English profiles

Amsterdam, 4 June 2009

Alexander Gavrylyuk is the ideal artist for an interviewer: friendly, articulate, highly knowledgeable and his answers are always insightful. I was impressed to speak with a 25 year old pianist who already knows so well what he wants to achieve and bring across.

Arnhem, 21 March 2014

When I wanted to ask Alexander Melnikov for an interview, something unexpected happened.  I asked him whether it would be possible to speak to him the next month (April 2014), but that proved not possible. He then suggested: “We can do it right now!”. That was something I was not prepared for, but then again, this was not an offer I should refuse and… I knew that I wanted to ask him about period instruments, his encounters with Andreas Staier and the legendary Sviatoslav Richter. I was very glad to be offered this possibility and once again, I heard so many fascinating stories from this gifted and modest pianist!

Willem Boone (WB): You said in an interview the other day that you liked to play Mozart on a period instrument, yet you played his Jeunehomme Concerto on a modern Steinway tonight, isn’t it difficult to use such different instruments?

Alexander Melnikov (AM): It’s tricky sometimes. I learnt the Jeunehomme Concerto on a period instrument, about one year ago. There are some difficult fingerings differences in this particular case,  which I struggle with. Otherwise (as long as I don’t play on an early five-octave piano which requires “playing in”), I have no physical problems switching between the different instruments.  Some people say I try to imitate the pianoforte on the Steinway, but I don’t do that on purpose.

WB: At the end of the second movement in the little cadenza you reminded me indeed of a period instrument!

AM: Yes, I did it on purpose there! The richness of the bases disturbs me on a Steinway. There are so many overtones, but there is not much you can do about it. I don’t put the piano in front with the lid open when I play without a conductor, like tonight, especially with Mozart or other pieces up to say 1830s.

WB: I know you worked with Andreas Staier, what did you learn from him?

AM: I met him when I went to his master class in Italy. I played many different composers for him. I was quite influenced by him. What impressed me most was his agility and his incredible knowledge of style and all the historical and cultural contexts  both horizontally and vertically… which enables him to play more freely, more daringly.  He made two recordings of Mozart sonatas and they were an incredible shock, in a positive way. I keep learning so much from him and not only about Mozart.

WB: Another very important influence in your career was Sviatoslav Richter, how did you get to know him?

AM: My mother was a close friend of Oleg Kagan and Natalia Gutman, who played with Richter a lot. She got to know him and they became close friends. In 1986 she accompanied him during through Siberia (on his way to Japan), during which he also played in a lot of small and big places. She wrote a book about him. He was curious about me and he heard a few amateurish recordings of mine. He then wanted me to play for him. In 1993, he invited me to play all the Grieg sonatas, i.e. the piano sonata , cello sonata and the three violin sonatas.  I remember I was afraid like hell. He gave me a few lessons and later, I turned pages for him during a Spanish tour and also in Moscow.

WB: When was that?

AM: The Spanish tour was in the early nineties, he played Haydn Variations in F minor, Beethoven opus 109 and 110 and Scriabin, it was partially the same programme as the one he played in Utrecht.

WB: That was with Chopin and Scriabin…

AM: Yes, I was there too to turn pages and also in Amsterdam in October 1992, when he played five Beethoven sonatas.

WB: I attended that concert! How were the lessons you took with him?

AM: It’s difficult to say. He was very much to the point and extremely precise. Other than that, I can’t really describe without going into details. If you trust someone completely, the things he says automatically become true, you take them for granted.. He had a clear idea about Grieg, he liked his music. You can read some  very poetic descriptions in the Diaries published by Monsaingeon..
I had a similar feeling with someone else I trust so much, Mikhail Pletniev. I was his soloist when he conducted the Russian National Orchestra and Tokyo Philharmonic. He once spent almost an entire day in the backstage room in Ravenna with me.. played something for me, I played something for him, it lasted some hours. I learnt more from him than I have learnt in previous years. Staier,  Alexei Lubimov  and he are the pianists who influenced me most.

WB: Would you call Pletniev a genius?

AM: O yes, big time! (smiles), if some should be called a genius, it’s Pletniev!

WB: I remember an amazing story that he recorded Tschaikofsky’s Second Concerto in one take!

AM: That’s what he does, the same happened when he recorded Rachmaninov and Prokofiev Third Concertos with Rostropovitsj!

WB: He stopped playing the piano for about six years, why was that?

AM: I don’t have the right to talk about it. The most important thing though is that he plays again..

WB: Just back to Richter, when you turned pages for him, were you attentive to what he did? Could you appreciate his artistry?

AM: Yes, he was hypnotic. You sensed his incredible energy, if you were so close, it worked even stronger.  Just the first movement of opus 110 by Beethoven (walks to the piano and demonstrates a few passages), I was blown away by such magnitude and thought: “This can’t be true!”. It was the same during the entire concert, sometimes I could barely turn the pages.. I remember that he was very happy after one of these concerts.. He always said: “I just do what is written in the score”, but I think that is nonsense! Even though he meticulously followed the score, I don’t think at all that his playing was just “objective”, there is no such thing. Take the first movement of the last Schubert G-major sonata for instance: such tempo wouldn’t make sense with any other pianist! Even at his “less successful” concerts when he was already ill at the end I couldn’t care about his mistakes, since there was so much “information” in EACH NOTE he played. Cortot also made mistakes..

WB: Would he still get away with such mistakes nowadays?

AM: Probably not, but there are not many pianists who play like him!

WB: What was the last concert by Richter you heard?

AM: It was in Santander at the end of 1994 I believe, when he played an all Bach programme.

WB: Was he still in good shape?

AM: For my ears, he was always in good shape! Let me tell you another story of someone in “good shape”. In December 2012, I was in Moscow. It was announced that Pletniev would play  for the first time at a closed concert after all these years., but I made sure I went of course. He played Bach’s Concerto in D minor BWV 1052 and the Haydn D major concerto. The Bach was perfect, although it’s not the music like to hear on a modern piano. The Haydn was very special too. Then he said: “I am asked to play a bit more, but you are all free to go” and he played the complete 24 Preludes by Scriabin and Chopin’s C sharp Nocturne as an encore.  I remember Lugansky was there too. It was fantastic,  unbelievable, it felt like we heard Rachmaninov on a good day. What Nikolai told me was very true: with Rachmaninov, Gilels, Richter, Michelangeli, one could always hear if it was an especially good day or not, but with Pletniev it is just ideal. Imagine the nerve it takes to play like this after a six year break.. Speaking of being in shape! (thinks and then he says: “This interview is very good, because I can speak about all the people I like!”)

WB: Didn’t Pletniev play the piano at all during those years?

AM: I know he played the piano in private, because I heard him do something amazing in Tokyo: he performed Chopin’s B flat sonata in the key of B minor and he did it the other way around with the B-minor sonata….

WB: There is another stunning story about him: he apparently heard Pogorelich play a Scarlatti sonata on the radio, one he didn’t know and a few days later, he played that sonata as an encore without having seen the score,…..

AM: I can imagine he did… he is not untalented!

WB: Would you be able to do such things?

AM: No, I absolutely wouldn’t.  Pletniev is definitely one of the pianists who impressed me the most in a live performance. The other two I would mention today are Andras Schiff and Radu Lupu. Of course, there are many other fantastic pianists, but the world would be much poorer without these three…

WB: I don’t think I could ever do an interview with Pletniev like I do with you now?

AM: No, he is not an easy person..

WB: It was said about Richter that he was never satisfied about himself…

AM: No, that is not true, I have seen him being happy several times. He wouldn’t say “It worked” but he was not an unhappy man in general, he had moments of both happiness and depression.. I prefer to be like him, since I am always in a bad mood…

WB: Even after a concert?

AM: It always requires somebody else to make me happy, like tonight. I was happy to make music with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta.

WB: Doesn’t music make you happy?

AM: How can it not? However, my life is hectic: I play all the time, the last two months I travelled twice to America, playing far too much repertoire.. Music is like an escape, since I don’t like the world today, and you have a big problem if you don’t feel happy after the last movement of the Jeunehomme concerto!


Hilversum, 15 February 2012

Andreas Staier is a versatile musician: he does not only play the fortepiano and the harpsichord, but occasionally he also plays the modern piano. I spoke him shortly before two performances on a Steinway grand of Mozart’s Concerto in G major K 453.  When I e-mailed his manager, I was surprised to notice that Staier himself answered within the hour..

Arnhem, 8 November 2010

When I interviewed Barry Douglas, I noticed how taxing the job of a pianist can be: moving from one place to another, struggling against jetlag after a long flight from the United States, a rehearsal and a concert ahead during which he had to substitute for an indisposed Ivan Moravec.. And on top of that an interview…

Willem Boone (WB): I heard you back in 1987 when you played the Third Piano Concerto by Prokofiev with Vladimir Ashkenazy in Amsterdam. Do you still remember this concert?

Barry Douglas (BD): Yes, I do. It was a great tour, we played four concerts, we also played in Luzern, but I do not remember were the other two performances took place.

WB: Is it different when you are accompanied by a conductor who is also a pianist?

BD: He knows the score well, which makes things easy. And Ashkenazy is a wonderful musician!

WB: On your website, I read that you did Brahms’s First Piano Concerto both as a soloist and a conductor? Why would you take on such a difficult job in such a symphonic concerto?

BD: I want to come to a unified interpretation. It is possible to be both conductor and soloist in this concerto, but you need a lot of rehearsals, during which you have to discuss with the leaders of each section. We will do the Second Concerto in April 2011.

WB: You must have done Brahms’s First Concerto with a lot of conductors. Does the fact that you wish to conduct yourself mean that you were not happy with your previous interpretations?

BD: No, I was happy about earlier experiences, although they were never quite exactly what I wanted to do.

WB: Do you always have the scores of the compositions you play with you?

BD: I carry them around, but I know them all.

WB: You will start your recital tonight with two pieces by John Field. I never heard his music played in concerts!

BD: He was an interesting composer and pianist. He was a virtuoso from Dublin and he influenced a lot of composers, e.g. Chopin, Mendelssohn and Liszt, but also Russian composers, since he taught in Sint Petersburg. He also was an interesting personality in Paris in the 1840s.  He wrote seven concertos and he invented the Nocturnes!

WB: Are there any other well-known Irish composers?

BD: In the operatic field there was a composer called Balf and Arnold Bax lived in Ireland for a long time.

WB: Chopin made some bad comments about Field…

BD: Yes, one was not very nice to the other. As far as the Nocturnes are concerned, Chopin was probably more inspired by the belcanto of Bellini, but Field was the one who invented the nocturnes. Of course, Chopin had his own genius…

WB: Speaking of which, I can’t remember I ever heard you play Chopin?

BD: I play his music from time to time.

WB: What do you think of pianists like Brendel who says it’s either Chopin or ‘the others”?

BD: Maybe he is right, maybe he is not, but one thing is for sure: with Chopin, your technique gets better and better!

WB: Is Chopin the only composer where you feel this?

BD: I think so, yes.

WB: Why is that?

BD: He demands such clarity and control with relatively few notes.. It is rather like Mozart..

WB: What is the most difficult to bring out in Chopin’s music according to you?

BD: The breathing of the phrases, especially when the tempi are slow. You have to emulate the human voice.

WB: Your colleague Martha Argerich once said that Chopin and Liszt were “jealous of each other” when combined in the same recital programme. Can you say the same about combining Chopin and Schumann?

BD: It is good to have an intermission in between..Schumann comes from a different tradition. In the First Sonata which I will play tonight, the writing is more symphonic. Field introduces in a quiet way the newness of the Schumann sonata and then, after the intermission, the Chopin Polonaises are dark with big base melodies, in a way there are links with the Schumann sonata. Tonight’s programme is about links between composers.

WB: What makes the First Sonata so new?

BD: He was criticized for being episodic. The build-up of the short episodes produces amazing music.

WB: Don’t you think Schumann was better in shorter pieces?

BD: Not better, anything he wrote was very interesting, even the unusual way he structures the bigger pieces. You could also criticize Beethoven for his later compositions or Brahms for his orchestration..

WB: Was Brahms often criticized for that?

BD: O yes, the orchestration of his First Piano Concerto was called too thick and lacking in clarity..

WB: You won the Tschaikofsky competition in 1986, were you the first non-Russian winner after Van Cliburn in 1958?

BD: No, there were others, like John Ogdon in 1962, but he shared first prize with Ashkenazy.

WB: Is Tschaikofsky still one of your favourite composers?

BD: O yes, he is wonderful!

WB: Did you often get the opportunity to play the Third Concerto or the Fantasy for piano and orchestra?

BD: Neither of them are very popular, I played the Second and Third Concertos a few times, I never played the Fantasy in concert.

WB: So did you learn the latter for the recording?

BD: No, I played it many times in concert

WB: You just said you never performed it in concert?

BD: I meant not since the recording, orchestras are scared to play it..

WB: Isn’t it the pianist who should be scared?

BD: It is not a very difficult piece.

WB: No? There is a huge cadenza, isn’t there?

BD: Yes, you are right, there is a big cadenza..

WB: From a technical standpoint, which of Tschaikofsky’s concertos is the most difficult one?

BD: They are all difficult, the First is very difficult, but it is also light and transparent, not one note is out of place, it is very beautifully written, the Second is a bigger piece, it is like a canvas..

WB: Did you play the Second Concerto in the Siloti version?

BD: I played both versions.

WB: What do you think of his solo piano works?

BD: Some of them are very beautiful, e.g. The Seasons, they are sometimes like little miniature operas..

WB: Not long ago, a CD was released with your performances of Rachmaninov’s First and Third Concertos on BMG, accompanied by Svetlanov. They were recorded some time ago, what was the reason that they were issued after all?

BD: There are other Svetlanov recordings that were not released. The Rachmaninov Concertos were forgotten about for a while, but then a new boss came in at BMG and he wanted to release them!

WB: Did you forget about them as well?

BD: I couldn’t remember what they sounded like. I did a lot of concerts with Svetlanov. Interestingly enough, he started as a pianist and a composer. I cannot remember the beginning of the Third Concerto better played than with Svetlanov. Piano and orchestra breathed together.

WB: Were these live recordings?

BD: No, studio recordings.

WB: Is Rach “Third” truly the most difficult piece?

BD: Everything is difficult! You could say the same about Mozart. Actually, anything is difficult if you want to make it sound convincing and beautiful. It’s not just about the notes…

WB: If you look back on the period 1986-November 2011, were there any important artistic developments in your career?

BD: A lot of different things, for example, working with Kurt Sanderling or Svetlanov, both were very impressive conductors.

WB: Are there things you would like to do in the near future?

