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Piano mag

Paul Badura-Skoda

by Frederic Gaussin

Paul Badura-Skoda aestro, yesterday, when you played Brahms' Op.118 and 119, as well as Scenes from Childhood by Schumann, all of which were written as cycles, you demonstrated a quality that I see as essential: the unity of your execution, often compromised in favor of a facile self-satisfaction in miniatures.

Paul Badura-Skoda: I believe this is a constant preoccupation of mine, and unconscious one, but my initial training in Vienna always included this central element of musical interpretation. My first teacher constantly repeated: "The line (Linie, in German), where is the line, more line!" Edwin Fischer, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Hermann Scherchen, Hans Knappertsbusch, these great musicians, these great minds that I had the good fortune to know, and with whom I had the joy of playing and working, saw the architecture of a piece as their primary priority. Their vision was organic. They would see a long arch that goes from the first to the last note of the score. They were able to see beyond the small framework of the movements and the sections within them. This overarching gesture, which does no harm to the details, recreates and communicates the meaning of the piece.

Tell me about your musical initiation in the Josefstadt of your childhood.

Oh, I think I loved music from a very early age. My mother told me that I sang – not very in tune! – before I was a year old... What I'm sure of, though, is that we had a gramophone that I was able to work alone at the age of three, without breaking the albums, which in and of itself is quite a feat. I had my favorites in our eclectic collection of 78s: exclusively classical music, Viennese songs, and opera. I didn't know how to read, but I could tell them apart thanks to their labels of different colors, which distinguished them for my listening pleasure. Of course we had a piano, like most of the families in our entourage, a Petrof baby grand, a rather good piano actually, and my mother decided early that I should learn to play. When my grandfather returned to Czechoslovakia – he was originally from Moravia – he left an apartment for my mother of which she decided to rent one of the rooms. Several perfectly trustworthy and distinguished individuals expressed interest in the room, but my mother chose Marta Wiesenthal among them, a piano virtuoso who was also an accomplished 'cellist. Ms. Wiesenthal had to give up her bow because of a persistent muscular contraction, a kind of tennis elbow. My mother decided that she would be the first teacher for her little Paul, and that is indeed what happened. Between the ages of three and six, I listened to Ms. Wiesenthal practice daily, without ever touching the instrument myself. I lived off her music. It's funny that we're speaking of Brahms' Opus 119: I remember very clearly the Rhapsody, which Ms. Wiesenthal played often, the same for Chopin's Revolutionary Etude. These pieces are my first memories of the piano. When I became her student, I benefited from rigorous teaching, even if it seemed boring to me at first: I'm thinking of Czerny, Kuhnau sonatinas... My repertoire widened and became more diverse, however, to the point where I wanted to "play music" after two or three years of study, whereas up to that point, I had thought of the piano simply as a hobby, or a scholarly activity among others. I loved to draw, for example, and if you can imagine, my entourage thought I was talented enough to make it as a painter! I also loved trains, clockwork, mechanics. What I wanted to do more than anything was to become an engineer like my father Ludwig, who died in an accident shortly after my birth. He was the only one of his peers, in a group of some hundred students, to finish his studies a year early in the best technical university in the country. His studies and sketches were absolutely extraordinary in their precision and beauty. This makes me think of something very touching, now that I've mentioned him. There comes a time in the life of every child when he starts asking questions about the world, the meaning of it all, where his life is leading, his origins... I had heard about "Our Father," who art in heaven, but at the same time, I had a father who was indeed in heaven that we talked about at home. In my childish mind, for a long time, I thought the two were one and the same, until I was old enough to make the necessary distinction...
So Ms. Wiesenthal lived with us in a room adjacent to the salon with the piano. She carefully monitored my progress. When my playing became too fanciful for her taste, I heard her voice from the other side of the wall: "Paul, üben!," which put me in my place. I can still feel the first slap she gave me. Here's a typical childish story, because only children make the mistake of taking adults seriously... Ms. Wiesenthal came in one day absolutely furious, because I had obviously not worked as she wanted me to on a little piece that I didn't like at all. She was beside herself, and she gave me the following choice: "either you learn to play it properly, Paul, or you don't play it at all!" And I believed her [laughs], I thought she was really giving me the choice, and I thought, now's my chance! So I was very surprised when Ms. Wiesenthal asked me to play it in my next lesson... and she slapped me because of my impertinence of not working on it any further. My first "encounter" with Beethoven also left even more of an impression, but in a different way. Ms. Wiesenthal took me one evening to a recital by the Viennese pianist Friedrich Wührer (1900-1975). The program consisted solely of Beethoven Sonatas, which I had never heard before. I remember that the fast passages fascinated me, the slow movements bored me (as you know, I've changed since). Wührer played the Sonata in C-Major, Op. 2 N. 3: I was only 8 or 9 at the time, but I wanted to learn it immediately. Ms. Wiesenthal tried to convince me otherwise, her objection being that it was too difficult, but I insisted. I don't know how I ended up playing it (I'm sure the slow movement was the worst), but I think it was my first challenge. I already took music and the piano very seriously at that point, but I hadn't yet decided if I wanted to make a life out of it; I was very drawn to math, the physical sciences, less to history, for example, and not at all to geography... which has taken its revenge on me a number of times in my adult life.

