Sep 8th 2019

Interview with pianist David Fray: ‘Music makes life worth living’

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”



David Fray looked surprisingly alert when he arrived for a 7:30 a.m. breakfast interview at a comfortable inn outside of La Roque d’Anthéron in the south of France. We had both been at a midnight dinner following his performance at the famous piano festival. I left the dinner early with a colleague but he stayed till 3:00 chatting and laughing with the violinist he had just performed with, his friend Renaud Capuçon. Their Bach sonatas and a Bach piano concerto were the highlights of the evening. Over breakfast (David ate a bowl of chocolate-flavored cereal sweetened with ample spoonfuls of Nutella) we indulged a few minutes of smalltalk, then got down to business. He responded lucidly in French to some heavy questioning. He only stumbled once, at the end, when I asked him,  “What does music really mean to you?” His reply, ”That’s a big subject for so early in the morning!” But he continued searching for the words, and he found them.


Here are edited excerpts from our conversation (my translation).


Q. Glenn Gould established a style for playing Bach keyboard works that many pianists have followed. But you are different. You have made a conscious effort to avoid imitating him. Have you succeeded ?

A. Paradoxically, I am often compared to Gould. This bothers me indeed … I have tried … I know the Gould versions and I am aware that he has thought long and hard about Bach. What interests me most about Gould are his thoughts on interpreting Bach for the modern piano. This question remains a subject of debate if not actually a problem. At least it is a major concern of anyone who is playing Bach on a modern piano.


Q. Was Gould really breaking new ground?

A. Oh yes. In Gould’s day it was even revolutionary to pose the question, to consider how to find the right colors that do not betray Bach’s language and style. I have these same concerns but I have not necessarily come to the same conclusions.


Q. How do you differ ?

A. What I was seeking, from the very start, was the lyricism in Bach’s music. In my studies of Bach’s vocal works – the St. John Passion, for example – the lyricism is very present. I had trouble understanding why interpreters such as Gould played him so mechanically. It’s interesting that despite his approach Gould remains expressive. This combination is very difficult to imitate.


Q. Difficult but not impossible?

A. I never wanted to, or even attempted to, achieve the mechanical and expressive together. I thought I would be unable to do it, so I didn’t try.  What I was striving for was lyricism without slipping into Romanticism. 

MJ David Fray
David Fray by the author Michael Johnson

Q. And yet you are sometimes described as playing Bach in the Romantic style.

A. Yes, and some others mix the Romantic and lyric. But I believe that Bach’s music is just as lyrical and expressive – even more so – than the music that came after him. But it is not Romantic. Romanticism is not a question of “how much” expression you impose, it is a question of nature, of means. To give you a down-to-earth example, I do not use the pedal the same way as when I play Schumann. They have nothing to do with each other.


Q. I don’t hear much pedal action when you are playing Bach. 

A. Actually I use the pedal a lot but not to act on the tone or the chords. I use it to create a kind of sonic halo around the music.


Q. You are seeking resonance?

A. Exactly. I use the pedal to enrich the resonance to avoid a dry sound. I never want that sound. It is not the sound I want to create. I don’t like it.


Q. May we look at your public image at the piano? You are sometimes criticized for your excessive physical expressions, your long floppy hair, your gestures. And yet to my mind you are quite restrained compared to other young pianists today.

A. Yes, these comments came after my film on Bach with Bruno Monsaingeon, “Sing, Swing and Think”. I was very young – it was ten years ago – and I was in no position to tell the director what to film or not. As we shot, I wasn’t even thinking of the film. I was focused on the recording and the coming CD, so my actions were totally spontaneous and natural. It was the real me.  But when I saw the replay I was shocked. I didn’t realize I was being so unrestrained. Remember that while playing I was conducting from the keyboard too, so I had to exaggerate my moves to communicate with the orchestra.


Q. Did you suffer from the public comments?

A. Well, I realized that some people were disturbed by my moves so since then I have tried to pay attention to this aspect. But it’s difficult to get rid of this kind of thing.


Q. Your emotions come from the music, from your heart, right?

A. Yes, It’s irrepressible, it’s natural behavior. I don’t want this to be a barrier between me and the public – that’s no good either. So I try as much as possible to control myself but the problem is that I don’t realize what I’m doing. Some pianists think their gestures are part of their interpretations. That has never been my case.


Q.  In your filmed recording of the Bach concertos some of the musicians were caught on camera making grimaces, rolling their eyes. Were there tensions between you and them?

A. You’re right. I love this orchestra, the Deutsche Philharmonie de Bremen. They are excellent musicians. But they have their way of playing Bach -- which wasn’t exactly the way I was suggesting they play.


Q. But they finally adopted your guidance, didn’t they?

A. Yes, they did, at least for the recording session. I made some steps toward them too. It wasn’t exactly a negotiation but there were some concessions on both sides, and this takes time. It’s like a married couple, or friends. But in music one must not give up what one believes in. It’s difficult, like in all human relations.


Q. You have spoken of your fear of Chopin and your refusal to play his works for several years. Where does your Chopin problem stand now? You made a CD recently of Chopin nocturnes, mazurkas, a polonaise and a waltz. How did Chopin become part of your repertoire and what was behind your fear of Chopin?

