A Trip to the Schimmel Factory in Germany

Schimmel Pianos

If you love pianos then you will most certainly be interested in this superb one day trip to the Schimmel Piano factory. Peregrine’s Pianos, London’s exclusive dealer in Schimmel Pianos, is offering its customers an opportunity to visit the factory in Braunschweig, Germany. The one day visit, on Tuesday 30th September 2014, will provide an excellent opportunity for anyone who enjoys observing the intricacies of building this complex instrument, and also for Schimmel lovers who are already aware of the range of pianos available and would like to learn more.

Schimmel pianos (the largest volume German piano manufacturer) was founded in Leipzig in 1885. The present modern factory (pictured above) is close to the centre of Braunschweig and is purpose-built. It takes the form of numerous work areas dedicated to specific parts of the process – frame and soundboard manufacture, casework, key making, piano stringing, action alignment, silent piano installation, final assembly and finishing. Schimmel Pianos run a comprehensive training scheme for apprentices and planning ahead is key in the company’s thinking. Care about wider issues is also highly important; for example timber is carefully selected from regenerating forests.

Full details of the day will be given to those joining the visit. The trip will begin at Heathrow, London at approximately 7am and arrive back there at about 9.30pm.  After a short flight to Hannover there will be a special coach transfer to the factory. On arrival, guests will then be introduced to senior staff at Schimmel Pianos and entertained to a factory lunch. The visit will include talks from the management team, an extended tour of all parts of the factory and opportunity to try pianos in the “selection room.” The day will also feature a short recital, a visit to the old city, a group meal in Braunschweig and the return coach transfer to the airport.

Places on this visit are limited and those interested in joining it will need a valid passport and should contact Peregrine’s Pianos as soon as possible. There is a nominal charge of £250 per person which includes all items listed in the itinerary, and Peregrine’s Pianos will be pleased to discount one person’s charge against the subsequent purchase of a Schimmel Piano.

For more details please write to: info@peregrines-pianos.com

www. peregrines-pianos.com

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Dance in Bulgarian Rhythm No. 4 from Mikrokosmos by Bartók (ABRSM Grade 8 syllabus)

The ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) graded exam syllabus for 2015/6 is now readily available, and no doubt pianists across the world are selecting and practising the new set works. I went along to the launch a few weeks ago, held at Yamaha Music (formerly Chappell of Bond Street) in London, where ABRSM examiner and trainer, Timothy Barratt,  spoke about many of the chosen works for each grade. The Grade 8 selection is as varied as ever, and over the next few months I will be writing about a selection of Grade 7 and 8 pieces, offering a few practice tips.

It’s great to see old favourites on the list; many works appear regularly over the years. Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1981-1945) is a particularly popular choice, and this year is no exception; his works appear in four of the eight  piano grades.

Whilst not every student’s cup of tea,  Bartók’s style is one of the most highly original of the Twentieth century. A superlative pianist (there’s an abundance of recordings of his playing), and prolific composer. I researched his piano music (specifically the three concertos) in Budapest when I was a student, and had the opportunity to speak to the renowned  Bartók  specialist and musicologist László Somfai about the composer’s highly individual combined use of harmony and folk songs, which was both informative and enlightening. 

Bartók amassed a very large collection of folk songs, which he acquired by visiting various Hungarian villages (and beyond), recording local musicians on an Edison Phonograph. Here’s a wonderful example of a typical recording (this features a Romanian Folk Dance and is over 100 years old):

Bartók notated and catalogued all the folk songs in his collection. They became a crucial source of inspiration in his own compositions, and the ‘folk song’ element was eventually completely assimilated into his style. Indeed it was to be his ‘hallmark’.

Mikrokosmos Sz. 107, was written between 1926 and 1939, and consists of 153 pieces in six volumes,  progressing from very simple pieces for beginners to advanced level works. They demonstrate Bartók’s commitment to and interest in music education (he wrote several sets of piano pieces for educational purposes). According to Bartók, the piece “appears as a synthesis of all the musical and technical problems which were treated and in some cases only partially solved in the previous piano works.”

Mikrokosmos concludes with the Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm, which are traditionally performed as a group, feature in Volume No. 6, and were dedicated to Harriet Cohen. The 2015/16 ABRSM syllabus includes the fourth dance in the set, No. 151, and it appears on List C (C1).  Bartók’s music has been described as dissonant and violent, and whilst there are elements of these qualities in his works, the breadth of musical variety found in this particular Dance (and in the set as a whole), is breath-taking.

