English profiles

Amsterdam, 4 April 2015

His own manager “warned” me when I asked him whether he could ask Nicholas Angelich about the possibility of doing an interview: “He doesn’t read his email and he doesn’t call back”,  so it didn’t look all too promising.. However, a few days later, I received an email that he agreed. Still easier said than done, since I couldn’t get hold of him at the hotel in Amsterdam where he stayed. I then decided to try my luck and go to the concert hall in the afternoon. An employee told me he just went back to his hotel (next to the venue thank God!), where I still couldn’t find him… until I realized he was probably sitting in the restaurant. That was indeed the case. When I introduced myself, he told me he wanted to go back to the hall and rehearse until 6.30 PM, I really wasn’t too confident, but thankfully he showed up. We then had a fascinating interview that impressed me, especially because of the moving tribute he paid to his teacher Aldo Ciccolini, who passed away not long before we spoke.

Willem Boone (WB): How do you like the hall of the “Muziekcentrum aan het IJ” where you played before?

Nicholas Angelich (NA): It is a beautiful hall with a good atmosphere and a nice audience.

WB: Martha Argerich recently said that you need a hall about the size of La Salle Gaveau in Paris or the Conservatory of Milan for recitals, the others are too big. Do you agree?

NA: Probably, yes. It is a combination of things: the atmosphere counts, but also the acoustics, the instrument, how you feel at that moment. It depends on the repertoire you play. It is better to have a more intimate hall where you can project something and that has something refined at the same time.

WB: So Carnegie Hall is not a good hall for recitals?

NA: I haven’t played there, so I can’t comment. It is a very subjective matter. You can have a very good feeling in a big hall. I can’t say one hall is good and the other isn’t. If you like a certain venue, it’s like being with an old friend…..

WB: Have you played at the Philharmonie de Paris yet?

NA: I will play there next year, although I was there to rehearse. I haven’t seen the hall yet, from the outside it’s a very impressive building!

WB: Parisians often complained that they didn’t have a proper concert hall, were the Théâtre des Champs Elysées and la Salle Pleyel really that bad?

NA: I liked both very much! I was very attached to both halls for different reasons. Anyway, it is important that the Philharmonie was opened, they put a lot of work in it.

WB: I’d like to ask you a few questions about one of your teachers, Aldo Ciccolini, who recently passed away. In an interview, you said: “He helped me to become myself. At age 13, I arrived from the USA and entered his class at the Conservatoire, but it was really around my 30’s that I realised how much he had influenced me.” In what way did he influence you?

NA: It’s hard to say, I was 13 when I studied with him and it was a huge privilege to work with such an incredible artist. He was so genuine … he was a very good teacher, a “grand maître”, an impressive maestro, which is not easy to find. Around my 30’s, I understood to what extent he was important in my musical development. He gave me an outlook on a lot of different things and on life in general, also on questions such as “What is it to be a musician?” or “Why do you do this?”. He had a very specific way of looking at things and we shouldn’t forget that he came from a different time period, he had known Alfred Cortot, Marguérite Long, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli..
I admired his sense of discipline and his respect of music.  In this profession, you have to work a lot and you have to be very committed. You have to continually learn.

WB: He kept playing in spite of his bad health!

NA: Yes, he played quite a lot in recent years and he kept playing even better and better with such deep understanding! As soon as he sat at the keyboard, he was a young man. He was very useful in his energy, there was never anything blasé, he loved studying and listening to music. There are so many impressions, they are all very important to me. And most of all, he was a very humble and intelligent person!

WB: You said about his teaching that “he took his part in the event (= lessons) by playing for us himself”. Did he show you a lot at the piano?

NA: Yes, he would play a lot when there was free time. He asked me: “Do you know this?”and then he played for me.

WB: He had a huge repertoire!

NA: Incredible…

WB: Your colleague Philippe Cassard said about Ciccolini that “he put younger generations to shame with his cantabile, virtuosity, subtlety, depth, exuberance, pugnacious, almost frenetic joy that are the signs of the true epicurean.”

NA: Ciccolini was unique and someone who couldn’t be compared to other people.. His playing was quite special: you could sense that he was from a different time period and his playing was beyond fashion or trends. That’s what you should be as an artist!  He was a true artist, there was nothing pretentious about him, I can only say that he was very simple, humorous,  he had a lot of humour!
As to younger generations, it’s a question of outlook: you can understand things later in your life. Young artists are surrounded by other problems. We can always learn from the past.

WB: Maurizio Pollini once said about Ciccolini that he never had the career he deserved?

NA: O, God, I don’t know, I can’t answer this question.. Some people become famous fast and others are not interested…It depends on what happens in your life, it’s mysterious… it’s always easier to analyse later on in your life. It’s often difficult to understand what is going on in a career, it can be different things to different people..
As to Ciccolini, he was very “normal” in the best sense of the word: understandable, simple.

WB: Is it true he never slept?

NA: He was very insomniac, he spoke about it a lot.

WB: That must have been hard, because you also need to recover from all these experiences?

NA: After a concert, it’s difficult to sleep; your rhythm changes. A lot of pianists are insomniac by the way!

WB: When did you last see him?

NA: I can’t remember, I think it was last year. He was a very impressive person…

WB: He was also a very wise man I think. I interviewed him back in 2004 and I was impressed too!

NA: Yes, absolutely, he was the opposite of a “prima donna”, yet he had incredible class and statue. At the same time, he was very natural.

WB: And he wanted his students to say “tu” to him!

NA: I didn’t do that, I had a problem with that.

WB: Regarding tonight’s programme: are Beethoven and Rachmaninov good “bed fellows”?

NA: These two composers are interesting as a programme, they are very contrasted. It’s good to do something very different and to have two different sound worlds. Rachmaninov is not always well known and he has a special way of writing.

WB: In what way?

NA: Harmonically, there is nothing obvious in this music. In his younger works, he was easier to understand.

WB: Richter once said you couldn’t play anything else after opus 111, but you obviously disagree?

NA: Right after, no, but with a break it is possible! I don’t know if I want to go on with this programme. Brendel said certain pieces lead into silence, this is one of them, you need time after that..

WB: Louis Kentner once said about opus 111 that there are pianists who play the first movement well and others who play the second well, but rarely pianists who play both well. What do you think?

NA: I don’t agree, I heard several pianists who were amazing in both movements. They work together.

WB: Can we say that Beethoven was ahead of his time in this last sonata, e.g. in the jazzy variation of the second movement?

NA: He was far ahead of his time, it sounds like contemporary music, it can even be shocking. Some of his late music wasn’t even played during his lifetime and it can still be shocking..

WB: Could Beethoven have written a thirty-third sonata?

NA: No, the way it is now, there is a progression in the sonatas that is absolutely unique. The last sonatas take on a meaning.

WB: It is amazing that he could write such profound music while being completely deaf..

NA:  I think it was a necessity to write the music he wrote. The suffering of this person is very moving. It is more than human, he went beyond what was expected!

WB: Rachmaninov is sometimes called “old fashioned”, what is the reason people still play his music then?

NA: I don’t think he is old-fashioned! His music speaks to you when you are ready to invest your time and try to understand what he wrote. If you don’t believe in music, you simply shouldn’t play it! Rachmaninov was incredibly talented and versatile and he wrote beautifully for the instrument. He had something very special to say. His recordings are not old-fashioned at all, they are very modern in many ways.

WB: More modern than Horowitz?

NA: No, I don’t think so. Rachmaninov was classical in a way, he had a lot of emotions, but he always remained expressive.

WB: Why are these études called “Études tableaux”, was Rachmaninov inspired by paintings, like with the Isle of Death?

NA: It is a strange term he used. He was inspired by certain painters, but also by literary things he had read. The first of the Etudes Tableaux of opus 39 is based on a painting by Arnold Böchlin, “Le jeu des vagues”. It is a very interesting painting.

WB: Originally, you were announced in both books of Etudes-tableaux, would you consider playing both in one recital?

NA: It is a bit much for the public. It’s very long, so no, or it would have to be a different programme without Beethoven.

WB: I have a DVD, devoted to  Yvonne Loriod, where you play one of the 20 Regards in the presence of the composer. You played it very well and she is very supportive, whereas he sits there, quiet. Weren’t you terrified to play his music when he was listening?

NA: No, he was a very nice man, impressive and generous. He had a huge success in later years, a real triumph. He was almost surprised about it. It was special to play it for the person who wrote it.

WB: She was an amazing pianist too, but we hardly know her in other composers than Messiaen?

NA: Yes, she was amazing and believe me: she had a huge repertoire. She was a generous person and a very good teacher!

WB: I know you have to get ready for the recital (it was around 7.00 p.m, WB), but before I let you go, I probably have to tell you something that amazed me about a Dutch critic. He wrote in the Dutch magazine “Luister” about one of the boxed sets of the Lugano Festival that “Martha Argerich played with her son Nicholas ”,whereas she has three daughters and no son…….

NA: I didn’t know that, but I have to tell her, she’ll find it funny! You don’t have to take yourself too seriously though, you do have to take seriously what you are doing and you have to show a bit of humanity.

That’s where the interview unfortunately ended. Something unexpected happened: Nicholas Angelich shook my hand and said: “We’ll have to talk some more, when you are in Paris” Needless to say that I am more than interested and I do go to Paris from time to time, so who knows there will be a longer interview….


Utrecht, 1 October 2005

Willem Boone (WB): I was intrigued when I read in an earlier interview with you that you attended conferences of Bela Bartok

Noel Lee (NL): That was in 1943 at Harvard. I was 18 years old and waiting to be called up to the army. I finished my first year and he was doing a conference on Transalvanyan folk music. He was a fine man, very quiet, except when he played exemples at the piano. The chairman wanted to keep him at the Faculty, but Bartok was too proud. The plan was to finish the lectures in 1945. But he fell ill, although he composed some other masterworks like the sonata for violin solo and the concerto for orchestra.

WB: Did you ever hear him play as a pianist?

NL: No, I didn’t, but he was an excellent pianist. In Budapest, he taught piano, not composition. I recorded his Rhapsody opus 1 and was the first pianist in France to record his Sonata, Out of Doors suite and Etudes in 1958. And I gave the first performance in France of his sonata for two pianos and percussion with an American pianist of Armenian descent, Luise Vosgerchian, who eventually became the chairman of Harvard Music Department. She was quite well known in Boston before she went to Paris.  We even had a conductor, Karl Husa, simply because no one knew the work. It had never been played and no one could give us a clue about it. This is something they don’t do any more nowadays. Of course, now everyone knows the work and there are many recordings of it. One of the percussionists was Serge Baudo, who became a conductor.

WB: You played for Strawinsky...

NL: Yes, that was in 1957 in Darlington in the UK. I did the concerto for two solo pianos with Paul Jacobs, Strawinsky was sitting in the audience.
After the concert, the director of the festival invited me to meet the composer afterwards.

WB: What was he like? You always read that he had a nasty character.

NL: He was a nervous, short and boney man. Very energetic too. He must have been around 75 years old by then.

WB: What did he think of your playing? He could be quite dimissive musicians who played his music!

NL: He could be nasty, but one evening around with wodka.. He wasn’t mean to us, he said he was happy, but he said it in a non-committed way. He clearly didn’t want to dwell on the subject.

WB: Earl Wild played in Amsterdam last weekend and was interviewed about his upcoming memoires, in which he also mentioned Strawinsky. He said that the composer was only interested in one thing: dollars...

NL: He had the reputation of being stingy, yes....I studied with Nadia Boulanger, who was a close friend of Strawinsky. She showed us the corrections she had made in his Sérénade en la and sonata. That was around the time I was supposed to record them. And she would analyse his latest pieces in class. She spoke of Mass, the first 12-tone piece he composed. That was hard for her, but she said: “It’s Strawinsky, no matter what style it is written in, it’s still Strawinsky!”

WB: Was he a good pianist?

NL: I never heard him play. His Sérénade en la was recorded though. By the way, I recorded an unpublished work of his, which the violonist Samuel Dushkin gave me, Tango for violin and piano. I recorded it later with Gérard Poulet on an all Strawinsky record.


WB: Were there other composers you have met or known well?

NL: Copland. I met him at Harvard when I was still a student. He was very generous with musicians. I never studied with him. I was the first pianist to record his three main piano works: the Variations, Fantasy and Sonata. He asked me in 1970 to play his concerto in New York for his 70th birthday. It was recorded on the Dutch label Etcetera. Then he had me come to New York later in the year for a concert of his chamber music. The last time I saw him was in 1980, when he conducted the Orchestre de Paris. The musicians said his rehearsals were very disorganised. He was already suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. In 1948, I got a scholarship and I went to Europe. Later, in the 60’s, Copland suggested I might return to the US, but I never did.

WB: One of your teachers was Nadia Boulanger, who taught many musicians. What did she exactly teach?

NL: She taught harmony and counterpoint, but her whole approach was based on making young musicians aware of what they were doing. She was going through the bottom of things. And she surrounded her pupils with an aura of confidence. I remember coming out of her lessons and feeling exhilirated. She was also a very good psycologist; she knew how to get out the best of each person. She didn’t do things superficially.

WB: Did you attend group lessons?

NL: I had private lessons mostly. She even gave lessons on Sundays sometimes! I also attended lessons in the class at the Paris Conservatory and also in the famous Wednesday afternoons at her home, where all her pupils gathered, plus other friends of hers, to read Bach Cantatas or study the latest Strawinsky work.

WB: How long did you stay with her?

NL: About five years.

WB: What was the most important thing she taught you?

NL: She put me on a road. I wasn’t sure of becoming a pianist, I was studying composition with her. I got confidence in myself and took my musical life in my own hands.

WB: Did you manage to keep that confidence in yourself?

NL: Yes, I think I did. Her mother had been very strict with her and used to ask: “Have you done everything that was possible?”. One shouldn’t take the easy way out, she passed that on to me.

WB: Wasn’t her sister Lily a very gifted composer?

NL: Yes, she was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome in 1913. Nadia made sure sure Lily’s music was played. She used to compose herself, but after her sister died she felt she had nothing more to say.

WB: She was very complimentary about you calling you “one of the most beautiful musicians I have ever heard”

NL: Ah, she wrote that about a recording of Beethoven sonatas I made in 1956 with the violonist Paul Makanowitzky who had been a student of hers.

WB: Does that mean anything to you, recognition of fellow musicians or teachers?

NL: Yes, especially at the time. I was a little nervous what she was going to write. She could be very possessive, if she liked you, she wanted you to stay in Paris.

WB: Quite interestingly, you played a few pieces by Gottschalk last night. What is your relationship to his music?

NL: I was asked to play a programme of American music in France in 1976 for the centenary of the American Independance. Gottschalk was the first important American composer in the 19th century. Then I went on to McDowell, Amy Beach, Griffes and Copland. Someone from Erato asked to make an all Gottschalk record. It’s no longer available in Europe, but you can get it in the USA now. The chairman of the Gottschalk association in the Netherlands heard that I would play some of his pieces and said: “I come!”. He brought me copies of all Gottschalk’s songs, harmonically they are quite conventional.

WB:Wasn’t he a contemporary of Chopin who also lived in Paris?

NL: Yes, he went to Paris at age 13. His mother was French, but he was not accepted at the Conservatoire, because he was not French! Théophile Gautier wrote about him. Later, he travelled by train through the USA with his cook, valet and piano...

WB: Would you say that his music is about as difficult as Liszt’s or Rachmaninov’s?

NL: It’s more the Chopin technique. The piece of last night was very Chopinesque. Souvenir de Porto Rico is a good piece, but he often wrote square 8 major phrase, which he repeated. I object to that, but that happens with many composers. Schubert did marvellous things without the conventional length of phrase.

WB: Schubert must be very close to your heart after you played all of his sonatas, included the unfinished ones, which you completed?

NL: Yes, I was the first one who did that. A critic said that completing unfinished works was like putting arms to the Venus de Milo... The original versions of the works still exist, no matter what one does to them. Many musicians have finished the works, the Henle Edition vol III, proposes completions by Paul Badura Skoda (which are not at all in a Schubert style, but more akin to Beethoven, but Badura Skoda is not a composer).  There will certainly be other versions in the future.

WB: Isn’t it difficult to compose in the style of Schubert?

NL: I had never a problem with his music. The base lines and harmonic system are very clear. You absorb his style.

WB: Could you compose in any style?

NL: No, for instance I couldn’t compose in the style of Ravel.

WB: Does it help that you are a pianist when you compose?

NL: All composers have been pianists, except Berlioz and Paganini!

WB: Do you always know why you wrote certain things and how you intended them?

NL: Not necessarily. IN songs you have to follow the text, which gives you a form.

WB: Can you play all of your works unlike Schubert who couldn´t play his own Wanderer Phantasy?

NL: Yes, I could, although I wrote in 1961 an Etude on rythms of Bartok, which I also played last night. I had no problems with this, but now it’s difficult... A firend said my music was diffcult. Maybe I would have a problem with my own concerto from 1973. The most important is to get the idea of the piece across. I might change hands, but the essential point is to have it sound. I don’t play the Ravel Left hand concerto, I love it, but it’s awkward, especially in the upper registers. It would sound better with two hands. I have often wondered whether pianists don’t cheat in recordings....

WB: I noticed in last night’s concert in Schubert’s song “Mirjam’s Siegesgesang”a phrase “Wehen, Murmeln, Dröhnen, Sturm” and you literally changed your playing. Are you aware of all the texts a singer has to sing?

NL: Yes, you must know the text if you play with a singer. The composer was inspired by the text!

WB: You worked with a famous Dutch bariton Bernard Kruysen.

NL: Yes, he was best known in the French repertoire. In 1978, we did a Winterreise in Paris and it was extraordinary. I was so moved... I played from memory, I don’t see why I shouldn’t do it if the singer performs from memory!


WB: Are there any musicians who are dear to you?

NL: Yes, a few. First of all, the violonist Paul Makanowitzky, with whom I formed a duo for ten years. We travelled a lot and played a lot here (= in the Netherlands, WB). He went back to the USA in 1965. In that year, I started teaming up with Bernard Kruysen. Then there is the pianist Christian Ivaldi and the violonist Gérard Poulet.

WB: What kind of relationship do you have with music?

NL: It’s very intense. Ever since I was a child, I knew there was no matter of doing anything else. I knew that I would never have a family and asked my mother how to iron....

WB: Is it a calling for you?

NL: Yes, it is.

WB: Can you live a day without playing the piano?

NL: I always try to practize. There are very few days a year I wouldn’t do that. After I finish practizing, I might read about music or compose.

WB: Last week, Earl Wild played in Amsterdam at almost age 90. What do you think of that?

NL: That’s fantastic!

WB: Would you still like to play at such a high age?

NL: If I were able, I suppose so! Many friends are very nice to me,they probably think: “O why doesn’t he stop?”but they don’t say it. There are a lot of things I could do if I couldn’t play the piano any more. I would orchestrate a few pieces, chamber music or piano music that sound very orchestral.

WB: Do you have any particular things in mind?

NL: Souvenir de Porto Rico by Gottschalk and Debussy songs. The colours are so obvious!

© 2005 Willem Boone

Utrecht, 11 November 2008

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

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

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

WB: What does Music mean to you?

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

WB: So nothing much has changed over the years?

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

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

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

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

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

WB: What made Sebök so great?

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

WB: How can you make someone understand themselves?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WB: Which French composers specifically?

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

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

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

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

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

WB: The first movement is particularly long.

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

WB: In what way is the Dvorak concerto amibitious?

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

WB: Do you still play the Dvorak?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WB: Who are your favourite pianists?

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

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

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

WB: Do you personally know Pollini?

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

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

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

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

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

Utrecht, 5 November 2014
Meeting up with Paul Badura Skoda is like a trip down memory lane: he has worked with luminaries like Wilhelm Furtwängler and David Oistrakh, Frank Martin dedicated compositions to him. He was one of the first musicians to play on period instruments and on top of that, he did an enormous amount of research, especially about Mozart. It was most of all an encounter with a very cultured artist, who – in spite of his 87 years – still maintains a busy schedule. When Badura Skoda was in Utrecht as a jury member for the Liszt Competition, we managed to speak at his hotel Karel V in the city centre. He actually forgot our first appointment, but thankfully we could reschedule the interview.

