Lucy Parham in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

This is my Fourth interview in the Classical Conversations Series and today pianist Lucy Parham is in the spotlight.

Lucy won the piano class of the 1984 BBC TV Young Musician competition. She made her debut at the Royal Festival Hall aged just 16 and has appeared regularly at all the major venues around the UK and abroad. She has collaborated with mny conductors including Barry Wordsworth, Sir Charles Groves, Bryden Thompson, Jane Glover, En Shao, Richard Hickox, Antoni Wit, Owain Arwel Hughes, Yoav Talmi, Veronika Dudarova, Martyn Brabbins, Sian Edwards, John Wilson and Jean-Claude Cassadesus.

Orchestral appearances include the London Philharmonic, Philharmonia, Royal Philharmonic, BBC Philharmonic, RTE, Ulster, BBC Concert, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, London Mozart Players, City of London Sinfonia, Hallé and Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and abroad with the Russian State Symphony Orchestra at the Tchaikovsky Hall and Great Hall in Moscow, Bergen Philharmonic, L’Orchestre National de Lille, L’Orchestre Rencontres Suisse, and on three tours with the Sofia Philharmonic and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Festival appearances include, in the UK, Brighton, City of London, Leeds Castle, Rye, Bury St Edmunds, Three Choirs, Newbury, Victor Hugo, Guernsey, Canterbury, Cambridge, Winchester, Harrogate, BBC Proms, Welsh and Scottish Proms, Chelsea, Cardiff, North Norfolk and Oxford, and abroad, Bergen, Istanbul and Mexico City.

In recent years, Lucy has established herself as a leading interpreter of the works of Robert Schumann and of his wife Clara. Lucy’s recording of both Robert’s and Clara’s piano concertos (with the BBC Concert Orchestra and Barry Wordsworth on Sanctuary Classics) was named Critics’ Choice of the Year by BBC Music Magazine. Among her other recordings are concertos by Ravel, Franck and Fauré (with the RPO for RPO Records), Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (with both the BBC Concert Orchestra for BBC Worldwide and the RPO for EMI Gold), a solo Chopin CD for ABM, the album ’The Romantic Piano’ for Sanctuary Classics and an acclaimed solo Schumann CD on ASV.

In 2002 Lucy  premierd Beloved Clara at the Wigmore Hall’s Masters Series which was  her first concert of words and music. Beloved Clara traces the relationship between Robert and Clara Schumann and has since been performed around the UK and in Los Angeles (where it was recorded for broadcast on National Public Radio) and at the Bergen and Victor Hugo International Festivals.  Critical acclaim for the ASV’s CD release of Beloved Clara, featuring actors Joanna David and Martin Jarvis, has included selection as CD of the Week by The Sunday Times, Guardian and Observer.

Lucy has since introduced similar themed evenings of Liszt, Chopin and Debussy and has worked with many celebrated actors including Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson, Harriet Walter, Brendan Coyle, Rosamund Pike, Michael Maloney, Gabrielle Drake, Edward Fox, Henry Goodman, Greg Wise, Samuel West, Alex Jennings, Timothy West and Charles Dance.

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

MELANIE SPANSWICK: British concert pianist Lucy Parham came to the public’s attention in 1984 when she won the piano class of the BBC Young Musician of the Year. And she’s gone on to develop a very impressive career playing with all the major orchestras and conductors. And she has a very busy schedule so I’m delighted that she has taken the time today here at the Fazioli Room at Jacques Samuel Pianos for my Classical Conversations. Welcome, Lucy.

LUCY PARHAM: Thank you.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: How wonderful to talk to you.

LUCY PARHAM: Isn’t it is wonderful here? Beautiful.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Beautiful, isn’t it? I’d like to start by talking about your musical education and how you started playing piano. Why did you start? What was the catalyst? How old were you?

LUCY PARHAM: Well, I was six when I started playing the piano and my mum was a good and keen amateur pianist, and she used to play at night while we’d sleep. I remember the sound of Chopin nocturnes, you know, wafting up through the house from downstairs. We always had music on in our house, you know, there were no professional musicians, but there was always music on. So I suppose I sort of grew up with it like most middle class kids, you know. Piano lessons, and…I seemed to have some sort of aptitude for it, so I kept going.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Quite an inspiration.


MELANIE SPANSWICK: And what about the teachers? Which teacher do you think is probably the most influential on your musical development, would you say?

