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Burkard Schließmann

Talks with Robert J. Sullivan, Jr.

German pianist Burkard Schließmann studied at the Frankfurt College of Music and Arts, receiving his diploma in 1987. While still in school, he began his very successful forays into recording and performance. His first record, intended only as a demo-tape for the Washington Music Festival, received the 1988 Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik. A second album of Brahms won a Grammy Award. Today he is in the midst of recording the complete Brahms piano works for Bayer Records.

Schließmann's approach to the piano, though guided by a piercing intellect, remains essentially intuitive. His emotionally expressive style can be heard in music from Beethoven to Scriabin to Busoni.

Sullivan: Who are your favorite pianists, past and present?

Schließmann: My "favorite pianists" - as you call them - are Schnabel, Solomon, Cortot and Serkin. These are the ones I consider historic. Of those still playing, Michelangeli for me is the greatest of all. I admire his astonishing intellect, the electricity, concentration and maturity of his singular, serious and highly personal interpretations and, last and not least, his huge technique, which indeed is something for connoisseurs. His beautiful, sonorous and controlled tone and sound is a mystery. You'd never find "affectation" in Michelangeli's playing.

I admire Schnabel and Solomon for the stile parlando of their phenomenal Beethoven interpretations; Cortot for being a typical representative of the dawning 19th Century and Romantic period, showing us how Chopin should be understood; and Serkin, for demonstrating what depth music and interpretation finally can have.

Sullivan: Are there any pianists whom you admire but do not try to emulate (for reasons of technique, philosophy, or temperament)?

Schließmann: Yes, there are many. Ivo Pogorelich, for example. Our interpretations are completely different from each other. For myself, I also cultivate an extreme style. But the aim and purpose of all this extremely personal pianism is to develop large architectural forms while maintaining the harmony of vehement attack and ardent espressivo at one and the same time. And this is not seen from above in the classical manner, but rather as a dynamic process that unfolds inexorably before us. This heroic spirituality and the radical illumination of the inner essence of great music in its most concise form are the roots of my musical training in the spirit of Romantic Realism. That's also my "mystery," because as a human being I feel at home in nearly all stylistic epoches of musical literature and art. I think the historical, philosophical and sociological circumstances from the special epoches are important for the realization of singular interpretations. The Hegel Aesthetic enlightens and informs my deep respect for music and my own interpretations: "For art is not merely a pleasant or even a useful toy, art is the expanding of truth."

Sullivan: I know many concert pianists find practice pure drudgery. When you have finished with all your practicing for an upcoming concert or recording, what sort of music do you play in your "free" time?

Schließmann: I myself don't find practicing "pure drudgery." I embark on the conquest of a new work in altogether normal fashion: intuitively, and to a certain extent improvisationally. Then comes an intellectual process that helps to gradually consolidate the structures, until everything comes full circle, returning via meticulously controlled kinetic mechanisms to a kind of improvisation that is now lit by the intellect.

One important aspect of this cyclical, post-creative investigation, as it were, is the analysis of individual parameters. Melody, rhythm, and harmony are examined to locate the areas in each where specific conflicting forces are at play, and are then reformed to produce a new whole.

In studying and practicing I'm never tired or even cramped, because for me it is a challenge to create music. This is a reason that I needn't play "other music" in my spare time.

Sullivan: Do you listen to records? [To study a score, for instance.]

Schließmann: I listen to many records. I've heard nearly all the great music in the library of other great artists. But I'm not specifically influenced by them. It may be curious, but I have learned a lot from great singers like Caruso, Callas, Domingo, and others. It's very important for my interpretation of melodic lines.

Sullivan: I've heard advance copies (tapes from the DAT master) of the first three discs of your complete solo Brahms - I have to say, the Friedrich-Ebert-Hallé acoustic is wonderful, and your piano, the same one you used for the Scriabin, sounds luscious. What's so special about this combination?

Schließmann: First of all, the piano I'm using for Brahms is not the same one I used for Scriabin. For Scriabin, I used a piano with a great, brilliant and clear sound; it shouldn't sound hard. I like to be able to illumine the polyphonic structures by creating an extreme variability of colors. With Brahms, however, I use a piano that helps me articulate the compact structural composition. Because Brahms uses nearly all 88 keys, the bass and descant should be well balanced, maintaining the highest dynamic range and variability. The intonation and sound should be a romantic one.