For those considering this piece as an option for the Grade 8 exam, or perhaps who have already started learning this work, I have compiled a few practice ideas for combatting certain difficulties within the work, which may be helpful.

Of utmost importance is the rhythm, and more specifically, the Time Signature: 3+2+3 over 8. Unusual Time Signatures are renowned in the Hungarian composer’s style,  and Bartók has used the rhythm of traditional Bulgarian Dances here, but the melodic material is all his own. Interestingly, he described this dance as in the style of Gershwin but with his (Bartók’s) own tonality. This becomes apparent just by clapping the pulse. The unusual  rhythmic patterns may be unfamiliar to some, so they need complete assimilation before practising commences. Clapping the pulse followed by the rhythmic pattern of the melody (which can really in grain the ‘feel’), is the best way to start. After which, focus on clapping the rhythmic pattern whilst counting each beat out loud at the same time. Although there are few accent markings in this work, but there is a definite ‘push’ (or groove?) on the fourth beat of each bar (akin to jazz).  Once the rhythm has been understood, it’s easy to make swift progress.

The melody is featured in some guise or other most of the time during this short piece, whether alone in the right hand (bars 1-8), the left hand (bars 9-16, where it’s inverted (or reversed)), played in unison (bars 20-24), played in repeated notes (44-50), in right hand octaves (bars 55-58) and in sixths too (bars 59-66).  So the trick is to find a way to vary the sound and touch throughout. Bartók is always very specific about tempo and dynamic markings, but beyond this it is the job of the interpreter to work some magic. Here’s the original tune, which is bright and jocular, and must be played very softly and serenely at the opening:

Bartok Dance No

Start by compartmentalising the melodic sections, so you know where the melody occurs and how it has been transformed as the work progresses (analysing a piece can prove extremely effective; using red pencil is a good way to identify sections!). Then write as much fingering in as possible; suitable fingering makes all the difference when honing a smooth performance.

Next, concentrate on the ‘accompanying’ material, which is just as important (often more so), again, write in all fingerings, and touch should be predominantly legato (pedal should be kept to a minimum). The copious chordal left and right hand passages ably demonstrate Bartók’s use of bitonality (two keys at once) and in many cases, polytonality (many keys at the same time). Although this Dance is in the key of C major, the increasingly dissonant harmonic progressions throughout, provide the exotic flavour and spice.

As always, working in small sections usually proffers the best results, and certain passages require special attention. Take note of the ‘off beat’ accompaniment sections; bars  25-32 and bars 33-39 are a couple of examples. The syncopated chords can be lighter and generally shorter than the melodic material, but placing them correctly is vital and challenging. Success will depend on the grasp of the pulse, and assimilation of the ‘groove’. If rhythm is causing some grief, try breaking down further, dividing each bar into three sections, literally playing the first three quaver beats (the first ‘3’ in the time signature), then take a short pause. Now continue with the two quaver portion (the ‘2’ in the time signature), now another  pause. Then finally the last three quavers in the bar (last ‘3’).  It I. s  easier to understand a complicated pattern when broken up completely. This will take time, but eventually the 3+2+3 will be easily grasped, and joining bars or groups of bars will be relatively straight forward.

Chordal progressions such as those in bar 51-54 need flexibility technically. The 3+2+3 pattern provides the perfect opportunity to split the bar. Play the first three quaver group, immediately followed by the duplet (quaver) group, then a slight pause (to ‘rest’ the hand), before playing the last group of quavers. Giving the wrist a ‘rest’ in between the chords, allows for release of any tension and encourages a slight ‘push’ on the sixth beat of the bar, adding to the rhythmic energy and momentum. All chordal sections can be broken down in this way.

