Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
I knew when I was about 12 that the piano was going to be an essential part of my life. I was quite shy and reserved as a child, and felt I could only express certain things and be truly myself when playing the piano. It felt immediately like a close friend that was always there and with whom I could share all the ups and downs of life. I did not know then what being a professional pianist meant, I just knew that music would always be an essential part of my life.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
There are so many. If I was going to put one at the top of the list, I would say Ruth Nye – she was my teacher during my studies at the Yehudi Menuhin School and Royal College of Music. She was not only my mentor but rapidly became like family, and remains to this day an inspiration. She has shaped my artistic, technical and philosophical development like no other person in my life. Also Nikolai Demidenko, Murray Perahia, and Dominique Merlet all taught me crucial things at various stages of my development.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Challenges go hand in hand with a performing career. Of course, I have had to go through many stressful situations, dealing with tight deadlines and intensive performing periods. But these are to be expected and it is nothing special. A good example of that was when I did my first concerto recording. This was a three concerto album, performed live at the Cadogan Hall in one concert. The very next day, I had a recital at the Wigmore Hall. I remember coming home late that night after the Cadogan performance and practising until about 4 am.
But the most important challenge is to get up everyday and thrive to reach a deeper artistic understanding of the music I am playing, to always question, to remain insatiably curious and never stop learning. In art, movement is everything. The music grows with me everyday, and I hope that the second I have performed or recorded something, my interpretation will have already started to evolve.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
Pride is not really a feeling I would associate with a successful performance or recording. But I guess more a feeling of exhilaration during a special moment shared with an audience or in the intimacy of a recording studio with my producer and recording team. But perhaps if I had to choose one, I would say my first Wigmore Hall recital; I remember doing a crazy programme, including Bach-Busoni chaconne, Beethoven Sonata op. 110 and Liszt B minor Sonata. I remember the Beethoven op. 110 in that hall as one of these rare moments when you feel you are no longer physically there. There was a real link between me, the music and the audience that night.
In terms of recordings, I think my latest Hyperion concerto recording of works by Bronsart and Urspruch (two Liszt students) with the BBC Scottish Symphony and Eugene Tzigane is particularly interesting. It was a fantastic experience for me to record these hardly known romantic works and bring them to life with such wonderful musicians. My Chopin preludes album as well; I think we managed to capture an intimate sound that allows one to hear all the details, yet distant enough that the poetry remained intact.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I am not sure about using the word best, but I would say that this non-exhaustive list of pieces are some of the works that are very close to me: Liszt B minor sonata and Après une lecture du Dante, Ravel Gaspard de la nuit, Bach-Busoni Chaconne, Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition, Schumann Études Symphoniques, Beethoven sonata op. 110, Chopin preludes op. 28, Schubert sonata in Bb D. 960, Mozart concerto in D minor K. 466 and Brahms concerto No. 1 in D minor.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Mostly of my own choosing: the piano repertoire is extremely vast and there are so many works that I want to explore! Though choosing a programme has to be done carefully. It is like putting together a meal. I will only perform something if I feel I have something truly special to say playing this work, that it has become a part of me. Also, other considerations come into play. The venue is one; I might not choose to play the same thing in a big London hall and in an outdoor summer festival. Also, I might be in the process of recording specific works, and of course a particular season might coincide with a composer’s birthday, for example, Beethoven’s 250th birthday in 2020.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
For me Wigmore Hall is very special. I have wonderful memories there. It has perfect acoustics and is just the right size to be intimate yet not too close; you can hear everything right down to the very last row.
Who are your favourite musicians?
There are many: Claudio Arrau would be one of the most important ones. His sound, colours, depth of interpretation, but perhaps more importantly, he is the artist who resonates with me the most in terms of philosophy and approach to performing. He was completely uncompromising, putting the music and respect for the score at the centre of everything with such integrity. But also Dinu Lipatti, Ferruccio Busoni, Alfred Cortot, Martha Argerich, Yehudi Menuhin, Jacqueline du Pré, Daniel Barenboim, Leonard Bernstein and many many more!
