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Interview with pianist Arnaldo Cohen

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In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at elijah.ho[at]hotmail.com. A full list of interviews can be found here.

Born in Brazil, Arnaldo Cohen began playing scales at the piano at the age of 21. A former engineer and violinist with the Rio de Janeiro Opera House Orchestra, he captured First Prize at the 1972 Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition in Italy. Cohen is currently a faculty member at Indiana University, and Artistic Director at Portland Piano International. This Sunday at the Menlo School in Atherton, California, Cohen performs a program of Bach-Busoni, Brahms-Handel, and Chopin (Music@Menlo ticket information). Below is a transcript of our recent conversation with pianist Arnaldo Cohen.

EH: Many devoted listeners prefer the artistry of past generations -- I would love to hear your thoughts on the sound of the piano and where you believe it is headed.

Cohen: I must confess that one of the greatest challenges I face as a teacher revolves around the matter of interpretation, how it is somehow in relation with the era and the moment we are living in. Not long ago, I was watching a film produced and directed in the 1940’s, and the pace of the film was so slow that it was simply incongruous with what we now consider and accept as normal.

Interpretation is not unlike fashion, which is influenced by many factors - some economic, others social, technological, etc. I’m in Rio right now, and if I were to walk outside in the kind of dress that people wore in the last century, people would think that I was off to a carnival or a ball, and they wouldn’t take me seriously. Fashion is an expression about mankind, and it’s important to update this idea.

One of the challenges of teaching, of course, is to respect the sensitivity, the personality and characteristics of the student artist, because music is a form of expression. It’s very difficult to get away from your own thoughts, your own ideas, but ideas also have a high degree of emotional input. A good teacher is one who tries to guide the student, while maintaining respect, maintaining that freshness, personality, and of course, that creativity.

EH: It is the responsibility of the performer to be as faithful to the score as possible. Is it possible for great performers to surpass the vision of the composer ?

Cohen: Oh, yes. I think it was Mahler who, when asked if a conductor could change something in the score, said, ‘If it sounds better, you not only can, you have to,’. There is another element that is significant: we teach so much about faithfulness to the composer, but if we were to go back and look at how things really were, pianists of the last half of the 19th century were actually much closer to the composers than we are today. We now pretend to have a direct line to the composer, which is ridiculous, in my view. The pianists at the turn of the century – Josef Hofmann, Sergei Rachmaninoff, the Golden Age of piano-playing - knew much better what the composers wanted than we do.

In terms of what the composers really wanted, I sometimes imagine that if Chopin’s spirit were incorporated into the body of, say, an 18-year-old Korean girl competing at the Chopin competition in Warsaw, there’s a chance she wouldn’t make it to the second round if she played exactly as Chopin did. ‘Chopin’ would then go to the jury and ask why she didn’t pass, and they’d probably respond that she has no idea or understanding of how to play Chopin! We mustn’t forget that the results of piano competitions are the results of judgments, and not of the playing. If we want to blame competitions for a lack of musical direction, the blame should rest with the jurors and not with the pianists, who simply play as they can.

So I would say that there are different types of faithfulness. If we talk about Chopin’s Minute Waltz, there are recordings by old pianists who improvised parts of the middle section. I’m sure this is something Chopin expected: the faithfulness to create on top of what he wrote. On the other hand, you have to be more faithful to the score with a composer like Brahms. But faithfulness for me is what you think the composer meant, even if he omitted something. Music is an emotional language, and everything that man touches or creates has a very important emotional element. As the French say, Vive la difference!

EH: I’m curious to know what you think of recordings and the influence they’ve had on generations of music students.

Cohen: I believe recordings have done a lot of damage, actually. The demand for perfection – a quality that is not one of man’s main characteristics – has affected what audiences have come to expect when they go to a concert. One would have to sit 1.5 meters above and away from the piano, which is where the microphone is hung from, in order to hear what comes out of a recording session. I sometimes feel that recordings should be seen as an entirely different means of expression. I sometimes think of Arthur Rubinstein, who, of course, was a great pianist. But Rubinstein didn’t always have the most perfect technique, and I have doubts as to whether a great artist like him would have been able to make the career he had, in today’s world. On the other hand, I’m always fascinated by young pianists today, who by the age of ten can play Chopin’s Opus 10 No. 2 etude (laughs). So there are many paradoxes with respect to perception and what people want.

EH: As a teacher, have you noticed a change in the way young pianists perceive career, music-making, and devotion towards music ?

Cohen: The competition is greater than it’s ever been. After the Busoni competition, I remember every small city in Italy had different concert societies, and I played for all of them. We’ve now lost many venues, but conservatories are still filling up. At the time, my objective in terms of career was singular: to be able to survive with dignity with my music. Some young people still want this, but there seems to be this generation of pop stars.

