The pianist discusses conducting, playing and the joy of Brahms
Lars Vogt doesn't seem the type to take on musical challenges without good reason. He comes across as unusually thoughtful, friendly, relaxed and chatty when we meet in his modern top-floor apartment in Berlin. But this pianist – and increasingly also conductor – has recorded one of the pinnacles of the romantic piano repertoire for the Finnish label Ondine. And he's chosen to do so conducting from the piano.
His new recording of Brahms's Second Piano Concerto follows a critically acclaimed recording of the hardly less challenging First. Traditionally the Second has attracted forbidding epithets – mighty, titanic and the like – but in fact Vogt's approach comes from a different point of view. Out go the caricatured Brahmsian huffing and puffing as pianist does battle with fistfuls of notes. In their stead, as Vogt himself explains, comes the search for something more intimate.
"Both are big symphonic works," Vogt says of the composer's two concertos, "but, as with all the big symphonic works by Brahms, the essence of it is chamber music, the importance of voices varying all the time. The essential questions are the same as they are if I was playing the piano quintet or piano quartets – or even the sonatas. There's an intimacy about bits of the piano concertos that is just like the violin sonatas or something."
Vogt has clearly given a lot of thought to the second concerto, in particular, especially with regard to its trajectory from grandeur, even tragedy, in the first two movements, through intimacy in the third, to levity in the fourth. "There are two really symphonic movements, the first two, and then it seems like the third and fourth are much more like chamber music: the trumpets don't play anymore; nor do the timpani. They can basically go home after the second movement! But that's an interesting imbalance in the piece. Usually you'd expect some grandeur in the last movement, but he doesn't even attempt it. It's gentle and it's kind."
The pianist muses on what he calls the "psychology" of the piece. The opening French horn solo is "where we're completely connected with nature," he explains. "It's the ideal vision, and that gets interrupted straight away by the first piano cadenza. Then the first tutti is glorious, and for me it's like a Handel theme, so similar to that of the Handel Variations" – he sings a snippet of that work, which is coupled with the concerto on the new album. "As soon as you say to orchestras, 'think Handel,' then the whole sound changes!"
He identifies Handelian elements in the dramatic second movement, too, noting that there is "something archaic" in the contrasting central section. And the famous slow movement? "It's really like an opera," Vogt says, "with the cellist appearing on stage. There's a new personality that tries to take the pianist by the hand and hum this beautiful theme. Stephen Morris plays this amazingly on the recording," he adds. "We spoke about it so much, and he completely understood what I was aiming for. It's really a very innocent humming, rather than singing – imagine Christian Gerhaher rather than Pavarotti!"
It's a movement that finally leads to acceptance, he says. "And then, in the last movement, we're basically saying, 'we can live like that!' There's the Viennese thing, the Hungarian thing, and it's full of life. It's ok to go home like that!"
When I ask about the specific challenges about playing and conducting these works, Vogt admits that it was a concern. He certainly doesn't deny the supreme technical challenges of the second concerto, but points to the difficulties of retaining the necessary rhythmic flexibility of the first. "In a way the second is a little more straightforward, because it doesn't have quite the amount of rubato as the first – to find that you need a lot of trust with the orchestra if you don't have a conductor."
In this regard, the pianist counts himself lucky, having recorded both works with the Royal Northern Sinfonia, based in Gateshead on the opposite bank of the Tyne from Newcastle in northern England. This is his fifth and last season as their Music Director, he tells me, but he will stay on in the role of Artistic Partner. "I've given them my whole core repertoire: the five Beethoven and the two Brahms concertos, which are in the centre of my life. It's basically a declaration of love, and I couldn't have wished for anything better."
Vogt's relationship with the North of England goes back even further, to when he won second prize at the 1990 Leeds International Piano Competition. A deal with EMI followed, which led to solo recordings plus concerto albums with Simon Rattle. Rattle remains a great friend and mentor, and there's certainly no sign of Vogt abandoning working as a pianist with conductors; he sees great advantages of what he describes as the "triangle situation" between orchestra, conductor and soloist.
"I love working with wonderful conductors," he says, before hinting at a mouth-watering future project. "We are talking about possibly recording something again with a conductor, with Robin Ticciati, my dear friend here in Berlin." The repertoire in discussion is a coupling of concertos by Schoenberg and Schumann; the latter is one of the works he recorded with Rattle nearly three decades ago.
It's clear, indeed, that Vogt's musical life is greatly nourished by deep and lasting musical friendships, including with the violinist – and his stablemate on the Ondine label – Christian Tetzlaff. Tetzlaff is one of the many artists Vogt's been bringing together for his Spannungen Festival in Heimbach in West Germany's Rhineland, close to where he was born, which he's been running for over 20 years. "Christian is very central in my life now," he says, "and I can't say it in any other words than that it's family. These are people I really feel close to. And when Christian makes music, I just get it. Even when I'm sitting in the audience as he plays the Beethoven Violin Concerto, I just understand every note that he plays."
As well as running his festival – "I do the organising on train journeys between things," he admits – Vogt is due to concentrate even more on his conducting in a new post at the Orchestre de chambre de Paris, where, when we spoke, he was due to take over in the summer. He speaks with a refreshing enthusiasm about his plans for the new post, where the emphasis will be on "conducting-conducting", as we start referring to it, rather than "playing-conducting".
On the agenda are "the big works", symphonies, for instance, by the two composers who form the sturdy foundations of his repertoire: Brahms, Beethoven. "I haven't actually done much Schubert yet..." he adds, before expressing a desire also to delve deeper into the French repertoire, as well as exploring more contemporary works. "I love playing the Lutosławski concerto," he notes, "and we have premieres every year at the chamber festival. I've got curiosity in all directions!" Other plans include innovative staged projects and, he hints, a whole load more.
When I ask if there are any blind spots in his repertoire he admits that he struggled with Sibelius until he conducted his Seventh Symphony in Gateshead: "That's when I got more into his language and I was obsessed with the piece for months, learning to love it so much. I know one day I will really love Bruckner," he adds. "I'm not completely there, but it's my fault, and my problem!" In the meantime, we'll have to make do with Vogt's performances of the other big Bs, and they don't get much bigger than Brahms's second.
Lars Vogt's new recording of Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Royal Northern Sinfonia is out now.
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