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Born in Klagenfurt, Austria, Ingolf Wunder began musical studies at the violin. At the age of fourteen, he made the switch to the piano and its repertoire. An impression was made at the 2005 International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, with his fiery mechanism, and after studying with Adam Harasiewicz, Wunder returned to Warsaw in 2010 to win Second Prize at the prestigious competition. Below is the transcript of our January 14, 2012 conversation with Ingolf Wunder.
EH: Your biography states that you began musical studies at the violin. You then decided to switch and concentrate on the piano. What was your level of proficiency at the piano at age 14 ?
Wunder: I started playing the violin when I was four. Music was always in my family. Part of our education was just to learn how to read music, to have a wider horizon. I played the piano just a little bit before I was fourteen, but I didn’t have any repertoire. So everything that I learned, everything that I can do now, I learned between the age of fourteen and now. I didn’t have any real education at the piano when it came to the virtuosic repertoire, but I felt the need to play it because of the huge interest that my first teacher woke in me.
One of my first pieces was Liszt’s Sonetto 104 del Petrarca, because I loved it so much. And I was somehow able to play it. Of course, I wouldn’t want to hear a recording of that if it existed (laughs), but somehow I was able to play it. So everything was sort of a ‘rocket start’ at the piano.
EH: Speaking of Liszt, last year was the bicentennial of his birth. What are your thoughts on this marvelous figure, and how would you compare his pianistic writing with Chopin’s ?
Wunder: Well, they are both completely different. Chopin’s music is deeper and really touches the soul. Liszt, on the other hand, was also man enjoying life, so there is a layer of a show-off, ‘Here I am’ type of attitude in addition to beautiful and sophisticated music. Liszt was absolutely my first love, I have to say. I played a lot of Liszt in the first years. I also played at the Liszt competition in Budapest (2001). I won the Liszt Prize of the city of Budapest there.
It was not until 2008, actually, that I truly discovered Chopin. After a lot of intensive work with Adam Harasiewicz, I realized that I had all the qualities that were suitable for Chopin’s music. But it took the right time for me to discover that.
But back to the question, as I said, Chopin is deeper than Liszt, but both have to be there. I actually like to combine them in the programs, to be honest, because it shows a variety.
EH: Your talent caught the attention of the music world at the 2005 International Fryderyk Chopin competition in Warsaw. What were the next five years like for you ?
Wunder: I have to say, I had a lot of ups-and-downs in those years. They were not connected with the results in Warsaw. I had problems with my motivation in those years, and even had thoughts of quitting the piano and doing something entirely different. It is, of course, always disappointing when you enter a competition and don't reach the final goal. But in retrospect, it was the best thing that happened to me at that point in 2005. If that wouldn’t have happened, I would have never worked at Chopin again and discovered the real sense of the composer.
EH: Were you then satisfied with your performance at the Chopin competition in 2010 ?
Wunder: Competitions are always a difficult topic. There is a lot of stress, especially if you are in the later stages of the competition. Even though you always have to play your own way – you obviously cannot do it any other way - you subconsciously try to play as ‘classical’ or as ‘straight’ as possible. You do this to have the greatest number of jury members behind you, basically. But this is what competitions are about. I played quite well, but of course, the stresses were there for all of us, and the freedom in my playing was not really there. But that was the time for that, and I’m just happy that it’s over (laughs).
EH: You won prizes in both of these categories – the Polonaise-Fantasy and the Piano Concerto. How would you describe Op. 61 and Op. 11 ?
Wunder: The Polonaise-Fantasy is a tricky piece. It has many different aspects. There are hints of polonaise, deep emotional processes, and philosophical thoughts as well. And altogether, you take these aspects and make one piece of them. That’s not an easy thing to do. So you have to plan everything, every part that you want to explore. And yet, you must let it loosen in the end to allow the piano to sing. It may be something subconscious, actually. At the competition, for me, it was the only piece where I really let loose and just completely didn’t think anything and just played. I think this is how it should be. But it is also very hard to describe.
In the Piano Concerto in E minor, I think it is important not to exaggerate anything. The music is so beautiful you can just let the phrases and lines speak for themselves, especially in the second movement. It’s very important to not overdo it. It can sound kitschy and just not nice anymore if you do that. It always has to be noble and round.
EH: What are your thoughts on piano competitions today ? Are they actually beneficial for the young emerging talents ?
