Pianist Rosen Admits to Some Improvising and Even Stage Fright


Pianist Charles Rosen has made a reputation as an interpreter of Bach and contemporary music and as the author of authoritative books such as “The Classical Style.”

Now Rosen, 50, seems bent on establishing himself as an interpreter of the Romantic era.

“People expected me to play Beethoven, and I did. . . . But I always played Chopin anyway, and I keep picking up pieces,” Rosen said in a recent phone interview from Oxford University, England, where this year he is a George Eastman professor.


“But I never liked the way I played the ‘Polonaise Fantaisie.’ Since it’s one of the greatest pieces ever written, I felt I should learn to play it. It has this unbelievable climax. The piano seems too small for it.

“People don’t think of Chopin as a very violent composer,” Rosen added, “but he writes triple fortes much more often than Liszt does, and piu forte possible (as loud as possible). I never remember Liszt putting that in. You play as loud as you can in a lot of (Chopin) pieces.”

Rosen will give a Chopin recital at South Coast Community Church in Irvine on Friday and will appear with the Irvine Symphony in Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto Tuesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Rosen has a direct, if very frail, link to the way 19th-Century pianists may have played Chopin’s music (always a disputed subject).

Rosen studied with Moriz Rosenthal, a pupil of Liszt who venerated Chopin even as he allowed himself to tamper with the Polish composer’s music.

“(Rosenthal) was 75 and I was 11,” Rosen said. “I had two lessons a week (for six years). He was bored, but he was always very polite.”

Instead of telling Rosen how to interpret a piece, Rosenthal would listen to him play. “Then he would say, ‘I have a different idea of the piece’ and would play it his way.”

Rosenthal would, however, argue musical interpretations with his wife, Hedwig Kanner-Rosenthal, with whom Rosen studied for an additional eight years. “Once when I was 13 and playing (Liszt’s) ‘Hungarian Fantasy,’ ” Rosen recalled, “she stopped me at the end and said, ‘That’s too fast.’ He (Rosenthal) said, ‘I always play it like that.’ She said, ‘You always play it too fast.’ He was eating at that time and beating time with a meatball.”

Much as he enjoys his memories of those days, Rosen doesn’t like looking back at his own efforts.

“I can’t bear to listen to my old records,” he said. “When they are very old, I can say, ‘Well, that was pretty good for someone that young.’ But when they are more recent, I think of the details I would like to get different.

“Small details really annoy me, and I lose sight of what I was trying to do on the larger scale.”

Despite his connections to the 19th Century, Rosen often has argued against the use of early instruments, although he feels that his remarks on the subject have been misunderstood.

“I never said investigation into the way old instruments have worked is not a good idea,” he said. “I just object to the old instruments being played in a hall that seats 1,000 people when they were designed for a hall of 100 to 300 seats. That seems silly. Old instruments don’t sound as well, don’t carry and don’t sustain in those halls as well as modern ones do.

“I also object to using a period instrument for a Mozart concerto, but using modern phrasing and modern pedaling. There’s something self-defeating in that one.”

Rosen also rejects as “untenable” the argument that the music of the period was written for these instruments. “Beethoven was writing beyond the capacity of the instruments they had then--and which we have today,” Rosen said.

“For instance, even modern pianos don’t sustain properly. You think the notes negotiated high up on the piano are legato. Beethoven makes you think they’re lasting, but they’re not. You can give the impression of a rich legato sound up there--that sense of tremendous, beautiful cantabile--if you balance your sound right and get the rhythms right. But legato is generally an illusion on the piano. Every time you strike a note on the piano, it diminishes rapidly. You just think you get sustained sound.”

Though writing books has given Rosen the reputation of being an intellectual, he said he relies on his instincts when he plays.

“I do tend to improvise a lot in performance,” he said. “I really think you should play exactly what the composer wrote, most of the time--except that leaves you with an enormous leeway. . . .

“If you listen to (recordings of) (Rudolf) Serkin and (Artur) Schnabel, both played more or less exactly what Beethoven wrote. But you could hardly say their performances sounded the same.”

Further evidence that Rosen is not as coolly detached as some would describe him: He gets stage fright.

“I still get very nervous before going on stage,” Rosen admitted. “There is no way out of stage fright. You just learn to live with it.”

Rosen said he continues to practice three or four hours every day, “more or less. Rosenthal said that if I had to practice more than three hours a day I would never be a pianist,” Rosen laughed. “I can’t say that’s very encouraging when I look back.”


Friday, 8 p.m.

South Coast Community Church, 5120 Bonita Canyon Drive, Irvine


Information: (714) 261-0231


Tuesday, March 15, 8 p.m.

Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa


Information: (714) 740-2000