It’s been a while since you released your solo album. Do you have any particular reason for taking this long?

There are several reasons. First, I don’t quite believe that what we call music for an audio only medium is the right thing to do. You see, in the 19th century, you could always see the performer, in the time of Liszt, Schubert and Chopin. When they were performing, the listeners not only listened but saw the performance. So… because we developed machines for recording sounds, we started to record music as a sound. And I don’t believe that music is sound. Music is actually time. This is the first reason. The second reason is that there were many CDs on the market and I just didn’t feel that I can add anything to this. So, I was very critical about my own recordings and I simply didn’t like anything. So, I thought, “OK, that can go on the market.”

Krystian ZimermanKrystian Zimerman. Photo © Kasskara/Deutsche Grammophon 

What are the reasons for selecting Schubert’s Piano Sonatas Nos 20 and 21 for this album?

I always have a problem with this question. I’ll answer with a joke. A grandmother gave her boy two ties for his birthday. He wants to be nice to her so he goes upstairs and immediately wears one of his ties. And he comes downstairs and the grandmother says, “Oh! You didn’t like the other one.” [laughs] So, what I’m trying to say is that you can only play 90 minutes in the concert and why you decide to play this is difficult to say.

Schubert is very personal to me. But he’s one of many composers. I don’t want to become a specialist of any music. I have always been against this. When I won a Beethoven competition, I didn’t want to become a Beethoven pianist. After the Chopin competition, the same. I didn’t want to become a Chopin pianist. When I won a Russian competition, I just didn’t want to play Rachmaninov or Prokofiev.

The two [Schubert] sonatas are very special for me in the sense that I think that if Schubert wouldn’t have written these two pieces, he probably wouldn’t be regarded among composers like Schumann, Beethoven, or Brahms. His greatness still made another jump before writing these two sonatas. So, they are two very important pieces in his writing, and pieces which put him on a special level of composing.

I heard you pursue perfectionism.

I’m working for a concert and I record the concert, listen to it and in the next concert, I try to improve. And some people don’t like it. They call it perfectionism. So, they would prefer that I play always the same and I don’t do anything, I don’t work and that it would be okay. [laughs] But the moment you want to improve something from each concert to the next one, you are called a perfectionist, which is a complete nonsense. I never call such perfection. I don’t believe if there is perfection in art. There is no such thing. But of course, I’m trying to do my job as best as possible. And when I see a possibility of doing it better then I explore those possibilities.

Have you been working on other pieces than Schubert’s which are on your new album?

I haven’t played Schubert for at least a year now. And yes, I’ve been doing other composers’. Usually by the time the record comes out, you’ve changed the repertoire already, a long time ago. [laughs] It’s a story of yesterday.

Then could you tell me what you are working on these days?

No. This is always a secret. I always give the programmes very late. I do a lot of experiments and then from those experiments, I play maybe 10 percent. So, I cannot really, because there’s always a misunderstanding always because of that. But I have very precise plans.

Krystian Zimerman, SchubertLimelight‘s Instrumental Recording of the Year 2017

Do you have any other hobbies you enjoy doing in your daily life other than music?

Many… I make a strong border between my private life and concerts, playing and interviews. I never talk about my private life in interviews but I have many other things which fascinate me and which I’d like to study further to be better in.

What are your views on the advancement of technology like YouTube and smartphones?

I have a lot of trouble with the advancement of technology. Because, at first, we create technologies which are very dangerous and we don’t create the legal embedding of this technology. Imagine if someone would create an atomic bomb, which is so easy that everyone can make it at home. Then we could go into a lot of troubles. Yet, the achievement is incredible. The same is for YouTube. It’s an incredible platform, and I watch various YouTube videos every day. At the same time, it became a big problem for music, because it’s destroying a lot.

First, the ease of access for people to performances inspire people to copy performances. This is very dangerous because musicians cannot develop their own talents. They only try to be another one. The other problem is that of the people who are recording concerts illegally. I am very much against it. The reason for it is the following. I once experienced in an Edinburgh festival where I performed, and I had my recorder in the piano with which I record my own performance in order to listen to the mistakes and improve for the next concert. The BBC was in the concert hall installed with microphones for another concert. I think Pollini was one, but I can’t remember. Anyways, they said that they can record the concert for me. And I said, “OK, why don’t you do it.” And I got the tape later from them.

In the concert hall was also a pirate who was sitting in the last row, and recorded the concert illegally, and he was caught by the people. Eventually, they confiscated the tape and gave it to me. So, in the evening in the hotel, I had suddenly three tapes from the same concerts. My own tape sounded very academic, because it was without acoustic, it was in the piano, so it was completely wrong but I know how to read this tape, and I learned a lot from it. The tape of BBC was perfect. They recorded it very well. The tape of the pirate was the worst. Because he was in the last row, everything seemed to be too fast! Everything was hasty and unreadable. You couldn’t really understand what the pianist is playing. And the concert sounded terrible. The reason for it is the acoustic that took away something like breathing. There is no coincidence that we have a profession, sound producer. It is a profession where you learn for many years how to record a piano properly. And if you put the microphone in the wrong place, the recording is bad. And the pianist is paying for it.

And now on YouTube, we have a lot of performances of people who have no idea how to record. They just got a new telephone, Samsung is recording sounds so they start to record the sound and they want to play God and put it on YouTube. This is very arrogant and wrong. Because this recording has very often nothing to do with the real performance of the artists. They are destroying the artists. For example, when this happens to me, I usually don’t go to such a country again. I had such an experience in South East Asia. I was so hurt by this that afterwards I didn’t schedule concerts anymore in this country. You can guess which country it was.

Anyways, this is so much for the new media. There is not so much happening in the new technology of recording sounds. The digital revolution is more of a revolution of electronics, but when I compare sounds from 78 records – sounds from 33 records and sounds from CDs, sometimes I like the 78-record best! Of course, sometimes there is some noise, basic noise. There is a hiss or problem with noises around the sound. But if you want to listen to music, very often the sound of the piano is very rarely speaking these old recordings. So, the revolutions of the last 50 years in sounds recordings are not that big as we think they are. They simply fight the spreading of the music and also simplified the game for the people who are dishonest.

And we didn’t create any legal basis. YouTube is playing stupid and they’re saying that they only offer a platform, which is a lie, because if you would offer a shop to someone and the goods in a shop would be stolen, then would the police come and close your shop. So, I don’t understand why politicians accept the explanation of YouTube. It is very easy for an electronic concern to make barriers so that when someone wants to publish a concert of Mr Zimerman that immediately on YouTube, will be a procedure involved which asks Mr Zimerman whether he wants this concert to be published. It’s a very simple thing to do and if Mr Schmidt can’t do it, he should learn how to do that.

You know, [an] idea like YouTube is fantastic. It’s really one of the most genius things. But the way it is now going around the legal procedures in our society is disgusting. I think it’s wrong and should be tackled by every government.

Krystian Zimerman’s recording of Schubert on Deutsche Grammophon is Limelight‘s Instrumental Recording of the Year 2017. Interview published courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon.