Valerie Tryon in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My nineteenth Classical Conversation is with British concert pianist Valerie Tryon. Valerie now resides in Ancaster in Ontario, Canada, but was visiting the UK to record a disc with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra when I caught up with her in London last week.

Valerie’s career as a concert pianist began while she was still a child. Before she was twelve she had broadcast for the BBC and was appearing regularly before the public on the concert platform. She was one of the youngest students ever to be admitted to the Royal Academy of Music where she received the highest award in piano playing and a bursary which took her to Paris for study with Jacques Février.

Her place among Britain’s acknowledged artists was assured when a Cheltenham Festival recital brought her the enthusiastic acclaim of the country’s foremost critics. Since then she has played in most of the major concert halls and appeared with many of the leading orchestras and conductors in Britain. Her career has latterly taken her to North America where she has appeared in such cities as Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Washington, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. She now lives in Canada where she is the Artist-in-Residence at McMaster University, but spends a part of each year in her native Britain.

Her repertoire is enormous and ranges from Bach to contemporary composers; it includes more than sixty concertos and a vast amount of chamber music. Among British composers, both Alun Hoddinott and John McCabe have dedicated works to her. She is well known for her sensitive interpretations of the romantics — Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninov in particular. When the BBC launched its Radio Enterprises record label, some years ago, Valerie’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Etudes Tableaux, op. 39, was the first classical disc to be released. More recently she has recorded the complete Ballades and Scherzos of Chopin for the CBC’s “Musica Viva” label, which Harold Schonberg of the New York Times described as “the best Chopin recording of the past decade.” Notwithstanding her involvement in the music of the nineteenth century, she retains a deep love of Scarlatti, whose keyboard sonatas she has delighted in playing in public since her childhood and early youth, and to which she remains deeply committed. Likewise, her ongoing series of the complete piano music of Claude Debussy, represents a special passion: she has twice performed this important repertoire in a demanding cycle of five successive recitals.

One of Valerie’s chief enthusiasms is chamber music. Two of her best-known duo partners in England were Alfredo Campoli (violin) and George Isaac (cello), with both of whom she made a number of significant recordings. Her performance with Isaac of Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata is now considered to be a collector’s item.

Since moving to Canada, Valerie has performed frequently with cellist Coenraad Bloemendal. Both were members of the Rembrandt Trio with violinist Gerard Kantarjian.

Valerie has been awarded several distinctions for her services to music. She was an early recipient of the Harriet Cohen Medal. More recently the Liszt Memorial Plaque was bestowed on her by the Hungarian Minister of Culture in recognition of her lifelong promotion of Franz Liszt’s music.

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

MELANIE SPANSWICK: British concert pianist Valerie Tryon has given recitals and concerto performances all around the world.  She was one of the youngest students ever to be accepted to study at the Royal Academy of Music and has won many prizes in accolades for her playing including Harriet Cohen medal.  So, I’m delighted she’s taken the time today to join me for one of my Classical Conversations here in London , where she’s been recording the Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.


VALERIE TRYON: Hello Melanie.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Lovely to chat with you.  Thank you for joining me.   I am going to start by talking all about your musical education.  What age were you when you started, What’s the catalyst, and did you come from a musical family?

VALERIE TRYON:  My mother was a pianist and a singer, and she was an actress.  She had so many talents.  My father loved music but his …   his art laid with painting.. drawing. So I suppose you could say that I did have artistic parents.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, very much so.

VALERIE TRYON: But I don’t know.  I know that I started playing when I was four.  My mother told me I tried to push her off piano stool at two and that’s how it start and it  hasn’t finished now that I’m a hundred and two.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  So, which teacher then do you think was crucial to your development or maybe most helpful?

VALERIE TRYON: Well, the first teacher I had was across the road.  My mother thought I think that it would be better for to have lessons from someone other than the family. And so, she sent me across the road to Mr. Lawrence, who said hello to me and let me in, sat me at the piano and then went upstairs and did his eblutions. And I had him shaving and then he would come down  after I finished the piece and say “Very nice Valerie . Next week I want you to play this.” That was my first . ..

MELANIE SPANSWICK:.Your.introduction.

VALERIE TRYON:  Yes. But my mother has taught me as well.  And then, I went to a Mr. Whittaker at Leeds College of Music. And he was a teacher of the Matthey method.


