Feb 12th 2021

Interview: The kaleidoscopic musical world of Lydia Jardon

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

 

She began her piano training rather late in life – age 8. Raised in the south of France, she made her way into the Parisian piano world by sheer determination, facing down teachers who contradicted each other and some who were already recognized as great performers and teachers. In the confusion, she ended up “lost and very lonely”, often in tears after her stressful lessons, she recalls. She quotes Nietzsche as having written, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

In our intimate interview, Lydia Jardon casts her mind back to her experiences with Raymond Thiberge, François Joel Thiollier and the great Hungarian Georgy Cziffra, among many others.

Today, she has established herself as a champion of women composers and performers, the raison d’être of her festivals in Ouessant and Martinique. I asked her what women bring to piano performance that differs from men? “Women perhaps bring greater fluidity to the music,” she said, “a manner less constrained. In a word, more liberated, yet more engaged and thoughtful.”

She is acknowledged as a premier interpreter of some of the more challenging pieces in the piano repertoire. I am particularly taken by her recent recording of sonatas of the prolific Russian Nikolai Miaskovsky (See video clip below.)

As a respected teacher, she is working with promising young Chinese pianists in her Yaya Piano School in Paris, ranging in age from 5, through adolescence and adult years. She moved into the 13th arrondissement after one of her “exasperated neighbors” complained of her practicing, notably of Stravinsky’s Firebird suite. (See mini- documentary below.)

In this interview, Part II of our extended conversations, she recalls her “total immersion” into Chopin’s works, in parallel with her exploration of the French tradition and the great Russians. And she shares her views on young players’ flamboyance on the piano bench. (“Maybe they are right, for the world we live in,”)

Lydia Jardon
Lydia Jardon by the author Michael Johnson

Here is an edited account of Lydia Jardon’s thoughts on international piano world.

 

Michael Johnson: I believe you were a provincial girl, absorbing your first musical experiences from recordings purchased by your mother?

Lydia Jardon: Yes, I was raised in the wine region of the Bourbonnais bocage, in the middle of France. The family home was isolated but it resonated continually with all the Mozart sonatas as played by Arthur Grumiaux and Clara Haskil. My mother traveled to the nearest music store to find new records.  I still remember Clara Haskil’s Schumann.

Were your other siblings musically inclined?

My sister played the violin and I started piano at age 8, alas without much direction but I adored my piano. At 11, I was taken in hand by two Montluçon  spinsters. One of them had been the favorite student of the great harpsichordist Wanda Landowska. The other had studied with the renowned pedagogue and composer Raymond Thiberge and the famous Alfred Cortot. At this point, my life took a serious turn. My relearning was brutal and lacking in humanity but addressed the fundamentals of the instrument. I was marked for life by their teachings – pressure from back to front – a basic technique that I still pass on to my students today. They also taught me a rigorous and effective methodology for practicing. It was so hard that for seven years I was in tears at the end of each lesson. I escaped this routine by marrying at age 18 and moving to Brest to prepare my application to the Conservatoire National de Musique of Paris. It was at the Brest auditorium conservatory that I gave my first recital, playing Chopin’s 24 Préludes, among other pieces.

In your teens, you began accumulating prizes, didn’t you?

Yes, from 13 to 22 years old I won medals and prices made my way up the ladder between the Paris Ecole Normale de Musique where I studied with Germaine Mounier and Victoria Melki, and the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique with Lélia Gousseau, Raymond Trouard and Jean Hubeau. But I really began to blossom as a pianist when I worked outside these institutions and was enrolled with François Joël Thiollier, who has recorded the entire piano works of Rachmaninov among 40 other CDS. And the fantastic Hungarian pianist Gyorgy Cziffra.

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Hungarian virtuoso Georgy Cziffra was one of Lydia Jordan's early teachers. This clip feataures his famous improvisation around a Chopin étude.

 

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You had an association with Georgy Cziffra as a young pianist, didn’t you?

Yes, I was a laureate of his Foundation some years ago. This was very important in my development. “Watch me and do as I do,” he said to me. With his guidance, I realized that an economy of gestures is essential for virtuosity. The stormy left-hand part in Chopin’s “Revolutionary” étude has marked me forever. Its elegant savagery captivated me and possessed me to the point that every time I play it – and numerous other pieces we worked on together -- I think of him.

How was your repertoire affected?

I was mastering numerous Mozart and Beethoven sonatas, then went into total immersion of Chopin, in parallel with French music. At the same time, my mother was connecting me with a great many teachers who contradicted each othert. I ended up lost and very lonely. Every day I struggled with these conflicting forces which constantly bedeviled my progress. That’s why I adopted the famous Nietzsche aphorism, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

Did your conservatory experiences connect you with mentors for your career?

No, none of them. However, separately, Milosz Magin, who recorded all of Chopin for Decca, filled that role. I loved him like a father. He was the first teacher who really encouraged me, admired me.  But if by “teacher” you mean one who can act as guide, who makes you think about phrasing, to liberate you sometimes from the original text to create an appropriate sonority, to add to the fantasy of the composer …

If by “teacher” you mean one who, detecting a rhythmic ostinato suggests accentuating the notes to add a new dynamic to the phrase, then yes, I do work occasionally with Jean-Marc Laisné, a viola player who has helped with my recordings on my label AR RE-SE for 20 years. He is a great musical director – with some 800 CDs to his credit ranging from Gregorian chant to contemporary.

