How did you meet each other?At the Munich University of Music. We both studied with Karl-Hermann Mrongovius and had lessons directly after one other every week.
When did you start playing as a duo?It was in late 1999. Lucia had wanted to play in a piano duo for a long time and asked Begoña Uriarte, who was just as influential to us as Karl-Hermann Mrongovius was, who a good partner for her could be. She suggested trying Sebastian... for the first two years we had lessons from both of them, which proved an immeasurably valuable foundation for our duo.
It was pretty risky to take part in the two most important competitions – ARD in Munich and Murray Dranoff in Miami – so soon after founding the duo...Yes that’s true, but on the other hand it was a really motivating goal. It was pretty much exactly nine months for us until the ARD competition and then a further year – with a different repertoire – until Murray Dranoff. In addition to that, Lucia was teaching in Innsbruck and Munich, Sebastian was still a student and had to prepare for both of his finals (in piano and music education). To a certain extent that drove us beyond the limits of what we could manage, but at the same time it showed us our potential – both musically and with each other.
Have the prizes paved the way for your career?Primarily, they have opened doors; just through the concert invitations that were associated with them. Of course, our performance was expected to be at a very high level, which was a hard but a good learning experience. In terms of your career, concerts like these only partly help because you are performing there primarily as the competition winner. Then the following year, the next competition winner will play... Competitions are very important for you yourself, but they no longer offer any kind of sustainability because there are now so many of them. If you know that and can deal with that, however, they can indeed help you.
Do you have to be very close to someone, related or married, to play in a piano duo together?It definitely helps. At a certain point the piano duo creates a great closeness and certainly an intimacy too, especially with four-hand playing where you share one instrument and therefore sit quite close together. For both of us, the piano is not automatically a place of harmony - however, if you can harness and channel your tensions, it will really benefit the music. But you only get to this point if you have a stable relationship with one another.
How do you practice or rehearse? Do you practice everything together?We each practice our own part first until we have really mastered it, have an overview of the whole piece and have formed our own approach to its interpretation. Only then do we join and explore the music together. From this point, the musical working happens mainly in the duo, while the pianistic polishing of specific passages is done individually.
What is the difference between music for two pianos and piano four hands?For us there is no difference. Of course you could say that two pianos are more virtuosic and suited for the big concert stage, while four-handed is more like intimate chamber music, and it would be just as easy to find works that prove this theory. But if you actually look at it like that then you are very much restricting yourself, and many composers have created a level in their duo works that you can’t really label either way. Ultimately, good music for piano duo is just music that can only be played by two pianists. For this reason we only differentiate between works that we believe in or works that we don’t – the medium doesn’t play a role.
But there must also be tangible differences?There definitely are differences in the way of playing, the sound, the use of pedal, the precise pianistic dosing... these differences can even be enormous. There are duos that have consciously decided to go for one or the other - we have loved both formations equally right from the start. The audience also likes it if we switch from one piano to two during a concert, which is why we enjoy playing recitals with both elements, if the programmatic conception permits it.
It is claimed that the repertoire for piano duos is really limited...Compared to solo piano that is true, but isn’t that the same for all instruments? Compared to all other instruments and chamber music ensembles, the piano duo actually has one of the largest original repertoires, plus lots of transcriptions.
Who defines the concert program - yourselves or the event organizers?Generally we create the programs ourselves. Festivals are the exception, they often have a theme and sometimes specific requests that correspond to it. This is how we had the great pleasure, for example, of playing the “Three Dances” for two prepared pianos by John Cage at the Beethovenfest Bonn, in the middle of a ‘normal’ duo recital – so altogether there were four grand pianos on stage!
A special feature of your concerts is that you usually moderate them yourselves. Why is this?We don’t see ourselves as pianists in an ivory tower – we like talking to our audience. We also see moderation as an important intellectual bridge to classical music.
But surely good music doesn’t need an explanation?We don’t explain anything; we just create a link to something else. For example, if you know that the works by Carl Maria von Weber, which sound so typically Romantic from today’s perspective, came about at a time when there was no German Romanticism in that sense, then you hear them in a very different way.
You also arrange works that were composed for other ensembles. If not for repertoire reasons, then why?Because of the longing to play other great music ourselves. But we approach this very respectfully and only select pieces that ‘work’ as piano pieces – that correspond to the nature of the instrument. It’s a big seduction, because in terms of technique, anything is possible for two pianists.
