Saleem Ashkar on completing his first Beethoven Sonata cycle and what’s coming next

Pianist Saleem Ashkar speaks to Charlotte Gardner on the eve of the last performance in his complete Beethoven Sonata cycle at Sage Gateshead about how the cycle has been for him, and his upcoming cycles in Berlin, Israel, Osnabrück and Prague. 

So, here we are again! It was March 2014 when I last interviewed you, and you’d just begun your Beethoven Sonata cycle at Sage Gateshead with a richly contrasting programme of Nos. 3, 5 and 13, rounded off with the “Moonlight”. Now, two and a half years later, you’re about to play the last recital of the series. What’s on your final programme?
In the second half I will be playing the monumental “Hammerklavier”, and in the first half two smaller sonatas. Firstly, the F sharp major, No.24, which is so poetic, and then the G major, No.25, which is about as playful as it gets. So it’s a beautifully contrasting programme, and it feels very right to be finishing the cycle with “Hammerklavier”.

How has the cycle been for you?
It has been amazing! On a personal level, the experience of one venue eight times is just wonderful and quite different to your usual concert experience, because you really have the sense of building a connection with a certain audience. When I go to The Sage now I recognise faces in the audience who have come often, and that’s very satisfying. Then, it has also been incredibly enriching on an artistic level, because if I think back to the first recitals I prepared and compare them with the later ones, my understanding of Beethoven’s language and content has grown enormously.

In what ways has it grown?
Well, with the language you develop an eye for what is truly inventive and what is craft. There’s also the process of progressively following a composer’s style, seeing what is developing and what remains constant; it’s amazing to see on the one hand how much development and expansion is happening, and on the other hand how certain impulses are always there, such as how certain tonalities trigger something in him, or how he makes little textural changes right before structural changes. It’s only when you’re immersed in a cycle that you begin to notice that such things are not just in one piece, and that there’s a certain thought process behind them, and as a result you really grow into the depth of his language and of his music. Then, completely aside from the analytical, I would say that my love for Beethoven has grown to become personal.

It was pretty personal before, I thought.
It was very personal before, but now that he’s been such a part of my life for two and a half years it has become even more so. For example, for me the “Hammerklavier” is by no means simply a theoretical Everest but instead a piece that breathes, dances, and bleeds. It even has humour! Think of the final movement, where after this huge struggle, expressed in complete polyphonic madness, it ends with one line. It is so life-affirmative, and in a way laughing at it all. So, I feel it and love it as a hugely human and personal piece.

Looking forward, the coming year is looking like nothing less than a Beethoven crescendo, with you performing complete Beethoven Sonata cycles in Berlin, Osnabrück and Prague next season, and also this summer in Israel. How did all this come about?
After The Sage I very much wanted to do the cycle again, but this time over the course of just one season, and the Konzerthaus Berlin wanted to promote it, as did Osnabrück’s Morgenland Festival. Then the decision to do it in Israel came very much from a personal urge to go back and do this life’s work at home rather than just abroad, so to speak.

So, next came the question of how to structure the cycle, because I wanted to do more than just play the pieces; I felt that there were contexts and possible connotations to be drawn, and I was curious to explore and discuss them, so slowly and accumulatively I began to think about how I could structure the cycle in a way that could allow for this. For instance, I discovered that Mendelssohn was absolutely fascinated by any kind of anecdote about Beethoven, and that as a conductor he programmed Beethoven and Mozart the most. This in turn led me to some contemporary reviews of one particular Beethoven concert he had conducted, and whilst Schumann’s review declared that he had given the greatest Beethoven interpretation possible, some lesser critics claimed that he couldn’t possibly understand the great German genius, Beethoven. And I thought, this is fantastic, because on the one side you see Mendelssohn’s strong identification with Beethoven, but on the other side you see a perception about Mendelssohn that is nationalistically tainted. I then also discovered which sonatas of Beethoven’s Mendelssohn particularly loved, which include the “Moonlight”. And the result of all this is that one of the eight recitals will be devoted to playing and discussing Mendelssohn’s Beethoven, which we will then use as a springboard for discussing music and identity in general.

So that’s how it grew, bit by bit, into not only eight recitals but eight concepts and intellectual contexts. Another evening we’ll look at the development of the piano in the context of the dawn of the industrial age and its effect on the composer, and on another we’ll deal with the influence of folk music. And I’m so, so pleased about all of this; many of the topics being discussed are things I’ve dealt with and been curious about all my life, so to now get the chance to combine them all, whilst playing Beethoven, feels like going to Disneyland!

