The French pianist has a profound respect for works and diverse forms of musical thought. In order to keep his passion alive, he’s concentrating on Bach’s Goldberg Variations: a piece that’s as inspiring as it is imposing.
After tackling the concertos of Dvořák and Mozart, you’re back with Bach’s Goldberg Variations. How do you feel about this work and its composer?
Bach is such a rich and demanding composer that I never knew if I would perform his works in public. I waited until I turned fifty to give it a go with the Art of Fugue. Playing this music in concert turned out to be such an enriching and extraordinary experience that I wanted to start all over again. Yet, I was hesitant about tackling the Goldberg Variations because, even though they profoundly marked my teenage years, they are played rather often nowadays. This bothered me because, in my view, one of the roles of the performer is to unearth repertoire to develop the audience’s knowledge, rather than keep on playing the same familiar pieces. In the end, I felt that it was important to think about other ways of performing. So, right now, the Goldberg Variations have become an essential element of my life as an artist.
Why did you wait for so long?
There’s a synthesis to Bach’s music, open to its time and other eras. As a result, it’s almost impossible to do justice to the many facets of this music (which combines dances and complex polyphony). Moreover, finding adequate ways of achieving this on a contemporary piano, which corresponds to Bach’s rich instrumental vision, only adds to the difficulty of this music. Respecting all the types of cantabile and articulations is a very time-consuming endeavour...And I wanted to give it my all. (laughs)
What do these scores teach us about Bach’s personality?
We know very little about him. The richness of his creation is such that we scarcely want to know more about the person himself. When you open a score, you see the artistic personality of the creator, but everything depends on the type of composition. Bach composed a wide variety of works, ranging from miniatures to universal architecture. The mark of such a universal artist is to maintain his identity in all these different compositions.
In a documentary about you, you say that interpreting a work is “liberating it”. What do you mean by that?
A piece of music which hasn’t been liberated is like a play that is performed with all the requisite respect, knowledge and ability, but which, at the end of the day, is still a text. Liberating a play is about ensuring that all the imaginary dimensions are constantly present within the accurate performance that people are trying to present.
Is that how you keep the flame alive after all these years?
I don’t feel able to define the nature of this passion. Of course, we are all driven by an inner strength. It’s all about channelling it, understanding it, and above all making sure it achieves objectives which represent an ideal goal at any given moment. Life is constantly changing; we have to keep on starting over again: as soon as something’s happened, it’s over. The next creation will thus take on a different form; otherwise you’re a prisoner of your own academic nature. Life is not about burying yourself in your own system.
You also say that you have periods in which you feel a special intimacy with certain types of music.
There are times when certain works reveal new needs within us. Daring to tackle new works enables us to regenerate ourselves and to stay in phase with this constantly changing life, to avoid becoming mummified…
We know how familiar you are with the great composers of the 20th century such as Ligeti, Kodály and Boulez and the way you serve their works and musical thought. Do you find a similar energy in the young generation of composers and performers?
I would not say an energy, but rather multiple energies! There are a lot of creative people out there. I’m not referring to performers who are part of a hackneyed system which is going round and round in circles, but rather musicians who need to make their voice heard. We are awaiting a revival of this individual creativity. The world is undergoing a fascinating mutation that’s in equal part dangerous and worrying. Lifeblood doesn’t come from those who submit to retrograde or regressive visions, but from individuals with a free soul.
From a conversation with Luc Vermeulen