Lars Vogt remembered, By Michael Church
Can one play vibrato on the piano? Since it’s just a box of hammers, with each making only momentary contact with its string, the common-sense answer must be no. So when, in the course of an interview in 2008, the German pianist Lars Vogt casually remarked that the reverse was true – that though, theoretically, you can’t demonstrate the difference between vibrato and non-vibrato on the piano, you actually can do so – it seemed worthwhile asking him to explain.
In reply he went to the instrument, modestly warning me that his little demo might turn out a failure; pedalling, he said, would be the key. He brought muscular intensity – plus a liberal use of the sustaining pedal – to the first page of a Mozart sonata, and this did indeed evoke a kind of vibrato. Then, with delicate touches on the soft pedal, he played the same piece in an infinitely more restrained and intimate way: ‘Can you accept this as non-vibrato?’ Yes, I could. ‘Good. It has more tenderness – to play it like this allows people to see closer into your soul. The piano is more versatile than people think it is.’
This was the man whom Simon Rattle had recently described as ‘one of the most extraordinary musicians – of any age group – that I have had the fortune to be associated with’. And his untimely death from cancer at the age of 51 has robbed the musical world of one of its brightest and most-loved luminaries.
Chunky, amiable, and articulate, Lars Vogt seemed blissfully free of the neuroses which plague his breed, and he was refreshingly down-to-earth about the perils and pressures of his calling. Ian Bostridge must have spoken for many musicians when he said of one concert he did with Vogt: ‘He lifted the music off the page and into the heavens.’
Vogt’s musical life-story began at the local music school of a small town near Cologne where – following in the footsteps of his elder brother – he began playing the piano at six with a teacher who proceeded to keep him steady on his path until he was 16. ‘She seemed to see there was potential there, and supported it in every way she could,’ he told me. He didn’t practice much, but progressed fast. Winning second place in a regional competition at twelve motivated him to go in for a national one, at which he distinguished himself with Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bartok, and with Chopin’s posthumous C minor nocturne, which subsequently became his favourite encore.
Competitions were what he decided to pace himself with. He went to Moscow to play in the Tchaikovsky Competition – pianism’s triennial answer to the Olympics – and, hampered by nerves, plus a programme which didn’t supply the barnstorming brilliance which that event requires, he didn’t reach the final. Three months later he went in for the Leeds competition, and came second. ‘And that did a lot for me,’ he said. ‘It was the opening to everything that has happened since.’
But more important than winning a prize was the collaboration with Simon Rattle which arose from it. Rattle was the conductor for the concerto in the final, and from that point onwards he became Vogt’s mentor. What was the most important lesson which Rattle taught him? ‘The essence of period performance,’ he replied. Asked to elaborate, Vogt adduced the above-mentioned debate about vibrato.
As a conductor, chamber player, and festival organiser as well as solo pianist, Vogt had a remarkably varied and prolific career. His first post as conductor was with the Royal Northern Sinfonia (2014-2020), and in 2019 he was appointed music director of the Orchestre de chambre de Paris, a post he held until his death.
As a chamber musician he was phenomenally active, and although his preferred repertoire lay in the Classical and Romantic eras, he also collaborated with contemporary composers including Volker David Kirchner and the egregious Thomas Larcher. He founded the Spannungen chamber festival in a power station in Heimbach, where many of the concerts were recorded live. Other projects he initiated included Rhapsody in School, a network of musicians playing in schools to spread the word about music among children. His activities as a soloist with major orchestras around the world were legion, and the Berlin Philharmonic made him their first pianist in residence. And it was typical of his courage that he went on working to the last, recording between rounds of chemotherapy, and giving his final concert in Heimbach on 26 June 2022.
Vogt didn’t have an enormous repertoire – a result, he told me regretfully, of having done many other things besides practicing the piano when he was young: ‘Now it takes me much longer to learn a piece. Memory works much faster when you are young.’ But his playing was transcendental in what he did have at his fingertips: his Schumann pulsated with passion, his Shostakovich brooded powerfully, and his Brahms was towering and majestic.
When we talked in 2008, he had just released a CD with Schubert’s B flat major sonata as its centrepiece. His reading of that great valedictory work was exceptionally slow, yet it had powerful momentum: the pauses between the phrases felt like hesitations, yet they were pregnant with pulse. There was a desperate hopelessness about it, which the repeated low bass trill reinforced fatefully.
And as he began to talk about it, the impulse behind his performance became clear. Before playing it for the first time in public, he had gone for advice to the tutor with whom he had studied for the past 20 years. ‘I played him a few passages,’ said Vogt, ‘and his comment was: “You’re still so young, you still believe in happy endings.” Yet I had thought that I had imbued my performance with plenty of doom already. I now think of that trill as “the trill of death”.’
Which is exactly how he played it for the 2008 recording. The funereal second movement finished in frozen immobility, and even the repeated octave punctuating the final allegro had a new quality. ‘In my ears it sounds like someone who keeps on saying “no”’, said Vogt, pointing up his vision. This reading was a real illumination.
Finally I asked him why Chopin’s late C minor Nocturne was his preferred encore, and why he loved it so much. In reply he played it to me – a wistful and quintessentially valedictory utterance. ‘If I have to choose one little piece to play at the end of my musical life,’ he said when he’d finished, ‘it will be this.’ And as the wheel came full-circle fourteen years later, it was.