Our publicity whizz Helen Pearse recently conducted an interview with Eugene Asti who will be performing alongside Simon Kent at Cooper Hall on May 11th in a special Frome Festival performance.
An Audience with Eugene Asti and Simon Kent
Next Saturday 11th May sees pianists Eugene Asti and Simon Kent performing a programme called ‘The Romantic Piano’ at Cooper Hall here in Frome. Helen Pearse caught up with them to hear about the music they will be performing on the evening and what it means to them personally and professionally.
‘These Brahms solo pieces are some of the most beautiful and profound piano works ever written, and it is a privilege to be able to work on them, perform them and also have the chance to record them…’ Eugene Asti
H: I understand that this is your first venture as a solo artist and wondered how you had been lured away for the highly specialized skill of being an accompanist to playing as a soloist in your own right?
E: This is my first proper venture playing this much solo repertoire in more than twenty five years. I have occasionally been asked to play shorter solo works as ‘interludes’ during some of the song recitals I have done, but to play entirely without a singer on the platform with me is something I haven’t done for many years… My partner, Simon, has agreed to join me in this recital to slightly ease the burden of doing the whole recital myself.
H: Is this something you have always secretly wanted to try, or is it more a case of being tempted artistically with an offer you couldn’t refuse?
E: It is not so much something that I secretly wanted to try. I love the song repertoire and all the colleagues with whom I regularly on the platform. Playing this Brahms solo repertoire is indeed an artistic opportunity and an artistic challenge that I thought I would benefit from. I also recently turned fifty, and it felt like time to try something new – or should I say very old – to push myself well out of my comfort zone. Having the chance to play Brahms at Cooper Hall was also something I would not like to have forfeited as it’s such a beautiful venue. Hugh asked me to choose the Steinway for the hall, which was a great honour, and it is the piano that I selected which they have there now. I think it is a beautiful instrument.
H: I hear that there is also the prospect of a solo recording?
E: I was asked to record Brahms solo piano music a couple of years ago by a small, but growing and highly-respected Norwegian label called Lawo. I had been recording some rare Scandanavian song repertoire with two Norwegian singer colleagues of mine, and when the sessions were finished, the owner of the label, and our producer, seemed to have taken a special interest in my playing and asked me if I would consider recording solo Brahms for them. I thought he was kidding at first, but later over a glass of wine or two he mentioned it again. Slightly more relaxed by then, I agreed to it. I was flattered, of course – and when discussing exactly which pieces to record I decided I would like to do the late piano pieces, namely opp. 116,117 and 118. It is only opp. 116 and 117 that I will be playing at Cooper Hall this time. I hope to do op. 118 later this year in performance. I feel it is important to prepare and perform publicly music that I am going to record whenever possible, as performing in public gives one new insights into the music – as well as the feeling of the overall architecture of the pieces, how to pace them, etc. In the actual recording sessions one tends to play each piece in shorter sections after an initial ‘complete performance’ take. Performing the whole of these works in public will be good preparation for the sessions later this year. Recording is scheduled for December 2013. This is the reason I was ‘lured’ back into solo playing – and I’m very fortunate indeed that Morag and Hugh wanted to put this recital on at their wonderful venue.
H: Could you let me know a little more about the works you will be performing at Cooper Hall on May 11th?
E: I’m performing Brahms’ ‘Fantasien’, op. 116. This is a cycle of seven piano pieces; three so-called ‘Capriccios’ – the fast movements, if you like, that are dramatic and outwardly passionate, and four so-called ‘Intermezzi’, the slow movements – which are the heart and soul of the cycle – deeply personal and intimate pieces that are so poignant and tinged with sadness and nostalgia. The were clearly conceived as a cycle, and are interconnected by similar motifs and themes as well as key structure. Pianists often extract pieces from this set and perform them as individual pieces as part of a larger group of Brahms’ work. I think they really benefit from being performed as a whole cycle.Of all the late piano pieces I think op. 116 is the least often done. The cycle perhaps has Schumann’s ‘Kreisleriana’ as a model, or forbear. Schumann was, after all, Brahms’ great friend and mentor, and Clara Schumann was certainly his muse.
