Leslie Howard in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The thirty-sixth interview in my Classical Conversations Series features British concert pianist and Liszt specialist Leslie Howard. I met him at his home earlier this month for a most interesting chat.

Renowned concert pianist Leslie Howard has given recitals and concerto performances all over the world. His repertoire embraces the whole gamut of the piano literature from the time of the instrument’s inception to the music of the present day. As a soloist, and in chamber music and song, Howard is a familiar figure at numerous international festivals. With a vast array of more than 80 concertos, he has played with many of the world’s great orchestras, working with many distinguished conductors. Leslie Howard was born in Australia, educated there, in Italy and in England, and has made his home in London for more than thirty years.

Howard’s gramophone recordings include music by Franck, Glazunov, Grainger, Grieg, Granados, Rakhmaninov, Rubinstein, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and, most important of all, Liszt. For fourteen years he was engaged on the largest recording project ever undertaken by a solo musician: the complete piano music of Ferenc Liszt – a project which was completed in a total of 95 compact discs on the Hyperion label. The publication of the series was completed in the autumn of 1999. The importance of the Liszt project cannot be overemphasized: it encompasses world première recordings, including much music prepared by Dr Howard from Liszt’s still unpublished manuscripts, and works unheard since Liszt’s lifetime. Leslie Howard has been awarded the Grand Prix du Disque on five occasions and a further Special Grand Prix du Disque was awarded upon the completion of the Liszt series. Other Hyperion releases include the Tchaikovsky Sonatas; two double CDs of music by Anton Rubinstein; two double CDs containing – for the first time – all seventeen of Liszt’s works for piano and orchestra, with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra and Karl Anton Rickenbacher, and a double CD, The Essential Liszt, presenting highlights from the series. In 2002, a recording of New Liszt Discoveries was released, and a further CD was released in 2004 – the research is never-ending! Recent releases include the re-issue of the acclaimed Rare Piano Encores on Hyperion’s second label Helios – including Howard’s own operatic fantasy for piano: ‘Réminiscences de l’opéra La Wally de Catalani’, and several recordings for Merlin Classics, including the piano sonatas of Sibelius, Gade, Palmgren and Grieg, and the complete music for cello and piano by Rakhmaninov, Glazunov and Balakirev, with cellist Jonathan Cohen.

Leslie Howard’s work as a composer encompasses opera, orchestral music, chamber music, sacred music and songs, and his facility in completing unfinished works has resulted in commissions as diverse as a new realisation of Bach’s Musical Offering and completions of works by composers such as Mozart, Liszt and Tchaikovsky. Recent works include The Owl and the Pussy-Cat (an entertainment for flute, horn, violin and piano with narration), Kinderspiel (a chamber piece for children), several motets, a piano quintet and a concerto for marimba. Howard is also a regular writer and speaker on music, and broadcaster on radio and television, and he gives regular masterclasses in tandem with his performances around the world. Leslie Howard is a member of The London Beethoven Trio with violinist Catherine Manson and cellist Thomas Carroll. Since 1988, he is the President of the British Liszt Society, and he holds numerous international awards for his dedication to Liszt’s music.

In the 1999 Queen’s Birthday Honours Leslie Howard was appointed a Member in the Order of Australia [AM] ―for service to the arts as a musicologist, composer, piano soloist and mentor to young musicians. In 2000 he was honoured with the Pro Cultura Hungarica award, and in 2004 was decorated by the President of Hungary with the Medal of St. Stephen. In 2007 Leslie Howard conducted the English Chamber Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall in the presence of the Prince of Wales.

2009 has been another busy year for pianist Leslie Howard. Tours of America, China and Australia and numerous engagements in Britain and on the Continent have seen him enthralling audiences with his customarily adventurous repertoire. In November 2009, he was invited by the Alkan Society in London to become their new president.

During the past year Leslie Howard has recorded four new CDs: Liszt New Discoveries 3 – a 2-CD set of world première recordings for Hyperion, bringing his celebrated Liszt cycle to a total of 99 CDs; 25 Études in Black and White – his own compositions recorded for ArtCorp; and the Rachmaninov Sonatas for Melba Recordings.

In addition, Leslie Howard has produced an Urtext edition of the Liszt Sonata for Edition Peters and a new reconstruction and orchestration from Paganini’s original manuscript of his fifth violin concerto for the collected Paganini Edition in Italy.

Leslie in action….

And the transcript for those who prefer to read my interview………

Melanie Spanswick: British concert pianist, Leslie Howard, is the only pianist ever to have recorded the entire solo piano works by Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. He’s won many awards and accolades for his playing, and I’m so pleased that he’s joining me here today at his home in London for a Classical Conversation. Welcome.

Leslie Howard: Hello, Melanie.

Melanie: Lovely to chat to you.

Leslie:  And to you.

Melanie: It’s a very hot day.

Leslie: It’s too hot.

Melanie: And getting hotter.

Leslie: I don’t know. When it gets north of 18 degrees, I don’t want to know!

Melanie: Well, I want to start by asking you all about your education, how old you were when you started, whether you come from a musical family, what was the catalyst.

Leslie: I suppose really the catalyst was – well there were two. There was a piano in the house on which my mum had had a few lessons when she was a teenager, but let’s just say it didn’t take; and my dad, who was a very enthusiastic listener, and had done a bit of musical hall singing in his years. But no musicians in the family.  I’m the first of four siblings, and we were all musicians of one sort or another. Don’t quite know how that happened.

Melanie: Did you start very young?

Leslie: I started to play when I was two. I could play anything that my parents could sing or pick out on an instrument. I could copy immediately, and anything I heard on the radio I could copy. The only thing that was difficult was learning eventually to read music properly, because, it slowed me down quite a bit, I remember I was four, and I thought, “This was surely not the way to go forward.” But it turned out to be all right. It was only a brief space before one thing caught up with the other.

Melanie: So which teachers, then, do you think were most crucial in your development?

Leslie: My very first one was a lady called June McLean. She’s in her late eighties now, and who had returned to Australia, where I was born. She’d been studying in France with Cortot. I’m very lucky, because I had a very very good technical grounding from the beginning. So, I didn’t have bad habits that had to be fixed later.

Melanie: That was my next question. How did you develop your technique? What did you do?

Leslie: Well, I was impatient to run before I could walk, because my hands were too small to play all the music that I wanted to play. I remember the first time I tried to play the Liszt Sixth Rhapsody, and I really could only just take octaves alright. And since there’s five pages of them at the end without relief, I thought that was – then I thought that was an impossible piece. Now it’s just very difficult like everything else. But that’s how it started. I had really to wait to be physically mature to do everything I wanted to do. My next really good teacher was my uncle Donald Britton who was head of music at my secondary school. I don’t really – got a performing diploma when I was 13 or something. And I supposed I thought I could play, and I rolled into my first lesson with him. And you know, I’d passed the audition, won the scholarship, all of this sort of stuff but then he just put a Haydn string quartet up on the music disk and said, “Play that.” And I was really thrown. Nobody had ever made me read a C clef before, let alone all four staves at once. I was determined not to be beaten by him again, so I went off and did the work. I learned how to do it. So, I turned up to the next lesson, within a week later. He put up the full score of Vaughan Williams’ Setting of the Hundreth Psalm. And I said, “Come on. This is a bit difficult isn’t it Sir?” And he said “No, no. Just the choral parts.” So reading the choral parts, hoping not to forget that the tenor had to be played an octave lower than what was written, got to the end of that without making too many mistakes and he said, “Very good. Now, play it again in D minor.” So it doesn’t matter what I did. He made me do something more, and convinced me at the right age, I think, that playing piano was all very well, but being a musician was much more important. And so then, of course, I learned how to do a counterpoint and composition, and how to play the organ and the harpsichord and the oboe – all of the things that a good music master makes you do when you’re at school and which helped later because I played the oboe in pit orchestras and did times as an organist and choir master. You do all of the stuff that makes your general musicianship stay alive. I have to confess that I haven’t practiced the organ properly for decades, but I still love to play it occasionally. The most likely thing I’m ever asked to do is to play for friends’ weddings.

Melanie: That’s quite fun though, isn’t it?

Leslie: It is, and that I do, you know, thirty minutes’ practice. It’s very naughty. I’m not recommending this as a thing to do, but all pianists should actually have a go at playing the organ. If nothing else just to learn what it is like to play Bach on an instrument he might have recognized, because one of these 9-foot Steinway thingies, I don’t think would have pleased him greatly at all. I never quite understood why we all do it, but I’m quite fond of playing transcriptions of things that were not written for a harpsichord or a clavichord. Such as, you know, one of those big organ works transcribed for piano, that’s quite a nice thing to do, but I’m not quite sure about doing things like playing The Well-Tempered Clavier on the piano in concerts. I know everyone studies them, and everyone should study it, but somehow the temptation to put in pianistic things like crescendos and diminuendos or accents or, the very worst habit of all, playing the subject and the surrounding texture. That’s just a bad habit which the piano encourages in a way, but the harpsichord absolutely forbids. So everyone should also learn to play the harpsichord and learn to read figured bass, all of that.

Melanie: How did you establish your career did you take part in competitions?

