Willem Brons

I have always felt this way about the sonata, from the moment I started playing it! 

I have always felt this way about the sonata, from the moment I started playing it!

Willem Boone (WBo): I keep good memories of your playing that go back until 1989. I was  a student at that time and I worked as a guide on the canal tours. On a Sunday evening, there were a lot of concerts at the Pulitzer Hotel, mainly piano recitals. You played the penultimate Schubert sonata, in A major D 959, that I have seldom heard so beautifully played..

Willem Brons (WB): I really liked the director of the hotel, who was a friend of Hans Duijf from Cristofori. I once played a concert in the hotel garden that started at 8.30 pm, you had to pay attention to the church bells of the Westerchurch that rang at nine o’clock…

WBo: The other day I heard that same Schubert played by Arcadi Volodos and the newspapers were unanimous in their praise, however, your performance impressed me more…

WB: Maybe his interpretation was less dramatic. The penultimate Schubert sonata is the most all-encompassing of the entire cycle and: it shows misery, mildness, spirituality, tenderness, despair, happiness, nostalgia, etc. I have always felt this way about the sonata, from the moment I started playing it!

WBo: By the way, you were the teacher of my piano teacher, Robijn Tilanus!

WB:  Yes, that’s correct, although she studied with me for only a short period of time. She was not sure whether to study biology or music. Whenever you have doubts, you shouldn’t choose music, at least that’s what my teachers told me when I was 17 or 18 years old. “What do you want to achieve in music?” people asked me, to which I answered: “I have no idea, but I want to know everything about it instead of staying an outsider, i.e. an amateur pianist.” Later on, Robijn overcame her doubts and decided to study music with Frank Mol, a very gifted musician who unfortunately died young.  

WBo: You are almost 80 years old, what has changed in the music world since you made your debut?

WB: I never gave it much thought, I hardly ever think of it.. Generally speaking, you get more recognition when you get older and when you realise you have become better known. A career has its ups and downs. In the 70’s, I played four consecutive seasons with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, but then its new director Hein van Royen didn’t like my playing and I haven’t performed with the orchestra ever since. What I really like, is that I play more and more often abroad, people are more open-minded there. For instance I play every year in Russia and I get nowhere so much  acclaim as there, whereas there are countless pianists in that country who play more brilliantly. They obviously like what I do, that sounds better than the word “success”, which I dislike. I  played in Japan for about 30 years where I do everything what I like: I play concerts, give lectures and masterclasses. The latter is something I do less and less in the Netherlands, because nobody asks me. However, for the radio station “Concertzender” I comment every month a different composition. A while ago, I spoke about Beethovens Third Concerto,  pianist Hannes Minnaar who just recorded the concerto sent me a friendly mail about it.

Wbo: Yes, I read you spoke about the Third Concerto by Beethoven and wanted to listen to it, but unfortunately that wasn’t possible.

WB: Yes, you can, I played the recording of Perahia with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in the first two movements, for the last movement I preferred the tempo of Haskil, as well as her lively spirituality.  

WBo: Regarding this concerto, I find it so special that the piano starts its entry with a scale, is there one other concerto that starts the same way?

WB: The scale was originally a rhetoric figure. Do you know by the way who invented the scale as a technical exercise?

WBo: No, I have no idea!

WB: That was Czerny, in Bach´s time, there were no scales. When you played an ascending motive, it was something special, e.g. at the end of the first fugue of the Wohltemperiertes Klavier. Back to Beethoven, I think the motive you mentioned has to do with Mozart, he did the same at the end of his Fantasy in C-minor KV 475. There are more influences of Mozart in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto.   

WBo: Do you have a preference for a special key?

WB: No, not really. Every key has its own characteristics. It’s strange that people understand so little about this; every key represented a certain “territory” for certain composers. That originates from the baroque when every key had a degree of purity or impurity. B-minor represented compassion, F-major faith in God. With Beethoven, C-minor is a dramatic key, whereas with Bach it stands for something serious and sad.  

WBo: In the last edition of the Dutch magazine Luister, there was a double interview with yourself and pianist Daria van den Bercken, in which you were described as “a pianist who was already on a mission when the first copy of Luister was issued, 65 years ago.” What exactly was your mission?

