English profiles

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..


Willem Boone (WB): You made a lot of recordings on the fortepiano and the harpsichord and this Friday and Sunday, you will play on a modern piano: are you a harpsichordist, a fortepianist, a pianist or all three at the same time?

Andreas Staier (AS): Sometimes I think I am all three, sometimes none of them. I do not often play on a modern piano; the concerts I play this week are an exception. If you perform with a modern orchestra, you can only choose a modern instrument, because otherwise there are a lot of problems when it comes to the balance. It is very frustrating for the members of an orchestra when you ask them all the time to play softer. The combination of old an new does not work for me, I have the feeling that you are in the middle of nowhere. I have a preference for the harpsichord and the fortepiano, but I do not dislike Steinways!

WB: Do you consider your next performances as a compromise?

AS: No, the other way around would have been a compromise for me! We have to realize that the halls where Mozart and Beethoven used to perform, often in aristocratic palaces, were much smaller than the ones we have nowadays. That world does no longer exist and halls are sometimes ten of twenty times bigger now. The proportions are very different now.

WB: May I conclude from your willingness to play on a modern instrument that you are not a dogmatic performer?

AS: If colleagues play Mozart on a fortepiano in halls that are much too big, they often choose a grand piano from a later period, because they fear that a true small Mozart fortepiano would be too soft. The instruments they select were built around forty years later and more appropriate for Chopin and Schumann. This is much more of a compromise. Furthermore, if you play in a hall with 1500 instead of 150 seats, the original strength is no longer original..

WB: I heard your colleague Robert Levin with the orchestra of John Elliot Gardener at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. I was seated in one of the first rows and even there, I could hardly hear the fortepiano, whereas the hall is not enormous!

AS: The first rows at the Concertgebouw are the worst, you are seated about 2,5 meter under the piano. Even with a modern piano, you do not hear much when seated there, because the overtones pass over your head.

WB: You will play with a conductor who is a pioneer in the field of period instruments, Frans Brüggen. He once said that “every note of Mozart played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra is a lie”.

AS: Maybe everything is a lie, which is quite possible. The fact that you only play on period instruments is not a guarantee for not lying. Factors like the “art of embellishment” or articulation are not related with the instruments you play. It is easier to say: “This is wrong” than “It should be like this”. If you continue to ask questions, you keep the option of finding answers. If, on the other hand, you do not ask anything, you are certain that nothing will happen.

WB: What can you say in favour of Mozart on a Steinway?

AS: At least there are no problems as far as the balance between the solo instrument and the orchestra is concerned, a factor you shouldn’t neglect! It would be a shame if you listen to a piano concerto with a piano that is barely audible. With a Steinway you have the advantage of listening to a score that is more or less “complete”.    

WB: Do you mean that ultimately the instrument does not matter?

AS: I can not answer that question in a general sense: with certain composers the question “Which instrument? “ is less important than with others. There are, for instance, wonderful Bach recordings of Preludes and Fugues by Edwin Fischer. I find it very special when a musician can bring out the polyphony of these scores. And it is not that strange that he played Bach in a romantic way. In the 19th century Bach was considered a better composer than in his own time. For Schumann, Chopin and Brahms, Bach played an important role, not only in their education but also in their music. That contributed to the fact that it became increasingly important to play Bach in a romantic fashion.  With a composer like Chopin I am not sure whether his Nocturnes would sound as good as Bach’s Art of the Fugue when played on, say, a saxophone.

Further to Bach, his Goldberg Variations were written for an instrument with two manuals. To play these variations on a modern instrument almost requires a “transcription”.

WB: They look very difficult when played on a modern piano!

AS: They are not easier when played on a harpsichord, because you have to use more than one manual.

WB: You recorded some Beethoven violin sonatas with Daniel Sepic, who played on Beethoven’s violin. Wouldn’t it have been interesting if you had played on Beethoven’s piano to make the recording even more authentic?

AS: The instrument in the Beethovenhaus in Bonn is not Beethoven’s piano! It is not a museum for instruments, although it has a small collection. They have among others a piano by Graf that did not belong to Beethoven. In the 19th century, it became famous as “Beethoven’s instrument”. Graf gave it on loan when the latter’s Broadwood needed to be repaired. When this happened, he was already stone-deaf; therefore he never heard it. He probably only tried it out.  Around 1970 the instrument was in a truly bad state and the question arouse as to whether it would be a good idea to have it restored. The experts said “no”. It appeared to be impossible to restore the weak points of the construction of the Graf piano without dramatic changes. A normal Graf piano has three strings per key, just like a modern instrument, but Graf experimented with the instrument that Beethoven used temporarily: he added a fourth string per key. This led to a more powerful “traction” on the corpus of the instrument. A piano with four strings per key is faster out of tune than one with three strings per key. It is difficult to keep it tuned. The experiment was unsuccessful and therefore it was a good decision to not repair the old Graf piano. The Beethovenhaus bought another Broadwood piano from the collection of Edwin Beunk from the Netherlands instead, one that Beethoven probably heard during his lifetime.

WB: You are a special musician for me, as you have realized things both on the harpsichord and the fortepiano that I have not heard before on period instruments!

AS: For instance?