Did you broadcast for radios? I know you-

Leslie: I started broadcasting around when I was 13, and played quite a lot on television in Australia when I was a kid. Won a competition there which paid for me to go abroad to study, and I didn’t leave there until I already had a couple of degrees, was, I wriggled out of being turned into a fulltime musicologist, which was my professor and university wanted me to do. He said, “You can always play. You can always play. We need someone like you on the staff teaching people all about musicology.” I said, “Well actually no, I really want to go abroad and do the playing that I know I was put on this Earth to do, and do as much musicology as I can around the edges.” And I have managed to do that. Never really went to too many competitions. Went to a few and got a few prizes. I was usually regarded as too unorthodox. Mostly because of my repertoire choices, because if they said, “Play a piece of Baroque music,” I – my favourite was to play the Kuhlau Biblical sonata about David and Goliath. I wasn’t just going to play them a Bach Prelude and Fugue or a Scarlatti Sonata, but that’s the enthusiasms of youth, I’ve used because of having, in more recent years, sat on juries. Some jurists like to hear music they don’t know, and others absolutely cannot bear it because they think it makes it impossible for them to make a judgment. Which I think is really rather terrible. All of the competitions on which I’ve ever sat on the board, I have done my rather best either to fix it so the repertoire is free, or else fix it so that it forces people to learn interesting and less familiar pieces, because for the piano we’ve got the largest repertoire of any instrument by some colossal distance. And it really is extraordinary how good it is, and yet there’s a sort of core repertoire which keeps cropping up again and again as if no one’s ever looked any further. And even within famous composers. There are some Beethoven sonatas which are a rarity unless somebody’s playing all of them, but it’s a long time since I heard a recital in which someone said they showcased Op. 7. The number of young people now who – almost the first Beethoven sonata they learn is the last one he wrote, and I really think that ought to be heartily discouraged. I remember my other marvelous teacher in Italy, Guido Agosti, who in his classes – he’d see another 15 year old American girl, who was quite gifted, came and played Op. 109, and he really couldn’t deal with it at all, and he just closed the book and handed it back to her and said, “I’m sorry. I can’t do anything with this.” and she looked terribly shocked. He said, “Tell me. Do you not have any sonatas Beethoven wrote before this one?” and she had a rough stab, and it wasn’t bad, and he said, “How many of those have you studied?” “Oh, one.” “Well, when you’ve learned the other 29, please bring this one back.” But he was quite right.  And I’ve – I don’t have my own students really. I just teach master classes, because I travel too much as a player. But whenever I have any chance to influence what people put in their repertoire – of course they’ve got to play Beethoven sonatas and so on, but start at the first one. Learn – if you want something that looks good on a programme, play the three sonatas from Op.10. You’ve got to be a proper musician to do that, or the three from Op.31, or the two of Op. 27, which go together fantastically well. But try to create a repertoire that makes you look a little bit different from everybody else, because all of these people who do competitions where you have to do a prelude and fugue, four studies and a Beethoven sonata, they all play the same stuff and there isn’t the work out there for them. And they get concerts as a result of winning a competition, but those concerts are predicated on the winner of the competition, not on the person. So when the competition comes around again, somebody else gets those concerts and establishing yourself in the business is a lot harder. I was very lucky. Firstly, to be asked to make recordings when I was only in my mid-twenties. And that was also back in the day when you did the BBC audition, which you’d eventually pass. And I used to get a dozen broadcasts a year and you’d go into a BBC studio – there aren’t these things anymore- specifically designed for performing, like the concert hall, broadcasting house, which no longer is a concert hall. All the other marvelous studios like Pebble Mill, I did all the BBC studios up and down the country. I was being asked to do this because I actually pursued an interesting repertoire. If all I had to offer was the Appassionata Sonata, I would never have got it. And it wasn’t just because I was playing Liszt but because I was playing a lot Haydn and a lot of lesser known Beethoven and other lesser known composers, but things that – things that people play now but they didn’t play then, like the Rachmaninoff sonatas, in the 1970s they were fairly rare, especially the first one. The Glazunov sonatas, which I recorded in 1975. Would love to do them again now, but I couldn’t possibly listen to that. I don’t listen to any of my records anyway, but I’m not alone in that. Most performers don’t, but some do.

Melanie: Tell us a little bit about the Liszt project, because it’s quite an achievement to record all solos works by Liszt.

Leslie:  Well that started really because I was completely hooked on him from the first time I heard some of his orchestral music. It had nothing to do with piano at all. I heard a live performance of the Faust symphony when I was about 13, and I just thought, “This is the most amazing piece.” And so, I started looking for his music and found out how much there was that wasn’t piano music and, you know, took a close interest in all of it. I played his organ works, got involved in conducting some of the choral pieces, and got busy with him. And the more I looked, the more interesting a composer he became and I kept on reading the odd rude remark written by all sorts of musical pundits sand it usually transpired that what they really didn’t like was the way young piano players played Liszt music rather than Liszt music itself. So they blamed him for writing the music that made them play that way. But I don’t think Liszt music actually asks you to play in a vulgar or nasty fashion. It sometimes comes as a surprise when you tell people there’s well over 3000 pieces of one sort or another for all sorts and traditions of instruments or voices of which 1400 are for piano. But out of these 1400, there’s about 50 that are in standard regular circulation, and a lot of the performances don’t actually show any depth of understanding of the composer at all. And I think people need to look a bit wider. It distresses me that people want to play the Sonata – either as the first piece of Liszt which they learn or it’s the second piece of Liszt which they learn. And you think, “You know, you would play this piece a lot better if you studied the Grosse Concert Solo, or the Scherzo and March, Weiner Klagen Variations. You know, there’s lots of the Sarabande and Chaconne, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, and there’s a surprise to find out that Liszt wrote more quiet pieces than loud ones, more slow pieces than fast ones, and many many more of his pieces end softly than quietly, than loudly. There’s no excuse now. I’m happy to have played some part in this.

Melanie: And it goes into 99 CDs, is that right? The recordings?

Leslie: It does. Well I beat the Liszt edition, which is in Budapest, to recording this music before they published it all. Well they started printing these volumes in 1968 but it’s been quite slow. It’s a good edition, but I’ve just always wanted some of the – instead of starting with the things everybody had in their collections. They really should have started right in with the things that you couldn’t find anywhere. That would have been better, and then they would have had more subscribers and would have sold faster. They would have been better financed. But to start with, they wanted to print only the final versions of Liszt music. Anyone who’s had a good look at Liszt music will know that he was a veteran reviser of his works. Sometimes it’s because he wanted to thin it out technically. Sometimes it’s because of the much increased heaviness of the piano touch. By the time he got to his middle life the instruments that he played really was actually on stage. Most people don’t remember that his great career as a solo player only lasted for about 9 years and that he gave up in 1847. So that’s before the first Steinway was built by some distance. The biggest pianos that he would have played by then would have been the best 7 foot Érard and he would have played a Broadwood that went for six and a half octaves. By the end of his life, of course, he’d been playing piano or teaching on pianos at any rate, which we would find pretty similar to the instruments we have now. Including the piano with the sostenuto pedal from Steinways, in 1883. It’s trying to recreate the sort of playing that he must have been able to do is quite hard, because it’s clear that all of the things with the super human difficulties that he wrote when he was in his early 20s really didn’t cost him any physical effort at all. They cost him a great emotional effort. There’s a famous account of him fainting, and actually they published an obituary of him in Paris when he was only 17. He fainted again when he was 20 when he was playing his concerto for two pianos, Grosses Konzertstuck on themes from Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, a piece which then disappeared from view and wasn’t published until the 1980s – which I happened to edit, but I recorded that for the BBC with Ian Munro in 1987 or something, and although it’s a taxing piece there was no sign of anyone fainting. When he last played it, he had to be carried off on a stretcher. So he must have gotten very involved with what he was doing. For the rest of it, it was the thrill of looking for things that you knew existed but they were not found. On the recordings there are 300 pieces, which at the time were not published. Quite a few of them have been published since. The new Liszt edition very kindly has decided that if it’s in my recording of Liszt, that they better see what they can do about printing them. So they changed their mind about not printing only one version. Because people kept asking them, people kept saying, “Excuse me. Howard’s recorded this piece. Which volume can I find it in?” So I’ve given the project a bit of a kick in the backside, so they’re producing 13 supplementary volumes. That’s how much extra music there is from what they were originally intending to publish just for the piano solos.

I don’t think I’ll ever live long enough to see the rest of their edition. At this rate, I think it’ll be going for another 250 years before they get everything out. That does happen with collective editions because people get bogged down with various bits of scholarships, and it’s also very expensive.

Melanie: But you’re writing two books on Liszt, currently?

Leslie: Trying to!

Melanie: Could you tell us a little bit about them?

Leslie: Trying to do more than I can manage really, because in between I’ve produced quite a lot of editions, you know critical editions with proper scholarly apparatus and so on, of Liszt and also of Paganini, just things that I’ve learned enough about, but they take a long time to do. And I started them with a friend of mine in 1991, a man called Michael Short, who’s in the Liszt society, and he does all of the documentary research and I do all the music research and analysis of manuscripts and what have you. But we’re producing a thematic catalog of the complete works and we’re about – well the paperwork bit of it, getting the information, we’re about 90% done putting the themes into the computer which is an endless task and a thankless one. I’m about halfway there. It’s been going for over 20 years, but of course at the beginning – the beginning was before they invented decent music writing paragraphs on the compute. There were a couple, but they were impossible. But I know some people swear by Finale, and I swear by Sibelius, I presume for no better reason that I finally learned how to do it. So when I did the Paganini Fifth Concerto, I actually did the setting that’s reproduced in the edition which saves a lot of trouble as long as you don’t make any mistakes and you do have to show it to other people.

Melanie: I was about to say, it must be edited or it must be looked at.

Leslie: Well you – it’s like you need another pair of ears to listen to you play occasionally and tell you a straight from the shoulder report. One of my dearest friends is my old teacher that I came to London to study with Loretta Conti, and she was not a musicologist type of teacher. She was much more instinctive, but absolutely on the ball. You’d play something, and she’d say, “It’s very nice, my Leslie, but it’s a little bit boring.” and because I was very keen when I was in my 20s. Just get this music out there and play it, and people, you know – but I’d forgotten a few things while I was doing it, like how to get it to pass over the foot lights into the souls of the listeners, and she was marvelous at curing me of that. I used to be very straight-laced, because you know it really is important. You’ve only got 25 minutes, you, the Sibelius Sonata and the people, if you want to sell it to them, it’s got to be done then. You can’t do it on a promise of having written a nice programme note, it’s actually got to grab them when you play it. So that’s what I tried to do, and I hoped to succeed more times than not. You never can tell, and you do need other ears and you do need other eyes when you edit from a manuscript. My eye, looking at this manuscript, is I think pretty good. Because if you show a manuscript to someone who’s never looked at one, they take one look and well – how can you make head or tail of that? So if you’ve never seen a manuscript of Beethoven’s and you have a look at his handwriting of the Op. 111 Sonata you can only marvel at the genius of the engraver who made the first edition, that he got through that nightmare. And yet when you get used to working with Beethoven’s handwriting, it’s not so bad. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems that are not easily solved. I occasionally spend a morning with Jonathan Delmar. He’s doing a tremendous job editing Beethoven, but a man of proper conviction and decent humility who – when he’s got the job done – instead of just rushing into print with it, he goes to people who’ve lived with the music often for longer than he has  – but we haven’t done the same work as he has – and just to say, “You know, is there any way that this slur can possibly be here because it seems wrong and it’s not in anyone else’s edition but it is in the manuscript so is it a mistake or do we put it in?” He questions himself and either you rattle back and reinforce his opinion, or you suggest “Well actually, it might be right, but it might be right for another reason.” He just gave me some extraordinary fingering which crops up on an odd page for the piano part of Beethoven’s Op. 70 No.1 Trio, and it’s not in the printed edition, but it is handwritten in a copy of it by Beethoven and it’s ridiculous fingering of the most unorthodox nature, but if you use it, it works. You just think, “You know, that’s not the fingering Czerny would have written for it.” But let me try this, and you try it and you think, “Well, it’ll do”, because it forces you to put the right fingers in the right place to make all the appropriate articulations and accents and so on. And sometimes you can’t do all of the composers fingering like that, but it’s very much worth having these things and to have a look why a composer sometimes writes something odd. And you’ve got to be very careful about dismissing it as the slip of the pen, and sometimes it must be. But if you’re doing a proper edition, you’ve got to show them what was there and if there are differences between the manuscript and the edition and we don’t have any of the information about what took place in between, like a corrected proof copy or a letter, which we sometimes have where somebody says, “Well, please add that bar at the beginning of the slow movement, Which we have of Beethoven for the Op. 106. You know, that’s tremendous when you can do that. In the case of the last cello sonata, we have a copyist manuscript which is more important than the original manuscript in several particulars, because in that Beethoven added four more bars in the beginning of the last movement, and we wouldn’t be without them, would we? So, I occasionally have to give little talks to young music students about how it’s not just a question of going down the street and buying it. If you really want to know how this piece was put together, actually see if you can find out how it was put together, see if there is a manuscript that you can look at, because it will force you to think about the real way this music came to be, and that might actually help you in your playing. It’s not just because you’re just there to discover that there might be a wrong note in bar 33 that nobody’s found before – though that sometimes happens – It’s just to immerse yourself in something of the creative process behind the piece and – I tell people to do that, to have a look and see what the composers were writing at the same time and see what other composer are writing at the same time your composer might have known. Above anything else, it’s fun. It’s as entertaining as following any soap on television. To know – well sometimes people look at their subject very narrowly, and of course there’s so much information in this world about so many things, it’s harder and harder to be a Renaissance man. But you know, music isn’t created independently of social history or political history sometimes, and it’s worth it to know what it was like, to find out what was the temperate like in concert hall. You know, what did it smell like?

