Name: Sandro Ivo Bartoli
Current album: Liszt: The Franciscan Works on Solaire
Labels: Solaire, Brilliant, CPO, Neos
Musical Recommendations: Pianist Francesco Libetta, who is a genius of our instrument. He can do things most of us can only dream about, and he does them with such élan that he makes it look easy. I should stop here, though, else the list would be too long ...
When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I come from a small village in Tuscany, not the kind of place where culture in general and music in particular are very high on the priority list. I started playing the piano by accident, or, rather, by threat: my mother suggested selling the family's piano; I didn't like the idea, mulled over it, and eventually decided I would learn how to play. I was twelve years old. At fifteen I gave my first recital, and have never looked back.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I am a very fortunate man! Playing came very naturally to me, and I did not have to slave away for hours on end practicing scales and arpeggios... The time thus gained I invested – so to speak – in reading as much music as I could lay my hands on. In addition to a huge repertoire, this process gave me plenty of opportunities to explore expressive possibilities. Emulation was never a great issue with me: I realised early on that making music is – essentially – a useless thing (save perhaps for the sheer joy it provides to the dilettanti) unless the result is strong enough to carry forth a “message”. It has to be personal. So, although I loved Horowitz, or Michelangeli, I knew deep down that playing like Horowitz or Michelangeli (assuming one could have done it, wich was not my case!) would not have quite cut it. I learned most of the craft from Shura Cherkassky, who was my idol and was gracious enough to share some of his unique musical wisdom. He used to say to me “If they (the audience) can tell what you are going to do next, then you are not worth hearing”. How is that, for a pointer!
Tell me about your instrument, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results – and possibly even your own performance?
Generally speaking, the piano is the brother I never had! Of course, over the span of a lifetime the relationship becomes one of love and hate, thunderous passions and the plethora of ups and downs that punctuate any artistic existence. But he will give you back all that you give to him, so I can live with that! Things become tricky when you start touring: you always have to deal with the hall's resident piano, and over the years I have met some instruments that were little more than fire wood; yet, I was expected to play, say, a Beethoven concerto on them... When that happens it is always very sad, but it all goes in the baggage of experience which is perhaps the single and most important asset for a musician. One thing is unquestionable: if the piano has certain limitations, or defects, there is very little that the pianist can do to improve it. If a piano has a particularly harsh sound, you can try and play it a little more gently, but miracles are in short supply these days. So, every concert is an opportunity to become enslaved by the instrument! Of course, there is the other important factor: except for the human voice, musical instruments are just clever contraptions that make noise, and the piano is no exception! It is a percussive instrument, but its greatest quality is deception: when played well, it sings.
What were some of your main artistic challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?
The first challenge lies in the definition: I never did – and still do not – consider myself an “artist”, but rather an “artisan”, a specialised craftsman. Music is quite ethereal: you play a great concert, and it will live forever in the memory of those who heard it, but no more! Everything I do is geared toward the celebration of music making that is – essentially – a concert, and then there is... well, nothing! It's like magic. So, I think that while dealing with such imponderable matters, one has to be a little philosophical and let the magic do the work, without worrying too much about the intellectual side of things. In fact, as I grow older I find that I rely on my instinct more and more. But who knows? Perhaps it is a sign of impending senility?
What are some of the most important and influential interpretations to you personally, both live and on recording – and why? Which interpretations have perhaps entirely changed or questioned your perspective on a particular piece of music?
It takes two to tango! Of course I have very dear memories of certain interpretations, but I cannot speak with any authority about them. Any great artist will strive to communicate through his or hers playing, but it takes a certain predisposition on the part of the listener to capture the intended emotion. On October 13th, 1991, I heard Shura Cherkassky play for the first time, and the experience changed my life: I had no idea that a piano could sound like that; I was transfixed. Yet, in the intermission, a famous pianist who was in the audience was complaining that Schumann's Etudes Symphoniques were “too slow”... You see? Two faces of the same coin, perhaps, but that day was – for me – a revelation. There have been others: Giulini conducting a wonderful Pictures at an Exibition in London, or a fantastic Verdi's Requiem with Riccardo Muti in honour of the mafia victims in Florence; there were so many people I had to listen to it from the Piazza San Lorenzo, under the rain, but it didn't matter. It was very moving.
