The thirty-first Classical Conversation in my series features French concert pianist Pascal Rogé. We met earlier this month at Jaques Samuel Pianos in London to chat all about his life and work.
In 1962, at the age of 11, Pascal Rogé was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire, having previously studied with his mother. By the age of 15, he had won first prize for both piano and chamber music. At 18, he performed solo recitals in both Paris and London, winning first prize at the Jacques Thibaud International Competition in 1971. Several European engagements followed, and in 1974 he made his first tour to the United States, returning nearly every season. He has also become a favourite in Australia and Japan, where he has made over 20 tours.
Rogé’s particular strengths lie in his sensitive and personal interpretations of 20th century French composers; he has made recordings of complete cycles of Ravel, Poulenc, and Satie, among others. His repertoire also includes d’Indy, Saint-Saëns, as well as the great German masters — Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven. His recordings have received numerous awards, including the Grand Prix du Disque and an Edison award for the Ravel concertos. His first volume of Poulenc won the 1988 Gramophone award for Best Instrumental Recording, and his collaboration with Chantal Juillet and Truls Mørk won the 1997 Gramophone award for Best Chamber Music recording. In the twenty-first century, he began a new recording project for Onyx that included a complete Debussy cycle. He also began performing and touring with his wife, Ami Rogé. The pair commissioned a two piano concerto from Matthew Hindson, which they premiered in 2011.
He has also taught at the Académie in Nice. His solo performances have been recognized for their decidedly French elegance, while his collaboration with orchestras has been noted for its faultless musicianship, and made him a favourite of conductors ranging from Charles Dutoit to Lorin Maazel to Kurt Masur.
Here’s the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews:
Melanie: French concert pianist Pascal Rogé came to prominence in 1971 when he jointly won the Long-Thibaud International Piano Competition and he’s been playing to great acclaim ever since. He’s particularly noted for his interpretation of the French repertoire and I’m so pleased he is joining me here today at Jaques Samuel Pianos for a Classical Conversation.
Pascal: Good morning.
Melanie: Lovely to chat to you today.
Pascal: Yeah, I love the idea.
Melanie: And I’m wanting to start by asking all about your musical education, how old you were when you started, what the catalyst was, whether you come from a musical family.
Pascal: Yes, yes I was born with music, so it was really easy for me to, it was the most natural thing in the world to play music since my mother is a pianist, organist. My grandfather was a violinist. My grandmother was a pianist. So, it’s all about music in my family. So it was a lot of years for me to touch all the instruments that were around. My mother just put my fingers in the right place.
Melanie: You started very young?
Pascal: 3 years old. Because I wanted to bang the piano.
Pascal: My mother was a piano teacher, so instead of banging anywhere just put your fingers on the right keys and apparently, you know, I was kind of gifted. It was an immediate attraction. I couldn’t get away from the piano, it was my best toy. Ever since it’s been my best friend, a long long long love story.
Melanie: And so, which teachers then do you think were most crucial in your development as a pianist?
Pascal: Well, obviously, my mother, because she was my first and only teacher for 6 years and then, I must say, I was really lucky with my teachers. I don’t have any complaints. To the contrary, I admire them and l’m very thankful for all of them. So, from my mother I went to her teacher, which was Lucette Descaves at the Paris Conservatory. At that time she was teacher in Paris and obviously I went to her class because my mother has been one of her students many years before. So that was my second teacher then Lucette had an assistant, Louise Clavius-Marius, who’s not very well-known but she was a genius. She was really somebody who has helped me a lot, had fabulous knowledge about piano technique, how to practice, how to relax, all the things that are hidden behind the glamorous piano playing. And then, I was fortunate to meet Julius Katchen when I was 17. He was my, I don’t really consider him a teacher, but as a mentor, as somebody who really opened for me new things, so many doors, so many perspectives for the last 3 years of his life. He died in ’69. And I think that- yes, that was it. It was the end of my teachers, but they were all very crucial. I don’t mention Marguerite Longas a teacher, because I played only 3 or 4 times for her. I was very young and she was very old, but it’s still a basic memory today to think of her. A young boy playing in front of somebody that was so close to Debussy, Faure and Ravel, and I remember her telling me ‘ you know here Debussy told me….’ and that’s – you never forget.
Melanie: No, no.
Pascal: But, I was not really a student of her, but I met her and I think that was enough to really make her special. Same thing with Nadia Boulanger,I was not a regular student of her, but I was fortunate to know her, to have met her many times. She also was an advisor, someone that I could talk to, ask questions. That was a privilege.