Melanie: And you really recreate it.

Leslie:  Well, you know, you can’t actually do this – you can’t do everything, but it’s worth knowing as much as you can about the circumstances and knowing – as people quite often forget- that a sonata that was premiered say by Mozart, would very often have its movements played separated one from the other by other events going on in the evening, same with the string quartets and symphonies and concertos. And if people liked it, they might clap in the middle of a movement and they might give the way for it to be repeated.  It’s a completely different way of doing things from how we play it now.

Melanie: I was about to say, quite different from today.

Leslie: Well, we’re so reverend -as we should be – in the face of some of these pieces, but we all know that even a work so magnificent as Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, just in case the audience had fallen off the middle, the violinist of the first performance gave some impromptu improvisations imitating the sounds of farm animals on his instrument, just to keep the public amused before he went into the slow movement. You know, that’s barbaric. But they were frightened the people wouldn’t stay paying attention to this concerto which was of course for its time far in a way the longest violin concerto ever written. And it’s one of those pieces that’s just perfect, and you know if it could go on for another 20 minutes, you’d be quite happy. It’s you know, but Beethoven was taking risks. He took colossal risks with all sorts of things. He had this tremendous strength of knowing that he was right, and it comes out in his letters – even when we was wrong of course. Because when he was wrong, he was magnificently wrong. He was magnanimous in his apologies afterwards if he offended somebody, but it would have been like walking a tightrope to be his friend. He’s – you know, if anyone said the wrong thing or did, in his eyes, the wrong thing, he would be further than rude as you could ever possibly imagine anyone being, and then he would calm down.

Melanie: What about future concerts and recordings? What have you got coming up?

Leslie: The next recording is one I did in Italy, and it’s with a friend of mine called Mattia Ometto, and we recorded all of the two-piano music by Reynaldo Hahn. Now, Reynaldo Hahn, people I’m sure these days know some of the songs, but there a marvelous piano quintet, and there’s a piano concerto, and there’s all sorts of good stuff. Very interesting composer who could also sing and in fact recorded a couple things himself, and he came from Venezuela, but he’s essentially French. But you know, there’s something extra in there, and he was admired by people as different as Poulenc and Stravinsky. You don’t have to spend too much time before you think, “This man writes not only marvelously crafted very agreeable music, but quite individual music as well.”  So, that’s the next one out. The last one out is the Rubinstein piano quartet for Hyperion, and they were first recordings. Anton Rubinstein is one of those composers that everybody knows about. He’s mentioned in every musical history, especially if you get to the end of the 19th early 20th century and you’re talking about musical education, he’s there. You know, his plan for the courses at St. Petersburg Conservatory, is still used. Nothing wrong with it, you know, but all of his music- of which there is a great tide I have to say – but you know it’s much harder to revive that, and yet I think it’s worth it, well worth it. We did get a concert performance of his opera The Demon a couple of years back, but some of the critics were a bit sniffy about it. But, you know, without The Demon you just wouldn’t of heard of Eugene Onegin. It would have been completely different. So, Rubinstein’s creation of Tamara in The Demon has some serious bearing on Tchaikovsky’s treatment of Tatiana in Onegin, and Rubinstein’s concertos – well, imitation being the sincerest form, as they say, you know? The cadenza in the beginning, in Tchaikovsky First Concerto is so clearly taken from the cadenza in Rubinstein’s Fourth. It’s obviously a homage. It’s not a steal, and he crops up all over the place – Brahms said some rude things about him, but copied him, used bits of his music in all sorts of places including his Second Piano Concerto. Clara Schumann was rude about him and said all of his music will be forgotten. She was quite sure that none of hers would be. She might have been wrong there. She was a very strange lady, but anyway composers like Anton Rubenstein please me a great deal and next year will be the 150th anniversaries of Sibelius and Glazunov, and of Nielsen for that matter, but I’m trying to get in here first. So I’m doing Sibelius and Glazunov Sonatas at the Wigmore in September. I’m doing them at a few festivals on the continent before then and, I love that stuff. It’s marvelously written. Almost nobody knows that Sibelius wrote piano music, but there’s over 200 piano pieces. People don’t play them really.  It’s like the Dvorak piano music there’s more than 200 pieces of his – or the Rossini piano music, more than 200 pieces.

Melanie: The Nielsen, I used to love playing Nielsen.

Leslie: Well, the suite by Nielsen I haven’t heard played live since John Ogden did it and that was a while ago. They don’t play the 3 pieces of his Op. 59 which were very thorny, but absolutely worthwhile. But people aren’t adventurous enough. They will admit that Nielsen’s symphony is good, but then they think they’ve done the job there. You try and say “Well. actually you know, did you go and see Maskarade when they did it at Covent Garden”, He writes operas?” “Well, yes” That’s one for the hard things to do with students too. Even when you put concerts on free to get them to go to them. To get a piano player to go to a string quartet concert or a violinist to go to a song recital is apparently a very hard job and I’ve never understood why. Why wouldn’t you be curious to know what else Faure wrote apart from that fiddle sonata, you know? You don’t think that might have some bearing? You know, if you play a Mozart piano concerto without ever having seen The Marriage of Figaro, I think you’re an idiot. It’s not as if it’s impossible to see it. You can see all these things on DVD if you can’t afford the prices down at the opera house, but there’s more of this stuff available than ever and in quality performances and productions. So, there’s really no excuse. And how can you play Haydn piano sonata if you don’t know his trios or his quartets?  You can’t. But well you can, but not in an informed way let’s say. I like people will be informed. Then they can be spontaneous and original, but first be informed.

Melanie: What does playing the piano mean to you?

Leslie: It’s not the only way I think about music. For example, I’d never compose for the piano unless I compose like in the old days with pen and paper, and these days straight from the computer. But the piano is a great place to go when I want to improvise and when I want to play just to myself. And when I do want to play just to myself, it’s frequently not to play piano music. It’s mostly either to play bits of operas, or ballets, or string quartets or musicals or songs by Cole Porter. Nobody’s ever going to get me to sing any of these things. They would be too awful, but I get a lot of pleasure from older popular music. I think popular music today just isn’t a patch. The general standard of musical nuance that popular composers had in the ‘30s ‘40s ‘50s- now they were properly educated people. They knew what a consecutive fifth was and how to avoid it. They knew how to make modulations. They knew how to manipulate the most amazing harmonies. From – Everybody from Jerome Kern to Duke Ellington, there’s just buckets to learn from those people, and pop music on the whole doesn’t have you – certainly doesn’t have me- agog with curiosity, which is where I’d like to be with most music. What’s it going to do next, isn’t that amazing, isn’t that extraordinary? Half the time you know perfectly well what they are going to do next. When I say next, I mean for the next 5 minutes. And you just think, “A little bit of imagination would have helped there.” And I’m not quite sure where the pop group as this sort of cool thing that has developed so little over the last 40 years. You’d think there would have been room for a lot more. I know around the fringes there’s a lot more going on, but you know the mainstream stuff seems to be very very conservative. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it? And harmonically less interesting than before and rhythmically much less interesting than before. When The Beatles came out, they wrote songs that started in 4/4 and went to ¾ in the middle. They did musical things that kept you absolutely on the edge of your chair, and very intelligently written and nicely harmonized, and they used a string quartet. All of the things they did – and it wasn’t an experiment. It was actually a musical idea that they put into practice. I think there’s been a lot less of that since, and that’s really a pity. But, that’s also why their stuff is still appreciated and bought and recorded and rerecorded -

Melanie: and enjoyed.

