Natural Like Breathing
An exclusive Interview with Finish pianist Janne Mertanen, winner of
the 1998 International Chopin Competition in Darmstadt, Germany
-- by Bozena Zaremba
Google “Finland.” One of the most striking
and intriguing facts you will find is where this country has placed in
many international rankings. In 2001, Finland was ranked highest for
the most technological advancement; in 2006, for the best student
performance in science; in 2009, for the best quality of life; and in
2011 it was declared the most politically stable country in the world.
The nation, which for centuries had been oppressed by the neighboring
powers of Sweden and Russia, has finally found its own power in
prosperity, technical and educational progress and freedom of press.
This is the homeland of Jean Sibelius, a composer of the late Romantic
era, who is believed to have shaped the Finnish national identity to a
great extent. This is also the homeland of Janne Mertanen, a sensitive
pianist praised by critics for his “instinct of a poet” and impressive
dynamic range, who is currently working on a special recording of
Sibelius’s complete works on the 150th anniversary of the composer’s
birth next year. I caught Janne between a jog with his dog and packing
for a 10-day tour of Japan. He is a bit anxious about parting with his
two-year-old son, but at the same time excited about another tour of
the country where Chopin is held in such high esteem.
Chopin is almost like a national composer in Japan. Why do you think he
is so popular there?
Chopin is the number one composer, especially of the Romantic era, and
he is number one everywhere, not just in Japan. Chopin’s music is
somehow fresh. He is an international composer, and the language of his
music is understandable all over the world.
In your bio you put emphasis on being known as a Chopin interpreter.
Does playing Chopin come to you naturally?
I hope so. It feels like it. Somehow when I play Chopin, I do not
analyze things as much as I trust my intuition and my instincts. I have
been playing for thirty years now, and I have this feeling about Chopin
that I do not have to worry so much about what to do and how to do it.
It comes very naturally. It feels, sometimes, like breathing. When you
have been playing Chopin for a long time, it starts to come out by
itself. It’s quite different from playing a Bach fugue, for example,
which requires the pianist’s total concentration. With Bach, you need
to carefully analyze the music and consider all the possibilities,
while with Chopin it is important to follow your intuition, trust your
instinct and not overthink it.
You won the prestigious recording award Grand Prix Du Disque Frédérick
Chopin in Warsaw in October 2005 for your recording of Nocturnes. Why
did you choose to record Nocturnes?
It was actually after I started to play the nocturnes that I realized,
for the first time, that Chopin’s music was very important to me. When
I took up playing the piano at 12, I listened to some recordings of
nocturnes by Rubinstein, Horowitz and other remarkable pianists, and
what I enjoyed most was the colors and the intimacy of this music. I
was learning the technical aspects of music with etudes, and, of
course, for a teenage boy to be able to play an etude by Chopin from
the beginning to the end felt like a victory [laughs]. With nocturnes,
it always felt more personal. They are still technically difficult, but
you have to make them your own; you have to tell your own story.
What do you think the committee found in your interpretation that stood
out in comparison to other pianists?
Of course I cannot speak for them, but I was, first of all, very happy
about the sound of this recording. I had a wonderful sound engineer in
Mikkeli, a small town in the middle of Finland. They had a superb
Steinway, an excellent hall and a studio one can only dream of. I was
really lucky to have an opportunity to make the recording there,
because it does not always happen this way. You never know where you
are going to make the recording, who the tuner is going to be, or who
has played the instrument before, so the piano may not be in the best
condition. I had the best possible instrument there. We spent some time
mastering the recording to make sure I was happy with the sound. So
everything just clicked.
I think you are being very modest by giving credit only to factors
beyond your power.
Well, at the time of the recording I was 35, but had played the
nocturnes for 20 years and they had been very close to me. So in a
sense, I had a deeper understanding of the music. I always try to find
the colors of the piano to maximize the lights and shadows to make the
sound special and unique. With etudes, you just try to manage, to find
the right keys, the right notes, to conquer the technical difficulties.
You are an acrobat, a sportsman. The nocturnes present a totally
different world of intimacy. You need to be an artist.
I have noticed a lot of similarities between the history of Finland and
Poland, most notably the struggle for independence of these two
countries from two neighboring powers. Chopin was much affected, if not
distressed, by his homeland’s efforts to regain freedom, and that is
very much reflected in his music. Being Finnish, is this something that
you identify with?
I have never thought about it this way, but it makes a lot of sense.
Actually, my grandmother on my mother’s side was Polish. She died when
my mother was only two years old, and my mother was adopted by a family
in Finland just before World War II. Finns are considered somewhat
quiet and introverted, so there is something in Chopin’s music,
especially in his nocturnes, that appeals to our mentality in the sense
of being reflective and insightful. But as for political connotations?
I always try to sense the feeling, the emotion and the character of the
music in anything I play, and whatever has happened in my life, my life
experiences create the sound, and I do not necessarily think about any
national character, nor do I try to guess how a Pole would play this
But you can tell the difference between how, for instance, a Russian
pianist plays from the way a Frenchman plays?
Of course, you can guess if a pianist is from the so-called Russian
school or the French school. On the other hand, it is less and less so,
because people nowadays study all over the world. The cultures mix; the
ideas intermingle and influence one another, so there is no longer one
distinguishable way of playing Chopin.
You, yourself, had many different teachers of different nationalities.
How did you deal with a situation when one teacher contradicted
When you are very young and you don’t have your own point of view, then
it may be confusing. But with playing music there is never one truth;
there are many truths at the same time. And especially when you are on
stage, you have to choose the one you believe in at this particular
moment. The next time you play a recital, it can be a different truth.
The ideal situation for me is that you never find one truth that stays
forever. That is what makes music making so interesting and rich, when
you allow things to change. Of course, some technical issues may be
confusing with different teachers, but you simply have to find your own
way of playing the piano, try out different things and choose the one
that suits you best and – what is most important – is your own.
What do you, as a teacher, try to communicate to your students at
I always encourage them to find different points of view, different
ways of playing the same piece. Students tend to play a piece the same
way over and over again, but especially with Chopin, you must sound as
if you were playing it for the first time. It has to sound fresh. This
is very challenging.
Your son is only two, but will you encourage him to be a professional
I will let him choose. I will do everything I can to support his
dreams, but he must make the choice himself because as we know,
musicians have to work really hard, and he would really need to want to
do it. I started playing the piano when I was 12 years old, and I could
not imagine doing anything else. It was very clear to me after a few
months. You can’t tell anybody to practice thousands of hours if he or
she doesn’t have a passion for it. One teacher told me that if there is
nothing to stop you from doing it, there is a chance for you [to make
it in the music world], but if you can stop it, probably you shouldn’t
be doing it. You have to feel like you cannot live without it.
Janne Mertanen’s website
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