Leon McCawley in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

This is the fifth interview in my Classical Conversations Series and today British concert pianist Leon McCawley is in the spotlight.

Leon studied at Chetham’s School of Music with Heather Slade-Lipkin, the Curtis Institute of Music with Eleanor Sokoloff and also worked with Nina Milkina in London. He won First Prize in the International Beethoven Piano Competition and Second Prize in the  Leeds International Piano Competition in 1993. His recordings have received many accolades including two ‘Editor’s Choice’ awards in Gramophone and a Diapason d’Or for his set of The Complete Mozart Piano Sonatas.

Leon has given many highly acclaimed recitals in notable venues around the world including the Wigmore Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Berlin Philharmonie, Prague Rudolfinum, Vienna Musikverein, Lincoln Center and Kumho Recital Hall. He can be frequently heard on BBC Radio 3 both in performance and interview, most recently Live from the Wigmore Hall and on The Genius of Mozart. In April 2011 he performed the Complete Mozart Piano Sonatas over one weekend at King’s Place, London.

Leon performs regularly with many British orchestras including the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony, Hallé, Northern Sinfonia and Philharmonia Orchestras. He made his fifth appearance at BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in July 2009 performing Finzi’s Grand Fantasia and Toccata with BBC Philharmonic and Vassily Sinaisky.

Further afield, Leon has made concerto appearances with, amongst others, Adelaide Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony, Dallas Symphony, Malaysian Philharmonic, Minnesota Orchestra, Netherlands Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra and Vienna Symphony and worked with conductors such as Mark Elder, Daniele Gatti, Paavo Järvi, Andrew Litton, Kurt Masur, Gianandrea Noseda, Sakari Oramo and Simon Rattle.

Leon is professor of piano at the Royal College of Music in London.

And for those who prefer to read, here is the transcript:

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   British concert pianist, Leon McCawley, won first prize at the International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna in 1993 and second prize at the International Leeds Piano Competition and since then, has developed a very impressive career playing all around the world with all the major orchestras and conductors. So, I am delighted that he’s taken time today to join me here at the Royal College of Music for a classical conversation. Welcome, Leon.

LEON MCCAWLEY:  Thank you, Melanie. Great to be with you today.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Lovely to be talking to you. I’m going to start by asking you all about your musical education. So, how did you start playing the piano, why did you start and did you come from a musical family?

LEON MCCAWLEY: I don’t come from a musical family but my parents had the good sense to purchase a piano for all of us. I have three sisters so we all learned growing up but I think really the first musical influence came from my local piano teacher and she noticed my talent. [Melanie interjects, “Yes”] But then realized that I needed to go to a specialist music school because she noticed that she was probably limited or her teaching and her capacity was. And also, I come from a small village in Cheshire called Croft and I was very influenced by education there at my local primary school. We had lots of music going on. I played the recorder and also a bit of guitar, I remember. And, it was through that experience. I played the organ for the local church, for all our carol concerts and nativity plays. It was very good practice for the future. I look back and think this was probably…I talk a lot about my education at the Chetham’s School of Music and the Royal Northern College where I went later on, but right from the word go, that sort of experience, it wasn’t on any high level but it gave me, in a way, that was my first sort of performing experience, even though it was very different compared to what I do now. Also, singing in choir and all those small things. Nowadays, in primary schools, there isn’t much music available for young children and my little school in the local village, there was so much going on and my parents didn’t have any knowledge about where this talented young son, how he would develop but they took advice from the local teacher and she then said to them that Leon must go to a better school. As luck would have it, we lived near Manchester and there were lots of possibilities there to go to further my education, the Junior Royal Northern and the Chethams School of Music.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes. So which teacher do you think really developed you as a pianist? Probably the best or who you felt was the most inspirational teacher?

