In September 2023, two world-famous musicians gave a blissful duo recital tour of all three of Brahms' violin sonatas.
The two are Ms. Akiko Suwanai, the youngest-ever winner of the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1990, and the queen of the violin world, who has been active on the international stage in recent years as a competition jury member and artistic director of music festivals. The second is Mr. Evgeni Bozhanov, fourth prize winner of the 2010 Chopin International Piano Competition, who is also known as a gifted pianist for his unique performances.
The day after the second of the duo's six performances, we spoke to them about the appeal of Brahms's music and the interaction between violin and piano. In the latter half of the interview, he commented on the Shigeru Kawai concert piano used on the tour.
Interview/ Text: Kyoko Michishita
Interpreter: Midori Tamura
Interview Translation: Midori Tamura and Miho Ebihara
Thoughts on the tour and program selection
Ms. Suwanai and Mr. Bozhanov, your autumn tour has started and you have just finished 2 concerts. How is it going?
Mr.Bozhanov (B): Very well! Actually, it was my first time to play all three sonatas by Brahms in one concert which was a big challenge for me.
Ms. Suwanai (S): We also have plans to record these sonatas right after this tour.
Why did you choose to play these sonatas by Brahms?
S: Up until now, we had played sonatas by Richard Strauss, L.V. Beethoven, Mozart, etc. When a concert ended, it felt as if everything was gone, so I wanted to do something that would last－to make a recording. I started to think which pieces would be most suitable for it. Around that time, which was last autumn, we played Brahms’ Sonata No.2 Op.100 in Duisburg, Germany, and it was very well received by the audience. Mr. Bozhanov needed some time to think about it though.
B: Well, generally speaking, I don’t consider myself a “Brahms player”. I am not sure if I could say that Brahms is my “soul” repertoire. Of course, I love Brahms’ music, especially his symphonies and orchestral music, but I have never played either of the Brahms piano concertos.
S: And he will not play them in the future … so he says…
B: I have played some of his solo pieces but they did not give me great joy. When it comes to his chamber music though, it is quite a different story. It was in a way a challenge for me to go in this direction. We take more than enough time to rehearse, to see what is possible and to seek how far we can reach musically.
Mr. Bozhanov, you recorded transcriptions of Brahms’ symphonies for solo piano for your CD which was released in 2017.
B: Yes, I played transcriptions of his works in that CD.
Were the transcriptions by Reger?
B: Yes! And I played on a Shigeru Kawai piano for the recording. I love playing symphonic works in terms of seeking many kinds of tone colors.
The allure of Brahms' music
How do you feel about Brahms’ music and its appeal？
S: After playing his violin sonatas for many years, and also playing and rehearsing for almost one and a half years with Mr. Bozhanov, I would say what appeals to me most is the depth in his music.
B: I have been listening to many recordings of the “old masters” of the violin and piano. For example, Toscha Seidel! It is a very old style of playing, but it fits fantastically with Brahms’ music.
S: Brahms composed many pieces for Lieder. The shaping of a phrase can totally alter the outcome of a performance which I think is also one of the appeals of Brahms, especially in chamber music.
B: And we need lots of time to be able to apply these things in performances. My style of performance does not come so much from the interpretational side, i.e., researching the score of Brahms, but rather getting inspiration from the playing side－the traditions of the old style of playing. When I listen to these recordings－compared to the mechanical way of playing in modern days－the special colors, the special ways of playing, all these elements catch my ear. Although, it is difficult to execute.
S: And it is clear when you hear recordings of *Toscha Seidel, that he must have spent so much time for rehearsals with his pianist. Likewise, Mr. Bozhanov doesn’t seem to like to perform with quick rehearsals. Mr. Bozhanov’s way is to take plenty of time, dig deep into the music and obsess over details.
*Ms. Suwanai’s mentor, Toshiya Eto’s first name is taken from “Toscha”
Dialogue between violin and piano
When you play the three sonatas by Brahms, how do you treat the dialogue between piano and violin?
B: This is not only the case for Brahms, but duo playing in general. I don’t believe in just being harmonious. Sometimes the two voices fight against each other! Fighting, fighting, and finally, there comes a moment of harmony. It is not just simply divided into melody and harmony.
