Edna Stern, pianist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Without a doubt — my mom.

She grew up on an island where there were no piano teachers and her passion for classical music was especially related to the piano. Her parents got her a small upright and she was taught by a violin teacher, who was the only classical music teacher there. He used to hit her on her fingers when she made a wrong note, but nothing could stop her or diminish her passion — not even her teacher’s appalling methods. She continued to play for pleasure, while working and raising five children, and she still enjoys playing piano everyday. Given the obstacles she encountered in her own piano education, my options seemed incredible for her. I was accepted at age eleven in the class of a great Russian teacher, Victor Derevianko, who was himself a student of Heinrich Neuhaus. She took me twice a week for private lessons in Tel-Aviv, which meant spending 5 hours in the bus and another half hour to walk back home. My teacher, Victor, introduced me then to the recordings of the great Russian pianists that he knew and had met personally like Richter and Gilels and those of the golden-age like Sofronitzky and of course Rachmaninov. His passion together with my mom’s are probably the reason I ended-up being a pianist.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The greatest challenge is pursuing an artistic musical ideal while dealing with reality. The ideal of being on stage and sharing with people the world’s most beautiful music hides a multitude of other realities: the reality of the business administration, or the behind-the-scenes music institutions. Every live performance hides the institution(s) organizing it. Another challenge comes down to a single question: “what are you willing to sacrifice to achieve your goals?” This question is especially hard for women. A powerful manager once invited me to stay overnight at his home as “his wife was away”, an example amongst others on the power of some men over the future of others and especially young women. These were never sacrifices I was willing to do.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I am happy with all the recordings I released. They each reflect a point in my musical path where I was different. I may not quite agree today with some things I did ten years ago, but they have their charm and I understand my past choices. It’s also nice to look at one’s artistic evolution in time. As an artist, one is usually most convinced with the last or even the next project, as that’s the way evolution works — we constantly try to improve and become everyday a better pianist, a better musician and a better person. Unsurprisingly then, I will say that I am most proud with my last two recordings: Schubert on tape and Bach’s Well Tempered Keyboard, Book I, which will be my next release. These recordings were made without any editing, which as an artist, is a way to record that at the moment makes more musical sense to me. I am especially grateful to Matthew Trusler, director of Orchid Classics, for listening and supporting my artistic vision and choices, which many other labels and directors would find too risky and controversial.

Could you elaborate on your choice of recording without editing vs. with editing? What is at stake?

I think that the main question pertains to what we view as perfection in music. What makes an interpretation great, or perfect? The current way of recording, considers “the notes” as the main criterion for perfection, and so editing is used in order to achieve that. However, replacing a wrong note by cutting a musical line and its movement can be in fact more detrimental than the original mistake. Wrong or missing notes are easy to notice, while missing an important tension between the voices is easy to miss. The composer Hélène de Montgeroult has commented on her 55th Etude, explaining how it is essential to play it in “good taste.” She says that playing in bad taste is a result of the pianists’ fear of not showing everything they can do or their feelings. Playing in bad taste is a good example of a fault that is not apparent to everyone. A much more noticeable fault is for example the weakness of the fourth finger resulting in irregular, uneven scales. People would immediately notice and condemn an uneven scale, but they would mostly remain silent on an interpretation made in bad taste.

Personally, I agree with Montgeroult and believe that playing in bad taste is more offensive than an imperfect scale.

As to what is at stake. Why are we doing things? I was often asked this question by Krystian Zimerman.

What’s the meaning, what’s the point of being a pianist? I always like to tell the story of one of my teachers, Leon Fleisher, who came one day to the class at Peabody with a big Babushka representing Beethoven. It was the end of the academic year and not quite his birthday yet, but his daughter couldn’t help give him his seventy-fifth birthday present in advance, and he had brought it proudly to show us. Inside the big Beethoven figurine, there were smaller ones, going from Czerny to Arthur Schnabel, and the very last one was Leon Fleisher.

Leon Fleisher dedicated his life to teaching and this Babushka symbolized his life’s work, that is, passing on the knowledge and playing traditions transmitted to him by his own teacher, who had gotten it from his own teacher and so on, all the way down to the composer, Beethoven. It all went hand in hand with his favourite moto “support the composer” as a way to guide us towards an interpretation that would uncover most truly the composer’s intentions. One can play a piece in many different ways, but musical decisions need to be made from a place of purity, of a search for truth. Not just playing “pretty” or “brilliantly” or “impressively” — all these are meaningless and don’t leave a long-lasting impact.

One great challenge in performing is that it’s very hard to achieve everything at once. Sometimes one can create a magical atmosphere through sound, but one is then at a danger of losing the piece’s structure and rhythm. Sometimes one plays a difficult climax fearlessly, but misses some notes in the heat of passion, and there are many more such examples. Going to post-production editing enables one to cook a brand new interpretation with a solid structure, adding the magic of sound from the less structured takes, and a zest of good-notes-exchange in the over-passionate passages. It’s too good to be true, it’s disconnected from reality.

You may ask then, what’s wrong with getting as close as possible to an ideal, even if it be unrealistic. Indeed, why not make a very convenient mix to help us reach an ideal?

