Q&A: Pianist Jean-Paul Gasparian

Jean-Paul Gasparian played at the Monte-Carlo festival a couple of months back. His next concert is a mid-morning concert in the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday 27 May including works by Chopin, Mozart and Debussy. 

Hello. How are you?

I’m fine. I just came back from Germany from Ingolstadt where I had to replace Till Fellner for a recital. Now I have a few days in Paris before going to London. Ingolstadt was great – it’s a great venue. I knew two weeks before. So I played my current programme with Chopin Four Ballades and the Brahms Fantasies.

How much time do you get to get familiar with the piano you’re about to play, before a concert?

Well usually, nowadays, in most of the concert venues across the world, the organisers use D-Steinway piano just as I have at home. Hence there are no big surprises for me if there’s a Steinway.

Of course in some places the piano is different. That’s not a bad thing. A different piano will create a different sound. I’ve tried Bechstein, Fazioli (as in St James) or even a new Yahama. As for the Royal Albert Hall I understand it will be a Yahama – and I think it’s the red one that belongs to Elton John.

I have seen pictures of it and it is very red ..

Ah, so its true. I know that I’ll have an hour before the concert on Sunday. That will be enough time for me to work out how to manage the sound with the acoustics.

What adjustments – what are you listening out for – are you making in this hour before?

Well, of course, I’m not changing my vision of the work or the interpretation of the work, but if the acoustic is generous I can use less pedal or if its dry I can use a little more pedal to apply a little more resonance in places. Also, I can pay more attention to the bass and the treble. Or maybe I need to make adjustments in order to make the piano sing or make sequences legato.

When you explain all of those things – as an audience member I’m reminded that we take a lot of these things for granted. Is that preparation time a pressured experience or a relaxed one?

When I know that the piano will be a little bit different than those I’m used to then its good to know that I have time to get used to it. It so happens that just recently I was playing a concert in a place called Senlis near Paris. The day before I had been in Florence, the flight back was cancelled and by the time I made it to the church in Senlis I didn’t have much time to try the piano. When you’re in that situation that doesn’t necessarily mean the concert will be bad. In this case it turned out to be very good indeed because I didn’t have time to ask questions of myself. Sometimes playing with this spontaneous energy is really good. Sometimes its good not to ask too many questions.

So you’re a risk taker? You like that pressure?

Not especially. But for me, the piano and the concert hall – I can’t remember exactly who said this – is your destiny. You have no choice. There’s no point about questioning the quality of the piano or of the acoustic. You have to adapt.

As a pianist , you have an unusual relationship with the instrument you play because you don’t bring it with you like other musicians do. You don’t feel accustomed to that instrument like other musicians do with theirs. You have to establish your connection with your instrument very quickly.

Absolutely. Some pianists from the past used to bring their own pianos with them all around the world. There are also pianists who have special relationships with a piano tuner and they travel around with the pianist too. That’s useful in some respects because it means that the pianist can make requests to have special adjustments made.

Tell me about the programme you’re playing on Sunday at the Royal Albert Hall. What prompted you to put those works together?

First of all, the Chopin pieces is part of the repertoire I’m concentrating on this year. I released my first recording dedicated to Russian music earlier this year, including Rachmaninov and Scriabin and Prokofiev.

As I have an agreement for three recordings, I’ve suggested that the next one be dedicated to Chopin – this year I wanted to complete Chopin’s four ballades, so including them in a concert made good sense. 

The concert will also include the Mozart sonata – that’s a recent piece I learned that this year. There will also be Debussy’s Estampes – that’s an homage-come-tribute to Debussy in his centenary year. These three pieces I like very much. It’s not the typical or modern Debussy. This is ‘hedonist Debussy’. A lot of sensuality. It’s a very warm work for the audience.

If you’re playing these a lot, how do you go about making sure you don’t get bored of them?

That’s a really important part of practising a work. I do sometimes leave a work for one or two months or one or two years. I’ll play them and then I’ll leave them. That gap is always important. One of my former teachers said that when you leave a work, the work is still practising itself. Even if I’m not playing it myself, its being practised in my sub-conscious. In that way, when I return to the work I experience new ideas when I play it.

Have you found yourself in a situation where your enthusiasm for a work has changed?

Oh. You mean in a bad sense? I can’t find exact examples – that’s a good sign I think. But, if you’re playing a piece a lot, you can get a little bit tired. That’s precisely the point where you have to be careful about not falling into a routine. You musn’t let it stay the same. You need to look for new ideas. And sometimes that’s done by listening to other recordings – not to imitate, but to seek inspiration.

Jean-Paul Gasparian plays Debussy, Mozart, and Chopin at the Elgar Room in the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday 27 May at 11.00am. Tickets are £12.50 and include coffee and pastries.