Since our last conversation in early 2021, bass baritone Christian Immler has been busy. As was the case with many artists, the bass baritone’s schedule changed dramatically as a result of pandemic-related lockdowns; his approach to music, as you’ll read in our recent conversation below, didn’t change but intensified and expanded, particularly within the realms of score study, synergy with colleagues, and active public engagement.
In December 2022 Immler performed with the Czech Philharmonic and conductor Semyon Bychkov in the lauded world premiere of Prager Symphony, Lyric Fragments after Franz Kafka (Symphony No. 4) by contemporary German composer Detlev Glanert. Based directly on the work of Franz Kafka (including his letters, short stories, novels, and fragments from his notebooks) the work is an immense, daring exploration of the lyric symphonic form, with scoring for orchestra and two voices (bass baritone and mezzo), spread over twelve sections. As the composer told Bachtrack just prior to the premiere, the work is “a psychological landscape, where two people tell us something about ourselves: a story of life from the very beginning to the end, plus all human circumstances you can imagine: being witty, the pain of violence, happiness, and so on.” Prager Symphony will be presented again later this year, with Bychkov and Immler – in June, with the Concertgebouw and Gewandhaus respectively, and the UK premiere happening in November with the BBC Symphony.
Along with learning and performing the Glanert work, the bass baritone also released the album Das heiße Herz (Alpha Classics) with pianist Andreas Frese, featuring the music of Robert Schumann and contemporary German composer Jörg Widmann. Released in mid-2022, the work features songs from Schumann’s 1849 cycle Lieder und Gesänge aus ‘Wilhelm Meister’ (text by Goethe) as well as the composer’s 1850 cycle ‘6 Gedichte von N. Lenau und Requiem’; the world-premiere recording of Widmann’s Heisse Herz (The Burning Heart) comprises the album’s second half, with Immler conveying a stunning (and stunningly controlled) level of musicality, sometimes utilizing sprechstimme to exude the emotional intensity Widmann’s writing necessitates. A review in Opera News early this year (which singled the album out for its monthly Critics Choice designation) noted the degree to which Immler “shows a performance artist’s mastery of the work’s considerable demands, as does the fearless (pianist) Frese, who thunders, tremolos and occasionally slams the keyboard or strums the inside, in addition to playing with great tenderness when called upon.”
Our recent conversation began by my asking Immler about his fascinating forthcoming release (on Alpha Classics) of virtually unknown music by Wilhelm Grosz (1984-1939) and Robert Gund (also spelled Gound; 1865-1927), all set to texts by a range of celebrated European writers, including Eduard Mörike (1804-1875), Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857), and Clemens Brentano (1778-1842). The music project sees Immler reunite with pianist Helmut Deutsch, with whom he previously collaborated on a gorgeous 2021 album showcasing the largely unknown music of Hans Gál. The thought of Immler and the pianist reuniting for a project featuring music few know well (or are aware of at all) is a needed bit of hope amidst a still-difficult classical environment.
Immler is just embarking on an extensive Northern European tour, performing the work of another composer whose works he knows well; St. Matthew Passion is being presented by famed Bach conductor Masato Suzuki and the Netherlands Bach Society in twelve different locales between March 25th and April 8th. Before the tour began Immler took time to offer thoughts on everything from covid-related cancellations to the earthy writing of both Bach and contemporary composers. Immler is always inspiring to speak with, whether he’s discussing the finer points of scores, sharing the realities of singing works of rarely-heard composers, or how the simple act of breathing informs and influences musicianship; our recent midwinter exchange was, quite simply, a joy.
Christian Immler and Helmut Deutsch. Photo: Marcus Boman
How’s your work with Helmut Deutsch coming along?
It’s great! We both love this repertoire. There are cases where something will seem like a good idea and then you work with someone, in a duo, and it’s one person pulling the other – but not with Helmut, not at all. We both pull in one direction. With this repertoire, it is really a total discovery. I’m not unused to reading through unfamiliar repertoire but this time there is the added thrill of manuscripts – that’s all there is – so we had to transfer them into Sibelius, all these songs composed as lieder. We did a test run for an audience of around ten people, and had to preface it with, “this is most likely the very first performance of this song cycle!”
What has your process been so far?
Helmut has been cursing me – playfully – for introducing him to this repertoire. The Grosz is very difficult to play; there are so many things are happening at the same time in the piano lines, and he says he needs a few more fingers. Nobody realizes how difficult it is, again, because this repertoire is so unknown. We don’t talk very much, a couple of times we verbalize what we want but the rest is push-pull, and listening.
Listening seems vital, whether it’s for a duo project or for larger performances, like Glanert’s Prager Symphony.
A lot of people can listen if they don’t do anything else, but if you have to do your work, playing and singing, and listen at the same time – that’s a special skill set, because you need to do what you do, and intrinsically listen to the other person at the same time. Helmut knows the text, and I know his piano part very well; sometimes I’ll look more down to what he’s doing and not only to my singer’s part. You have to process a lot at the same time. Also, we need to breathe – everybody knows that – but you wouldn’t believe how many conductors ultimately have no idea what that means; Semyon does. He and Helmut both use their breath as a means of expressivity, and it makes all the difference. When they intuitively run out of breath, they renew themselves. So it’s natural, we both do it. If you have well-written repertoire that breath comes very naturally anyway, but if it’s mediocre writing, and the phrases are really long, you think, “okay, I have to take an odd breath here” but it doesn’t usually happen with good composers.
The last known photograph of Franz Kafka, most likely taken in 1923. Source: Klaus Wagenbach Archiv, Berlin.
That synergy is interesting given your recent projects use texts by authors who are long dead and/or did not write specifically for singers.
It is known that Kafka, although he did not have an inversion to music, did not want some of his texts set to music..
… and yet!
… yes, Max Brod didn’t quite comply there! He didn’t burn the papers Kafka had written after his death. Glanert and Widmann have both said that at a certain point, they have to let their work go. Both are very experienced, so it means at one point they realize it’s no longer controlled by them, and they accept performers might have a slightly different viewpoint or approach, and I think there is a wisdom in this. They’re both great at letting things go. Glanert was present during rehearsals with the Czech Phil and took notes, and when there were moments of difficulty, instruments groups were too soft or loud or whatever, he, without running to the stage and making a fuss, would take notes, and Semyon would come and they’d communicate about it. The process was super-fluid in terms of it being a true work-in-progress situation. We didn’t have many rehearsals of that, either.
The subsequent performances of it this year may have more rehearsals, then?
I have a huge advantage now because I know the piece, but for orchestras, it’s different. Mind you, those other orchestras – the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Leipzig Gewandhaus – are super-orchestras, even with their different approaches. And I have to say also: the Czech Phil is stunning, just… top.
To what extent do you think these songs, and Kafka’s texts, have acquired a new relevance?
It’s funny, that work, as well as the songs I’m doing with Helmut and the theme of my doctoral research, it’s all on work done roughly 100 years ago – yet these poems, at this very moment, in my opinion, have an incredible modernity and relevance. You read some of them, and … well, so I read The Guardian in the mornings, and you see these terrible things about the war in Ukraine, and you see these works, and they resonate as a part of our time, right now.
How does this work and the Widmann speak to that time? And how much do you think listening as a result of that time changed?
Both Widmann and Glanert have a lot of experience in the operatic field and a high level of awareness. They won’t waste opportunities in sound; if they want a big turmoil they know how to create it, and likewise they can create the absence of sound and the power of pauses and stillness. They totally understand – it’s quite unsettling in the Glanert, you think, holy! You could hear a needle drop. It only happens if the ear is preconditioned in the writing, and both of them can do this very well.
For me, and so many who experienced an unprecedented level of isolation and loneliness, and a lack of outside distraction if you will, there was a total feeling of insecurity of what is going to happen. Nobody knew. I find in a lot in these poems, especially in the Kafka texts, there is a sense of basically trying to come out of that situation by saying, “Okay, let’s state we are lonely, and the only way we can kind of overcome this is by stating it first of all and being aware of it, and then sticking together.” This first Kafka text, if you read it, it’s so strong, it states: we are lonely yet we are interconnected by a network of invisible threads, and it’s bad enough if they loosen, but it’s terrible if one of them falls. That, to a certain degree, is what we all experienced in early 2020.
But somehow there is a hope through humanity, and that sounds grand, but these songs don’t leave you feeling dark, they leave you with a sense of… hope is not enough… but that there’s a chance for humanity. And it’s an important balance to what I read in the newspaper.
That seems more rooted in reality.
Yes and I do like that these composers don’t go into the religious sphere or some form of theism, or into any kind of metaphysical sphere at all – everything stays deeply human, earthy and rooted, and thus very approachable. The subtext of them is: you don’t have to be a believer to come out of this darkness.
That’s exactly where they reminded me of Bach, which is perhaps odd…
It’s not odd!
Bach is associated with deep religiosity, but in St. Matthew Passion, for instance, the writing is blood-and-guts human, and it’s the embrace of that messiness which opens the door to the divine. The line between Bach and these modern works is not that long, is it?
It really isn’t It’s funny, I was standing in the Liszt Academy in Budapest recently – which is a total dream building, by the way – I was in a corridor and remembered being there one-and-a-half years ago, being tested with the orchestra, and at 5 in the afternoon the performance was cancelled; the entire bass section had covid. It was like a sudden rain-shower but you don’t know what to do; we are not programmed as artists to know what to do. When I get up on a performance day I am geared to that one thing in the evening when I am meant to deliver. It’s a lot of energy… this very earthy, a very sharply human experience…
How has that time influenced you in terms of singing both contemporary music like Widmann and Baroque?
In terms of the Widmann, it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever learned, and if you don’t hear that I take it as a compliment. The scoring is very detailed! He is a total musician; he wants to define it as well as possible, but then you have to have it in your system. The actual level of preparation was intense; there is so much information coming your way, you can’t ignore it, and say, “Oh I feel it this way” – that isn’t possible. You have to prepare it to that level of detail and then know it subconsciously. It was an incredible amount of preparation, apart from pitching and rhythm, and the extended vocal techniques; he would write things in the direction like, ‘Dangerously Through Your Teeth’ or ‘Psychedelically Sung’ for certain passages, but it always makes sense. And, this may sound banal, but it could be Widmann or Monteverdi or Bach or Glanert, but look at it and I’ll think, “This is just top-class writing!”
Do you think preparing for something like the Widmann works would have been different in 2019?
I would say no …
So the pandemic didn’t change your approach that much… ?
It changed how people got together, via Zoom or not at all. The loneliness of preparation, overall, was strong for everything. Just after musicians here were allowed to come together again I did the Beethoven/Leonore with Rene Jacob, it was just a piano rehearsal with the cast, and everybody started crying. It was such a release of… like, you can practice and vocalize, but it’s a profession which has to be done in community, and with a third ingredient in this: the public. The feeling of being together was unbelievable. For this experience we were grateful to have that return, to know we weren’t alone.
So yes, I stayed faithful to preparing well and being detailed, but, like the first time I sang the St. Matthew Passion, you come out of the pandemic experience a different person, obviously. It changes your whole perception of music and life. You can prepare the piece but the effect it leaves when you present it live… you cannot prepare for that.
For many in the classical world, summer means one thing: festivals. In continental Europe, the UK, and North America, outdoor festivals celebrating both opera and orchestral works, not to mention chamber music, are unfolding, with a certain joy more palpable this year than others. After so many experimental iterations (especially in Salzburg, where the festival powered through the worst of the pandemic in 2020), there is a firm, fond embrace of the familiar, and one hopes, a bit of a face toward the future in terms of programming, casting, productions, and (one hopes) safety protocols.
Fans of composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) will have already long planned a pilgrimage to Bayreuth, founded by Wagner himself in 1876 and built expressly to manifest his groundbreaking concept of Gesamtkunstwerk. Getting there takes a bit of planning; the town can be reached by train (from Munich it’s roughly a two-hour journey through Nuremberg) and tickets to performances require completing an early application, though online purchases were made available at the end of May. Local hotels are booked months in advance – usually; a quick check shows they aren’t all quite full this year, owing, perhaps more than anything to lingering effects of covid/omicron. Just how the classical world continues to navigate this challenge depends on who you ask; many are soldiering on, but there are also many cancellations and fill-ins, onstage and in the pit. Audiences are somewhat skittish about returning to indoor spaces – and again, the level of skittishness depends on who you ask, and where they’re travelling. The Festspielhaus, (in)famous for its uncomfortable seats and lack of air circulation, is mostly wood, as per Wagner’s wishes – as such, the nature of the house’s architecture simply doesn’t allow for modern interventions à la AC, a challenge given Germany’s increasingly steamy summers. You will experience Wagner’s works the way he intended; if you have to endure physical discomfort to do so, well, so be it. With the opening of the festival on 27 June with Tristan and Isolde (featuring tenor Stephen Gould opposite soprano Catherine Foster), there occurs the kind of sonic immersion Wagner aimed for; Wagner’s magnificent score has this odd (oddly discomfiting, for me) way of utterly erasing… time, circumstance, the edgeless, blunt forms of sameness that have been a hallmark of pandemic life thus far, the immediacy of mediocrity (and arguably the immediate realities of a hot, airless auditorium). As I’ve written in the past, my ears have lately developed teeth, a reaction to the prevailing attitude of safe-and-boring programming that colours far too much of post-pandemic classical life; Wagner offers up a chewy, delicious eight-course feast, then demanding even further capacity and appetite.
Something strangely similar in terms of sonic experience occurred in Weimar in August 2018, when I attended the world premiere of the first act of Franz Liszt’s Sardanapalo, a presentation which had been 170 years in the making. Liszt (1811-1886), a composer known far more for his piano work (compositions as much as his famous performances), never completed a full opera. Sardanapalo was based on the tragedy by Lord Byron, (published in 1821) and began life in sketch-form in 1849, with Liszt using abbreviations and creating alternative versions, eventually coming to a 115-page manuscript. The project fell by the wayside when the composer was unable to find a proper libretto for the second and third acts. Catalogued in 1910, the work was considered too incomplete for performance – until British musicologist David Trippett came across it at the at the Goethe and Schiller Archive in Weimar in the early 2000s, and subsequently spent years painstakingly piecing it together. Presented by Deutsches Nationaltheater and Staatskapelle Weimar with soloists soprano Joyce El-Khoury, tenor Airam Hernández, and bass baritone Oleksandr Pushniak all under the baton of Principal Conductor Kirill Karabits, the work has sonic connections with Wagner’s 1845 operaera Tannhaüser (something Karabits had noted prior to the premiere) and an equally clear nod in orchestration to Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) though its insistent melodicism and pungent scoring also recall Verdi’s Nabucco (1841) and SimonBoccanegra (1857). Sardanapalo demands much of its listener (one indeed needs toothsome ears here), but it offers compelling characterization through its orchestration, scoring, and mix of creative influences – indeed, hearing it inspires many thoughts around possible live presentations that go beyond in-concert formats. A recording of the work was released via Audite in February 2019 (done in Weimar), and a performing edition of the score released by Schott in summer 2019.
Trippett and I spoke briefly after the 2018 performance, but unfortunately we didn’t have the kind of extended, chewy exchange I would have liked. Thank goodness for an email that landed in my inbox this past April from Europe-based classical writer Dejan Vukosavljevic, asking if I would be interested in just this exchange, one which he and Trippett, who is Professor of Music at Cambridge University, had happily conducted earlier this year. Vukosavljevic explores not only Liszt’s work but the complicated artist behind it, his very complex relationship with Wagner, the possibilities for a work long thought lost, and, more immediately, inquires as to how the pandemic impacted academic pursuits. Trippett himself is a formidable interview subject, knowledgeable but never stuffy, excited to share discoveries, his joy of the material (and their various social, cultural, political, and historical contexts) palpable and infectious. This exchange was a fortuitous and good bit of timing personally – I have long considered bringing on new contributors to my website. The advantages of new voices are myriad, their wealth of knowledge, experience, and passion immense – you don’t always want one voice or viewpoint on any given topic, but a multiplicity of voices and related experiences in order to make the meal that much richer. This seems especially important in classical, which can very often feel like a small, airless bubble. Vukosavljevic has a natural curiosity (he mentioned in recent exchange that his hobbies include “stargazing, reading, playing chess, socializing”) and his knowledge of (and obvious enthusiasm for) the classical world makes one hope for further contributions, and further journeys up in music history, composition, and performance. Thank you Dejan, and thank you Professor Trippett – if I can’t go up the hill to Bayreuth this year, I am happy to go up the hill of music history and learn something new along the way; I hope readers will join us.
DV: How did COVID-19 pandemic influence your work as a musicologist and a cultural historian at the University of Cambridge? Where did you feel the biggest pressure?
DT: The world seemed to change in the blink of an eye, didn’t it? We instantly become online avatars, and adapted courses to keep all paths of study on track. But no online medium can replace the vibrant atmosphere of the seminar room. Looking back, lockdown feels like stolen time. Oddly, though, there were also benefits – like a lot of reading and exploring new repertoire, along with innovations in mediatized performance and testing the limits of multitrack performance. Digital resources are excellent for 19th-century studies, where many manuscripts are available online. This is the case for the Richard Wagner Museum and the Goethe- und Schiller-Archiv, both of which I use often in my work. So, if anything, the pandemic increased my reliance on these resources. Where was the biggest pressure? I would say the lack of contact, which was strangely alienating even as so much music went online. In concert, music touches you – literally so. Touch is the sense that unifies all other sense modalities. A singer’s voice or the vibrating reed sets in motion a pressure wave that physically touches your middle ear. Not experiencing that proximity to real acoustic sound, collectively as part of an audience – with its capacity for beauty, curiosity, and catharsis – was difficult.
