Interview with Dorothee Binding

Dorothee Binding is a freelancer journalist and co-owner of the company Nightfrog Ltd.

What are you hoping to convey to listeners with your interpretation of Mozart?

William: "I’d like to play Mozart in a way that touches people, that they can feel. Many people claim that he always sounds the same, but I don’t find that. I’d like to show how much differentiation and excitement Mozart could bring to describing the most varied emotions and human colours – through music."

Playing Mozart emotionally is for many people an absolute sacrilege. For them he has to sound perfect, sparkling, with every note precisely controlled and perfectly placed. Isn’t that so?

William: "That’s exactly how I was taught. It made me concentrate mainly on playing flawlessly. The music, after all, is so perfectly written, so transparent and so precise, that many musicians concentrate on not spoiling it. If a note is missing in a run, for example, everyone immediately hears it. That has caused us to lose the way of playing naturally. It could be compared to a piece of diamond jewellery that you might, at most, admire in a window display but would never wear."

In making recordings, you have the possibility of retaking all the tricky spots as often as you like and polishing the music until it shines like a diamond.

William: "I don’t like recordings that are heavily edited. I want the listener to have a concert experience when they hear my CD. That’s why I prepare myself inwardly before the recording so that when I sit down at the piano I feel as though I’m actually playing a concert. If a few notes go astray I’ll leave them in. As long as it doesn’t disturb the musical unfolding, I find that’s completely OK. For this reason my recordings go relatively quickly. I planned three days for the first CD because I didn’t want to be rushed, but normally I’m finished in a day and a half."

What instrument will you be playing in the production at Bavarian Radio?

William: "A Steinway. But recently I’ve also been practising on the fortepiano, and this year I’m playing two Mozart recitals on a fortepiano. I find that really exciting. When I play the fortepiano my sense of timing and rubato is much freer."

Because on a fortepiano you reach the dynamic limits sooner?

William: "Exactly. But you also have to keep in mind that Mozart wrote these pieces for a space that was much smaller than our concert halls, and so these instruments were quite adequate. If the only point is to make Mozart sound like he used to sound, I think historical performance practice doesn’t make sense. That’s why there are also many recordings that perhaps come close to the sound of earlier times yet don’t sound alive. I find it really exciting that so many musicians are involved in early performance practice, but I think it’s important that the music not lose its emotionality. It shouldn’t be turned into a science."

You’ll be recording five CDs in five years. Are you proceeding chronologically?

William: "I would do that with Beethoven because you can closely follow his musical development and growth from the early works to the late sonatas. With Mozart, it’s not so extreme, I think: the first sonata isn’t necessarily worse than the late ones. The four sonatas I’m recording first are very lyrical and very personal. Mozart wrote the A minor Sonata shortly after the death of his mother. It’s a very unusual, very special piece. In the first movement, the left hand plays a percussive rhythm in the bass and you hear deep despair in the chords. I don’t believe Mozart had ever written anything like this before. It sounds like the nervous pounding of a heartbeat. And then come the runs in the right hand, unrelenting up to the end. In the second movement there is a melody that goes up and comes down again. I hear in this movement a longing for his mother, or for heaven. It looks upward. For me it is a reaction to the first movement, which describes the last moments just before death."

You said that a few years ago you suddenly had the feeling of understanding Mozart’s music. What was that moment like?

William: "I was lucky to work with a teacher who was one of the greatest Asian Mozart interpreters, the Chinese pianist Fou Ts’ong. I can still remember my first lesson with him. He said that Mozart’s works must be interpreted and analysed psychologically, that you need to know exactly what he meant in every phrase and not just concentrate on beauty and playing the right notes. Suddenly I understood how incredibly dramatic and full of emotion his music is."

Many musicians and critics are of the opinion, however, that one can play Mozart best as a child and then again only as a mature artist. You just turned 30. Is this a good moment for you to record Mozart’s complete piano sonatas?

William: "This recording represents a new and great challenge in my life, one that I greatly look forward to. I have the feeling that now is the best moment for me. My time as a prodigy is past, but also I don’t question everything the way I did in my early 20s. I know my strengths as well as my weaknesses and have accepted myself as I am. Earlier I actually tended to work against myself and always looked for the things I lacked. In the meantime, the good things in me have taken on greater significance, and I want to give them space to mature still further. In Korea they say that a big earthenware vessel takes longer to make than a small one. I’m giving myself a lot of time for my development. Only now do I feel that I’m gradually finding out what my vessel should look like."