Paris, 1 December 2011


“So you only came for the concert?” Luis Fernando Perez asks me, the day after his recital at the Auditorium du Louvre in Paris. (Well, “only”, it was enough reason and going to Paris is never a tough decision for me ). “It’s an honour for me, since you spoke to so many people, like Alicia de Larrocha”, he continues. (Unfortunately, I have not interviewed her, much to my regret. I remember I spoke to her after a concert in 1997 in the Netherlands, but I wasn’t doing interviews yet. It is definitely one of my huge regrets!)

Willem Boone (WB) : I am a bad pianist, but suppose I would be a good one and I wanted to play Spanish music, which qualities do you absolutely need to have for this repertoire?

Luis Fernando Perez (LFP): A sense of rythm,  big hands, a wide range of colours and feeling for the country, the landscape, the folklore, the people, the dances...

WB: The big hands were something which Alicia de Larrocha, who was probably the greatest pianist in Spanish music, clearly didn’t have!

LPF: It’s not true; she had tiny hands of course, but she did a lot of stretching exercises, therefore she could play a 10th without problems! She had great flexibility between the fingers.

WB: What about your hands?

LPF: I have big hands, I can play a 10th. Rachmaninov said big hands were a virtue, but you have to work much harder! 

WB: Larrocha said that “Spanish music is very difficult” and that you first had to play a lot of Bach and Mozart in order to excel in the Spanish repertoire. This is something I do not understand well, because to me they don’t seem to have much in common?

LPF: Yes, you need to play Bach and Mozart, as well as a lot of Scarlatti or baroque composers. Both Granados and Albeniz were big lovers of Scarlatti! You can hear this in the fioritura in their music.. , but there are also other influences, such as the density of Rachmaninov in Albeniz, impressionistic music , the virtuosity of Liszt, Chopin, Schumann and Grieg in the case of Granados.

WB: So you need to be pretty versatile to excel in Spanish music?

LPF: Yes, that’s correct.

WB: I was wondering about the difference between the music of Liszt and Albeniz, since you played music of both composers during last night’s recital. With a piece like Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody you hear right away that it is very virtuosic and with Albeniz, this is less apparent, although his compositions are not less difficult!

LPF: In Spanish music the rhythm and the singing melody should sound easy, clear and all the rest should be very well balanced. Liszt was the great developer of a modern piano technique, so all difficulties were more evident for the public. Liszt was the “great virtuoso”, whereas Albeniz, who was a virtuoso as well, only wanted to show the folklore and freshness, albeit with diabolic difficulties.

WB: How difficult is Iberia really? It is generally considered as one of the biggest challenges for a pianist, isn’t it?

LPF: Yes, it is often considered as a titanic composition and most pianists are scared of it. It is somehow in my blood now. I began to study Iberia when I was young and usually pieces you practice a lot when still young and flexible remain easier for you for the rest of your life!

WB: I spoke to your colleague Marc André Hamelin who also performed the whole cycle of Iberia and who said that most of Albeniz’ style is unpianistic, what’s your opinion on this?

LPF: I don’t think so, with all due respect for Marc André Hamelin, whom I admire, I think for me it’s the opposite. In Albeniz there are never unpianistic passages, he was a great pianist, virtuoso and developer of the technique for our instrument. You’d be surprised to find out that there are many unpianistic passages in Beethovens works!

WB: Which part of Iberia presents most challenges for you?

LPF: The 3rd and 4rth book are increasingly difficult as the language becomes denser. Few pianists play all 12 pieces in order. It is of course very tiring,  especially the beginning of Lavapies! 

WB: Which of the 12 pieces is your favourite?

LPF: All, but  maybe El Alabacin and Almeria, which are probably not considered as important as, say, Triana. Someone said to me Almeria was Albeniz’s favourite. WB: I have a soft spot for Almeria too..

LPF: In Almeria you hear that Albeniz expresses pain for the first time in this cycle. El Polo is also special; it is one of the most particular compositions of Iberia.  Albeniz was sick while composing Iberia, I believe he felt his ending was imminent. Iberia was his “life travel”, his requiem, his testament.  

