It's a lively look and the hint of a smile that reveal the ardour which is the dominant trait of this genial spirit. Don't trust appearances, which are those of a man about town: at the piano, Philippe Cassard is the embodiment of the darkest Sturm und Drang. Whether he's playing a sonata in B or a sonata in B flat, straight away, you hear the vigour of thought, the hot-blooded fervency of his playing, the way he pushes himself to his limits and drags the listener with him, always a touch further than that listener thought possible. 

Another trait is the voice. It's that of an artist, that of the artists of whom family portraits show him to be a disciple, like in Pierre Gripari's stories. The voice of a radio script, across the airwaves of Notes du traducteur. Last but not least, the great voices that he has accompanied, now and in the past: Christa Ludwig, Natalie Dessay, Wolgang Holzmair, Karine Deshayes, Donna Brown to name but a few. I interviewed the hilarious, unique monsieur Cassard.

Philippe Cassard © Jean-Baptiste Millot
Philippe Cassard
© Jean-Baptiste Millot
JH: How does the interpretation start: at the piano, or from sitting down with a score?

PC: One doesn't make up one's mind to “build” an interpretation. It's something that comes from the depths of time, if one goes mining in the sources, as well as from one's own age. Take, for example, the Liszt Sonata in B minor. How does a monster like that fit into the head of a kid of 19, the age at which I learned it? At 19, you listen to your teachers, even if your first approach is made easier by love of the work, intuition, ideas one might have at various levels of clarity, the sheer joy of being faced with such sublime piano writing. Michel Bouquet used to say to the conservatoire students that “you have to chew the role, digest it until it becomes part of you”. The Sonata is one of those works that you have to chew over indefatigably, both at the piano and in your head.

It's a work that I played a lot until I was 27 or 28, and one that I recorded in a France Musique broadcast for young musicians. Then, I filed it away in my memory and left it there for 15 years. But in that 15 year period, I discovered Liszt's symphonic music, his religious works and a stack of piano pieces that I didn't know. Then I read Alan Walker's huge biography, published by Fayard, as well as dozens of Liszt's six thousand letters, his travelogues and Alfred Brendel's analysis of the Sonata, which (following Alfred Cortot) suggests a reading that starts with Goethe's Faust. All this information enriched my imagination, excited my sensibilities. Besides which, in 2010 and 2011, I dedicated five episodes of Notes du traducteur to the Sonata in B minor, which I can honestly say forced me to study the facsimile of the manuscript even more meticulously. It follows, naturally and logically, that the performance style flows from all of this, and develops with time.

Facsimile of the Liszt <i>Sonata in B minor</i>
Facsimile of the Liszt Sonata in B minor

At home, I've never played this piece all the way through. When it's just for me, I'm simply incapable of summoning up the levels of energy that are essential to execute the work as a whole. But in the course of study, I've gone through everything with a fine-tooth comb. In concert, I experience an extraordinary joy at playing the Sonata, and that's fundamentally what lets me project myself into the work and let it explode into life.

Like Abdel Rahman El Bacha, do you follow Rilke's precept: pay no attention to the work of others in the past? Or, on the contrary, do you think it's important to listen to the great pianists of the past?

PC: I love listening to the great pianists, I never tire of it! But it would never occur to me to copy them; that would be ridiculous. Bear in mind that the recordings only give us part of the truth. Do you realise that Rubinstein, who was only five foot six, had a huge sound, with far more projection than Horowitz? Vintage recordings inform us about the text, the ideas of tempo and style, and also, for example, on the instruction that Liszt's pupils handed out to generations of pianists who have played and recorded through the 20th century. Why refuse to understand this precious body of testimony? Are we so feeble and suggestible that we would leap onto the piano to create a crude imitation? I find Rilke's precept to be full of arrogance. Of course, it's important to think things through by oneself and to set one's imagination and creativity to work. But what is that “self” other than what has been formed by education, teachers and culture? Is it possible, one day, to divorce oneself from all of that? I don't think so. The rule, in any case, is this: don't just copy someone else. It's immoral, degrading and anti-creative!

Philippe Cassard © Jean-Baptiste Millot
Philippe Cassard
© Jean-Baptiste Millot

It's a musical nonsense as regards what it means to be an interpreter. It's a fine word, “interpreter”! So yes, whether at the piano or on your desk, try to unravel the details of a score, try to understand them, to put them in proper perspective, to let them infuse your playing: nothing is more of a treat.

We've heard you play little Bach, except in Yves Angelo's film Sur le bout des doigts

PC: What I could say would be of little interest, so I prefer to stay silent!

I grew up during the cult of Glenn Gould which was stirred up by the fanatics of the time, Bruno Monsaingeon and Jacques Drillon, who imposed an unimaginable intellectual terrorism! I spent years extracting myself from the dogma which said that it was Gould or nothing. At the time, the world of the harpsichord was unknown to me. The revelation came in 1986, when someone gave me Gustav Leonhardt's recording of the Bach Toccatas.

