English profiles

Hilversum, 25 April 2005

Meeting Vladimir Ashkenazy for an interview can seem a daunting task. How to squeeze in an appointment in his very busy schedule? After his concert in Amsterdam in July 2004 with the NHK Symphony Orchestra he was willing, but immediately asked: “The question is when and where?” Thankfully, he came with a solution himself: “I will be in Hilversum in the Netherlands to record a CD at the end of April 2005.”  Willem Boone and Jeroen Vonhögen spoke with Vladimir Ashkenazy, who was recording Respighi with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in one of the Dutch radio studios in Hilversum.  The interview took place in the canteen, where the conductor and pianist had lunch, together with his wife Dody.

Willem Boone (WB): If I look at your achievements, the number of records you have made, the concerts for many decades both as a pianist and a conductor, the amount of works you have played, it is simply mind-boggling. Where do you get the energy from to do all this?

Vladimir Ashkenazy (VA): From my parents, I suppose (laughs)... Let me get my wife, she is lost (walks away and comes back with his wife Dody)

WB: Are you indeed such a well-organized person as they say? Someone has said: “If you give Ashkenazy one hour, he’ll work for two hours”

VA: People talk too much, I don’t know...
Dody Ashkenazy (DA): Yes, you are extremely organized!

WB: Are you a quick learner?

VA: Fortunately, yes, I am, but many people are, that’s nothing special... All my friends are quick learners. I am a quick sight-reader, that’s a gift.


WB: I am reminded of a Dutch conductor, who does a lot of music on period instruments, Frans Brüggen. He once said he always heard music in his head, even when talking to someone, for instance the first movement of a Haydn Symphony at the beginning of an interview and half an hour later he heard the last movement.... What about you, do you always hear music in your head?

VA: No, when you interview me, I think of what you are saying!

WB: In the past, you conducted several substantive projects at the same time, such as the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, all the Chopin piano works and the Mozart piano concertos. Let’s take Beethoven, you also played all his concertos, the violin and cello sonatas, the piano trios. Is it necessary for you to know the entire output of a composer?

VA: Yes, of course it is, but the main reason was that both Decca and myself were interested in these projects. It is a challenge to play a lot of music.

WB: Do you read correspondance and biographies of composers to know more about them?

VA: Sometimes, you basically find out that they too were human beings. They were gifted, but they had problems too. It can be informative, for instance I found out that Beethoven had such an incredible warm heart, the way he helped his nephew.... but reading biographies doesn’t always help you to play better...


WB: Have you ever thought of visiting the room where Schubert lived in order to understand his music?

VA: The music speaks for itself, biographies only confirm what you find in the music. You have to understand music by itself.

WB: I’d like to talk about a few things that strike me when I listen to your piano playing. One of the things is that you are not only a great technician and an architect, but also a sculpter. You are always shaping the sound, is that something you are conciously working on?

VA (surprised): I don’t know, I don’t comment on my own activities!

WB: You are one of the most prolific recording artists, may I conclude that you obviously feel at home in a recording studio?

VA: Yes, it’s interesting and good to listen to how terrible you are. You can try to improve....

WB: You said in an interview not too long ago that you probably recorded too much, yet you are still doing it, why is that?

VA: It’s my life, if I am asked to record, I do it. It’s fun and I just love music so much. I also have a big record collection.

WB: How many records do you have?

VA: A few thousand CD’s


WB: Do you have time to listen to CD’s?

VA: It’s not that I always want to listen to all of them, but I like to have things when I need them.

WB: There are very few live recordings of yours, are you against it?

VA; No, I am not against it, but you don’t achieve the same result in concert as in a recording studio. A live recording is seldom perfect.

WB: Can you achieve spontaneity in a studio?

VA: Of course you can, otherwise there is no point. Music can’t be just clinical!

WB: Which role do recordings have in your life, do you want to document certain stages throughout your career?

VA: No, I don’t listen to my CD’s, if I am asked to record things, I do it.

WB: Why did you choose to re-record a lot of things?

VA: You try to improve things..

WB: There is something that strikes me in your recordings, particularly those from the 70’s and 80’s, they sound slightly agressive and very closely miked. Is that on your request?

VA: I have no idea what you are talking about, I have no answer to it..(asks his wife)
DA: He usually is not very particular about getting a certain sound, but in recordings from the 60’s, the sound used to be very muted with the piano in the background. Maybe Decca got complaints about that and changed things? The only thing he basically asks when he is in a studio is: “Can we record? “


WB: Do you listen to tapes after you recorded?

