Without question, Alain Lompech is one of Bachtrack's most experienced reviewers in any language. His career in journalism started at Diapason as a record critic and proceeded to Le Monde, where he was in charge of the whole Arts and Performances section, followed by France Musique; over the last forty years, it has allowed him to watch the development of the music scene in France and abroad. Lompech is a specialist of the piano, to the point that in 2012, the publishers Buchet-Chastel published Grands Pianistes du XXe Siècle ("Great Pianists of the 20th Century"), a book containing a series of portraits of 44 pianists.

His career inspires respect, yet doesn't prepare one for the simplicity and modesty with which he transmits his love of music. This is a truly passionate man. 

Alain Lompech in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil © Albert SIlver
Alain Lompech in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
© Albert SIlver

DK : How did you become a critic, and from what did your passion for the piano originally stem?

AL :  I learned music as a child – reading musical notation, piano, analysis, harmony – but I wasn't cut out for a musical career. For a start, I wasn't a particularly talented pianist. In actual fact, I wasn't really expecting a career in journalism of music criticism either.

When I was twenty years old, in the 1970s, I lived for a year in Berlin, far away from my family. Every evening, I was at a concert or at the opera and finally, I realised that music was the thing that mattered to me most.

Returning to France, I sent an unsolicited application to Diapason magazine. The owner-director must have liked it, because he answered straight away. A week later, I was in his office and we talked for the whole afteroon, at the end of which he said "when are you free? because you're starting Monday". By the end of six months, he had made me responsible for all of Diapason's record reviews, and so I became author, editor and critic at the same time. In 1981, I went on to Le Monde de la Musique, and then in 1988 onto the main Le Monde daily.

Alain Lompech and Nelson Freire at the Auditorium de Radio France
Alain Lompech and Nelson Freire at the Auditorium de Radio France

What makes a good concert review? What's the most important thing that matters in writing criticism?

For a start, a concert review is not a CD review. One is attending an event, sitting in a hall in the middle of people who one sees and hears. Therefore, in my opinion, a concert review should be to some extent the reporting of that event, it should be alive.

We are not there to give the performers music lessons or to tell them how they should play. We're not there to say "the singer was a quarter-tone sharp or flat on all the notes" - no, no and no! We're not there to demonstrate our erudition! We're there to tell the story of what happened, obviously while shedding light on the musical elements, to make the readers understand what matters, but nothing more. In the hall where any critic is sitting, there's always at least one person who knows more than he does.

Everyone has his own way of listening to a concert and his own expectations. What are yours?

It varies, of course, but when push comes to shove, what matters most is that the performers must grab me, capture my attention and hold it right to the end, by their presence, the care they're putting into the music, and also by the objective way in which things are put together. It's an assembly of things: one wants to be moved, to be surprised, one sometimes wants even to feel a touch of danger, and urgency and a collective sharing with the audience around one. We're not sitting at home listening to a recording, we're in a concert hall, so what we want is the feeling of being part of an experience which encompasses both performers and audience, where the music is a mystery that is being celebrated.

Which is your favourite hall for listening to piano?

In Paris, there are two: Salle Gaveau and the Philharmonie, which is a real miracle for solo piano. I heard Maurizio Pollini there, for Bachtrack, and it was extraordinary – what a sound! I also heard Nelson Freire give a recital there which, again, was a truly magnificent sound. And possibly a third: the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, which also has a very specific atmosphere. The Italianate hall is heart-stoppingly beautiful, the loveliest in Paris and one of the loveliest in the world.

I've asked pianists what they think of the Philharmonie. They love it, because even if they're playing pianissimo, the sound comes back to them and they feel very good being with the audience. Even though there are 2400 seats, possibly more, the hall doesn't feel large to them: on the contrary, it feels intimate. Salle Gaveau is more accurate, because one is closer, and it's good also. The TCE, with ita stage wall moved off to the rear, has all the necessary qualities for the piano.

Outside France, the place where the acoustics are really wonderful for everything is, obviously, the Berlin Philharmonie; I must have been there at least a hundred times. The Leipzig Gewandhaus is also really extraordinary, as is Boston Symphony Hall for orchestral music. In a more specific genre, I was very impressed by the Chicago Symphony, where I heard Pavarotti sing Verdi's Otello with Solti, when they were making a live recording of the opera for Decca.

What's your view of music journalism today?

Classical music has largely disappeared from the daily newspapers and magazines. Fifteen years ago, in Le Monde or Le Figaro, there would have been an article on classical music every day. THere were four and a half journalists at Le Monde for classical music alone! Today, that's down to one and a half, who are writing less than one person did fifteen years ago.

Still, it's not like there's any less music...

You're going to laugh, because I'm going to talk about England. A few years ago, there was a big G7 summit in London, and Tony Blair had invited the heads of state to a concert with Britney Spears, or Blur or Oasis, one of the three. I remember saying at Le Monde "That's it. We've entered a new era: classical music is going to become counter-culture". There's no way, in days gone by, that a British prime minister would have conceived of taking visiting heads of state to a pop concert, not even the Beatles or the Rolling Stones! It would have been the Royal Shakespeare Company or Covent Garden.

