NEW YORK—Exquisite, imaginative, and virtuosic are the first words that come to mind to describe the pianist David Fray.
Highly sensitive, sometimes wishing he would be a bit less so, Fray knows how to protect and tend to his creativity, perhaps similar to how he takes care of his huge garden in southwestern France, in the Pyrénées.
His musical interpretations of the composers he loves—Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Ravel, Shostakovich, Brahms, and most intimately, Schubert—reveal such artistry and originality, it’s hard to imagine how he does it.
Ironically, despite all the time it takes to be a concert pianist or a gardener, Fray said that patience and fearlessness are what he needs to work on the most in his character.
“An artist has to fight against his own fears and weaknesses, and being an artist is not only working on music, it’s working on yourself through music,” Fray said.
Living in a society generally geared toward instant gratification, he finds it challenging to accept the fact that when you plant a seed, you don’t know exactly when it will yield results.
As an artist Fray perceives himself as a conduit. “Everything has to vibrate in the body of musicians … for singers it’s obvious, but it’s also [the case] for pianists or violinists,” Fray said.
It’s not easy to be a conduit in the 21st century, interpreting music in a fresh way from centuries past, when the tempo of life was much gentler and humane. This is perhaps why it’s so satisfying to listen to his playing.
When Fray is not performing (about 50 concerts a year), he likes to spend time alone with nature and with his family. He proudly showed a photo of his 4-year-old daughter with adorable big eyes. He met his wife Chiara Muti, the Italian actress and opera stage director, when he collaborated with her father, conductor Riccardo Muti.
A Serious Recital, Schubert via Fray
From the moment he plays his first note, Fray sits arched over the grand piano. His handsomely chiseled face transforms as he plays. At times grimacing, at times grunting, creating the illusion of becoming one body with the piano—resonating together. He looks completely engrossed playing Schubert, the composer he feels comes closest to expressing the human soul.
“I have the impression very often that Schubert wrote his compositions from another world. It’s as if he already passed to the other side of life,” Fray said at the Park Avenue Armory, the day after his first of two performances there on Oct. 6 and 9.
The military atmosphere and warm acoustics of the armory’s wooden room set just the right mood for the three Schubert piano sonatas Fray chose to play: Sonata No. 7 in E minor (D. 566, from 1817), Sonata No. 16 in A minor (D. 784, from 1823), and Sonata No. 20 in G major (D. 894, from 1826, the “Fantasy”). Only the “Fantasy” can be heard on Fray’s latest album, “Schubert Fantaisie,” which has received excellent reviews. Thus, Fray gave a rare chance to hear the trajectory of Schubert’s development in the last 10 years of the composer’s short life.
Fray shapes Schubert’s silences and outbursts with incredible coherence—playing an extraordinary balance between the head and heart, between technical rigor and poetry. Despite his involuntary grimacing, grunts, and thrusting gestures, Fray said that internally he’s actually somewhat detached when he plays.
He referred to Diderot’s paradox, “Paradox sur le comedien” (“The Paradox of the Actor”) to explain that he does not have to be moved by the emotions that he interprets and plays in order to move the audience. Still, there are exceptions. “Sometimes, to be honest, the A minor sonata is something that in my opinion is difficult to play without being touched by what you play,” he said.
Fray plays the tragic piece with such delicacy that one could almost sense the state Schubert must have been in when he wrote the unconventionally structured sonata. Schubert wrote it after his first bout with syphilis. Fray called it “a ghost sonata.” When he plays it, he seems to enter into phantasmagoric world.
It unfolds in a progression of block-like chords, gorgeous silences, lyrical melodies, and sudden unexpected bursts of emotion. The entire piece conveys a sense of forbearance. Fray noted that while Schubert’s music may seem sad, it also gives a sense of hope in accepting one’s condition.
“It’s never all sad or happy or angry or calm or peaceful, very often it’s a mixture,” Fray said. “Schubert is maybe the greatest composer for making people understand all the complexity and subtlety of human feelings,” he added.
Before the encore, Fray played Schubert’s monumental, Sonata in G major with equal intensity. The hesitations in Fray’s immaculate rhythm filled the room with anticipation.
“Even if you have this immobility, even in the most peaceful moments, there’s always a certain flow, an inner movement. It always has to go a bit forward and that’s the thing that one should never forget about Schubert,” he said.
At the end, he wiped the sweat off his forehead with a white handkerchief, held it to his chest and bowed in all seriousness in the stately Board of Officers Room.