VA: Yes, I have to

WB: Is that painful to you?

VA: No, normally, it’s OK.

WB: Did/do you have carte blanche from Decca?

VA: I have/had a wide choice, normally they agreed with a lot of things I asked. Things are difficult now, because the market is low.

WB: Suppose you would have asked to play piano works by Dvorak or Kodaly, would Decca have agreed?

VA: They have other pianists too, but I had a good choice, I can’t complain. There were priorities though, such as the Beethoven sonatas. The most important is that I was able to play great music, I have been lucky to record the basic repertoire.

WB: An exclusive recording contract must have been a powerful back up for your career, how should young pianists make a career nowadays when contracts are being constantly discontinued?

VA: I don’t know, life changes, there are no prescriptions...


 

WB: You said in a public interview before your concert in Amsterdam in August
Last year that you hardly played the piano in public any more..

VA; No, I didn’t say that, I said I played much less, but I still practice every day and learn a lot of repertoire.

WB: And do you still play piano concertos?

VA: Yes, I direct Mozart and Beethoven concertos from the keyboard.

WB: And you are still recording solo repertoire, some of it being fiendishly difficult, e.g the Rachmaninov transcriptions. Would you still be able to play that in recitals?

VA: I don’t play recitals any more, I have no time.

WB: When did you stop giving recitals?

VA:About three years ago.

WB: I attended a few rounds of the Liszt competition in Utrecht earlier this month, where pianists had to play, among other things, the first Mephisto waltz. I can’t remember one memorable performance, but when I came home and listened to your disc, I couldn’t believe how you played those treacherous jumps at such awesome speed. Was that “difficult” to you?

VA: It’s slavery and a gift (laughs)


 

WB: You have of course worked with many conductors. Was there any conductor from whom you really learnt things that were of use when you took up conducting yourself?

VA: It’s difficult to say how much you can learn..

WB: You must have learnt things when you watched them?

VA: I couldn’t watch them, I was to busy to learn, when I had to play! In the end, you can’t imitate, you have to do your own thing. You get ideas and you try to work them out, you try this or that and try not to do anything stupid. Klemperer already said (Ashkenazy quite funnily imitates how the great conductor spoke when he was paralyzed) “You can’t teach someone to be a conductor”

WB: One of my favourite recordings is your first reading of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto with Kyrill Kondrashin. Do you remember him?

VA: (smiles), yes, I do!

WB: I have the impression that he is a rather underrated conductor, was he famous in Russia at the time?

VA: Yes, I think so, he was great.

WB: Are there any pianists with whom you particularly enjoy working?

VA: I like many pianists, as a conductor, I accompanied many colleagues, Pollini, Zimerman, Lupu, Perahia, Richter...


WB: Did you work with Argerich?

VA: Yes, I did, she’s a very warm person

WB: Isn’t it difficult to keep up with her?

VA: No, she is very easy to work with!

WB: Have you never considered playing duos with her? She works with so many pianists!

VA: Yes, I know that, but never thought of working with her as a piano duo

WB: Your colleague Zoltan Kocsis played and conducted Liszt’s first concerto from the keyboard and the conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos even did Prokofiev’s third piano concerto in this double role. Is that the limit of what you can do both as a soloist/conductor?

VA: You can do anything if you have enough rehearsal time, but playing and conducting Liszt and Prokofiev is not always advisable..

WB: Isn’t that the problem nowadays that you don’t get enough rehearsal time? Zimerman complained about that last year!

VA: Well, then you have to do it in one rehearsal!


 

WB: I have a few questions about some composers, you announced last year a recording of Bach’s Wohltemparierte Klavier. Is that correct?

VA: Yes, I just finished that.

WB: You said previously you were in awe of Bach, but somehow afraid to tackle his music, what made you change your mind?

VA: I am still afraid and still in awe, but I like challenges. And you know, I got used to playing many voices at the same time... I think it’s not so bad, some of them were really well played..

WB: Does it probably have something to do with your traversal of the complete Preludes and Fugues of Shostakovitch?

VA: O no, they are so different!

WB: Did you ever hear Shostakovitch as a pianist?

VA: No, I didn’t, but he wasn’t a good pianist, he never practized. There is a recording where he played his piano concertos and it isn’t very good. When he was young, he used to be better and even did silent films.

