Ivo Kahánek: Pianists are like goalkeepers in football

Ivo Kahánek

Ivo Kahánek is one of the most successful Czech pianists of his generation, performing with top domestic orchestras and regularly appearing at some of the world’s top classical venues. Last year the 42-year-old won acclaim for the mammoth Dvořák: Complete Piano Works. We recently discussed that unprecedented collection, piano students’ fear of ending up teachers and much, much more.

Was there a moment in your teens, say, when you thought, Wait a second, I could be not just good at this but really good at this?

“I’m not sure if there was a moment, but I’m a very competitive person, and I was a little bit of a strange child.

“I had some medical troubles, I had breathing diseases, laryngitis and whatever, so I was not very often at school.

“I had almost no friends and I was a fat guy with good marks playing the piano, so you can imagine my social status at that time.

“So the piano for me was the only friend and my biggest friend.

“And of course it was for me the thing how to express that I am here and I am good.

“I had almost no friends and I was fat with good marks playing the piano, so you can imagine my social status.”

“I wanted to be a pianist from 10 years of age or so, so it was not one moment when I wanted to be a pianist from that time.

“I wanted to be a pianist really from a childhood age.”

Who were your role models when you were a teenager? Who were the pianists that you wanted to emulate?

“I was a fan of the old school, we can say now.

“Names like Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Dinu Lipatti were my heroes, and they are my heroes, in fact.

“In general the Russian piano school, but of course also old Germans and Americans were always for me the model.”

What was it about the old school that attracted you?

“I think it was the deep expression of these pianists.

“At the moment, the pianistic trend is to be perfect and to have fantastic shape, perfect form, and of course energy and whatever.

“But when I’m listening to these old school pianists I can sometimes hear, for example, a little mistake.

Ivo Kahánek | Photo: Tomáš Vodňanský,  Czech Radio

“But their expression, their expression from inside, the real meaning of the music, was for me number one, the most important thing, in playing.”

I guess for you a big turning point was in 2004, when you became the absolute winner of the Prague Spring competition. What are your strongest memories of that moment of victory?

“The strongest memory for me is that it was a victory over my own fear.

“I worked very hard. Of course I had very strong opponents, because in the finals there were several prize winners: one of the Brussels Queen Elisabeth Competition, one of Warsaw.

“So it was really tough, but for me it was a real victory over my fear –and my ego.

“Because you need a very strong ego to go to the stage and to present yourself.

“But at the moment when you are sitting on the stage and playing the piano your ego must be totally zero, it must be cancelled, because otherwise you are not thinking about the music but you are thinking about yourself.

“And if you are thinking about yourself, the fear, the pressure of the fear, is unbearable.

“So that was a big exam for me, and that’s my strongest memory from the Prague Spring.”

Somebody told me that it’s unusual for a pianist to win the overall prize. Is that the case? And if so, why is that?

“Interest in the piano is extremely high and places for concert pianists are extremely low.”

“Yes, of course, because the piano is probably the most competitive instrument in the world.

“Of course there is very strong competition in violin and with singers, but if you are a concert violinist… it’s very difficult to become a concert violinist, but you can also be a concert master of a great orchestra, or you can play in a great string quartet.

“Or with singers, they have theatres, so many, many wonderful singers can be active in their art.

“But if you are a pianist, you can be either a solo pianist or you can play sometimes chamber music – or you are teaching and you cannot play actively.

“We are like goalkeepers in football, for example.

“So that’s right.

“And of course the piano is a very attractive instrument for all the people, because you have so many possibilities, so many combinations, so many emotions.

“You can use the piano as a drum, you can use it as a cantabile singing instrument.

“So the attraction of the piano and interest in the piano is extremely high and places for concert pianists is extremely low [laughs].”

A few moments ago you mentioned the pressure that you felt sometimes. Did you ever have a really bad experience because of that pressure?

Jiří Bělohlávek | Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio

“Well, not a bad experience, but I had a period when I entered the Academy of Performing Arts, when I was 20 or 21, when there was a conflict between great expectations, from my ambitions, and of course the reality that some things cannot be played immediately.

“Of course you go to some competitions and sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t.

“And there’s this fear from, I could be a pianist or I could have to teach.

“Also it’s one thing to play the piano great, but you have to be a perfect pianist very soon.

“And now it’s even worse than in my time, because it’s very important to be a fantastic pianist at the age of 18 or whatever.