What would you say about Marta Wiesenthal's teaching, from a technical point of view?

Her method was somewhat similar to that of Leschetitzky, with the scale work and octaves. Ms. Wiesenthal taught a supple way of playing, very natural, especially as regards the finger position at the keyboard, but I didn't work with her for very long. When Ms. Wiesenthal got married, she left for Germany, and left me in the hands of her closest friend, Viola Thern, who was a member of a prominent family of Austro-Hungarian musicians. Her father Karl, who was born just a few years after Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Schumann, had directed the National Theatre of Pest for a number of years. He was a pianist, conductor, and a composer of operas and symphonies. Liszt, his compatriot, used one of his melodies in the Hungarian Rhapsodies. Thern's sons, the famous Gebrüder Thern [the brothers Louis and Willi], were a famous piano duo, to whom Liszt dedicated his four-hand arrangements of Schubert's marches. Thus, Viola Thern had grown up in a privileged milieu from an artistic point of view. Her father and uncle were both trained at home by the patriarch, and they also took lessons in Leipzig with Moscheles and Reinecke. They knew Berlioz, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Metternich, and Wagner. I don't know if they were close to Mahler, or what they thought of Schoenberg's school of composition, but they gave a number of premieres of four-hand arrangements of Bruckner's symphonies. During their training, they arranged all of Beethoven's symphonies for four-hand piano, as well as an impressive number of quartets by Mozart, Haydn, and the Mendelssohn octet. They went on tour throughout Europe. I believe they died shortly before I was born. In Vienna, their reputation lived on. Ms. Thern, my teacher, had drunk from the Lisztian cup, and her knowledge of that pianistic tradition was profound. The keystone of her teaching was a total relaxation of the body; one had to avoid all unnecessary tension. She said: "If you feel the beginnings of any pain, don't struggle on, stop immediately." For my part, I never suffered from tendinitis or cramps throughout my career, which proves how right she was in her teaching. She asked that the wrist be entirely supple, a total freedom in elbow movement, but at the same time firm, rounded fingers, not at all straight, deep in the keys. My fingers were quite weak, so I had to do a number of different exercises to strengthen them: lift them in this way, let them curve from the knuckles, like this, the key being that the finger joints should never be overextended, because the whole arm, from the finger pad to the shoulder, should move together like a wave [Maestro Badura-Skoda demonstrates on the table], otherwise it's impossible to give weight or power, and impossible to properly voice a piano melody. Edwin Fischer, my teacher, who was himself, like Backhaus, a student of Liszt's disciple Eugen d'Albert, confirmed later that this technique is indeed excellent. In the meantime, I was lucky enough to meet Otto Schulhof [1889-1958], which one shouldn't confuse with his homonym with two f's, Erwin Schulhoff [1894-1942, student of Willi Thern], who had the same way of teaching, and who taught me especially the art of leaps and lightness of movement at the keyboard.


Are you referring to the little-known transcriber of the Pizzicato-Polka by Johann Strauss, which is one of your favorite encores?

