Utrecht, 11 November 2008

Paolo Giacometti is a pianist who communicates and not only when he’s seated at the piano. During a recital he gave in September 2008 in the “Theater aan het IJ’ (Amsterdam), he explained the works by Ravel and Debussy that were on the programme. This was a pleasant surprise which also helped to reduce the distance between the artist on the stage and the audience in the hall. This interview took place in a cafe in Utrecht, near the conservatoire. The cafe got busier and busier and I sometimes had problems understanding the pianist. However, since his answers were always pertinent and interesting , I was naturally more than willing to make the effort to listen. Giacometti spoke with a lot of sensibility and feeling about his profession and hardly needed encouragement.

Willem Boone (WB): How important are your Italian roots?

Paolo Giacometti (PG): They are increasingly important as the years go by. We used to speak Italian at home, my grandparents lived in Italy. It is my second home country. When I was one year old, I moved to the Netherlands with my parents, we came from Milan and were supposed to come for a year. It was a period of insecurity with the red brigades and student protests. Eemnes was an enormous culture shock. We had neighbours for the first time, in Milan you saw your neighbours probably only once a year! It was fantastic to have neighbours, I still call them uncle Cor and aunt Mies. At school, I never suffered from any bullying because of my Italian background. My parents taught me respect for architecture and beauty. They moved back to Italy after twenty years in the Netherlands and now they live in Como again. I realise how much this region of Italy still evokes the 19th century. Liszt lived there for six months, that’s where he wrote his Dante sonata. The atmosphere of the Années de Pélérinage has still survived. It also reminds me of my youth. I have kept my Italian passport for a long time, but when I heard that I would receive the Dutch Edison award, I thought it would be nice to also adopt the Dutch nationality. I must admit I was scared for a short while that they would withdraw the prize if I didn’t, so now I have a double nationality.

WB: What does Music mean to you?

PG: The same as religion to a vicar.. I couldn’t live without it, music is not only something you experience, it also carries you away. At the same time, you should be able to take a break from the music. When I was young, music came very naturally to me. My parents were both enthusiastic amateurs and I listened to many great pianists at home. I remember my first public performance in Hilversum. A lot of students were scared and nervous, I didn’t understand that at all. I was excited, but not nervous and thought it was a great thing to do!

WB: So nothing much has changed over the years?

PG: Actually not, no, although I did have doubts during puberty, when I thought: “Wait a moment, am I really a pianist, am I good enough?”I knew I had a talent and was able to achieve something whilst playing, but so many people wanted to become pianists. Why would I have the right to do this? It took me while before I could come to terms with it. It wasn’t certain whether I would be able to survive as a pianist or whether I could deal with the feelings of insecurity. But on the other hand, even in moments of great uncertainty, I still had the conviction: “This is the only thing I want to do, I can’t do anything else” and then if felt natural again.

WB: Are there moments that you get fed up with music?

PG: No, I  never get fed up with music, but there are moments when it is wise to not play all the time. Obsession can also become frustration, although it happens less and less to me know. Sometimes it is good to stay away from the piano for one or two weeks, it is healthy to take a break from music and it also allows you to see old friends again...

WB: You studied with Jan Wijn, who taught a lot of Dutch pianists. Do his students have something in common despite their obvious diversity?

PG: No, that’s what we have in common! It shows the importance of Jan Wijn. He is an exceptional teacher who knows what to say and what not to say. He was also very strict and honest. That’s what I now intend to do with my students now. He has been one of the biggest influences on my playing. The fact that I had to make my own choices, was not a reaction but a logical consequence. Wijn and my other teacher, György Sebök were complementary. They admired each other and therefore Wijn never felt threatened by Sebök, every year he invited him to give masterclasses in Amsterdam. I often went to Ernen in Switzerland where Sebök taught. His festival still exists, it is great honour for me to return to Ernen and play there.

WB: What made Sebök so great?

PG: He understood students and made sure they understood themselves. That was his exceptional and unique talent. He could solve problems and as a result, spectacular things would happen. Every lesson was different. There was simply no room for tricks or lies, even the slightest narcissism disappeared when he was teaching you, just the way he looked at you...

WB: How can you make someone understand themselves?

PG: That’s difficult to explain, but the key to this is the music. Sebök was a great pianist himself. Because of this, he had nothing to hide himself. You can only understand by seeing what happened during one of his lessons, it is too bad that this is no longer possible.... On top of that, he was very knowledgeable. This basis plus his greatest intuition could cause miracles.

WB: In an interview with you, we have to bring up Rossini, I have some questions about your recordings.

