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21 December, 2016  ▪  Olena Chekan

A Musician’s Charisma and Aristocracy

The interview with Alain Planès is from Olena Chekan's personal archives. The Ukrainian Week publishes it for the first time

On February 29, 2012, Alain Planès recreated the atmosphere of a French music salon at the Hall of Columns of the Kyiv Philharmonic Society. The piano virtuoso brought and presented to the winter Kyiv a sparkle of Paris and the feeling of its breath. His brilliant rendition generated an entirely new perception of pianoforte pieces by the lyrical Frédéric Chopin and by the founder of musical impressionism Claude Debussy. The Ukrainian audience responded with a tornado of applause.

Maître Planès is a painter-like pianist: knowing all of the piano playing technique secrets, he creates music with amazingly pure colors and large speedy brushstrokes on the black and white keys of the grand piano, his stunning mastery of sound, timber, and piano polychromy embroidering the sound space with the most diverse images. He has a very special sense of time; harmony reigns all around. Alain Planès is an incredibly charming, easy-to-communicate person, with whom one can talk for hours, listening to his endless stories from the lives of Debussy and other famous musicians.

 What was the starting point for music in your life?

– My mother was a creative personality, deriving inspiration from and having a fancy for the art of painting. That was the main interest of her life. Both mother and father were well versed in music. My elder brother was being taught music, taught to play the piano. While waiting for me to be born, mother would quite often knit something by the radio, listening to classical music. So I have a good reason to say that music had entered my life before I was born – and it’s been constantly accompanying me since childhood. My family was living in the suburbs of Lyon. Brother’s teachers (local music lovers and musicians) came to our home. Aged three, I was carefully listening to each lesson. When the professor left our house, I would sit down by the instrument and play everything that my brother had just been taught to play. He didn’t quite like it, because I played it better than he did. After a while he stopped his studying. But I took it up professionally. I learned to read and write when I was five. At the age of seven I entered the conservatory in Lyon. I began with studying solfeggio and improved my playing step by step. When I was eight, my first big concert took place in Lyon.

But did you realize that you were much younger than other students at the conservatory?

– At the Lyon Conservatory, the students next to me were 15-16 years old. At first I paid no attention to that at all. When I had just entered that high school, its director decided that I was too young; so during the next year I kept studying nothing but solfeggio and staying at home; at nine I was finally granted official permission. To me, that was simply a pleasant happy life. Actually, I was twelve when I really felt that I was much younger than my fellow students. It happened when I was awarded a 1st Prize at the Lyon Conservatory (at all French conservatories, students receive prizes upon graduation), being so highly honored at twelve. Suddenly I came to understand all the seriousness of what had happened in my life and I was even a bit scared by realizing the importance of the event. Now I can say that I must have started turning into an adult then. By coincidence, at that time I once felt an unpleasant stomach pain before a concert and I’ve been having that same pain before every concert ever since.

Why did you go to the United States after the Paris Conservatory?

– At the age of twelve I entered the Paris Conservatory. Of course I was too young to live there alone. Every week mother and I would come to the conservatory. I would report about the tasks I had completed and receive new ones for the following week. After that we would go back home. When I was 15-16, I went there alone. I stayed at a hotel. I graduated from the conservatory class of Jacques Ferrier and I had a great wish to pursue a music career.

My brother, who is ten years older than me, chose an entirely different path in life: he became a financier, although he had wanted to be a football player.

As to me, I wanted to expand my professional horizons. The French school is highly individual; and I was yearning for something bigger. At first there were plans to go to Moscow, but the right contacts were missing. I was invited to the United States by the well-known American pianist Menahem Pressler. I studied and improved my skill at Indiana University in Bloomington. Pressler helped me get a scholarship, because it was quite expensive just to come to the United States.

There, the approach to studying is a little different: at the music campus the students only had music lessons. We were also taught by other professors. There is nothing of that sort at the Lyon or Paris Conservatory. The university had a number of unique professors. My life was filled with music all of the time: I often played the accompaniment, had concerts, performed with orchestras, always playing the second piano part there. The studying period lasted for three and a half years. After that, I worked as a professor in Cleveland.

When did you return to France?

– I returned to France in 1976. I collaborated with the well-known modern music group Ensemble Intercontemporain. It was founded by composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, one of the leaders of the French music avant-garde, the madly talented author of pieces that are extremely hard to perceive and to perform. You can’t even imagine how invaluable that experience is and how fantastic it feels to be able to communicate with best-known contemporary composers. Focusing on unusual and trailblazing music struck a chord with my heart. I played with the ensemble for five years, filling myself with impressions from collaboration with 20th century classics such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, György Ligeti, Luciano Berio and other avant-gardists. Gradually, my preferences were changing. I was prompted to embark on a solo path by infatuation with the music of Franz Schubert, Frédéric Chopin and Claude Debussy.

What is your attitude towards international competitions and towards any competitions in general?

– I never took part in international competitions, in spite of receiving some invitations. Pressler wanted me to go to Brussels, to the Queen Elizabeth event. However, my conservatories were enough for me. I think that competitions are like a nightclub where one lucky moment brings you a great success, but it’s all over the next morning. In the past, there were much fewer competitions. Among those, of greatest interest to me personally were the Chopin Piano Competitions and the International Tchaikovsky Competitions, because some new striking performers did appear on the music scene. In my opinion there are too many various competitions nowadays, but that does not mean anything. There are quite a few musicians who win such events, but after that we don’t hear any more about them. On the contrary, some performers that did not do well in competitions later made fantastic careers.

Your composers from childhood on – who remained, who came later?