Yes, precisely. Schulhof was a piano wizard, and it's unfortunate that he left so few recordings, some of which were done before the 1930s, which include of course Op. 449 and a number of pieces for which he accompanied the 'cellist Pablo Casals. Schulhof played with great ease and with such tremendous sound quality... a truly exceptional player. He always got the best out of whatever piano he played – such beautiful sounds, and even better, the sounds that fit each period, each composer. My publisher just published a chamber music collection, which includes the Dumky trio (with Jean Fournier and Antonio Janigro), and which complements Schulhof's recorded lesson on the piece. That lesson is an unrivaled document in which we hear him illustrate his comments at the piano, and Schulhof knew Dvorák's fellow musicians: he had learned from them the proper inflections, the bowing, accents, in short, he had a direct connection to the very spirit of the piece.

Symbolically, with that you combine two different sides of your personality: Slavic and Viennese.

Indeed... And in the same way, I just published a short book that is a collection of masterclasses that Fischer gave in Lucerne, in 1954: sixteen or seventeen lessons that deal with the repertoire from Bach to Hindemith, life lessons, during which I took abundant notes at the time. The piano, and in saying this I'm not teaching anyone anything, but the piano is a lyre that can and should produce an infinite variety of colors. Edwin Fischer proved this, and fortunately, his artistry lives on in his recordings. When I was young, and of course in the eyes of the previous generation, you must realize that the worst insult for a pianist was to have a critic say that you played drily, that your forte was harsh, or that your playing was drab and unexpressive. That was the assessment no one wanted, the most foreboding judgment: "So-and-so demonstrated that they have a dull touch." Even in the most intense passages, Fischer and Schulhof were never percussive, some of the contemporary repertoire calls for this I'm sure, but the glory of their timbres was never lacking. I dare say, the piano you heard me on yesterday was a bit dry. I generally expect and appreciate a broader palette, more richness in the upper harmonics.

Your erudite approach always associates the make of the instrument with the style, the music with its physical manifestation, in other words, technique, which can derive from either the means employed or the characteristics of the piece. I'll leave it to our readers to consult the numerous musicological articles you have written on this vast subject (just as I would refer them to your academic writing which deals with a number of crucial elements from publishing to interpretation), but what is your view, Maestro, of modern instruments?

Bösendorfers have always maintained, in my view, the specific qualities of classic Viennese sound. Allow me to recount this anecdote regarding Ralph Kirkpatrick on the subject. We were very close, but Kirkpatrick, who edited the catalogue of Scarlatti's sonatas, actually hated pianists, probably like any harpsichordist worthy of the name. He had nothing good to say about the modern piano, and had an even stronger dislike for the fortepiano, nonetheless, I heard him say one day, "But really, Paul, why do you try to understand the mediocre instruments Beethoven and Schubert played on, when you have a modern Bösendorfer?!" That was, in the end, a genuine compliment.

Without denigrating the exceptional sound and mechanical qualities of Steinways, I feel that Bösendorfers have it all: color, irreproachable mechanics, and especially this clear sound, even in the low register where it is possible, on a Bösendorfer, to make each note sing out distinctly, which is perfect for non-legato playing. Old Petrofs have a similar quality, they are rich, singing, ample, pleasant, and clear, and it's no surprise that Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli preferred them for a time. Steingraeber is a remarkable historical manufacturer, artisanal, small-scale, where each piano shows a spirit of innovation which entirely respects the memory and exemplary identity of the past. I am happy that Bösendorfer managed to weather the crisis that the firm went through previously: the instruments they're producing now are irreproachable. I was able to take advantage, not long ago in Vienna for a recital, of a magnificent, practically new Imperial. I own a beautiful Steinway D from 1954 in my collection. I acquired a second last year, a very beguiling piano with incredible resonance, with which you can divulge all the vocal qualities of the piano. I have often played exceptional Steinways while on tour, in Quito, for example, in Ecuador – what a memory, what splendor! – but you know, my colleagues and I tend perhaps to focus too much on the prestige of a brand: when it's a magnificent piano, one forgets the name of the brand. Casals had a number of remarkable 'cellos, among them a Goffriller, the only one of its kind, but he also used modern instruments. He often scoffed: "Ah, His Majesty the Emperor Stradivarius and I..." With a more "modest" instrument, he felt that he was the master, and not the servant, in some way. I sometimes feel that with my Bösendorfer Imperial from 1923, which I love so much; it's so beautiful, but it makes my life difficult! One has to pay homage to His demanding, difficult, Majesty. I often engage in noble combat with him, but again, instruments should remain, for us, simple vectors of musical transmission. I had a peculiar experience, for example, when I was recording a few years back the Sonata Op.78 by Beethoven. I had begun recording using my Steinway, but I wasn't satisfied. I thought I could obtain a more subtle, refined result. I finished the recording sessions two months later, in the same hall, but on a Bösendorfer that belonged to the Konzerthaus. During the editing, Mr. Schuller, who was a wizard in this field, didn't notice that I had used two different instruments. The final recording mixes their timbres so effectively that it's difficult even for me to distinguish them today, expect in specific passages. I think I can divulge this little secret, because it in no way derides either Bösendorfer or Steinway, quite the contrary, nor does it do any disrespect to the listener.

