My twenty-first Classical Conversation is with Australian concert pianist Piers Lane, who chatted to me last week at Steinway Hall in London.
London-based Australian pianist Piers Lane has a flourishing international career, which has taken him to more than forty countries. Highlights of the past year include world premiere performances of Carl Vine’s second piano concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Hugh Wolff, the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sinaisky and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra under Marko Letonja, a standing ovation for Busoni’s piano concerto with the American Symphony under Leon Botstein at Carnegie Hall, New York, the Grieg concerto with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis and the John Ireland concerto with the La Verdi Orchestra in Milan. His three Wigmore Hall appearances this season included a sold-out recital of the complete Chopin Nocturnes, a Schubert lieder recital with the German tenor Markus Schaefer and a late-night performance with actress Patricia Routledge of Admission: One Shilling, a presentation about Dame Myra Hess’s wartime concert series at the National Gallery. He also appeared as pianist and narrator in the London Philharmonic’s Prokofiev Festival, curated by Vladimir Jurovsky at the Royal Festival Hall.
His diverse discography of over fifty CDs includes acclaimed recordings of Romantic concertos, transcriptions of Bach and Strauss, complete sets of etudes by Saint-Saens, Skryabin, Henselt and Moscheles and the piano quintets by Arensky, Bloch, Bridge, Dvorak, Elgar, Harty and Taneyev with the Goldner String Quartet. His most recent releases feature twentieth-century encores and rarities (Piers Lane Goes to Town), sonatas by Strauss. Respighi, Walton, Britten and Ferguson with violinist Tasmin Little and Liszt’s transcription of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy with violist Philip Dukes. Five discs await release on the Hyperion and ABC Classics labels, including the six concerti by Malcolm Williamson and two Mozart concerti.
Piers been Artistic Director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music since 2007 and the annual Myra Hess Day at the National Gallery in London since 2006. In the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Birthday Honours, he was made an Officer in the Order of Australia for services to the arts as pianist, mentor and director.
For those who prefer to read interviews, here is the transcript;
Melanie: Australian concert pianist Piers Lane came to prominence in 1977 at the inaugural Sydney International Piano Competition and has since then gone on to develop a wonderful career playing with all the major orchestras and conductors around the world.
He’s won many prizes for his piano playing and is artistic director for several music festivals and I’m delighted that he’s taken the time to come and chat to me today as part of my Classical Conversations series here at Steinway Hall in London.
Piers: Thank you, Melanie.
Melanie: Lovely to chat to you today. I’m just going to start by asking all about your musical education, how old you were when you started, what was the catalyst, and did you come from a musical family.
Piers: I certainly did come from a musical family. My father was a Londoner and met my mother when they both auditioned at the Royal College of Music. My mother was Queensland-born from Australia and so I started life actually in London and I was only five months old when I was shipped south. But there was always that umbilical connection which meant something to me later in a strange way.
Anyway, I loved – when I was a little boy – listening to lessons taking place in the home. You know, I would lie under the dining room table while my father taught adult students and then I’d hear them discussed at the table. So, I was always very much part of my parents’ teaching life.
I didn’t start lessons till I was seven, in a little class that my mother had, and went ahead quite quickly. And I think I used to read through the rest of the book, you know. I used to love pulling music out of the cupboard and sight-reading, and I remember when I was nine, finding the Grieg Concerto and just thinking, “Ah, this is fantastic!”
Piers: Yes. So, I did have a musical upbringing and that counts for a lot, I think. It was always very natural.
Melanie: So, which teachers then do you feel were most influential or most inspiring?
Piers: Well, my mother was my first teacher and I studied with her till I was about twelve. She used to hate it later when I’d say that many of my lessons were called out from the ironing board, but it was true, and there were just lots of little things.
I remember sight-reading through the Mozart K. 488 – slow movement once and feeling a little bit pleased with myself – I was only very young – and my mother said, “Yes, but it’s supposed to be very sad.” And I thought, “Oh, I haven’t done it right,” and I went and played it in a totally different way. Just that sort of thing, there was instant response to what I did at home – very important.
Melanie: That’s a big help, isn’t it?
Pier: So, mum was a terrific teacher.