– In the first place, it’s Claude Debussy. Back in childhood, it was Children’s Corner, a six-movement suite that the composer dedicated to his three-year-old daughter Claude-Emma. Although they were not meant to be played by children, I did play them. I recall how one day my mother took me to a concert of a highly renowned female singer who sang works by Debussy; moreover, she had been personally acquainted with him. I was extremely impressed by that; it was so solemn, so stately, as if she had said for example – just fancy it – that she had personally known luminaries such as Ludwig van Beethoven or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Also, Franz Joseph Haydn has had a place in my heart from my childhood days – I adore his creative legacy.

As it happened, as a child I did not understand how different my life was from the lives of other kids, how my passion for music was changing it. By the way, though my parents were not musicians, they did love music.

In my first interview – I was eight then – I mentioned dreaming of becoming a conductor. Parents often asked me about my plans for the future and I always insisted that I wanted to be a musician.

Whom do I prefer at present? I would say that I like all of music. I mean both classical and modern pieces, and also ancient, 10th century ones, as well as works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven… It is very hard to single out anyone in particular. I often play Bach, Schubert, Debussy.

What is your impression from working on the score of The Magic Flute, adapted by Peter Brook?

– That is a rather funny story. We failed to understand each other. There were problems from the very start of our collaboration. Unfortunately, the project was not finished. That was in 2011. Peter Brook thought he would be the music director and I thought that there could not be two directors of a single version. That’s what the misunderstanding was all about.

Your discs differ in that all of the sonatas by Schubert, works by Chopin, Haydn, Scarlatti are performed on ancient keyboard instruments whenever possible; how about Debussy and the latest recoding of Chopin – did you also use instruments of the respective epoch?

– I cooperate with the greatest proponent of authentic performance of ancient music, the company Harmonia Mundi. As of today, almost twenty discs have been released. Primarily, those are piano works by Joseph Haydn, Franz Schubert, Frédéric Chopin and Claude Debussy. I propose an own program and I propose the instrument on which it can be performed, because I like ancient keyboard instruments very much and I know them quite well.

As always, the decision as to which discs will be released is taken by the director of Harmonia Mundi; sometimes she rejects my proposals and then I call her “Madam No.”

Usually, a musician proposes what he wants to perform and the instrument on which he wants to play it. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes several years for a dream to come true. Once I wanted to record Haydn and proposed doing so, but she told me, “No, no, no, because it won’t sell.” Five or six years went by. Haydn’s works performed by me were released by another company. They were selling so well that she said, “All right, we will record all of Haydn.” At present I cooperate mostly with Harmonia Mundi.

What is the message that you send out to your audience? Is it the same on a disc and in a concert?

– I don’t have any exact message; however, as a medium, I propose, promote, and impose music. A recorded disc and a concert are entirely different things. Certainly, preparation is needed; the recording of a disc requires a higher level of preparedness and concentration, because in that case one doesn’t get the feeling of those vibrations filled with dizzying energy that are always in the air at a concert. That’s what I directly communicate to the audience. Without feeling those things it is very hard to play. And a recording usually lasts all day long. But I always try to play the same way during a recording session and at a concert.

Do your concerts change listeners’ lives? Do you think about it? Do you compile the concert program with that in mind? How is your perception of the world affected by tragic events happening in the world, such as Fukushima?

– It is impossible to come to terms with such tragedies. I always sympathize with those suffering from a wild disaster or any other cataclysms. In my soul there is a protest against those tragedies that sometimes shake the world. This hardly has any impact on the music. However, as a citizen, I do feel it. I understand Nietzsche’s phrase that art helps us not to die of truth.

Why did you decide to perform in Ukraine works by Frédéric Chopin and Claude Debussy?

– Unfortunately, I don’t know Ukrainian composers. I brought to Kyiv pieces by my favorite authors – nocturnes, preludes, studies by Frédéric Chopin as well as Estampes and preludes by Claude Debussy. I always tremendously enjoy performing works by these composers and I do hope the audience will like them. I brought Chopin to Ukraine because he is a Slav. And Debussy was highly influenced by Chopin. They invented a new way of playing the piano. Chopin – and later Debussy. The unexcelled Debussy said that his piano teacher had been taught by the unexcelled Chopin.

And finally, how about paintings and books in your life? How do you manage to create in your interpretations of pieces by Franz Schubert, Frédéric Chopin and Claude Debussy those inimitable amazing images that seem to be full of colors and aromas?

– I don’t think I will be able to say how it happens. Music incorporates all of my life, all of my emotions. Maybe this was really miraculously rooted in my fancy for paintings that was formed under mother’s influence. I grew up in a painter’s family and so I am also a connoisseur of paintings. Books are another passion of mine. My favorite authors are Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde; they are noted for a special sense of time, as a substance that is viscous and stretchable, as well as for intellectual dandyism.

Biographical note Mr. Alain Planès.
He noted French pianist. Professor of the Paris Conservatory. Born January 20, 1948 (Lyon, France). The first concert in eight years. The first interview in eight years. The dream - to be a conductor. The greatest passion - music. recording studios: Denon, Deutsche Grammophon, Harmonia Mundi, Brilliant Classics, INA Mémoire vive. He studied at the Lyon Conservatoire. He graduated from the Paris Conservatoire with Jacques Fevr'ye. He studied and improved skills at Indiana University in Bloomington. Collaborated with renowned contemporary music ensemble Ensemble InterContemporain in Pierre Boulez Interests music of Franz Schubert, Frederic Chopin and Claude Debussy.

The greatest recognition uses performance Planesom Alain Claude Debussy piano music he recorded in 1986 Victoires de la prize for best French Music Record of the Year.

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