More specifically, though, when I hear a great pianist's rendition of something I play I tend to be more impressed with simplicity than with virtuosity. I adore the late Wilhelm Kempff, his magical singing tone, his phrasing, but there is no use in trying to imitate it: certain heigths should be reserved for the Gods alone...
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
I'm afraid I might be too old for this one! I respect music very much, and spend a fair amount of my life seated at my piano, practicing. But, as I think of myself as an artisan, I don't have many requirements other than a good piano and a relatively quiet room. For years, in London, I lived on a Dutch barge. The hold was my work space, and it was quite wonderful, if a little cold in the winter! The next necessity is a decent library, both musical and otherwise. I have an uncommon capacity for concentration, which helps me very much but also makes me very tired. Distraction and relaxation are as important as hard work! I try to be very professional about it, and not to let external factors influence my work. It is not so easy, but if I have to practice, I will practice – no matter what happens! Tactile sensation is paramount for a pianist, and since I was a child I like to sit very low at the keyboard. I am convinced that this allows me to gain more control over my fingers and consequent sound emission, but it has its drawbacks; one is posture, which is neither nice to watch nor comfortable to sustain, and the other is more practical: seldom concert halls have piano stools that are low enough for me. Often, I have played sitting on wooden boxes, beer crates and the like, covered with a cloth for appearances' sake. On a couple of occasions, I was even able to convince the hall's manager to saw a few centimetres off the stool's legs...
Could you take me through the process of interpretation on the basis of of a piece that's particularly dear to you, please? What do you start with when working on a new piece, for example, how do you form your creative decisions and how do you refine them?
This is the “million dollar” question, and my most sincere answer should be a simple “I don't know”! There is no fixed rule, nor pre-defined process, I'm afraid. I will decide to include a given work in the repertoire because I have heard somebody play it wonderfully, or badly, or just because I ferreted it out of a dusty library, or because I have read about it and I am just curious about what expressive possibilities it may have to offer... Truly, the array of reasons could be infinite.
The idea for my last recording for Solaire Records came from the election of Pope Francis: I wanted to do something for this extraordinary man, researched Liszt's Franciscan output, and then spent a couple of years mulling over it. The temptation to call the programme “The Three Francis” (Liszt, St. Francis and Pope Francis – after all, all great things come in three, right?) was hard to resist , but in the end the music should take centre stage, and together with the production team we just called it “Liszt: The Franciscan Works”. To my knowledge, no-one has explored this aspect of Liszt's output fully, and let me tell you: it was an adventure! I particularly enjoyed working on the piano version of the Cantico del Sol di San Francesco d'Assisi. The original is scored for baritone, chorus, organ and orchestra; violinist Marco Fornaciari – a genius in his own rights with whom I play sometimes – taught me that when playing vocal lines on musical instruments we should try to reproduce the inflexions of the human voice, which are inextricably linked to the words being sung. It is amazing how a simple shift in perspective can change the perception of a phrase, both for the player and for the listener! Phrasing should always come from singing, of course, but each instrument has its own voice and calls for a slightly different approach. When St. Francis mentions “Sister Moon”, Liszt graces the words with a simple melody in A minor which should be a fairly straightforward fare for an experienced pianist. Yet, I went mad trying to play that melody the way a baritone would have sung it. I hope I nailed it!
Another recording, The Frescobaldi Legacy, came from me buying a Frescobaldi-Respighi transcription on a second hand book stall in Florence twenty odd years ago. I liked the cover, bought the music, let it simmer for two decades and then constructed a programme around it. I don't know if I should be proud or embarrassed by it, but this is the way it works for me. The same applies to the learning process: it's never the same! I am a good sight reader, so the actual technical aspect of new music is seldom a problem. I seek as much documentation as I can lay my hands on (and studying it, of course), I work diligently on the more mundane aspects of piano playing, but the studio activities pretty much end there. I am an instinctive player, and I never mark my music as I see no good in it. Often, I have to adapt to the instrument, or to particularly difficult acoustic conditions, so I purposefully abstain from making a priori decisions. The interpretation should be a wonderful mix of instint, erudition, hard work and sheer luck. When it works, it is magical!