Martin Roscoe in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

This is the eighth interview in my Classical Conversations Series and today pianist Martin Roscoe is in the spotlight.

With a repertoire of over 100 concertos performed or recorded, Martin works regularly with most UK orchestras, having especially close links with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Hallé, Manchester Camerata, Northern Chamber Orchestra and with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, where he has had over ninety performances. Martin has worked regularly with eminent conductors, including performances with Simon Rattle, Mark Elder and Christoph von Dohnányi.

One of Britain’s most prolific recitalists, Martin has also performed regularly across Europe, the Far East, Australasia and South Africa. His chamber music partnerships include long-standing associations with Peter Donohoe, Tasmin Little and the Endellion and Maggini Quartets as well as more recent collaborations with such artists as Jennifer Pike, Ashley Wass, Matthew Trusler and the Vertavo Quartet. One of his most important chamber music collaborations has developed in recent years: the Cropper Welsh Roscoe Trio. Together the trio have performed many times across the UK, most notably with several series of concerts at London’s newest venue, Kings Place.

Recent and future engagements include appearances with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Hallé, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Munich Symphony Orchestra, as well as recital performances at the Bridgewater Hall, Musée d’Orsay and Wigmore Hall. Martin is also Artistic Director of Ribble Valley International Piano Week and Beverley Chamber Music Festival.

Having had over 500 broadcasts, including seven BBC Prom appearances, Martin is one of the most regularly played pianists on BBC Radio 3. Martin has also made many commercial recordings for labels such as Hyperion, Chandos and Naxos. He has recorded the complete piano music of Nielsen and Szymanowski, as well as four discs in the Hyperion Romantic Piano Concerto series. Martin is in the process of recording the complete Beethoven piano sonatas for the Deux-Elles label. The first two discs have been released to unanimous critical acclaim. The Independent described the sonatas as being “all delivered with Roscoe’s typically scrupulous attention to detail and emotional truth”. The second disc includes the Waldstein Sonata, and was proclaimed on BBC Radio 3 as “one of the truly great recordings of the Waldstein Sonata … perfect musical judgement and a formidable technique from Martin Roscoe”.

Teaching has always been an important part of Martin’s life and the development of young talent helps him to constantly re-examine and re-evaluate his own playing. He is currently a Professor of Piano at the Guildhall School of Music in London.

Here’s the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews:

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   British concert pianist, MARTIN ROSCOE, has played with some of the world’s greatest conductors and orchestras. He’s the artistic director of two music festivals and professor of piano here at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. I am delighted that he is joining me today for a classical conversation today. Welcome, Martin

MARTIN ROSCOE:  Thank you very much, Melanie. Nice to meet you.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: So, I’m just gonna dive in and I’m gonna ask you all about your music education, how you got started, what age? Did you come from a musical family?

MARTIN ROSCOE: Umm. Amateur musicians. My parents were music lovers and there was a piano in my house. My dad played the violin and the saxophone, as well. I mean, they were more sort of dance band and jazz, than classical but they had, you know, lessons themselves. But. Umm. I started piano lessons when I was six. I’m the youngest of three and the teacher taught all three of us. When I first started, I was the least talented of the three. [laughs]

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Oh really. How wrong is she? [laughs].

MARTIN ROSCOE:  Well, no, I understand because I don’t think I showed the interest to start with. One day, the whole family went to London for a holiday. This was in the summer of 1959 and the first night, having come down from the Merseyside of the train we went to a Prom Concert and I was sort of so transfixed by this concert, the spectacle of it, the sound of the orchestra, in particular. There was a piano concerto on but it was the Symphony Fantastique by Berlioz, I remember being absolutely blown away with. So, when we got back to Merseyside, I was pitched in and I was on the piano all the time, basically just one book after another because we did have all the music in the house [Melanie interject, “Right”]. Teaching myself to read and learning, I mean not just piano repertoire but lots of Star Folio books  I particularly liked those. I believe the William Tell Overture was an early favourite. So it was a sort of passion that took over me at the age of seven and it’s been with me ever since I would say.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yeah. So which do you think was your most influential teacher when you started formal lessons?

