The Italian-born French pianist leaves a legacy of unparalleled Debussy, Ravel and Satie recordings.
The Complete EMI Recordings 1950-1991 (56 CDs) is beyond Aldo Ciccolini’s two best selling complete Satie recordings and other proofs of this natural affinity with the French repertoire.
The Well-Tempered Keyboard
For the 2010 re-release of all his EMI recordings, now an integral part of the Warner Classics catalogue, Aldo Ciccolini agreed to say a few words about the composers with whom he maintained especially close links. With his sharp esthetic sense which, like André Gide, he views as subservient to moral considerations, this immense musician gave his subjective history of the piano with complete spontaneity and delightful digressions.
Interview with Olivier Bellamy
Translation: Peter Byrd
Bach and the harpsichord
I studied the harpsichord with a pupil of Wanda Landowska’s who knew Bach inside out and opened up a whole world (Rameau, Couperin) I did not know at all. The richness of the musical language impressed me, even though I have recorded very little of this music. I have played very little Bach in my life. The sound of the piano does not seem to me to suit the Well-Tempered Keyboard, while theChromatic Fantasy fits it very well. As a general rule, I don’t think one should play Bach staccato. Some of the preludes call for legato and quite a few of the fugue subjects are not well served by a highly detached articulation aimed at separating the sounds.
I find him interesting in the extreme; his sonatas are the work of a jovial troublemaker. Harmonically, they must have seemed scandalous at the time. The harpsichord is too fragile to do justice to his unbridled inventiveness and his unique blend of tenderness and fierce irony. Scarlatti’s writing is incredibly pianistic and very virtuoso, but it never descends into the gratuitous virtuosity you find in certain pieces that are completely devoid
Prokofiev and Shostakovich
Prokofiev is unpredictable: you never know what he is going to write three bars later. This was a man who had a very sound grasp of musical structure. One can’t say as much of Shostakovich, who I will never forgive for saying that Scriabin ‘dishonoured’ Russian music. Some of his Preludes and Fuguesare excruciatingly ugly – not in an intelligent way; it’s an ugliness born of ignorance.
of music, like Balakirev’s Islamey, for example. Certain composers could not resist the temptation to defy the laws of nature. Even Brahms fell into that trap in his Variations on a Theme by Paganini, which are extraordinarily stupid. Paganini’s Second Concerto contains some quite pointless difficulties and not all the notes in Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto are of equal interest. In the world of opera, voices have been ruined by certain parts (Cherubini’s Medea). In the piano repertoire, difficulty for its own sake is death to musical taste.
Russian music has an indefinable charm made up of nostalgia, chronic dissatisfaction, tenderness and haunting sadness which blends in with the Slav temperament. I have always enjoyed playing Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto very much, even though a great deal of strength is required to match its thickly scored orchestra. I have played it with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who is set to be the Carlos Kleiber of tomorrow.
This is the most beautiful folk music in the world, and the only one I genuinely admire. Albeniz’s music is just as popular as it is refined. And what richness! ‘He simply throws his music away’, Debussy used to say. I have both performed and recorded Iberia. It is incredibly difficult and very well written throughout. It brings back to me the intense feelings I experienced when I first went to Granada. I hung about in gypsies’ caves in the hope that their ill temper would give way to a desire to dance. You had to wait patiently until the look on their faces changed and became electric. Singing and dancing flamenco helps you understand Albeniz’s music. Naples, where I was born, was occupied by the Spanish for three centuries and our folklore is saturated with their influence. The most beautiful Neapolitan songs have Spanish rhythms; many of them are like habaneras.
He is more loved than admired. I love and admire his music madly. He was an excellent pianist, who championed his concerto himself. Even Debussy, who was very hard to please, recognised the quality of his works.
Debussy and Ravel
Claude Debussy is still the greatest musical enigma that has ever existed. You never get to the bottom of his music. That is perhaps why he will never be forgotten: people will never give up trying to make sense of him!