BD: I have a chamber orchestra and I would like to do an opera festival with an opera company in Ireland during which I’d like to conduct. It would be just for one weekend per year, maybe some early Verdi or Händel.

WB: But it doesn’t mean you will abandon the piano?

BD: No, I won’t!



Arnhem, 2 November 2016

I managed to interview Benjamin Grosvenor while he was having lunch. A candid conversation with a serious, young artist who seems to have been around for a long time already....

Willem Boone (WB): I’d like to quote the composer Gustav Mahler who once said: “The most important is not in the notes”, do you agree with this?

Benjamin Grosvenor (BG): You can play perfectly, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you transmit something. It’s not the notes, but it’s about the spaces in between. 

WB: If it’s not in the notes, then what is the most important and where is it to be found?

BG: It’s difficult to find: music communicates a lot of emotions and gestures. Even Beethoven said: “Wrong notes don’t matter, it’s not a crime!” 

WB: Can musicality be learnt?

BG: Difficult to say, I don’t have experience as a teacher, but there is something innate other people don’t have, a degree of responsiveness to music. 

WB: I saw a film on YouTube when you where you were 12 or 13 years of age, playing The Lark by Glinka and everything was already there. Is that indeed a sign that it cannot be learnt?

BG: Some people have it, others don’t! Some people have a seed, you can blossom it. 

WB: Is technique something that can be learnt as opposed to musicality?

BG: Technique is about mechanics and physics, it’s easier to sort out technical problems and it’s also easier for a teacher to teach technique..

WB: In a German review, I read: “Wunderkind wird erwachsen”, i.e. “prodigy is becoming an adult”, is that what you’d like to be referred to?

BG: I don’t know, I am often asked about it, I was very young when I started. At the time, I was striving for the same standard as nowadays. 

WB: In a few recent reviews (Financial Times, October 2016), I read: “A virtuoso of a rare kind, poetic, whimsical, an old fashioned romantic” or “A fabulous representative of the expressive old school who just happens to be one of our finest pianists”(BBC Radio 3, October 2016), or, again, “.. reminds of the young Joseph Hofman or Friedman”. How important is the old school to you?

BG: I don’t know, it’s a flattering description.

WB: “Whimsical”, doesn’t that sound negative in English?

BG: It depends on the playing, there are pieces that are whimsical, e.g. the excerpts from Goyescas by Granados that I will play tonight, you could call them whimsical. It can also have the meaning of “free spirited” or “imaginative”. I don’t know what these critics are hearing, it’s difficult to assess your own playing and to see your good qualities. Further to your question, yes, I am interested in the pianists of the past. 

WB: You mean in Hofman and Friedman?

BG: Yes, definitely, but also in Cortot, Rachmaninov, Michelangeli, they were all very individual artists.

WB: You sometimes remind me of Shura Cherkassky, also in terms of repertoire, e.g the schöne blaue Donau by Schulz Evler or the Boogie woogie Etude by Morton Gould.

BG: I love him, he was a wonderful, amazing colourist with a lot of imagination. Conductors hated him, because he was not easy to follow..

WB: No, and he said “I’ll play differently tonight” when conductors were nervous!

WB: You said a pianist can quietly use his imagination, to what extent?

BG: It’s a question of integrity, you have to respect the music of course. Some artists are too personal. You have to serve the music in the best possible way. Jorge Bolet said in this respect that a performer lives with a composition for the rest of his life, whereas a composer wrote it in three weeks. The artist has the desire to serve, communicate and generate the best. The personality of an interpreter is inescapable, but you should never be different for the sake of it.

WB: I heard your colleague Jorge Luis Prats the other day in Amsterdam, he played the complete Iberia suite by Albeniz and I noticed he often didn’t respect the dynamics that you can find in the score, e.g. he played “forte” where the score asks for “piano”!

BG: The best answer is Rachmaninov in his recording of Chopin’s Second sonata, he reverses the dynamics in the Funeral March. Nobody would dare to copy it, but he executes it to perfection. It depends on what the idea is. Rachmaninov was a performer with a touch of genius who equalled the composer.

WB: Jorge Bolet one said if you respect the score too much you could become “pedantic”, what do you think?

BG: Rachmaninov played his own pieces differently each time and Bolet heard him a few times live I believe. They both lived in an era when there was so much room for improvisation. Liszt and Chopin also played in an improvisatory way, I wonder what they would think of our obsession with scores.

WB: Are we obsessed?

BG: It’s a shame to limit ourselves, playing differently doesn’t mean disregard of music, but it always has to be for a good reason. 

WB: Is the score the bible for you?

BG: Music is fluid, it’s different with each performance, that’s so wonderful about it!

WB: The programme of your recital tonight as well as your cd’s are multi-faceted. Is that because you don’t want to focus or specialize?

BG: I like varied programmes and have no desire to specialize, which is probably harder than playing Beethoven sonatas. You have to be a chameleon with a programme like tonight’s one. The piano repertoire is so huge! 

WB: How do you compose a recital like tonight’s programme: do you need a “culmination point” as Rachmaninov called it or do you choose spontaneously the way Sokolov does?

BG: You mean a climax? Chopin in his Second sonata works towards the Funeral March. The last movement of this sonata is bizarre, it’s like a nightmare. I don’t think Chopin wanted us to understand.. there is a sense of terror and it’s gone in a moment. The Liszt at the end is a powerful piece. Rubinstein said about recital programmes that the first half should be more classical, whereas the second half should be exotic or coloristic repertoire.

WB: Does there always have to be an effective piece at the end?

BG: I suppose I do end with a bang, with encores you can control the mood with which you want to finish the concert.

WB: Your colleague Grigori Sokolov said he sometimes doesn’t know why he programmes certain pieces, he just “ends up playing them” and he can’t always tell in advance what it is going to be..

BG: When you have his stature, you can afford to announce your programmes very late, but yes, it happens that you hear something and that you think: “That’s interesting”. The difficulty is that there are so many things I want to play! 

WB: As to tonight’s programme, why do you start with this Mozart sonata (K 333)?

BG: It’s like a concerto without orchestra, you can imagine how Mozart would orchestrate it. It’s also an operatic piece, it’s complex in character. 

WB: Regarding Chopin’s Second sonata that you already mentioned, Schumann said these were “four children who don’t belong together”. Do you see it as a coherent masterpiece?

BG: The third sonata seems to hang together better. There is something odd about the Second sonata, Chopin wrote the Funeral March first and the entire sonata works towards the third movement. 

WB: How should the finale be played? With a lot of pedal or in a dry way?

BG: In a soft way and legato, maybe for the entire movement , there are few markings in the score. It’s very bare, maybe Chopin doesn’t want us to understand. 

WB: Is it true that you have to repeat the Grave as well? It is supposed to be indicated in the score and Maurizio Pollini plays it in his second recording, Uchida did the same when she played it live.

BG: There is a long standing and fascinating debate about this,  and perhaps Charles Rosen best explains the case for the repeat of the first bars of the work.  Most modern editions do not address this issue,  and so it is only recently that I have become aware of it

WB: And I thought the reprise of the Funeral March should be played piano, but Guiomar Novaes and Nelson Freire play forte..

BG: Rachmaninov does the same in his recording!

WB: You play some early Scriabin tonight, do you also play his late works?

BG: Yes, but I haven’t played many of them. He is very interesting in the way he progresses. In the Mazurkas the influence of Chopin is apparent. I haven’t played any of the late sonatas, but I would like to.

WB: You include a few of Granados’s Goyescas, why do you want to include them?