PG (enthuses): I’d love to speak about that!

WB: Who came up with the idea to record all of his piano works?

PG: I did. I was grateful that Channel Classics offered me the opportunity to record solo CDs. My first CD was dedicated to Schubert. Then I discussed further plans with Channel Classics. It wasn’t always easy. As a pianist, you can spend your entire life with works of lesser composers, not everybody is waiting for your Beethoven if there are already 15 other recordings available, that doesn’t mean that you are not entitled to give your vision of his music! In Milan, I often went to the shop of Ricordi, unlike the Netherlands, you can look around and read scores. I saw a whole cupboard with piano music by Rossini and didn’t understand at first.  These weren’t transcriptions or opera excerpts, but original piano scores. I sometimes bought sheet music and played pieces during my studies at the conservatoire. It is music with a special character, written by a genius. Later I asked Channel Classics with some apprehension whether I could record Rossini’s music and they were very positive. No one had ever done this before, but meanwhile I have two competitors. One of them, Stefan Irmer, has become a close fried, I haven’t met the other yet.

WB: Is there a market for this kind of CD’s?

PG: Obviously! The press gave my project a lot of attention. At the start of my career, I received a lot of support from my cooperation with cellist Pieter Wispelweij, but after that Rossini was the first big step.

WB: On your website, one of your CD reviews reads “major works of a genius”, could you give an example of this?

PG: The “Hachis romantique”is fantastic! I played it so often! A lot of people are surprised when they hear his music, they don’t know who wrote it. The subtlety of his music takes you by surprise and stays with you.  I am surprised about its emotional impact. He can also be very stubborn. Take his “Petit caprice d’après Offenbach”, that’s Satie at his weirdest! His music sounds frivolous and easy, but it’s also treacherous. Sometimes enthusiastic amateurs tell me that they bought the music after one of my concerts because it had sounded so cheerful and light. They concluded that the music was much more difficult than they thought and that it wasn’t that easy to play. He didn’t write big scaled, long works, but his compositions are not inferior compared to those of Beethoven and Schumann.   Among his 250 character pieces, there are about 30 or 40 that are incredibly beautiful.

WB: Could you see Rossini as a sort of Poulenc who also wrote satiric music with strange titles?

PG: Absolutely, that’s a good comparison! You see the same thing with Saint Saens and Satie. Rossini always had a reason to use these titles, sometimes he did this because he wanted to fool an editor. For instance he poked fun in one of his “Petits riens” “Oh! La fricaine”at the name of an operette by Meyerbeer “L’Africaine”. This made the editor believe that the piece had something to do with a transcription of a successful operette! Another example is “L’Album du chateau”, which includes no references to any castle! Rossini was a good business man. He knew about commerce. These weird titles were his way to distance himself from the world of editors.

WB: When playing a concert, how easy is it to include his music in the programme?

PG: People take a keen interest in his music: he is a successful composer and it is fantastic to show this element of his work! I often chose to dedicate a third of the programme to Rossini. It is always rewarding to play his music. The alternation of Rossini and French composers is especially rewarding.

WB: Which French composers specifically?

PG: Ravel especially. Both his music and Rossini’s have a certain silverly-like quality that is rather unique.

WB: How should one view Rossini from a technical perspective? Can his music be compared with any other music?

PG: It can be compared to that of Liszt especially, although Liszt had a much more complete idea of what could be done on a piano. Rossini called himself a fourth rate pianist, which he most certainly was not. It has been great to study Rossini in order to improve my technique. If I play Liszt now and to a lesser extent if I play Chopin, I notice that I benefit from having played Rossini.

WB: You play more unknown music, you recorded a CD with the Schumann Concerto coupled with the Dvorak Concerto, didn’t you feel like combining Schumann with the Grieg Concerto?

PG: It was a suggestion of Benno Brugmans, the artistic director of Het Gelders Orkest. The Dvorak concerto is fantastic, in fact it is a copy of Grieg’s style. I didn’t know the piece, but when I started studying it, I immediately fell in love with the concerto. It is monumental and very long. I remember the score was massive.

WB: The first movement is particularly long.

PG: Yes, that’s true. It is a very ambitious concerto, Dvorak wanted to prove something, like Schubert did with his Wanderer Fantasy or Ravel with his Gaspard de la Nuit. Technically, you can’t compare the concerto with his Piano Quintet. If you can play the latter, there is no guarantee that you can play the Concerto aswell!

WB: In what way is the Dvorak concerto amibitious?

