didn’t understand it, Richter played it too and I like what he did.

WB: What sets him apart as a composer?

RB: It’s hard to say, maybe the harmonies and the unexpected modulations. It’s very poetic music that has everything in it: there is a lot of sorrow, joy, melancholy…

WB: Joy? It’s not what I associate his music most with?

RB: I think there is joy in the Concertos, for instance in the last movement of the 2nd Concerto!

WB: Speaking of which, I like your recording of the Chopin concertos with the Concertgebouw Orchestra: I attended the concert and thought everything was beautifully clear and unsentimental!

RB: like Mozart!

WB: Has Chopin revolutionized the piano technique like Liszt did?

RB: No, his virtuosity is totally different, although his first compositions were written in a brilliant style. He had another approach to technique than Liszt. With Chopin, it was a way to make music. Liszt was fantastic in his own way, also in his last pieces or in his Sonata.

WB: Do you play the Liszt Sonata?

RB: No, I play other pieces like his Concertos, Etudes and the Rigoletto Paraphrase.

WB: You also advocate the music of Szymanovsky, he is not very well known, what can you tell us about him?

RB: He is not well known in my country either! I wanted to change that situation with my Debussy-Szymanovsky album. His 1st Sonata is not popular in Poland; it has a lot of influences of Scriabin, maybe a bit of Rachmaninov and Brahms. I played his Variations opus 3 almost everywhere. It is a cycle of 12 short variations, that are very different in character. There are a lot of chords and they have a virtuosic culmination.

WB: I love his Variations opus 10 that Zimerman has played !

RB: Yes, there are amazing.

WB: Was Szymanovsky a good pianist?

RB: Unfortunately he wasn’t. His Synfonia Concertante is not so difficult, because he wanted to play it himself..

WB: He knew how to write for the piano, though! The variations opus 10 are highly virtuosic!

RB: Yes, but he never played those. He was friends with Rubinstein to whom he dedicated the Variations opus 3. He could ask him for advice..

WB: Is there a lot of difference between his early and his last works?

RB: Yes, his late works were inspired by Polish folk music.  His works from the second period, Métopes and Masques, are more impressionistic.

WB: They sometimes remind me of Scriabin!

RB: Masques, yes, but not Métopes!

WB: Are there other Polish composers that you find worthwhile?

RB: Zimerman recorded works of Bacewicz, who also used a lot of Polish folk music. And Lutoslawski dedicated his Piano Concerto to Zimerman.

WB: Do you know the music of Zarebski?

RB: Yes, my professor recorded his music.

WB: Now you play Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major K 488, what is your relationship with this piece?

RB: I started to play when I was a child and before I participated in the Chopin Competition, I played this concerto with Jerzy Maksimiuk. It was broadcast through the whole country. I came back to it in 2006 and played it with different orchestras. I also prepared the C minor concerto K 491, which I played in Salzburg and Luzern. During this tour, we will play K 488 without conductor. I am very happy, because they play very well.

WB: Mozart is often considered a tricky composer, is he trickier than Chopin?

RB: Yes, he is. Like with Bach, it is difficult to find the right sound.

WB: I have a few questions about your fellow pianist Kristian Zimerman: is he your mentor?

RB: We first met before the Chopin competition, also in 2005. He came to Katowice  where he received a Doctorat honoris causa. He also did a master class for students who wanted to play in the competition. I played the Polonaise opus 53 and was a bit sad, since my lesson was very short.  He told me that I played well and asked me if I needed any help. After the competition, he sent me a beautiful letter with advice. He gave me his number. It was very important to speak to him about repertoire and agencies. He invited me in 2007 and we spent 5 or 6 days at his place. He bought me a camera and an iPad. We are still in touch via SMS and sometimes we meet abroad. We met in Japan when he played Bacewicz and Schumann with the Hagen Quartet and he came to my concert in New York.

WB: People say that he is never satisfied, so how difficult was it to work with him?

RB: That’s not true, he is happy sometimes! He was happy with his interpretation of the Lutoslawski concerto with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Mariss Jansons in Amsterdam (I attended and it was quite good indeed, like all the other Zimerman concerts I attended, WB )

WB: Is he the biggest perfectionist ever?

RB: I don’t think so. He needs long to prepare and he wants to be 100% sure. He has taken care of everything before he can play on stage, as you know he travels with his own piano and tuner. I heard his recital of Beethoven opus 109, 110 and 111 last year in Germany and it was fantastic.