Willem Boone (WB): How long have you been playing the piano?

Paul Badura Skoda (PBS): 81 years, I started at the age of 6!

WB: What keeps you going as far as music is concerned?

PBS: Music is a reflection of life, there is always something new to discover. A life is much too short to know all these wonderful poetic works!

WB: Your colleague Vladimir Ashkenazy once said practising is “sweet slavery”, what do you think?

PBS: No, I experience practising as a natural form of learning, it’s a training that can be compared to a sport, for me it feels like jogging for others. It’s a joy, a travel during which I learn new things all the time, also in compositions that I have played for 70 years. 

WB: Does playing music make you intelligent at an old age? I heard a few colleagues of yours this year, who are also really old, such as Menahem Pressler or Christa Ludwig (as a teacher!)

PBS: Pressler is even older than I am … Of course, music doesn’t make you more intelligent, but it requires intelligence. The constant challenge of the memory activates the brain cells. Alzheimer among musicians is rare!

WB: Are you never tired of music?

PBS: Definitely not! I constantly change my repertoire and that’s why I don’t have the feeling of “déjà vu”. I recently played the wonderful sonata in D major D 850 by Schubert again that I hadn’t played for 30 years.

WB: What is your relationship with Liszt?

PBS: I am not happy about the label of „classical pianist“, since I also played a lot of Chopin, Schumann and Brahms. In terms of quantity, I may not have performed a lot of Liszt, but I owe him my first huge success with his First Piano Concerto when I was 20 years old. Thanks to him I became a Mozart specialist! At my first competition, I won first prize and Ingrid Haebler won second prize. A critic wrote at the time that “Badura Skoda deserved the first prize for his virtuosity, but musically speaking we liked the Mozart interpretations of Ingrid Heabler better.” I was so furious then that I wanted to play Mozart better than Haebler!
My teacher Viola Thern came from the school of Liszt. Her grandfather had been a friend of Liszt’s. She was always angry when his music was played in a superficial way, she hated “special effects”. She always said that Liszt was something distinguished. I also learnt a lot about Liszt from Edwin Fisher, he knew his works very well and he showed passages at the piano in a masterly way. Of course, we know him as a predestined interpreter of Bach and Mozart, but he also played the Bach Variations by Reger magnificently, that was unique.

WB: How genius was Liszt?

PBS: He was not as genius as Mozart, but you cannot measure geniuses! Liszt was as productive as Mozart, but the latter was a class in itself. Mozart can only be compared to Bach, his world is more human than Beethoven’s, whom I admire immensely. 

WB: What does a good Liszt pianist absolutely need to have, except for a transcendent technique?

PBS: personality, the willingness to communicate and the ability to do so. 

WB: Are these only needed for Liszt?

PBS: No, for any composer! Edwin Fisher said Schubert pulled his heart strings,  he felt as if in a better world. Great performers or artists such as Furtwängler or Frank Martin were people of great humanity, they tried to improve the world and themselves.

WB: Are there still similar artists around?

PBS: Yes, during this competition, I heard at least two or three pianists who have the same artistic principles. Jorge Luis Prats has all these qualities and a personality that pulls you along. Cyprien Katsaris is someone whom I also admire very much. We met again in 2013 after 30 years. He remembered that I had shown him a wrong note he had studied in Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. Marc André Hamelin is also fantastic! I admire Leslie Howard very much, he has an incredible memory, his recordings of the complete piano works by Liszt are a huge merit!  

WB: The music of Liszt is often called „empty“ or „pompous“, to what extent is it misunderstood?

PBS: There are works where the effect or the circus-like element plays a considerable role. A legitimate part of making of music is pulling the audience along. That takes me once again to Edwin Fischer: he told that Rastelli juggled with five bludgeons. The same elegance inspired Fischer for his Mozart interpretations. Chopin said about Liszt, without mentioning his name, “When you can’t win the audience over, you can kill them!”, but in fact, he was referring to Liszt. I find that delightful! Liszt was a versatile composer, sometimes excessive, sometimes deeply religious, his Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude is a highlight. Bartok lauded the futuristic Liszt, who went towards atonality. On top of that, Liszt was one of the noblest persons, who always helped out colleagues, for instance Smetana or Grieg.

WB: You wrote an article called “A few personal thoughts to the problem of “competitions.”, so you consider them as a problem?

PBS: Yes, of course, it is the only occasion to get a lot of publicity and start a career when you are lucky. That is also the moment where you notice rivalry. At this Liszt competition, I had encounters with artists and they were so nice to each other, not at all like hyenas! Fair judgment is a problem though. I tell you about a statistic observation of mine: “The one who plays first, is unsuccessful”. He does not get a fair rating, since the members of the jury think they can’t trust their judgment yet after they have just started listening or there will be other contestants playing later on who are better… The American pianist Malcom Frager, who won the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels was the exception: he had to play first und he won!

WB: You did an amazing amount of research regarding the way to play Mozart. I should have read your book of course, but could you nonetheless tell me what you “discovered” with regards to the way of interpreting Mozart?

PBS: I discovered a lot! The first version was written 60 years ago. We have a lot of knowledge thanks to Mozart’s own hand writing and his letters. He often takes a clear stand in matters of  interpretation, he had guidelines, for instance “A tenor does not sing naturally.” For him, music had to speak to the heart, he was very clear about that.

WB: I have the impression that Mozart frightens pianists more than Liszt, is that correct?

PBS: He doesn’t frighten me! Mozart can express something …..(unauslotbar..) with little notes, you never touch the ground in his music. It sounds as if it were the simplest thing. Artur Schnabel said about Mozart it was too easy for children and to difficult for grownups!

WB: Was he right about that?

PBS: To a large extent, yes. When you play Mozart with simple, unaffected musicality, you mostly play everything correctly. 

WB: You completed a piece by Mozart, Larghetto and Allegro for two pianos. How do you do this?

PBS: It’s my specialty. I became so familiar with Mozart’s music that I have the feeling I could put myself in his situation. I also rewrote the accompaniment of the 2nd movement of the Coronation Concerto (Krönungskonzert) and I wrote cadenzas for the piano concertos for which Mozart didn’t provide any himself. A French critic wrote about my last recording of the concertos KV 466, 491 and 503: “One would think these cadenzas are Mozart’s own.”

WB: Could you compose in the style of Beethoven or Schubert as well?

PBS: I also completed incomplete works by Schubert, in 1969 I recorded the sonata D 840. That is a great work, but it has only two completed movements, the others are incomplete. I have completed them with youthful energy. I am especially proud of the 3rd movement, where only 16 bars are missing. I worked like someone who restores a painting! 

WB: What is the most common misunderstanding about Mozart?

PBS: I can’t say that in a few words. Perhaps there are misunderstandings when people do not see him as a uniquely talented person or when they don’t love his music enough..

WB: Is Mozart also in his piano works a vocal composer?

PBS: Yes and no, the vocal element plays an enormous role, but Mozart was also the Liszt of his time, there is a parallel to Liszt. 

WB: Do you think one has to know his operas really well in order to play his sonatas and concertos?

PBS: You have to know other works too! Among Mozart’s music both the piano concertos and operas are central. Certain characters from his operas, such as Figaro, the Count, Susanne, the Countess or Zerlina come back in his instrumental works.  

WB: Can you explain that?

PBS: The last piano sonata starts with a powerful unisono motif, followed by a mellow, charming melody. This dialogue is repeated. It is like the duet “La ci darem la mano” between Don Giovanni and Zerlina. 

WB: Could we say that the final of the Piano Concerto nr 17 reminds of “Le Nozze di Figaro”?

PBS: The theme of the last movement can’t be found in his operas!  However, the final presto has a clearly operatic character, it reminds us maybe more of “Die Entführung aus dem Serail”. In the Concerto KV 503, the last movement sounds like a scene from “Idomeneo”, the theme shows similarities. 

WB: You wrote an article about tempi during Mozart’s life, can it be that they were slower back then?

PBS: Not at all! The fast movements were played equally fast, there are studies that show this. The slow movements were played considerably faster than nowadays, an andante was truly “gehend”. I can mention Furtwängler and myself as positive examples (He explains that “Adagio” in Italian means “ad agio”= at ease! WB). When one gets older, it is often said that tempi become slower, I play without emotional difficulties in fluent tempi. 

WB: You also play on period instruments and called that a „conversion”. In what way was it a conversion?

PBS: Not in the sense that I switched instruments for ever. I like both: the old and the new ones. A lot of species got through an evolution, others survived billions of years, almost without any changes.

WB: But don’t sonatas like the Appassionata or the Hammerklavier benefit more from the dynamic potential of modern pianos?

PBS: I once had a personal experience in London, I held a lecture and then played the Appassionata both on a Hammerflügel from 1804 and on a modern grand piano. All those who were present thought it sounded more beautiful and exciting on the old instrument! I recorded the sonatas on historic instruments twice, for Harmonia Mundi and for Astrée. I really liked the experience. Beethoven walks on the edge, the instrument has to be almost destroyed. The second recording was on a Broadwood piano. During a session, one of the hammer heads broke off and you can actually hear it on the recording, which is very exciting! Both recordings of the Hammerklavier sonata are equally interesting: the one from 1985 is on a Conrad Graf piano, the live recording from Warsaw on a Bösendorfer, I can’t say which one is better!

WB: Isn’t it actually a dilemma: the modern instruments are probably too powerful for Mozart and Beethoven, whereas the old ones are not powerful enough for our halls and orchestras? Is that the reason that you play both?

PBS: With my own recording of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with Anner Bijlsma, there was a problem when we were playing together: the piano sounded so soft, that hardly anybody could hear it any more. In Beethoven’s time, this was “normal”. Nowadays, the instruments sound artificially louder, but I tell you: authentic recordings have been falsified (manipulated), mine included…. 

