My sixteenth interview in the Classical Conversations Series is with pianist and pedagogue Murray McLachlan.
‘Murray McLachlan is a pianist with a virtuoso technique and a sure sense of line. His timing and phrasing are impeccable, and his tone-full but unforced in the powerful passages, gentle and restrained in the more lyrical- is a perpetual delight’ (BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE)
Since making his professional debut in 1986 at the age of 21 under the baton of Sir Alexander Gibson, Murray has consistently received outstanding critical acclaim. Educated at Chetham’s School of Music and Cambridge University, his mentors included Ronald Stevenson, David Hartigan, Ryszard Bakst, Peter Katin and Norma Fisher.
His recording career began in 1988 and immediately attracted international attention. Recordings of contemporary music have won numerous accolades, including full star ratings, as well as ‘rosette’ and ‘key recording’ status in the Penguin Guide to CDs, and ‘Disc of the month’ and ‘Record of the month ‘in ‘Music on the Web’ and ‘The Herald’. McLachlan’s discography now includes over forty commercial recordings, including the complete sonatas of Beethoven, Myaskovsky and Prokofiev, the six concertos of Alexander Tcherepnin, the 24 Preludes and Fugues of Rodion Shchedrin, Ronald Stevenson’s ‘Passacaglia on DSCH’ the major works of Kabalevsky, Khatchaturian and the complete solo piano music of Erik Chisholm.
McLachlan’s repertoire includes over 40 concertos and 25 recital programmes. He has performed the complete Beethoven piano sonata cycle four times, as well as the complete piano music of Brahms. He has given first performances of works by many composers, including Martin Butler, Ronald Stevenson, Charles Camilleri, Michael Parkin and even Beethoven! He has appeared as soloist with most of the leading UK orchestras. His recognition has been far-reaching, bringing invitations to perform on all five continents. At the same time he continues to give numerous concerts and master classes in the UK.
McLachlan teaches at the Royal Northern College of Music and at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester where he has been Head of Keyboard since 1997. He is the founder of the Manchester International Concerto competition for young pianists as well as the Founder/Artistic Director of the world famous Chetham’s International Summer school and festival for Pianists, Europe’s largest summer school devoted exclusively to the piano.
As a teacher McLachlan continues to be very busy and in demand. Many of his students have won prizes in competitions and continued with their own successful careers as performers.
Murray is editor of ‘Piano Professional’ Magazine, as well as Chair of the UK section of the European Piano Teachers’ Association (EPTA UK). As well as performing and teaching, he is well known internationally for his numerous articles on Piano technique and repertoire. This includes extended columns which have appeared in ‘International Piano’ ‘Pianist’ and ‘Piano’ Magazines. In 2012 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Dundee for outstanding services to music and education. This follows on from a knighthood awarded in 1997 by the Order of St John of Jerusalem in recognition of his services to music in Malta.
Here’s the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews:
MELANIE SPANSWICK: British concert pianist, Murray McLachlan, plays recitals and concerts all around the world. He’s recorded over forty discs and he’s Head of Keyboard at Chetham School of Music and Professor of Piano at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester so, I’m delighted he’s taken the time from a very busy schedule to join me here for Classical Conversation at Chappell’s of Bond Street in London.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Welcome.
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: Thank you very much, Melanie.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Lovely to be talking to you here today, it really is.
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: Lovely to see you again. Yes we met for the first time; you know, earlier in the year.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: I want to start by talking all about your musical education. How old were you when you started to play? What was the catalyst? Did you come from a musical family?
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: Well, it’s very interesting. I mean, I started when I was two really.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Gosh.
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: …. because I was jumping up and down on the bed in time to The Gondeliers with the old I would say vinyl records. And then, I started to break. I broke the record player while trying to put them on. And I think initially my parents thought that I was going to be some Olympic gymnast but then they realized perhaps I was musical. There was also a piano in the house….
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Right.