Ravel is an extraordinary magician, but his genius is less mysterious. Debussy never fails to surprise you. The titles of his Préludes (added in later) do not resolve the fundamental ambiguities of these pinnacles of the piano repertoire. Voiles, for example, is impossible to pin down or define. And Une barque sur l’océan comes across like music for a strip-tease. A musician could spend years trying to understand Debussy’s Préludes. I’ve been at it for sixty years now and I still approach them as if it were the first time, as if nothing had been finally sorted out for me. And it must also be said that his music has a charm that is quite indefinable. Sometimes you can be struck by something that suddenly touches you very deeply without understanding why. I listen to Pelléas et Mélisande (Roger Désormière’s recording) at least twice a month with the score on my lap. I feel an aesthetic and emotional need for it.
Ravel’s two concertos are masterpieces. The solo part of the Concerto in G fascinates me. Ravel said that when writing each note he had no idea what the next one would be. And yet it all seems to be based on the strictest logic.
I adore Mozart. The Theme and Variations he wrote when he was eight is already perfect. He needed time. He knew what his potential was,
but he did not have all the time he needed to express everything he had to say. When performing his music, you are constantly exposed. It is like a diamond in which the slightest impurity destroys everything.
He never hurt a pianist’s hand. He is a reliable, faithful and loyal friend. I recorded the works Georges Cziffra did not want. He turned down EMI’s request for a recording of the Harmonies religieuses et poétiques. In my view this is a prophetic masterpiece, which has a dark side to it. Pensée des mortswas written at a time when Liszt was going through a doubt-ridden crisis. And the last piece in the cycle, Cantique d’amour, is not religious in spirit at all. Many of Liszt’s works still need to be discovered… Les Années de pèlerinage is a very densely written work. I love Au bord d’une source, but Cloches de Genève a bit less, though it is also music of a very high standard. I worked on about ten of Liszt’s lieder with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Two or three of them struck me for their beauty.
I have always avoided a certain way of playing Chopin that I find improper. He deserves our love, but also our respect. We should guard against the distasteful habit of using him as a vehicle for expressing our own little woes.
We must remember that Chopin was above all a great human being. People have wanted to imitate Alfred Cortot, who was unique. The fact that Chopin was ill is no reason to portray him as a sickly little girl. His Third Sonata and even the Second are works by a man in full possession of his resources. To play Chopin hysterically is to turn him into something he was not. But to perform him in too ‘moral’ a manner is a mistake. All composers are amoral. Moral music is a form of boredom.
Music can suggest just about anything, but it can never make statements. To believe it can is to put music on the path to decadence. That is why I have always found Stravinsky unbearable. He is a show-off, just like Picasso, who indulged in provocation to earn ever more money. I have more respect for Dalì (his Christ in space has influenced me a lot) because I find him more sincere than Picasso. Picasso changed styles out of sheer opportunism. Liszt was just as sincere in the B minor Sonata as he had been earlier in the Hungarian Rhapsodies.
If only Schubert had lived as long as Saint-Saëns or Liszt! Leibowitz once phoned me in the middle of the night to ask me to come and sight-read something. At 2 in the morning I took a taxi to the Latin Quarter. There were about ten people in his flat. I looked at the music on the piano to try and work out what had stimulated such excitement. It was a march by Schubert. As I played through it I came across eleven bars that were practically atonal. Schubert had the knack of modulating into very far-off keys as if it were perfectly natural. His music is not easy to play, but it is so beautiful.
It is hard to say who he was. Most of the portraits show him as either chubby with glasses or handsome like James Dean.
I have always loved Schumann, his tenderness and sincerity.
Everything came so easily to him that he did not work hard enough on his thematic material.
He was a magnificent pianist. Liszt admired him a lot. I love Massenet’s operas. They don’t set out to make you break down and sob: they bring tears to your eyes.
EMI’s Artistic Director wanted to bring out a homage to Satie, who was not very popular, and suggested I record some of his music. ‘If we sell 200 copies, it will be a miracle’, he warned me. A week after the release 4000 had been sold – a triumph! So we recorded the complete works and Satie became famous all over the world.
It is mystical music whose apparent simplicity is deliberately intended to ward off mere virtuosos. I am passionately fond of Satie as a person. One day he played for the Princess de Polignac and refused the fee she tried to give him. He earned his living playing in piano bars. ‘Here, I play for pleasure’, he told the Princess. And he went back home to Arcueil on foot. A saint! And such an original mind. A person like that could only have been born in France!