Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?
I was somewhat tricked into playing piano: when I was a child I wanted to play the organ immediately after hearing it. I was told I needed to start on piano, and quickly forgot about the organ as I had a very charismatic first piano teacher. I was 12 when I realized that I wanted music to be my life: I heard a Beethoven recital by Alfred Brendel that was so inspiring in its range, and I had no idea a concert could impart such experiences. It was also that year that I heard for the first time the music of Robert Schumann, whose impassioned flights of imagination made me almost delirious.
Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?
Aside from the many friends and family members who provided crucial support and encouragement, there were my two main teachers: the first was Roger Shields, who among other things showed me much about life with his refined sensibilities. The second is Sergei Babayan, with whom I studied for many years. His insistence on musical and human integrity is without fail, as is his ability to impart warmth, modesty, and a spirit of curiosity into all aspects of life.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Musicians trying to find their paths can be flooded with such doubts and anxieties. One must be self-critical to a point for growth, but this must be balanced with humour and perspective. Fortunately, one can find solidarity in the letters of almost all musicians and composers: few were ever completely self-satisfied.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I worked tremendously hard on the Schubert and Liszt CD (on the Con Brio Recordings label) which I recorded with the legendary producer Philipp Nedel in Berlin. It was one of the most intense periods in my life, and I tried to put everything into my work in my days there. Outside the recording studio, a blizzard was raging, and when working into the dark hours of the night, the music of Schubert carried new meaning. Nedel’s calm and sustained input somehow inspired me to want to reach ever higher with these pieces.
Listen to the excerpts from the CD here:
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
I prefer very old venues – to imagine those artists I admired all my life, playing in the same setting once upon a time always ignites me.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
The composer whose magic never fails to resonate with me is Schubert.
Who are your favourite musicians
First is Carlos Kleiber – his balance of lightness against depth is as much of a marvel as it is to watch him at work. Of living artists, I heard many great examples: the singer Cecilia Bartoli’s nuanced exuberance always inspired me, as did the pianism and musicianship of Martha Argerich, Krystian Zimerman, and my own teacher Sergei Babayan, who is one of the greatest artists I have ever witnessed in person. Of collaborative musicians, the most astounding for me is the pianist Julius Drake.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Of my own concert experiences, it depends on what perspective. A recent smaller concert in Indianapolis, for example, was an occasion in which I felt I finally reached total inner freedom all the way through an entire recital. Of bigger concerts, I will remember the audiences at my debut in Suntory Hall in Tokyo in 2009, and especially the audience at my Berlin debut at the Konzerthaus in 2012. After the second piece, a rarely-heard work by Liszt (the “Scherzo and March”), the audience gave a standing ovation during the middle of the recital; even after repeated curtain calls and rhythmic unison clapping, I was hardly allowed to start my next selection. It felt incredible, as an acknowledgment of a piece I strongly believed in. Furthermore, in the audience were some of my closest friends, to whom I could play directly.
Of concerts I attended, I will remember the recent experience of being on stage to turn pages for Sergei Babayan and Martha Argerich in a two-piano concert in Lugano – the energy was beyond belief.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I notice that most of my concert opportunities, even the bigger ones, come from my friends, or because of them – a feeling confirmed by more established musicians. The very successful pianist and teacher, Paul Schenly, told me “careers are about friendships.” One can aspire to many projects, and they must be fulfilled with the help of many. Without these friendships, the experience would be far less rich anyway.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
For me it is connected with at least two things: the music that elevates and heals, and secondly with the friendships and human connections that give life and art a reason to be.
Praised by the German press for his sold-out 2012 Berlin Debut at the Young Euro Classic Festival at the Konzerthaus in Gendarmenmarkt that was “intellectually shaped, powerful, and of crystalline precision”, Zsolt Bognár’s performances in North America, Europe, and Asia have been praised as “overwhelmingly visceral…a phenomenal sound world realized through maximum palette” (Leeuwarder Courant, Holland).
With recent debut performances in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Munich, Brussels, Vienna, and in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, Mr. Bognár releases his first CD album of works of Schubert and Liszt in 2013, recorded in Berlin with the legendary producer Philipp Nedel. Recipient of the 2007 Arthur Loesser Prize and having studied with Sergei Babayan for over ten years, Mr. Bognár is frequently invited to perform chamber music with members of the Cleveland Orchestra in live NPR broadcasts.
Winner of numerous international piano competitions in North America and in Europe, he is the host of a documentary film series of interviews with musicians from around the world, presented by Elyria Pictures in New York. His musical collaborations and diverse projects were the recipient of an International Festival Society Grant in 2013 to spend a week with Martha Argerich, and have included international speaking engagements, publications, and residencies in performance series and universities. Mr. Bognár especially noted for his insights in the works of Beethoven, Schubert, and Russian repertoire. For more details, please visit www.zsolt-bognar.com.
Interview date: August 2013