English profiles

Utrecht, 28 December 2006

Willem Boone (WB): Were you happy about last night’s concert?

Leif Ove Andsnes (LOA): Yes, I like this hall (main hall of Muziekcentrum Vredenburg in Utrecht, WB), it’s one of the best modern concert halls

WB: Do you like it better than the Concertgebouw?

LOA: That’s a magical hall, but it’s impossible to compare them!

WB: Was there a problem with the piano?

LOA: Yes, one of the strings broke, which hasn’t happened to me in a few years!

WB: Was it fixed for the Brahms (The Piano Quintet was played after the intermission)

LOA: Yes, it was.

WB: You played chamber music last night with a group of musicians with whom you probably don’t play very often, isn’t it a bit frustrating with relatively little time to rehearse?

LOA: It can be frustrating, but it can also be fulfilling!  There can be the excitement to meet other musicians for the first time, it’s a lot of give and take. You loose something, but you also gain something. The other musicians were wonderful last night, which made the performance special.

WB: You said in an interview from 1997 that you liked playing the piano so much that it made up for all the travelling, practising, loneliness and jetlag. Do you still feel the same way?

LOA: Yes, of course! Playing the piano is a source of energy and gives me inner calm. I don’t think in terms of stress.

WB: But it’s still a very hard life after all?

LOA: Many lifes are hard....

WB: How long in advance are you booked for concert dates?

LOA: We are now speaking about the year 2009, so I am booked three years ahead.

WB: Isn’t that frightening in a way?

LOA: Yes, it is... Next year, I will play Brahms’s 2nd Concerto for the first time. The pressure can be hard if you think of something you haven’t done before.

WB: It’s certainly a difficult concerto, but then again, you said that Rachmaninov’s third concerto wasn’t that difficult and very well written....

LOA: There is an enormous amount of notes, but they are so well written for the hand that I feel a physical pleasure when I play it. Brahms’s writing is more vertical by comparison.

WB:  It doesn’t stop you however to play the Brahms 2nd concerto!

LOA: No, that’s because of the music...

WB: How long can you stay away fromt the piano without touching the instrument?

LOA: I can stay away from the instrument, but if I don’t practise my muscles feel less supple. On the other hand, I got so used to practise, it’s almost a kind of meditation. If I don’t play, something is missing, I start to feel stressed.

WB: Do you feel unwell?

LOA: No, it’s more a mental thing.

WB: Can you learn scores away from the piano? It seems that Rubinstein learnt Franck’s Variations Symphoniques during a train ride!

LOA: I can’t entirely learn a piece without the piano, but I can go through a piece when I sit in an airplane. Or before a concert, I think through the movements of the hands. If you can remember the movements, you know a piece really well, a lot comes from the physical movements.

WB: Do you have a good memory?

LOA: I don’t have too much trouble, although mine is not photografic.

WB: Speaking of the life of a pianist, there are a few cases of musicians who suffered from a nervous breakdown, such as Ivo Pogorelich and Andrei Gavrilov. This may be a very personal matter, but could it have anything to do with the constant pressure you are experiencing as a performing artist?

LOA: Every case is individual indeed, but there is certainly a lot of pressure. You can get very absorbed in your own world. If you can’t reach out to other people, you get into trouble.. I like being on my own, but music is also about communication. It’s a two way thing. If I play a Rachmaninov concerto, I am sitting alone at the keyboard, but at the same time I am communicating to 2000 people, it’s a paradox. That’s also the beauty of music, it can draw a lot of people together!

WB: Are you aware of the presence of an audience when you play? You may get very absorbed and focused on your performance..

LOA: I am aware of the silence of the audience or of the non-silence when they are coughing. If I listen to myself in the hall, I also listen to what goes on in the hall.

WB: Do you manage to find that balance you just described between being on your own and reaching out to others?

LOA: The balance is not always perfect. That’s why musicians love festivals like this one (chamber music around the Dutch violonist Janine Jansen, WB). It’s fantastic to come together and perform after so much time spent alone. The work on the music has been very intense during this festival.

WB: And you have your own festival now, why did you start with that?

LOA: I didn’t start, I joined during the third year. It takes place in a fishing village, Risor. During a week, there are 20 concerts, that are always very crowded.

WB: Are you artistic director of the festival?

LOA: Yes, along with a viola player, Lars Anders Tomter.

WB: Do you have carte blanche for the programmes?

LOA: Yes, I do. We do not only invite friends, but also musicians we hear about. I got to know a lot of people through this festival, which is wonderful.

WB: Did you have any pleasant surprises?

LOA: Yes, for instance the Artemis String Quartet. When I got to know them, they weren’t that famous and now we regularly perform together. A lot of musicians have met each other thanks to this festival.

WB: In the French magazine Répertoire, I read a column by the French critic André Tuboeuf, who compared you to both Arrau and Serkin, because of your seriousness, sound, depth and intensity. Does that mean anything to you or does it leave you indifferent?

LOA: I take it as a compliment, knowing how much Tuboeuf admires these two pianists. I admire them too. I feel part of a pianistic tradition.

WB: Which tradition are you refering to?

LOA: Richter, Michelangeli, Lipatti, Schabel.

WB: But what do they have in common, since they are very different? In what way do you feel part of this tradition?

LOA: They are very different, but they found all truth in music, they played very well and they were all serious..

There are also other pianists I admire, like Horowitz.

WB: Tuboeuf also said that your Schubert reminded him of Serkin’s, he called it “strict, austere and without concessions”. What do you think of that?

LOA: (laughs): I never heard any Schubert by Serkin!

WB: That’s funny, because Tuboeuf indeed wrote that he wasn’t sure whether you were familiar with Serkin’s Schubert...


WB: I have a few questions regarding Grieg. In the same interview I quoted earlier, you said you stopped playing the Grieg Concerto around 1997, because you weren’t sure people invited you to play it as a fellow Norwegian or simply because you are a good pianist. Does that mean you were bored with the piece?

LOA: No, I wasn’t bored with the piece, as I still find it a very fresh and amazing concerto. I did get bored with practising this piece, that’s why I stopped playing it in 1994, I said: “I am an established artist now, they should ask for other pieces than the Grieg Concerto”.

WB: However you took it up again, what made you change your mind?

LOA: That was in 2002, I was curious to see how it felt to play it again and it felt very good. I also recorded it again and occasionally play it, but not very often. Next year, I will do it three times.

WB: It’s often coupled to the Schumann concerto on CD, why is that? I can’t see many similarities apart from the same key and the beginning of the first movement.

LOA: There are formal similarities, especially in the first movement. In both concertos, there is a middle section with a dialogue between the piano and wind, in Schumann it’s with the clarinet and in Grieg with the flute. For Grieg, Schumann was a model, he was only 25 years old and needed a model. He also stole from Beethoven’s fourth concerto, the slow movement and the way he starts the last movement. He took from his classical ideals... What is interesting to me is to see how emtionally different both concertos are; the Schumann is schizofrenic, it pulls you in two directions, although it’s mainly inwards, the Grieg is not so advanced in compositon technique, it’s more outwards.

WB:  Do you consider it as his best piece?

LOA: Yes, I do, it’s virtually the only big piece that was really succesfull. Maybe the third violin sonata (opus 45) we played last night is another succesfull work. He had problems to write large scaled compositions.

WB: That’s interesting, because I had the same feeling when I listened to the violin sonata last night; it sounded as if there were no real themes, but a lot of fragments..

LOA: It’s true that there are a lot of episodes in the first movement, although there are some beautiful melodic finds in the slow movement.

WB: Back to the Concerto, I spoke to a colleague of yours the other day, Elisabeth Leonskaja. She said regarding the Schumann concerto that the last movement should be played like a waltz and that a lot of pianists don’t do this, are there any passages in the Grieg concerto that are “misunderstood” in your eyes?

LOA: It sounds often too sentimental and it suffers from that image. If that happens, it becomes sirop and kitch... Grieg was a strong man and there is a lot of sincerity in his concerto.

WB: Who are your references in this work?

LOA: Lipatti. Michelangeli is very good too.

WB: You recorded  CD on Grieg’s own piano, did that add any new “dimensions”?

LOA: I knew the place, since I lived in Bergen. I know the museum, the instrument is very beautiful, if not very big, it’s a Steinway B, but it has a beautiful sound, it’s kept in good shape.

The room also added to the sound with a lot of wood.

WB: What about his input for piano solo, apart from the Lyrical Pieces? The Sonata is a youth work, there is a Ballade, which I am not familiar with...

LOA: Yes, it’s interesting that you mention that work, I will play it for the first time in January (2007). It’s his most personal piece, that he wrote when he went through a personal crisis: his parents died and he had problems in his mariage. It’s a very strong piece I feel.

WB: What do you think of Gilels’s selection of Lyrical Pieces on Deutsche Gramophon?

LOA: It’s one of the recordings of the past I really like!

WB: Richter also played a large selection of Lyrical Pieces, didn’t he?

LOA: Yes, I heard that live, he was very old, it was at the end of his life, it was a bit uneven...

WB: Do you feel playing chamber music, a recital or a concerto is very different?

LOA: Yes, it is. As a soloist, you have to shine among seventy other musicians, but ultimately, you listen to your surroundings and it’s the same music making, accompanying a singer or playing a recital is not a different profession!

WB: Your colleague Martha Argerich does not want to play recitals any more, as she suffers from the loneliness on stage. What about you?

LOA: (laughs): I quite like being by myself during a recital, it’s just me and the piano, I am more in control.

WB: I heard all of your recitals in Amsterdam in the “Meesterpianisten series”, you played last year the Moussorgsky Pictures and was wondering which version you used, was it the Pletniev arrangement?

LOA: No, I did my own arrangement, I feel the original writing is quite thin. No wonder that people are intrigued to make their own versions or orchestrations.

