All Through the Keys: An Interview with Pianist Mateusz Borowiak
London-born pianist Mateusz Borowiak was born to Polish parents, and received his education at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music in Katowice, Poland. He also worked at Girton College, Cambridge. His talent has been recognized through the awarding of numerous prizes both in piano and composition. In the former, he received the Gold Medal and First Prize as the youngest finalist and best performer of the music of Isaac Albeniz at the 57th Maria Canals International Piano Competition in Barcelona, Spain. Since then, he has performed widely throughout Great Britain, Germany, Austria, Poland, Spain, Italy, France, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and will soon tour China, where he will give eight concerts in Shanghai, Beijing, Gangzhou, Yangzhou, and Hefei.
Borowiak has also recently recorded Lutosławski’s
Variations on a Theme of Paganini
with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, and a CD of solo piano music by Soler for Naxos. I caught up with him via e-mail in June of 2013, just after his participation in the 2013 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, to ask about his recent activities, especially those in conjunction with composer Louis Pelosi, whose
Preludes and Fugues
Borowiak has recently also recorded.
Q: First of all, congratulations on your just-announced third place award in this year’s Queen Elisabeth Competition! This is a tremendous achievement and recognition of your artistry, and I’m sure that
’s readers would like to read a few words about your experiences at the competition. This wasn’t your first competition, was it?
A: Not at all. I think it would be scary to enter such a difficult competition as a complete novice. That said, I have not taken part in many competitions. In 2005 I won the Royal Overseas League Piano Competition in London. After a break of five years, I won the Rina Sala Gallo Competition in Monza, Italy, the Yamaha Music Foundation of Europe Competition in Katowice, Poland, and the Maria Canals Competition in Barcelona, Spain. The Queen Elisabeth Competition was the longest and most difficult of all the competitions I have played in. There was a surprise for the candidates at every corner, starting with the jury choosing which pieces we will perform in the first round only an hour before we came on stage! For the second round, there was a Mozart Concerto to perform with a chamber orchestra, the jury’s choice of one of two different 40-minute submitted recitals (its choice given to us 29 hours before the performance), and a new work by Frederic Rzewski, which we’d received a month before the competition. However, the final round was the real
tour de force
. All 12 finalists were moved to the Chappelle de la Musique in Waterloo to study a new, extremely difficult 15-minute concerto (by the QE Composition Competition winner, Michel Petrossian) to premiere it a week later. All means of communication with the outside world were banned. In addition, we had to perform a classical sonata and concerto (I played Beethoven’s op. 110 and Rachmaninoff’s Third), all without a break. It was a real psychological and physical test of strength and form.
Q: Wow! I doubt that anyone who hasn’t been through this can imagine what it’s like! When and how did you and Louis Pelosi meet?
A: It is a long story. One day I received a call from the Friends of Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, suggesting a recording project of a “monumental, polyphonic work” by American composer Louis Pelosi. Having already made some private recordings of me playing a wide range of music including Barber’s mammoth op. 26 Piano Sonata, engineer Beata Jankowska obviously thought I would be up to the job. I had a lot of engagements at that time, so, prudently, I asked to see the score of the work before agreeing to take it on. The full score, in beautiful, uncannily precise handwriting, arrived a few weeks later, leaving me to explore the work before finally agreeing to go ahead with the recording. Because of the immense size of the undertaking, we decided to split the sessions in two, with Louis present both times. We only met the day before the first recording session, just after he had arrived in Poland, to play through the
Preludes and Fugues
—this was about four or five months after the initial phone call. In retrospect, I really admire Louis’s bravery in entrusting the enormous task of recording three years’ worth of creativity to a pianist he has never heard before. It must have been a nerve-racking experience for him!
Q: What qualities in his music appealed to you?
A: When I first saw the score, I was struck by the immense thought-processes that seemed to govern the writing. It was a monumental piece of work, both in painstaking attention to detail and large-scale form. I noticed a very unique harmonic and tonal language, in fact, one that I had never experienced before. The more I explored the
Preludes and Fugues,
the more I could appreciate the lack of superfluity. In fact, I had the opportunity to extract an endless amount of meaning out of every sound, motive, or harmonic gesture. You cannot imagine the satisfaction one has when delving deeper and deeper into musical material, to find seemingly endless interpretational solutions.
Q: Given that Louis is not really a pianist himself, do you find his piano writing pianistic?
A: I think this music has such a strong structural integrity that it is above any discussion of pianistic or unpianistic writing. It uses the sonority and colors of the piano very well and does not require extreme resources, but somehow I feel it would also sound good for any other group of instruments. I also think in general, that actually there is no such thing as pianistic or unpianistic writing. The merit of the writing depends very much on the response of the performer. What we might consider as uncomfortable or strange to play might well become a future basis for progress. Despite the notion that the possibilities seem to have been exhausted, we are still making progress. Technically speaking, pianists have never played so perfectly—this evolution is key in opening up new ways of writing.
Q: With whom did you study piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama?