And then, I went to Dr. William Lovelock – you may have heard of him because he wrote endless textbooks on harmony and counterpoint – and he wasn’t an academic sort of piano teacher at all, funnily enough. He himself would study with Henry Gayle who left a set of hand development exercises, mainly with the intention of getting rid of the webbing between fingers so that you could increase span and that sort of thing, and independence. But Gayle had studied with Leschetizky so there was that sort of connection which was lovely. I went to him originally to study Bach and, when I was twelve, took the C minor Toccata. But I think I only ever learned one other partita with him and he asked me the next week to bring Aquarelle by Dr. William Lovelock. So, it was quite fun because he was interested in that salon style as well which was of great use in my life as we’ll hear later perhaps.
But after Lovelock, I went to Nancy Weir. You may not have heard of her but she was a great pianist and she was a very great person. A wonderful raconteur as well. She had been a child prodigy. She grew up in a tiny town in outback Victoria where her father was an Irish publican and guests in the pub used to hear this little child do whatever they asked for on the piano. She could play by ear amazingly. And someone said she should be with the nuns in Melbourne and she was sent to Melbourne, studied the rather formidable Ada Freeman – later Ada Corder – who was a phenomenal teacher and she was the first in Australia to play the Elgar Piano Quintet, and a lot of Ravel. She had telegrams from these people thanking her for performing in Australia. Amazing connections there, but Nancy, when she was twelve, played Beethoven 3 with the Melbourne Symphony. There were mounted police keeping back the crowds on the way in as she was a celebrity at twelve sort of thing. But the people of Victoria raised funds to send her to Berlin at thirteen to study with Artur Schnabel, and Schnabel loved Nancy, and she was part of his class for three years, and used to holiday with his family in Como during the summer, and that sort of thing.
When she was seventeen, she came to London and studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Craxton and later with Matthay, and at the same time as Moura Lympany they were there together.
When the war came, she joined the WAFS. She was in Air Force intelligence actually because, of course, she had totally fluent German from having lived her teenage years in Berlin. And so, she became a code-breaker and that sort of thing. Fascinating.
Piers: She was highly intelligent and played in Egypt and Italy – where she was stationed during the war – with extraordinary orchestras composed of big names later on from the string world and that sort of thing. They were serving at the time. Amazing years those. But she returned to Australia in 1964 after touring out there with Galliera, the great conductor, and had never been home since she was, you know, twelve years old. But stayed in Melbourne to begin with and then moved to Queensland and that was where I studied with her when I did a degree at the Conservatory of Music, when my father was a great lecturer in Harmony and Counterpoint, and director of studies. I still meet many people all over the place who loved his lectures and loved him. He was a marvellous teacher. I know that Brett Dean attributes his compositional knowledge to dad and that’s a lovely thing that Brett has gone on to become such a figure in the world. I learned a lot from him.
And then, when I left Nancy, it was probably the biggest influence in my life. I should say a bit more about her style, really, because she studied with Schnabel so she had all that German background and the English school as well. But she had known Shura Cherkassky from when she was twelve and he was sixteen on his first international tour. They’d met in Australia and they were friends for life, and I think she almost was slightly jealous that she hadn’t studied with Joseph Hoffman in America the way he had. And she loved the Russian style of playing – Russian colour and Russian high jinks on the piano. And so, her teaching focused on that as well, very much. She had a very great breadth of understanding of pianism and of music. And I think I was the beneficiary of that, really.
From her, I won a Churchill Fellowship. In those years, they offered a two-year special performance award which took me away to America for eight months where I studied with Béla Síki, Hungarian. And I’m very glad I had that influence. He had that rigorous Hungarian background himself. He’d studied with Dohnanyi and he also studied with Lipatti, and in fact, took over for Lipatti when he died in Geneva. He’s still alive in Seattle and he had such lucidity of mind, very simple outlook in a way. Great sense of structure of the music and a really crystalline sound on the piano, and that was a great counter-influence, in a way, to Nancy’s rich German approach, and colourful Russian one.
After Siki, well, while I was in America, actually, I played to Jorge Bolet as well, and he invited me to come to his master classes in the Edinburgh Festival. So, when I moved to London in ’79, the first thing I’d do was go to the Edinburgh Festival and worked for a week with Bolet in a class he held there, and that was a magical time. His sound was just extraordinary and this small room was almost overwhelming the cantabile that he had. And we worked on the Liszt Sonata, on the Liszt E flat Concerto, on Petrushka of Stravinsky, Gaspard (de la Nuit) we’d worked on in America, and his way of thinking, and his way of peddling, of thinking of sound, of fingering, all of that has stood me in great stead. I didn’t have a lot of contact with him but it was very influential, actually.
I went then to the Royal College of Music and studied with Kendall Taylor who had taught my mother all those years previously. And so, it was lovely to continue that tradition. But then, I also studied with Yonty Solomon for a little time there and Yonty was such a fabulously imaginative musician. He had a great ear for sound. He had great understanding of psychology as well as music, many things, all of the arts, and this wonderfully liberating sense of imagination. So, he remained a friend for life, really.
Melanie: Lovely man.
Piers: Oh, he was a terrific person, wasn’t he?
Melanie: Yes, I had a few lessons with him. He was wonderful.
Melanie: Yes, really.
Piers: So many people miss him at the Royal College and outside. So, they were the main influences.
Melanie: And how did you develop your technique?
Piers: Well, I think I was lucky I had a natural sort of technique from childhood. Probably watching two pianists at home – not that mum and dad had much time to play themselves. But my mother was a very fine teacher of young people, and older ones. But she gave certain precepts, I think, at the start that held me in good stead always. She gave me the Wieck Exercises which are wonderfully natural. It’s just a five finger thing where you da-da-dee-dee-dee. But when you reach the top there are thirds and it teaches you to relax into the keys, to release at the end, and then go up to the next note.
There was a little exercise which I always recall with great affection, run and float. It might have be a Joan Last exercise.
Melanie: It sounds like one of hers.
Piers: Yes. But Mum gave me that, and all children that, and it’s just a matter of starting on middle C and then releasing the wrist. And, of course, you do a swan’s neck, and when you’re a child, you do a swan’s neck sort of as high as you could reach, and then come down, onto to the next group and up again. But it’s training the wrist to release the whole time. And I find when I give master classes in all sorts of places, now there are so many brilliant young pianists but they have no idea how release their wrists and their muscles, you know. They hang onto chords. Once they play them, they grip them still, and they don’t know about breathing with the wrist and just releasing the arm.
So, I think my foundation was very good. It set me up in a way where I was very free in the arms and the wrist. I didn’t practice scales or anything religiously at all. I was always very naughty. With Dr. Lovelock, he gave me these Gayle exercises and Hanon to be played in all keys, and he felt that if you could play the first five studies of Opus 740 of Czerny, you could play anything.
Piers: He’s very probably right.
Piers: I certainly think I got from an early age the sense of using economical use of the shoulder to get you across the keys as economically as possible. That is a great thing, you know, if you can play arpeggios up and down very easily with a very natural thumb position. That holds you in great stead later. But I used to turn the corners of the pages down. I’d go for a lesson, to look as if I’d practised them a lot and he’d say, “Now, don’t do too much. You can do too much of this sort of stuff.”
But, when I went to Seattle to study with Siki, I did for eight months really concentrate on technique in a way I hadn’t before. I used to practice scales with pairs of fingers like one-two-one-two-one-two in all keys, and two-three-two-three, and four-five-four-five, and chromatic scales just with two fingers or with three fingers. And that’s another thing that Mum put me onto very early was chromatic scales – not one-three-one-three but using one-two-three and one-two-three-four – so that you float up and down, and it became like glissandi, and again, with a very natural use from the shoulder.
Piers: That was very useful for later on, too. But that work I did in America, practicing with metronome pianissimo scales, making sure that every note was even, that was very timely, I think. I had to leave it afterwards, you could get crazy. I practiced various Chopin Etudes like the Winter Wind, doing all of the Cortot exercises religiously. And it really did refine my technique.
When I came to England, I let go of all that and really played as being the greatest teacher of technique, I think. Knowing what you want in your head first, hearing the sound you want first, and then replicating that usually teaches you how to cope with something technically. If there is a problem, often you’re playing it too fast, and so, if you put a metronome on, discover what you’re doing, often you’re concentrating on the wrong thing. You’re not actually aware of what you’ve got to actually sort out in the texture. When you do actually look at the texture, you think, “Oh, that’s happening in that little phrase. That’s happening there. Actually, I’m totally neglecting the left hand,” and you realize that priorities of the texture, it’s amazing what sorts itself out technically.
Melanie: Yeah, fascinating.
You’ve played in a lot of competitions as well.
Piers: I didn’t, actually.
Melanie: Yeah, but you did?
