Interview with Vincent Larderet – arresting freshness brings Liszt back to life
A new recording of Franz Liszt’s piano compositions presents ten carefully balanced pieces in a double-CD album aptly titled Between Light and Darkness, launched by Piano Classics. The pianist, the veteran French virtuoso Vincent Larderet, breathes new life into some of the often heard pieces and introduces several that have been neglected. Larderet brings an arresting freshness to Liszt, so personal that the music seems to acquire new life.
He writes in an erudite accompanying essay that these works “evoke the conflicting duality or romanticism and ascetic abstraction… passion and despair, Hungarian sentimentality and religious mysticism – of darkness and light.”
Larderet opens his CD with a moving exploration of Après une Lecture de Dante with a tortured lyricism unmatched by many of his contemporaries who play it. I was stunned the first time I heard his performance. In our interview below, he describes lyricism as “an essential facet of my musical conception. The piano must be able to sing like the human voice.”
An exceptional artist with an intellectual approach to these complex works, Larderet tackled the literature from which Liszt drew inspiration. He studied Victor Hugo’s Après une lecture de Dante poem and the Divine Comedy by Florentine poet Dante Alighieri to help inspire his interpretation.
Some of the darker pieces in this album are “stripped of all artificiality” he writes, including Funérailles, La Notte, La Lugubre Gondola N°II, Unstern– Sinistre, Nuages gris, R.W. Venezia and Schlaflos!
In our interview, he explains the wide range of repertoire and how he attempts to recreate the musical environment of the time it was composed. He considers it essential to go beyond playing the notes on the page, and to “master the stylistic shadings of each period”.
Larderet analyses his musical foundations, his development as an artist. I asked him how true it is that French teachings are resistant to outside ideas. “Absolutely true,” he said. “French music education is very narrow. I suffered in my younger years from these constrictions. I chose another way and have never regretted it.” In amongst “other ways” he included gaining recognition through international piano competitions and concerts.
Audiences at his performances might be surprised to see him pull out his tuning hammer and adjust a few strings. He has studied piano tuning, an experience that made him “much more attentive to tone”.
I spoke to Larderet by telephone and he followed up with several pages of written reflections, explaining his origins as a musician and where his career might take him next – to the orchestral podium. He does not see this as a great leap. “For me, the piano is an orchestra,” he says.
Edited excerpts from our conversation:
Michael Johnson: Were you born into a musical family?
Vincent Larderet: Yes, my father was a Doctor of musicology, a Professor at the University of Lyon II. I lived in the constant presence of music, listening to recordings and following them in printed scores – for piano, chamber music and full orchestras. What was most important was that I realized that I loved music from the very beginning, and not with a career in mind.
What’s wrong with careerism?
So many young artists today think of music as their future career but that is not enough. True love of music implies more -- a willingness to sacrifice oneself for music without selfish aims.
How old were you when the piano became important for you?
I came to the piano at about age 8, in the beginning as an instrument for improvisation. My parents did not at first find a teacher for me. But eventually I worked with a private teacher, then I entered in a regional conservatory, aiming to become a composer. I explored composition from age 10 to about 15, producing my Sonatine Op. 1 and short pieces in post-Schoenberg style -- Berg and Webern. I then gave up composing as I realised what difficulties I would encounter later on.
Weren’t you also a serious art student?
Yes, I had a passion for drawing. At age 12 I was awarded First Prize in the European competition “Artists in Color”. But shortly thereafter I completely abandoned drawing.
Back to the piano, when was your first public recital?
At age 14, my first public recital was at a music festival – actually playing for a fee. It was my first serious engagement and it really propelled me into the piano world. This was the moment I decided to become a professional pianist.
Which recorded pianists influenced you at this age?
I must mention Michelangeli, Pollini, Arrau, Brendel, Gilels and Horowitz. Even today I remain fascinated by my ‘Holy Trinity’, Michelangeli, Arrau and Gilels, perhaps more so than by any of my teachers.
When did your serious piano studies begin?
My studies took on more importance after I won a first prize at the conservatory at age 16. After that I studied with Carlos Cebro in Paris, one of the favorite pupils of Vlado Perlemuter, who had studied with Ravel and Fauré, among others. I thus had the privilege of studying Ravel works on Perlemuter’s annotated scores. Cebro instilled in me a very healthy technique in such facets as the weight of the arms and the relaxation of tension, as in the style of Arrau and even Liszt himself. Cebro’s teachings included Chopin’s 24 Etudes.
Where was your repertoire taking you in this period?
I worked on a wide range of music – from Scarlatti to Boulez without favoring any particular era. But I had a predilection for the major Romantics (Chopin Liszt, Schumann, Brahms etc.) and the major 20th century composers (Bartok, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, etc.) To develop as a pianist, it is essential to master the stylistic shadings of each period.
Where did your advanced studies lead you?
I worked with the great Argentine pianist Bruno-Leonardo Gelber at the Musikhoschule of Lübeck in Germany. This enabled an immense progression, especially in the Austro-German repertoire (Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann). He specifically transmitted to me the art of sound and phrasing.
Your background doesn’t sound very French.
Correct. My progress has been highly non-conformist by French standards. Most young musicians study in the French Conservatoires Supérieurs in Paris or Lyon. I did not take that route, and so through my international competitions I was able to maintain a greater independence of spirit and develop an international outlook.
Isn’t it true that French teachings are less open outside ideas?
