Numerous pianists and concert goers around the world are living the ”Debussy 100” this year. The centennial celebrations do have a clear impact on concert halls and concert programs and record labels like Deutsche Grammophon and Warner Classics have graced the market with new Debussy complete works CD-box releases. The Swedish/Polish international pianist and London resident Peter Jablonski is one of the French master´s current explorers. He has chosen to target Debussy´s world by also programming composers which inspired Debussy along with composers which were inspired by Debussy. This journey starts with Chopin and Liszt and ends up with the strong and explicit French-American connection; Gershwin/Wild and Copland/Bernstein. During an on-going Swedish recital tour Piano Street´s Patrick Jovell had a chance to talk to Jablonski, prior to his Debussy 100! recital in Gothenburg.
PS: You do not play in Sweden very often, so it is a great pleasure to have you performing and paying tribute to Debussy 100! in Gothenburg Concert Hall on March 17. What do you find fascinating with Debussy’s music?
PJ: There are many different reasons. His way of writing for the piano is completely unique. He erased the piano’s function as a percussive instrument. Only Chopin knew how to use the piano as well as Debussy did. He uses the piano as a whole orchestra in a way which was never heard before. His sonic universe implies associations to colors, tastes, scents and elements like the wind and water. Utilizing the most refined usage of the pedals makes him unparalleled in my opinion.
PS: Debussy’s upbringing as a piano prodigy was very much based on music by Chopin and Liszt. Can we find influences of these composers in Debussy’s own music?
PJ: Absolutely so. Pianistically in forms too, like preludes and not at least the late etudes dealing with pianistic problems just like Chopin did in his 27 etudes before him. Just like Chopin Debussy had entered a new stage of compositional creativity when he, like Chopin, passed away far too early. And like Liszt, Debussy was influenced not only by the folkloristic elements but also by the program music, the depicting universe which also identified Wagnerian domains.
PS: You are known for your particular love of mazurka as a genre. Can you tell us why you are so drawn to it, and why should we hear these pieces more?
PJ: I always thought that it was rather strange that even Chopin’s mazurkas, which are real gems and masterpieces, are played so rarely. To me, they signify a lost world, a world of melancholy and light sadness, a glimpse into the sunset of one’s life. But that is only one side of them. There is so much versatility in this genre, and mazurkas written by different composers are all different too. We have Szymanowski, Scriabin, and then a whole host of Russian composers who wrote mazurkas, from Anton Rubinstein, Cesar Cui, Anton Lyadov, to Aleksey Stanchinsky. And these vary from light melancholy to delightful playfulness and even dramatic passion. All these will form a large part of my near future work.
PS: Which is your favourite work by Debussy and why?
PJ: That’s a very difficult question but if I am forced to choose it would be La Mer. No other composed work can portray the Sea in a more complete way. An absolute masterpiece of orchestration!
PS: Looking in the back mirror, you have a rather unusual career profile, you first started with a drum set, then later switch to piano. Can you reflect on your tell us about your musical path?
PJ: I was very fortunate to have had an interesting and varied career, and to have an unusual path to becoming a concert pianist. I was so young when I performed at the famous jazz club in New York, and am honoured to have been noticed by none other than Miles Davis at that time. But I was also passionate about the piano, and had to make a decision to follow that. Everything happened very fast, and I was 11 when I was admitted to study at a conservatoire in Malmö, and was 18 when my international performance career started. I literally went from the Royal College of Music to the stage, and that was almost 30 years ago! It has not stopped since, and my life appears to get more and more busy. I am particularly happy that I have space in my busy schedule to do something that I have dreamt about for a long time. I recently signed an exclusive deal with Ondine for complete recordings of Scriabin mazurkas. That means that for most of this year I will be living with Alexander Scriabin’s wonderful, intricate re-imaginations of this traditional Polish dance.
After that, I will be working on recordings of complete sontats by Anton Rubinstein, and piano works by Alexey Stanchinsky, a forgotten Russian genius with a tragic and mysterious death.
I am also discovering a lot of new orchestra repertoire—André Tchaikovsky and Leo Ornstein, for example. Both Jewish composers who had to leave their birth countries due to political and cultural adversity.
PS: You have taken a new direction in your professional life now. Can you talk a little bit about it?
PJ: I spent over a quarter of a century travelling the world with concerts, dashing from one part of the globe to another, often without any time in between to catch my breath or to have a break. This has, of course, given me incredible opportunities to play with some of the world’s best orchestras and musicians, and to see countries and places I would otherwise never go to. However, it also had a darker side: constant pressure, both physical and emotional, and the unfortunate need to learn a lot of music quickly, which was not always the music I actually really wanted to play. When one plays a concerto over a hundred times, one begins to feel somewhat of a merchant and less of an artist.
I am so glad that this chapter of my life is over and that now I am able to choose carefully what concerts I play and where, how often, and on what condition.
I am now looking at the works that have always been on my wish list, but which I never had the time or the opportunity to learn. I am making many new discoveries, and really look forward to sharing them with my audiences.
PS: You have been appointed professor of piano at the Royal College of Music, London, last year. How did become a professor change your attitude to performance?
PJ: I really like teaching, and I feel myself growing more and more involved with the process of helping others learn and discover musical intricacies. I also like seeing a student develop not only as a musician, but also as a human being.
Playing the piano is only a part of one’s life, no matter how much time we spend doing it. There are other things that should be explored and enjoyed in life, and I am acutely aware that we take so much of our lives for granted.
Teaching helps me to see familiar pieces of music from new perspectives, and to discover the pieces I never played myself, and get all fired up and create new programmes for my future recitals.
PS: Beside teaching on Royal College of Music in London, you also founded a Jablonski Piano Academy – can you tell us more about it?
PJ: I have an Academy every summer in Sweden, where I teach young pianists who are looking to enter conservatoires, or simply to improve their performance skills. I usually invite one or two other musicians, to offer a more well-rounded education to the students. This year, for example, I am expanding our tuition to piano accompaniment, something that many pianists would be doing in their careers. I also have coachings on business skills, which are integral to building a successful musical career. The Academy takes place 6-11 August 2018, and those who are interested in attending, can contact my general manager in London for more information. We also offer scholarships for talented young musicians who may not be able afford to go.
PS: What is your view of the music industry today, having seen it develop over the last three decades?
PJ: I have to say that I feel a great deal of concern for young musicians, who suddenly find themselves thrust into this hungry machine after winning a competition, for example. When I started working professionally, I was only 18, I had no preparation of what was in store for me, and no one really helped to guide me through the intricacies of such a busy and yet lonely life. The pressure can be enormous, and if a person does not have strong survival skills, it can crush one ruthlessly.
What I see in the industry today is quick desire to promote new rising stars, but without any consideration for long term development or focus on a gradual and organic career development. Young people play pieces that can only be understood after one has been through vicissitudes of life, or experienced emotional pain, and explore a full gamut of human emotion. Of course, it is all personal and I am not saying that a young person cannot understand a late Beethoven sonata, but these cases are rare. Our young musicians should be playing music by composers who were themselves young when they wrote them, and hone their skills on the stalwarts of classical music—Mozart, Haydn, Bach, Clementi, and so on. Haydn, I think, it hugely underestimated and should be performed more often.
PS: So welcome to Sweden and to Gothenburg!
PJ: I look forward to playing the programme I carefully put together, which features some pieces I know very well, some that I have always wanted to play but didn’t have the chance to, and to celebrating the Debussy year in a city where I always feel so welcome.