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: And my mother was an amateur pianist. And she loved it. She had to stop because you know basically in her generation there wasn’t the money. You know, after certain age. And so she kept on doing it on her own. She used to love enlivening pieces by adding double octaves in the bass and that’s something that you know has sort of persevered in my likings and I loved Bach-Busoni, Brahms and thick textures and that I mean when she was sort of you know playing simple little arrangements. Like… (plays the piano) (laughs)
MELANIE SPANSWICK: (laughs)
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: So my earliest memories is of me sitting watching my mother doing this very theatrical…
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yeah.
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: ….. quasi camp double octaves—boom! Just, and that made a big impact. (laughs) It’s strange.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: (laughs) So, which teacher then do you think was kind of crucial in your development as a pianist?
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: I’ve learned something from all the teachers I’ve had. I mean obviously in Aberdeen I had a wonderful lady early on, it wasn’t really a piano teaching. She charged 60 pence a lesson, Mary Alexander and she was a real campaigner for pensioner’s rights.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: (laughs)
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: And you know I mean I used to kind of do my own thing and practice in ten you know all the Mozart’s Sonatas and excerpts from the Liszt E flat Concerto and then I would go along and do my Grade 3 pieces for her and she didn’t do anything about it at all. And you know it was sort of like ten minutes worth of lesson but I loved her and she was really and she remained a friend. We used to wonderful giggles together about all kinds of things and she was fabulous. And when I went to Chetham’s I was told I wasn’t good enough to be a pianist. And the Director of Music at that time, Michael Brewer, and, he said that “No no no, we’ve got far too many good pianists. Take up the guitar as the first study and the piano would be too much of a conflict so be a clarinetist”. Anyway, so towards the end of the first term as a fourteen year-old I got you know I got fed up just playing the guitar all the time, and I thought I could just play the piano for a laugh and started bashing out Pour Le Piano and Beethoven’s Op. 10 No. 3 and Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso. And into the room came a Practice Supervisor called David Hartigan and he said, ” This is really good, don’t stop, carry on”. Like something out of a Hollywood film.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: (laughs)
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: And he said, “This is a disgrace, you should be doing the piano.” And he was a second study, he mainly had second study students at that stage. But he said “You must have lessons with me.” And I was very grateful. I mean poor David died at the age of 50 in 1997. But if it hadn’t been for him wandering in and creating a fuss, and getting into trouble by the way from the Director of Music and others in the school. I would have been a miserable guitar player today.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: (laughs)
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: So, and he was fabulous. And he did it, I don’t know how he did it. I mean he took somebody like me who was all over the place and within a year and a half I was playing Rachmaninov’s Paganini Variations with a youth orchestra with Evelyn Glennie playing the Timpani in her first ever concert as a percussionist conducted by Timothy Reynish and the doing Petrushka two years later and so he was an amazing person actually. I absolutely loved him.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yeah.
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: So he was fabulous and very much missed. And after that Peter Katin was amazing. To go to somebody who played at the Proms and recorded for Decca and have all his enthusiasm. Norma Fisher I’ve learned a lot from. I mean, perhaps the most important musical influence was Ronald Stevenson. He never charged a penny for a lesson. And I had stays with him where I’d go for some sleepovers. I’d just lap up all these information about Busoni, Godowsky, Grainger, Rubinstein, Cortot, and his own music, his own enthusiasms. And he was and is, and remains incredible and a real vibrant genius. And so I would say probably he was a huge, big influence on me.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: So how did you develop your technique then? Did you enjoy practicing lots of Czernys and Hanons or did you, did you just learn the technique within each work?
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: There wasn’t any time. I mean. I mean when I went to David for lessons and you know after the row in Chets in the first term, he was faced with somebody who just turned fifteen and all over the place. No time to do all that. It had to be a case of you know, I don’t know how he did it actually. He gave me Suggestion Diabolique by Prokofiev and all his other pupils he tended to give classical music to. He suddenly said to me, “You must do Busoni, You must do Petrushka, you must do Cesar Franck. So, I’m very, very grateful…
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Very, very helpful.
