Sunday, March 16, 2014

Talking to pianist Daniel-Ben Pienaar


On February 28th 2014 pianist Daniel-Ben Pienaar performed Book 1 of J.S.Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” at the Eilat Chamber Music Festival. On March 1st we met in the lounge of the Dan Hotel Eilat to talk.

PH: Daniel-Ben Pienaar, can we start with your childhood?

D-B.P: Yes. I was born in South Africa, living there till age 18. When I was little we lived just outside a town called Kimberley (where there used to be the famous diamond mines) on a military base, where my father was a chaplain. When I was nine, we moved to Port Elizabeth on the southeastern coast.

PH: Do you come from a musical family?

D-B.P: ‘Musical’ I don’t know, but certainly not a music family. My father was a reverend in the Protestant Church and my mother was the traditional “reverend’s wife” with her own social/pastoral duties.

PH: When did you start learning music?

D-B.P: The places where we lived were not really “cultural centres”, but I had music lessons at my local school from age eight. My very kind first teacher instilled in me a love for music. It was immediately apparent that I had natural facility and a good ear. In those days lending libraries were still thriving and I spent many happy hours reading about the “great composers” and their music, often trying to fathom an idea about their music before I had had a chance to hear it. And, from my reading and playing, I started to dream of Europe from a place far away from Europe. Now that I live in Europe, well, in England, I realize that that Europe is still very far away! Of course the fantasy was of a Europe of the past…something that actually no longer exists…but perhaps more so – of a magical place that indeed has never existed. I think people from the New World countries can understand that – especially if you imagine the days before long-distance travel became so easy for everyone (and at that time South Africa was of course further isolated because of sanctions). In Port Elizabeth I had a piano teacher from the university and also an incredibly inspiring violin professor, whose teaching was intensely concerned with technique - the power and economy of real technique. I was not a natural violinist, but this restless (sometimes very cerebral) inquiring into ‘how things work’ physically, and how best to achieve brilliance and beauty, have been very important for me as a pianist.

PH: When did you make your debut in the performing world?

D-B.P: Still as a child in South Africa, I played in some national competitions. My parents never pressured me (in fact they were probably rather cautious and protective) and I took on the competitions quite nonchalantly, winning most of them! In this way I then got to perform concertos with some of the better orchestras in South Africa. Eventually I won a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music (London). I moved to London at 18 and have lived there ever since.

PH: With whom did you study at the Royal Academy?

D-B.P: I studied with Christopher Elton, who was Head of Keyboard Studies then. He is a finely-tuned, but open-minded musician, with a real, poetic sensibility – and with an impressive list of very accomplished students and ex-students who sound very different from each other (I think it a rare gift indeed to be able to nurture such a class). Other musicians have been influential, too, one of them being viol player Laurence Dreyfus (Phantasm Viol Quartet), who taught at the Academy for a while. There was much excited discussion around that time about early music and about what the real priorities are when performing this music. Notions of ‘performance practice’ can so often become didactic or restrictive – and people start to judge the means and not the ends; of course aesthetic-expressive priorities remain primary. Another influential person was Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, today principal of the Royal Academy of Music. He had very interesting ideas about recording and what the recording process can really do (following on from Glenn Gould, but seen from quite a different cultural and repertoire perspective), which set me thinking along particular lines.

PH: What then?

D-B.P: Then I had a few years when I was not specifically involved at the Academy. I travelled to Japan a lot, playing chamber music and solo recitals. I worked with violinist Narimichi Kawabata and we performed absolutely everywhere, as he was (and still is) a very popular classical musician in Japan. That was good concert experience for me and was actually also quite a nice way to ‘experiment’ in concerts, taking risks, trying out possibilities… Japan is famous for having a lot of excellent, good and okay halls, most having well-maintained concert grands. Even small towns have these cultural centres (bunka-kaikan) – partly a function of the boom years – and halls with decent acoustics; and audiences are attentive.

PH: And then you returned to London.