WB: What do you think of the Horowitz version?

LOA: It’s very convincing, although it still sounds very much like Horowitz..

WB: Speaking of Pletniev, you worked with him as a conductor, what is he like as a person? I don’t think I would ever ask him for an interview as he seems to be a rather moody person...

LOA: He probably wouldn’t say much.... but I feel very confortable playing with him. His orchestra, the Russian National Orchestra is wonderful! We performed during a commemoration of Richter’s birthday (who would have become 90 this year) in Moscow and I did both the Grieg and Rachmaninov second concertos. It was very special to do the latter piece with that orchestra. Pletniev listens very well when he accompanies.

WB: And what do you think of him as a pianist?

LOA: There are unique aspects in his playing, especially his creativity in passage works, he creates colours and waves I haven’t heard with others.

© Willem Boone 2006

Amsterdam, 10 March 2006

An interview with a legendary pianist like Leon Fleisher is not something you should pass up.. When I went to ask the master after his concert, one day prior to the interview, it proved difficult to find the right moment, until he came with the solution. What about the next day (Friday) at 12.00 am at the Concertgebouw? Hmmm, very tempting, but that was during my office hours at work! But then again, how often would I get this chance again? Thank God I grabbed the opportunity and I managed to get a few hours off from work to quickly go to Amsterdam. I met mr Fleisher in a small room underneath the stage of the main hall of the Concertgebouw, that just offered enough room for a grand piano and two chairs..  

Willem Boone (WB): You have played a lot of left hand repertoire. Do you now pay more attention to your left hand when you play two hand repertoire?

Leon Fleisher (LF): No, I always did. The left hand is the fundament of the music!

WB: The programme of last night’s performance said the Hindemith Klaviermusik mit Orchester you played was a world premiere, does that mean that you were the first pianist who ever played this piece?

LF: No,it was a Dutch premiere instead of a world premiere! , but it has a fascinating story to it. Paul Wittgenstein commissioned the piece in 1923 and nobody could find a trace of it, although it existed in the Hindemith Verzeichniss. 3 years ago, his widow died. They lived in a farm in Pennsylvania and his children found a copy in a closet, along with a lock of Beethoven’s hair, which is weird, because that would make him Samson... but it could be true, since Wittgenstein was an avid collector. The piece was lost since 1923 and the copy was not the manuscript of Hindemith.  There are sketch books in Hindemith’s hand with sketches of the piece that match, as I noticed when I had the chance to see them in Frankfurt.

WB: When was the piece performed for the first time?

LF: One year ago, in December 2004. I played with the Berlin Phillharmonic Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle.

WB: Did you play it more often?

LF: Yes, I also gave performances of it in San Francisco, Vienna, Lissabon and Prague.

WB: Are there more pianists who play it?

LF: I think I am still the only one...

WB: Wittgenstein didn’t play it after he received the score....

LF: He was a difficult man who had terrible fights with Ravel. He said he hadn’t paid all that money for an orchestral piece. He never performed the Prokofiev 4th concerto, which he also commissioned, either and even locked it up. It wasn’t performed until the second world war. Siegfried Rapp, a pianist who had only one arm, just like Wittgenstein, was the first one who managed to persuade Mme Prokofiev to unlock the safe where the score was kept. It is a wonderful piece, Prokofiev wrote it in Paris.

WB: I heard a few reminiscences of the second concerto (the scherzo) last night

LF: It’s a different piece. The 4th concerto has an airiness, a particular lightness, whereas the second  concerto is very Russian. The left hand concerto ends with a reminiscence of the 1st movement. It takes great courage to write an ending that fades away and almost evaporates...

WB: It has been said that Wittgenstein wasn’t a very good pianist, is that true?

LF: No, he wasn’t a particularly good pianist, but thank god, he was wealthy! He came from one of the richest families in Vienna. His brother Ludwig was a famous philosopher. They weren’t a happy family though, two of his brothers committed suicide...

WB: Do you know the recording that exists of the Ravel Left hand concerto by Wittgenstein?

LF: It’s from the late 30’s and it’s rather disappointing.

WB: Is it true that Cortot made a two hand version of it?

LF: I heard that story... The Ravel is incredibly written for the left hand. One of his goals was that you wouldn’t discern anything unusual if you listened with your eyes closed.

WB: There are rumours that pianists sometimes cheat during recording sessions and use their right hand  to play awkward notes?

LF: I don’t think so. In public, you would be discovered! The writing is not awkward. You have to sit higher at the keyboard to get to the treble. The center of gravity shifts to your right buttock.

WB: Do you consider the Ravel as the biggest masterwork of left hand compositions?

LF: That’s undeniable. It’s one of his greatest works, but the other pieces for piano and orchestra are masterworks in their own right, for instance Britten’s Diversions on a theme. The Hindemith is a wonderful piece, it’s written in the Concerto grosso style. There is an isolation that comes with the slow movement. He was a man of great wit who had a wonderful sense of humour. The ostinato is repeated every three bars, there are four quarter notes per bar, that would make twelve tones, but no, he wrote an eleven tone row. And you know, he was a great fan of model trains! There is a picture of Schnabel and him lying on the floor playing with model trains.

WB: Are there any influences of Bartok in the Hindemith piece?

LF: I couldn’t say. Hindemith used the theme of the slow movement in a string quartet, as if he wanted to say: “I use the material in another composition if Wittgenstein doesn’t want to play it”. Wittgenstein paid 1000 dollars for it, which was an enormous amount at the time. He insisted on keeping the manuscript, that’s why nobody else could play it. Then he had a copy made of the original. The story goes that Mme Wittgenstein was a little gaga at the end of her life and used it to light the fire in her farm....

WB: But there was the copy....

LF: Thank God!

WB: Was Hindemith a pianist?

LF: He played the viola, but also the piano and he conducted. There was a piano quartet at the time with Schnabel on the piano, Flesch on the violin, Hindemith on the viola and Casals on the cello! Not bad, I would buy a ticket to that.....

WB: Are there actually any pieces for the right hand alone?

LF: No. The left hand is peculiarly made for the piano. The base line is the most important. You can play chords and tap out the melody with the thumb, but the reverse is not possible. It is a challenge to write for the left hand alone. Sometimes when composers are given limitations, the greatest creativity comes out. I was lucky to have works written for me. Lukas Foss wrote a concerto for me. And Gunther Schuller wrote a concerto for three hands on two pianos, one part for two hands and the other part for me. There is also a fascinating piece by William Bolcom, that was commissioned by the conductor David Zinman. He would have loved to ask Bartok, but he was dead. Bolcom was a student of Milhaud and followed an example of his teacher. He composed two different concertos, one for Gary Graffmann and half of the orchestra, the other one for me and the other half of the orchestra. They can be played together and separately. Milhaud did the same with the 13th and 14th string quartet. It’s interesting to play all three concertos in the same programme.

WB: Did you do that?

LF: Yes, we did it in New York and Philadelphia.

WB: Is there a recording of this? That would be interesting!

LF: No, the business has deteriorated.

WB: When did you start playing with two hands again?

LF: In the mid 90’s.

WB: How did you find out that you still could?

LF: I spent all those forty years trying. I was looking for therapies and went from western medicine to eastern medicine to northern to southern.. eventually I found two modalities. One is a physical therapy that is called rolfing, it’s a powerful manipulation of a tissue that is contracted. As of 1996, I get botox injections at the National Institute of Health outside Washington. Botox weakens the muscles a tad and it enables me to play with two hands again.

WB: How did you feel when you played with two hands again?

LF: Ecstatic!

WB: Did you still have the ability in your right hand?

LF: I tried every day, my muscles didn’t atrophy. I suffered from dystonia, a neurological movement disorder. There are two sorts, genetic or specific, what I have. Focal distonia means one specific spot in the body. French horn players get it in the lip and there Botox won’t help! There are 10,000 musicians who suffer from this.

WB: Was it just bad luck in your case?

LF: They don’t know what causes it. They don’t have a cure for it. Botox just relieves the symptons.

WB: You played Brahms 1st concerto again, isn’t that a particularly taxing piece?

LF: I have more problems with scales... Brahms’s writing is more chordal, which causes no problems for me. I also did a new recording of the Piano Quintet with the Emerson Quartet.

WB: Don’t the trills in the 1st movement of the First Concerto require tremendous rotation power in the hands?

LF: Not if you know how to do them. Scales are problematic for me now.

WB: Because they require evenness?

LF: Yes, exactly, but I constantly experiment. I also took up Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and Brahms’s second concerto.

WB: You re-recorded Schubert’s last sonata the other day, is there any particular reason you choose this sonata?

LF: It’s a favorite piece of mine..

WB: The programme of last night mentioned that you played these concertos with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam more than fifty years ago, do you still remember these performances?

LF: Oh yes, they were very happy experiences, I did both Brahms concertos with Pierre Monteux and Beethoven’s G-major concerto with Van Beinum.

WB: Szell was notorious in Amsterdam as a conductor (I tried to explain a Dutch pun; members of the orchestra used to say they had “Szellstraf”, szell= jail, straf = punishment)

LF: He was not easy to make music with, because his standards were so high. He expected everybody to adhere to his standards, but I got along fine with him. I don’t know what is says about me.... Maybe because he adored my teacher Schnabel. And for some reason he liked my playing! I was the first soloist he had in Cleveland. He asked me to do the whole repertoire with his orchestra, the five Beethoven Concertos, Mozart K 503, the Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody, the Grieg and Schumann concertos, both Brahms concertos..

WB: I remember a funny story when André Previn met Szell and was asked to play the Strauss Burleske, although there was no piano. Previn asked Szell how he was supposed to do this and Szell ordered him to play on the table....

LF: And André’s reply was that he never played this table before....

WB: You taught a lot of students, would you accept any student?