WB: Did you study Iberia with Larrocha?

LPF: Yes, I did. 

WB: Did she show you her “tricks”?

LPF: Yes, many of them. She was very meticulous about balance and rythm. She was always very sweet and loving. It was a great treasure to be able to work with her.  

WB: Albeniz was known as an excellent pianist, how good was Granados as a pianist?

LPF: Albeniz was a child prodigy and remained a great virtuoso and one one of the few pianist-composers who created new paths, new effects, a new technique (or a new art, as technique is art in piano playing). Granados was a great improviser. He was a great pianist too. It is maybe true that between them Albeniz was the older brother and also one of the first ones to compose Spanish music and take care of our folklore

WB: Who writes more pianistically: Albeniz or Granados?

LPF: Both are very good pianists, if they write quite differently. Albeniz caused a revolution in the way he wrote for piano, just as Liszt and Rachmaninov had done. He also paved the way for Messiaen, who took a lot from him. Granados was more part of the Schumann/Liszt tradition. 

WB: How important is it to know Goya’s paintings when you interpret the Goyescas?

LPF: It’s crucial, not only to know them, but you should be able to feel the light, the darkness, the colours and the aesthetics ! You should know what these pieces are “speaking” about. If you take for instance El Pelele, that is about a straw puppet, you have to picture a “fiesta” where women tighten a blanket and throw up this puppet /doll, children try to catch and burn it.  In Goyescas, you also need to feel the atmosphere of Madrid during the 18th century, its typical traditions and folklore. It is difficult to describe , I have to think of the Spanish word “chulo” , which means something like “tough guy”, I think of the way these “chulos” behave towards women and the way they say “You are beautiful” in a very “gallardo” way. 

WB: And how this come back in the way you play the music?

LPF: You should be able to hear it in every phrase and in the way you “say” and sing the melody. It all has to do very much with Madrid and the very particular style and traditions that we have. 

WB: But how does someone like myself who is from a nordic country ever develop this feeling, something I am clearly not familiar with?

LPF: There are no countries in music! A lot depends on your sensibility. I’d say in order to play the Goyescas a visit to Madrid and the Prado are compulsory. I have to think of what was said about Albeniz: he knew all corners of Granada and with every type of light! I was born in Madrid, however I think I manage to understand, feel and play Russian music!

WB: How good a pianist was de Falla?

LPF: He was not a great virtuoso, but a fair pianist.  Probably he used the piano as a medium to be a composer, rather than a pianist. Granados and Albeniz had concert careers, this was less the case with de Falla. He was the more versatile of the three, since he didn’t only wrote piano music but also orchestral scores

WB: And regarding Mompou, have you met him?

LPF: No, I haven’t and it is a sorrow in my life. He died in 1987, when I was 10 years old. He lived in Barcelona, which was a great intellectual center at that time when musicians like Mompou, Montsalvatge and Alicia de Larrocha as well as several painters lived there. I unfortunately wasn’t aware of his music by then, but I later met his widow and studied all of his works with her. 

WB: What do you think of Mompou’s recordings? As with Rachmaninov, we have reasons to be glad to have their own interpretations but isn’t there also the risk that you tend to imitate them?

LPF: Rachmaninov and Mompou have both left important “evidence” and in both cases, it was marvellously done. Rachmaninov was of course a very great pianist, everybody says he is the greatest of history, along with Josef Hoffman.  Mompou on the other hand was very old when he recorded his piano music. Yet his interpretations are so fresh, you should listen to them, because they are the only reference and the best one! However, you can’t play like him nowadays 

WB: In what way?

LPF: He would be critisized now because he didn’t play with both hands together. you can’t do that now any more, but there was a lot to it: the aroma, the rubato, the jazzy swinging he had in his vains.. Unfortunately his wife died too. She was  a fair pianist herself, but she knew everything about Mompou’s music, she was actually the greatest source after he had died, along with Alicia and Carlota Garniga, best friends of the composer and great players of his music after he died. 

WB: Aren’t you, just like Larrocha, facing the risk of being pigeonholed in the way that people mainly want to hear you in Spanish music?