WB: Your recording on harpsichord that was devoted to the Fandango. I did not even know that you could play like that on a harpsichord…

AS: What did I do that was not “possible” in your view?

WB: I did not mean as much that you did things that you “can not do”, I have just not heard anyone do them before!

AS: That is good to hear! The whole discussion about “volume” and “decibels” is of course relative. A clavichord can sound very loud and powerful; especially when you play alone there are no problems with the volume. On the other hand, a modern piano can sound almost “soft” if you compare the decibels it can produce to those you hear in a night club.. On a harpsichord you benefit from the clarity of sound. Scarlatti and his successors in Spain took advantage of this.

WB: I am also impressed by your recording of Haydn sonatas on the fortepiano. I remember no 35, that is known as a “simple” sonata, but where you did incredible things in the exposition of the first movement. It did not sound at all like “Papa Haydn” if you know what I mean..

AS: Papa Haydn… he is not at all Papa Haydn, that is such a stupid prejudice! You could call any other composer “Papa”, but definitely not Haydn. On the contrary, he was an avant-gardist during his entire life, I know very few other composers who were like him, probably only Debussy. This definitely does not apply to Mozart, who was a genius, but who remained conservative. Haydn was also more innovative than Beethoven, although the latter was probably “crazier”.

WB: Where can we see that Haydn was such an avant-gardist?

AS: For instance the beginning of “The Creation”, the way he shaped “Die Vorstellung des Chaos” in a century of Enlightenment and rationalism, that is without precedent! It was composed in the sonata form and tries to be athematic.  It sounds more like Alban Berg than like Haydn and that is what I would call a “major achievement”.

WB: Did Haydn achieve the same height in his music for piano?

AS: The piano music is not as central in his complete works as for instance the string quartets, but the Sonata in C-minor (no 20) is certainly innovative. It sounds like the answer to Carl Philip Emanuel Bach with an extra bit of whipped cream, but not less adventurous.

WB: I cannot help, but I often find Carl Philip Emanuel Bach’s music irritating!

AS: I understand, his music is often irritating, although I manage to sit through. His music is meant to be irritating, it is certainly no “easy listening” music. He rarely wrote beautiful tunes, since he was allergic to it. However, his music breathes intelligence. I see a clear connection with Beethoven; who did not want to write pleasant music either. Maybe nobody dares to say this out loud about Beethoven, who is reputed to be a genius. Perhaps you should think “It is Beethoven I am listening to” while listening to Carl Philip Emanuel Bach. He wrote music for musicians in a way.

WB: What do you mean by that?

AS: Certain compositions as The Art of the Fugue can only be understood when you play them. String quartets used to be composed for the musicians who played them. Sometimes a composer wrote jokes and they only “worked” when they were played, they worked much less for listeners. The music for keyboard by Carl Philip Emanuel Bach falls into the same category.

WB: The French magazine “Le monde de la musique “ once called you “The Pollini of the fortepiano” Do you consider that to be a compliment?

AS: Yes, I do, Pollini is a great pianist. I do not always necessarily agree with him, but he is a universally acclaimed musician and an interesting personality.

WB: He has often been referred to as chilly…

AS: He cultivates a certain academism as opposed to post romantic, bombastic sentimentality that I find difficult to judge. I am interested in what he does and he has an interesting repertoire. I once heard him play Schubert when I was a student. He did not come close to my conception of Schubert, but I do not want to hear that when I listen to someone else, otherwise I could stay home. I do not necessarily want to hear Pollini’s interpretation again, but I have seldom heard this music played in such a constructive way.

WB: Where would you draw the line in terms of repertoire?

AS: Certain things are not for me, for instance Rachmaninov. I do not want to play his music and I would not be able to do so. You cannot play both Rachmaninov on a Steinway grand and old music on a harpsichord in my opinion. I love playing Chopin when I am at home, but I am afraid he does not love me enough to play him during concerts. Maybe his music still has to grow on me.

Not long ago, I recorded French 17th century music by Couperin and d’Anglebert. I always thought that repertoire was not suitable for me, but all of a sudden I felt this was the moment to record their music!

WB: You will play my favourite Mozart Concerto, nr 17 in G-major, KV 453!

AS: Yes, as the English say: “It is to die for”, although the choice among Mozart concertos is difficult. I played this concerto for the first time as a second bassoon player.

WB: I beg you pardon, as a bassoon player you said?

AS: Yes, as a student I played in a student orchestra and at that time I already thought: “It would be great to play the same concerto on a piano!”. As a matter of fact, it was the first concerto I wanted to play when I was asked to perform a Mozart concerto.

WB: I find the Presto at the end of the Allegretto so special, it sounds like the ending of an opera act!

AS: Indeed, the coda reminds us of Figaro!

WB: And the slow movement is almost shy by comparison..

AS: After the idyllic start, Mozart suddenly comes with an explosion of almost Schubertian dimension in G-minor. You are right, it is indeed a wonderful concerto and it is a joy to play it with Frans Brüggen!

Unfortunately, the interview ends here, since Andreas Staier had to dash off to a rehearsal with a young colleague who, according to him, is “very gifted, but as a lot of other musicians, has no career at all”: Italian harpsichordist and (forte)pianist Antonio Piricone, who studied both in Italy and The Hague.