S: I think Mr. Bozhanov doesn’t like doing the obvious. He seems to seek something which is not immediately apparent to the eye. Searching further into the details without losing the whole picture … It took me some time to understand his way of thinking.
Yes, the playing of Mr. Bozhanov is so delicate in every detail and so profound.
S: We are looking for the very extremes in expression. Diversity of all kinds such as tone color, elegance, rhythms, small details… It seems that for Mr. Bozhanov, every note must not be played the same.
B: And it is a question of taste, too.
S: Yes, therefore, although looking into details, the style, the structures and the balance must be exquisitely kept. Our duo rehearsals take place once a month for 3 to 4 consecutive days. And it takes 10 hours each day!
10 hours a day! Do you rehearse all three sonatas?
S: No, just one sonata, or one and a half.
B: That is what a rehearsal is. When we want to develop something, we need time. The aim is not only the concert itself, but to develop with the composition. I need to go inside of Brahms’ music－how far I can go by confronting Brahms… I must say, it is a luxury to spend time this way.
S: Mr. Bozhanov never compromises even till the last minute. I think that maybe Mr. Bozahnov doesn’t even know the word “compromise”. A true artist!
Among these violin sonatas by Brahms, there are elements of Lied, especially in the 1st and 2nd sonata. How do you express these elements?
B: The 3rd sonata does not have much of these elements and the 2nd sonata might be more symphonic. Only in the 1st sonata, the actual Lied is used.
S: When you play these elements on the violin and piano, the sound comes out very differently.
B: Yes, it comes out much richer in sound than Lied. Therefore, it is not simply a matter of performing as if a singer is singing. The elements are taken into the structure of the sonata, and it is tied up to the idiom of that era.
S: The performance must be masterfully shaped and also three-dimensional. According to which note you emphasize in the harmony, the dimensions change completely. For example, in the 3rd movement of the 1st sonata, because it is the “rain song”, there are storms and many other things happening. But in the end, there comes a harmony as if a rainbow appears.
B: I feel more of the storm rather than drops of rain. Even for one thing, people imagine differently. In the end, what the audience imagines, is up to them. We don’t expect to give the audience a specific image.
S: We have been practicing to widen all sorts of possibilities and to be able to react to it. Therefore, we take so much time to rehearse. Mr. Bozhanov seems to apply the same when playing solo pieces. Hence, his repertoire is condensed so that he can engage more deeply.
Comments about Shigeru Kawai
How do you feel about playing Brahms on the Shigeru Kawai piano?
B: It is a big pleasure for me. Mind you, Brahms wrote these sonatas for piano and violin, not the other way around.
Like Mozart and Beethoven, the piano part plays a very important role, and the Shigeru Kawai piano has the capacity to richly support the violin part.
S: I have always liked the piano very much as an instrument and I feel the Shigeru Kawai piano responds very quickly. The reaction of the hammer seems quicker than other pianos, and at the same time, the sound carries longer.
B: I think so too. And the mechanism! Wonderful reaction of the hammer! But it is not just because of the instrument. It is the Kawai piano technicians who make all these things possible. The piano is finally completed with their support. A great piano technician can produce 5 different kinds of sounds from one piano. Actually, this applies to pianists too.
Do you think the Shigeru Kawai piano is an instrument of great potential for expression?
B: The Shigeru Kawai piano has a very colorful and deep sound. And also has a very sweet, very big and sonorous sound. Nuances of all kinds are possible. Again, these things come from the collaboration with wonderful technicians.
When was your first experience to play the Shigeru Kawai piano?
B: Krefeld in Germany. Of course, I had a chance to play Kawai pianos when I was a student, but the recent evolution of the Kawai piano is quite incredible, both in the mechanisms and sound.
S: The better the piano tuner, more is done in advance, so Mr. Bozhanov doesn’t need to request much.
B: The very able piano tuner has a special sensibility. They can “read the air”, as they say in Japanese.
S: I am not sure if it is used in the right context…!
I heard that Ms. Suwanai plays the piano very well!
B: Yes, I just remembered! Yesterday, we were practicing in different rooms. When I was practicing a particular phrase, I heard the same phrase. I thought I was going mad, but it was Ms. Suwanai, playing the same phrase!
