ANTON KUERTI is a man of conviction, even away from the keyboard.
Just look at the record. Twenty-five years ago, at what he describes as "the height of the Vietnam War and the buildup of America's nuclear arsenal," the Austrian-born pianist left his adopted homeland for Canada, which has been his home base ever since. Then two years ago he ran for a seat in that country's Parliament.Kuerti says he laughed when they first approached him about running. "But I decided that, having talked about social concerns and world affairs and involving myself in every other way, I might as well go the whole way. Also, given the 295 members of the Canadian Parliament, I felt it really would not be too much if one of them represented the arts."
That two-pronged approach was evident in his campaign, in which he passed out cassette tapes containing not only his spoken thoughts on the issues of the day but, on the flip side, his recording of the Mendelssohn G minor Piano Concerto. Ultimately the voters proved his toughest critics - he was rejected at the polls. But that hasn't shaken his beliefs, or caused him to rule out another try somewhere down the road.
That's characteristic of an artist the individuality of whose playing is commented on as often as his technical facility (which, quite frankly, can be staggering). Both will be on display later this month when he performs Monday, June 18, at 7:30 p.m. in the Temple Square Assembly Hall as part of this year's Gina Bachauer International Piano Festival, his first recital here in more than a decade.
Kuerti denies cultivating individuality for its own sake. "That has been the downfall of a number of major artists," he observes, citing among others the late Glenn Gould. "I have the greatest admiration for him and knew him well. But it was obvious that he had a perverse interest in being different for the sake of being different. I suppose the classic example was the D major Fugue from Bach's `Well-Tempered Clavier,' in which the argument is whether the dotted notes should be played as written or as double dots. Glenn came up with a third way, where one was double dotted and the other was not."
Kuerti's own interpretations, he says, tend to be arrived at independently, based on his study of the score and understanding of the composer. Sometimes the results will square with tradition, sometimes they won't. "For example, the last movement of the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto, which I'm convinced everybody plays too fast. When that happens, it becomes too lightweight and you miss the pathos of the main theme and the agony of that descending diminished seventh."
Not surprisingly for a performer who has recorded not only all five Beethoven concertos but also all 32 of the piano sonatas, Beethoven figures heavily on his Temple Square program. There he will lead off with the Op. 27, No. 2 - the familiar "Moonlight" Sonata - and the Sonata in A major, Op. 101, followed by Mendelssohn's Andante and Rondo Capriccioso and F sharp minor Fantasy.
Of the "Moonlight" he says, "Some people consider that I play the first movement a little bit eccentrically because I do the rhythm correctly," adding that in his view the traditional way of playing the dotted rhythm as half a triplet rather than as a full 16th note "makes the atmosphere much too prosaic. Also the last movement of the Op. 101, I believe, is traditionally played too fast. The marking is Geschwind, doch nicht zu sehr, und mit Entschlossenheit - `fast, but not too fast, and with resolve.' "
That resolve, Kuerti says, is for him rather different than that of the concluding Allegro risoluto of the "Hammerklavier," which uniquely among the Beethoven piano sonatas carries a metronome marking of 144 to the quarter note. At the same time, he is not sure we should take Beethoven's metronome markings too literally. "At that tempo those contrapuntal 16th notes run by so fast that it's anything but `resolution' - it really becomes unintelligible."
Kuerti realizes that runs counter to the wisdom of today, especially among period-performance specialists, many of whom have come to regard Beethoven's metronome markings as inviolable. "But it seems to me totally wrong to to let one's every musical instinct and the logic of the music itself be overruled by a three-digit figure put down by a man with an imperfect metronome and a total loss of hearing. I remember my teacher Arthur Loesser telling me of an argument he had with Artur Schnabel where Schnabel said, `I have seen Beethoven's manuscript with the metronome indications.' To which Loesser replied, `Ah, but I have seen Beethoven's metronome.' "
Remarkably for a pianist whose teachers included Mieczyslaw Horszowski and Rudolf Serkin, it doesn't take much to get Kuerti talking about Loesser - as it happens, the brother of Broadway composer Frank Loesser ("Guys and Dolls"). " `The evil of the two Loessers,' he used to call himself," Kuerti recalls. "But he was marvelous, in many respects the best teacher I had. Not only was he able to pinpoint the actual musical devices that bring expression out - at the same time he enjoyed music so wonderously and he got such delight when his students played well."
Kuerti studied with Loesser as a teenager, following his debut with the Boston Pops at age 11 in the Grieg Piano Concerto. From there he went on to win the Leventritt Award and perform with most of the world's great orchestras, including more than 30 concerts with the Toronto Symphony alone. If we see and hear less of him than we might in this country, he allows as how he currently has as much work as he can comfortably handle. But he also allows that in recent years the solo recital appears to have fallen on hard times.
"I think it's partly because they've been putting them into halls that are far too large and not intimate enough," he says. "When that happens even the greatest artist has a difficult time giving the listener the value of his ticket, and, as we all know, prices are high."
He also blames a "star system" that puts greater emphasis on the performer than the performance. "I hear people say, `I saw Perlman play,' as though they weren't there so much to hear someone play great music as see a celebrity. Then once they've seen Perlman, as great as he is, they'd rather see the next celebrity."
But while he enjoys what he calls the luxury of a solo recital, "where you can make your own mistakes without worrying about harming somebody else," Kuerti finds the collaborative experience a concerto performance offers even more stimulating. "Especially when you're playing with a great orchestra and a conductor who does not merely serve as an accompanist but makes his own imprint. That can enable you to reach heights you would not be able to reach on your own. It's the same in chamber music, at least when you're working with a truly outstanding player. When there's a difference of opinion you're forced to rethink your own ideas, and often you come out with something stronger than either one of you would have been able to dictate."
Even if with Anton Kuerti that's a little hard to imagine.
For a list of this week's Gina Bachauer recitals, see the adjoining rundown. Admission to each is free, but limited to those 8 and older.