Leslie: Yes. Well, most people who around the age of – to have heard them, that’s 46 years ago, isn’t it? It’s a while. 44, sorry. That’s strange. You know, I was fascinated by listening to old recordings of classical music too, because we forget sometimes that it wasn’t always played the way we play it now. There are things that I remember laughing intemperately at Alfred Cortot’s wrong notes. You can’t do that, when you think about the way they used to record those things. You know, it’s amazing. If somebody played a wrong note or fluffed a pedal or made an extraneous noise or what have you, because we’re not allowed to do that. You can’t leave a wrong note on a record. Because you know there is a difference in giving a solid performance and what you do in a concert, concerts and recordings. The hardest thing in recordings is to try to recreate what you do in a concert hall. You’ve got to stop and analyze what you do in a concert hall, and sometimes you’ve got to watch out because you can play all the right notes because you’re a bit timid about making mistakes in a recording season and what comes out is a document. You know, all the notes ladies and gentlemen. We didn’t have enough time to put the music in. A lot of recordings, because of the constraints and people being frightened and there not being enough time. When Rachmaninoff recorded a double sided ten inch 78, he had a whole day or even two days to do it. So he could stop. The machine would be off. He could practice for an hour and then do a take. He also got paid even, even in strict monetary terms, more for one side than most people get for making five CDs now. That’s without allowing for the difference in the currency rate. So, add two zeros. They knew what they had. They knew every time he went into a studio, he was going to make a recording that was going to sell, because he was simply marvelous and I’d like to see anyone brave enough to say that his recordings are not marvelous. I think he’s the best player who recorded. Who knows what his records might have been like? But we know about his records and also he knew how to work in a studio. On most recordings from that era, the matrix number gives the take number at the end, and we’d be embarrassed if all our take numbers were published. Some of it is because you had to avoid the bird flying around inside the church or the tractor outside or the ambulance siren or whatever or mostly the airplane, because we don’t really have soundproof studios. But, you look at all of those Rachmaninoff recordings and the number of issued takes that are take 1 or take 2 – it’s just impressive to a degree. It means he didn’t record it until he knew he was going to do the performance. So, if he ever takes more than that, you can get a peculiar idea of what a bad day at the office for him might have been like. Most notably, his transcription of the Scherzo from Midsummer Night’s Dream. I think the issued take is 21, but that’s by many many numbers more than the next one down, which I think is seven. But, even those recordings of his concertos, each side is mostly take 1 or take 2. It’d be nice if I could do that. But then of course you’d have to be allowed to record like that and play like that, because this has got to be one straight honest performance of five minutes of music and that’s it.

Melanie: Thank you so much for joining me today.

Leslie: It’s a great pleasure.

Melanie: Thank you.

 

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A few thoughts on Practical Musicianship and Keyboard Harmony

Today’s post highlights an important yet often forgotten element in music education. Most pupils take instrumental exams at some point in their musical training and are therefore familiar with aural and sight-reading tests (nearly all practical exams have these elements, irrespective of level). However, a much broader based training is necessary if pupils are going to become rounded and complete musicians.

Even if a student finds the  supplementary tests in instrumental or vocal exams straightforward, they would still benefit from more practical based musicianship exercises; one solution could be Practical Musicianship Exams. The ABRSM (Associated Board of The Royal Schools of Music) have a series of graded tests (1-8) covering a whole spectrum of skills which are different yet comparable to those found in the conventional aural tests. Practical Musicianship exams can be taken instead of the Theory exams (most notably, Grade 5 can be supplemented for Grade 5 Theory), and it’s an extremely useful alternative.

Subjects covered are similar to some of those featured in the Aural tests at the early grades, but from Grade 6 onwards, there are differing worthwhile tests. Pupils are required to sing (or play some tests from memory) diatonic melodies (in more extended, complicated examples than those found in traditional aural exam tests), middle or lower part melodies, melodies with added expression, articulation, dynamics. There are also memory tests where the candidate is asked to play back, as well as transpose at sight, and recognise changes in a short musical extract. Answering questions about an extract from a score is another valuable test too.

The real benefit to any practical musicianship test must be the element of harmonisation, and ‘free’ playing or improvisation which is promoted in the advanced grades. If the keyboard is not a student’s métier, then practical tests can be played on any instrument.

It’s the element of thinking ‘on the spot’, which builds the foundation for advanced study. Theory exams are a great tool for understanding and practising harmony and counter-point; they could be considered the ‘first stage’ of learning, however, the realisation of harmony is truly grasped whilst improvising or harmonising at the keyboard. Useful exam tests include continuing a two bar melody by elongating to last eight bars, realizing a short figured bass passage by adding the required chords, and performing a ‘free improvisation’ based on a given poem.

Whether students decide to take an exam or not, keyboard harmony should perhaps be introduced into weekly practice regimes. Learning how to harmonise at sight and to assimilate figured bass are skills which are perfected over a period of time and with regular cultivation. Once basic harmony is understood, pupils can begin to harmonise,  so here are a few suggestions and ideas to implement during practice sessions.

1. An understanding of basic triads (chords which use the root or tonic, third and the fifth notes of a scale and are built on degrees of the scale) and chordal progressions is needed, so ideally some theory must be studied first. The example below shows how triads are built on each degree of the scale (in C major here), and it’s these which form the basis for harmonisation.

Chord progressions 2

Then, for those with sufficient keyboard skills (possibly Grade 5/6 level), start by playing cadences (i.e. the ends of phrases and pieces which normally consists of just two chords). Work out basic cadences: Perfect (which uses chords V-I),  Imperfect (chords  I, II, IV or VI to V), Plagal (IV-I) and Interrupted  (generally V-VI) cadences, listening to how they sound and feel to play (you might find it useful to write them out first on manuscript). You could practice playing them in all different positions around the keyboard.

2. Now play those cadences in every key; it’s probably best to work through the keys methodically adhering to a pattern such as the circle of fifths or fourths. Once you are familiar with these chord patterns, more chords can be added to each cadential point, so that you end up with a four or five chord cycle such as; chords I – IV – V – I (or tonic, subdominant, dominant, tonic chords, see example below).

Chord progression

Incidentally, this simple chord cycle is one used often in pop music, sometimes repeated ad infinitum over an entire song. Again, try to work at these chords in all keys and observe the bass note in every chord as this is the key to successful harmonisation. The feel and sound must be noted and assimilated, as it will prove crucial when playing on the spot, adding chords to melodies.

3. Once basic chords and their patterns are thoroughly ingested and can be played without too much thought (i.e. without having to slowly work them out),  look at fairly simple melodies (perhaps those consisting of two or three four bar phrases), and decide how and where to harmonise by adding chords (either in the right hand or splitting the harmonies between two hands; the latter takes some practice). Sometimes one chord per bar will suffice if the tempo is quick. Next, play the harmonisation slowly at the keyboard adding the melody at the top of the texture. Concentration is key to begin with, and rather like sight-reading, it will all become easier and quicker over time.

4. Practice simple harmonisation for a while before negotiating Figured Bass, which is another type of harmonisation where symbols and numerals written under the Bass line indicate certain intervals and chords.

5. Reading through and studying hymns can be particularly helpful when learning to harmonise (and good sight-reading practice too!). Mentally take note of the chordal progressions, which will become more familiar. It’s also possible to notice the same patterns appearing countless times. Start by opening any hymn book, and also get a copy of J.S. Bach’s 371 Harmonized Chorales and 69 Chorale Melodies with Figured Bass (Riemenschneider), which are fun to sight-read and are a good place to begin. There are, of course, many other useful materials and resources. Melodies of popular songs are another never-ending source of suitable harmonising material.

6. After a period of study the basis of harmony and harmonisation will have been learnt and the student can begin to experiment with improvisation. Sometimes just creating a ‘mood’ or atmosphere in a short simple improvised passage of a few bars, is necessary to start with, again, slow-moving harmonic progressions (such as those suggested above) will form the backbone of any melodic exploration.

These stages may take some time and pupils do need to be fairly fluent at the keyboard (or any instrument) to harmonise and improvise effectively, but it’s definitely a productive and interesting area of musical study to be encouraged in lessons.

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BBC Proms 2014

The BBC Promenade concerts are always an important feature in any music lover’s calendar, and it’s a great pleasure to highlight the 2014 programme. The concerts start on July 18th and run for nearly two months; 76 concerts in over 58 days to be precise! What a feat of organisation, requiring amazing artistic vision and imagination. The Proms is the largest classical music festival in the world, this year is the 120th Proms season, and most of the concerts are held at the stately Royal Albert Hall in Kensington, London.

The first Proms concert took place on 10 August 1895 and was held at the newly built Queen’s Hall in London. It was the brainchild of impresario Robert Newman (who was the manager of the Queen’s Hall), who met with Henry Wood (whom the Festival was eventually named after) at Queen’s Hall one spring morning in 1894 to talk about the project. ‘I am going to run nightly concerts to train the public in easy stages,’ he explained. ‘Popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music.’ In February 1895 Newman offered Wood conductorship of a permanent orchestra at Queen’s Hall, and of the first Proms season.

The Proms continue to advocate Newman’s idea by developing and encouraging an audience for a whole spectrum of music. This year’s programme is more diverse than ever, including an eclectic mixture of standard classical fare with plenty of contemporary classical music, jazz, musical theatre, film music, as well as rock and pop. Many feel this to be detrimental; the mix of so many different styles can apparently only lead to a ‘dumbing down’ effect. The real question is this; how do we move forward with any musical genre if the next generation (and their music) feel excluded? If those who would otherwise never attend a classical music festival are encouraged to come and enjoy a pop or musical theatre concert, they may then take the next step and enjoy a classical concert too. So for this reason alone diversity can only be a good thing.

The selection of concerts includes a performance by pop princess Paloma Faith (Prom 65 – September 5th) who performs with the Guy Barker Orchestra, the Pet Shop Boys (Prom 8 – July 23rd) with the BBC Singers and Concert Orchestra (narrated by Juliet Stevenson), the wonderful John Wilson and his orchestra (Prom 21 – August 2nd) with Kiss Me Kate, jazz singer Clare Teal with the Battle of the Bands (Prom 30 – 8th August), Laura Mvula (Prom 45 – August 19th) with the Metropole Orchestra and Jules Buckley, and Rufus Wainwright (Prom 74 – September 11th) with the Britten Sinfonia and Johannes Debus. Many of these are in the ‘Late Night’ Series starting after the main Prom concert at 10.15pm.

For the children, there are two CBeebies Proms (Prom 11, July 26th and 13, July 27th) with the BBC Philharmonic and a great range of music, presented by various well-known presenters. There is also a BBC Sports Prom (Prom 3 – July 20th) presented by Gabby Logan, to include part of Carmina Burana (Orff) and music by John Williams, as well as a War Horse Prom (Prom 22 – August 3rd), featuring Gareth Malone, the Military Wives Choir and BBC Concert Orchestra.

However, the majority of concerts are traditional standard classical programmes, with many usual works such as Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, No.9 in D minor on the penultimate night (Prom 75 – September 12th) with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly, and the Last Night (Prom 76 – September 13th) with all its typical fun and games. This year the soloists are violinist Janine Jansen, soprano Elizabeth Watts, tenor John Daszak and baritone Roderick Williams, who will perform alongside the BBC Chorus and Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo.

The Proms will open on July 18th with a performance of Elgar’s oratorio The Kingdom with the BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. St John’s Passion (Prom 12 – July 26) and the St. Matthew Passion (Prom 66 – September 6th), two of J.S Bach’s crowning achievements, always popular choices, are also showcased this year (the latter conducted by Sir Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic). Prom 37 (August 13th), looks particularly interesting for lovers of Minimalist composer Steve Reich, with a concert consisting of It’s Gonna Rain; The Desert Music played by the BBC Singers, Endymion and conductor David Hill. There is a whole feast of contemporary music (including many premiers) at the Proms this year.

