Alban's Blog

Composer and Conductor

Are composers the best performers of their own works? “Children’s Corner” played by Debussy himself – is that the way he wanted it played (it sounds a bit drunk and crazy to tell yout he truth)? Prokofiev or Shostakovich playing their own piano concerti – the ideal performances everybody should imitate? How about Rachmaninov, truly one of the greatest pianists ever, maybe more pianist than composer? Or the famous conducting-composers like Stravinsky, Mahler (are there any recordings of this genius?) or Bernstein – how free can they be with their own works?

Somebody once told me that Rachmaninov was “too embarrassed” to give justice to his own works. Mh, to me his recordings sound noble, distinguished and very beautiful, not over the top and extremely tasteful apart from an amazing technical perfection – if I was still a pianist I wouldn’t mind playing his music like this God himself, but obviously there are many other ways to look at one score. But should we take the interpretation of the composer into account, just because at some point he wrote the piece?

This afternoon I played the “Reflections on Narcissus” by Matthias Pintscher at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra under the composer himself. Yes, Matthias Pintscher, young German composer, is making a name as a conductor, and after today’s concert I am quite convinced that he will go far. A bit more than two years ago we had our first collaboration on that rather magnificent and difficult concerto, and his development is outstanding. Already in November 2007 (with the Hamburg Philharmonic) he charmed the orchestra and knew what he was doing, but I wasn’t fully convinced of him as a conductor. Excellent musician, but the mechanics weren’t all there. Last May we performed together in Melbourne, already much better, and today – well, I am still impressed, sitting in my plane back home to Berlin.

It was a huge program, starting with Alborada by Ravel followed by his concerto, after intermission “Rituelle” by Boulez, and after another little break “Iberia” by Debussy. Matthias looked highly comfortable and convincing, and the result in the hall (I listened to the last two thirds) was indeed excellent, the audience listened in breathless silence. But back to my old question: how about his own piece? In our first collaboration he didn’t really seem so sure of what he wanted, reacted a bit surprised about my wish to actually follow the (I think excellent) metronome markings he had put into the score.

It is one of the most amazing tasks to put the music you (the composer) hear in your head on sheets of paper, to extract  something unspeakable in some more or less secretiv codes of little black spots onto five parallel lines. To play it would be the easy part – you would think. Yes, it is the easier part, but in my humble opinion and modest experience I dare say that composers are in no advantage over other performers in doing so. Because when they perform their own works, even as the creator, they are now the performer with all the difficulties a performer faces: the resistance of the instrument (technical limitations), the orchestra, the circumstances in general. You can ask any musician to sing a certain phrase to you. As soon as he or she is at his/her instrument and plays the same phrase, most likely it will be rather different. Same for the composer who wrote the phrase maybe 10 years earlier; having to express it now while playing it on an instrument, or even worse, make other people do it by the “sign-language” of a conductor – oh, this is really hard. To have an idea in your head about how something could or should be and to actually bring it out are two very different things.
Today, four performances later of the same piece, Matthias’ and my approach completely changed, we both discovered this piece for us in a new and unique way, as it is normal for any collaboration between musicians. The nice thing about Matthias is that he does not pretend to know it all. While being very self-confident, he is open for criticism and suggestions, and happy to be a real performer who searches for the deeper meaning in any given piece, even one written by himself.

The day before I arrived in Hilversum for the first rehearsal I received the great news, that we will perform this piece again beginning of November with a very nice American orchestra. Can’t wait for that one, because today I felt as at home with the work as I like to feel on stage, inspite of it being live-broadcasted in various countries – I wasn’t afraid of any memory-slips or black-outs, it just felt like the most natural thing to do. I’ve been told one still can listen to the piece on the internet (, but I couldn’t find it. Good luck, in case you are interested 🙂


  • Tim Poulus

    To me, it was a fabulous experience. I sat quite close to the platform and was completely blown away by the performance. And playing from memory! Impressive. Thanks very much!


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