Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
We went to a family trip in Croatia when I was 3 years old. We visited a church and someone was playing the organ. Since then I knew what I wanted to do in my life and I was obsessed with the music. The first piano lessons started soon after, with a wonderful Hungarian piano teacher, Milica Dundjerov in Novi Sad. My mother, Vasagyi Mária, always was an expert in the arts and my dear aunty Salgo Jelisaveta, a graduate from Vienna Conservatory, was an excellent piano teacher. A close relative of my family was Pál Ábrahám. I was lucky to grow up in this artistic environment. To pursue a career is not really what I want – not to misunderstand – I think it is important to have a good career, but I think that one of the illnesses of today is too many musicians pursuing a career. But what about the music? I think career will follow you if you are humble and respect the composers, the scores and work hard.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
My mother is an expert. I will never forget the lessons with her. Even when I was studying with top teachers, I always played for her and she truly opened my mind. She definitely had the greatest influence on my musical taste and interpretation. Also Orsolya Szabó, Aleksandar Madzar, Benjamin Oren, Michael Boguslavski – I had top teachers and I am very proud of them.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I lived in a place where there was a war. I was young. I remember wounded soldiers, falling bombs, terrifying stories of massacres just a few dozens kilometres from me. It was not easy to keep up but it made me stronger. These are the situations which make you think differently. This was the greatest challenge for me, to survive and keep up my daily practicing. Of course, my “problems” were not comparable with the problems of György Cziffra during the war, but it left a big mark on me and on my playing as well.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I have a high level of self-criticism and often I come from concerts unhappy and run to practice immediately. But there were some concerts where I was happy. One of them was the concert with Russia’s eldest orchestra called The North Caucasus Symphonic Orchestra „Safonov” where I played 5 concertos in 2 concerts. It was a very special experience. Just being there for a bit more than a week in the castle of the filharmony, where Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Richter and many other titans of the musical world in Russia played was magical. Another concert I like to remember is a recital in Rome, at the Hungarian Academy, where I played the complete Ballades by Liszt and Chopin. My excellent teacher used to say “at the end everything depends on the inspiration”. How right she is. Rome is very inspiring and the Hungarian Academy is a magical place. I also remember a concert in a museum where the concert was totally sold out and people were listening to it from the street – there was a long line. Those were different times!
Which particular works do you think you play best?
It is interesting, some would say those pieces which we learn in early years, which might be true. But I also like to progress with new repertoire. In every case I have especially good chemistry with some pieces, with other pieces less so.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I love to say that the repertoire chooses us and works on us over time; then we get the next challenge. I always make a list of new pieces, which usually gets very long, impossible to learn all besides the concerts and teaching, so I make a shortlist and try to concentrate on those pieces. As I mentioned above the words of my mentor “All is about inspiration”, I would say this is valid for this as well.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
When I was 15 I had my first serious success. It happened in a hall where there is a wonderful, truly wonderful, Steinway piano. I love that place, although I play there very little. However among the big concert halls I love performing in a tour which I do every here and then, in the region where I was born. For me that is very important.
Who are your favourite musicians?
I grew up listening to Richter, (the young) Pogorelich, Kocsis, Schiff. As the painters have great influence on each other, we pianists do as well. I am lucky to have received good influences from others. I will never forget the chamber music concert of Sir András Schiff in Brussels; it was one the greatest experiences for me. Or listening to Lorin Maazel in Jerusalem… these are moments which stay forever. And many other miraculous concerts.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I remember I went on tour in Colombia. Before the concert I went to drink water, but since the only source was the sink, I bent down to access the water, just before going to the stage where 1200 people were waiting for me. When I finished drinking, I stood up and I saw a big spider on my chest, wanting to get under my concert clothes. It had very long, thin legs and it was as big as my palm. It was unforgettable. The same concert, together with the first forte chords of the Polonaise Fantasy of Chopin, the back side of my vest broke so it was slowly coming forward and the Polonaise Fantasy is a long piece. Too long in this case! My vest was going to fall on the piano. What a memory!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
My success is when I can transmit something that a genius composed. When I have good response because the audience received the message of the composer, then I feel success.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
That “career” cannot be the goal of a musician. Unfortunately I see and know many musicians who just want career. But we know how that ends… normally that does not last very long. In my opinion respect towards the composer, towards the public is crucial; please do not chase a career – it will come!
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Back to this moment today
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
That does not exist and it is not necessary.
István Székely is a concert pianist and internationally recognised teacher: he has been invited in Master Classes in Budapest (Hungary), in the World Teachers Conference in Novi Sad (Serbia), in the Katarina Gurska Conservatory, in Forum Musikae (Madrid), in the International Piano Festival “UIS” in Bucaramanga, in Manizales (Colombia), Special School of Music in Apatin, Sombor, Senta, Backa Topola (Serbia), Conservatory in Alicante and Dénia, in the International Music Festival in Valencia etc. He is frequent jury member in international competitions such as the Franz Liszt International Competition in Rome (Italy), the Takács Competition in Oberschützen (Austria), Bucaramanga (Colombia), the IMFV Valencia competition, the Ibiza International Competition, the “Villa de Xabia” International Contest etc.
(Artist photo: Diego Coello Calvo)