BG: His music is improvisation-like, what makes it difficult. The keys change all the time, therefore it is very hard to memorize. It’s tonal music, but both harmonically and contrapuntally, it’s very difficult. I played a few of the Goyescas and I would like to play all of them.

WB: Is the rhythm the most difficult?

BG: You have to be very free, yet not sloppy!

WB: You also play repertoire that is not very often played, like the Mendelssohn Preludes and Fugues opus 35 or Medtner. Are there any less known compositions you would like to play?

BG: Many things, for instance Mompou, whom I play sometimes as an encore. He is completely unique. Next season, I will play Debussy, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

WB: For piano solo?

BG: Yes, it was arranged by Copeland, he had Debussy’s blessing!

WB: Which pianist, dead or alive, you would travel very far for?

BG: Among the dead pianists, many, for instance Kempff and Cortot, I know them so well from their recordings, I would jump at any opportunity to hear them, among the living pianists Sokolov, but he doesn’t come to the UK any more. I never heard Lupu either, I heard Argerich only once and would like to hear her again. 

WB: Is there a composer you would have loved to play for and one you would dread?

BG: I don’t know really.. Any composer would be fascinating and daunting. I’d be terrified of all of them!

WB: How satisfied are you after a performance?

BG: There is always “something”, never in the sense of: “That was awful”, sometimes I think: “That was pretty good!”

WB: Does it happen that something doesn’t go well but goes really well the next day?

BG: Yes, you try to improve on things. There are also details that went better the last day. There are many factors, a lot depends on your mood and on how tired you are. 


Zeist, 21 August 2014

At first, Boris Giltburg wasn't sure whether he had time for an interview when I approached him with this question. "Give me your email address though, I'll let you know" and thankfully I received a message the next day. He had taken a look at my site and was impressed that I had interviewed one of his idols, Grigory Sokolov "who seldom gives any". Maybe that was what won him over? I was glad that this talented artist had time to speak to me, between rehearsals of the Dvorak Piano Quintet with the Pavel Haas Quartet. It was a joy to speak to such an articulate young pianist, who knows so well what he wants to achieve..

Willem Boone (WB): I heard you in concert a few times and you always look  so beaming on stage, as if it is really the place where you want to be. Is it indeed?

Boris Giltburg (BG): Absolutely, especially when they open the doors  and you see the first glimpse of the audience. Of course there is tension before the concert, but when you sit in front of the piano, stage is the best place to be, backstage is much worse! Once you are “on”, something kicks in the brain.

WB: You said on your web log that you wish to convert people to classical music, how successful have you been so far?

BG: I tried with some of my friends. People have preconceptions about classical music; they think it is boring, elitist or inaccessible. I can only agree about it being inaccessible; with some music you need guidance in order to understand what is going on. This is, for instance, the case with compositions such as Mahler Symphonies. In fact, there is no equivalent of such pieces in pop music that last for so long and it may be difficult to listen to it without doing anything else. As a listener or as a “newbee” you may get a sense of being lost, however, if you give them signposts, classical music may provoke their interest. It may become an intellectual challenge.
I write my web log for non-musicians, trying to give inside information about what we hear when we listen to classical music, but of course as a musician, I cannot “unlearn” knowledge.

WB: When were you converted to classical music?

BG: I don’t remember exactly, but I started playing the piano at the age of five. My parents told me that I watched a TV broadcast of Emil Gilels and I told them I wanted to have a piano and a chair like him! I also remember I liked Yiddish songs when I was about three or four years old.

WB: Five is a very young age to start with lessons!

BG: I insisted! My mother said we had enough pianists in the family (both she and my grandmother play the piano), but I was too stubborn to listen.

WB: Do you think classical music can make people better people?

BG (thinks): I remember a friend of mine who told me about a rock concert she had been to and she thought of the experience as a catharsis. That is what can happen with classical music too: it has the strength to transport people somewhere else. It is an achievement of the highest human spirit, so yes, you definitely gain something of working with such material and also of listening to it. Of course, it depends on what you are listening to, classical music covers a period of 400 years, there is so much!

WB: Last year, you won first prize in the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, this is maybe a stupid question but did you expect to win?

BG: After such an intensive period, I got to a point where I stopped thinking! I was scared and nervous and after a month, I would have been happy with any outcome.. I went through so much adrenalin, there was an inability to think so to speak.

WB: My next question may be cheeky: in the semi-finals while playing Mozart’s Concerto K 450, you had a short memory lapse in the last movement. You recovered really well from that, but I couldn’t stop thinking: is this the ultimate nightmare in such an important competition with so many people in the audience?

BG: It was hard to think of something much worse at that moment. I discussed this so much, people ask me about it in almost any interview, but yes, these seconds seemed like endless and made me want to crawl away and disappear.. However, I made myself listen to the recording again and I found out what happened. There is a passage that goes up, and in the recapitulation it goes up and down. I thought while playing: “I cannot go up this high, because it was impossible on Mozart’s piano” and then it happened.

WB: Did you feel you were “dead” at that moment?

BG: Yes, with 100% certainty. But I also thought I had nothing to lose anymore and wanted to finish with as much dignity as I could. You know, I am a hopeless optimist, therefore, I thought that there might be a slight chance if I played really well. Actually,  I  played better after that moment!

WB: Did you hear right away you were through to the finals?

BG: No, I had to wait two hours, which was terrible.

WB: What happens in the jury: do you get to see their “verdict”, do they report back to you about your last performance?

BG: No, they just vote, there is no discussion. That is one of the two great things about this competition, the other being that no students of jury members are allowed.

WB: And then you played Rachmaninov Third Concerto in the finals, which was a phenomenal performance. Can we say that Mozart is more “difficult” than Rachmaninov, since the former’s music can show the slightest mistake more clearly than a “notey” concerto as Rach 3rd?

BG: Certainly, Mozart is more difficult than Rachmaninov! His music is transparent and crystal clear, everything has to be natural.  For me, Rachmaninov is much easier to understand. Technically his pianism is easier than Mozart’s or Beethoven’s. Mozart can be finger breaking! Mozart wrote mainly for himself, so there was no point of making things less difficult for others!

WB: Speaking of Rach 3rd, how difficult is it really? I thought it was one of the most difficult concertos of the entire repertoire, but several of my interviewees (Leif Ove Andsnes, Jevgeny Sudbin) said it was very pianistic and actually quite comfortable to play?

BG: I would say neither, like every great work, Rach 3rd is full of technical challenges, but they serve the music and you care much less about the technique. First of all, it is a tremendous creation of art and its emotional spectrum is enormous. I would say that the first two pages are the most challenging of all, whereas they might seem the easiest..

WB: A lot of colleagues of yours who previously won this competition did so with either this concerto or the Second Concerto by Prokofiev. What was your reason to play Rach 3rd in the finals?

BG: I played Prokofiev Second in the closing concert, I performed it for the first time   only two months before and it would have been too risky to play it in the finals. Both concertos are large scale compositions that offer the optimal combination of virtuosity and depth, they are also a test case for a successful collaboration with an orchestra and a conductor. For me either of these two concertos is less risky than Beethoven Fourth or Brahms Second. And, last but not least, Russian music is very close to me!

WB: I have been very impressed with your recording of Prokofiev’s War Sonatas. I hear you play number 8 live, last year in Arnhem, The Netherlands. Whilst you didn’t lack any power, I liked the way you played it, you made me discover new layers and you didn’t only emphasize the violence or aggressiveness of his music. Is that how you conceive Prokofiev’s music?