DV: Your work encompasses many areas of classical music. What was your motive to begin to study the life and works of Richard Wagner?
DT: Originally I intended to do my doctoral research on Franz Liszt. I’d played so much of his piano music as a child that it had become a point of orientation for me, and I often felt it refracted in the music of others, from Debussy to Ligeti. In the end I defected to Wagner. I had listened to the Ring cycle three times when I was 14 (Wolfgang Sawallisch, Daniel Barenboim, Bernard Haitink), the third time with libretto in hand, and I began playing all the vocal scores. As a student, I remember travelling to Helsinki just to hear Leif Segerstam conduct the Ring. Wagner’s intellectual reach is unparalleled in 19th century music and philosophy, and, aside from the sheer richness and power of the music, the range and quantity of his ideas and commentaries, and the copious evidence of the manuscript sources proved irresistible. There is still so much work to do.
DV: Would you label yourself as a Wagnerian? What do you see in Wagner’s music that makes him so special?
DT: The history of ‘Wagnerians’ makes any such label tricky. That’s one of the fascinating aspects of the Wagner historiography. On the one hand, few would want to align today with the likes of Houston Stewart Chamberlain or Winifred Wagner, both of whose curation of Wagner’s legacy was intertwined with bad politics; on the other hand, his works are continually reimagined for our time by directors, as when Siegfried’s body was draped in the Ukrainian flag in Madrid last month, or when (director) Peter Konwitschny situated Lohengrin in a German school. What remains constant is the powerful nature of the music, its continual colouristic and harmonic flux, and the ongoing psychological resonance of the drama.
Early on, leitmotifs were wryly dismissed as dotty ‘calling cards’ or ‘an address book’, but beyond simple signs, they convey the way that memories change, and the different experiences of time passing. When Siegfried shatters Wotan’s spear, its significance reverberates backwards and forward throughout the entire cycle. The Greek model of an orchestral commentary, too, offers a dynamic structure in continually re-evaluating the significance of events. That said, Wagner’s sophisticated orchestration and motivic techniques change significantly across his oeuvre – so there isn’t simply the leitmotif technique. Listening before and after the Act III Prelude to Siegfried (the densest compression of motifs to date) makes this particularly stark.
Beyond this, Wagner absorbed the values and learning of his age, so his works faithfully and fatefully refract these interests, from anti-vivisectionism to purification by holy fire. The director Michael Hampe once put it to me that Wagner’s works are ‘miracles of humanity’, and that opera directors might begin by asking ‘how do I present this so that others will understand this immense value?’ I think it’s a wonderful question.
DV: Your first monograph Wagner’s Melodies, published by Cambridge University Press in 2013, examines the cultural and scientific history of melodic theory in relation to Wagner’s writings and music. How did it start?
DT: I became fascinated with the paradox that Wagner placed ‘melody’ at the centre of his aesthetic theories (‘music’s only form’), yet he was consistently ridiculed by critics for being unable to compose a melody. The book uses this basic incongruity to re-examine Wagner’s central aesthetic claims, and places his ideas about melody into the context of the scientific discourse of the age: from the emergence of the natural sciences and historical linguistics to sources about music’s stimulation of the body and inventions for ‘automatic’ composition. Researching and writing it at Harvard and Cambridge was a fascinating experience. It led me to explore all manner of sources, from Wagner’s insertion aria for Bellini’s Norma, to a device called the psychograph for transcribing your unconscious musical thoughts… it gave me a chance to ask why it had become so difficult for German writers even to define melody (and—for most—quite impossible to teach it), and why melody simultaneously occupied the centre-ground of expression in opera, yet sat at the apex of artistic self-consciousness for German composers. Thinking about melodic intensity without actual, Italianate melody changed the way I listened to certain music – yes, I think it did.
DV: Wagner composed thirteen operas in total, but was also his own librettist; how would you describe his approach to literary writing?
DT: Wagner’s alliteration, coordinated speech roots, and creatively antique forms of language often raise a smile. Unlike, say, his orchestration, it was an area of his work that was openly questioned by contemporaries. For me, the opera poems after 1850 reflect his theories about language and of how language communicates, and these change, of course – which is why you find a diatribe against rhyming, metrical verse in his essay “Opera and Drama” (iambic pentameter as ‘five-footed little monsters’), yet a return to precisely such verse in Meistersinger fifteen years later. Ever pragmatic, his underlying goal in what he called ‘verse melody’ was to uncover a musically infected form of communication that couldn’t fail to be understood, even (especially) by those with no training.
There are various librettos that he completed but never set to music, including a quasi-Buddhist drama (The Victors), and a vaudeville about a cross-dressing bear (The Happy Bear Family). He held all of these poems dear, and suggested to other composers, including Liszt, that they set them instead. So fiercely did he feel that the Ring poem was a work of world literature, that he published it in 1853, as a book, though he came to regret that decision! Even accepting the importance of his theory of speech roots that rhyme and concatenate sounds, we now tend to use Wagner’s language more as an artistic means, for music, rather than celebrate it as literature.
DT: Much has been written about Bayreuth as a proto-cinema, but I think the desire to control an audience’s sensorium was only part of the story. Since his time in Dresden during the early 1840s, Wagner had been advocating practical innovations to his theatre (like enabling sight lines, updating the instruments, pensioning off the weakest performers), and his friendship with the brilliant architect Gottfried Semper — who designed the barricades Wagner defended during the uprising in May 1849 — shaped his ambitions for what a theatre could be. Add to this the explosion of contemporary research into sense physiology under figures like Johannes Müller and Helmholtz, and Wagner’s own belief that audiences had to physically experience music, first-hand, in order to ‘get it’, and it is not hard to see why the Festspielhaus project came about. Nor why it has become a focal point for the history of a specifically Wagnerian culture in all its stripes. Wagner sought to do away with mediating explanations, where ideally the entire role of music criticism would become redundant – in many ways Bayreuth was conceived as a monument to that ideal.
DV: Franz Liszt was the composer who helped raise the profile of the exiled Wagner by conducting the overtures of his operas in concert while he was in Weimar. How would you describe the relationship between the two composers?
DT: In a word: asymmetrical. They first met in 1841. Initially, Wagner pursued Liszt more for career advancement than artistic kinship, sending him the scores for Rienzi and Tannhäuser (‘I proceed quite openly to rouse you up in my favour’). By 1848, he began requesting financial help from Liszt, initially selling the copyright to his extant operas and accepting commissions, but thereafter simply requesting a series of bailouts, often in uncomfortably obsequious, manipulative prose. 1849 marked a sea change: Liszt was enormously impressed by Wagner’s latest works, which he felt were at the vanguard of progress. He conducted Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, making sets of piano transcriptions of both (a supreme endorsement), he sought to conduct Siegfrieds Tod (had Wagner finished it), and even asked to premiere Tristan und Isolde in Weimar. During the 1850s, Liszt had the fame, influence, resources, and financing to rescue Wagner from critical and political ignominy as a composer-criminal, ingloriously expelled from Germany in 1849. Perhaps most significantly, he was a key figure in securing Wagner’s eventual amnesty and in promoting the first fledgling Bayreuth festivals.
But by the end, he referred to himself as ‘Bayreuth’s poodle’ after being wheeled out as a celebrity to endorse the second festival, after Wagner’s death (in February 1883). Wagner had questioned the comprehensibility of symphonic poetry in 1857, and would (privately) dismiss Liszt’s late works as ‘budding insanity’. There were two rifts in 1859 and 1864, the first over a misreading of tone in Liszt’s remarks about Tristan, the second more serious – about the Cosima affair (Wagner to Cosima: ‘Your father is repugnant to me’). So despite an early period of genuine, intense artistic friendship on both sides, the relationship was always lopsided. There is much more to say, of course, and I’ve written about this in the Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia (2013; Editor Nicholas Vazsonyi).
DV: Liszt was a prolific composer, but spent nearly seven years on Sardanapalo, an Italian opera based on Lord Byron’s play. How did Sardanapalo come about, and why do you think it became such a challenge for him?
DT: By his mid 20s, Liszt’s ambitions for the ‘social mission’ of art exceeded mere pianism. By his early 30s, he saw how Rossini and Meyerbeer towered above other composers in Paris. Their medium? Opera. In his eyes, the spectacle, size, expense and public appeal of Franco-Italian opera ensured that this was the privileged route to such power, to entering ‘the musical guild’, as he later put it. Schumann had written publicly of a ‘disconnect’ between Liszt’s two identities, as a great pianist but less developed composer, and it must have hurt. The opera Sardanapalo was born of ambition (‘to cross my dramatic Rubicon’) – and it sounds like that. Liszt was intimately familiar with French and Italian opera scores of the age (that is, transcriptions and paraphrases), so composition of his mature opera was remarkably fluent; the libretto was his Achilles heel. He had searched widely for the right topic, eventually settling on Byron’s tragedy Sardanapalus in 1845. Sadly, he wasted several years waiting for the playwright Félician Mallefille (1813-1868) to fulfil the libretto commission. He finally accepted a text procured by his close friend the Italian Princess Belgiojoso, a well-connected writer and salonnière exiled in Paris. We don’t know who this poet was – he was reportedly imprisoned for agitating towards Italian independence, and in need of funds! Liszt worried that he was no Byron or Metastasio, and implored Belgiojoso to work on the text herself so that it would emerge under her authority (‘Permit me simply to place my entire musical destiny in your beautiful hands’).
When the versified text for Act 1 finally came through, Liszt set it to music in a detailed, continuous short score (a particell). It took many letters, follow-ups and prompts, including the threat of commissioning a new poet, to extract the versified libretto for Acts 2-3, but Liszt never set them. He questioned aspects of the libretto to Belgiojoso, and evidently wanted changes made before setting anything further. As far as we know, no revised libretto was ever sent, and by this time (c. 1852), Liszt was so deeply involved in other compositional projects, not least the symphonic poems, that the zeal and original reason for completing an Italian opera a decade ago had faded.
DV: The score for Sardanapalo was thought to be almost impossible to read, and its music irretrievable. What was your approach in its reevaluation and eventual presentation in 2018?
DT: I was puzzled by the idea that a musician as intelligent as Liszt would have notated musical materials that were full of errors or made little sense, as some had suggested. The problem was more likely to be that we were reading his manuscript incorrectly. When I began studying the manuscript in detail, parts of it were legible, but at first glance it looked incomplete; Liszt used many abbreviations and forms of shorthand – like mini-codes to himself – to get everything on paper at pace. I made about 15 transcriptions of the full manuscript. With each new transcription, the contents became clearer. It was a bit like a very pixelated image gradually coming into focus, in ever-higher resolution with each transcription. Liszt was writing for his eyes only, so a lot of accidentals, signatures, rests etc. were missing. Fortunately, the vocal parts were complete and continuous – fully notated with text underlay. In three places, the accompaniment appeared to drop out, creating odd gaps with continuous vocal parts above. The solution was that Liszt in fact sets up clear, formulaic accompanimental patterns that would continue; in an age before cut & paste, he simply didn’t feel the need to write them out in full.
DV: How did the research process for Sardanapalo unfold for you?
DT: It was a genuine leap of faith. I had no idea what the manuscript would contain when I began, but as the project progressed, I felt a growing responsibility to bring the remarkable material he wrote to light in a way that was both scholarly and historically sensitive. There is a very detailed commentary in the critical edition (Neue Liszt Ausgabe), and a major question that remained was whether or not to orchestrate the work. As written, the short score is often unplayable on the piano, and Liszt left a few cues for instrumentation, even specifying orchestral textures in detail here and there. (Following normal practice, his assistant Joachim Raff was due to produce a provisional orchestration in 1852, which Liszt would then have revised.) It was clear, then, he was thinking in orchestral colours. For that reason, I felt the music should be presented in fully orchestrated form as well as in a critical edition.
Beyond this, it was enormously valuable working with several young singers from the Jette Parker Programme at the Royal Opera House, and later, with (conductor) Kirill Karabits and the three singers (Joyce El-Khoury, Airam Hernández, Oleksandr Pushniak) who performed the full world premiere. Although Liszt notated the vocal parts in full – for instance, with all ornaments, phrase markings – many details for performance still had to be discovered by trying out the music, and seeing how it fits in the voice: tempo, transitions, articulation, shape. All of this could only be explored by making the leap into sound.
Oleksandr Pushniak, Airam Hernández, Joyce El-Khoury and David Trippett at Staatskapelle Weimar on August 19. Photo: Candy Welz
DV: What were your impressions from hearing the world premiere in Weimar?
DT: It was a revelation. The performers were so committed and inspired in bringing this to an audience, and the orchestra – Liszt’s own orchestra, in his adopted city – was magnificent under Kirill. It had the feel not only of creating history, but of history folding back on itself, as though in an alternative reality the opera had finally materialized in all its splendour. That first performance was released as a CD, and it was such an achievement for all concerned, topping the UK Classical charts, ICMA finalist, making the Guardian’s Top 10 discs of 2019. I have such admiration for all the performers.
DV: The opera had concert performances lined up this year in Budapest, Edinburgh and London, but things got frozen due to COVID-19 pandemic. What are your plans for the future?
The pandemic froze many exciting artistic projects, and Sardanapalo was no exception. There are some discussions ongoing for future performances in Hungary and America, but it is sad to think that the music waited 170 years to be heard, had a moment of glory and began spreading with momentum, only for it to be silenced again by the cruel effects of the pandemic. I would hope that Liszt’s ingenuity in creating a modern, through-composed bel canto opera will continue to be enjoyed by audiences. And, it’s crucial to note here that following detailed work on the critical edition, the final, fully corrected score has yet to actually be performed – there is a striking difference at the end of Mirra’s cabaletta, for example.
DV: Do you believe that Sardanapalo could find its way into the repertoire of the opera houses in the near future in some staged production?
DT: It would be a creative opportunity for the right director. Could it be staged? Yes. Without doubt. The action is largely psychological – interior – but that is no different to Tristan (Wagner) or Bluebeard (Bartók). The challenge would be how to couple it with another one-act opera that complements Byron’s drama. Liszt frames the act with a concubine chorus and the royal army marching off to war; in between we have the adulterous couple learning about each other’s passions, insecurities and power, and on stage is the silent wife.
In today’s world of conflict, King Sardanapalo’s firmly anti-war stance resonates (‘Every glory is a lie, / if it must be bought with the weeping / of afflicted humankind.’), and the outer action pivots on Mirra’s plea that the he overcome this aversion to violent conflict, that he stand up and defend the realm. He listens and is finally persuaded by her lyricism – so off they go to war. It certainly offers plenty of creative material, from the opulence of ancient Assyria to the irony of a brutal Byronic hero who loves peace – 2024 is the 200th anniversary of Byron’s death, so who knows?
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Top: The Death of Sardanapalus (La Mort de Sardanapale), Eugène Delacroix, 1827. Source: Musée du Louvre.
December is a glum month. The cozy, communal nature of this time, reinforced by a combination of weather, occasion, social ritual, the marking of time and season, plus the digital signifiers that Surely Everyone Is Having A Better Time Than You, means, for those lacking family and/or firm social network, a keen feeling of being forgotten, whether it is true or not.
Oh, but the very many will (and do) say, we’re all so busy. Never has a word been more overused, and December is a good reminder of the ease with which avoidance is casually wielded – for fun, for comfort, and yes, for an understandable want of calm. Sometimes people, even the most popular, actually-busy, super-hyper-social ones, simply want to pull a Garbo. I appreciate that, as someone who often, pre-pandemic, felt the desire to leave hot, crowded rooms, the feeling that I was being smothered made smile-laden socializing difficult and stressful; usually I’d continue smiling and guzzle down a gallon or two of water. Such smothering feels more pronounced now, intro/extrovert labels be damned; one falls between, around, over, and under such easy categorizations, in this, the Age Of Omicron. I want to spend time… but are you boosted? Let’s have dinner… but can we get a negative test first? I’d love for you to kiss me but… ? Having viewed casual contacts with some suspicion over the years, lately I feel a deep gratitude for any miniscule crumb of kindness; amidst pandemic, little things become big things.
I was reminded of this earlier in the week when I received close to one thousand well wishes for my birthday. While I would have loved to have thrown a big party, or travelled (or ideally done both, as I had done in years past), reality dictates otherwise. Living alone as a freelance writer and adjunct Professor means being ever-conscious of illness and its effects, financial and social, as much as physical. Thus does staying in and alone become less a choice than an exercise in logic. Choosing solitude, when one has the absolute privilege of people around them at any given moment (and never let it be forgotten that having people around – partners, family, associates, work colleagues, friendly neighbours, pets – is a very under-recognized form of privilege), is far and away a different thing from solitude as a lived, actual norm. The few in-person conversations I’ve had lately are accompanied by a counterpoint of constant anxiety, wondering and worrying if I’m talking too much, too loudly, too quickly, pontificating and pondering, desperate to be heard, and desperately happy for this one (poor) individual to really be sitting across from me. I am, I fear, turning into the Crazy Old Woman cliche, minus (so far) the cats.