Gustav Leonhardt's <i>Toccatas</i> © PHILIPS Digital Classics
Gustav Leonhardt's Toccatas
© PHILIPS Digital Classics
Listening to it, I understood immediately that the rubato, the eloquence, the freedom that the harpsichord allowed (and which Bach's writing mastered) were simply impossible to reproduce on a piano. I heard this music in the way the score was telling me it should be heard: baroque – what nonsense! Dancing, featherlight, rhythmic, accented, stressed! The harpsichord is an instrument with little power, which releases an incredibly energy in the slightest trill or arpeggio! On the piano, you can always try, but it doesn't work. Of course, saying that, I don't want to badmouth some wonderful musicians: I'm thinking about my friend Cédric Pescia, who plays all Johann Sebastian Bach admirably. As well as Andras Schiff, Martha Argerich, Friedrich Gulda, Ivo Pogorelich...

Let's talk about you and singing.

PC: I got caught hook, line and sinker when I left to study in Vienna: suddenly, musical space opened up. Previously, with Dominique Merlet at the Paris Conservatoire, everything had been about orchestra and organ; suddenly, the worlds of opera and lieder entered my world. I must have heard sixty or so operas in three years – each one several times. At the time, the price of a standing place was less than one and half Euros. When I returned to France, I met singers: Christa Ludwig, Wolfgang Holzmair, Catherine Dubosc, Véronique Dietschy, Donna Brown,  more recently Natalie Dessay and Karine Deshayes. Bit by bit, I came to the understanding that my playing had to forget about the piano hammers as much as possible, to be closer to the singer's infections, breathing, their way of tying together the sounds and intervals. Listen to Horowitz in a Chopin Nocturne: he makes the piano sing like a prima donna and he's right to do so!

How do you decide that a piece you're working on is ready to be played in concert or recorded?

PC: I'm sorry to be so prosaic, but it's the date. If I've been told that I'm going to be playing Beethoven's fourth piano concerto on June 25th, I don't have any choice about it. So let's phrase your question the other way round: if I know that I'm going to play a work in concert on June 25th in some given year, when do I have to start working on it? Same thing for a recording. I have two recordings to do in December for Sony: I don't get a choice, they're not going to shift the dates to suit me, so it just has to be ready.

The question is to know what one's deciding to play in public. When I won the Dublin competition in 1988, my English agent asked me if I would accept an offer from the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester to play Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini. I had two years available; I bought the score, realising that there were some difficult things here and there, but not overly concerned. Six months before the concert, I started to work on it seriously and realised that it was a far more dangerous work than I had imagined. At the time, my teacher was Nikita Magaloff, and his help was crucial for the fingering, the economy and precision of movement. But the date was bearing down on me inexorably... Two months before, I called my agent and asked him if it would be possible for me to play the Grieg concerto in stead. I got a roasting! “You agreed, when you were perfectly at liberty to refuse! Now, the programme is fixed and it's out of the question to change it. Either you play this work of I'm not looking after you any more.”

Some bars of <i>Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini</i>
Some bars of Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini
So I worked like a maniac and the result was well worth it! I even played the Rhapsody again on several occasions. The rhythm of our life is governed by the calendar, by our projects, new items in the repertoire and reprises of old ones: it's up to us to deal with what gets thrown at us.

How does your relationship to the stage and the piano change, when you are doing a half dozen concerts a month?

PC: Above all, the concert is a work of skill, an unlimited field of experiences, the "final product" (or, at least, supposedly) of the daily, solitary work at ones instrument. Now, the intimacy is gone: you're sharing. As soon as I walk on stage, the nerves vanish, at the same time as the horrible, intense weariness that I feel just before. The adrenalin remains, and if I like the piano, if the acoustic is pleasant and I'm in good shape, the control centres – which are in total overload during the first few minutes – sort themselves out into a simple state of vigilance. Sometimes, I don't feel well enough prepared and I feel I'd be better off going home... Changing pianos at each concert poses problems, but you have to view it as a source of progress. That's when you can verify that the sound quality in your head can be reproduced on any piano. Listen to Michelangeli or Richter: you can recognise them regardless of what pianos they are playing. Sound quality is something that one carries within oneself and that one shapes throughout one's life; for me, that's the signature of the interpreter and the keystone of what people call "technique".

Tell us about a particularly memorable piano.

P. C. : The 1898 Bechstein that I played in my Debussy cycle. It's an instrument that I found by complete accident, belonging to a private individual in the environs of Paris, and which my piano tuner at the time told me about. In perfect condition, in spite of its age, a 90-year-old with a 20-year-old's soul! It so happens that in between the time I asked if I could use this piano for the recording and the time that I was scheduled to try it out, the owner of the instrument died. At the request of her widowed husband, I went to try the piano in front of a family in floods of tears and an open coffin. It was straight out of a film by Luis Buñuel. And when I arrived at the piano, I was in tears myself: the cantabile of the mid range, bass notes like gongs, ideal to create Debussy's sonic foundations, and highs that sang like Beethoven played by Kempff!