There the interviews officially ended: Paul Badura Skoda had to go tot he concert hall Tivoli Vredenburg for a master class. I came along and he asked me to carry his bag (“It is heavy and I’ll have to show things on the piano”). He tells many anecdotes while walking through the city center, about Furtwängler (“The greatest one without a doubt, he told me that it is important to walk a lot. I also admired Hans Knappertsbusch because of his Bruckner and Wagner interpretations”), Josef Krips (“His teacher, Felix Weingartner, said: “There is only one tempo, the tempo!”), the Concertgebouw Orchestra (“My last performance with this orchestra was 40 years ago in the Second Piano Concerto of Frank Martin.”), I asked him whether he heard Rachmaninov as a pianist (“No, I didn’t, but I studied his recordings. He was very good in his own music, but he wasn’t good in Carnaval by Schumann or Chopin’s Second Sonata, it all sounded like Rachmaninov. I prefer Cortot!”)


Eindhoven, 22 January 2008

Before the interview starts, Peter Frankl is still rehearsing Mozart’s Double Concerto and Saint Saens’s Carnaval des Animaux with pianist Bart van de Roer of the Storioni Trio. I have seldom done an interview that started in such a relaxed way; Frankl comes in, shakes hands and... starts telling me about the upcoming Storioni Festival in Eindhoven, in which he takes a prominent part, playing no less than 9 works, like the above mentioned works for 2 pianos and orchestra, besides a lot of chamber music: Brahms Horn and Clarinet Trios, Mozart’s Quintet for piano and winds, Schumann Adagio and Allegro for Horn and Piano, 2 Schubert Songs with wind instruments and the fiendishly difficult set of Variations on Trockne Blumen for Flute and Piano.

Peter Frankl (PF): Not bad for an old man, right?

Willem Boone (WB): I have dear memories of your playing, going back to  1978, when I was still a teenager...

PF: What did I do?

WB: You played Mozart’s Concerto K 503 in C major, it was the first time I heard that concerto and I have loved your playing ever since!

PF: That must have been with the Nederlands Philharmonic Orchestra: I alternatively played this concerto and the Double concerto with Andras Schiff. I had some marvellous experiences in the Netherlands, two appearances with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Haitink, in the rarely played Mozart Concerto K 451, and the Third Bartok Concerto. And another unforgettable experience was the Mozart Concerto K 459 with the Nederlands Kamer Orkest under Szymon Goldberg. Not only the performance itself, but all the rehearsals were so special. Goldberg was such a great musician..

WB: I hear a lot of warmth in your playing, do you think the character of a musician always shines through the playing?

PF: I think so, but there are some exceptions for sure. Michelangeli for instance: he looked like he hated everybody in the audience, but he could produce miracles. He was a fantastic pianist.
 First of all, you have to love what you are doing, even if you have done it a few hundred times. It’s not a profession, but a vocation. I had a piano trio (with violinist Gyorgy Pauk and cellist Ralph Kirshbaum, WB) for 28 years. We often played together and knew each other’s thoughts and intentions.  It was wonderful. In a different way, it can be also satisfying to play chamber music with excellent musicians, as long as there is musical understanding between them. At this festival for instance, we had a rehearsal for Mozart’s Quintet K 452, one of his most beautiful pieces. I have never played with the clarinettist, Emma Johnson, and she was wonderful. I knew the excellent bassoonist, Etienne Boudreault, from Canada, whom I recommended for the Festival. The horn player, Hervé Joulain was also wonderful, so was the Belgian oboist, Piet van Bockstal.  The first rehearsal went so well that we decided that the general rehearsal will be sufficient to give a spontaneous performance. In this case the chemistry worked!
PF:  Today, there was a memorial concert for Artur Rubinstein in London, to which I was invited, but I couldn’t go. It would have been an honour for me to be present at this event.

WB: Did you know Rubinstein?

PF: I met him on a few occasions, but I didn’t really know him.
PF: I feel sometimes sorry for young musicians, when they are playing in competitions. They often meet the same jury members everywhere. I am not often in a jury. 2 years ago Ashkenazy started a competition in Hong Kong and invited me to be among the judges in 2008. I thought I couldn’t refuse his offer.

WB: Is Ashkenazy a friend of yours?

PF: I have known him since 1955, when we both participated at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw and we met again a year later at the Queen Elisabeth Competition which he won (I got the 12th prize!) More recently I played the Schumann Concerto with Ashkenazy conducting in Cleveland and the Schnittke Concerto with him in Berlin. We even played football together with Barenboim in the early 60s, when we all lived in London!
I will also be in the jury in Cleveland - I have fond memories of that city, where I played several times with George Szell. He was a great musician, a wonderful conductor from whom, as a young pianist, I learned a lot. I cherish those concerts enormously.

WB: I’d like to ask you some questions about your great compatriot, the composer Bela Bartok. Is his music daily bread for you?

PF: Yes, definitely! I regret I didn’t play some of his solo works, like his Sonata and Suite “Out of Doors”, but I played Bartok's own piano version of the Dance Suite, one of my favourites. I did all of his Piano Concertos, the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, also in the orchestral version. And I even played the Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra in the Netherlands, with Roberto Benzi conducting. I also did a lot of his chamber music like the two Violin Sonatas, the Rhapsodies for violin, Contrasts. His Concertos are standard repertoire, I played the Third Concerto maybe a hundred times, and the other two maybe fifty times each. I think Hungarians may have a better understanding of his music,  it may be easier for them to find the right accents and declamation. On the other hand, Bartok was a  universal composer, more so than Kodaly. His music doesn’t “travel” as much as Bartok’s. Bartok’s human behaviour was so special.. He left Hungary because of the Nazis though he wasn’t Jewish. He had a very hard life in America. At the end of the war, he was very negative about returning to Hungary fearing communism, though he loved his country very much.

WB: What are the typical features a good Bartok performer should have according to you?

PF: Difficult to say.. There are some misunderstandings though, especially about the percussive elements in some of his music. (He demonstrates this by singing parts of the first movement of the First Piano Concerto and the way the repeated notes should be played). Some pianists are only pointing out the rhythmic character, which of course has to be very precise. However, it’s not only about being percussive, it’s also the colouring of the notes and the accents that count. I have heard wonderful performances of the outer movements of the Piano Sonata, but less so of the second movement. They make it sound as if there were only dissonances and percussive elements in this movement, and miss out the “parlando” character, the kind of speaking of this music. You know, some of Bartok’s music were not allowed to be played in Hungary in the early 50’s! Pieces like his First and Second Piano Concertos , the 3rd and 4th String Quartets, as they were not socialist realist music! He was very harshly criticized by the authorities in that time.

WB: Whom do you consider as a great non-Hungarian performer of Bartok’s music?

PF: I heard Pierre Boulez conduct the Dance Suite, that was great. As a pioneer for modern music, Boulez is worshipped in Hungary, but strangely enough, they don’t like his Bartok performances. And I saw this young Wunderkind, Gustavo Dudamel from Venezuela on television wonderfully conducting the fourth and fifth movements of the Concerto for Orchestra.

WB: You only mentioned conductors now. Which non-Hungarian pianists do you rate in Bartok?

PF: Richter played the Second Concerto fantastically, although he was maybe not the ideal performer for this piece. I think Perahia plays the Sonata very well and Lupu does the Suite Out of Doors most beautifully. Kremer is great in the Violin Sonatas and of course Menuhin played wonderfully the Second Violin Concerto and the Solo Sonata. I played the Third Concerto in one of his last concerts, it was an uplifting experience. After all, he knew Bartok in person! Maybe he wasn’t a great conductor, but he knew the piece inside out and loved it. I am also fortunate that I had the opportunity to play the First and Second Concertos with Boulez.

WB: How do you consider the Third Concerto? Like Mozart’s  Concerto K 595?

PF: Definitely, a swan song.  It is a piece of someone who looks back. As with Mozart’s K 595, it’s not a pioneering work, like for instance K 271, in which the piano enters at the beginning of the piece. Or it doesn’t have important wind divertimenti elements like K 482 and 491. There is a lot of serenity in both pieces. Interestingly, the Third Bartok Concerto is, in many ways, a straight continuation of the Second Concerto. They have the same form, the second movement in both concerti start like a choral and both middle sections are "night music".

WB: Speaking of Mozart’s K 595, would you call it a bitter-sweet composition?

PF: Maybe not bitter-sweet, as there is nothing bitter about it, it is very lyrical. In the last movement, he has tears in his eyes…. And if you take the first movement, there is one bar before the main theme enters, it’s exactly like the start of the G minor Symphony (K 550). This sets the mood and creates an atmosphere that is very special.
PF: There is another Hungarian composer, who was greatly admired by both Bartok and  Kodaly: Dohnanyi. He wasn’t looking for folkloric music, he was mainly inspired by Brahms and Schumann. He was also a phenomenal pianist, he played all the Beethoven Sonatas and Mozart Concertos and premiered some of Bartok’s and Kodaly’s works. He became a legend in Hungary, Bartok looked up on him as a pianist and musician. I believe there are some pirate recordings of Bartok and Dohnanyi playing together. I don’t play his solo piano output, but I do play his complete chamber music. I recorded his two Quintets with the Fine Arts Quartet.

WB: Another composer I’d like to talk about is Schumann of whom you played all the piano works!

PF: I adore Schumann! His Concerto and Carnaval are popular, but some of his output is very much neglected. As they say, he is no box office composer. In the 80’s, I finished the cycle of  all of his piano works, of which the Concerto and the two Konzertstück for Piano and Orchestra were issued on CD. I also did a CD with works for two pianos and 4 hands with Andras Schiff; all the rest were issued on 15 LP’s ( 5 boxes of 3 LP’s each). There have been some attempts – so far unsuccessful - to issue everything on CD. I particularly love some of his late chamber music: the F major Piano Trio was one of my first loves, but I also adore the Märchenbilder, 5 Stücke im Volkston, the Fantasiestücke.. It’s all so original! Some people dismiss him, saying that he lacks in form or is only good in cyclical pieces. Moreover, Schumann was such an incredible polyphonic composer! Take the 6 Canons for Pedalpiano for instance, that were transcribed by Debussy. It’s pure canonical writing. Tears come to my eyes every time I hear or play them...The same is true of the slow movement of the Second Symphony, it’s practically one melody, it’s gorgeous..