There are a plethora of fabulous concerts to choose from and my favourites normally feature a piano concerto or two! Newcomer to the Proms, Chinese pianist Haochen Zhang plays Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major on July 19th (Prom 2 – 19th July) with the China Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Long Yu, which should provide plenty of keyboard fireworks.  Prom 9 (24th July) will be wonderful; a performance of Brahms Piano Concerto No. I in D minor played by veteran pianist Barry Douglas. He will be accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra and Valery Gergiev. Young Argentinian pianist Ingrid Fliter joins the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Josep Pons for Mozart’s beautiful Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major K.488 (Prom 15 – 28th July). Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left-Hand is a less familiar choice but a fantastic piece, and will be played by pianist Alexandre Tharaud and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Juanjo Mena (Prom 18 – 30th July).

Other piano highlights must include young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor who will play Chopin Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (Prom 29 – August 8th) and Rachmaninov’s ever popular Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor played by the brilliant Russian Denis Matsuev with the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra (Prom 67 – September 7th). There are so many more concerts to enjoy and they can all be heard on BBC Radio Three, and many on BBC 4 too. You can browse the Proms programme, find out lots more and book tickets here: www.bbc.co.uk/Proms

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Boris Giltburg in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The thirty-fifth interview in my Classical Conversations Series features Israeli concert pianist Boris Giltburg, and we met at Jaques Samuel Pianos in London earlier this week to chat about his life and career.

Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg was born in 1984 in Moscow and has lived in Tel Aviv since early childhood. He began his piano studies with his mother at the age of five and went on to study with Arie Vardi. He has received many awards for international competitions, notably at Santander (top prize and Audience Prize, 2002) and the Rubinstein (2nd prize and Best Classical Concerto, 2011). In 2013 he received First Prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, as a result of which his already flourishing international career has been catapulted to a new level, with a packed diary of additional concert engagements across the globe. In the same year he was nominated for a Classic Brit (Critics’ Award).

Since his breakthrough appearance with the Philharmonia in 2007, Giltburg has been an annual visitor to the Royal Festival Hall in London, and made his BBC Proms debut in 2010 with the BBC Scottish Symphony. Last season he made his first concerto appearance in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, with the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, and gave his London Philharmonic debut. He is a popular guest with many UK orchestras and has also appeared with DSO Berlin, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, Royal Flemish Philharmonic, Swedish Radio Symphony, Danish Radio Symphony, Prague Symphony, to name a few. In autumn 2013 he played for the first time at the Vienna Musikverein and debuted with the St Petersburg Philharmonic.

Giltburg made his debut with the Israel Philharmonic in February 2005, and regularly appears with all the major orchestras and in the leading recital series in Israel, as well as playing chamber music with members of the Israel Philharmonic. Having toured the USA as a teenager with the Israel Chamber, he made his North American orchestra debut in 2007 with the Indianapolis Symphony. In January 2014 he appeared with the Seattle Symphony, and in 2015 with the Baltimore Symphony. He made his Tokyo debut in 2005, toured China for the first time in 2007, returning to give a recital at the NCPA in Beijing last season, and he played with the Hong Kong Philharmonic in 2010. He has toured South America several times every season since 2002. He has collaborated with conductors such as Alsop, Brabbins, De Waart, Dohnanyi, Entremont, Fedoseyev, Neeme Jaervi, Karabits, Krivine, Lintu, Luisotti, Petrenko, Saraste, Segerstam, Sokhiev, Soustrot, and Tortelier.

Giltburg has played recitals to audiences across Europe in major venues such as the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Vienna Konzerthaus, Munich Herkulessaal, Paris Louvre, Zurich Tonhalle, Wigmore Hall, Teatro San Carlo in Naples and Madrid Sony Auditorium. Festival appearances have included the Klavierfest am Ruhr, Schwetzingen, Luzern, Piano aux Jacobins and Cheltenham. Highlights of 2013/14 included recitals at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Brussels Palais des Beaux-Arts, and a return to London’s Southbank Centre (International Piano Series).

In August 2012 Giltburg released the Prokofiev ‘War’ sonatas on the Orchid label to excellent reviews worldwide, and appearing in Gramophone as ‘Editor’s Choice’: “These performances of Prokofiev’s three ‘War’ Sonatas eclipse all others on record – even those tirelessly and justifiably celebrated performances by Richter and Gilels” (Gramophone, October 2012). He has most recently recorded sonatas by Rachmaninov, Liszt and Grieg.


Boris in action….

And the transcript for those who prefer to read my interviews;

Melanie Spanswick: Israeli concert pianist, Boris Giltburg, won first prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels last year. He’s also been nominated for a Classic BRIT Award, as well as many other accolades. So I’m thrilled he’s taken the time from a very busy schedule to join me here today at Jaques Samuel Pianos in London for a Classical Conversation. Welcome.

Boris Giltburg: Hello, Melanie.

Melanie: Lovely to be chatting to you today.

Boris: Thank you, my pleasure.

Melanie: I’m going to start by asking about your education. I always start by asking what age you started, why you started, whether you come from a musical family.

Boris: I do. My mom, my grandma, and my great grandmother were music piano teachers. And we always had a piano at home. So, for me it, seemed absolutely obviousI should play. Whereas, to my mom, it seemed I perhaps should do something more practical, and she was quite against the idea that I play the piano. So I, at 5 years old, was denied something I really really really wanted it, and I insisted and I insisted until the point where she relented and started giving me lessons. And that’s how we started. It was still in Moscow, before we moved to Israel. And the rest of my education, the main part of it, was in Israel. My big one teacher, the one teacher of my life, is Arie Vardi in Israel.

Melanie: That’s what I was about to say, “Which teacher do you think was most crucial?”

Boris: Well, I would say both Mom and him, because I studied with him for 15 years almost. And so, it’s a long time. Almost everything I think and do in what concerns sound, style, to musical text, phrasing, to almost everything in musical interpretation is by the prism of what he taught me or what I’ve learnt from him, but I know that, from my mom’s point of view, I can rely on her 100% every time. She’s not at all, “Oh, this is lovely!”

[Laughter]

She’s a very strict critic, and I know that if something is bad,she would always tell me.

Melanie: So, how did you develop your technique over the years? Did you used to practice sections in pieces or did you practice studies?

Boris: No, I hated studies.

[Laughter]

And scales, all of that. Most every piece of classical music is full of scales and study-like passages. Whereas, if you do just the studies, there’s sometimes boring technical exercises. If you do them inside a musical work, then the technical part becomes just one variable of it – of the entire thing, and in good music, the technique is always in service of a higher musical aim of some sort. And when you work on a piece of music and you want to get a certain musical result, then the technical challenge becomes – It’s not annoying. It’s not an obstacle. It’s something which you want to overcome and integrate inside the interpretation to get to the musical result you want to get. So, it’s easier to solve problems in Liszt’s Piano Sonata than in some of Czerny’s etudes.

Melanie: And more enjoyable, too.

Boris: Yes,much more so.

Melanie: Now, you won the Queen Elisabeth prize. It must have had a huge impact on your career. How’s it changed and shaped it do you think?

Boris: It gave a very big push. There’s was a very big list on engagements right after the competition. Not only that, but the prestige of the Queen Elisabeth was one of the reasons why I wanted so much to participate, many of my biggest musical heroes have won it in the past, including Gilels, and Oistrakh, and Ashkenazy. So, to have won this – and this is probably the last one – not probably- this is definitely, this is definitely, this is definitely the last competition I’m going to take part in.

Melanie: Well, that was going to be my next question. How do you feel about competitions in general? Because you’ve taken part in quite a few.

Boris: Yes. Many more when I was a small kid. In the last 10 years, just three. I won Santander in Spain 2002. Then I took part in Rubinstein Competition inTel Avivand won 2nd prize. And then Brussels last year. I think when you’re a small kid, it’s just sheer fun. You have nothing to fear, nothing to lose. The older you become, the more heavy the responsibility when going to a competition and, I think I’m extremely happy to be able to end my competition career on this note with this prize at this competition.

Melanie: Sure. Which composers do you love to play?

Boris: I’m omnivorous,so almost everything, but two big groups. from which I almost always draw works for recitals are the Germans and the Russians. A lot of variety inside this group, from Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Schubert,all composers who are German.Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Scriabin, Shostakovich, in the Russians. The Russians, I think, are easier to explain, because even though I grew up in Israel, I’m still very much a Russian person inside. Or more exact is to say that Russian culture, Russian language, Russian literature, poetry, and music are extremely close to my heart. The Germans, I just love them.

Melanie: You like them all?

Boris: Yes, no logical explanation. They just appeal to my imagination, to – both my heart and head.

Melanie: You’ve recorded the late Prokofiev sonatas, the War sonatas, to great acclaim. What attracts you to this music?

Boris: War sonatas? Prokofiev in general is a master story teller. He – even his early works, he- within a few bars, he weaves an entire world around you and then places the music as a story told within this world. And this is something which I find extremely attractive. It appeals to your imagination in a very dark way. He’s also sometimes very visual, like a good filmmaker. He knows how to mix close-up scenes with the wide angle shots. So, he’ll take you into the action or take you out and show you the larger perspective. His harmonic language is quirky, fun and very spiky in a rude kind of way. He adds bad notes and somehow it all sounds right and it ends right.

Melanie: I feel it suits your articulation, which is absolutely fantastic, if I may say.

Boris: Well, from the technical point of view I find that his style of writing suits my hands like no other composer. I don’t know, maybe his hands were somewhat similar; but, for example, Rachmaninov, whom I love just as much, but technically he’s much more difficult for my hands. But Prokofiev, the music just seems to sit very comfortably in the fingers. The articulation, like you said, this kind of thing – I was just working on-just now- on two Rachmaninov concertos, the Second and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. I was thinking how much easier I find the Rhapsody, where the technical approach is closer in some way-to Prokofiev.

Melanie: I was going to say that, yes,it is isn’t it?

