Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and pursue a career in music?
I don’t come from a musical family and there was very little classical music around. My sister played the piano though, which inspired me to pick it up, and it became the centre of my life. I knew immediately this was what I wanted to do, and I went to my first piano lesson at the age of 8, saying “I want to be a concert pianist”. I then started composing, and building my own CD library. So this is mysterious because I had almost no external influences pushing me in a particular direction. I must say that although my parents had no experience in dealing with this and made some choices that, with hindsight I would say were maybe not fully informed, they never tried to take me in another directions. They accepted that music was my life.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
As I said earlier, in my early years I had little external influences. Later on, I met Billy Eidi at the Conservatoire in Paris, who fuelled my curiosity for non mainstream repertoire, and this has become an important part of my activity as a musician. I discovered and played music by Frank Martin, Vitezslav Novak, Roger-Ducasse, Maurice Emmanuel, and many others, and even had the chance to record some of it. I find it exciting and refreshing to learn music of very high quality that I haven’t heard previously.
Shortly after I met Ventsislav Yankoff, who through his studies with Wilhelm Kempff and Edwin Fischer, two heroes of my youth, brought to me a knowledge and a love of the Germanic repertoire, particularly Beethoven.
But these days my best teacher is without a doubt YouTube. Having access to the best interpretations of all the major works of the repertoire by all the major pianists in history is invaluable. I learnt a lot, for example, through listening to old recordings, by pianists born in the 19th century, who have a very different approach to music-making.
I even learn from people I disagree with. Recently, I engaged in a musicological battle over the use of the metronome with someone who held opinions I strongly disagree with. But doing the research to support my case has led me to a very different appreciation of the value of metronome markings in the 19th century, and this had a strong influence on the way I play Chopin or Schumann. And influences can be extra-musical. Living in Cambridge and being surrounded by academic-minded people definitely has an influence on me, which permeates my music-making. And I am sure many things influenced me without me being the least conscious of it.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The main challenge is an ongoing one. It is simply to keep existing in a musical world where interest for classical music is diminishing, and where paradoxically the number of extremely good performers is on the rise, so that one’s position as a professional musician is made increasingly precarious. Essentially, we are not needed by the society we live in, which is in itself a disheartening situation. If tomorrow I ceased to play the piano, very few people would actually mind. Thousands can replace me, and I would be forgotten in a matter of days. So in order to be “successful”, we are meant to try to be as active as possible, at any cost, so that our name is flashed constantly in front of people. We are also expected to constantly prove how extraordinary, how unique and irreplaceable we are. This is unnatural, dangerous and false. As interpreters, we stand at a crossroads between artistry and artisanship. We are mediators between the composers and the audience, which is a beautiful vocation, and we can be more or less good at it.
But these days music has become a scene where we come to listen to a specific musician because he has been advertised as even more exceptional than all the exceptional musicians that surround him. What music he will play only comes second, if at all. The fact that most audience on a blind test could probably not make much difference between a pianist and another is overlooked, and the role of the interpreter is grossly overblown. It is not sufficient to be a good servant of the composer, one has to prove one’s individuality. The way artists achieve this is often by restricting themselves. They find something they are good at, and then they stick to it as if their lives depended on it, because the smaller your range, the more recognisable you will be. So we become specialists, but our lives are impoverished.
So for me, to exist at all while refusing to play the social media game, while not being willing to spend hours every day a day promoting myself, is a constant challenge, and I am grateful that I am still around when I have seen so many talented musician in my generation fade away when they reach their thirties.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I released last year a recording of the music of Roger-Ducasse, a fabulous French composer, a contemporary of Debussy and student of Fauré. This was a recording I wanted to do for years, and thanks to the boldness and generosity of Nikolaos Samaltanos, my producer, I was able to realise it in the best possible conditions, on a magnificent piano, and taking the time to do is as well as possible. The music is exceptionally difficult because Roger-Ducasse’s thought process is unusually complex. His music is a web of particularly dense polyphony which doesn’t take make much concessions to the fact that a pianist has only one brain and ten fingers. But I derive great pleasure in listening to it, because I think I have done it well, and also because I feel that more than promoting my own interests, I have done a service to a composer who really needs interpreters to defend him.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I don’t think I can be a very good judge of this. I would like to think that one of the things I do well is polyphony, and that I play Bach well, partly for this reason, partly because I like it so much, and also because I have thought for many years about my approach to his music at the piano. But this is also the music I like to play the most. Maybe there are other things I am better at, but if so, I don’t know what they are.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Repertoire choice is always a compromise between what one wants to do and what organisers are ready to accept. I like to play little known music, but very few concert promoters are ready to program things that audiences do not know, for well understandable financial reasons. So for example this season I am preparing Medtner’s Night Wind Sonata, his greatest work in my opinion, and some Etudes by Lyapunov, merely because I really wanted to play them. So I have approached the Pushkin House in London, because I thought the programme might appeal to them and it did. But I do know that I will have a job finding another place willing to let me play a 30-minute long Medtner Sonata.
