Interview with Bertrand Chamayou


Bertrand Chamayou (c) Marco Borggreve

 Bertrand Chamayou is a brilliant young French pianist from Toulouse who has won critical acclaim for his recordings of Mendelssohn, Franck and Liszt.  He studied at the Paris Conservatoire with the distinguished French pianist Jean-François Heisser and he completed his education in London with the legendary piano teacher, Maria Curcio.  He won major prizes – the Long-Thibaud International Piano Competition at the age of only 20 – and since then has begun to forge a career as a soloist performing in major venues across the entire world.

 Bertrand performs regularly with Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta and the two of them have just released an acclaimed recording of music by Chopin.  He has also performed with many leading artists, including Renaud and Gautier Capuçon and Quatuor Ebène. Bertrand has worked with some of the world’s greatest conductors including Pierre Boulez, Leonard Slatkin, Semyon Bychkov and Sir Neville Marriner.  He has performed with many of the world’s leading orchestras including the Orchestre de Paris, the London and Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestras, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, the Orchestre National de France and the Danish Symphony Orchestra.

 Bertrand’s recordings include Liszt’s complete Transcendental Studies; various original works and transcriptions by Mendelssohn; Franck’s Symphonic Variations together with the key works for piano solo; and Liszt’s Années de PèlerinageGramophone wrote about the Franck recording:  “This is an outstanding release in every way.  The two great solo works …..are in the Cortot-Hough class…. with Chamayou combining their textual clarity, warm and affectionate expression, and luminous piano tone”.  BBC Music Magazine wrote about the recording of Liszt’s:  Années de Pèlerinage: “Chamayou (on a Steinway) offers a luminous, supple, poetic sensibility that you sense is uncannily close to how Liszt himself would have imagined and played these wondrous pieces”.  Earlier this year Bertrand also released a recording of works by Schubert (including the Wanderer Fantasy and Liszt transcriptions of Schubert songs) and early next year he will be releasing a new recording of the complete piano works of Ravel.  As a curtain raiser for the Ravel recording, Bertrand performed a selection of works by Ravel at London’s Wigmore Hall on 23 October (review).

 Just before that Wigmore Hall recital I spoke to Bertrand about his career to date, his choice of repertoire, his recordings, and his chamber music activities, particularly his work with cellist, Sol Gabetta.

Robert Beattie:  In a few days’ time you will be performing a selection of works by Ravel at London’s Wigmore Hall including Gaspard de la Nuit and Le Tombeau de Couperin.  Can you say what drew you to this music and what you do you see as the main challenges of Ravel’s music?

Bertrand Chamayou: Ravel uses many different styles and compositional techniques in his music and he is something of a chameleon.   For example, you mention Gaspard de la Nuit and Le Tombeau de Couperin; one cannot think of two more contrasting works.  The sound of his music needs to be light and clear.  The music has been described as musical impressionism but it is not the hazy impressionism that one thinks of with the paintings and it needs to be played in a very clear and Classical way (especially Le Tombeau de Couperin).  Ravel’s music is very challenging to play but I think of it as coming back home as it is the music I loved when I was a child.  Jeux d’eau is one of the opening works I will be playing at the Wigmore Hall recital and it is one of the first pieces which I played by Ravel.  I was really attracted to the piece because I liked the idea of getting the piano to sound like water.  When I was 9 or 10 I started to learn all of Ravel’s music and I played his music when I was in my teens.  My teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, Jean-François Heisser, was a pupil of Vlado Perlemuter who in turn studied with Ravel himself so I feel I have a direct link with the composer and have a good understanding of his music.  The area where I was born (Toulouse) is also not so far from Ciboure, the town where Ravel was born near Biarritz and I used to spend my holidays in an apartment located 500 metres from Ravel’s birth house so in that sense also I feel like I have a close personal connection with the composer.


RB:  You were educated in Toulouse and subsequently in Paris.  Which of your piano teachers did you find most inspirational and why?