D-B.P: Well, I always lived in London. I decided I needed to ‘settle down’ and in 2005 was offered a teaching job at the Royal Academy. In 2003 I had started my recording projects – recording the repertoire that I had learnt and loved and performed. This lifestyle (earning a small salary from teaching, with enough time to practice and ‘think’, and always having a big project at the back, or in the forefront, of my mind) means that I only do the concerts I want to – and I have to admit I probably have not spent enough time trying to consciously forge a ‘career’; anyway, I have no taste, and very little talent, for these intensely focused promotional activities many artists are engaging in – seemingly constantly. For one thing, Facebook and Twitter are not for me!

PH: Can you elaborate on that?

D-B.P: Yes. In the spirit of the times it’s inevitable that institutions are teaching management and self-promotion, encouraging young artists to ‘sell’ themselves, exerting pressure to ‘define themselves’ – but this at a time when most of these young musicians don’t quite know what it is they have to offer yet, or before they have a deeply developed repertoire, or a strongly developed musical identity. So often this perceived need to package themselves up as a ‘product’ starts to define the music they make and the repertoire they choose. So you have many young people who are impatient and feel at the age of 22 that they should be in the throes of a ‘career’. To me it feels one has more time than that. (I think that for a soloist, by the age of 30, you should have some good ideas of what you are about, have repertoire and real abilities, but till then it is good to experiment – and to fail a lot! That of course does not mean that experimenting and failing stop there!)

PH: Let’s talk about technique. You have mentioned your “idiosyncratic, individually made technique”. You do have a magnificent technique.

D-B.P: It is interesting, because in South Africa I did not have teachers from any of the established traditions that train young people so effectively. My technical upbringing was not systematic in any way. I never did any kind of technical exercises or studies, always real music. It was only later that I started to formulate things more, mostly through trial and error, but also through reading. I guess, to an extent, I am still experimenting. And I am an inveterate list maker when it comes to these things. Maybe, at some point, it becomes too ideological; one gets too conscious of certain things and needs to recapture the intuitive ways. But maybe when your early training was very free it’s easier to remember that easy playfulness from early on, to find that in yourself again.

PH: Do you call yourself a “Bach pianist”?

D-B.P: Not specifically a Bach pianist, although Bach, in so many ways, epitomizes, exemplifies and encapsulates everything that goes through my mind in terms of how to deal with the past, how to deal with history, the canonic, how to approach performers and performances from the past that I admire, how to deal in my mind with performers whose work I hate. I think works I play tend to be ‘standard repertoire’ – mostly Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin. Chopin is not canonic in the same way as the Germans, but for pianists he is.

PH: Can you describe the relationship between this repertoire and your ideas about ‘history’?

D-B.P: The idea is that, on the one hand, you have old music and we make certain deductions about it, about the texts, their contexts, and engage in some kind of study about historical practices; but then also, because it has been standard repertoire for so long, it has a multi-faceted performance history subsequent to the period of the composition itself. You have 19th-century traditions of playing and, alongside that, the piano evolving in such a spectacular way at that time. Then there are the early 20th-century performers so hauntingly captured by early recordings of these works. Inevitably, following World War II, a new way of thinking, a different sensibility emerges, with different performance mores. And then there is the digital age too! Throughout these eras, composers like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven have always been considered ‘the great masters’, but their music read in constantly evolving, changing ways. So their music is not fixed but capable of encompassing, including or being indeed enriched by all the performers who have played it, those who have listened to it, thought about it, written about it. It can’t be accurate to say we are really playing, interpreting the true Bach; in a way, ‘Bach’ has become greater with each passing generation because of all that has accrued to it! Every now and then, one would imagine stripping things down to some kind of essence, but really performance of such works becomes a kind of lens through which you engage with all these things, all these pasts – and in that way one defines one’s present too, i.e. in that way you are truly ‘contemporary’. Thus I guess you can say, for example, that Shakespeare does not need to be ‘updated’ because he has stayed up to date all this time! Of course, there are some people who challenge the idea that there is or should be a canon of great works. Nevertheless, this continuous engagement and enrichment has, for better or worse, happened around specific works and composers, and is the reason why the ‘48’ has been called the ‘Old Testament’ of the piano literature.


