Pianist  György  Sándor
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Pedigree is something which is part of all living things.  For some it is of no importance and for others it is the only consideration.  Show Dogs and Race Horses have their breeding at the top of their biographies.  Royal personages list their lineage right away, and big and small titans of industry and commerce hope (or force) their offspring to accept the mantle of the family business.  Ordinary people seem to try to find at least one interesting or notable ancestor to bolster their standing.  Though not trying to crow about it, I include a link to some photos and information about my father's father in the brief summary of my own accomplishments which is at the very end of each of these interviews. 

All of this, of course, is physical circumstance based on bloodlines and DNA
things we are born with and cannot change.  Many of us also undergo some sort of rigorous training for our chosen profession, and this gives us another family into which we can graft ourselves.  Masters instruct apprentices and send the youngsters into the world when they have gained the skills and experience needed to carry on the traditions in an acceptable manner.  In the performing arts — specifically music — it is expected that everyone pass along the techniques and share the insights gleaned from a lifetime of experience.  These talents are not owned by anyone, but kept by each in trust for the succeeding members of the guild.

Which brings us to the subject of this conversation, pianist
György Sándor.  It would be safely assumed that his training was with a great pianist, and that is the case, though his mentor would not be one that immediately springs to mind.  Sándor was taught by Béla Bartók!  Now remembered only as a composer, Bartók was also a fine pianist, and as such was able to impart a particular kind of understanding on the youngster.

Though other names are included in his résumé, there was a special bond with Bartók that permeates his life and career.  More details are given in the obituary placed at the end of this conversation.

I had the privilege of spending an hour with Sándor in February of 1990 when he was in Chicago.  He was gracious and kind to me, and eager to pass along his accumulated knowledge.  I was especially pleased that he gave generously of his insights and voiced his strong opinions throughout the chat. 

Here is what was said that afternoon . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  Do you adjust your playing style at all reflect the acoustics of the halls around the world where you play?

György Sándor:  If that's possible, of course I try my best, but onstage everything sounds totally different.  Experience teaches one that an elongated-shaped hall will usually have more variation than a rounded hall.  Depending on what material is being used, I would say one can't and one shouldn't change too much.  There was one exception, if I may mention it.  I played once at the Royal Empress Hall in London, which seats 14,000 people, which is the size of a sport arena.  I happened to be there the night before, and Myra Hess performed.  I learned a great deal by the way she handled the acoustics.  She played everything much slower, and with no pedal at all.  So I tried to do that when I played there.  But usually one tries not to over-pedal in empty halls, which fortunately doesn't happen too often.

BD:  Do you travel with your own piano?

GS:  Never.  I did before, and it's a torture; it's totally unnecessary.  I did travel with a piano to Brazil; I took one of the best, clearest-sounding Steinways from New York because there's a lot of humidity and heat in Rio de Janeiro.  It arrived there, nobody touched it and there was absolutely no sound that came out of it.  The piano is very strongly affected and changes with a different climate.

BD:  So it's better for you to get a piano that is acclimated to wherever you are!

GS:  Yes, and if you are lucky you might get a good piano, which is not always the case!

BD:  If you're always getting different pianos, how long does it take you to adjust to each new keyboard?

GS:  I personally play through every note of the whole program exactly the same as it will be for the recital.  I have to be familiar with the pianissimos, fortissimos, the little unevenness and the little noises that may exist.  It's sometimes a torture.  Sometimes there's a note that sticks out, or two or three notes that stick out, and you have to play those always softer.  Unlike flutists or singers, we can't carry our own instrument.  It's far too complicated.  There were a lot of surprises when I carried pianos with me years ago.

BD:  You must have a special piano at home that responds perfectly to your touch.

GS:  I have a Steinway piano at home, and of course, when you practice it does suffer after a while.  It's kept in as good shape as possible.  It's very important to have a very sensitive mechanism.  Maybe that's why so many pianists force, because the piano is not sensitive enough.  I don't want to mention different factories, but a good way to prevent that is to have a very sensitive instrument.  You don't want to use brute force.

sandor BD:  When you come to a new piano which is a good piano, how much do you make that piano sound like you and how much do you adapt yourself to the sound coming out of the instrument?

