Magazine, 10-Sept-09, Interview: Christian Berzins
The pianist Oliver Schnyder has long been one of the insider tips on the Swiss classical scene. Now he is recording CDs and playing in the concert series Migros Culture Percentage Classics with the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne under the direction of Semyon Bychkov in Bern, Geneva, Lugano, Lucerne, and Zurich.
Mr. Schnyder, we have heard about you constantly over the last year, in 2010 you will even tour the largest Swiss concert halls. What has happened?
Well, I have been playing in these halls regularly for many years. But you are correct: the media interest has increased recently. I believe that I have been a kind of “insider tip” for a long time. I did not mind this label. Nevertheless, I am not opposed to the larger public notice (laughs).
When you returned from the USA in 2001, your musical future was nevertheless uncertain.
The future is always uncertain. At that time, however, I really was in a vacuum, even if I was one of the few in the class of my teacher, Leon Fleisher, who regularly, if only selectively, gave concerts in Europe and the USA. But I was a long way from being able to live off giving concerts. My worries were thus great.
What does a young Swiss musician need in such a situation?
Instrumental craft and artistic maturity are presumed: own initiative, curiosity, discipline, courage, the will to persevere, and luck. Besides that, of course people who believe in you, who for example finance a professional debut CD. You need institutions such as the Orpheum foundation in Zurich that throw a young soloist into the cold water, so to speak, and let him or her perform with a first-class orchestra under a famous conductor. A young musician must get the chance to prove that he or she can swim. That is not a matter of course in Switzerland. As always, organizers and media place too little trust in local artists or give them too little credit. I don’t really know why that is.
But do you have an idea?
You could assume that it is due to the small size of the country and the feelings of inferiority connected with it. But Norway, for example, has half as many inhabitants as we do, nevertheless the best graduates from the conservatories receive a performance with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra!
How did you manage to still keep your head above water?
I always knew what I am capable of and never had fundamental doubts. The path has always been the goal. My parents gave me a lot of what you call basic trust. But as I said: it was an economic dry spell that had to be bridged, and I had to rely on the support of my wife, my parents, and my sponsors until the debut at Orpheum. After that it went steadily uphill. There was never a big bang, though.
«OUVERTURE», the newly created platform for Swiss talents by Migros Culture Percentage now gives you the chance to tour Switzerland with the WDR Symphony Orchestra under Semyon Bychkov. Not a big bang?
Certainly. I am also looking forward to this tour very much because I so love the 2nd concert by Beethoven. Maestro Bychkov, whom I appreciate greatly, calls it his favorite concert and has selected it because it will be his final tour as principal conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra. This is a special honor for me. But at 35, you no longer wait for «the big bang» that catapults you into a new sphere like you do at a very young age. At my age, you have learned that everything takes its time and is a logical consequence of what you have developed or done.
How important is it for you that these performances in Switzerland are possible?
Very important. It is satisfying for every artist to find esteem in their own country. The newly created platform «OUVERTURE» is in this regard a departure to new horizons. It is wonderful that Migros Culture Percentage is so committed to local musical work.
A lot is happening in 2009 / 2010, but you recorded two Mozart CDs at the same time with the classics giant Sony already in 2008. There are not many Swiss musicians who do that.
That was an important step. Added to this was that nobody demands east Mongolian virginal music from the late romantic period from me, but rather they let me do a standard repertoire. I am grateful for this confidence, and I believe the large response justified it, too. There are further CDs planned with Sony: for example with the music of Robert Schumann on the occasion of the anniversary in 2010.
Prior to the Mozart CDs, you recorded a Chopin CD and explained in the booklet why you did that. Did you feel bad for recording piano chart hits?
No, rather I felt bad about their absence! The selection of pieces does demand a justification. My text asks the listeners to perceive the recording as something very personal, as the result of an often painful grappling with the pieces. Chopin’s music has never been easy for me. I struggled with it for a long time before it really opened itself up to me and I was able to draw on unlimited resources. The CD is the musical memory of that and holds a special place in my musical family album. Basically, I made the recording for myself.
You seem to be doing a lot according to the pleasure principle, nevertheless, you are a very conscientious musician. To what extent is conscientiousness allowed in your line of work?
It is a necessity for reproducing interpreters. Without conscientious treatment, the composition becomes a victim of arbitrariness. Conscientiousness has to do with humility.
Doesn’t conscientiousness restrict an artist?
Possibly (considers). No, I stand by what I said: conscientiousness is inevitable for us. However, on the stage, it should be joined by – paradoxically – generosity. If that doesn’t happen, your question is justified.
Isn’t there a risk that with you conscientious turns into brooding?
I am actually a brooder and a skeptic. After searching for a long time, however, I always return to my basic ideas. I am not someone who wants to mercilessly lay bare the architecture of a composition, more or less break the work down to the raw structure or the foundation. In my opinion, this happens at the expense of beauty and transcendence. The intellectual substructure of an interpretation must not become an end in itself. Because most of the time, that sounds banal. «Go for beauty!», Fleisher told us if we students had started brooding.