“You’re different, that’s for sure,” my mother used to say, furrowing her eyebrows and judging, for the thousandth time, how it was she, one of those hyper-social, popular, widely-loved, togethery-with-all-sorts, could have possibly birthed… me. The thing she perhaps didn’t see, or more directly refused to admit until the very end, was her culpability: a single, beautiful, cultured woman in a grey, artless, firmly conformist environment could not possibly be anything other than an outsider. The most powerful lessons are those done through osmosis, and her position as a divorced (and again, gorgeous, glamorous, artsy, social) parent in a bleak Canadian suburban had an effect – how could it have been otherwise? Such an upbringing screws in a keen sense of individuality, of the pain of being an outsider, and its strange, strangely-experienced joys. If, her reasoning went, everyone was to settle for being “dowdy” (her word), well… she’d be the precise opposite, and damn them if they hated her for it (they did). To hell with the cost to her daughter. Those costs were indeed great but sometimes there were benefits. I could show up most everyone who’d mocked me/pushed me over in the playground/thrown snowballs at my head with ribbons of intricate piano playing sounds that always impressed adults, namely teachers. It was a talent which sometimes got me out of boring classes and into the cool, quiet environment of a tiny teacher’s lounge that happened to have a piano; it was always a treat to be plucked out of class and be told I could, for an hour or sometimes two, practise to my heart’s content. I can still remember my shop teacher’s face when he heard me one afternoon, the way he stopped and stared, dumbfounded.
“Has your mother talked to anyone about putting you in the gifted program?”
They said no. I already tried.
His eyes widened, but he was silent. Years later I ran into other teachers from that elementary era, and all of them, oddly enough (or not), said: “You really should have been in the gifted program, you know. I mean, we all said that.”
It was at my mother’s insistence that I took some classes with the gifted group and felt that I was being ferociously judged, fiercely rejected, in a more brutal manner than usual. You’re not one of us you plain-spoken, poorly-dressed imbecile. I remember the silent stares, the quiet eyerolls whenever I spoke (which wasn’t often; I was terrified). I wasn’t smart enough for them (or something), I wasn’t unique enough (or something), my work was (apparently) unoriginal; thus it was back to the land of the super-normals (or something) where I clearly didn’t fit in either. I could not possibly be a part of their club, or so their behaviour implied, repeatedly. I recognized that same anxiety in speaking with various academics, authors, managers and musicians over the years, and I can clearly count the times I didn’t feel I was being similarly judged. Not smart enough; not unique enough; stupid, unoriginal. Back to the land of normals; rinse, repeat.
Snippets of overheard conversations my mother had with close friends arrived with the sound of her sighs. She just didn’t know what to do with me. What I loved was considered “too” weird, “too” outside, “too” daring, even for the woman who had, once upon a time, tried so hard to fit in with a world that wasn’t going to accept her either; I think it hurt her to see me making the same sorts of efforts, and with the same sort of results. Her efforts to gain acceptance within the teensy-tiny bubble of small-town Canada were never going to be successful; so too, for her artsy, anti-social, book-and-music-loving daughter who had a predilection for doing things in her very own way, who’d been told by the “special” folk she wasn’t “special” enough, who learned how to hide everything behind masks of makeup, dresses, heels, who became adept at distraction and diversion, who contented herself to be the entertainment, to inspire desire and derision, envy and confusion, and of course, ostracization, exclusion, isolation. To clench jaw and smile at rejection. To give a middle finger with a bat of the eyelashes. It became second-nature; it still is.
There were eyerolls when I’d exit my high school history class early on Fridays; I was off to then-dingy New York. My mother had a subscription to the Met Opera; it wasn’t as fancy as everyone thought – we had seats in the gods – but no one in our little town knew or cared about such details. We were being fancy, snooty, pretentious; I was perceived as uppity, absurd, self-important.
“Have fun at the opera,” they’d sneer.
“Have fun at the mall,” I’d reply, slipping on my faux-fur coat over my ugly grey uniform.
Really, it wasn’t a question of my believing opera was somehow “elite” – I never thought it was; looking around at the Met on any given night, I’d see all sorts, dressed in all ways, and it was nice to feel part of a community where we could all come together and talk about this thing we all loved. How many excited conversations did my mother and I enjoy at intermission and post-performance, with people whose fashions mattered so much less to us than that they could speak about x singer in y performance with z conductor; that, to us, was every bit as magical as what we had just experienced. How could any of my fellow students, in my crappy little town, possibly understand? I didn’t try to fit in with them; I used their cliched, outmoded perceptions of the art form I loved in a way that protected my own passions, musical ambitions included. Thus my teenage weekends weren’t filled with parties and dancing and snogs with boys I barely knew, but with the sounds of Tebaldi and Domingo and Pavarotti, dinners at little Manhattan restaurants (long since gone), trying on a much-needed new coat at Century 21, cocktails mixed in our hotel room before and after performances (my mother didn’t believe in mystifying alcohol), and oh, the happy expressions during and after every performance – the sighs, the exchanged looks, my mother’s quiet “aaach!” at hearing, or remembering various musical moments, sung or played. I hated coming back after such excursions; Monday morning became tearful. I did not want to face them.
“But we’ll be back in two months!” my mother would shout over her cassette of Maria Callas arias. “Put on some lipstick – you’ll feel better!”
Rejection and defiance are close bedfellows, as recent history attests; the constant feeling of being outside the perceived (usually strict) circles of perceived norms and related social interaction mean that head-tilting haughtiness, protective thought it may be, screws in the nails of an innate, proud different-ness which led, in some cases, to a terrible if perhaps predictable isolation. “If you send out the signals you don’t want to fit in,” pronounces the school principal in the 1986 John Hughes film Pretty In Pink, “people will make sure you don’t.”
“That’s a beautiful theory,” retorts Andie (Molly Ringwald), maligned for her low socio-economic status as much as the unique fashion sense inspired by it. I loved that movie when it came out, not only for its style (I had wanted to be a fashion designer for years and still find myself sketching ideas for outfits to events I’ll probably never attend) but for its poor-girl-wins-for-being-weird theme. It’s one that is proven more and more within the realm of pure fantasy as a woman moves through life without hitting the predictable marks, rendering her invisible (or close to it), a position which not all of us have quite made peace with. The rise of digital media has created an algorithmically-dictated hierarchy of worth and attractiveness based on a youth that can only be conveyed through the erasure of physical indications of living – of experience, of endurance, possible wisdom. Difference comes with even sharper edges (deeper wrinkles, as it were) when one hits a certain age and is without family or close community; thus is one thrown into the bins of fetishistic sex fantasy or angry frump, with little if any room for (or interest in) nuance and all the fascinations such variance can (or should) afford. I am sure many perceive there to be something quite wrong, that my too-haughty shell has led me here, that this is “the price” of such attitudes– a simple-minded calculation to smirk at. I didn’t expect my mother to die so young; neither did she. One of the last things she said to me six years ago (when she still had the strength to do so), was, “I’m sorry” – and it wasn’t just about that morning’s snappish behaviour, I knew; it was the same apology (the same words) uttered by my father at our final meeting eight years prior, an acknowledgement of wrongdoing that manifests on the face and in the eyes. I knew precisely what she meant, and she knew I knew.
“It’s okay,” I said, choking back tears. It had to be; she was dead three weeks later.
More than once I have written to close contacts that I don’t miss my mother, and it’s true, I don’t; that feeling changes in December, the most glum month, as I wrote, a month when being an outsider hurts in a way it doesn’t the rest of the year. Geography, and the cultural differences that such geography brings, can (does, in my case) make an immense difference, but of course there are a whole new set of circles and a far more knowable kind of separateness to be navigated, which is easier and more difficult, all at once. The feeling of being different never leaves, no matter the setting; it isn’t something to be celebrated, or indeed, something that should inspire any form of reaction at all. Different-ness, and its unmissable expression in life, can only be accepted, along with all of its itinerant branches, reaching like octopus arms across various facets of living, the one facet, which shows itself every December, is painful, for it is a reminder of lack. But so too is there reason to remember abundance.
The pandemic brought the worst of childish habits to the fore and social media gave such instincts a stage for amplification; recently I looked back on old postings (since deleted) with a mix of horror and fascination. Oh, the ways we continue to seek a validation we felt was always missing since childhood; oh, the means we have at our disposal to receive and encourage it. The performative aspects of social media have led to aspects of our private lives taking on the appearance of a shadow-play, stripped of the blood-and-guts messiness of real, authentic living. But oh, that real living is what is most missed; my mother made a fuss in December, the month of my birth, the month of her father and brother’s birth, the same month of their respective deaths. How to navigate such sadness with the miracle of giving birth (something I am told she never expected to do, which she did late in life, and amidst a hideous separation) – December was a loaded month for her, and it still is for me. Lately I walk around my tiny abode wishing for little more than the aroma of her annual baking: the almond crescents, the raspberry bars, the whipped shortbreads. Her frenzied gift-giving, not just to close contacts but to everyone in quotidian life – postal people, bank tellers, hairdressers, delivery drivers– was perhaps her own way to seek (and find) validation, to fill the perceived hole of her own outsider-ness, feel her presence was somehow, despite everything, valuable.
For every individual who took time to wish me a happy birthday this past Tuesday – to write on my wall, to send a kind note, to offer good wishes: thank you. Small things are big things – now, more than ever.
Jan Lisiecki has had a busy summer. Performances at a number of celebrated summer festivals, including Schleswig-Holstein Musik-Festival (SHMF), the Rheingau Musik Festival, Klavier Festival Ruhr, and Musikfest Kreuth left the pianist little time to prepare for his release of a long-planned project, Frederic Chopin: Complete Nocturnes (Deutsche Grammophon) but in speaking recently from his home base in Calgary, Lisiecki is chatty and energetic, a keen conversationalist who clearly revels in the reciprocal exchange of artistic ideas.
It’s an approach that colors his latest release, one which, as he explains, had been in his mind to do for many years. Hardly his first foray into playing or recording the much-loved music of the Polish composer (he’s released recordings in 2013 and 2017, respectively), his approach to the nocturnes conveys a delicate musical sensibility and a keen artistic maturity which belie Lisiecki’s own relative youth (he is not yet 30 years of age) and, even amidst pandemic, kept him in a creatively aware state which greatly aided in the realized recording. Lisiecki’s fame as a sort of wunderkind of the keyboard through the last decade-plus served to intensify such fastidiousness. At the age of 18, he became the youngest ever recipient of both the Leonard Bernstein Award (established by SHMF and named after one of the festival’s founders) and Gramophone‘s prestigious Young Artist Award (other recipients include countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński and soprano Natalya Romaniw). Having worked with a range of celebrated conductors (Claudio Abbado, Daniel Harding, Antonio Pappano, among many others) and orchestras (Staatskapelle Dresden, Bavarian Radio Symphony, London Symphony Orchestra, to name a few), his playing has been described as “pristine, lyrical and intelligent” by The New York Times. This month sees him playing Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with Marin Alsop and DR Symfoni Orkestret in Denmark, before a series of dates in the U.S., both solo recitals and appearances with the Pittsburgh Symphony conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado. In November Lisiecki tours Europe, performing Schumann’s Piano Concerto with the London Philharmonic under its new Principal Conductor, Edward Gardner.
Amidst his busy live calendar (which, like many artists, extends years into the future) Lisiecki had long planned for a recording of Chopin’s nocturnes. Recorded in Berlin in October 2020 and released in August 2021, the work shows a distinctively thoughtful approach to the famous, widely beloved pieces. Chopin wrote the series of works between 1827 and 1846, expanding on a form developed by Irish composer John Field (1782-1837). Unlike other piano forms (sonatas, for instance), nocturnes do not possess a sort of programmatic narrative or formal structure, but mainly utilize a ternary form (ABA) which emphasizes a main theme and its related contrasts and embellishments. With a song-like right hand melody and the use of rhythmic, broken chords in the left hand, Chopin, in writing his own set, also utilized pedal effects and counterpoint in his composition to underline sonic tension and drama. There are a number of scholarly papers and debates around the tempos and role of rubato in the nocturnes, and the influence of such choices in relation to interpretative fidelity and style. In her 1988 book Performance Practises in Classic Piano Music: Their Principles and Applications (Indiana University Press, 1988), Sandra P. Rosenblum writes that “choice of tempo is a fundamental yet elusive aspect of performance practice. Tempo affects virtually every other aspect of interpretation: dynamics, touch, articulation, pedalling, realization of ornaments” and also observes that a pianist’s choice of tempo will certainly affect “what the listener perceives, hence it bears directly on the effectiveness of the interpretation.” Lisiecki has notably chosen to take a much slower tempo in his recording than many of his famous forebears, an aspect which has been questioned by some since the album’s release. If I may inject a personal view here, Lisiecki’s choice of tempi allow, to my own (admittedly non-conservatory-attending/music-degree-holding) self, a very thoughtful and lovely listening experience, one that skillfully combines intellect and imagination in ways that highlight the rhythmic nature of the writing (for both hands, equally) and the thought-to-word-like manifestation of clear creative articulation; such willful (nay, conscious) turning of the gears well reflect the sort of late-night contemplations to which the nocturnes directly refer. Don’t we all muse thusly in the middle of the night? This may not a so-called “traditional” reading, but, it doesn’t have to be – not for whatever perceived musical validity is deemed important by the classical world, let alone for one’s personal enjoyment. As musicologist Richard Taruskin argues in Text and Act: Essays in Music and Performance (Oxford University Press, 1995), traditions “modify what they transmit” via what he terms as “active intervention of the critical faculty, but also by what we might call interference.” Such traditions, he writes ( and most particularly within “a musical culture as variegated as the Western fine art of music has become”) are open to what he views as “outside influence.” It is this act, of combining inner critical faculty with various forms of external influence, combined with understandings of tonality, structure, and dynamics, that lends Lisiecki’s interpretations such innate power. Taking this course with such well-known works only serves to underline the pianist’s powerful blend of intellectual and musical instincts, and only makes one more keen to hear how he might re-adjust them for a live and considerably larger setting.
Despite, or more accurately owing to, the realities of the current pandemic era, Lisiecki was provided the an atmosphere conducive to the personal. The combination of simplicity (a room with a piano), proximity (or lack thereof, in relation to engineers), and the natural light in which Lisiecki recorded at Meistersaal (in Berlin) last autumn was, as he noted recently, good for encouraging a sort of natural approach, one which is so easily perceived on this, his eighth release with Deutsche Grammophon.
What struck me about your album is how you personalize everything, but without sitting and steeping in a so-called sentimental sound. Your tempo choices, for instance, are well considered.
Well, I might not agree in ten years about them, but at the moment I did them it felt right, because, to be honest with you, those tempos choices were completely natural in the sense that I had no knowledge of them being that much slower. I’ve played the nocturnes a lot, in concerts and otherwise, and I know how I feel about them, some in the studio just ended up being like that. Listening in the booth and going back and forth, it never felt unnatural. I’m happy with it; I think it’s a good reflection of how I connected with (Chopin’s) music.
You didn’t consciously say, “I want this one to be this specific tempo” or do any sort of preplanning then?
No, definitely there was no, ‘Everybody’s playing these too fast; I’ll be much slower!” – I was recording the material at the tempo in, I guess, the way it felt right.
To me it makes them seem almost like speech if that makes sense…
… it very much has the sound of somebody musing in the middle of the night on something; as a writer I like that.
Aw thank you Cate, I appreciate it.
But you recorded this in Berlin, in a space with natural light, during the day; did that make a difference energetically?
Let’s say, first of all I’m an artist and musician who plays concerts in the evening but I like working in the day; I’m not an evening practiser. I finish my work day of practise by 2 or 3pm, if I can, so to me recording during the day is when I feel most comfortable. What I like about natural light is feeling I’m connected to the day and not in a studio, especially since it was late October. During the day, the mood in Berlin, if you know Europe during the winter, is grey and bleak, so it’s nice to have those few hours of sunlight inside and you don’t feel like you’re missing out, and also then you can find your own space within that environment. It’s a beautiful hall, a rectangular room with high ceilings, and it’s rather ornate, not excessively so, but has some ornate elements, and feels nice to be in, the piano in one corner, the microphone in another area; it felt very natural.
It seemed like an environment where you weren’t completely in a bubble, cut off from everything, but just separated enough to be with your thoughts.
Exactly, and I’d had enough experiences of concert halls with no audience during the pandemic; it was nice to have not have yet-another-empty-concert-hall, but a studio with a piano, it almost felt like you were in your own studio practising for yourself, or working just for yourself.
That’s how it sounds.
Yes, and another sort of relevant fact, in terms of the sound, is that the booth where the recording engineer was sitting is quite a distance away from the (room with the piano), it’s down two flights of stairs and then across a hall, so it takes a fair bit of time to get from the room to the booth, and as a result, first of all, you’re more focused on doing something, it was a complete thought whenever you did sit down, and second of all, you have that crazy walk back and forth to get you out and into the mood accordingly.
And nobody behind a pane of glass staring at you and evaluating.
Now, recording in a space in these times, there is something unique about doing these extremely well-known works, and in this particular pandemic environment; how much were you able to pull down the blinds, or did you not want to? Was the act of recording amidst a worldwide pandemic an essential part of the creative process, or did you block it out?
