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An interview with...Christoph Denoth

Christoph Denoth was born in Basel, Switzerland, and studied classical guitar at the conservatories of Lucerne, Basel, and Zurich as well as at master-classes with Konrad Ragossnig, Oscar Ghiglia, Alvaro Pierri and Pepe Romero. He trained as a soloist with Oscar Ghiglia at the Basel Academy of Music. His encounter with Sergiu Celibidache, with whom he studied Phenomenology of Music and Conducting, left an indelible impression.

Christoph Denoth has received numerous international awards.

Denoth is an internationally active guitar soloist; he regularly performs with different chamber-orchestra ensembles and at international music festivals and has also performed as a soloist at Carnegie Hall in New York and the Berlin Philharmonic Hall. He endeavours to expand the tonal and dynamic range of today's concert guitar and bring it to the attention of a larger audience.Christoph Denoth was recently appointed by the Balliol College Oxford University UK as Musician in Residence.

What age were you when you started to play and what do you remember of your early playing days?

I remember well the moment I discovered my love for the guitar. It was at the age of five. I was playing the recorder back then and performed general folk tunes and classical tunes and melodies on it. One day, shortly before my 5th birthday, I heard Andrés Segovia play Asturias on the Swiss Radio. I was electrified when I heard that music. I remember this as the first time I was under the charm and in love with the beauty of sound of the classical guitar. From that moment, the love and desire to play music on that marvellous instrument never left me. The magic and beauty that caught me in this moment still works like a spell for me today.

Once I had discovered my love for the classical guitar, I had to convince someone to buy me a guitar... My wish was finally fulfilled on my 5th birthday, when I was offered a wonderful little guitar from my lovely aunt. My first days playing the guitar were full of excitement and I could not stop playing anymore. Then I learned from my aunt that guitars also want to sleep by night...and that they sound much better during the day!

When did you first think that you could devote your life to playing guitar?

My determination to play the classical guitar and to become a professional musician was set while in primary school. I was a real music lover and completely overwhelmed by the world of music. Although my parents never pushed me to play and practice, they were very tolerant and supportive of my passion and offered me all the freedom to live it out. All this convinced me to become a musician.

Who have been the greatest influences on your playing career to date and why?

My playing career was marked by different learning processes. Not only was the inspiration from the outside world different in those periods, it also had a varying influence on my way to understand and feel music. I remember that as a young boy I had no technical and musical difficulties. It all felt very natural. Later, when I studied music, I raised much more questions about playing, interpretation and style and had to go through a more painful analyzing process.

I was lucky that during my studies I have had the opportunity to meet and take lessons with a number of well-known and very inspiring teachers. Important ones were Oscar Ghiglia, Pepe Romero, Alvaro Pieri, Jean Pierre Reynders, Rene Kappeler, and of course Sergiu Celibidache, who trained me as an orchestral conductor. My playing became different under his influence. I learned to use the guitar like a little orchestra, with all its different instruments and colours, and figured out how to truly hear and feel the guitar.

Who are your favourite composers?

There is a great variety of composers from the general repertoire which I really like. Mozart, Haydn, Bach and Schubert are only four of them. The full list of composers I truly admire is far too long to be mentioned here J Britten, de Falla, Sor and Giuliani had a strong connection to the guitar - not so Haydn and Mozart. Schubert as well had a close relationship to the guitar and was a guitarist himself.

The 19th century very much fascinates me as it is a century in which guitarists composed specifically for the guitar, like Sor and Giuliani. Both of them strongly influenced classical guitar playing for future generations and established a characteristic guitar technique. At this point it is also worth to mention that many guitar works are transcriptions.

Francisco Tarrega was never tired of transcribing all kinds of works from the music repertoire, including single movements from Bach Violin Partitas and Cello Suites and works by Albéniz, Chopin and Wagner. Of course  Tarregas’s chef-d’oeuvres are his own compositions in  romantic  and „fin de siecle“ style. Pieces like Recuerdos del Alhambra or Capricio Arabe and many more now belong to the music repertoire and will continue to live on.

Which players do you admire the most?

To answer this question, I shall begin with musicians who are not guitar players, like the pianists Arturo Benedetti di Michelangeli, Alfred Brendel, Maurizio Pollini and many others, who I very much admire because of their mastery in playing and expressing music.