WB: Why is he so ferociously against CDs and radio broadcasts?

RB: He doesn’t like studio recordings. It is not easy to recreate the atmosphere of a concert. With an orchestra, it’s different, you have an “audience” in a way, since you make music together.

WB: I find it a bit of a shame he has re-recorded the Lutoslawski concerto with Rattle, whereas everybody wants him to record the Chopin sonatas. He keeps saying he is “not ready” but he plays them like nobody else…Will he be recording again you think?

RB: Maybe he recorded the Chopin sonatas, but he doesn’t want to release them… the Lutoslawski concerto is important to him, since it was dedicated to him.

WB: What are your future plans?

RB: I recorded Bach and the cd is waiting for release: it includes the Partitas nos 1 and 3, 4 Duets and the Italian Concerto. The DG-team comes to my concert in Amsterdam and then we will discuss further plans. I would love to record Beethoven concertos nos 2 and 4 with Trevor Pinnock. We have a very good contact. To be discussed!

WB: You said in another interview that you often travel by car, isn’t that exhausting?

RB: I have my car here! I feel more independent. I dislike airports or airplanes: they are often noisy, especially in Europe, you lose a lot of time. I like to travel after a concert, because there is too much adrenalin. I cannot sleep and therefore I drive for the next 2 or 3 hours.

WB: Aren’t you too exhausted to drive?

RB: No, I cannot sleep directly after a concert.

WB: What are you thinking of while driving?

RB: Sometimes I think about the concert I just played or I listen to CDs (not my own!) or I am talking to my father, who is the second driver. For a tour with concerts in Germany, France and Spain, it is easier to go by car. In the night there is not so much traffic..

WB: My last question: you also play the organ, in what way does that help you as a pianist?

RB: It was my first fascination! Bach on the organ sometimes teaches me the right legato in Bach. On a piano, you have to play legato with your fingers, whereas the pedals on an organ are used very differently. I use the organ legato in Bach on the piano in order to keep the clarity of sound. It’s easier to change the colours on the organ by using special registers.




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.

Hilversum, 18 October 2015

It’s not difficult to find pianist Simon Trpceski in one of the rooms of the Dutch radio studios in Hilversum, since I can hear him practising the last movement of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto..

Simon Trpceski (ST): Tough concerto… I am playing four different concertos at the moment!

Willem Boone (WB): Are they all new to you?

ST: No, they are not all new, but it requires time and patience to play four different concertos!

WB: Is the Chopin new to your repertoire?

ST: Three or four years ago, I played it for the first time. I studied it for concerts with Andris Nelsons in Birmingham and I played it before with the Dutch conductor, Kees Bakels, in Porto. He is one of the best conductors I have worked with! I prefer Chopin’s First Concerto to his Second, I need to come to terms with the first movement of the latter.. I will play Chopin’s First Concerto in San Francisco next week, last week I played in Verona and I was on tour with Rachmaninov’sThird Concerto in the Czech Republic with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s nice to be back here, I have a good relationship with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.

WB: Last night you played Shostakovitsj First Piano Concerto, what is your relationship with this piece?

ST: You get a smile on your face when you hear it for the first time.. It is easier to understand music when you understand the circumstances and the irony that are behind it. Shostakovitsj picks up themes from the street and there are quotes of Haydn and Beethoven. He was a genius in the way he combined these motives. The orchestration is unusual, but it obviously worked. I played it for the first time in 1999 along with Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto, two totally different languages and approaches to the piano. It was with the Macedonian Philharmonic Orchestra in Skopje. It was a great joy to play it.
If you look at the effects Shostakovitsj wanted to reach, it is difficult to bring out the irony, but his language and his style are not naïve at all. The concerto should be almost Mozart-like in its articulation. For yesterday’s concert, we had very little time to rehearse, but I think it was a good run-through for the concert in Amsterdam. I have good memories of a gala concert in Amsterdam in 2007 with Mariss Jansons. I heard that Shostakovitsj’s wife was present during the concert, but to my regret, nobody introduced me to her.

WB: I heard you play it in Rotterdam, in 2008! Back to the concerto, do you have any idea why he introduced a solo part for the trumpet as well?

ST: It’s an unusual combination. The character of tunes sounds natural on that instrument. Shostakovitsj liked to explore limits of instruments in his symphonies, although not so much in this concerto. The writing for strings is not too comfortable by the way..