Piers: No, I stopped doing competitions when I was twenty-three and I used to enter them after that. Like, twice I entered the Tchaikovsky competition. It didn’t go either time. So, I didn’t do that many. I did several small ones. I was in the first Sydney International Piano Competition and won a prize for The Best Australian Pianist and that did lead to concerts afterwards. The ABC asked me to play with the West Australian Symphony of Queensland and the Adelaide Orchestra’s the next year which was lovely. And, of course, it was a great thing to do. I learned Rach 3 for the finals. I wasn’t in the finals. I was in the semi-finals but, when I was asked to do a concert with the Queensland Symphony, they asked for Rach 2. I said, “Could I possibly do Rach 3?” because I wanted to do that for the competition. And so, it made me reach new levels.
The year before, I had entered the Liszr-Bartok Competiton in Budapest when I was eighteen and that was a fantastic time. I, again, played in the semi-finals. Met all sorts of people, including Annie Fischer, and it was wonderful. She invited me to her house and I became too scared to go and play for her. It’s funny when you’re young, you know, I had no fear of the competition until I started to do well and then suddenly started to become a bit self-conscious. Then, she invited me to my first Wagner opera. I went along to the opera house in Budapest and thought I’d be in the stalls, and they said something in Hungarian. I ended up being in the second-best box in the house which was her box. It was next to the royal one which was only used by Communist party heads in those days. And she later joined me with her sister. We went to a restaurant where all the waiters lined up and bowed to her. And, you know, that was heavy stuff for an eighteen-year-old from Brisbane. And I was invited to give various concerts in and around Budapest, and that was a great experience as well. It was a real eye-opener. And to be in a Communist country at that stage was fascinating, too. The Hungarians were wonderfully rebellious, I think, and they had to do their Marxism exams before they could do their piano exams. But it was fascinating to meet people my own age in those circumstances and I’ve always loved Budapest. I was there a few years ago, standing in the top of the opera house to watch a ballet performance. There were no tickets left and I looked back fondly down at the box where I sat as an eighteen-year-old.
Melanie: Which composers do you love to play?
Piers: Well, that’s a hard one. I love to play so many different composers. I probably play more of the Romantics than anything else – certainly a lot of Chopin.
Melanie: We talked about Chopin the other day and you were playing the complete Nocturnes.
Piers: Yes, I’ve been playing them as a set since the bicentennial year, 2010, when the Chopin Society asked me to open the year of celebrations, playing all the Nocturnes in St. Paul’s Church. And it was a wonderful experience. It’s such a voyage. You would think playing twenty-one slow pieces in a row would be terribly boring, but it’s not with the Chopin Nocturnes. I do them chronologically and it’s fascinating hearing Chopin’s language change right throughout when you compared the early E flat say with the last E major. There’s a world of difference in the language and in the profundity. You hear Chopin getting older but also there’s extraordinary variety within them. It’s an amazing journey and I’ve done it so many times since. I did it at the Wigmore late last year but I’ve played them in Bridgewater Hall in Manchester and many places around the world. Just last week in the Machynlleth Festival, Julius Drake’s Festival up in Wales. I did them across two nights then, candlelit. Next year, six people in America have asked for them and it’s funny. It something that seems to be going on and so I do play a lot of Chopin.
I’ve always loved Bach. More and more, I play Schubert. I couldn’t live without Schumann and Brahms and certain Liszt. Mozart I’ve played since I was a child. The Russians as well. I love playing Rachmaninoff and Scriabin – I suppose that follows on from Chopin. So, I’m a bit greedy, really.
Melanie: Now, I want us to talk about the less well-known composers because you’ve done a whole series of rare Romantic composer Concertos for Hyperion and that’s fabulous. So, what makes you want to play slightly less well-known pieces that perhaps most people wouldn’t know?
Piers: That all started in Australia. I think that was the great thing about growing up in Australia compared with London, or anywhere else. There was no particular school of piano playing and there were no boundaries, really. It worked both ways.
When I was seventeen, I said to my teacher Nancy Weir, “I found a piece in the cupboard at home last week by Liszt that I think’s rather good.” She said, “Oh, what is it?” I said, “Oh, it’s a sonata in B minor.” She said, “Oh yeah, it is rather good.” She didn’t let on that it’s sort of the acme of the romantic period of piano composition. And I learned it in ten days and played it at concert practice at the conservatory then, you know, then included that in concerts. I really wasn’t aware just what standing it had, and that’s great in a way, you know?