A. I find that Chopin’s music is unique in the way it demands a kind of balance almost impossible to achieve. I avoided playing Chopin for 15 years.


Q. In what way is this balance so elusive?

A. Let me explain. Chopin ‘s music is both Romantic and Classical, as you can see from its careful composition.  It is extremely expressive while also demanding a feeling of modesty. So you are confronted with a kind of music that requires conflicting elements. To tell the truth, I was not sure I would be able to bring together the qualities to become a true Chopin player. In fact I am still not sure.


Q. Except for Chopin, you seem to have limited yourself to a small group of Germanic composers.

A. Yes, up to this point, without intending to, I have stayed almost entirely in the camp of German and Austrian composers. That’s the music that has interested me, Chopin being the exception. 


Q. And what an exception ! There is nothing Germanic about him.

A. True, but I have always felt that in order to play non-Germanic composers it was essential first to master the Germanics. I consider them the best fundamental base, the best school.


Q. So how did you go about mastering Chopin? Did you take a few months off and struggle in solitude?

 A. Oh, a few months? Much more ! There was more preparation. I also felt that to play Chopin properly, I had to work on the music of Bach. It’s well known that Chopin admired Bach and even urged his students to study him. And I also focused on the way Bach’s works are written – much more subtly than many players realize. 


Q. Did you strive for a singing element in Chopin?

A. Yes, many players have noticed that Chopin was a bel canto composer, and it’s true – beautiful melodies discreetly accompanied. That’s certainly true for all the early works but rapidly we see complex counterpoint, polyphony, in his later compositions that are frankly very, very audacious. 


Q. What lessons were you absorbing as you began to understand Chopin better?

A. There was the modern feel of his language but within a Classical framework. So you have to achieve a sort of supple feeling with a structure around it. Indeed I think that to play Chopin, one of the biggest challenges we face is to find our way into the freedom, the flexible center, inside the rigor. But you must not eliminate the rigor in order to find the freedom. That would be a betrayal of Chopin’s intentions.


Q. Who plays Chopin best, in your opinion?

A. One of my favorite interpreters of Chopin was the late Wilhelm Kempff. He succeeded in finding a sort of poetic freedom that was – if I may say so – Germanic. By that I mean rigorously constructed. And inside the composition he found a balance I have rarely heard elsewhere, a balance of the rigor, the poetic coloration and tempo.


Q. This tempo debate has switched back and forth over the years, no?

A. Yes, for many years, up until the end of the 19th century, excessive rubato, or rhythmic pulsation, was in fashion.  Then in the period after World War II, there came a trend to require—in my opinion, too much – ‘objectivity’. Personally I believe objectivity is a healthy element but it also remains illusory. Sometimes when I study a piece I come to realize that players were only repeating a tradition that was being perpetuated by others. This can happen.


Q. How do you get out of this trap?

A. I feel that our job as interpreters is to return to the printed text and decide whether certain traditions are justified or not. Sometimes I ask myself, “How is it that I often hear it played this way when it seems  -- and I emphasize ‘seems’ – that the page has it otherwise. The interpreter’s job is to follow the text ! That’s essential. 


Q. I have noticed in your play-and-conduct performances that you derive great pleasure from the conducting side. I’m wondering when you will become a full-time conductor and drop the piano.

A. As you may know, there is a precedent in my family that is rather intimidating. My wife’s father is the great Ricardo Muti. Besides, it would be difficult for me to claim to be a conductor although I enjoy the musician-to-musician contact and the communication of my ideas on how a piece should be played. But the idea of becoming a conductor, I don’t know … but I admit it is something that interests a lot.


Q. Aren’t you limiting yourself by staying at the keyboard in front of an orchestra?

A. Well, the beauty of being a pianist is that the piano can be capable of resembling an orchestra. Besides, many composers who wrote for the piano had in mind a quartet, or a singer, or perhaps an orchestra. It was rare for the piano to be treated as itself until perhaps the beginning of the 20th century. It was always viewed as a means to achieve a bigger aim. This aspect continues to interest me.


Q. Do you compose in your downtime? Do you have sketches of ideas in your desk drawer that some day will become compositions?

A. No, no, no. That’s not me at all. To be a composer, one must hear original music internally, in the mind. This is not my case. For me, music is compositions by others that I hear and appreciate, and wish to play. But aspire to write down music that comes to my mind, no, this has not happened to me.


Q. You have spoken of music as a way to make life more beautiful. Does it make your life more beautiful?

A. I’ll go further. I would say it makes life worth living. I am not sure life would be bearable …  as Nietzsche said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”


Q. You have devoted your life to music. What does music really mean to you?

A. A big question. Maybe too big for so early in the morning.  (laughs). For me personally, music is present in me and around me perpetually. It is the air I breathe. There is no separation between music and life. Music is life, and life is music. Everything goes together. Life without music would be like living without sound. 




The full text of this interview will appear in the forthcoming book, “Michael Johnson Interviews: What Musicians Really Think”.





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