Guest post: A conversation with Matthieu Idmtal

by Guy Rademaeker.

He is 25, lives in Brussels, and things are going well for pianist Matthieu Idmtal. He just organised the second edition of the ‘Brussels Chopin Day’, next month he goes to France and Switzerland to perform with his violin partner Maya Levy, and his concert agenda for the future looks full. “I try to find my way” he says almost laconic.

We sit in a bar in Ixelles, the town where he lives, and during our conversation he will order three coffees. Nevertheless, the calmness of this young man will never disappear.

How did you start playing the piano?
I always found that I walked a rather atypical path to arrive at where I am now. I don’t come from a musical family, and compared to many others I started relatively late with playing the piano. I never went to a music academy and so on.

I remember we had an old upright piano standing in our house to which I was always going as a child. On a good day my mother kind of decided that she maybe had to do something with the kid that was always plucking that piano, and she searched for a private teacher for me. I must have been 7 or 8 at that time. Thinking about it, I believe that she was a very good teacher: a Russian pedagogue who was able to give me a good foundation. She noticed a certain talent, but I had no clue at that point that playing piano could or would become my profession. Maybe the people around me noticed faster than myself my potential and my need to play music. I remember how I would walk to school, and midway just decide to walk back home because I considered playing the piano a much nicer way to spent my day than sitting in a classroom. The problem was that I took these decisions more and more often. And that is how I entered to the Kunsthumaniora Brussel, a high school in Brussels that offers, next to standard courses, music courses as well which prepare you for entering conservatoire. From that moment, there was no doubt anymore. Music took me every day more and more. Till now.

Who do you consider as your significant teachers?
Without doubt, I must mention Vitaly Samoshko. I could say that he taught me how to play the piano. Of course we’re all made out of our lived experiences, what we hear and see, how much we invest in our art….… but Samoshko is the one I refer to.

You’re not studying in conservatoire anymore. Do you still work with him or do you study on your own now?
We still see each other. Less often than before, but I regularly visit him as a kind of……touching base. It is true that I work much more on my own, but that is what we all will have to do. At a certain moment you must become your own teacher. And it makes you think a hundred times more about each note and decision you take. When, after a concert, someone comes to you and asks “why did you play that piece that way?”, you can’t answer “because my teacher wanted it so”. Everything I do now is my own decision. I follow my intuition.

You also teach yourself. What advice do you give your students?
To give you the best answer you should actually ask my students how I teach, but I believe that it is a mix of my own experiences as a student, together with my own personality and ideas that I formed myself during over the years. I see my role as a teacher a bit like a sounding board. I prefer to suggest than to oblige, and I like to see a lesson as a moment between two friends who try to work and search together for the best possible solution to play a certain piece. Of course, some things can be radically wrong and I will say them, and I have some general ideas. Never to imitate for example, search for your own way. I also encourage them to experiment, try something, to dare. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong and you will learn from it, but dare to do something wrong. Take a risk, surprise me and yourself..… and at the end of the trip, remember and take all the best of these experiments. Sometimes I will ask a student to exaggerate something, to make something more clear, or just to give it all a bigger dynamic range. I also notice that I speak a lot about pulsation in the lessons, or to see a piece in orchestral terms, or to imagine a singer. And of course, sound is crucial.

It goes with your last question. When teaching, you’re very much faced with questions that force you to think how to play a certain thing very concretely. That helps yourself tremendously. For example, in a recent lesson, some of my better students asked me how to position the fingers on the keyboard, flat or curled. Honestly, there is not one answer to me. Everything depends on the sound you want to create. When I play a Scarlatti sonata for example, I can imagine myself playing with curled fingers, but I would never do that which a Chopin Nocturne. It all depends on sound. Play with your nose if you wish, if it sounds fantastic, do it!

What about your chamber music collaborations? I noticed that you have two regular duos?
I do. I have a piano duo with Ukranian pianist Anastasia Kozhushko. We met years ago in the class of our teacher, and started playing together. We won some competitions, mostly in the Netherlands, and most of the time we perform there. We aim to include less familiar pieces and composers in our programs. In combination with the more known works we play works by Cui, Rosenblatt, Vilensky, Clementi, etc. Absolutely amazing music but unfortunately underplayed.

I have also formed a duo with violinist Maya Levy. I consider her one of the young upcoming violin talents. We’ve worked together for about a year now, and some nice projects are coming up.

Playing chamber music is a real joy to me. You know, being a pianist is a lonely profession most of the time, you sit for hours a day alone behind your instrument – something that other instrumentalists rarely do because they all need a pianist to play with them! – and so it is a very welcome change to collaborate with someone. To have some interaction, to search together and to find compromises. And the repertoire is also fantastic.

Do you have any favorite pianists?
This generation has amazing pianists, absolutely amazing. But for most of them, the individuality has rather disappeared. Before you could hear two bars of a piece, and nearly say: “ah, that is Gould playing!” or “no doubt, that’s Horowitz”.

To answer your question, the latter is absolutely one of my favorites. I generally like the old generation. I think of Cortot, of Friedman. No one plays Chopin Mazurkas like Friedman.

Do you have a particular system how for selecting and learning  the pieces that you play?
Good question because I wondered about it myself recently. More and more it seems that a work “chooses” me, and not the other way around. What very often happens is that a work is floating in the air for a very long time. The work attracts me, in a free moment I will open the scores and play it a little, I listen to it, it is present in my life but I don’t study it. That process can be very long, years even. And than, at an inexplicable moment, it’s like the work is calling me. And there is no way back, I just have to learn it. So I lock myself in my flat and study all day long that one and only piece. That happens very often to me. It’s a bit like a love story: when you fall in love with someone, there is nothing to do about it anymore, your whole being is focused on that one person.

Besides playing the piano, do you enjoy other kinds of music or activities?
In every genre you can find good music. But I must admit that I don’t often listen to non-classical music. I feel a big affection to the work of Jacques Brel, and I regularly listen to his music. And I enjoy jazz. In my younger years, there were periods when I listened more to Oscar Peterson than to anybody else.

Considering real activities, I’m afraid I must disappoint you. Music became my life, and my life music.

Recently I have enjoyed playing chess, or having a coffee on a terrace in the sun with some nice company, that’s a perfect activity to me.

What would you be doing in life if you weren’t a pianist?
[thinking] I don’t know. Maybe I would have been a writer. I enjoy writing, and I’ve always wondered what I would be able to do when fully engaged in writing a book, or poetry. But that’s not for now.
In my youth, like many children I guess, I thought of becoming a tennis player.

When I’m into something, I am quite fanatic. So also with tennis: when I had my period of playing tennis, it was the only thing I could think of, doing it from morning til evening. But I don’t think the music will ever stop. It’s a gift for life.

May I conclude that you consider music as the most beautiful thing in life?
No, that is love. But music is more faithful.

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One thought on “Guest post: A conversation with Matthieu Idmtal”

  1. dag Mathieu een prachtige publiciteit ik hoop je dit jaar nog ee nkeer bij mij thuis te zien , als het je interesseert kan ik proberen een recital in Bormes voor je te regelen zoals ik dat voor Milos gouka deed.
    groet Han Bosch

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