LF: No, of course not, only those who are highly talented and understand my language. I had some very gifted students like Yefim Bronfman and young pianist, Jonathan Biss, who will make his debut in the Meesterpianisten series in Amsterdam next season.

WB: Would you accept someone like Lang Lang if he sought for your advice?

LF: He has played for me several times.

© Willem Boone 2006

Lugano, 19 July 2003

I asked Lilya Zilberstein at the second edition of the Martha Argerich festival in Lugano, when I met her backstage, just after I congratulated the wonderful young French cellist Gautier Capuçon with his performance of the Grieg Sonata. She responded in a very friendly and willing way to set a time for an interview on Friday 20 June at 4.00 p.m at the RSI studio.
I noticed that it wasn’t very hard to get in (The receptionist let me in after I told him in my very approximative Italian that I was looking for Lilya Zilberstein, the pianist!). She smiled at me when she came in and said: “Ah, you managed to get in”. We got the key of the room where she normally practices and spoke for about an hour. She proved a friendly and witty conversation partner.

Willem Boone (WB): What is the most important thing you have learnt during your training in Russia?

Lilya Zilberstein (LZ): I went to a special music school in Russia and the most important thing I learnt there was disciplin. I notice nowadays that I am quite disciplined: yesterday (Thursday 19 June, WB) was a day off in Switzerland, I went to the RSI-studio and practiced from 10 a.m until 6. p.m It’s my profession. My children also play music, the oldest one is 12 years old. He plays the piano.

WB: Were you always motivated when you were that young?

LZ: Yes, I think so.

WB: If you were to judge your own playing, would you say that there is a specific Russian element in it? If so, which one?

LZ: People say there is indeed a Russian school. In Russia, I have learnt about piano playing, theory and history of music and harmonics, but I couldn’t describe if there is anything specifically Russian in my playing. The only thing that counts is whether you are playing well and it doesn’t matter where you come from!

WB: The fist time I heard you live (December 1991 in Amsterdam, WB), I was struck by the intimacy (“Innigkeit”as the Germans say) of your playing in the Brahms Intermezzi opus 117. Did your teachers pay special attention to that?

LZ: No, I think it’s just a quality of my playing (laughs)

WB: Do you notice a difference in teaching methods between Russia and Western Europe?

LZ: Not really, no. Either people teach well or they don’t....

WB: You have recorded several times rather unfamiliar repertoire, e.g pieces by Medtner. I also saw a recent disc of works by Clementi on the Hänssler label. How did you discover these unknown scores?

LZ: In Russia, Medtner is played quite often, my teacher told me about his music. He is often considered as “second class Rachmaninoff”, but that is not fair. Medtner is simply “first class Medtner”!
As to Clementi, students play his music frequently in Italy. I found a few pieces of his in Torino (among others the Capriccio), that was an opening. I learnt two of his sonatas and got to know his music better. I always try to programme new music I have recently studied. There are some cliches about the music of Clementi, people tend to say it is too simple, e.g. because there are too many Alberti basses, but that is not true! I have suggested several times to agents to play his music in Italy. When people complain about his music, I ask them to listen to my CD and comment on the music after they heard it.

WB: Quite recently, you recorded a rather peculiar version of Brahms’s 1st Piano concerto in a four hand version (with Cord Garben). Why did you choose to record this transcription when there are so many performances of the original version available?

LZ: Cord Garben found this version, where solo and orchestral parts are mixed. I have always had problems with this concerto, since I don’t manage to play all of the octave trills in the 1st movement. I have always wished to play this piece, but didn’t want to do it in the simplified version. This one is an arrangement for one piano and this was my chance to play it!

WB: Do you try to learn a great number of new pieces all the time?

LZ: Yes, I try to do that, but there is something of a paradox. You can’t record certain things like the Beethoven sonatas any more, because they are too well known. On the other hand, you can’t record Clementi either, because he is not well known enough.. In my recitals, I alwasy try to combine famous and unknown music. I recently managed in Turino to play 45 minutes of Clementi in the first part of the concert, in the second part, I play either Rachmaninoff or Brahms. When I finished the Clementi pieces, I saw people in the audience smiling, because they had really enjoyed the music!

WB: Can you easily learn new pieces? Can you for instance learn in a train or an air plane?

LZ: Usually, I learn quite easily, but I need to concentrate. Only once, I learnt a composition without a piano, Chopin’s 1st Ballade. In general, I think it is not necessary to learn without instrument.

WB: You have quite small hands and so have Martha Argerich, Alicia de Larrocha and Maria Joao Pires. The latter said she couldn’t play Brahms since her hands were too small, yet you seem to play Brahms, Moussorgsky, Rachmaninoff.. Is it true that all depends on the span between your thumb and your index? Or is it true what Shura Cherkassky once said, that it doesn’t play a role at all?

LZ: My hands aren’t that small! Kissin has the same size of hands, whereas he is much taller than I am! (she shows the span between her fingers and it is indeed considerable!). The most important thing is not the span of your hands, but how you feel and think about music...

WB: You have performed Rachmaninoff’s notorious Third Piano Concerto, could you play all the chords?

LZ: I try and if I don’t manage, I play the appogiatura.

WB: What is the most difficult work you have ever tackled?

LZ: First of all, every piece has its own difficulties. Up till ten years ago, I would have said Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto or the Brahms Paganini Variations, but I have played them for more than 10 years now, I have them in my fingers. Of course, they are still “difficult’, but from a different point of view. In the Rachmaninoff concerto for instance, I find it more difficult to build up the climaxes in the right manner.

WB: I have heard that Moussorsgky’s Pictures at an Exhibition are “unpianistic”, is that true for you?

LZ: Technically, they are not that difficult to play, but it is very difficult to “picture”the paintings and play with the right imagination. The pictures are difficult (laughs)

WB: You have played concerts with Martha Argerich in recent years, what is it like to play with her? Is she indeed as unpredictable as you sometimes read and is it true for her music making that she never plays anything the same twice like Horowitz?

LZ: It is very exciting to play with her. It’s true that she she never plays the same way twice, although she tries too! In 2000, we played two concerts in Saint Denis and Ludwigsburg. The last concert was recorded and I got a CD of it. Last year, we played in Bolzano, I gave the CD to Martha and noticed she was listening extensively. I asked her why she did and she said that it was a tape of a concert that took place two years ago. She said she was studying her own interpretation and wanted to know what she did at the time. Maybe she wanted to recreate the same atmosphere. Yes, she is unpredictable, but in a good way. I hope I am unpredictable too, so we should be, artists shouldn’t play like machines.

WB: How did you get to know her? Did she approach you?

LZ: I first met her in Hamburg many years ago, when she played with Gidon Kremer. I went to see her afterwards, then met her again in Norway in the chamber music festival in Stavanger, back in August 1999. The last evening, we played the 6 pieces for four hands opus 11 by Rachmaninov and Ma mère l’oie by Ravel during a gala concert. After that, Martha said she would like to play more often four hand music with me and we talked about pieces by Mozart (K 381), Ravel and Rachmaninov. I realized that we were both very busy, but the day after the last concert, our manager, Jacques Thélen, came up with two dates for 2000 and that’s how it started.

WB: Were you intimidated to play with someone who is that famous?

LZ: No, it wasn’t intimidating. We are colleagues, she has her reputation and I have mine. Maybe I would have been more intimidated ten years ago. By the way, she doesn’t behave like a star, she is very friendly.

WB: You don’t hear these pieces by Rachmaninov very often!

LZ: No, Martha told me she didn’t know them either until we studied them. Last time she said she likes them more and more.

WB: The other day, Martha and yourself replaced Radu Lupu in Paris (23 May 2003), how does that work, do the two of you play on a regular basis?

LZ: We got a phone call, only eight days before, I was in the USA at that time and Martha was in Japan. She arrived only one day before the Paris concert and was making fun about it: “Look at me, I just arrived from Japan!”. It is difficult though, since we are both fully booked. When it happens, it happens. We have now played five concerts in one month, which should be a record!

WB:Are the two of you preparing new repertoire like the Sonata for 2 pianos by Mozart that was announced on the door of the Théâtre du Châtelet?(and replaced by the four hand sonata K 381, WB)

LZ: That was a mistake. We have talked about new repertoire, e.g the Variations on a theme of Haydn by Brahms and maybe the Mozart 2 piano sonata.

WB: What do you like most about Martha?

LZ: O well.... again, it’s exciting to play with her.She has a fantastic sound!

WB: Does she speak about repertoire with you?

LZ: No, we don’t have that much time to talk anyway... When we travelled to Ludwigsburg by train, we spoke about our children. She knows mine and even heard my oldest son play the Polka Italienne by Rachmaninov in Stavanger.

WB: Is this kind of residential festival in Lugano more relaxed for you since you can stay for a longer period, play with friends and have a nice alternation of chamber music, recitals and orchestral music?

LZ: It’s different from other concerts. Last year was very intensive and tiring: I had to rehearse a lot for Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata with Gautier Capuçon, Mozart’s Double Concerto with Gabriela Montero, a Dvorak Trio... This year was easier, as the festival was spread over two weeks, I mainly played in the first week with one concert on the final day of the second week, which left me more time to practice and go to other performances.

WB: Last year, you played among other things the beautiful Cello Sonata by Rachmaninov with the gifted Gautier Capuçon. Who decided with whom you were going to play?

LZ: Jurg Grand put us together, he set up the first and the second edition of the Lugano festival (He passed away in February 2003, WB). It was the first time I played with Gautier. I don’t play chamber music very often, sometimes in special festivals, as the one in Stavanger or in Delft (The Netherlands). In two weeks, I will play at the Lockenhaus Festival, not with Kremer though... (Later on, when Lilya called me to discuss the text of this interview, she told me that after all, she played the 2nd movement of the Strauss Violin Sonata with Kremer during a special Strauss evening concert, this was decided at the last minute, WB).

