Petra Somlai was born in Hungary where she graduated in conducting and piano performance at the Béla Bartók Conservatory (Budapest) and completed her modern piano degree at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music (Budapest) in 2007. During these years the focus of her gradually interest turned to the authentic interpretation on period instruments. She studied fortepiano and harpsichord at the Birmingham Conservatory.Petra Somlai won first prize and the audience award at the International Fortepiano Competition in Bruges (Belgium).Petra Somlai was a professor of Early Keyboards on the faculty of University of North Texas (USA) 2013-2015. Currently she is professor of fortepiano at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague where she also teaches about the historical development of the fortepiano and the classical piano.
Q: How did you decided to pursue a music career? Are there any musicians at your family? Tell us a little bit about your childhood
A: In my close family nobody is a musician. However, my great-grandmother (whom I obviously never met) was an amateur pianist and known to have taken lessons from Liszt. Or there was my grandfather – who unfortunately died before I was born – playing on many instruments autodidact and could play everything by ear. Both stories make me think that hidden, but music runs in the vains of the family. My parents also love music and arts for what I cannot be grateful enough.
Q: When did you started to get interested at period instruments? After completing Liszt Academy, which programs you attended and where did you study to master fortepiano?
A: My path to fortepiano is quite interesting. While studying at the Liszt Academy as a modern piano student I received a scholarship to study a year at the Birmingham Conservatory. Funny enough, passing by the corridor I came across a room with full of old, “brown” pianos and I only remember being totally amazed by hearing how they sounded. The professor of early keyboards was that time David Ward who kindly invited me into the room and showed all the instruments. I am still grateful to him for stealing my heart for something that later became the main interest of my focus. And not only that, but for his musical inspiration and support during my time in the United Kingdom. The next big step in my life was also inspired by him: he gave me a CD to listen to, it was Beethoven Sonatas played by Bart van Oort. I was totally knocked out by it, this kind of pure music making was new to me and caught me in my heart. To keep the story short, my next station was The Netherlands – to study with Bart van Oort – where I received the best possible education. At this point I would like to warn everyone about listening to recordings: a decade later he became my husband.
Q: As per my musical taste, I always prefer to listen music on relevant period instruments. When i listen Chopin, I prefer Pleyel recordings, Broadwood for Beethoven and so on.
Relating to 18th and 19th century, one should never forget that music was made for a selected audience and period instruments are enough to reach numbered ears. As we grow both in modern theaters, seats and audience, it was necessary to perform on larger grand pianos.
One should understand that piano is not a modern version of fortepiano, it was a new design to fulfill growing hall size. It is not a superior. How will you elaborate this evolution ?
A: Absolutely. Performing arts were different in the previous centuries. Not only the instruments but it's social network as well. Somehow music did especially belong to the higher class and was perhaps the “disco” of the nobilité.
Interesting, that mostly it was improvised and not reproducing pieces of composers two, three hundred years ago… Mozart and Beethoven had no difficulties to amaze their audience with improvisation which sometimes they did write down later.
In our days it is almost unimaginable. We sit still in enormous concert halls – next to someone we do not know – and listen to pieces written centuries ago.
Q: Currently you are a professor of fortepiano at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague and giving classes to both master and bachelor students. Since it is not easy to fix a period instrument at every stage – even find a one at every city – for a recital and expect large audiences for it, how do you find the interest shown by the students at your programs? Do they have any concerns about their future career? How balanced is the attendance for Music/classical piano and Early Music Department/fortepiano if you compare?
A: The students who come to The Hague to study fortepiano are already well informed in Historical Performance Practice or have decided to specialize in the field. Almost without exception already holding a diploma in modern piano or harpsichord, meaning that this specialization is stimulated by strong interest and curiosity. So, it is wonderful to be working with motivated young musicians.
