Lucas & Arthur Jussen

“The Adagio from Concerto Number Five is just breathtakingly beautiful. It’s so beautiful that while I was studying the imposing, super-virtuoso opening movement, I would sometimes think, when can I get to that Adagio?”

Tuesday 29 January 2013

28 January 2013
Interview with Lucas Jussen by Michiel Cleij
Beethoven with the North Netherlands Symphony Orchestra (NNO)

Beethoven’s fifth and last piano concerto has been a challenge for many a piano star for over two centuries. It is an imposing, expressive work, with a virtuoso solo part. Lucas Jussen (19) has his own reasons for challenging the piece. In February he is performing it with the NNO – for which he will come back from America ‘for a bit’.

Lucas Jussen mentions that he is ‘just in the Netherlands for a bit’ – the type of remark that you could expect from the greatest stage celebrities. But Lucas says it without any trace of boastfulness. He has been pursuing his piano studies in Bloomington, USA since last summer, and he comes over for concerts almost every month. He does his homework on the plane. His American teacher is no less a person than Menahem Pressler, founding member and permanent pianist of the legendary Beaux Arts Trio. How did he come to meet such an éminence grise?
“Through Maria João Pires. Yes, I know. You might have noticed by now that I mention her name in every interview, but she played such a decisive role in my and Arthur’s career. We both took lessons from her, and she was the perfect teacher – so much so that it is difficult to imagine that you could ever click with another teacher. But when you are young you can’t become too attached to one patron; perhaps she understood that better than I did. She knows Menahem Pressler, and she arranged a meeting when he was in Europe on tour. I played for him in Germany, and he was willing to teach me if I would come to his institute in Bloomington.”

“I’m learning a lot from Pressler. Sometimes it is difficult to make a selection from everything he says. You learn the most from his immense wisdom. As someone in his eighties, of course he has vast knowledge, and definitely a rich inner life. This enables him to really penetrate a piece of music: he is very sharp if you are not true to the score. I think he understands better than anyone what the composer meant in a certain piece, or a particular passage. He says that I interpret too much sometimes, which means that I am playing something that the score doesn’t say, without realising it myself. He can’t stand that. But of course he knows that there is more to making music than slavishly following the score – you always have to add something of yourself. Pressler is immensely helpful in finding the right balance in this.”

“The Adagio from Concerto Number Five is just breathtakingly beautiful.  It’s so beautiful that while I was studying the imposing, super-virtuoso opening movement, I would sometimes think, when can I get to that Adagio?”

The conservatory where Jussen stays is part of Indiana University and on campus (‘a huge student village’) he shares a residence with two non-musicians. That is very refreshing: “Of course I also want to come into contact with other people. The whole day is full of music theory and practice. I don’t want to hear the Paganini Variations in the room next to me in the evening as well. And I do sports every day. One of the first things that struck me in America is there only seem to be extremes: you’ve got the hamburger culture next to a Spartan fitness ideal. People at my age are either overweight or bodybuilders.”
A certain athletic discipline can’t hurt if you want to master Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5. It is Beethoven’s most virtuoso concerto, and the only one that the composer never played himself. It is a great test of a pianist. How does Lucas Jussen approach it?
“In terms of playing technique, it’s true that the Fifth Piano Concerto is more difficult than the other four, but it’s all relative: it still isn’t Rachmaninoff, or Prokofiev, which is even more extreme. But it’s not really about the technical challenge for me. I just think the slow movement is so incredibly beautiful. I was recently on the TV show Hart en Ziel, where the writer Peter Buwalda was also a guest. He said that the slow movements of concerts were always the most boring for him. To me that is…uh, ironic. Because in fact there is so much that is special about Beethoven’s slow movements, especially in his piano concertos. The Fourth Piano Concerto has a famous slow movement that you could take to be strange, or threatening or mysterious – but the Adagio from the Fifth Concerto is just breathtakingly beautiful. It’s so beautiful that while I was studying the imposing, super-virtuoso opening movement, I would sometimes think, when can I get to that Adagio?”
But the first blow is half the battle: because of the majestic opening movement, the piece was soon nicknamed the ‘Emperor Concerto’ in England – although Beethoven was not particularly thinking about emperors or any other autocrats while he was composing it. Jussen explains: “To me, that nickname refers purely to the display of power of the piano in that first movement. How that solo pianist enters there is just macho! That had never been done. It’s a lot of fun to play – once you’ve mastered it. But I’m not that macho, so I like the second movement more.”
Lucas Jussen thinks it is still too early to specialise in a certain repertoire, however broad it is thanks to his different teachers.
“I think that certain music belongs with each age. As an adolescent you like different things than when you’re twenty or thirty. I used to like a lot of different beautiful music. Now the focus is mainly on classical and romantic, but aside from Pires and Jan Wijn, Arthur and I also studied with Ton Hartsuiker, where you get a lot of twentieth-century and contemporary music. If you ask me again what I’m playing in ten or twenty years, I’m sure I’ll give a very different answer than now.”
“The public is of course also going to look at us differently over the years. The novelty of youth won’t last. But from the very beginning everyone told us that it’s not the appearance that counts, but how you play. They said that when we were eight and eleven, and now we’re sixteen and nineteen. Everything is constantly changing. That’s why it’s always nice to come home to my parents and Arthur. Arthur is now in a phase that I have just finished. Yeah, I hope he looks up to his big brother a little. Just a little, though. Musically, I really see him as an equal. For the rest, he still has very, very much to learn from me, ha ha.”

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