MARTIN ROSCOE:  Well, the dear lady who taught me to start with was a bit more interested in me sort of progressing from grade one to two, on Trinity but I wasn’t totally interested in that. Not that I have anything against Trinity exams, don’t get me wrong, but I was keen to sort of just get to know Beethoven, sonatas and Mozart sonatas and things. My parents didn’t really know what to do with me so I had about six years of these lessons without really learning a lot about how to play. And then, when I was twelve, my father thought it might be nice to enter one of these competitive festivals so I went to the Alderley Edge festival and I tried to play the first movement of the Waldstein Sonata, never having had a lesson on it and the adjudicator was certainly not damning or scathing or anything but very highly critical and I was well down the cohort, in terms of the result. So my father thought it was time to actually explore a different teacher and I went to play to Gordon Green who was the professor of the Manchester College and also the Royal Academy. We’re talking about 1965 and he sort of pronounced that I obviously had a lot of talent but needed some bit more direction. He wasn’t able to do it himself so he recommended one of his colleagues from the Manchester College, Marjorie Clementi, distantly related to the composer. And Marjorie sorted me out, really, she sort of, made me listen to what I was doing and made me realize it was actually quite important to decide which finger you use on any given note [Melanie interjects, “Yes” (laughs)]. So, I got four years with Marjorie and the last year was actually at the Royal Manchester College. I was only just sixteen and I don’t know if you can do that anymore but they allowed me to go in just sixteen there, as a fulltime student. I had one year with Marjorie and then I changed to Gordon and they were both fabulous teachers actually, in quite different ways because Gordon taught a lot of the top British pianists of the generation, my generation and slightly older. And, sort of slightly younger because he taught Stephen Hough for a while too, Christian Blackshaw, Martino Tirimo, Philip Fowke and so on. He was a major influence I would say. After I left college, going up to 1974, I played a for one or two other people around and about, had some masterlasses including some with Alfred Brendel which was  absolutely fascinating.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: I bet. How did you develop your technique then? Did you furiously practice Czerny studies.

MARTIN ROSCOE: Not at all. No. I mean, Marjorie sort of got me on to Beringer exercises and some Chopin studies after a certain amount of time. With Gordon, he was sort of, he did not taught us on technical regime as such but, I mean, because I was so keen, he allowed me to learn the Liszt E flat piano concerto when I was seventeen. I worked at the technique in that.  It’s a bit like, you know, Daniel Barenboim with Richter on that film, where they are saying, you know that they never really practice scales unless in the context of the pieces, in the context of pieces. I think that’s…Umm, as a teacher, I wouldn’t say that as a teacher I’d never give technical work, that’s not true, but I think that one can learn so much technique from the music.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes. So did you do any national and international competitions?

MARTIN ROSCOE: A couple and I was never really a competition animal anyway. I mean I did pretty well in the British Liszt, the one and only, I think, British Liszt Piano Competition. It was won by Terence Judd, I was second and Peter Donohoe  was third. That was the most successful one I did, I think. I won a prize at Sydney but I think I, you know, didn’t enjoy the competitive aspect of the business and I only went to a handful really. Some young pianists now go from one with the same set of pieces—

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Well, yes yes. That’s one of the questions. Do you think they’re valid anymore because there are so many competitions to…you know…is it the was…What do you tell your students? So how do they establish themselves really or can they establish themselves?

MARTIN ROSCOE: It’s perfectly possible to establish yourself without a competition success. There are lots and lots of examples especially most recently, especially amongst British pianists. Benjamin Grosvenor well, I mean he did do Young Musician. Back then, but that was when he was only twelve wasn’t he? [Melanie interjects, “Yes”] I think it’s perfectly possible but I think it can give you a sort of a backbone in a way. It’s actually the stress of going  out there in those competitive circumstances, providing that you have the right attitude towards, you know, if you don’t succeed, you don’t get hurt or depressed about it, just move on from that and see what happens next. Take it as part of the learning process but the most important thing is, very important, I think is to give yourself the time to learn your repertoire in your twenties.


