Interview

My heart belongs to Chopin

AmitYahav

THE magic of a piano: Amit Yahav in the driver’s seat. Photograph by Chelone Wolf.

BECAUSE A PIANO is not the easiest thing in the world to transport, you may find it surprising that Israel-born pianist Amit Yahav, a fundi of the work of Frédéric Chopin, who visited South Africa last year and returns this month, spent most of his formative years travelling. The son of a man in aviation security, he still loves the rush of being in a new place for a fresh new audience.

Born in Israel in the 1980s, Yahav was raised in Amsterdam and educated in London, where he lives, with his South African-born husband. “I’ve always viewed a violinist or a flautist with a little envy,” he says. “As a pianist I have a relationship with my instrument. But I don’t get to take it with me wherever I go. I get to the concert hall on the day of the concert and I’m at the mercy of what’s there. If I’m lucky, I have a phenomenal instrument to work with. But sometimes I’m not. One of my teachers, Niel Immelman, reminded me that sometimes when an organisation boasts about the quality of their piano, the only thing you can assume is the instrument has black and white teeth! I’ve learned not to have too high expectations of pianos and I’m generally pleasantly surprised; it’s better than the alternative”.

Having an Israeli name in this day and age in a society that’s oft volatile in its anti-Israel sentiment, is potentially inflammatory, he acknowledges. But the political face of music is nuanced: “Music needs to rise above that. The idea that we need to change our culture of classical music because all these pieces are written by ‘old white men’ is a tough one. I don’t know that a sort of equalisation has to be made. The whole ethos with which Beethoven viewed music, is that classical music is for everyone.  I have nothing against politics – we must be involved in the issues which shape our lives. But I think it’s not in the service of music; I lament the idea that we should listen to music because the composer – or the artist – is of a certain identity. It ought to be about the music itself.”

Yahav’s relationship with his instrument has always been loving. “It was always there. My mother wasn’t a professional musician, but she played. From as early as I can remember, I had this tendency toward it. I enjoyed the idea that you pressed a key and it made a sound. Without parental pressure, I realised this was a calling.  From the age of 10 or 11, as soon as I could read music, I used to sit for hours and sight-read whatever I could get my hands on. It was my first contact with the music. You understand it very differently, from the inside out.”

Yahav  spreads his pianistic skills wide. He has a small studio of students. He performs a lot, and travels excessively. Recording’s more complicated: “… it’s very interesting to try to bridge the gap between performing and recording, as every time you perform something more, it will be slightly different. It will be about the piano, and how you feel at the time, but when you record, you perform once with the intention that it stays forever. So, there’s a slightly limiting factor to it: at what point does something you would do in performance become an affectation if people hear it ten times over and say, ‘Oh, that’s how he plays this piece’?

“Of course, it’s a double-edged sword. So you’ll have ten takes. And the producer will say, ‘Which version do you like most?’ and you can say, ‘Well, I really like bar one in take 23, and I really like …’ and you cobble together this notion of what you think the piece should sound like which is the lovely thing about digital recording, because you really can create it. In performance, on the other hand, you dispatch an interpretation and you have to be daring because if it is the same every time you interpret it, it stops being interesting in the same way.”

Yahav is not just a concert pianist. He’s also a musicologist, armed with a doctorate from the Royal College of Music. His subject? Chopin. Choosing in this day and age to focus on a 19th century composer seems a tad old fashioned, perhaps. Yahav grins: “I wanted my research to be relevant to people who are not even musicians. I set out on this doctorate as a way of examining a phenomenon: Chopin has been in my life for as long as the piano has. His is such a household name that it was almost synonymous in my house for music that was nice to listen to, to the point where I think there was almost an association: if it is beautiful, it must be Chopin.

But Yahav is sentient to the untouchable reputation of Chopin: “Jan Paderewksi played a role in editing what is today known as the Paderewski edition of Chopin’s work. It became thought of as holy text. In addition to being a pianist, Paderewski was the prime minister of Poland, so it was vital to him to have a Polish composer as loaded with gravitas as Beethoven was in Germany. And Chopin, I think, on purpose, would write the same phrase in different parts of a piece and make very tiny nuances so that when the Paderewski edition came out, they homogenised. So, as soon as there is an agenda, the source gets clouded. My thesis said, let’s take all that into account, but let’s also work with the original text, which is, I think, the most direct link I can have with Chopin, from the distance of 200 years.

“My way of examining it was by looking at worded indications. I did a statistical analysis: how many times does Chopin use this particular term and where? And then I tried to construct an ontology and examine what the term means based on the context. The basis of the thesis was about three hours of recorded music, from Opus 1, offering a healthy selection of all the genres in which he worked. So there are nocturnes and mazurkas, polonaises and sonatas  … as much as I could fit into a thesis.”

Yahav doesn’t hold his knowledge of Chopin as a beacon to how the composer’s work must be played. He embarked on this study out of pure interest. “What came out of it is that I welcome a plethora of different interpretations. If everyone plays the same way, it becomes boring.”

Over the years, Yahav has enjoyed a complicated relationship with the idea of music competitions, in terms of the emotions invested in winning. One competition in his career stands out. “It was in Prague. My grandfather was born in Prague. He was one of the 669 so-called Winton children who were saved from Czechoslovakia during World War II by a generous benefactor. He has since passed away, but we have the letters his parents sent him via Switzerland: they have tiny holes where the German censors have cut out a word they didn’t think  appropriate. They stop in around 1943.”

In 2011, Yahav took part in a piano competition in that city. “My grandfather was 84. When he heard  I was going to play there, he said, no, he must come. And he did: on his own at the age of 84, my grandfather got on a plane and came to Prague to hear me play. This memory is close to my heart.”

Another association very close to his heart is his teacher Niel Immelmann. “Niel’s  late mother was called Nettie. She was quite an icon in the Bloemfontein community during her lifetime. The concert later this week in Bloemfontein is in celebration of her. Effectively she was sort of my pianistic grandmother,” he quips.

  • Amit Yahav performs with the Bloemfontein-based Odeion String Quartet, at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein on May 9 and Potchefstroom on May 12. Contact Hannie Hefer Productions, for details.
  • On May 19, Yahav performs a solo recital at Glenshiel Manor in Westcliff. Contact Saul Bamberger on saulb@polka.co.za for details.
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