Though he first made his name as a concert pianist, Lars Vogt has steadily increased his presence on the podium. Along with an appointment as music director of England’s Royal Northern Sinfonia, he regularly guest conducts, this season leading ensembles such as the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Warsaw Philharmonic and Orchestre de Chambre de Paris.
Despite this growing concentration on conducting, the German-born Vogt emphasizes that in no way is he giving up his commitment to the keyboard. Indeed, it is in that latter capacity that he will appear Jan. 27, as part of the Symphony Center Presents Piano Series. He is filling in for Leif Ove Andsnes, who had to cancel earlier this month because of an injury. Due to his busy schedule, Vogt rarely makes substitution appearances of this kind. But he was able to squeeze in this trip to the United State before he begins a series of concerts in Poland.
“It rarely happens that it fits so smoothly that I can actually do this,” he said. “And I’m also very much looking forward to doing it, because it is a beautiful hall. I’ve played in the series before, and I love playing there.”
Even though this recital was scheduled with little notice, Vogt is not taking the easy way out when it comes to the program. The centerpiece will be J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, one of the towering masterpieces for the keyboard. Published in 1741, this work consists of an aria and a set of 30 variations and presents a range of technical and interpretative challenges.
The pianist describes a presentation of this transcendent work as not just a performance but a deeply affecting communal experience. “I’ve done Goldberg quite a bit over the last years,” he said, “and I’ve decided for myself that this will stay as an ongoing piece in my life. Sometimes, you do big pieces and after a while, you drop them. But Goldberg is something so substantial and so important to me in every way – mentally, emotionally but also simply technically for the piano. I think it’s just unbelievably healthy to keep that going.”
As a teenager, Vogt was significantly affected by Glenn Gould’s famous recordings of the Goldberg Variations. (Gould’s debut album in 1955 featured the work, and he re-recorded it in 1981, a year before his death.) “That was my first Goldberg impression,” he said. “Now, I have more distance from his interpretation, even though I absolutely still admire his brain and his polyphonic thinking.” Vogt also praises András Schiff’s take as well. “But I think — and hopefully — I still have my own way of doing it,” he said. “When playing it on the modern piano, I try to base my sound idea a lot more on string playing and singing and try to get away from the feeling that it’s just a keyboard piece.”
Sometimes, the pianist performs just the Variations on a program, because the work is 70 minutes long and can stand on its own. But for his Chicago recital, he will offer a kind of preface on the first half, playing two sets of short late works by Johannes Brahms: Three Intermezzos, Op. 117, and Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119. “I think that works quite beautifully,” he said. “It is a really different sound world: the often darkness of the late Brahms pieces contrasting with the mostly joy of the Goldbergs. Yet there’s the parallel of how obviously Brahms learned so much from this contrapuntal way of thinking. He based so much of his work on old composers, going all the way to [Heinrich] Schültz and [George Frideric] Handel, but also to Bach, of course.”
Vogt first began thinking about conducting when he was in his 20s and had the chance to work with such major podium figures as Simon Rattle and Christian Thielemann. “There was always a fascination then,” he said, “when I saw great conductors: What is it about? Why is suddenly some unbelievable magic happening when with other people it is not happening? This fascination stayed with me.” But he really didn’t think about it as a possible artistic avenue until Rattle surprised him following a 1991 joint concert with a prediction that Vogt would be a conductor in 10 years. “I recently asked him,” Vogt said, “‘What made you say that?’ And he said it was just sort of a gut feeling that I was interested in the big picture of the piece and not just not my thing.”
The pianist took a few lessons and led a few amateur orchestras, but he didn’t take conducting seriously until about 10 years ago: “That’s when I basically said to my manager, ‘Look, I don’t care at what level this is, but I need to try this out. I feel that there is something bubbling inside of me that I want to explore.”
Besides conducting wherever he could, he took more lessons and received coaching from Mark Stringer, a veteran American maestro who serves as a professor of orchestral conducting at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. “I’ve spoken to all my conducting friends, and I nag them all the time,” he said. “I ring them up or I text them: ‘How do you do this? What’s the tempo for this and how do you give this upbeat?’ And I watch them, of course.”
In September 2015, Vogt took over as music director of the Royal Northern Sinfonia. He believes the English ensemble deserves to be better known, and he is working hard to achieve that goal. “They are a first-class chamber orchestra,” Vogt said, placing the group on the same level as ensembles such as the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen in Germany and Chamber Orchestra of Europe in London. “British orchestras are so professional and so stylistically aware, and they are an incredible bunch of people — with a very high instrumental level and open to any kind of experiment.” He typically spends about five weeks each year with the orchestra, plus time for special projects, including touring and recording.
Although Vogt now divides his time more or less evenly between conducting and playing piano, he does not really differentiate in his mind between the two activities. For him, one is just an extension of the other. “I’ve come to feel quite passionately about conducting, but mostly I’m just passionate about music in many, many different ways.” And as he is quick to point out, he often combines the two in concerts – conducting from the keyboard as he serves as a concerto soloist. Vogt did just that in 2017, when he led the Royal Northern Sinfonia in the Beethoven piano concerto cycle in Beijing, Shanghai and Seoul. In addition, he and the orchestra recently recorded all five of the works on the Ondine label.
“I really don’t want to lose my piano,” Vogt said. “If anything, I’ve come to love it even more, maybe through understanding more of the orchestral thinking of composers, and I find that really fascinating.”