Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
My first contact with the piano was the upright piano my parents had at home. My elder sister started lessons and I was very interested in listening and after a while I started playing her pieces by ear. It all happened very naturally from the lessons to winning competitions, participating in concerts and when I realised I was playing professionally.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I was very lucky to meet lots of very distinguished musicians early in my life. The two artists that have influenced me the most are both Brazilian. The first was Jaques Klein who was an extraordinary pianist. I played for him several times and his approach to music inspired me forever. There was something organic in his playing, natural but profound and that balance influenced me to search for my style in those models. The other is Nelson Freire whom I know since I was 13 and have played for him throughout my life. Another exceptional artist and again his way of playing with a natural flow and musicality made a great impact in the way I look at music in general. We continue to meet regularly in Brazil, Paris or here in London. Another important part of my musical influences came much later in life and it was my discovery of Philosophy. Reading the great philosophers have changed quite a lot the way I study music and see the infinite possibilities we have to interpret the scores.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
A life in music is challenging in several ways. I could say that the interesting challenging side is the one of preparing scores which is always an adventure and a conquest but there is also the “practical side” of the profession with the travels, unexpected pianos and circumstances, getting bookings and so on.
But to me a great challenge has been conquering a space for the Latin American music that I so much want to bring to light. People are always afraid of the unknown and it still needs a lot of convincing to get more Latin American music into the programmes.
I feel really happy when I am “asked” to include some Brazilian composers in the recitals as I have been doing for many years and more recently pieces by Ernesto Nazareth which have been extremely well received in the concerts I have played. I remember playing his Tango Brejeiro as an encore on several occasions and always being asked afterwards what that was and how nice it sounded. For the forthcoming launch of my new CD Portrait of Rio tomorrow, I will play five pieces by Nazareth and will end the concert with his Poloneza, a real show-stopper.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
Every recording is the result of intensive research and practice and to see the CD coming out at the end of all the work is a wonderful feeling. I couldn’t single out just one because every time I listen to them again, which is rare, I have different opinions about the performances…I think it is only natural as with time we change our views of the music but obviously the first CD, Villa-Lobos was a landmark and then I managed to follow him by other important Brazilian composers who are much less known outside Brazil, such as Francisco Mignone, Marlos Nobre and now Ernesto Nazareth. I must say, I feel a great sense of achievement especially with the Nazareth CD because so much of his music was still unpublished until a few years ago but thanks to the fantastic work of a couple of foundations in Brazil, all his scores are now available online which has meant I have been able to include some debut recordings of certain pieces. It was thrilling discovering some amazing compositions that had not been recorded before including the Poloneza and Valse Brillante, a fox-trot and even a Funeral March. The difficult part was to choose the material and limit it in one CD but I am happy with the varied selection I’ve assembled.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
There are composers that I feel more comfortable with than others and pieces that feel more enjoyable. I like playing for instance Mozart’s Sonatas and Variations, Chopin’s Ballades, Nocturnes and Waltzes, Schumann’s Carnaval, Kinderszenen and Etudes Symphoniques. From the Latin American and Spanish repertoires I love playing Lecuona’s Suite Andalucia and Afro Cuban Dances, Villa-Lobos’ Brazilian Cycle and Bachianas No.4, Mompou’s Scenes d’Enfants, Canciones and Danzes, and I am also enjoying the group of pieces by Nazareth that I have so far played in the UK and in Italy with one tango, one polca, one classical waltz and one samba!
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Each season is different and depends a lot on the bookings I get. There will always be the concertos asked by different orchestras and some recitals with specific requests. Only then I can really choose what else I would like to include in my performances. I like to research and make connections between composers and some historical context and for the new CD launch in London I included to accompany the Nazareth pieces, a Polonaise and a couple of Waltzes by Chopin and a Paraphrase by Gottschalk who were two of his greatest influences. I always try to vary the repertoire so that I am not playing the same pieces for too long as I think there is a good number of times you can reinvent your performances but if it goes for too long it can start to lose the freshness and excitement.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I am going to play at Sala Cecilia Meireles in Rio after quite a while because it has been closed for a few years for refurbishment. I am really looking forward to it as it is a wonderful hall with fantastic acoustics and by being in my hometown it has some special vibe to it. It was one of the first halls I played as a professional when still in my teens.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
I love playing Mozart and Chopin and obviously the Latin American repertoire. I feel happy when the public enjoy music they have not heard previously.
When it comes to listening I prefer to hear operas by Mozart and Wagner and chamber music by Schubert, especially Lieder.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Another difficult question. I love many pianists of the past and we are lucky to be able to continue enjoying their art with their recordings. Pianists such as Clara Haskil, Arthur Rubinstein, Ingrid Haebler and Emil Gilels are among my favourites. I also heard the other day the First Ballade by Chopin played by Claudio Arrau and was amazed, what a wonderful performance! Among the living artists I would say that Daniel Barenboim who is a complete musician and Nelson Freire, who I consider the greatest living pianist today, are my favourites. I also admire many singers such as Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau, Barbara Hendricks, Maria Callas, etc
What is your most memorable concert experience?