Do you miss ivory?

Yes, I do miss ivory, quite naturally: it's a living thing, pleasant to play, which conserves heat, but we have to adapt to the way things are today. Yamaha and Kawai today use recycled, organic bone matter, which is pulverized and then agglomerated on the surface of the keys to give a feeling very close to that of ivory, although more impersonal, without a doubt. Fortunately, I don't mind the difference much, because I have rather dry fingers. Sweat makes your life impossible on a plastic keyboard.

Did the profound musician, the visceral poet that was Edwin Fischer speak about technique?

And how! He knew about real pianistic technique. During one of the sessions I was telling you about, in Lucerne, he devoted an entire class to technique. I still have a drawing I made of his hand position that I did on the spot. He spoke a lot of d'Albert, with a bit of legitimate pride. The Gods of his youth, as he said, were at odds with each other: d'Albert and Busoni. In d'Albert, Edwin Fischer admired his intelligence, the quality of his sound, and also his gift for improvisation. Late in life d'Albert only played to pay alimony, as he married six or nine times, I can't remember, and he was the father of an incalculable number of children. I knew his "last" widow... who confided in me that she certainly would not have been his last wife if he had lived any longer! [laughs] D'Albert was a composer, close to Liszt and Brahms, and Fischer first taught us his way of playing that goes beyond mere piano playing, if you see what I mean. A compositional approach to music inevitably shifts our vision of interpretation. This is a pertinent remark as concerns, for example, a man whom I still admire and have great affection for: Béla Bartók.

What kind of man was Edwin Fischer away from the keyboard?

He was a complicated soul, very profound, vulnerable, who could crawl into his shell only to reemerge suddenly as a demiurge on stage. In a very human way, Fischer was on a perpetual quest for goodness and beauty. He helped one of us his students, who was having personal difficulties, by giving him a piano. He was definitely closer to some of his students than others, but he kept a certain distance from his protégés, including me, who he esteemed, because he did the honor, when he was sick, of recommending me for the Salzburg festival to take his place in his trio with Wolfgang Schneiderhan and Enrico Mainardi – I was only 23 years old... That was an incredible vote of confidence. What I regret, personally, is that Fischer never replied in writing, as he had in previous decades, to the relentless, overly-enthusiastic letters that I continued to send him. He was also easily swayed by young women, and I remember one day Brendel was furious because our teacher had given ten extra minutes of his attention to a lovely young lady that Alfred thought was inept, musically speaking! [laughs] "And us, and us, why her?," I can still hear him – it was very funny. The personal tragedy for Edwin Fischer was, at root, that he never managed to let go of his mother's apron strings; she lived to the age of 96. He never left her bedside, but she didn't allow him the freedom to live his own life either, which was certainly the cause of his failed marriage to a very beautiful woman from the Mendelssohn family. Fischer was hyper-sensitive, with a very different personality than that of Wilhelm Furtwängler, for example, who was a conductor, meaning the master of a situation, with all that that presumes in terms of self-representation and projection. Fischer suffered tremendously from stage fright, just like me, I must say, contrary to Gulda or Gieseking, who had an impressive presence. Backhaus was very imposing, for his part, he never gave the impression of lacking confidence: his youthful recordings are extraordinary, his Brahms Paganini Variations are even more perfect than those of Michelangeli, which is saying a lot. He played concertos with uncommon mastery, and I heard him ornament Liszt's 2nd Rhapsody with figures and scales faster than I've ever heard for that piece.