MARTIN ROSCOE:  I mean, I was fortunate that I did go down that route.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Which composers are you particularly drawn to? Has that changed over the years?

MARTIN ROSCOE: Oh, it has indeed. A lot. It’s changed a lot. I play a very broad repertoire and I don’t play Bach in public but I absolutely love it and I work at it and I teach it, but from there onwards, right up to contemporary music, I have a broad repertoire. The most recent times, I’ve been concentrating very much on Beethoven and I’ve been recording all the Beethoven piano Sonatas. That’s complete now and only three discs yet released but they’re all in the can.


MARTIN ROSCOE: I’m moving on to Schubert now, which is another great love of mine but I’m fortunate that I’m, you know, I love huge swathes of the repertoire Liszt, Chopin, Schumann and Debussy, and some of the more neglected composers.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes. Because you’ve made loads and loads of recordings but I want to ask you about Dohnányi and Szymanowski because you have recorded all their piano music. What is it that draws you to that sound and that style?

MARTIN ROSCOE: Well, I always had an interest in Szymanowski I find him quite a fascinating composer, that’s sort of eclectic, drawing all those influences from all those different people and yet still having his own personality at the end of it. I love it. When Naxos asked me if I was interested in doing it a long time ago around fifteen years ago, no, twenty years ago, I jumped at the chance really. It was a lot of music to learn and all of it to keep in one’s head. I mean, I don’t play that much of it in concert.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Do you not. No.

MARTIN ROSCOE: But I still think he’s a very interesting composer. Dohnányi, I’ve not finished recording that yet. I’m only halfway through that project but I’ve always thought of being quite interested in him as a sort of staging post between Liszt and more twentieth century Hungarian composers like Bartok. I think his music is unjustly neglected perhaps even more so now than it was when I was young. I just felt that it was time to put that to right and it was fortunate that Hyperion agreed with me so we’re halfway through that at the moment.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Chamber music. You play a lot of chamber music. How do you think that influences your solo playing? Which one do you prefer? Solo or chamber?

MARTIN ROSCOE: Well, I do get asked this question quite a lot and I sort of have…I got my answer ready now [laughs].

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Sorry, it’s not an original question [laughs].

MARTIN ROSCOE:  That’s fine. Well, I look at it like this, the solo recital is the most challenging thing that a pianist has had to do and the most satisfying because you have to do, you know, you have to have the audiences’ attention for a possibly across a wide selection of different composers for the entire evening and you’ve got to project that. But, concertos are the most exciting because of the arena element of it with the orchestra on platform and a big concert hall and chamber music is the most purely enjoyable. It’s not as stressful and just the banter and I used the word of advisedly, all the musicians both on and off the platform, it’s so enhancing I would so,  and I really do love that. But you do learn a huge amount about how to play solo piano music from working with chamber music and working with top string players is absolutely fascinating to me. You know, the way they go about their business, the way they work towards colour in particular and sound. And, playing chamber music also is very, very useful for concertos because then you have to listen. You have to listen to the orchestra. You have to work with the conductor and there are plenty of places in concertos where you are accompanying the orchestra, for Mozart onwards.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes. So which concert venues do you love playing, whats been your favouite?

MARTIN ROSCOE: Well, in London, the smaller halls, I like very much, Wigmore of course, is wonderful and I very much enjoy playing at King’s Place so that’s being…I’ve been there on quite a lot since it opened four and a half years ago. For orchestral and big big concert halls, I think the Bridgewater Hall I Manchester is very difficult to beat. I think it’s a fabulous hall to play in and to listen. Symphony Hall is also very good but some of the other halls are fabulous…the town hall in Middlesborough. You know, you may not know this.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  I don’t know that one [laughs].

MARTIN ROSCOE: That is a really fantastic venue and Huddlesfield Town Hall, Hull City Hall King George’s Hall, Blackburn and the Victoria Hall. Those immediately spring to mind. Those are box-shaped Victorian Halls.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Beautiful. So what’s your favorite musical memory and I ask this because you just celebrated your sixtieth birthday and have a fabulous concert for that?

MARTIN ROSCOE:  As a performer you mean?

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes. Yes, as a performer.