It is fatuous to believe that a piano technician can satisfy all these expectations. Martin Bagge from Steinway & Sons Hamburg did a great job! The Friedrich-Ebert-Hallé in Hamburg is well known for its fabulous acoustic. This is the reason many fine artists are doing their recordings here. It's also the merit of my sound engineer, Eberhard Schnellen, for picking up the real sound from the piano in combination with the acoustic of the hall. Synthetic echo effects are not necessary. The piano must be properly located; I've tried it out several times to establish that.

Sullivan: Many artists really dread coming into the recording studio - André Watts and Ivan Davis are two notable ones. Of course, Glenn Gould couldn't get enough of it. How do you feel when the "red light" goes on?

Schließmann: In this case I also "can't get enough." Because I'm doing all my recordings in a concert hall, I don't feel the typical and sterile atmosphere of a studio. Often I'm stimulated nearly like in a real concert. My practicing and preparation for a recording are so good that I can follow my artistic aim of producing even for CD something really "alive." Therefore, I prefer to play only one or two takes from each piece to preserve the larger context of a complex work. I try to avoid "cuts" whenever possible.

Sullivan: You've toured quite a bit. What do you look forward to in each new city?

Schließmann: I try to feel the atmosphere in a new city and to learn something about the character and mentality of the people living there. In the evening, during the concert, I try to react to these impressions in my music to give it back to the audience.

But I also have other ideas after arriving. During my first stay in New York, for example, I visited the Guggenheim Museum.

Sullivan: Are there any plans for a Carnegie hall performance?

Schließmann: Yes, my concert agency is in contact with some sponsors. I hope it will work out, because it would be a great challenge for me, which I indeed would like to accept.

Sullivan: I know you had some studies with Cherkassky in Washington, D.C., and played two dates with the New York Philharmonic and the National Symphony. What has been your impression of musical America?

Schließmann: Shura Cherkassky is an artist with much tradition. He himself has been a pupil of the legendary Russian pianist Josef Hofmann. It is nearly the same with my other teacher, Poldi Mildner, who was a student of Rachmaninoff, Rosenthal, Teichmüller, and Schnabel. You can trace the tradition back to Liszt, Brahms, Czerny, and Beethoven. Also, with the New York Philharmonic you feel the great artistic experience of special musicians playing there, because besides their engagements with the orchestra, most of them are excellent soloists. I think this is one reason for the individual sound of this orchestra.

Sullivan: What are some things you do outside music?

Schließmann: Besides my music, I need something completely different; therefore, I do a lot of sports, like jogging, swimming, and fishing. I also enjoy literature: Thomas Mann, Brecht, Kafka, and Frisch are favorites. For refreshment and concentration of my mind I do yoga.

Sullivan: After the Brahms project, what is next on the recording slate?

Schließmann: I would like to record the "Bach Variations" of Max Reger combined with the "Prélude, Choral et Fugue" of César Franck. I'm a great fan of harmonic structures in large architectural forms of seldom played music. These two works represent nearly a "prototype" of compositions, where the harmonic possibilities reach their own climax.

Sullivan: How about another recording of the Busoni concerto? (I'm joking.) Can you believe surge of interest in that piece?

Schließmann: Of course. I love Busoni - he is the culmination of pianism. Besides this his composition style is especially various; as with Scriabin, you can find compositions from the tonal to the atonal. His "Sonatina Seconda" is one of the first real atonal compositions without compromises. The piano concerto (Op. 39 with choir) is his largest, longest and grandiose work. Yes, I could imagine playing it.

Sullivan: You have a big but mellow tone; your hands look quite large. How does one's natural equipment predispose one to a certain kind of music - or does that make any sense to you?

Schließmann: There's some truth to it. For playing Mozart you don't need large hands, but for Scriabin, Liszt, Brahms, Reger, Rachmaninoff and so on, long fingers and large hands are indeed necessary. But finally it is a question of technique and how to use your physical power and lastly how to combine these two elements so that the tone and sound can be very great - but never hard. You find this problem in Scriabin especially. Even the most difficult passages in puncto "technique" you have to play so that they seem quite simple.

Other difficulties are confidence and physical stamina, attributes you absolutely need for existing on the stage. If you can summon new power and energy during your concert performance, you can concentrate absolutely on the interpretation.

Sullivan: Brahms has received a lot criticism for his unwieldy piano technique, yet by all accounts he was a rather accomplished player who premièred his own concertos. What do you know about Brahms the pianist?