Arrangements are sometimes viewed with skepticism...Precisely for this reason: arranging the score is doable, but the sound is wrong, so it is not convincing. In the 19th century it may have been different: at that time it was mainly about distributing new works and therefore there was a four-hand version of practically every orchestral or other kind of work: it is only logical that lots of average quality have been produced. But a really good arrangement is a great thing, even if it seems ambitious – let’s take Liszt’s two-piano version of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, for example. At first we thought: that’s absolutely impossible because of the final movement alone, where in Beethoven’s version a choir and vocal soloists are added in. But with Liszt it simply became good piano music that really has you gripped.
Who are your favorite composers?It changes, but it’s usually the composers whose works develop, change and grow between us over the years – at the moment we’re finding that with the Brahms sonata and Ravel’s La Valse, for example. This deep familiarity once again creates a special connection with the composer.
You often add contemporary pieces into your program. Wouldn't that fit better to a different kind of event for a specially educated audience?The exact opposite: a new piece in the program also gives a breath of fresh air to the classics. And also good contemporary pieces are irreplaceable – they express things that happen in our beautiful but at the same time harrowing present and society, and that is also a task of music. Some listeners are themselves astonished that it is the contemporary piece that appealed to them the most.
There have also been quite a few pieces written for you, how did that come about?Something like that always starts with a question – either from the composer or from us. Either way it is a fantastic thing and a great honor when a piece is written especially for us and we can then work with the composer. We find it particularly important that these new works are played more than once. That is also why we integrate them into our concerts now and again, even years later.
Is it difficult as a couple working together so closely?You can’t answer that generally because every couple is different. We both feel the strong presence of the other not as restrictive, rather as something that broadens and relieves our minds. Also, although we may spend a large part of our time together, we still live two lives and not one.
You both even teach at the same institute. Was that planned?In universitary music education, there is only a limited number of places for teaching piano, and that we both ended up teaching in Innsbruck just occurred. In the meantime, it turned out to be lucky coincidence for the students as well: each of us teaches an autonomous and ‘normal’ solo class, but our students all know and get along well with each other, and they can learn something from one another. It’s a harmonious working environment, and from time to time we enjoy realizing mutual projects.
Do you also teach piano duos there?Sometimes in the context of chamber music, but teaching a permanent duo is not and has never been our intention; that isn’t how we understand our job at the conservatory. Currently, we have two students who have actually been playing together for some time and we support them because they are really talented. However, that will probably remain the noted exception that confirms the rule.
So what does teaching mean to you – does it not take away time from practicing and concerts?We made a conscious decision to do it because both of us see teaching as the logical extension to our playing – one which stimulates a different way of thinking of and approaching things. And if you take the work with students seriously, on a personal level you get a lot back in exchange for the energy that you put into it.
The two of you have a little daughter. How compatible is your family life with your life as performers?We really like our life, precisely because our daughter gives it a normality that keeps us grounded every day. Music, concerts, practice, hotels, train journeys and transcontinental flights are a natural part of it for all of us, just as much as the playground and kindergarten, playing, reading, being silly, cuddling and simply being together as a family. That means a lot of organization and, sure enough, also doing without some things that you used to think you needed. Well, in agreement with all other parents: when you’ve got a child, that’s just the way it goes. Everything changes – and for the better, we think.
Does your daughter play piano too?No, she loves the harp. The first time she said that she was four years old and we were totally amazed! But she stuck to her guns and has been playing now for half a year. And she’s already decided what she wants to be: either a harpist or an ice artist that makes ice sculptures.
With two performing musicians as parents, it stands to reason that your daughter would also want to be a musician?Sebastian always says that hopefully she will go for something more sensible...but in all seriousness, in that case she'd first have to convince us with persistence and talent. Being a musician is one of the nicest professions, but it takes a lot of self discipline, a lot of staying power, a lot of luck and, not least of all, a strong stomach. No one should enter this profession just because of family tradition. If she really wants to do it when she’s older, then of course she will have our support. But at the moment we regard it the same way as when a little boy says he wants to become a fireman.
Why are you not on Facebook or Twitter?This kind of communication just doesn’t suit us; at least it hasn’t so far. We prefer talking, telephoning and emails, because in spite of their speed, joy of photo sharing and the good feeling of always being up-to-date, social networks certainly have their dark sides. There is Big Data, there is the high addictiveness of smartphones, but moreover, we feel an emerging hollowness and flattening of how people communicate and deal with each other, and we don’t like that. Brian Eno once put it very well: “I have noticed that I communicate with more people, but not so in-depth. I have noticed that it is possible to have familiar relationships that only exist online and have little or no physical elements. I’m not convinced these are worthwhile changes.”
The interview was held by Henri Ducard
Lucia Huang & Sebastian Euler, May 2015