LUCY PARHAM: I think there is no doubt about that. Joan Havil. I mean, she is an extraordinary teacher and she has many wonderful students but…


LUCY PARHAM:  …She put hours and hours of her time to me, you know from the age of sixteen to twenty-four. I’d never meet anyone like her before.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  And you went to her at sixteen?

LUCY PARHAM:  I went to her at sixteen.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Right. What about before that?

LUCY PARHAM:  Before that, I was having lessons at The Royal Academy of Music, with a teacher called Jean Anderson, and before that I was learning locally in my hometown of Godalming. And so, there was a kind of progression as there, you know, always is. And then I found Joan when I was 16, and she had a great belief in me and I think that any child, when you meet someone that has a belief in you and says, “You can really do this”…


LUCY PARHAM:  …Then you want to work. And I remember going, I was at a school in Petersfield and I used to commute up to her house in Ealing. Bunked off school for the whole day! I used to love it. Part of the excitement was being on the train on my own and going out to Ealing. All my friends were very jealous. She’d talk for hours beforehand and she’d give me hours and hours of help. It was really a happy time. I practiced; I don’t know if I’ve ever practiced that hard actually since… I mean…

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  I can imagine. When you find someone so inspirational, you just work and work.

LUCY PARHAM:  I was a driven person. I was up at five in the morning for practice and up late at night. I was doing my A-Levels in one year, which was quite tight deadline.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  It was a lot to do.

LUCY PARHAM: So, it was a lot to do. But I knew what I wanted to do, so you do it don’t you.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: That’s right. So, how about developing your technique, did you learn the difficulties in each piece or did you practice lots of Czerny’s, Hanon’s? Were you a study person?

LUCY PARHAM: You know, technique is quite a big issue for me because I think I didn’t do nearly enough of it when I was young. And I really regret that I was not pushed much harder and it is something that I do with all my pupils. You know they have to do it. From the age of 10 they do Brahms Exercises. No one really gave me technique. So, there I was. 16, with a musical voice, but no ability to convey it. I didn’t have the tools to do it.


LUCY PARHAM: And it’s quite at that age for you to go back and start again; it’s a bit depressing. But when I went to Joan she made a lot of technical exercises out of difficult bits of concertos. Octaves of this, thirds in that. She made me do all the double thirds scales and studies. So I really worked hard at it. But by that age, your fingers are fairly fully formed, so it’s difficult. And it’s something I wish I could run around the keyboard more naturally. I had to work really hard at it.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: But, however, you still won the piano class of the BBC Young Musician of the Year.

LUCY PARHAM: I did, it was a miracle!

MELANIE SPANSWICK: [Laughs] And, how did you think this changed, shaped your career? It must have been quite an important moment in your career development.

LUCY PARHAM: I think it was because I really never imagined that I would win that, and it was very exciting. I mean I only played one concerto, and a couple recital pieces. Then suddenly, you know people, there was a lot of wonderful amateur orchestras and youth orchestras asking me, can you play the Grieg? Can you play the Tchaikovsky? and so, I was really working hard to learn this at high speed and I am not a fast learner. It was a really good learning curve.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes, it was a lot of opportunities.

LUCY PARHAM:  Really lots of opportunities. And it was, I mean I work a lot now with actors, and it’s the equivalent of actors doing rep. Which we don’t really have or they don’t really have now. It’s a chance to try out these pieces, learn them, and do them somewhere where the pressure is not as great. Having said that my very first performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto was at the Royal Festival Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Which is a huge amount of pressure. Not even able to have one run through. You have to take what life throws at you, I probably wouldn’t do it now but when you’re young you are fearless, I was never fearless, but when you’re 17 or 18, you don’t think about the consequences, you’re just thrilled to have the opportunity. You just do it!

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  So, do you feel then that competitions can still be establish a concert pianist? Do you feel that important now or are they obsolete? Have we moved on?

LUCY PARHAM:  It’s really a difficult question isn’t it, because for some people, you know, I’ve sat on juries for competitions. commentary for Leeds and things…and I remember all six pianists from both groups–that’s twelve pianists–and only one of them do I ever hear of now. When I was growing up, if you did well at this competition, you were guaranteed an international career. I’m not saying this against Leeds but, all competitions right now are slightly diluted because there are so many of them. I think it has changed. And it is because we’re living in more of a more media age. When I was a young doing Young Musician of the Year, there were only four channels. Now, you can watch everything on television. So it’s become more diluted. Having said that, I really do think that people can make a career from competitions. For many people, that’s the only chance they’re going to get to play for promoters, to be heard by people…I think there’s a big anti-competition lobby. With so many people studying music at music college, how else are people going to get a chance to be heard?

