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An interview with the pianist and the composer Valentin Gheorghiu
On March 21st, Valentin Gheorghiu turns 90 and is celebrated at Radio Romania Musical within the shows Arpeggio and Polifonii.
I would like you to tell me a few things about the Gregorian Chant. How did the love for organ music and for the instrument itself appeared?
It didn't appear out of the blue. I've been fond of the organ since forever.
Still, there must have been a begining!
Yes. I used to like the organ because of those chords... The organ is an instrument for harmony. You can't play Liszt on an organ. But Bach... The whole world knows. So, the organ has always had a sound that has caught my fancy, it's connected to what I heard - consonant chords.
It was like in chromatic writing.
Yes. At one point I had the possibility to play, and I played the organ together with the parishioners choir - although a very poorly prepared one - for five years, every Sunday at St. Iosif Church. Back then I used to be absorbed by the silence of the church, of the faith, of the solitude, and of the organ's music, and it was then when I composed more for the church, for the choir and for the organ. This piece, Gregorian Chant, I composed it so it can be listened to, performed by a talented choir and to enjoy it; this occasion only came up after 50 years.
You were very patient. But what actually shocks and impresses me at the same time while listening to this score is the complexity of the sound and, of course, of the harmony. Did you really want a moment of silence? Back then you were very young.
Youth and inner hearing go together, you know; the older you get, the more deaf you become. For the time being I can still hear, and fortunately I can still see too and, therefore play. I do enjoy listening to it even now, but it couldn't be continued in this style, as later, the one who decided to compose for the organ was thought of as mystic.
We are talking about the '50s.
Yes, when I was young too.....and I performed with Jora. It was scheduled maestro Jora with The Third Symphony by Saint Saens. And it was written in an article: "Why is Gheorghiu trying to perform the mystical piece of Saint-Saens. Too bad for him. He is a talented composer." And this was only because it had a few chords.
Still, the first attempts at composition came from chamber music, and the quartet you performed at the "Enescu" Composition Contest in 1946 was extremly appreciated by the great composer.
Extremly appreciated.... I don't know about that, as I wasn't there, but the fact that Mastro Jora.... it was named the "George Enescu" Prize and the money was from maestro Enescu" donation. The fact that I know he had seen this score makes me very proud. He must have enjoyed it, as I was awarded 1st mention, as for me it was, at 17, my first success.
And was it after that moment that you composed Piano Sonata or the Trio?
Yes, the Trio, a cello sonata, a piano sonata and so on. I enjoyed composing, even without being able to hear. Maybe this is the reason I composed because if I had been able to hear, I wouldn't have continued composing, and I have been composing ever since. I have always loved music and if it hadn't have been for music, I have no idea what else I would have done in life!
Did you have any particular performers in mind for the Piano Trio? You were there when the score was composed, you have seen your brother's technical skills and have you already been friends with Radu Aldulescu?
You're going to laugh… I remember it perfectly! It was some time in 1948 and I received a phone call from the radio, and we were asked if they can find in our repertoire a Trio for piano, violin and cello by Arensky. When we denied having it, they said they were interested in this piece, too. And then, me, my friend Aldulescu and Ștefan started learning this Arensky Trio. By performing the Arenski Trio we realised how wonderful chamber music was. I have composed a lot of chamber music in my life. I also performed this trio in Prague, Strasbourg and many other cities. While performing together I decided to compose something myself and just like that, in a month, I composed something and by the next year we were already invited at the Prague Festival.
There were many celebrities there, including Richter and many others. We performed the trio and they enjoyed it so much that I was asked by Supraphor to record a disc - and I recorded it with Aldulescu and Ștefan in Prague in '53. So I can boast about this. I was a great success, especially because it was Romanian music written without any words - simple Romanian music from the beginning - they didn't have anything like this. It was written very professionally. I performed this trio later on during the festival at Mozarteum, in Salzburg, and I received critics after this concert, praising me. And one of the critics even said he had really enjoyed the fact the piece is written in the A key, so we can already talk about real modernism.
You have never believed in modernism and you have kept a constant line your entire life. What was your real constant?
I can't say I've never believed in modernism, but I trusted the modernism of the one who composes because you cannot simply take modernism and insert it there without knowing how everything sounds, I could have never done anything like that as I have always based myself on what I had heard inside. I had an inner ear, which I reckon is necessary. This was what made me be remarked by Maestro Enescu. He took me aside so I couldn't see what I was doing and he took each finger and pressed them to the piano keys and I had to say what notes they were. I was six. This was why I composed, otherwise one cannot compose some musical intervals, or architectural plans, as they do now.
So you have never agreed the obvious emotional effects of the dramaturgy of a musical piece. The piece has to be logically composed, must make general dramaturgical sense, am I right?
It must have feeling, it must express something. You must transmit something which can be understood by the person who listens to it and enjoys it.
Maestro Gheorghiu, you have covered an impressive piano literature. Was it difficult for you to compose a piano Sonata?
