Pianist Louis Schwizgebel-Wang

Photo: Christian Steiner .

The young and personable Louis Schwizgebel-Wang is not to be
considered a ‘secret’ insider tip anymore, and he certainly won’t be after his
upcoming recital at Merkin Hall on January 30th.

Even as early as 2007, the Swiss born pianist was introduced
to audiences in the United States, with his Zankel Hall debut in New York and
at the Kennedy Center in Washington.  According
to the Washington Post at the time, he played with a “powerhouse technique, a sly
sense of humor, wonderfully expressive phrasing, and seething passion, showing
also sensitivity to subtle but essential details of touch and tone.” Previously
he had won First Prize in the 2006 Young Concert Artists European Auditions in
Leipzig Hochschule fuer Musik Felix Mendelssohn- Bartholdy.

He is once again launched by Young Concert Artists, an organization that is dedicated to
boosting to success the careers of many great pianists, — including artists
like Jerome Lowenthal, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Richard Goode, Emanuel Ax and
Jeremy Denk.  Schwizgebel’s upcoming encore
recital at Merkin Hall will give this young performer the chance to remind New
York audiences of the previous positive impression that he made in New York and

Schwizgebel-Wang’s other career highlights include a
2004 tour of China with the Basel Symphony and in 2005 he won the top prize at
the Geneva International Piano Competition. His continued winning of prizes in
Europe and the United States had led to more, great concert opportunities, such
as his performance as a soloist with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Fabio
Luisi and with the London Philharmonic under Carl Davis. He also very recently
played a solo recital at London’s Wigmore Hall, and this summer he performed at
the Verbier Festival, with critic Ismene Brown saying: “ … I enjoyed most what
was happening upon a new bloom, the sort of thing that is very Verbier. One
afternoon at the clipped white modern Église appeared a 23-year-old Swiss
pianist named Louis Schwizgebel-Wang, who made an hour and
a quarter of Liszt flee by with exquisite fairytales of pianism, from the
sombre questions of Vallée d’Oberman to some breathtakingly
virtuosic playing of Paganini studies….

Photo: Christian Lutz

To make a career as a musician is a long-term act of intelligent
will and curiosity about music-making, as Terfel embodies. At the moment,
perhaps, the beauteous and glamorous Buniatishvili, the same age as
Schwizgebel-Wang, has a huge marketing advantage, but in 20 years I think that,
like Kovacevich and Argerich, it is Schwizgebel-Wang who is more likely to be
the master of his instrument opening ears to the intimate secrets of great
music up in the mountains of Verbier. Catch him when he plays in Britain this
autumn with his fellow Swiss cellist, Lionel Cottet, and, I’d bet he will be
playing in a lot of high places as a soloist before long.”

His parents —the mother Chinese, the father Swiss— are both
visual artists living in Geneva, and believed in a sheltered environment. He
started lessons with his teacher Franz Josefovski at age six. The young piano
talent, who, aged 12, represented Switzerland in the 9th Steinway
Festival in Hamburg, visited the Lausanne Conservatory, but just for lessons
with his teacher Brigitte Mayer. Still living at home he earned his soloist
diploma, aged 15. He later travelled for lessons with Pascal Devoyon at the
Berlin Universität der Künste.  That is why only since he came to New York
this year, to study at Juilliard with Emanuel Ax and Robert McDonald, has he
experienced a true “school – environment,” which he actually enjoys greatly.

He likes to challenge himself and, as I was impressed to
learn, he likes to continue to explore. Even in terms of his already greatly
praised piano technique, he likes to gain a deeper insight into the principals
that are at work which are evidently not always completely clear, despite all
the great training and musical talent.

Photo: Chritian Lutz

I met him for the first time recently, after his
participation at the Beethoven Marathon, a live broadcast from WQXR’s
Greenspace on November 20th.   This marathon was a collective effort of some
of the most talented — established and emerging pianists including Jonathan
Bis, Jeremy Denk, Alessio Bax and Phillip Edward Fisher.

“I needed to expand my horizon…” said Schwizgebel-Wang, as I
approached him after his stellar performance of Beethoven’s opus 14, no. 1; and
Opus 81a. His participation at the Green Space broadcast happened somewhat
spontaneously, leaving him only the very limited time span of 8 days to prepare
both of the sonatas for performance.

“I decided on studying in New York,” he explained, “since I
had already contacts, won some auditions and I had management, which still
continues. Young Concert Artists was very helpful; they introduced me to
Emanuel Ax, who then accepted me as his student at Juilliard. Engstroem, the
organizer of the Verbier Festival also convinced me to go New York. I had first
gone to their Academy – Master classes in 2008/9 and then Engstroem had invited
me to play a recital this year. I would have thought Paris or London. Engstroem
pushed me further.”

And he loves it. Lucky to have found an apartment close to
Juilliard, he practices at the school, daily. “At home I was always a bit lazy about
practicing, since …well it was home, there were distractions. But here, you
pass by the practice rooms and I am motivated; everyone else is doing the same
thing,” the pianist continues.