Boris: So, less blocks – less heavy blocks of chords and more I would say percussive, but more single line voices, shifts between hands, and more clarity and transparency. I think the Prokofiev in some ways, even in its most thick texture, he’s a neoclassicist of some degree, to a certain degree and he always retains a transparency, which one would expect to find rather in Beethoven or Mozart or Haydn, imitating like whom he wrote the classical symphony. He wants to write something which he might have written if he lived at that time. And the way his music, whereas Rachmaninov is extremely visceral, and he goes directly into your heart. Prokofiev- Playing his Second Piano Concerto, for example, is like reading a great novel by Kafka and the War sonatas, which you asked me about, they’re are of course knowing the circumstances in which the music was written- so, not only the invasion of Russia by Hitler in the Second World War, but also the terror within Russia. It was just after the great purge of Stalin in ’37-’38, in which nearly two million people were made to disappear without a trace, and Prokofiev himself lost many friends and people he knew. And the combination of those things, the terror within and the terror without, they lead to three works which are – it’s like a chronicle of the time, and it’s – I think it’s a masterpiece, even by his standards and something he has never surpassed in his other works of piano. There’s a kind of, it’s actually in the Eighth. The way he manages to reach some sort of objectivity. So, in the Sixth for example, it’s very much inside theaction in the sonata, and it’s the enemy marching towards with blank dead eyes. There is no objectivity at all there. The Seventh for me is more about the terror of which I’ve told you, Stalin’s – Stalin’s kind of terror, and the fabulous finale which, he thought was the triumph of humanity over all obstacles; which this could just as easily signify or depict the triumph of a well-oiled machine over everything, including that spirit of humanity. It just tramples everything in its path to glory, anything. But it in the Eighth, he manages to surpass even those two. It reaches some altitude of – all of his energy and quirkiness is still there, but there’s also wisdom and objectivity as I said, and a tapestry which he creates, especially in the first movement. I think it’s a masterpiece, a work of art of any time and period. So playing it is a big privilege and a very special experience.

Melanie: And do you plan to record all the sonatas? A whole Prokofiev project?

Boris: Well, I’ve recorded some Romantic sonatas and my last CD, which I’ve just recorded last week and will be released in the winter, is Schumann. As for more Prokofiev, maybe the concerti. The exercises, I love very much number four. I like very much number two and three. One, five, and nine, I’m – at the moment, I still find a bit hard to understand. Well, Five specifically is very obscure work for me. Nine is lovely. It’s a bit weaker, I find, than the others, and one is just very early work. So, it’s not easy to sense the essence of Prokofiev in it. But I think that even those three sonatas – just on their own – if Prokofiev left nothing else, they would be testimony of a very great artist.

Melanie: Do you have a particular practice routine?

Boris: Not really.

Melanie: I read somewhere you practice on a silent piano?

Boris: Yes and no. The grand piano which I have at home has a silent piano mode on it, so if I need to practice, this is quite a life saver. And it acted as a life saver a few times, but this is just for an emergency. For a normal kind of work, you must have the real response of the real key, the real sound. One thing which I do is I record myself quite a lot and then I listen to it right away, because often it’s hard when playing to hear the larger line, to hear the movements or the work in its entirety; and also many things which you don’t notice when you are at the keyboard, suddenly when heard from a distance, they sound really – they’re very prominent. This is something which is part of the daily work. And other than that, it’s just practicing, just working as much as possible.  The material we are working with is so rich. It’s inexhaustibly rich. It’s like a mine which you can never reach the bottom of. And those works, they grow with you. So if you come back to visit and play it five or six years ago or ten years ago, you’ll usually find that there’s more to discover, more layers to bring up. This makes the everyday practice not really work, but a journey of discovery. So it can be sometimes frustrating when you are unable to do something you want to, and sometimes you don’t know why. You don’t know what you need to change in order to get there, but still I think that the positive points overcome the landslides, over the others.

Melanie: What are your future plans, concerts, recordings?

Boris: Well, for recordings after the Schuman, the next CD is probably going to be Beethoven, Beethoven sonatas. For concerts, next season is fully packed. Many things in Europe. Many things in the Far East.Many things in South America. A few things in the States. I’m playing for the first time with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with Marin Alsop. In Japan, China, then many things in Israel, too, in my home country. It’s an exciting time.

Melanie: Sure, of course. What does playing the piano mean to you?

Boris: It’s my life. It’s one of the best things I know of. This is one of the many things that drive me forwards, that makes me want to go and do things. My main way of doing things is by playing. I would say it’s about expressing myself a little. It’s about reaching some kind of musical truth in the piece. And this truth might change with time; but, for tonight, there is something which we know is there in the piece, and when you are able to reach it and to show it or play it for the audience, this feeling is incomparable. I wouldn’t be able to do this without playing the piano. And I also love playing the piano because it’s a hands-on experience. As opposed, for example, to conducting, where you need to make other people do the music you want. I imagine it’s even more complicated. For me just the physical sensation of doing it with my own hands, with my own body, this is also a big part of the fun. And yeah, I think so.

Melanie: Thank you so much for joining me today, Boris.

Boris: My pleasure.

Melanie: Thank you.

 

 

 

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Arabia; Etude-Tableaux for solo piano

Arabia Front Cover

Piano teacher and composer Elena Cobb presents a thoroughly modern  approach to learning the piano. She has written a whole collection of educational books which feature in her highly successful Higgledy Piggledy Jazz series; I have already highlighted these books here on this blog.

Higgledy Piggledy Jazz deals with the often feared concept of improvisation, and the idea behind this series according to Elena is  to promote ‘Improvisation for the Classically trained pianist’. Her  pieces are designed for those who enjoy lively, syncopated, jazzy, tunes, which all introduce elements of improvising; encouraging young players to think outside the box and make-up their own melodies within a rhythmic framework.

Nor content to sit on her laurels, Elena’s latest work has a totally contrasting character. ‘I never said I was a jazzer!’ she commented and so the new piece, Arabia: Etude-Tableaux Op.1, is aimed at a completely different pianist. Elena says  ‘This musical composition is for the young virtuoso at late intermediate to advanced level’. Looking at the score, this piece would most comfortably be suited to the Grade 8 student (although Grade 7 or diploma students could also find it fun to play). The piece  provides plenty of variety and interest, a  prerequisite occasionally lacking in educational works.

Arabia was inspired by a train journey across the desert taken by Elena as a young child with her family. These memories are heard clearly at the opening, where a couple of recitative/improvisatory style solo treble passages create the necessary Arabic flavour. The main thematic material, stated from the third bar, consists of colour and mystery provided by ornamental flurries and florid melodic inflections. The melody is then briefly restated in octave passagework in the right hand, thus revealing the real test of this little piece. The sub heading, Etude-Tableaux (‘Study Pictures’), was probably inspired by Rachmaninov’s two sets of works with the same title, Op. 33 and Op. 39.  An Etude is basically a study or technically demanding yet musically satisfying exercise, and Arabia is a test primarily in octave technique (an octave being an interval of eight notes, requiring two fingers to play it, most commonly the thumb and fifth finger).

Over the next few pages, several types of octave passagework are explored (dotted rhythms, leaps, octaves in both hands, and split octaves) which are often accompanied by a chordal off-beat bass part, played by the left hand. The aim is to develop a reliable, secure, and relaxed approach to tackling octaves. Many might balk at the prospect of young pupils playing copious repeated octaves (care is certainly needed when teaching this technique as repetitive strain injury can be a problem). However, there are plenty of opportunities here to ‘rest’ the hand (with less taxing figurations in between) and the tempo is fairly moderate, only really speeding up towards the end of the piece. My previous blog post proffers a few thoughts and suggestions for successful octave practice, which can be read here.

This work is the ideal first octave study for students with the appropriate hand stretch, virtuoso prowess and energy levels! For more information about Arabia click here.

www.elenacobb.com

 
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S-T-R-E-T-C-H-I-N-G! A few thoughts……

Many piano students have issues with stretching. Smaller hands are less suited to playing the piano than larger ones, and they often need a little more help when learning certain repertoire. Playing hefty chords and intervals of an octave (8 notes) or more, in either hand, can create physical problems, causing the hand to ‘lock-up’ and subsequently become tense, curtailing fast movement.

This can also happen even when chords are negotiated relatively easily; fast double octave passagework, octaves with the melody in the top line (or bottom line), quick chordal passages, and chords which leap around the keyboard, are all potentially troublesome for the smaller hand. It’s occasionally possible to re-write passagework in order to play successfully, but a better plan is to train the hand and fingers so that they become accustomed, and indeed prepared, to play large intervals without any strain.

Here are a few ideas and suggestions to help prepare the fingers and hand; it is possible to re-train yourself mentally and physically, allowing the hand and whole upper body to feel free and unrestricted whilst stretching octaves and beyond.

Place your hand (or hands) on a table top (or your knee) in a totally natural position, stretching out as far as is comfortable, with no tension (see photo below). Observe how each hand feels as you stretch out whilst relaxing your arm(s) and upper body; it’s important to sense what is completely relaxed.

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Next play an octave interval on the piano in each hand (one at a time), again feeling totally relaxed (this might only be an interval of a 6th or 7th if you have small hands or an octave feels tense). If you can’t yet reach an octave, a flat hand position (i.e. the whole hand out-stretched as on the table top in the photo above) might be necessary at first so that you can actually reach the interval.

Whilst playing the interval, observe the thumb and 5th finger; the two fingers you will normally be using to play any interval (although after a while you may be able to use the 3rd and 4th fingers alongside the thumb for octaves as well). How they negotiate any wide interval is vital.

Firstly, try to ensure that the 5th finger in each hand is active and working independently from the rest of the hand. Employ your finger-tip on the key using the fleshy area of the tip, and be fully functioning from the knuckle down to both finger joints; it is best if the 5th fingers are bent and in a ‘gripping’ position  (see photo of my left hand below – my right hand was busy taking the photo!). Also notice the bridge position of my knuckles i.e. the knuckles are all visible; if this bridge ‘collapses’, then playing at speed outstretched (which is necessary for octaves and chords) becomes problematic. The thumb should also assume a ‘gripping’ position, as this helps with note accuracy. It will probably take a while for these finger positions to feel natural (it takes pupils generally six to nine months of constant hand/finger mindfulness).

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Whilst playing the interval, allow your wrist and arm to go floppy and relaxed. I ask my students to move their wrists freely up and down, as they are keeping the position of the chord or octave (it’s best to start practising using an octave – inner notes can be added later). Playing the piano is all about tension (to play the notes) and release (letting go immediately afterwards) and so chords and octaves also require this approach.

The idea of encouraging the hand/wrist/arm to go floppy and limp whilst keeping the interval shape with the fingers needs to be practised frequently, so it becomes a habit, and eventually it will feel natural when playing larger intervals.