You’re also making eight small documentaries to preface each of the European recitals.
Yes, these will be produced by Maria Stodtmeier from Accentus Music, and in them I will be discussing the various topics with experts and colleagues. The documentary team are also following me for the Israel cycle which begins in June, so that we can use relevant footage from the cultural interactions there, too. That should be interesting, because although the Israel cycle also consists of eight concerts, they’re spread all over the country, and not just in the obvious concert venues, because I want to examine just how universal this music really is. For instance, I’m playing one recital in a very old church in Jerusalem, and another in an Islamic university in the North. And I should say that I’m not planning clichés here; by no means is it a foregone conclusion that this music absolutely is universal. Right now, I think that there probably are certain aspects of particularly Beethoven’s music that are indeed very immediate and that penetrate cultural barriers, but I also suspect that there are certain other aspects that require a degree of cultural initiation beforehand. So, I’m curious, and in the films I will be trying to answer these questions very honestly.

Speaking of interesting venues, you’ve chosen some interesting ones for the Berlin recitals too, haven’t you?
Yes, because although the Konzerthaus Berlin will be promoting the cycle, we decided it would be interesting to perform some of the concerts in certain other venues around Berlin. For example, the Mendelssohn family had a villa in Berlin which now has a beautiful recital space, so the Mendelssohn evening will be performed there. Another recital will be at the by-then newly opened Pierre Boulez Hall.

Moving onto other projects, this year you are touring with the Bamberger Symphoniker and Christoph Eschenbach. You’ve just performed Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto at the Royal Opera House in Muscat, Oman with the orchestra, who were appearing in the Arab world for the first time. How was that?
Yes, one concert we’ve just done was at the Royal Opera House in Muscat, Oman, and Oman itself was a wonderful surprise; the audience were clearly neither a tourist nor even an event audience, and the actual Opera House is magnificent; they’ve got the best of western culture meeting the best of eastern culture there, and I think that’s wonderful. We need more of that. And now I’m so looking forward to reconnecting with the orchestra and Eschenbach again in Italy later this year.

If there’s another running theme as we look at your concert schedule, then it’s the number of return visits. Obviously the Beethoven cycles are an extreme example of this, but by now you’re returning to places such as Hamburg, Firenze, Ottowa and Melbourne for the third or fourth time. Is this something that you’re very aware of, and are such return visits important to you?
Well, it’s a great privilege to have reached the stage in my career where I am returning to places for the third or fourth time, and yes, I really relish this sense of continuity because it changes the whole experience. It becomes less and less about you, less about the concert as an event, and instead more about an ongoing relationship in which the music is at the centre.

There is of course one notable new venue next season, though, namely your Wigmore Hall debut next May.
Yes! I’m looking forward to that. It’s an iconic hall of course, and it’s nice to be hopefully starting a new relationship.

What’s on your programme there?
Surprise surprise, Beethoven! Simply because it’s my Beethoven cycle year and, much as I will still be branching out from Beethoven and doing a lot of concerti over those twelve months, a lot of other recitals will be heavily, if not always completely, influenced by the cycle.

Then, if everything else weren’t enough you also have a new educational venture up your sleeve.
Yes, and this is something very important to me. I’m starting a musical academy in Berlin, modeled on the El Sistema programme, for a combination of refugee children who have arrived in Germany without their parents, and immigrant children in Berlin. I just feel that I’m at the stage in my life and career where I want to be involved with life on a bigger scale, and obviously in these times there is also a genuine need. Playing in Caracas last year with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela helped in inspiring me, because I saw the fantastic results they have there. So, I’m putting it together with friends and colleagues, and we open in September.

Perhaps as we close we could remain with the idea of music intertwined with humanity – something your new academy seems to represent – but return with it to Beethoven. What is it about him and his music that has drawn you in to what is a longstanding, and now even more intense, relationship?
I would say it’s the endless depth; the fact that it always feels deeper and bigger than you, with no sense of a certain bottom you can arrive at. Of course this is also true for Brahms and Mozart and all the great composers, but I think with Beethoven there is also a range of expression that is really enormous. Honestly though, I think it’s very difficult to put the sense of affinity one has into words. I actually also feel a great sense of affinity with Brahms and Schumann, but you never really know why. Something just feels right, and it talks simply and directly into your heart.

Saleem gives his final performance in his Sage Gateshead Beethoven Sonata cycle on Sunday 22 May 2016. Find out more and buy tickets here

His Beethoven Sonata cycle in Israel takes place from 3 to 28 June 2016, and the cycles in Osnabrück, Prague and Berlin begin on 3, 5 and 22 September respectively. 

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