PH: Do you play early keyboard instruments?

D-B.P: ‘Play around’ (with) would best describe it. We have a fine collection of them at the Royal Academy of Music. But I really object to pianists who take a few lessons on the harpsichord and over-night turn themselves into harpsichordists! To play the harpsichord or fortepiano beautifully and brilliantly you have to become a specialist; that takes time. The stakes are different now to the eighteenth century when keyboard players would be expected to switch instruments at a moment’s notice. In connection with that, a quotation from Alexander Pope is so fitting: “One science only will one genius fit; so vast is art, so narrow human wit”. There is so much detail in each discipline. Of course, I like to listen to what harpsichordists do and even play a little, but this is in order to gain tools for myself as a pianist, to look for things I can use to make my playing more expressive, interesting and varied.

PH: And how do you view the authentic movement?

D-B.P: It is very interesting and useful – of course as a distinct modern approach to texts and contexts.


PH: Do you feel you are lucky performing Bach on the piano now that the authentic movement has moved away from its extreme phase?

D-B.P: I think I am lucky in all sorts of ways. For example, growing up in South Africa outside of it all was a great benefit. Being trained in certain severe disciplines would make freeing oneself truly difficult. My earliest musical impressions always had to do with freedom, with finding-out-for-yourself. And it is good playing Bach on the piano now and not 20 years ago, when the debate was less ‘mature’ than it is today. Incredibly, there is still the occasional critic who will find it necessary to say “If you do not like Bach played on the piano you will not like this”, or who would judge a performance on the piano according to how well it ‘imitates’ the harpsichord or clavichord. That is a regression. Still, there is the matter of taste: some people will want to listen to it on a harpsichord. And there were nice things at all stages of the authenticity movement. For example the Bach cantatas recorded by Leonhardt and Harnoncourt often convey a wonderful sense of naïveté, exploration and excitement – a sense of something new and astonishing that was being experienced, that was there and is no longer accessible in the same way. Now, with a more professional standard of technique on period instruments, with the practices being so clear in some ways, something of the ‘international generic’ has come into it – as much as in modern instrument playing. I would rather have some of that original roughness!

PH: You have a superb memory, playing the whole of the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier by heart. Do you always play by heart in performance?

D-B.P: Yes. Last December in King’s Place (London), I played both books – one on the Thursday night and the second on the Friday night. It was such an amazing experience, to play the two books back-to-back! Well, they were written twenty years apart and they feel so different in one’s body. I think memory is a gift we all have but do not develop as interestingly as we can. Of course, if you are truly interested, even obsessed, by something you build such a wonderful web of associations around it that you remember things. Look at chess players and dancers; and singers who remember whole operas! But of course there are so many different kinds of ‘memories’, ways to visualize things; the whole matter of shunting short-term learning into longer-term memory – such a dense web of interactions and relationships.

PH: Does playing the WTC by heart allow you a lot of spontaneity and do you change your interpretations from concert to concert?

D-B.P: The question is what spontaneity is. Think of jazz players in their “improvised” styles: each has his bag of tricks up his sleeve no matter how on-the-spur-of-the-moment these are used and, in a way, the same goes for us. I have my voicings and pedalings, my ways of accenting things and certain musical gestures I can use in different ways; touch, varying volumes, tempi – all working together in a dynamic, sympathetic way, and these can all be ‘mixed up’ and altered considerably. But some elements are fixed and, in playing 24 preludes and fugues in one sitting; it is important how they stack up. The important value is variety, so taking care not to repeat oneself is the key. So, basic ideas of tempo (although I sometimes take them too fast in the sweep of the moment!) and character are the framework. Voicings and dynamics, building climaxes, driving accents etc. change from concert to concert and in different acoustics but there is a definite framework for each piece. Within that framework there are many things that can change. But I would say that I am at all times much more interested in musical diction and ‘syntax’ than in sound production per se – in other words, the sonority (which is very important of course) emanates out of the rhythm of the musical idea rather than vice versa. Perhaps that attitude of always inhabiting a musical idea in real-time-as-you-play is more likely to come across as spontaneous or fresh. There are repertoires where that would not work, but I do not play such works.