The Royal Conservatorium of The Hague also encourages its modern piano students to gain knowledge in Historical Performance Practice, so since a couple of years it is included in the curriculum of the classical department as well. That gave fabulous surprises and intensity. Seeing and guiding pianists who's view and focus can be enlarged by meeting and experiencing historical pianos is just wonderful.
Q: Can you tell us the instruments currently at the inventory of Royal Conservatory with your comments on the favorites?
A: I am very proud to have studied and now to be teaching at the most prestigious Early Music Department of Europe. Not only the instruments make this environment special, but the fact that the Royal Conservatorium of The Hague is the largest institute for Early Music, which means that it provides a dream-situation for students playing chamber music. It is wonderful to see ensembles being established, then growing out of the Alma Mater and become leading ensembles in the World.
The youngest member of the collection is a Walter-copy built by Chris Maene in 2019. We also have another Walter type fortepiano built by Paul and Theo Kobald.
For the romantic repertory we have an original six octave piano from around 1830 built by Gerling, and that piano has a wonderful temper, steals hearts.
We also have an 1819 Graf-copy, 6,5 octave built by Paul McNulty.
For the later French repertory we are proudly owning an original Erard piano from around 1843. The two clavichords are used by both the fortepianists and harpsichordists. In the nearly future we are also welcoming the eighteenth century Broadwood fortepiano.
Q: Do you own a fortepiano at your living place or a modern piano? Are you available for private tuition? If yes, tell us a little bit about your student profiles.
A: I do have a wonderful Walter-copy built by Chris Maene in 2011. In addition I own an Alois Graff (not related to the more famous Conrad Graf, with one 'f'). It is a six octave piano from ca 1820 and one of the most beautiful Viennese instruments I have ever played on. It is the perfect instrument for Beethoven, Schubert, Hummel, Czerny, and contemporaries. There are very few instruments of Graff around so I am very proud with these two pianos, covering the largest part of our main repertory.
Q: To perform with a fortepiano in front of an audience with an early music repertoir, a good theoretical basis and background knowledge of music and instrument history is essential. Even forming a program is a project itself to think about. This is totaly different than putting an urtext edition on the piano and start playing. Please tell us how a fortepiano player is educated, get prepared for a solo program and access resources within or outside the conservatory?
A: On the one hand, a well-educated musician has technique, musicality and taste and on the other hand knowledge. There is a wealth of information out there about the performance practice of the time. The style of playing today has evolved partly because of the changing instruments, the changing concert situation, because of cd recordings and because of the different way the audience today listens to concerts. So when we use historical instrument, also often (but not exclusively) performing in historical venues, we must bring forward a style of playing which suits both the instrument and the venue. the fortepiano is part our teacher: many things which are possible on the modern piano can not be done on the fortepiano; think of a loud tone, grans sound, super lyrical playing with a suppressed left hand and a less relevant harmony. But the fortepiano opens up new possibilities as well: a fine texture, fine as lace, in hic all the parts and the special colors of each harmony become relevant and add to the beauty; a pearly right hand which transforms melodies into bird song; a sense for rhythm in the left hand (because of the clear attack with the delicate leather covered hammers) which explains many of Beethoven musical ideas and themes, like the opening of Waldstein. And most important: classical and early romantic repertory is thoroughly rhetorical. To hear a story told with notes was the highest musical experience.
All of this a good musician will find once he or she treats the fortepiano with love. But at least as important: practically everything was written down in treatises and letters and articles form the time. We can learn about it! Anyway, curious musicians will always become the most interesting musicians.
With our students we work on this curiosity and on this understanding. An early 19th century treatise on 'The Beauty of Music' mentions that 'what we do not understand, can not be beautiful'. Typically a statement from the Enlightenment period. But that is how music was experienced. It is intellectual and structurally complex and full of hidden meaning. We need to teach students to find that meaning and bring it out with the utmost rhetorical understanding.