It was definitely part of my process,and that’s part of the reason that I was able to record during the pandemic. I’d been thinking or dreaming about recording the nocturnes for a long time; it was a long-term project, not something that just came up, it was something which was a very conscious thought for years, and so it involved years of preparation, and those years of preparation are connected to wanting to experience (the works) in a concert hall – they are very personal as you said, but you run the risk while playing them of going too far in that direction, of going too far into your comfort zone, which is not where it feels the best when you are onstage, when you feel you’re losing the audience’s attention, when you can feel their attention wandering away. I can hear when that happens.
So to play and program 21 nocturnes onstage took many many many years, it’s something that I was preparing for, and happened to reach a culmination point this past year, and at the beginning of the pandemic, in March, Deutsche Grammophon said, “Oh, you’ll have fewer concerts, so let’s record this in August!” and as it got closer, I saw that things were very uncertain and people were antsy still, and I was supposed to have a few concerts but they were much more stressful than usual because there were so many external layers involved. I didn’t know how they’d look and be, and I would not have been in the right frame of mind at all. And then from March to October I did have things to do, I had things beyond music I was enjoying, and had the opportunity to do – like work in the garden or go camping with my dad, or not do anything for a whole day, which was very nice – but I could also work on the nocturnes in a much more relaxed sphere of mind, it wasn’t forced like I had a fixed deadline to prepare for and get to a certain point with. I could prepare and think through each one of them. That time right before the recording, to be honest, I was quite busy, I had something like ten concerts with Manfred Honeck and I was playing the Shostakovich First Piano Concerto in Dresden, it wasn’t like, “Oh sigh, I’m at home!” but some of the (moments leading to recording) felt calm, everything was calm, and I had to make peace with the pandemic and with the uncertainty it brought. Because of that, I could simply focus on what I was doing.
Living day-by-day has always been my motto; I’ve always lived in the present, but the pandemic has really heightened that. I like looking forward, I like to think “Well, I’m playing this concerto two years down the road” and “In two weeks I have to prepare this piece” – but all that went out the window. So it was, “Okay, what am I doing right now? What can I enjoy right now?” In this case, what with recording, it allowed me to focus, and to enjoy the moment.
That’s palpable in the recording, and I hear something different every time. Listening to the left hand can really bring something alive that one thought one knew well.
If the music is only a sum of its parts, if you don’t pay a close enough attention, then you can risk the music becoming too comfortable, and being too happy with the gorgeous melodies; you just completely tune out everything else because it’s easy, it’s just, “Oh, the left hand, sure, whatever, put it away!” and the right hand, “Yes, let’s enjoy that, it’s so lovely!” But it doesn’t work musically. That (balance) has always been something important to me in playing Chopin. Of course there’s a principal theme and an idea and the harmonizing in the left hand, but sometimes the interplay between right and left creates completely new concepts and I do like finding those.
To me you can hear it in other things of his, or things written around the same time, but I find it takes the right interpretation to find those connections.
Obviously you know the other recordings; did any stick in your mind as you prepared?
I tend not to listen to other interpreters when I’m actively playing something unless it’s a concerto and I want to hear the orchestra, which of course includes a pianist, but in the case of the nocturnes I didn’t hear any interpretations for at least a year before recording them. Perhaps it wasn’t conscious – it was not a forced effort – but I just had no need to, because I’m living and experiencing these pieces on my own, and that’s a huge privilege. I know the audience listening to these works who come to the concert hall don’t have that same privilege for the most part, to simply play something for themselves, so they have a different appreciation of what it means to listen. When I’m listening to a recording, I find it very hard to get into the right mood to enjoy it as opposed to analyze it, so I tend not to, especially with regards to pieces which I’m actively playing.
Of course, that being said, I do respect other interpretations, and the ones that accompanied me through my childhood and longer, into my life, are those by (Anton) Rubinstein. He recorded all of the nocturnes, and there’s a sophistication about his playing; it’s always so elegant, so poised, it’s hard to find any fault with them… it’s just beautifully done.
Yes, I have that set! I wanted to ask you with relation to others and individual identity, some have said, “Oh it’s a Polish pianist playing Polish music!” I’m not sure if that kind of a reduction is good or bad for art, but I wonder what you make of such an assumed connection.
I think Poland, of course, likes to claim Chopin as their own, and they have a complete right to do that, but he lived most of his life beyond Poland, his composing and adult life, so undeniably that (experience of living abroad) did shape his writing, and likewise, while I was born in Canada, I do have Polish roots, and without a doubt they must also shape how I approach Chopin, although I never had a Polish teacher and I never really liked the so-called “Polish sound” in playing Chopin, which has a lot of rubato, it’s very rich, quite swingy, and not at all my taste. Now, this is a sort of stereotypical description, and there are exceptions – I love how Zimerman plays Chopin, for instance – and so that’s a rather unfair stereotype perhaps, but it’s an easy thing just as much to say or assume, “Oh you have special affinity for him then, being Polish yourself?” It’s hard for me to say, because I am who I am, and I don’t know how I’d be if I wasn’t – if I was born in Poland, or if I didn’t have those roots, but I appreciate his music as a person and an artist. I just like it , and I feel very comfortable playing his music. I can sit in front of a score I’ve never seen before and feel, “Ah yes!” – I have a vague understanding of what I want to do, and how I will play it, which cannot be said for every composer. I will get to a point, eventually, that isn’t that straight-forward, but (the inherent understanding) speaks to how he wrote for the piano; his musical language is very familiar to me, and he wrote so beautifully for the instrument. It doesn’t feel to me like I’m ever struggling to find a way to solve any problem (within the work).
Do you find you approach other musical things differently now, having had this time with Chopin and especially, this time with Chopin during a pandemic?
Again, sort of like the Polish question, I don’t know how it would’ve been if I didn’t record during this time, but I do feel everything has an impact and shapes the way one approaches music broadly. I think the sort of calmness that has pervaded, or became constant during the pandemic… for me, I will certainly take it with me into the future, though I can see and am hopeful of course it all turns out, and that life is getting back to normal in the some parts of the musical world. Some countries are getting back to normal, so the natural thing is to feel like, “Oh I’m going to get back to my old self now – at last!”… but it’s not quite like that. The pandemic has changed our values and understanding, in the same way it’s changed the approach to the nocturnes, and I’m glad I had that chance of recording them amidst all of this.
What’s it been like for you to go back to live performance then?
There have been many stages, because last summer I played one of the first concerts live, if not the first in Germany, in June 2020. So if you think of the situation in Canada then, like… wow, just nothing… and it was the same in some parts of Europe in many regards, except where they were starting to experiment, and those experiments kept going and going, and there was a palpable excitement with each one. And after each lockdown this excitement kept building in the performing arts world – I experienced it so many times, and everyone had different concepts of how long they’d be locked down, so even though I had been playing live a while, everybody was so excited, and asking me “How does it feel to be back?” And I’d say, “Well last week I was playing a live concert in Spain!”
I was always happy to play live, but the difference for me is, I’m not a fan, at all, of streams. I prefer not to play if I have to do a stream, for the most part. It doesn’t have any aspect of what I cherish in music. Live art is live, and it should stay with those who are there, those who have shared that experience and felt its power. Recording is high quality: you prepare, you put a lot of thought into it; you have the best environment; you have the studio, the piano, the technician, the sound engineer. But streaming is somewhere in-between these things; it’s not live for an audience, it’s not the same high-quality sound you expect – in fact, it’s usually poor-quality sound. It was interesting to see orchestras doing streams, and it was good to see that musicians were playing, that they had the chance to play – but just me playing solo, no way, no – I’m not doing that, at all.
So you need the feedback?
Yes. And you know, people say with these streams, “Well of course live art will die now” – no it won’t. Many people will be happy to go back to the concert hall the moment they can. But until then, to be honest, we have such a rich array of performances, both live recordings from pre-pandemic times and things recorded in a studio, and we haven’t had time to listen to those during normal our lives – why don’t we go back to those amazingly high-quality things and listen to them? Instead of choosing to watch something live, just because…? Others will disagree but I’m happy to argue with them.
There’s a tremendous drive on the part of marketing departments everywhere to get people of your generation interested in classical music through streaming…
… but that’s not the strength of our genre. The strength of our genre is in the concert hall. It’s about this extraordinary experience you will sometimes have… sometimes. I play hundreds of concerts a year and not every single one will be magical, either it’s me or the piano, it’s something in the hall, or the day, or the circumstances outside – whatever. You will have those extraordinary experiences a small percentage of the time, and everybody remembers them. Many who’ve never been to a hall happen to chance on those magical concerts and they’re suddenly a huge fan of classical because they had that experience of intimacy which provided a foray into the musical world of live performance.
And you think that epic and imitate combo only happens in a live environment?
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
Toward the end of her life my mother would chide me for what she perceived as prolonged screen time. “You are always at that damn computer,” she’d sigh, “but I suppose you have to think about your audience and what they’d like to read.” What with everyone spending longer and more concentrated time in front of screens amidst the current coronavirus crisis, the lines between education, entertainment, and enlightenment can be fraught indeed. As an educator and writer, I frequently have to balance my desire to share information with a deeply-held urge to entertain, and then be able to skillfully juggle the added ball of measured impact. Those of us whose work is largely based in or around the internet (i.e. writers, artists, musicians) are at the mercy of ever-changing algorithms; we want to have our work seen, but we want to keep our voices and ideas intact. Playing to the desired young audience many classical institutions now eagerly pursue should, I suppose, be a priority, but playing to such an audience is not easy when you are no longer young yourself, not comfortable changing the nature of your work (or its presentation), and have an innate awareness that it is not desirable (or very dignified) as an aging woman with highly specialist passions and specifically artsy tastes, to attempt to compete with young/cute/sexy/etc. And yet, to note one’s work being read, shared, engaged with, and sense it is having an impact – it is gratifying. To play to the algorithm, or not to play to the algorithm; this is the question.
This juggling act can become even more complex when it is one’s modus operandi to impart what you feel is vital information whilst providing a modicum of inspiration which might (possibly, hopefully) encourage independent exploration, on and off the screen. Gresham College has been able to do all of these things, with incredible style and success, specifically through its Russian Piano Masterpieces series, featuring Professor Frolova-Walker and pianist Peter Donohoe. Introduced in September 2020, the series consists of what can only be described as lecture-conversation-concerts – in-depth, one-hour explorations of the history, structure, harmonics, and socio-economic-creative contexts of composers and their respective (if oftentimes linked) outputs. Frolova-Walker specializes in Russian music of the 19th and 20th centuries, and has published, lectured and had her work broadcast on BBC Radio 3; along with being Professor of Music History and Director of Studies in Music at Clare College, Cambridge, she is a Fellow of the British Academy. In 2015, she was recognized for her work in musicology and awarded the Edward Dent Medal by the Royal Musical Association. Peter Donohoe, CBE, is a celebrated international pianist who, since his winning the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, has worked with a range of conductors, including Yevgeny Svetlanov, Gustavo Dudamel, and Sir Simon Rattle. He has appeared at the BBC Proms no less than twenty-two times, and is steeped in the music of the composers who are featured in the series, though he also has vast experience with the music of Tchaikovsky, whose music Frolova-Walker had also wanted to include as part of the series, as she explains below.
The wonderfully easy rapport between Frolova-Walker and Donohoe – their mix of playfulness, intelligence, insight, experience, and genuine love of the material – makes the series a special event amidst pandemic gloom, and their impressive viewing numbers seem to confirm this. Algorithm or not, the series has hit a nerve with numerous classical-loving, culturally starving viewers; newcomers and old hands alike have been tuning in faithfully these past six months and interacting with good-humoured ease, judging (if one dares) from the comments shared and exchanged during live broadcasts. Indeed Frolova-Walker and Donohue do have their sizeable and frequently overlapping fan bases, but it’s heartening to note the embrace with which those fans have greeted a virtual presentation, and just how welcoming the community has been to newcomers. It was something of a thrill to chat recently for thirty minutes with Professor Frolova-Walker, whose work and style I have long admired, and to discuss not only the series itself, but wider ideas about classical music’s youth appeal (or not), how and why fashion intersects with events (or not), and the steep digital learning curve experienced by educators and artists alike over the past twelve months. The next presentation in Russian Piano Masterpieces is scheduled for Thursday, March 25th (at 6pm GMT), and explores the music of Sergei Prokofiev; the following presentation (the final one in the series) is on May 20th, about Dmitri Shostakovich.
How and why did this series come about?
Good question! When I applied to Gresham College I secretly was hoping I could get Peter to collaborate with me. Gresham College has been so proactive in using a different venue they don’t usually use, because we needed a piano. About a year ago we found out they managed to secure it, and I was absolutely delighted because it’s such a wonderful venue, everything is there; of course we couldn’t imagine how it would turn out, because it was planned as a live event, always. It was *never* supposed to be online. I mean, the online presence of Gresham College lectures was always an afterthought – it’s not the main thing, so you shouldn’t imagine we planned it as an online series at all – but emotionally it started with this great feeling of despair that we could only get 15 people. The next time we couldn’t get anyone, and then we got used to it. Now we’re just grateful for the opportunity, even if it’s in an empty hall! Really, it’s been a learning curve.
I would imagine part of that curve has involved upping technological skills, as has been the case with so many in the classical world.
I’m not sure I can claim anything in that field, really! The big moment was when, a year ago exactly, I was told I would have to do my other course, my Diaghilev lecture series, online; that was really… I was in complete panic, because basically I’m a person who draws energy from the audience. About 50% of my energy comes from the audience, from improvising in front of an audience, and in seeing their reactions. And suddenly, to not have this energy… I thought, “I can’t do this; I can’t write out text and read it. That isn’t me. I can’t do it properly!” So that was I think the worst, the steepest learning curve. It was primitive what I used – I just recorded myself and it was edited by someone else, but I had to actually speak to the camera and still have it be lively.
Photo via Gresham College
I find you very engaging – knowledgeable, passionate, with a really good understanding of pace and structure; I wonder if that’s because you have an artist’s understanding of the role of audience already.
It’s just something that was given to me. I think it’s one of the few gifts that I *was* given. Really, it’s not a gift of speaking coherently at all! But there’s something about connecting with an audience, which I was able to do since I was 19. I did my first lecture at that age, at a college in Moscow, and there were these students completely bored; they were basically forced into this room, it was their cultural program, they had to be there, and I was talking about Bach, and something just clicked at a certain moment, and they seemed to be really enjoying it so it was an opening. And I realized, “I want to do this” – but I don’t know what I do or how. It is just something I suppose I am predisposed to doing. And I’m sure I could learn to do it better, but I wouldn’t know how.
There has been a learning curve for everyone; my own output has been transformed and I’ve had to learn to release the need to know the immediate impact of my work on others.
It has been difficult, doing a series of undergrad lectures in an empty room, and there’s no connection! The previous year I was doing them so much better because I had the power of the audience. But what can you do?
Nothing. But it’s so hard sometimes…
… but things like your series help. How did you choose these composers and which pieces of music to feature in each segment?
When I was choosing which six to feature, it was very difficult because I had at least seven I wanted, but because I knew I’d be working with Peter, I looked at what he’d recorded and would play or remember, to bring it back to mind. One that is missing is Tchaikovsky; I would’ve loved to have had the music of Tchaikovsky as well, because Peter has a wonderful recording of his Grand Sonata and it’s a very I think undervalued work – people think it’s very loud and goes on forever, and I think it’s wonderful! So yes, Tchaikovsky had to fall off, but generally you know, I had some ideas of stories I could tell about some particular works, but then very often Peter would say, “Well let’s do this instead” and though it’s not what I planned it works perfectly, because there is no audience, and it’s not a concert. So it makes more sense to break things up, I think, and show different pieces in different ways.
Part of that method involves you and Peter trading various moments; how do you and Peter decide on these trade-offs in speaking, or do you just wing it?
I think you can guess!
I want you to tell me.
I think he believes in improvisation as much as I do, and you do, probably.
Right. So there is a certain amount of preplanning, but I think the interesting thing about this, and my thought behind it was, I’ve always known the way musicologists talk about music is very different from the way performers talk about it; I discovered that very early on when I travelled with a quartet. I was supposed to give a lecture about Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet and then they’d play it; on the train (with quartet members) I was telling them my ideas and they were like, “Wow, we would’ve never thought of it in this way!” and some of them I know, like other performers, find some of these things weird. So I’m kind of… I know that some of the things musicologists say about music are completely opaque, and possibly the other way around is true as well, so these are two different approaches, and my idea was to see whether they can go together and whether people in the audience can gain a third thing which might emerge. As to what is working or not, it is not for me to judge.
Photo via Gresham College
So musicologists, performers, and audience are in this interesting triangulation of musical reception and experience within the context of live experience specifically; where do you see the role of online presentation?
My idea, my vision for it, is that in principle (the series) can grab the attention of someone who is not into piano music, who is not into music at all, who doesn’t read notation or know many things about this, that they would get something out of it, maybe very different things from what what you could get out of it, or what my students would get out of it, or my colleagues would get out of it. Ideally I would like that *everyone* will get something out of it, and that’s why I think also, this series is so multilayered; those who, say, want to do a project on Shostakovich’s piano music, can watch it and stop and look at the slides, and get much more out of those slides than during the lecture itself, and download the transcript – which of course is not really the actual transcript, because I wrote it before the lecture, but it has references on things we cover. There is depth in it, and depth in varied slides. I don’t have time to address everything when we’re presenting it live, and especially when it’s an improvised performance, but I am secure the content is there, and if somebody wants to get at it in a deeper way, they’d be able to.
