Don’t Hog the Keys! An Interview with Christoph Sischka
Performing classical music can be fun for many musicians, but I seriously doubt that any group has more fun with it than Die 12 Pianisten, whose zany antics under the leadership of Christoph Sischka are quickly winning them a major following. Having positively reviewed a previous CD of the group, I was delighted to be sent a second CD of their artistry, and to be able to probe its director with questions about his ensemble, which I did via e-mail in early June of 2013.
Q: Christoph, what gave you the idea of forming a group to play pieces of music with so many pianists, and in so many unconventional ways?
A: This was actually a very old idea. In 1989, a number of young pianists gathered together in Germany in order to rediscover and perform piano music for more than four hands, and to encourage contemporary composers to create new works for the larger piano ensembles. In 1996, a new constellation with four permanent members emerged from this first and temporary ensemble. They called themselves Piano4te (pronounced pianoforte), and their aim was to rehearse and develop in a way similar to professional chamber music ensembles, such as string quartets or wind quintets. Other pianists joined, and eventually a big ensemble, Die 12 Pianisten, came into existence, supplementing the original group of four pianists. This revivification of multi-hand piano music was comprehensively covered in an interview in the German magazine
Q: How long has your group been playing together?
A: Our first performance was in the year 2000, when we tried to beat the Guinness world record for the most pianists playing on a single piano, and the twelve of us succeeded! This attempt was a big event during the Piano Duo Festival in Bad Herrenalb in Germany, and our record-breaking feat was published in the 2002
Guinness Book of World Records.
Of course, since then some of our personnel have changed, but generally we play with fixed members on each part—otherwise, you’d hear a group of pianists, and not a true piano ensemble.
Q: Some of the “tricks” that your members play, inside the piano and out, would appear to require a great deal of rehearsal. How long does it generally take to learn a new piece?
A: That varies quite a bit, depending on the individual piece. If you look at the score of some pieces you may think that they could be sight-read, but when it comes to the other players joining in, each of them has to fight for his or her keys. You can’t believe how very crowded it gets when you have to deal with your neighbor’s arms and elbows, too! But other pieces are really difficult just as pieces, and we start by practicing those divided up into groups. It is also important to give every pianist the part which fits him or her best. Since our members come from Russia, Japan, Hungary, Egypt, and Germany, you can imagine there are many personalities involved, but in the end, we try to insure that our audience hears only one ensemble, with a single rubato, and a well-balanced sound. That means practicing and practicing…!
Q: Who does the choreography? Is it a group collaboration, or does one person design it?
A: Most composers notate themselves how special sounds are to be played, and this produces something like choreography itself. In some cases, the ensemble has its own ideas, and over a period of a number of concerts, the final version crystallizes. But generally we want to be good musicians and not showmen. We just use up to 120 fingers to create new sounds on “analog” concert grands.
Q: Have you ever gotten to the point where you felt, “Wow, we can’t possibly match that again, much less top it!”?
A: While recording the new CD,
there have been some such special moments which I think will never come again, but every concert is different and no one can predict what will happen in the future.
Q: Have most of the arrangements you’ve played been specially made for your group?
A: Fortunately there have been quite a number of arrangements and compositions written by members of Die 12 Pianisten, especially by Noriko Ishikawa, Thomas Turek, and myself. Some arrangements are drawn from my collection of music for piano ensemble, which contains more than 700 compositions. There are also composers, such as Daniel Schnyder and Johann Christian Schulz, who have written works especially for us, and others with whom we have good relationships, including Alexander Yossifov. His
was not written for us, but our group gave the premiere.
Q: How did Noriko Ishikawa happen to write her arrangement of
Pictures at an Exhibition
? Was it written for Die 12 Pianisten?
A: It happened during a time when she was ill that she began her arrangements of
Pictures at an Exhibition.
Our first rehearsals of this arrangement were very difficult because of the complexity of the parts, to the point that initially we played only selected movements in concert, and using the version she wrote without percussion. Later, we could perform her other version with the Karlsruhe Percussion Ensemble. This version required us to get used to all the special sound effects in concert performances. Finally, we made the recording as an SACD. We are very happy with the recorded sound, in which you can hear all the inner voices. The score will be published soon, too, so that other pianists will be able to play this version, but it does require 23 percussion instruments—and 10
Q: Given the visual component of your performances, would you consider issuing some of your performances on DVD?
A: Perhaps, some day. At the moment we have uploaded some performances taken from our concerts in Egypt on YouTube so that people can get an impression of what we are all about. Amazingly, more than 220,000 people have watched 12 pianists at one piano as of this writing!
Q: What happens when something goes wrong in one of your performances?
A: Fortunately, this happens only rarely, but if it does, the solution is very easy if you make a mistake in concert: You just glare angrily at one of your colleagues on the opposite piano!
