Burkard Schliessmann is a German classical pianist and concert artist with an active international career.
Talkings about Chopin and Schumann
Fanfare - The Magazin for Serious Record Collectors, USA, May/June 2010, Volume 33, Number 5, pages 101—106. "Cannons Camouflaged by Flowers": Burkard Schliessmann Talks about Chopin. By Peter J. Rabinowitz
- Herz, Thalberg, Heller, Felicien David and others were great virtuosos of their time, more famous than Chopin himself. They had their own personal styles, but the essence of their music was time-bound, nothing that could occupy generations after them. Chopin, in contrast, was someone special, someone who was completely different from all other artists, composers, and pianists. So too with his style. As a result, the aesthetic in approaching Chopin is distinctive: interpreting his music is the most difficult of all. For me personally, it’s the crowning of playing piano. Bach, Mozart, Chopin: these are the three who definitely created musical art in an all-embracing and overwhelming way.
- Chopin’s biography remains obscure. He withheld himself all his life, in diametrical contrast to the openness and accessibility of his contemporary Franz Liszt. Chopin always conveyed the impression of a suffering soul, not to say a martyr, almost as if this was to nourish or even underpin his inspiration. Striving for crystalline perfection, he never ventured outside his own domain. You know, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is said to have given, as a child, “martyr” as his chosen career. Chopin must have shared this cult of the ‘Pater dolorosus.’
- To approach Chopin, you have to separate him completely from Schumann. Schumann admired Chopin very much and saw him as friend, but - what only few people know - Chopin himself had much less interest in and esteem for Schumann. In detail: Schumann’s works follow on from a transitional period determined by the successors of Viennese Classicism, particularly Beethoven. Just as the sons of Bach espoused the ‘galant,’ ornamented style of their generation, so the pupils of Mozart and Beethoven - Hummel, Ries, Czerny, Moscheles - took pains to compensate for a thinner musical substance with increased instrumental brilliance and thus prepared the ground for the golden age of the piano and the era of the Romantic virtuoso. Among the multitude of composers writing for the piano at that time, only two - Weber and Schubert - stand out as original creative forces.
- The trends that produced Schumann’s early piano works started out not so much from Weber’s refined brilliance as from Schubert’s more intimate and deeply soul-searching idiom. His creative imagination took him well beyond the harmonic sequences known until his time. He looked at the fugues and canons of earlier composers and discovered in them a Romantic principle. In the interweaving of the voices, the essence of counterpoint found its parallel in the mysterious relationships between the human psyche and exterior phenomena, which Schumann felt impelled to express. Schubert’s broad melodic lyricism has often been contrasted with Schumann’s terse, often quickly repeated motifs, and by comparison Schumann is often erroneously seen as short-winded. Yet it is precisely with these short melodic formulae that he shone his searchlight into the previously unplumbed depths of the human psyche. With them, in a complex canonic web, he wove a dense tissue of sound capable of taking in and reflecting back all the poetical character present. His actual melodies rarely have an arioso form; his harmonic system combines subtle chromatic progressions, suspensions, a rapid alternation of minor and major, and point d’orgue. The shape of Schumann’s scores is characterized by contrapuntal lines, and can at first seem opaque or confused. His music is frequently marked by martial dotted rhythms or dance-like triple time signatures. He loves to veil accented beats of the bar by teasingly intertwining two simultaneous voices in independent motion. This highly inde-pendent instrumental style is perfectly attuned to his own particular compositional idiom. After a period in which the piano had indulged in sensuous beauty of sound and brilliant coloration, in Schumann it again became a tool for conveying poetic monologues in musical terms.
- Undoubtedly the best language for the expression of this ‘unfathomable’ quality was music. The infinity of musical spheres of expression, independent of rationality, is often perceived as ‘unfathomable’ by listeners too. The formal principles of order seem to lie hidden deeper in this art than in others. In the twentieth century the great creative minds, when faced with Romantic artistic urges running riot which they believe must be overcome, or feel they have succeeded in overcoming, have stressed the importance of existing rules; they have followed traditional forms, or else, in their search for new ways to connect, have found and set up new formula-tions and principles. The young Schumann’s creative path led in the opposite direction, from classical forms, however deeply revered, to the freedom of subjective self-expression.
- This is an absolute deep contrast to Chopin, who found himself favoring a classical form of musical essence. He needs to bring nothing in from outside, the music is nearly ‘absolute.’