Finally, could you both give us your thoughts on the Shigeru Kawai piano?
B: For me, it is a great joy to play the Shigeru Kawai piano.
S: The sound is extremely rich. The response of the hammer is very quick, but it is not harsh, nor too soft. Much relies on the control of touch, but the response is immediate. The sound waves have great depth, so, the Shigeru Kawai piano has the best of both sides. I feel the sound comes out instantly, but at the same time, it continues as a deep wave.
B: It has a sound with infinite possibilities. An instrument which has revolutionized the piano.
About Akiko Suwanai
In 1990 Akiko Suwanai became the youngest-ever winner of the International Tchaikovsky Competition. She has performed with major orchestras at home and abroad, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris, London Symphony Orchestra and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Seiji Ozawa, Lorin Maazel, Charles Édouard Dutoit, Wolfgang Sawallisch and Valery Gergiev, and at international music festivals including the BBC Proms, Schleswig-Holstein and Luzern.
In recent years she has toured with the London Symphony Orchestra under Gergiev, toured Europe and Japan with the Orchestre de Paris, toured China with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, and performed with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Toulouse Capitole Orchestra.
She has been active in introducing works by contemporary composers and has performed the Japanese premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen's "Violin Concerto" (2013), the world and French premieres of Eric Tanguy's "In a Dream" (2013), Karol Beffa's Violin Concerto - "A Floating World-" (2014).
In 2012 and 2015, she was a jury member of the Queen Elizabeth International Competition, the 2018 Long-Thibaud International Competition and the 2019 Tchaikovsky International Competition for Violin. Since 2012, she has organised and produced the International Music Festival NIPPON and is the festival's artistic director.
In recording, she has an exclusive contract with Decca Music Group as an international artist and has released 15 CDs, including her latest, J.S. Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo (complete works).
After studying music at Toho Girls' High School, she completed the Soloist Diploma Course at Toho Gakuen School of Music. After studying at the Juilliard School of Music and Columbia University as an overseas trainee artist with the Agency for Cultural Affairs, she completed a master's degree at the same conservatory. She also studied at the Berlin University of the Arts, where she completed her academic doctorate in 2021 and obtained the German National Performer Certificate.
She performs on the “Charles Reade” Guarneri del Gesu violin c1732, on long-term loan from Dr. Ryuji Ueno, who has Japanese roots and living in the US.
About Evgeni Bozhanov
Born in Bulgaria. Evgeni Bozhanov studied at the Robert Schumann University of Music (Germany) with Georg Friedrich Schenck, won first prize at the 2008 Sviatoslav Richter International Piano Competition, second prize at the Queen Elizabeth International Piano Competition in 2010, and also awarded fourth prize at the Chopin International Piano Competition in the same year.
Evgeni has been conducted by master conductors such as Hubert Soudant, Yutaka Sado, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Tugan Sokhiev and Daniele Rustioni, with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, L'Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, The Philharmonia Orchestra, Houston Symphony Orchestra and other prestigious orchestras. He is also a frequent guest at the Chopin Festival (Poland) and has appeared at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival (Germany), the Salzburg Festival (Austria) and the Marta Argerich Festival (Germany), and has performed in the world's major concert halls, including the Berlin Philharmonie, the Musikverein Vienna and the Royal Festival Hall.
In Japan, he performed with the Hyogo Performing Arts Centre Orchestra in 2011, 2015 and 2020; was soloist with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin on its Japan tour in autumn 2011; gave a recital at Suntory Hall in 2012; performed at La Folle Journee au Japon in 2015 and at the Yokohama International Piano Invitational in 2016; gave his first Japan recital tour in 5 years in 2017. In 2022 he performed with the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra for the first time, receiving rave reviews from critics.
He has released a number of CDs, and his 'Frederic Chopin', released in 2011, was awarded the "German Record Critics Award". His latest disc is 'Morgen' (Avanti Classic), a collection of German Romantic works by Schubert, Brahms, R. Strauss and others.
He is currently a professor at the prestigious Folkwang University of the Arts in Germany, where he is also active in teaching and training younger students.
Kyoko Michishita, Midori Tamura, Miho Ebihara
This article has been translated from a piece published on the Kawai Japan website.
This article has been translated from a piece published on the Kawai Japan website.