The other issue which needs addressing is moving at speed from one ‘section’ to another. Dance No. 4 has a swift tempo, with many figurations moving from one place on the keyboard to another quickly, and this combined with the fact that the dynamics sometimes change just as rapidly, mean a free arm and body are needed for accuracy. Try taking two bars such as this (bars 8 and 9);

Dance Bartok Example 2

And start by working hands separately. Leaps or jumps can be surmounted by slow, deliberate work. Play the last beat of bar 8 going to the first beat of bar 9, over the jump,  carefully calculating the movement needed by each hand to land accurately in the middle of the note with correct fingering each time.  Play the last chord of the left hand, in bar 8 (A, C sharp and E), then take your take time when finding the low E in the next bar. Once found, don’t play it, just sit on it and survey the movement needed for the jump. Do this slowly, taking your time. Once you’ve done this a few times accurately, you can go ahead and play the notes. Do this with the right hand too and then slowly put hands together, gradually building confidence with each jump before increasing the speed.

Another useful tool is to practice going too far i.e. one octave higher or lower than necessary (in this case, jumping in the left hand of bar  to bottom E, just below low F). Leaping much faster than actually needed, can also work well. When the speed is slowed down to the actual or original tempo, the jump can seem easy. Also working with accents and different touches  (especially important for changing dynamics) can reinforce the accuracy of the jump. Preparing the body mentally and physically for any jump is important, and this is made much easier when the upper body is loose and relaxed. Build a feeling of relaxation (or physical freedom) into jumps, so that at the crucial moment your body resists the urge to ‘lock-up’ and your arm feels light and free during the leap. Leaps are easier to judge if they are memorised.

These tips are just to help you get started. There are so many ways to work at a piece such as this. Here’s a great recording of Bartók playing all six dances. The fourth can be heard at 4 minutes 30 seconds.

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More Daily Practice Reminders…

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A few weeks ago I published a post offering basic practice tips designed to serve as reminders at daily practice sessions (or whenever you sit down at the piano to work). The post proved so popular that I’ve been asked for a few more! So here they are. My tips are certainly not finite, but they might provide food for thought during practice sessions (scroll to the bottom of this post for a downloadable PDF of the practice ideas mentioned in both posts).

Once you have implemented my previous 8 Daily Practice Reminders, here are 8 further ideas , you may (or may not!) like to include in your sessions:

1. Develop a practice schedule. It can be very useful to schedule your sessions, compartmentalizing your time. Whether you want to practice for 30 minutes or 2 hours, be sure to allocate your time wisely. Decide what you want to achieve. If you stick to a plan, so much more will be accomplished, rather than just sitting down at the instrument and letting your mind and fingers wander. Draw up a practice chart and tick off your goals as you surmount them, daily or weekly.

2. Always warm-up. This cannot be underestimated. Rather like an athlete, playing the piano is an essentially physical pursuit (of course it’s mental too!), but you wouldn’t necessarily go for a run without doing some stretches (or similar), so it’s best to do the same on the piano. Warming up is a personal issue, but a few ideas might include playing scales, or Hanon Exercises very slowly, allowing your fingers and arm weight to really sink into the keys. You may prefer to use other repertoire, but essentially keep your warm up patterns slow and deliberate so that your muscles have had a chance to get used to moving sufficiently before practice commences.

3. Lower your shoulders. Most of us have a tendency to raise our shoulders when playing, especially when figurations become more complex (counterpoint, big chords, double octave passage work etc.). Try to combat this issue by checking your shoulders at certain intervals during practice time (if you forget then chances are your shoulders will feel sore and strained eventually). Make sure they are relaxed (i.e. down in their natural position!) at all times and your upper body feels free. Tense wrists are another issue, and can also be addressed in this way. A relaxed body position will become a good habit over time, if constantly reminded.

4. Watch the sustaining pedal. Another habit which pervades piano playing is the constant use of the sustaining (right) pedal. We have a tendency to use it at every opportunity without really thinking about our actions. The sustaining pedal is a wonderful addition to the piano sound, but used all the time, it merely masks what we are trying to do with our fingers. It also encourages lazy fingers. If possible, try to put the right foot away for a while and listen to the sound and clarity produced by your fingers alone. The pedal can be added for extra timbre later.

5.  Remember the pulse and rhythm. So much time and effort is spent finding the right notes and working at continuity generally, that tempo is sometimes side-stepped. One idea is to concentrate on rhythm first. Many don’t like working with the metronome, but it can prove very useful. Try to implement when practising. It takes a while to acclimatize to a regular pulse, but it is well worth the effort. Once  you develop a feel for ‘sitting’ on the mechanical pulse instigated by the metronome, turn it off and find your own reliable method for time keeping. Using the metronome for a few months will have a positive effect on your ability to keep time.