- Schumann’s Kreisleriana: No other cycle among Schumann’s great works so perfectly expresses the sensation of dark nocturnal things, of chaos, lurking in the background. The last piece of this collection shows this particularly well. Like skeletons on horseback, shadowy figures flit before us in a soft, sustained rhythm; in the middle section horn-calls enliven the scene with visions of knightly strength and nobility, but at the end the figures vanish ghost - like into night and mystery. Looking into the first volume of Schumann’s diaries we find ‘Midnight Piece,’ a prose passage which provides moving, indeed alarming evidence of his perilously depressive mental state. It contains elements of a highly personal kind which memorably convey the particular quality of his imagination, mortally cold and never far from visions of death. It could have served perfectly as a model for the final, disturbing piece in the Kreisleriana set.
- Such abstruse ideas are totally alien to Chopin. The Romantic interweaving of music and literature that was characteristic of Schumann and Liszt was a negligible source of inspiration. Schumann dedicated Kreisleriana to Chopin, but in fact Chopin’s consciousness for classical strength and form had nothing in common with the exalted, torn, eccentric and confused character of the work.
- Yet in a relatively short creative life of twenty years or so, Chopin redrew the boundaries of Romantic music, and his self-imposed restriction to the 88 keys of the piano keyboard sublimated nothing less than the aesthetic essence of piano music. It was his total identification with the instrument which, in its radical regeneration of the lyric and the dramatic, fantasy and passion and their unique fusion, shaped a tonal language which united an aristocratic sense of style and formal Classical training and intuition with an ascetic rigor. Chopin’s precisely marshaled trains of thought permitted no experiments, and so he did not ‘wander about’ within his stylistic points of reference as Scriabin was to do. Chopin’s works may seem light and improvisatory, but they are planned in meticulous details, exactly and well calculated.
- Ascetic rigor? This doesn’t mean something like ‘renounce’ or even a ‘lack’ of something. No, it means, in philosophical manner (and especially in the historic Greek sense of ‘Askesis’), a special kind of internal yearning, a special power wherein, despite all depressions, defeats, and failures you develop a new power to ‘keep’ to something, to create something. It’s something like an obsession. Bach, Mozart, Schubert, they all (and their oeuvre) are filled from this phenomenon, and it’s this spirit which keeps this music so vivid and alive – and fashioned for all times and generations.
- I’m very interested in the ‘Culture of Interpretation.’ I’m convinced that each great artist has his own personal style, but it is his artistic responsibility in developing this style to respond other interpretations, either prior or at the same time. I’m convinced that Rubinstein would have presented us another Chopin if Cortot had not existed. Cortot presented very romantic Chopin interpretations - really masterly, outstanding, but confused. Rubinstein’s immediate answer was a very classical Chopin. He was really the first to point out the classical line and structure in his oeuvre.
- Artistic responsibility? (Schliessmann answers using Bach performance as his example): After the rediscovery of Bach by Mendelssohn, Bach was interpreted in a very romantic style. This had nothing to do with Bach. Leopold Stokowski made arrangements for orchestra. O.K., the public had a chance to know the works, but it also had nothing to do with Bach. So Tureck and Gould - despite their substantial differences - came and made something completely radical. Only in this way was there a chance to ‘correct’ the ‘picture’ of interpretation and move in the right direction.
- My priority has been to bring out Chopin as an aspect of human realism ...
- The things that are most important to me in such a project are perfectionism and truth. Truth of interpretation, truth of sound, truth of the instrument, truth of the hall, truth lastly of all. This means ‘Artistic Integrity’ to me.
Talkings on Bach
Fanfare - The Magazin for Serious Record Collectors, USA, January/February 2008, Volume 31, Number 3, pages 36—42. "Burkard Schliessmann Articulates His Approach to Bach". By James Reel
- The Goldberg Variations have always enjoyed a special status, with pianists regarding them as a touchstone of their technical and interpretative powers. At stake are the ability to light up the work from within, a tightrope walk that at the same time describes a vast circle, starting out and returning to a state of apotheotic stillness, the ability to find one’s bearings within a particular concentration of inner and outer complexity, an inner and outer coherence and homogeneity that are all-embracing, the ability, finally, to produce an explosion of inner cells by reduced means and, hence, a particular sensitivity, sinewy tension, and color. The performer must play a game with particular devices, finding solutions to the problems posed by the work not in octave doublings and other playful expedients but in a tightly structured inner rigor and order. What is demanded is a particular form of internalization, of inner and outer lyricism. It is this that makes the Goldberg Variations so unique - and so demanding.
