A Conversation with Zsolt Bognár
Pianist Zsolt Bognár is slowly but surely developing a reputation as a musicians’ musician. True, his name is yet to appear on a billboard outside Carnegie Hall, but those who have heard him play will tell you that it is just a matter of time before he will get there. Indeed, it seems to me that the real reason why instant name recognition has so far eluded Bognár is that, unlike many of his colleagues, he does not much care for the spotlight, instead preferring to perfect his craft without the pressures and temptations that arrive with premature stardom. A new CD, which is being released in October 2013, is certain to bring Bognár a little bit closer to the universal recognition he deserves. I sat down with the young pianist to talk about his career so far, his views about music in the 21st century, and his future plans.
At the beginning of the interview, I asked Bognár to retrace the steps that eventually led him to the concert platform. He responded: “I am the first professional musician in my family, but music and artistic cultivation are engrained in my DNA. My father’s mother, who was descended from the iconic romantic Hungarian poet János Arany, studied piano at the Liszt Academy in Budapest and between the wars heard both Rachmaninoff and Horowitz there. My paternal grandfather—a painter—studied cello after hearing the charismatic young Pablo Casals. I began my piano studies at nine—quite late for a pianist. After my father gave me a Bach album performed by Ton Koopman, I was intent on learning the organ, and so I started piano lessons after I received a little keyboard for Christmas. At first, I did not have any awareness of any particular ability, but I do remember learning how to read music in a day, when my older brother taught me.”
When did he realize he was destined to be a musician? “When I was around 10 or 11, my father bought me a few recordings that changed my life. First was the Chopin First Piano Concerto with Zimerman and Kondrashin; next were some of Sviatoslav Richter’s Schumann and Rachmaninoff albums; and then there were some of Rubinstein’s Chopin albums. I could not stop listening to these recordings, and I started to collect as many as I could afford. To pay for this obsession, I took a job as a newspaper delivery boy and visited the record shop weekly with the excitement that others had when walking into a candy or toy store. Records were my first inspiration. Later, when I was 12, I started day trips to hear the matinee concerts of the great pianists who visited Orchestra Hall in Chicago. The first year I heard András Schiff, Ivo Pogorelich, and Alfred Brendel. At that time, Brendel’s recital of five Beethoven sonatas was a revelation. He ended with the D-Major Sonata, op.10/3, and finished with a light arpeggiated flourish that radiated dry wit and humor. Some ladies in the audience even giggled with delight—a reaction I had never imagined possible in a classical music concert. After that, I was spellbound by the possibilities and range of experience in music, and my curiosity took over. Eventually, I realized that I wanted to spend my life making music.”
I asked Bognár about his teachers. “My first teacher, with whom I studied for six years, was Roger Shields. He was a student of Soulima Stravinsky, Wilhelm Kempff, Rhosina Lhévinne, and Yvonne Loriod. He succeeded Alfred Brendel at Vox and recorded albums of American piano music still referenced today in conservatories. Shields’s influence on me was in discipline, pursuit of excellence, and particularly, his cultured and refined sensibilities as a man—his explanations about European history, art, and culture made a deep impression on me. Sergei Babayan was my second major teacher. He influenced all aspects of my piano technique, musicianship, and life. He has taught me to value many things in my work as a musician—warmth, vitality, integrity in all matters, and honesty—but above all, he showed me by example that learning to become a great musician is learning to become a great human being. I have been working with him for 10 years now.” Why study with the same teacher for so long? “Many of my colleagues change teachers every other year, but for me that was impossible to imagine while trying to find my own musical voice. It takes a very long time to establish a framework of musical context and build the requisite trust that underlies a successful teacher-student relationship.”
Is he working towards a specific goal? “I have the same goals today as I did when I sought out Babayan 10 years ago: to find physical and spiritual freedom at the keyboard, and the widest possibilities of imagination in a broad repertoire. Achieving these goals takes lots of work over extended periods. Many colleagues sometimes raise an eyebrow at my working in Cleveland this many years, but I always remember that Glenn Gould was able to work and grow as an artist while living his entire life in Toronto. Cleveland has been a base in which I can work and live without distraction but with plenty of inspiration.”
