Pianist Sergio Tiempo was championed from childhood by Martha Argerich; now 41 years old, he’s still every bit the fresh-faced wunderkind.

You made your Australian debut with the Queensland Symphony in 2011, and
came back the following year. What were your impressions?

It’s starting to become like a family for me. I feel so at home every time I’m there; I love the people, I love the orchestra. The idea of going to Australia was like going to Narnia — the most magical place on the planet or something, and I made a fantastic connection with all the people there.

Speaking of fantastic connections, your mentor growing up was Martha Argerich. What was her most important advice?

She always told me something she tells herself and that is to never imitate yourself. If you play a piece so many times in your life, there is a moment where you’ve played it wonderfully or you’re very happy with yourself, and you want to recreate this very same thing the next time. But the fact that you’re trying to do so will inevitably make it sound like a caricature of yourself, somehow. We need to accept that once it can be wonderful and another time it
can be less wonderful and another time it can be even more so – this is the beauty
of creating something in the moment which is unique and will never be repeated anywhere. That’s why I also love the idea of live recordings because they give you the illusion of capturing this.

Do you remember the first time
you played for Martha?

At the time, I didn’t even really know she was Martha. She was a family friend I grew up knowing as an aunt or something; I wasn’t that impressed. I would be playing for myself and she would be listening behind the door and so on. But at some point I did find out who she was, and that was a huge revelation in my life, so that the next time I played for her I was shaking all over!

I think it was at her house in Switzerland when I was around 12; I played the Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise by Chopin for her, because I had heard her version and loved it. Mostly I remember she wanted me to listen to a very strange Alfred Cortot recording where he is basically all over the place and making absolutely no sense. She wanted me to listen just to realise that even the greatest can basically have an off day. And he was so valiant to actually leave it recorded; to say, “That’s just life.” Sometimes you miss.

Do you have any off days where you ‘miss’?

Yes, unfortunately. I think there are some very off days and those are just horrible
and you hope they won’t happen. And then there are just normal days which are off days simply because they are not the special and magic moment that you always strive for.

In Venezuela music education has had a profound impact on young musicians. Although you’re not a product of El Sistema, were you steeped in the spirit of it?

I’m old enough to say that I was there when it all started. It’s a system that targets orchestral musicians, so the piano has a very minor role in that. But my mum was an incredible presence in Venezuela as a piano teacher and she formed so many young wonderful musicians and pianists like Gabriela Montero for example. She was sort of the Sistema for piano, but all on her own. However, El Sistema is revolutionary on a musical level as well as on a social level, so I really hope more countries will be able to adopt this. They will have to be patient – it took over 30 years to give birth to a Dudamel or an orchestra the calibre of Simón Bolívar.

You’ve often played concertos with Dudamel conducting – how would you characterise his style?

Wow, it’s so much fun. I’ve never actually met a conductor who has this unbelievably overwhelming energy and joie de vivre, which is so terribly contagious because when you’re with him you catch this energy.

You’re performing Ravel’s Gaspard de
la nuit and his piano concertos on your Australian tour. Gaspard is famous for its technical virtuosity, but don’t you find the colouristic effects more challenging?

It’s so pictorial to begin with, because it is based on poems by Aloysius Bertrand. You could almost follow word for word what is written musically. What I love is all these veils Ravel puts on music; all these things that you see, but only if you peer behind something. Everything is a little bit indirect, and you have all of these layers that float in and out of focus.

Then his left-hand concerto I think is one of the most extraordinary pieces every written; forget the fact it’s just for the left hand – one couldn’t care less, it could be played with 12 hands – just the music itself is so unbelievably powerful.

As for Ginastera’s Argentinean Dances, also on the Australian program, do you play music from this region because you feel culturally tied to it?

Actually my grandfather, Antonio de Raco, was a well-known Argentinian pianist
and a good friend of Ginastera’s – in fact the third dance of these Danzas Argentinas is dedicated to him, so it has a lot of meaning to me personally as he taught this piece to me when I was quite young. And it’s the only thing he ever taught me, but it’s stayed with me like an anchor. I love it as a program opener actually as it wakes everybody up and we can start
the recital somehow. It’s a sort of aperitif.

Being a part of such a long tradition of musicians, a child prodigy surrounded by the likes of Argerich and Nelson Freire, was it a foregone conclusion that you were going to become a pianist, or did you have doubts at some point?

I was glad to be in a family for whom musical education was a must because it was just like learning to speak. The choice was still ours; if we didn’t want to make a career out of it that was fine, as long as we had a musical education. The fact that my sister and I started so young, it’s almost
a non-choice because music is so much a part of you. When I finished high school for example I did hesitate, but I already had four or five years’ professional career behind me at that point, so it would have been a very scary feeling to say goodbye to that. I’m not scared of not being a musician professionally, but I could never live without music. And this feeling gives you incredible freedom, because as soon as you feel this, you’re not bound by whatever the industry behind the whole thing might be expecting of you.

You have a piano duo with your older sister, Karin Lechner. How is it different playing with her than with another partner?

Oh, it’s such a pleasure. Whenever we have the chance to play together it’s a real party for us – it’s a feeling of festivity. We have been playing for such a long time together that it’s uncanny because we almost don’t need to speak to each other at all. We start, we sit down and we understand each other immediately, almost telepathically, and that’s a very nice feeling as well, because there’s no limit to the amount of things that you can create together that way.

You have a rather boyish disposition even at 41. What’s your secret?

I just happen to be incredibly immature
so this helps a lot! [laughs] I’m a constant Peter Pan, I love this thing Picasso used to say – that all children are artists and the difficult thing is to remain a child. Playing music – the English word is playing, and in French to “play” an instrument is jouer, to play a game, like with a toy – the word tells a lot, it’s the idea of recreating yourself through music. I think this keeps us all very young.

Sergio Tiempo plays Ravel with the
 QSO June 15–16, and recitals at the
 Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House on June 23 and Melbourne Recital Centre June 25