6. Fingering. It will make or break your performance. If you are a beginner, your teacher will probably write the fingering (which fingers to use on which notes) in your score, but if you are more advanced you must become accustomed to writing it in yourself. Get used to the shape of your hand (how you write your fingering will depend on the size and shape of your hand), and don’t take any chances. Write it all in the score; this will prompt you every time you practice so you will use the correct fingers at every session. This will become a good habit promoting smooth fluent playing.

7. Bar by bar practice. Discipline yourself to work in small sections rather than continually playing a piece through. Playing through (whilst important), will not be advantageous after a while, but working assiduously in small sections, breaking a piece down and working on it all (as well as practising the challenging passages!), will gradually improve your playing consistently.

8. Always remember the music! Dynamics, phrase marks, expression marks; these will help to shape a musically considered account. Interpretation (how you play a piece), is the essential ingredient which will enable your performance to stand out. Start by asking how a particular piece makes you feel; why you want to play it. Is it a happy piece? Is it sad? Reflective? Atmospheric? Children may wish to draw pictures describing a piece. We become engrossed in technical challenges and sometimes forget the creative, artistic side of music making.

I hope these reminders are beneficial. Some are more obvious than others, but it’s easy to forget them all when practising. A few readers have requested a downloadable PDF version of these daily reminders for use either in their teaching studios or to give to students, so I have attached a printable list (complied from both posts) and I hope you find it useful (just click on the link below).

15 Daily Practice Reminders

Image: © Melanie Spanswick
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EPTA UK Piano Teachers’ Course

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The EPTA UK Piano Teachers’ Course is now in its sixth year and is the only one of its kind in the UK. A course like this is crucial for pianists and piano teachers, and should ideally be a mandatory component of any music conservatoire or university music graduate’s training. The majority of music graduates and music professionals teach at some point in their careers, and it’s rather baffling that there’s so little support in terms of courses, degrees or diplomas to prepare young musicians fully here in the UK. The ABRSM (Associated Board of The Royal Schools of Music) and Trinity College Examinations do offer teaching diplomas as part of their diploma programmes, but whilst useful, these don’t encourage much hands on experience or any feedback from experienced teachers (apart from a mark form!), which is quite necessary.

This is not the case in the US and many European countries, which all have various degrees specializing in piano pedagogy, offered at both music conservatoires and universities. Perhaps this is a subject to be fully explored at more UK institutions? Good teaching is the foundation for good piano playing, therefore this a skill to be honed and worked at, and is, in many ways, a separate entity from a performance degree.

The EPTA course has established itself as “The UK’s leading professional development course solely for piano teachers”. It continues to equip piano teachers with the full range of professional skills they need for a successful career, together with the opportunity to connect with an inspiring and informative network of pianists. It is a part-time course, designed to suit those with other commitments, lasting one academic year from October through to June. The 2014-15 course will consist of two long residential weekends, four further Sundays and independent study spread throughout the year.

The course consists of two modules:

  • Module A: Practical Piano Teaching  – starting in October 2014
  • Module B: Pianism and the Piano Teacher – starting in April 2015

And leads to The Certificate of the Piano Teachers’ Course (Cert PTC) Qualification.

With its breadth and depth of pedagogy, practical application and relevant written assignments; and with the support and guidance of the PTC tutors, the course also provides excellent grounding and preparation for those taking Piano Teaching Diplomas.
If you are interested in PTC 2015-16, there are five Open Days available in spring 2015, offering the opportunity to attend a day during the 2014-15 course. To observe the sessions, take a look around the venue – and talk to the tutors and students.

The tutors guiding students are all highly experienced in their fields and will no doubt, instigate copious ideas for solid teaching skills. Course director is Lucinda Mackworth-Young and principal tutors include Dr. Sally Cathcart, Graham Fitch, Heli Ignatius-Fleet, Roshan Magub and Ilga Pitkevica. There are also many guest tutors too.

The course has been held at the specialist music school, The Purcell School in Hertfordshire since 2008, which benefits from outstanding musical facilities.