Do you imagine your potential audience and write to that, or… ?
You get a little bit of feedback on things, not ever, of course, as you would like, but you get a bit, and I know that some of my former students for example who work in schools, show it to their pupils, who are A-level music students. I know there are music lovers who tune in, but there are also people who are just into Gresham College lectures overall – because Gresham College lectures are amazing. I started getting into them as well, for instance, I listened to a lecture on bell-ringing and mathematical patterns, and about 25 minutes into it I was completely lost, the mathematics side stopped making sense, it was too complicated – but I could still enjoy what I got out of it. It’s still valuable as an experience. My attitude to everything, basically, is it’s better to have a part of something and not be a purist, instead of having the attitude of, “I don’t understand this at all; I won’t bother getting into it.” I think it’s the same with classical music. When you first listen to a Wagner opera you get about 5% of it, then after 30 listenings you get maybe 20% of it; I think this is very important for people who want to get into classical and feel it’s too forbidding. It’s a reminder not to be too hard on themselves.
Having things laid out clearly, with intelligence and confidence, and letting people use their imaginations as well, is a good way to introduce the classical idiom overall, I have found.
Yes, I think it’s good too – I mean, notation is such a hot topic right now, but it’s why I use it. I think even for people who’ve never seen it before, it’s like a diagram: you understand it when (the piece) goes up and when it goes down, and that’s all you need to know. The time goes like this, you have these two axes like that; just from those elements, you can get quite a lot. You can see how many notes there are, how fast it goes – roughly – so with this very basic knowledge you can get quite a lot of comprehension, just by looking at two bars of music, even if you don’t know what it sounds like.
That’s just it, and then having the immediate experience of hearing Peter play what might be shown too...
It’s amazing. I think the last lecture we did Peter sight-read a piece just straight off the screen – the whole piece! It was so funny!
When I spoke to John Daszak about singing reductions he mentioned working with Peter on the Das Lied Von Der Erde piano reduction and how he found it louder than the full orchestration, and Peter’s playing in particular to be very full-on.
People who would have been in the room to actually hear the sound… it’s *astounding*. What a loss not to hear him live. Our little group from Gresham College has been obviously privy to this, and myself, and you realize this kind of piano playing is completely on a different level; there’s nothing in common between how I play the piano and how Peter plays the piano, it’s just a different thing. First of all the range of sound, the range of pianissimo to fortissimo is six times bigger – he can be very loud but he can be very quiet too – and also the control is amazing, I don’t know to what extent… we are in the hands of the technical team, so many things can go wrong, but really, the live-ness can never be replaced.
I hear your lectures and all I want to do is hear these pieces live.
That’s nice to hear! Maybe we’ll have a CD sale at the last lecture. There’s a tiny bit of hope that by the 20th of May we’ll have an audience, but we’re not worried about this now, we’ve gotten used to it the way one gets used to chronic illness or chronic pain, but it’s not something you want to necessarily have permanently. When the restrictions are lifted I think, people will realize what they were missing.
Some, but it’s different for everybody.
I think you know this well, that what we need to realize is that there are different generations who have very different relationships with online. My son, for example, was born online and he lives online, and to him, it’s different, so I’m sure, he would enjoy things in the real world, so to speak. His attitude to online things is *very* different, and for that young audience I think the idea of a short video or something that is not actually a full-scale lecture but a short video, really well done and well presented, professionally done, expensively done, is the best possible teaching aid. And I think he would prefer those things to reading books, to having live lectures, I have a suspicion that young people think very differently about these things.
But then when you get them in the concert hall or opera house they are quite shocked at what they’re hearing –in a good way, but shocked nonetheless. “What do you mean it’s not amplified?!” etc…
Oh, it’s amazing, yes! But here we get into the ritualistic side of it, and also I found out by talking to him, for example, what would prevent him from coming into the Royal Opera – I would always demand he would put on some smart clothes. I was shocked by this. He wants to hear the music but feels there is something alienating and hostile about the audience, and you know, he feels he can’t really wear normal clothes. And that’s something we have to fight. It really was shocking for me to hear that.
I find the correlation between dressing up and elitism bizarre; I dress up because I enjoy it, but I haven’t done it every single time I’ve attended an event.
I dress up as well – because I’m Russian, we tend to dress up, it’s normal to go out of the house to the bakery dressed up, so it’s a different attitude. There’s a big long explanation for it, I am sure – Russia never had a hippie culture, for example – so the idea of casual clothing is, for us, still a bit alien. For my son, who is 18 right now, he doesn’t want to make that effort, and also I think, if I meet someone who knows me and say, “This is my son” – he hates that, so that’s another reason he won’t hear a Wagner opera. But I said to him, “You can wear what you like and be completely separate from me” – and that was the pact.
So did he go?
He‘s seen the whole Ring cycle, and he knows it’s amazing – he could feel the fire in Walküre because he was in the 2nd row! He said, “I could feel the heat… !” Really, he loved it.
If you can get young audiences exposed like that even once, they’ll get it.
Some of them will come back, I think… some. But we need this kind of thing, of just going at all; we used to have this sort of cultural exposure in Soviet Russia. We used to have concerts for children, and for teenagers, and you had to go to them with your school – you had to go to a symphony concert, it was not a choice. And for 80% it meant nothing, but there would be that 20% who’d get completely hooked.
So your series feels like the next logical step for people who are curious, young or not…
I think that’s probably why I can do this so easily with Peter – he thinks the same; he’s very open, he can talk to anyone about these things without trying to create a mystique about any of it. I mean obviously there is a sense at some point where we say, “The rest we can’t explain because it’s magic, it takes you over” – but there are lots of things you can explain in an ordinary way, with very simple language, and that’s what we try to do.
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“There is a way to say something,” my mother used to remark, “a way you have to learn.” The best form of written and spoken expression, that is, combines elegance and honesty. This matters greatly if you hope to have people do as you wish, in the way you want them to, while still holding your own. It is an art which is in ever-evolving states of evolution in my own life.
For Helmut Deutsch, however, such an integration is a way of being, on stage and off. One of the most acclaimed lieder pianists of our time, Deutsch combines bluntness and a distinct, and it could be argued, old-world Viennese elegance, to his approach to the art-work-life trinity, and most wonderfully expressed in Memoirs Of An Accompanist (Kahn & Averill), published in English last year. The memoir was first published in 2019, in German, as Gesang auf Händen tragen: Mein Leben als Liedbegleiter (Henschel Verlag), a perfect title for a musician who indeed has the gift of carrying song as if made, alternately, of solid iron and the most delicate glass; knowing which touch to use when is a great part of Deutsch’s mastery. In a celebrated career spanning over five decades, Deutsch has honed his reputation of being one of the most intuitive and artful of pianists, a full partner to vocalizing cohorts in manifesting the meaning of the words which ground much of the work, and the sounds between and around them which allow such works flight.
A great many things have been written about Deutsch and his work, but since our chat last month, I have found myself, like Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos, stymied for such words. What could possibly be written to capture such artistry? To listen is, as ever, simultaneously instructive and daunting; one is reminded, through the poetry of words and sounds, of the value of sitting in a place where silence is the only appropriate response. Indeed, I am a fan of lieder (as my past work probably demonstrates), and I am a writer, and I am a piano player (or was, and hopefully will be again soon); it is nevertheless impossible to parse the threads of these identities in experiencing the works of Schubert, Schumann, Strauss, Wolf, Brahms, Mahler (plus that of Goethe, Müller, Heine, Heyse, Morgenstern, Bethge) so intuitively performed. Such are the moments when intellect, instinct, and rather powerfully, curiosity, all magically, quietly meet. The pandemic era has forced one to make choices relating to the conscious endowment of attention; lieder has always placed large demands in this area, but the current times of forced isolation have allowed, at least on my own part, an even greater level of received power. There are no other breathing, coughing bodies to mediate reception of the artform – for good and for ill – but this directs and controls intensity of directed attention in ways I hadn’t quite expected; it’s made me listen to lieder in ways I could have never predicted, and deepened an ardent love, if also enforced occasional (if perhaps needed) distance from the quotidian. I can no longer put on Italienisches Liederbuch, for instance, without expecting to have the rest of the day vanish.
Deutsch’s meticulous attention to phrasing, his instinctual approach with singers, and his unforced musicality render such musical experiences deeper and broader, but simultaneously closer, more intimate. To listen to his work is to feel he is playing just for you, whether in a small space like a recording studio, or the vast expanse of the Bayerische Staatsoper. Listen to the clip below with Jonas Kaufmann (from December 2020), taped at that very spot; I had to sit in silence a full fifteen minutes after hearing it for the second, third, fourth times. This is artistry which requires concentration, consideration, digestion, and calls to mind the words of George Steiner, who wrote in Real Presences (Faber & Faber, 1989):
In a wholly fundamental, pragmatic sense, the poem, the statue, the sonata are not so much read, viewed or heard as they are lived. The encounter with the aesthetic is, together with certain modes of religious and of metaphysical experience, the most ‘ingressive’, transformative summons available to human experiencing. Again, the shorthand image is that of an Annunciation, of “a terrible beauty” or gravity breaking into the small house of our cautionary being. If we have heard rightly the wing-beat and provocation of that visit, the house is no longer habitable in quite the same way as it was before.
Perhaps, I can only add, it shouldn’t be, for such a transformation might be what lieder truly asks, if not demands.
This transformative power is one that Deutsch wields in both teaching as well as performance. His dual talents, as a teacher and an interpreter of lied, are long-standing, with twelve years of instructing composition, piano, and musicology at the Vienna Music Academy, and more than two decades as Professor of Lied interpretation and performance (Professor für Liedgestaltung) at Munich’s University of Music and Performing Arts, where he still gives classes, among other locales. His extensive discography includes recordings with some of the biggest names in the history of opera, many of whom (Peter Schreier, Brigitte Fassbaender, Angelika Kirchschlager, Grace Bumbry, Yumiko Samejima, Camilla Nylund, Bo Skovhus, Matthias Goerne, Olaf Bär, Diana Damrau, Dietrich Henschel, Michael Volle, Piotr Beczala, and Jonas Kaufmann) enjoy their very own chapters in the book. It’s not surprising Deutsch’s career is one marked by close work with singers, considering the central role singing played in his own musical development. The son of music-loving scientists who often sang at home, Deutsch had an active life as a chorister and writes that “as a child, it was the most natural thing in the world to be involved with choral singing. The children’s choir school in my area of Vienna was based in my primary school, and once a year there was a large choral festival during which about a thousand children gathered on the stage of the large hall of the Konzerthaus – a mighty experience for a little boy. Piano playing came later.”
The memoir begins with the pianist’s memories of touring with baritone Hermann Prey – the good times, the bad, and everything between – and then proceeds to move chronologically, with a myriad of observations on working with singers, the differences in audiences, the pressures (or not) of various live and teaching experiences, notable variations in performing spaces, and some timely (and timeless) advice for page turners. And, lest you think there must surely be no suitable place for conductors in a book written by a lied specialist, think again: Herbert von Karajan is given mention early on, and in a particularly endearing way, as Deutsch recounts an incident from the Salzburg Festival, when he was a chorister in the Singverein of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien (Society of Friends of Music in Vienna), an active part of Austria choral life. Karajan, as then-Music Director of the group (forebears included Gustav Mahler and Willhelm Fürtwangler), was set to conduct a performance of Haydn’s Creation at the famed summer festival in 1965; Deutsch was called to step in to play piano during rehearsals. “Knees shaking, I stepped up to the podium, shook Karajan’s hand and sat down at the piano,” he writes. “I had never played a single note of the Creation.” The honesty with which the overly-fast-tempo incident is recounted, along with his honest reaction (and Karajan’s), may well inspire empathetic stirrings among those of us for whom the red-faced reactions of screw-ups in front of people we admire still sting.
A similar if less positive reaction is just as valid applied to those people and situations with whom we simply didn’t click, artistically, intellectually, or personally. Throughout its nearly 200 pages, Deutsch lets loose a refreshing honesty with regards to certain situations and recordings – but he is elegant in his assessments, and when he does name names (which is rare), there is a didactic spirit attached: one might learn from this thing he writes of, as a young singer, or pianist, or simply keen music lover. He also dismantles various overused cliches (“breathing as one” being but one) and approaches to material. “Striving to please and do everything ‘properly’ actually gives a boring and pale idea of both the music and oneself,” he writes. Everything, in music and in memoir, is meant for betterment – of performance, listening, overall creative experience. Richard Stokes, who is Professor of Lieder at the Royal Academy of Music, provides a sparkling English-language translation for the Kahn & Averill publication. Such linguistic lucidity beautifully captures the nuances of Deutsch’s speech patterns and mental meanderings, those thoughts when expressed by artists so often tend toward the musico-historico-narrative. Sentimentality, which could so easily sugar over the tone, is wisely avoided in favour of an umami-like pungency which reveals both firmness of intent and intense artistic commitment.
We spoke back in mid-February, as Deutsch was preparing to do a series of masterclasses in Vienna.
Your memoir is especially notable for its candour; that’s a refreshing quality.
I try to be polite as well, but it’s a little bit risky. So many singers are still alive and working with me. I didn’t really offend anyone, I don’t think. Perhaps you know the famous memoirs of Gerald Moore, and of course I have read this 50 years ago and I reread it a few times now, and found one thing very remarkable, that all the singers he was accompanying when he wrote the book – Dieskau, Schwarzkopf, de los Ángeles – were gods, but the others who had passed, he was not so nice to them. I thought, what I tried, is to give a real balance of not glorifying everybody who is singing with me at the moment because we are all human beings and have weak points also. I tried to make this as balanced as possible.
Something fascinating you explore is the automatic understanding that can occur between you and certain singers…
… it’s especially the case if you’ve known them a long time – for as long as I’ve known Jonas Kaufmann, for instance. After thirty years now, we are like an old couple!
You can read each others’ minds on stage?
Exactly. And what I think is very important as part of that is watching a singer’s body language. Of course I know him well, so I’m aware that he has an incredibly long breath and where I would have to speed up for other singers, he would say, “No, don’t get faster!” I’m able to know that after so many many years… although I had the opposite of this experience, with some remarkable singers who wanted to discuss every detail: “Let’s do this” and “Let’s try out that”. And this is interesting, but sometimes you lose any spontaneity you might have had; when you have figured out all these solutions and think, ‘This has to be like that all the time”… this is boring in the end.
So you feel there is a point where the studying must stop and instinct has to take over… ?
It’s interesting with him – do you know he is extremely popular in Germany and Austria, but only for his humorous poems? The dark stuff is almost unknown.
Poet Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914)
Why is that?
Because he was known as a humorist, so he’s extremely popular just for that. For the generation of my parents and for mine too, they – we – knew parts of his poems by heart, they were so popular. And somehow he was… the idea of the audience is that he’s a funny guy, but he *was* dark. And you are right, Gál’s music complements it with these serious things. There are no jokes in it!
How is Gál’s music different or unique for you as a musician?
He’s certainly coming from the tradition of Johannes Brahms, although it’s amazing you would not think he was composing most of these early songs in the time of Gustav Mahler – you can’t feel any influence of that. He was very traditional. I’m sure Christian Immler told you everything about this discovery of what his daughter had, that he didn’t want these songs published. I think it was only because he got very old and these songs were written more than a half century before, so as an old man he said, “Oh I have not the feeling for this anymore” – but he’d only published five of his songs out of all this material. And it was interesting to convince his daughter that this is music to print – finally she agreed, but it took a very long time.
What’s that like to play?
Gál must have been a good pianist because, I would not say it’s easy to play, but it’s pianistically written. For comparison, you can see even in Mahler songs he was a very good writer but he was not a pianist, so some of his parts are a little bit against the piano technique – but people like Schumann and Brahms, and also Strauss and Hans Gál, certainly played piano very well, the writing is very logical.
Christian said that you and he never discussed interpretation in examining and recording Gál’s work.
That’s right, we never did – and I think we had no great discussions about such interpretation because we both fell in love with the songs when we saw the manuscripts, and we both had the same feeling that this is very good music, very precious. Christian is also one of these singers you don’t have to talk a lot with – there was not even discussions about tempo, as far as I remember, it was four, five years ago when we recorded it now, but there were no problems in terms of, “I see this different” or “I would like to do this much slower” or “This should be much faster” – no, it was chamber music on the very best level. On Modern Times we’d already done the known Hans Gál songs (then), and that was the start of this. Eva came to our concert (related to that album) in London and said, “Oh my father would have loved this” and I said, “What a pity he only wrote these five songs” and she said, “No no, there are many more!” And she invited us to see the songs, and we went through every manuscript for two days. He had good handwriting, very clear, and we are very lucky that, finally, with the help of the grandson (Simon), the whole thing worked.
Christian Immler and Helmut Deutsch. Photo: Marcus Boman
So do you feel like an ambassador for his music?
Yes. You know the heritage of all his works is now in Vienna, and I hope they will do a little bit more for him now.
It’s interesting to think about composers like him, whose works are becoming more known, and reading about the reductions of famous works which you played when you were starting your piano journey. What, in your view, is the benefit to a young musician, of learning reductions?