Q: A great idea! I wish composers could have such an easy out for their errors. Thank you for your time, and I hope that many music lovers will check out your wonderful CDs.
Die 12 Pianisten; Karlsruher Schlagzeug Ens
ARS PRODUKTION 38125 (65:07)
Pictures at an Exhibition.
What a delightful CD! In fact, the needle went completely off the end of my fun-o-meter. Given that there is little repertory for an ensemble of this size and make-up, most of the pieces the group plays are arrangements—and clever ones—specially made for them. The shtick of the capital-challenged group, die 12 pianisten, is that its members do much more than just play the piano in the conventional way: Some of them play inside the piano, while others play outside, or engage in the antics of “handing off” the keyboard to each other, sliding down the bench, and taking over an intricate line from another member of the group. I’ve seen one or two of their YouTube videos, and it’s all most amusing, and leaves me wishing that they had made a DVD version of the present CD.
What I hear, however, is perhaps all the fun that my 63-year-old heart could withstand, so I am quite content with an audio version of this program. As you undoubtedly know by now, if you’ve read my
reviews with any frequency, Mussorgsky’s masterpiece is pretty much idiot-proof, and has survived some very inept attempts at arranging it. This one, though, was done by someone, Noriko Ishikawa, who is much closer to the “genius” end of the spectrum than the “idiot.” Her arrangement, scored for six pianists and percussion, is brilliantly rendered, and is a delight from beginning to end. The first promenade is scored primarily for pianos, apparently just a solo piano at the beginning. The percussion makes a noticeable and grand entrance at the beginning of “Gnomus,” with a
clash of the cymbals, and Ishikawa’s use of percussion continues in spectacular fashion from that point onwards. The melodic line of “Il vecchio Castello” is given to the vibraphone and then marimba, and one hears a beautiful change of color in measure 80 of that same movement. One of my favorite moments comes in the “Ballet of Unhatched Chicks,” where in mm. 5 ff, there is a dampening of the piano strings in the ascending line of the left hand. This, much more than Ravel’s pizzicato, sounds like hens clucking or pecking. It’s absolutely delightful, and is my favorite track on the CD.
Other striking percussive effects abound, including a cimbalom-like effect in the “Schmuÿle” section of the two Jews. I suspect this effect is produced very much like the sounds on the cimbalom, which is played by striking the strings with mallets. A particularly spooky effect comes at the beginning of “Catacombae,” where a rubber ball is slid across a tam-tam. I guarantee you’ve never heard anything like this! The percussionists get so worked up at the end of “Limoges” that they sound very much like a gamelan orchestra.
The half-dozen pianists involved in this piece also play brilliantly, incorporating extra contrapuntal lines here and there. Three instances occur in mm. 60 ff in “Gnomus,” throughout the fifth promenade, and in a rather spooky fashion as descending lines in “Con mortuis.” A particularly stunning effect comes in the middle section of “Baba-Yaga,” around measure 98, where the pianists add a series of pronounced dissonances to Mussorgsky’s harmonies. It’s not at all out of place in this wild arrangement.
Only in a few places does the arranger miscalculate. She begins “Bydło,” à la Rimsky-Korsakov, very quietly, causing what should sound like eight oxen straining to sound more like seven swans a-swimming. I also think that her reversion to solo piano in the chorale section of “Great Gate” (mm. 64 ff) sounds out of place in the otherwise bell-rich setting. These are but minor miscalculations in an otherwise extremely imaginative and entertaining arrangement.
The other pieces on the CD make a good impact, too. These include the
of Bulgarian composer Alexander Yossifov, a driving exercise with frequent outbursts in the percussion, the
Arabian Overture “Shourouk”
by Swiss-born Daniel Schnyder, with its exotic rhythms and augmented seconds, not to mention the imitation of the Arabic darbuka drum by a rhythmic striking of a prepared lowest piano string. Then there’s the Ishikawa-enhanced version of Bizet’s (or to be a purest, Yradier’s) “Habanera” from
which requires much switching of players on the piano bench (one has to imagine this), along with the use of castanets and tambourine to complete the effect. Given that it’s scored for 24 hands and only two pianos, you can imagine that there would be no way to get all those digits onto one keyboard at the same time, thus the alternation.
The CD is rounded out with the
of group member Thomas Turek, who apparently shares E. E. Cummings’s anti-capitalist views in his titles. The piece is a lovely sentimental miniature that owes something to the tango form and style. Closing the proceedings, is a transcription of Rossini’s
Overture, another piece full of good humor and surprises.
This well-recorded and performed CD ought to win some kind of award for
but I’m not sure what: Inventiveness? Uniqueness? How about the David DeBoor Canfield Award for In-Your-Face Brashness? Whatever, do acquire this CD for a musical experience that is sure to lift you up from the deepest doldrums.
David DeBoor Canfield