BG: This sonata is a typical example of a composer who was on the pinnacle of his art,  I feel the same about Liszt and the B-minor sonata or Moussorgsky and the Pictures. I love the Sixth and Seventh Sonatas too, but number eight is a balance between putting you on the battle field and filming from far way. Prokofiev resembles a talented movie camera man in this sonata. The first movement is very special; it starts in a calm, almost cold and poisonous way and out of these lines grow other motives. Both the exposition and the recapitulation are slow, only in the middle part you have to bang the hell out of the piano, well..no, you shouldn’t bang, but you have to be as aggressive and relentless as possible!

WB: Would you ever consider playing numbers 6,7 and 8 in one recital? I remember Ashkenazy, who plays all three of them, called it hell to do them in one concert..

BG: I offered to play them in one recital, but nobody accepted such a programme. All agents told me it wouldn’t “sell”. In a way, all three sonatas are finisher pieces. The bad thing is if you put any of them in another position, it becomes much more difficult to listen to, as with the Liszt-Sonata before the intermission. Number six could be an opener, seven much less so.

WB: As to number seven, I have a question about the last movement, the Precipitato. What exactly does it mean?

BG: literally it means “hastening”

WB: I thought it had to gradually gain speed, but some pianists start off so fast that you cannot go any faster!

BG: No, it’s against the nature of the music to play gradually faster, it was written as a perpetuum mobile.

WB: I listened to your recording today, you play it at breakneck speed!

BG: I wouldn’t do it as fast in concert, I probably wouldn’t play it as fast anyway as on my recording…

WB: You just mentioned the Liszt Sonata, where I noticed something similar as with your Prokofiev recording…

BG: It is his most profound and best piano work!

WB: Rachmaninov once said every composition or movement has a culmination point, what would be the culmination point in the Liszt Sonata for you?

BG: There are several: in the middle you have the feeling of being on top of a mountain while looking at a huge horizon, just before the middle section there is a dramatic climax and the octave part at the very end, where Liszt shows his exuberance..

WB: And what about these descending pianissimo scales just before the fugue?

BG: Yes, that is another incredible place, if you play these well, there is total silence in the hall.., however, with a sonata that lasts 32 minutes, you cannot mention one highlight! Neither can you in Rach Third: what would be the culmination point in the first movement? (enthuses), it’s such an amazing piece, that we have all this music is amazing!

WB: Two days ago, you played the Shostakovitsj Piano Quintet with the Borodin Quartet. It seemed a bit of an odd piece to me, the piano is almost part of the string quartet, unlike the Dvorak Piano Quintet you will be playing tonight. How do you feel about the Shostakovitsj Quintet?

BG: I must say I didn’t like it before I played it, I also thought it a “weird” piece as you said, but the more I play it, the more I liked it. Each movement has a distinct character: the Prelude almost sounds like a gothic cathedral with pillars, then it becomes post-apocalyptic, there is anger and in the recapitulation there is pity. The scherzo is biting, ironic. The fourth movement starts with bright sadness and the ending is a mixture of pain, sadness and hopelessness, that become slightly brighter in the last movement. I wouldn’t call it optimistic, but there is some hope. It has a “bad ending”, as opposed to the Dvorak Quintet, it ends in a quiet way and nobody shouts “bravo” after the last chord.. This Quintet was a success at the time, it showed that people needed hope more than anything else.

WB: We emailed before the interview and you told me that Sokolov is one of your heroes. What makes him so special for you?

BG: His palette of colours and his complete mastery at the keyboard. The way he can play two notes at the same time and yet give them their own character. There is nobody like him among the living pianists.. His recording of the Art of the Fugue is completely not in style, but it is so captivatingly done!

WB: I listened to Gilels today and I think he was extraordinary too, his pianissimo was unique!

BG: Yes, you are right, he is another one of my heroes. He showed human vulnerability, like Oistrakh. It makes them closer to you.

WB: On your web log you wrote something that intrigues me: you wrote an essay about the oboe. Is that because this instrument expresses emotions in a different way than the piano?

BG: No, not at all, I want to write about all instruments, but the problem is that it takes very long!

WB: You are not like the French pianist Yvonne Lefébure who once said during a master class that she didn’t want to hear the piano, but other instruments like the cello, the flute and the oboe?

BG: No, that’s very bad! Well, let me put it this way: if you are thinking, while seated at the piano of orchestral colours, it’s “good”, but it would be bad to imitate other instruments on the piano! During master classes, I advise students to change the colour(s) or the balance of voices, however you always need to do that in pianistic terms!

WB: A lot of pianists try to imitate the human voice, is that “ bad” too?

BG: That’s different. On paper, piano is the least singing instrument. (He asks me whether I know what the most singing instrument is and much to my amazement, it turns out to be the organ!).  We pianists try to imitate the singers’ melodic sensibility. What we can learn from singers, is to take time and stretch the intervals.

WB: Can you also learn from their phrasing?

BG: That’s what I meant by “learning from their melodic sensibility”.

WB: A last question, are you superstitious?

BG: No, I lost all of it!

WB: So I can wish you good luck for the Dvorak? 

BG: Yes, you can, but if you say: “Break a leg”, I’ll say: “Go to hell !”




Den Haag,  5 March 2014

The German pianist Christian Zacharias has been called “an eternal student” in France. Up until ten years ago; indeed, at 40, he looked like 25. At 64, he now looks more like an “elder statesman” (the name of George Clooney comes to mind), but apart from that, he still resembles a young boy or student, especially when he enthuses about music..

Willem Boone: When I think of you, I think directly of Scarlatti, Mozart and Schubert. There are of course other composers, but do you mind when I mention these three composers first of all?

Christian Zacharias (CZ): I have to almost fight to play other composers, but yes, these composers are still central to my repertoire. I don’t want to abandon them completely, but my repertoire has grown substantially. I want to learn new scores all the time and I do not want to become a specialist. Also as a conductor, I am often asked to perform Mozart. However it would be bad to be a specialist of Hummel or Field…

WB: When I think of you, I am also reminded of Wilhelm Kempff, not only because of the repertoire, but also as far as your playing is concerned. How strong is your connection with the German school?

CZ:   That’s interesting, since I used to reject him when I was young. His playing was lucid and elegant, he was not the titan in Beethoven. His Schubert and Schumann recordings were almost more interesting. His recording of the Schumann Concerto is one of the best I know, yet it is never mentioned in selective comparisons.  His clear sound is not very German and in that way, I feel related to his playing.

WB: Could one say there is a German piano school?

CZ: There were pianists like Backhaus or Elly Ney, but it is difficult to say what they have in common. But when it comes to work discipline or a certain firmness, I do feel at home in this tradition.

WB: Alfred Brendel said, when he was asked why he didn’t play Chopin: “Either you dedicate yourself to play his music, that requires a specific technique, or you play “the other composers”. Would you be the exception to this rule?

CZ: I think he was being polite, in a way he didn’t like Chopin! I played a lot of his music and almost every year, I play his second Piano Concerto. When I started to play a lot Mozart and Schubert, I said to myself: “Put it away, it is disturbing..”. Playing Mozart’s Piano Sonatas is more difficult than Chopin’s Nocturnes! However I do play Chopin again now and it is beautiful!

WB: You studied with Vlado Perlemuter, could we therefore say that you are also (partly) a “French pianist”?