Does he identify with a particular pianistic school? “I think that after the Second World War, it is harder to divide pianists into schools, since influences and education became more globalized, and recordings also standardized certain ideals in interpretation. Of course, there is a lot of Russian influence in my lineage—Babayan is from the Neuhaus/Naumov tradition—but even within a particular tradition you can easily find pianists who are polar opposites. Freedom of musical spirit and visionary imagery of sound is what I associate with Babayan’s teaching and playing, yet these are qualities that I also associate with the likes of Kempff and Serkin, for example, who of course belong to an altogether different ‘tradition.’ One of the pianists I admire most, the now mostly-forgotten Eileen Joyce, also cannot be easily categorized within a particular school; she was a unique spirit.”
What is the single most important piece of advice he has received as a musician? “I have received lots of great advice to consider throughout my life—from pacing one’s work, to trusting one’s instincts, to playing what one loves, to finding inspiration. What has stuck with me most of all was advice given to me early on—not from a musician, but from my childhood doctor. One day he said to me: ‘I can see that you will probably be successful in whatever you choose to do—I can see that already. However, remember to stop and smell the roses and don’t let your life go by without enjoying it as fully as possible. Try not to rush through it.’”
Does he have any musical heroes? “Lots of them. One of the first musicians I learned of through Babayan was Carlos Kleiber. After seeing his video conducting Beethoven at the Concertgebouw, I was electrified. The elegance, the grace, the exuberance, and the power of his work seemed to defy everything I knew about music—until then I thought mastery was mostly about control. This reminds me that one day during a rehearsal as guest conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, Rafael Kubelík stopped his players and asked: ‘Why do you think that perfection is merely about accuracy? Please, show me another type of perfection.’ Among pianists, as a teenager I completely idolized Richter. His prolific achievement in life with his concerts and repertoire and travels was rivaled perhaps only by Franz Liszt. Richter had one of the most original personalities of the 20th century and, as I discovered later, his artistry was expressed in many aspects of his life, only one of them being his work at the piano. Richter’s influence on the way I heard the piano sound was perhaps too strong—I later realized that in order to find my own musical voice, I had to move away from his influence for a while. First, I found Gilels—a totally different artist with a different palette, sonically and emotionally. Then I found my way to pianistic wizards—Michelangeli, Argerich, and Zimerman; and then I admired the natural poets—Rubinstein, Lupu, and Perahia. Ultimately, I found much to admire in the great old colorists of infinite variety—Cortot, Edwin Fischer, Moiseiwitsch, Friedman, Rachmaninoff, and Hofmann.”
Has each of these strikingly different pianists influenced his playing? “I was certainly inspired by all of them, even though I believe that ultimately my playing has little in common with many of them. But broadening my ears definitely expanded my palette and brought me closer to my own vision of sound. Nowadays, even though in most cases I would opt for interpretations quite different from Richter’s, his impressive achievement is still an undeniable influence in my life. That said, after this lengthy discussion of pianists, I would still say that singers influenced me the most, and I tried to emulate their freedom and prismatic expressive qualities. I especially admire Jussi Björling, Lotte Lehmann, Set Svanholm, the young Wolfgang Windgassen, pre-War Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Ivan Kozlovsky, and Cecilia Bartoli, who showed me in concert what a range of subtleties can exist in exuberance.”
I asked Bognár to share his thoughts on music competitions. “I’ve won a number of competitions, mostly smaller ones. But I have stayed away from the competition circuit for some time now because I have come to realize that the contradictions of competitions were not conducive to my artistic growth. I prefer spending my time expanding my repertoire and playing concerts. Judging by the type of aesthetic most competitions seem to produce in winners—playing that reaches a consensus is necessarily a trait by definition—I frankly do not think my playing can hold up.” Does he believe that competitions are predictive of artistic success? “Not always. A recent article about a current major competition proposed that by the standard created by many major competitions today, many of the great pianists of the past would never have a chance of winning. Competitions are by nature an imposition of judgment; however, artists spend their lives trying to free themselves from its shackles, on stage and off. There is a very good reason why there is no such thing as a major international painting competition—each artist’s vision is complete within his or her own world, and cannot be realistically compared. Every judgment by another person, however, would already be outside of the world in which the art is created. If musicians really tried to be themselves, perhaps competitions would have more weight and the winners would sound more identifiable from one another. However, in the last thirty to forty years, this is very rarely the case. I almost never felt a need in my life to compare myself to others, but rather only to compete against my own self to reach my own highest level. I want to find my own voice, but not merely to try to find success by standardizing it.”