Melanie: Yes, yes. So, how did you develop your technique or did you work at it?
Pascal: Well I don’t – That was never really my concern. That sounds very pretentious, but I think my teachers were very – my mother first was very clever to always make the technique part of the musical meaning. There was never something that you have to work- of course I did scales and things like that, but it was never boring. It was never an obligation. I knew somewhere that it was useful. I almost enjoyed it. It’s not a bad memory. Later on, in the Conservatory, my teachers told me to try to separate technique from interpretation. So they said, you have to build your technique and then you’ll be able to play anything. Don’t try to – for instance they always said, Chopin Studies are not for building technique they are for playing, so don’t use them as an Etude, but use more basic things like, Czerny, Hanon, Pischner, all those boring composers, not composers, but technicians, piano technicians. But, they’re believed in than that. We do a lot of – like dancers, we do a lot of exercises before dancing. I think it’s – I don’t believe that you should mix technique and interpretation. It’s two different things. So, I always follow that principle and I think it’s worked pretty well.
Melanie: So, you won the Long-Thibaud International Competition? What impact did this have on your career? Did it change it completely or….
Melanie: No, it didn’t take off immediately afterwards or?
Pascal: No, it’s sad to say, being French and winning the most important piano competition in France. First, it came after I had already my first recording with Decca, I had already my first recital in Paris and in London. So, I sort of – I didn’t need it. I was a little bit pushed by the – my teachers in the Conservatory they wanted to do – at least have a French winning the competition. So, I did it but really it didn’t give me much apart from a few concerts, I mean it’s nothing comparing to the first recording with Decca or first recital in London. I don’t believe in competition. I must say, I have pretty bad memories of that competition, of any competition. But, this one in particular because for the first time, I mean I was already – even if I didn’t play much – I had already a feeling of being on stage is to communicate, it’s to express yourself. And so, yes, I was on stage to win, and that’s not right. I thought I was in the wrong place. Why do I have to play better than this person – I could feel that it was not the meaning of music. So, yes, I did it. I won it – that’s it.
Melanie: You’re known for your interpretation of French music and you’ve recorded a complete solo works of Ravel, Poulenc, Satie. What is it about French repertoire that you love so much? I mean, obviously you’re French, but there must be something in the music that just draws you back all the time.
Pascal: Yes, I think so because it’s – I loved that repertoire early, of course, with my teachers, because they were close to that repertoire. But then, when I started my career I used to play what every young pianist should play; Liszt, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Chopin, whatever, I was really interested to play anything until I discovered that maybe I should find my own Language, my own – what do I do best? I remembered a recital by Arthur Rubinstein. He was playing an all Chopin programme and I was absolutely amazed because I think – I thought, it’s not Rubinstein. It’s not Chopin. It’s just such a natural way of playing. He’s born with this music, it’s his language. Nobody plays Chopin better than him. Because he doesn’t have to play, he just speaks the music. I thought there must be music that I could play that way. With the years, I discovered that was the French repertoire. It’s logic, because it’s my language. I was born with it and all what my teachers told me, Marguerite Long,so close to those composers. I think that was an influence on how I – not the fact that I was born in France, but the fact that I had around me people that were so close to that music and they made me discover things that perhaps I might have never discovered without them. And the more I play then the more I discover that yes, this is the way that I can really express myself. I think it’s really like foreign languages, you can learn as many languages as you want, but there is to be a mother tongue. My mother tongue is French music, so.
Melanie: So, if you had to choose one French composer, who would you choose? Is it possible to say?
Pascal: It’s almost impossible. I love all of them and for different reasons, it would be unfair to say one. Of course, the first one, if I have to, would be Debussy. Of course, is the greatest and he brought a new language and he had so many ideas about how this sounds. He’s an inventor, but funny that I remember when I was very young. I was in love with Ravel. I think Ravel was my first real French composer. I remember saying that to my harmony teacher. I said, oh Ravel! Said, “I know, but later on you will discover the Debussy is more important.” It was true, at that time I disagreed, but I understand that, of course, Debussy is more important, but every time I play the Ravel concerto it’s still magic. Those sort of memories from childhood, I think they stay forever. Even after if you can analyze or think differently. The first love, the first music love is Ravel. I think it’s still maybe the closest.
Melanie: Yes. Which other composers do you love to play, going away from French style?
