Interview with Pavel Steidl
Pavel Steidl (born June 24, 1961) is a classical guitarist who was born in Rakovnik, Czechoslovakia (now in the Czech Republic), but has lived in the Netherlands for many years. After winning first prize at the 1982 International Guitar Competition of Radio France in Paris, Steidl began his career as a professional musician. Pavel has been a regular at Altamira international symposiums for some time now, and joined us again in 2019.
Matthew Ng: Pavel, what an honour it is for Altamira to have you here again in Hong Kong and thank you so much for joining us today to have a bit of a chat and play some guitars.
Pavel Steidl: Thank you very much for the invitation and for the chance to play this guitar. I’m actually the first player who played this instrument (N3 concert guitar), this beautiful instrument.
MN: Correct, you are the first one, and now all the artists want to play the guitar!
PS: Yeah, I played this guitar in concert, so I know a little bit more than other people about how it plays on stage. You never really recognize the quality of the instrument before you play it on stage. You need to play on stage to feel your energy and the energy of guitar together. And I have to say, I found it really marvellous. And very surprising because, I’m not really used to playing a double top guitar. I’m not used to playing double tops, and I will tell you why… I’m not speaking about every double top in the world, because of course, there will always be exceptions. And some are very very beautiful, however, I don’t like guitars which reminds me too much that the guitar is a percussion instrument.
I know it is percussion instrument, but I will say, I will never accept it is percussion instrument! So I will always try to feel that the guitar is in my world, so I have to start to play sound, of course. But then, normally, I do not sing like – “Ha!” (yelled quickly), yeah? But I will try, “Maaaaaaa” (long singing). Like this you know. And this guitar is moving in the face (top).
MN: So even though this one is a double top, it has that traditional sound.
PS: Let’s not speak about double tops like that (laughing). So, I think that the vision of this instrument when Altamira was making it or Hanson when he was making it, was really very close to the Spanish sound. Yes, but to the Spanish sound, which is for me, really one of the most important things. I think that for me, personally, there’s nothing more beautiful than the sound of old Spanish guitars – Torres, Simplicio, Garcia, Hernandez, and this things, you know, and I know that it’s very difficult to copy them. You know, but it’s very important for my musical feeling. For instance, when I play some bass, it’s not only bass, but it’s bass, but it’s also a little timpani. You know, today, the bass line, it’s very important that when you play, that you don’t hear only harmony or only melody. But you need also to feel rhythmical structure. Beautiful. You know, it’s really getting there, this song, which I can change. Also, this scatter effect (demonstrated on guitar). That’s for me very important. I love it very much that I can change from feeling of the timpani, you know, to go something which is singing, to play the cello sound you know, and the guitar needs to understand it.
MN: And you have a traditional Spanish guitar as well?
PS: Ah, yes. Yes, yes, I play, mostly I play Simplicio. Yeah, I have also the other instruments, Valta Forette, I have a Federico Sheppard instrument, I have a fantastic instrument of Paul Fischer Rubio, which is also very beautiful, you know. And it’s somehow forming me, you know, that it’s also teach me what to do with the guitar, how to make the sound. For me, so very important that these instruments react to the effort of sustain, which is not very well known, you know, but it’s like you change vocals. Overtones, you know. This guitar has it, this guitar has it, this guitar has this prolongation of the sound.
Yeah, that it’s not going really “Baa”, but it’s, it’s coming inside, that’s really very much what I appreciate. And changing of the colors, you know, and also what about I told you, you know, I love to stay sometimes on the notes, which are for me important. And that’s really what the instrument, for my feeling, has to do, you know. Not only be loud. Yeah, the loudness of the instrument really changes other important things.
Because, you know, I know that the loudness is of course important, especially if you play in some chamber music. But you know, I have an old guitar, made by Johann Anton Stauffer. This guitar is already so powerful, or yesterday (during Romantic Salon concert), we could hear also how the instruments, which were made in the same period, or the romantic period. They could really compete with the sound of the piano in that way.
I think that the problem of the guitar, is not the loudness, but the instrument, you know, how loud is the instrument, but the acoustic of the place.
That’s very important. In good acoustics, you can make so many, so many things. And colors, colors, colors. You know, that’s what the guitar is! I like this words of Segovia, when they asked him, “What is the difference between piano and the guitar?” And Segovia said “When the shine of the music comes through the piano, it breaks in the sound which is beautiful, but it’s universal sound. If the shine of the music comes through the guitar. It breaks in the spectrum of orchestra colors.” Whoa, orchestra colors. So when you play at this (demonstrates on guitar). And the same bass. To make the messa di voce (singing) you know, “Dyahhh da de”. It’s sometimes very difficult on other instruments, yeah. This guitar has it! That’s very good, I like, congratulations!
MN: Yes, it’s all Hanson!
PS: Wow, Hanson, congratulations, it’s really very nice. I have been following Hanson’s Guitar already for a couple of years. Yeah, you keep it in your hands, and it’s already resonating. His work is still more and more coming closer to this old Spanish sound, you know, which I should not expect here in Hong Kong.
