MARIA JOAO PIRES
Mario João Pires first appeared in public as a child of four and at seven was playing Mozart piano concertos in public. From the age of nine she studied piano at the Lisbon Conservatory with Campos Coelho and composition and theory with Francine Benoit, then continued her studies in Germany with Rosl Schid at the Musikhochschule in Munich and with Karl Engel in Hanover. After touring during her early youth in Portugal, Spain and Germany, at the age of twenty-six Pires won the Beethoven Bicentennial Competition in Brussels. This launched her career, with tours in Europe, Africa and Japan, although since then Pires has taken several periods of time away from the concert circuit.
It was not too long before Pires was appearing with world-class orchestras. By the time she made her debut in Canada it was with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Charles Dutoit, and during her debut tour of America she played with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1987 she toured Europe with Claudio Abbado and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra and the following year worked with Carlo Maria Giulini, also making her recital debut at Carnegie Hall. Since then Pires has played in Europe, Japan, Israel, Canada and America. She has performed with all the major orchestras of the world including the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw, Boston Symphony and the Orchestre de Paris. She also takes part in many festivals including Ravinia and Tanglewood. In 1990 Pires appeared at the Salzburg Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Claudio Abbado, and in 1993 toured Europe with Raymond Leppard and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.
Pires enjoys playing chamber music, and since 1989 has been part of a trio with violinist Augustin Dumay (also her partner) and cellist Jian Wang.
Much of Pires’s time has been taken up with the founding of a cultural centre at Belgais in Portugal. This 450-acre Roman farm is now a retreat for musicians, equipped with a small concert hall, recording studio and perfect conditions for the creative arts. Always a reticent performer, Pires counts playing the piano as just one part of her life. She took time out to raise her four children, and her work at Belgais, which now incorporates an educational scheme for children, is just as important to her as her career as a pianist.
Pires recorded for Erato in the 1970s and 1980s and made a complete recording of Mozart’s piano sonatas for Denon in the 1970s. In the early 1970s she recorded many of the Mozart piano concertos with the Gulbenkian Foundation Chamber Orchestra and Theodore Guschlbauer, and Bach’s keyboard concertos with the same orchestra and Michel Corboz. Pires says that she does not listen to her recordings, old or new, and that when she recorded the Bach concertos, she ‘…was a baby then – had no idea what I was doing’. She also recorded both Chopin piano concertos for Erato in 1977 with the Orchestre National de l’Opéra de Monte-Carlo and Armin Jordan, and one of her best Erato recordings is of the complete Chopin waltzes made in 1984. It is here that traces of the pianist who was to emerge later first appear. Other fine recordings from the Erato period feature music by Schumann.
From 1989 Pires has recorded for Deutsche Grammophon, re-recording much of the material set down for Erato by composers including Mozart, Chopin, Schubert and Schumann. With a change of record label Pires’s career took off, and she was catapulted into the class of the highest-ranking pianists. If being cynical, one could say that with a perfect piano, excellently recorded acoustic, and the weight of a giant record label behind her, Pires is simply being presented more successfully. However, this is not the case. Her complete cycle of the Mozart piano sonatas won high praise, and around the mid-1990s a noticeable change came over Pires’s playing as she produced some extraordinary discs. There is disc of Schumann containing a marvellously poetic and flexible Arabesque Op. 18, and a set of Chopin’s complete Préludes Op. 28 that ranks among the best. Each prélude has a character of its own, and Pires creates a very intimate, personal sound world. A disc of Bach is uneven, but contains a glorious French Suite No. 2 in C minor. The presentation of Schubert’s impromptus is somewhat pretentious, being entitled Le Voyage Magnifique with a booklet containing moody photography, copious quotes from poets and writers and nothing about the composer or his music. In 1996 Pires recorded the complete nocturnes by Chopin; these are interpreted in a passionately poetic way with Pires understanding Chopin’s love of bel canto singing and his attempts to transfer this style to the piano. As a critic wrote in The Gramophone, ‘…you will look far and wide for performances of greater poetic command and authority.’
Nearly all of Pires’s recent recordings have received high praise, with critics reaching for superlatives. Of her recording of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor Op. 21 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and André Previn a critic wrote in The Gramophone, ‘You will rarely hear Chopin playing of greater mastery or calibre.’ In Mozart she offers ‘…truly outstanding Mozart playing, among the best on disc’. Her playing is often referred to as poetic and spontaneous, with one critic claiming that he had not heard such playing since Clara Haskil. Pires recorded Mozart’s Piano Concertos K. 449 and K. 537 with Claudio Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic, but a recording with the same conductor and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is superior with excellent performances of K. 453 in G major and K. 467 in C major. With the same forces Pires recorded Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 54.
Pires seems to be one of those pianists who can be uneven in performance and on disc. When she is on form she can be one of the greatest, but when not so, as in a disc of Chopin from 1998, she is far less interesting. There are dissenters however. A disc of Beethoven Piano Sonatas Op. 27 Nos 1 and 2 and Op. 109 released in 2002 was not received so favourably. It was recorded in her own studio at Belgais, and Stephen Plaistow wrote in The Gramophone that ‘…she disappoints me because she conveys so little sustained delight in the communicating of these wondrous pieces. The effect overall, each time, is overworked.’
Pires plays and has recorded a good deal of chamber music. With Dumay she has recorded violin sonatas by Franck and Debussy, the complete sonatas of Brahms, Grieg and Beethoven as well as piano trios by Mozart and Brahms and Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat Op. 44. In 1990 she made a disc of Mozart vocal music with soprano Barbara Hendricks for EMI.