VALERIE TRYON:  ..and that I think was my blessing because I’ve never ever  had a single problem with my hands and fingers.  Some pianist usually get something.. Tendonitis . but I think the Matthey method saved me because it was all natural from the beginning.  I didn’t have to learn it.


VALERIE TRYON:  I had the relaxation given to me.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: That was.. That was my next question because I have the good fortune to hear you so many times and you have what  seems to me to be an effortless technique. I was gonna ask how know, developed that?

VALERIE TRYON:  Well, it isn’t effortless actually.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: It looks effortless. It really does.

VALERIE TRYON:  I do work hard.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: I know. I’m sure but it’s .. it’s amazing.

VALERIE TRYON:  But I have… I have learned how to … how to do stuff without making too much effort and without getting stiff.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Perhaps you would like to explain about that? The technique?

 VALERIE TRYON:  The technique?


VALERIE TRYON:  Well, there is a book I think about Matthey. And I think MyraHess was a Matthey student and Moura Lympany I believe.  They all had this basic technique taught them when they were little. I only remember this kind of things for practicing.  And falling the weight (does an arm movement).. Falling on the keys and your fingertips taking the weight. And in… in… in my recent years, I found that the most important thing which I never realized to was just common sense really to see where the problem is and to figure out the best way to dealing with that. It may be fingering, or the way your arm is going, or it might be all kinds of things. But if you can work it out, then you can deal with the problem.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Sort it out.  But it’s to do with making, you make a beautiful sound it’s obviously to do with the arm weight..


MELANIE SPANSWICK: And you made your debut when you were very young.


MELANIE SPANSWICK: So do you encourage young pianists to get a lot of performance practice when they’re young? Do you think it’s a good idea to be exposed to performing at a young age?

VALERIE TRYON:  I don’t know.  I used to play for all kinds of short things.  I used to play things  like the Minute Waltz and I played with a little orchestra called Henry Crowdson String Orchestra but I didn’t play actually with them.  I had solos in between.  But the things that worried me then were whether I go on the right way …whether I bowed properly or whether I would fall over the wires on the way out. I never actually worried about playing.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: You didn’t worry about playing at all.

VALERIE TRYON:  No.  But now, of course it’s the opposite way.  Sometimes I wish I could trip over something.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Oh dear. You were a major prize winner of Liszt International Competition.

VALERIE TRYON:  No, No I wasn’t.


VALERIE TRYON:  No, I wasn’t a major prize winner.  I don’t know how this ever came about.  I feel embarrassed about it.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: It’s… It’s  on your biography isn’t it?

VALERIE TRYON:  It does it say there?


VALERIE TRYON:  Oh, I never put that.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: But you played in the competition for ..

VALERIE TRYON:  Oh, yeah.  I got a prize .. but it wasn’t one the main ones. They  actually.. Annie Fischer was one of the jury and I believe Moura Lympany too.  It was a very distinguished jury. And there were four of us in the competition that they felt deserved the prize although it wasn’t on the menu as it were. So, the main prizes were Lazer Berman was third on this competition and they added the four. There was Annie Petit , who was a French girl, me, and I think somebody  who’s called Ashanski who’s a Hungarian, and I can’t remember the other one.  But we were all given this one..added on  — .
MELANIE SPANSWICK: a special prize.

VALERIE TRYON:  Yes, which was called Concours or out of  the competition.  And there was money too.  I was able to spend lots of money and take stuff home so it was something.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Did you find that it kind a shaped and changed your career, winning this prize? Or did you….



VALERIE TRYON:  No, Nothing has changed my career.  Nothing I’ve had rave reviews, it hasn’t made any difference.  I’ve had bad reviews, that hasn’t made any difference. Nothing. I just plod along the same way.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: You just played wonderful concerts. You’ve got huge, major repertoire. You play so many different composers. Which composers are you drawn to?

VALERIE TRYON:  The ones I think I play best are probably the Romantics… I feel more at home with the Romantics. I love Bach, but it frightens me to death.   I love Mozart, I love Hadyn,  I love Beethoven, Schubert. I love them all. I’m totally promiscuous. I love all of them.  And the ones I’m playing at the time are my favourites.


VALERIE TRYON:  But I feel, should I say, so comfortable with Chopin, Liszt and Brahms even, and also the Impressionists.  I feel very comfortable with them partly I suppose  because I had lessons with Jaques Février and he gave me the.. he gave me  the lowdown on style.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: You went.. You studied with him in Paris.