I grew up with my very musical parents who were scientists, and I played a lot of four-hand music with my father. This was very important, because you learn, especially when you play the lower parts, in general your left hand is more important, and many little notes are not so important, so you must figure out the harmonies and the rhythms. And it’s totally different from learning a solo piano piece. In my young years it was still considered house music, that was still alive, because long-playing discs had just started and of course there was the radio, but it was quite usual to sit down and play Beethoven symphonies or to do a bit of sight reading – you got, in many cases, the essence of the piece much much more Later on I played, let’s say, more professional arrangements – for example, things specifically written for two pianos. Brahms wrote a lot of arrangements for two, or, one piano and four hands – all his four symphonies, the serenades, and many chamber music pieces, for instance. The symphonies I played on the piano, but in concert and really professional. It’s fascinating to do, because you think you know these famous four works almost by heart, and then you start playing and you are not… there’s the pure music, because you don’t have trombones and clarinets and strings; you have just this one instrument. It’s like seeing into a microscope; you see everything much clearer.
Of course it’s more fascinating with the orchestra, but to get to know a piece, to know it very well, to analyze it, you play it on the piano. I did an exam as an opera coach, so I studied starting with Mozart operas, Strauss and Wagner operas, and you are not, I don’t know the words… when you listen to a big orchestra you’re overwhelmed sometimes or many times by the instrumentation, by the use of instruments and their timbre – the brass or the solo flute or whatever – it doesn’t make you concentrate on the music only. But when you play on piano you get all the tones – in a good way. You are not disturbed, you are concentrating on the music and nothing else and you are not overwhelmed by that brass chord in a fortissimo or whatever. When you play rheingold on the piano, however, and I’m not a big Wagner fan, I must say, the music is very poor for many minutes and then of course comes the famous theme, and “Ah yeah, this is Siegfried’s theme!” but in-between there is not much, but Wagner was able to make everything interesting because of such great instrumentation work. On the positive side when you play Brahms symphonies you find out much more about the construction. It’s really fascinating. So I think Brahms, in his older years, said, “I’m not going to concerts anymore; I just will read the score of a Beethoven symphony and I enjoy it” – this is a little bit similar to playing on the piano only, and getting the essence and the main core of the music; you can adore it, or you can find out that, eh, it’s not everything so glorious, like in The Ring for example. But this is my very personal opinion.
Certainly there’s the opinion that certain things should not be performed in reduction, some things by Wagner, for instance; there’s a feeling we will just have to wait to hear those things live again now.
But that’s when the opportunity for lieder comes. You write in the book that Liederabend are not programmed so much, but, do you think now, in our pandemic era, it might be more?
I was feeling this in the last year because so many events were cancelled. I jumped in with Jonas very often – instead of Fidelio for instance, we had a recital. And somehow (the style of the music) fits or, it fits very much more with the isolation, the sense of intimacy – and I hope this will remain, even after the pandemic.
You write that Hermann Prey didn’t want people to look in the program books when he sang – ‘They will know the meaning of everything from my voice!’ – but I think it is vital to know the poetry and how the sounds relate…
How extensively do you study texts yourself, even one you know well, before performances or recordings?
I must admit, first of all I started when I was fourteen, fifteen years old, I think. I wrote this in book, that I was a normal boy who was interested in sports and girls of course, but I was also reading a lot of poems, especially (the works of) Eichendorf and Heine and Goethe, and I fell in love with a lot of these poems; I only found out later that these are also songs: “Wow, these poems are composed of music already!” This was a shock in the best sense, in a very positive way. It was great! I must admit over the many decades I have to rethink the meaning of a poem very often and I do read, I read normally when I have a half hour before a concert and will be sitting in my dressing room; I’ll read the texts again. Also I know many of them almost by heart, but it’s the same feeling with the music, just the same: you find details in pieces like Winterreise or Dichterliebe. You always, even after fifty years, find new things, and this is very exciting. In the world of text, I am not so much at home, they are difficult texts and there are texts which seem to be very easy, very simple, but there is so much underneath and you can read and read again and again, and, “Oooh! Ah! There’s a double meaning! And there is a shift, a metaphor, that image…!”
With the great poems, sometimes I think there are great poems by Rilke, for instance, but he was not composed-to very often, it’s very difficult, the words … there’s so much music in the words already, that they don’t need music, or any kind of music doesn’t fit. Many times you have great songs written by more or less unknown poets too; if you look at Richard Strauss songs, (Julius) Bierbaum (1865-1910) for instance, is rather unknown, or mostly even forgotten. A poet like him was known in his time but not so much now, and he is survived only by these songs Strauss wrote. The quality of some of these songs with texts by more or less forgotten poets is really great, and some of them especially have a connection with the music. I didn’t really study German Literature professionally but it’s a permanent question: what did he really mean by that? And so on. When you teach twenty-something year-old (vocal) students, it’s so often the case that they didn’t think a bit about the words. They think about the voice, of course, and maybe sometimes the intonation, but you can feel from a singer very soon that he or she is thinking in terms of the meaning of a poem or single words, or that he or she wants a color which belongs to the meaning of these words, and sometimes you see there is no feeling for the material at all, and this is a permanent struggle when you teach, even with professional singers.
I was just going to say, sometimes there are singers who just churn it out, and it seems obvious they don’t really have an understanding or intimacy with the text; there’s output, and sometimes it’s impressive, but I can sense when there’s no input.
I appreciate your chapter in this regard where you write of your niece’s observations on Barbara Bonney in recital.
Yes, that was so interesting to see. My niece was fourteen or fifteen years old then and the reviews of the concert said, “Oh such wonderful interpretation!” But a child feels a lot. It was really impressive to hear her make such observations.
Her observations highlight the differences in listening quality between locales and contexts. Some of my musician friends have noted those differences too – they can pick it up right away, whether the audience is “with” them or not.
I totally agree, it’s very different from place to place. There are special audiences in Europe, in Wigmore Hall – that’s a very educated audience – and also in Vienna. You have people who have bought every series for forty years and are listening to sometimes the same pieces from the same (song) cycles for so long, and they are very critical. The big difference between London and Vienna in terms of audience is that the audience in the Wigmore Hall, in my experience, is rather cool when they don’t know the singer, but when it’s successful they are enthusiastic; the Viennese are not necessarily enthusiastic but they are much warmer from the beginning. It’s a case of, “Okay, you have your chance, we are happy to see a new face or hear a new voice.” But in London they are more critical. It’s amazing in the hall. It’s hundreds of recitals a year and the repertoire is much more than 50% in German – you are young, so there is time for you to learn German, Catherine!
The lessons continue…
Good, keep practising!
But, everyone has to have a starting point – for instance, I think it’s interesting you included a chapter on page-turners in the book. Why such a detail?
It’s a person who, in the best way, is not noticed; this is the ideal page turner. It’s someone the audience is not aware of as a third person. But really, I could have written fifty pages about this, because so much happens, it’s incredible. And I would say it makes a big difference if you are very close with this person. When you have the feeling she or he is criticizing, I’ve noticed… I have memories of recordings for example, I remember being in Frankfurt with a violinist, and we started with a piece which opens in a specific way, and my page-turner made a certain motion all the time. I said, “Is something wrong?” “No, what do you mean?” “You seem to dislike my tempo in this opening.” “In fact I do.” I said, “Okay, you don’t have to, but don’t show me, I’m not interested in your opinion.” And it’s not comparable to the situation between singer and pianist, but sometimes, if they are young people… they give me an atmosphere of being very interested and enthusiastic about a song or whatever, or, they can be judgemental. But of course I try to give some… humorous episodes. The importance of page-turners may disappear with tablets, maybe.
Or they may vanish because of continued performance restrictions. But perhaps now is also the perfect time for lieder, as you say, what with its mix of intimacy and intensity.
I am fully booked this year, but we are awaiting the next update from the governments in Austria and Germany. I am full with concerts in March and April and May, but we have no idea what is coming or not. It’s really frustrating, but I think we have the same situation everywhere. Master classes can happen online but I have in-person ones booked at the Vienna opera studio and in April in Munich. Inside these places everything is working, they are preparing a lot. Some places like Vienna and Paris they may only do one streamed performance and nothing else, like Carmen in Vienna and Aida in Paris – but they’re still working.
It’s heartening to observe this bit of cultural activity, however limited it is at the moment.
It is happening, and we have the possibility, especially for lieder and recitals, to go to 500 people in Munich and Vienna, maybe, depending on what the governments say. I was in Madrid recently with Jonas Kaufmann, at Teatro Real, and we had 800 people there; it’s a ⅓ of the capacity but it is still much better than nothing.
That’s a nice size for a lieder concert; the contrast between the immensity of a space and the intimacy of the music can sometimes be jarring…
… Ja, this is true, but the great singers are expensive! So (a small venue) is not practical anymore. When you think about what Schubert wrote, it was for a salon of thirty or forty people, and Schumann as well; the (trend of holding) lied recitals in big halls started very late. Now I’ve done stuff at the Met, and you can say it’s ridiculous, but on the other hand when almost 4000 people are listening to Mahler or Strauss songs… this is great. I remember going to the Musikverein at fifteen or sixteen years old, and I remember very well the recitals by Dieskau, I only had money for the very last row in the Second Gallery; I remember hearing some Schumann songs,and it being the very first time to do so, in this recital. This is almost sixty years ago now. I would say I was about eighty meters away from Dieskau, and… it worked. It was totally fascinating. So of course Dichterliebe or Winterreise were not written for a huge venue. But, on the other hand, when let’s say, famous people who must be paid, sing for, let’s say, Carnegie Hall and 2000 people, and there are five listeners there who say, “Oh, this was so exciting! I see there is in Alice Tully Hall an unknown singer but doing the same Dichterliebe; I want to go there”… well, there is progress! (Large venues) are good PR for the art form.
Kind of like live-streams; they’re not at all ideal but they’re PR for the art form, however temporary.
There is more music in private homes now – perhaps there no chance for anything live, only to put on a CD or to get concerts live-streamed… and this is better than nothing. So (the exposure) is, for this (classical) part of the world of music, a good thing. For now!
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Scarlatti wrote 555 sonatas in all, though many were unpublished during the composer’s lifetime. As well as utilizing unique modulations and dischords, some of the sonatas were clearly influenced by Iberian folk music. Along with the sontas, Scarlatti composed operas, cantatas, and liturgical pieces, and counted fans among composers (Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, but also Shostakovich, Messiaen, and Poulenc) as well as pianists (Horowitz, Gilels, and Schiff). The late American harpsichordist Scott Ross was the first to record all of the sonatas (across 34 CDs for Erato/Radio France) in 1988.
French pianist Debargue acknowledges Ross in the liner notes to Scarlatti: 52 Sonatas (Sony Classical), and also notes Ross’s influence on his own playing, but in releasing the work (in October 2019), Debargue must’ve known the challenges he would face. As Music Web International’s Richard Masters notes, “every piano-fancier has their champion of choice” for the sonatas.” Playing against preset favorites is always a risk, as any classical artist well knows, and yet Debargue is an artist who embraces such risk, and always has. The album is a continuation of a risk-taking drive that has been present ever since he burst onto the classical scene in 2015, his playing a deep and discernibly personal expression of an ever-evolving authenticity, to craft and to self.
His entrance into the classical music world is not the story you might expect, but it’s one that has directly influenced his approach. With no family or background in the industry, Debargue only took his first piano lessons at the age of eleven. As he told the Seattle Times in 2016,
I met a very nice pedagogue who was not trying to put me in a box and tell me what to do with a piano. She let me go my way. I was quite undisciplined and could not bear practice. For me it was absurd and I just wanted to play what I wanted to play.
Piano playing ceased in his teens, and Debargue instead went on to play in a rock band and work in a grocery store. He studied art and literature before returning to the piano at the age of twenty, attending the École Normale de Musique de Paris “Alfred Cortot”, a top French conservatory, and studying with famed Russian pianist and professor Rena Shereshevskaya, which he still does. Shereshevskaya’s opinion is one he very much defers to for her being “an authentic listener.”
In 2015 Debargue placed a controversial fourth place at the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition; many felt he deserved a higher placement, and that snobbery (related to his background, which included being self-taught) prevented his being awarded top honors. In any case, it hardly mattered; Debargue was invited by Competition Chairman Valery Gergiev to perform in the winner’s gala – in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin, no less. The French pianist has since attained much success, with non-stop rounds of touring, recording, and yet more awards, including an Echo Klassik (Germany’s major classical music award) in 2017. He’s played an assortment of great halls (including Wigmore, Carnegie, the Concertgebouw, the Philharmonie Berlin, Theatre des Champs Elysées, Munich’s Prinzregententheater, the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, and the Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall) and has worked with top artists including conductors (including Andrey Boreyko, Mikhail Pletnev, Yutaka Sado, and Tugan Sokhiev) and musicians (Gidon Kremer, Martin Fröst, and Janine Jansen). His discography includes recordings of the work of piano greats, including Chopin, Liszt, Ravel, Bach, Beethoven, and Medtner; he recorded a stunning album of the music of Schubert and Szymanowski in 2017. His most recent recording, of the carefully-selected Scarlatti sonatas, offers a very unconventional if highly inspiring listening experience, one which finds intellectual, emotional, and spiritual coherence through its various pedal-less ascents to grand harmonic vistas and gentle descents into valleys of varied tonal melody. Debargue’s rubato-infused playing is hypnotizing, heartfelt, intelligent, and intuitive.
I’ve written in the past about how certain pianists inspire my desire to return to the keyboard myself, and this disc is perhaps the most supreme encapsulation to date of that urge; Debargue’s gorgeously delicate if quietly confident Sonata in A Minor K. 109 (the 13th track on the first disc), for instance, is devastating in awful, awesome beauty, a whispering grandeur rustling through his delicious phrasing and touch. More than once I’ve hissed a happy “yassssss” listening to this, and to other tracks on this grand, sometimes overwhelming album. Richard Masters rightly notes in his review that this is not an album to be experienced all at once, but rather, savoured, “like a box of expensive chocolates,” with each of the three discs making up the album existing as their own sort of recital – its own little species of plant, which is possibly an appropriate reaction, as my conversation with Debargue revealed.
It wasn’t a surprise to learn that NPR rated Scarlatti: 52 Sonatas as one of their top classical picks in terms of albums that might best usher in a new decade, with writer Tom Huizenga noting Debargue’s “great self-assurance” and his ability to find “clarity, texture, and color” in order to coax “the mercurial personality in each of these miniatures, whether it’s the spirit of flamenco strumming, a tender aria or a boisterous march.” Currently on a tour that takes him to Toronto (on January 16th), Montreal January 19th) and New York (January 22nd in Brooklyn and January 31st at Carnegie Hall), Debargue and I chatted in the midst of a bustling festive season, in December 2019.
Photo: Xiomara Bender
You have said in the past you feel Scarlatti’s music is very psychological – what did you mean?
It’s because he plays with our consciousness. Music is language, and it’s playing with the connections you can make, not only between elements but surprising you, or confirming something you were expecting. He plays with the mind.
Fragments of the scores indicate Scarlatti didn’t write them himself…
Yes, the thing is that we only have so much information about Scarlatti, it’s hard to figure out how he managed to write those pieces, the copies are not in his hand, so someone copied this. We don’t have the draft from his hand directly, so it’s hard to figure out how it was originally made.
… but there’s a suggestion others copied down his improvisations. To me that echoes how your album sounds: very natural, very improvised.
It’s is one of my biggest interests – and this is part of the point of my approach also, an important part of my approach. Improvisation is probably the highest side of musical practice, and every piece I play I try to aim for improvisation – it has to sound that way. You can really be driven by the playing, because so often (these works) sound not like improvisation, and if you play them this way, you lose the energy of the music. And the energy of the music gives the presence, and the presence is expressed through the improvisation; it all goes together, especially for Scarlatti.
It’s not the same thing when there’s an orchestra; it’s less possible to improvise. The first thing is that it has to be very clear; for this reason you cannot really be free in time. For the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1, I allowed myself to be free when I played alone – so during the Adagio, playing alone I just did what I wanted. But when it was with the orchestra, and you don’t play with this orchestra very often – I played only once before with the Orchestre National Du Capitole de Toulouse – this makes it more… for me the priority is to be attentive to the elements, to find some common points. It’s better to be more simple at the start.
If you collaborate again and again with an orchestra there are natural things that appear and it can be more flexible, but it requires time, and a lot of listeners and music lovers are not concerned about the time to takes. Even speaking about recital programs, a lot of people ask me, “What will you play in your next concert?” They don’t realize that a recital program takes at least one year to prepare. It’s not a question of being slow at memorizing – I’m fast at that, I can learn big pieces in one day or one week, but this doesn’t matter, there is nothing to admire here – what is important is the time it takes to actually raise it, as if you were growing vegetables or flowers. It takes time to make an interpretation exist, because it’s not only memorizing a score and playing the notes, it has to be like a living being, and the cultivation of a living being takes time.
Photo still: Bel Air Media
The recital you’re doing at Koerner Hall features the music of Scarlatti as well as that of Medtner and Liszt; what was the thinking to feature these three composers on the same bill?