And that helped?
You bet! But «Go for beauty» requires brooding, investigation, doubting, despairing, discovering, trying something out, and in the end rejecting; the whole roller coaster. «Go for beauty» meant throwing off ballast, it invited to play naturally and relaxed, it said: “Look, here is the forest!”
Can anybody keep you from despairing?
No, the valleys have to be walked through, and the blisters on the feet have to hurt and heal. But thank God I’m a masochist (laughs).
Then you don’t ask yourself anymore how you could change the piece one more time?
Of course I ask myself that question again and again. Otherwise, I would not make progress.
Even if there is no correct interpretation, is there your correct one?
Yes. But that doesn’t mean that I always manage its realization. Sometimes the search for the correct instrumental realization lasts for years. I experience this with works that I played five or ten years ago. I still pursue the ideas from that time. Of course, my demands on the instrumental realization have risen over the years. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t find an entirely new solution in ten years.
Do you sometimes think about how you will play in ten years?
The analytical work, the penetration of the work takes a lot of time, time that I can book on the credit side in ten years. I would like to know which energies will be free due to that. With the recordings, however, I already today no longer experience surprises. This means that the music in my internal ear matches what I actually play. In my opinion, that is my greatest achievement, and I am very grateful that I have managed it. Many musicians are often confronted with a different reality when listening to their recordings…
That must be terrible.
That must be terrible.
More noticeable than yours are the careers of pianists that rise like shooting stars: e.g. Lang Lang or Nikolai Tokarew. Tokarew has been praised to the skies for his CDs, but has already fallen from there a couple of times. His life as an artist seems to be heaven and hell. The pure opposite to you. Do you deliberately fight against these extremes?
No, they probably don’t fit my personality. I am more of an introvert. I also don’t know how much of Nikolai’s image has to do with his self-perception. We have unfortunately or fortunately little influence on how we appear to others. Grappling with the music, on the instrument, but also the at times enormously frequent concerts and works to be practiced, the traveling, rehearsing, the logistics of this life in general often mean heaven and hell. But it is true: the development of my career is everything but a roller coaster, on which the poor young artist no longer knows what is happening to him. This cup has passed me by. But I am not worried about the colleagues you named.
But every young artist wants to become famous quickly!
I also wanted that ten years ago. But I knew that I was not yet ready for what I can do today.
You write on your websites that you are not a «fashion freak». Tokarew or Lang Lang come on stage in leather pants or colorful tails…
… in which they look good. The only thing is that many of these young stars have the problem that they are overrun by a PR machinery and then don’t have any other choice but to match the allotted image. The artistic categorization which can massively interfere with a healthy development is even worse. I have not and do not fit any image that has not resulted from my work. I would probably be the nightmare of every image consultant. Thank God!
These young musicians are very present in the media. How do you handle the age question?
Being young has never been important to me. My appreciation as a musician has never been defined through my age. Should I now worry about being old? Seriously: I can say today that I am happy to have not had a comet-like career at a very young age. This way I had time to acquire a large repertoire and to grow as a person, more or less organically with the expectations of the audience.
You were fortunate not to have been a young star?
Yes. I grew up normally, had many interests, lived the life of a normal teenager. Many musician colleagues are missing balance because they had to condition themselves early and sacrificed everything to their art. I often would like to say to them: «Go to the movies once in a while, to a soccer game, a rock concert!» I gladly join the concert circus, but not at a rate such as for example my dear friend and chamber music partner Julia Fischer, the great violinist. I would not want that, nor could I do it. I need more time for regeneration and inspiration.
Is your young family the basis for this firm grounding in life?
Absolutely. I have always been a family type.
How strongly do the tours disturb this life?
Not at all. When I am at home, I am really home and have a lot of quality time with the family. My studio with the grand pianos is only one floor down. So I probably see my two-year-old son much more often and more intensively than fathers with office jobs away from home , and I get to be a proud witness of him growing up. My wife is also very dedicated as a professional violinist. Parents and in-laws support us wherever and whenever possible, so we manage to balance it all very well. I was really worried before the little one was born. Now I consider his presence pure good luck. I have a little less time at the instrument, but in exchange I work more efficiently.
What do you mean with efficiently?
My son determines how the day is structured. That means, I have to practice according to an exact plan and have to more and more defined learning objectives in order to accomplish anything. This forces me to work with more concentration than before, when for a change I used to regularly watch court shows on German private stations or read three different daily newspapers. Unfortunately, I no longer have time for that. In 2008/2009 alone, I played or newly learned no less than eight different piano concerts – among them David Noon’s second one, written for me and diabolically difficult, and Rachmaninoff’s third. This in addition to innumerable solo and chamber music works that I played during half a dozen different festivals – three times as an artist-in-residence – and on tours to Russia, Germany, Italy, France, Austria, Israel, Serbia, the USA, and Great Britain. Sometime I am really amazed at what all can be reconciled with good organization and positive thinking.