Norman Krieger/London Symphony Orchestra/Philip Ryan Mann — Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2, Piano Sonata No. 1 (Decca)
Pianist Norman Krieger recently climbed a musical Mount Everest when he recorded the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Brahms with the London Symphony Orchestra. It's a marathon for which he's prepared for years, and all that effort, he says, is totally worth it.
"I can't think of anything that's more satisfying. You really feel like you're surfing a wave for 50 minutes almost. You can't really let your guard down, you always have to pay attention, and I think the primary asset as a performer is to really work in such a way where you're listening 110 percent from the beginning to the end and that helps you become a vessel for the music.
"There is a certain Teutonic edge to the first two movements in a way where you know you really are sort of climbing the mountain and dealing with the elements as they hit you because you're climbing upward. But then as I've gotten older and I understand the architecture a little bit differently now, I find that this is very mature Brahms. And he understands the accumulation of harmonies and dynamics, where you're starting at forte and then you're working your way all the way up to fortissimo."
I find it interesting that Brahms was a pianist, yet the music that he wrote for the instrument isn't necessarily comfortable under the fingers, almost even awkward sometimes. Did you find that to be true with his second piano concerto?
"I think that's true with everything Brahms wrote. And that's actually part of the idiosyncratic nature of him as a composer, I think, is that one is always working through harmonies and sometimes the physiology of the hand in relation to those harmonies is quite a struggle. Fortunately, I have a pretty large hand — I can reach an 11th — and the fleshy part of my palm is very suited I think to Brahms' sound world. But still even with those assets, there are just challenges from the first note to the last note.
"As one of my colleagues said to me once he said, 'You know it's quite an achievement just to get from the beginning to the end,' because 50 minutes is a good chunk of time. And even though I must confess in performance it doesn't feel like 50 minutes. It's the equivalent of theory of relativity I guess, but it feels like 15 or 20 minutes while you're playing it onstage because you're so focused and sort of in a different zone."
Speaking of your zone, is there a point as you're playing this work when all of a sudden you realize you are in the zone? Like say you are running a marathon, and it would take you a little while to kind of get into your groove — is there a point when you're playing this piece where you realize, "Oh, there I am. I'm right there in the groove."
"Sort of the consistent place where I feel the most content and connected, I would say are the 12 bars in the third movement with the piano and the clarinet, the F-sharp major section. I think those 12 measures are as close to one can get to divinity in this life at least in sound.
"This recording was one day or two days in my life, but the process of learning and growing continues. And so as long as I can still play it I'm just so grateful to have the privilege to hopefully represent Brahms in a way that he would be happy with."
To hear the rest of my conversation, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.