WB: You have said more than once that you dislike Liszt

VA: Yes, but some of it is fantastic! He was a strange man... (thinks).. he had a controversial character. On the one hand, there was the purity of expression, but something went against it. Sometimes, he was fantastically inspired, for instance in the B-minor sonata or the first Mephisto waltz, but a lot of his music is over the top. But what counts; he was incredibly devoted to music, he taught so many musicians and promoted Beethoven on the piano. And his imagination was amazing.


Jeroen Vonhögen (JV): What do you think of his late piano works?

VA: There is an attempt to get to another level, but he was at his best in his diabolical works , the first Mephisto waltz is fantastic.

WB: And what about the Totentanz?

VA: Mephisto is better! (laughs)

WB: And the concertos? You did his first concerto when you won the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 1956

VA: They are allright, but it wouldn’t be my first choice.

JV: Did you do the symphonic poems as a conductor?

VA: No, I never conducted any symphonic works by Liszt. Nobody asked me to do that, but I would like to do the Faust Symphony. Maybe it’s not totally convincing, but it’s a genuine piece. Liszt was definitely a genius.

WB: Is Chopin more your man?

VA: Ah, unbelievable! (looks up) He was really economical in his music. His late music is beyond comment, both on a spiritual and musical level. It’s organic, it makes sense. He was not going ahead of his time for the sake of going ahead. He was unlike Schönberg with his dodecaphonic music. I don’t like Schönberg’s attitude to art. Alban Berg was gifted though..

JV: Do you remember the first time you heard Chopin’s music?


VA: No, I don’t...

WB: There is one work though, which you didn’t include in your set of complete Chopin works, the Andante spianato and grande Polonaise brillante.

VA: That’s a brillant piece of a young composer, I like it, but it’s mostly played with orchestra. I didn’t get to it, I apologize for my omission, but it was not delibirate... there are many great recordings, they won’t miss mine...

JV: You also played Chopin’s first sonata, which is a rare piece

VA: It’s a student piece, Chopin was about fourteen or fifteen years old when he composed it. It’s embryonic and not very good.

JV: Was there any modern music dedicated to you?

VA: Yes, John Ogdon composed five Preludes for me, I played them.

JV: Does that make them special?

VA: No, but they are very idiomatic musically! Rautavaara also composed a piano concerto for me, that’s a very interesting sound world. And Andre Previn also composed a concerto for me.


WB: Didn’t he say when you played his Piano Concerto, which he dedicated to you, “It is a difficult piece, but the son of a bitch (Ashkenazy) read right through it”?

VA: No, that’s not true, Andre exaggerated my ability to learn. He is a good friend. Besides, of course it took time to learn the concerto which I liked very much. You see, that’s how legends get created. Don’t trust everything you hear! I will give you an example of how unreliable the press is. I was reading the Herald Tribune of last Monday (18 April 2005, WB) and in the section “People” I saw my name. I had been nominated conductor laureate for the season 2007-2008 of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. I agreed when they asked me, because it’s a good orchestra. The newspaper wrote: “Ashkenazy heard the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time when he was eleven years old and he was so moved when he heard them do Mahler first Symphony”. Now in 1948, I was living in Russia, and at the time I had never heard of Mahler or the Liverpool Philharmonic! It appeared that the editor of the Herald Tribune confused the biographies of Sir Simon Rattle and myself! It’s not a crime, but why? Why can’t they be accurate? It’s just unprofessional to write such things!

WB: Just one of my last questions, how is your oldest son doing? He is also a pianist, isn’t he?

VA: He is fine. We just played Ravel’s La Valse on two pianos at a Steinway gala in Hamburg. He now teaches in Angoulème, in France.

WB: Isn’t it just terrible to have a father called Vladimir Ashkenazy?

VA: Yes, it’s difficult... it doesn’t help things!


 

WB: What are you recording in Hilversum at the moment?

VA: Respighi’s Feste Romane, a very loud piece! But the orchestra is very good!

© Willem Boone 2005

Nijmegen, 16 October 2009

Willem Boone (WB): I really loved your Scarlatti recording. On your website you wrote about Scarlatti and Haydn that their music is “a luxury, because there are not many instructions in the music”. Is that the reason that you play Scarlatti in a rather bold, pianistic way with different dynamics in the repeats, embellishments, etc?

Yevgeny Sudbin (YS): I wanted to bring him to life through the piano. His sonatas were of course written for different instruments such as the harpsichord and sometimes for organ. Playing them on a modern piano is some sort of a transcription in a way, which allows you much more freedom. A piano offers so much variety! Haydn’s music is similar; he doesn’t like rules, he breaks them all the time. It’s full of life and humor.


