English profiles

Hilversum, 18 October 2015

It’s not difficult to find pianist Simon Trpceski in one of the rooms of the Dutch radio studios in Hilversum, since I can hear him practising the last movement of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto..

Simon Trpceski (ST): Tough concerto… I am playing four different concertos at the moment!

Willem Boone (WB): Are they all new to you?

ST: No, they are not all new, but it requires time and patience to play four different concertos!

WB: Is the Chopin new to your repertoire?

ST: Three or four years ago, I played it for the first time. I studied it for concerts with Andris Nelsons in Birmingham and I played it before with the Dutch conductor, Kees Bakels, in Porto. He is one of the best conductors I have worked with! I prefer Chopin’s First Concerto to his Second, I need to come to terms with the first movement of the latter.. I will play Chopin’s First Concerto in San Francisco next week, last week I played in Verona and I was on tour with Rachmaninov’sThird Concerto in the Czech Republic with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s nice to be back here, I have a good relationship with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.

WB: Last night you played Shostakovitsj First Piano Concerto, what is your relationship with this piece?

ST: You get a smile on your face when you hear it for the first time.. It is easier to understand music when you understand the circumstances and the irony that are behind it. Shostakovitsj picks up themes from the street and there are quotes of Haydn and Beethoven. He was a genius in the way he combined these motives. The orchestration is unusual, but it obviously worked. I played it for the first time in 1999 along with Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto, two totally different languages and approaches to the piano. It was with the Macedonian Philharmonic Orchestra in Skopje. It was a great joy to play it.
If you look at the effects Shostakovitsj wanted to reach, it is difficult to bring out the irony, but his language and his style are not naïve at all. The concerto should be almost Mozart-like in its articulation. For yesterday’s concert, we had very little time to rehearse, but I think it was a good run-through for the concert in Amsterdam. I have good memories of a gala concert in Amsterdam in 2007 with Mariss Jansons. I heard that Shostakovitsj’s wife was present during the concert, but to my regret, nobody introduced me to her.

WB: I heard you play it in Rotterdam, in 2008! Back to the concerto, do you have any idea why he introduced a solo part for the trumpet as well?

ST: It’s an unusual combination. The character of tunes sounds natural on that instrument. Shostakovitsj liked to explore limits of instruments in his symphonies, although not so much in this concerto. The writing for strings is not too comfortable by the way..

WB: Where for instance?

ST: For the violins and celli in the first movement in general and also the writing of the fugato in the last movement. They need to be alert, for the trumpet, all depends on the tempo of the pianist!

WB:  I have always found it difficult to say something about the atmosphere of this piece: would you call it “dramatic”  or “joyous” or “tongue in cheek”?

ST: You may find it “joyous” when you hear it for the first time, but it is a very ironic piece. There are a lot of personal and intimate moments, especially in the second movement. He tells a very personal story that has a lot to do with the struggle he was living through. He was a master in expressing his pain or sad memories, e.g. in the recapitulation of the slow movement when the trumpet comes in. You can hear his subtlety as a composer in the dialogues with the trumpet. The intensity of emotion with this kind of orchestration without winds is amazing. The trumpet is almost a decoration.

WB: I find it difficult in general to come to terms with his music: the slow movements can be rather “gloomy” and the fast movements are sometimes bordering on the grotesque…

ST: The irony is one of his specifics. It’s an answer to the system he lived in. It can go to a point of grotesque indeed. I love the childish spirit he kept throughout his entire life. What you said about his music being gloomy, yes, very much so, but isn’t it nice to explore different sides of someone’s personality? Even towards the end of the First Concerto, something remains in the soul that basically the story wasn’t that happy..

WB: How difficult is his music technically?

ST: Not too much, there are a few moments where it can be uncomfortable, however it is difficult to put it together with the orchestra, you need a good team!

WB: Was Shostakovitsj a good pianist himself? I once interviewed Ashkenazy and he said he wasn’t..

ST: He was probably not as good a pianist as Ashkenazy! (laughs).  I worked with him in San Francisco.. It depends on what you call “good”?

WB: “Good” as opposed to Rachmaninov and Prokofiev?

ST: Well, when I hear how fast Shostakovitsj could play.. He was one of the prize winners in the Chopin competition in 1927 and playing in such a competiton… If you listen to his recording of the last movement of his cello sonata, we should pay respect to that. He certainly was a good pianist, but how much time do you have to practise when you have so much music in your head?

WB: In the booklet for last night’s concert, it was written that the First Concerto has a filmic character, do you agree with this statement , since the camera changes so often?

ST: Thank you for telling me, I don’t speak Dutch.. Yes, I can agree that it’s about pictures and emotions as well as changes of atmosphere. He went straight to the point with the quote of Beethoven’s Appassionata right at the beginning. With this quote he wanted to make jokes as well, although they were often of ironic truth, sometimes even cynical, but that’s acceptable for this kind of geniuses!

WB: Do you play his Second Piano Concerto too?

ST: I accompanied my students and enjoyed it very much. He wrote it for his son, who wasn’t a very good pianist. Its third movement has a rhythm that is characteristic for music in Macedonia! He was stealing a lot, but he knew how to integrate it in his own music. There is no going around… he had a fantastic mind. Shostakovitsj can produce incredible emotions of intensity and he makes you think, more than others. To live under that kind of stress, not being able to express yourself, having to face people who have no clue about his music and yet he stayed faithful to himself and he was still able to maintain his principles and not to go under even if he had to write works for the occasion.. It is a shame I never had the chance to meet him!