PH: What are your thoughts on the use of the sustaining pedal in this repertoire?

D-B.P: I think it has to do with color and often with building sonorities; it is not a tool in isolation and all depends on how you use it in conjunction with other tools. It can cause a certain loss of clarity but then you have to ask yourself what clarity is. A lot of teachers and critics have a simplistic notion of clarity and think that if you can hear every single note it means things are clear, whereas you have to ask yourself what you want to make clear – the idea or the mood or counterpoint or the motivic material? Some people play very clearly in terms of the notes, but you might not hear the counterpoint. You might hear the counterpoint but the playing may lack imagination or projection in characterization. And Bach’s counterpoint is too complex for one to understand it in one sitting in real time. You need to study it and look at it paradigmatically; so, for the counterpoint as such to be clear, that is a difficult question when it comes to the drama of live concerts.

PH: We are encountering a new idea when hearing one or other of the WTC collections in a concert.

D-B.P: Yes. In his preface, Bach wrote that these pieces were for instruction and private enjoyment. It is very different transferring them to the concert stage; nobody in Bach’s day would have played the whole of Book 1 in a concert! It is not an historical practice at all, but something quite modern and the artist has to ask himself what he wants the audience to get out of the concert. If it is a musician who is listening, what do you want him to get out of it? Or an enthusiastic amateur?

PH: What other composers are on your agenda at the moment?

D-B.P: I am just finishing recording all the Beethoven sonatas. I have two left. It was a huge project, taking almost two years; I have also edited it all myself…. In 2015, if all goes according to plan, I will be recording a Schubert cycle – works that I learnt more than ten years ago and performed as a cycle in 2008. Then, if all goes to plan, I want to make another recording of 17th-century keyboard music. One of my former projects was recording the complete keyboard works of Orlando Gibbons. I think I was the first person to record all of his keyboard music (to the chagrin of some harpsichordists I’m sure!) I would like to follow this up with an ‘international’, mixed 17th century project – some wondrous music by Spanish and Portuguese composers and, of course, there is all the Italian, Dutch and German music, some English. If only there were some Schütz to play I would be happy indeed!

PH: Do you compose?

D-B.P: No. I did when I was a child and all through high school. I do a bit of arranging now.

PH: Do you sing?

D-B.P: No. I was a quite good boy soprano and sang in choirs. Then my voice broke early – earlier than most of the other boys and I was so embarrassed about it that I just stopped singing!!

PH: What future plans do you have?

D-B.P: I am just starting to do more concerts and want to continue that… but I certainly do not want to do too many concerts. I quite like teaching and I really love recording.

PH: When it is not music, what are your interests?

D-B.P: I enjoy reading a lot and always have - mostly novels up to the mid-20th century. I visit galleries...but as an innocent: I do not have that much art knowledge, although it is very easy to make analogies from one art form to another. I have recently (like so many other people I think) also become interested in the politics around the collapse of 2008 and the aftermath that we are experiencing now. It is interesting to me to see how this is playing out. We seem to be at an interesting stage as to what capitalism and democracy mean. But, of course, musicians are hopelessly naïve when it comes to such things – my interest in it is that of a beginner! – nevertheless I guess we all need to try to make sense of what we do in the world, and often there is not a simplistic ‘market’ answer to what somebody like me does for a living…. And I enjoy watching TV series – the good television dramas. The standard of the scripts and acting in some of them is extraordinarily high, to say nothing of production values! It seems we are in the golden era for that genre – where it’s still possible to appeal to a very large audience while also doing things that are new and provocative and intelligent.

PH: Daniel-Ben Pienaar, many thanks for sharing so many interesting ideas.



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