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Competitions have established musicians like Daniil Trifinov.

LUCY PARHAM: Yes they have, absolutely. Although, I suppose many people would argue that he would’ve been established, anyway. A competition…it’s something to work for, it’s an aim, it’s an aim that in itself to get pieces ready to play and to practice. All of this is good. You always need something to work for afterwards. The competition should not be the be all or end-all or deadline.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Now, changing the subject wildly, you’ve got a special connection to the music of Robert Schumann. What was it the first attracted you to his music and what do you particularly enjoy playing? Which pieces?

LUCY PARHAM: Since I was a small child, I just always loved his music. I heard some quite weird pieces of his music when I was small you know. I remember hearing some of his symphonies. I can’t really tell you, all that I can say is I feel like I understand his voice. I feel something within me that I understand what he is trying to say. He could be listening to me playing from above and thinking, “She hasn’t got it at all.” So I don’t know. All I can say is I understand his language. And, it is a very fragile language. It is also very tender, impassioned, some says it is crazy. I am not a crazy person, so I find the crazy element a little harder. It’s hard to put it out in a concert hall. But it is very personal. I feel like I understand his spirit somewhere deep within me, who knows.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: And then you went on to explore his wife, Clara Schumann.


MELANIE SPANSWICK: I think you have ecorded all of her piano works?

LUCY PARHAM:  No, gosh! No. I’ve recorded a some of them.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: What made you explore this repertoire?

LUCY PARHAM:  Well, I think it was really rather, when I started playing Clara to be honest, not a lot of people were playing Clara. A lot more people play her now. There’s not a lot of solo piano music but there are some beautiful short pieces. She wrote a fantastically difficult piano concerto when she was fourteen. I did play it at the Festival Hall this year. It’s a very exciting piece, I recorded it but I never played it in public before recently, and with an all-female orchestra.


LUCY PARHAM:  So, it was fun. It was Women of the World International Day, it was a lot of fun.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  I love that concept. Very, yes.

LUCY PARHAM: It was the fun thing to do. The concerto itself, it’s not a great piece. She wrote it when she was 14.  It is fantastically difficult and it is just full of so much promise. But, you can’t say it’s a great piece. It is underpar. It’s an extraordinary piece for a 14 year-old or any age. The piano trio is a masterpiece and so are many of the songs. She was an extraordinary woman and more famous than Robert in her lifetime.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  I’d like to talk to you about your musical evenings of words and music together. I absolutely love this concept. And it should be put on more often. So, how did you decide this concept? How did it come about? What is the inspiration behind it?

LUCY PARHAM:  Well, there was a movement in the 90’s that people would chat about their concerts. We were all encouraged to talk about the pieces we would play. And I enjoyed doing that. So I would play a piece of Schumann and then chat about it and the story behind it. So, I would tell the story of the letters they wrote to one another (Clara and Robert). People would come up afterwards and say, “Oh that’s really beautiful. It really made the difference hearing the context in which that piece was written.” And that started the idea. At the time, I was reading off a printed piece of paper and not very well. And then I thought, “I wonder if this is a way of making more of the letters, and sort of weaving them into the music.” And that’s how really it started.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  So, do you have an actor in mind when you put programme together? Or does the programme come first and then you see who’s available? Who’s suitable?

LUCY PARHAM:  That’s very much it. I only have four of these evenings. One of them, the Debussy evening, which is the most recent, actually only has one actor, a male. The others have an actor and actress. But the Debussy one just has one actor. I must say that Brendan Cole and Dominic West both of whom do a lot of my shows along with Alex Jennings, all do a lot. I’d watched the television Show Downtown Abbey and there was something about Brendan Cole, one of the actors who looked the part. There was something about him. He’d be perfect. So that kind of thing has happened. And when, you know, Sam West, he gets Chopin. The fragile, nerdy, angsty part of Chopin. And Harriet Walter to me, is very much George Sands. Often, an actor will look nothing like that person, but is too old to be them or too young, but reads the part with so much life and passion that you completely forget that he’s not composer. You’ll feel like you are with the composer.  I think it’s like any talking book. So, you know, if the voice is good, and they can portray you the words, it works.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  You started out with “Beloved Clara.” It explores the relationship between Clara and Robert. How did you decide what to play? Must be quite difficult because there’s such a huge amount of music, how did you decide what to leave out?