It’s a good idea to get into the habit of ‘letting go’ of the octave as soon as it has been played. However, this doesn’t mean you need to physically let go of the notes or piano keys.  It’s possible to hold notes, chords and intervals without assuming a tense position, hence moving the rest of your hand should feel easy and flexible as you hold onto the notes. This is really like an exercise in assuming the interval shape. Try moving your whole arm/hand in a circular/rotational motion whilst still holding down a chord. If this feels relaxed and ‘free’ then you know you are on the right track! Always release the hand position completely after you have played a one or two intervals or chords – otherwise you might feel strain or discomfort.

Sink into the key bed as you play the octave interval ensuring your wrists remain free and not in a high position (high wrists usually indicates tension), It’s quite good practice to allow the wrists to drop as low as possible as well as moving freely in a rotational motion as already suggested.  Avoid a ‘fixed’ wrist position, but rather encourage it to move as and when necessary helping you reach each and every chord or octave. The wrist should act as a hinge allowing arm-weight to produce the sound.

Once you feel comfortable playing an octave, practice this stretch every day for around 5 minutes. Muscles will get used to the feeling of the stretch so that it feels like a ‘normal’ hand position. Then eventually add inner notes to create chords. Your hand will adjust to this new position and you might notice a change in the structure of your hand too.

This exercise should never be uncomfortable or cause pain in any way. If you feel pain whilst playing the piano then something is wrong, so stop and get help! If you want to develop a good piano technique finding an appropriate teacher is paramount.

After working systematically on this technical issue, you might find playing intervals of a ninth and even a tenth possible, as your hand gets used to stretching further and further without feeling strained or tense. It’s all about relaxing the hand so it feels more accommodating and pliable, whilst keeping a firm finger grip on the octave/chordal shape. Happy practising!

 

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Martin James Bartlett in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The thirty fourth interview guest in my Classical Conversations Series is BBC Young Musician 2014, Martin James Bartlett. Martin is a student at the Royal College of Music Junior Department and is about to start an undergraduate degree at the RCM Senior Department in September, where he will study with Professor Vanessa Latarche. We met up for a chat at Jaques Samuel Pianos earlier this month, where he talked about his life and career.

Martin James Bartlett began learning the piano at the age of 6. From the age of 8, Martin has been studying at the Royal College of Music Junior Department with Emily Jeffrey, with whom he has been learning at the Purcell School since becoming a student there in 2010. Martin has also been studying the recorder and the bassoon and, indeed, by the time Martin was 12, he had achieved Grade 8 Distinction on all three instruments.

Martin has performed in many competitions and festivals, where he has enjoyed considerable success. For several years running he has been a prize-winner in the Jaques Samuel Intercollegiate Piano Competition, which has resulted in a series of Wigmore Hall solo performances. At the age of thirteen, Martin won the Purcell School’s Middle School Concerto Competition, performing Mozart’s D Minor Concerto K.466 with the Purcell Sinfonia. More recently he has performed Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto K.491 with the Vanbrugh Ensemble.

At the Royal College of Music Junior Department, he has won The Teresa Carreno Competition, The Gordon Turner Competition and the Peter Morrison Concerto Competition. He has also won the Freddy Morgan Competition and the Wigmore Hall Competition at the Purcell School. From his success in these competitions he has performed solo recitals in The Purcell Room, Wigmore Hall, Royal Albert Hall (Elgar Room), Steinway Hall, Bolivar Hall,  John’s Smith Square, The Beaumaris Festival, Moscow Multi-Media Arts Hall, Calbourne Isle of Wight, Novi Sad Town Hall and Fazioli Concert Hall in Italy.

Notably, in March 2012 Martin was one of only five pianists chosen nationally to perform in the Keyboard Final of BBC Young Musician of the Year 2012, which was held in the Dora Stoutker Hall in Cardiff, the live performance of which was broadcast on BBC4 in April 2012.

Martin has performed in fundraising and charity concerts raising over thirty thousand pounds. He has received master classes from Lang Lang, Stephen Kovacevich, Kathryn Stott, Mikhail Petukhov and Alberto Portugheis.

His great love and involvement with chamber music playing extended with the forming of a duo partnership with the BBC Young Musician of the Year 2012 winner, ‘cellist Laura van der Heijden.  Having returned from an International Chamber Music Course in Montepulciano, Italy, in 2012, they have since given numerous recitals together at such venues as the Elgar Room, The Britten Theatre [Royal College of Music], and a Live Broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s “In Tune”.

Future engagements in 2014 include performances of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on the Theme of Paginini with the RCM Symphony Orchestra and Windsor and Maidenhead and Symphony Orchestra, Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto K491 with The Watford Symphony Orchestra, and Beethoven’s 2nd Piano Concerto with The Welsh Chamber Orchestra.

He is again one of five pianists to reach the Keyboard Finals of BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014. In March 2014 he performed in the Dora Stoutker Hall, in Cardiff. The live performance was broadcast on BBC 4.

Since 2012, Martin has been awarded a Tsukanov Scholarship, which supports all his studies at The Royal College of Music. More recently Martin has been awarded three full scholarships to study at three London Conservatoires.

Martin in action…….


And the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews…..

Melanie Spanswick: Young British concert pianist, Martin James Bartlett, has just been crowned BBC Young Musician 2014. He’s currently a student at the Royal College of Music Junior Department and the Purcell School and so, I’m so pleased he’s joining me today here at Jacques Samuel Pianos in London for a Classical Conversation. Welcome.

Martin James Bartlett: Thank you very much.

MS: I want to start by congratulating you. It’s fantastic that you’ve won the Young Musician.

MJB: Thank you so much.

MS: Brilliant, and I want to start by asking you all about your musical education, how old you are when you started, why you started, whether you’ve come from a musical family.

MJB: Well, my mum taught me first and I started at the age of six, and then at the age of eight, she decided that I should go somewhere else to carry on my studies. So, I went to the Royal College and I’ve been there for the last ten years now, and I suppose I started the piano because my mum was always teaching people in the house and we always had the radio on and CDs all the time and I just grew so accustomed to hearing it, that I really kind of wanted to follow in what she was doing and everything I could hear.

MS: And so, what teachers then do you think were crucial in your development. I think I know the answer to this.

MJB: No, definitely my mum first started me off really well and then when I went to Emily Jeffrey, she really just, I’ve been with her for the last ten years and she just, was just such an inspiration to come to, and she has so much patience with me and even sometimes I didn’t use to practice that I kind of wasn’t feeling it so much as other times I used to come in and she just used to, you know, carry on going, come back next week and we just have such a great relationship. It’s amazing.

MS: We should talk a little bit about Emily because she’s quite phenomenal, she’s not only had yourself, but she’s also had Lara Melda as Young Musician of the Year as well. So, she’s a phenomenal teacher.

MJB: Yes, she is fantastic and I think one of the reasons we set her apart from other teachers is because she doesn’t play so regularly to me and she just tries to describe how I should feel some of it with different adjectives and things. It makes me find my own sound and my own way of playing, so I don’t copy the way she plays. I have my own kind of voice when I’m playing.

MS: So, how did you develop your technique? I’m always asking this question. It’s fascinating how people start when you play, studies, scales, whether you learn the difficulties within a piece.

MJB: I suppose when I was younger, I used to occasionally do some Czerny Etudes, things like these, but I never really concentrated on a technique because it was always something that we thought, you know, the more we push ourselves with different repertoire it will come anyway.

MS: Right.

MJB: And I never wanted to become mechanical in any way, with the way I practiced, so when I did practice scales, which of course, I did when I was younger, we would, you know, we used to phrase them and do different dynamics and try to get as many kind of techniques in as possible.

MS: Yeah, that’s interesting. So, you know, you’ve won Young Musician. It’s gonna have a huge impact on your career, no doubt, but how do you feel about competitions, in general, because this isn’t the first time you’ve entered, you actually entered in 2012 and did very well as well.

MJB: I think competitions, I think you have to have the right attitude when you go in, and I think, you really can’t be going in to win. I think you’ve really got to go in just to develop yourself more as a pianist and musician, and I think they really push you, in terms of, there’s lots of pressure and you gotta learn new repertoire and of course, lots of international competitions have the set repertoire to go through, the Bach Preludes and Fugues in the first round and things like this, which I think is really good, ‘cause it kind of develops you more, as long as you go with the mindset of I’m just gonna go and give an amazing concert and not worry about the actual prizes or winning.

MS: So, do you feel that you might enter international competitions in the future or do you feel that the Young Musician is enough?

MJB: I suppose, I have no idea what I would do, you know, when it comes to things but I would love to because all those are my idols and things, you know, won the Chopin, and the Tchaikovsky and things. So, I would like to enter some in the future, yes.

MS: That’s a yes. I think it’s good experience isn’t it?

MJB: Yeah, exactly and you just, I mean, I’ve lost so many competitions and I really have, I think everybody loses lots and you just gotta, you carry on going and take it the right way.

MS: Which composers do you love to play?

MJB: I suppose, there are so many that I could mention but I think I quite have a special affinity with Bach. I love Bach but also Beethoven, I absolutely adore, and Schumann as well, but I also love Prokofiev and Romantic composers as well.

MS: And how many concertos do you have in your repertoire? How many do you play with orchestra involved?

MJB: I have around six or seven. When I was younger, I used to play quite a few Mozart concertos and a few Beethoven and also Rachmaninov as well. So, I play, I think, three or four with orchestra but I think concertos are so great because it’s all that chamber music aspect. You don’t really, with solo recitals it’s quite daunting, you know, it’s just you on you’re own, and the good thing about chamber music is if you’re with a fantastic orchestra, you just push each other further, you know, and you get even more out the music than many solo recitals you would do, I think.

MS: Do you have particular practice regime?

MJB: I suppose occasionally when it gets really tough, I have to write down what pieces and time and everything like that. Normally, warm up a bit but normally I warm up away from the piano, so I do a few stretches, run my hand under some warm water, just to loosen up my joints and everything, but then I think you can’t spend so much on technical studies because you’ve got so, there’s such a vast amount of repertoire to learn. You really have to just get stuck in and just go through as many pieces as you can.

MS: Do you ever practice away from the piano?

MJB: I do a lot of practice away from the piano in different ways, such as, you know, sometimes I’ll be looking at the score and listening through recordings or sometimes I just sit in bed after a hard day at work and I’m thinking, you know, now let’s get the score out and we can just look at all the markings and make sure I’m clear about what I’m doing.

MS: Yeah. So, what are your favourite pianists, or I should say who are your favourite pianists, Martin?

MJB: My favourite pianists, I love Horowitz. I love Martha Argerich for clarity and the sound as well. Claudio Arrau, has a sound like a bell like sound and really sings out. I also love Shura Cherkassky for these dazzlingly light runs, I mean, those transcriptions like Strauss, I mean there’s so many who I love.

