By Fanny Revault
An internationally acclaimed concert pianist, Hélène Mercier lives in Paris and enjoys a dazzling career, taking part in prestigious festivals. With sensitivity and depth, she shares her thoughts on the role of the performer in musical work, the omnipresence of music, its specificities and its links with the visual arts. A pleasant meeting at the Park Hyatt with a stellar musician, inhabited by breath of her life, music.
How did your passion for music start?
Through my sister who was a violinist. I talk about it in my book, Au fil des notes… She was six years older than me, and I really wanted to be able to play with her as soon as I could. The piano came into our house when I was six years old and got into it right away. The teachers told my parents that I was very talented and that I was learning very fast, which surprised me, but I was delighted. So I started playing Mozart’s and Beethoven’s sonatas with her at the age of nine … And then, around the age of eleven, I decided I wanted to make it my profession.
Where do you situate the interpreter, between loyalty to the work and freedom of expression?
That’s a big topic… Every performer will have a different answer to that, especially when you get to meet the composers and hear them play their own works. I think that you have respect the composer’s style, first of all, and his time, to know a few things about their life. But everything happens on a subconscious level, the work itself has a life of its own. I think it’s better to be loyal to the composer, rather than being completely disconnected from their style. But what knowledge do we have about the style of a composer’s time? Hardly any at all, except for composers like Debussy and Rachmaninov of course, that we can hear playing their own music; we don’t have any recordings of Chopin or Liszt…
However, composers very much liked to hear performers playing their works differently to what they had in mind, and would say to themselves “Ah, I ultimately like my work even better after hearing you play it”. So the piece does not exist without a performer, since it is only a work written on paper. And at the same time, the work changes every day, it is a story of the moment … and the performer is a medium between the composer and the audience; creating a discussion between the composer and the audience.
Interpretation, as an art of the moment, only leaves an inevitably imperfect memory and recording. How does one feel accomplished with an evanescent work?
Let’s say that I don’t really ask myself that question. When you are a performer and a musician, you have always lived like that … There are recordings of albums, and nowadays, there is YouTube, all these media, like Medici TV that allow us to record and freeze moments of grace … or not for that matter. I don’t feel this fleeting aspect any more than for anything else in fact; ultimately, life itself is fleeting …
Composers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries seem to have a major place in your work. Why is that?
Like any musician, I played a lot of Bach, it’s part of basic learning, I played Scarlatti, a lot of Mozart …
Few performers tackle Bach nowadays. I feel a fairly common DNA with this composer. But I have neither a favorite composer nor period, whether it be romantic, modern, baroque or classical. I really like Beethoven but I’m not playing him at all at the moment; there are many composers that I love and they all feed one another.
Without having a favorite composer, do you have a work that you particularly enjoyed performing?
I really enjoyed playing Beethoven’s ninth symphony for two pianos, for instance, which is transcribed by Liszt. It’s a great moment because the pianist does not have access to this type of huge, orchestral, very long work. You have to play for an hour and a quarter, it’s an architecture that builds up, it’s a journey … It depends on the period, when you have played Ravel a lot, you may then need to play Schubert. The pianist cannot play Wagner without transcriptions … It is true that through two pianos, you can play many works which are orchestral.
Do other artistic expressions, painting or sculpture, have a place in your interpretation process? Do you sometimes associate, the colors and shapes of a painting with a musical work, for instance?
I don’t, but certainly many musicians do, although I am not sure that many musicians are necessarily art lovers. I am not sure whether these environments come into contact that much. I have noticed that it is rather the visual artists who often need music to create … But are musicians sensitive to art as well? I am not so convinced.
Why do you think musical art is important in our lives?
Because today, music has changed so much … Music is everywhere: in elevators, hotel lobbies, airports and shops … There are all kinds of music; there is very some serious music, some very high quality music, music you need to sit down to listen to, background music …
Nowadays, there are playlists made by streaming companies that choose the type of music for you; very often you have a playlist offered by Spotify for example, but you don’t even know which band or artist is going to play, nor the composer. So I think listeners have become very passive about listening to music.
The need for music, yes, I think that each person experiences this in a different way. Some will need music to relax, others to dream, others for stimulation, to help them think, to reminisce nostalgic memories, to love …
Ultimately, music is used for everything, it is very vast. And what would be good now would be to see boundaries getting less and less precise between the various types of music. Fortunately, contemporary composers of so-called “serious music”, are more and more influenced by jazz, rock, techno, today’s more ‘democratic’ pop music, let’s say, that we currently have and that is taking up a lot of space.
What would be your definition of a masterpiece?
I don’t have one. Take Picasso for instance; his last period was less popular than his blue or pink period. Then came cubism which was seen as his most extraordinary period …
I think it all changes with the eye of time. There are certainly works that are not as good as others, but there are probably many masterpieces; and it changes with time and the perception of the viewer or listener. In music, a musician will say “this work is a masterpiece” and someone else will say “no, I don’t agree, I don’t feel this as a masterpiece” ; it’s ultimately quite subjective, and it can be said that there are many masterpieces, many great works.
And what is wonderful, in Picasso’s case, is that everything he did over his lifetime is exceptional, the sum of all his work. So, ultimately, he is the masterpiece! [laughter]. It’s his work as a whole.