Even though it is reassuring to have the possibility to go with this post-production make-over, one cannot help thinking on two issues it raises. First is whether this falseness ultimately supports the search for truth in music and the composer’s intentions. Secondly, the psychological impact it had on the whole classical music industry.

Making a post-production make-over is similar to using photoshop to create an ideal image. We’ve seen the impact the overuse of photoshop has had on the image of young girls, who grow up expecting themselves to look like a certain type of body and looks. I fear that a similar thing has happened in the classical music field. People have become accustomed to a certain smoothness that has erased the differences between one interpretation and another. Most pianists today are expected to play very “correctly” in order to win competitions and “fit in” socially into what the industry expects from them. The result is that hitting the correct notes has taken the main priority in any performance — be it live or in a recording session, and interpretation and meaning have taken a far away back seat.

This is the reason I don’t consider this so much as a “live” vs. “studio” recording (or analogue vs. digital), but a frame of mind that I have been working on for the past couple of years. I’ve been educated like any other twenty-first century pianist, and I am disturbed by my mistakes and wrong notes. I needed to re-educate myself to accept my own imperfections and put interpretation ideas as my main goal. I don’t feel like a Barbie/Ken in the world and I don’t wish to play like one, even if it raises a good majority of critics approval. So the process has started in my practicing room and has continued into the recording studio, where I decided to skip that last post-production stage — the editing and the artificial reverb smoothing everything down, and see if I would feel then as coming closer to the ideals Fleisher had taught me.

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

I am very convinced with my Bach interpretations, but Schumann, Beethoven and Mozart are the composers that are most familiar to me.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I like to read, go hiking, listen to old vinyl recordings on my wonderful AudioNote audio system and I’ve just finished writing my first book (on Bach’s Well Tempered Keyboard). Writing represents for me a meeting with reality and the possibility for a more in-depth exploration of well-known musical grounds through a new perspective. Furthermore, it’s a significant communication tool and as Montaigne wrote: “There can be no pleasure to me without communication: there is not so much as a sprightly thought that comes into my mind, that it does not grieve me to have produced it alone, and that I have no one to communicate it to.” This is as true for me in writing as in playing. I like sharing with my public.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Mostly, it’s a combination of programmess I have just recorded and organizers contacting me with projects of interest (like the Festival of Radio France did with Hélène de Montgeroult), which eventually may become my future recording programmess.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

I believe the whole classical industry has been chasing the wrong ideals in the past thirty years. The number of boring concerts I have attended are too numerous to be counted. What makes listening to a musical piece exciting to the public is not the level of objective perfection or of catching efficiently all the right notes, but rather a renewed vision and interpretation of a musical piece that people in the audience may have heard a hundred times before, and yet can still rediscover anew. That’s my opinion as an artist, but I received a message from a fan of my new Schubert on tape CD, which I will quote as he gives his own perspective on this question: “I kinda stopped listening to most modern classical recordings in the 90s …I love the sound of analogue as well as the immediacy of the playing/microphone distance/lack of unnatural reverb/treble sheen, if that makes any sense: piano music that doesn’t sound like it’s produced for a reality TV show.”

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Going down the stairs towards the stage of the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success is defined by how close you get to the truth, or as a musician – speaking the truth.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

Choose well your sources of advice. By advice, I mean the editions most true to the source, interpretations examples by great pianists (I especially like and recommend the great pianists of the golden age), and your teacher(s). With the internet today, it’s easy to have access to a lot of advice and information, but the quantity of possibilities can also confuse the inexperienced musicians.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?

The mechanical nature of playing which has taken over, almost like it’s a computer playing, instead of creating art and passion.

What’s next? Where would you like to be in 10 years?

In ten years, I would like to be 10 years better than today.

What is your present state of mind?

I’m optimistic and curious to see where this post-Covid world will take us.

Edna Stern’s latest disc Schubert on Tape is available now on the Orchid Classics label. Read a review here

Edna Stern began her studies in Israel with Viktor Derevianko, a student of Heinrich Neuhaus. She continued studying with Krystian Zimerman at the Basel Hochschule and with Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Institute and at the Lake Como International Piano Foundation. Her repertoire ranges from Bach to Berio. Her recordings are highly praised by critics, receiving such awards as Diapason d’Or, Diapason Découverte, Arte Best CD, Gramophone upcoming artist, and Sélection Le Monde. Her last recording, dedicated to Hélène de Montgeroult received a Critic’s Choice of the Year 2017 of the Gramophone Magazine and Choice of France Musique, the French radio.

Edna Stern has performed at prestigious halls and festivals such as the Philharmonie of Paris, Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, Munich’s Hekulessaal, Paris’ Châtelet Theater, Moscow’s Music-House, Petronas in Kuala Lumpur and Musashino hall in Tokyo; performing in solo recitals and with orchestras, with conductors such as Claus Peter Flor and Andris Nelsons. Stern gives masterclasses all over the world, in such places as the CNSM of Paris, Rutgers University, and Tel-Aviv Zubin Mehta School of Music.

She has been a professor at the Royal College of London since 2009 and her musical activities include working with great artists in other art fields, like film director Amos Gitaï, as well as Etoile/Leading principal dancer from the Paris Opera, Agnès Letestu.

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photo: Eric Larrayadieu-Calendrier