Christian Zacharias sounds not groggy, but a tad vacant. Which is understandable: it’s eight o’clock the morning after a concert -- Mozart piano concertos with Orche-stra Verdi of Milan -- and I’ve called to talk about a festival happening several weeks away in villages around the south coast of Fife. Down the phone from Milan, the German pianist-conductor answers my openers with audible patience. Yes, he’s looking forward to the East Neuk Festival at the end of June. This year will be his fourth visit. He loves the gentle scenery of Fife. He took his children on holiday there years ago so feels a special connection to the place. The church in Crail has an excellent acoustic. East Neuk audiences seem nice.
Nice audience, nice venues, nice scenery … The interview seems destined to founder in platitudes. But when he starts talking about the music he’ll be playing, Zacharias is suddenly, utterly engaged. As the festival’s resident artist, he’s giving three concerts and a lecture over the course of the four-day festival. All three programmes feature works by Beethoven and Brahms, a mix of solo piano and chamber pieces with violinist Isabelle van Keulen and the Leopold String Trio.
The repertoire is standard fare, but not in the hands of Zacharias. Revered as a musician of depth and intellect, he seems to treat interpretation as a distillation process that cannot be hurried. “With age -- I’m 61 -- I’ve started approaching Brahms more seriously,” he says. “I’m not talking about the barnstorming energy of the Hungarian Dances or the cheekiness of the scherzos. It’s his melancholy that takes time. Only after living with his music for decades have I really started to settle into it.”
He describes Brahms’s melancholy as infinite, vulnerable, unapologetic, sincere. “This is no mere compositional tool; it was entrenched in Brahms’s soul. Take the Opus 10 Ballades, which I’ll be playing at East Neuk. He wrote them when he was young, but even these pieces hint at that profound, unbridled sadness. There’s no compromise with Brahms. It’s simply very serious music.”
“Unbridled sadness” sounds daunting. Can a young person relate to it? Or someone who’s perhaps a bit happy-go-lucky? “Of course; just differently. I’ve always loved Brahms, but I used to read the melancholy as a surface-level aesthetic. Now I’ve had years of delving into the scores I’ve started to feel almost intrusive. Following a composer through his deepest emotions is very intimate.”
Zacharias is concerned with the “how” in all this. What is it in the scores, which particular notes and performance markings make the Brahms brand of melancholy so profound? “That’s what’s so hard to put into words,” says Zacharias. “Of course he writes in minor keys. So do most composers. But Brahms stays in minor. Sometimes he’ll start a piece in major and then end in minor. The four Klavierstucke, Opus 119 [part of Zacharias’s opening East Neuk programme] culminate in a wild outburst of E flat minor, tumultuous and volatile. It’s determined stuff.
“One trick he uses is to place the final chords of a piece in the lowest range of the piano. The third -- the note that gives a harmony its major or minor quality -- is often written so low down the keyboard that it’s almost impossible to play it without sounding dirty, like a dark cello or a bassoon. Chopin always puts the third at the top of the range so it sounds pretty and sparkling. Brahms, though, leaves a resounding murkiness.
“And another thing. Brahms’s piano writing is difficult. It’s awkward. There’s technical struggle involved, but never for the sake of being conspicuously flashy. That would be superficial, and Brahms is never, ever superficial. He always gets right to the heart of essential, universal questions, so that even his technicality becomes about human capability and limitation.”
Zacharias’s festival line-up includes one of Beethoven’s epic late piano sonatas, Opus 110 in A flat major. “Beethoven shares with Brahms the intimacy that comes with most artists’ late styles. But Beethoven remained an optimist to the end. His last piano sonatas are packed with passion, trauma, arioso -- sometimes all in rapid succession -- but the ultimate gesture is always radiant, always looking upwards. I think that is the major difference between him and Brahms, who always leaves you with something dead serious.”
After a lifetime of studying these composers, Zacharias says navigating the awkward, searching lines of their late music can feel “almost humiliating”, like charting the physical degeneration of a personal hero. “And that is a relationship I don’t think a younger player can appreciate.” He laments the fact students these days will often play anything and everything. “I waited until I turned 60 to play Opus 110. I’d finally reached a point in my life where I wanted to tackle the thing. Now it’s living with me, and of course changing along the way.” I ask what those changes entail, but Zacharias won’t say. “That’s like asking someone what their voice sounds like. It’s something that develops internally, so it’s impossible for me to be objective.”
There are still several key Beethoven works Zacharias has yet to perform, and some he will perhaps never perform. The towering Diabelli Variations remain on the to-do pile, while the Hammerklavier Sonata -- stormy, devastating, noble, vast -- will probably never surface under Zacharias’s fingers. “People are too precious about these things,” he says. “It’s important to acknowledge that not every score by Beethoven or Bach or Mozart or Brahms was a masterpiece. It’s a taboo to say so out loud, but some of what they wrote simply doesn’t work. The Hammerklavier is a scandal of technical imperfection. I’m happy that I’ve reached a stage in my career where I can be straightforward about that. I’m not particularly concerned about the rules of classical etiquette.”
Now that the conversation has thoroughly warmed up, I return to the subject of the East Neuk Festival. This time the response is genuinely hearty. “You’ve not been before?” he asks. “You’re in for a treat. Beautiful scenery, fabulous venues, yes; but then again a lot of festivals have that. What’s special about East Neuk is the intimacy, and the musical exploration that it allows. On the second day I’m doing a lecture on why Brahms sounds like he does, all that melancholy we’ve just been discussing.
“Sometimes I get swept up with my busy schedule: I’m doing a dozen concerts in Italy and Germany between now and the end of June. But preparing for that kind of lecture gives me an opportunity to develop my musical ideas. It forces me to really think through and articulate my interpretations -- which, of course, has a profound effect on the way I play.
“And because the same small audience comes to both the lectures and the concerts, the process is done together. And that means the concert atmosphere is very engaged in a way that most festivals aren’t. I play better under those conditions.
“Aha! There you go: the real reason why I keep going back -- I play better at East Neuk.”
Christian Zacharias performs at Crail Church on June 30, July 2 and July 3 as part of the East Neuk Festival. For more information visit www.eastneukfestival.com.