PG: It has many notes: the piano is almost a second orchestra. The style is sometimes awkward, although Dvorak knew what he was doing. The third movement is particularly demanding technically speaking. It is easier to study a Liszt Concerto, as his material is based more on standard forms.

WB: Do you still play the Dvorak?

PG: I played it twelve times when I was making the record. It was a physical challenge: it felt like a Tour de France! I noticed that I had to refrain from certain things, like carrying heavy suitcases. Normally I am not obsessed by these kinds of things, but at that time, I was.

WB: Is there more unknown music you’d like to explore?

PG: At this moment, I love to work on the standard repertoire. As a contrast to Rossini, I recently recorded a Schumann CD with the Davidsbündlertänze and the Gesänge der Frühe on a beautiful Steinway in the Frits Philipshall in Eindhoven.

WB: I am a true Schumann fanatic, which seems to be rather rare, a lot of people find his music “weird”

PG (Pleasantly surprised): I am not at all surprised that people find his music strange, Schumann doesn’t compromise and is confusing in his music.

WB: With whom do you have more in common: Eusebius or Florestan?

PG: More with Eusebius. Every pianist has his own “basic” character, Lupu and Pires lean more towards Eusebius, Richter probably leans more towards Florestan, but even they can play very differently at times. I’d love to be like both, as a child I was overwhelmed by the Fantasiestücke opus 12

WB: Just the first of them, Des Abends...!

PG: Yes, I was very much attracted to the character of this piece, however Aufschwung is also fantastic.

WB: Which composers do you feel little or no affinity with?

PG: I have to be careful now, when I say “none”, that may sound arrogant. To continue with the last question, there is a link between Schumann and French composers: there is no country with as many Schumann lovers as France. My connection with the classical masters has been helped by studying Rossini. I feel more at ease with Mozart and my parents gave me a deep love of German romantic music. The only composer about whom I say “One day, but not yet”is Bach, although I love to play his Italian Concerto. I am not sure in which style I’d choose to play his music in. Gould is fantastic, but I wouldn’t approach Bach’s music in the same way. His music is so absolute that it offers many options and provokes one to make choices. All of these options and choices creat the risk of stressing your own personality too much. There has to be a symbiosis between his genius and the ego of the artist and I haven’t worked that out yet. I don’t have the same problem with Beethoven or Schumann, with their music I worry much less about whether my ego may be too big.

WB: Who are your favourite pianists?

PG: Most of my favourites are linked to certain performances, for instance Richter when he played the Diabelli Variations in Amsterdam in 1986 was unforgettable. One year later, Alfred Brendel played a Schubert cycle of four concerts, which I couldn’t tire of. It was a gift, a moment of grace. As an Italian, you cannot leave out Pollini.

WB: You don’t find him cold as many others always find him?

PG: He is an incredibly good pianist and a great pioneer of contemporary music. He is very politically engaged and a figurehead of the Italian intelligentsia. He combines his extreme intelligence with an aversion to cheap emotion. It is not always easy to warm to his playing, he knows no compromise and you have to take the time to savour his playing. Speaking of Italian pianists, there is of course Michelangeli. He stands for the obesession with the sound of the piano and (also) had a fantastic technique. Other than that, I am a great admirer of Perahia and Zimerman. They both show great responsability in their relationship with the composer, more than someone like Martha Argerich. She is of course phenomenal when playing Prokofiev, but when she plays Chopin I find her too whimsical. The emotional range of Pollini, Zimerman and Perahia seems bigger to me.

WB: Do you personally know Pollini?

PG: No, although we accidentally met. Not so long ago, I saw him at an airport, when he and I took the same plane. I was impressed when I discovered who was sitting in the same bus as me travelling to the terminal. I went over to see him and thanked him for everything he means to me. He  was very modest and friendly. 

WB: You are teaching yourself at the Conservatoire in Utrecht, do you have certain topics that you favour?

PG: I have no specific method, but I try to be very conscious of what happens and try to react in an intuitive way. My own teachers showed me that a life with the piano becomes more fun if you can make your own choices well. I try to make  students aware of the options that he or she wasn’t yet familiar with. 

WB: Are there things that you learnt by doing? For instance, Claudio Arrau said that he learnt to use the weight of his arm by looking in a mirror while practising.

PG: You learn many things: it has to do with being conscious. You become increasingly conscious of your fingers and your hands, your wrists and arms... I learnt to be no longer afraid of the mechanics of playing and my playing became more natural. Students often have problems with their posture and their technique which can to fears and tensions.  The most important moment for me has been to undergo a total physical experience as an extension of the musical emotion. After that I have no longer been frustrated when things didn’t work out straight away. The secret is to be patient.