We meet in Paris, a stone’s throw away from the Grands Boulevards, in a brasserie chain where the coffee is excellent at all times of day. On the phone, he had lauded the quietness of the location and its bistrot cuisine, the neat summary marking him out as a regular customer. “I come here a lot – my cousin works there”, Bertrand Chamayou confirms, smiling at the (new) server, who was sure he had seen him before.

Bertrand Chamayou
© Marco Borggreve

The discussion begins with such simplicity that it’s hard to imagine that I’m in front of the most acclaimed French pianist of his generation, cultivated by the most prestigious institutions. Artist-in-residence at Radio France last season, he is now artistic director of the Long-Thibaud-Crespin Competition and has just taken up the reins at the Ravel Festival in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. He’s added this latest hat just three weeks ago and is quick to demur: “the next festival will be a transition: the structure isn’t yet what I’m looking for. We’ll be creating a new structure bringing together the festival and the Ravel Academy.”

Chamayou has recorded Ravel. And Saint-Saëns, which won him a coveted Gramophone “Recording of the Year” a few months ago. The recorded repertoire also contains Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt… but it’s not all that wide, considering that in concert, Chamayou is as comfortable playing the classics (Mozart and Beethoven a few weeks ago) as contemporary music (Michael Jarrell last May). This surprising difference gets us into the heart of the matter. “It’s going to change. It’s true that there’s a whole section of my career that isn’t so visible if you only look at the discography. I’m planning to take a clearer direction in future.”

To understand the source of the gap between the man and his recordings, we have to take a trip into the past. For a long time, Chamayou didn’t need to make any choices, thanks to “the luxury of being watched over by fairy godmothers”. First to watch over the cradle of the artist-to-be: the piano teacher who explained to his non-musician parents the exceptional gifts of their child – not in the narrow instrumental sense, but in general musicianship, not least being the disconcerting speed at which he learned to read a score. “I don’t remember it, but apparently I learned to read music in less than a month. After that, I could do any dictation exercise, however complex. At the time, I wasn’t really working at it”, he confides. “There was an upright piano at home and I was totally happy spending all my time on it, messing around. Since I could read music to such a high level, I immediately wanted to make sense of the scores that were far too difficult for my fingers: sonatas by Beethoven, Ravel, even Messiaen! I started composing very early, from about 9 or 10, and I was writing in the style of Messiaen, orchestral scores as big as this” – he mimes the size of a giant score, with an embarrassed "eyes-too-big-for-mouth" look. And don’t imagine that he was diligent at practice: “I didn’t have in any way this young prodigy thing, this competitive urge to become the strongest and most perfect.” it's an attitude that hasn't changed.

His years of apprenticeship pass in a flash at the highest level, the pianist being “literally swept away” by the musical current, dragged to Paris by his teacher at the Conservatoire, Jean-François Hessier. Then, the invitations started to flow: from the newly minted Deauville Easter Festival, where he brushes shoulders with Renaud Capuçon and Nicholas Angelich, to the Capitole de Toulouse, to which he will make a prodigal return, seventeen summers later, to play as a soloist under the baton of Michel Plasson.

Bertrand Chamayou
© Marco Borggreve

For the young Chamayou, the process of international competitions wasn’t a drawn out one. Having reached the finals of the Long-Thibaud at the age of 20, he stops. “I hated the environment and I still do.” Why, in that case, take on the torch of artistic director of that very competition, nearly 20 years later. “I felt that I had to try to see what could be renovated or done differently. After all, the most important thing in a competition isn’t who wins the first prize: you can’t predict the future… What matters is that talent becomes visible. There has been a lot of that this year, the general level was very high”. He's also spent considerable time on the artists that he’s spotted during the early rounds who didn't make it into the media spotlight.

In other words, Chamayou has turned from a musical prodigy who doesn’t practise much into a competition director who isn’t all that bothered by who wins the prize. For sure, it’s a career path that’s hard to grasp the sense of. “It’s going to change”, he repeats. At nearly 40 years old, the artist has started casting a self-critical eye on his pianistic career: “I’ve gone with the flow of what I’ve been offered, rather than making my own choices. When I think about contemporary music and the fact that fundamentally, I had wanted to be a composer… It’s almost what excited me the most! Very early on, I wanted to do world premieres, but seeing the reluctance attached to this, I beat the retreat to less controversial projects.” Staying on well-beaten pianistic tracks, his inner musician chokes. “When I started recording, I stayed within a restricted repertoire, around the composers of the 1810 generation. After four or five CDs, I starting getting annoyed, simply because people started referring to me as a Romantic pianist.” The breaking point comes at the end of the 2000 decade, around the time of his CD devoted to César Franck: he can’t carry on playing. There’s a diagnosis of “functional dystonia”, but the problem is deeper, stemming from the disjunction between the pianist's introverted nature and his growing fame: “There was a phenomenon of fear, of strong rejection. The almost exhibitionist side of going on stage just wasn’t in my nature!”