WB: What do you like most about Scarlatti’s music?

YS: The overwhelming feeling of life-force he injects into his music. He captures Spanish life so well, you hear people dancing, guitars, drums... The variety of moods is incredible.

WB: And what about the melancholy in a lot of his sonatas?

YS: Some of the sonatas I recorded are very poignant and painful. In these pieces, as Horowitz remarked, he clearly speaks to God, in other ones he speaks to the people. I played so much Scarlatti lately, I need a break from his music. Some people tell me I have to play more big encores, therefore I didn’t do Scarlatti tonight (instead of this, he played his own transcription of Rachmaninov’s song Floods of Spring, WB).

WB: What you said about indications in Haydn’s and Scarlatti’s music goes for Bach too, doesn’t it? He allows you a lot of freedom as well.........

YS: Bach is different, he always communicates with God. Unlike Scarlatti, he is not portraying people’s life, there is always a spiritual dimension. Although I am not religious, I clearly feel this while playing his music. You are right in a way that you can perform his music with freedom too. I don’t like pianists who perform Bach in a detached way and without pedal. That’s the way it’s sometimes taught in Russia. I noticed that many young pianists make their debut recordings with Bach. If it is done well, it can be a big success. Bach can sound very well on a modern piano, but Scarlatti allows more variety in approach I feel.

WB: How do you feel about the music of Padre Antonio Soler, which is more or less from the same period as Scarlatti’s?

YS: I haven’t played any of it at all; can you recommend good recordings of his music?

WB: Alicia de Larrocha made an early recording with a selection and the excellent young pianist Luis Fernando Perez just released an album with Soler sonatas.

WB: A friend of mine heard your recital at Wigmore Hall a few years ago, where you played two Haydn sonatas. He liked it so much that he wouldn’t have minded an all Haydn recital of yours. Would you ever consider such a thing?

YS: No, I am afraid maybe only four people would stay for that! I have been asked to do all Scarlatti recitals, but it is maybe a bit too much for the audience. For my Wigmore debut, I did two Haydn sonatas, which takes about 35 minutes. It is possible to play Haydn during the first half of a recital. You have to pay attention to the programme of a recital. If they are not well programmed it may be difficult for the audience to stay focused.

WB: There is an eminent Dutch conductor of music on period instruments, Frans Brüggen, the conductor of the Orchestra of the 18th Century, who said the other day about Haydn’s music and more specifically about his humor that it is for “connaisseurs” as opposed to Mozart’s . What do you think of this?

YS: Humor is humor, if you are able to tell a joke, people will understand it.. Of course, you can make it overly intellectual or sophisticated, but it’s not necessary. Haydn’s music has very earthy elements, he had a big connection to life. His music can be very outrageous, but sarcasm and humour is always prevalent.

WB: Your next CD will be released soon, which includes the Second Piano Concerto of Medtner. I did my “homework” for this interview and listened to your recording of his First Concerto. However, I must confess that I still have a hard time with this piece......

YS: You managed to listen to the whole piece?!

WB: Yes, I did, I think it lacks coherence in spite of some beautiful moments!

YS: It is difficult to understand when you hear it for the first time. It is not for everybody. Medtner was a genius in my view and his compositions are very logical. Rachmaninov was sometimes envious of Medtner, however they admired each other and never copied each other’s music. The structure of the First Piano Concerto is strict, it is one big movement. The problem is that the melodies are so difficult and the thematic elements are complex that it’s easy to lose attention. There are no big tunes either unlike in Rachmaninov. Have you tried to listen to his Second Concerto?

WB: Is it easier to listen to?

YS: Easier to listen yes, easier to play no!

WB: On your site you wrote something interesting about Medtner: “One only needs to hear the same piece twice and a few more times and something might just happen. Addiction sets in”. How addictive is his music really?

YS: If you listen more to it, you feel it makes sense after a while. I listened to all of his music and it is not easy for the first time. But the more I heard it, the more addictive it became. Furthermore, his music is very pianistically written. Medtner was tormented between a career as a pianist and as a composer. He didn’t know what to pursue. He switched back and forth between these two careers.

WB: Why is he not better known if he writes that well for piano?

YS: That has more to do with the audience than the pianist I would suggest. The music is difficult to sight read of course, but the onus is with the audience whether something is popular or not. The concertos though are rarely played, not many pianists championed them in the past either which has maybe to do with the programming and orchestras. Horowitz apparently played a lot of his music when he was still in Russia, but he recorded only one short piece. He had plans to record the First Concerto, but they never materialized.