It’s not so easy to explain, but there is a connection. It’s very personal. I would not try to put a bridge between these pieces and explain intellectually why, but within these works there is a kind of energy in terms of how they’re crafted. Scarlatti and Liszt have a lot in common in terms of the ability to transcend the techniques of the keyboard in order to express their musicality – Scarlatti with harpsichord and Liszt with piano, but it’s the same thing, to use all possibilities of the instrument to go beyond, spiritually. And you will hear, between the Liszt and Medtner pieces, that there are lots of connections, speaking about the form, the theme… I think the two pieces go well together, like some kind of Faustian inspiration, these romantic, Gothic, cosmic dreams I would say, fantasies. They go very well together and are good with the Scarlatti. With recital programs I like to use the possibility of having two parts, so there is a big contrast between the first part and the second part; then the people can have the sensation having attended two concerts instead of one concert.
You’re also forcing audiences to listen.
For me, yes, because I don’t think the audience is stupid, I think the audience has the ability to listen, to be moved and participate in what is happening, so I play as if my audience will not be passive but active, and participating with me.
This idea of transcendence is interesting in terms of your background, which is not musical.
My little brother is a musician but there are none before – parents, grandparents, no one was involved in music.
Photo: Felix Broede / Sony Music Entertainment
So you transcended your own background being a classical pianist.
Yes, but I take things simply. For a lot of people it’s special to be a musician, but for me it’s normal. I try to live with it as if it was just my job and my vocation – I take it seriously, and I do it with all my heart, but it’s not this prestigious, elite thing that people should admire. For me it can stay very simple. I see myself… I don’t have the desire to transcend normal life with what I do, but for speaking this language, and for sharing this kind of spirit with others.
What do you think that desire has given you? Especially since you don’t hail from a background where you had parents involved and conservatory training from a very young age?
Of course everyone has a mental picture of child prodigies but most of the big masters of the piano, if we talk about the piano and masters like Gilels and Rachmaninoff, they were not child prodigies not at all, they took their time, and they were doing other things and had other interests. What I see nowadays with children is that they are just obeying teachers and parents, and I’m not interested in this way of practising and this vision of music. For me I cannot be inspired by such musicians, they cannot have something to say; they are living like in a jail. And it’s very important for an artist to get inspired by a lot of things, to have other outside interests – to see movies, to read books – to manage to have a human life. So many musicians allow themselves to have a special life because of being in music, but I don’t think being a musician is special, and I don’t think one can allow one’s self to live with a special regime just because he or she is a musician. You are a human first; then you may be a musician. But it can never replace being a human first.
There’s a tendency for many in this industry to ensconce themselves within the classical-world bubble, which seems obvious but also bad for art.
Of course it’s bad for art – but it’s the same for all the other fields. We live in an era of specialization; everyone is a specialist in his or her own field. And that’s a problem because then people don’t really know what others are doing outside of their own channel. We all should manage at least to have the real life of a man or a woman, and not be overwhelmed by the job, or by the need for an audience, or for fame, or money. Those things take so much of the space of the spirit … and it’s crazy, actually.
It kills the spirit of taking risks also, a spirit which is discernible on your recordings.
I do it because I have no choice – it’s my only way, the only one I can consider sincere and honest, and where I am doing my best. That’s why I follow this path – otherwise I’d do something else. To not be true to one’s self in the field of arts… for me it is like a betrayal, really, because where you have such a gift of being able to understand a language like music, you don’t have the right to betray this, or to put yourself or your ego ahead of that. No! You need to cultivate humility. I wonder what one can communicate if he’s not putting his ego aside and thinking about being humble and having music be a tool to being more open and human.
Photo still: Bel Air Media
Few things make an artist more humble than doing recitals.
Yes, the recital is special — the solo recital is so special! There is something psychologically that is a bit insane, though; there are one thousand people attending the show, it’s a one-man or one-woman show, you are there for two hours, and you are the master of the time and the silence. It’s crazy if you think about it – it’s like a dictatorship, in a way! The people pay for being submissive to the atmosphere of one man or one woman for two hours; there is something not normal there, and it’s very important for me to feel it’s not normal. Before every recital I have these strong thoughts in mind: “What am I doing here? It’s not normal at all! This is insane! It’s crap!” And then the whole energy is to transform this crap situation into something nice, in which people are involved in a creative process, an expressive process. The aim is to feel better, for me and the people. And that’s a spiritual process.
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What could possibly be said of Yuja Wang that hasn’t already been said?
Yes, she’s glamorous, yes, she gets a lot of attention, and yes, she’s one of the world’s most celebrated pianists. But she is also warm and funny, and a very thoughtful conversationalist, strong in her opinions, it’s true, but also entirely unapologetic in her individualism. It could well be that such innate authenticity, and never feeling the need to apologize for it, has been, and continues to be, part of what draws audiences around the world to her – that, and of course, her being one of the true greats of the piano.
Born into a musical family in Beijing (her mother is a dancer; her father, a percussionist), Wang began piano as a child, and went on to study as a teenager at the famed Curtis Institute of Music. In 2002, she won the concerto competition at the Aspen Music Festival, and a year later, made her European debut with the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich led by conductor David Zinman, playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. Wang debuted with the New York Philharmonic at the Bravo! Vail Music Festival in 2006, and toured with the orchestra and conductor Lorin Maazel their very next season. Wang’s big international breakthrough came in 2007, when she replaced Martha Argerich as soloist in a concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
Wang is almost always on hectic rounds of touring, and moves regularly between continents and concert halls. 2019 has been a particularly rich time; along with her tour with Capuçon, Wang gave a hugely well-received performance at the Enescu Festival in September (as part of a tour with the Dresden Staatskapelle and conductor Myung-Whun Chung), and also performed at the inaugural edition of the Tsinandali Festival in Georgia. Last month, she gave the first London performance of John Adams’ “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?”, a work commissioned by the LA Phil and written especially for Wang; music writer Jari Kallio called the performance “a ravishing experience.”
January sees further tour dates with Capuçon as well an extensive solo recital tour and concert performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (led by Andris Nelsons), the Toronto Symphony, (led by incoming TSO Music Director Gustavo Gimeno) the San Francisco Symphony (led by Michael Tilson Thomas) and the Philadelphia Orchestra (led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin). Chances are she may collect a few more awards along the way; she’s already been the recipient of several, including being named Musical America’s Artist of the Year in 2017. A four-time Grammy Award nominee, The Berlin Recital (Deutsche Grammophone), released in November 2018, is a live recording done at the Philharmonie Berlin; in October it won the prestigious 2019 Gramophone Classical Music Awards in the instrumental category.
The recording evocatively captures Wang’s ferociously individualistic voice, her unapologetic musicality filling space – sonic, but also intellectual and emotional. These are qualities Wang balances so skillfully in her readings of Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Ligeti, and Prokofiev. Gramophone’s David Fanning noted in her performances of both Rachmaninoff’s B minor Prelude as well as Scriabin’s Sonata No 10 that “she moves smoothly between feathery, evocative touches and maximum eruptive volatility.” The recording is a firm personal favorite of mine for a number of reasons, chief among them its beautifully therapeutic qualities. Speaking as a simple listener, it feels as if Wang has a special talent for poking holes in the many clouds of depression that have descended with such force, weight, and consistency over the past year. The way she shapes the trills of Scriabin’s Sonata, her twisty rubato of Prokofiev’s Sonata No 8 , her fierce, eff-you-haters phrasing of Rachmaninoff’s famous Prelude in G Minor (which opens the album) – these sounds, and the feisty spirit behind them, have been instrumental in envisioning a path through some desperately sad, cloudy times.
And so it is with Chopin-Franck (Warner Classics), released today. As I wrote in my feature on the French cellist earlier this week, the album offers truly enlightening approaches with composers whose works you may think you know well, with two works by Chopin (Sonata in A Major and Polonaise brillante in C Major), the famous Sonata in A Major by Cesar Franck (in a transcription for cello by Jules Delsart), along with an encore of Piazzolla’s beloved “Grand Tango”. Recorded at Toronto’s Koerner Hall at the end of a whirlwind tour that included stops in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York’s Carnegie Hall, the work brings inspiration both intellectual and emotional, and is a luscious sonic intertwining of two highly complementary artistic sensibilities, with Wang’s performance (blazingly sparky one moment, whisperingly delicate the next) matching Capuçon’s note for note, and, as you’ll read, breath for breath. The pianist told the Los Angeles Times in 2017 that for her, “playing music is about transporting to another way of life, another way of being” and this album is a very good display of such sonic transcendence.
Wang took time over the recent Thanksgiving holiday to chat about the nature of performance and the unique joys of collaborative musical partnerships.
Gautier said he felt the creative chemistry with you immediately; did you have a similar experience?
Yes, definitely that feeling is mutual. On tour we’d sometimes joke, “Oh, we don’t have to rehearse!” We have the same ideas of phrasing and how a piece should go. It’s very flexible in terms of what we’re deciding on the spot. And with this (album), all the pieces are so centered on piano, like the Chopin Sonata – I told him, “This is harder than the solo stuff!” It was fun; it never felt like there was a dull moment, and if we play something beautiful for encores which he’s known for – like “The Swan” (Saint-Saëns’ “Le cygne” from his Le Carnaval des animeaux) or “Meditation” (from Massenet’s Thais)– he just melts every person in the concert. I enjoy that as well.
How did you decide on touring and recording these pieces specifically?
We did the tour and decided on Chopin, since I am always a big fan of Chopin. Even talking about repertoire is very easy, we never have to explain – it was just, “Okay, let’s do that!” And I always loved the Franck sonata. Violinists will hate me, but I love how it sounds on the cello more than the violin version,. We did Rachmaninoff when we played Carnegie Hall – he did record it in 2001, but I think it’s time to do another version.
How does the energy of your partnership affect other things you do?
I have a few fixed partnerships, and he is definitely one of them, the other is Leonidas (Kavakos). Gautier and I did that recording in April and now we are preparing to go out for another three weeks in January – it is a big chunk of your life, to travel together and play together. I always look forward to that because, as a pianist, you always usually travel by yourself, and this way it’s like having a partner around musically. I mean, as a woman and musician, this sort of work seeps into your psyche. It’s not like playing a concerto where you are soloist and there’s an orchestra. The hardest is the solo recitals, where you’re traveling by yourself and busy onstage for ninety minutes. But with Gautier or Leonidas, I’m onstage with another person, making music together – in a way it’s more relaxed, very relaxed – which I love.
That’s the biggest difference, but you know, you count on the other person as well, you give and take onstage, it’s not just you with full responsibility. And, of course, there’s the usual cliche, “we learn a lot from each other” – and of course we do – but in a way it feels like a musical family to be around. You can count on someone, and be very comfortable with them.
It feels protecting?
Yes, protecting, yes! That’s the word. And, because (Kavakos and Capuçon) are such amazing musicians, if I’m having an off day, if I’m tired, they are there to support and to be there. The recording session (in Toronto) was at the end of a two-week tour, and there was a photo session, and an intense recording session; it was a lot, but because Gautier was there I agreed to do it. He is very different from Leonidas – I don’t want to compare! – but with Gautier, we just breathe the music together and it’s there, super-spontaneous.
It’s a musical intimacy that feels rare for its authenticity.
It’s true, and we try to protect that as much as can onstage. It’s very delicate, very vulnerable, that kind of intimacy, and it’s really about intensely listening and just being there for each other, breathing together. It sounds so strange, but because of that, it’s why it feels so spontaneous – because there’s this other way of making chamber music, which is very calculated and planned. And that’s never my way of doing things, but the contrast of doing that also sometimes brings very good results. I think the only other musician like that was Claudio Abbado. He never said anything – he used his gestures and his musicians knew what to do. Gautier is a bit like that; his bowing and his breathing, his whole body is so involved in music. So artistically speaking, it was love at first sight!
Has this partnership changed your relationship with the piano? I would imagine when you experience such creative closeness, you return to your own instrument with a slightly different perspective… ?
I wouldn’t say I play very differently actually, I feel like the repertoire we chose is so piano-oriented so sometimes I feel as if I’m playing solo. But you learn how they use the bow, how they sing, what colours you can bring, and how they see music. That’s the thing with Gautier: we see it very similarly. When I play concerts, I always have been the same way – I’m very reactive; I respond to something on the spot. I see what others are doing and I respond like that.
I guess that’s why I love playing this music and my partners are happy with it too – it’s all about listening, which I learned from Curtis: that’s how you should play music. I’m not so much, I think, trying to be like the leader or like, “Do this! You follow me!” – I’m never like that in any kind of way, and I have the same principles doing concertos or chamber music. But solo is a very different thing, because it’s like being a conductor: you decide what pieces you’re going to play, what they mean to you, and you have to take full responsibility for everything. So that’s a totally different way of operating.
But I would imagine you think of Chopin and Franck in new ways now.
The Chopin cello sonata is very enigmatic for me. I never played any Franck in any real sense! We did Rachmaninoff together – I’m doing Rachmaninoff 4 this week in Cleveland, it’s a language I know very well, so I would say it’s in my comfort zone – but the Chopin was a puzzle for me. The Polonaise, okay, that was very fun to play, but especially after we did the Sonata, it was so intricate, and so much voice, the cello… he just had one line and had to go in and out, but between all of my five lines, and the harmony is so forward-looking. It’s not just, “Oh, what a nice melody by Chopin!” except the third movement, which is so meditative and beautiful – especially the way Gautier played it! But the rest is a Mazurka, and it’s the Chopin we know, but not; he didn’t finish it, and it’s a late work and … it makes you think, where would he go if he didn’t die at 39? The harmony… it’s fun, but it’s really hard. There’s one passage in the first movement, these chords are almost like in Petrushka –but then you have to think about the balance with the cello and the melody.
I think, in a way, I do think more about orchestrating when I go back to my solo music: how to balance the sound, each voice in harmony. Those are the things that become more obvious as a result of doing chamber music-making.
Gautier called the Polonaise “pianistic.”
I think maybe he is conscious of choosing this repertoire because he’s aware that I am in my comfort zone doing all this stuff, rather than sometimes, you know… I mean, I don’t want to just be playing accompaniment…
… but it seems like this is very much both of you doing equal give-and-take, like a tennis match.
And I would imagine things will expand now? Gautier mentioned you’re in planning stages for future projects.
Exactly. I just love the chamber music by Rachmaninoff, and why not the cello sonata? There’s so much other repertoire, I was telling him yesterday, that I want to do: “Let’s do Brahms! Let’s do Rachmaninoff!” He already recorded that, but it’s very special when we do it. We can choose to stay with Russians: Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev… I mean, he makes the cello sing but he can also make it such a beast; I just take care of voicing. And it’s fun, I don’t have to always worry about, “Oh, I’m covering the cello now” because he has such a big presence.
So do you!
We little people have big presence!
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It’s one thing to hear an album by two widely admired artists; it’s quite another to have been present during its recording.
Such was the case with Franck-Chopin (Warner Classics) from pianist Yuja Wang and cellist Gautier Capuçon. Recorded at Koerner Hall in Toronto this past April at the very end of a busy spring recital tour, the album features two works by Chopin (Sonata in A Major and Polonaise brillante in C Major), Franck’s Sonata in A Major (in a famed transcription by Jules Delsart), and Piazzolla’s “Grand Tango.” Reviewing the concert, Canadian media outlet The Star said the recital “showcased the very best in collaborative music-making.” To say the air was electric that particular evening is to engage in a cliche lovingly corseted in truth; there was a special sort of energy in the hall indeed, but it was not the firecracker variety. The connection between Wang and Capuçon is akin to a warm, friendly fire, one that’s been steadily cultivated since the duo first worked together in Verbier in 2013 where they performed the works of Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich. The duo worked together again in 2015; Chopin-Franck marks their first formally recorded collaboration.
With any partnership between busy, high-profile artists comes a certain amount of hype, of course, but it’s one both Capuçon and Wang sail past smoothly, displaying a quietly fierce commitment to the repertoire and a natural, unforced camaraderie. From the moment the first note sounded in the hall back in April, it was clear we were witnessing were two artists utterly dedicated to a journey, one that is audible on the album, from the tender moments in the first movement of the Franck work (given a slower, pensive quality that forces a refreshing rethink of the work) to the sparky expressivity of the Scherzo in the Chopin Sonata (moving confidently between sonorous, staccato, and the very-playful nature of its namesake). The concert was exciting to experience, and it’s been moving to re-experience it in its recorded version, offering new angles on various musical choices, deeper insights into the nature of creative collaboration, and hope for further future projects. As you’ll read here, and in the interview coming up with Yuja Wang this Friday (to coincide with the album’s release), there are many plans afoot, including more tour dates together in Europe in January, and beyond that, tackling more chamber music.
Capuçon has already recorded the work of a variety of composers, but, like any artist worth his or her salt, has a voracious artistic zeal for further exploration and collaboration. Learning the cello in his native France as a child, Capuçon went on to study in Paris and Vienna before becoming a member of both the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester (GMJO) and the European Community Youth Orchestra (now the European Union Youth Orchestra, or EUYO), playing under conductors Pierre Boulez and Claudio Abbado. In 2001, he was named New Talent of the Year by Victoires de la Musique (the French equivalent of a Grammy Award), and has gone on to garner a myriad of rave reviews and give stellar performances with numerous prestigious orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony, Staatskapelle Dresden, the Royal Concertgebouw, the New York Philharmonic, and the Orchester National de France, among others. He tours regularly with his former band, the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester (his performance of Shostakovich’s Concerto No.1 for Cello and Orchestra in E-flat major, op.107 in Dresden in 2018 was so very affecting) and he sits happily in with the orchestra’s cello section in the second half of concerts as part of their performances. (He doesn’t just do that with the GMJO, either.) This past summer, Capuçon gave a delightfully lyrical reading of “Song To The Moon” (from Dvořák,’s opera Rusalka) at the 2019 Bastille Day celebrations, which featured conductor Alain Altinoglu and soprano Chen Reiss, among many greats.