WB: What do you think of this festival?

LZ: It is very intensive. Last I year, I felt I wasn’t well prepared, because I had concerts the week before in Dallas. I had one week left, but lost a lot of time with flights. It was very stressfull. After my last concerts, I didn’t want to listen to music for a while.

WB: Did you attend the concert of Argerich and Pletnev with the Cinderella transcription?

LZ: Of course!

WB: How did you like it?

LZ: It was fantastic!

WB: Do you think the score was indeed that terribly difficult?

LZ: I think so. Martha mentioned the whole week she had to work hard and since she seldom finds anything difficult....

WB:What are your plans for the future?

LZ: My future will be like my past with a lot of concerts (laughs)

WB: Is there anything you are particularly looking forward to?

LZ: Next year, I will play in three evenings the complete works for piano and orchestra by Rachmaninov with the Stuttgarter Philharmoniker in Stuttgart and Munich.

WB: That is quite a challenge!

LZ: Well, I played all of them already....

WB: Maybe this is a strange question, but could you remember the best piano you have ever played on?

LZ: That’s difficult to answer...

WB: Have you never played on a piano about which you’d say: “I wish I could take it home”?

LZ: That would be the one I have home now! That is quite a funny story: when I moved to Germany,I had no piano. My husband and I lived in a small appartment in Hamburg and the contract stipulated that I couldn’t practice on the piano at home. That’s why I got an electronic piano, a Clavinova. At that time, I was supposed to play some concerts with the violonist Gil Shaham. We were also supposed to record for Deutsche Gramophon, but that eventually didn’t work out. I told Shaham that we couldn’t practice at my place since I didn’t have a decent piano, therefore I called Steinway and asked them if we could practice elsewhere. They pointed me to a hotel, Die vier Jahreszeiten, where they had a grand piano in the bar. After the rehearsal, I told my husband that it had been such a great piano to play on. Some months later, I got a phone call whether I could play Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic and Abbado. I called Steinway again and told them I urgently needed tofind a grand piano. First I had to go to Italy for some concerts, but then they called me and said they found a piano. I was taken to the same hotel again and they sold me the piano I had liked so much. We happened to move to a house and that’s why I could have a piano. It was a Steinway A and I still have it, although I now also have a Steinway B.

 © Willem Boone 2003


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!”








Utrecht, 25 February 2018

I had an interview with the winner of the 2017 Queen Elisabeth Competition, about an hour before he was to play the 3rd piano concerto by Prokofiev. A candid conversation with a shy and humble musician..

Willem Boone (WB): How are you doing since you won this important prize?

Lukas Vondracek (LV): It changed my life quite a bit, I played a lot more than before, more than a hundred concerts! I feel very fulfilled. I went through a child prodigy phase, I had some experience, concerts with maestro Ashkenazy but I realized that winning this prize was life changing.

WB:  How surprised were you to win?

LV: I was not really surprised although I didn’t expect anything. I didn’t know what the jury was looking for and I decided for myself to make music as well as I could. It’s out of your hands. It was not the first competition I took part in.

WB: But this was the toughest one?

LV: Yes, for sure. First of all, it’s very long, which is mentally demanding. The repertoire is varied, you had to learn a new piece. On the other hand, it was also most rewarding, even if I hadn’t won 

WB: How could it have been rewarding if you hadn’t won?

LV:  I tested myself because I had to play under stress and I had to be prepared for new challenges, such as learning a new piece within a short time. I forget the public, throughout the entire competition, I felt a special connection with the audience. They brought out the best in me in a stressful situation.

WB: In Utrecht, the Liszt competition is held every three years and one of the first prize winners said to another pianist who won later “You either have to play the 2nd Concerto or the Totentanz.” Is there anything similar for the Queen Elisabeth Competition where a lot of pianists won either with the 3rd Rachmaninv or the 2nd Prokofiev concerto?

LV: You have to strategize the repertoire a bit, these two are among the most challenging and complex concertos, but you mentioned Frank Braley before who won with the 4rth Beethoven concerto.  However, I played the 3rd Brahms sonata, which is not the most flashy piece I know! “Rach 3rd” is a magnificent piece, musically it’s very rich, it has everything..

WB: How do you look back on your performance of Rach 3? I remember it as an incredibly intense performance! 

LV: I am an intense player , I felt very free. That came as a surprise: I expected to be nervous, but it just seemed to happen. I just let if flow and didn’t have to try harder. I played with Marin Alsop before, she has been a good friend since I was 18.

WB: You also played Mozart’s Concerto in C major K 467, could you have won with that piece as well?

LV:  That’s not up to me, but I adore Mozart, he is one of my heroes! I can say that Mozart is a lot harder to play, since his music is so transparent, you can’t hide anything.. It’s good for your soul to play Mozart, he is one of the composers I love most.

WB: People say Mozart is harder to play than Rachmaninov, what do you think?

LV: I agree. I heard many inspiring Rachmaninov performances, whereas with Mozart I rarely heard crystal-clear and inspiring interpretations. He is often associated with lightness and divinity, which is true, but there are also (other) layers in his music that need to come out.

WB: Who plays him well in your opinion?

LV: Uchida would be my number one choice.

WB: How did you feel after the competition: relieved, glad, elated, ..?

LV: Exhausted, there was a lot of media attention I had to take deal with. Back home, it was very special, since I was the first pianist from the Czech Republic to win that prize, I got a lot of attention there too. It was special to be taken to the Royal Palace and it was wonderful to meet the king and queen. Then I had to prepare the tour that was set up for the prize winners when I played almost every day, 21 concerts in total. It was an unforgettable time.

WB: You wrote on your Facebook page: “On May 26, something really special happened: it was as if I was finally unlocked. .. left my comfort zone, allowed myself to be vulnerable as an artist. The music suddenly felt free, inspired, the spirit was soaring. That’s how I felt at least. At that point, I couldn’t care less about the result of the Queen Elisabeth Competition.” Was that regarding the Rach 3? And isn’t it special it happened at such an important stressful moment?

LV: I almost never felt that way before and I played around 1500 concerts! We practise so much, most of the time, you think it’s decent, but often something is missing and now it all came out.

WB: Strange it happened under such pressure?

LV: It was unexpected, but maybe it was what I needed at the time. It meant a lot to me.

WB: Another passage from your Facebook page: “.. played Rach 3 in Cape Town. I have tears in my eyes when I perform it. So many emotions, so many memories. What can be better than playing one of the most incredible pieces of music in the world’s most beautiful city.” It is clearly a concerto that evokes very strong feelings in you, isn’t it?

LV: Yes, it does. A lot of people like the 2nd concerto, which is wonderful of course, but nr 3 is so much more complex, its climaxes in the finale are unique, it’s a life time of a piece!

WB: Do you also play the 4rth piano concerto?

LV: Yes, I play all four concertos. Nr 4 is a great piece too, although it’s quite overlooked. It is not only tricky for the pianist, but also for the orchestra. Rachmaninov was accused of being traditional and composing in the style of Tschaikofsky, however, in this concerto, he tried jazzy elements that were not noticeable before. Yet, he remained nostalgic at heart. It’s very interesting to hear him play with tremendous drive and conviction, yet he was never sentimental or overly emotional. 

WB: A quote from YouTube about you: “This man is a personality. He created a new Rachmaninov. We see bursts of energy, passion, anger, but also witness lyrical passages and romance. This experience was a rollercoaster for me, my heart was beating so fast, I almost got a heart attack at certain moments figuratively speaking. I was amazed at his use of certain effects and accents, sudden tempo changes, innovative use of pedal and even improvised passages. All traits of someone who is more than a virtuoso. He deserves to be the winner of this competition.” This was written by Albeto Ferro, being on a near second place. This is some high praise!

LV: I believe he won 6th prize, he also got prizes from the Dutch and French radio. I don’t like to judge my own music making. If you become too complacent, it is the end of your development as an artist. It should be about music, I see myself as a messenger and that should be done successfully.

WB: But you are also the one who unleashes passion, which in my eyes is more than only the messenger?

LV: Yes, music should be only be played if you can’t spend your life without it. I couldn’t, it’s essential to my soul. To do these things, you need a certain amount of charisma!

WB: Another comment I read on YouTube concerning your Rachmaninov: “(…) his working too hard shadowed the music.” What do you think of this?

LV: I respect any opinion. I can only say I believe in the journey I chose and rely on my instincts. It is the result of a lengthy study of a difficult piece. It’s an approach I believe in no matter what comments I receive. I can’t wait for someone to tell you what to do. 

WB: You wrote “I was happy to win in a repertoire that is not necessarily mine.”, but you chose the repertoire, didn’t you?

LV: There were a few restrictions, such as the commissioned piece. I had virtually no experience with modern music, it’s repertoire I don’t particularly enjoy. I wouldn’t chose it for myself and that was exactly one of the reasons I wanted to play in Brussels. The repertoire there is a bit of everything contrary to the Chopin and Tschaikofsky competitions that focus on one period. 

WB: I have a few questions regarding the concerto you are going to play this afternoon, the 3rd Concerto by Prokofiev. Can you remember the first time you heard it?

LV: It was probably the first recording of Martha Argerich, who is a really special lady and an incredible virtuoso. The orchestra chose this concerto that I have done many times, but I am still finding my way with it. It’s great of course, yet I am not entirely comfortable.. Prokofiev can be overwhelming: his style is very convincing, however, it’s difficult to find a balance as it is lyrical, ironic, sarcastic.. You can easily sound too aggressive.

WB: I think it’s the perfect example of a piano concerto: virtuosic, but it also has an important orchestral part, it’s lyrical, playful, sometimes with a lot of bite. What do you think?

LV: There are many times when it sounds lovely, but that’s not what Prokofiev meant. There is also fake beauty and sarcasm, he is unpredictable and can kill you any moment..