GS:  That's a very good question.  I think it's mutual!  That's why I very often when I announce that I'm playing in a certain city, I put down for example "Three Chopin mazurkas" and I did not name them.  If they call and ask me which mazurkas I am going to play, I tell them I save that until I see how the piano is, how the acoustics are, and then I can choose the one which sounds the best on that piano!  What one tries to do, of course, is to take the best advantage of the instrument and whatever ideas you get from the instrument.  It's a continuous interchange.

BD:  Do you do that for yourself, or for the audience?

GS:  For the music!  The audience usually responds to music; that's why they come to concerts.

BD:  What do you expect of the audience that comes to one of your concerts?

GS:  [Chuckles]  I hope that they like the concert, but how shall I answer this question?  There are numbers you play and you will have success with those numbers.  If you play the A-flat Polonaise or the Moonlight Sonata or a Schubert Impromptu, you know that the public will love it.  The public usually responds to music that they know.  When they know the music, then they know how to respond.  Music is not a concrete language.  You can't communicate facts; you can only communicate certain relationships between sonorities, and unless you are accustomed to those sonorities and their style, you don't respond!  People hear a major modern work and they like it somewhat, but if they would know that piece really well, they would really like it.  So I would say that general audience likes the more familiar pieces.  Obviously one can't play only familiar pieces, and luckily in my fairly long existence at the piano, I gave a lot of world premieres
not only of Bartók, but other composers, too.  I always try to find something that is new and good, too; not just new.

BD:  Are you bringing just sonorities, or are you bringing something behind those sonorities?

GS:  [Chuckles]  When we're talking about music, it's very hard to pin down things.  There are too many intangibles involved.  When it comes to technique of piano playing, that's another story.  That's a skill you can learn.  Anybody can learn to play the piano.  It's just like playing golf or bicycling or playing ping pong.  But when it comes to music, music appeals to emotions through the nervous system, through the physiological equipment which we have!  So music primarily is an art that stimulates or soothes the nervous system, and by which certain emotional associations come about.  That's why a lot of pieces are simply called "sonata."  It doesn't have a program.  When Beethoven wrote the Eroica, he planned it all around Napoleon.  Then he decided he wasn't the right guy, so he just called it the Eroica Symphony.  So music evokes simply feelings and emotions.  How we evoke those feelings, that's very intangible; one can't explain that.  Sometimes you hear a wonderful phrase.  If you repeat that wonderful phrase exactly the same way, the second time it's a very different story.  It's not surprising anymore.  So it's a continuous process of breathing, respiration, motions, movement.  Strangely enough, music is not just sounds; it's also motions and emotions.

BD:  Then for any one piece, it would seem that there were infinite right ways of playing it.

GS:  Exactly, within certain limitations.  You can't play a prestissimo piece adagio, but you can create a certain mood, and within those moods you can vary them in unlimited manner.  When I play Opus 111 by Beethoven, the last of Beethoven's piano sonatas
which I've played 600 million times alreadyevery time there are always different aspects, different ideas about the music.

BD:  Is this what differentiates a great work from a lesser work
the depth that is contained?

GS:  The durability, yes.  The time is the factor.  The difference between popular music and what we call "classical music" is not that one is better, not at all!  Popular music lasts much, much less time!  You need change.  Every few months or every few weeks or every year, you have to have a new melody.  The melody or the handling of the music is not the same as what we call "classical music," where every note is important.  Popular music is mostly improvisatory.  Classical music is improvisatory too, but within certain limitations.  The structure of the music is very clear, and within that you can change your moods.

BD:  Now you're talking about durability.  When you're creating a world premiere, do you know that this one will be durable and something else will not be durable?

GS:  I may know it, but I may be wrong, too.  I remember very well when we gave the world premiere of the Bartók Third Piano Concerto.  This was in 1946, very shortly after Bartók died.  It was at Carnegie Hall with Ormandy, and it was very well received by the press.  Virgil Thomson, who was a really great musician, wrote a very pleasant review.  [See my Interview with Virgil Thomson.]  He said everything was fine.  They liked my playing, the orchestra was very good, the audience enjoyed itself, and here we have a composition that may last a season or two!  [Both chuckle]  That was forty-five years ago, but it still goes pretty strong!  So it's hard to say.  But I think that if you talk about people who know music, or are experts, they should more or less be able to assess what is good music and what isn't, and what will last.

BD:  When you were playing it back then, did you know that it would last 45 years?