Wunder: I’m personally not a fan of competitions. I have not played in many. Of course, there were a couple of youth competitions, but I don’t count them really. We would just play ten to fifteen minutes of music. Big competitions are, in my opinion, not so good for Art itself. But in our world, you have to do them up to a certain point. So this is a bit complicated. I think the goal is not to let competitions ruin your personality and your own view of things. Most of the time, you have to adjust a bit in order to be successful. But you must not lose your own personality.
EH: Your mechanism is the envy of just about every piano student right now. Are you a compulsive practicer ?
Wunder: I can be very lazy, but I can also be a workaholic if I need to be. So I can practice a lot. Technique is, for me, just a means to express what I want to say musically. I’ve never really struggled too much to play something that I wanted to play. But, of course, I also practice a lot. You always have to work (laughs).
EH: The Chopin Etudes. Every pianist in history has struggled with them. Which etude is the most difficult for your hand ?
I would have to say the thirds, Op. 25 No. 6.
EH: You mentioned earlier that you were studying with Adam Harasiewicz, a foremost authority on Chopin, and a pianist of exquisite refinement and taste.
Wunder: We met at the Chopin competition in 2005 and spoke just a couple of sentences to each other. In 2006, I think he attended a concert of mine. There was no real close contact until the end of 2008, when I felt that I had to do something with my Chopin playing. I wanted to go deeper with this composer. So I told him and asked if he would help me. And he was very much for it. So we started working.
Now, I would say that I consider him a real friend of mine, and I really adore him and love him as a person. This was something very important for me. I really need to have a good personal connection with the person. I cannot close the door and just talk about music. And for me, he is one of a few last true artists in our field. He’s lived his whole life with the music of Chopin and has only done what he’s liked, artistically speaking. And I respect that very much.
EH: There are many admirers of the Golden Age of Pianism who believe that today’s pianists are overly concerned with perfection, that they are a bit emotionally-removed and lacking certain qualities in their playing.
Wunder: I’m a fan of old pianism. The freedom that they took without losing the sense of the piece, the whole structure, is astonishing. It’s like looking at a beautiful landscape from a distance, still noticing all the details but never losing the global view. But for what many people lack nowadays, I’m sure there are several reasons. Our world has become so different, so quick. Everything has to be bigger, faster, and more. This is a problem for Art. But one has to keep the balance.
There are many great pianists that I adore, because I grew up with their recordings. These were so-to-speak my first teachers. My actual first teacher gave me all of his recordings. He had a huge library and I listened to those. Most importantly, I learned from them. I have to say, amongst all of these greats, I would have to say my favorites are Horowitz…Rubinstein, Michelangeli, Backhaus, Richter.
EH: You are primarily known for your Chopin playing, but you live in the city that housed the great masters of Classicism. Are you as comfortable in works by Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert ?
Wunder: As I said, my first love was Liszt, because I just adored his music. And then quickly came Beethoven. I played lots of Beethoven, also lots of Scarlatti, Mozart, Mussorgsky, and Rachmaninoff. These are all big interests of mine. For Schubert, I have to wait a bit. I feel that I need to be a bit older to make it ‘good’. That goes for Brahms as well. But of course, as you say, I grew up in Austria, was educated in Vienna, so I really was surrounded by the Classics.
EH: In your opinion, what is the utmost purpose of Art ?
Wunder: I would say that it is to describe, put feelings and human emotions into these works of art. It needs to touch the soul. I think that this is the purpose.
EH: Outside of music, is there a form of art that has captured your admiration and attention, perhaps something that has even influenced your artistry ?
Wunder: Well, everything shapes us and influences our artistry. I am very influenced by nature and the surroundings that we live in. The things we experience also have an impact. These include, of course, seeing paintings, seeing architecture, reading books that have a connection to the composers, etc. So you grow as a human being, and the more you experience these things, your music will grow as well.
EH: Do you believe that classical music is secure for the next generation ?
Wunder: I sincerely hope and wish it will be.
EH: What is the ideal impression that you would like to leave with your audiences ?
Wunder: I would like them to feel the music. When I listen to or play music, it is pure feeling – with every phrase, with every tone, I feel something. And I try to express that every time on stage. If it comes across to the public, then the goal is reached. If I see in the audience that people are really touched by the music, then I am happy.
EH: Is life as a pianist everything that you once dreamed it would be ?
Wunder: It’s basically as I expected. That’s a good thing. I enjoy every minute of it and look forward to all the adventures that lie ahead. Every life has its ups and downs. One just has to find the balance in it.
EH: Ingolf, we thank you for taking the time today.
Wunder: Thank you. No problem. It was my pleasure.