WB: I think it’s very representative of Prokofiev’s style, more so than in the 2nd concerto. Would you call it the most classical of his piano concertos?

LV: Yes, indeed. The 2nd has tremendous power, but the 3rd is a better composition. You can’t play his 2nd concerto on any given day!

WB: How difficult is Prokofiev 3rd as opposed to Rach 3rd?

LV: It’s not that difficult, actually a lot easier than Rach 3rd. The style is very different, Rachmaninov fits the hand, Prokofiev was a good pianist, but not as instinctive. You need to practise more to get it.  Prokofiev 3rd was written in a mathematical way. You have to be very alert mentally. It’s mostly about chords and octaves, there are not so many scales. It’s certainly not easy, but it sounds more difficult than it is, although there are some unplayable passages!

WB: Where for example?

LV: For instance the hand crossings in the first movement. It has to do with the seize of my hands: my fingers are fat and that makes things sometimes uncomfortable. In the second movement, there are some tricky passages too. The top register chords at the very end are uncomfortable as well.

WB: I love the end of the second movement with the gong!

LV: Of course, it’s hard to place it together, it almost never happens. 

WB: The structure of this concerto is interesting: three movements that each have lyrical intermezzi.

LV: I love the lyrical variations of the second movement: it sounds mysterious after all the drama. It shouldn’t sound overly romantic though, the simpler, the better. Many people add extra rubati. I think you don’t need to add anything, if you follow his instructions, it makes perfect sense.

WB: The variation that comes after the lyrical one is almost scary in its violence!

LV: Exactly, I love the way Prokofiev builds up the intensity. It’s exciting, but you have to make sure not to rush. This sometimes happens when nerves kick in..

WB: I always wonder at the end of the third movement, do you need to play these fast passages as glissandi or as rapid scales?

LV: The way he wrote them is unplayable! You have to play two keys with one finger at the time and it looks like an octopus (laughs). I try to come as close as possible to his notation. It’s not that important though to hit every note, what you need is a clustered sound.  These passages are more effective when played with rhythmical precision.

WB: Martha Argerich rushes there too!

LV: Yes she does, but with such huge charisma!

WB: She owns the concerto…

LV: Absolutely!

WB: Some colleagues of yours, Abdel Rahman el Bacha and Plamena Mangova, said that Bartok’s piano concertos are difficult to put together with an orchestra, what about this concerto?

LV: It’s not easy, neither for the orchestra, nor the soloist. You have much less freedom than in Rach 3, where the piano is more prominent. I think my performances of Friday and last night went well!

WB: Dmitri Mitripolos and Van Cliburn both conducted and played this piano concerto, would you ever consider doing this?

LV: It’s nowadays becoming fashionable, but at the moment, I am not interested. It’s quite an art to be a great conductor..and it is not my calling. I have no time to dedicate myself to conducting, it’s the same with composing. There are so many wonderful conductors and composers, I don’t know what I could contribute to either of these..

WB: Couldn’t Ashkenazy convince you?

LV: He is a wonderful person, I learnt from him to be inspiring, to stay humble, to work hard and to enjoy the journey. He told me one day I’ll be successful. 

WB: He must be one of the hardest working persons in the business!

LV: Yes, his repertoire is so huge. He loves practising, but now he has arthritis.

WB: Where does he find the time to do all this?

LV: He is a very fast learner, he is almost like a child, always with this enormous  energy and joy. It is quite touching to see. His wife is a big help in his life, she keeps him in touch with reality.

WB: He is a heck of a pianist!

LV: His colours and sound are unique, they are so full and rounded. I can recognize when I hear him on the radio, he has a very special way of approaching the piano. You can say he has a symphonic understanding of sound. 

WB: Beethoven once said that music can make you a better person, do you agree?

LV: Yes, I think so, although it is hard to generalize. You can really grow with music and project your struggles, joy, sorrow. For children, it is a wonderful tool to learn patience. Structure, beauty, discipline are all present in music. 

WB: What are your plans for the future? Are you going to make recordings?

LV: Yes, I think with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, but we are still working on the repertoire. I must say I am not that much of a fan of the recording process. Nothing can replace a live performance. I feel I sound better live than on recordings. 

WB: What is your relationship with the instrument?

LV: I am happy when people see me as a musician first and then as a pianist. The piano is just a beautiful box to realize your ideas. Many people indulge in the possibilities of the piano and there is nothing wrong with that but sometimes I wonder whether the essence of music shouldn’t be more universal. Music is all encompassing and the piano has probably most possibilities. I wouldn’t say I am in love with the instrument but I am in love with music. It can be frustrating: you have sounds in your mind, you try the instrument and it’s badly regulated. You still have to try and make the best of it. Then again, great music can sound on any instrument.

WB: But are you still happy to play the piano?

LV: Yes, it’s still one of the best decisions to play the piano! I wouldn’t call it a “job”, sometimes  members of the orchestra say that they need to get “the job done”, I find that a horrible attitude, for me it’s a pleasure! 

WB: What should  I say to you: “Break a leg”?

LV: I remember a concert in Paris where I actually broke a leg before I entered on stage!

WB: Then I’d better not say anything at all! :-) 



Amsterdam, 19 January 2006

Contrary to what one would expect, meeting up with the 81 year old pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio is probably more difficult then setting a date with a pianist of half his age.  His life seems to consist of extensive travelling, concertizing, master classes, recording sessions.... I first asked Mr Pressler for an interview in January 2005. We set a date for March 2005. but unfortunately it couldn’t take place. It proved difficult to find a moment, but when I tried to ask him a last time one year later, he said “This time I will do it”and we found time to speak about his life and career in the Washington hotel in Amsterdam, where his daughter was present to film the entire interview..

Willem Boone (WB): Mr Pressler, thank you so much for your kindness, I have always considered you as one of the most inspirational pianists and was, once again, amazed at your energy last Sunday (15 January), when you played two concerts on the same day in Rotterdam with both Schubert trios, Dvorak’s Dumky trio and Beethoven’s Geistertrio....

Menahem Pressler (MP): You always hope it will be good, but that it will be special, you don’t know. Those concerts were special! That reminds me of a good friend of mine, Julius Kätchen. He invited me to come to a concert where he would play Beethoven’s 3rd concerto. He said: “I will be better than anybody and better than I ever did myself”. I went and it was bad, I went to see him after the concert and asked him: “How could you say you were going to be better than anyone when you were bad?”, he answered: “I was prepared to do the best...”

WB: Are you never exhausted, like after these two Rotterdam concerts?

MP: You gain strength from the music!


WB: Let me ask you a few questions about things that strike me about you. When you walk on stage, you always look so confident and radiant, as if you thoroughly enjoy playing concerts....

MP: It’s a must! We psych ourselves up. I know I am 5 foot 2, but if I walk on stage, I feel 5 foot 3. The confidence is based on experience. I also have great confidence in my two colleagues, who are wonderful. It is a privilege to play at my age, it is no longer a proof. It’s sharing what I have acquired..

WB: Is every concert a joy for you? It’s a very hard job after all....

MP: It’s a pain and a joy! There are moments that come out well and moments that we scurt the borderline. You think life on earth is sometimes like paradise, but on earth, there is no life without humiliation!

WB: Is music like daily bread or like oxygen to you?

MP: Yes!

WB: In “Preludium”, the magazine of the Concertgebouw, you said in an interview that you felt completely upset if you hadn’t played the piano for over two days...

MP: I don’t feel myself if that happens. It’s a strange thing. That’s why I don’t need holidays. Whenever I went on holiday, I always thought after two days: “The holiday has to go past!”.

WB: Do you feel physically unwell?

MP: Yes, as if I didn’t wash... my hands need to play. It feels as if something is missing.

WB: Did you never take a holiday?

MP: Some,but very few. Once, I took one of five days. We played during a festival in Athens. In order to get a cheap ticket, I had to stay for a week. I played the first two days, then I took a boat tour along the Greek islands, it took five days up til Turkey (Istanbul). That was great!

WB: Was that your longest holiday ever?

MP: Yes, it was! (laughs)

WB: I attended some of your masterclasses, where you taught young musicians. One of your remarks to a pianist was that he didn’t look at his fellow musicians while playing. This is something you do a lot. When you look at at violist and the cellist, what exactly do you see?

MP: I am looking at the bow. I see how he sneaks into the note and I learn how to sneak into the note with the player. You use your ears to play together. Everybody has a certain emotion, you see how he relates to his phrasing.

WB: You play with the score, but do you know them by heart after so many years?

MP: More or less, yes.

WB: If you would play without the score, you could look even better at your colleagues while playing...

MP: The score is like a great speaker, it contains points of reference. You see different connections every time. Richter told me that I must play with the score. We do so many programmes, if we would play without the score, we could only do one programme. The ideal has to be in your ears. Music is the language of the ear. It’s true you never get it, but you can get close to it. You think you are flying up to the sky, you go to heaven and you discover that there are more and more different layers. The more you hear, the better you play.

WB: You have such a superb sense of balance!

MP: Balance, that’s the ear!

WB: Are you born with it or can you develop it?

MP: You are born with it, but you don’t know it! I had a hard taskmaster, Daniel Guilet, the first violinist of the Beaux Arts Trio. He was very hard, but he had a superb knowledge and sense of balance. When we started with the trio, the piano was always half open and the pianist had to play as softly as possible. There is a funny story about this, we were rehearsing and Bernard Greenhouse, the first cellist of the trio said: “You are too loud”, we tried it again and he said the same thing. Then the third time I didn’t even play and he looked at me: “You are still too loud!”. ‘But I didn’t play!”I protested and he said: “No, but you look too loud!”. Things have changed, now the stake of the piano is open. My two youngsters only want me to play with the lid fully open, even when we play sonatas.

