Born in Hungary, Petra Somlai is a graduate of the Bela Bartok Conservatory and the Franz Liszt Academy of Music. His field of interest is early music and of course performing with period instruments. That is, the tones heard/played by Beethoven or Mozart. Somlai studied fortepiano and harpsichord at the Birmingham Conservatory, graduating first from The Hague Royal Conservatory. Having won the first place in the fortepiano competition held in Belgium, Somlai worked as a Professor in the Early Period Instruments Department at the University of North Texas (USA) between 2013-2015. Returning to his university (The Hague), Prof. Somlai teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in early music and fortepiano.
S: How did you decide to pursue a music career? Are there any musicians in your family? Tell us a little about your childhood.
C: There are no musicians in my family, but my great-grandmother was an amateur pianist and, as far as we know, took lessons from Liszt. It was said that my great-grandfather also had a strong musical ear and could play almost any instrument. These two stories point to a hidden musical talent that runs through our family's veins. My parents are also interested in both music and art – I can't thank them enough.
S: How did you meet with early musical instruments? Can you tell us about the programs you attended and your fortepiano training?
C: My fortepiano career is very interesting. While studying modern piano at Liszt Academy, I won a scholarship from the Birmingham Conservatory. Walking down the halls of the school, I saw brown and old pianos in a room. I was fascinated by their voices. In those years, early instruments professor David Ward invited me to the room and introduced the instruments. That's when my heart was stolen.
The second big step was Bart van Oort's 'Beethoven Sonatas' CD that David gave me. I was shocked by the naturalness of the music and the timbres I heard. My next stop was the Netherlands; I was now a student of Bart van Oort. Let me warn those who like to listen to old records – Bart is now my husband! [smiles]
S: My musical ear and taste prefer to listen to the instruments of the period in which they were composed. If I want to listen to Chopin, I definitely look for records played with Pleyel and Broadwood pianos for Beethoven. Modern pianos are not superior to the ones I mentioned above. Period instruments were adequate as they appealed to less crowded audiences, but today's crowded halls demand more sound reproduction. How would you interpret this development?
C: You are absolutely right. Performing works in previous centuries was quite different. Music was monopolized by a more noble class. It was mostly improvised, works of centuries before them were not performed. Mozart and Beethoven were successful in impressing the audience with their improvisational skills.
S: It's hard to find 200-year-old instruments for every concert and event – what kind of balance do you see between students choosing this career and the modern piano? Are they worried about their careers?
C: The students who come to The Hague have enough knowledge about early music education. They are also determined to make a career and specialize in this field. Having a degree in modern piano or harpsichord also requires determination. Our conservatory encourages students who take modern piano education to have knowledge of early instruments. This was in their curriculum until a few years ago, and it is a very exciting experience for modern piano students.
S: Which instruments do you have in your conservatory, which is your favourite?
C: I am very happy to be a teacher at Europe's most prestigious early music conservatory. The Hague – The Royal Conservatory is the largest educational center in the field. The youngest instrument is a Walter, a replica fabrication by Chris Maene in 2019. There is also another Walter fortepiano made by Paul and Theo Kobald. We have a six-octave piano made by Gerling in 1830 for the Romantic period repertoire. We have a 6.5 octave 1819 Graf (copy) made by Paul McNulty and an 1843 original Erard piano for late French works. Soon we will have an 18th century Broadwood piano in our piano.
S: Do you have a fortepiano at home?
C: I have a Walter fortepiano made in 2011 by Chris Maene. I also have an 1820 – 6 octave Alosi Graff. One of the most beautiful Viennese instruments I've ever played. A great instrument for Beethoven, Schubert, Hummel, Czerny and their contemporaries.
S: In order to perform an early musical piece with a period instrument, both theory and practical knowledge are essential. Preparing such a program is a project in itself. It's not like putting notes and playing an urtext edition in front of you. How do you prepare students for this concept?
C: A well-trained musician has technique and musicality. On the other hand, knowledge. There are many sources about period music performances. Concert dynamics and changes in instruments have also changed today's recitals. If you are going to perform with the fortepiano, you should perform it with a style that fits both the place and the instrument. Many things that are possible with the modern piano are not possible with the fortepiano, so the fortepiano is in a way your teacher. Super lyrical execution, like big tones…
Fortepiano offers you new possibilities; a beautiful texture like lace, harmonious sound colors, a right hand with pearl tones that make the melody look like bird chirping, a left hand that sharpens your sense of rhythm (leather covered hammers)… All these will help you to understand Beethoven's musical ideas; It's like Waldstein's opening.
The beauty of music in the 19th centuryIt's not nice if we can't understand” evaluated with bias. Typical effects of the Enlightenment period. This music is intellectual, structurally sound and has hidden beauty. We help students find it.
S: Early music organizations are run by private companies, considering the cost. How is the instrument supply provided for concerts held outside the conservatory?
C: Conservatories do not hold commercial concerts. Concerts inside the school are free. All classical music concert programs taking place in the Netherlands include the "early period". There are hundreds of wonderful fortepianos in both private collections and institutions. We bring our own instruments to some concerts, and in others we have a ready-made fortepiano for us.
S: Have you ever had a fortepiano that broke down during the concert due to its age?
C: Not every fortepiano is in as good condition as ours or has been successfully restored. Private collection or museum instruments are not in sufficient condition for a concert. It is not always possible to bring these wonderful instruments to concert condition, both practically and financially. Even getting the tuning is an all-day chore. In order not to be in such a situation, we always play and examine the instrument before the concert.
S: Can you tell us about the library of your conservatory?
C: We have a functional library with notes and books. A part of the collection is quite old, so it is possible to come across hidden treasures. The library of our Conservatory is part of the great Royal Library. The Royal Library, located opposite the school, has rare works. The archive of Dutch music is quite impressive.
S: I observe a trend towards music albums and concerts performed with period instruments. How is the situation in the Netherlands?
C: Interest has been lively here since the 1950s and 70s. The most famous musicians of the '80s were early performers. Now, early music is an indispensable part of daily music life. The same is true for the audience.
For example, period instruments are almost essential for Bach performance. Execution with the modern piano is very limited. For the general participant profile, it can be said that over 50 years old. It is quite normal to listen to Brahms with fortepiano. I also made an album of Brahms' clarinet sonatas with a 19th century instrument.
S: Many events have been canceled due to the global pandemic. How has this situation affected you?
C: The saddest cancellation was the Beethoven Festival in New York in May. I was going to play Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto and selected sonatas at this festival. The date has been revised to 2021. We are hopeful for the next seasons, even though the losses are heavy.
S: Are you ready for a new album?
C: I will be recording two sonatas of JL Dussek in June 2021. This project is a 10 CD project involving eight separate colleagues and recording all sonatas. At the end of the summer I will be recording with a horn player, in October I will be recording 19th century Transylvanian music and at the end of the year I will be recording Beethoven sonatas.
S: FI would also like to know your avori composer.
C: Schubert is definitely my favorite composer. Apart from that, the composer of the work I'm working on is my favourite.
S: I am very happy to have had the privilege of meeting you. I should add that I find you very valuable for the music world. Finally, what would you like to add?
C: Your questions are very appropriate and well chosen. Thank you for your effort, interestingly prepared for interesting answers. Stay healthy! petra