CZ: He was not only French, but also Polish and jewish.

WB: How was he as a teacher?

CZ: He was a very demanding teacher. I still have a score of Beethoven ‘s Piano Concerto nr 5 with all of his comments. He could be incredibly picky when your tempi were not correct.

WB: He was not as famous as Arrau, Kempff or Backhaus though?

CZ: He was very respected in England or Italy, but you are right, he was only known locally. His playing was unaffected yet strong. My first record was Perlemuter playing Chopin. I remember several of the pieces: the F-minor Fantasy, the second scherzo, the berceuse. It was nor dry nor too elegant, it was exactly “in the middle”.

WB: Have you benefitted from the fact that he knew Ravel well?

CZ: We spoke a little about it, but not very often.

WB: Do you remember examples?

CZ: Yes, for instance in the Sonatine. He showed me his tricks there and told me that Ravel always said: “Cela, c’est votre cuisine” (That is your business, WB), it is important though how it sounds after all!

WB: I spoke to your colleague Louis Lortie and he said that Perlemuter played Ravel and Chopin equally well, which seems to be rare. Is it indeed that rare?

CZ: That’s correct, Ravel and Chopin are two different worlds! His Chopin spoke to the heart, it was clear, not unromantic. Mozart was not far away.

WB: Do you mean Perlemuters Mozart and Chopin?

CZ: Yes, indeed.

WB: You won the Ravel Competition in 1975 in Paris, nonetheless I cannot remember you playing him very often, is that correct?

CZ: The stupid thing is that people only know my CD’s, I performed all his piano works and both concertos. There should even be a recording from 1976 of the G-major Concerto with Celibidache!

WB: He was very critical, wasn’t he?

CZ: Yes, it was almost sickening!

WB: Did he ask you to play with him?

CZ: Yes, it was after the Ravel Competition, he was asked: “Wouldn’t you like to play with the winner?” He rehearsed like mad and once, when we didn’t agree about something, the last comment he could think of was: “Michelangeli played it like this”. Well, the comparison is not too bad (laughs).

WB: Can you remember the orchestra?

CZ: It was the Südfunk Symphonie Orchester Stuttgart.

WB: I’d like to ask you a few questions about Scarlatti now. I find your recordings of his music fabulous. How did you get to know his music?

CZ: (remembers): There was a musician in the orchestra (Residentie Orkest, WB) who came to see me with the first Scarlatti recording, it was so sweet. I must have been 14 or 15. My father had a recording by Lipatti with some sonatas. Michelangeli also played a few and I heard the recording by Horowitz, who took Scarlatti very seriously, it was the first time that a musician made an all-Scarlatti recording.

WB: Can we say that his music is often misunderstood in the sense that his sonatas are only played as encores or as a starter?

CZ: Exactly, he is not taken as seriously as Bach or Händel, whereas his music is first class! I once played an all-Scarlatti recital at La Roque d’Anthéron, it was one of these programmes that René Martin loved! In my forthcoming recitals, I will play 7 sonatas by Scarlatti, combined to some Soler Sonatas and a French Suite by Bach. So yes, his music will feature in my concerts again.

WB: What exactly makes his music so genius?

CZ: That’s the main theme of music! Great geniuses write less than you expect, they limit themselves. Scarlatti wrote sonatas in two movements, but sometimes, something strange or unexpected happens, for instance these irregularities: 3 … (tact), 3…., 5 t…. You wouldn’t encounter this in Galuppi’s music. With Scarlatti, the surprises occur occasionally, he knows what music needs in itself.

WB: Are all of his sonatas suited for the piano?

CZ: No, there are very clearly sonatas you should only play on the harpsichord, I could not make them work on a modern piano. There are a few I do not play.

WB: How did you come to your selection from the 555 sonatas?

CZ: There are a few pianists who inspired me. I selected my own pairs, not always according to the way Kirkpatrick suggested. I discovered again a few sonatas I did not know yet. It also happens that I play a sonata I know and think: “This is amazing!”.

WB: There is also a recording of yours on which you play around 20 times the same sonata. Was that your idea?

CZ: It has to do with a different form of art. I often played that sonata in the 70s as an encore and I found at least 20 recordings from all over the world. That piece has accompanied during my entire life. The CD shows the impossibility of a definite performance, but something happens internally. 

WB: Could we say that Scarlatti is a genius since he can say so much with so few notes, just like Mozart?

CZ: Yes, it is the same with all great composers! One thinks: “These notes are absolutely necessary.” They don’t write more nor less than necessary.

WB: What is the style of Scarlatti like?

CZ: It is terribly difficult to describe this! I gave lectures about “Why does Schubert sound like Schubert?” I think it becomes increasingly easy to describe “style” after Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann. Scarlatti marks the start of harmony. The way he perceives time is different from Bach’s.  I have a feeling of urgency: “It has to be this long (it has to last so long?). The Spanish source is undeniable, nobody writes Malagenia-basses like he does.

WB: Scarlatti sounds sometimes like Schumann..

CZ: Yes, the feeling of being ahead of his time and “empfindsame Musik” is more typical of Scarlatti than of Bach.

WB: What do you think of the Soler sonatas?

CZ: There a few master works, there are real “hits”!

WB: Then a few questions re Mozart, is his music good for your technique?

CZ: It is very demanding. He wrote to his father re his concertos K 450 and 451: “They will make the pianist perspire” and that is still the case. You really have to work hard to play them well. In K 451 and 456, there are some very fast tempi.

WB: Do you have favourites among the Mozart concertos?

CZ: Yes, a few: K 238 is seldom played, but it is a remarkable composition, I love K 453, 456 and 459 very much, K 488 that I will play in Den Haag is unique in music history.

WB: I also spoke with a few fortepianists, like Andreas Staier and Kristian Bezuidenhout and the latter told me whenever he plays Mozart on a Steinway grand (which he occasionally does) that he has the feeling to walk on eggshells.  Do you never have that feeling?

CZ: I have a lot of respect for Staier! His Scarlatti recordings are amazing too, but no, I feel very much at home on a Steinway, it is my instrument.

WB: You never need to be overly careful?

CZ: No, I play with real orchestras sometimes with 12 violins. Because of this, you have to play with enough power without becoming harsh, you really have to make an effort!

WB: Your first recordings of the complete cycle was with several conductors, why didn’t you record all of them with the same conductor?

CZ: It started with the Polnish Chamber Orchestra, but there were concertos that I could not play with them (since they required a bigger orchestra, WB). David Zinman was a fantastic partner, one of the best I have ever had and also Wand was a great collaborator. Of course, I already knew Sir Neville Marriner from the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

WB: Is that the reason that you have re-recorded the cycle later, both as conductor and soloist?

CZ: Some of the orchestras with whom I worked were not so great, they sounded more like Schubert. In Lausanne, everything was right and sounded natural. We didn’t rush things, it took us 12 years to record all the concertos.

WB: You sometimes play non-legato, where a lot of your colleagues play legato, for instance in the first movement of K 453, the first entry of the piano. Is that what Mozart wrote down in the score?

CZ: That is very interesting, I could swear that Mozart did not write legato. Too bad I do not have the score with me. The violins play non-legato. I find the theme of the first movement difficult to understand and slightly odd. (*)

WB: The end of the G-major concerto is genius!

CZ: So is the 2nd movement, it becomes more and more interesting towards the end, but it starts with nothing. The first entry of the piano really irritates me, it is the worst start of all Mozart’s concertos!