WB: Stil piano and strings is a tricky combination, isn’t it? The piano could easily drown the string players

MP: It is tricky indeed, but the Beaux Arts Trio convinced people that piano trios could be played as chamber music.

WB: Is chamber music a specialism? Can any pianist do it?

MP: No, it’s not a specialism. In the past, great pianists like Schnabel and Arrau played chamber music. Rubinstein too at the end of his life. It’s true though that you have to cut your ego, like a tree.

WB: Does that mean that you have no ego in the trio?

MP: No, you should have plenty of ego! You should have the feeling: “Whatever you do, I can do better” but whithin a unified conception. That takes time and as they call it in German “Verzicht”...

WB: Speaking of which, what do you think of one of the reviews after your concert at the Concertgebouw of last Monday, where the critic wrote that you were “the leader of the trio, a giant at the keyboard and that Mr Hope was in awe and therefore sounded almost modest”?

MP: A musician is delighted if the critic calls his concert good and he is sad if it is called bad. He is even sadder if he agrees with the critic, because that confirms whithin yourself that it was bad and that even he heard it! But even after a bad review you are not lost....

WB: But what do you think of the comment that Mr Hope was in awe of you?

MP: I don’t think he is in awe! Yes, he is young, but he is great talent. He is an exceedingly fine person and I am thrilled to have him in the trio. If he is in awe, I like it!

WB: Couldn’t it be meant in the sense of “He was intimidated”?

MP: No, he was not intimidated! In which newspaper did you read that review?

WB: It was the NRC Handelsblad.

WB: Was Daniel Guilet the oldest musician when you started playing in the trio?

MP: Yes, he was

WB: And now you are the oldest person. Can that make you a dominant person?

MP: Yes, because I have more ideas. I have been playing and teaching this works for so many years now. I have done it before and at a great heigth. Sometimes, I listen to old recordings and they are pretty good!

WB: Do you have any favourite recordings?

MP: You know, I don’t sit down and listen to them, but sometimes I hear them on the radio. For instance when I hear the Haydn trios, that’s something to be proud of!

WB: I always think of you like an icon. You are like Gerald Moore, who was a special figure too. Does such a comparison make you happy?

MP: Why not? I love him, so if I am compared to him, that’s great!

WB: I can’t think of any other pianist who has done so much for chamber music as you did...

MP: I understand what you mean.

WB: Are there any good trios at the moment?

MP: There are some good trios: Kalichstein/Laredo/Stone and in Holland, there is the Storioni Trio, that I coached. I hope they are growing.. They all play well, the technique is always good, the repertoire is fine.. but it’s all about the creative aspect of playing. When you play, you should feel as if you are composing, that’s what I look for! It also depends on the teachers you worked with: I studied with Egon Petri, Guilet studied with Enescu, Greenhouse with Casals... I didn’t stop feeling creative! People often ask me: “How is it to play the same piece for the 150th time?”It’s always an experience to go through it and find things. It’s always an adventure!

WB: Are there any composers you would have loved to compose a piano trio?

MP: Bartok and Schönberg!

WB: There is a transcription of Schönberg’s “Verklärte Nacht’for piano trio, do you know it?

MP: by Steuermann! Yes, I know it, we intend to play it. It’s no true Schönberg, it’s easily accessible.
Kurtag also wrote a piece for us, which we premiered at the Concertgebouw last year. It was a very short piece and therefore we played it twice, it hardly lasts for more than 2,5 minutes. Last night, we received an award, the price of the Concertgebouw during a gala dinner. We played the Kurtag again. I love it, he promised me to write more pieces for us. He is not only a great composer, we can play Beethoven for him and learn a lot. He has a very strong inside.

WB: Can you ask him questions about his intentions?

MP: Of course you can. It’s like Alexandra du Bois, a young American composer by whom we played a composition two days ago, you can ask her: “What do you mean?”

WB: Can these composers answer your questions? Or did they write their works subconciously?

MP: They can answer our questions more or less. Rorem did, Müller Wieland did... these are composers who are thinkers! If they don’t know, I won’t have questions, they give up their birth rights... and I do what I think is right...

WB: You mentioned Rorem, he wrote some beautiful music!

MP: He is a very important American composer. For the 100th season of Carnegie Hall, I played a piece of his for piano and violin. I was asked which composer I would like to write for us and I said Rorem..

WB: Do you never long to play highly virtuosic music?

MP: I did for many years! But then piano trios took over and they became main stay...I am still playing, more than I like sometimes...and I am still concerned with piano litterature.

WB: Are you still studying solo repertoire?

MP: Yes, I am still doing that, but less. There are time constraints....

WB: When you play trios by Rachmaninov or Tschaikofsky with very elaborate piano parts, do you approach these works as piano concertos?

MP: No, when I play trios, I play them like trios. My two friends wanted to play the Rachmaninov, they loved it, not because the piano part was pre-eminent

WB: You mentioned Richter before. In his note books, that have been published, he was unusually positive about your playing. Does that mean anything to you when a great colleague pays you a tribute?

MP: It was the most important compliment. Of course it is! He was one of the greatest pianists. We played four times during his festival in Moscow at the Pushkin Museum. He was a great icon in my life! His diaries were not intended to be published. Some of my friends told me: “Did you read it? You should, it is very positive!”.
Once we played in Menton, he played in Italy, near the French border after our concert. I went and spoke to him afterwards. He was not very happy about the way he played. He told me he would love to go to France, but he had no passport. You know, it was before 11 September, they didn’t check very carefully at the border, so I said: “Why don’t you come with us?”. He was lying in our car and we took him to France... I asked him whether he knew the Schumann Trios, he said no. He came to our concert the next day, when we did one of the Schumann Trios. Then he invited us to his festival near Tours and also to Moscow.

WB: Did you also think that he was incredibly hard on himself?

MP: Enormously! His talent was so big, he reached out further than most of us. His repertoire was bigger than any other pianists, he played more than Michelangeli or Pollini. Only that Hungarian pianist has a large repertoire nowadays, I can’t think of his name.

WB: Jeno Jando?

MP: No...

WB: Do you mean Andras Schiff?

MP: Yes, exactly!

WB: Really? He leaves out a lot of things; he doesn’t play any Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, nor contemporary music!

MP: He does the complete Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and a lot of other things, like Janacek..

WB: A last question, do you remember your first concert in Holland?

MP: Yes, that was a recital in the Hague, it was during my honeymoon! I had a good success, but it had no great echo. I was invited to come back though. The first concert with the trio was in the late 50’s. We couldn’t get used to this Dutch attitude of getting up after the first piece! We were overwhelmed and thought: “O , how should we get on with the second and the third composition?”, but now we are used to it! Do you know that last night we played our 50th performance at the Concertgebouw?

WB: You played an enormous amount of concerts with the trio!

MP: As you can see!

The Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire revealed his outstanding gifts and strong artistic personality at an early age. His international career, begun when he was very young, has taken him to cities on every continent, where he has given solo recitals and concerts with some of the world’s leading orchestras and conductors. He often performs piano duets with Martha Argerich, whit whom he made recordings. Here he talks about his life and art.

Stany Kol (SK): How does a person become a great performing artist?

Nelson Freire (NF): In my case, it all started very early. I was a child prodigy. I was born in 1944 in Boa Esperança, a little town in Minas Gerais state, the youngest of five children. There were no musicians in the family, but my mother was a music lover and bought a piano with her first wages as a teacher. I think there were only three pianos in the whole town. She made my elder sister practise. I began to play a little myself, by ear, copying what I heard. I was rather sickly as a child and had several illnesses, but I loved the piano. When I was four, I toldmy parents that I wanted to take lessons.

SK: So they found you a teacher.

NF: Yes, but he lived a four-hour bus ride away. I went to him once a week and had to get up at four in the morning. In those days, there were no motorways. In fact the road was a dirt track, often drenched with rain. After twelve lessons, the teacher told my father there was nothing he could teach me and that I’d have to go to Rio de Janeiro, which was then the capital of Brazil, to get a decent musical education. And so we moved to Rio. It was a big decision for my parents, who had always made their home in Boa Esperança, where all their family lived. My father, who was a pharmacist, had to give up his profession and take a job at a bank.
I took tests at the Rio school of music. The professional musicians were impressed and said I was a child with “golden hands’. But I was still only playing by instinct. I had a hard time finding a teacher. I was a rather unruly child. For two years I went from teacher to teacher, I even kicked one of them because he kept touching my ears, and I hated that. My parents were getting fed up and were thinking of returning to Boa Esperança, and then I was introduced to Lucia Branco, one of  the few piano teachers in Rio I hadn’t met. She was a well known teacher who had been trained by a pupil of Franz Liszt. She advised my parents to send me to one of her students who, she thought, was mad enough to agree to work with me. That’s how I met Nise Obino, her assistant. It was love at first sight. With Nise, I went right back to square one, including even the position of the fingers on the keyboard. She managed to get me to make remarkable progress. My relationship with her was very strong, the strongest in my life. One day when I was very ill with a very high fever, she came to see me and put her hand on my forehead, and my temperature went down immediately. We were very close until her death last January, which was a terrible blow for me.

SK: Did you go to school while being trained?

NF: Yes, just like any other child. My parents didn’t want me to be uneducated. I only practised the piano a couple of hours a day.


SK: When did you first perform in public?

NF: When I was four. Then when I was twelve, Brazil organized a big event, Rio’s first international piano competition. I was intived to take part and was one of eighty contestants. Several of the others were already in their thirties and had a lot of experience. Some had even won prizes in other competitions. Lucia warned me that it would be a good experience for me but that I shouldn’t set my hopes too high. Even so, I was among the finalists. The final was an extraordinary event, a bit like a big soccer match. The Brazilians are mad about the piano. The hall was packed, and the audience was very excited. The president of Brazil, Juscelino Kubitschek, who had followed the preliminaries, offered me a two-year scholarship to go and study wherever I wanted to.