The minimum course requirements are as follows; students must be at least 18 years of age, and have:

  • Passed Grade 8 piano, or higher
  • At least one piano pupil for the duration of the course
  • Word processing (IT) skills and email access
  • The commitment to attend all course dates, as it is specifically participatory. It is not available on-line.
  • If you would like to know more about this course, or book a place for October (there are just a few spaces left) then you can find out much more here.
  • To find out more about EPTA UK,  which is a superb and essential organisation for pianists and piano teachers, click on the website link below.

www.epta-uk.org

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Some thoughts on ‘practising’ during piano lessons

There are so many different ways of constructing a piano lesson, and of course, every teacher has their own approach or method. It will also depend on the student. Are they preparing for an exam? Are they working on improving their technique? Perhaps taking a theory exam? Or just starting to learn? There can be many elements to tackle in one lesson too, and this alone can be challenging for any teacher. What do they focus on first?

It’s interesting just how many teachers prefer to avoid teaching beginners, but surely a good teacher should be able to tackle every level of development and the first stages are regarded by many as the most crucial. Mistakes at the beginning can lead to all kinds of bad habits. Habits that can be hard to eradicate at later stages. The majority of my students are fairly advanced, however, I do teach a few beginners because this elementary stage serves as a useful reminder, providing helpful insights into the learning process, and as teachers we never stop learning.

Beyond the scales, sight-reading, studies and pieces most usually worked on during lessons, is the concept of understanding completely what a teacher implies. How this is reinforced can make the difference between a week of constructive practice or a week of misunderstanding. Working at issues until the proverbial penny drops can be a tireless exercise, but for the student, there is no doubt this is the only way to achieve real progress. Showing or instructing students to do something is quite separate from actually sitting there with them until they can do it with ease. In some cases it can be favourable to work through an entire piece, ‘practising’ with a pupil, but this can take lots of time!

It’s really akin to ‘learning to practice’ during the lesson. I know some will feel this to be a time waster, and certainly if lesson time is at a premium then only a small amount of this type of work can be done. For some students though, it can form a crucial part of the lesson, irrespective of their level. Whether working on a whole piece, page of music or just a few bars, once pupils actually see what is necessary in order to master certain sections of a piece they then have a much greater chance of working through the designated piece alone and consequently getting it right. Structured work such as this can really improve a pupil’s playing too. If technical difficulties can be completely surmounted during the lesson, this can bestow real confidence and motivation.

It’s  often necessary to break a piano piece down totally; write in all the fingering, work out a suitable method for keeping time (and staying in time), playing extremely slowly hands separately whilst employing a free hand/wrist/arm action, and deciding on phrasing and the use of sound, all before playing hands together (I’ve written about breaking a work into sections several times on this blog). Technique is generally easier to grasp if practised hands separately to start with, and then worked at bar by bar. This approach requires a very vigilant teacher, one who is not afraid to reinforce detailed work during each lesson, constantly refocusing a pupil’s attention and encouraging them to try again and keep working on passages many times, whilst always illustrating, demonstrating and keeping the student’s interest in order to obtain the desired outcome. After a reasonably short time, pupil’s normally get the feeling for what’s required for success in a particular passage, whether musically of technically. Discipline is crucial as it’s too easy to gloss over difficulties, never really conquering tricky passages, therefore giving the dreaded ‘approximate’ rendition.

The difference practising in a lesson can make to a student is tremendous; it actually enables them to envisage mastering a piece relatively easily. If they can learn via a tried and tested method during the lesson, then the chances are it will be easy to apply this to the rest of the piece. It’s always a better plan to make sure a student has thoroughly assimilated what has been discussed in the lesson, but if this is not worked at meticulously during the lesson time, the discussion will have been in vain.  Students do need to work through piano pieces methodically, and for some, providing a ‘plan of action’ is the only way, otherwise progress is not only slow but also very haphazard, frustrating and upsetting; it’s possible to really make a difference to technical and musical grasp by applying a very detailed approach to practising during lesson time.

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Interview on the Jack Price Radio Show

I was delighted to be invited to chat recently to American musician, promoter and presenter Jack Price. Jack presents his own radio show, where he interviews a plethora of guests related to the Classical music industry. The show is broadcast in the US and various other parts of the world, and I spoke to Jack via phone from my home. This has to be the most convenient radio interview ever! It was also great fun. We spoke about my book, So You Want To Play The Piano? and piano teaching in all its guises.  Jack was a concert pianist for many years and so we enjoyed discussing different aspects of piano teaching and piano study.  You can view Jack’s copious guests and website here and listen to my interview here.

 

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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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