LEON MCCAWLEY:  Yes.. From that, from going on to the Junior Royal Northern I worked with Heather Slade-Lipkin, who really built all the foundations for my future as a concert pianist; all the building blocks, all the technique and tone production, how to memorise, how to practice. We started off in a very methodical way because the first five years, from the age of five to ten, I was playing the piano purely for enjoyment. [Melanie interjects. “Right”] I was sight-reading whatever music was in the house, whether it be a Simon and Garfunkel Album, listening to any music that was on the radio at that time so this was the first time where I actually learned how to practice. My technique was dreadful when I was the age of ten and I got in, I think, purely on my musical ability. It was really bad. I had very flat fingers. I wasn’t curling my fingers properly. My posture was terrible. So Heather Slade-Lipkin was I think a little bit nervous about taking me on because she thought there’s going to be a lot of work ahead but I have a determined streak with me, it’s with my father, I think. He’s quite determined and I was really keen to take on, to take a plunge and work hard. It involved a lot of toing and froing to Manchester and my parents were heavily involved. Heather always wanted one of my parents to be present for lessons and then I went home to check my technique, that my fingers weren’t wobbling especially the third and fourth fingers. Looking back it was all quite didactic I am so glad that I did that. It ended in lots of tears. At the end of each lesson, I would be crying my eyes out because ‘I can’t do this, mum. I can’t play. It’s so difficult. I can’t curl my fingers’…It took many years. I’d say a good many years probably two years from the age of ten to twelve that I developed quite quickly from that initial struggle.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   So how did you develop your technique? Did you practice a lot of studies or how did you develop it?

LEON MCCAWLEY:  The first sets of exercises I played when I was ten and I couldn’t play any pieces when I started off at the Royal Northern and with the Oscar Beringer Exercises are you familiar with those?

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes, I didn’t do those but I know of them.

LEON MCCAWLEY: I didn’t look at Hanon and I really didn’t play that many scales but of course I only learned how to play scales only by the age of ten when I learned to play all these properly and to make sure that the thumb was coming underneath and the hand was straight and the hand positions and all those sorts of things but Beringer certainly helped to strengthen my finger technique but as you know technique isn’t all about exercises. [Melanie interjects, “No, no, no”] It’s about musical development so through learning the core repertoire, starting off with Bach Preludes and Fugues. He’s one of our greatest educators of people in music, isn’t he? So spending a lot of time learning Bach and classical repertoire, remembering in my notebook that Heather gave me, she first of all, one of the lessons she drew a picture of the Parthenon to…just to describe to me and try to explain that music had a structure like the architecture of the building.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Very good idea.

LEON MCCAWLEY: It’s a very good idea for a young boy to picture something as well as instead of looking at the notes to try to understand the form of music so for example the Sonata form. So by the age of ten/eleven, I was really learning how to think about the structure in music and how to develop that so that’s all part of technique and also the visual element of music too. You try to use your imagination more when you play.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: I think that’s important.

LEON MCCAWLEY:  Yeah and thinking about colours to…one piece Heather would say ‘imagine purple colour’ [laughs]

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   It’s stuck in your mind then. [laughs]

LEON MCCAWLEY:  Yes. I remember those things quite vividly so all that has developed my technique and then through performances, through the school, the opportunities of the school, you really helped to bring me the up to a high level well on the same level as the really talented students at Chethams because I was a little bit behind at the age of ten, eleven. It may seem that that is very young but…

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   I was going say that it was very young to be behind. [laughs] When you won the competitions I said about       the Beethoven Competition and the Leeds, how did this, must’ve been a huge impact on your career, how did things change after that, do you think?

LEON MCCAWLEY:  Oh, dramatically. I’d already succeeded in the Young Musician of the Year, I won at piano section when I was sixteen. That certainly gave me more opportunities to perform in public. [Melanie interjects, “Right”] but then I went and studied in America at the Curtis Institute of Music and I was then ready to go up to another level of my playing there and entered the competition in the middle of my bachelor degree, probably again a little bit early but I was so keen to just to perform really and have more concerts. That was the main reason for entering these competitions. It wasn’t I want to win this, I want to do well in this just I want to play. I want to play in public and that was my, really my only way of performing. [Melanie interjects, “Yes, yes”] but it certainly, the Leeds, I suppose, more than the Beethoven, launched my career in this country for sure, I wouldn’t have a career if it weren’t for the Leeds Competition. It’s such a prestigious competition and there are so many pianists over the years, it’s quite consistent over the years. [Melanie interjects, “We.”]  The competition has gone to do well not necessarily the winners. I mean, I didn’t win the competition, I came second but I am enormously grateful for that opportunity      .

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   I remember your performance, it was fabulous.

LEON MCCAWLEY:  Oh. Thank you. The Beethoven Competition I played, I competed there earlier that year in May and that was a very special experience to get to the final. I didn’t expect to get to the final for both competitions.  I went in to the competition purely for the experience so I’m very fortunate to get through and do well but the prize there was Bösendorfer concert ground. [Melanie interjects, “Wow”] It was a great prize. It’s still there and I practice on that at home. It’s a real joy to have.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  You teach here at the Royal College of Music so do you advise your students to do competitions? Do you still feel they’re very important even today because we have a lot more competitions around now, I think, than say twenty or thirty years ago?