BC:  I have had three piano teachers and all of them have been inspirational in different ways.  My first teacher, Claudine Willoth, was a professor at the Conservatoire in Toulouse.  In France musical life tends to revolve around Paris and, even though Toulouse is a major city, some of the teaching there was not at the same standard that one finds in Paris.  Some teachers restricted themselves to teaching a few works to their students as they progressed through the various musical levels.  My teacher was excellent in that she allowed me to play a wide range of works by many different composers.  For example, she was happy for me to play Ravel’s Jeux d’eau when I was 9, even though the piece was too difficult for me at that age, and music by Messiaen which was also very demanding.  She pushed all of her students in that way and she gave us a very good all round musical education.  We listened to operas and string quartets and were encouraged to play chamber music and songs.  We held concerts and the students also had to write the programme notes for these events.  It was quite ambitious most of the time.  One of the concerts consisted of an evening of music by the Second Viennese School, for example.  During that early period I also liked to compose and improvise and, while I played some scales and technical exercises, I was more interested in getting to know new music and improvising rather than working through technical exercises.

Jean-François Heisser gave me a very complete musical training at the Paris Conservatoire.  I took my final music exam in Toulouse when I was 13 and he was in the jury. I started having lessons with him around that time.  He was glad to teach me although he told me that it was probably a little early for me to join his class.  I became a student at the Paris Conservatoire when I was 16 and I lived by myself in Paris during this time.  Heisser was like a musical father to me and it was during this time I came round to the idea of becoming a professional pianist.  With Heisser I learned to be much more strict in the way I approached scores and I worked on perfecting my technique including the quality and control of sound.  I gave up composition during this period and focused on the piano although I received a very good all round musical education including harmony and counterpoint and I played a lot of chamber music and songs.  My final teacher was Maria Curcio who was based in London.  I studied for 5 years with Maria and for 3 years I worked very intensively with her.  She helped to open up my playing both in terms of the phrasing and sound and she enabled me to express myself in a very natural, intuitive way.  Maria helped me to find the right balance between the slightly wild and impetuous playing I exhibited at the start of my career and the much stricter regime at the Paris Conservatoire.

RB:  It is a pity that Maria Curcio only left us one recording with Klemperer and Schwarzkopf.


BC:  Yes, she recorded Mozart’s Ch’io me scordi di te; the piano part is actually very demanding.

RB:  You have won widespread critical acclaim for your recordings of works by Mendelssohn, Franck and Liszt. Mendelssohn and Liszt have both suffered from a bad press and their piano works are sometimes judged rather unfairly nowadays.  Critics, in my view, underrate some of their works – do you agree and what drew you to this music?


BC:  Yes, I do agree.  Liszt is often played very badly and there is a tendency to want to show off with this composer.  There is a nobility and elegance about his music and also a pianistic refinement.  There are some flashier works like the Hungarian Rhapsodies but there are also some great pieces of music.  When I graduated from the Paris Conservatoire I was focusing on chamber music and I didn’t expect to become a soloist.  However, I played an enormous amount of solo piano music including Baroque, Classical, Romantic and 20th Century music and numerous concertos and I managed to secure some concerts and engagements with orchestras, although most of these were in France.  I think it’s very important to be able to learn new music quickly in this early part of your career and I was able to do this.  My first recording with Sony Classical – Liszt’s Transcendental Studies – was a success and helped to raise my profile in France and it enabled me to build a reputation as a Lisztian Romantic pianist.  I therefore began to focus increasingly on Romantic and 20th Century repertoire including Liszt, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Ravel, Scriabin, Messiaen and Bartók.  I managed to secure a new recording contract with Naïve and my subsequent recordings of works by Mendelssohn, Franck and Liszt were successful.  I have been working on another recording of the complete piano works of Ravel which will be released next year.  A number of Ravel’s works are closely related to Liszt’s compositions, like Jeux d’eau and Gaspard de la Nuit.

RB:  I can see there is a very close relationship between Ravel’s Jeux d’eau and Liszt’s Les jeux d’eau à la Villa D’Este for example.

BC:  Indeed, the second piece could not have existed without the first.  I also play 20th Century music which is closely related to Liszt, for example Messiaen’s Vingt Regards.

RB:  People often forget how harmonically daring and innovative Liszt was in the later works for example in Nuages Gris

BC:  One can see a direct link between that work – and works like Unstern and La Lugubre Gondola – and the 20th Century. 

RB:  More recently you have issued a recording of works by Schubert – can you tell us about that?

