Aldo Ciccolini has truly helped me to become myself. At age 13, I arrived from the United States and entered his class at the Paris Conservatoire. But it was only when around my thirties that I realised how much he had influenced me.
Every Tuesday and Friday between 2pm and 8pm we would meet Aldo. Not only to perform, but also to listen to one another. It was almost like a concert performance and not just a lesson in the traditional sense. Besides his comments, he took his part in the event by playing for us himself. It was a privilege to share his experience as a musician and to discover such an extensive repertoire ranging from Scarlatti to Rachmaninov.
During these afternoons spent in his company, he used to recall musicians he deeply respected: Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Backhaus or Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. He insisted on the fact that as musicians, we had a huge responsibility towards the works we were playing: respecting the composer’s intentions as expressed in the musical score, showing great care for quality of sound and harmonics, and avoiding all cheap effects.
Today, having become a professor myself at the Conservatoire, I try in my own way to pass on these musical and, in a sense, philosophical principles.
I met Aldo Ciccolini when I was 17, and for me he really was the kind of teacher we all dream of, the kind we all hope to be lucky enough to meet at some point in our lives.
He taught me the piano, of course, but his teachings went way beyond music; he was universal. His lessons weren’t just piano lessons, they were lessons in living. People so supremely cultured, so at ease in every possible field, are very rare nowadays. His considerable experience of professional music-making has also been a great inspiration to me.
For twenty years, until about 2000, I was unable to go to any of Ciccolini’s recitals. I had memories of him as a virtuoso of distinction, elegant, yet with a tinge of distance due to the restraint he observed even in Liszt’s epic showpieces, of which he was a justly celebrated interpreter.
Then, in 2001, quite probably prompted by my friend Jean-Yves Thibaudet, I invited Ciccolini to the Estivales de Gerberoy, a festival I started in Normandy, not far from Rouen. Right from the outset I was touched by his kindness and straightforward friendliness (even though we didn’t know each other, as soon as we got talking on the phone he said we should use the familiar tu, not the formal vous, because ‘we are colleagues’), then I was completely blown away by the beauty, the breadth, the risks he took during the recital.
In a number of rarely heard works (a Clementi sonata, Poulenc’s Napoli, the Verdi/Liszt Aïda finale) his tone ‘opened up’ like a bottle of exquisite wine after fifty years in a cellar, his cantabile soared with infinite generosity and flexibility, and the lofty virtuosity of the past became purely abstract, even more impressive because of the subtlety, depth and aptness of the musical discourse. It was like hearing once again the leonine touch of my teacher Nikita Magaloff, together with the exuberance, the pugnacious, almost frenetic joy that are the signs of the true epicurean, putting the younger generations to shame!