Q: Do you have a library at the Conservatory? What special publications one can run into? Also tell us a little bit about your own library both for manuscripts and books
A: The Royal Conservatory has a functional library with scores and books pertaining to the standard repertory. The scores have been replaced by urtexts and facsimiles over the last couple of years. Part of the collection is older and of course, like in every library, one can find beautiful hidden treasures as well. But the school library is part of the great Royal Library, located conveniently across the street from the Royal Conservatory.
It has an enormous music section and an equally enormous rare book room. Many famous private music collections have been incorporated over the last century. In particular the section on Dutch music is impressive, including a very large holding of first editions and manuscripts, both of early and new music.
Q: There is a slow paced interest in rise for music with period instruments. How is the attendance and interest at Netherlands? Can you give us estimated numbers of concert attendance and age average?
A: The slow pace in The Netherlands has been half a century ago: here it started in the 1950 and by the 1970s early music was the child prodigy of music life. In the 1970s and 80s the most famous Dutch musicians were those in early music. Right now, early music is a fixed part of music life, it is here to stay. For the audience in The Netherlands early music is a standard part of their musical diet. Music of Bach and contemporaries, and of course everything before, is as a rule performed on early instruments and only a small percentage of the performances in solo and chamber music context are on modern instruments anymore. But early music has stretched out toward the 19th century. it is now quite normal to hear Brahms on an early piano; I myself recorded the Brahms clarinet sonatas and the trio on a beautiful late 19th century instrument. The early music orchestras rival the established symphony orchestras in their choice of repertory and the audiences can not get enough of it. As for the average age: like everywhere, classical music is becoming more a thing for audience of 50+. It is not so easy to attract young people to our concerts. But we are hopeful that we can turn this around: there is so mush beauty to be enjoyed, we just need to reach them and show them.
Q: Due to unfortunate pandemic, most of the organizations were canceled. What were your musical plans and engagements for 2020?
A: The most tragic cancellation was a big Beethoven Festival in New York in May, where I would perform the Fourth Piano Concerto as well as some of the Sonatas. Luckily, it has been rescheduled to 2021. Other concerts which are cancelled – much of it was Beethoven, in this Beethoven Year 2020 – are here in The Netherlands and around in Europe. Some of them will find their way into next season, or so we hope but a lot is lost. Like our colleagues, we have to wait and see what is left of our music life after everything is allowed to start up again. We have to rely on our audiences to come back, and we hope that concert organizations will not go bankrupt in this crisis. Luckily, conservatories will always continue: there are too many super motivated and highly talented young musicians whose ambition is burning the same way as ours. And we are happy to work with them; the number of applications for our fortepiano class is going up every year.
Q: Do you have any solo / chamber early music album projects ?
A: In June 2020 I will record two cds with solo sonatas by Johann Ladislav Dussek, as part of a project to record all of them on ten cds with eight other colleagues. Right after the summer I will record a cd with a fabulous horn player; in October a solo album with keyboard music of Transylvania in the 19th century and later this year I will record a cd with solo Beethoven Sonatas.
Q: I would be very happy to receive period instrument album suggestions from you! By taking this chance, I would like to ask your favorite composers which gives much pleasure when performing on period instruments?
A: Schubert is my absolute favorite. But otherwise, the composer I am currently working on – whichever that is – is my favorite composer. Believing in the music you learn and perform is the only way to make your audience believe in him (or her) too. All composers deserve to be defended as strongly as possible, when they are presented on stage by someone who has spent many hours and used millions of braincells to understand, respect and honor them. And then to love them is only a very small step.
Q: I find myself very privileged to meet you and regard your presence very important for the musical world. Please accept my gratitude for your time. I tend to end interviews without a specific questions and let you write about any other point you would like to mention or any question I missed to ask relevant to your profession.
A: Your questions were all relevant and well put, thank you for your effort to make them interesting enough to get interesting answers as well. I would be grateful if I could read the interview before printing – if it will be printed in a language I am able to read
All best to you, stay healthy!