Piers: There was no problem attacking something like that at seventeen. But likewise, I’ve found things, when I was sixteen, I was staying with my grandparents in North Queensland and at Christmas-time there were two programmes on the telly featuring Isador Goodman who was originally English but lived in Australia and was a wonderful pianist. And there was the Schulz-Evler transcription of the Blue Danube, Concert Arabesques Beside the Beautiful River Danube, and I thought, “Wow! I’d love to play that!” I, that year, played Dohnányi’s Naila Waltz arrangement of Delibes and that virtuoso sort of salon piece appealed and I tried to get hold of it but it wasn’t in print and I was a bit shocked by that. Amazingly enough, later that year, my German teacher, wonderful chap to whom I played the Naila Waltz said, “I’ve got a piece that’ll fox you,” and he pulled out this dog-eared old copy of the Blue Danube. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
So, I learned it and I played it, and that piece always brought me good luck. And once, sometime in the 80s, I did three Queen Elizabeth Hall recitals and I finished one of them with the Blue Danube of Schulz-Evler. I think, funny enough, playing it after the Op.23 Preludes by Rachmaninov and the next year, there was a message on my answer phone from Mike Springer from Hyperion and he’s the sales manager there but he’s an extraordinary pianofile as well and responsible for a lot of the decisions about pianists to be recorded and piano pieces to have been recorded by Hyperion over the years.
Anyway, he left a message saying that Hyperion had some money given to them to start a series of rare Romantic piano concertos and he thought I might be the sort of person who might be interested in that, and I thought, “Not half,” and I rang in the next day and I said, “What sort of things are you thinking of doing? Things like the Moszkowski?” And he nearly dropped the phone because that was exactly what they wanted to start the series with, Moszkowski and Paderewski. And I knew the Moszkowski because Nancy had played it. Michael Ponti when he visited Australia in the early 70s was shocked to discover that Nancy had already played the Moszkowski that he was playing there with orchestra. And she had played that on the BBC, for the BBC, way back in the 40s. And when I came to play it somewhere in England, there was this old BBC library copy with cuts marked and she had to make cuts – because of the size of the programme or something – on the spot for this live broadcast that she’d done all those years before and it was probably the same copy that her conductor had used.
Anyway, I said, “What made you think of me?” It was because he’d been in that Queen Elizabeth Hall recital performance and heard me doing the Schulz-Evler and thought that I was a pianist who liked having fun at the piano as well. And so, he was quite right. That was the start of that.
Of course, once you start recording unusual works, people love to put people in boxes.
Piers: It can be a great problem as well. And so, many times I’ve been asked to play unusual pieces, but not the unusual ones I already play. People want me to play their rare music. I’ve ended up accruing a great deal of rare repertoire. But I do love looking at the texture of history as well because it didn’t lurch from one genius to the next. There was a whole texture behind things. Chopin wouldn’t have been Chopin without all sorts of other composers at that time doing things, and Chopin wouldn’t have written the E Minor Concerto without Hummel having first written his B Minor Concerto and A Minor, and I’ve played both of those and, you know, it makes so much sense of the Chopin then when you play that afterwards.
It’s lovely finding out about history and the fabric of history through these rare composers. Of course, you’re not going to find a Beethoven 4, or very, very unlikely to. But there’s often great musical fun to be had, and a lot of depth as well. I love sharing those pieces, too. It’s great fun when you can produce a piece that nobody’s heard of before.
Melanie: Definitely, yeah.
Piers: And they find they love it, and that’s a great joy.
Melanie: You’re artistic director of the annual Myra Hess Day at the National Gallery.
Melanie: And also, you do a performance with the actress, Patricia Routledge.
Melanie: I just wanted to ask how that all came about really.
Piers: Well, it was all thanks to a marvellous lady called Carmel Hart who is full of brilliant ideas and she wanted to put on a day in memory of Dame Myra Hess’ wartime series. You know, that series is legendary. People speak of it always. But there had never been an actual celebration of it at the gallery. And so, in 2006, she called a group together, including the Jewish Music Institute and various others of us and Myra’s nephew, Nigel Hess, the composer, her other nephew – various people. Anyway, we got together and she asked me to put the programme together. And so, I organized a lunch-time concert and an evening concert and an event in the afternoon which included nine pianists sharing Carnaval which was great fun. That was something that they’d done on New Year’s Day in 1940, I think, and in the actual wartime concerts.