BC:  I love Schubert’s music and once again I wanted to approach his music through my knowledge and experience of playing Liszt.  So I included some of the more extrovert, virtuoso works such as the Wanderer Fantasy and also some Liszt transcriptions of Schubert songs.  I enjoy playing Liszt’s transcriptions of other composers such as Wagner, Verdi, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Chopin.  I have also included some Liszt song transcriptions in the Mendelssohn recording.


RB:  You recently issued a recording of works by Chopin with cellist Sol  Gabetta and you and he have embarked on a recital tour together.  Can you tell us a little bit about your recording?


BC:  I played an enormous amount of chamber music at the beginning of my career so I am very familiar with the repertoire.  At one point I was playing 120 concerts a year but more recently I have reduced the number of my concert engagements.  Chamber music remains very important to me but I now only do a number of selected projects.  I have known Sol Gabetta for almost 20 years as we are exactly the same age and even our families know each other.  We played together for the first time about 10 years ago and now about 90% of my chamber music engagements are with Gabetta.  Next year we will also be working as a trio with the violinist, Vilde Frang, and I am looking forward to that.  Sol and I have wanted to do a recording for some time but there were some problems securing agreement to this as we don’t have the same recording company.  The centrepiece of the recording is Chopin’s Cello Sonata and we have also included some transcriptions of Chopin’s piano works and other pieces by Chopin’s contemporary Auguste-Joseph Franchomme.

RB:  What attracted you to Chopin’s music?

BC:  Chopin was strongly influenced by the Bel Canto composers and his music has a very vocal quality.  One can particularly see that in the early nocturnes but even in the later works, such as the Barcarolle or Fourth Ballade – where there are perhaps more Bachian influences – there are still strong vocal lines.  The cello is one of the instruments most closely related to the human voice and the Chopin Cello Sonata with its distinctive vocal characteristics therefore seemed a good choice for us.  There are many points in the work where the melodies cross between the two instruments and it is a wonderful and unique work.

RB:  It’s one of the few works which Chopin wrote which is not for piano solo so it’s great you have decided to give it some more exposure.  Which pianists do you most admire and why?

BC:  I love Horowitz’s playing and the distinctive light and clean sound he makes.  When one listens to him playing one can hear many fine details and very subtle use of pedal.  There are also wonderful changes of colour which he can produce; for example in the opening section of Liszt’s Vallée D’Obermann there are different colours for each new harmony.  I also love Cortot – my father had recordings of him playing works by Schumann and Franck which I really loved.  Lipatti and Michelangeli are great pianists, although some recordings of Michelangeli (the late ones) I do not like so much.  I also loved to listen to Glenn Gould when I was a  teenager and I still love his second recording of the Goldberg Variations although other recordings are a little eccentric and sometimes irritate me a little bit now.  I also admire Vladimir Sofronitsky’s performances of Scriabin.

RB:  I remember listening to Michelangeli performing Gaspard de la Nuit and his performance was absolutely mesmerising.  However, at one point I didn’t like the sound he produced so much – for example his recording of the Haydn D Major Concerto.  I agree with you about Gould – some of his Bach recordings are terrific but others are eccentric, for example some of the preludes from the ’48.

BC:  Gould is a genius but sometimes his playing reminds me of someone who perpetually wanted to stay as a teenager.  Amongst pianists who are still alive I admire Krystian Zimmermann and Radu Lupu who is a poet of the piano.  I also admire Ivo Pogorelich although I have not enjoyed his more recent performances so much.  When I first heard Pogorelich I was amazed at the way in which he treated the score.

RB:  Pogorelich’s early performances of works like Gaspard de la Nuit or the Prokofiev Sixth Sonata are absolutely wonderful.  Like you I have not enjoyed his more recent performances so much – I hope at some point in the future he can recapture some of the old magic. 

BC:  I particularly remember Pogorelich’s performance of Chopin’s Third Sonata  – it was great playing.

RB:  Do you have any future recordings planned or specific projects that you would like to mention?


BC:  The main recording project is the complete piano works of Ravel which should be released early next year.  I may want to go back to composition at some point in the future and also to commission some new pieces of music.  There are many first rate composers in the UK including George Benjamin and Thomas Adès.  I’m also just about to become a father so that will also take up some of my time!

RB:  Many congratulations on that.  Thank you very much for talking to us and all the best for the recital on Friday – I look forward to hearing you then.

Robert Beattie

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