MARTIN ROSCOE: I think playing Rachmaninov 2 at the Proms in 1989. it was a very stressful buildup

MELANIE SPANSWICK: It must have been. Yes.

MARTIN ROSCOE: It was August Bank holiday weekend, Saturday night so a guaranteed sell out especially within the program with La Valse. You know, just to walk out until the stage of the Albert Hall and see six thousand people looking at you and you have to sit by the piano and start the Rachmaninov 2. A dear friend of mine said, the two best thing about concerts are when you get a telephone call offering you a date and afterwards.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Afterwards [laughs] I have to agree.

MARTIN ROSCOE: I think that was an amazing experience and then one of them actually, same piece, I’m not, you know, particularly an expert at the Rachmaninov or anything but Kathryn’s Stott’s festival in Manchester at Bridgewater Hall in 2000, when she put on all four Rachmaninov concertos with all different performers in the same concert, Stephen Hough played number one, I played number 2, Nelson Goerner played number 3 and Howard Shelley played number 4 and that was an amazing atmosphere where you could imagine it was just like the Proms actually except that everyone was sitting down rather than standing up.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: You are artistic director of Ribble Valley International Piano Week and Beverley Chamber Music Festival, quite different concept from your concert playing so why did you decide to do this?

MARTIN ROSCOE: Well, it’s quite different reasons actually. The Ribble Valley Piano Week has been going for a couple of years. I mean, I used to live in that area so I played in both their opening festivals and they asked me to take on the role of directing it artistically and I still do that and with great enjoyment. I’ve got quite a strong local following.


MARTIN ROSCOE: The Beverly Festival was more of a sort of business venture to start with. There are various sort of parts of the country where I seem to have a particular connection/relationship with the local musicians and East Yorkshire is one of them. Beverly is fantastic market town with two amazing churches, the Beverly Minster and where we hold our concerts  in St. Mary’s parish church. My agent, James Brown, is from Beverly and he said, it would be a great place to have a festival. Let’s set it up. So that was what we did twenty years ago and we go there every year for twenty years.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: So what exciting plans are you coming up with for the rest of the year?

MARTIN ROSCOE:  I had an amazing year last year with lots and lots of celebratory concerts so it’s not quite as busy which is fine. That’s fine. I, having finished the Beethoven recordings, I’m looking forward to getting into the Schubert recording. We’ll be starting at the end of the year. I’ve also got various chamber music projects on the go. I’m in this trio with my wonderful friends Peter Cropper and Murray Welsh and we have great fun. We’re doing quite a lot of concerts and hopefully some more recording later this year. I’m going back to Canada in summer having been last year to the Paris Sound Festival and the Ottawa Festival. Yeah, the diary is pretty good.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  So what does playing the piano mean to you?

MARTIN ROSCOE: Gosh. Umm. I sort of think of myself more as a, I hope it doesn’t sound grand but, a musician who plays the piano rather than a pianist. I’m more interested in music itself than the mechanics of it. Most of my listening, you know, away from just playing, most of the listening I do is not piano music. It’s more likely to be chamber music, string quartets or symphonies or opera. Certain parts of the operatic repertoire are great favorites so I don’t know. I sort of see myself as a musical all-rounder in a way. It’s just that the piano is the vehicle I use to express myself and people often say to me, what do you play for pleasure [laughs]

MELANIE SPANSWICK: That’s such a popular question among musicians isn’t it?

MARTIN ROSCOE: Yeah, that’s right. Well, the answer is actually I do other things for pleasure. I get, don’t get me wrong, I get fantastic pleasure from playing the piano but I  don’t sit there and think right, I’ve done all my programmes for the next recital. I’ve covered all that, or for the next concertos. Now, what am I going to do now? Oh, I’m gonna play some Debussy or something. I never do that. I mean, it’s an inseparable part of my life, obviously and then, you know, I go to it most days. Although, I do try to take some time off in the summer, if I can. Last summer, in spite of my hectic schedule, I managed to get four complete weeks without touching the piano at all and when I went back, I did feel very refreshed by that.

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

MARTIN ROSCOE:  My pleasure, Melanie. 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.

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