»That’s what happens when you play Beethoven« – Interview with pianist Herbert Schuch

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Deutsche Welle: The context of our talk is the Bundesjugendorchester, Beethoven and Bonn. So it is a triple B. You are the pianist in this relatively long-term project that starts in Beijing and ends in Bonn. So does it mean specifically to you?

Herbert Schuch: Well of course the most specific thing is that it is a youth orchestra, which means that the instrumentalists are between 16 and 19. I clearly remember the first time I played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. I was 15 then, I think, and playing with a youth orchestra then too, the high school orchestra at my school in Germany. So it feels rather familiar to me – although that was about 20 years ago. When young people experience this music for the first time, I find it a great opportunity to give them my ideas about the music – and just let them play and have fun.

It seems that the Third Beethoven Concerto is something that runs through your life. I saw you selling the CD of this concerto with the WDR Orchestra. Why this one? Is it one of your favorite pieces?

The fact that I learned it when I was so young was pure coincidence, I think. But it was the first piano concerto I played with orchestra, so it marks the beginning of my orchestral career. I’ve been playing it a lot since then, and of course many things have changed. If you learn something when you are young, sometimes you do wrong things – and they stick for quite a long time, so it’s hard to change them. But I was always fascinated by this piece nevertheless, and I chose it for my first CD release with orchestra four years ago, along with the Ullmann Concerto, which has totally different history.

What fascinates you most about the Beethoven Piano Concerto? The first movement, or the overall character of this piece? Why do you keep working on it?

That’s what happens when you play Beethoven. He offers you an extremely broad range of characters, and I think you need a lot of time to bring them out. And even if you think you have found them, it takes you another 10 or 20 years to be able to really point the character out in concert. It’s a very long journey. Of course the Third concerto is extremely heroic, and it has this new sound and character – one more dramatic than brilliant – and that remains through the entire first movement.

Do you think that’s because Beethoven wrote this when he was in a personal crisis?

I think he also wrote dramatic pieces when he wasn’t troubled. He could express a wide range of things in his music – even if he wasn’t feeling a certain way the day he composed it. I don’t think the two things are necessarily connected.

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Bonn is the birthplace of Beethoven. Does that inspire you? What is your connection to the city?

Whenever a musician comes to a place where the great heroes of music lived, were buried or were born, it’s always a moving experience. And it can be inspiring especially if you go to the authentic sites and maybe even see an autograph score, personal handwriting or the instruments they played on. It’s a direct encounter after over 200 years. Playing the music gives you the same direct encounter of course, but on a different level. And sometimes you discover that these great artists were also human beings, so you feel closer to them. So yes, playing Beethoven in Bonn is special.

What other Beethoven pieces do you love?

I’ve played all the concertos, but I can’t really say which one I like most. It would be really unfair. I’m currently playing a lot of the late piano music, including the Diabelli Variations and the last sonata. It’s good to always have Beethoven in your repertoire, because this music never looses its intensity.

What is it like to collaborate with Patrick Lange and this orchestra?

It’s been going very well. He’s actually around the same age as I am – two years younger – and we share the same opinions and work together well in the rehearsals. It was good to have lots of rehearsals on the tour – many more than when you work with a normal orchestra. You have time to work on things you didn’t really like the day before the concert. Sometimes, on a long tour, you rehearse once, and then it runs. You can’t change anything. But Patrick is always willing to repeat things and say things to the orchestra over again. And the orchestra obviously loves to do so many rehearsals, and they’re not tired of rehearsing by the time they perform.

Watching you the last few days, I would say that is what you can see and hear. And the way the young musicians interact seems very refreshing. Do you find that unusual?

No, I think every good musician should be able to react to the others. These young musicians need more time for that because they haven’t played the pieces 20 times. So they’re open-minded, willing and eager to learn and develop. Once you’ve planted the seed, it will grow. And it’s also a big orchestra. They have a large and very strong string group – but there are a lot of people in it, so sometimes it takes a while for the message to reach the last row. It’s a lot of fun. It’s all about teaching and giving advice and getting a big musical reward back at the same time. That’s actually why I do the whole thing.

What are your next projects?

I’m actually working on other piano concertos. I’m currently learning the first Prokofiev concerto, which I will play with Valery Gergiev in Munich in November, and I’m working on Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, which I will play in Italy and Germany. There’s a concert in Washington in October – quite a special program with religious piano music. So it’s a lot of different repertoire, different projects – and that keeps me alive.

Herbert Schuch will perform in the Campus Concert of the Beethovenfest on September 25, 2015. The performance will be available as audio on demand on DW’s Concert Hour for one week, beginning October 30, 2015: available under dw.com/concerthour.

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