Are there composers whom he considers particularly close? “There are a few composers—I tend to enjoy jumping between the worlds of their artistic vision—and I need them all. For several reasons, I always find myself returning to the music of Schubert. It is simple, direct, and activates the full range of the human experience. His musical language for me is pure poetry—it manages to say so much with so little. I find his songs to be some of the highest experiences in music. It is power without force, and speaking volumes between the spaces of the notes. There is an arresting quality to his music, which is often tinged with sadness and darkness. For some of these same reasons, I feel very close to the music of several Russian composers, whose music can range from harrowing journeys to basking in gratitude.”
Are there projects of which he is particularly proud? “I tend to gravitate towards projects and pieces that have induced almost feverish inspiration—Tchaikovsky’s Second Concerto was one such project, which I began to learn after hearing an old LP of Gilels with Kondrashin. I worked on that piece for eight years before I dared play it on stage. With concerto performances, I feel so much depends on the collaborative energy of the performer and conductor, which is why playing Beethoven’s First Concerto in Los Angeles with conductor Case Scaglione (at the moment, Case works as an assistant to Alan Gilbert at the New York Philharmonic) was such a memorable and rewarding experience for me—he is a close friend and a personality with a natural charisma and charm that is rare in our generation. Working with friends is always exceptionally important for me to feel the essential human connection with any collaboration. Some years ago I shared a concert with my friend Franklin Cohen, the legendary clarinetist of the Cleveland Orchestra. His ability to shape and carry a phrase is something that still gives me chills—I could hardly sleep afterwards.”
“I must also mention that since 2006 I have had almost yearly month-long tours of the Netherlands, and this was entirely by accident. One day after playing a recital for the Holland Music Sessions in Bergen (North Holland), I stumbled into an antique shop to buy souvenirs for my family and friends. The shopkeeper and I got to talking, and after a few minutes I learned that a beautiful grand piano was housed upstairs. I tried it and in fact ended up repeating my entire program from the previous evening. A few days later, they asked me to repeat the program for a large gathering of invited friends. The next year, they arranged several house concerts upon my return. Within a few years, these concerts branched into multi-city tours sponsored by a national bank in large venues and with a beautiful Hamburg Steinway that traveled with me from city to city. I played many, many Schumann works during these tours. This ongoing project was born of friendships, was completely surreal, and as rewarding as possible. The shopkeeper and her husband have remained close friends of mine ever since I walked into the store.”
I asked Bognár to explain his choice of repertoire for his new CD—was there a common theme? “For me, all of the works represent great journeys by wandering, restless, and at times lonely, spirits. Their range and power have impressed me from the start. I am particularly fond of Schubert’s E♭
—the second middle section is so heartbreaking that at times I find it difficult to breathe while performing it.” Did he find it challenging to record pieces that are extremely well known? “Making a recording is a very daunting process, and it is always challenging to arrive at your interpretation of a work you’ve previously heard performed by others. But it is something all musicians have to do. When I was a teenager, I heard a live recording Richter made of Schubert’s
. Incidentally, the performance took place in Budapest in the 1960s, and my dad was in the audience. I was stunned, and Richter made me believe that these works could not be played any other way—so complete was his inner world. I listened to that Budapest recital over and over and over—especially while traveling. When I realized I needed to play the pieces myself, I kept myself from listening again for three years. Once I felt content with my own interpretation of these works, I listened again to Richter and was amazed at how different his performance was from how I remembered it—and how different it was in every way from my interpretation.”
I asked Bognár to share his thoughts on social media, which he appears to have embraced. “I was very allergic to social media at first—I found it to be narcissistic, trivial, and rarely revealing about much concerning the music I love so much. Despite my initial reservations, however, I began to find very intelligent voices online speaking about very engaging, comprehensive, and important subjects. For example, I admire and follow several blogs online, especially the arts and culture blog of Stephen Hough. I then started finding that the Internet is a good venue for some of my writings. The fact of the matter is that social media is here to stay and we have to embrace it. It is quite likely that YouTube is now the first go-to for most people trying to explore a piece or even hear it for the first time. In America, retail shops that serve the classical music industry are very few. Online retailers have everything, but it is difficult to browse with the same atmosphere of discovery and magic that I knew as a child. I do hope that YouTube will entice people to the concert hall. Live music-making is unlike any other experience. It is a collective experience shared with others, in the moment. Anything can happen, and therein lies part of the excitement of witnessing something created on the spot.”