WB: What would you call his greatest piano work?

PF (thinks): Difficult to say... maybe the most perfect piano composition is the Fantasy, but there is also Kreisleriana or Davidsbündlertänze...A work that should be played more often is his Second Violin Sonata, it is so neglected, yet it is so beautiful!

WB: I heard you play that with Kyung Wha Chung in the Netherlands (Utrecht, 1996, WB)

PF: Once, on a European tour, we also played it in Lisbon and she got very upset, probably because we didn’t play to a full house. During the intermission she said: “Peter, I am so angry, we will now do all the repeats!”, so she "punished" the audience!

WB: How is Schumann’s piano writing, I heard it could be rather awkward?

PF: He was a pianist composer. Maybe at the very end of his life, he was awkward, the Gesänge der Frühe are very hard to play. Basically, his compositions are very difficult and string players find him too pianistic!

WB: How can a violin or cello part be pianistic?

PF: Schumann’swriting style doesn’t come easily on a violin or a cello. You have to work hard. It doesn’t happen by itself, unlike with Brahms. It is fantastically rewarding though, if you have enough time to rehearse, like I had one summer in Marlboro. There I played for the first time the G minor Trio. It is great when you can work out the polyphony and balancing of these pieces. Like very often, when the composer writes forte, it is not necessarily in volume, but in intensity that he means it. My students sometimes ask me: “I have to play forte, how should I do that?” and I ask them; “What forte? “Liszt occasionally writes several pages with three fff’s, but he means grandeur, not non-stop banging! You have to build it up, like in the Grandioso of the B minor Sonata.

WB: Do you agree with Claudio Arrau who said that even in Schumann’s most intimate pages, there was a current of turbulence underneath?

PF: Definitely, yes.

WB: And do you feel that Schumann is some sort of “intimate friend” as Martha Argerich once called him?

PF: There have been times when I got tired of Chopin and stopped playing it for a while, but then I went back to him and rediscovered his genius. But Schumann never left me. He is so personal and so moving all the time! And you know, he was very much influenced by Beethoven, he often quoted him in his compositions. Some references are very well known, like the Emperor Concerto in the Finale of Carnaval or Die Ferne Geliebte in the Fantasy. There is also a set of Variations on the theme of the second movement of the 7th Symphony, where he also quotes from the 6th and 9th.

WB: Debussy should be another favourite of yours, since you also played his complete piano works!

PF: Yes, indeed. I discovered him in Paris, where I lived between 1958 and 1961. I had some lessons with Marguerite Long after I won the Long Competition in 1957. She liked my playing very much and tried to introduce me to French music, but she didn’t succeed always. For instance, Fauré.. I played some of his chamber music, but not his solo works. His style somehow is alien to me. Most pianists love the pianistic bravura of Ravel and want to play Scarbo, but not me. However, I play the G major Concerto, the Violin Sonata and the Trio, which is one of the hardest pieces pianistically. I have always felt that Debussy was more intimate, which I love. At a time I used to play the Etudes quite often, they are so forward looking.

WB: I listened to your performance on CD this weekend...

PF: Interesting, they are from 1963 and the recording has been reissued many times. I don’t understand why this sells and Schumann doesn’t.. I am still playing Estampes, Images and Pour le Piano and the Preludes.

WB: Pianistically, he is as difficult as Ravel, isn’t he?

PF: No, it is probably easier than Ravel, but the Etude Pour Les Accords is practically unplayable with all those jumps in it...

WB: The Toccata from Pour le Piano is also very difficult, isn’t it?

PF: I don’t think so.

WB: Do you have friends among pianists?

PF: Yes, many, but everybody is so busy, it’s difficult to meet regularly. There is Schiff, Perahia, Lupu, Fou Tsong, Ax, Boris Berman, Claude Frank and of course there was Annie Fischer, whom I miss so much..... Vasary is also a great friend. We didn’t only record the complete Mozart four hand works, he also conducted me in the Brahms Concertos at concerts, which were issued on CDs.

WB: Does Vasary still play the piano?

PF: Yes, but he is more at ease when he conducts, he gets nervous when he plays the piano. We all are nervous! Argerich hasn’t played solo recitals for years now and I remember Ashkenazy’s wife listening to her husband's recitals from the wings...... My wife does the same! I admire cellists when they come on stage all alone to play Bach solo suites!

WB: Finally, maybe a bit of an odd question, you still play quite marvellously and hopefully you will go on for a long time, but are you satisfied when you look back on your career?

PF: Yes, I am satisfied, very much. I have a very big repertoire and still learn new chamber music pieces. As far as concertos are concerned, I have played everything I wanted to play. I never tackled Prokofiev or Rachmaninov Concertos - though I like them - because they don’t suit my playing. There are a few big regrets though: I haven’t played all Beethoven Sonatas and I would have loved to play many more of the Schubert Sonatas. I make it up by teaching them, but, of course, it is not the same. And I did very little Bach, which I regret very much.

WB: Did you never play his music?

PF: Very little.  It’s maybe nerves, I don’t feel confident, as much as I love him. I take every opportunity to listen or to teach his music. Maybe he is the greatest. He should be bread and butter every day as Andras Schiff says, like Mozart is for me.

WB: Your colleague Alfred Brendel has announced that he will retire at the end of this year at (almost) 78, what about you? For how long would you like to go on?

PF: I don’t know really, it is a difficult question. Maybe I am not a perfectionist who is always playing at 100%., but when I am in form, I can still play as well as in my younger years. On good days, I can give a lot to my audience. I play much less with orchestra now, but I can go on for quite some time yet with chamber music. Richter played with the score in his last years: he felt too much pressure to play by memory. I would be disturbed by the score and a page turner though, if I had to play a concerto or a recital with the music that I have always played by memory. Many string players play with the score nowadays, even when they play a Mozart Concerto…
As a general rule, pianists keep performing longer than string players. My life is performing, more so than teaching. I didn’t start teaching until I was 50. I teach at Yale School of Music now. It attracted me, because it is relatively small and intimate, not like the many times bigger Juilliard School or Indiana University. In Yale there are about 24 piano students, shared by Claude Frank, Boris Berman and myself. We are very good colleagues and great friends. When I am there, I am really there, working 7 days a week. Still I consider myself a better performer than a teacher....

© Willem Boone 2008


Amsterdam, 12 February 2014

Both Plamena Mangova and myself were happy when the interview could finally take place after several attempts to meet earlier. She had kindly offered to answer my questions by mail, but hadn’t got round due to her hectic schedule and she mailed me one day before her recital at the Concertgebouw on 11 February that she’d be available most of the next day, but I had to teach….. until I remembered that there was a 3 hour break in between, which left me time to come to Amsterdam. Thank god, everything worked out fine and when Plamena Mangova showed up, she said to me: “It is surrealistic that we are meeting!”.

Willem Boone (WB): What is your relationship with the piano? Is it your “friend”?

Plamena Mangova (PM): It is supposed to be my friend ! But it is my biggest passion at the same time.For pianists, it is much harder than for string players with their permanent friends! They can almost become “lovers”.. It is always risky for pianists to play on a different instrument each time, you also have to take into consideration that every hall has its own specific character and acoustics. But to answer your question, in an ideal situation pianist and instrument have to go hand in hand, that is what we all dream to achieve. On the other hand, string players have to face other problems, such as the problem of humidity that can damage their instruments, to search for a best possible luthier in every city,etc

WB: You told me last night after your recital in Amsterdam that you were still “completely into the music”. I was wondering how long this feeling lasts?

PM: Sometimes, after a truly memorable experience (after you have played in a prestigious venue or with a great conductor or inspiring partners), the feeling can last a couple of days or you will even remember it for the rest of your life!

WB: Can you give examples of such experiences?

PM: There are many examples, because of several great partners with whom I performed. I also remember great halls, e.g. the music hall in Saint Petersburg where I played with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. Another example is the château de George Sand in Nohant, it was such a romantic place, where I saw some of Chopin’s instruments. Or one year ago, I went to Mantova, yes, Mangova went to Mantova (laughs), where I played with the Orchestra di Mantova, the best Italian string orchestra. We performed a Mozart concerto in the Theatro Babiena. It was such a beautiful hall and by coincidence, I found out that Mozart had played there himself at the opening of the theatre! In December 2012 I was on tour with the English Chamber Orchestra in Baku (Rostropovich's native city) and had the greatest pleasure to perform at the festival named after the great musician ,the Shostakovich Piano Concerto n1 under the baton of Maxim Vengerov - a special moment to play on stage with the huge portrait on stage of this genious of cello and music , the feeling he is still there with his unbelievable high energy,poetry and emotional impact on each one of us. Many years ago when I met him during a master class ,I remember he left the cello for a moment and  played Rachmaninov 2nd piano concerto on the piano in an unforgettable way, what a personality he was...such a honour for me to take part first at the festival in Baku ,and later at the Rostropovich Festival in Moscow this year with Radio France Philharmonic and Maestro Myung-Whun Chung. Another fantastic experience recently- I participated at  the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival , an extremely high standard chamber music event in the holy city ,artistically directed with great enthusiasm and dedication by renowned pianist Elena Bashkirova. The concert hall YMCA there ,where we participate is a dream for any musician, most incredible athmosphere. Sometimes ,the experience from concerts as the mentioned before can be so powerful that one cannot sleep until the next morning.

WB: On the other hand, I can imagine that it must be hard to be in a hotel room once the magic is over…?

PM: When it is over, you know there will be a next beautiful experience!

(We talk about several things, e.g. piano series, for instance the “Meesterpianisten” series at the Concertgebouw. I compare it to similar series like Piano 4 étoiles in Paris or the Southbank Piano Series in London)

PM: Funny you mention the Southbank Piano series, a few years ago, I played there Mozart’s Concerto K 482 with the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Sir Colin Davis. It was very memorable, one of my most fantastic and memorable experiences, because of his very special relationship with Mozart's music and also because this brilliant orchestra is almost forever traditionally known for their baroque and classical style performances and recordings, notably with artists like Daniel Barenboim, Sir Colin Davis, Murray Perahia, etc.