LPF: It already happens! There may be 2000 pianists who can play Liszt well and maybe only a few who play Spanish music well. I would be sad though if people would claim I can’t do Rachmaninov or Chopin well, but they probably have heard me less in this music! I remember that Alicia was fed up to be considered as “the only pianist in Spanish music”. Yes, she is considered in Spain as the hero in Spanish music, but she also played a lot of Mozart, Schumann, Liszt and a lot of other composers.

WB: Did you also study non-Spanish composers with her?

LPF: No,I did that with Bashkirov and Galina Egyazarova and my other teachers. There is a lot of Spanish repertoire though, so there was a lot of work to be done..

WB: What was the most important lesson Larrocha taught you?

LPF: Many, probably the most symbolic one was during one of the last lessons I received at her home. She first asked me about a concert in which I had played the Goyescas. Then I played “El amor y la muerte” for her and I still remember so vividly that I looked over the piano and she was sitting in the salon, very quiet and very attentive to what I was doing.  I thought: “Wow, this is very special”. Other than that, she was very practical and would ask a lot of questions after I had given concerts, e.g “How was the memory in ....? “ or “Was ,,, poetic?’” 

WB: Did she teach a lot?

LPF: Yes, somehow she felt obliged to perpetuate the work of Granados and Marshall at the Marshall Academy in Barcelona and worldwide in masterclasses. She was endlessly patient, even with mediocre students. 

WB: What about Dmitri Bashkirov?

LPF: That is another question altogether! He is a fish swimming in the musical world. He is a pianist, a teacher, a critic, a cultivated musicologist at the same time. He is the last teacher of a big tradition and one of the best piano teachers alive.

WB: I am often struck by the subtlety of your playing, did you learn that from Bashkirov?

LPF: Yes. It is a personal development, but he was my greatest influence for sure. He is a great artist and a virtuoso, his pianism is very refined.  He saved my life as a pianist and he is my greatest influence.

WB: You also worked with Menahem Pressler?

LPF: Only for a short period of time.

WB: Do you play a lot of chamber music?

LPF: Yes, I do and I love it!

WB: Do you like to teach?

LPF: Yes, I love it as well. 

WB: I remember you told me two years ago that you were scared to record Chopin. This composer evokes a lot of different emotions: some pianists didn’t play his music (Brendel), others say they don’t feel a real pianist if they don’t play Chopin regularly (Argerich), what makes his music so ambigious?

LPF: Mostly the fact that it has been so well played! You can’t fake with Chopin, he is such a sensitive soul..

WB: Who have played his music well according to you?

LPF: There are many names: Arrau, Rubinstein, Brailovsky, Perlemuter, Gelber, Argerich, Weissenberg..

WB: Weissenberg? He is such a banger!

LPF: I love the electricity of his EMI recordings of the Nocturnes. It’s a great recording.

WB: They are tricky pieces, aren’t they?

LPF: Yes, there are very difficult.

WB: Will you do all of the Chopin Nocturnes?

LPF: Yes, I still have to record the second part, but I don’t know when.

WB: What are your recording plans in general?

LPF: My Mompou disc has been released very recently and I have just recorded two Mozart concertos with maestro Chumachenko and the Soloists of the Reina Sofia Chamber Orchestra. Rachmaninoff is probably next..

WB: You did play Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole last night, I remember you said a few months ago you were nervous about it?

LPF: I had to learn it in very little time and it’s not easy to make it sound as if I had played it for many years.. 

WB: You said the piano was not particularly good last night, would you refuse to play a certain piece with a lesser piano? I have to think of Claudio Arrau, who never tried a piano except the octave glissandi if he was to play the Beethoven Waldstein sonata. If the piano didn’t react well, he cancelled the Waldstein!

LPF: I usually suffer and go on, but if a piano is really bad, then yes!

WB: Two months ago, you told me a funny story of you doing something completely different, can you tell it again?

LPF: I accompanied a friend of mine, a jazz singer who will release a CD with Christmas songs shortly. He asked me and I wanted to do him a favour, but I won’t play with my own name, I took the psydoniem of Alexander Goldmann, because I don’t want people to say: “Look, he is also doing other things than classical music!”