In the middle of January, three masterpieces of Schumann will be performed for our audiences in Budapest and Pécs at Müpa Budapest and Kodály Center, including the Piano Concerto in A minor, a popular and celebrated piece since its premiere. This time, Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi will be the BFO’s soloist. He spoke to Júlia Váradi about the composition and the freedom of interpretation.
Let me start our conversation with what you have said about a famous teacher of yours in an interview. You mentioned that you had learnt from Alfred Brendel how rewarding it was to pay attention to even the tiniest detail. Now that I have listened to some of your performances on the internet, I could really see that you do pay attention to each minute detail. Have you deliberately done this ever since?
I discovered quite a long time ago that in each piece, there are a number of little thoughts and messages behind every note. And no performance can be really enjoyable without noticing these. Of course, we know several composers who gave precise marks and instructions on how to play their compositions, and most of the time this really helps performers, preventing them from starting in the wrong direction. I must say that the composer who gave the most exact and detailed instructions was Béla Bartók. He explains how to play almost each note. Just like Debussy, by the way. With his pieces too, you will know exactly how he would like them to be played.
What about Schumann’s scores, from which you will play at this concert? How much did he want to help those interpreting his music?
This is perhaps not so typical of earlier composers. They did not specify so much how to play their pieces. But that’s exactly why I feel the importance of paying as much attention as possible to the tiniest details, so that when I have understood and internalized them, I can be freer when I’m playing. And for me, the precondition of each concert is that I feel free when I play. For this, I need a very precise knowledge of the details.
That’s interesting as to me it seems a contradiction to some extent that if you know exactly what the composer meant with the piece and you need to internalize the “message” of the notes so thoroughly, doesn’t it just go against freedom? Because it means strict boundaries for your performance. Or have I misunderstood you?
No, that is not the case at all. Because I do not play my own compositions but pieces written by other composers. So I must really understand and learn what I perform. The responsibility of playing the pieces as they were originally imagined by the composers is huge, so I can’t afford not to understand the role of every note. And if I manage to do that, then I can feel really free within the boundaries created for me. I have heard several interpretations from my colleagues that were very far from the original work. Some of those were rather exciting and interesting. But then comes the question: Do they still have anything to do with the original piece at all?
You play a wide range of music from modern to classical, from every era. Where can Schumann be found in this very colorful selection if that can be determined at all?
Schumann’s music probably belongs to the most personal and intimate compositions. It is always highly expressive while he intends to describe his inner feelings in the most heartfelt and delicate manner. Great sounds without loud shouts. Meanwhile, he almost always carries on a beautiful conversation through musical tools. In this respect, he could be called Schubert’s follower to some extent. The way he can give voice to the vibrations of the soul in the most intimate manner. This is the most conspicuous thing about the piano concerto, especially in the first and second movements. It moves me, touching me deeply, whenever I perform it. I do hope that it will also resonate with the innermost feelings of the audience, but only if there is deep silence and a high level of concentration when they listen to the piece. In fact, this composition can only work together with the audiences and if it is capable of captivating them, a magical thing will happen.
How important is the fact that Schumann composed most of his piano pieces for his wife, Clara Schumann? Does this make performing them more difficult?
Clara was a fantastic pianist. There are recordings of the performances of her pupils, as they were the first generation of musicians whose playing was recorded on disks. So we can understand from these recordings how Clara might have taught and what she focused on. And we also know that she made alterations to some of Schumann’s compositions. She changed things and even told the composer to leave things out when she thought they were too difficult to play. They had an inspiring and very active artistic relationship and a great influence on each other. It certainly helped that Schumann had a pianist “at hand”. So he immediately found the answers to many issues. As for the third movement of the piano concerto, we actually know that Clara also had a hand in it. In fact, this is a transition to the amazing fourth movement, which strongly reminds me of the dance scene of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the animals dance together with the people. This is the pinnacle of the piano concerto and, of course, its most famous part. I know that some people don’t even really like the first two movements, but for me this piece, with all four movements, is a tremendous experience, and I'm sure that is also thanks to Clara Schumann.
As far as I know, your last visit to Budapest was a long time ago. Were you happy to come?
I’m delighted to be here. I was last here in 2008, when we spent a whole day with Zoltán Kocsis preparing for a concert. He told me a number of important things on that occasion, which I can still remember. So I am very excited and can hardly wait to play with the excellent Festival Orchestra. And, on top of that, Marek Janowski and I have at least one concert together every year, so it will be a pleasure to work with him.