WB: Rachmaninov must be close to your heart too, since you play all of his piano concertos?

ST: Yes, the romanticism is close to my heart, probably because of my personality. It touches me how Russian composers express their emotions.  I had Russian teachers, so it was very natural to play a lot of Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Tschaikofsky and Shostakovitsj for them, but I have explored  many other styles. I really enjoyed playing Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and I hope to go in that direction as well. On one of my CD’s from Wigmore Hall, I play Bach/Liszt and Schubert and I am very happy about it. I remember I played Bach’s Ouverture in the French style for my debut recital at the Kleine Zaal of the Concertgebouw and on my next CD live from Wigmore Hall,  I will play Brahms Intermezzi and his Händel Variations that are not so often played, as well as works by Ravel and Poulenc. For my Wigmore Hall debut, I played Schumann Fantasiestücke and Symphonic Studies and I loved it.

WB: Do you often get the chance to play Beethoven in recital?

ST: No, but I am thinking of it. I played several of his sonatas as a student and I played his 5th Concerto this season. Life is very short for all the music I’d like to play, but I would definitely like to explore his music, for the sake of music and Beethoven. I’d also like to play his 3rd and 4rth Concertos, we’ll see about that!

WB: During the last edition of the Gergiev Festival in Rotterdam, all four Rachmaninov concertos were played the same day. One musicologist said he liked number four best, he thought Rachmaninov didn’t try to write any beautiful melodies and was actually quite modern. What do you think of number four?

ST: That’s correct, it’s a very sexy concerto in its freedom of spirit and development of musical personality! It was the last concerto of the four I studied. Number four shows us another writing of Rachmaninov, its language is full of jazzy harmonies. And in this concerto, he shows wonderful craftsmanship of orchestration. It’s true that the melodies are different: they are shorter, but certainly beautiful. There is also a lot of mystery in the second and third movements, especially towards the end of the development of the last movement, it is like a bad dream at some points..

WB: I think there is a paradox when people call Rachmaninov “old fashioned”, “overly sentimental” or  “music for cinema”, yet I have seldom seen a hall that was more packed than during this afternoon and evening in Rotterdam when all four concertos were played!

ST: His melodies touch the heart, Rachmaninov evokes this kind of emotions..

WB: Do you have a favourite among the piano concertos?

ST: Yes, my favourite is number one! It’s the result of his Russian period, after its completion he left Russia. I played the revised version, which is more compact than the original. Especially after number two, people “expected” beautiful melodies from Rachmaninov. If you take the Paganini Rhapsody, people always remember Variation number 18, which is actually the reversion of the theme, but other than that there are not many beautiful melodies.

WB: It’s interesting what you say about the Paganini Rhapsody, but it’s such a scintillating piece and I find the pianissimo conclusion so surprising!

ST: Yes, at the end Rachmaninov wants to say: “There you are, I can finish like this as well!” Sadly, both the First and the Fourth Concertos are not often performed, I played them a few years ago, but I should do them again, you should come when I play them! (laughs)

WB: I remember all of a sudden that I heard you play number three in Lille, back in 2004, during a piano festival!

ST (laughs loudly): You were there! We had a very short rehearsal, they cut it and the Yamaha piano wasn’t that great… but a member of the organisation of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in the audience and he was thrilled. He told me I should play in that competition, but I said: “No thanks, I am done with competitions!”

WB: A French critic compared your recording of the First, Fourth Concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody with Rachmaninov’s own and praised your non-ostentatious virtuosity. That should be some of the highest praise, shouldn’t it?

ST: Can you send that review to me? I am glad he wrote that, unfortunately I don’t play often in France, but it’s certainly nice to hear that there are people who like my recordings.  Yes, I think you have to play his music with nobility and elegance, you shouldn’t be too sentimental, the “Chopinization”of romantic composers is bad, because Chopin is a very delicate composer. A lot of pianists are milking him! Taste in music is what I learnt from my Russian teachers.

WB: How difficult is it to approach music in a fresh way, as if you discover it on the spot, especially in warhorses like Rachmaninov 2 or Beethoven 4?

ST: It is difficult…when I play Beethoven 5, Rach 2, Tschaikofsky 1, Grieg or Schumann concertos, I don’t like to play them in order to sell tickets. I try to explore more and find a meaning that I missed when I was learning it. It’s all about the inexplicable magic that music brings out.. When I am tired or when I think “Here I go to play … again”, I should think of the privilege to touch an instrument, to produce sounds and to create, about the happiness this brings to you. The majority of people can’t play an instrument, so you should be happy. This thought should come when you play something famous; the concept stays the same, but you are always exploring yourself. People expect you to be on a high level: you have a responsibility towards yourself, that is your first responsibility!

WB: Are you never playing on automatic pilot?

ST: No, never! If the machine is taking over, I am not afraid to stop! I composed songs and played the accordion, so I could do different things…

WB: My teacher sometimes speaks about “intelligent practising”, can you relate to that? Do you have any examples of this?

ST: Yes, you have to focus on the problems that arise and stay calm. You should allow yourself time, then you can go faster. I memorised Brahms First Concerto in five days and Rachmaninov and Prokofiev Third Concertos within one month, but sometimes the memory works slower. You also have to spread your energy. And last but not least: you should enjoy what you do!

WB: What will you do for the rest of the day?

ST: My brother will come and we will have dinner together. Tomorrow is his birthday. A few people will come to the concert in Amsterdam on Sunday morning and on Monday I’ll fly to San Francisco for concerts and masterclasses!