March 2006

An Interview with Xiang Zou
by Stanley Fefferman
Xiang Zou, 2003 First Laureate of the prestigious Honens International Piano Competition, is a native of Hunan, China, and a graduate of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. At age 23, he is the youngest person to ever win the Honens Competition. He is currently working on a Masters degree at The Juilliard School in New York while keeping up a daunting schedule of recitals and concerto appearances.

This interview took place on Monday, March 6, 2006 with Xiang Zou speaking over the telephone from Banff School of Music.

The Live Music Report Could we discuss the connection between you and Schubert?

Xiang Zou I am obsessed with his music.

One of the most striking qualities in Schubert’s music is that it expresses his complete loneliness which just catches my heart completely.

This complete loneliness — deep inside we all have it. Even if we have families who love us, or close friends who are around us, this loneliness is always there.

I think it is Schubert’s great talent to be able to express this loneliness in such a touching way. His last piano sonata, the B Flat Major, definitely melts your heart away.

When I listen to the second movement of the sonata, written not too long before his death — and he knew what was coming — I feel that he is kind of looking back on his life.

As we all know, Schubert didn’t quite make a career of his music. His pieces never sold. He had a very small circle of friends around him, and according Godowsky’s biography, his life was never eventful.

He tried in his music. In the second movement of the B Flat Major Sonata I always hear that he tried and he tried and he failed. That really struck me.

In a way, we all live alone in this world.

Schubert’s music feels so natural to me. I feel no distance from it. I feel that I am expressing myself. This loneliness is something I feel everyday, and it has nothing to do with the fact that my family is in China. It has little to do with geographical distance.

It’s very hard for people around me to truly understand my soul. It’s like they say, people are always looking for a soul mate.

I am especially touched by Schubert’s music because even though he is lonely, and he doesn’t have a very eventful or happy life, he’s still grateful to be living in this world with what he has. He never fights, never hates the world, never complains.

He would never write a piece like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. He just accepts everything that’s given to him.

I’m not trying to compare myself to Schubert, but I feel close to him in philosophy and temperament.

LMR What is it you bring to the playing of Schubert?

XZ It’s a difficult thing to play Schubert’s music, especially this very last sonata. You try to make it as expressive and heartfelt as possible. At the same time, you should not be too self-conscious or involved.

In my personal interpretation, I feel his spirit is already rising to heaven. He’s in the space between earth and heaven, looking down. Therefore his music should be played with a sense of distance.

This music is so subtle, and this fullness of emotion is hidden there.

I would never agree with the way Horowitz plays it — full of romanticism, as if it were Chopin or Schumann, which Horowitz did great, but it just doesn’t fit the temperament and style of Schubert.

What I’m saying to you comes from my heart. The way I’m telling you is the way I’m going to play the music.

We welcome your comments and feedback
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Stanley Fefferman
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The Live Music Report

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