He set to work reconstructing himself. The music of Liszt, which had first brought him to the attention of a wide audience a few years earlier both in recordings and in concert, is what will bring him back into the saddle. In 2012, Les Années de pèlerinage follow the Transcendental Studies which he had released six years earlier. It marks the beginning of a reconquest that will last a decade: Phoenix-like, Chamayou is still following multiple paths (chamber music, occasional period instrument work) but changes manager, develops his international career and “starts to feel legitimate” playing with an orchestra.

Bertrand Chamayou
© Marco Borggreve

At this point, yesterday’s Chamayou meets today’s Chamayou and casts his eye on tomorrow. “I’m getting to forty years old. So there we are, something has clicked. Now that I’ve been able to spin my web somewhat internationally, I’m taking the initiative more often as regards my artistic choices.” The pianist feels the need for change. “Fundamentally, I think that one of the choices that have been made by many performers and promoters (with me in the front row) is to have spend decades faithfully reproducing formats that have stopped evolving: the piano recital and the symphonic concert have frozen in their form. It works fine, the balance is good, but it’s never questions. The repertoire and the creation of new music is nothing more than a bit of added value. You never see a 35-minute world premiere in the second half of a concert! For as long as we don’t try to break this, we won’t be able to widen classical music audiences.” He is concerned at the ageing of audiences, of their being developed only within an overly restricted social class. The solution, he thinks, can only come from one place: “in any domain in the arts, ‘youth’ rhymes with ‘contemporary’. That’s true of dance, of theatre… and it’s not just the repertoire. We’ve been tardy about dealing with this, but there’s still time to try to do something.”

But what to do, exactly? To renew the way we think about concert programmes, as in his “carte blanche” at Radio France last season. He had slipped a piece by Mauricio Kagel into the middle of a 100% Beethoven programme: “Putting that piece in the middle of the concert was a real way of asking a question. One creates a tipping point, moving the listener into another dimension. That’s why I love residences, it lets you create that kind of experience, giving one a space in which to be creative. Creating new music must be at the heart of the approach.”

He talks about other ambitious projects “to fill in the gaps in his world view” and makes a statement that sounds something like a credo: “One of the most beautiful things one can do is to solicit new creations and truly to become a link in the history music by being oneself a key interpreter in the development of the instrument’s repertoire.” Chamayou therefore intends to multiply his number of commissions, “making precise choices, from composers I like, but staying very eclectic at the level of musical sensibility”. For his fortieth birthday, he will play forty commissions in a single recital. Chamayou wants to be a bringer-together or, rather, someone who consigns turf wars to the past: “today, the stakes have changed. There is a plurality of styles that we haven’t seen before, with the boundaries between them blurring; categorisation is becoming highly problematic. Contemporary music reflects a world that is heterogenous, multicultural, with scenes emerging everywhere, in the Middle East, the Far East, South America. My game plan is to position myself as an agent of that scene – if possible, a major agent – to represent the different influences rather than to separate them.”

So he’s excluding neither the heritage of Boulez nor that of Bryce Dessner – his next album will open with a Dessner piece “in pure E flat major. It’s going to be a transition album, completely a concept album, composed entirely of lullabies. There will be Balakirev, Alkan, Lachenmann… I’ve been wanting to do this for a very long time, it’s a very specific piece of imagination, very personal to me, because I’m an insomniac.” Chamayou is also preparing to set out on a new very personal and very unusual path: “the next project, in 2022, is going to be devoted to Messiaen’s Vingt Regards. Completely, because it’s going to be on two albums and I’m only going to be playing contemporary work written in homage to Messiaen: Tristan Murail, Jonathan Harvey…”

I can’t avoid asking: will the child who “messed around” à la Messiaen” on the family piano return one day to composing? “I’d love to. All these projects stem from a real frustration at having abandoned composing. But I don’t know which end to start.” So my question remains unanswered. For now.

[Update on 24th February 2020: a former version of this article referred to a concert at the Ravel Festival with the Czech Philharmonic. In the time since the interview, this concert has been cancelled; to avoid confusion, we have removed this reference.]

Translated from French by David Karlin