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: What an amazing man. I mean so it was all over the place. Learning these ridiculous pieces with terrible problems and I’ve gradually caught up. Peter Katin did give these amazing exercises to me. Finger independence told me about arm weight. Got me into the Alfred Cortot Exercises. Norma Fisher carried on with that. Ronald Stevenson made his own exercises that he wrote and gave me Busoni’s Klavierübung to do. I’ve explored Behringer with my own students. Obviously you have to learn all the etudes….Czerny is wonderful and I wished I’d done it in retrospect but I should have done it when I was younger but if I had been a proper pianist at that age…but anyway it’s bizarre!
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yeah, well, technique is always such an interesting, interesting topic.
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: It is.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: I wanted to ask you, you’ve sat through lots of juries of international competitions.
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: Mhm. (nods)
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Do you still think that they can establish a pianist’s career if they win a big competition? Do you think it’s important still? Or are they obsolete now?
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: I think the old kind of feeling of, you know, an unknown pianist comes along, wins a competition, and suddenly they’re jetting off on club class to New York and champagne lifestyles and Rolls-Royces opening and chauffeurs—I think that’s all finished because there have been so many of them and life has changed. There’s not enough and certainly they can help open doors in a short-term and moderate term and keep you going. Our first competition at Chetham’s that I run, the Manchester International Concerto Competition that we founded in 2007, the very first one, I had this twelve year old boy playing the Chopin F minor from Canada, Jan Lisiecki and he was incredible. Howard Shelley was on the jury and he didn’t win, but Howard loved his playing. We all did. We were all amazed and Howard invited him to Poland and basically that started his career off and he’s doing the Schumann at the Proms this year. He’s recording for Deutsche Grammophon and it was kind of, Howard introduced him to the festival and Poland had got him the record contract and IMG so, I like to think that you know…
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes.
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: In that way, our first competition has helped, but it has to be a kind of gradual process or part of the ongoing development. I don’t think there’s going to be any kind of fairy godmother, Cinderella, you know, rags to riches scenario nowadays that there might have been in the past.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes. Which sort of repertoire are you drawn to? What do you really enjoy?
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: Well, (laughs) I mentioned my mother and these big booming basses. That’s never really left me. I love, I love making a huge sound at the piano, you know. I love turning it into an orchestra. I’ve always adored Beethoven and Bach I love to bits. The usual kind of suspects really. I mean, it’s interesting that Russian music has really attracted me always. I was very lucky in that as a student, studying with Peter; Peter was recording for Olympia and he didn’t want to record Myaskovsky’s nine sonatas he was doing all Schubert and Chopin but, he said we’ll I’ve got a very young pianist called Murray McLachlan, and he might be a suitable candidate. And so they came along and had me play with the RPO, the Schuman (Concerto) and asked me to record. And that one record of Myaskovsky in 1988 led to another nineteen CD’s for Olympia…
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Gosh!
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: Because you know, one record led to another and then it was Prokofiev, then it was Kabalevsky, Shchedrin, Khatchaturian, Tcherepnin, Weinberg and one followed the other. I love all that. I’ve played all the Brahms works and I’m playing the 32 Beethoven Sonatas at the moment …
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes. I noticed that.
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: For the fourth or the fifth time in Lanzarotte, so, it’s a very—I adore Chopin, you know, Debussy I love. I mean, what can one say? It’s like kind of having a set of keys in your pocket and you might only need a dozen of them and they’ll open up doors to the universe. You know, one thing leads to another. It’s like being an actor and having different roles, different accents, different mannerisms, having a different technique for each composer is fascinating.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: You’ve given lots of premieres, so that’s very exciting…
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: Oh, yes, yes.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Ronald Stevenson, Charles Camilleri, lots of different premieres.