LEON MCCAWLEY: Yes and I think the way a career develops has certainly changed as a result of programmes like the X-factor. [laughs] Audiences and musicians themselves, I think they feel a career can be made overnight and that is highly unlikely. Only a very small percentage, you have to have gone through the hard graft of studying. [Melanie interjects, “Yes.”] I am still studying as a musician. I am still learning. Musicians, some of them, feel that once you’ve succeeded in a competition, that’s the end. You have attained the great height of music but not at all, it’s only the beginning and I say to my students, some of them are very keen on entering competitions for the reasons of, as I was saying before, exposing themselves to an audience, to have that opportunity to play in public and some of them are less keen. They’re quite nervous. Well, it’s learning to accept disappointment. The realization that the jury, even though you may feel you played your best, might not like you and it’s and that’s a good learning experience for the future. I can’t expect everyone to like my playing and I accept that. That’s part of life learning.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes. It’s difficult thing to accept, disappointment. You’ve learned that. So which musicians do you think have inspired you the most over the years?

LEON MCCAWLEY:  There are many musicians. First of all, my teachers like I mentioned Heather Slade-Lipkin and Eleanor Sokoloff at the Curtis Institute and Nina Milkina who I’ve worked with when I came back to London and studied with all the way up until 2006. So there are three women in my life as well as my mother. [laughs] Also, the musicians I first played to Stephen Hough in my teens because he also studied with Heather Slade-Lipkin and lived very close to me as I was growing up as a teenager so he was the first professional musician as well as my teacher that I went to play to and I learned a lot from him. I learned Rachmaninov 3 with him. He helped me before I performed that at the Young Musician of the Year. I went to him several times and I was amazed by his record collection he always used to play all sorts of recordings of pianists I’ve never heard of. He was passionate about all things piano that inspired me as a teenager. Performers I went to hear when I was younger, I went to the all the Royal Liverpool Phil concerts, to the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester. I’m very lucky to have those two cities close by and hearing I remember Jorge Bolet more than anything, his Liszt, the performance of Liszt Piano Concerto #2, that certainly made a big impression on me. He was a grand master, I remember his great warmth and tone, so in the early days, also the recordings of Rubinstein and later on the recordings of Rachmaninov I came to, they are so amazing, so special with great clarity and the textures as well. The pianists today, like Murray Perahia I’ve been to play to a few years ago and we played duets together and that’s a great honour and also to be playing to him and learning from him as well. I love all his recordings, his Mozart, his Bach recordings, as well, great purity of tone.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   So you’ve recorded all Mozart’s sonatas to great critical acclaim, I think that’s probably amongst the most difficult repertoire. What attracted you to it, to these works? Why did you want to record them all?

LEON MCCAWLEY: I recorded the Mozart’s sonatas in the 2006, the time of the anniversary. I thought that was a very apt time and I, not only do I love the music of Mozart because it’s so operatic and so lyrical it’s full of cantabile writing. The writing of the melody is just to die for, they’re so beautiful. They are very exposed. It’s trying not to be afraid of communicating that which can be very awkward on the piano. We need a little bit more support or we are more comfortable with a little bit more left-hand support. For Mozart, it’s much more exposed but because I’ve worked so much with Nina Milkina, she drew me closer to Mozart, she was a great Mozartian in her day. Unfortunately, she’s passed away now. I learned so much from her. I’d already had quite a lot of opportunities to play the piano concertos, as a result of the Leeds Competition and not that I was put in a box because concert pianists tend sometimes to be pigeonholed because I played an early Beethoven 1 in my competition. A lot of the concertos after the competition were Mozart.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   I was going to ask you about that.

LEON MCCAWLEY:  But that was a choice. Yes, classical repertoire but it was a choice that I was delighted with and found at times a little bit uncomfortable because as you say it’s exposed on stage, the first Proms, my debut at the Proms was with Mozart’s K 449 in the huge Royal Albert Hall, I felt so small in this [laughs] monumental place and trying to communicate such a delicate piece, very difficult to do.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Which other composers do you particularly enjoy playing, going away from the classical period?

LEON MCCAWLEY: Moving on, I love the music of Chopin, Schumann especially. I’m drawn to him probably because his music is so related to his personal life. It’s almost like reading his diary. It’s very intimate and we know through his diaries and writings that it’s so closely linked to his later wife, Clara, because all the piano music was when he was in love or before he got married to Clara. Yes, the early piano writing of Schumann for sure and Brahms following on from Schumann, and Rachmaniniov I love and also contemporary music too. I’ve recorded all of the Samuel Barber’s piano music.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes, I was going mention that. That’s quite a project.