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I think it would have to be the first time I performed Brahms’s first piano concerto as a young student, conducted by Andrew Litton. I had won the Royal College of Music’s concerto competition. We had three big rehearsals, which of course never happens in the professional world. This allowed for some truly special music making – Andrew Litton was amazing, the orchestra was full of passionate and eager music students wanting to give everything they had to the music and the conductor. I hold the memory of this concert very close to my heart.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
That is a very hard question. But at the same time, as strange as it may seem, I don’t think I spend too much time thinking about it. I guess, doing what I love to do for as many years as I am lucky enough to be able to do it! Being a musician is who I am no matter what, music is my oxygen and it’s at the very core of my identity.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I would say that for me, the most important thing is to keep remembering what is at the centre of it all – the music. That as performers we are a middleman, a link between the music and the audience. The hardest thing I think on this journey is to keep a healthy psychological compass and to not fall into the traps of vanity or self-doubt, as both extremes are equally destructive. It’s a delicate balance: one has to remember that if you are a talented artist, you have a unique message and personality; that is what you have to cherish, nurture and put at the service of your art to the best of your ability with integrity and complete dedication.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
All these precious simple moments spent with my wife and baby daughter.
To be on stage performing beautiful music, on these rare moments when everything clicks into place and there is a real link made with the audience is a wonderful feeling.
Emmanuel Despax will be performing live on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune programme on 29th April at 5pm, ahead of his performance of both Chopin concerti with string quintet at the Menuhin hall on 30th April (more information)
“Poetry fused with breathtaking technical perfection” (Concertclassic) and “A master colourist with genius-like ability” (Classical Source) is how the brilliant French pianist Emmanuel Despax was described after his acclaimed recitals at the Louvre auditorium in Paris and Wigmore Hall in London.
Despax is establishing himself as an artist whose interpretations bring a rare sincerity and imagination to the music. He performs internationally and is regularly broadcast on many radio stations including France Musique, BBC Radio 3, Classic FM and Medici TV.
His latest Romantic Piano Concerto album for Hyperion – with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Tzigane – received a glowing review from Gramophone: “It’s hard to imagine it being better played than by these forces, Emmanuel Despax displaying a wide range of colours combined with an easy virtuosity … It requires prodigious playing from soloist and orchestral musicians to make it sound as effortless as here, and that it does is tribute as much to conductor Eugene Tzigane as to Despax.” The recording features two romantic concerti by students of Liszt, Hans Bronsart and Anton Urspruch.
His previous Chopin preludes album on Signum Classics was chosen as “Album of the week” by Classic FM in the UK and received a five-star review on Diapason in France: “The young artist’s poetic work of entomology left me speechless. Rarely has the text of these 24 pieces been thus read, enhancing the least articulation or pedalling detail in relation to tempi, sound weight, projection from a prelude to the next, from a group of preludes to another, transmuting his Fazioli into a 1900s Pleyel, iridescent as needs be – intimate and very beautiful.”
In his native France, Despax has appeared in prestigious venues such as Paris’ Salle Gaveau, Salle Cortot, the Louvre Auditorium and the Festival International des Nuits Pianistiques in Aix-en-Provence. He performs regularly across Europe and has given recitals at the Fazioli Auditorium in Italy, the Gasteig Blackbox in Munich and the Palais des Beaux Arts in Belgium.
UK highlights include recitals at Wigmore Hall, the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham, the Chipping Campden and Petworth Festivals and a performance of three piano concerti at Cadogan Hall. This concert was recorded live and released on Signum Classics. “Emmanuel Despax is a formidable talent, fleet of finger, elegant of phrase and a true keyboard colourist.” (Gramophone)
Having studied in the UK at the Yehudi Menuhin School and Royal College of Music with Ruth Nye, one of Claudio Arrau’s finest students, Despax draws inspiration from a long tradition of pure artistry and uncompromising commitment to the score. His passion lies in retaining and regaining the true role of a performer, as a faithful vessel for the composer’s message.
Now based in London, Despax has performed with many UK orchestras including the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Orpheus Sinfonia, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
Artist photo: Luca Sage