Masterclasses with Maria

Coaching, performing, doing the washing up - pianist Maria Joao Pires believes it's all just part of life.

Deep in Portugal's countryside lies a rambling farm where pianist Maria Joao Pires initiates a small community of children into the mysteries of music. It is, in many respects, the very hub of her life's work, a physical manifestation of music's power to enrich the soul. And yet she still refers to this, her dearest brain-child, with a combination of modesty and apprehension. "Oh, it's a very small operation," says Pires, 51 and herself a mother of six. "The children might be abandoned or orphaned, and the idea is to give them a vacation." Musicians go there to work not only in the "masterclass" sense but to help others confront problems relating to art, life and the effective blending of the two. "Still, there are difficulties," admits Pires reflectively, "mainly because the farm is a long way from town and our ideals are quite out of step with the modern world."

She views music as "part of life". She abhors the materialistic, the ambitious and the narcissistic, as well as the prevalent obsession with facile "image". And her attitude to teaching reflects the elevated "experiment" that forms the basis of her own life's work. "My method is to help a pupil journey back to that initial 'excitement' he felt when he first 'needed' to play," she says. It's an impulse that has no connection whatever with external circumstances (parental pressure, career, etc) but more resembles, in Pires's own words, "a portrait that has been 'painted over' 20 times but that you want to restore to its original state."

Maria Joao has an equally uncompromising attitude to musical performance. "What's important is that you concentrate," she says decisively. "I don't suggest even that you always give of your best - perhaps the audience doesn't, either! And I'm not saying that I don't care about the concerts: I care about everything that happens during the course of my day. You see, the concert belongs to life and in that sense, it's really nothing special. For example, I never avoid washing up just because I have a concert to play and need to take care of my hands. I want to feel that I'm living many things; the concert is an integral part of myself, my day and of other people's lives, and I view the moment I go on the stage as neither more nor less important than, say, sitting with a friend and talking, or taking care of a child, or admiring a landscape. I have something to express and, yes, I need to apply myself - but no more so than I do in other areas of life."

Diminutive, earnest and warmly communicative, Pires personifies quiet resolve and dogged integrity. She guardedly admits a need for extra collaboration on the farm project, but fears comparison with various humanitarian enterprises that have used charity to fuel self-promotion. "I hate the idea of presenting my case on television," she says, "or making films, giving talks - that sort of thing. I would never want the project to be interpreted as a publicity gimmick."

Simplicity is Pires's stylistic hallmark and her approach to music grows from a primal "suffering" that first registered when she was three years old. "I can still remember the piece that started it all," she says wistfully. "My mother played it to me though, funnily enough, I can't recall its name. But I do know that it was Russian and I can remember it sounding rather like Scriabin. In fact, nowadays when I listen to Scriabin, that first 'feeling' still comes flooding back."

Then, as now, only the piano could salve this particular form of suffering, whereas a childhood urge to improvise helped Pires develop her Zen-like powers of concentration. "It's probably my strongest facility," she says with modest pride, "but in other respects, I have always had many problems with the piano. My hands are too small, my body isn't heavy enough and I have a lot of difficulty with repertoire. But ever since childhood, concentration has been a definite strength."

Prior to performing, Pires focuses inwards to the point of absolute emptiness. "I become an empty vessel that music passes through," she says. Thereafter, a more positive element takes over. "I might compare myself to an actor who is preparing to play a certain role, and if that method is to work at all, I have to venture far inside the role's personality."

But is this desire to "become somebody else" (Pires's own phrase for the composer-performer symbiosis) general to most performers? "I don't know. I cannot explain how it is with other people, but for me it is very important. Then again, that 'somebody else' always has a certain resemblance to one's own personality. Actors tend to be at their best when they are playing themselves."

Who, then, are the most prominent of Pires's alter egos? Mozart, perhaps, whose piano sonatas she has recorded on two separate occasions ("the first at 30, the second 20 years later")? Not so, apparently. "I don't think Mozart is the composer who speaks to me most," she says candidly. "He was a kind of challenge at a certain period of my life and I set out to discover things, to find ways of putting all those incredibly different colours and feelings together. And yet, when listening to most of Mozart's piano works, I always felt that, although I was experiencing one or other aspect of the music - or one particular colour - I never felt all those qualities simultaneously. And that was my 'number one' challenge with Mozart: to bring those elements together in a single set of interpretations. Of course I still love to play his music sometimes, but if, for some reason, I needed to restrict my repertoire to just a couple of composers, Mozart wouldn't be one of them."

It is, then, something of a paradox that Pires recorded the sonatas twice. Do her two cycles differ much? "Yes, but I don't think the differences are as significant as they would have been with, for example, Schubert. To be honest, I didn't work on these pieces between the two sets of recordings because I wasn't terribly interested in them. In the case of sonatas that I work on, say, every two years, the opposite happens and there are considerable differences in my approach." Furthermore, Pires doesn't generally respond to the concept of recorded cycles. "I undertook the Mozart series because I was asked to. I had nothing against the idea, but it was not of my choosing. Of course, in the case of Schubert, I do play all the sonatas (there are never enough of them for me), but not for any 'historical' reasons, such as systematically going from zero to 10. Of course. a composer's life evolves just like anyone else's; and yet you often find things in the beginning that you also find at the end: the elements are there all the time, changing in a very strange way. I don't believe that this 'evolution' that people sometimes talk about is organised. There are too many things that we simply don't understand."

Pires's earliest repertoire centred on the mainstream romantics and pivotal 20th-century composers, although "Beethoven was the composer I played most when I was young". She has tended to avoid contemporary music, firstly because "it's already difficult enough finding music from other periods that I can technically master", and secondly, because when the rare opportunity does present itself to explore new repertoire (remember those six children - two of them adopted - plus four grandchildren), Pires nearly always finds herself moving backwards rather than forwards.

Her latest recordings include major works by Schumann and Bach (a new release, forthcoming shortly on DG), although she's far more likely to listen to CDs by Radu Lupu, Martha Argerich or a whole roster of older pianists than bother with any of her own. "I have to listen at least once," she laughs, "but that's only to 'pass' them for official release. After that, I try not to listen any more because I'm always so shocked at what I hear. It's terrible!" It does sometimes happen, however, that one of Pires's children catches mum unawares. "Sometimes they put one of my records on and if I don't realise who's playing, I might think, 'This isn't too bad, in fact, it's quite nice.' Then again, sometimes I think it's horrible!"

n Pires plays at the Edinburgh Festival: 11am Wednesday, Queen's Hall (0131-225 5756)

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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