Our 31 October concert is one of the most eagerly anticipated of the coming season. Not just because of the works – classical music at its finest, Mozart and Schubert – but since we will have the opportunity to greet on stage the world-renowned pianist-conductor, Christian Zacharias. We asked him about the forthcoming performance via telephone.
Mr. Zacharias, the Los Angeles Times called you the “most convincing of Mozarteans”. Listening to your recordings and reading your words about Mozart, it is evidently clear that you have special ties to the music of the Austrian master. Where does this originate from, how did you discover your strong affiliation with his music?
This is a long story that dates back right to my childhood years. You know, among the first classical pieces that I listened to – actually it was my sister’s record – were Mozart’s violin sonatas with Clara Haskil and Arthur Grumiaux. It was about the same time I started to learn the piano and it became a strong influence. Later, around the age of 20, when I started my real pianist career, the very first record that I bought for myself was Mozart, again.
Actually, it was a piano concerto in the recording of Géza Anda! I think this record first made me want to play these concertos, to be a part of this world with its delicate music of Mozart!
What is so current, or may I say fascinating, in the works of Mozart, some 200 years after their creation?
To me, these are simply the best pieces of music ever written. It really is that simple. Especially the piano concertos represent the absolute summit of this genre. And it is most breath-taking that he had written not just a few concertos, but over twenty! It is absolutely unbelievable.
And what makes this particular work, the Piano Concert in B (K.595) special? What are its key aspects in your interpretation?
Well, knowing that this was the last piano concerto by Mozart puts it in a certain perspective. It is quieter, more contemplative than the other concertos. I think this work was an exploration of new territories even for Mozart. It is very special right from the start. It begins almost like a Schubert or Bruckner symphony!
And the other piece of the evening, The Mass in E-flat from Schubert – what are the connections, beyond the obvious?
Well, the influence of Mozart is tangible here, just as it is with the music of every composer after him. This is very perceptible in the Mass. It is also the last of the Schubert masses, just like the Piano Concerto K.595 was the last one by Mozart. It also employs unconventional elements such as the ending that draws on a motive from a characteristically Austrian song.
In case of the concerto you will take on the roles of both conductor and soloist. What difference does it mean with regard to the course of preparation? Is it any different to having a separate pianist and conductor?
Of course it is. I will certainly start the rehearsals with the Schubert Mass, just so the orchestra and I can get to know each other. This way I would also start rehearsals for an ordinary performance. Then, when we get more comfortable with each other, we turn to the Concerto. I usually just start playing the piece, knowing that I can trust the musicians. Naturally, there are stops, when we need to clarify how certain passages should sound. But generally speaking, this method of conducting and playing is no problem for a good orchestra. There are limits of course as to how far you can go. I would never attempt it with a Brahms concerto for example. But when it works, it works great!
How does it affect the performance? In your experience, does it alter the way the given piece sounds?
First of all, musicians and orchestras usually like this way of performance as it forces every musician to be more receptive, more alert to the playing of the others, and more alert to what her/his contribution brings to the big picture. It almost resembles chamber music in a way. There is an active, multilateral conversation going on between not just the solo piano and the orchestra, but between the different sections of the orchestra, the musicians themselves, too. This is exactly the reason why the musicians like this way of playing. It demands a hundred per cent focus and concentration, but at the same time the reward is a more intimate, more refined sound. It tends to bring out the best of the musicians.
After so many years of fruitful work and critical acclaim what keeps you motivated? What goals have you set out for yourself and where do you derive the necessary driving force from?
Well, it is not about me, it is all about the music. There are masterpieces so fresh and driving which simply enthral me. I feel the urge to be a part of these works and make them come alive. Music is a form of art that only exists in the moment of performance. To make music come alive, performers are needed; written notes alone don’t make it sound.
I am in a very lucky position as I can choose which works to play and conduct. So whenever I feel invited and captivated by one of these stunningly fresh and – may I say – contemporary masterpieces, I usually have the opportunity to perform it. Could anyone ask for a better motivation?