SK: And that’s how you went to Vienan..

NF: Actually, I only went there two years after the competition, when I was fourteen. I chose Vienna because I wanted to work with Bruno Seidlhofer, an Austrian pianist who was very well known in Latin America. I’d played for him in Rio. I set off on my own because my parents couldn’t go with me. I took the boat with Seidlhofer, who was returning home.
In Vienna, I was alone for the first time in my life. I was still quite young and didn’t know a word of German or anything about the city. I found out what it meant to be independant. Those two years were very important for my personal development. It was then that I met Martha Argerich. I didn’t do much work, though, and didn’t enter any competitions. I didn’t live up to expectations. Then the time came when the scholarship ended and I had to return home. Returning to Brazil wasn’t easy. At seventeen I was in the middle of an adolescent crisis, and I had to live with my family again after acquiring a taste for independance and living on my own. During the next year I entered a few competitions but never turned up on the day. Then in 1962 I was offered the opportunity of giving a concert in São Paulo. The concert was a big success and I recovered my enthusiasm and desire to play.

SK: You made a fresh start?

NF: Not yet. Another failure was waiting around the corner, in Belgium where I’d gone at the age of nineteen to take part in the Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians International Musical Competition. When the results were announced, my name wasn’t even mentioned. It was a bitter disappointment. But Martha Argerich was there too. Neither of us felt on top of the world, but we were together and that helped a lot. Going back to Brazil after a flop like that wasn’t very enticing. Then I  remembered that Anna-Stella Schic (1) had suggested that I should take part in a competition in Lisbon where she was a member of the jury. I called for information and was told the competition was starting in two days time. I said I’d be there.

SK: Without knowing the test pieces?

NF: I knew everything except for a compulsory piece that had to be played at the beginning of the competition, Carlos Seixas’Sonata in G-minor (2). When I got there, I asked for the score of this sonata, and they gave it to me but thought I was mad.  What’s more, when lots were drawn for the order of performance, I had to play first. Anyway, I got down to work and threw myself into the competition. I walked off with the first prize! Things really changed for me after that. For six pleasant months I was asked to give a number of concerts in Austria,  Portugese speaking Africa and Madeira.
But other countries were a closed book for me until early in 1965 I received a telegram from Brazil from Ernesto de Quesada, an old man who had been Arthur Rubinstein’s first  agent and went on to found the Conciertos Daniel We had never met, but he’d heard about me from a member of the Lisbon jury. In his telegram he proposed that I should give three concerts in Mexico as a last-minute replacement for Alexander Brailovsky  That was my first contract. After that, I returned to Brazil in style, I did tours in Spain, Argentina, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Peru and other countries. In short I started to earn a living. One day I was in Caracas when Martha Argerich’s agent contacted me and asked whether I would fill in for Shura Cherkassky and play Tschaikofsky’s Second Piano Concerto with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra.

SK: Did you know the concerto?

NF: When the Germans asked me that question, I said yes of course I knew it, whereas in fact I’d never seen the score in my life. And I had two weeks to learn it! I raced to music shops in Caracas, but no one had it. I had to get it from New York. Then for fourteen days I worked on it. When I arrived in Schweinfurt I wasn’t all that sure I could do it by heart, so before going on stage, I asked them to place a closed score of it above the keyboard, just in case. The next day the papers said “a new star is born”. That’s how I got a foothold in Germany in 1966 and began receiving concert offers. I had a terrible experience in 1967. I was going to play in Brazil, at Belo Horizonte in Minas Gerais state, and my parents decided to go with me. Along the way, the bus drive fell asleep at the wheel, and the bus plunged into a ravine killing everyone else on board, including my parents (silence)

SK: When did you start playing duets with Martha Argerich?

NF: Publicly, in 1968 in London at a festival run by Daniel Barenboim. Martha was invited to play a piano duet, and she accepted on condition that I should be her partner. We’d often played four-handed pieces at the house for the fun of it, but this was the first time we did so in public. We weren’t very well prepared, and the performance was not excellent. We didn’t play together again until 1980, twelve years later, in Amsterdam. From then on we really began playing together in concerts and for recordings.
SK: How do you explain the quality of your relationship?
NF: First of all we have know one another very well for a very long time. You know, the best piano duettists are often brothers and sisters or couples. People have to be very close in their personalities, tastes and sensibilities. What’s more, Martha and I have always been open to new discoveries. I think we’ve kept clear of ruts and routines.


SK: Is there a typical style of Brazilian piano playing?

NF: After soccer the piano is the second great love of Brazilians. But while Brazilian pianists have mostly worked in Europe and have certainly been deeply influenced by Europe, it is generally accepted that they have a certain rhythm,  a kind of  vibration that you don’t find elsewhere. For the same reason, some Brazilian pianists have inhibitions and inferiority complexes. They try to deny themselves by becoming more European than the Europeans!

SK: Doesn’t that lead towards a certain standardization?

NF: There is a certain standardization of styles today, especially, I feel, in the United States. In my opinion it’s due to changing ways of training musicians, to the increase in the number of international competitions and their growing importance in musician’s careers, to the money that is now involved in music and to the somewhat haphazard development of compact-disc production. In other parts of the world, including Europe, things haven’t gone so far, and musicians seem to be resisting this move towards standardization. When I sity on competition juries, for example, I am struck by the quality and artistic temperament of many young Russian pianists.

SK: Do you think that Brazilian composers, especially Heitor Villa Lobos, are performed as often as they deserve?

NF: No, Brazil has a lot of fine composers, but Villa Lobos is about the only one who is widely known. And even he, who produced a considerable body of work, isn’t performed very often. I like his music and think I ought to play it. I do so in my recitals. I also play works by Santuro (3) and Mignone (4)., but I’m not sure that this great tradition of Brazilian classical music has remained as active today as it used to be.


SK: You performed all over the world. Is the public always the same?

NF: Clearly there are different publics in different countries and continents. I love to play in Germany. Music seems extraordinarily naturals with German music lovers, almost as if they become part of the music during a concert. In Asia – in Japan, for example – the public is always very enthusiastic, but it has a particular way of listening and communicating. Certain audiences, like the Germans, are open to all performers, well known or otherwise. In Paris,  on the other hand, people will only go to listen to a star. I have a fondness of Brazilian audiences that I feel intensely when I play for them. But I believe that music is and will always be an international language. At most the same works are not heard in the same way in different places. There is another kind of problem. I sometimes wonder whether concerts and live performances aren’t experiencing a kind of crisis because of the extraordinary development of compact discs. I think too much is made of them, and I feel that people are gradually losing the desire to go to concerts.

SK:  Talking about the United Nations, Villa Lobos once said that if world leaders listened to more music, there would be fewer wars.....

NF: He was right. Certainly it is hard for a Brazilian to imagine life without music. Such a life would be a dreadful prospect. Talking of Villa Lobos, the last piano work he wrote, in 1949, was Hommage à Chopin in commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of the composer’s death. Who commissioned it? Unesco!

1)    Anna-Stelle Schic, a Brazilian pianist born in 1925, was a close friend of Heitor Villa Lobos, many of whose works she premiered.
2)    Carlos Seixas (1704-1742), a Portugese composer whose work for the harpsichord is especially well known.
3)    Claudio Santoro (1919-1989), Brazilian composer. A student of Olivier Messiaen and friend of Heitor Villa Lobos, he explored the possibility of atonal music and then turned to musical forms closer to Brazil.
4)    Francisco Mignone (1897-1986), Brazilian composer. He assimilated the style of the Brazilian waltzes that the pianeiros played in cafés at the turn of the century.

Stany Kol, Secretary of Unesco’s General Conference until 2004.

This interview was published in Le Courrier de l’Unesco of September 1995.



Arnhem, 4 October 2014

Thanks to my friend Benno Brugmans I was able to interview Nelson Goerner, while he was having breakfast at his hotel in Arnhem, the day after his recital. Goerner was especially impressive in Beethoven's towering Hammerklavier Sonata. But what probably struck me most, was this pianist's dedication to his job, his intelligence and the self-assurance of an artist who knows very well what he does.

Willem Boone (WB): How do you compose a recital programme?

Nelson Goerner (NG): Sometimes programmes are articulated around a theme or a composer, but for yesterday’s recital, I was free to play what I wanted.  I mostly play pieces that I have lived around with for a long time, e.g. the Bach Partita nr 6. I learnt it when I was 17, then I didn’t play it for many years and I picked it up again a few years ago. I also learnt the Hammerklavier Sonata a long time ago, I would be frightened to learn it now!

WB: Why?

NG: There are pieces you should start with when you are young and more fearless! The sooner you start to learn this repertoire, the better. It takes a long time before you feel you are ready.

WB: But isn’t this the kind of repertoire that requires wisdom that you probably don’t have when you are 20?

NG: That is also a cliché, you can be mature at 25, with time things can only grow, they will be different at 30..If you start to work on this repertoire when you are 50, it’s too late!

WB: Does that apply to any repertoire?

NG: For a lot of repertoire you need years, as with the Hammerklavier Sonata I put it aside and took it up again. I was able to look at it with freshness. It’s an ongoing process in your mind and your soul.

WB: When you take up a piece again, is it always with new insights?

NG: Yes, most of the time it is.

WB: The Fantasia by Mendelssohn you played last night is an interesting piece, Mendelssohn is neglected as a piano composer, isn’t he?

NG: Yes, unfortunately, his output for piano is wonderful. I haven’t done much of it, but I’d like to play more of his solo piano music.

WB: What I find interesting in Mendelssohn’s music is that it is on the verge of romanticism and classicism..

NG: Yes, that is correct. As you can hear in his music, he worshipped the classic composers. It is classic in its proportions, but decidedly romantic in its feeling. The middle movement of the Scottish Fantasy makes me think of Schubert, whereas the first movement is perhaps the most romantic of all, it’s very passionate!

