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What do we lose when we lose a pianist? The question is on my mind today, the anniversary of the death of the German pianist and conductor Lars Vogt, who succumbed to esophageal cancer on September 5, 2022, just three days shy of his fifty-second birthday. Vogt was a musician of rigorous but unshowy virtuosity and distinctive intelligence, but also, and above all, a profound humanism and a deep moral and emotional imagination. He was renowned as a chamber musician and accompanist and also celebrated as a soloist. (Only a dozen of his fifty-odd recordings were solo albums.) Though he played everything from Bach to Schoenberg and beyond, he was most closely linked to the music at the very heart of the Romantic piano repertoire, particularly the agonies and the ecstasies of Johannes Brahms.
“With him I always felt a very close connection,” Vogt said of Brahms in an unforgettable final interview, with the pianist Zsolt Bognár, on an episode of the excellent series “Living the Classical Life.” There is a “slight melancholy that basically is always there” in Brahms, he continued. “Even if he writes very joyful music, you know, then it’s in spite of the melancholy, but that’s the thing that from childhood was always very close to me, the dark harmonies that he often chooses.”
When Vogt was first diagnosed with cancer, in 2021, he was told that the required chemotherapy treatments might interfere with his playing. “I said to the doctors right away, ‘Look, I love playing the piano, I love being a musician, but I prefer to be alive,’ ” he told Bognár in his German-inflected English. But even in the hospital he kept playing. When his strength allowed, he’d walk up a flight of stairs to the hospital library and practice on an upright piano. “I sit there in the evenings and play a little bit for myself,” he said. He’d play Mozart, Bach—whatever music came to mind in that lonely hospital nighttime. He even started learning Brahms’s Seven Fantasies, Op. 116, which he somehow had never found time for. “I did feel sort of that you lose a little bit of sensitivity at the tip of the fingers,” he notes of the effects of chemo, stretching out the adjective “little” with the relish of someone who’s defied the odds. He kept performing, even recording the Mendelssohn piano concerto between treatments, and took on some of the musical challenges that remained, most notably Beethoven’s fiendish “Hammerklavier” sonata, which he performed five times in May, 2022. At his last concert, on June 26th of that year, his final performance was of the first of Brahms’s Intermezzi, Op. 117, which the composer prefaced with a short epigraph from a Scottish ballad: “Sleep sound, my child, sleep safe and sound; it grieves me much to see you cry.” The piece is a nostalgic recollection of the beginning of life from its end (Brahms was nearly sixty when he wrote it), but Vogt’s tempo, unexpectedly, was much faster than on his 2004 recording of the work. The performance is poignant without being merely sad. Vogt’s darkness was always shot through with light.
Unlike the biography of many famous concert pianists, the story of Vogt’s life reads less like a hagiography and more like a bildungsroman: a calling, an arduous apprenticeship, and a mature artistry that was ultimately less about solitary stardom and more about musical community. That is to say, his story is not of some untouchable genius but rather of a better version of ourselves.
Vogt was born to a middle-class family in the village of Düren, a town to the west of Cologne, in 1970. His father was an engineer who had paid his way through school playing soccer, and his mother was a secretary. As a child, Vogt was just as interested in the playing field as the concert hall, but a teacher in Aachen—“a total artist,” he recalled, “a mad person about piano and pianists and classical music of all kinds”—noticed that he had something special. “She felt very quickly that there was something there, and she took me out of the group and said, ‘O.K., I need you for solo lessons,’ ” Vogt told Bognár. “Later on, she explained to me once that she knew that I had to fly, and that all one had to do is let me fly.” As a teen, after winning a national competition, Vogt started taking a four-hour train to Hanover twice a month to study with his second and final teacher, the legendary pedagogue Karl-Heinz Kämmerling, with whom he continued to take lessons until Kämmerling’s death in 2012; Vogt would eventually succeed him as professor of piano at the renowned Hanover University of Music, Drama, and Media.
Vogt’s professional breakthrough came in the 1990 Leeds International Piano Competition, where he won second place for his intense, introverted performance, under the baton of a youthful Simon Rattle, of Schumann’s Piano Concerto. He would go on to record the piece with the British conductor in 1992, and in 2003 he would be invited to become the first pianist in residence at the Berlin Philharmonic, an ensemble that famously prizes individuality as much as technical mastery.
Rattle was, for Vogt, a lifelong musical friend. Another, even closer musical friendship was with the German violinist Christian Tetzlaff, whom Vogt met on the train to Hanover when he was eighteen years old, just before his triumph in Leeds. The two first performed together in 1996, and were inseparable ever after. “He had this baroque personality,” Tetzlaff said in an interview with Van magazine, right after Vogt’s passing. “He enjoyed everything and had a wild life. He was at once the wildest and most sensitive musician I know.” Tetzlaff’s recording with Vogt of Brahms’s Sonata in G Major, Op. 78, is, to my ears and not only mine, the most compelling version on record. The piece, and the composer, bound them to the end: they played the wistfully lyrical sonata in the hospital, with Vogt on an electric piano, in the last weeks of his life. “Brahms is the composer who connected Lars and I the most all these years and who allowed us to say goodbye in such a beautiful way,” Tetzlaff said.