GS:  [Without hesitation]  Absolutely.  Not forty-five, but 145 or 245 years.  It was his last finished composition; actually the orchestration was finished by Tibor Serly, but it was the last work he finished.  Unfortunately people associate that work with weakness in the last days of a man who suffered.  They somehow treat that Third Concerto as if it was a compromise, that it would be a more introverted, more delicate piece than the other ones.  It isn't at all!  It's just as forceful, just as dynamic, except Bartók utilized fewer notes.  The First Concerto is full of octaves in the piano part; the Second Concerto is full of chords, and the Third Concerto is unison melodies, one voice or two voices, but the expression and the meaning of the music is just as majestic or melancholic or virile as any of the other concertos.  It's more accessible because we got used to Bartók's style by that time.  We got used to it, and now we respond to it much more.

BD:  Did Bartók know that this work would be a success?

GS:  I don't think he knew; the poor man was very busy with his leukemia.  He was dying.  I don't think he counted on success, but he had absolutely no doubt in his mind that the music he wrote was here to last.  He was completely secure about himself.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  How has our assessment of the music of Bartók changed since the time of his death?

with bartok GS:  I would say we have to examine this question from different aspects.  Time helps a great deal because more and more people play it, and more and more people know it.  Therefore it penetrates more and more in the musical world.  We talked about "durability," and good music will become popular if it lasts.  This kind of music does last.  However, like with every composer there is a certain stamp that people put on their compositional style.  For instance, Rachmaninoff is supposed to be romantic and sentimental, and Bartók is supposed to be barbaric and hard.  This, unfortunately, puts a stamp on the interpretation of the music.  Today when you hear Rachmaninoff, it's not romantic, it's sentimentalized, it's dripping.  And this is very interesting because we have the Rachmaninoff recordings where you can hear approximately what Rachmaninoff wanted to do!  Nevertheless there are people who play the Third Concerto fifteen minutes longer than he did.  Every note is sentimentalized.  It's squeezed out; it hasn't got that drive, that demonic or inspired quality that he had.

BD:  This is not to say, though, that if he were still alive today he would not be playing it differently, is it?

GS:  I would say he would play it just as differently as we all play differently our Hammerklavier Sonata or Bach.  We have all kinds of new ideas, but fundamentally I'm sure he did not change the mood of those pieces.  Nobody does!  There are many little changes of nuances, but we like to always talk about "today."  We forget that "today" is a very continuous something.  There was "today" ten years ago, and there will be another "today" 20 years from now.  One always thinks that today is dramatically different than yesterday.  Not at all
— only in peripheral things!  The essential things in musicor in anything elsefundamentally are the same as they were, as long as human beings are the same.  There are no mutations of human beings.

BD:  [Chuckles]

GS:  But going back to Bartók, since many more people play his music, and since he wrote a piece that's called Allegro barbaro, they have in mind that Bartók has to be played percussively and barbarically.  That, unfortunately, puts a stamp on a lot of Bartók performances
even in Hungary!  He left Hungary many, many years ago, and there was no break in a tradition in Hungary.  But all over the world, whenever you hear Bartók it's usually done in a ferocious, barbaric, sort of motoric way.  I happen to be very fortunate.  I studied with him four years; I heard him play any kind of music, and the most important characteristic of Bartók's playing and interpretation was rubato, freedom, an improvisatory quality.  That was the most important thing.  Of course, then come the arguments.  "Why did he write so precisely the metronome signs; why did he write so precisely the duration of the piece?"  That's simply because in those days when he wrote his music, nobody knew a thing about his style; they didn't know what to do with it at all!  So he had to write a lot of information.  But when he played those pieces which he marked so very carefully he played them completely differently!

BD:  So he assumed that any performer who got under the skin of the music would then make it his own and take it beyond the printed page?

GS:  Just like any other music!  Just like with any other music!  Very often he wrote down exact metronome markings, and he played those totally differently.  A very good example is the First Piano Concerto.  I happened to study with him the First and Second Concerto.  The metronome markings in the third movement of the First Concerto are excessively fast, but all our colleagues
the honest, good musiciansall read the markings and say, "That's what Bartók meant; let's play that way."  I heard Bartók play it very differently.  If you follow exactly the metronome marks in that particular one and in some of the other pieces, too, the character totally changes!  In the last movement of the Opus 14, which is a slow movement, the metronome marking is incredibly fast!

BD:  Then why did he make this outlandish marking?