You've spoken about Fischer's pianistic colors and his hyper-sensitivity, and this suddenly makes me think of the photo by Roger Hauert where we see him smiling in Lausanne next to Alfred Cortot, who had similar artistry and temperament.

That's right. And the time when Cortot came to Vienna in 1947 remains one of my greatest pianistic memories. He came there to play for the first time after the War, and we all knew what the war had been for him, what his ideological engagement had been. Cortot played two programs. The first part of the first recital, how shall I say this... it was an absolute disaster. Cortot played Chopin's Fantasy, which is not very difficult from a technical point of view, but he didn't manage to play even one octave correctly. Jörg Demus was seated next to me, and he was seething: "My goodness, how is this possible? He's an amateur, I'm leaving at intermission!" After the intermission, however, Cortot came back on stage like a changed man. It was a different man, a different pianist. He had gotten ahold of himself. I couldn't believe how well he played the Sonata Op. 35 No. 2, which is such a perilous piece by comparison. At the end of the concert, with Gulda, we found Demus and tried to convince him that he had missed a major event: "That's impossible! I don't believe you – and I already sold my ticket for the second recital!" [laughs] In the end, we weren't able to convince him. A week later, in front of a sold-out house, with all three of us in attendance, Cortot played the 24 Preludes and the Kreisleriana. I can tell you that he went far beyond, in terms of depth, poetry, and spontaneity, all the recordings he had ever made of these pieces, which we knew so well. It was a revelation! It was so moving! All the pianists who were there agreed. When Cortot and Fischer were on the right foot, it was perfect, in terms of the cleanness of their playing, and not just from an emotional or spiritual point of view...

Since we're talking about the illustrious Franco-Swiss pianist, do you remember the Marguerite Long competition, in which you participated in this very city more than sixty years ago?

Of course... The older student Aldo Ciccolini won first. I was also honored alongside Ventsislav Yankoff and Daniel Wayenberg [20-27 June 1949]. The jury included Sergiu Celibidache, Bernhard Paumgartner, Lazare-Lévy, and Georges Enesco, of whom I knew his student, Monique Haas, the composer Gian Francesco Malipiero, Nadia Boulanger... Celibidache congratulated me on my "orchestral" interpretation of the Brahms Paganini Variations, and I particularly remember that Marguerite Long had enjoyed my Ravel, which I found touching given the ties she had with him, but also because I am not French, and because I hadn't benefited from the Ravelian tradition or teaching. I simply believed that I needed to carefully respect his text, more than the others, and to try to not over-personalize it, and in this I was not mistaken, as Marguerite Long confirmed that same year when she gave me a very interesting lesson on the Chopin concerto in Warsaw. This was a revelation, because in this lesson I discovered her musical side – she sung and felt the phrases – whereas I had believed that she was arid and marked by the old French school of finger articulation.
I've spoken often about international competitions. I'm perhaps a bit pessimistic, but I think there are too many pianists today who play note-perfect interpretations, without any soul, originality, fervor, or knowledge of what the music they are playing truly expresses. For me, these performances are no more than circus acts: we're speechless in the face of the prowess and balance of these acrobats who confound the ear, but our art should go further than that: it should communicate, reveal. I have a very moving memory from a concert I gave one Sunday in Málaga: I can still see the children from a large family, in front of whom I was preparing to play the Hammerklavier. Were they going to be able to sit still for these 42 minutes of music?

Or for the eruption of the A-natural in the first movement?