WB: Another composer I have difficulties to relate to is the late Scriabin. I love his first sonatas, but after the 5th Sonata, I really have a hard time to understand his music!

YS: Actually, his music is much less coherent than Medtner’s! For my Scriabin CD, I started with early pieces and ended with late works, maybe that way you can relate better. Surprisingly, the late pieces are much easier to play than the early ones! The Waltz opus 38 or the early Etudes are very difficult, roughly all his compositions until opus 30 are awkward to play from a technical point of view while the late works are more emotionally demanding. Scriabin is like Szymanovsky, they both established their style at the end of their lifes. As a musician, you know what you have to do. For Scriabin’s late music, you have to read the adjectives in the score, he wrote little poems for some of the pieces, that may help as well to understand his music better. Actually, it doesn’t matter whether or not you do, since the late pieces are full of mystery and sometimes entirely insane...
The Piano Concerto I played tonight is very difficult too, have you heard it before?

WB: Yes, I did. By the way, you used to score but you hardly looked at it!

YS: It is still fresh music for me and it’s the second time I am playing it in public.

WB: The other composer you will play on your last CD is Rachmaninov, most interestingly you play it in the original version from 1926 which, according to your website, is “glorious but almost unheard of”. Isn’t that actually a reason in itself that it is probably not a good piece if hardly anybody plays it?

YS: It could be, although it is not always the case when a piece is neglected. There are also quite some neglected compositions by Chopin!

WB: Which ones for instance?

YS: The Impromptus, not the 4th of course, but the first three Impromptus are rarely played. The same goes for a lot of Mazurkas, many pianists prefer to play the Scherzi and Ballades.

WB: Back to the 4th Concerto by Rachmaninov, you wrote on your site that there are three versions of it?

YS: Probably a lot more, he was constantly revising his compositions. In the revised version we know nowadays, he made most changes in the last movement. He tried to make it more popular with a big tune at the end. But either versions, are not considered to be one of his strongest works.It is on the border of modern music and still very romantic.

WB: In what way is it modern?

YS: The rhythm is very jazzy. There are a lot of syncopations, Rachmaninov took this example from Medtner who often used interesting rhythmic patterns. In the original version, the orchestra sounds sometimes chaotic, it is a potpourri of different things.

WB: The original version is substantially longer than the revised one!

YS: Yes, it’s much longer, over 100 bars.

WB: The revised version is the one Michelangeli has played?

YS: Yes, indeed.

 

WB: You actually wrote that apart from him no other master pianists of the past championed this work, like they did with his Third. That’s not completely true, is it? Ashkenazy, Wild, Orozco and Kocsis included the Fourth in their recording of the complete piano concertos?

YS: All the pianists you mentioned are considered contemporary. I was referring to the Golden Age pianists. Some clearly had it in their repertoire but it was never performed.

WB: Which version did Rachmaninov himself play on the recording we still have?

YS: It is the revised version with some slight variations in the orchestral part.

WB: Rachmaninov revised his First Concerto too, did you play that in the original version too?

YS: No, I haven’t. The notes are different, but the thematic differences are not huge. I am not sure whether his revisions were always an improvement in general. He was very paranoid, he revised so many things that didn’t need revision. I think for instance that the original of the Second Sonata is a much better piece.

WB: You said the technical difficulties in the original Fourth Concerto were “insanely difficult”. How difficult are they really as opposed to the Third Concerto, that is generally considered as the most difficult of the four?

YS: It is much more difficult than the Third, which is actually very comfortable to play! The Second Concerto has some awkward moments too.

WB: And what about the Paganini Rhapsody?

YS: It is very pianistic, but I don’t like it very much.

WB: Why not? Don’t you find it spellbinding?

YS: It doesn’t offer much freedom for a pianist, it is as if you are accompanying the orchestra. I feel the piano part is constrained by the orchestra.

WB: In your recording of the Chopin Variations, you left out a few variatons, why was that?

YS: I omitted the fugue-like twelfth variation and the coda, which destroys the tranquil atmosphere of the previous meno mosso section. Rachmaninov in fact made variations VII, X, XII and the coda optional for performance. He only wrote the cascading coda as a crowd pleaser, it has no musical reason really.

WB: The Daily Telegraph hailed you as “potentially one of the greatest pianists of the 21th Century”. What is your reaction to such praise?

YS: It is crazy, I feel embarassed and don’t like it being quoted. Agents however often like finding catchy quotes.