Anyway, it was a big success and all sorts of people came out of the woodwork. In fact, I had Yonty Solomon play the Goldberg Variations as the lunch-time concert and it was one of the last times Yonty played before his brain tumour caused too many problems and that, I was always feel so grateful for and Yonty of course, along with Stephen Kovacevich had been one of Dame Myra’s main students. But it was a great success and there were some people there who had actually performed in the concerts. There were many who had been taken there when they were teenagers or younger. And so, we thought, “Maybe we should do a second one,” and the gallery asked if I would direct it. And then, the third year, we put it to the gallery that maybe it should be an annual event and that’s what it’s become. There’s an Annual Dame Myra Hess Day which I still direct and love doing as well. The next one’s on November 22nd this year.
I also direct the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. I’ve done that since 2007 and that’s a great joy to have. Well, it’s just over about three weeks ago, actually. We had forty-four artists this time, I think, and that twelve from this part of the world, and the rest were Australian. And we have ten days of concerts – three concerts a day, plus the winter school and master classes and other events. Always a concert outside Townsville where it’s based. Funny enough, my mother and her parents were all born in Townsvillle and it’s odd that I now direct a festival where they were all born. It’s on a barrier reef in far north Queensland and it’s winter-time there but that means 21 to 26 degrees which is ideal. We always have a concert outside Townsville. This time it was on Magnetic Island and it was just amazing hearing a wind quintet, and brass quintet, and an accordionist, and Nick Daniel on oboe with David Malouf reading from his own An Imaginary Life, about Ovid between the six pieces of the Metamorphoses of Britten on oboe, and all sorts of exciting things happened there. But yes, I love directing things as well.
Melanie: Putting things together. Which one’s been your favourite venue around the world?
Piers: Gosh. Well, the Wigmore Hall springs straight to mind.
Piers: Just up the road from here. Funny enough, when I first played in the Wigmore Hall years ago, I found it slightly intimidating because it was such as small stage. I was used to having a lot of space around the piano and, the Wigmore, there isn’t that much space. You know, now, I adore playing there. You just have to touch a note and it sings to the background of the balcony. I love that intimacy that it has.
There are all sorts of venues I’ve loved though. Gothenburg, there is a hall that is a simple wooden shoebox. We were always told they had the best acoustic sound and they really do. That place, it’s the only time I’ve played Tchaikovsky 1 when I felt I haven’t had to bash out the opening. It just sings and the orchestra does rehearsals in there, does its concerts in there, and records in there.
Some of the most exciting places I’ve played, of course, the Royal Albert playing at the proms – nothing quite like that. I remember my first prom, people standing just there. It was terrifying in a way but so exciting and so supportive, at the same time, this enormous warmth that comes from Prom’s audiences.
And I remember in ’91, playing for the centenary after Bliss’ birth, the great piano concerto of Sir Arthur Bliss which meant a lot to me because my father was 14,000 miles away at 5:00 AM in the morning, listening. He’d attached some wire outside and could pick up the broadcast from BBC out in Australia while it was happening live and he’d introduced that piece to me, the Solomon performance, when I was about twelve. So, that was a lovely circle completed.
The greatest thrill venue-wise in recent years has been Carnegie Hall. December before last, I played the massive Busoni Piano Concerto there to a packed hall and got a standing ovation afterwards. It was terribly exciting. But, to walk out a few days before when I went to try the pianos to select which Steinway I’d use, surrounded by the ghosts of that place, they’re palpable, you know? Rachmaninov played there. It’s thrilling and that wonderfully elegant massive hall that was a great excitement.
But there have been small venues that have meant lots of things to me, too. I remember playing in the church once in some little outback place in Zimbabwe to sixty-five people. But some of those people had come from dozens of miles away to come to this concert. I thought the little Broadwood piano wouldn’t take it. I was playing an opus of Chopin Etudes and Pictures at an Exhibition. I thought, “How’s this going to go?” It did. You know, miracles sometimes happen.
And I remember with Tasmin Little, the violinist, once gave me a concert in Loja in Ecuador. We had this frightful flight where you were flying between spurs of a mountain and had to corkscrew the land and then a jeep ride. And this wonderful audience – it seemed like the whole town had turned out – the page-turner wanted me to play some British contemporary music to see what it was like, and the party to end all parties afterwards.