WB: I don’t remember, the word “mission” is slightly pretentious. I am more aware of what I want now. A lot of teachers are piano teachers instead of music teachers and it’s all about technique. It’s difficult to build up knowledge in music: to discover its secrets means going on a long discovery tour. Before the start of my concerts I have a ritual: before leavomg my dressing room, my wife says only one word: “Discover!” It means that you are open to the impressions of that particular moment, I believe in it. Sometimes you feel resistance, but whenever something goes wrong, I no longer think all people dislike my playing. Those who like your playing don’t mind and those who do mind, say: “You see, he can’t pull it off either” (laughs)

WBo: Your colleague Mikhail Pletniev says he feels pain when he plays a wrong note. Do you have the same feeling?

WB: Sometimes it happens, yes, when you play a wrong note in the most beautiful bar of a piece, you want to crawl away! I hope a listener can accept that an artist is also a human being…

WBo: In the same interview in Luister you said: “I imagine that I teach and play better now than I used to” Isn’t it often ironic that a pianist at an advanced age can dig deeper, whilst his technique often declines? I heard Radu Lupu the other day, who is now 71. I was amazed to notice how fragile his technique has become and 71 isn’t extremely old for a pianist, is it?

WB: That question is difficult to answer. I haven’t heard Lupu lately, but I can hardly imagine that it has anything to do with technique. He had a massive technique and that isn’t simply gone. It’s probably more a matter of mentality: he has always been a wayward musician and he probably no longer enjoys concert life. My ideal is to improve myself every time. By the way, I am dissatisfied with a lot of interpretations by great pianists nowadays: there is little expression and they tend to exaggerate. Quite a lot of them misinterpret tempo indications, and a s a result they tell a different musical story. This is often obvious in Chopins Etudes, they sound downright ugly when they are only considered as an athletic achievement.  

WBo: Is this typical for the present or was it the case with older pianists as well?

WB; I think so. But in general pianists are capable of a lot more nowadays and that’s tempting. I no longer have idols, however, there are a lot of musicians I respect. Music life is dominated by hypes and trends. Schumann’s Kreisleriana used to be a rather obscure piece, nobody played it.  It strikes me that the beginning is always played too fast. The score says “Ausserst bewegt” which means: “not extremely fast, but very turbulent”

WBo: Speaking of this movement, it strikes me that a lot of pianists don’t sound intensely enough!

WB: Yes, because it sounds too fast! (He shows that the voice in the right hand has a  three voiced dialogue with itself and the left hand has an underlying fourth voice, “that’s what Schumann learnt from Bach”).

WBo: Schumann wrote in a very polyphonous way!

WB: Very polyphonous, I often notice that pianists play the beginning of Kreisleriana too fast (shows in an exaggerated way), that’s idiot! Schumann wrote long lines that are purely based on motives consisting of two notes only.  

WBo: Is there nobody who plays it the way Schumann intended it to be played?

WB: I guess so (Since this sparked my curiosity I listened to the recording of Claudio Arrau at home. Arrau was famous for his faithfulness to the score and indeed with him, the same passage sounds very clear and not overly fast, WBo).

WBo: You said you are a happy person when “people who listen undergo a feeling close to transcendence.” Does that go for you as a musician as well? Your colleague Claudio Arrau once said: “When I play, I am in ecstasy.” That’s also a form of transcendence, isn’t it?

WB: Maybe I shouldn’t have used that word “transcendence”. What I meant is that you experience something that is impossible to explain in words. It’s beautiful when someone comes around after a concert and is not able to say a word. Then you realize how deeply music can touch people’s hearts.  It’s mainly amateurs who react in such a way, although I experienced the same with professional musicians. I prefer to play pieces that cover all the aspects of life, such as Schubert’s sonatas.  

“Ecstasy”is a dangerous word: you should never go over the edge, otherwise you lose control. It does not always happen that you go to the far extreme, but I really know the feeling. Sometimes you feel completely shaken up after a performance!

‍ WBo: Is that because of the piece you play or because of the moment? Or both?