WB: Does that put a strain on you?

YS: Yes, it does. It is not like in sports, it’s a highly subjective matter and everyone will have a preference.

WB: But aren’t you flattered either that people write this about you?

YS: No, I am terrified! I can’t read positive reviews nor can I read negative ones. I wish positive reviews made me as happy as negative ones make me miserable, so I try not to read any at all! I was so nervous when my Scarlatti CD came out before my Wigmore Hall debut. It was a very positive review, but after that I never read any of them any more. I am terrified of extreme reactions and you know, things can turn very quickly. There have been pianists who were first praised and then heavily critisized...

WB: Can you mention examples of this?

YS: No, I don’t want to mention names.

WB: I read that your recording contract with BIS has been renewed for another seven years and that you will do 14 new CD’s. Can you reveal any of your new plans?

YS: I will do a Haydn disc and the Beethoven Concertos with the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä. There will be Chopin and probably Liszt. Then a CD with solo works by Medtner. I have already done the 7th Sonata by Prokofiev, but I am not sure what else will be on the CD. I’d like to do a recording with all of his war sonatas. I also recorded Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, probably coupled to the Miroirs... Do you prefer CD’s with only one composer?

WB: Well, I don’t mind if there are two composers on the same CD!

YS: I am sometimes constrained by the idea that it is hard to categorize them in a shop when there are two composers on the same CD. They don’t know where to put them!

WB: Another thing I’d really like to know, what do you think of playing encores?

YS: I don’t like it. Did I look like I enjoyed it after tonight’s concert?

WB: Probably not, but you played one after all!

YS: The audience usually likes it, but ideally I wouldn’t. You don’t need them, they often trivilize concerts as they are often flashy.

WB: But then again, you could do like Claudio Arrau who never played any during his career?

YS: I respect Arrau, and wish I could do it, but I also have a responsability towards the audience and if they enjoy it, and I think they do more often than don’t, it is not a huge issue. When I feel it is a huge issue, I don’t play encores.

WB: How do you practice? Do you have any rituals?

YS: You could write a book about that; 90 % of my practice is slow. Depending on whether I know a piece or whether I don’t, it is combined with fast practice. I hate when people listen to me practise.

WB: Does your wife (who is also a pianist and who teaches in London, WB) listen to you while practising?

YS: She probably hears me practise, but I don’t think she listens.

WB: On your website you told that your colleague Stephen Hough advised you to play in the dark? Why on earth would you do that?

YS: The idea is that we have so many senses, if you switch off one, the others will compensate. I don’t do it very often though.

WB: What did it bring to you?

YS: It could be useful, for instance with Liszt who sometimes writes big jumps. I sometimes practise without sound too, on a silent keyboard.

WB: Why?

YS: Because then I won’t be distracted by the sound.

WB: Are you the type of musician who can learn pieces in a plane?

YS: Yes, I often do that, looking at the score helps the memory. I sometimes go through scores before I go to bed, although it makes you sleepy too which is a good thing as I can’t fall asleep after concerts...

WB: Do you have a good memory?

YS: Normally yes, but two weeks is short to learn a new concerto or piece. It normally takes up to five or six weeks.

WB: Do you ever suffer from stage fright?

YS: My confidence is always at the lowest before I play. I would like to have more confidence in general. You are never completely relaxed, but I usually get more confident during the actual performance. On the other hand, it is good to be nervous and excited, since it also helps you to give the best of yourself.

WB: Do you have any pianistic fears, certain composers you don’t like to play?

YS: I don’t play much Bach in public, but generally my fears are not related to composers. Not having enough time to prepare is more of a real fear. Or not being well prepared physically or being overbooked...Sometimes, I am not confortable with Rachmaninov’s music in concert, e.g his Fourth Concerto, Second Sonata or Chopin Variations, etc.

WB: It doesn’t stop you from playing them...

YS: No, because I like challenges.

WB: I really like that you write your own texts in the booklets of your CD’s!

YS: I like to write texts. I don’t like to only play the piano, there might be other things I enjoy doing!

WB: You made me laugh with a comment in the booklet of your Scarlatti recording,when you wrote about the so called “Cat’s Fugue” and said you unsuccesfully experimented with your own cat...

YS: My cat hates the piano!

WB: Someone wrote in the guestbook of your website “You could have a second career as a fashion model”. How flattering is that?

YS: It isn’t.. I am not sure it is a compliment if the looks impress more than the playing! But I know that’s not what was meant.

WB: But even in classical music, it can’t harm to be good looking?