As well as working with noted conductors (Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Gustavo Dudamel, and Paavo Järvi among them), Capuçon enjoys rich collaborations with a range of artists, including pianists Danil Trifonov and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, violinists Leonidas Kavakos and Lisa Batiashvili, and composers Lera Auerbach and Krzysztof Penderecki, to name just a few. He’s also performed and recorded with brother Renaud Capuçon (violinist) and sister Aude Capuçon (pianist). Intuition (Warner Classics), released in 2018, is a work filled with personal memories and inspirations, and features short, encore-style pieces by Elgar, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Fauré, Massenet, Saint-Saëns, Dvořák, Piazzolla, Italian cellist Giovanni Sollima and pianist and longtime friend Jérôme Ducros (who also performs on the album). The album is part of a vast discography comprised of both orchestral and chamber works, all filled with a palpable intensity of approach which is given richly dramatic expression in a live setting.
At the 2019 Enescu Festival. Photo: Catalina Filip
Capuçon drew widespread attention earlier this year when he gave an impromptu performance on a kerb near the smouldering remains of Notre Dame Cathedral; days later he was part of a benefit concert in aid of the building’s reconstruction, saying at the time that through his cello he expresses “what I can not always say with words. […] The music allows me to translate the sadness.” This past autumn, he was in Bucharest, performing with the Orchestre Philharmonique Monte Carlo at the Enescu Festival in Bucharest, his laser-sharp focus and keen passion for the musical moment unwavering amidst the numerous television cameras and warm lights beaming his performance live across the country. When I interviewed him in 2018, he spoke of the importance of transcending perfectionist tendencies:
… there is no one way to play something. It’s not only about technique. Technical things are there to serve the music, so you have to find the mixture, the good balance between extreme precision of course, and … leaving a huge space for that intuition, that inspiration, and that creativity. You really have to let go in another way.
The “huge space” that combines intuition, inspiration, and creativity has found beautiful expression his partnership with Yuja Wang. It’s one which, as you’ll read, has added an immense richness to both their creative lives, and, I think it’s fair to say, that of the audiences blessed to see and hear them live. They do go “another way” on Chopin-Franck, and what’s so magical is just how much they allow their listeners to join them on that journey.
What is your first memory of Yuja?
What I remember is that of course I was totally amazed straight away by her being such an amazing musician. This I found out very fast, because we started to play and immediately, at the first reading, there was something very natural about it – breathing together. Then we started to work and it was just going so fast, we were just… it’s like you can oversee what’s going to happen in the future. I could picture already that we would make a long journey together with the music and I was absolutely so excited. Within the first minutes I could feel she was an amazing musician and a musical partner for many years – which she is.
That chemistry is very noticeable.
It’s true, it’s something very special and very strong, powerful and emotional. There is so much energy. It’s like feeling the really all the different elements – the ground, the fire, the air, the water – it’s something really incredible between us two, always circulating. I think it’s getting, every time, stronger and stronger, which is amazing. Since the first time, yes, it was there, but in our last tour, every concert, it’s getting stronger. It comes with trust, like in any relationship. You can feel the base of the relationship, but there is something which is allowed to grow when you feel safe. Something also grows when you feel you can experiment together, which is exactly what we’re doing: we’re trying colors and different tempi. When you trust someone onstage you can go so far. You can try incredible things and you’ll know the other will react and sometimes surprise you, and sometimes shock you with something different – it’s really extraordinary, because that’s what music is about, it’s about communication and sharing – of course with the audience, but also onstage. When you have this way of communicating together the purpose is always to go further, beyond, and yet closer to the feelings of the composer. That’s the thing – it’s not about us, it’s about the composer – but when you know you can trust each other, then you can do incredible things. I can’t wait for this next tour in January, because I think it will be very strong.
How did you decide on the repertoire for this tour and album? Why Chopin and Franck?
Different things — there’s repertoire that we have already done separately, and of course I have done some recordings of things with piano, but some I haven’t done, including the Chopin and the Franck. It is also something I wanted to do with Yuja. The Chopin – I was talking about this piece with Martha Argerich a few weeks ago! – is an extremely difficult piece. Pianists feel very close to Chopin of course, not like us cellists, but musically speaking it is a very difficult piece, to make it sound really as easy as we want to be listening to it. I don’t know if that’s clear enough..
It’s deceptively simple.
Yes, and it’s one I’ve not played a lot. I only played it a few times before with Yuja, which I also love, because this is something we worked on together, so we’re going down this road together, and we’re just at the beginning of the road, of course. As to the Franck, I played it a few times when I was much younger, in my twenties, and I’ve not played it in a while. This is a much more famous piece, it’s one almost everybody knows. We always think cellists are stealing this piece from violinists, but there is this story cellists like to say – that the first two movements were written for the cello, and the two last ones for the violin. Of course the piece sounds different on the violin than the cello; the question is not to copy or to make it sound like the violin because it’s two different instruments, it’s a different energy. The story with (violinist Eugène) Ysaÿe goes that when he got into Franck’s apartment and he saw this manuscript on the table, and read those first two movements, he said, “Wow, how great!” – and Franck was writing a cello sonata. But Ysaÿe asked for a violin sonata, and Franck then used those first two movements to make a violin sonata…
Yes! And I haven’t played it a lot in the past few years; it requires a very orchestral approach in the way of playing and developing it, and think Yuja, with her sounds and her expression and her depth, does it incredibly – the way she did the colors in the first movement of that performance (at Koerner Hall) was unbelievable!
I think it’s such an incredible program, but I’ve seen a ridiculous comments online about how the pieces don’t belong together, and “I don’t understand why there’s a Piazzolla at the end” – well, that Piazzolla was the encore and we just wanted to include it on the recording as a bonus for the people! Honestly, some people write such stupid things! Anyway, to come back to this choice of repertoire, I think the Chopin and Franck work well together; they are nice to place as mirrors for one another. The Chopin is not an unknown piece but it’s not often played, and it’s great to put with the Franck, which is of course a very famous work. And the Polonaise is a little jewel, with all these Polish folkloric dances and this beautiful introduction. It is something so typical of Chopin and in there we can find all those pianistic things – this piece is more pianistic of course, in a way – and musically speaking, is much easier to read into than the Cello Sonata.
It’s funny you say “pianistic” – that is the precise word I would use! It seems like a healthy stretch creatively…
Yes, it’s a real dialogue there. Actually, I had been playing also more cellistic versions, more virtuoso versions, on the cello. Some cellists arranged it and basically stole a bit of that to play; I did those versions when I was younger. When you’re younger, you know, you want to prove you can play fast! I came back to this first version, however, because you know, I think it’s meant to be the piano and the cello singing. So that’s why this original version is the one we wanted to do with Yuja.
In life I really believe in opportunities. You can say, “Okay, I want to record in that hall and let’s make these dates around it.” But in this case we arranged ourselves according to the touring schedule, and we had both been playing in this beautiful Koerner Hall ourselves in past years. It was the end of our tour this year after something like ten concerts, with Carnegie in the middle, and it was just perfect for the timing. (Koerner) a fantastic hall with great acoustics, not too small, not too big, great sound quality and it was open at the end of the tour. So it was just a dream for us. It couldn’t have been better – absolutely perfect timing. And we already have many other plans for the next program!
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Alexandra Silocea performs with the State Academic Symphony Orchestra “Evgeny Svetlanov” at the George Enescu Festival in September 2019. (Photo: Alex Damian)
Trading one keyboard for another doesn’t mean I don’t miss owning a piano. I used to skip afternoons of school as a youngster so I could sit at home in the quiet calm – just me, the cat, and the sounds. My school principal soon arranged for a piano I could play at school –an old, stiff-keyed upright in the teacher’s lounge – and I did use it, at lunchtime, recess, and sometimes even the much-hated gym (for which I was mercifully excused); it ain’t quite the same as my mahogany grand at home, but it was better than nothing. I naturally gravitate to the instrument, not so much for sentimental reasons as for creative ones; I’m keen to play things as an extension of my musical explorations that include score-reading and a wholly new curiosity toward composition. These are activities that complement, and sometimes refreshingly contrast, my many other creative pursuits. The abstract nature of music, and of music-making, are things I once took for granted; no more.
Some performers awaken that place where soul and touch collide, and it’s here that the work of Alexandra Silocea touches a nerve.Her remarkable debut album of Prokofiev Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 – 5 (Avie Records), recorded in a church in England in 2010, is a showcase of delicate touch, knowing timing, lyrical phrasing, and an immensely personal approach to the kaleidoscopic, entirely idiosyncratic piano work of Prokofiev. The album speaks (though more frequently whispers) in ways that tickle the ivories of my own music-filled curiosities and leanings. The ease with which Silocea switches up styles, while still stamping everything with her very own mark, is inspiring. As has been rightly observed, “if Silocea is a talent to be reckoned with and a name to be remembered, it is because she is undaunted by interpretive challenges.” Indeed, but in the most elegant way possible.
This elegance was on full display recently, when Silocea made her debut at the George Enescu Festival in her native Romania, where the Bösendorfer artist performed Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto with the State Academic Symphony Orchestra “Evgeny Svetlanov” under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski at Bucharest’s immense Sala Palatului. Along with a very loving performance of the famous concerto (one rapturously greeted by an enthusiastic audience), Silocea also gave a spellbinding encore of Music Box by Anatoly Lyadov, that wonderful delicate touch of hers so nicely suited to the whimsical, chiming tones of the work. It recalled her gorgeous solo work on her Prokofiev album, as well as on the 2015 album (done with cellist Laura Buruiana), Sonatas: Enescu, Prokofiev, Shostakovich (Avie Records), which highlights that flair for individuality, coupled with lyrical flexibility and tonal dynamism. Her 2013 album, Sound Waves (Avie Records), highlights her natural feel for the work of Debussy, Ravel, Liszt, Schubert, and sometimes a lovely combination of the latter two composers. At its release, Gramophone noted that “Silocea proves to be as good a pianist as she is a programme-builder and her playing offers much to savour […] and contours the ‘Der Müller und der Bach’ transcription’s melody/accompaniment in a way that suggests longtime familiarity with Schubert’s original song.” The opening track, Eärendil by the Norwegian composer Martin Romberg, sees the artist carefully highlight the rich, impressionistic writing with her signature elegant touch and deft dynamic coloration.
Silocea got her start as a student at the George Enescu Music School in Bucharest, before going on to the Vienna University for Music and Performing Arts, where, in 2003, she won the Herbert von Karajan Scholarship. In 2008 she made her professional debut with the Wiener KammerOrchester, and a year later, gave recitals in Vienna (at the Musikverein), New York (the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall), and Paris (Le Salon de Musique). She’s performed at St. Martin In the Fields, and Camerata Pannonica, Finland’s Kymi Sinfonietta, and at this past year’s edition of the Mahler Festival in in Steinbach/Attersee, with bass Matthew Rose. Based in Vienna, Silocea gae a well-received debut with the London Philharmonic in 2012 at Eastbourne’s Congress Hall, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.17 in G Major; Bachtrack’s Evan Dickerson noted “her left-hand touch was particularly notable as it gracefully underlined the melodic material that was imparted with delightful ease by her right hand. The two elements were unified in no small part by good judgement when it came to pedalling.” That good judgment will be exercised when she performs the Shostakovich Piano Concerto 2 again next year over several dates with the Romanian Mihail Jora Philharmonic and Sibiu Philharmonic orchestras, and will be making her debut with the Bamberger Symphoniker under Jakub Hrůša next year; before that, two dates in Ireland, one of which is a concert with Romanian soprano Gabriela Iștoc.
Just before the start of her busy autumn schedule, I sat down with the pianist to chat on the morning following her triumphant Enescu Festival debut. “I’m tired but happy!” she exclaimed, her cheeks flushed pink with joy.
Alexandra Silocea performs with the State Academic Symphony Orchestra “Evgeny Svetlanov” at the George Enescu Festival in September 2019. (Photo: Alex Damian)
Pianos are very much extensions of one’s body for some of us. I remember briefly playing a Bösendorfer years ago, and recall the feeling of its sound really resonating within. Why do you love it?
The sound, and especially the model for yesterday, is very special — the model is called 280VC – Vienna Concert – and the speciality of this one is that the sound is so homogenous, it goes from the lowest the highest very balanced, but with a special tone.
It was very discernible, that tone.
It’s also very powerful — and especially for this Concerto, you need so much strength! You need that for this concert hall too, because you can kind of get lost.
You have to be be careful not to overdo it there, not to fall into cliche. (The concerto) is very often used for film music, and audiences have a preconception of this second movement in particular. I’m so happy Vladimir and I were on the same page with (approach): we were adamant about not going in that sentimental direction. It is sad, but it shouldn’t be sweet.
Not even that. It’s very sad. it’s like being in a trance, after this gigantic start and crazy end. In the middle you don’t know where you are.
That isn’t necessarily sad.
Yes — it’s some wordless place. For me it’s like looking through a glass window in the middle of winter on a sunny day, and the glass is not quite clear. That’s my visual image when I play it. And I think the orchestra played it so beautifully. The orchestra… was just amazing. They played the second movement as if with their closed eyes. It was very emotional.
Alexandra Silocea performs with the State Academic Symphony Orchestra “Evgeny Svetlanov” at the George Enescu Festival in September 2019. (Photo: Alex Damian)
This is your first appearance at the festival of your home country.
My family was there. I think this moment will stay in my daughter’s memory. She was humming the theme as I practised. She knew it by heart up to last night; she’s heard it so many times now.
What’s it like to play as a Romanian artist?
It’s a dream come true. I’ve been dreaming of this for so many years! I was eleven or twelve years old when I first attended the festival, in the audience, as part of the music school. I think everyone who does music here dreams of being on the other side of the hall.
And with Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto…
It was my first time performing it! The orchestra told me afterwards they had only played this work with men — it was the first time a woman played this piece with them, and they discovered a different way of playing, because it was powerful but yet not… it was a different approach than the male soloists they’ve had, and they’ll remember this. I was quite touched, and so grateful to play with them. What a huge honour. They’re so powerful and I was quite intimidated.
In chats with musicians recently, some think chemistry is either there or it’s not, while others think it can be cultivated. What’s your feeling?
From the beginning having it is the best. If it’s not there and you’re trying and trying, well, it’s better than nothing, but it will never be the same. It’s like with people: with some you click, and with some you don’t, and you feel it from the beginning.
Art is a mirror of life in that way.
You have a lot of chemistry with the music of Prokofiev; has it always been there?
For me Prokofiev is one of the gods, and I do feel a deep and special connection with him. It’s always been there, and when the chance of recording a CD came, he was the first composer I thought of. I’m very grateful my label agreed because it was risky for a debut CD, to record five Prokofiev sonatas — it’s not quite the usual! I will continue, especially in 2021, when it’s the 130th anniversary of his birth. It’s not easy, because promoters can be quite difficult.
That seems to be the norm these days; promoters dictate the programming from organizations on tours in order to move tickets.
Maybe sandwich programming is the best — like something popular but also contemporary in-between. We’ll see what will come out of it. Promoters need to trust artists.
Yes, and they need the courage of putting it out there.
Elisabeth Leonskaja performs with the Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien at the George Enescu Festival in September 2019. (Photo: Catalina Filip)
Speaking of passion on display, I saw one of your influences — Leonskaja — recently. How much do you think about them when you play?
I think people who are inspiring you have a huge influence on you. I think there’s always a bit of them in you. Every time I have something very important, Lisa (Leonskaja) always sends me a message before the concert and I know she’s with me, and that’s very special. Somehow it is a responsibility, because somehow the person I am today is thanks to her — we’ve known each other sixteen years now. It’s about moving forwards and keeping all the inspiration I have from her.
That reminds me of a recent conversation I had about the important of humility for artists.
Yes, and Elisabeth is the model for humility and modesty.
The most interesting artists are ones that let themselves be humbled by their art, and translate that humility into life.
You can’t be a true artist if you are not humble and modest. I think you are missing something. I’m just trying to serve the music and the composer, and at the moment I’m quite overwhelmed by the reaction at the festival here, because I honestly didn’t think it would be like this, I didn’t think people would be so touched.
Alexandra Silocea at the George Enescu Festival in September 2019. (Photo: Alex Damian)
People were so excited to meet you at intermission!
I’m so grateful to the festival for the invitation. This moment is one I will never forget. Maybe it’s the beginning of a new era, but… something has shifted, at least inside.
Often that’s how the best kind of art happens: new chapters in art come from new chapters in life. How do you view the art-life connection?
Honestly, how can you separate them? It seems impossible. Being a mother with two kids, I see the change in my playing. It just isn’t possible to separate them. Either a whole personality transposes in the music, or…not. I wouldn’t know how to separate them. I think if they are separate you hear it — you’re not connected to yourself. Maybe it shows later in your life.
… which leads to a quality of the inauthentic.
Yes, especially nowadays.
… and unfortunately not everybody is discerning enough to hear the difference.
I think authenticity today is the most important thing. There are so many of us musicians, and it’s important to just be you. In everything you do, balance is the most important thing, and it’s something I always try to aim for.