Absolutely. French music education is very narrow. I suffered in my younger years from these constrictions. French institutions can be quite rigid. I chose another way and have never regretted it.
When were you identified as an exceptional talent?
The first recognition came from the international competitions. I was competing with pianists from throughout the world and had to prepare a repertoire to the highest standard. I was a prize winner at competitions such as Maria Canals in Barcelona, A.M.A. Calabria in Italy (under the jury Chairman of Lazar Berman), Brest (France) among others.
What are the roots of a true interpretation?
My philosophy consists of serving the composer and his score. By this I mean the performer must understand and feel what the composer intended. This requires a great deal of humility and detailed attention to the markings for expressiveness. Also it is essential to be curious and to bring to bear a musical culture. One must know a composer’s entire output to explore a better approach of his work. Brahms Piano Sonata Op. 5 is a good example. Schumann called it a “symphony in disguise”. One must be familiar with Brahms’ symphonies and quartets. Indeed, the symphonic dimension in Brahms’ compositions is innovative and reveals special attention to the colors of sound.
How does a pianist adapt from style to style?
I modify all my playing parameters according to different eras or composers. For example, Chopin uses a rubato and a sonority totally different from that of Ravel. And so I have to become a kind of chameleon to serve the variety of styles in the repertoire.
Do you have models of interpretation that come from specific pianists?
I look to Michelangeli and Arrau for purity of tone, phrasing and the respect for the score …
And your favorite composers?
Brahms, Liszt, Ravel, Scriabin are among my favorites in piano writing but I also include composers who wrote nothing for the piano, such as Mahler, Bruckner, Wagner. Or some who wrote very little for the piano, like Berg, another of my favorites, who composed the sublime Sonata op. 1. When I was composing as a younger student I was influenced by the Second Vienna School, primarily its atonal and serial styles.
You have a reputation for admiring lesser-known composers. Is this happening more with age?
No, I have always had a wide and diversified repertoire in piano, chamber or orchestral music. True, I am very interested in some of the lesser-known composers, such as Florent Schmitt, whose works I have recorded, including the world premiere of The Tragedy of Salomé (piano version) and “J’entends dans le lointain…” (version for piano and orchestra). He was a French composer banned in France for his German sympathies in World War II but who is enjoying a real international renaissance today.
What are your work habits?
At home I have a magnificent Steinway A (1986), a very expressive but fragile instrument. Depending on travel obligations, my preparation can vary from two hours a day to six hours of practice. I remember working eight hours a day on La Valse of Ravel, and three straight weeks to learn the Berg Sonata by heart.
How do you keep a fragile “old” piano in tune?
I have taken courses in piano tuning and now can do it on my own. I can even install strings. I consider it essential to know one’s instrument. Since I started working with piano technicians I am much more attentive to tone. And in concerts I always have my tuning hammer with me and can adjust a few notes at the intermission if necessary.
In daily practice, what areas mean most from you – fingerwork, tone, lyricism, virtuosity?
One never loses real technique once it is acquired. Lyricism is an essential facet of my musical conception. The piano must be able to sing like the human voice. Pure virtuosity is a means but not an end. I am a virtuoso but always in the service of the music.
How do you maintain your musical memory?
I visualize the score and even the fingering. I always know exactly where I am in the score, ever the page numbers and the fingerings. This is something I have developed over time and with a lot of effort. One must master the score but obviously nobody is infallible and a lapse is always possible.
How do you grow your repertoire? Finding new material by serendipity?
Much depends on my personal desire or the demands of a recording or a concert. I always have a list of works that I am planning to learn. I have to love a piece in order to learn it, so I refuse to take on pieces that don’t interest me. I apply to myself the sentence by the great conductor Giulini who said: “When a work needs you, it will knock at your door !”
When you build a program for a recital, do you try to please yourself or your audience?
At the beginning, age 14, I was very concerned by audience reactions. But over time I have learned to play for myself. Too much dependence on the audience leads to seeking success above everything. Personally, I strive to serve the music and the composer. In a way, I guess I am a “Puritan”.
You seem quite active in chamber music. What a change from solo work !
The only basic condition for playing chamber music or concertos is to have a fusional rapport with the other musicians. It’s a kind of exchange and sharing of music and can be highly stimulating. But it can be terrible if the collaboration is not working.
Your career seems focused on Europe.
Not exactly. I work regularly in the US, Russia and Asia with a preference for Japan where I have made regular tours. In Europe, I was perhaps more focused in the past with Germany for its great tradition for music, but I have now connections everywhere. I am also drawn to Britain for its intense musical culture and well-known orchestras (even if the UK is no longer part of Europe). Indecently my current General Management is based in the UK.
How are you surviving the Covid-19 virus crisis?
It’s catastrophic for many of us – so many concerts are canceled – and it’s going to be difficult to regain the confidence of the public. People will continue to avoid concert halls for fear of the virus.
Are you aware of the young Asians who work so hard on Western music?
Yes, in my master classes in Europe, the USA and Asia I have taught with Asian pianists. Some are quite talented but I am often shocked by two things – their lack of musical culture and their attitude that music is a kind of competition, not an art form.
What is next for Vincent Larderet?
I hope to have the opportunity to conduct an orchestra. I love orchestral music which I listen to much more than piano recordings. For me, the piano is an orchestra !
In this CD, Larderet discusses Lizst and plays excerpts from his new CD:
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