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Andreas Haefliger, interview: ‘Kung fu made me a better’ pianist’

All the right moves: Andreas Haefliger
All the right moves: Andreas Haefliger Credit: Marco Borggreve

Returning to the Proms, Andreas Haefliger tells Ivan Hewett how his late-blooming passion for martial arts changed his life

Andreas Haefliger is one of the most admired pianists on the planet, leading the glamorous life of the international soloist, spending almost half his life on the road, moving from one top-flight venue to the other. He’s known above all for his interpretations of the great Viennese classics from Haydn to Brahms, which have a special very unshowy integrity, and a contained power which occasionally breaks out with startling force.

This refusal to play to the gallery is probably the reason why Haefliger’s rise has been slow and sure, rather than sudden and spectacular. When we meet in a gloriously OTT gold-and-stucco Vienna café, the 56-year-old tells me he is happy that it’s turned  out like that.

“With age comes a freedom to do things in my own way, instead of following rules someone else set for me,” he says. Can he give me an example? He pauses and gives me an “I’m about to say something off-the-wall” look. “Just the other day I was practising, and my wife (the Italian flautist Marina Piccinini) was listening in another room, and she called out, ‘Hey that sounds really good, what are you doing?’ I was working on Beethoven’s last sonata, and as an experiment I tried playing the second melody of the first movement just with my thumb.” I’m astonished at this, because moving one finger or thumb from one note to another instead of keeping all the fingers in play is what very small children do, when they start to learn the piano. “Yes, it’s naive, but you know the thumb has the longest muscle in the hand, and it means it can produce this beautiful, cushioned sound,” he says. “I would never have allowed myself to do that when I was younger.”

It may seem a small thing, but it’s from such small things that great performances can arise. Haefliger attributes his independence of mind to the liberal atmosphere at home. “I had a proper childhood,” he says. “I was never pushed. My mother made me practise half an hour a day, no more. I was allowed to live in my own mental world, which was great for me. I would spend hours reading adventure stories. Eventually in my own time, I realised that playing the piano was actually the thing I enjoyed most of all, so I focused on that.”

It surely helped that Haefliger grew up in a distinguished artistic household. His father was the well-known Swiss tenor Ernst Haefliger. He performed the part of the narrator in Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder at the Proms at the age of 85, just a few years before he died. “He asked me to accompany him at home when he was practising – I was cheap labour!” says Haefliger. “But he taught me a lot about the value of taking things slowly. You know, he only sang Bach until he was 30. I don’t feel I imitate his way of performing, but I am certainly loyal to the tradition he embodied.” Which was what exactly? “It’s the idea that music is bigger than we are. Music is something that you serve.”

Haefliger followed in his father’s footsteps, growing up partly in Vienna and in Berlin, enjoying playing the piano but not taking it too seriously. Then at the age of 15, he won a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York, and America became his home for 15 years.

“I really admired the professionalism of American musicians, but I felt homesick for Europe,” he says. “Coming back to Vienna, where I’ve lived since 2003, has taught me many things, there’s such a depth of tradition here.” But now Vienna has lost its charm for Haefliger, and he’s about to move to an isolated mountain retreat in his native Switzerland. “With global warming, Vienna has just become too hot in the summers, it goes up to 40 degrees. It’s really impossible, human beings are just not made for that. So we decided to look for something higher up in the mountains. It’s really nice, you can only reach it by gondola!”

Andreas Haefliger

It was at about the same time that Haefliger returned to Europe that he made a discovery that changed his life – kung fu. “I realised when I hit 40 that I wasn’t in good shape physically, I had to do something about it. So I looked around for the hardest way to do that.”

This may seem an odd way to approach a problem, but Haefliger appears to like doing things the hard way. His first class did not bode well. “There were all these people kicking up their legs and saying something Buddhist. And I said to myself, ‘No way, I’m not chanting Buddhist prayers, and also I can’t pick up my legs, so what am I doing here?’ You know I had a very overdeveloped ego, being a pianist,” again with that watchful look.

Anyway, he says that it changed his life. So why is it so great? “Do you want the esoteric answer or the simple answer?” he asks. Unwisely, I go for the esoteric option. “Your muscles get longer. This means you become more centred and focused, thinking always from the middle of the body, so movements become longer, less rushed and more focused. And the same thing happens to your thoughts. You find the simplest way to do the simplest thing, like taking hold of this object,” he says, reaching out for the water jug. “Things become graspable. This extends to everything. It extends to human relationships, it extends to me not seeing you as a famous critic coming here to Vienna from London, but as simply another human being that I enjoy talking to. It’s about being totally direct, and avoiding pretence. All that stuff just falls away.”

That’s all very well but what I really want to know is whether he can break bricks with his hands? “No, true kung fu avoids that kind of showing off.”

Haefliger says that kung fu has given him a new calmness, which helps him to cope with the pressure-cooker life of being a top-rank soloist. Right now he has a new challenge; the new piano concerto by Dieter Ammann that he’ll be premiering at the Proms. “Ammann is very influenced by jazz, and he’s tried to capture the freedom of jazz in his notation. So it’s enormously hard rhythmically. I’ve set aside a whole month to learn it.”

Andreas Haefliger 

He’s looking forward to getting reacquainted with the Proms audience, which he says is very special. “I can remember the first time I played there, I couldn’t believe how close the Prommers were. They had a little joke at my expense, holding up a sign about Swiss cheese being all holes and no cheese or something. But actually they are very serious. They have this incredibly intense way of listening, you can hear a pin drop.”

To him, the Proms is a welcome sign that some people still have a serious devotion to the art of classical music, which he feels is under threat from commercial pressures. “The curatorial voice of reason sometimes disappears,” he says, “Especially in the recording industry, where sales have become so important. Also there is a danger that simple athleticism becomes the measure of artistry, and of course there are plenty of very athletic pianists around, you can find easily them on YouTube. But real musicality comes from somewhere else. There is a hollowness in some of the most technically gifted people, which just seems shallow to me.”

As I leave him to finish his coffee, I’m struck by the tensions lying just under the surface of this smilingly ironic man; on the one hand, the doughty defender of the high ground, on the other a distrust of authority  and of the “right” way of doing things. He’s a man who always has to find  his own way.

Andreas Haefliger performs the Piano Concerto by Dieter Ammann at Prom 43 on August 19. Tickets: 020 7070 4441; bbc.co.uk/proms