Yves HENRY’s interview
December 1st, 2016
Born in 1959 in Évreux (France), Yves Henry practiced music very young, approaching the study of the piano at the age of four years. An instrument for which he very quickly showed real dispositions to the point that his parents left the province and settled in the Paris region to allow him to attend the courses of the conservatory of Paris.
After studying with Pierre Sancan and Aldo Ciccolini, he multiplied the first prizes of piano, chamber music or harmony especially (7 first Prizes of the conservatory of Paris wholly). After winning the 1st Grand Prix of the Robert Schumann International Competition in 1981, his career led him to perform in Europe, the United States and Asia for master classes or numerous concerts, recitals or orchestras.
Today, professor at the National Conservatory of Music of Paris, he is also president of the Nohant Chopin Festival and also specialist of pianos of the XIXe century and more particularly of the mark Pleyel.
What happened to this piano today?
To preserve it from a purchase by foreigners for a morsel of bread, then to raise the funds necessary for its restoration, I created the association Pleyel Croissy who restored it. The most curious, astonishing coincidence, was that at that time I was offered the artistic direction of the Nohant Festival Chopin. Frédéric Chopin whose instrumental history is intimately linked to the Pleyel pianos!
On his arrival in Paris, Chopin encountered real difficulties because he did not know anyone. However, quickly, his situation has improved, thanks to Liszt who introduced him to important personalities of Parisian life but especially thanks to Pleyel who allowed him to play in his salons. What pleased him very much because he found in these pianos the characteristics of those he had known in Poland, not very powerful indeed because they are instruments of living room but with the wide palette sound and very sensitive to the touch. Moreover, when he played as a soloist in Paris or when he met at Nohant in summer, at George Sand’s, he played and composed exclusively on Pleyel.
Can one really make a link between his compositions and the singular style of the Pleyel pianos of this period?
This relationship between Chopin and Pleyel is very interesting, because it illuminates his way of writing, which is not at all theoretical, but based at the same time on the improvisation and on the sound of the piano. Sometimes, on his partitions, he moved the pedal indication half a beat, and one realizes that it changes everything in the resonances. This is why the knowledge of the piano that he used at this period becomes essential to the interpretation of his works.
He was a researcher, sort of!
Chopin is an alchemist of sound, a formidable melodist of course, but in addition he concentrated his researches as a composer on a single instrument: the piano, and more particularly the piano of Pleyel. A Pleyel piano and no other factor is very important. At home in Paris, he always had two models: a grand piano used by his pupils and a pianino that he particularly liked.
So he found a special interest in the Pleyel?
He would not have had this peculiar connection with the brand until the end of his life if these pianos had not pleased him. We know his famous formula: “When I am in shape, I take a piano from Pleyel because I can seek my own sonority, and when I am not, I take a piano Erard whose sound is all done”. He also told his pupils that the Pleyel demanded that his sonority be sought, and that this was what would make them progress!
Clara Schumann also liked Pleyel …
That is true! Moreover, when she came to play for the first time in Paris to make herself known, she tried several piano brands and immediately indicated her preference for Pleyel. And if, in the end, she opted for Erard, it was because she feared a direct comparison with Liszt, which is known from her correspondence. So it was not a technical or musical choice but a picture story, so that it is not accused of lacking power over the Hungarian musician.
You are one of the few pianists who not only know the old pianos but practice them regularly. Why this specificity?
First, if contemporary instrumentalists are reluctant to play on old pianos, it is because they rarely have enough time to adapt to them before the concert. For my part, it took me 10 years to familiarize myself with these instruments, and I gradually became a specialty of these models of the early nineteenth century. In doing so, I greatly increased my adaptability to pianos in general, including modern ones!
You have become a specialist of these pianos but also of Chopin …
By the pure fruit of chance as I told you before. Before the years 2000, I played little or very little Chopin which today represents almost 80% of my repertoire! And at the same time I was sensitized to his music by meeting musicians and musicologists at the Nohant festival, people like Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, major world specialist of the composer, I developed a new approach to Chopin’s repertoire based on the knowledge of the Pleyel pianos of his time.
But you have no preferences between the old and the modern?
The sensations are obviously very dissimilar. What I like with the old instrument is that we have never finished exploring all the possibilities. There are always new tracks to discover. It is very exciting in this regard. So for some parts, very subtle from a sound point of view, with a sound that must be extended, I appreciate the old. Which is less powerful certainly, but offers more harmonic richness, especially because the sound is different according to the registers: bass, midrange and treble. Of course for other repertoires, the modern piano necessarily imposes itself.
In this regard, what kind of piano do you play?
I have the chance to have several instruments: three concert models (Pleyel P280, Fazioli and Bösendorfer), and pianos from different periods (Pleyel 1846, Gaveau mid-twentieth century, Bechstein 1895, Erard 1860, Pleyel 1870 and Pianino Pleyel 1850). Ideally, you should be able to choose the piano according to the repertoire you are interpreting. During my recitals, I play both period and modern instruments. Moreover, I happen to combine the two, which does not fail to astonish the public! One feels that he wonders during the first minutes. Yet, after half an hour, he so settled in this new world that it is sometimes difficult for him to return to the modern piano!
Is it a difficult exercise to move from a contemporary action to an old piano?
When one knows how difficult it is to simply pass from one brand to another, one can imagine the difficulty! In other words, it involves questioning many things, and also reconnecting the fingers with the ears, which amounts to developing a great sensitivity of touch. This acts as a revealer. That said, we always come out with a plus. Until recently, the public wanted to hear what he was accustomed to by traditional recordings, his ear had become accustomed to a certain uniformity of sound. Today, he is much more interested, even curious about this heterogeneity.
You give recitals all over the world and in recent years, frequently in Asia. Do you meet a different audience?
Not really because the Asian public knows better and better western music. I went to China for the first time in 2005 and had the opportunity to give courses, master classes, and concerts there. And I met there a real enthusiasm and a real motivation on the part of the musicians.
In an interview in 2013 at the Nouvelle République, you evoked your sadness about the closure of the Saint-Denis factory (near Paris). What do you think of the current takeover of manufacturing in partnership with Asian manufacturers?
I have indeed heard of this revival, of which I am delighted. I met regularly people who, knowing my keen interest in the brand, were calling me: “So, Pleyel, is it over? I can now answer them in the negative! I am not familiar with the manufacturing process but it does not matter whether the instruments are built in China or elsewhere if the materials are of high quality and rigorous manufacturing. The Chinese craftsmen are as competent as the Westerners, there is no reason to doubt it.
Do you think these pianos will please the Chinese?
Of necessity, if only for the extraordinary past of Pleyel, the heritage of the brand, and the musical values that Pleyel possesses in its genes.
What do you expect from a Pleyel piano made today?
Ideally, the pianos of the beginning of the 20th century would have to be identical, but this is not possible since today every musician expects to find the stable mechanics and precision of modern instruments. I think we should find the soul of the piano Pleyel 204 of 1910 that I knew in the 1970s, a clear, luminous, singing sound, very French indeed. All in all, they have sound qualities that are close to what has made Pleyel successful.
So would you be willing to support this revival of Pleyel, especially in Asia?
Of course! From the moment the qualities we mentioned earlier are found in newly made pianos, that would be great. It would also be necessary for Pleyel to regain his spirit of innovation, the desire to share that they had in particular by creating the Salle Pleyel. Based on this spirit, we will be able to find a very interesting path, and of a nature to enthuse the music lovers who possess Pleyel pianos all over the world, and they are numerous!