Where to start? In few ways, the Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires is comparable to other world-renowned pianists. Well, she made dozens of CDs. Toured (and tours) the world. She is renowned for her poetic interpretations of Chopin, her eloquent Schubert, clear Mozart. But what other master pianist is also a mother of six children, two of whom have been adopted? Was raised by a Buddhist grandfather and devoured Krishnamurti’s oeuvre himself? Did the dream of a music pedagogical eco-farm go bankrupt? Does she wear flat shoes and spiky hair because it makes her feel more comfortable?
Her deviant life course makes it difficult to think of what questions you would like to ask her. Anyway, other questions. Maria João Pires (77) is in Switzerland this week – next to Portugal her second home country – where she is staying with one of her four daughters. In the morning she took one of her daily walks, now it’s time for a phone call – with dogs barking and family whistling in the background.
You are an avowed silence lover. Where do you look for it?
“Silence is where ideas arise, where you become aware of yourself, what is going well and what is not, what you want to change, and so on. Silence feeds reflection. For me it is not only an external circumstance, you can also create silence within yourself.
“I do everything I can. Meditation, walks, being in the green for at least an hour… Because I live on a farm in both Portugal and Switzerland, it’s relatively easy. When I travel I adapt, then I look for the peace within myself. That is not a merit, I feel it as a primary need. Peace with my own existence also depends on it.”
You are 77. Your (often planned) farewell to the stage has always ‘failed’. What keeps you going?
“It’s double. I don’t like the stage, but I do need the variety, the interaction. I have never found an alternative that gives me the same sense of development as concerts. And I’m not referring to my development as a pianist, because I’m getting older and playing worse than ever. I lose expressiveness, technical abilities. That doesn’t bother me, it just makes me a little sad sometimes. But luckily, especially when you get older, you gain new insights, especially during concerts. And those insights give me the feeling that I am capable of playing such a piece. That’s the goal, I think. Deem yourself capable. Not as an ‘interpreter’ of the music, but as someone who knows, who understands what the composer has meant.”
A heartfelt ode to maturity: rare.
“Yes. Yes, thank you! It bothers me that perfection and youth are seen as blissful. I’ve fallen prey to it often enough myself. Then I would have a blackout or played wrong fingering and was overcome with extreme shame. While I actually think that such a mistake means nothing. One mistake, now what?
“My main goal in this phase of life is to tell my own story without fear, in and outside the music. But I’ll be honest, it’s hard. In music I miss room for failure, outside it for cross-thinking. While I personally think that our humanity is about that. What could be better than being framed and free? I say consciously framed, because I’m not arguing for egocentrism: there are always limitations to your freedom, and that’s what makes it interesting. Also as a musician: your creativity moves within the frame of the score. But enjoying that freedom, there were certainly better times before that than the current ones. We live in a world that values the material more than the spiritual. Most people are still out of touch with their natural source; the playful, natural, imaginative. They avoid themselves, essentially. That depresses me. And many with me, I think. This is not a bright, not a happy time.”
I’m getting older and playing worse than ever. That doesn’t bother me, it just makes me a little sad sometimes
When do you feel light and cheerful?
“When I am with my family, and when I do social work. Singing with children, for example, makes me very happy. But not everything can be done at once. Certainly not at my age. As you approach eighty, you have to take more time for everything. Also for yourself. I feel healthy and I invest in that: going to bed early, doing exercises, eating healthy. I want to give concerts for another two years, then no more. Then I hope to have time for social work again. My own children are grown, but I also have nine grandchildren. If I no longer give concerts, family and social activities can be combined well, I think.”
I never understood how besides a world career raising children.
“Hotels, halls, travel, being exhausted and starting over. It was impossible, especially after the death of my mother, who helped a lot at first. I’ve been completely screwed up on stage life for a few years. In retrospect I see: I was just exhausted.”