He enjoys the musical input both his teachers, Ax and McDonald,
provide. They don’t talk much technique. Schwizgebel –Wang likes to listen to
both their personal suggestions, of how to go about different phrasings,
musical structure and interpretation. “Sometimes there are small changes in
details that transform the whole idea of the piece” , he claims, getting the
most out of his one year graduate diploma process, which he would like to
extend to a second year.

When we are talking about technique, Louis gets really

It is fascinating for any aspiring pianist to know that,
despite this pianist’s huge talent, his accomplished performances and his
aspirant career, he can admit to constant insecurities, or rather a continual
questioning of his pianistic technique as the reliable craft to forge all the
wonderful promising artistic ideas.  How
to produce the full tone he wants for a particular place in the music? How to
get into the keys so the planned sound effect won’t be too harsh, but loud

There are obviously different stylistic ways to approach the piano,
for example when playing French, impressionist music like Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, that Louis is
preparing for his upcoming Merkin Hall recital.  “Something about the touch light, precise and
this clear accuracy, is more tangible for me and easier to instinctively grasp
then let’s say Brahms or Schubert,” he says.

So what is it one has to focus on practicing, considering one
can prepare two Beethoven Sonatas in 8 days?  “I am not crazy about “exercises.” I make up
my exercises according to each piece I play and I like to know all about the
music I play. And I would love to understand technique in general better, what
enables you to feel comfortable at the piano. “

As his teacher McDonald had mentioned the Taubman approach, I offer to introduce
him to Edna Golandsky, who is the most renowned specialist in Dorothy Taubman’s
inquisitions of natural piano technique. (See my article:  http://english.getclassical.org/2009/12/19/crafting-the-well-tempered-pianist-introducing-the-taubman-approach/)

It is fascinating to see the interaction when huge talent meets
with the lifelong experience in a piano coach like Edna Golandsky, who has
welcomed many pianists, expanding their horizons in seeking her advice. Louis
plays a movement of Schubert’s Sonata in A major, Haydn Sonata in C Major and
some of Ravel’s gaspard de la nuit.
Edna admires his talent and realizes he is on the search of how to get that
ever-escaping quality of tone, effortlessly and reliably.

I am honored to be present at their session: “What’s on your
mind?” she asks him, after he played for her.  He explained that he never really had a
completely comfortable technique; “I had always been searching, starting out
with a too high wrist and tension. I wanted to play difficult pieces too young
and had to find a way to be able to play them. McDonald gave me some new advice
that made me feel somewhat better about how to go into the keys, somewhat
diagonally, not gripping the keys, as I was doing before, but I am still

Edna has a different approach, pointing out the very natural
alignment of the forearm, hands and fingers. There is no one position that can
be kept continuously:”Curling the fingers is one of the biggest reasons for
tension, she says, but a thrust forward creates a finger action that can be
counterproductive just the same as grabbing the keys, which has an effect of
making you “fall off” the piano. Sometimes changing one approach for another
can make one feel better. But the real answer is to get rid of any tension.”

Edna went onto tell Louis that the depth in his tone, comes
from the weight of the forearm, which negotiates also the sideward movement on
the keyboard. There is a sense of forward balance, opposed to falling back.  She recognized that he has a lot of
imagination in his playing and brings out color changes, but there could be a deeper
sound:”That comes from the forearm, by slowing down the key speed with a
rotational movement,” she explains.

Louis gets the hang of it, immediately.  Edna asks him, “How is that? ““Comfortable,”
Louis confirms, nodding thankfully.

“Paying attention to the alignment allows you to feel more
grounded, more supported. In order to bring out sounds, especially when we are
talking about a soft sound, people hold up their arms, their shoulders, not daring
to make a too big sound. Sound is not at the bottom of the key, but slightly
before that. Therefore you don’t aim for the bottom,” Edna explains to him.

“You release more power, when you are not forcing into the
key, like when throwing a ball. With the timing of the key and the power of the
forearm, there is a lot of variety of tone, and a bigger sound. Just be careful
not to break the wrist and not to collapse at the knuckles.   Breaking the wrist can quickly lead to
injuries, and usually, when the wrist collapses, the shoulders go up as well.
Maybe your higher wrist position tried to make up for this. In any case, when
it’s correct, the hand does not want to do anything else, it’s totally
comfortable and there is no difference if it’s in concert performance or

Schwizgebel-Wang is enthusiastic about his initial visit, as
he tells me afterwards: “It really helps! I was expecting something more
complicated but actually it is so simple and natural. I am looking forward to
practicing in this direction. “

Lucky to be open-minded and not deterred by some of the
ghosts of critical rumors about the Taubman approach, he will have the
opportunity to visit Edna again, as questions arise. But for those not near New
York, there are the 10 tapes, introducing the principles of the method which
are available at the Golandsky website. www.golandskyinstitute.org

On top of it he is great fun, as I experienced first hand when he visited with my family for dinner and joined with Juilliard co-student David Aladashvili into a spontanious Schubertesque salon performance. And maybe we will experience some of the impressive, positive
results of Louis’s new approach to tone production in his piano technique
during his upcoming Merkin Hall recital. We hope it will be a more comfortable,
effortless experience for him… as he will be able to craft his wonderful
musical thoughts more freely.

His website is: http://www.louisschwizgebelwang.com/

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