Plumbing the depths
German pianist Burkard Schliessmann unites intellectual clarity with an intuitive sense of colour, influenced by his artistic upbringing and his parallel life as a scuba diver. Hugo Shirley meets this multifaceted musician
There’s no such thing, of course, as a standard concert pianist. It’s nevertheless safe to say that Burkard Schliessmann is an artist who’s a long way from the conventional; a pianist full of surprises, who doesn’t fit any standard mould. For a start, his career at the piano is complemented by secondary careers as an organist and, somewhat further removed, as a professional diver (he has over 8,500 logged dives around the world under his belt). When we meet at Berlin’s Teldex Studio, a favourite recording venue, I ask how it all started – and that’s hardly conventional either.
‘I was born with music,’ he says. ‘There were Chopin recordings by the great pianists played in the delivery room.’ Not only that: his maternal grandmother bought him a Steinway when he was born. I try to ascertain some more details about her inclination to make such a gift, but Schliessmann answers only in general terms: ‘My grandmother was an outstanding personality with vision. She influenced my whole life and retained her outstanding intellect right up until her death aged 96.’
It's one of a couple of occasions during our conversation when the pianist opts to answer poetically rather than offer the prose of specifics. His English is accented and occasionally eccentric, but he speaks with the same control and economy that define his playing style. A recent recipient of the prestigious Goethe Plaque of the City of Frankfurt, Schliessmann is regularly praised for the intellectual clarity of his performances and recordings. The clarity and calm surface, one senses, hide unfathomable depths. It takes no great leap of imagination to see the parallels with his activities as a diver.
His is a mind that has clearly absorbed and synthesised influences from a young age. He describes how his early intuitive relationship with music (aged three he would return from church and play from memory the chords he’d just heard there) has been enriched by intellect. The fact that his father was an outstanding amateur painter, he says, gave him additional impressions and inspiration for the keyboard, something that fed into his innate synaesthesia. This ability to hear colours is complemented by a memory that, the pianist explains, allows him to see the music in his mind’s eye as if it’s simply scrolling past.
Schliessmann’s formal piano studies began at eight, but he also began studying with the legendary organist Helmut Walcha in his early teens. ‘At 13 I remember asking my mother for a recording of Bach’s The Art of Fugue,’ he
‘To play the concert grand in the right way,
you have to include the whole arm and the whole body’
International Piano 3