What will we gain from hearing Chopin’s entire oeuvre?
First of all, they would be hearing a large number of works which are rarely performed in public, plus a couple of UK premieres. There is a tendency for pianists to play a small number of the greatest works. But there are well over 200 pieces, and many of them are treasures, like the 20 beautiful songs. And, as far as I’m aware, there is no other complete series of his works anywhere else.
What was the overall guiding principle for organising these 12 concerts?
I wanted variety in each concert, so if someone comes to just one concert they will get a taste of everything – Nocturnes, Mazurkas and Polonaises and so on, plus the songs, chamber music and Piano Concertos. I have made sure each programme ends with one of the ‘great’ works. But the schedule is almost inhuman: three recitals in four days, and in the last week (June) four recitals in four days – very tough!
I see you are starting with a Polonaise he wrote at the age of seven…
It’s clear that Chopin was a child prodigy of some stature: when you hear this remarkable Polonaise, already one can see the seeds of the mature composer, his identity is stamped on to it. We don’t know anything more until he was 11, and by the time he reached 15 he had a well-formed Chopinesque language. The Rondo Op. 1, the first piece he allowed to be published, is simply brilliant.
Is Chopin a revolutionary to you?
Chopin was a great innovator and he had enormous influence. It’s not so well known how Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Scriabin were all enormously influenced, not just pianistically, but harmonically, by Chopin, as with Franck and Bruckner, Debussy and Ravel. His harmonic language was more radical than his melodic gift.
Why do you think people are so little aware of his radicalism?
Many amateur pianists only play his simpler pieces, where the left hand is relatively simple, and they concentrate on the melodic line, but when you start to play the more complex works you become aware of the harmonic significance in his subtlest moves and of his detailed voicing, he heard the exact way notes would sound against each other.
How does it feel different to play Chopin?
Aside from the unique sense of sonority, I admire the great variety of articulation that is expected. Often you will find the word delicatissimo. Today many pianists don’t follow this: they play with strong fingers, and with great brilliance, but in fact you need the most delicate touch, too, you need the whole range. The greatest quality in his works is the poetry he expresses. To him, that was paramount.
Do you teach Chopin?
I have three very talented students… and I probably learn more from them than from anything else. But I don’t know whether you can teach the Chopin instinct. The great thing is there is no one correct interpretation, one’s performances continue to evolve through life.
Was Chopin a Classical or Romantic composer?
To play as you feel is not a good starting point. I think it was Arthur Rubinstein who said he regarded Beethoven as a Romantic composer, and Chopin as a Classical composer. I think the best interpretations are based on wonderful discipline, there is rubato, yes, but within a framework. ‘Free’ Chopin is not Chopin.
Interview by Helen Wallace
Martino Tirimo’s Chopin Unwrapped series takes place at Kings Place on 10-13 February, 10-13 March and 31 May-6 June 2010.