LEON MCCAWLEY: Yes, because it’s big, challenging repertoire to learn, especially his sonata, composed in the 1940s. I got to know Barber’s music as a student of Curtis Institute of Music so I learnt all about him.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   So how do you divise your concert programmes? How do you put them together? Do you rotate them or do you play different programmes all the time or do you have some you tour with regularly? How do you come about your programmes?

LEON MCCAWLEY:  I try to learn at least one new programme every year and sometimes that’s mixed so during the season, I have about a variety of three programmes and maybe cross over to some repertoire that I’ve done before. And now that I’m getting old [laughs], I’m going back to repertoire that I’ve learned as a student but for the longest time, from my twenties to even to my mid-thirties, I was leaning all new repertoire because the piano repertoire is immense and for example, I’ve still not learned all the Beethoven sonatas and I’ve still not got there yet, I’d love to work on these, one of these days…I’m about a quarter of the way through….

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Are you? You’re going do a full cycle.

LEON MCCAWLEY:  I’m not sure about a Beethoven cycle. Very hard, very…Well, maybe one of these days but I certainly enjoy the Mozart cycle, I’ve performed the Mozart sonatas in one go.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Have you…Did you do it over a few days?

LEON MCCAWLEY:  Over a few days, Yes. But it’s not something I could do all the time. My programmes are so fun to put together and I try to think about themes and recent anniversaries, it works very well. Debussy’s anniversary this year was of interest to me to try and formulate music around him and also the music that has inspired him to compose, the music of Bach to Chopin, and I thought about bell inspired pieces. To bring Debussy together with Liszt who was inspired by—

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Playing them all in the same programme?

LEON MCCAWLEY:  Yes, so making connections and then sometimes, it could be subconscious. You don’t realise the pieces are going to work and they      just work naturally in the programme.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Right. So you’ve played at some fantastic venues all around the world which is your favourite or which was your best musical memory.

LEON MCCAWLEY: There are lots of memories and so many wonderful halls I love. In the UK, there are a handful that I love and have very happy memories of. The Royal Albert Hall has to be the most important. I mean, making my debut there at Proms. That was a very special memory even though I was pretty scared the moment and very nervous before [laughs] But, it was, yes, I think if I had to choose one it would be my debut there at the Royal Albert Hall but smaller venues, the Wigmore Hall is always a very special place to me because it’s very intimate. You feel the connection with the audience. [Melanie interjects, “Yes”] But sometimes in a large hall, you can’t really feel that. Abroad, a very special memory was playing in the Rudolfinum in Prague. It’s such a beautiful place to play, not only visually but acoustics as well, I’ve a very vivid memory of that and yes, lots of other places really.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  What have you got coming up in 2013? I know you’ve got a Wigmore Hall concert quite soon.

LEON MCCAWLEY: Yes, that’s the next concert coming up at the beginning of January so I’ve got to work over Christmas normally I have a quiet period of rest. I’ll have a few days off but I have to practice to prepare for this recital which I am really looking forward to and this follows on from what I was saying earlier about Debussy. Debussy’s anniversary was last year but I’m linking in the programme that I playing over the autumn and then incorporating some new repertoire but they’re all composers who really created an orchestral sound at the piano.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  So what are you playing?

LEON MCCAWLEY: I’m starting off with Bach’s Italian Concerto.


LEON MCCAWLEY:  And then, the next set of pieces are of Brahms, his sixteen waltzes, originally written for piano duets but Brahms transcribed them for solo and then the end of the first half is Chopin’s Third Scherzo in C sharp minor.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   That’s lovely, great big piece.

LEON MCCAWLEY:  And then, in the second half, I’ll play three pieces inspired by bells. Liszt’s Le Cloches de Genève, Debussy’s Bells Through the Leaves and Rachmaninov’s Étude-Tableau in C minor, Op.39. I’ll end the programme with the Eroica Variations by Beethoven, big programme and I’ll be needing lots of energy, I’ll be eating lots of bananas beforehand!. [laughs] I’ll be conserving my energy.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   That sounds wonderful. What does playing the piano mean to you?

LEON MCCAWLEY:  Well, it’s my life. I don’t know, I don’t think I could live without the piano. It’s been part of me for such a long time and…so, that’s it really. It’s a very fundamental part of me. It’s part of me, I think, an extension of my personality. I feel totally comfortable performing probably more so than any conversation and speaking. I feel it’s my…the best way I can communicate to people.

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



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.

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