A long life often accrues great wisdom, but beware this bank of musical knowledge will not be with us forever.
I’ve been lucky. In recent months opportunities have come my way to chew the fat with several people I would describe as senior figures in every sense of the word. A few weeks ago I interviewed a very great man – Christoph von Dohnányi – whose father and uncle were tragically murdered by the Nazis just weeks before the fall of the Third Reich and whose grandfather, the composer Ernö von Dohnányi, knew Brahms. Apart from the frisson of hearing him speak intimately of Karajan and Klemperer, I received a piece of wisdom from the 86-year-old Maestro that stuck with me. “The more you hear, the more you change,” he imparted. “Since life is based on change, if you don’t do it in your artistic approach or your stylistic approach to music, you would be lost.”
Late last year I spoke with the sprightly 92-year-old pianist Menahem Pressler, a survivor of both Hitler and heart surgery. He too believes in change. Would he re-record his works? “I would always say give me another chance!” he explained. “I have said in music, the higher you fly the more the sky opens up. You never feel that you get directly into heaven. You have to fight your way into heaven.” Perhaps growing up in 1930s Germany made Pressler and Dohnányi fighters, or perhaps it was the need to leave their homeland at a young age (both winding up in the US), that hardwired them to embrace change.
Another radical pianist, Alfred Brendel, is also still going strong at 85 and was interviewed by Limelight Editor-at-Large Francis Merson for a birthday feature in this issue. Next month, on the occasion of his 80th, I’m doing the honours with Zubin Mehta, a sagacious musical figure who has dedicated a portion of his life to fighting for change. Sadly, earlier this month Nikolaus Harnoncourt died, after only recently announcing his retirement, and just six months since he talked with Limelight in what will have been one of his last interviews. As I say, I’ve been lucky, but the loss of Harnoncourt proves we pass up such opportunities at our peril. The secrets of the old will not be with us forever.