LUCY PARHAM:  Yes, and the interesting thing about this is that you could write all this again and have different music to go along with it. I feel the tone of the letter is quite impassioned and imploring letter. It’s not really hard to find a piece that goes with that. You know I have Robert, when he dies, Clara and Brahms is standing at his graveside and they’re never going to see him again. And she’s saying, you know, “I can’t believe I lost you.” And I play Traumeri then and it seems a little cheesy but actually it works in that setting and the audience feels the simplicity of the loss. And I change the pieces too.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Do you keep changing the pieces or do you keep a set format?

LUCY PARHAM:  No, I mean, they do change. First of all, I get fed up with playing the same pieces all the time. Secondly, you need to mix up, change the letters. Change the text, the actor might say ‘why don’t we put this here or put that there?’ And then we are all thinking of different ways to move it around and keep it fresh. So now, they are all constantly involving. Sometimes an actor will bring in a new letter and say, “Have you seen this?” “No, I have never seen that one. That’s fantastic!”. “But let’s put it there!” So we move it up, at least to keep it fresh really.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: You’ve gone on to develop a Chopin, Liszt programme and the Debussy one is the latest? Reverie? What can we look forward to?

LUCY PARHAM: The Debussy one is the latest. I’m looking forward to being onstage with Dominic West at the end of the December. Poor me! This is the Wigmore Hall concert coming up. And that’s quite a challenging venue for “The Spoken Word.” Actors, although musicians find it the greatest performance hall, but, because it’s a the long and narrow hall rather than more in the round, it is a bit difficult. Because of the acoustic they have to speak a little bit slower and it must be worked out well. It is challenging for the voice part.


LUCY PARHAM:  It works well and it is the right kind of audience size. You don’t want to a bigger audience size because the intimacy gets lost.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.  So, will you be playing all the famous pieces or?

LUCY PARHAM: I will be playing some of famous pieces and some of the less known pieces. And but, I mean, I think, if you came to an evening like this and you didn’t know anything about Debussy…I think most people in their lifetime have heard Clair De Lune. So I’ll play that and then some of his popular pieces like the Golliwog’s Cake Walk and Girl with the Flaxen Hair, on the flip side I play all of Estampes, L’isle joyeuse, Etudes, Poissons d’or, so there’s a real mixture of virtuosic, it does cover his range.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Where have you got coming up in 2013? Recordings? Concerts?

LUCY PARHAM:  And, actually, I have some very exciting things coming up in 2013. But because they are not 100% confirmed, I actually can’t talk of them now because…then you have to kill me. So watch this space. Plus more of the same, we are doing lots of festivals and things next year with all these shows.. I’m touring with Brendan Cole and hopefully we are possibly going to Australia if it works out, to play in the Opera House, if there’s time in his schedule. The invitation is there so it’s very exciting so let’s see about that. So watch this space.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Right. [Both laughs] What does playing the piano mean to you?

LUCY PARHAM: You know, I just can’t…not so much playing the piano, but, I cannot imagine my life without music and also, imagine my life without being surrounded by this wonderful music. So, it is my whole life. I can’t really…I can’t really imagine my life without it.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Thank you so much for joining me today, Lucy.

LUCY PARHAM: Thank you.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Can't Play Won't Play says:

    A very enjoyable and enthralling little chat that was over too soon. Can’t wait for Noriko! However something that Lucy touched upon a couple of mins into the conversation was her implication of going to piano lessons being a ‘middle class’ thing. Shouldn’t we attempt to be breaking down class barriers in music and proudly declaring that classical music is for all social classes and groups?? One of my favourite pianists of the moment is one Paul Lewis, no musical background, Scouser, working class, mum a housing officer, father a docker. Aside from his musical prowess, it is the fact he isn’t middle class that tend to make me more of a fan of his as it has done with ,say Venus and Serena Williams in the world of sport . Paul’s studio is close to you Mel, perhaps you could do an interview with him soon as his Beethoven piano concertos album is sheer joy to listen to!!

    1. Hopefully I will interview Paul at some point.

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