- Already at the age of 21 I played the complete organ works of Bach - and this by memory. As a child and youngster I had been taught by one of the last master-students of the legendary Helmut Walcha, and I completely had been affected by this style of insight into Bach and the internal structures. This method of regarding the independent coherence of all the voices gave me a special comprehension of Bach and his philosophy. Lastly one can say that I have been growing up with Bach, even to this day. If you understand the free organ works (preludes, toccatas, fugues), the chorales, and especially the trio sonatas, you have an insight into Bach that others don’t have. Especially the soloistic and independent leadings of the three voices of the trio sonatas is artistically the major aim of an organist; and already the Orgelbüchlein, the part 5 of the Peters Edition, shows Bach in all his structural and emotional effects. Albert Schweitzer described the Orgelbüchlein as something where the tonal speech of Bach is unbeatable. The comprehension of the organ-Bach is an understanding of the counterpoint and the polyphonic structures, and the coherence of Bach himself.
- As we all know, the singularity in the art of Bach is the fusion of both levels and lines, the horizontal and vertical line. It’s a real wonder to see that the creation and forming of the horizontal line, the polyphonic structure, also results in this perfect, beautiful vertical line, the harmonic line. As we also know, Bach already used the full harmonic range and radius as no composer before him. My artistic aim of course is to point out the horizontal line in soloistic manner in a dynamically elastic way, but in the same breath to form the harmonic line in a bright field of color (I would call it “harmonic articulation”), to achieve a particular atmosphere of emotions and moods, drama, velocity, vividness, and so on. As we can imagine, these are high demands ...
- Yes, I’m profoundly a representative of the great hypervirtuosic Romantic epoch. But as already mentioned, my roots also go back to Bach and this special style of interpretation, where I’m also at home. In this special field of tension I also see many of the major composers and works in the Romantic tradition. It was no less than Schumann himself who said that great music finds all its combinations in Bach. Indeed, Schumann also builds up his works in polyphonic style, and even in his orchestral scores and symphonic movements he is a counterpointer. As Romantic and modern his work must have seemed to people of his era and lifetime, in main he was a classicist. That means that - and only to name one typical Romantic composer - Schumann cannot be understood without Bach.
- I’m very skeptical in approaching Bach as a clean slate. To understand Bach, one has to be at home in the whole literature of art and interpretation; one must have great experience in performing the complete literature, from Bach until the early avantgarde. I’m absolutely convinced that only by this deep knowledge one can feel the all-embracing range of effects that are compressed in Bach and his music - and how later generations have been inspired. Only by this experience you can give the Bach interpretation a new balance and tension. In the case of the Goldberg Variations we are confronted with these all-emotional effects, and I’m also skeptical whether this all-embracing range can be touched by much too young players, on harpsichord as well as on piano. Knowing the true worth of this condensed and nearly welded-in polyphonic structure and singular musical architecture, one ultimately knows that it is impossible to play with the variations, meaning to change voices, or make doublings. Then the music itself would be robbed of its true worth and sense, which can only be revealed by bringing out the embedded simplicity, which however is transformed to an electrified, heated atmosphere. One has to respect the internal strength.
- Bach really cannot be seen, understood, and interpreted from an isolated point. Bach has to be explored as part of something complete, unique, of an universe - an aspect of human reality.
- Chopin absolutely was influenced by Bach. We know that before Chopin himself performed in concert, he didn’t play anything other than Bach. His own Preludes are a reference to the Well-Tempered Clavier of Bach, and all Chopin’s students had to play Bach. In whole, Chopin admired Bach most of all composers, and it was nothing less than the Well-Tempered Clavier itself that was his musical diary. I also have said that Chopin is the crowning and climax of piano-playing. It’s something so unique, all-affecting in emotionalism, musical architecture, and structure, that all past giants are present in it: Bach and Mozart. Chopin’s elegance is so singular, that again you need much experience to convey his music in the real and original style. The question of rubato is very sensitive: It’s nothing arbitrary, but much more something well calculated and well proportioned, something that is integrated in the classical strength of form, which is constructed on the profound knowledge of the polyphonic and contrapuntal structures of Bach and Mozart. Whether the Goldbergs may relate to this question? Absolutely! I again want to mention a certain and special term: jeu perlé. Without this you can’t play Chopin, you can’t play Mozart, and lastly absolutely not the Goldbergs.