YS: Anybody can be famous in classical music. It is one of the few things you can do in public, be a kind of celebrity, while still looking hideous... Being handsome could be a disadvantage sometimes! Maybe for cross-over artists, it might play an important role, but in classical music it doesn’t make any difference!

Before the interview started, during the intermission and the second part of the concert (I was able to hear the Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra play Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances!), Yevgeny Sudbin was worried about the taxi that was supposed to drive him back to his hotel in Arnhem. Since Arnhem is not very far away from Nijmegen, I offered to drive him back. He agreed and the taxi was cancelled. The good thing about this was that it allowed me to continue the interview and ask him all sorts of other questions even while walking back to my car and driving to Arnhem. Questions about his favourite pianists (“Sokolov, to whom I’d like to play, Pletniev, whom I admire, even if I don’t like everything he does, Kissin, Argerich for whom I’d like to play too and among the pianists of the past Horowitz, Cherkassky, Moiseiwitsch”), chamber music (“I like it, but don’t do it often, a few times a year”), instruments (“I’d like to take my own piano with me if I had the money, I first would have to get a full-size piano, since I “only” play on a Steinway B, which is still a wonderful instrument”), the difficulty of having to play on different pianos every time (“Espcially in the USA, although I got a good Hamburg Steinway in New York, which I ask for when I am there, unfortunately they couldn’t take it to Minnesota when I recorded Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto”), his Proms Debut with Rachmaninov’s First Concerto (“The Albert Hall is extremely tricky, you can’t project your sound and you hear the orchestra as if they are playing in a small room”), masterclasses he attended (“Bashkirov was nice to me, I think he liked me, although I know he has an incredibly powerful personality, he is my favourite in the Scriabin Concerto actually! Fleisher was great, paid a lot of attention to sound, Perahia was very strict about structure), and the job of being a pianist (When I said to him “It is quite a profession”, he answered “It is an unhealthy profession, but somehow I seem to need it. I try not to stay away too long from the audience, the longest was two months I think”).

Arnhem, 24 May 2013

Yuja Wang took the world by storm, only a few years ago. At the piano, she is fearless and actually during interviews she is not afraid either to give her opinion on a lot of different subjects. She was a delight to speak to: self-critical, realistic, yet very witty. And disarmingly honest. She made me smile when she said in the middle of the interview: “Wow, I am talking a lot, which I sometimes don’t do during interviews, you must be nice!” I took it as a compliment…

Willem Boone (WB): You played a recital that one could call “challenging” from a technical standpoint, how important is technique for you?

Yuja Wang (YW): I don’t think of music and technique separately, there is no dichotomy. If I am good in technique, I am good with the music too. The programme of this recital covers a short period of time, except the first piece, Gargoyles by Lowell Liebermann. It is a bit of a schizophrenic piece.

WB: In what way?

YW: In a schizophrenic way (laughs).  I like Scriabin; I know his second sonata, which I recorded. However, the 6th sonata is very new to me, its character is unfathomable. It evokes a scary, mysterious and alien world. I was so scared to play the first chord, since it is so dark! Everything seems to crumble down there … Something similar happens in La Valse, at the end everything seems to collapse.

WB: The programme note described Scriabin’s 6th sonata as “horrible”, how horrible is it really?

YW: I think it is meant in the sense of “terrifying”. There are a lot of indications in his music like “concentrated” , “hysterious” and sometimes also in French, for instance ”ailé”, but what do they mean after all?

WB: Do they give you clues for interpretation?

YW: Yes, very good clues. The more I play the 6th sonata, the more I find it really genius. Scriabin adds a lot of colours. The whole composition is formless, it is assembled in a crazy way. It is disorganized and in this respect it is the opposite of La Valse. I am curious about discovering such a new sound world and I like it.

WB: Did he write this sonata in the period when  he had “lost it?”

YW: He was in the beginning of losing it… The 6th, 7th and 8th sonatas are really hard to play, the 9th and 10th are easier to understand.

WB: How do you memorize a piece like the 6th sonata?

YW: It was really hard, but once I know the harmonies and hidden melodies, I am ok.

WB: And how long did it take you?

YW: I started at Christmas, but it hardly took me two weeks. I had to, because it was in my schedule!

WB: Do you put yourself tasks timewise?

YW: I hate to do this, but agents always ask me certain pieces in advance, so I scheduled it when I did not know the piece yet!