The concert I will always remember was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The whole experience was memorable. The music making was extraordinary as every word he sang kept you in wonder.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I think the most important thing is to keep the love for music whatever happens. It is a difficult profession and there will be many disappointments and frustrations on the way but after all being an artist is working with beauty and emotions and it is what makes this profession so special. Respect to the composer’s ideas and humility as an interpreter are the fundamental values of the true artist.
Tell us more about the Mignone and Albeniz Piano Concertos which you have recorded
It is very exciting that the project to record Mignone and Albeniz piano concertos has finally become a reality. I am glad that SOMM recordings took up the challenge with me and managed to get the fabulous Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Jan van Steen. The team work was especially inspiring and professional.
I am so privileged to have met Francisco Mignone as child and enjoyed a long friendship with him.
I have played a lot of works by Mignone for piano solo, chamber music and even piano and orchestra but there was one work which I dreamed of playing for a long time which was his Piano Concerto. He wrote some beautiful Fantasias Brasileiras for piano and orchestra (I played and recorded No.3) but only one piano concerto and it is without doubt the climax of his pianistic production. Mignone was arguably the most complete pianist among the Brazilian composers of the time and in this concerto he explored the vast possibilities of the instrument. He once accepted that his music suffered influence from European composers such as Debussy and the Italian opera composers of the turn of the century, especially in his earlier works and in his long life he moved away from these earlier composers and experimented with a more “modern” language for a while before he realised that melody was central to his music.
He looked for a synthesis of the European influences with Brazilian folklore and that is what he achieved in his piano concerto. He may have had Rachmaninoff and Ravel in mind as a model for his concerto but combined these influences with Brazilian motives and came up with a masterpiece.
His orchestration is very original and complex but extremely skillful. There is an old anecdote about Mignone and Villa-Lobos in which Mignone was going to conduct a work by Villa-Lobos in Rio and during the rehearsals found a few problems with the orchestration. Mignone was very polite with the older master but he thought the instrumentation could be improved and suggested a few changes for which Villa-Lobos replied “OK you can fix them, just don’t tell anybody about this.”
This concerto was only played by two pianists as far as I know, the dedicatee Arnaldo Estrella, an excellent pianist and teacher of a generation of famous Brazilian pianists and his wife, Maria Josephina in the late 50’s early 60’s. I don’t know why it has then been forgotten by the following generations of pianists.
When I started planning this recording I found an old score I had here at home for a long time which I got from the National Library of Rio, it was a photocopy of a printed score for two pianos but when I started looking for the full score and parts I realised they had made a new edition at Academia Brasileira de Musica. So I bought the score and the piano part but to my dismay I realised it was full of mistakes and needed another revision. The hand written originals were in very bad condition and difficult to use for a performance. We definitely needed a new version. I then with some help got it revised and did the piano part myself. In fact I ended up using Maria Josephina’s copy for the recording as it had Mignone’s own markings on it. I think it gave me confidence and inspiration!
The Albeniz Concerto is another wonderful piano concerto which has been sparsely performed since its premiere in 1887. Albeniz himself played the premiere in Madrid, followed by performances in Paris and London. It received very favourable reviews. Despite being an early work and criticised for not being Spanish enough I can see the Albeniz of Spanish Suite and Iberia already coming through in the themes and the piano writing.
I would love to see these two concertos rediscovered by the pianists around and see them reinstated in the main repertoire.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
If I am alive I would like to be still playing the piano and enjoying music as much as I do now.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Happiness for me is when my family is together.
What is your most treasured possession?
I love my piano, it is my companion.
What do you enjoy doing most?
In love travelling (on holidays!!), discovering new places.
What is your present state of mind?
Clélia Iruzun’s recording of piano concertos by Isaac Albeniz and Francisco Mignone is available now on the SOMM lable. Further information here
Clélia Iruzun’s childhood was spent in the rich cultural atmosphere of Rio de Janeiro where she began playing the piano at the age of four, winning her first competition at seven and making her orchestral debut playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto at 15. At 17 Clelia won a scholarship to continue her development by studying with the highly regarded Maria Curcio in London, and then with Christopher Elton, who took her under his wing at the Royal Academy of Music where she graduated with the Recital Diploma. Later she also studied with Noretta Conci and then with Mercês de Silva Telles, who encouraged Clélia to develop her own definitive style. Her mentors have included Fou Ts’Ong, Stephen Kovacevich, and her compatriots, the great pianists Jacques Klein and Nelson Freire.