(After this question, Plamena Mangova says some very nice things about my website and previous interviews. She mentions in particular the one I had with her teacher Dmitri Bashkirov).

WB: It’s good that you bring up Bashkirov, because I have a few questions about him. What kind of a teacher is he?

PM: That is a complex question, he is actually my ex-teacher now,only officially, but he still remains my teacher and he will always be..He has an ever lasting influence on me. We do not meet every day any more, sure (he still has an incredibly hectic schedule) but whenever I can, I play for him and that's always so helpful.

WB: Does he still see you as one of his students?

PM: Maybe I would say more as a young colleague, I am not the same little girl any more, although I sometimes still feel very young. Anyway, he will always be my highest critic.

WB: Is he always positive as a teacher? I remember one of his master classes where he said to one of his students: “What you are doing now, is criminal!”..

PM: Of course, he loves students, such things can happen in the teaching process, but he never says them with a bad intention, in fact, he always has an incredibly positive intention! He really likes when musicians have fantasy or really try to develop that,so to speak when music has wings , yet he remains very faithful to the score of a composer.

WB: I have said this earlier to some of his other students, however different from each other they may be, they are all excellent!

PM: Yes, you are right, and you are not the first one to say this. It is something that makes Prof. Bashkirov always very happy, he’d be glad to hear such praise. His students are not the same, it is not a factory. He leaves room for artists to develop themselves and to show their best qualities as well.

WB: Which pieces did you study with him?

PM: Plenty, it is a very long list, I have known him since I was 15 years old. I met him through my teacher Marina Kapatsinskaya, she was my main teacher at the Sofia Academy and she had studied with Bashkirov at Moscow Conservatory.We went to his master classes in Salzburg 18 years ago (“O, my God,l is it that long ago?”, she exclaims) and that was such an incredible turning point for me, I woud always remember that !

WB: Did he show you things on the piano?

PM: Yes, always. But he was expressing himself sometimes even without touching the piano at all ,and that was  not less interesting . Also ,he says often ,that once you are almost ready with a new piece ,it is fantastic just to take the score and to learn it that way as well - just like if it would be that you are reading a book . I might say this incredible advicer, helps enormously as any of us could develop a great visual relationship with the score for studying its dramaturgy.

WB: What did he most focus on?

PM: He wanted you to be free at the piano and he insisted a lot on the aesthetic of sound.

WB: Your sound is amazing!

PM: Thank you..

WB: You are a true poet at the piano..

PM: That is very kind of you. You cannot always be poetic at the piano though. In last night’s programme, there were a few diabolical pieces, e.g. the first Mephisto Waltz by Liszt or the third of the Danzas Argentinas by Ginastera. You should have a very big palette of sounds. When you play Chopin, it shouldn’t sound like Bach, therefore you should use the most appropriate technique, colours to serve each specific style.

WB: But how do you manage that? In what way is Chopin different from Liszt?

PM: To discuss that, we would need at least three hours.. You need talent of course, but a lot depends on how much great music you listen to. For instance, if you play Brahms, you should also listen to his symphonies in order to discover analogies.. It is all about a developing of an appropriate taste ,we call it good music taste ,towards the different styles .

WB: You also worked with other teachers, e.g. Abdel Rahman el Bacha, how different was he from Bashkirov?

PM: He has a different temperament, but he is an extremely intelligent musician in many ways. He said: “You were quite ready already when you came to see me”.

WB: Did you actually need another teacher after Bashkirov?

PM: It is always useful to receive advice from another great musician.

WB: How important is music for you?

PM: Music represents a very solid basis in my life, I can’t imagine my life without music! It is more than a passion. I love sharing that with people ,with other colleagues on stage.

WB: Could you live without music?

PM: Impossible! In another life maybe.. (laughs).

WB: Are there people who inspire you?

PM: There have been great conductors or amazing chamber musicians I have learnt a lot from.

WB: For instance?

PM: There are many names, I have had plenty of fruitful collaborations ,which had enriched my soul and view about music and life in general.

WB: How do you practise? Do you have any “rituals”?

PM: I never practise scales or passages, because they should be integrated in the music. I do not want to repeat the same passage 500 times.

WB: So you prefer Chopin etudes?

PM: Everything is inside the music of course! There are days when you can’t rehearse properly. Sometimes you have to take two air planes and a concert on the same day.

WB: How long do you rehearse per day?

PM: There is no general number of hours.. As I said, there are times that your schedule is hectic. I remember a tour in New Zealand where I played Tschaikofsky’s First Piano Concerto five times within eight days, each time in a different venue, so it was difficult to find time to practise other repertoire at the same time ,for example. Actually when I come now to speaking about New Zealand ,I have to say that this place counts as one of the most exceptional and beautiful places in the world I've ever visited ,with their fantastic New Zealand Symphony ,with some amazing concert halls like the one in Wellington , such warm and welcoming people ,an astonishing nature landscapes...

WB: What do you find particularly challenging in the repertoire ,technically speaking?

PM: It depends on what you find difficult. Rachmaninov’s Fourth Piano Concerto is extremely difficult to put together with an orchestra or Strauss’s Burleske is one of the most beautiful pieces ever, but so difficult... I recently studied Bartok’s Third Concerto, even if it is more tonal than the other two concertos, it is not always so obvious to make it work with orchestra. You need a really high class orchestra.

(At the end of the interview Plamena Mangova remembers with enthusiasm that the Queen Elisabeth Competition has taken her to quite a few Dutch venues already: the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Doelen in Rotterdam, Arnhem, Nijmegen (she is fond of the hall of De Vereeniging!), Tilburg, Eindhoven..)


Amsterdam, 28 May 2015

It was interesting to talk to Rafal Blechacz since I could finally ask a lot of questions about the composer he is probably most associated with: Chopin. A long interview with a young pianist who was a clear winner of the Chopin Competition in 2005. 

Willem Boone (WB): How do you look back on the past ten years?

Rafal Blechacz (RB): October 2005, when I won first prize at the Chopin competition, was a very important moment in my career. It was the most important musical experience in my life, because from that moment on, I could play with great orchestras in great halls.

WB: Were you prepared for such a career?

RB: It was my dream to play for people all over the world. However, I was not used to signing contracts and I had no experience with agents. That was different from what I was used to: everything was new and I did not know what to do: I wanted to get in touch with conductors,  to work on repertoire and I had a lot of interesting concerts coming up!

WB: How difficult is it to be categorized “Chopin specialist” after winning the Chopin competition when you are Polish?

RB: Maybe I was not considered “specialist” everywhere, but in Japan and Poland, I was! I played a lot of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven before I won the competition and I find it important to perform music of other composers too in concerts or on records, therefore,  I focused on Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy and Szymanovsky too.

WB: What does being Polish add to your Chopin-interpretations?

RB: Maybe it is easier to play and understand the character of music that requires a specific rhythm, such as the Mazurkas and the Polonaises. I feel the rhythm when I play these pieces, but then again, there are so many pianists who are not Polish and who play his music so well! Having the right sensibility is the most important..

WB: What was your first contact with Chopin’s music?

RB: I was 10 or 11 years old and I prepared the programme for my first competition that was only for young children. I studied a lot of Bach and one composition by Chopin, his Nocturne opus 32/2. I remember being fascinated by the harmonies and wanted to play more of his music. However, Bach was my first fascination, I actually wanted to be an organist!

WB: Do you still play Bach on the piano?

RB: Yes, quite a lot: several Preludes and Fugues, the Italian Concerto, Partitas and the E-major concerto with orchestra.

WB: How do you see his music? Do you feel he is a “strong” composer, if so, how come his music is often sentimentalized?

RB: Yes, he is a strong composer who is very universal!  A lot of people play his music, especially from Asia and they understand him (laughs). Chopin is a composer with very different emotions, you can see that in his Polonaise-Fantaisie, its final is fantastic.
As to people sentimentalizing his music, maybe they have a bad understanding of it.. I listen to my heart, it’s the most important.  Of course, a lot depends on my mood, the piano and the acoustics of the hall too.

WB: Can you say that Chopin is a “tricky” composer: some pianists don’t play him at all (Schnabel, Curzon , Brendel),  others almost exclusively play his music (Haraciewicz, Askenase) and others who play varied programmes (Argerich, Freire) say he is “jealous”.

RB: The most important is to feel inside what you can play: sometimes I feel I should wait with certain pieces. You can see something similar with someone like Glenn Gould, who recorded a lot of Bach and Mozart and only one piece by Chopin. Chopin’s style is not easy to understand, especially in his dance-like music. It’s not easy either to create the right atmosphere in his Nocturnes. As I said before, there are international pianists who understand his style very well: Pollini plays him well and he is Italian.

WB: Your colleague Barry Douglas said in an interview that Chopin is good for your technique, what do you think?

RB: Absolutely, his music is not easy. It’s interesting to tell you that Debussy made me more sensitive to Chopin’s music! Thanks to him I can play Chopin better, Bach’s polyphony helped me a great deal too. For me, it has always been important to play other composers as well, both before and after the Chopin competition. Not long ago, I did the Brahms First Piano Concerto, it is a great piece, but it took me 8 years!

WB: Is it that difficult to learn?

RB: No, but I felt it was important to get close to Brahms’s music and sometimes it is difficult to combine with other concerts and trips..

WB: Your colleague Christian Zacharias said when comparing Chopin’s and Schubert’s melodies that Chopin’s were “corny” and “predictable”?

RB: I don’t know, Schubert is close to Mozart,  for me, Chopin is close to Mozart. He admired Mozart’s operas, but the influence of bel canto is another important element in Chopin’s music. There are some interesting links between Mozart, Schubert and Chopin..

WB: Alfred Brendel said more than once that Chopin requires such a technique that you can either play his music or “the other composers”, do you agree?

RB: Again, I don’t know. As I said before, Debussy made me better in Chopin’s music, Liszt helped me too. Thanks to Liszt, I improved my technique.

WB: What do you think of pianists who played only or a lot of Chopin, like Askenase? It is often suggested that they were not the best Chopin performers?

RB: Askenase also played Mozart and Brahms, but now he conducts.

WB: No, that is Vladimir Ashkenazy, I meant Stefan Askenase!

