Founder of the Festival International de Piano de La Roque d’Anthéron and of La Folle Journée de Nantes, René Martin is getting ready to fire the starting gun for the 58th edition of the Festival de la Grange de Meslay, a festival still possessed by the spirit of its founder, the great pianist Sviatoslav Richter. We speak to Richter's spiritual heir.

TL: You are in charge of a lot of events. What is the recipe for a successful festival – or, at least, what are the ingredients?

RM: That's hard to say, because each festival has its own personality. At La Grange de Meslay, what I'm doing is to continue a story, the story of its founder Sviatoslav Richter. Therefore, I try to conform to his direction of travel. Above all, it's a piano festival: the acoustic can be rather unforgiving for ensembles. But there's an atmosphere that's absolutely magical, a quality of silence (which, by the way, is probably due to the acoustic) and a proximity with the artist which mean that exceptional things can happen all of a sudden.

Concert at La Grange de Meslay
© Gérard Proust

Mont Saint-Michel is different. You can't put on piano: there's a reverberation time of three and a half to four seconds... It would be an aberration! So the acoustic determines the programming; the place is extremely important. When I visited Mont Saint-Michel with the project to create a festival there, I saw at once that you couldn't ask the audience to go up 800 steps every day, so I conceived of a festival of the whole bay of the Mont Saint-Michel, designed as a voyage of initiation, which starts at Granville and then approaches a little at a time, passing through small villages and extraordinary churches. Finally, on Sunday, it's time for the ascent of Mont Saint-Michel to reach La Merveille at the top. Then – and this is a rare occurrence – the authorities have arranged for the Mont Saint-Michel to be exclusively available to us: from 6am to midnight, music reigns supreme. So I try to bring a spiritual extra to the place. It starts with an extraordinary identity of its own, but what I bring will add even more.

At La Roque d'Anthéron, when I discovered this extraordinary site, this green cathedral with 300 year old plane trees and 150 year old sequoias, I immediately imagined creating an auditorium. It was built in stages. In any case, the place also had its own force, right from the beginning. If La Roque d'Anthéron is what it is today, it's because all the ingredients were there: an absolutely magical place whose atmosphere is perfect for the piano. That's why the Festival is a success.

René Martin at the Nantes festival La Folle Journée
© DR

Tell us about La Folle Journée...

La Folle Journée is different: it's a completely new concept. I was already in charge of La Roque and of prestigious festivals. But I'm ever curious. I listen to jazz and rock concerts. It so happened that in 1993, I had been to a U2 concert at the stadium at La Beaujoire in Nantes, an incredible concert with sumptuous staging. Seeing an audience of 35,000 young people, I asked myself why people like that never came to La Roque, why I never saw them at the festivals I organise. It was a real wake-up call for me. I said to myself that I absolutely had to find the "keys"; if those people had only heard The Rite of Spring or Richard Strauss' Alpensinfonie, they would have been bowled over in just the same way! But unfortunately, they never get the chance to meet this kind of music.

So I had to create something that allows thousands of people to dare to come and meet classical music, demystifying its image, for example by organising very short concerts. All this was very carefully analysed, of course: I'm a stickler, this wasn't a case of doing crossover. So I launched the first edition of La Folle Journée in 1995 and it was extraordinary! 40,000 people attended and we sold 15,000 CDs at a time when everyone was telling us that recorded music was in its death throes and classical music would never attract anyone. In any case, the unity of the place is extremely important; it's essential that everyone runs into each other, artists and audience. There's something extremely fraternal about La Folle Journée!

At La Grange de Meslay, you are trying to be faithful to the spirit of Sviatoslav Richter. What does that mean? What were his values and principles?

First, it's about bringing the most elite performers to the stage.This year, we will have Arcadi Volodos, Mikhaïl Pletnev and Marc-André Hamelin, three crucial people in the history of piano interpretation. Marc-André Hamelin is a walking encyclopaedia: he's played just about everything, he has insatiable curiosity, technique, musicality... This is an artist who I don't believe has been accorded the respect that he deserves: he's a model for all other pianists.