Is he concerned about the future of classical music? “Interest in classical music will always be around so long as there are passionate advocates for it, and people to introduce it to others at the right age—the younger the better. It must come from a culture that values refinement and is not afraid of feeling in a way that steps out of comfort zones. The problem with classical music today is it is too expensive for most people to witness it in person. YouTube makes all the greatest performances in history available at the click of a button, at any time. However, to really understand an artist fully, a recording is just part of the story. A concert is a living, breathing, changeable thing that can react to the moment. I also think that people are capable of giving elevated experiences a chance, if they are within reach and have the right introduction. I do not believe in dressing down concerts, or finding ways to pander to lower tastes through compromised means. One does not have to be worldly in order to communicate timeless and powerfully direct messages. I think the audiences I have experienced are ready and excited for passionate performers to be there to guide them. What young people will need to see and realize is the beauty that can only come from full, undivided attention—no bombardments of multitasking and communications, for at least the duration of a concert—receiving with open ears the most important meaning they can ponder. Sustaining one’s self in a constant state of self-induced anxiety with incessant text messages, emails, touchscreens, and noise—these drown out the silence that is necessary to truly listen, the type of listening that brings inner peace, inspiration, and elevation.”
In parting, I asked Bognár about his future projects. “I have been selected as one of eight pianists to go to Wilhelm Kempff’s villa in Positano, Italy, for the month of October. I must prepare six Beethoven sonatas and two concertos with Bernd Goetzke, a Michelangeli student. In December I will have another tour of Europe, including concerts in Germany and Austria, and perhaps other countries. In early 2014, I will make my debut with the Dayton Philharmonic, performing Mozart’s C-Minor Concerto—this is part of an ongoing collaboration with my friend and former classmate Jessica Hung, who is now the concertmaster there. Long-term, I dream of completing a Schubert sonata cycle and performing it as soon as I can find the venues. I know that Radu Lupu did this in London, when he was around my age. His lifetime of experience with many of Schubert’s works shows in his recordings that came later—I hope that I can start with many of them early, as well, because I aspire to that same depth in performances and on recordings.”
Three Piano Pieces,
Der Doppelgänger. Aufenhalt. Ständchen von Shakespeare.
Après une lecture du Dante—Fantasia quasi Sonata,
Zsolt Bognár (pn)
CON BRIO 21346 (57: 40)
For more than a decade, the young pianist Zsolt Bognár has been studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music with the eminent artist and pedagogue Sergei Babayan. Through Babayan, Bognár has been steeped in the Russian pianistic tradition associated with the likes of Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels, two giants whom Bognár cites as formative influences. Bognár’s pedigree, however, is not entirely Russian. Before studying with Babayan, Bognár worked with Roger Shields, a pupil of Soulima Stravinsky, Yvonne Loriod, and Wilhelm Kempff. Bognár’s complex musical lineage is reflected in his playing, which is at once virtuosic, probing, and affecting.
, Bognár impresses me with his unforced poetry, his judicious use of rubato, and his understanding of the subtle tempo relationships and kaleidoscopic color and dynamic shades that characterize these enigmatic works. Those qualities are also present in Bognár’s traversal of the Liszt transcriptions of Schubert’s songs,
Der Doppelgänger, Aufenthalt
Ständchen von Shakespeare
. One minor quibble concerns Bognár’s slightly romanticized treatment of
. Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach’s way with this bone-chilling song (see my review in 36:1) has forever changed my perception of it. In the Liszt Etude and the
, Bognár’s playing sizzles with white-hot virtuosity, pinpoint control, and interpretive freedom reminiscent of Lazar Berman.
One of the handful of rules
reviewers are required to follow provides for comparative evaluation aimed at informing the reader how the album under consideration measures up against the competition. Most often, I find this comparative exercise to be daunting because it is enormously subjective, not to mention inherently unfair. At times, however, this task results in the subject of the comparison itself becoming a future reference. At bottom, that is the gist of my conclusions regarding Bognár’s album—that is, I know of no recording of the featured repertoire that is finer than Bognár’s. The most appropriate praise that comes to mind is that another critic once bestowed upon Ivan Moravec—each and every one of these recordings is a thing of beauty itself, rare and luminous as a Ming vase.
The quality of the sound engineering is outstanding. Warmly recommended.
Radu A. Lelutiu