‘Visceral connection’: New Ross festival pianists on playing for live audiences again

Five performers on the lows and highs of lockdown – and what comes next

Tiffany Qiu. Photograph: Olivia da Costa

Tiffany Qiu. Photograph: Olivia da Costa

 

KATYA APEKISHEVA

Russian-Israeli

What was the musical highpoint of the last 18 months?
It was so unbelievably crazy and challenging, that time. Our perception of that whole period has been so different from normal circumstances. It’s hard to name one musical highlight. The opportunity to be enjoying music again after months of a break, itself was a kind of highlight. And playing in front of an audience again. I played in the North Yorkshire Festival in August 2020. It was almost impossible at that time to organise events with an audience. The festival director, Jamie Walton, found people who let him build a big marquee in the middle of their field, so it could be counted as an open-air concert, with the sides of the marquee open. I just remember this incredible feeling of energy from everyone. Finally, life had more meaning.

The musical low point?
Not playing. Just forgetting what it’s like to be creative, not feeling creative. I feel like half of me is dead when nothing is happening. That was very challenging.

What was the first album or CD of piano music that you bought?
I can’t remember the very first. I had quite a standard collection of things, listening to big pianists like Horowitz, Rubinstein and Rachmaninov. My parents are both professional pianists. Music and records were such a normal environment for me. 

Katya Apekisheva. Photograph: Sam Canetty-Clarke
Katya Apekisheva. Photograph: Sam Canetty-Clarke

You’ve got a time machine. Which pianist do you want to travel back and hear live?
Liszt, probably, would be one. We read so much about him as some extraordinary human being, extraordinary personality, but also extraordinary pianist and performer. Also maybe Clara Schumann, because she was also quite the revolutionary. And definitely Rachmaninov because he is one of my favourite pianists ever.

What is the biggest challenge in being a concert pianist?
First of all just stamina. For pianists it’s so hard, because our repertoire is so large and most of us have to memorise so much music, such complex textures. To keep it in our head and our hands is very challenging. And obviously you need unbelievable drive and dedication and commitment. You have to make sacrifices in life.

Which of the pieces you’re playing in New Ross do you like most, and why?
Well, the new Sally Beamish piece we haven’t even rehearsed yet. So probably the Poulenc I’m playing with Charles Owen. The Élégie is the most beautiful, sensuous piece. 

CÉDRIC PESCIA

Swiss

Cédric Pescia. Photograph: Uwe Neuman
Cédric Pescia. Photograph: Uwe Neuman

Musical high point? I couldn’t go to concerts, so it’s a personal experience. I decided to learn new things that I am probably never going to perform. One of them was to learn the Scriabin sonatas, of which I had only learned one out of 10. It was completely fascinating. And I probably wouldn’t have done it otherwise. I would never have had time.

Musical low point?
All the lessons that I had to give – I teach at the university in Geneva – through Skype or Zoom, and having to deal with terrible instruments, terrible sounds. It had nothing to do with the playing, but it was so frustrating. 

First album of piano music?
One of the very first was definitely Clara Haskil in the last sonata of Schubert. I also had the Beethoven concertos with Maurizio Pollini. I don’t know which came first. I was actually much more interested in orchestral music and opera. These were my passion when I was eight, nine, 10. I would listen to Mozart operas and try to play them on the piano.

Time-travel for which pianist?
Ludwig van Beethoven. I am so constantly busy with him. I always try to imagine how Chopin or Bach were playing. But with Beethoven I have the feeling it was just so free in the way of treating the instrument, and so extreme ... not conventional.

Biggest challenge?
To not repeat oneself. To always look for the deepest meaning. Even if something was good, not to do the same thing in the next concert. To keep your curiosity. It’s easy to slip into a routine.

New Ross piece you like the most?
The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven in the version for two pianos by Franz Liszt. It’s one of the greatest pieces of art ever created. And then Liszt did something which is as great, the transcription is so perfect. I find there everything I look for in music.

TIFFANY QIU

Irish

Musical high point?
Before the pandemic I had organised a project to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th anniversary involving 11 Irish pianists and 11 composers from around the world. We were going to come together for a big premiere of the new pieces. That didn’t work out as planned, but we turned it into an online series, with a premiere each week. 

Musical low point?
Not being able to play with other musicians live. It’s such a special experience. Online just isn’t the same.