[laughs] Yes, A-natural, indeed, whether von Bülow likes it or not! In any case, I felt bad for them in advance. But to my great surprise, the little girl was so moved by this music that she wrote a poem on the Sonata, a sweet, marvelous, surprising little poem that she gave me spontaneously as children are wont to do. That was a great joy for me. For my part, I felt unforgettable emotions when I was young, listening to the legendary musicians that I've mentioned. I also remember a composer, pianist, and organist who was barely older than me, Kurt Rapf (1922-2007), who wrote a concerto for piano which he dedicated to me. He was the future assistant to Knappertsbusch, and he played the Opus 111 for me when I was just 14 years old. He was only 18 at the time, but he had understood, and he revealed to me, quite literally, the language of late Beethoven, which I had not yet encountered at that point. He showed me the contrast, the struggle between death and transfiguration. Only Gulda, at 16, and Fischer, of course, would later communicate such a poignant feeling in this major work. I wanted to work on it immediately, just as I had done with the Sonata Op.2 No.3. The first movement wasn't a problem, but the second remained an enigma for years. I was incapable of playing it. I was lacking everything, a whole life of analysis, understanding, experience, feelings. I dared to play the work for Edwin Fischer when I was 21, and he recognized my talent, which was a relief, but I didn't play Beethoven's last sonata in public until I was 35 years old, to give it time to find its place in me. Our art needs time, internal maturity, which can only be gained through the life course of each of us. We start out with blind admiration, we learn, and then we have to unlearn, detach ourselves little by little from what we've received, in order to become ourselves. It took me 40 years, not to "free" myself (I wouldn't want to free myself from Edwin Fischer, for whom I have boundless admiration), but 40 years to be able to gain a certain objectivity as far as he is concerned, 40 years to realize that slight imperfections coexisted in him next to his profound genius, which couldn't take any serious criticism.

Twice, yesterday, you demonstrated a particular relationship with tempo and agogics: in the Strauss Polka, of course, in which the Viennese rhythm comes naturally to you, but also in the Träumerei from Scenes from Childhood by Schumann, which you took at a much quicker tempo than we're used to. In listening to you, I couldn't help but think of Horowitz, who couldn't stand dragging interpretations of the Rondo in a-minor by Mozart, marked Andante.

The question of tempo is a complicated one, which calls for a long discussion, and should always be contextualized. There are objective considerations, in part linked to the writing, the context, the structures, the rhythmic and musical figures, the phrasing, the articulation, the formal structure of the piece, physical limitations as well, such as the acoustics, the sound that results (although these considerations have been reduced in the modern era). Questions of tempo also have a subjective, personal dimension which is different for everyone. I play the Träumerei in conformity with Schumann's tempo indication, 100 to the eighth... but the same marking can be found in the beginning of Chopin's Etude in E-Major, but no one plays that this fast, so should we not trust composers? [laughs] The tempo markings in the first edition of the Suite Op.14 by Bartók are rendered null and void by those in the second edition, which aren't respected... even by Bartók himself in his recording. I have a similar, personal story to tell on the subject. In general, when it comes to modern works, I trust the composers. The second concerto by Franck Martin, which I commissioned, called for the following tempo: 63 to the dotted-quarter in the first movement. That felt a bit slow for my taste, for an allegro, when I read through it initially. Spontaneously, I decided to play it faster; that's what I did in Lausanne, during the dress rehearsal for the premiere. The conductor, Victor Desarzens (1908-1986), himself a student of Martin and an excellent musician, immediately noticed my rushing, which a metronome helped us to correct... which didn't prevent Frank Martin to deem it to slow at the end of the rehearsal. He said, and I agree, that the composer is not necessarily the best interpreter of his own work. Franck Martin believed that exploration, work, and a kind of split-personality are necessary to resolve this kind of problem. On the one hand, you have to use your inner ear, a silent interpretation if you will, which is sometimes belied by the sound manifestation in the studio or in a concert hall. When he decided "definitively" for the dotted-quarter at 69, I asked Martin to confirm this change with his signature on the published score. Music is a living, breathing being, it must be experienced, it must be in harmony with the moment in which it is played. I'm currently re-working the Bach d-minor concerto. I'm rereading the score as if I didn't know it at all, measure by measure, very carefully. I'm amazed by the little things I'm discovering, nuances, inflections, little things that magically reveal themselves to me all of a sudden, and much more – I want to understand the essence and the truth of this work. That is the ultimate challenge for me: avoid repetition which comes with laziness and habit, and not become a clone of my recordings or of myself for lack of courage, awareness, and sincerity.

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