It is difficult to say. No. Why? I have a pianist inside of me, but to be a different sonata, a current one and that doesn't repeat itself, not to resemble a Rachmaninov one, it is a bit difficult. It is a very elevated form of sonata, which I've always respected. And the trio - the same, exactly like they wrote the classical sonata - with a development section, with…
And what period in your life can we associate this piano sonata with?
The first part of this piano sonata is a pastoral one, like a stream, like a moto perpetuo of sixteenth notes. You will see. These are long phrases, too. Very well composed. The sonata is composed in E, the development portion starts in Eb, something very uncommon for a classical-romantic sonata. In the second part we have a scherzo, an amusing one. The third part is the only part that is more profound, a little dramatic even. And the final part play is a geamparal, which is actually a Dobrogean dance with seven sixteenths. It is played a bit faster, and the recording was made at the studio in Munich, where the piano sounds extremely good and very well-tuned.
Throughout your career as a pianist and composer, have you ever had your part of unpleasant surprises regarding your instrument?
I might say it was the opposite. I experienced very happy moments, very few though, when I performed on very good pianos. Because, in general, we performed on very old pianos. We performed, we even formed orchestras. All the orchestras that were formed here, in the country, in Oradea, Arad, Ploiești, we tried to draw children's attention to come to rehearsals made especially for them, while the audience was there. And this is what we should do now; we should be more involved in drawing people's attention to classical music, as we cannot dance all the time on Manele in the street. We must continue growing ourselves. And then, some pianos, were indeed catastrophic.
I was once asked by someone from the radio how come I had such a gentle voice and so on... I will tell you how! I performed on bad pianos and I tried to perform as well as I could to make the audience stay. And when I perform on a good piano I have the impression that it plays by itself. This is the feeling I get after a life time of struggle. We do not have a Stradivarius, it costs a fortune. A piano is as expensive as a good car is. So we could reclaim more pianos and less Stradivariuses, but......
Did you get the chance to perform the Piano Concerto on a good piano?
Yes, I recorded it on a Bayerische Rundfunk, together with the Munich Orchestra... those are instruments play themselves. But the composition remains the same. Had the composition been poor, the recording would have been bad, too. The concerto is a good one, everybody enjoyed it; I have performed it many times abroad too, in Moscow, Prague, Paris. It was a great success everywhere I had performed it.
What kind of scores have you got on your desk right now?
Do you mean, mine?
I am referring to new compositions.
Compositions....yes, I do have some. Eminescu is such a great poet we have got, and I dare not to say to the world that I composed a bigger piece, on his poem, Mai am un singur dor. I am ashamed to say this as Eminescu, our great poet, does not need the help of music. And yet, when I listen to such tangos written for Eminescu's music, I consider it is a pity for those lines, for such thoughts and such a genius who, with Enescu..... They are actually put on the same score together.
Could you please talk a bit about your lessons with Jora, your composition lessons... how did you find Jora as a teacher? Was he strict? How did Jora encourage you?
I have more than appreciation for Maestro Jora, Maestro Enescu and Miss Erbiceanu. Jora loved all those he felt loved him back and he was more than a friend to all of them. He helped me a lot during his life. He tutored me and my brother for free ever since we arrived in Galati, as children because we wanted to study at the Royal Academy of Music and Drama. Mastero Jura was there and he asked us to come to him so he could tutor us for free. He tutored us twice a week, ever since we were children, ever since we were 8, for the rest of his life, for free. And so did Mrs Erbiceanu; not only it was all for free but we felt they put soul in all they gave us. It is difficult for me to find the right words but I am sure it can be sensed in the tone of my voice. And Enescu... he was a rare man....I do not have enough words to praise him.
How could you now define talent after such a vast life experience?
A very long experience, but not too long... Talent is given to you by God. It is difficult to explain. But just as Enescu used to say "to be a great artist or composer, one must have 10% talent and 90% work" ; so except for the talent you must work every day, you cannot take a break.
When on holiday.
You do need holidays, yes. You need like 2-3 weeks before returning to music again, otherwise you get bored. It is not an ordeal. To compose music is a joy, for you, as you get the chance to be among the vibrations of so many geniuses and takes you to different spheres, too. I am talking about Beethoven and the likes of him, and of Enescu, who we appreciate, but we still have to wait for a few years to pass.
When you play the piano for your own pleasure, which is your favourite play? To get into the groove or.....
Try gamuts... I've been playing scales all my life, they actually saved me. In 85 years, I have never had any problems with my fingers, my joints, or muscle cramps, those are actually the pianists' maladies. If I can still perform, with the rheumatism I do not have yet, that means I did many gamuts. Of course, I start with the piece I need to perform, I cannot start performing a Dvorak piece and then move to a Bach coral, it does not work like this. I actually rehearse what I need to perform in my next performance.
How do you relax when you are not at your piano, in front of the keyboard?
It's hard to say. It depends on the age, too. Of course I enjoy adventure. In general, I do not like talking about myself. You made me talk, which is not necessarily a good thing. I do not like talking about myself as it is always something like "I did, I will do"... and I do not like this. I am in a way, a shy person.
Translated by Ghencea Alexandra,
1st year, Master MTTLC, University of Bucharest