Why the piano sings

The pianist-vocalist duo of Daniel Gortler and Sharon Rostorf-Zamir is surprising people with a lieder-heavy program that's short on sentiment.

Sharon Rostorf-Zamir 88 248 (photo credit: Maya Aharoni)
Sharon Rostorf-Zamir 88 248
(photo credit: Maya Aharoni)
'If I hadn't become a pianist, I would have become a singer," says internationally acclaimed Israeli pianist Daniel Gortler. He will present a "Recital with Variations" program - featuring pieces by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Schumann - on June 13 at the intimate Einav Center in Tel Aviv, which boasts excellent acoustics. "This is an intellectual program, since 'variations' relate to the pieces' structure," explains the pianist, "and beautiful, romantic. I try to combine these two aspects, and I always try to sing from the piano. Which is not strange, since already at the age of four I won the title of Prince of Israel in the Ramat Gan young talents contest for performing San Remo songs in Italian," he smiles. But playing solo concerts is just a part of the variegated musical activities of the busy performer. His is a "regular and intensive life of a soloist," as he defines it. Gortler plays with important orchestras in Israel and abroad, teaches at the Rubin Academy of Music and presents master classes at such prestigious venues as the Manhattan School of Music in New York; nowadays, he is also working on a new album of Schumann's pieces. About a year ago, his musical road crossed with that of Israeli soprano Sharon Rostorf-Zamir. They started performing Schubert's lieder (art songs) together, appearing at the Schubertiada mini-festival in Tel Aviv, recording an album on the Romeo label soon afterward and most recently, touring Israel with this program. The body language of the artists - the glances and the smiles they exchange when they come up onstage even before they start performing - says a lot about their mutual understanding, which is essential for this exquisite genre. Sitting in a Tel Aviv cafe, Rostorf-Zamir and Gortler - partners in music and good friends - are talking, half-jokingly, about their cooperation. "We reached a musical understanding almost immediately," recollects Rostorf-Zamir. "The reason is in our similar approach to Schubert; in our vision, he is far less sentimental than is typically performed." The singer, who used to be known to the local public mostly as a successful opera soloist, says that for the past 10 years she has been drifting away from the traditional operatic repertoire. "In opera, you have to, above all, sing powerfully, and this is not exactly my character." She has found refuge in baroque repertoire, singing operas, oratorios and recitals. Together with composer Evgeny Levitas, she worked on a project dedicated to Psalms and wants to dedicate more of her time to promoting Israeli classical music; she also teaches and is happy with her life. As for Schubert's lieder - they have been an object of her special love for years. "This richness of thought, this interaction between the voice and the piano, the shades of sounds and shades of meaning, a story evolving in front of your eyes - nothing could be compared to these little gems." FOR GORTLER, "working with singers has always been the most natural thing to do. The pianist is a full partner here: Schumann, Schubert and Brahms were all piano composers. Dynamics, taste, details, nuances - cooperating with a singer is a sheer pleasure for me." How do they decide about the interpretation of a piece? Gortler says, "This is music - there's nothing much to talk about." Rostorf-Zamir adds: "It all comes from emotions, yet Daniel always asks me about the meaning of the words, and it all starts from the moment he makes this connection. I give him almost total freedom to decide, because if the pianist does not create a correct atmosphere, nothing is going to help the singer. The color, the volume, the phrasing and support that he gives the singer - everything is important here." She continues, "Sometimes I look in the mirror and ask myself: What the hell is wrong with me, why am I so much not a prima donna? I put my foot down only when I need his technical support for performing this or that complicated passage, and I know that he will go with me to the end - Daniel really understands the singer's voice and soul." Gortler responds, "I think that with a singer like Sharon, this is an ongoing give-and-take relationship between a vocalist and a pianist. This interaction is what creates the result." Rostorf-Zamir believes another reason for their success is that "Daniel is a soloist. Granted, he is an experienced accompanist, but I always give him an opportunity to showcase his brilliant pianism, which is an important element of the genre of lieder." They had never really considered recording a Schubert album, but "I remember sitting one day in a cafeteria with Sharon after a concert; she told me that her recording session, which was scheduled for the next month, was canceled - but the date was free," recollects Gortler. "It was almost a joke, but two and a half weeks before the recording date, we found ourselves choosing and rehearsing pieces with a lot of excitement and spontaneity." And how was their CD received? "Some liked it a lot, some raised their eyebrows in surprise," says Rostorf-Zamir. "It was the musicians who fully accepted it. Again, this is all about our interpretation, which is rather more crisp than sentimental." "Competition in music is fierce, especially in this field," adds Gortler. "You know, some reviewers compared our disc to classical recordings, so I say: 'Hey guys, for a little farm girl from Israel, being compared to Elizabeth Schwartskopf is not bad at all!'" laughs Rostorf-Zamir. Daniel Gortler performs his Recital with Variations program June 13 at the Einav Center in Tel Aviv. The concert starts at 9 p.m. For reservations: (03) 546-6228.