Saturday 26 March 2016

You don't look at the music and understand it at once: pianist Kimiko Ishizaka on playing Bach and more

Kimiko Ishizaka
I recently heard the Japanese-German pianist Kimiko Ishizaka performing Bach's The Art of Fugue in Cologne (see my review). The day after the performance I was able to catch up with her to chat about her piano playing. A former child prodigy who played in a piano trio with her brothers, we talked about how the music of Bach helped Kimiko to find her own voice as a mature piano player, and about her remarkably focused attitude to practice and to piano playing.

My first question was why Bach, the composer with whom Kimiko has been most associated in the last few years. She explained that it was the music of Bach which made her want to be serious about the piano. For a decade had she felt that playing the piano was just learning endless pieces and doing her best. But in 2006 she took part in a competition which required a Bach prelude and fugue from the Well Tempered Clavier. She wasn't keen to play the Bach as she regarded the music as complicated, something she tried to get through as best she could. Kimiko added that even the less complicated fugues are a complex challenge, and whilst the preludes are expressive and and seem to be not overly challenging regarding the structure, the music conceals more than can be seen at first sight making both preludes and fugues a complex task. In the end she decided she wanted to do a good job, and worked on the articulation, practising the individual voices alone, something she hadn't done before.

Kimiko's mother, who is a piano teacher and who was a big influence on Kimiko's piano playing when she was growing up, believes in practising the left and right hands individually. But Kimiko has come to realise that this does not work for Bach as it chops up the voices, so she never practices individual hands, always voices. And in fact now she rarely ever needs to practise the individual voices and just maps them in her mind. She has perfect pitch, so she hears all the notes just fine, and rarely listens to recordings. Quite remarkably she has never heard a recording of Bach's The Art of Fugue!

Bach never forgets about details

Kimiko Ishizaka performing Bach's 'The Art of Fugue' in Cologne
Kimiko Ishizaka performing
Bach's 'The Art of Fugue' in Cologne
The odd recording Kimiko has heard tends to be recommended by her husband and manager, Robert. It was in one of these that she heard the voices in the fugues each articulated differently. She wants structure of the pieces differentiated, bringing out the logic of the piece by using different articulations, not just for the various voices but for the motifs too.

When the work is really complicated she draws a chart above the piece which shows the main events in the work. Because of this she has come to realise that Bach never forgets about details, moving through the piece he does wonderful things with the material. In The Art of Fugue the main theme takes on importance and guides you through piece. Also she see the relation of the main theme to subsidiary themes as important, if the next theme enters higher or lower and Kimiko ensures that this is brought out. It also matters to her to make a difference between upward and downward motion of the theme.

An exclusively legato sound is not a good choice in Bach

Over time, the way she played the piano changed, and three years ago she stopped using the sustaining pedal in Bach, as she felt that she was doing so many things with her hands that using the pedal would have disturbed the articulation of the individual the voices. She has also altered her playing mode, shifting the weight from her arms and shoulders to achieve a more melodious way off playing, one that she sees as not being dry.

I was curious as to whether she was influenced by the sound of the music on harpsichord. But in fact she never thinks about the sound of the harpsichord in the piece she is working on, though she admires how the instrument sounds. For Kimiko, an exclusively legato sound is not a good choice in Bach, it gets 'boring boring'.

Bach and Chopin

At the moment Kimiko is playing Bach and Chopin almost exclusively, and it is these two composers she practices, with Chopin not as much as Bach. Both composers have something which attracts her imagination. She finds them enigmatic, you don't look at the music and understand it at once. She comments that in some of Chopin's polonaises you think 'what was that all about' after 20 pages of continual surprises. She feels that, after all Chopin didn't just write something with no reaction to what came before, it takes Kimiko a long time to come to understand how Chopin connects the different sections.

From prodigy to mature artist

Kimiko was a child prodigy and played in a piano trio with her two brothers. She feels that her parents were ambitious for her, adding perhaps too much so in most respects. There were clear ideas as to how the music should go, so that she had no chance to find out what she wanted in the music.

By her late teens she seriously considered another career entirely, in mathematics or English. She felt that she had been pushed around for more than a decade, taking over her entire childhood; at weekends they had to practice the entire day. She performed as a piano trio with her brothers, but each played two instruments. People thought it looked the most beautiful thing, the three siblings playing together, as if they had been born as triplets with instruments inside their mother's womb.

They did lots of concerts and she missed a lot of school. At the age of 17 she bought a piano, the one on which she still practices, and paid for it in cash from her share of the trio's earnings. She had worked for her entire childhood.

A wonderful and unique discovery all of her own. 

Her parents had believed the more teachers the children had the better, so there were many masterclasses, lots of ideas and opinions and the children had to whatever 'they' wanted. It took her many years to recover, to feel that she had her own ideas.

Kimiko Ishizaka performing at the O.H.M. festival in the Netherlands, 2013.
Kimiko Ishizaka performing at the O.H.M. festival in the Netherlands, 2013.
Bach was hardly present in her childhood, just a few preludes and fugues, so the music became a wonderful and unique discovery all of her own. She changed every aspect of her piano playing from what it had been in the past. In playing Bach, she really found herself as pianist, it was really meant to be.

Having just given her first complete performance of The Art of Fugue and got the Goldberg Variations (which she recorded for the Open Goldberg project) and book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier (recorded for Navona Records, see my review) under her belt, I was wondering what came next. She has not done book 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier though this would be a huge amount of work. But at the moment there is still more work to do on The Art of Fugue, with her score to be got into proper order.

To practice with care and attention

When she is preparing for a concert she doesn't practice more, she always tries to practice with care and attention, and never has an easy day or a day when she doesn't focus. But before a concert she always ensures that she is well rested, and can do the performance well. Running up to the concert, things come together in her playing because she is working through the material more.

She works on a score at her desk around 30 to 40 hours per month and does around 130 hour practice per month. And for the past year she has been keeping a practice long. During the last year she has done on average four hours practice per day, which doesn't sound a lot until you take account of the days off for holidays or for travel. And every other day she does sports too, she regards this as extremely important to piano playing. Having physical stamina helps her to concentrate. (It should be added here that Kimiko is a former Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting champion).

The Art of Fugue, the way she has chosen to play it, is very physically demanding. But she recently played Chopin's Op.10 and Op.25 preludes in one go, and she feels that The Art of Fugue is only slightly less demanding than playing all the Chopin preludes.

You experience not them but the music as pure as could possibly be.

When I ask about pianists she admires, she mentions Alicia de la Rocha's recording of the Bach Italian Concerto, and Lazar Berman's performances of Chopin's Polonaises. She admires both artists because they are as absolutely true as possible to what was written in the music. She feels that both let the music speak, you experience not them but the music as pure as could possibly be.

Kimiko Ishizaka on Planet Hugill:
January 2013: Bach - Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1: Concert review
March 2015: Bach - Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1: CD review
March 2016: Bach - The Art of Fugue: Concert review

Kimiko Ishizaka on disc:
Bach - Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, Navona Records
Bach - Goldberg Variations  
Elsewhere on this blog:

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