“So you participate in various competitions and you can think, Now I’m 24, so I have, like, four more years and within those four years I have to win something.

“That’s the reason for these fears.”

You collaborated with one of the great figures in Czech music in recent decades, the conductor Jiří Bělohlávek. Tell me please about your connection with him.

“My connection with him was very surprising for me.

“Our first meeting was at the first rehearsal with the BBC Symphony in London, at the very famous Maida Vale studios, before our performance at the BBC Proms, which is probably the most famous festival in the world.

“But I think that Jiří Bělohlávek heard me some months before, when I played here with the Prague Symphony.

“Geographically we are something like a bridge between west and east.”

“But really, our first meeting was such an important performance.

“Jiří was a wonderful person. I was full of ambitions but of course you are nervous, because it was the first time with such a famous orchestra.

“And he was like my father. He was very calm and he calmed me down.

“But on the other hand he allowed me to really express everything, and just moderated it.

“So it was a very nice collaboration and we had some more opportunities, with the Czech Philharmonic and so on.

“I really liked him so much, not only as a great artist but also as a fantastic person.”

I’d like to ask you about Czech music in general. The Czech nation is not so big, but it produces a lot of great musicians, conductors and so on. Why do you think that is? What’s the secret?

“It’s a very hard question and I don’t think there is an easy answer.

“But I think there’s one very important thing and that’s the place we live, because geographically we are something like a bridge between west and east.

“I think that’s significant for example in folk music, because if you listen to the folk music of Western Bohemia – Plzeň and Domažlice and so on – and you compare it with the folk music from the eastern part of the country – Brno and wherever – the music is so different.

Photo: Supraphon

“The difference between these two styles of folk music, with very rhythmically regular music from Western Bohemian and clear harmony, everything’s clear – and it could be very similar to German folk music, for example.

“And if you compare that with Moravian folk music, which is full of modality and which is impossible to write on a score rhythmically – it’s impossible – we can see that there is a real border between west and east.

“I think that could be a secret, because we have this freedom and modality and all this emotionality of the east along with the style of the west.

“Maybe that could be the secret.”

Say for example when you are playing abroad and you are playing a Czech piece, does it feel different? Or do you approach it differently from a piece from another country?

“I don’t think so. I try to do my best, either playing Czech music or some world composer.

“But of course I’m a Czech pianist and I’m expected to perform Czech music in a good way.

“So it’s very important for me to be really authentic.

“And of course we can find many styles in Czech music but I think in general Czech music is always very emotional.

“It has very often a beautiful melody, the Italian cantabile can be found in Czech music very often.

“My feeling is that I’m an interpreter of something that is really very close to my heart.”

Last year you released the collection Dvořák: Complete Piano Works, on four CDs. That obviously was a major undertaking. What was the appeal of this project to you?

“My last CD at that time was Dvořák and Martinů piano concertos, with Jakub Hrůša and the Bamberg Symphony.

“Also there was a good situation for this, because it’s the dream of each pianist to find a very famous composer who everyone loves and find something by them that is totally unknown.

“This is the situation with Dvořák, because Dvořák is a musical star in the world, but he’s a star because of his symphonies and chamber music – but his piano works are very rarely heard on stage.

“Of course, everyone knows the Humoresque no. 7, but Dvořák wrote more than five hours of piano music.

“Maybe half of the Dvořák work is totally unknown, even for Czech pianists.”

“So it was very attractive for me to take it, to make a recording and to show how much beautiful music there is.”

I guess in that case you hadn’t known some of this music before the project?

“Yes, of course – maybe half of the Dvořák work is totally unknown, even for Czech pianists.”

Was it difficult then to approach it? Were there any particular challenges of doing it?

“Yes, the challenge was in the length of the whole work, because really, five hours.

“Also I had a limited to time to record it.

“It was one of the advantages of the Covid times that I had time to practice, but of course the time was limited, because last year there was an anniversary of Dvořák, so I had a strict date when the CD had to be presented.

“And it’s a speciality of Dvořák’s piano work that he was not a pianist and many of his works are very hard to play – but they don’t sound like they would be so difficult.

“So there was very much work with this music, but the result should be very fluent, very natural.

“Dvořák was not a composer like Smetana, who composed piano music sounding like Liszt or like virtuoso pieces.

“Dvořák sounds very lyrical, very calm, but the pianistic difficulties are almost the same.”