WB: I can understand what you mean and have the same feeling with the slow movement of K 482. It starts beautifully but after approximately five minutes, you get these endless trills…

CZ: You have the right to ask:”What is he doing now?” With the menuet in the last movement of K 482, he wanted to repeat the Jeunehomme concerto, but it turned out a bit mediocre whereas the Jeunehomme concerto was fantastic!

WB: How do you see his last concerto?

CZ: I love it very much. Mozart is not so active any more in this concerto, it reminds me of Schubert. The start of the first movement is unique.

WB: Didn’t he do the same in the G-minor symphony?

CZ: With K 595 it is a full beat, not an upbeat like in K 550!

WB: How would you call the overall atmosphere in this concerto: sunny? Bitter? Resigned?

CZ: He didn’t know that this was supposed to be his last concerto, but it sounds more like the Zauberflöte than like Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Mozart did not need to show that much anymore, but the light that emanates from this music is incredible.

WB: Don’t you like the first four concertos?

CZ: No, these are transcriptions, the first concerto for me is K 175.

WB: You said about Beethoven that he was less modest than Mozart: “Here I am!”, does that disturb you?

CZ: No, it is funny, especially when you do the same as a conductor (laughs). I have not played all of his piano sonatas, I have performed all of the piano trios and violin sonatas though. There are piano sonatas I do not play, since I either don’t like them or cannot play them. At the moment I play opus 26, which I love, it really suits Schubert’s Moments Musicaux and Schumann’s Kreisleriana well. And at the end of the same recital programme, I play opus 14/2. Nobody does that, but it works really well, especially at the end of your concert. It fades away in a very peaceful way…

WB: You once called Bach’s Wohltempariertes Klavier a “horrible work”?

CZ: You cannot say that of course, but it shouldn’t be played through like an encyclopaedia or  a dictionary. I still stick to that opinion.

WB: What do you have against fugues?

CZ: Apparently, I have something against them when I play them! “Selection “ or “Choice” is part of our job; we can love something and sometimes it can also happen that we do not love something. The Preludes though are among my dearest pieces, I consider my recordings of Bach Preludes as my best one, but unfortunately nobody ever mentions it. Radu Lupu told me he had never heard the E-flat Prelude played better. You know, Bach gave his son Willem Friedemann only Preludes, no Fugues! (laughs)

WB: Do you think that Bach can be played on a modern piano?

CZ: I suppose so, but sometimes I prefer to hear his music played on a cembalo, rather than Scarlatti’s music.

WB: You are a sensitive pianist and sometimes there are these little “surprises” in your recordings, for instance in the Bach recording you just mentioned, where you played the last chord in one of these Preludes on the organ..

CZ: I always think of the organ there, since it was originally written for organ.

WB: And in your Mozart cadenzas, there are surprises too!

CZ: But Mozart’s music is full of surprises, it is theatre! All cadenzas that were written after he died (e.g. Hummel), are failures, Mozart would never write in a different key, ever! And sometimes I write for other instruments in my cadenzas, but Mozart did the same: in his Konzertone for two violins, he introduced the oboe!

WB: Could it also be your sense of humour?

CZ: It was meant to be serious, not funny.

WB: And in  Soler’s Fandango, where you clapped your hands?

CZ: That’s what was missing! Soler is Spanish after all and your hear the sound of people clapping their hands really often in Spain!

WB: I saw in your repertoire list that you also play the Third Piano Concerto by Prokofiev, how often have you played that?

CZ: That is long ago, it was after the Van Cliburn Competition. I also played Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody at the time and it was a challenge, but now I ask myself: “What can I play?” and “For which music do I have time?”

WB: What about the Liszt sonata?

CZ: I have played it and I even studied it again, but nowadays 80% of my concerts are as a conductor. Playing the piano is an incredible effort. I still play both Brahms Concertos and Chopin’s Second Concerto, but with certain pieces I think:  “This is not necessary anymore.”

WB: Why did you take up conducting?

CZ: I wasn’t so happy anymore to sit in front of my piano alone.. Dimensions are bigger with an orchestra, it has nothing to do with one single instrument anymore, when the members of the orchestra play.

WB: You were not bored with the piano like your colleague Ashkenazy?

CZ: No, I wanted to extend my musical horizon, just the piano was getting a little limited.

WB: Does that mean that you practise less than before?

CZ: I have to pull myself together and have to know exactly when I practise. I need two or three hours every day and five hours when a recital is coming up. That also means that I no longer play certain pieces like the Liszt Sonata or the Diabelli Variations.

WB: Just a question re reviews, the French critic Alain Lompech once wrote about your Mozart Sonatas: :“il rappelle ces enfants ou ces amis que l’on voit arriver avec joie et partir avec soulagement jusqu’à leur prochaine visite et dont plus tard on ne garde que de bons souvenirs »(He reminds  us of those children you love to see coming with joy and you love to see leaving with a feeling of relief until their next visit and of whom you keep only good memories after all). What do you think of this?

CZ: Thank god, I don’t read most reviews, it is pointless. Bad reviews are at least a source of irritation. I do ask myself often: “What does he want?” or “What difference does it make?” Sometimes I am really devastated by what they write. In my orchestra, the best listeners are sitting in front of me! It is a shame that critics never attend rehearsals and do not know about all the hard work we have done..

WB: Would you truly like them to come to your rehearsals?

CZ: I wouldn’t have anything against it, in fact the rehearsal is the most interesting moment!

WB: A last question: some time ago I saw a film on Youtube in which you played a Haydn concerto and in the audience a mobile phone went off…

CZ: Finally I am getting famous for not playing (laughs).. I didn’t scream, I only said: “Do not pick up the phone!” I hate to have to interrupt what I am doing or to have to tell the orchestra: “Let’s start again at beat ..”. I was lucky though, since I was just playing the cadenza.

WB: But didn’t you completely lose your concentration?

CZ: Yes, but that’s what I am a performer for: the worst thing is to have to stop in the middle. It was also a training in anger management.




(*) When Cristian Zacharias re-read the text of the interview, he wrote the following comment re this question: I play it exactly the way it was written in the score.



 Arnhem, 24 September 2005

Cristina Ortiz is a very temperamental lady at the keyboard, and she is almost as lively during an interview. She is not afraid of challenges; in September 2005, she played the 2nd Piano Concerto by Brahms five times with the Gelders Orkest (The Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra).

The day of the interview, 24 September, she comes from a rehearsal and puts the score of Chôros 11 by Villa Lobos on the table, “It’s so complex.. It’s a huge piece for orchestra with a little part for the piano (smiles). I will play this three times in São Paulo in November and in February 2006, I will make a recording of it”. She shows the score, it was dedicated to Artur Rubinstein. “Do you think he played it? I don’t think so”.  

Willem Boone (WB): Was Villa Lobos a good pianist?

Cristina Ortiz (CO): I have no idea, I don’t think so, although he wrote very well for piano. I haven’t heard much about his piano playing, he was a cellist. I made a recording for Intrada France, which has just been released. On this CD, there are works from five Brazilian composers, of which Villa Lobos is best known. I couldn’t enclose everything I wanted. The others are Lorenzo Fernandez, the founder of the Brazilian Conservatoire, who wrote a lot of obligatory pieces. Then there is Mozart Camargo Guarneri (“He had a brother called Donizetti Guarneri”) , who wrote a wonderful collection of Preludes, 50 Ponteios. Alberto Nepomuceno wrote some very sad music, it could be Brahms’s Intermezzi. The fourth composer is Fructuoso Vianna. I met him when I was 12 years old. He dedicated a piece to me, which is very close to Schumann. It’s called Schumanianna.  The disc is out now, it’s fantastic. I played these pieces in Hong Kong and the record was selling like hot cakes.