No matter which instrument – be it violin, cello or flute – I do admire technical mastery and the ability to move and grip an audience. Of course, there are many guitar players I really love for various reasons. One of them is Andrés Segovia and more recently Julian Bream, who is a real landmark among the guitar players! A younger generation of guitarists might think that Andrés Segovia is old- fashioned and his style antiquated. I admire his way of playing the guitar and his way to create a wonderful expression and sound on the instrument. Of course there are aspects, which have to be considered in a more historical context, and today’s way of playing for example Bach’s Lute suites on the guitar is naturally very different.

Many aesthetical aspects and criteria changed during the last decades. Some contemporary guitarists have a high standard technique and can play very fast and proper, but often there is also a lack of melody and “real music”, that is – sometimes besides a lack in musical background and experience – the absence of feelings and inspiration. But on the other hand the possibilities today are wonderful and nearly every person could learn all kinds of music, study the background, technique and style to achieve real musicianship. My overall impression is, that the whole musical level has enormously increased over the last decades and that musicians today can receive an excellent education. That is a superb advantage and a wonderful gift. 

Do you have any future ambitions or projects you want to fulfil?

For the next years, I have several bigger projects, which I would very much like to fulfil. Many of them are based on broadening the general repertoire of the classical guitar. I would really wish to see the guitar repertoire enhanced by high quality music. Most importantly, I think the international standard guitar repertoire should be opened up include more works and composers. Contrary to what one might think, the classical guitar repertoire is incredibly rich and varied, but unfortunately only a few concertos are regularly performed. Fifty years ago, Rodrigos’s Concierto de Aranjuez was played worldwide and it still is today.

If there is a programme with a guitar soloist, orchestras and conductors most of the times ask for the Aranjuez. This is fine, but there are so many excellent composers of that period, whose works would also be worth performing. Through performing lesser known works and attracting attention to the richness of the classical guitar repertoire, I wish to contribute to better establish this instrument on the music market. Recently I was invited by the Royal Academy of Music in London to work on Schubert songs with the guitarists and singers. There is so much to discover in a Schubert song and the quality of music is just wonderful.

The guitar player has to understand the words of the song and music completely in order to be able to support the singer in his expression. Accompanists should work in that way – especially for Schubert, who was himself a guitar player, this is essential. Apart from exploring and performing a variety of guitar concertos, examining Schubert songs in depth is one of the projects I would love to pursue.

How do you approach learning and playing a new piece?

There are many ways to learn a new piece of music and all of them are very individual. When I was a schoolboy, for example, I remember that I just wanted to copy from my guitar teacher what he played for me during the guitar lesson. I did not really enjoy reading written music when I was a boy. I was much faster just copying the teacher. Later, of course I studied the scores much more carefully.

If I have to learn a new piece these days, I very often just look into the score and play the music mentally, which means that I do in my head what I would do manually with the guitar in hand. This method is very efficient but it needs a lot of practice. Sometimes I just use a more conventional way to learn a new piece. I play it through, listen what it sounds like and try to understand the essence and message of the piece. With regard to this process, I then choose the best fingerings, phrasings, articulations and dynamics. And last but not least, I establish the expression and emotional equilibrium for that particular piece.

Music or memory? Which do you prefer when performing?

I almost never use scores when I perform solo recitals. I feel more free when I have the music in myself and there is no need anymore for a written score. Of course, there are exceptions, and for some contemporary music or chamber music pieces I do resort to a score. Especially for some of the contemporary solo pieces, having a score on stage helps to find a more accurate expression of the music, given that details and marks are sometimes very complex. With chamber music it makes much more sense to use scores. Each musician should know what the others play.

To finish off, do you have a tip for playing, practising or anything classical guitar related?

If someone would approach me for a general tip, I would first ask him if he had some specific questions I could answer. In general, I would say, it is important to understand that in music (and maybe not only there) everything is connected. Our experience and our profound knowledge and musicianship decide if we are able to discover and express the mysteries and beauty of the piece. To express it we need to have the right tools: the instrument, the technique, good musical taste for interpretation and style, and an open heart. I cannot answer what music is in the end, but I had often the impression that it is close to a manifestation of love.

Ed-Great, many thanks Christoph for taking the time to give us such great insights into yourself and the life of a professional classical guitarist. We wish you all the very best for the future!

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