It's the same thing in France. De Gaulle and Mitterrand had no interest in serious music, but they respected academic knowledge and serious culture. The current generation – the one that is in charge, especially in the media – is a generation that hasn't studied the humanities, that is uncultured. And if it isn't uncultured, it considers that classical music and theatre are elitist genres whose time has passed. Therefore, they don't get space in the newspapers. These are people who bring everything down to their level of incompetence.

But at the same time as criticism has disappeared from the dailies and magazines, it has returned in plenty on websites. People interested in music can read their fill on a site like Bachtrack, and there are others who specialise in various genres. There's also a mass of knowledge and information that you can access.

Regarding the music scene, you're right to say that there are still an enormous number of concerts. In spite of budget restrictions in every country, there's still enough money left – a generous amount, even – for music. I always say that with for the cost of one production at Opéra Bastille, you can pay for a year's worth of recitals and chamber music in the whole of France.

Alain Lompech and Nikolai Lugansky at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées
Alain Lompech and Nikolai Lugansky at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées

Let's talk about young pianists. To your taste, who is going to be the next Schnabel or Horowitz ?

A year ago, I received a CD from a Russian pianist who lives in London, Pavel Kolesnikov, of whom I had never even heard. I put on his CD of Chopin Mazurkas, and I immediately gave it a Diapason Gold rating (it went on to win the award for the CD of the year).

I have no idea if he's going to be the next Horowitz, but that's not the point: he is already Pavel Kolesnikov, which is wonderful. He is a person unto himself, he doesn't sound like anyone else, his own voice is immediately recognisable. And there are others who are older. For example, Nikolai Lugansky, is a quite prodigious pianist, as much of an intellectual as he is an artist. In England, Stephen Hough is an extraordinary musician, original and intellectual with it: real personality who plays piano. Schnabel, Cortot, Haskil, Solomon, Curzon, Kempff or Rubinstein weren't just pianists and teachers, they were huge personalities, intellectuals who expressed themselves through music.

It seems to us that a lot of conservatoire students think of nothing other than to practise their instrument. That's a problem, isn't it?

You need a strong mentality and a big personality to succeed in forgetting the conservatoire, to develop by oneself. It's very difficult. Besides, amongst the great pianists of yesteryear, many never went through a conservatoire. To take one example, Claudio Arrau, who was a man with encyclopaedic levels of culture, never attended a conservatoire: he was a child prodigy who went on to receive private education. Arthur Rubinstein, Martha Argerich, Nelson Freire: none of them went through a conservatoire, and Brendel was more or less self-taught.

Clearly, the conservatoire is a necessary evil: the world needs conservatoires. But faculties have changed. In the past, conservatoires had preparatory classes, and only a small number of students – the very best – were accepted into the higher classes. Today, a conservatoire is highly rated if it has 1000 or 1500 students. In the past, you graduated from the Paris Conservatoire at 15 or even earlier, so it was a place where you learned music before going on to having a life. Today, far from leaving the conservatoire at 15, you don't even enter it until 17. At the age where you should be creating your own identity, often against the established order or academy, the opposite happens: you're being plunged into an educational mould. There's something strange in that.

The competition circuit can also be strange...

True, but competitions fulfil a purpose. They give many young people the chance to play in front of an audience and in front of professionals, including agents, who would not come to see them if they were merely in a recital, even at Wigmore Hall or Salle Gaveau if they could possibly play there. So just imagine who would come to see them in a small provincial town?

Everyone criticises competitions and it's true that in a perfect world, they wouldn't be necessary. But our world isn't perfect, and they remain the best solution for getting young artists heard.

Let's talk about your book. How did that start?

For a long time, various publishers asked me to write a book about pianists, but I continually refused. Then one day, an editor called me. I said no, as I always did, but... it's hard to describe. She was so nice on the telephone that it had an effect on me. A week later, I finally accepted, but on one condition: there had to be CDs with the book, so that people could listen as well as read.

With each pianist having such a wide discography, how did you choose the musical extracts?

For each pianist, I chose the one that wasn't necessarily the most recherché, but the one that was most obvious. For example, for the chapter on Walter Gieseking, it was obvious to choose the Debussy Preludes. For Clara Haskil, I chose Schumann's Abegg Variations and Mozart's "Jeunehomme" Concerto. In each case, I picked an extraordinary interpretation, in the hope that when readers listened to them, they would experience the same astonishment as I did when I heard those artists playing that music.

How did you approach the portrait of each pianist?

One thing is for sure: I absolutely wanted to avoid writing biographies that sounded like entries in an encyclopaedia: "He was born on such and such a date, brought up in such and such a way", and carry on like this in an academic fashion; today, you can find all of that on the Internet. I wanted to create a portrait which presents what each artist evokes in me. There are objective items, of course, in each career. But it was important that everything come together to produce a representation which is both musical, personal and a portrayal of each musician in their time.

Tell us about one concert, or one recording, that made you think, in Faust's words: "that's it. I would like the world to stop in this moment..."

Clara Haskil, when she played Schubert's Sonata in B flat major, D960, live at Hilversum. There is something about it that I am utterly unable to explain, beyond our powers of conscious thought, which transcends us completely while remaining close and almost friendly. I have the feeling that this woman is playing only for me, even though at the same time, she seems to be addressing herself – and I am not a person of faith – to something entirely above us. Or beside us, I'm not sure, but in any case, outside our rational world.


Translated from French by David Karlin. Since Lompech's book has not been translated, I have also re-ordered the interview to better suit non-French readers.