MELANIE SPANSWICK: And also, you’ve recorded and performed the complete Debussy piano  music.

VALERIE TRYON:  Yes. And Ravel.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: and Ravel. Why? What attracted you to this.. this style?  Is it the sound?

VALERIE TRYON:  I just… I feel very thrilled with the colours for one thing. I love the mystery and the resonance and the differences of the colours you can make, and the vagueness and the rhythm because I think that’s important… very important.  Février told me Ravel didn’t like his music sentimentalized at all.  He liked it to be heartfelt and very expressive but not overdone so the phrases would flow on to the next without stopping. That kind of thing.



MELANIE SPANSWICK: You were the Ferenc Liszt Medal of Honour by …  in 1986 by the Hungarian Minister of Culture.

VALERIE TRYON:  Yes, that was nice.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, for your interpretation of Liszt. I know you love Liszt so what attracts you to his style?

VALERIE TRYON:  I think it just ah…  he … he appeals to my soul in some way.  Well, they all do.  I think he has some special harmonic  chime  somehow.  I love his poetry. I don’t have any particular love for the histrionics and flamboyant Liszt but I do love the poetic side.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes.  Tell us about your love for Scarlatti because I know you play a lot of the Sonatas.

VALERIE TRYON:  I love Scalartti.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Very difficult repertoire actually.

VALERIE TRYON:  You have to be very on the ball, don’t you with that?


VALERIE TRYON:  You can’t.. you can’t make a mistake.


 VALERIE TRYON:  And you can’t flubb anything. It has to be right there. Well, I just love the rhythm and the whole thing. I wouldn’t really like to play it on the harpsichord.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: That was my next question. Have you tried it on harpsichord?

VALERIE TRYON: I wouldn’t like that because the piano is so perfect.


VALERIE TRYON:  And for Bach too.


VALERIE TRYON: I don’t think we can compare it.  I’m sure Bach would have loved and the piano and the pedal.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: So which venues have you really enjoyed performing in around the world?

VALERIE TRYON:  Mostly, my own home.  I don’t…

MELANIE SPANSWICK: You say you’re living in Canada now.


MELANIE SPANSWICK: Lived there for quite a few years…

VALERIE TRYON:  Yes. I’ve always felt more at home in the recording studio than a hall.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: That’s interesting.

VALERIE TRYON:  I like the privacy in a recording studio. And although you are giving to an audience and they’re giving back, it’s more stressful for me.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: performing in concerts..


MELANIE SPANSWICK: Well, you always look so incredibly relaxed.

VALERIE TRYON:  It’s all an act.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: What exciting plans have you got for the future?

VALERIE TRYON:  Future.. well, I have this recording that I am just doing now.  That will come out nice and….

MELANIE SPANSWICK: I’m sure it will. Have you recorded the other concertos as well?

VALERIE TRYON:  No.  I’ve never recorded… The last concerto I did were two Mozarts and a Rondo which I liked so much and I like playing Mozart. I really enjoyed it. But I haven’t.. I haven’t done any of the Beethoven and that is partlys because I leave that to other people I think. I always feel.. I know it sounds funny but I feel that I’m a woman when I play Beethoven.  It doesn’t affect any other composer. But it’s like my adverse feeling towards women pilots. It’s something very weird inside men.  I’d rather have a man pilot and ..

MELANIE SPANSWICK: … and rather playing Beethoven.


MELANIE SPANSWICK: That’s interesting. So, have you never recorded concertos?


MELANIE SPANSWICK: Really? You must have played them.

VALERIE TRYON:  I played them a lot yes.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: But not recorded them…


MELANIE SPANSWICK: What does playing piano mean to you?

VALERIE TRYON:  Well, I really can’t imagine not playing the piano. All these years I have played the piano.  If some people say “Are you going to retire?”  and..  I have all my faculties. I mean,  I still have my brain I think and my fingers still work.  And I feel that unless something happens to cripple me, I shall just go on playing because it would feel very strange if I didn’t.  And I don’t know how I would feel.  I think I would feel as if my raison d’etre had gone.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes. I could understand that. But that’s good for us because you are one of my favourite pianists.  Thank you so much for joining me today.

VALERIE TRYON:  Thank you for having me, 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.

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