Notations: A Seasoned Musicologist Speaks

To the Musikdorf Ernen’s tremendous advantage, the renowned German musicologist Wolfgang Rathert has become something of a “permanent fixture” during the festival’s annual “Piano” week.

German-born Rathert has generously shared his encyclopaedic knowledge with concertgoers over the past seven years, both by offering short multi-media introductions to the repertoire scheduled for performances, and by initiating other vehicles to use in approaching music. He graciously met with me to explain how he found his way to Ernen, his engagement with the festival, and how he, in turn, has been rewarded by the experience.  What appears below is his response to my questions.

Having spent a long time studying the pianist Géza Anda, I sent an article I’d written about him to his widow, Hortense, on the occasion of what would have been his 80th birthday. Soon afterwards, a professor then at the University of Munich, I had a request to write a booklet that would accompany his CD in a series on great pianists. Through that work, I met Frau Anda, which was both a great honor and pleasure. Later, I was appointed to the Géza Anda Foundation’s Advisory Board, which is, of course, a great privilege.

Then in 2011, Ruth Bossart asked me if on behalf of the Foundation, I would attend Musikdorf’s “Piano” week in Ernen since winners of its prestigious Concours are among its featured concert artists. Since I had been in the Concours Géza Anda jury in 2012, it was in 2013 that I came here for the first time, and am so grateful to Ruth, who brings people together so beautifully; she’s truly the perfect connector.

Since then, I’ve been here every summer, but am in touch with the festival office regularly throughout the year, too. That, because I write the texts about the individual concert repertoires in the annual program, and they have to be delivered in December, six months ahead of the season! In addition to crafting those, though, I took up festival director Francesco Walter’s suggestion and developed a special “theme evening” format for Monday evenings—when there are no concert performances—with pianist Pietro De Maria, also a Concours Géza Anda first prize winner (1994). The theme evenings reflect the current year’s festival motto such as  Auf Reisen (“Travelling,” 2017) or Vox populi (2016). I develop a script around the theme, picking out scores that somehow reflect or revolve around it, and Pietro intermittently plays. It’s been great fun and highly appreciated by the audience.

Then the four piano concerts—each by a different player—make up the week’s other evenings. And the beauty of Ernen is that you not only meet and hear musicians of such different characters, but that their diverse philosophies encounter one another face-to-face. One player might be tremendously dynamic, another’s work, be more well-tempered and meditative. In my opinion, though, an individual artists’ reception today has lots to do with the public sphere, namely, how the artists actually appear on stage is taken into account.

And the piano is a universal instrument. If one hears the same pieces again and again, but in different interpretations, and over several years, that exposure offers insight into the wealth of this huge repertoire and all its possibilities.

This year’s first prize winner, Claire Huangci was refreshing and accessible, an asset to the Concours because she figures as a locomotive and true motivator. She also shows me that the Concours has a strong international presence. In an interview in the German journal  “Piano” (vol. 1, 2019), Claire explained that the competition was very important to her because she wanted to show–as she now has–that she was solid in the Classic-Romantic repertoire. What’s more, to perform the legendary Schumann “Fantasy in C-major” here in Ernen after a tediously long flight from China was courageous in its own right.

Indeed, the varied programs and contrasting styles we can hear in the “Piano” week are to the festival’s great credit. No one world or language genre is thought worthier than another, just as every era has its own character. And I greatly admire, too, that contemporary music is performed here, even if somewhat on the periphery.

In the introductions, I have always included small snippets of the piece in different interpretation and also often used rare historical clips; youtube is indispensable to that. Sometimes I also introduce a period instrument playing the same repertoire. How does a Mozart sonata sound on a Wiener Klavier, for example?  Much may sound strange… the sad truth is that our ability to hear has been somewhat compromised since the invention of the modern piano. With the exception of the 8-note octave, all the its other intervals are just a fraction out of tune.

During my study of musicology, my venerable professor Rudolf Stephan always said that a good musicologist must be able to speak about everything. But here in Ernen, we offer the same gauntlet to our listeners: Stay curious, and consider yourself part of a highly creative thing, because you, the public, are being challenged to build an opinion again and again.

Ernen, Monday, 15 July 2019, by Sarah Batschelet