Interview with Mats Bergström (June 2018)
Hello Mats, welcome back to Neuguitars blog. Last time we talked about Steve Reich and minimalism, now we will talk about… well, shall we call him the greatest composer? Johann Sebastian Bach, how did your interest for Bach start?
Bach was always present when I grew up. My parents, who were musicians, played and sang Bach both at home and in concert. I often went to hear the Adolf Fredrik Bach Choir under Anders Öhrwall in one of the local churches in my home town Stockholm.
In the booklet of your last cd “Bach Sei Solo”, dedicated to Sonatas & Partitas BWV 1001 – 1006, you talk about the guitar arrangement and you write “My ambition is as simple as it is clear: to make the piece sound as if it had been composed for the guitar. This means that I have tried to adapt the original setting for the specific range possibilities and limitations of the guitar in the same fashion that Bach and his contemporaries went about.” For doing this you worked a lot on lute literature…
One of the four so-called lute suites, the one in E major, is of special interest as it is an arrangement of the third partita for solo violin. It shows what Bach added to the violin setting in order to adapt it for, well, what instrument? He actually didn’t specify this in his manuscript. Lute is certainly a possibility, keyboard another one. Then we have organ versions of the prelude from that same partita as well as the fugue from the G minor sonata, both by Bach himself. In addition, there are keyboard settings of the first movement from the C major sonata and the complete A minor sonata, made by anonymous musicians. All these sources give valuable clues.
Talking about performance you defined several interesting questions: “Playing Sei Solo in its entirety is a rare experience. which strongly influences one’s perception of time and proportions. A performance of the grandiose Ciaccona is usually a tour de force, but in this context, it is actually just one of the thirty-two movements, albeit the longest one. This experience offers insights but also raises questions. For example, do the numerous repeats benefit the listener’s experience? In my third complete performance of Sei Solo I made the experiment to omit these. Right or wrong? In any event, the concert was significantly shorter! But what about any ornaments, which are usually saved for the repeats? For the recording of the work, I opted for retaining all the prescribed repeat except in the fast, final movements of the three sonatas.” Reading these notes, I thought that you choose for a minimal solution, “less is more” also for Bach?
The aim was simply to present the work as convincingly as possible without distorting the original proportions of the composition. My omission of repeats in the fast movements of the sonatas is a consequence of my own technical limitations; I realized I wasn’t able to add ornaments or provide other interesting contrasts in the repeats, so I simply didn’t play them.
How did it start, the idea to create your own label: Mats Bergström Musik AB?
Well, in Sweden it is quite common for free-lance musicians to run their own little one-man companies, mainly for tax reasons. When I started Mats Bergström Musik AB in 2005, I didn’t think I was going to use it as a record label. I never had a long-term recording contract, but recorded for various labels; Polar, Proprius, Prophone, Caprice, BIS. As the record industry ran into difficulties, the deals got worse. Since I was making money in other fields, primarily accompanying famous singers, I figured I could spend some of that money on recordings without having to wait for the approval of anybody else. At first, I made “master deals” with other labels, mostly with Naxos Sweden. I later took it one step further by releasing CD’s on my own label, the Steve Reich album being the first one. This is a creative and interesting process. But when it comes to marketing and selling the products, let’s just say it is not what I do best. The new Bach recording is the first release of my own that actually seems to be selling quite well! Still, Mats Bergström Musik AB makes money when I play concerts but loses money when I make records, at least so far.
Berio in his essay “A remembrance to the future,” wrote: ”… A pianist who is a specialist about classical and romantic repertoire and plays Beethoven and Chopin without knowing the music of the twentieth century, it is also off as a pianist who is specialist about contemporary music and plays with hands and mind that have never been crossed in depth by Beethoven and Chopin.” You play traditional classical repertoire but also shows some interest in the contemporary repertoire … do you recognize yourself in these words?
I honestly don’t see myself as a real specialist in any repertory. On the other hand, I feel rather at home in several kinds of music. Compared to some of my colleagues, my repertoire in contemporary music is tiny. I like to do things well when I do them and I need lots of time to get there. To answer your question, I think Berio was right.
What does improvisation mean for your music research? Do you think it’s possible to talk about improvisation for classical music or we have to turn to other repertories like jazz, contemporary music, etc.? Or maybe as part of contemporary music is preferable to talk about random improvisation?
It is sad, isn’t it, that in our time the concept of improvisation seems to be associated only with certain types of music. For centuries it had been a natural part of the “tool box” of any musician! Now, I am sure that, even today, every classical musician – even those who claim they can’t improvise – do things spontaneously in performance. It may be subtle, such as a change of dynamics or tempo, but nevertheless it is a kind of improvisation. Personally, I feel quite comfortable improvising in an idiom that I am familiar with. To a degree, of course. But if somebody would say to me: “Here’s your audience. Now please improvise for an hour!” I would be scared to death!
Some time ago, I found a record played by you, the title is “Musica Sveciae: Ur Fridas Visor“, released by Musica Sveciae in 1988 with music by Birger Sjöberg, thirty years ago. What do you remember about this record? You look very young on the cover…
This particular recording meant a lot to me for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it opened the door to a field that later became a specialty of mine (see, perhaps I am a specialist after all!): song accompaniment. It was also the first project I did with Mikael Samuelson, who sang on this record. He is ten years older than me and an absolutely ingenious artist. I have kept working with him ever since, on and off, and I have learned more from it than from almost anything else I have done. Birger Sjöberg, whose songs we recorded on this particular Lp, was unique as a poet and song-writer. He had a very short career and died prematurely in 1929. His songs are wonderful gems, but you have to understand Swedish to fully appreciate them, I am afraid.
What are your next projects? What are you working on?
Right now, I am looking at some new pieces for possible inclusion in a festival program in September. One of them is by Mark Anthony Turnage, another by Betsy Jolas. A couple of Bach recitals are coming up as well. I am still trying out various formats, hoping to find the ideal way to present the Sei Solo. A performance of the complete work is quite demanding for both the performer and the listener. A selection of movements from each sonata and partita can make up a nice program, but sometimes it is nice to offer even greater contrast. An experiment I did recently was to include a section in the program, where the audience gets to ask for pieces of their choice. With a bit of luck, they ask for music that I can play, or make ad hoc versions of. Good fun! Also, if they ask for Recuerdos de la Alhambra and you can play it, they will think you are some kind of genius. That is nice, too! Chances that somebody will request the Berio Sequenza are minimal…