First album of piano music?
I think it was a Martha Argerich CD with Chopin Études and his Sonata in B minor. I was struck by how powerful her performances were, especially her Étude, Op 10 No 4.

Time-travel for which pianist?
I’d love to hear Horowitz play. I’ve seen a lot of his performances just on YouTube. Of course they’re quite old. But the reaction of the audience ... Live performances and recordings are so different. I would love to hear him.

Biggest challenge?
I have to think about how to communicate my own interpretations of music to an audience. When I really love a piece of music, I want to share that same love with everyone else. 

New Ross piece you like the most?
I really enjoy playing Debussy. I’m also very interested in art, so I just love the different tones and colours in Debussy’s music, and the possibilities it offers. I’m playing two of the Preludes, Les Collines d’Anacapri and Minstrels.

PHILIPPE CASSARD

French

Philippe Cassard
Philippe Cassard

Musical high point?
In France, from October, we could not play concerts for eight months. With Cédric Pescia I did TV concerts at the end of January. We rehearsed the Beethoven/Liszt Ninth Symphony and played it live on recithall.com. The nervosity, the adrenaline, the concentration ... It was as if we were discovering our world. Everything seemed new. We lost so quickly our habits, routines. For me it was like a nuclear bomb. I never felt that kind of fear since I was a kid. I was completely panicked – before the concert, not while I was playing. 

Musical low point?
My loss of energy. I couldn’t believe it. I’m somebody very positive, very optimistic, always enthusiastic playing music, listening to music. I really couldn’t believe that the last four months of lockdown would have been so – I don’t want to say the word depressing, but it was not far from that. We couldn’t see any end because we couldn’t see any beginning of new activities. 

First album of piano music?
When I was seven I went with mother to buy an LP. It was Rubinstein’s Chopin Polonaises for RCA. I still have the vinyl. It’s completely worn. And also Chopin Études and Waltzes by our French pianist, Samson François. 

Time-travel for which pianist?
Rachmaninov. He is the biggest, far above the others. I have relistened to most of what he recorded. It’s an Everest for me. The style, the imagination, the colour, the technique of course.Completely the opposite of what the younger generation is now doing in his music. And also a concert I would like to attend again, Horowitz in Paris in October 1985, the most moving ... the rage, the fire of Horowitz after a disastrous tour in Tokyo two years earlier, the first European concert was in Paris. With each note he said, “I am the king”. Unbelievable.

Biggest challenge?
For me, to keep, if possible – unfortunately, it happens rarely – to keep on stage, on the platform, 200 per cent. Not 100 per cent – 200 per cent.

New Ross piece you like the most?
The Schumann Étude en Forme de Canon arranged by Debussy. Amazingly beautiful. Small, but the concentration of pure music, pure poetry, the refinement ... yet with simple material. 

CHARLES OWEN

English

Charles Owen. Photograph: Erik Emanuel
Charles Owen. Photograph: Erik Emanuel

Musical high point?
For me as a performer, it was spending that very beautiful spring lockdown immersing myself in Chopin, Liszt and Schumann. And then in the autumn I recorded Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage – the Swiss book – and the Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude.And hearing Steven Isserlis playing Bach’s First Cello Suite at the Fidelio Cafe, 30 people seated at tables, Steven sat in the middle. You could see and feel the tears and emotion in the whole room.

Musical low point?
The endless cancellations. The constant shifting of goalposts. 

First album of piano music?
I think it was Arthur Rubinstein playing the complete Chopin nocturnes and waltzes. Still one of my favourite recordings. So, so great. So personal. 

Time-travel for which pianist?
Rachmaninov. No question. I know there are recordings. But it’s something about hearing the sound of him actually in a hall. One of the cruellest things about all the online during lockdown is that there wasn’t that visceral connection.  

Biggest challenge?
Maintaining a vast repertoire. Keeping fit and healthy and motivated. And staying constantly curious. 

New Ross pieces you like the most?
I can’t comment on Sally Beamish’s new piece, because we haven’t yet put it together. So, Poulenc’s Élégie for two pianos. The two pianos converse back and forth the entire piece. It was written in memory of one of Poulenc’s dear friends, Marie-Blanche [de Polignac]. Despite being beautifully constructed, the piece captures the feeling of improvisation. In the opening of the score it says that you should perform this as if you have a cigar dangling from your mouth and a glass of brandy on the piano. You can never use enough pedal. And it should be as if the pianists are improvising. 

The New Ross Piano Festival runs September 23rd-26th

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