WB: First of all, it has to do with the piece itself. Schumann’s Fantasy is a good example: when you have reached the last pages, you feel you are ready to play them, since there was so much that prepared the end in an ideal way.  The last movement wouldn’t have had the same impact without the preceding two movements. I experience a similar feeling with the Gesänge der Frühe: it has do with eternity. They are not often performed, I find the late Schumann oppressive and dark, but sometimes he manages to break away from this, which has a liberating effect and which happens in such a penetrating way in the fifth Gesang.

WBo; I love Schumann very much, but with his last works I have the feeling the genius had vanished!

WB: With me, it’s the opposite: I find the late Schumann much more touching. The Gesänge der Frühe are among my favourites. The tempo with his late works is always more slowly than we imagine it to be, you have to be open to this. But it’s true that the quality of his oeuvre is sometimes slightly uneven. I think however that it’s the musician´s fault when Schumann’s music doesn’t sound convincing. His music is vulnerable and is particularly prone to distortion.  

(I tell about my own transcending experiences, three of them: Martha Argerich in recital in April 1979, Leonard Bernstein conducting Mahler 4th Symphony in 1987 and Richer playing Bach in 1991)  

WB: The musicians I admire are mainly great conductors: Abbado, especially in his last years, Haitink, Janssons. They don’t have to play the notes themselves, but to make sure that such a group of musicians give the best they have, that’s beautiful! I have to do it all alone…!  

WBo: You are very fond of the late Schubert sonatas and you said about them: “He continuously leaves reality and evokes what we can’t imagine.” What can that be, a dream world?

WB: An ideal world. His song “Schöne Welt, wo bist du?“ describes this.  

WBo: Can we say that his music is treacherous?

WB: Yes, that’s true, it seems easy. My own teacher said: “If you don’t understand that universe, I can’t explain.” The better you understand a composer, the more you realize what you need to serve his music. I sometimes make jokes about Mozart and say:”If you spent as much time on his music as on Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, it can’t be that difficult.” People say Mozart is the most difficult of all composers, since you hear every wrong note, but wrong notes disturb me in Chopin and Ravel as well! I think Bach is the most difficult, his music is complex. But I’d like to say something about playing the piano in general: pianists tend to concentrate too much on the right hand and that’s simplistic. Whenever they get injuries, it’s always the right hand. You should pay attention to all voices and experience all of them, not only the so called melody. A pianist has to realize all this by himself, which is very different

from a string quartet for instance. I am always aware of the relationship between horizontal and vertical and I am tired of those who make a difference between homophony and polyphony. For me there is only polyphony.  

WBo: You said you learn a lot from teaching. What have been your biggest insights?  

WB:  To hear something and being aware of what you haven’t heard yet. If you don’t regularly learn from your lessons, then you do something wrong, you keep repeating yourself.

WBo: In the same interview in Luister you spoke about “the invasion of Japanese students that started in 1987. All of a sudden, I had a group of students who were twice or three times as good.” Were they better than Dutch students and how come they had a higher level?  

WB: You have to put this in perspective: I started in 1971 at the former “muzieklyceum” and when this so called invasion started, I had worked as a teacher for 16 years. Until that time, I seldom had a talented student. In Japan I had to work hard, because I had to teach pieces I had never taught before, like Chopin or Scriabin Sonatas or Le Tombeau de Couperin. The talented students in the Netherlands went to work with Jan Wijn and they still do.  

WBo: Did the level of students in the Netherlands improve in the meantime?

WB: Yes, although 60% of them comes from abroad!  

WBo: I’d like to ask you a few questions about Bach: you told you played an all Bach recital in 1964 in the Kleine Zaal of the Concertgebouw. Was that possible at the time?

WB: It didn’t happen a lot, but yes, it was accepted. As long as you played Bach expressively, you were accused of romanticism, but I didn’t care. I didn’t play his music mechanically, but I experienced it (beleefde het).  One of the critics Hans Reichenfeld came to see me during the intermission, whereas he knew a pianist needs rest. He called my Bach “liberating”, after the intermission I played an English Suite and I had a memory lapse, but he didn’t mind and didn’t mention it in his review.  

WBo: In what way was your Bach liberating?

