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 Interview, Andreas Haefliger on Perspectives

Andreas HaefligerIt’s fourteen years since the first volume of Swiss pianist Andreas Haefliger’s Perspectives project (juxtaposing Beethoven’s sonatas with often unexpected bedfellows) was released, and over the intervening fourteen years the slow-burning series has cast its net ever wider with each instalment – Berio, Bartók, Janáček and Thomas Adès have all made appearances, and Volume 7 (released last week on BIS) sets Piano Sonata No. 28 alongside Berg’s Piano Sonata, Liszt’s first Légende, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at the Exhibition.

I spoke with Andreas recently about the project’s origins and development, the connections between the particular works on this latest album, and his increasingly eclectic plans for the series…

It's almost fifteen years since you began this project - how did it originate, and how has it evolved over the course of these seven volumes?

I’m not counting, but it’s certainly been a while! I’m frequently asked how the programming ideas for this series come up, and the answer is that it simply takes time – I can’t decide on a programme over the course of couple of months, or even a year. I just need the space for the ideas to develop, and I won’t budge until I hit on the right combination!

I initially started looking at the Beethoven sonatas as a cycle and playing all-Beethoven programmes, but as fascinating as that can be I felt that something was missing. So I began experimenting with surrounding the sonatas with pieces that sometimes I just ‘put in the room’ – it’s not necessarily about influence (though sometimes connections that you can explain do emerge), but more a kinetic process of my thinking. Each programme that’s come together has become, to me, more and more fascinating as the project has progressed: Perspectives One got things off to a lovely start, but now with Vol. 7 I’m getting into some really interesting territory.

One of the great things about programming recitals as a solo pianist is that you don’t really have to ask anybody’s permission (barring the occasional concert-promoter who might veto one piece): it’s entirely our decision, and we have an enormous palette to choose from. And now that the series is well underway, I think that audiences come with the expectation of forging their own connections as they listen to the programmes: I’ve explained it often enough that I sense they really grasp what’s going on!

You mention explanation: do you introduce your programmes in live performances?

No, I don’t. I think there’s a very fine line here that’s always being crossed these days: I’m not a musicologist, and I would rather allow the music to unfold rather than spend time explaining technicalities to the audience. I do like to read about music sometimes, and facts certainly interest me - but I think our work as acting musicians is to dive into a score with a clean slate, and breathe as much life into it as we can without imposing our own vision to the extent where the piece is no longer recognisable. That alone is a huge job.

My father [the tenor Ernst Haefliger] had a very smart school-teacher in Switzerland who was once asked what one should read to prepare oneself for a career as a classical musician: his answer was ‘Read less, listen more!’. I think that the simplicity of a statement like that can actually be quite eye-opening, because we all fall into the trap of talking too much. I cannot say anything to an audience that will make a concert more enjoyable than just presenting them with a great programme and playing it in a way where I can show what I mean. When I start playing the Liszt [St. François d'Assise] in concert after the Berg Sonata, the connections are immediately apparent: you hear a tritone, you hear a particular register, you hear certain colours in the harmony…all of these things come together and form a unity. In Beethoven’s Op. 101 you’re playing on a dominant for the whole first movement and you never land until the end, and there’s a similar sensation in Liszt and the Berg.

Two of the works on the latest volume (the Mussorgsky and the Liszt) have connections with the visual arts: was this your starting-point in assembling the programme?

Not at all! It doesn’t come from a process where I logically put things together, but on the other hand I do often see a lot of connections in hindsight. I was recently at the Beethoven-Haus, where I came across Beethoven’s description of Op. 101 as a series of impressions whilst he was walking through the countryside, and I thought ‘Of course, that’s why I decided to put it with Pictures!’. And once I started thinking about recurring intervals I began to realise that the major seventh plays an enormous role in this programme: in fact just as we’ve been chatting, it struck me that the opening of the Berg Sonata is exactly the same interval as Baba Yaga (the same notes, in fact), just reversed! I find it super to talk to people who see links that I haven’t been aware of – it’s a process where I’m constantly surprising myself.

Do you feel that Beethoven had a great deal of direct influence on Berg?

I don’t think there is anybody in Western music after Beethoven who wasn’t influenced by him. The tremendous sparsity of themes with which Berg works is of course something which we know from Beethoven (and indeed from Haydn before him), and to me it’s absolutely magical. At the moment I’m working on Beethoven’s Op. 106, and that’s really just built on one triad which crops up everywhere you look – he inverts it, or he fills in the notes, but essentially he builds an extremely complicated 45-minute piece from a single chord. What Berg adds to that is an Expressionist voice which is much more extreme, and which also relates to Mussorgsky’s screaming in Pictures. Mussorgsky’s own desperation and psychological feeling of loss come through so strongly and I think it has to be played like that: Baba Yaga has to be taken to the edge, not because it’s a virtuoso piece but because it represents the fear and desperation that one feels from time to time about losing one’s own existence. And I think that there are connections there with the extreme Expressionism which comes out much more strongly in Berg's later works, particularly the operas.

How many more volumes do you envisage for the series?

I wouldn’t want to force things into more extreme territory, and one has to be very careful not to get gimmicky, but now I’m starting to sense that there are also connections to be explored between Beethoven and popular music like fado (especially in Op.110). There’s a tremendous melancholy and colour there: when fado comes in its purest form it can be extremely powerful, and I find it deeper than the French chanson. If I could find a way to incorporate that into a future programme I certainly wouldn’t shy away from it…

One of the earlier volumes featured Mozart: have you moved onto drawing parallels with later works now, or might there be more backward glances to come...?

Oh, definitely – but it will have to fit! I’m getting increasingly interested in the Mozart sonatas and finding more and more elements in them: I’m combining some shorter Mozart pieces with Beethoven in a programme in the spring, and I find that these voices have an extreme attraction to each other. These two composers give you material with which you can express the whole palette of human experience: this sounds melodramatic, but it’s not! For instance, in the Mozart C minor Fantasia you have very few notes to work with, yet in those first seven notes you can create a world like no other. This is their gift to us, and it’s fantastically worth living for.

Andreas Haefliger performs Piano Sonata No. 28 and the Hammerklavier alongside Mozart's Fantasia in C minor K475 at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge on Thursday 10th May; he returns to Wigmore Hall (with the same programme) on Tuesday 15th May.

Perspectives 7 was released on BIS on 27th April.

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC