How Michael Korstick connects with composers


Baroque Music
Why does Bach's music seem so eternally valid?

„For me, Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti are the antipoles of the Baroque era, even though they didn’t know each other. In a manner of speaking, Bach embodies the principle of cosmic order in music, everything is conceived according to eternal rules. Every single note in Bach’s music is there because it MUST be there. There is always a higher guiding principle. This way the music becomes independent of its time and its instruments. You can play Bach on a synthesizer, and it doesn’t change the essence of the music. This makes playing Bach on the piano a fascinating challenge: where do you find room for interpretation in this strict framework? And what is the role of the modern piano, an instrument which Bach didn’t even know? If you play Bach on the modern piano it is something like a transcription. One needs to have a keen sense of the style to know what you can do and what you cannot, and at the same time you have to have an open mind in order to approach Bach’s music employing all the possibilities of the instrument.

Scarlatti, the antipode, fascinates me because there is not even a trace of ‘cosmic order’. This composer was a genius and at the same time chaos personified, the king of improvisation. His 555 Sonatas simply poured out of him. Problems of structure or voice leading were of little interest to him. If you changed a few notes here and there, it wouldn’t change a thing. In the different editions of his works you can find the most amazing differences, a few missing bars here, different notes or rhythms there – and none of this has any consequence, everythings works one way or the other. Between these two antipoles you have endless variety in the Baroque era, and it is a fascinating observation to see that it is Baroque music which attracts most non-classical listeners. Everybody likes to hear Baroque music, and be it in the elevator or in the car.“

Classical Era
Whom would you like to meet in musicians' heaven, Mozart or Beethoven?

„The two of them definitely met, even if we have no first-hand testimony of their encounter. Somehow I have a feeling that they might not have had much to say to each other, not only because of their age difference of 14 years. Beethoven was nothing more than a highly gifted 18-year-old while Mozart was a celebrity at the age of 32. They must have been worlds apart in their attitudes toward music, too. Mozart was the embodiment of natural perfection; when he wrote a piece of music it was practically finished in his head and only needed to be put down on paper. This process didn’t necessitate development. When Mozart knew for which medium he had to write, the computer in his genius head went into overdrive and delivered the ideal piece at the push of a button. No wonder that he was able to write 630 works in the short span of his life. And each one of them is perfection!


If, in contrast, you want to understand how Beethoven worked, all you have to do is look at his manuscripts: they look like chicken tracks. Very often you see complete chaos. Beethoven developed his pieces step by step, nothing was ready in his head beforehand, he was the master of work-in-progress. Every time he wrote a piece he developed form and material from scratch. This is an unbelievably demanding way of composing, but one of the consequences is that in his finished works you can discover so many different aspects of his personality. For us performers this is a very attractive situation because it provides us with a glimpse into the composer’s mind. Here and there he provides his pianists with the opportunity to depict the eruption of a volcano. Utterly unthinkable in Mozart. It is an interesting observation, that the typical Mozart player is not necessarily the best interpreter of Beethoven. The other way around, however, it might work better: being a good Beethoven player does not automatically mean that one cannot play Mozart well, except that one would have to invest a lot of extra work.


Let’s leave my passion for Beethoven aside for a moment: if I met him in musicians’ heaven I would certainly ask him a few questions about was is right or not in a few passages, but I don’t think he would interest me much as a person, for me he lives in his music. After receiving my answers I’d probably ask him very quickly where I could find Mr. Mozart.“

Romantic Era
With whom do you feel more of a kinship of souls, with Liszt or with Chopin?

In the symphonic repertoire of the late Romantic era there is something like a division between Bruckner and Mahler. You will hear the typical Bruckner conductor say that he cannot come to terms with Mahler, and the same goes vice versa. Conductors who love both composers equally and are able do both of them justice are the big exception.

For pianists there is a similar situation, the big question is: who is closer to your heart, is it Liszt or is it Chopin? Liszt was a musician who embraced the extremes, Chopin was much more even-tempered. For me there is no question that I feel a much stronger connection with Liszt than with Chopin, no matter how much I love the latter. But if you held a gun to my head saying that from tomorrow on I could only play either Liszt or Chopin, it would be easy for me to say: okay, no need to pull the trigger, I’ll stay with Liszt then!“

20th Century and beyond
A journey which never ends

„I often read that the 19th century is considered the Golden Age of the piano. But then, what are you going to call the 20th century? At the threshold of the modern age, the language of music and of the piano developed in the most incredible way into all kinds of directions. I find the usual categorizations totally useless. I mean, where would you put my ‘other’ favorite composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, who lived until 1943, after all? If I had to make a list of composers who fascinate me it would look endless, and it would still be incomplete. Of course, I am very happy that I have had the opportunity to record many works of the 20th century – practically everything by Debussy, Koechlin, Kabalevsky, and Ginastera – but it is still no more than the tip of the iceberg. I equally love playing the music of Ravel, Bartók, and Prokofiev, to name just a few. And the music never stops, there are so many new and fascinating works by the composers of our own time – but for doing everything which interests me, one lifetime is absolutely not enough!“