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: Even Beethoven. (laughs)
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Well, I was about to say, the Beethoven one, really struck me. Do tell us about that.
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: Well, that was simply because Barry Cooper was professor in Manchester, he used to be at Aberdeen when I was really young and my first ever Beethoven Sonata, Barry Cooper was the professor at Aberdeen University and he discovered some new Bagatelles and the original version of Fur Elise. I mean, I think Fur Elise, you know… (begins playing piano) Revised version. (begins playing piano again)
MELANIE SPANSWICK: (laughs)
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: I mean, that was hilarious, but that was quite a fast net, that was on the PM programme on radio four and it was even on the television in 1989 I think, and very early on in my career, but British music I have always been very fond of. Not just because of the lessons with Ronald but because of other composers like, John McLeod, who I’ve been friendly with, John Williamson in Wales I’ve done three CD’s of his music so, again one thing tends to lead to another and obviously this is where I live and composers will come up to you. They have done from University and asked me to play their music and that’s exciting, you know. Philip Radcliffe at Cambridge University used to say to me, “Well, I don’t know what you’ve written’s right but, you can’t ring up Beethoven and ask him.” But, you can ring up Ronald Stevenson or John McLeod and to have that kind of direct impact is wonderful. They don’t always say what you think they’ll say. Then, they’re much more willing to change notes than you might think they would be as well.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: You’ve recorded over forty discs. I mean, it’s quite an incredible amount. What’s been sort of your fav—well, I wouldn’t say your favorite, but which one do you feel shows your playing off to the best.
MURRAY MCLAHLAN: Oh, I’ve got no idea.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: (laughs)
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: I’d love doing it all all, but the one that I’m doing at the moment, I was very, very touched to do Myaskovsky’s Sonatas because that was the very first one and radio 3 were extremely kind in that they kept on playing excerpts from them and when Haydn’s Creation conducted by Rattle was finished a bit early because he took it so fast, they put on a twenty minute Myakovsky Sonata (laughs), things like that. So, that had a big impact at the time and I loved the music and nobody else seemed to play it. Often Glenn Gould and Richter were big admirers. What can I say, Prokofiev’s Sonatas I’ve always adored, I’m just recording them again now for live performances and just for a film just to see if I can do it as a kind of personal challenge you know, all these years later. I’ve done them in 1989 and 1990. Ronald’s Passacaglia that goes on for eighty-five minutes, I’m very close to. You know, almost like an encyclopedic work and almost equivalent to Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations or the Bach’s Golbergs from modern times. So, what can I say, you know? I think we’ve all got to feel, as performers, that what we’re doing at any one time is the most important thing that we’re doing.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: You teach at the Chetham School , you teach at Royal Northern, what is it that attracts you to teach and what do you really, really love about it?
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: What do I love about teaching? Sharing with other people and loving other people through music. Becoming a much, much happier and inspired creative because of the intensity of working on music with somebody else that makes me much more interested and makes the student much more interested. It gets rid of our egos and takes us into a different dimension.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: And you taught three of your children. From scratch to very advanced…
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: (laughs)
MELANIE SPANSWICK: …from what you’ve been saying. Now that’s quite a challenge.
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: I was teaching the fourth one his grade one theory this morning.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Oh really?
MURRAY MCLAHLAN: Well, the thing is that since I’m so manic in my life and so busy, if I don’t teach them, I wouldn’t have a relationship with them, properly. And it was really a case of do or die. So I have, taught Minute in G and been spat in the face, but, having said that Callum is now playing Shostakovich’s Second Concerto, and has got a decent teacher in Dina Parakhina. I always pass them on after they’ve done Grade 8 then they get sorted out by somebody else like John Burn at the Wells Cathedral School or Dina Parakhina. So, you know I’ve really been able to get to know them. What better way to get to know your kids then to work with intensity on something as important as music and something that you love as much. Rather than trying to do it half-heartedly with a football or something like that.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: You’re the founder and artistic director of the Chetham’s Summer School and Festival, I believe it’s the largest one in Europe. How did it come about? How has it kind of changed and developed over the years?