GS:  That question comes up all the time.  He had a little pocket metronome.  Not the one that you use or I use, but one with a little string and a weight hanging on it.  It wasn't accurate at all!  So his metronome markings should be considered as relative markings.  When 64 is followed by 80, then you know that this section is faster.  But certainly do not take the absolute measurements with the markings.

BD:  Then why don't the publishers go back through the scores and either eliminate the metronome markings or change them from precise measurements to "slower," "faster," and so forth?

GS:  Good question.  Right now we are involved in re-editing Bartók's music.  I'm in touch with Peter Bartók.  He sends me lot of things including the Third Piano Concerto, and whenever I come up with any idea of interpreting it, the answer by the publisher and by everybody is, "Bartók wrote this down; it must be exactly the way he wrote it down."  Who am I to argue?  I recorded the concertos again in Hungary, last year.  They are coming out in April, and we spent hours with the correct tempo markings.  The real answer is, "Because he wasn't fussy.  He wasn't dogmatic or pedantic."  He wrote an approximate something, and he knew very well that when it gets played in Orchestra Hall or Fischer Hall, the acoustics are different and the tempo will be different.  Check his recordings of the Mikrokosmos.  He recorded, I think, 45 of them and the exact metronome markings are there in the music.  Just listen to him and how he plays!

BD:  They're not close to the printed indications!

GS:  No!  The mood of the music is what counts, not the speed.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Is there a special kind of Hungarian fire that permeates Hungarian music?

GS:  [Thinks for a moment]  What shall I answer?  I have to say, "Yes," no?  [Both laugh]  There's wonderful folklore in Hungary which Bartók fortunately collected at the very last possible moment.  It was very hard because before him there were no mechanical gadgets to record those things, and afterwards he couldn't have done it because it would have been washed away.  He went to those places and picked up the folk material which was practically intact.  Those were the days between the First and Second World War.  He didn't travel much so the influence was not very strong.  There is Hungarian folklore, and that of course influences composers, but geniuses are very few in Hungary or in Czechoslovakia or in the United States.  There are a lot of people who are in music and who write music, especially nowadays, but real great minds, creative minds who incorporate all that is good from the past and do something new with it are very few!

BD:  Is the music of Bartók on the same level as that of the other established European geniuses such as Beethoven or Mozart?

GS:  Absolutely!  Without any question.

BD:  Are there others, either of Bartók's generation or of the succeeding generations, who are on that level?

GS:  I would say humbly that yes, there are a few.  There's Prokofiev, there's Stravinsky, there's Debussy, Ravel, Shostakovich.  Then there is the Austrian school.  Schoenberg I admire.  He's tremendous.  I just heard yesterday his Pelleas and Melisande which is a wonderful piece.  I think what came afterwards was a very sad business.  This dogmatic formula was propagated not by Schoenberg so much, because he knew that there's no such thing as atonal music.  But for more than 40 years, the so-called modern avant-garde composers all wrote in this arbitrarily established, very limited and limiting style which is called "dodecophonic music."  There's no atonal music at all!  There are only series of tonalities which are not well established or organized.  But there's no such thing as atonal music because the vibration of the air and the overtones create immediately a tonal center.  There is no way to create a major musical form without reference to pitch.  I would say that Bartók was very much aware of the so-called dodecaphonic compositional style; he simply rejected it, and so did Kodály.  I am hoping maybe there will be somebody who comes up soon because we are already in 1990.

BD:  We seem to be getting away from the dodecaphonic style.

GS:  Finally they realize that it was a wrong direction!  I shouldn't say "wrong," because you learn from anything.  As a technique it's just as interesting as writing a mirror canon starting from the fifth note.  You can create all kind of techniques in one's compositional style.

BD:  Do you think that perhaps historians 100 years from now
or even 50 years from nowwill see the same kind of mistaken dogma of communism and draw a parallel between the two?

GS:  I think communism is a total anachronism because it simply doesn't figure at all.  At the time it was formulated by Marx, the social conditions were such that it seemed to be true what he thought
that there'll always be more and more poor people and less and less real rich people.  But with the American formula of consuming goods in your country, that simply vanished.  So communism is simply nonexistent.  It's an imagined system, and what we call "communism" is nothing but a military dictatorship.  Everything that you call communism or fascism is the same thingit's military rule aided by strong intelligence; a one-party system where nobody is supposed to have his opinions, but only has to work with the party.  [Laughs]  Dodecaphonism is worse because it is a technique that might be respectable and acceptable, but the premises are totally off.  It simply is the illogical thought carried to the absurd.  Consider another art-form.  In the old days, architecture was based on the pyramid systembroad base and narrow top.  That is stable.  What if they begin to build in all kind of directions, and you are able to create any kind of shape or form if you use the right material?  That goes against gravity, but nobody really says that there is no such thing as gravity.  If you build something and you don't consider gravity, the whole thing will collapse!  Well, in music we have the same problem.  [Both laugh]  They simply failed to recognize the fundamental material of music, which is vibration of the air with all its overtones. 