MS: And Horowitz?

MJB: I think, the thing about Horowitz is that there are some moments, if you watch him play and there’s so many flaws in part and there’s, you know, it’s quite inaccurate and you think to yourself, “Oh, you know, is this really him playing?” And then, a moment later there’s a most incredible thing which is just not human and it’s that combination of kind of inconsistency that makes me love his playing so much.

MS: So, which works are you hoping to tackle in the future?

MJB: I’m really hoping in the near future, I’m hoping I’m gonna tackle Rachmaninov 2 and Tchaikovsky as well. Not so many people play Tchaikovsky anymore and I think it’s such a warhorse, it’s gotta be brought back in a way, but in the long term future, of course, I’d love to play Schumann concerto and Rach 3, but I’m kinda waiting for that ‘cause I don’t wanna, I wanna graduate the Rachmaninov concertos up until I hit Rach 3.

MS: When was the light bulb moment when you decided ‘I want to be a pianist?’

MJB: I suppose, it was when I was ten I think, because when I was seven I was not sure and I wanted to kinda…I had several job options…!

MJB: It was really when I was ten, exactly, I wanted to be a marine biologist at some point and a physicist and then when I got to ten, I think, I heard an amazing recording of Claudio Arrau doing Beethoven 4th and when I listened to that, I thought, “You know, this is what I’ve got to do because it just, that really inspired me a lot.

MS: What are your future plans, coming, upcoming concerts?

MJB: I have quite a few upcoming concerts. I have one next week in Wigmore Hall but at the moment I don’t have my diary because the Young Classical Artist Trust have my diary. (YCAT) Yeah, they’re helping me sort things out. I have a meeting with them tomorrow to sort out some things, but they kind of get all the work in and then we can discuss it and work out what works with dates and everything like that. So, I’m not really sure what I’m doing. I’m just gonna see them and they’re gonna tell me what I’m gonna do, so.

MS: What does playing the piano mean to you?

MJB: Playing the piano means so much to me, but I would say that it’s not playing the piano that means so much to me. It’s just music, in general, and I’ve always thought that there’s so much in music that I would really love to do and God forbid but if anything ever happened that I couldn’t play the piano like I would, I would just love to do some conducting and teaching, and there’s just so much that I’d love to do in the profession.

MS: Watch this space?

MJB: Well.

MS: Thank you so much for joining me today, Martin.

MJB: Thank you very much.

Melanie Spanswick: Young British concert pianist, Martin James Bartlett, has just been crowned BBC Young Musician 2014. He’s currently a student at the Royal College of Music Junior Department and the Purcell School and so, I’m so pleased he’s joining me today here at Jacques Samuel Pianos in London for a Classical Conversation. Welcome.

Martin James Bartlett: Thank you very much.

MS: I want to start by congratulating you. It’s fantastic that you’ve won the Young Musician.

MJB: Thank you so much.

MS: Brilliant, and I want to start by asking you all about your musical education, how old you are when you started, why you started, whether you’ve come from a musical family.

MJB: Well, my mum taught me first and I started at the age of six, and then at the age of eight, she decided that I should go somewhere else to carry on my studies. So, I went to the Royal College and I’ve been there for the last ten years now, and I suppose I started the piano because my mum was always teaching people in the house and we always had the radio on and CDs all the time and I just grew so accustomed to hearing it, that I really kind of wanted to follow in what she was doing and everything I could hear.

MS: And so, what teachers then do you think were crucial in your development. I think I know the answer to this.

MJB: No, definitely my mum first started me off really well and then when I went to Emily Jeffrey, she really just, I’ve been with her for the last ten years and she just, was just such an inspiration to come to, and she has so much patience with me and even sometimes I didn’t use to practice that I kind of wasn’t feeling it so much as other times I used to come in and she just used to, you know, carry on going, come back next week and we just have such a great relationship. It’s amazing.

MS: We should talk a little bit about Emily because she’s quite phenomenal, she’s not only had yourself, but she’s also had Lara Melda as Young Musician of the Year as well. So, she’s a phenomenal teacher.

MJB: Yes, she is fantastic and I think one of the reasons we set her apart from other teachers is because she doesn’t play so regularly to me and she just tries to describe how I should feel some of it with different adjectives and things. It makes me find my own sound and my own way of playing, so I don’t copy the way she plays. I have my own kind of voice when I’m playing.

MS: So, how did you develop your technique? I’m always asking this question. It’s fascinating how people start when you play, studies, scales, whether you learn the difficulties within a piece.

MJB: I suppose when I was younger, I used to occasionally do some Czerny Etudes, things like these, but I never really concentrated on a technique because it was always something that we thought, you know, the more we push ourselves with different repertoire it will come anyway.

MS: Right.

MJB: And I never wanted to become mechanical in any way, with the way I practiced, so when I did practice scales, which of course, I did when I was younger, we would, you know, we used to phrase them and do different dynamics and try to get as many kind of techniques in as possible.

MS: Yeah, that’s interesting. So, you know, you’ve won Young Musician. It’s gonna have a huge impact on your career, no doubt, but how do you feel about competitions, in general, because this isn’t the first time you’ve entered, you actually entered in 2012 and did very well as well.

MJB: I think competitions, I think you have to have the right attitude when you go in, and I think, you really can’t be going in to win. I think you’ve really got to go in just to develop yourself more as a pianist and musician, and I think they really push you, in terms of, there’s lots of pressure and you gotta learn new repertoire and of course, lots of international competitions have the set repertoire to go through, the Bach Preludes and Fugues in the first round and things like this, which I think is really good, ‘cause it kind of develops you more, as long as you go with the mindset of I’m just gonna go and give an amazing concert and not worry about the actual prizes or winning.

MS: So, do you feel that you might enter international competitions in the future or do you feel that the Young Musician is enough?

MJB: I suppose, I have no idea what I would do, you know, when it comes to things but I would love to because all those are my idols and things, you know, won the Chopin, and the Tchaikovsky and things. So, I would like to enter some in the future, yes.

MS: That’s a yes. I think it’s good experience isn’t it?

MJB: Yeah, exactly and you just, I mean, I’ve lost so many competitions and I really have, I think everybody loses lots and you just gotta, you carry on going and take it the right way.

MS: Which composers do you love to play?

MJB: I suppose, there are so many that I could mention but I think I quite have a special affinity with Bach. I love Bach but also Beethoven, I absolutely adore, and Schumann as well, but I also love Prokofiev and Romantic composers as well.

MS: And how many concertos do you have in your repertoire? How many do you play with orchestra involved?

MJB: I have around six or seven. When I was younger, I used to play quite a few Mozart concertos and a few Beethoven and also Rachmaninov as well. So, I play, I think, three or four with orchestra but I think concertos are so great because it’s all that chamber music aspect. You don’t really, with solo recitals it’s quite daunting, you know, it’s just you on you’re own, and the good thing about chamber music is if you’re with a fantastic orchestra, you just push each other further, you know, and you get even more out the music than many solo recitals you would do, I think.

MS: Do you have particular practice regime?

MJB: I suppose occasionally when it gets really tough, I have to write down what pieces and time and everything like that. Normally, warm up a bit but normally I warm up away from the piano, so I do a few stretches, run my hand under some warm water, just to loosen up my joints and everything, but then I think you can’t spend so much on technical studies because you’ve got so, there’s such a vast amount of repertoire to learn. You really have to just get stuck in and just go through as many pieces as you can.

MS: Do you ever practice away from the piano?

MJB: I do a lot of practice away from the piano in different ways, such as, you know, sometimes I’ll be looking at the score and listening through recordings or sometimes I just sit in bed after a hard day at work and I’m thinking, you know, now let’s get the score out and we can just look at all the markings and make sure I’m clear about what I’m doing.

MS: Yeah. So, what are your favourite pianists, or I should say who are your favourite pianists, Martin?

MJB: My favourite pianists, I love Horowitz. I love Martha Argerich for clarity and the sound as well. Claudio Arrau, has a sound like a bell like sound and really sings out. I also love Shura Cherkassky for these dazzlingly light runs, I mean, those transcriptions like Strauss, I mean there’s so many who I love.

MS: And Horowitz?

MJB: I think, the thing about Horowitz is that there are some moments, if you watch him play and there’s so many flaws in part and there’s, you know, it’s quite inaccurate and you think to yourself, “Oh, you know, is this really him playing?” And then, a moment later there’s a most incredible thing which is just not human and it’s that combination of kind of inconsistency that makes me love his playing so much.

MS: So, which works are you hoping to tackle in the future?

MJB: I’m really hoping in the near future, I’m hoping I’m gonna tackle Rachmaninov 2 and Tchaikovsky as well. Not so many people play Tchaikovsky anymore and I think it’s such a warhorse, it’s gotta be brought back in a way, but in the long term future, of course, I’d love to play Schumann concerto and Rach 3, but I’m kinda waiting for that ‘cause I don’t wanna, I wanna graduate the Rachmaninov concertos up until I hit Rach 3.

MS: When was the light bulb moment when you decided ‘I want to be a pianist?’

MJB: I suppose, it was when I was ten I think, because when I was seven I was not sure and I wanted to kinda…I had several job options…!

MJB: It was really when I was ten, exactly, I wanted to be a marine biologist at some point and a physicist and then when I got to ten, I think, I heard an amazing recording of Claudio Arrau doing Beethoven 4th and when I listened to that, I thought, “You know, this is what I’ve got to do because it just, that really inspired me a lot.

MS: What are your future plans, coming, upcoming concerts?

MJB: I have quite a few upcoming concerts. I have one next week in Wigmore Hall but at the moment I don’t have my diary because the Young Classical Artist Trust have my diary. (YCAT) Yeah, they’re helping me sort things out. I have a meeting with them tomorrow to sort out some things, but they kind of get all the work in and then we can discuss it and work out what works with dates and everything like that. So, I’m not really sure what I’m doing. I’m just gonna see them and they’re gonna tell me what I’m gonna do, so.

MS: What does playing the piano mean to you?

MJB: Playing the piano means so much to me, but I would say that it’s not playing the piano that means so much to me. It’s just music, in general, and I’ve always thought that there’s so much in music that I would really love to do and God forbid but if anything ever happened that I couldn’t play the piano like I would, I would just love to do some conducting and teaching, and there’s just so much that I’d love to do in the profession.

MS: Watch this space?

MJB: Well.

MS: Thank you so much for joining me today, Martin.

MJB: Thank you very much.

 

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