Schließmann: Robert Teichmüller, the teacher of Poldi Mildner (I had the honor to study with her), was one of Brahms' closest friends. Through that connection I know something about Brahms' manner of playing the piano. You often find many prejudices, but he must have been an excellent pianist indeed. Do you believe that he could have composed pieces like the Paganini and Handel Variations or the F-Minor Sonata if he hadn't the necessary technique? I myself don't believe that his music suffers from a certain weightiness. Of the young Brahms, Joseph Joachim (the Hungarian violin virtuoso) said: "So free, wild and full of fire he played…"

Sullivan: Claudio Arrau said that the slow movement from the great F-minor sonata, Op. 5 rivals Tristan for its expression of erotic love. That was the young Brahms: bold, energetic, and deeply in love with Clara Schumann. In later years, he turned to short forms - the Intermezzi, Klavierstücke, Capricci and so on - miniatures of extreme introspection and beauty. The torrent of Sturm und Drang has been replaced by the intimate glow of a candle. How do you approach the two "Brahmses"?

Schließmann: "Energetic" and "energico" are the right expressions for the understanding of nearly all compositions of Brahms, in the early and late works. I believe that Brahms felt that in his piano sonatas he succeeded in something that could never be repeated: fusing in the sonata form a maximum of spontaneous expressive force with the highest measure of formal discipline. The sonata in F-minor and the Handel Variations are unmistakable in their singularity. Pianistic bravura is a prerequisite for playing them.

Completely different is the later Brahms. Outbursts of a dark passion, inner dissatisfaction, and raging bitterness took musical form. A comparison with Beethoven will illustrate this further. While Beethoven in his most passionate movements succeeds in elevating human self-esteem and leaves his shaken audience uplifted after every storm, Brahms in the Fantasies relieves only himself. This is due less to a difference in creative ability than to differences in spiritual attitude and human stature. Brahms' Fantasies develop into closely woven compositions in which a keen awareness and understanding of art (which is awake even in dreams) lend clarity of expression and aesthetic measure. The pianist inevitably delivers a self-portrait. Not only are these lyric poems for piano addressed to no one in particular, they are also monologues in the literal sense of the word. They express what the partner in his life is not supposed to hear, because it is locked up tight in the "labyrinth of the heart."

The venture of such a "reverie," where a state of mind lost to the world is illustrated by extremely subtle means, is not recorded in the history of the instrument before Brahms. We next meet the same passive and contemplative state of mind with the impressionistic traits in the works of Debussy and the early Bartók compositions. One has to admire how Brahms endowed his reveries with absolute perfection of form and delicate lyric expressiveness by using the higher notes of the instrument.

Brahms' characteristic "yearning," "secret reverie" and "grief about himself" are discussed even by Nietzsche in the second addendum to his paper "The case of Wagner…the problems of musicians" (1888). There one finds those sentences that have been quoted so often and so often misunderstood: "…He deplores his limitations; he does not create from the abundant wealth of expression but craves for it. If he were to deduct all that he copies and all that he borrows from the great ancient and modern and exotic - he is a master of copying - then all that remains of himself is his yearning."

"Brahms is moving so long as he is secretly dreaming or grieving about himself - in this case he is modern…he becomes cold and no longer concerns us anymore as soon as he becomes a mere heir of the classics…" (Pocket edition XI 220).

Now we are left to ask ourselves whether Nietzsche's discerning characterization does not refer more to the musical fin de siecle mood of the time than to Brahms alone…

Sullivan: Your Scriabin playing has been met with much acclaim. In fact, that's how I got to know you. I love your performance of the Third Sonata! How were you drawn to this ultra-romantic?

Schließmann: Comparable with the declaration above about puncto "Brahms," it's again the mood and atmosphere and - last not least - the philosophical background of Scriabin himself which give me inspiration for my interpretation. Scriabin himself speaks - in his commentary to this sonata - of "a sea of feelings, tender and sad: love, sorrow, vague yearning and inexplicable thoughts and the terrifying voice of creative people, which plunges, temporarily defeated, into the abyss of non-existence."

Sullivan: How does an audience respond to something like Scriabin's Sonata #9, "Black Mass"?

Schließmann: The response depends on your interpretation. Indeed, this piece is hard to understand and is completely unusual for the normal audience. The true value of this magnificent work will not be understood or felt during the performance, but some time after finishing it. The variation of his mystical ecstatic vision, with its pressing musical logic and enormous pianistic power is, of all Scriabin sonatas, the one most at risk of being misconstrued as a graphic illustration of erotic experience. In truth, Scriabin's Eros relates to the ecstatic mystery of the spirit that must encompass light and darkness, good and evil; the "ecstatic" excitement of the Ninth Sonata, then, should be understood not as physical, but rather as a presentation of the spiritual interplay of incorporeal powers and as preliminary to spiritual deliverance.

Copyright © 1997, Robert J. Sullivan.