Rhinegold Photo credit: Marco Borggreve
Louis Schwizgebel: ‘I used to prefer solo playing.
It’s really free so I could do what I want’

Guy Rickards

The long game

3:47, 17th October 2016

Thrust into the international limelight at the age of 17, time is on the side of Louis Schwizgebel. Guy Rickards meets a young pianist who has already passed a number of important milestones in a career which is growing in range and ambition

An ‘artist to take note of’ was one critic’s response after Louis Schwizgebel’s BBC Lunchtime recital at London’s Wigmore Hall in February last year –  curiously faint praise for a pianist who won the Geneva International Competition at 17 in 2004 and was runner-up in the Leeds Piano Competition in 2012. A BBC New Generation Artist, this was not even Schwizgebel’s debut recital at London’s most prestigious recital room: seven years earlier, one reviewer was ‘gasping for breath and in awe and admiration at what I have been privileged to hear’.

Born Louis Schwizgebel-Wang in 1987 in Geneva to a Swiss father and Chinese mother, his first disc, for Pan, was an enterprising programme coupling Mendelssohn’s Concerto in G minor with solo pieces by Mozart, Moszkowski and Erwin Schulhoff’s Cinq études de jazz.

His next solo disc, Poems (recorded after his move to the Aparté label and dropping ‘Wang’ from his professional name) showcased Schwizgebel’s thoughtfulness in programme planning, building a succession of pieces in varied compositional styles yet united by a common inspiration in poetry. Most telling was the juxtaposition of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit with Elis, three Nocturnes by Schwizgebel’s older compatriot, Heinz Holliger. ‘Elis is another, much briefer triptych and goes very well as an introduction for the Ravel,’ says Schwizgebel. ‘I like to programme recitals linked by a dramatic theme, or even through harmonic links, where one piece finishes with a sound or chord that might also be the start of  the next.’

His forthcoming International Piano Series recital in London combines both these unifying factors in a programme of ‘Light and Shade, Innocence and Experience’, with a finale in the often baleful key of C minor. ‘The first half is light and innocent with Mozart’s Sonata No 18 in D major K576 and Schumann’s Kinderszenen,’ he explains, ‘but the second has a dark and tormented mood, with Beethoven’s 32 Variations and Schubert’s D958 Sonata united by their C minor tonality. Thematically, Schubert alludes to Beethoven, too.’ Schwizgebel put the programme together a year ago and has been honing his interpretations since then, including a high profile recital in Beijing in January (now on YouTube).

The composers of the Classical era are Schwizgebel’s main focus for the present, with forays into more modern repertoire comparatively rare, whether Holliger’s tiny triptych, Ravel or Prokofiev, whose first concerto he performed with scintillating verve at his Proms debut in 2014 with the National Youth Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. ‘I feel very close to this repertoire – Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert,’ he explains, ‘although in a few years I would like to play more Brahms. I have played a lot of the chamber music but not the solo pieces and concertos.’

Beethoven is particularly close to Schwizgebel’s heart, as can be heard vividly throughout his fresh interpretations of the first two concertos with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and compatriot Thierry Fischer (Aparté AP098). The account of the second concerto was particularly satisfying, a young man’s rendering of young man’s music in a manner that often eludes older players. He also played Beethoven’s fourth concerto at Leeds, so are there plans to complete the cycle any time soon? ‘One day I will record them, but not yet – and I have not played the Emperor at all!’

Schwizgebel’s first disc for Aparté was of Brahms’ two cello sonatas (with Ophélie Gaillard) and Clarinet Trio (adding in Fabio Di Càsola). Chamber music remains an important part of his music-making: ‘I used to prefer solo playing,’ he confesses. ‘It’s really free so I could do what I want. Concerto playing is easiest of all – you play less! But chamber music can be so restricting and not so good an experience.’ However, over time his view has changed and he now finds the chamber music-making he is doing fun, especially with friends and colleagues such as violinist Benjamin Bellman.

Brahms and the later Beethoven concertos aside, a longer-term desire is to play the complete Schubert piano sonatas, including the unfinished ones in their original, incomplete forms. ‘One of my favourite works is the Unfinished Symphony; I would keep to the incomplete versions of the sonatas, though that might depend on specific cases.’ So he’s not keen on other hands interfering with composer’s originals? ‘No, they usually put too much of themselves in, like Busoni did with Bach.’ Some of Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert songs pass muster for Schwizgebel, however, such as Der Erlkönig and ‘Ständchen’ from Schwanegesang (his Proms encore). Whatever the version, Schwizgebel’s complete Schubert will be, without doubt, a project to watch.

Louis Schwizgebel’s International Piano Series recital of works by Mozart, Schumann, Beethoven and Schubert takes place at St John’s Smith Square, London on 2 December. www.southbankcentre.co.uk/ips

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