Thursday 15 April 2010
At the start of it all
Arthur and Lucas Jussen talking about Beethoven.
With looks that could make many a young lady’s heart go pitty-pat, the two Jussen brothers, Arthur and Lucas, could easily be confused with two heartbreakers from a British boy band. And, having said that ‘we also like listening to something else sometimes,’ the iPods of these young pianists contain not a single note of classical music. The name of their big MP3 hero isn’t Beethoven but Stevie Wonder, and both are crazy about Marvin Gaye and Frank Sinatra. But when sitting down to talk with them about the repertoire for their debut CD, you can’t help but see a metamorphosis take place. Suddenly glowing in the eyes of what you thought were pop stars is the burning ambition of the classical musician bound and determined to follow his mission. Beethoven! Mozart! Chopin! They never run out of things to say about these old masters, and their enthusiasm is definitely infectious.
In a restaurant on the banks of the IJ in Amsterdam, they don’t mind talking about how they selected their repertoire: Beethoven and only Beethoven! First, however, it’s time to wash down some snacks with a Coke. Then, after his last sip, Arthur wants to emphasise that, ‘first of all, they’re all wonderful pieces.’ What’s more, they’re also pieces that are related to one another. ‘I play Sonata Number 13, Opus 27, Number 1. Lucas plays Sonata Number 14, Opus 27, Number 2 – the Moonlight Sonata. These two alone are a beautiful pair. I also play Sonata Number 5, Opus 10, Number 1, also known as the “Little Pathétique”, and Lucas plays Sonata Number 8, Opus 13, or the actual Pathétique. So here we have another natural pair. And they’re all Beethoven, of course. What we wanted was a relationship among the pieces, not just any old programme. To achieve this, we really thought hard about it with Maria João Pires.’
Arthur and Lucas flatly reject the idea that a programme made up entirely of Beethoven might be rather heavy for two young guys living in the 21st century. ‘None of these are Beethoven’s later pieces,’ says Arthur. ‘He wrote Opus 10 when he was still young. So that means we can play that music at our age, too. On the other hand, we wouldn’t have risked playing the much later sonatas, Opus 110 or 111.’
Beethoven’s first work was published in 1782 when he was just 12 years old. And he was only 14 when he was appointed court organist. Can you two living in the 21st century imagine yourselves in the shoes of the gifted Ludwig when he was your age?
Arthur: ‘Not as a composer. I can’t compose at all. I’ve tried it sometimes but never succeeded. So as far as that’s concerned, it’s difficult for me to put myself in his place. For me, it’s mostly a question of practising and trying over and over to understand why he wrote certain parts as he did.’
Lucas: ‘But what you try to do is include what you know about Beethoven in the way you play. Take his earliest sonata that Arthur plays – the one he composed around 1796. Here, you can hear that he’s still heavily influenced by Mozart. He may insert his own ideas into the music, but he’s still modelling his composition closely to the pattern that then applied to composing classical music. But in the Pathétique – Opus 13 – that he wrote two years later if I remember rightly, you immediately hear the real Beethoven starting to come through. And that’s an awareness you have to have to play that sonata.’
Do you see the fact that you are so young as being a handicap?
Arthur: ‘Sometimes. With Jan Wijn I started playing Opus 118, six pieces for piano, by Johannes Brahms, for example, because I thought it was so beautiful. Technically, it’s not at all difficult to play – but that’s not all. It’s actually a piece I can’t really play yet because it’s a piece in which so many emotions come together – feelings you can’t really understand until you’ve experienced a lot more of life. But at our age, we’re at the start of it all. I don’t feel this when I’m playing – at that time, I’m simply concentrated on playing my best. But afterward, when I hear Maria João Pires play it, that’s when I hear the difference. That’s why you have to understand everything to play a piece like that, out of respect for the music. After all, those emotions are so much a part of that music.’
Do you catch yourself thinking, ‘Oh, Pires does it that way!’ So next you try to play a piece just like she demonstrated…’
Lucas: ‘Yes, but that’s just it: great pianists don’t need a model in order to rehearse a piece. I rehearsed the Pathétique almost entirely on my own; even the first time I played it for Pires, there was already a kind of goodness in it. But that’s just not possible with certain pieces. OK, if she says, “Do it exactly this way,” it’s no problem. But that’s not what it’s about, of course. That’s not how it works. Six months later, you’ve forgotten the kind of emotion associated with it.’
Arthur: ‘You shouldn’t be an imitator. It has to come from within yourself. Otherwise, you’re just playing without personality, and that’s not what’s intended, of course.’
What made you decide that you actually were ready for the recording of this album?
We were offered the opportunity to record a CD-album before. At that time we declined as we considered ourselves too young. But now it’s different. Maria João Pires has lots of experience with recording CDs: she wouldn’t let us do something if we weren’t ready for it. Our teachers support us, and that support is what makes us feel confident enough to take this big step. That and the fact that these are pieces that we have made entirely our own.’
On the album cover, you already look a little like pop stars. How much chance is there that you’ll start a rock band in a couple of years?
Lucas: ‘A big chance!’
Arthur: L’ucas also plays electric and bass guitar.’
Lucas: ‘And Arthur’s going to buy a set of drums.’
Arthur: ‘We think that would be so much fun to do. It’s not a question of limiting ourselves to one thing or another. We both think that playing the piano is the greatest thing in the world. But we also like to play tennis or football. And we’ll just keep on doing so, too. After all, if we didn’t, what kind of a life would we have?’