RB: It is difficult to say what is “the best” or “the worst”, each musician has a different understanding, I like Haraciewicz but I like Rubinstein too, especially his live recordings.

WB: And what do you think of completists like Magaloff?

RB: I only know his Mazurkas, but I like them very much, he had a good sound and he played the right tempos!
There was a pupil from Paderewski, Szomptka, who had an understanding of the Mazurkas that was very close to Chopin’s style. His rhythm was fluent, neither too fast, nor too slow. Also, there is Karl Koczalski, a pupil from Mikuli, who studied with Chopin. Koczalski was very good in Chopin in general.

WB: Who would you call the best Polish Chopin pianist?

RB: Rubinstein was an amazing pianist and not only in Chopin and Zimerman , everything he plays is interesting. Anderzewski is interesting too, but he doesn’t play a lot of Chopin, he concentrates more on the classic composers and Szymanovsky.

WB: And who do you find particularly interesting among the non-Polish pianists?

RB: I already mentioned Pollini, Michelangeli is Italian too and his 2nd Scherzo is fantastic and his 2nd Sonata is interesting. I like Argerich’s Preludes and 2nd Sonata.

WB: I have a friend who can’t listen to Martha Argerich in Chopin, especially in the Concertos,  since she never plays the same tempo and changes almost in every bar..

RB: Yes, her tempi are very fast in the Concertos, especially in the last movements, but I like it, I prefer her recording of the First Piano Concerto with Abbado.

WB: I heard an amazing performance of the 3rd Sonata, back in 1987, by Radu Lupu. It was a bit of an uneven reading and he started banging in the last movement, but I will never forget the magic of the 3rd movement….

RB: Where did he play that?

WB: In Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

RB: That’s a very nice hall!

WB: What are qualities a good Chopin player must have?

RB: A beautiful sound and a good technique, although that’s not the most important. And you must understand Polish rhythms.

WB: Can you learn the latter?

RB: Yes, there are some interesting books by Kochalsky and also letters from Chopin’s pupils describing their lessons with him.

WB: Do you remember interesting advice?

RB: Yes, for instance, the first Mazurka should not be played too fast in order to respect the rhythm. Also for the 2nd movement of the 2nd Piano Concerto where the fast passages should be played ppp. You should not forget that they had different instruments back then..

WB: How essential is rubato in Chopin?

RB: A lot of journalists ask me about how to use rubato, especially in Japan! Sometimes, I feel it should sound in a romantic or in classic way.

WB: Can that feeling change?

RB: Yes, sometimes I choose a different tempo, for instance in case of dry acoustics. Those circumstances can influence the rubato. It is difficult for a conductor when a pianist plays with a lot of rubato. In the recitative of the 2nd movement of the 2nd Concerto, it is difficult to be together!

WB: Liszt had a beautiful description of what rubato means: he pointed at a tree, its  branches moved in the wind, whereas the tree itself stood still…

RB: You have to remember the first tempo, if not you can lose the right atmosphere! Chopin said the left hand is the conductor. By the way, there is a different rubato for the Nocturnes than for the dance-like music. You can use more freedom in the Nocturnes.

WB: Who of the non-Polish prize winners of the Chopin competition do you rate as most interesting?

RB: I remember in 1995, when I was 10 years old that the first prize was not awarded, Alexei Sultanov, who died very young, won second prize. I remember him well, he played the 2nd Concerto. I thought it was important to listen to other pianists. I remember Yundi Li very well, when he won first prize in 2000.
For Poland, it was important when Zimerman won in 1975, it had been 20 years since Haraciewicz won first prize in 1955. The Polish were waiting for Zimerman, who won a lot of different awards, among others for the best Mazurkas, Polonaises and Concerto.

WB: I’d just to like to hear your opinion about the Chopin interpretations of a few really famous colleagues of yours: what do you think of Hoffman?

RB: I like his Waltzes and his 2nd Concerto a lot!

WB: Horowitz…

RB: He is interesting, but compared to Rubinstein, he had a completely different understanding of his music! His Polonaise opus 53 is nice, although it is not the way I would play it: he almost uses no pedal and some chords are very short. The octaves in the middle part are fantastic and his tempo is very good. As far as the dynamics are concerned, his fortes are too big, they are more suited for Tschaikofsky. Furthermore, I like his Mazurkas and I like his sound and the atmosphere of his live concerts.

WB: Rubinstein..

RB: My favourite in Chopin, along with Zimerman. I “accept” his tempo, feeling, sound, everything!

WB: Arrau….

RB: Fantastic, I like his performance of the 2nd Concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra a lot, especially the 2nd part of the 2nd movement, in spite of his slow tempo. His Preludes are fantastic too.

WB: Do you know his Nocturnes?

RB: No, I haven’t heard them.

WB: I’ll send you a copy of them, his sound was always so great!

RB: Beethoven and Brahms by Arrau were wonderful too. I like the DVD of Beethoven 4rth Concerto with Muti and another one from Bonn where he played (among others) opus 111.

WB: Kempff, who has recorded only a few CDs with Chopin….

RB: No, I don’t know his Chopin

WB: Do you know Glenn Gould in the 3rd Sonata?

RB: Yes, and I don’t like it. Do you like his Mozart?

WB: No, I hate it!

RB: Me too!

WB: Ashkenazy…..

RB: He uses strong dynamics and contrasts are very big, his approach is interesting.

WB: Would you consider studying and performing all of Chopin’s works?

RB: In the future, why not? I have to prepare more Mazurkas, although maybe not for a recording. It would be very difficult to record all of them and to play the same rhythm for two weeks… It is important to be fresh every time. It’s difficult anyway to decide in a studio about the “right” tempo!

WB: Isn’t it as difficult in a concert?

RB: Yes, but each concert is different anyway!

WB: Which music of Chopin is the most difficult to grasp?

RB: The Mazurkas and the Polonaise-Fantaisie. The Polonaise opus 44 is hard too, since its middle part is a Mazurka…

WB: The 3rd Sonata is difficult to bring off too, isn’t it?

RB: Yes, indeed, since it is a big scaled composition, more classical than the 2nd Sonata. Especially the 4rth movement is very different from the 3 preceding movements, it calls for a completely different atmosphere.

WB: What would you consider his greatest work?

RB: Maybe the Polonaise-Fantaisie, it’s his testament (laughs). Horowitz didn’t understand it, Richter played it too and I like what he did.

WB: What sets him apart as a composer?

RB: It’s hard to say, maybe the harmonies and the unexpected modulations. It’s very poetic music that has everything in it: there is a lot of sorrow, joy, melancholy…

WB: Joy? It’s not what I associate his music most with?

RB: I think there is joy in the Concertos, for instance in the last movement of the 2nd Concerto!

WB: Speaking of which, I like your recording of the Chopin concertos with the Concertgebouw Orchestra: I attended the concert and thought everything was beautifully clear and unsentimental!

RB: like Mozart!

WB: Has Chopin revolutionized the piano technique like Liszt did?

RB: No, his virtuosity is totally different, although his first compositions were written in a brilliant style. He had another approach to technique than Liszt. With Chopin, it was a way to make music. Liszt was fantastic in his own way, also in his last pieces or in his Sonata.

WB: Do you play the Liszt Sonata?

RB: No, I play other pieces like his Concertos, Etudes and the Rigoletto Paraphrase.

WB: You also advocate the music of Szymanovsky, he is not very well known, what can you tell us about him?

RB: He is not well known in my country either! I wanted to change that situation with my Debussy-Szymanovsky album. His 1st Sonata is not popular in Poland; it has a lot of influences of Scriabin, maybe a bit of Rachmaninov and Brahms. I played his Variations opus 3 almost everywhere. It is a cycle of 12 short variations, that are very different in character. There are a lot of chords and they have a virtuosic culmination.

WB: I love his Variations opus 10 that Zimerman has played !

RB: Yes, there are amazing.

WB: Was Szymanovsky a good pianist?

RB: Unfortunately he wasn’t. His Synfonia Concertante is not so difficult, because he wanted to play it himself..

WB: He knew how to write for the piano, though! The variations opus 10 are highly virtuosic!

RB: Yes, but he never played those. He was friends with Rubinstein to whom he dedicated the Variations opus 3. He could ask him for advice..

WB: Is there a lot of difference between his early and his last works?

RB: Yes, his late works were inspired by Polish folk music.  His works from the second period, Métopes and Masques, are more impressionistic.

WB: They sometimes remind me of Scriabin!

RB: Masques, yes, but not Métopes!

WB: Are there other Polish composers that you find worthwhile?

RB: Zimerman recorded works of Bacewicz, who also used a lot of Polish folk music. And Lutoslawski dedicated his Piano Concerto to Zimerman.

WB: Do you know the music of Zarebski?

RB: Yes, my professor recorded his music.

WB: Now you play Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major K 488, what is your relationship with this piece?

RB: I started to play when I was a child and before I participated in the Chopin Competition, I played this concerto with Jerzy Maksimiuk. It was broadcast through the whole country. I came back to it in 2006 and played it with different orchestras. I also prepared the C minor concerto K 491, which I played in Salzburg and Luzern. During this tour, we will play K 488 without conductor. I am very happy, because they play very well.

WB: Mozart is often considered a tricky composer, is he trickier than Chopin?

RB: Yes, he is. Like with Bach, it is difficult to find the right sound.

WB: I have a few questions about your fellow pianist Kristian Zimerman: is he your mentor?

RB: We first met before the Chopin competition, also in 2005. He came to Katowice  where he received a Doctorat honoris causa. He also did a master class for students who wanted to play in the competition. I played the Polonaise opus 53 and was a bit sad, since my lesson was very short.  He told me that I played well and asked me if I needed any help. After the competition, he sent me a beautiful letter with advice. He gave me his number. It was very important to speak to him about repertoire and agencies. He invited me in 2007 and we spent 5 or 6 days at his place. He bought me a camera and an iPad. We are still in touch via SMS and sometimes we meet abroad. We met in Japan when he played Bacewicz and Schumann with the Hagen Quartet and he came to my concert in New York.

WB: People say that he is never satisfied, so how difficult was it to work with him?