Pascal: To play? Not too many. To listen to, of course. But, to play. Mozart, because I think he’s above all of the composers. You don’t have to be French or German or anything. To play you just have to be genuinely inspired. It’s maybe the most difficult composer to play, but I can’t not enjoy playing Mozart. But apart from him, I must say that I don’t feel like – I can play mostly anything, but it’s not as close to my heart as those composers. And with my experience, with my age, my concert life, I can choose. You know, that’s the privilege of age. You can say no. I mean, it’s very rare nowadays that people are offering me to play a Tchaikovsky concerto, but I can say no. When you’re 20, 30, you have to do everything because you have to establish yourself. But now, I have that privilege to say no, I’m not interested. I think most of the time people know what I’m good at. I’m glad that I chose to be restricted in my repertoire. I remember when I started that French direction, many people were asking me ‘Is it your record company? Have you been forced to do this?’ and no, no, no. It’s my choice. And now, I think they understood that it was really my choice. But, I am very proud to have found in music I can really communicate, touch people in a very special way. I always quote that, what Glenn Gould said ‘If you’re not convinced that you play this piece better or different than anybody else, don’t play it.’ It’s a bit extreme, like everything he said. But, it’s true. You really have – in order to play something personally, you have to be convinced that, yes, I’m unique in playing that. It sounds pretentious, but that’s the only way to be unique; and if you’re on stage, you have to be unique. Otherwise, I mean there’s so many good pianists. And that’s the difference, if you don’t have that particular language or touch or something that makes you different.
Melanie: Do you have a particular practice regime?
Pascal: I have to cope with a traveling life.
Melanie: Yes, that’s why I asked.
Pascal: It’s not always easy. I sometimes envy violinists or cellists to be able to carry some instrument. No, I mean I’ve practiced as much as I can wherever there’s a piano, here in this studio or a friend’s house or concert hall or dressing rooms. Of course, at home I have my own piano, but I’m almost never at home. So, I really have to cope with whatever piano I can find.
Melanie: You play a lot of chamber music, particularly two piano works?
Pascal: Yes, with my wife.
Melanie: With your wife, Ami? How did this come about and what repertoire do you love to play?
Pascal: Well it came when we met, almost 10 years ago now. That’s a repertoire I almost never played before. I was suddenly attracted to sharing the instrument with, not somebody, but with someone that really has the same touch, the same feelings, the same view about music; and it was completely new for me. I’d already played a couple of times with other pianists, but it was like, you know, trying to mix things together where there was no intimate connection. And I think to play two piano and especially with four hands you really need to be very intimate. So, it’s a wonderful new experience. We love traveling together, playing together. Again, French repertoire and we recorded some transcriptions. We did our own transcription of La Mer by Debussy and yes. That’s such a repertoire that I’d never heard of before. We do recitals. As I said, two hands, four hands; which gives another approach to the piano. Because then people realize how different it is when the piano is played by one person with four hands, it sounds different too, but at the same time, it’s the same instrument. So – I always liked sharing music with other musicians, before I did a lot of chamber music with strings and winds, but now with Ami, it becomes even more closer, and more personal.
Melanie: What are your plans for the future?
Pascal: Keep going with the life that I have, I’m enjoying it so much. So, it means to keep playing, keep discovering new cities, new worlds, new culture. We are learning at the moment The Rite of Spring. So that’s a big project. We’re recording it. I have some – It’s more about – I’m going to stay in that repertoire. I’m not going to tell you ‘oh finally I’m going to do the complete Beethoven sonatas,’ no, I’m still going to explore the French repertoire and extend it to maybe Contemporary music. We had an experience two years ago where we commissioned a two piano concerto from an Australian composer. It was the first time ever that I premiered a piece that was never played. That was so exciting to play a music that nobody had played before. So, I hope we can have more experiences like that.
Melanie: What does playing the piano mean to you?
Pascal: Everything. I don’t know. I can’t do anything else.
It would have been very difficult if the – I hadn’t been able to achieve a career. As I said, from the age of 3, I played the piano and never stopped and never thought I could do anything else. I never wanted to do anything else. And I think it’s the most beautiful profession, because it’s doing what you love, sharing with the world, and bringing emotions to people. I’m so privileged in sharing that with my wife. I mean, it’s an ideal life. So piano is, yes, piano is everything.
Melanie: Thanks so much for joining me today.
Pascal: Thank you. Pleasure.
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.