In the following interview, the pianist Johannes Friedemann speaks more about his concert career and his current solo programme.
Johannes Friedemann, in your solo recitals you are currently playing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony as the piano transcription by Franz Liszt. How did you discover this work?
JF: This piano transcription has not been performed live for many years, but the orchestral version is well known to every music lover. The piece is a pianistic challenge and a unique experience for the audience. People usually come curious to the concert and are surprised by the force bursting out from this orchestral piece when played on the piano.
Why has this transcription not been performed for such a long time?
JF: The piece has long been regarded as difficult and considered unplayable. Franz Liszt transferred the symphonic format of the work along with its sonority onto the keyboard. One has literally his hands full and is moving a much greater mass of tones than in any other virtuoso piece. The symphony transcription became known in the 60s through a gramophone recording of the pianist Glenn Gould.
Already at that time, Gould took full advantage of the options provided by the technology and recorded the piece multi-track. Here you can hear him play passages four-hands – a trick to avoid technical risks and slips. Since then, the risky piece has seldom been performed live and has been shunned by most pianists. It indeed requires a lengthy preparation and ripening time.
So what you love most must be the technical challenge?
JF: The technical aspect should never be separated from the musical aspect, which is unfortunately something that often happens. Piano technique is much more than just playing a sequence of notes fast and with ease. It is the very source of the sound and starts with the musical presentation. Technical difficulties can therefore be resolved by a more natural presentation and shaping of a phrase.
I learned my basic piano technique at the Russian piano school which I attended early on. I owe it that explosive power in my fingers, allowing me to handle all degrees of difficulty. Later, during my time in Italy, I was able to benefit from the Italian school that helped me to refine my approach and find my very own musical language.
I love the natural sound of piano. All day long I’m on the lookout for new sounds. Very important to me are the high dynamic tension and colour, colour, colour!
In another interview, you said you wanted to appeal to the young audience above all.
JF: Some organisers do complain about the increasing age of the audience in concert halls. Indeed, young people are often in the minority at piano recitals.
Might that be due to the classical repertoire?
JF: Not at all, though it is often claimed so.
It might be so because, most classical musicians often do not put enough emphasis on communicating the music.
Progress has already been made in pop music, where next to the musical message, the personality and lifestyle of the artist are presented. Music just has something to do with people, and life should always be reflected in the creative work.
How do you see musical expression for young people in practice?
JF: First of all, you have to provide many young people with genuine access to the classics. The enthusiasm then follows mostly by itself.
I often play for young people in school projects. On these occasions, I add some moderation to the performance, including lectures and anecdotes about the music. This being included in the programme, the audience is already “warmed up” when it starts.
Also, some evening events could be made less conservative. This could be achieved by a corresponding opening act or by a “Meet the Artist” event following the concert; after all, this is proving to be popular with all age groups.
Ludwig van Beethoven seems to be your favourite composer and the main focus of your repertoire. The piano concertos, Diabelli variations, symphony transcription …
JF: Beethoven suits my character very well. I am fascinated by the gap between his masculine expressiveness and his frequent, almost childlike sensibility. I am not fixed on one favourite composer, however. To me, the music of Franz Liszt is great fun, incredibly joyful to play. But Johannes Brahms is also my great passion! You see, it would be a pity to limit oneself