BD:  Are you saying tonality is musical gravity?

GS:  No.  It's an analogous thing.  Not tonality, but the vibration of the air that cause harmonics which are based on a bottom note.  When you play two notes of different pitch, they have their proper harmonic columns.  If some of those columns coincide, you have consonance.  If many of them don't coincide, then you have dissonance.  If you have dissonance, that already drives the harmonics in a certain direction where the clash of harmonics diminishes or ceases.  Now that doesn't make you always have to write consonant music, but there's an inherent quality in music and in vibrations that steers the music toward a certain direction.  Once you recognize that it exists, then you know that there's a tonal center!  You can go away from a tonal center, and our Western music may be superior to other musics
Oriental and othersbecause we can modulate, too!  As long as you consider a tonal center as a point of reference, you don't have to write in C major or in C minor; not at all!  But you have to relate all the sounds that you produce in relationship to the point of departure.  You don't have to go back to the tonic; you can wander all over the place, but there will be a central balancing pitch which will be the tonal center.  Take the Chopin Scherzo no. 2.  It starts in B-flat minor, but it's not at all in B-flat minor.  All the themes are in D-flat major, but it starts somewhere else and it resolves itself in its home tonality.  All of Bartók's musicthe Etudes and all the most dissonant thingsare all centered around one tonality.  When he writes pitches in two tonalities, or puts three flats or two sharps, it looks like two keys, but there always is nothing else but one tonal center where he incorporates other notes outside of the diatonic scale.  That's an acoustic thing, and I don't think anybody can do anything about it.  You can say that you will do something about it and you can write down a lot of notes, but...

BD:  What advice do you have for composers coming along today who want to write for piano?

GS:  May I quote Kodály?

BD:  Please!

GS:  I asked Kodály, just before he passed away in 1967, about dodecaphonism and he said, "Tonality is like a highway.  If you get off the highway either you get lost or you have to get back to tonality."  So my advice is nothing else but get your tonal center and relate everything to that one tonal center!  You can create all the tensions and all the releases, but you cannot substitute that with colors; you cannot substitute with volume or with rhythmic patterns, because normal music, ordinary music, includes all those things!  Those alone will not be able to create an acceptable formula for composition!  All you have to do is have reference to certain points of departure or arrival.  Actually, many pieces start not on the tonic.  Of the four Chopin scherzos, only one starts on the tonic, and of the four Chopin ballades none starts on the tonic.  The Beethoven First Symphony doesn't start on the tonic.  So you don't have to be all the time in the tonic, but you have to shape the whole structure in reference to your tonal center.  Then you have good chance to write music
if you have talent!  [Both laugh]  Because talent you need, too.  You need originality.  You have to use the same media, the same tools, and be able to create with those tools something original.  And do not bypass those original ingredients.  We know a lot of so-called avant-garde modern composers who are simply on the peripheries of music.  They take just a few rhythmic gadgetsnot even harmony, just certain ingredients of musicand they try to write a complete piece out of those ingredients.  It is just like if you sit down to have a meal that is nothing but curry.  You can vary the curry, but this won't be a meal!  With or without curry you can have a good meal, but with a meal you have to have your basic components — your carbohydrate, your proteins, your minerals.  In music you have to have what we call melody, which can be many, many different things, and the harmonies and rhythm.  Bartók didn't bring anything new in his music.  Nothing new!  He simply expanded in rhythmic direction, in harmonic direction and melodic direction.  In form he couldn't create anything much new because there is no way to create a new form.

BD:  Still???

GS:  Still!  It's either two parts or three parts!  You can't do a thing about that!  But if you write five or six parts it's been broken up into units of twos and threes.  Now if you write a symphonic poem, that's a different story because there is a plot.  That's something else that holds together the sounds.  Or an opera; you don't need a tonal center in an opera
it can wander back and forth because something (which is the plot or the text) will hold the whole complex of sounds together!  But when you write absolute music, you need that tonal center.