- To approach Bach, one has to realize that 100 years after Bach’s death, Bach and his music totally had been forgotten. Even while he was still alive, Bach himself believed in the polyphonic power and the resulting symmetric architectures of well-proportioned music. But this had been an artificial truth - even for him. Other composers, including his sons, already composed in another style, where they found other ideals and brought them to new solutions. The spirit of the time already had changed while Bach was still alive. A hundred years later, it was Mendelssohn who about 1850 discovered Bach anew with the performance of the St. Matthew Passion. Now a new renaissance began, and the world learned to know the greatness of Bach. To become acquainted with Bach, many transcriptions were done. But the endeavors in rediscovering Bach had been - stylistically - in a wrong direction. Among these were the orchestral transcriptions of Leopold Stokowski, and the organ interpretations of the multitalented Albert Schweitzer, who, one has to confess, had a decisive effect on the rediscovery of Bach. All performances had gone in the wrong direction: much too romantic, with a false knowledge of historic style, the wrong sound, the wrong rubato, and so on. The necessity of artists like Rosalyn Tureck and Glenn Gould - again 100 years later - has been understandable: The radicalism of Glenn Gould pointed out the real clarity and the internal explosions of the power-filled polyphony in the best way. This extreme style, called by many of his critics refrigerator interpretations, however really had been necessary to demonstrate the right strength to bring out the architecture in the right manner, which had been lost so much before. I’m convinced that the style Glenn Gould played has been the right answer. But there has been another giant: it was no less than Helmut Walcha who, also beginning in the 1950, started his legendary interpretations for the DG-Archive productions of the complete organ-work cycle on historic organs (Silbermann, Arp Schnitger). Also very classical in strength of speed and architectural proportions, he pointed out the polyphonic structures in an enlightened but moreover especially humanistic way, in a much more smooth and elegant way than Glenn Gould on the piano. Some years later it was Virgil Fox who acquainted the U.S. with tours of the complete Bach cycle, which certainly was effective in its own way, but much more modern than Walcha. The ranges of Bach interpretations had become wide, and there were the defenders of the historical style and those of the much more modern romantic style. Also the performances of the orchestral and cantata Bach had become extreme: on one side, for example, Karl Richter, who used a big and rich-toned orchestra; on the other side Helmut Rilling, whose Bach was much more historically oriented.
- I myself represent the style of a Bach who was a human being with all his heights and depths, who knew life very well. My Bach is the experience of my playing the whole literature; and filling the different voices with their own life, vitality, vividness; it’s the independent speaking-until-singing of the different voices; and lastly it’s a balance between pianistic virtuosity and something chamber-music-like.
- As so often I have pointed out, intuition is a level of the highest range. In details, I don’t have to think or to worry about the realization of my interpretation; no, it’s something that spreads out of my artistic all-compassion. Probably I have to be sorry for it, but this is my deepest artistic conviction for the rightness of an interpretation - interpretation as a summary of something unique and whole, not of a combining of details. Intuition is a level that includes all levels of emotion, intelligence, structure, and architecture. And I’m also confronted with the question of poetry and poesy, something that is so often neglected - especially in Bach.
- Let’s take a look at the 25th variation of the second part. Here Bach meets us in his highest and deepest personal and human form: it’s like in the Art of Fugue in the unfinished fugue No. 20, where Bach confronts us with his personal signature. It was he himself, who, after he had been occupied during his whole life with symbols, with numbers, with the mastering of structural and formal problems and renewals, now he saw himself confronted with a personal view into mirror. He now shows us a human being in his whole conception of life. The composer of “Come, oh sweet death” now is confessing, “Oh sweet death, how bitter is your prickle.”
In Contrapuntcus 20, bar 193, one feels this tragedy through the four chromatic tones, which are placed like a tragic breath of faith. The heartbreaking modulations from bar 210 until the end demonstrate the horror of death. By this we also are confronted in the 25th variation of the Goldbergs. Look at my time: more than nine minutes. I need this time to demonstrate this mood in its endless richness in the form of a geographic panorama. It has something of the aspect of standing still. But also another variation, the 21st, is a herald of this tonal speaking, and the 15th variation ends in visionary burning. Many want to try to see in the 25th variation the nearness of Schoenberg, and by doing this they interpret this wonderful piece in a way that is academic, dry, rigid, motionless, and colorless. I fear this is the wrong insight and approach to the real and inner content of this piece, because by this it will totally lose its three-dimensionality. I’m convinced that it’s a very subjective, elastic, and confessional piece of Bach, as is the 20th Contrapunctus of the Art of Fugue.
- The Goldberg Variations are, as explained in my booklet-text, in short, music that observes neither end nor beginning, music with neither real climax nor real resolution, music that, like Baudelaire’s lovers, “rests lightly on the wings of the unchecked wind.” Gould is referring here to the circular design of the work, a circularity whose development is polarized, inspired, and fed by more and more new energy fields. The result is a universe that in its significance resembles the alpha and omega of music in general, music that evolves out of nothing and disappears back into nothing as if in a state in which time stands still.