When I listen to your playing I often think ‘why piano’? You sing when you play. Wouldn’t a ‘sound-making’ instrument such as violin or cello have been more appropriate?
“Of course, I don’t like the modern piano at all. But when I was 3 years old, there was nothing else. My favorites are the options you mention: instruments that sing and the human voice. I just don’t have the talent for that. When I was 35 I tried to learn to play the cello, but it was frustrating. Before you are technically so good that you can even express anything, you are years further. While as a young child you learn all these technical things in a playful way. So I look for a singing sound on the piano. But it remains an unsuitable instrument for me. My small hands were always a problem. The piano is a monster to me. But I don’t fight it anymore.”
A next life as a singer then?
“No, in the next life I will certainly no longer be on a stage. But amateur singer: please.”
You accompany many young musicians. That is customization. Or are there general lessons you teach them?
‘Learning lessons’, I don’t like that wording. You cannot give or buy a good lesson. I want to create an atmosphere where I am on one level with the student, and we can search and find answers together in the music. We are in conversation with the composer, who provides us with his inspiration over the centuries.
“I also always underline: stay away from the feeling that music is a competition. If you think a competition will help your career, fine, I’ll even help you. But if you ask me? Get out. Develop without a competitive element. It destroys so much, you can’t be both a musician and a warrior. If students really want to, I say: play as if you are at home.”
What most do not succeed, as you can see when you look at the Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, for example. Stress, sweat…
“Of course, because you participate to win. I then say: whoever does not win a prize, that is the lucky one. And whoever wins loses his soul.
“A life in music should be shaped by the people you meet and where they take you. Until I was 40, the word career was not even known to me. It was purely about playing with good orchestras and interesting conductors in beautiful halls. Lucky, I know now.”
A mistake, a wrong fingering, means nothing. One mistake, now what?
Speaking of careers, I just bought your complete solo recordings, 20 CDs for 53 euros. What went wrong there?
“Money is not my strong point. I didn’t do anything wrong in that area, but everything, very unfortunate haha. My son is now helping me to become more businesslike.”
Have you known ‘phases’ in your repertoire preferences, composers that you liked to play now, but did not like in the past?
“Mozart. As a child I played the sonatas. After that, not for a while, because during my studies in Germany Beethoven was considered the only master. Until I was invited to a Mozart concert once, and I rediscovered how much I enjoyed playing that music, simply magical. Then I quickly recorded everything by Mozart. Then I lost love again. And now I love Mozart again. What we talked about earlier: I find new ways. That fills me.”
On Sunday you will play Beethoven’s last piano sonata, op. 111. Does it get better when you’re old?
“Funny, I really wanted to play that job as a 16-year-old: it’s great. But my teacher forbade me to start before I was 50. That made me angry and desperate at the time, but I stuck to it. Then I turned 50, and I was way too busy. When I turned 70, I thought: now or never. And now I’m 77 and it still feels very much like I’m not done with it. And I never will be.”
CV Maria João Pires
Maria João Pires (1944) is a Portuguese pianist.
1947 Starts playing the piano.
1950 First concerts for the public.
1960 Study in above Munich and Hanover.
1970 Wins Beethoven200 Competition in Brussels.
1978 Edison for Mozart Sonatas.
1978-1982 Stage break (no concerts).
1987-1990 Successful (debut) concerts in London, Paris, New York and Amsterdam.
1989 Exclusive CD contract with Deutsche Grammophon.
1996 Concertgebouw Orchestra tour.
1999 Founds music education farm Belgais in Portugal, which goes bankrupt (Roel van Dalen made it a documentary over).
1999 Plays in Concertgebouw lunch concert conducted by R. Chailly, but expect a different concert than on the program. Great Youtube registration this bizarre moment of utter despair spread all over the world.
2012 Start choirs for underprivileged children in Belgium.
2020 Classic FM chooses Pires as one of the 25 greatest pianists of all time.
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A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 25 November 2021 A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of 25 November 2021