A few years ago I recorded a magnificent work by Vitezslav Novak called Pan, a 50-minute tone poem for the piano. Playing it in concert gives me enormous pleasure, and I managed to do it a fair number of times, even in Prague, where the work hadn’t been heard for a long time, and in Kamenice, Novak’s birthplace. Of course I am also very happy playing well-established masterpieces, and I usually try to mix the familiar and less familiar in one programme. I like my programmes to have some inner coherence, and if there is a thread which runs along it, it is possible to introduce people to a music they don’t know without losing them.
Although I like to play a programme a certain number of times because it gives it an opportunity to mature, I am very uncomfortable with repeating myself too often. So I often put myself in slightly awkward positions where I am in danger of biting off more than I can chew, but it keeps me artistically alive, and I like the risk element.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I don’t, actually. A good venue is a concert hall where the piano and the acoustic help you to produce the kind of sound you want, and which has an atmosphere. The combination of these three things might be hard to find, but sometimes you get close. Last month I played in St George’s, Bristol, and I must say that was near-perfect a venue.
Who are your favourite musicians?
I listen to very little piano music and I am more interested in exploring music I don’t know rather than listening to yet another version of Beethoven Sonatas by someone else, however talented. Having said which there are people who inspire me. As far as piano is concerned, I have boundless admiration for many, too many to list here, which would be a catalogue. I do think Grigory Sokolov stands in a class of his own, for his total dedication to his art, and for the fact that he does things with a piano that we would not think are possible had he not done them. I have a lot of affection for pianists of the past, people like Wilhelm Kempff, or Edwin Fischer, who are very imperfect, but can be absolutely magical when on good form. Shura Cherkassky is another pianist who can be very average, or even mediocre if not inspired, but on a good day I do not know of a more refined pair of ear. The musicality of his playing can be mind blowing, or mind expanding.
But my favourite musicians are composers, not interpreters, and I won’t give you a list.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I think performing the Well-Tempered Clavier, which takes two concerts of over 2 hours each, is definitely when I felt happiest doing this job. There is no music I like performing more, and although I haven’t had the chance to do this many times yet, I keep hoping the occasion will present itself again. This is a repertoire I feel I could not tire of, and I had to limit my repertoire to only one thing, I would choose this work without a second hesitation.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I suppose I would consider myself successful if I was happy with my playing, and if I was in a position where I could reasonably not be worried about my future as a professional musician. I will probably never be fully happy with my playing and it is very unlikely that I will ever feel secure in my career, so does that mean that success is out of reach? I still am able to do what I like, more often than not play what I want to play, and there are people who are happy to pay to listen to it all, so it must be a form of success already. It is all relative and depends where we are. The tendency is to always want more, but perhaps it is not wise to do so, because it seems to only brings about a desire to have even more.
So maybe a definition of success would be able to let go of this desire for things that one doesn’t possess? But, really, I don’t know.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I do not feel I have any wisdom to impart, at least not yet, but if I am pushed I would say maybe, stay humble. Do not have an overblown sense of your own importance as an artist, and consider yourself as a servant of the music you interpret. But perhaps it is a lack of humility on my part to suggest this.
Acclaimed for the originality of his concert programmes and the depth of his interpretations, Patrick Hemmerlé is a French pianist living in England. Recent engagements have taken him to New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, Paris, Vienna, and Prague, as well as many festivals and music societies in England.