BD:  But even in an opera don't you have to have each section relate to itself and have its own tonal center?

GS:  Wagner tried his best to never put a definite cadence in anything, but there is no such thing as atonality, no such thing.  Schoenberg also knew that, but people like to hang on to clichés.  They use a mathematical formula and don't repeat the notes.  God knows why!  It's not new at all!  Bach also used twelve notes!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  You've been playing piano for so many years.  What advice do you have for younger pianists coming along?

GS:  [Thinks for a moment, then chuckles]  I don't want to quote Bartók again, but he said, "Practice!"  [Both laugh]

BD:  Beyond practice.

GS:  There is an enormous body of wonderful music already written, and hopefully much more will be written.  Music is something to enjoy and something to live by and make!

BD:  From this huge body to select from, how do you decide which pieces you will include on your programs this year and next year, or this week and next week?

GS:  That depends where you play.  For instance, I went a great deal to South America and I concertize there still a lot.  In most of those cities you don't give a recital and then come back in five years; you give a recital, and if they like it you do another one and another one.  You give five recitals, and the next year when you come back you play maybe fifteen recitals.  It's changing a little bit now, but that's how it was before.

BD:  Are they thirsting for your artistry?

GS:  Well, if you sit down and play the piano and they like you, what would you think would be their normal reaction?  They want to hear you again!  If you play Beethoven, let us hear how you play Chopin.

BD:  Rather than, "Let me hear you play more Beethoven"?

GS:  Well, okay!  I'll play more Beethoven!  But after a while they say, "What about..." and I'm sorry to say this because it's very controversial, but I don't know any one single performer or artist who's good in Beethoven and is not good in Brahms, or who is good in Bartók is not good in Chopin.  There is no such thing because taking for granted that one composer writes for all human emotions, if you can express all these human emotion in one composer's style, you can express it in other composer's styles.

BD:  So what you're saying, then, is that once you have learned pianism, you can then use that for every composer?

GS:  Pianism is a skill.  Piano playing is a skill that anybody who's able-bodied and has ten fingers and moves normally can learn.  Anybody can play the Brahms Variations or the Chopin Études.  Anybody can learn that skill.  Anybody.

BD:  Then what is it that makes a good performer of Beethoven a good performer of Brahms?

book GS:  If you have a very good typewriter and you know how to spell in English, that doesn't make you a writer.  But you have the tools!  Now if you happen to be a good writer and don't have a typewriter and don't know spelling, then you are in trouble.  But if you have the tools, then you can express your thoughts.  Now when you play Beethoven, if you are a very good pianist you play in a rather natural way.  You don't force the piano
unless the music calls for forcing.  If you are able to express basic human emotions, such as directness and colorfulness convincingly, then you apply that!  If you take the Moonlight Sonata, you certainly won't play the first movement gritting your teeth, sitting there holding your muscles tight and playing pianissimo.  The mood is totally off!

BD:  You let it flow.

GS:  The mood has to be created.  This is a very complicated.  I did write a book on piano playing, and in that I try to point out that the emotions we feel and that we create have certain motions.  These show how you move at the piano.  When you play a very angular, staccato, hysterical piece, then you won't use gentle motions.  And the reverse is also true.  If you play something very gentle, you don't use excessively tight, compressed kinds of activity.  So the moods have to be created by your attitude and by your performance of the music!  To play the notes, there are many ways to teach piano, but there's only one kind of human anatomy.  Unfortunately, most piano teaching is based on forcing and building muscles which already spoil the whole coordination.  And if the coordination is spoiled, your respiration is spoiled.  If your respiration is spoiled then your phrasing is spoiled.  It's all one, the whole thing.  So my advice to young pianists is to enjoy themselves.  In my own programming, if I come to Chicago every 30 years, let's say, then I will try to play music that most of the people don't even remember, or don't even know exists.  I try to play music of different aspects so they don't classify me as a specialist.  It's too late now, because I'm classified as a Bartók pianist in the United States and in some other countries.  [Both laugh] 

BD:  Of course, you could be classified much worse.  Being a "Bartók pianist" is certainly a wonderful thing to be.

GS:  He is one of the great composers, so I'm delighted to play Bartók.  But as I mentioned before, if you play Bartók very well, you will probably play Mozart and Beethoven just as well.  There's no such thing as a great Chopin player.  If you are a great Chopin player, people really mean you play certain groups of Chopin's music.  Well, Chopin wrote very dramatic, very virile, very sentimental, very serene, all kinds of music.  If you play all these very well, you will be able to project those moods on other composers.