La Grange de Meslay
© Gérard Proust

Pletnev is about invention and inspiration. He sometimes allows himself to take a score and add to it: for example, when he plays Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, all of a sudden, you'll hear him improvise, add a few small elements; you get the impression that he's composing the work, that it's being created under his fingers as he plays. It's pure magic! And Arcadi Volodos is absolute perfection. It was always that way with Richter: he would invite Pollini, Michelangeli; you were always hearing reference performances. So I respect that. If Richter listened to Volodos today, he would say to me "René, I'm giving up piano!"

Richter also brought us new people to discover. Both Andrei Gavrilov and Zoltán Kocsis first appeared at La Grange de Meslay: that was down to Richter! Similarly, this year, one of Nelson Goerner's students, Gabriel Stern, an artist with mind-blowing levels of virtuosity and poetry, will come to play the Liszt Transcendental Studies. Amongst the young pianists, we'll also have David Kadouch, a poet with so much intelligence in the construction of his programmes, to weave links between one composer and another – he has that in his blood. Richter would have loved these two artists.

How did you meet Richter?

The first concert I ever organised, in Nantes, was with Wilhelm Kempff. I was 21 years old and I'd been to see Kempff's agent. Somehow, perhaps by conviction or enthusiasm, I managed to get him to agree. For the second season, I went to Paris to see Richter, who was giving a recital. I had the good fortune to get access to his dressing room. I went in and he was surprised to see a young man asking him to give a concert. But he accepted! Gradually, a real bond was formed between the two of us. I started organising many of his concerts and then he entrusted me with his festival. It was the most wonderful reward I could have imagined! He was incredibly demanding on the quality of the programmes, down to the smallest detail. I made some mistakes, I learned, but all of that made me similarly demanding myself.

La Grange de Meslay
© Gérard Proust

Isn't this perfectionism paradoxical, given that he fell in love with a barn where the first concerts were played on uncovered ground with owls nesting in the rafters?

But this place has a telluric force, an enormous power! For Richter, it was the aristocracy of the heart. When he was on tour, it was absolutely essential that at least once a day, he would have an aesthetic shock. It might have been in a museum, or in a small chapel. I have a fabulous memory: I often used to go to fetch him from Italy and bring him back to France, with his piano in my Renault Espace. As soon as we reached the hotel, I would get the piano out and he would start work. One day, we stopped at Vence, so I ask the nuns to give us permission to see the Chapelle de Matisse, an extraordinary chapel, tiny, but with the stained glass windows, the ciborium, everything designed by Matisse. I left Richter there for an hour and a half. He sat in one seat which he never left; he was watching the trajectory of the sun through the windows, how the chapel changed colour. When he left, he wasn't speaking; it was a total aesthetic shock. And that's what he needed; that was his artistic nourishment.

Why did he fall for La Grange de Meslay? It makes complete sense to me. This is an ageless place, a 12th Century abbey which brings together the peasantry, the aristocracy, the simplicity of the rural world, the mysticism of the great builders – it's a place of unimaginable nobility. Richter was very sensitive to that and every time I go, every time I cross the threshold, I'm still captivated by the place.

René Martin
© DR

You are also conscious about passing your art to the next generation, for example by the masterclasses that are happening this year with Claire Désert. How do you see the younger generation?

I think the young generation of artists is exceptionally rich. I'm extremely confident about the future. I'm really favourably surprised by our young violinists, cellists, pianists... They're with it, they're extremely intelligent, they have the keys to pass on their own art, to share; when you see Tanguy de Williencourt, Nathanaël Gouin, Astrig Siranossian, Manon Galy, there is so much beauty in all these people! That's why today, I believe in the future more than ever. In days gone by, there were few elite performers; today, there are more and more. There were few because we didn't have all these ways of discovering highly talented young musicians; today, there are music schools and conservatoires in the whole of France and there are more and more very good teachers. You have 1,000 students at the Conservatoire de Laval, 1,100 at La Roche-sur-Yon, 1,400 at Cholet. Don't tell me that the French aren't music lovers! All these students who practice an instrument with demanding rigour. But there's the paradox – how to get them into our concert halls? That will be the name of the game in the coming years.

Translated from French by David Karlin

Click here to see details of all the concerts in the 58th edition of the Festival.

This article was sponsored by the Festival de la Grange de Meslay.