- The interpretation reflects my deepest respect for the major composition of the musical literature.
About the Liszt Sonata in B minor
Fanfare - The Magazin for Serious Record Collectors, USA, March/April 2004, Volume 27, Number 4, pages 44—50. "A Philosphy, Not a Profession": The Art of Burkard Schliessmann. By Peter J. Rabinowitz
- The listener with no preconceptions hears massive waves of sound breaking over him and forms from them the image of a passionate soul seeking and finding the path to faith and peace in God through a life of struggle and a vigorous pursuit of ideals. It is impossible not to hear the confessional tone of this musical language; Liszt’s sonata becomes - perhaps involuntarily on the part of the composer - an autobiographical document and one which reveals an artist in the Faustian mold in the person of its author. As in the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, the underlying religious concept which dominates and permeates the whole work demands a special kind of approach. Whereas representations of human passions and conflicts force themselves on our understanding with their powerfully suggestive coloring, this concept only becomes manifest to those souls who are prepared to soar to the same heights. The equilibrium of the sonata’s hymnic chordal motif, the transformation of its defiant battle motif (first theme) into a triumphant fanfare, and its appearance in bright, high notes on the harp, together with the devotional atmosphere of the Andante, represent a particular challenge to the listener; he is, after all, also expected to grasp the wide-spanned arcs of sound which, from the first hesitant descending octaves to the radiant final chords, build up a graphic panorama of the various stages of progress of a human spirit filled with faith and hope. As the reflection of a remarkable artistic personality worthy of deep admiration and, by extension, of the whole Romantic period, Liszt’s B minor Sonata deserves lasting recognition.
Talkings on the audience and studio recordings
Fanfare - The Magazin for Serious Record Collectors, USA, March/April 2004, Volume 27, Number 4, pages 44—50. "A Philosphy, Not a Profession": The Art of Burkard Schliessmann. By Peter J. Rabinowitz
- It’s quite an obsession to me to communicate at this moment, at this time, with my audience. I don’t only play for them, it’s something I want to give back to them. I feel how each listener in the audience is listening to me, and I feel its warmness, for example, and I give it back to the complete audience. I feel the intensity of hearing, of listening. This is like electricity, and this I give back to the audience. It’s very stimulating.
- Sometimes, I ask one, two, or more people just to sit in the audience and to listen to me with concentration as I play. It’s stimulating for me, and I try to build up a situation like that in a recital with a live audience. This helps me to play in a way that electrifies people.
About Burkard Schliessmann
- People like to pigeon-hole pianists. There are, we are routinely told, the barnstormers – romantic pianists who throw the entire force of the heart and soul into their playing – and then there is the more analytical school – those who play by intellect, everything meticulously thought out and delicately weighted. By and large it’s piffle, of course; few pianists would admit to excluding head or heart in their playing and great interpretations are forged through a combination of the two, and more besides. But German-born Burkard Schliessmann rejects such divisions more than most.
- James Inverne in his article Burkard Schliessmann in STEINWAY & SONS International Pianos Magazine 2008, p. 34
- Schliessmann arrives at his own unique interpretations, with reverence for the past (Cortot, Michelangeli, Rubinstein, and Horszowski especially). While each phrase is impeccably shaped, there is an overall thrust to each work that holds everything together. He uses rubato sparingly, and while he embraces the virtuosity in the music, it never overrides other musical content. After a half century of listening to a number of these works, I must say that Schliessmann shed new light on most of them.
- James Harrington in American Record Guide ARG, USA, issue November/December 2010, Volume 73, Number 6, p. 107
- Burkard Schliessmann is a fiercely intellectual pianist. He’s intellectual in two senses. First, he approaches this music with a tremendous store of background knowledge - knowledge about the composers and their works, about their early receptions, about their critical writings, about their literary inspirations, and about the cultural milieu in which they found themselves. Second, he performs the music with a rigorous sense of the ways its details contribute to its form, both in terms of its overall architecture and in terms of its vertical structure.
- Peter J. Rabinowitz in Fanfare - The Magazin for Serious Record Collectors, USA, January/February 2011, Chopin-Schumann Anniversary Edition 2010 in the interpretation of Burkard Schliessmann, Volume 34, Number 3, p. 255
- Schliessmann is the best pianist I know at entering the world and expressing the awareness of the German romantics.