BD:  Exactly.

GS:  What happens is that all of us have a certain affinity, a certain temperament, let's say.  Some of us are more dramatic, some are more spontaneous, others are more what you call excitable.  So the more excitable pianists will play excitable music by Bach, Bartók, Beethoven, Schumann, and the serene pianist will play serene music by Bartók, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann!  If you really play Bach well, or if you play all 32 sonatas of Beethoven
not in public, necessarily, but if you are able to play a whole body of music, you are as good in every kind of music.  We are too many pianists, so people like to put a tag on us which says, "You are a Chopin player."  Mainly it depends what country you come from.  When I came here many hundreds of years ago for the first time, I was the Liszt pianist.  Of course!  I came from Hungary, so I was a Liszt pianist!  My first recording was all Liszt!  I wanted to give a lecture on Rachmaninoff, but they asked for Liszt, and then more Liszt and more Liszt!  I tried to refuse and then I managed to play other things.  I gave concerts!  I went to Mexico and gave 35 recitals in a season.  I had to have repertory, so I played everything.  And I studied everything with Bartók, too!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  I want to ask you about recordings because you've made many.  Do you play the same in the recording studio as you do in the concert hall?

GS:  No!  Of course not!

BD:  How is it different?

GS:  In every possible way.  May I quote my book?

BD:  Please do!

with bartok GS:  There is a chapter where I draw a parallel between live performances and canned performances, or competitions, which are very similar.  In live performances, what is the most important thing when you go to a recital?  You want to hear a piece of music in a very unique, very artistic, very beautiful way, possibly with individuality, maybe with little excesses here and there, but something very personal and very different from the cliché.  When you go to a live concert hall, you expect the pianist to play from pianississimo to fortissimo
the whole range from the lowest, most hardly audible sound, to the loudest one.  You expect a lot of coloring.

BD:  You expect everything!

GS:  You expect anything because you can have it.  On the microphone you cannot have these things. Suppose you play a very, very personal, interesting phrase in a very unusual way.  You hear it on the recording and at first it's wonderful.  You hear it again, wonderful.  The third time, you know already it's going to happen, and on the fourth time you expect that subtle surprise, but there's no more surprise because that surprise already took place!  And after a while it begins to irritate.  Excessive things begin to irritate.  So in a live performance you can and you should do something much more spontaneous and much more improvised than on a recording.  On the recording you have to stay fairly close to the average standard performance.  You can naturally show personality, but it's not the same.  For instance, when you end a statement on the piano in a concert hall, there's a pause.  If you pause for the same length of time in the recording, people would think that something happened.  And the dynamics are different, even with CD and even with the better-developed microphones today.  There's no comparison of what you can hear live and what a microphone can take.  Even if you have the world's best microphone, people who will listen to that music through their cheap loudspeakers which will limit the volume.  The range is totally different.  For example, when you build up a crescendo in the concert hall, you reach the top and there's the most expressive point to put an accent.  You have to, it makes sense.  But if you do the same thing on a recording, that climax is reached on the microphone much sooner because a microphone simply cannot take it.  So when you get to the punch line, nothing happens.

BD:  It all sounds very sad, actually.

GS:  It's not sad!  We have to compensate for it.  You should strive for the best.  You might learn from experience that you start your pianississimo not way down, but from pianissimo only, and you go up to fortissimo to make the climax.  In the concert hall you can start from much softer and go up higher.

BD:  So it's a bigger range.

GS:  There are definitely two different ways, at least two different ways
one for live performances and others for recordings.

BD:  All of this aside, are you basically pleased with the recordings you've made?

GS:  Never.  One is never pleased with recordings.

BD:  And yet we play your recordings and think they're wonderful!

GS:  Well, I'm delighted when you play them, and funnily enough, when I listen to them ten or fifteen years later, then I begin to like them more.  But there's no comparison!  It's just like film and theater; you can't really compare.  You have to have a different technique when you act in front of the camera, and when people look at you from 50 feet away!  It's a different story.

BD:  One last question
are you optimistic about the future of music?

