Interview: Pianist Javier Perianes on the eve of his Barbican debut concert

'I am blessed with very flexible hands – so I make up in flexibility what I lack in spread!'

14 January 2011

Javier Perianes

A rising star both in his native Spain and, more recently, much further afield, the young pianist Javier Perianes is in London for his debut concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican.   The repertoire is a piece Perianes knows well and is in the process of recording for Harmonia Mundi, Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, and the conductor is someone he knows and respects hugely, Josep Pons.   I asked Perianes about his musical trajectory so far.

"Well, I actually started on my musical journey as a clarinettist.   That is the first instrument I learned and as a child I could see myself taking it further.   But then one of my aunts introduced me to the incredible sound world of the piano, and from that moment I lost interest in the clarinet and I began to explore the full spectrum of harmonic and rhythmic possibilities that the keyboard offers".

Perianes was born just over thirty years ago in the small Andalusian town of Nerva.   Was he born into a musical household?

"Actually, not at all.   I’m the only musician in the family.   But my uncle was a composer – not a well-known one – and I have actually played and recorded some of his pieces.   And Nerva itself provided quite a good cultural and musical environment.   It now has only around 6.000 inhabitants but when I was growing up there were lots of artists and musicians in the town, and plenty of older people who had pianos and who played them.   The British mining company Rio Tinto had an operation there and so English was quite widely spoken (Perianes’ own English is fast, fluent and idiomatic).   It was quite a cultured, civilised town in which to grow up".

After the usual routine of local music teachers, early concert successes and then full-time music and piano studies first in Seville and then in Madrid, Perianes embarked on his solo career.   "When did you decide to become a full-time concert pianist?"   His reply is slightly disconcerting.   "Actually, I haven’t yet decided.   I see myself as having embarked on a musical journey.   Of course it involves the piano and the sounds that this instrument can create, but my real interest is in music, not just in becoming yet another pianist with good technique".   This prompts me to ask Perianes about piano competitions, in which he had some early successes.   "I hate them!   The contestants are being measured, not valued, and if the jury chairman awards a low mark when all the other members award high marks, you get dragged down to that terrible thing, the average.   A jury member at a major competition once told me that all the really interesting musicians, who deliver their own interpretations, leave after the first couple of rounds.   Yet they are the players who will have something to say about music later on in their careers – if they make it!"

That is not to deny that some fine musicians have won major competitions and have gone on to be in the first rank of soloists, but Perianes has a point.   He moreover has had competitive onstage exposure of a different sort, working in a live masterclass with Daniel Barenboim in 2006 on Beethoven’s opus 110, filmed by Alan Miller for an EMI DVD.   What was the experience like?   "Completely nerve-wracking.   At the same time, absolutely inspiring and it has changed the way I play Beethoven.   What I admire hugely about Barenboim as a player and as a teacher is that he actually puts into practice what he told me to do.   He told me for example that he liked the colour of my sound, but that it was not Beethoven colour and certainly not in this very late work.   He told me that the music was full of consonants – I was playing the vowels, but not the consonants.   And he showed me – and the audience – what he meant.   The result is that I have changed my approach and my Beethoven sound has changed".

The DVD shows the intensity of music making at this level, the tiniest nuances that change the shape of a phrase, the connections between the notes and the unwavering concentration that Barenboim brings both to the music and to his pupil.   Perianes recalls: "There was an interesting question from a young child in the audience – it’s not actually on the DVD – when she asked the maestro how he could both like the sound I was producing but criticise me for getting it wrong.   Barenboim paused for a long time and told the child the question was both deep and philosophical.   I suppose we are both still working on the answer!"

Javier PerianesWe talk about the piano repertoire.   Perianes recalls that his first teacher insisted on the absolute primacy of Bach as the foundation of all keyboard playing.   "Of course I followed her until I began to realise just how difficult it is to play Bach well!"   The standard Romantic repertoire then beckoned, with Chopin, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms to the fore.   I look at his hands, which are quite small for Brahms.   "You are right, but I am blessed with very flexible hands – so I make up in flexibility what I lack in spread!"   Perianes also has a clear affinity with Schubert (his CD for Harmonia Mundi of the Impromptus and Klavierstuecke having attracted high critical acclaim).   "I was about 12 or 13 when I first played through the last Schubert piano sonata.   I felt something at once – including the realisation that I ought not to tackle it in public until I am much older.   But when I hear it played by Richter, or by Radu Lupu – wow, what music!"

Inevitably I ask Perianes about the Spanish piano repertoire.   He has championed some neglected Spanish composers in recent years and his most recent CD, of sonatas by Manuel Blasco de Nebra, has been a minor revelation to some critics.   Blasco de Nebra was a contemporary of Mozart, organist at Seville Cathedral and a prolific composer, of whose 170 works only around 30 have survived.   As with Scarlatti, many of the sonatas are in two movements (fast/slow, slow/fast) and include technically demanding, virtuoso passages.   "I love this repertoire.   Of course, being Spanish I feel affinity with the colours, the sonorities, the rhythms.   And I can feel the lines that run through to the more Romantic Granados, and of course to Manuel da Falla, although he was influenced tremendously by Debussy and by Ravel: this is no longer purely Spanish music but a mixture of Spanish and French.   There are of course flamenco elements that need to be absorbed, and shades of different colours that make up the quality of sound the pianist ultimately produces.  It is my ambition to develop my own distinctive sound: it will take me some time, but I know what I want it to be".

Perianes had the colossal good fortune to have taken some private lessons with the iconic Alicia de Larrocha, who worked with him on Falla pieces, including the fiendishly difficult Fantasia Baetica, originally written for  Rubenstein.   As chance would have it, her 1973 recording of this evocative showpiece has just been reissued on Newton Classics.   Perianes played it when auditioning for Zubin Mehta in Valencia: the latter commented on the difficulty of the work, and the fact that Rubenstein had abandoned it – but gave Perianes the concert anyway.   Perianes recalls advice given to him by Alicia de Larrocha: "You are from Andalusia.   You will have to play Spanish piano repertoire, all your life.   But diversify, don’t become purely a Spanish specialist, include works from as wide a spectrum of composers as possible.   That way you will develop as a musician".   Taking her advice to heart, Perianes moves on from the Barbican on 14 January to a concert recital in The Royal Centre, Nottingham on 16 January when he will play Schubert, Chopin and Debussy – before attacking the Fantasia Baetica.   Fireworks are guaranteed.

By Mike Reynolds




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