It's the eve of an American, two-city program with Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager that brings him back to the periphery of the opera world that he loves so much. French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet offers NYC and Boston the rarer works of Liszt Lieder and (normally-known Brahms Lieder), an antidote to Liszt's ~Greatest Hits~ that everyone's been churning out during the Hungarian composer's 200th birth year. The two peerless performers are well-matched -- we were hypnotized by Kirchschlager's killer kurves in a Milan Mahler recital a couple years ago, and aside from her bulletproof technique and the rousing Kurt Weill cabaret encores, she was an on-stage tractor beam in a figure-hugging, very rock'n'roll dress.
Versatile, lively, and unwavering, Thibaudet swings from composer to composer with big ideas as easily as he swings between genre. His Liszt Opera Transcriptions CD from almost a decade ago ignited a curious crossover of Liszt into the works of Wagner, Mozart, Donizetti, etc., while showcasing his clarity, brilliance, and energy. Even his concert garb pushes the boundaries – the pianist’s stylist is the British doyenne of lux-punk rock, Vivienne Westwood.
The two-city tour runs this weekend, with the first show tonight in Boston and the second one tomorrow night at Carnegie's Zankel Hall.
Click the link below to read the full interview...
I’ve done quite a few projects in the past that are for Liszt. The first was a solo recital and it contained works that weren’t very well known. That was very interesting to me because everyone always plays the same compositions by Liszt but he just has so much to offer in his spectrum of work that’s not presented. Then I played his concerti quite frequently around the world.
For the third project, I wanted it to be with a singer and I wanted it to be all about his Lieder, which I think are some of his greatest compositions. They really are amazing songs. I learned Liszt Lieder with Brigitte Fassbender, a wonderful German mezzo soprano, and we recorded some of them with Decca in the early 1990s and it really was a rewarding experience for me. It made me rethink Liszt. People are always saying that Liszt is a virtuoso and makes kind of superficial music, but it made me see that he was a cultured composer who was an amazingly gifted man.
So for this tour, we chose Liszt’s Lieder, which was difficult because there were so many of them, but we chose then together with Angelika Kirchschlager. All the songs we’re doing are in German language because that’s what she wanted and partly because the first half of the concert will be Brahms songs, which are also in German. I do love the French ones and the Italian ones as well.
But the ones we selected are really remarkable and I think people who are unfamiliar with them will be completely surprised, mostly because it will challenge their conceptions of Liszt as a vocal composer. Most people just don’t see him that way, but that’s just more of a testament to the strength of his composition for solo parts – because he was such a great pianist himself.
On one side of a pianists' rep, you have solo performances. You spent the summer in Tanglewood playing the complete piano works of Ravel. From there you moved onto collaborations with orchestras like your European tour with Charles Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Now you have a departure of playing one-on-one with an opera singer, Angelika Kirchschlager. What’s that like? How did you guys hook up? What's it like working with her? Do you want to work closely with more opera singers?
I’ve always been fascinated by singers – opera and vocal -- and all of that is probably my most cherished works. If I'm listening to something, it's likely that it's opera before I’d listen to something like piano or symphony. It's the art form of song that I find to be such a creative medium -- the expression is beautiful. There’s something about the human voice that no other instrument can capture or feel, at least, not in the same emotional capacity that can be produced by the voice.
I’ve always loved all these kinds of experiences that I’ve had at opera and recitals and it's something that I always want to part of. I want to try all different forms of music, like opera. And then of course I still do study opera, which leads me to a very beautiful story about how I first met Angelika Kirchschlager. I was actually on tour with Brigitte Fassbender, who was my first collaboration as an opera singer. We recorded together Liszt Lieder and had a few tours. Then there was a big tour including a concert in New York at Lincoln Center. And it just happened that during that year that she stopped singing. She had decided that it was just this oblique part of her life and she just didn't want to sing anymore. But she wanted to come on the rest of the tour.
During that, I met a lovely agent, Jack Mastroianni, who eventually became my agent. He was also the agent of Cecilia Bartoli. He told me that there was a wonderful, young mezzo soprano that I had to meet. I hadn't heard of her but he was telling me all these fabulous things about her and was trying to get me to come together with her for the concert. I said, "Sure, absolutely. Have her come to my apartment and we'll make some music together."
And of course, I learned quickly both physically and musically that she's the most beautiful in every way, inside and out. She’s a beautiful musician with a wonderful personality. We immediately had the greatest time.
She's a very instinctual, organic singer. It’s something that purely musical to her. And that was our first collaboration. And from that day forward, we had quite a few collaborations over the years like recitals. We also did a very interesting concert that was a trio that was quite wonderful. Angelika was on voice, Yuri Bashmet was on the viola and it was me on the piano. So when I thought of this project with Liszt and Brahms, I knew she'd be perfect.
You could technically be the greatest singer in the world and be absolutely perfect in everything, but you still need to have something that works on stage and connects you to the audience. Angelika takes a very different approach to singing. She goes beyond the boundaries of what singers bring to the stage. You need to have a perfect concentration on the text and translate it into something that's understandable by the audience and convey to them the tone. Angelika can always do that.
Every word, tone, and extraction has to be dissected by the singer and I think it's a really wonderful thing what they can do. And I especially love the traditions from Germany and Austria which impart such important meaning on the text. It's a really special structure and it goes beyond singing.
Playing with singers has always been an important part of my life. I have some wonderful experiences with other singers like Cecilia Bartoli, great times with other concerts, and I'm trying to get more things together with singers. So this is a really special moment in my life to have this collaboration tour with an opera singer.
We've known so many opera soloists and instrumental soloists who have literally one outfit that they reserve for their performances. It’s not like that for you, and you’ve shared a collaboration with British designer Vivienne Westwood who curates your performance wear. From whom did you learn dressing? Tell us about your style.
Fashion has always been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember. I was very decisive and driven when I went shopping and knew exactly what I wanted. I was always attracted to fashion and beautiful clothes and it's something that I’ve always enjoyed. It was during the period when I worked with my first designer that I started changing the way I thought about dressing for performances. I was moving away from the frac, the tuxedo jacket with tails, because to me it looked a bit ridiculous and I wasn't interested in wearing it anymore, but I didn’t know what my options were. So I went back and forth from a colorful, dynamic look to simpler elegance. Then I started working with a French designer called Thierry Mugler, which were very simple designs in blacks and grays and beiges and of course it was very beautiful clothes that looked good on me.
But then I met Vivienne Westwood at a big party eight years ago in Zurich and we hit it off and started working together and she does all my outfits. She’s very practical, which I love. She's very attentive to my needs and how I like very fine materials that don't wrinkle and clothing that’s pragmatic. She thinks of everything that you need in menswear like making little pockets for the handkerchief, all these little details that I love.
I think style is an important part of performing. You have to be elegant and you have to feel good about how you present yourself. And I think it's important to bring fashion like this in an elegant way into classical music, especially when we're thinking of younger audiences who might think of classical music as alienating and outdated. Anyway, women can wear such beautiful dresses on stage -- why can't the guys do it, too?