MN: I think it’s because he also really loves those traditional Spanish guitars as well.
PS: We have on the same boat
MN: You played a fantastic concert with both a traditional, older style instrument and a modern instrument. How do you balance it? Is it normally fifty-fifty for you for concerts now? In terms of the older instrument repertoire.
PS: No, I’m very often taking only one instrument with me, because to travel with two instruments is quite difficult. You need to at least have two tickets. An extra seat for that which can be very, very difficult. So what we often do is travel without our instruments. And we know somebody who has a good instrument, and so you have to be able to play a concert on the second day after getting a guitar which you’ve never played.
Like this one. Yeah, that’s what I did with this Altamira guitar. I came here with a copy of Johann Anton Stauffer, which is actually with an adjustable neck, and I can take into two parts. I have the neck that travels with the normal luggage, and I go on there with the body. But it was actually, also the idea of Stauffer to travel easier. Because the tickets for the coach, they were quite expensive, so it was the same problem like we have now with the flights. They took the instruments into two small pieces when they were traveling. That’s what I was taught by the somebody who learned about that a lot. So that can be practical.
MN: Let’s swap over guitars now. So this is another historical replica guitar – a new model from Hanson – the Altamira ‘Vienna’ guitar.
PS: It’s beautiful. It’s a Stauffer right.
MN: Yeah, and you’re the expert, so we’d love to get your–
PS: I’m not an expert, really, I don’t want to be an expert. It goes to the man who knew everything, who passed away. I really just try when I come to the instrument.
MN: How long have you played the guitar, and did you start with a more standard classical guitar, then develop an interest into the 19th century period instruments?
PS: Well, I played what I had, come on, I was born in Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia you know, and we didn’t have much choice, you know. My first guitar, my real good first guitar, was the Kohno 15, you know, the student model. Actually I played with that guitar in the Radio France in 1982 when I won the competition with this guitar, which is actually a factory guitar.
MN: What inspired you to get into traditional instruments and the 19th century repertoire?
PS: I will tell you, because I was preparing a recording of Legnani music. And to practice this music on the big 660 mm scale length guitar, you know, it’s really quite heavy, because you have a very difficult top. And it didn’t work, my fingers are also not that big, and so ahhh. Then I saw a great German duo, who were actually one of the first people I heard play romantic instruments. It was a copy of Panormo, and I tried to play this and thought, wow, it makes everything much easier, and then I heard, okay, that’s in this music, I can hear really well the sounds of the voices, like the soprano. There’s there is not so much resonance. But there is a sustain and there is, I can feel very well, very well, the difference between the voices. It’s not so resonant, but you see, you hear it very clear, the voice, melody voice, the middle voice, the bass voice. Then one summer, something wonderful happened. Suddenly somebody called me – “Hey, I’m selling the guitars from the heritage of my father, don’t you want to buy some guitars?” It was in Prague and I said, “I have a guitar, I do not have much money. What do you have there?” He said, “Well, I have the Stauffer” Ahh! (Pavel exclaims with excitement). “And I have the Legnani model”. Ahh! It was like someone was sending me a message from above. So I went there and bought the guitar. You know, it’s always I I save some money to buy a car, but I bought the guitar! (Laughing)
MN: Is that the guitar that you recorded the Legnani album on?
PS: No that was a different replica model that a great guitar maker from Cologne made for me.
MN: Okay. Legnani model is the one with the different headstock?
PS: It has a more rounded headstock, but I don’t think that the headstock is the most important.
MN: Okay, what’s the main difference?
PS: I think it’s important to get the right shape of the body. The adjustable neck, yeah, adjustable neck, also. I’ve also seen Legnani models sometimes with this style of headstock. This different Martin head, you know, which he brought later to the United States, and Fender has that now.
MN: The adjustable neck is actually something that we’ve had a lot of feedback on, so we’ll probably end up changing that. But do you have some tips for any modern guitarists who play a modern instrument, who are really interested in this instrument, this repertoire, and whether they have to change their technique or do anything differently when they move across?
PS: To be honest, I’m not changing much. I’m just relaxing my left hand more, which is good for the melody, you know. I can make more melody lines, and whatever, you know. It’s also easier for, for vibrato. The sound is different. It’s immediately, I can’t describe it.
For the romantic guitar I tune always lower. I don’t tune it up. Even the modern guitar, the pitch which I really like, is 438 Hz. 440 Hz is somehow already too high. Yeah, I think that the guitarists of that time, you know, were using different pitch. You know, they found the tuning fork of Agustin Barrios Mangore. It was at 432 Hz.
I like to do it for 415 Hz or 420 Hz. But if you go a little bit lower, you see that the guitar gets more overtones. You have to see it from the piece resonance of the instrument. You know, I believe that the guitar works in the waves, because music is moving in the waves. It’s not like this. Very beautiful, very beautiful.
MN: Great, well, thank you so much Pavel for being so generous with your time, and it’s really an honor to sit this close and hear you play up close, so thank you very much.
PS: No, congratulations. Thank you very much, it was beautiful, beautiful.