Vogt was a remarkably social musician, who tended ever more toward collaboration—perhaps a legacy of his early days as a soccer player. In 1998, he founded a festival, called Spannungen (which translates to “Voltages,” as well as “Tensions” and “Excitements”), in Heimbach, near Aachen, which gathers a regular group of some of the world’s best musicians each year for concerts among the turbines of an active hydroelectric plant. More strikingly, Vogt’s musicality grew beyond the piano altogether. After the Leeds competition, Simon Rattle reportedly made a prophecy: “In ten years, you will be a conductor. You have a conductor’s brain.” And, sure enough, in 2014, Vogt was appointed music director of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, in Newcastle upon Tyne (“For me, the life-changing moments always happen in the north of England,” he once joked); in 2019, he was named music director of the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris. Conducting is the physical embodiment of collaboration: the conductor, fully subsumed to the collectivity of the orchestra and intensely focussed on the score, makes no noise. Vogt once spoke of getting the music “out of the keyboard rather than into it”—and perhaps on the podium, or conducting from the piano, he found the ultimate form of musical evocation.
One of the reasons Vogt’s final interview is so striking, and so profound, is the interviewer: Zsolt Bognár’s questions are always sensitively posed but bracingly, almost uncomfortably direct—they’d be too personal for someone whose clock wasn’t so audibly ticking. He asks directly about Vogt’s cancer: “Has it changed at all your feeling about what your priorities are as to what’s actually important in music or even in life?” Vogt doesn’t respond for about twenty seconds, and it’s a silence thick with feeling. His eyes twitch slightly; he looks up to the left, with an expression that could presage anger just as well as tears. “Um,” he says, taking a jagged breath in. “It’s a mix of things.” He speaks of his four-and-a-half-year-old daughter. “I’m very aware,” Vogt says, “that I might not see her as a grownup. . . . How do we create, still, some memory maybe, you know, how can I be around—and, of course, I’m also often not able to play that much with her—but still be there,” he wonders, so “that she still has a memory of somebody who loved her, you know? So this is, of course, one of the important things: what one leaves behind.”
These familial concerns are mirrored in music, which Vogt helps us understand as something not separate from life but as a way of focalizing it, concentrating it. A bit later in the interview, he recalls an anecdote (“I’m doing lots of anecdotes here!” he remarks at one point) about his final lesson with Kämmerling. Vogt played a Chopin sonata—“of course the one with the Funeral March” (No. 2, Op. 35)—and the maestro was running him through the ringer, an unusual experience for an already world-famous musician. “Then he said at some point, ‘Lars, you have to forgive me. When you’re getting older, things get urgent,’ ” Vogt recalled. Approaching old age, or death, you might think that “you can let things be, you know, and it’s fine, you don’t need to go after everything,” Vogt continued. “But somehow, also in a rehearsal with my orchestra, it’s even more important to get it right, you know, to get it as right as possible for the concert, to get across what I feel about it.”
Glenn Gould sulkily likened concert performance to a blood sport, a kind of gladiatorial challenge in which the public is just waiting for the pianist to make a mistake. (It’s no wonder he stopped performing at the age of thirty-one.) Gould wasn’t entirely wrong about the format: the institution of the piano recital or the concerto resembles a battle, or a struggle, a feat of endurance and skill. But really it’s more Greek than Roman, more Olympic than gladiatorial. It shouldn’t be about survival but about flourishing, about embodying the best that there is and that we aspire to be. Bognár asks Vogt how he is able to maintain hope for the future, and Vogt replies by quoting the saying, which he attributed to the anti-Nazi dissident and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that, if he had only one day to live, he’d still plant an apple tree. “I like this idea that life continues,” Vogt muses.
Even when it’s sad or frightening, music is always about living well—with the most concentration, the most intensity, and the greatest empathy for the composer, your fellow-musicians, and your public. Vogt showed us that it’s about dying well, too. And that the musical heroism we so admire—a heroism made of a million minor insights, of muscle memory, of nuance heard and felt and gifted on—can be transferred to the basic challenge of moving through and out of this life with grace. Toward the end of his interview with Bognár, Vogt mused on what he would leave behind. “You live on in a different way, you know,” he said, “and you stay with some people that you’ve impacted maybe, and particularly in teaching or in rehearsing. Something stays with people.” Lars Vogt lives on much more than in his recordings or his pedagogy. What lives on is the whole music of his life. ♦