RB: That’s not true, he is happy sometimes! He was happy with his interpretation of the Lutoslawski concerto with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Mariss Jansons in Amsterdam (I attended and it was quite good indeed, like all the other Zimerman concerts I attended, WB )

WB: Is he the biggest perfectionist ever?

RB: I don’t think so. He needs long to prepare and he wants to be 100% sure. He has taken care of everything before he can play on stage, as you know he travels with his own piano and tuner. I heard his recital of Beethoven opus 109, 110 and 111 last year in Germany and it was fantastic.

WB: Why is he so ferociously against CDs and radio broadcasts?

RB: He doesn’t like studio recordings. It is not easy to recreate the atmosphere of a concert. With an orchestra, it’s different, you have an “audience” in a way, since you make music together.

WB: I find it a bit of a shame he has re-recorded the Lutoslawski concerto with Rattle, whereas everybody wants him to record the Chopin sonatas. He keeps saying he is “not ready” but he plays them like nobody else…Will he be recording again you think?

RB: Maybe he recorded the Chopin sonatas, but he doesn’t want to release them… the Lutoslawski concerto is important to him, since it was dedicated to him.

WB: What are your future plans?

RB: I recorded Bach and the cd is waiting for release: it includes the Partitas nos 1 and 3, 4 Duets and the Italian Concerto. The DG-team comes to my concert in Amsterdam and then we will discuss further plans. I would love to record Beethoven concertos nos 2 and 4 with Trevor Pinnock. We have a very good contact. To be discussed!

WB: You said in another interview that you often travel by car, isn’t that exhausting?

RB: I have my car here! I feel more independent. I dislike airports or airplanes: they are often noisy, especially in Europe, you lose a lot of time. I like to travel after a concert, because there is too much adrenalin. I cannot sleep and therefore I drive for the next 2 or 3 hours.

WB: Aren’t you too exhausted to drive?

RB: No, I cannot sleep directly after a concert.

WB: What are you thinking of while driving?

RB: Sometimes I think about the concert I just played or I listen to CDs (not my own!) or I am talking to my father, who is the second driver. For a tour with concerts in Germany, France and Spain, it is easier to go by car. In the night there is not so much traffic..

WB: My last question: you also play the organ, in what way does that help you as a pianist?

RB: It was my first fascination! Bach on the organ sometimes teaches me the right legato in Bach. On a piano, you have to play legato with your fingers, whereas the pedals on an organ are used very differently. I use the organ legato in Bach on the piano in order to keep the clarity of sound. It’s easier to change the colours on the organ by using special registers.




Zeist,  22 February 2015

German pianist Ragna Schirmer became well known with her recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She is also known for several “unusual” projects, focusing on the music of Händel and Clara Schumann and playing both as an actor and as a pianist in a puppet show, devoted to the life of Maurice Ravel. But what she probably likes best: playing in an intimate venue and explaining her audience about the works she plays. We spoke after her concert at the castle of Zeist (Slot Zeist) in February 2015.

Willem Boone (WB): The leaflet in which your concert was announced said that you were “honoured to play in a sold out Philharmonie in Berlin, but that you preferred to play in a more intimate hall where you could establish a direct contact with your audience” Yet, I would say that Berlin is a more important venue for an artist, isn’t it?

Ragna Schirmer (RS): There are different occasions with different aspects: I really enjoy playing piano concertos with orchestras in big halls. But for the recitals- as the composers were often performed in small rooms at their time- I like a very intimate atmosphere.

WB: Don’t you try to change the Berliner Philharmonie into a more intimate place?

RS: If it is possible to reach every single person in a hall and create intimacy and intensity, I am happy. Light is very important, and of course the soft notes in the music...

WB: On your website, you said in the films about your trip to China that “you feel lonely before the concert and also afterwards and that there are many things you cannot share with anyone. You have to come to terms with yourself” How do you manage that?

RS: As a musician I mostly study alone. Sometimes it is a very lonely job, travelling, practicing... I often question myself, am I good enough, do I stand all this. But I also need these phases with myself: concentration is very important. Music always deals with emotions: there are pieces that tell about death, there are pieces that feel so joyful, I have to feel all these emotions to translate them into music. Before a concert I ask myself: what is the story I want to tell today?
But being a musician is the most wonderful job I could ever imagine!

WB: You said you are someone who likes to practise a lot. I often have the following experience as an amateur pianist: there are certain passages that scare me or that don’t come off well. You can practise a lot, but often the fear comes back whenever you play such a passage. How does it work with you: can you work until you master a piece perfectly well?

RS: It is like in sports: you have to train as hard as you can, and then win the race. Hopefully.

WB: And when you don’t succeed, do you say: „O well, tough luck, next time, I’ll do better” or are you disappointed?

RS:  It depends on what happened. The intention is to interpret the music as the composers felt the piece. If I manage to achieve this authenticity, I am happy. In times of perfection-  CD recordings etc., we often forget that in former times music was performed spontaneously.


WB: You spoke about stage fright, do you suffer less from this as you are getting more experienced?

RS:  I got to know myself very well. But whenever I step on stage, I have an intensity. So- some people need Bungee, I need to perform.

WB: Wilfried Eckstein from  the Goethe Institut Shanghai said about you: We’ll have to build up an image.” What would be yours?

RS: Oh, I hope I have the image to be familiar with Handel, or I am known for unusual projects e.g. with theater. If my listeners tell me, they felt something special, that is the best image.

WB: You said on your website you had “an insane amount of ideas”, but that you just wished “to have time to realize all of them” Which ideas are you thinking of?


RS: The next big project is a CD with pieces by Clara Schumann. She was not only a wonderful pianist but also a gifted composer. I feel responsible to play her pieces and I am looking forward to make them more popular.


WB: I read about Clara Schumann that she left out the slow movements of Beethoven sonatas!

RS: If you look up the recital programs in the 19th century, you will find several single movements of sonatas or symphonies. It was usual to play "best of".

WB: You are always looking for a leitmotif, what would be the leitmotif in this recital?

RS: I always try to have an idea in my program. In this case it was the tension between severity and lightness of improvisation.

WB: Is Gaspard de la Nuit indeed one of the biggest challenges ?

RS: Scarbo is one of the most difficult pieces, yes. In the theater-play about Ravel's life I even have to play it with a mask on my face. Today I could see everything!

WB: Could you imagine that Martha Argerich learnt this in only 5 days and said: “I didn’t know it was supposed to be difficult?”

RS: She was young?

WB: Yes, she was 14 years old.

RS: Then it is possible. When I was 14 years old, I learned the Goldbergvariations within 2 months. When I -years later- realized the significance of the piece, I could already play it.But Argerichs Scarbo: a legend!

WB: How difficult is it to play „without expression“ (sans expression”) as Ravel explicitly writes in the score of Le Gibet?

RS: He probably meant the atmosphere of death, emptiness, desolation. I try to imagine the gibbet in the wind. And play without any rubato.

WB: Aren’t the Miroirs about as difficult?

RS: They are in a way more intimate than Gaspard. I found it very intense today: in this room in the castle.

WB: Your recording of the Goldberg Variations received a lot of praise. How difficult is it when you always have to fight especially with these variations against the shade of ……..  


RS: Glenn Gould? He was a genius, outstanding, but it must be allowed to play the piece after him. The Goldberg Variations are so important for me, I absolutely wanted to record them. Although I did not have a label-contract at that time.


WB: It struck me how difficult the Goldberg Variations are when you play them on a piano!

RS: Sure, you have only one manual.

WB: What could you say in favour of Bach played on a piano?

RS: I am sure he heard an orchestra or a choir also when he composed for harpsichord. So I just use the possibilities I have now. Hopefully he would have done so, if he knew our modern instruments.

WB: And what could one say against playing Bach on a piano?

RS: Nothing. But of course it is also interesting to hear the music on historical instruments. I do so myself. The CD with Clara Schumann I will play a piano from 1856. Either ways are right, if they serve the composer and the music.

WB: You did a lot of work in order to make Händel more popular, would you put him on the same level as Bach?

RS: Bach is the biggest genius, his perfection in horizontal and vertical musical lines is unreachable. But Handel is more vivid, he wrote operas. At that time he was more popular than Bach. I enjoy playing them in recitals and show the differences and the similarities.

WB: Not all musicians will share your opinion, the harpsichord player Gustav Leonhardt once said: “Händel wrote for mass audience.”

RS: Great. Celibidache said about Karajan, he was like Coca Cola: the crowd like it. Good to polarize... Listen to Handel, and your mood will improve. My opinion.

WB: His suites are played by relatively few pianists:   Richter, Perahia, de Larrocha, Cherkassky. Why is that?

RS: In contrast with Bach, Handel did not write anything into the score, he wanted the interpret to improvise. Pianists normally do not improvise, looking at our traditional education.

WB:  What do you mean by „improvise”? He wrote down the music, didn’t he?

RS: Some parts are only harmonies, sometimes he leaves out a middle voice, also the fugues are not completely built with all voices. Handel was not as exact as Bach.

WB: You don’t want to imitate the sound of the harpsichord, but take full advantage of the sound of the modern piano. How can you realize that?


RS: Many people tell me, they love Baroque Music, but they do not love the historical instruments. So I try to imagine an opera singer, when I play a cantilene by Handel, or I try to imagine the sound of an orchestra on the piano.

WB: You played his organ concertos on a Hammerflügel, isn’t that hard? An organ has more power, hasn’t it?

RS: Sure. But the organ concertos are so great, I absolutely wanted to interpret them. So I developed different ways, from Baroque Orchestra to Jazz-Band with Hammond Organ.

WB: Why actually?

RS: Because Handel has the groove! He swings.

WB: So does Bach!

RS: Yes. No groove, no music.

WB: Just a few questions about this „Puppenspiel“ „Für eine taube Seele” (= for a deaf soul), that is about the life of Maurice Ravel, who is this “taube Seele”?

RS: "Seelentaubheit" is the medical term for the disease Ravel had: he could not control his motorics any more.


WB: What exactly do you do in this production, are you also an actor?

RS: Yes. I play and perform "the music". In this way I can serve the composer in a special way: not only by playing his pieces but also by showing his love to the music. And serving the composer is my job.