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: How did it come about? On the back of an envelope in Christmas 2000. I sort of mentioned to my wife, Kathryn, who’s also a pianist, that I think we should have a summer school because David, actually, my old teacher and Alicia Fiderkiewicz, a polish pianist who taught at Chets, had talked vaguely about doing it. And you know, it’s an ideal venue to have a summer school. It’s got all these pianos, you know, one-hundred-and-twenty of them. And all these rooms and halls and it’s safe. It’s in the middle of Manchester and it’s empty for weeks in the summer. So it makes a lot of sense. So it started off and it was basically me hand-writing letters and envelopes. I learned how to type on a computer when all this started. I couldn’t even type before that. So it was basically, not knowing what would happen. The first year, Kathryn was actually expecting our first daughter, Rose, an on the registration day she got dreadful sickness as you can when you’re pregnant of course, and she said, “I have to go.” And really, left me and ninety-two participants and a faculty of twenty to cope. Fortunately, lots of colleagues like, Marta Kaminiska , came and rescued it. It’s a miracle that it survived the first year. And now, it’s much more slick and professional and we’ve got lots of help. Kathryn’s now a full-time administrator which is about three or four jobs in itself.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yeah.
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: And, we keep going. We’ve already got two hundred people coming each week of this course and we’ve got the concerto competition attached to it as well and they’re coming from South America, China, Australia, North America, all over Europe, all over the United Kingdom, and every age from eight to people in their eighties. It’s a huge celebration and it’s crazy, but it’s great fun.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: And you edit the Piano Professional Magazine which is one of EPTA’s magazines which is the European Piano Teacher’s Association of which your chairman.
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: That’s right!
MELANIE SPANSWICK: You’ve written loads of articles. How does this compliment your playing do you think? Does it help you play at all?
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: Well, I mean I did music University, at Cambridge, and I was always writing . The direction of Olympia CD’s was Francis Wilson who is no longer with us, another great man in my life, he was a wonderful friend. He said, “You know, you should write your own programme notes because it will help crystallize your thoughts on Myakovsky.” And I started and it’s such fun. I adore writing, you know, so I would love to be a novelist rather than a musician, but it’s the same. Instead of using notes and sounds, you’re using words to reach something beyond yourself. And it’s fascinating and it’s a great passion and I love writing. And it sort of developed, International Piano that I write for. I started in 2001 and they asked me back six times a year to write about techniques, so it’s kind of built up. You know, every two months writing about a different aspect. It’s good fun. It’s enjoyable.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yeah. What exciting plans have you got coming up?
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: Well, I’ve got to play another twenty Beethoven Sonatas in Lanzarotte. (laughing) And I’m going abroad to judge quite a few competitions. I don’t know if I’ll be able to fit them all in. I’m supposed to go to Rome and I’m supposed to go to Warsaw later this year and then next year, Singapore for a new competition as well. And it keeps on going. There’s concerts around the country and more abroad these days. Which is…I don’t know why. There used to be lots in Scotland. Not so much now. But, I am going up there to Aberdeen to do Tchaikovsky Number One Concerto in a few months. So, it keeps going and it’s funny as well how it works in cycles, you never go somewhere and then suddenly you go there a lot. So there’s lots of plans and lot’s to look forward to.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: What does playing piano mean to you?
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: Playing piano means getting out of yourself. Getting away from pettiness, mundanities, and reaching something higher. And you know, for that reason, I see it as the same level as a dancer dancing, or a sculptor working with stone or something like that, a painter with oils, or watercolors. Getting away, you know. Reaching something better.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Thank you so much for joining me today.
MURRAY MCLACHLAN: Oh, thank you very much, Melanie.
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.