My first three recordings in Germany were with Heinz Wildhagen, former artistic director of Deutsche Grammophon, who showed me how to gain freedom from rigor and determination.

How would you define the interpreter?

An interpreter is someone capable of grasping what the composer is trying to reveal to the world. The music must ooze poetry and philosophy which is the mirror of his or her soul. For me, inspiration is nurtured by great musicians, composers and interpreters, not necessarily pianists. Listening to Fürtwangler and the Freischütz overture, Perlman playing the Bach partitas, Karajan conducting Debussy’s “La Mer”, Michelangeli doing the Beethoven sonatas or Rachmaninov playing the Chopin “Funeral March”, the world they create gets right under my skin.

Where is your repertoire going?

First, I want to finish the final CD of my complete Miaskovsky sonatas. And I will continue to unearth works of composers lost in the silence of history. I would also like to return to the music of my Spanish origins. I also want to work with the music from my Brittany festival for women composers. I am working with the composer Florentine Mulsant. With two other pianists, we have recorded her complete piano works. And in 2023 my label will bring out her six string quartets, played by the Debussy Quartet.

With all your activities, how do you keep your piano technique up to full potential?

I practice a minimum of three hours a day when I am teaching, five to seven hours the other days. My piano is an original grand Chinese Pearl River regularly tuned by a professional. Whatever the quality of the piano, nothing is as essential than the quality of the tuning technician.

What are you seeking when you practice? Technical prowess?

If I am working on specific phrasing, I am searching for sonorities, a quasi-orchestral sound by the alchemy of pedaling. This involves a delicate easing of pressure on the pedal to create the immensity of certain phrases. What’s essential is the fluidity, the clarity, the coherence.

How do you view musical memory?

The choice of playing from memory is the artist’s decision, whose challenge is to produce the best musical message.  Sometimes I prefer to reduce all anxiety and play from the score, bringing serenity to certain complex works of such composers as Miaskovsky and Mulsant. Also, maturity brings a certain liberty.

Aren’t the festivals a distraction from your performance and recording career?

Oh no, being an artistic director is very good for one’s development. To bring to light certain composers rarely played or little-known calls for careful programming to balance these works with others already in the collective memory. The mix is as pleasing to the public as it is to the interpreter.

Where is your teaching based?

In the 13th arrondissement of Paris. Actually it was because one of my exasperated neighbors almost killed me for practicing Stravinsky’s “Firebird” that I decided to rent a basement apartment in the 13th arrondissement in Paris. Very quickly, young Asian students came to me, and I understood that their commitment to determination and hard work corresponded to my habits. As I witnessed how quickly they could progress, I decided to stay in the 13th and create my private Yaya piano school in 2014. (Yaya is a popular Chinese fictional heroine who, as a young pianist, faces the dangers of the Sino-Japanese war to participate in a piano competition.)

(See mini-documentary below.)

How is your Yaya school doing in this virus scare that afflicts us all?

I have about a hundred students a year ranging in age from 4 to the teens. Some will go on to music careers, others will be accomplished amateurs, and some will continue to play for their own pleasure and satisfaction.

Are you bothered by the show-business side of the modern piano world?

No. All the younger generation pianists are trying to be noticed, and so they adopt non-traditional methods. Many of the ‘bankable’ players have understood that the general public listens partly with their eyes – leading to the phenomenon of stage behavior, or eye-catching ways of dressing. Maybe they are right, for the world we live in.

How problematic are the covid19 constraints on musical life in general?

Covid19 has disrupted society, and our art in particular, both for schooling and for public performance. Teaching via video is indispensable but creates some frustrations. Virtually all public performances were canceled last year, and more of the same is threatened this year. Nevertheless I am working closely with my team and financial supporters to go ahead with my two festivals in August and October.

How did these festivals get started?

The first, on the island of Ouessant, known as “The Island of Women” got me started, and turned it into an annual festival of music composed by women and played mainly by women. Twelve years later I took the concept to the Caribbean – first Guadeloupe, then Martinique – where women are known as “potomitan”, or “pillar of the family”. I am delighted to say I now have rivals in France.

What do women bring to music that men sometimes don’t?

Women perhaps bring greater fluidity to the music, a manner less constrained. In a word, more liberated, yet more engaged and thoughtful.

How do you keep coming up with less-known composers? What is your real objective?

I want to contribute a sense of joy by discovering atypical works that might surprise an educated public. I have great experience and am inclined to share them with anyone who can appreciate them, or as André Gide wrote, anyone “who has an open mind”.

 

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Lydia Jardon interview, Part I:

Interview with Lydia Jardon: ‘Any artist who stops creating simply dies’

 

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Lydia Jardon discussing and playing excerpts from sonatas 1, 5 and 9 of Nikolai Miaskovsky

 

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This mini-documentary includes footage shot recently Lydia's Yaya school for Chinese children.
 


 

 

 

 

 

 


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