WB: I had the courage to use my musicality and my musical imagination. In 1966, I disappeared for two years and went to Geneva: I didn’t do well I thought, the only thing that went well, was Bach. In 1968 I played in a series that was devoted to three debutants at the Stadhuis, the last three Beethoven sonatas. Reichenfeld came again and wrote that I had a rare affinity with the late Beethoven. It was special that such an authority came to listen to a debutant! The year after, I played the Diabelli Variations and the Hammerklaviersonata and every time, Reichenfeld came to listen to me.

My teacher Hilbrand had a lot of affinity with Beethoven, he could build up structures note after note, I stayed in touch until his death in 1983. I learnt most when I was no longer a regular student of his, but I kept visiting and asking him for advice.

WBo; I have the feeling that Bach is often misunderstood: he sounds teutonic, heavy, religious whereas his music is so full of energy and vitality?

WB: In the Wohltemporiertes Klavier, you see enormous contrasts: Bach masters the stile antico, the old polyphony from the Renaissance, but you also see homophony and personal expression. Quite often, it’s pure dance music and that’s noticeable in the choice of the measure. However, you shouldn’t play everything as if it’s dance music! I can no longer listen to the Brandenburg Concerts these days, they always sound too fast and superficial. By the way, the religious part plays an important role with Bach. I do feel the same with Beethoven, Schubert, Franck though.  

WBo: Does that go for his keyboard works too?

WB: Yes, indeed. Old music is centered aroung the heart beat, it can increase, but not in extremis. This is nowadays considered as “boring”. Take for instance “Blitz und Donner” from St Matthew´s Passion, Bach composed this in 3/8, but not as if four bars form the measure as you often hear it! And the theme of the Goldberg Variations: it’s often played as a funeral march, whereas it was written in G major! That key has a wholly different character: it stands for “liebenswürdig.”

WBo: You recorded book 1 from the Wohltemperiertes Klavier, are you going to record book 2 as well?

WB: I planned to do so, but it has to do with finances. I was not so satisfied about that recording, but I tried to play the book as a whole and that worked well.  

WBo: Your colleague Murray Perahia once said something about Bach that intrigues me: “I am not religious in real life, but when I play Bach, I am terribly religious.” In what way do you need to be in order to play his music well?

WB: I completely agree with him.

WBo: Do you have to be religious to play Bach?

WB: Carel van der Linden wrote a booklet about the difference between “religious” and “not religious” and according to him, it’s not as big as you would expect. My father in law said that you had to play Franck as a religious person, even as if you were praying. He didn’t believe in God, but he did say this to me, so he probably wasn’t that far away.. If you are a total atheist, you don’t understand anything about music, because it’s about things that are timeless and unimaginable and this has a link with the religious aspect. Take Haydn in his “Sieben letzte Worte” or Liszt in his Via Cruxis.  

WBo: Yes, but they believed in God!

WB: About Liszt, it was said that it was a pose, but that’s nonsense of course. Bartok was known to be an atheist, yet the second movement of his Third Piano Concerto is entitled “Andante religioso”. If someone doesn’t believe in anything, I ask: “What’s that music about then? Only about something that can be explained in an academic way? I really hope not!”  

WBo: About something higher?

WB:  Music goes beyond anything that is timeliness, it’s part of the religious domain. I wrote a comment on Beethovens sonata opus 110 and related this to the caption: 25 December. That’s the date of birth of Christ, I regard this piece as a musical reflexion on the life of Jesus Christ. The key of A-flat major stands for simplicity and peace. In the arioso dolente, someone undergoes suffering, in the second arioso someone can’t breathe anymore and surrenders completely.  In the second fugue that leads to ecstasy, we experience resurrection. Beethoven wrote this sonata while working on his Missa Solemnis. He had been interested in religion for years, the theme of the fugue of the sonata opus 110 comes back in a comparable form in the Missa Solemnis. I try to explain to my students that you have to be open to all aspects of music, if you play Beethovens 4th Concerto a tad too fast, you are lost and rapid passages sound only brilliant, like in a piano concerto by Hummel.

WBo: You also play the Hammerklavier sonata, what do you think of this particular composition?