WB: You do not seem to be afraid of anything and you play the most challenging repertoire like Rachmaninov Third Concerto, Bartok Second Concerto, Prokofiev Second Concerto, Petrouchka… at such a young age. Is there anything left  for, say, the next ten or twenty years?

YW: O yes, so much! There is a lot of Brahms I have not done and someone suggested Kapustin which I have never tried. I am also interested in Iberia and new composers…

WB: Is there anything that scares you in the piano repertoire?

YW: Yes, I am afraid of Bach! He was the first composer I learnt when I was young. It may sound as a cliché, but his music is peaceful and good for the soul. However, Bach is something I’d like to play for myself. I would be so scared to play one of his Partitas! By the way, I am a big admirer of Glenn Gould..

WB: Mozart is also a composer who seems to scare a lot of pianists, what about you?

YW: I love his operas, but right now I am not into Mozart. He is maybe overrated, since people always call him “a genius” , I think he is for people before 12 and after 60 (laughs). Compared to Mozart, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov are way easier! I have to say that I like Horowitz’s Mozart playing…

WB: You do?

WB: Speaking of great pianists, have you often been compared to Martha Argerich?

YW: We are both women and have black hair, but other than that, it is a cliché. She was the best of her generation and I want to be the best of my generation. In Tokyo they compare me to Kissin and Pollini..

WB: And what do you think of such a comparison?

YW: The only comparison I like is with Horowitz, although I do not like his Beethoven and Chopin. People think he had a brilliant technique, but it was not all about technique. He was basically a magician, there was a very strong theatrical aspect in his playing.

WB: It has been said about Horowitz that he was “a great pianist but a shallow musician”

YW: You cannot say that, as soon as he plays, you know it is him, that is not something everybody has! There was this concert in Tokyo where he played very badly (It was in 1983 when Horowitz was on medication).. I watch it every time I feel bad about my own playing…

WB: I managed to watch the entire concert the other day on Youtube and even though the playing was messy and technically insecure, there was some of the old magic in Chopin’s Polonaise Fantaisie…

YW: I never went that far..  Horowitz took risks during concerts, he risked himself..

WB: You just mentioned that the Japanese compared you to both Kissin and Pollini, why is that?

YW: I have no idea, ask the Japanese (laughs). I  love Pollini, he and Kissin are both  perfection

WB: A lot of critics seem to refer of Pollini as a “cold technician”, what is your opinion on his playing?

YW: They say the same about me!

WB: Does that make you angry?

YW: No, it does not really matter, during a concert, nobody is playing but myself and only I know how good or bad I am doing! As to Pollini, he was the first pianist I heard when I was young, Kissin is one of my idols, too. It is probably true that both became colder and more intellectual over the years. There are other pianists I like: Pletniev, Pogorelich, Volodos, Sokolov..

WB: I once read that you met Kissin and that it was a “catastrophe”? In what way?

YW: He can hardly talk. However, I took a lesson on Prokofiev 6th sonata with him in Verbier. Interestingly, his teacher who always travels with him heard me practise and she thought it was him..

WB: How did you like that lesson?

YW: It was amazing, all difficulties disappeared when he taught. It was really vivid and inspiring. He is also very intuitive. I was in love with his lessons!

WB: When did this happen?

YW: It was back in 2010. He was there when I played Rachmaninov Second Concerto. But you know, I do not like my own Rachmaninov playing, I like myself better in Prokofiev.

WB: That is surprising, since you played Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata tonight?

YW: The music should be giving back to you when you play, when I perform Rachmaninov I put in so much, but nothing comes back…

WB: How do you manage to keep up with this job?

YW: I do not think in terms of “a job”, I do not have a job, it is my life. I have lived a lot more years than my age!

WB: You seem quite together!

YW: Probably because I like it. It is a fulfilling life; I have been playing the piano for ever, but I do not want to be a piano player. I want to do something through music. Classical music offers so much variety; you fall in love with music and you enrich people’s lives (thinks) … this sounds like bullshit, she knows how to do smooth talk (laughs).

WB: Are you nervous about the Amsterdam concert on Sunday (2 days later in the “Meesterpianisten” series at the Concertgebouw, WB)?

YW: Yes, it is the second time I will play there. The first time I did  Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Before this concert, I gave a recital at Carnegie Hall.

WB: What did you play there?

YW: The same programme as tonight and after Amsterdam, I will go to Vienna.

WB: Wow, you play in all the important venues of the world, one after the other! When will you be back in the Netherlands?

YW: I will be playing Shostakovitch First Piano Concerto with Maris Janssons, but that is another composition I have not studied yet…