GS:  Very.  Of course!  We have now the majority of the human race coming into music now
Japan, China, Korea.  With all due respect, we have 230 million people living here in the United States.  All of Europe has 400 million people.  Russia has nearly 300 million.  India alone has 900 million, and China has over a billion.  And music is going strong everywhere, more and more so.  What we call "Western music" certainly goes all over the world!  The difference between Western music and local music is that Western music is primarily a physiological experience, not a cultural experience.  You don't have to be able to speak French to enjoy Debussy, and you don't have to belong to a certain country to play their music.  When I go to Hungary, very often people say, "Only we who speak Hungarian can play Bartók well."  We're about 12 million of us who speak Hungarian.  Four and a half billion people don't speak Hungarian and they enjoy Bartók very much!  All music is here to stayI hope it will, unless the atmosphere goes...

BD:  Thank you for spending some time with me; I appreciate it very much.

GS:  Thank you so much.

Gyorgy Sandor

Keyboard tiger who championed Bartok's piano works

by Leo Black; published in The Guardian, Thursday, 26 January 2006 

The Hungarian-American pianist Gyorgy Sandor, who has died aged 94, studied the piano with Bela Bartok and composition with Zoltan Kodaly - two men calculated to set the severest standards for the rest of a musician's life - at the Liszt Royal Conservatory in his native Budapest. His decision to settle in the United States in his late 20s reflected his liking for the way of life there and was, he said, not political.

He had played throughout the world by the time of his 1939 Carnegie Hall debut, in a programme of works by Bach, Schumann and Brahms, but his greatest fame came from his performances of Bartok. Along with his compatriot Andor Foldes, a year younger, Sandor brought Bartok into normal concert life at a time when he was regarded as almost unplayable, and certainly unenjoyable.

Sandor gave the posthumous premiere of Bartok's Third Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy in 1946, and four decades later was the first public performer of the composer's long-lost transcription of his Concerto for Orchestra. He continued to appear in public into his 90s, and press notices stressed that the poetry and sensitivity of his playing only increased as age took its toll of his extraordinary keyboard facility. His final concert was given in Turkey last April, after he had had a heart attack.

Producing BBC radio recordings during the 1960s, I immediately responded to Sandor's playing - above all, its vital, springy rhythm. He was the complete pianist, one of the last old-style keyboard tigers, but free of the exaggerated "personal interpretations" with which many charismatic figures from the past raise one's eyebrows. Along with everything else, he even had taste.

He did missionary work not only for Bartok, but also on behalf of Prokofiev's piano music. Around the time when Sandor recorded it all commercially, a colleague of mine obtained clearance to have him do the same in the BBC studios, only to go on leave as it was about to happen. Invited to bail my colleague out, I knew this would be a make-or-break weekend and leave me either vowing never to hear another note of Prokofiev or - and that was how it turned out - totally converted.

The most impressive thing, however, was the first I ever heard Sandor play, not by one of his modern masters, but by Bach. Bartok's transcription of an organ trio-sonata was in rapidly moving octaves for the whole of its two outer movements, and, of course, in three parts - the effect was of a very good, stupendously rhythmical two-piano team. Sandor's magnetism was summed up by a pianist friend who accompanied me to London's South Bank to hear him: "I love these old-style virtuosos where in the quick passages the hands become a blur." He was the most purely exciting pianist with whom I had the privilege of working.

Sandor's 1981 book On Piano Playing: Motion, Sound, Expression encapsulates the keen analytical intellect behind the charisma, laying stress on correct use of the body, with dicta like "technique precedes art", "we must try to avoid any excesses and exaggerations throughout our pianistic activities", or, summing up a lifetime's experience, "Today more than ever, audiences mistake the excessively tense muscular activities of the performer for an intense musical experience, and all too often we see the public impressed and awed by convulsive distortions and spastic gyrations."

He even devoted his final chapter to Mannerisms and Excess Energy. Here was an old-world figure but forward-looking thinker; musical performance desperately needs the sense of rightness, completeness and economy that pervaded his playing and thinking.

Sandor applied his insight as teacher at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas (1956-61), at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for two decades, and from 1981 at the Juilliard School, New York, where his pupils included Hélène Grimaud, and, interestingly, the outstanding fortepianist Malcolm Bilson.

A book on Bartok and his music was complete by the time Sandor died. Marriage to a member of the Habsburg dynasty ended in divorce; he is survived by a son and two stepdaughters.

· Gyorgy Sandor, pianist, born September 21, 1911; died December 9, 2005

© 1990 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago in February, 1990.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1992 and 1997.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2010.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.