A: I actually studied composition at the Guildhall with Jeffery Wilson for seven years and attended group classes in chamber music, jazz, electronic music, and improvisation. I learned to play the piano with my father, who taught me until my late teens. When I was 16, I met Professor Andrzej Jasiński at master classes in Salzburg. Occasional consultation lessons eventually led to my full-time studies at the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music in Katowice, Poland, which is where the CD was recorded.
Q: What is Andrzej Jasiński like as a teacher?
A: It is very difficult to describe my experiences in words. The best description would be to say that he is different for every one of his students. He adjusts to every one of us and places our needs first. Officially, the standard lesson time is two hours, however I have lost count of how many times he worked with me for five hours at a time or more. He is a person of great and rare integrity and inspires absolute confidence with any artistic task. Also, he is one of the greatest pedagogues in the world and yet, he is not one to display it. It is very easy to warm to him and connect on a deep level.
Q: What do you consider some of the most important things that you learned as a pianist with these teachers?
A: The ability to know what I want and what I should expect of myself. This is, I think, the most important element in making progress. Professor Jasiński constantly teaches me how I can become my own teacher, which is a key in being artistically independent.
Q: As an award-winning composer yourself (having won the Arthur Bliss and Rima Alamuddin Prizes), how do your compositional activities inform your approach to music by other composers?
A: I have often thought about this and have come to realize how lucky I have been to have the chance to study composition. One of the problems in composing (at least for me) has always been the ability to communicate a precise idea formed in the mind in as complete a way as possible. Musical notation is a fantastic, easy, extremely universal system. However, I feel you lose 90 percent of any idea once it is written on manuscript paper. This has made me realize to what extent any score is just a rough sketch of the music it represents. The common impression is that we should treat the score with biblical respect, and to treat interpretation as an “addition” or “enhancement” of the score. However, more and more do I prefer a reversed approach; in other words, I try to ask myself: What could the composer’s idea have been to warrant the way it is notated? Why did the composer have this idea? What was the motivation behind it? In my opinion, this approach can lead to a better understanding of the composer’s intentions. Also, studying composition has also made me realize at which point the composer’s work is over and where the performer must step in. Being too precise in trying to express an idea can lead to a sense of inflexibility for the performer, which can prevent him from “living” the music. Consequently, the performer should trust his instincts and realize that a composer would like to see his music evolve in the performing world. When Louis heard me play his
Preludes and Fugues
, he was very positive and flexible, even if I understood the character of some of the pieces in a completely opposite way.
Q: You mentioned Jeffery Wilson as one of your composition teachers. Did you study composition with anyone else?
A: After the Guildhall, I went to Cambridge University where composition was a major element in the music degree. After learning the compositional techniques of Palestrina and studying fugue with Dr. Martin Ennis, I studied tonal composition with Dr. Andrew Jones and free composition with Jeremy Thurlow. In my final year I studied with Robin Holloway. The fugal element was the binding element, however, and was the only subject to be present throughout the whole course. The final fugue exam involved writing a three- or four-voice fugue on a given theme in four hours without recourse to an instrument. In a way, I felt right at home in Louis’s
Preludes and Fugues.
Q: I can certainly see that! Have you performed some of the other contrapuntal piano masterpieces, such as Bach’s
Shostakovich’s cycle of preludes and fugues, or Hindemith’s
If so, in what ways was your approach to those works similar or dissimilar to the way you came to Pelosi’s
Preludes and Fugues?
A: Actually I approached Louis’s
Preludes and Fugues
just as I would any other work (except for the knowledge that I would be playing for a living composer, which was always at the back of my mind). I tried to understand as much of the structure as possible, so that I could feel free when probing the meaning behind the music.
Q: What were some of the pianistic challenges in Pelosi’s magnum opus that you have recently recorded?
A: The immense complexity of the counterpoint was the biggest challenge. I particularly wanted the construction to be apparent to listeners, so that they could perceive it in a similar way to looking at a complex piece of architecture, such as any French Gothic cathedral, or geometric marvels, such as the Brussels Atomium or the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. I also wanted to show the shattering emotional aspect of the work, which required me to maintain a healthy distance from the innards of the work and to approach it from a narrative point of view. In a sense, I was trying to maintain a good balance. Louis seems to like the result; I hope that will also be the case with other people!
Q: I have no doubt that it will—your approach was absolutely perfect to my ears, as you will see in my review. Given your success as laureate in the Queen Elisabeth Competition, what opportunities do you look forward to at this point?
A: This competition is very, very strongly publicized, and is followed by seven national newspapers in Belgium alone. There is live video streaming via Internet, live radio broadcasts, and the final is broadcast live on national television. So you can imagine the immense exposure for all the finalists, and especially the top prizewinners. After the results, when I got home three or four hours later, I had about 20 e-mails regarding future concerts. Most of them were from Belgium; some were from France and Asia; and a lot were from Poland. This is the main reason why pianists enter competitions: for the contacts and concert proposals. So far I have been offered 11 concerto performances and four recitals. Not bad for a month’s work!
Q: And I’m sure this is just the beginning of a very long and successful career! I wish you all the best, and am confident that your talent will be all the more recognized and appreciated by an ever-growing audience.
13 Preludes and Fugues with Epilogue
Mateusz Borowiak (pn)
KASP 57731 (2 CDs: 86: 41)