WB: Where for instance?

ST: For the violins and celli in the first movement in general and also the writing of the fugato in the last movement. They need to be alert, for the trumpet, all depends on the tempo of the pianist!

WB:  I have always found it difficult to say something about the atmosphere of this piece: would you call it “dramatic”  or “joyous” or “tongue in cheek”?

ST: You may find it “joyous” when you hear it for the first time, but it is a very ironic piece. There are a lot of personal and intimate moments, especially in the second movement. He tells a very personal story that has a lot to do with the struggle he was living through. He was a master in expressing his pain or sad memories, e.g. in the recapitulation of the slow movement when the trumpet comes in. You can hear his subtlety as a composer in the dialogues with the trumpet. The intensity of emotion with this kind of orchestration without winds is amazing. The trumpet is almost a decoration.

WB: I find it difficult in general to come to terms with his music: the slow movements can be rather “gloomy” and the fast movements are sometimes bordering on the grotesque…

ST: The irony is one of his specifics. It’s an answer to the system he lived in. It can go to a point of grotesque indeed. I love the childish spirit he kept throughout his entire life. What you said about his music being gloomy, yes, very much so, but isn’t it nice to explore different sides of someone’s personality? Even towards the end of the First Concerto, something remains in the soul that basically the story wasn’t that happy..

WB: How difficult is his music technically?

ST: Not too much, there are a few moments where it can be uncomfortable, however it is difficult to put it together with the orchestra, you need a good team!

WB: Was Shostakovitsj a good pianist himself? I once interviewed Ashkenazy and he said he wasn’t..

ST: He was probably not as good a pianist as Ashkenazy! (laughs).  I worked with him in San Francisco.. It depends on what you call “good”?

WB: “Good” as opposed to Rachmaninov and Prokofiev?

ST: Well, when I hear how fast Shostakovitsj could play.. He was one of the prize winners in the Chopin competition in 1927 and playing in such a competiton… If you listen to his recording of the last movement of his cello sonata, we should pay respect to that. He certainly was a good pianist, but how much time do you have to practise when you have so much music in your head?

WB: In the booklet for last night’s concert, it was written that the First Concerto has a filmic character, do you agree with this statement , since the camera changes so often?

ST: Thank you for telling me, I don’t speak Dutch.. Yes, I can agree that it’s about pictures and emotions as well as changes of atmosphere. He went straight to the point with the quote of Beethoven’s Appassionata right at the beginning. With this quote he wanted to make jokes as well, although they were often of ironic truth, sometimes even cynical, but that’s acceptable for this kind of geniuses!

WB: Do you play his Second Piano Concerto too?

ST: I accompanied my students and enjoyed it very much. He wrote it for his son, who wasn’t a very good pianist. Its third movement has a rhythm that is characteristic for music in Macedonia! He was stealing a lot, but he knew how to integrate it in his own music. There is no going around… he had a fantastic mind. Shostakovitsj can produce incredible emotions of intensity and he makes you think, more than others. To live under that kind of stress, not being able to express yourself, having to face people who have no clue about his music and yet he stayed faithful to himself and he was still able to maintain his principles and not to go under even if he had to write works for the occasion.. It is a shame I never had the chance to meet him!

WB: Rachmaninov must be close to your heart too, since you play all of his piano concertos?

ST: Yes, the romanticism is close to my heart, probably because of my personality. It touches me how Russian composers express their emotions.  I had Russian teachers, so it was very natural to play a lot of Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Tschaikofsky and Shostakovitsj for them, but I have explored  many other styles. I really enjoyed playing Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and I hope to go in that direction as well. On one of my CD’s from Wigmore Hall, I play Bach/Liszt and Schubert and I am very happy about it. I remember I played Bach’s Ouverture in the French style for my debut recital at the Kleine Zaal of the Concertgebouw and on my next CD live from Wigmore Hall,  I will play Brahms Intermezzi and his Händel Variations that are not so often played, as well as works by Ravel and Poulenc. For my Wigmore Hall debut, I played Schumann Fantasiestücke and Symphonic Studies and I loved it.

WB: Do you often get the chance to play Beethoven in recital?

ST: No, but I am thinking of it. I played several of his sonatas as a student and I played his 5th Concerto this season. Life is very short for all the music I’d like to play, but I would definitely like to explore his music, for the sake of music and Beethoven. I’d also like to play his 3rd and 4rth Concertos, we’ll see about that!

WB: During the last edition of the Gergiev Festival in Rotterdam, all four Rachmaninov concertos were played the same day. One musicologist said he liked number four best, he thought Rachmaninov didn’t try to write any beautiful melodies and was actually quite modern. What do you think of number four?

ST: That’s correct, it’s a very sexy concerto in its freedom of spirit and development of musical personality! It was the last concerto of the four I studied. Number four shows us another writing of Rachmaninov, its language is full of jazzy harmonies. And in this concerto, he shows wonderful craftsmanship of orchestration. It’s true that the melodies are different: they are shorter, but certainly beautiful. There is also a lot of mystery in the second and third movements, especially towards the end of the development of the last movement, it is like a bad dream at some points..

WB: I think there is a paradox when people call Rachmaninov “old fashioned”, “overly sentimental” or  “music for cinema”, yet I have seldom seen a hall that was more packed than during this afternoon and evening in Rotterdam when all four concertos were played!

ST: His melodies touch the heart, Rachmaninov evokes this kind of emotions..

WB: Do you have a favourite among the piano concertos?

ST: Yes, my favourite is number one! It’s the result of his Russian period, after its completion he left Russia. I played the revised version, which is more compact than the original. Especially after number two, people “expected” beautiful melodies from Rachmaninov. If you take the Paganini Rhapsody, people always remember Variation number 18, which is actually the reversion of the theme, but other than that there are not many beautiful melodies.

WB: It’s interesting what you say about the Paganini Rhapsody, but it’s such a scintillating piece and I find the pianissimo conclusion so surprising!

ST: Yes, at the end Rachmaninov wants to say: “There you are, I can finish like this as well!” Sadly, both the First and the Fourth Concertos are not often performed, I played them a few years ago, but I should do them again, you should come when I play them! (laughs)

WB: I remember all of a sudden that I heard you play number three in Lille, back in 2004, during a piano festival!

ST (laughs loudly): You were there! We had a very short rehearsal, they cut it and the Yamaha piano wasn’t that great… but a member of the organisation of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in the audience and he was thrilled. He told me I should play in that competition, but I said: “No thanks, I am done with competitions!”

WB: A French critic compared your recording of the First, Fourth Concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody with Rachmaninov’s own and praised your non-ostentatious virtuosity. That should be some of the highest praise, shouldn’t it?

ST: Can you send that review to me? I am glad he wrote that, unfortunately I don’t play often in France, but it’s certainly nice to hear that there are people who like my recordings.  Yes, I think you have to play his music with nobility and elegance, you shouldn’t be too sentimental, the “Chopinization”of romantic composers is bad, because Chopin is a very delicate composer. A lot of pianists are milking him! Taste in music is what I learnt from my Russian teachers.

WB: How difficult is it to approach music in a fresh way, as if you discover it on the spot, especially in warhorses like Rachmaninov 2 or Beethoven 4?

ST: It is difficult…when I play Beethoven 5, Rach 2, Tschaikofsky 1, Grieg or Schumann concertos, I don’t like to play them in order to sell tickets. I try to explore more and find a meaning that I missed when I was learning it. It’s all about the inexplicable magic that music brings out.. When I am tired or when I think “Here I go to play … again”, I should think of the privilege to touch an instrument, to produce sounds and to create, about the happiness this brings to you. The majority of people can’t play an instrument, so you should be happy. This thought should come when you play something famous; the concept stays the same, but you are always exploring yourself. People expect you to be on a high level: you have a responsibility towards yourself, that is your first responsibility!

WB: Are you never playing on automatic pilot?

ST: No, never! If the machine is taking over, I am not afraid to stop! I composed songs and played the accordion, so I could do different things…

WB: My teacher sometimes speaks about “intelligent practising”, can you relate to that? Do you have any examples of this?

ST: Yes, you have to focus on the problems that arise and stay calm. You should allow yourself time, then you can go faster. I memorised Brahms First Concerto in five days and Rachmaninov and Prokofiev Third Concertos within one month, but sometimes the memory works slower. You also have to spread your energy. And last but not least: you should enjoy what you do!

WB: What will you do for the rest of the day?

ST: My brother will come and we will have dinner together. Tomorrow is his birthday. A few people will come to the concert in Amsterdam on Sunday morning and on Monday I’ll fly to San Francisco for concerts and masterclasses!

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



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


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.

WB: Why?

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