Argentinian pianist Nelson Goener’s repertoire ranges from Beethoven to Deep Purple’s Jon Lord. Christopher Morley previews his appearance with the CBSO this Sunday.
Its musical image may still rest chiefly on it being the birthplace of tango, but nowadays Argentina is quite a hotbed of classical music talent.
One example is Nelson Goerner, who plays Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 with the CBSO at Symphony Hall on Sunday.
“I would say that especially the piano school has been very important in Argentina,” he told me from his home in Geneva a few days ago. “The training of pianists has been a very strong tradition in the country, because there went to Argentina in the early 20th century a great Italian teacher.
“He was very young at the time, and he spent all of his career in Argentina. He was Vincenzo Scaramuzza, and was the tutor for our greatest pianists, like Marta Argerich, Bruno-Leonardo Gelber, and I know that even Daniel Barenboim’s father, Enrique Barenboim, studied with him (though not Daniel himself).
“After Scaramuzza died in 1968 it was continued through his students, and I had the chance to work with three of them: Jorge Garruba, Juan Carlos Arabian, and my last teacher in Argentina was Carmen Scalcione, who was a really great pianist. She didn’t have the international career which she should have deserved.”
There are some amazing names in that list, I observe.
“There’s a great amount of talent there, and people, I would say, who were making national careers when there were reasons they could not go abroad.”
Nowadays in Europe we are aware of great composers from Argentina, I continue: Kagel, Piazzolla, Ginastera “and Osvaldo Golijov!” we both say in unison.
“He’s one of the major composers we introduced to the the world,” Nelson comments.
Does Nelson feel he is an ambassador for the music of his home country?
“Well, personally I have done very little so far, because I have never included much Argentinian repertoire in my programmes,” is his disarmingly honest answer.
“I do play some Ginastera, like the First Sonata and the Argentinian Dances, in other words works from his early period. There was also a project to play his Second Piano Concerto, but it never materialised, so that’s almost everything!
“I’ve just played some Piazzolla, but not much. No, I can’t really say I’m a major ambassador for our composers, but I study their music. I know the repertoire and of course I don’t exclude that one day I would play this music in public.
“I think in general you must do something not because of your connection to a nation, or for any external reasons, but – you know in a performance, when the moment has come to play a piece of music... So far, it has not been the moment.”
But this is the moment for Nelson to be playing piano concertos by Beethoven and by Deep Purple’s Jon Lord, which he has recently recorded for EMI, almost in the same breath. How does he balance the two?
“Well, that was fascinating, in the sense that I really did what the great Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau said, that the performer should be like a chameleon, and that we should try to feel – ‘comfortable’ is not the word – in very different styles.
“The more you get to that point, of course it will help in everything you play. I do think that because of your nature you will be closer to a certain repertoire in which you work. I tend to believe that you should study more or less everything with which you come into contact: that explains why there can be this balance between Beethoven and Jon Lord.”
Nelson Goerner is in fact not the first “classical” musician to work with Lord, incidentally. Lord collaborated with Sir Malcolm Arnold many decades ago, when the versatile English composer wrote a piece for rock group and orchestra, performed at the BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall.
“For me working with Jon Lord was a very important experience, also in the sense that for the first time I was working with a living composer.
“I didn’t know really what to expect. I was at times a little bit frightened, that I might not like it, and I didn’t know his language at all. So really I was working from ground zero, if you can say that, but he was really very intelligent and very stimulating.”
Sunday’s concert will be conducted by the Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki. Nelson Goerner has a long record of successful collaborations with women in chamber-music. Is this the first time he has worked with a woman conductor?
“No, I have played with Susanna Malkki before. We did the Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody with the Halle Orchestra in Manchester, we did it three times.
“I understand that for many audiences it is still a novelty, but certainly for the soloist it doesn’t make any difference. And Malkki wasn’t my first woman conductor, because I have also played with Marin Alsop, for example.”
We end our conversation by my mentioning that one of Nelson’s compatriots, Eduardo Vassallo, is co-principal cellist with the CBSO.
“Oh, really?” comes Nelson’s enthusiastic response. “I didn’t know that. We briefly met once. I don’t know if he might remember! That’s a good surprise to me. It’s always nice when you go to an orchestra and you find one of your compatriots. It’s very, very nice.”
* Nelson Goerner plays in the CBSO’s all-Beethoven programme at Symphony Hall on Sunday evening at 7pm (Box office: 0121 780 3333).