WB: You already mentioned the Hammerklavier Sonata, I’d like to ask you a few questions about this sonata, could we call it a “monster”?

NG: We can think of it as a monster, but no…actually this piece is more about the elementary, raw forces of nature.  As Wilhelm Kempff pointed out, the adagio is the longest monologue Beethoven ever wrote. It is on top of everything he ever wrote: it is so full of pain and sorrow, only a movement like the fugue can make sense after such a moment of introversion. The fugue is almost needed to liberate forces.  For me, Beethoven represents the inner fights of the human being.

WB: As to the fugue, is it difficult to come to terms with a moment of such fury?

NG: Of course it is, you need a big virtuosity, but nothing should be there for mere display. You also need a lot of clarity to make all the lines come out.

WB: How difficult is it to get this sonata programmed in a recital? I gather a lot of agents prefer other sonatas like the Waldstein or the Appassionata?

NG: So far, I haven’t encountered any problems, people obviously want to hear the Hammerklavier Sonata and maybe the other sonatas you mentioned are played to often (laughs)

WB: Would you call it his most inaccessible sonata?

NG: Certainly, because of its complexity! It’s at the pinnacle of all sonatas ever written!

WB: What could Beethoven have intended with this particular piece, can you say he wanted to transcend the instrument?

NG: He certainly did, the first movement goes beyond the possibilities of the instrument! He had a deep transcendental message with this sonata..

WB: What could that message be?

NG: Beethoven was such an example for all generations to come because of his faculty of overcoming struggles and all contradictions in ourselves! (thinks).. I don’t want to put this in words, it’s impossible!

WB: Do you know whether he ever played the Hammerklavier Sonata in his lifetime?

NG: I can’t say..

WB: Would you ever consider playing it on period instruments?

NG: No, I don’t think so, you need a modern piano with all its possibilities. I don’t think you should go backwards.

WB: Did you respect Beethoven’s metronome markings in the first movement?

NG: No, they are impossible! I am puzzled by his indications, as they are almost impossible to follow. However, I think metronome markings give us an indication of something, in this case that it should be played with a lot of excitement and raw energy.

WB: Yes, but that’s about the energy of the music, not about the tempo?

NG: Probably Beethoven intended the first movement not to be poised or majestic, but energetic!

WB: What’s the tempo indication, allegro risoluto?

NG: No, it’s just allegro. I know Gulda came close to Beethoven’s metronome markings, Schnabel probably played them the way Beethoven intended, but as I stated before, I think they give us rather an indication of the composer’s drive. His struggle has an expressive value, more often than not difficulty in itself has expressive power. Literacy in music is not the key thing…

WB: You spoke about the fugue, what is the character of this movement, is it cataclysm?

NG: Yes, it is. In the adagio you are plunged in despair and sorrow. In the fugue Beethoven unleashes his powers

WB: But how can you find a sense in such fury?

NG: It makes sense by its contrasts, Beethoven’s music is based on incredible contrasts.

WB: There is also a lot of humanity in his music, sometimes even in one single chord, I like his music more and more…

NG: Of course…

WB: You mentioned period instruments before, you made a few records of Chopin on old instruments, why was that?

NG: I was tempted by the experience, it meant a lot to me. It gave me other insights about the sound, I thought: “That’s what the composer had when he wrote this music”
Authenticity is a word I don’t like, because we can never be sure of anything. It was not meant as a musicologist’s adventure, but I will occasionally pursue this experience.

WB: Didn’t you feel you were walking on egg shells, holding back all the time?

NG: No, I didn’t feel I was restraining myself. In the beginning, I was afraid of touching the instrument, it you play too loud, it shouts at you.. You need to know how to supply by means of articulation and subtlety in shadings. You are increasingly aware of the power the instrument cannot give…

WB: Do period instruments get easily out of tune like harpsichords?

NG: Yes, they get much easier out of tune than Steinways, having said this, the instruments from Warsaw I played on were jewels and it was an incredible chance to work with a conductor like Frans Brüggen. The experience was exhilarating!

WB: He was a much admired conductor, yet it has been said that he was not a “real” conductor and that his musicians had trouble “reading” his gestures!

NG: He was more than a conductor, he was an inspirational figure! He could communicate to his musicians what he wanted, they were all transcended by the originality of his ideas and his sheer aura.  I was very impressed with him, we only did Chopin and I have seen conductor who were not at all interested in Chopin’s music, but Brüggen had studied the scores so thoroughly, he knew them inside out. Everything was so clear, precise and beautiful, he didn’t consider the orchestral part as a screen for the pianist..

WB: Were there other conductors you had such a good rapport with in Chopin’s concertos?

NG: Emanuel Krivine was wonderful too, he cared for what Chopin wrote. He didn’t consider his music as mere accompaniments or a show piece for pianists.

WB: Your colleague Ivo Pogorelich called period instruments “an anachronism”, do you agree with him?

NG: No, absolutely not, “anachronism” means something that is dead! It all depends on who is at the instrument and on how he uses the instrument to express his ideas..

WB: Would you play on period instruments again in other music, Liszt for example?

NG: It might happen, but I have no plans for now. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility though..

WB: Speaking of Liszt, you played all the transcendental studies in one recital, speaking of challenges! Did you play other works during that same recital?

NG: Yes, I played two Wagner transcriptions, one at the beginning, then all the études and I ended with another transcription. A programme that consists of “only” the études would be a bit strange…

WB: Which one of the études would you consider as the most difficult?

NG: Feux follets, without a doubt, it is one of the most difficult pieces ever written, you have to transcend materiality… It’s something flying (shows on the wall ) , it’s a vision, you cannot touch it and it’s gone..

WB: And it’s such a delicate piece too!

NG: It’s untouchable..

WB: I must say that I haven’t heard many good performances of it…

NG: No, the best one is Richter in Sofia in the famous live recording from 1958!

WB: Do you know Ashkenazy’s recording? It is amazing too!

NG: Yes, I heard it.

WB: How often do you learn new repertoire?

NG: Always, it’s essential for me, because of a need to play many different pieces and composers.  Many of my idols like Richter and Arrau had an all-encompassing repertoire. I can understand that some pianists want to limit themselves to a certain repertoire, but I have never wanted to do that.

WB: Are there pieces you deliberately don’t play?

NG: There are many pieces I don’t play, I haven’t performed much music of the last 50 years, although that isn’t by lack of interest. I feel you should only play music when you feel you have something to say.

WB: On the BBC, there is a programme called “Building a library” in which they choose the “best” performance of a certain composition. I remember your performance of Chopin’s Third Sonata was hailed as the “best”, how do you feel about such praise: can you accept it or do you put it in perspective?

NG: I feel flattered but I put everything in perspective. It’s in the nature of human beings to compare, but you cannot go far in art! I don’t think my performance of the Chopin sonata was “the best”, however it’s important to know what you do is appreciated.. On the other hand, vanity can hinder the development of an artist!

WB: You studied with Maria Tipo, why did you chose to come to Europe to study with her?

NG: I got a scholarship to come to Europe, I could choose my destination. I decided to study with Maria Tipo after I asked Martha Argerich for advice. She mentioned a few teachers I didn’t know, but also the name of Maria Tipo. I knew her by name, she played a lot in Argentina, although I didn’t hear her in concert at the time.  As you might probably know, the Argentine piano school is Italian..

WB: Scaramuzza…

NG: I studied with three of his pupils. I had a very good pianistic education, but I tried to avoid “contradictions” and thought Maria Tipo would give me a feeling of continuity.

WB: Can you tell more about the importance of Scaramuzza’s teaching?

NG: He had the most incredible knowledge of the anatomy of the human body. The main thing was to avoid any form of contraction. You have to be completely free physically and at the same time have to control the sonority to a very expressive degree. You have to know where the sonority comes from. I have many of his notations and I am struck by his accuracy!

WB: Most of what you are saying is about the physical element of the playing, how did he teach to control the sound and bring songfulness to the playing?

NG: The sonority depends on how you use your arm. You cannot get the right sound if the tool you have is not used in a proper way. One of his main achievements is the dissociation of non-technical and musical elements in interpretation. Everything comes together in a way, piano and pianist are one… Scaramuzza considered sonority as the ultimate aim to be achieved by the most natural means.

WB: Is Martha Argerich the perfect example of this?

NG: She is one of the best and plays in the most natural way, although Scaramuzza had many fantastic musicians among his pupils who are not known outside Argentina.

WB: Do you agree that she never plays  anything the same way twice?

NG: With Argerich, a lot depends  on the mood of the instant, but what she does is very refreshing all the time..

WB: It’s often said that she is “spontaneous” and Pollini is “intellectual” for what is worth. Yet, I have two performances of Argerich and Abbado in the G-major concerto by Ravel where she plays the last movement (presto) in 3.59 which proves that she has a concept after all?

NG: Of course she has a concept, otherwise she wouldn’t be that great! Such characterizations are often clichés.

WB: You have played with her, does she ever talk to you about solo repertoire?

NG: I don’t know about Martha playing for herself..

WB: Did you actually need more lessons with another teacher after such excellent training in Argentina?

NG: Yes, I did. I was 19 years old, Tipo brought me a lot of development of continuity.

WB: She stopped playing before the audience, why was that?

NG: She didn’t want to travel any more, it was a decision that came litte by little.

WB: Does she still teach?

NG: Occasionally, yes.

WB: Is being a pianist fun for you?

NG:  It’s my life! There is both enjoyment and suffering. I put everything in my music, it is deeply connected to what I encounter. There is probably fun too (laughs), it’s another element of life…

WB: My last question: does it matter in which hall you play?

 NG: You are always playing with the acoustics and try to adjust to a different sound world.