WB: It is a much more complex composition (Goodness me, if I want to explain all this, it takes me at least half an hour..). I once played the Diabelli variations and I got one of the best reviews ever from Reichenfeld. He asked me whether I played the Hammerklavier sonata as well and I answered: “No, but I’ll play it next year”. I didn’t play the sonata, but then I had to learn it. At first, I blocked, because I tried to follow Beethovens impossible metronome indications.  I heard Friedrich Gulda and Eduardo del Pueyo play it live, but I didn’t understand much of the composition.  People are impressed when you play it by heart, but they cannot really enjoy the music. The first movement – if you are faithful to Beethovens metronome indication – resembles a tantrum, but the first motif is taken from an unfinished cantata: Vivat, vivat Rudolphos, he wanted to dedicate it to archduke Rudolph, as he did with this sonata.

WBo; Doesn’t Beethoven transcend with this sonata?

WB: Yes, certainly and especially in the incredibly beautiful Adagio, where Beethoven achieves a depth that is indescribable. The late Beethoven strikes with his ability to compose in a condensed way: within a short time, he manages to express a lot with few notes. That makes the music so fascinating.  The condensed writing is also noticeable in the voicing, the harmonic finesse, the masterly building-up of tensions, the colours, etc.  With a work this long, it is a difficult task to do justice to all his intentions. And that is what makes the Hammerklavier so difficult, not mainly the technical demands, although these are not simple.

WBo: Beethoven can be very inaccessible, for instance in the fugue of the Hammerklaviersonata and also in his Grosse Fuge!  

WB: The tempo of the last movement is “Allegro risoluto”, therefore it cannot be a race against the clock. Beethoven writes more than once a sforzato on every beat, so you cannot play it extremely fast. Everybody slows down at the middle section. If you take that part as a basis for the tempo of the entire movement, it becomes a different composition altogether!  In all movements, there is a lot of beauty and a wide variety of intentions. Its character is certainly not only titanic or inhospitable.

WBo: How would you characterize the last movement: furious?

WB: Yes, that how it is often played. But there is so much more, for instance an incredibly positive vitality, moments of despair and even lyric. Why else are there indications in the score like “dolce” and “cantabile”? Beethoven once said: “The piano is an incomplete instrument”. Schubert can sound very beautiful on a period instrument, but some of Beethovens compositions don’t sound good on such an instrument, not even on a modern piano. In his string quartets, Beethoven is extreme in his writing, contrary to Mozart and Schubert who didn’t ask the impossible. He wrote his Hammerklaviersonata in worrisome circumstances.  At first, the fugue works as a liberation, but it remains an enormously difficult attempt to transcend himself.  You do not hear the the total liberation as in the 9th Symphony. It is a triumph, but it remains a phyrric victory. Shortly before the end of the fugue, there is a phrase in b flat minor, where the sadness of the adagio seems to come back, but then the composer pulls himself together and he ends the fugue with a new eruption of positive energy.

WBo: I once heard you play Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, that is not music I would associate you with?  

WB: It was fun to do, I like Russian music and like to play Rachmaninoff, but unfortunately I don’t have the right hands for it. I did play his second concerto thirteen times and sometimes  it went really well!  

WBo: I heard your colleague Jan Wijn once say during a master class that “the piano animal is very much alive in everybody”, what about you?

WB: Yes, it happened when I was young, but it is no longer the case now. That animal is not of much use with Schubert and Beethoven, their music is first and foremost about content. With Liszt, I prefer the works where it is not mainly about virtuosity, such as his Variations on “Weinen, Klagen”. I prefer to leave the animal alone, although I played Scriabins etude opus 8/12 and people told me: “That was not half bad!”

WBo: Aren’t you sometimes too modest?

WB: That’s what they say sometimes… I think it’s rather the fact that I am not good with PR or websites. Of course, you are modest, I once read a beautiful interview with Andras Schiff who said that performing artists needed to be more modest. He is not the type of artist who brags a lot himself. These days, I often play a short piece by Kees Olthuis, which he dedicated to me. When I play it, I hardly take a bow, I walk towards him and give him the credits. The genius composers are the ones who should get the credits! Musicians sometimes make use of the enormous qualities of composers. The public tends to give credits to someone who plays fantastically, but it is actually turning things topsy-turvy! We have every reason to be modest!

Written by Willem Boone

Almere, 4 juni 2017

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