Fray, now 34, started playing the piano at the age of 4, simply because his parents, both teachers, thought it was a good idea. The transition from his education to his professional career as a recitalist, soloist, and chamber musician—collaborating with some of the greatest conductors and performing with leading orchestras—progressed in a linear fashion.
He quickly rose to international fame in 2006 when he received a standing ovation for his performance at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, and shortly after with his incredibly fresh interpretation of Bach.
The recording of his album, “JC Bach Keyboard Concertos” with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen was made into a documentary “Sing, Swing & Think” by Bruno Monsaingeon in 2008. It gives a fascinating glimpse into his artistry as a pianist, interpreter, and director. His decisiveness, clarity of vision, and sensibility are irrefutable. His decision to interpret Bach, a composer who is revered most highly by any serious musician, also shows much courage.
“The perfection of Bach’s language and complexity and the huge production he had is something divine,” Fray said. “Bach is the beginning and the end of everything. You have everything with Bach—everything. He summarized all the music that existed before him, but he also anticipated everything that could be done after him,” Fray explained.
Some people, perhaps accustomed to a dry and serious approach to Bach were surprised by Fray’s lyrical interpretation, especially in his “JC Bach Keyboard Concertos.” It’s an album one could listen to endlessly, full of imagination and energy that cannot be contained. He affirmed, “You want to dance to it.”
Fray deeply thought that although Bach’s music is something divine, contemplating humanity from above, you have to make it as lively, as moving, and as human as possible. It cannot just be pedantic, only to be studied in conservatories.
“You put your own breath into the score and then the score lives. In French we say ‘a soufflé,'” Fray said.
While he has to understand and master all the complexity of Bach’s music, the audience should not have to get a “brain ache” to comprehend it, he said excusing his use of English. It’s his job to bring it to life, after hours and hours of research and work at the piano. In the end, for the audience, “The emotion is the only thing that counts,” he said.
For Fray, in contrast to the perfection of Bach, the genius of Mozart, or the precision of Beethoven—whereby every note is a set part of a progression of global structure—with Schubert you have to accept getting lost at times. Schubert contemplates humanity eye to eye; he’s all about searching and ambiguity.
Schubert is best for engaging with what is perhaps Fray’s favorite musical challenge: “How is it possible to create and give the sensation of silence, but with sound? That’s a mystery. … Music creates silence,” he said explaining another paradox.
He compared it to paintings by Johannes Vermeer, which he said are like “visual images of silence.” In Schubert’s compositions, there are “holes in the score … it is as important when you play, as when you don’t play,” Fray said hesitating in midsentence, creating the kind of silence he was talking about.
‘Intimate Little Laboratory’
It would be impossible to quantify how much time and dedication Fray puts into interpreting each piece he plays. Sometimes he could spend 30 minutes learning the phrasing of just a few notes.
It is a very long process to interpret a composer’s piece; it can take years, even decades. Fray called it something like digestion. It begins when he first looks at the score.
“I have the inner necessity to make people get the same feeling that I have when I discover a piece. … I am happy if the audience understands how powerful, how incredible a piece is; that’s my goal,” he said.
He’s always looking for what is behind, for example, a certain chord, rhythm, dynamic of a composition. It requires a very precise knowledge of the score, getting into the mindset of the composer and considering the piece’s special context.
When asked where he gets his inspiration when he interprets different pieces, Fray said, “Very often it comes naturally to me.” But it’s not a process that can be simplified because otherwise “it would diminish the power of the message of the music,” he said.
One of the greatest lessons Fray learned from this teacher, Jacques Rouvier who plays with him on his “Schubert Fantaisie” album, were requirements—what is expected of an artist.
“It’s never as easy as one thinks and also sometimes it is not as complicated as one thinks,” Fray said. The audience has the joy of experiencing the result of a process that is hard to fathom. If he would not gather inspiration from what he called his own “intimate little laboratory,” if he would not confront his fears, diving deep into what he perceives and thinks, if he would not work on his consciousness as he develops as a musician, and if he would not cultivate his artistry with a patience that defies a world of instant gratification, we would not be able to appreciate as much the music he plays.
“I’m just here to show people the beauty of things that usually go unnoticed. That’s what art is all about. An artist is an eye opener, and ear opener, a heart opener,” Fray said.
If you listen to any of Fray’s music, unexpectedly it gently seeps into you, revealing grace, beauty, tragedy, joy, and all the complexity of life in a most delightful way.