WB: The husband of the famous Brazilian pianist Guiomar Novaes, Pinto, composed some nice music for piano too, didn’t he?


CO: I never had the chance to look into his music. This recording wasn’t meant to be a real potpourri. It should be an imprint of my favourite five composers.


WB: You also played all of the piano concertos of Villa Lobos..

CO: Yes, that’s correct. Now I will record Chôros 11 for BIS with the Orchestra Sinfonica of State of São Paulo under John Neschling. We will play in a new hall, the Sala São Paulo, which used to be a former train station! It sounds wonderful. I am really looking forward to that.


WB: Will you be playing by heart?

CO: No, I don’t think so, it lasts for 65 minutes!

WB: Compared to that, Brahms’s 2nd Concerto is nothing!

CO (smiles) Chôros means “improvisations”, every few pages, there is a completely different atmosphere. A friend of mine said: “In that piece, there is stuff for six pieces!”. It will be a challenge. You need a lot of rehearsals for it.

WB: Will you also play it in Europe?

CO: I would like to do that. Maybe Ashkenazy would like to look into it, but let’s first learn it....

WB: Is there a chance you can play it in London? Or is too conservative?

CO: Didn’t you know that? In this piece, there should be no egos. That makes it really hard. Villa Lobos is like a mission to me. Often conductors have no time to properly rehearse his piano concertos and I don’t want to play like that. It’s different from Beethoven or Schumann, with their concertos, it wouldn’t “hurt”if you play with little rehearsal time. The trouble with Villa Lobos is that he wrote so much. He was just happy to have it recorded and never went back to his scores. A lot of them remained untouched.

WB: Is this the first time you play Brahms’s 2nd concerto?

CO: No, I did it before, but it is a fantastic chance to play it five times around. It’s like a marathon.  I did a performance not long ago with Lawrence Foster and the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Sintra, Portugal, last June, too bad that we did only one concert...

WB: Tonight you will play the concerto in Rotterdam and tomorrow you will play during an afternoon concert in Nijmegen, isn’t it terribly hard to have so little time in between? You hardly have time to recover!

CO: It’s tough, and I just arrived from Hong Kong, could you imagine? It’s all about distributing energy. That’s what Ashkenazy always says. It’s difficult though to save as a performer. This concerto is also about the distribution of the hands, you have to get the top two fingers of the right hand across to make them sing. My hands are quite sore today (She indeed shook hands with her left hand when we met)

WB: Maybe this is a forward question, am I being sexistic when I say that this is not really a concerto for women?

CO: Yes, you are.. but it’s true, there are not many women who have tackled the piece. Even Clara Schumann said to Brahms: “Why are you writing such heavy stuff?”. It’s all about stamina and sheer power. It’s difficult to find a balance. This is even more than the first concerto an orchestral piece. Number one is a real piano concerto.. Especially in the second, you need to have a really good rapport with the chef for the andante. The pace is important. It can get very slow, like last night.

WB: Was it too slow?

CO: Yes, it was. I never had a conductor who was so far away from the piano. I need physical contact.

WB: Did you tell the conductor? (Nikolai Alexeev)

CO: No, he said himself he would be better tonight

WB: Yes, indeed, I noticed after your first entry you looked into the orchestra, almost as if you wanted to conduct yourself. Are you aware of what happens around you?

CO: Yes, totally, I am playing with the others. When I am performing, I am singing what the others are playing. I know exactly what comes out of the orchestra. Playing a concerto is playing chamber music in great scale. But how can I have contact with someone who is so far away? It’s very hard work and the piece is already hard. Music has to live, otherwise it is a recording. I am a performer, there is nothing so exciting as when it works!


WB: Which conductor would be ideal in that respect?

CO: Lawrence Foster.. Ashkenazy too. He is with the player and can do anything on the spot. I remember we once did a Brahms 2nd with very little rehearsal time..

WB: Does it help that he is pianist too?

CO: Yes, although he has to adapt sometimes. He has to erase his own conception from his memory with pieces he has done himself, like the Rachmaninov concertos he has done all his life.. It happens that he asks in rehearsal: “Could you play that again?” just to listen well to what I was doing.

WB: I read in your biography that you also worked with Kyrill Kondrashin. How was he?

CO: He was fabulous. I played 3 concertos with him; Liszt 2nd, Bartok 3rd and the Schumann. When we did the Bartok 3rd,  he first wanted me to come to his room and play the entire concerto. He listened to what I was doing. The same happened during the orchestral rehearsal. The contact during the concert performance was unbelievable. He had never done it before. He had the same thorough way of rehearsing with the two other pieces we did together. That is commitment, that is a musician. It is quite a difference with Alexeev, who rehearsed during 20 minutes and then left.

WB: Do you go to concerts yourself to listen to others?

CO: Yes, I do that a lot, I don’t only go to recitals. You learn a lot from it.

WB: What about you as a performer? Are you unpredictable in concerts when you play with an orchestra and is it difficult to keep up with you?

CO: I am not predictable. I have to ask conductors to stay with me, because I don’t know what I am doing on stage. I play from what comes back to me. You also have to play with the acoustics. Amsterdam is my favourite hall, I like space. Nijmegen is very good too, but here (Arnhem) the piano didn’t help. I suffered, as it was out of tune.

WB: I have been to concerts a lot in Arnhem, where I lived when I was young and the pianos were often bad.

CO: It has nothing to do with the piano, it’s the tuner! In the USA, there are living creatures who look after a piano and they are tuning all day long! A piano needs constant looking after and fine tuning, just like a car! They are not only tuning the pitch, as they do in Europe!

WB: But then again, even if they have such good looking after in the USA, colleagues of yours like Daniel Barenboim, Martha Argerich and Peter Frankl have complained about the bad American Steinways! So what’s the difference if the pianos are still bad?

CO: I hate American Steinways! I never quite made a career in America. I don’t have a technique to show off and play bravoura pieces like the Liszt sonata. Not that I make that many mistakes but I am not there to impress. I make my own music, no amazing pirouettes. But you know, Julius Kätchen used to say: “There are no bad pianos, there are only bad pianists!”.It’s not true, but still, a good technician can save an instrument!

WB: Have you ever considered touring around with your own piano?

CO: I have fantastic pianos at home. 3 years ago, I bought a beautiful one from 1991. I had to put it in a friend’s house until I had space in my own place. I once played on it in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, but apart from that, I don’t go to extremes, I don’t like to have it removed and taken out of the window every time...

WB: Could you adapt to any piano?

CO: No, but sometimes I make the best out of it. Once, I played with Leinsdorf and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on a piano that wasn’t very good. Still, I hadn’t complained about it, but he said: “You need another piano, this one is really rubbish!” and then I ran down to Steinway Hall to choose another one.


Quite unbelievably, an hour flew by, I still had many other questions, but unfortunately, Cristina Ortiz had to go. The day after, I saw her by coincidence at the concert Earl Wild gave at almost 90 at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. (She emailed me the next day remembering how touching the concert had been and asking herself whether she’d still be playing at age 90..) She said we should finish the interview one day, either in London or elsewhere. .. Let’s hope we will be able to finish our conversation soon!




© Willem Boone 2005