The ‘Drei Intermezzi’, op. 117 are perhaps the most personal of all Brahms’ piano pieces. It almost feels as if one shouldn’t actually perform this music in public at all. It is as if you are communing directly with the composer and sharing some of his most intimate feelings and secrets – not meant for public scrutiny at all…! Brahms called these pieces ‘Weigenlieder meiner Schmerzen’ – ‘Cradle Songs of my Suffering’ and he wrote this music when he himself was ill and was seeing many of his closest friends dying all around him. He knew, too, that he wasn’t long for this world. You can feel it in every phrase of this sublime music. All these late piano pieces seem to inhabit a very internal world – but op. 117 epitomises this feeling for me. The second ‘Intermezzo’ in Bb minor is perhaps one of Brahms’ most beloved piano works. In fact, Brahms had pretty much decided to stop composing before he wrote these late works. It was only by chance that he heard the wonderful clarinettist of the Meiningen Orchestra, called Richard Muhlfeld – and somehow, his artistry on the clarinet awakened Brahms’ impulse to compose. He wrote the Clarinet Trio, op. 114, the Clarinet Quintet, op. 115 and the two clarinet Sonatas, op. 120 for Muhlfeld. In between he wrote the four last sets of piano works, opp. 116 – 119, and after them came the great ‘Vier emste Gesange (Four Serious Songs) and the final Chorale-Preludes, op. 122 for organ.
H: And a little more about the reason for these choices for you personally?
E: I chose to record Brahams’ opp. 116 – 118 as these pieces are very closely related to his songs, I feel. Many of them are like ‘Songs without Words’ – and as such I felt I had something to offer this repertoire. They are also not at all showpieces, for which my temperament is not at all suited. The intimate, personal VOCAL quality of these late piano pieces is what appeals to me, and it is what I feel I can best identify with.
H: Clara Schumann’s name is often associated with these pieces and I know you have a real affinity with her work?
E: I have always had a great interest and respect for Clara Schumann’s music – which until recently was very little known or performed. I was lucky enough to be able to have the chance, at my suggestion, to record her complete song repertoire for Hyperion a number of years ago. There is no doubt that these late piano works by Brahms were written with Clara in mind.
H: Again, with the Chopin, Piano Sonata in Bb Minor, the mood could not be more sombre, with critic Arthur Rubinstein describing passages as the sound of ‘wind howling round gravestones. Would you agree with this take on it? I notice that Chopin requested that this sonata be played at his own funeral at the famousPereLachaiseCemeteryinParis, 1849.
E: Simon Kent will play this great Chopin sonata, written in 1939. Consisting of four movements, and containing the famous ‘funeral march’, this piece confused contemporary critics with its’ diverse, seemingly disconnected, themes. Robert Schumann wrote that Chopin had ‘simply bound together four of his most unruly children…’. So not all sombre by any means.
H: And then Schubert, Trois Marches Militaires, D733, written when he was only twenty one years of age, in high summer 1818, whilst he was employed to teach the two young daughters of one Count Ezterhazy. Is this the chance to cut loose and have some fun, leave the audience with a spring in their step, maybe? This four-hander sounds loud, playful and joyous – just the stuff to entertain two unruly pupils in their summer holidays…I found myself intriguied by these choices as I discovered more about them and would love to hear your reasons for choosing them…
E: Yes, Simon and I both felt that we needed something a bit lighter with which to end the evening and send the audience away with ‘a spring in their step’ as you said… The Schubert ‘Marches Militaires’ are among his most popular pieces. They are charming, great fun, full of such character and very uplifting – but as with all Schubert’s music, they have great depth, too, and are masterpieces of the genre. Schubert’s four-hand music is perhaps the greatest of all – it is a treasure trove of sublime music, indeed.
H: That’s quite enough questions, I’m sure!
I am so looking forward to hearing your play these wonderful works at Cooper Hall.
Price: Individual ticket: £15 or £25 for both Saturday and Sunday concerts.
See cooperhall.org for further information and payment details.
Tickets will also be available from the Cheese and Grain Box Office
Tel: 01373 455420
This event is a ‘Fundraiser’ for the Frome Festival. The Festival gratefully acknowledge Morag McLean’s fantastic support.