I believe that a similar thing has actually happened in sports as well. My country, which just hosted the World Cup, lost a very embarrassing soccer match to Germany, 7-1. It was well-deserved, and the Germans played very well. I’m not sorry about it, because there’s a very good lesson to be learned here. Forty or fifty years ago, there was a lot of love for sport and for music as well, but money and the business have spoiled these, in some sense. The perception of many pianists, organizers and promoters, is, ‘We must fill the house,’.

At the same time, newspapers are devoting less and less space to classical music. In certain countries, where art is almost 100% subsidized by the state, they’re still having difficulties. I took American citizenship last year because I greatly admire how people take things into their own hands in America. If people didn’t care for music in America, it would simply cease to exist. I believe that a hundred years ago, going to a concert was an event. Today, we have the internet, YouTube, television, CDs, etc. The whole business has changed a lot, and it has definitely influenced the idea of what it means to love music.

EH: On the subject of newspapers, with the rise of blogs and so many voices, what is the role of the music critic in all of this ?

Cohen: First of all, I think the presence of the critic is very important for the business. Many audiences love music, but they may not know what a good standard is, and they can be cheated by certain standards of performance. You can perform a difficult Prokofieff sonata, playing some wrong notes, or even in an unprofessional way, without the public really taking notice. The critic then, in some sense, protects the quality and the public, and this is one of its most basic functions.

People used to wait all night for the New York Times reviews, as it could signal the rise of a new career. At the same time, everything has more than one side to it. Criticism has always influenced people, as a very good critic, a good review, can truly help to develop a good artist. Today, a young person who plays a fantastic recital at, say, Wigmore Hall, will find that it makes little to no difference at all; the promoters and managers are becoming the powerful figures, and they are the ones imposing their preferred artists. Some managers don’t even know where the C is on a piano, and they are the ones who decide and establish who should be playing on stage.

On the other hand, a critic is simply one voice. An audience member can be moved to cry at a concert, only to read in the paper that he cried wrong! (laughs) In the end, I believe critics balance the power that exists between the managers, the promoters, and also the recording industry. This is the business side of music, and it is a ship without a captain. Norman Lebrecht has written several books about this, and they’re quite fascinating.

EH: You studied with Jacques Klein, winner of the 1953 Geneva competition. I’m curious to know if he ever spoke of his own teacher, the late William Kapell, whom Leon Fleisher described as the greatest American pianistic talent ?

Cohen: Oh, yes, Jacques told me many stories about Kapell. I remember asking about how Kapell would practice, and he told me that Kapell would sometimes practice very slowly, articulated, and very strongly as well. He used to say that every note you practice is like getting a nail into the wall, so that when you hang the picture, the picture will not fall off. There were also stories about Kapell and Horowitz, how Horowitz would call Kapell up and say, ‘Let’s have dinner together,’, and Kapell would reply, ‘Well, you’ve already practiced your ten hours today, but I haven’t!’, things like this (laughs). Kapell died very young, very tragically. His recordings, like the Khachaturian Concerto, are incredible. But Fleisher is right: he was one of the greatest, and it’s so sad that he died so very young.

EH: On July 27, you’ll be performing some of the most beloved works in the piano repertoire, including the Brahms-Handel Variations Op. 24, and the 4 Scherzos of Chopin. I would love to hear your thoughts and what these pieces mean to you.

Cohen: I’ve actually begun cutting down the number of concerts that I play - recitals being what I consider the most demanding. Performers live with a certain tension within them - a responsibility to the composer, to themselves, to the audience, dealing with the loneliness on stage - and it’s all very tough. Along with my commitments at Indiana University and in Portland, there just isn’t enough time.

I remember practicing the Bach-Busoni Chaconne earlier in my life, wondering if I would ever make a living in music. So this piece has some special meaning to me, as it was the Busoni competition that opened many doors for me. With both the Chaconne and the Brahms-Handel Variations, we have a sort of Romantic fashioning of the classics. Of course, when we talk about piano-playing, we cannot forget about Chopin and Liszt. I wanted to see an arc of works from the beginning. The dramatic power of the Scherzos, the contrasting moods that are seen in life – hot and cold, birth and death – we see these in a work like the First Scherzo, which has that very beautiful, very serene Polish melody in the middle.

EH: A question I ask every pianist, because each has a slightly different hand - which Chopin Etude is the most difficult for yours ?

Cohen: I would say the double-thirds, Op. 25 No. 6. Many people say Op. 10 No. 2, or the octaves because they have smaller hands, or the sixths because of the opening. But for me, the most unnatural study of all is the double-thirds (laughs)!

EH: Mr. Cohen, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you for taking the time.

Cohen: Thank you, Elijah. I enjoyed speaking with you very much!

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