There have been amazing venues around the world, in unexpected places, apart from the sort of big ones.
Melanie: Sounds like it. What’s your most treasured musical memory?
Piers: Well, going back to when I was a child, hearing my parents’ play two pianos together was a very special thing and I think that set up my love for two-piano work and for working with others. They, as I said before, didn’t get much time to practice. They had five children and my mother had seventy students at one stage. My father was often away examining and adjudicating apart from lecturing and that sort of thing. So, it was a treat when they got together and would play Bach arrangements or something, or Rachmaninov, or Mozart on two pianos. But, playing-wise, gosh! It’s so difficult. Those venues I was talking about before, they’ve led to very memorable concerts.
Yeah, I don’t know if I had to select absolutely one concert, what it would be. Certainly Carnegie Hall, Busoni, in recent years, many times at the Wigmore, the Proms certainly, special things like playing in Bombay – the first professional performance of Rachmaninov 2 with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra – that was a special thing. You rehearsed at 7:00 AM back when I did that because it was hot there during the day and a lot of people had full-time jobs as well. But nearly the whole orchestra shook my hand as they came off-stage and then stacks of people flocked around.
I’ve played in some unlikely places in the world and have loved doing it and its left very special memories.
Melanie: What exciting plans have you got for the future?
Piers: Well, more the same, really. Recital-wise, I’m playing in the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in December which is very exciting. That’s a new place for me but lots of exciting plans there. We were going to talk about Patricia Routledge and the show before in connection with Myra Hess Day. You asked how that came about and it’s an on-going thing.
When we did the first Myra Hess Day in 2007, Patricia Routledge was in the audience. You know, she’s a musician as well and she goes to a lot of concerts. Oh, yes, she’s a wonderful singer. She’s got a glorious contralto voice and, actually, she does a show at the moment with Edward Seckerson talking about her musical life and she sang in twenty-six musicals or operettas or whatever, including premiering Bernstein on Broadway. Fascinating, but she was in the audience and we had met, funnily enough, in Melbourne. I was playing Rach 2 with the Melbourne Symphony back in 2000 and she was doing Oscar Wilde in Melbourne at the time and couldn’t come to one of the concerts and so came to one of the rehearsals and that was where I first met her. But anyway, we met at the National Gallery, and I said, “If ever we did anything portraying Myra Hess, would you consider playing her?” Because a friend in the audience that day got the fright of his life – he looked around and he thought he saw Myra Hess sitting in audience. It turned out to be Patricia Routledge and that’s what put the seed in my head which sowed something. And so, two years later, I approached Nigel Hess, Dame Myra’s great-nephew, the composer, about putting our scripts together from Myra’s diaries, and from interviews with her, and from Kenneth Clark’s book about the wartime concerts. And he put together a script, and Patricia, and he, and Chris Luscombe, the director and I met for lunch – it turned into four or five lunches, wonderful times which extended for hours. It was full of laughs and we went through every word, editing it together. We were all on the same wavelength and produced this show. Nigel and I selected the music and I play ten short pieces, about three minutes long each, from Myra’s repertoire, and Patricia narrates the story, basically, in Myra’s words. And there are images projected on a screen behind us from the time and they add a lot to it as well. And so, we did that at the National Gallery in 2009 and there were four or five festival directors in the audience and Cheltenham invited us to go and do it at the festival and we wondered how it would be away from the National Gallery where people loved it, and then, we were asked to do it in Canterbury – wonderful school there – and we had about 800 in the audience and we thought, “Not necessarily all musicians in this audience,” they loved it. And so, we realized it had appeal and we’ve done it dozens of times now. In fact, we’re doing it later this year, several times in Belgium. I’m absolutely thrilled that Patricia, at her stage of life, has agreed to come to Australia next year and we’re doing about twenty-six performances throughout Australia in May next year so it’s terribly exciting.
Melanie: Yes, fantastic.
Piers: Well, that’s been a treat. But other future things in different directions, well, more Australian Festivals of Chamber Music. I’m already planning next year. You know, we only finished the last one. It’s something that takes up every week of my life. Concerto wise there’s Grieg, more Busoni on that horizon next year and Nights in the Gardens of Spain which I’ve never done before, Beethoven threes, I’m doing a three Beethoven fives with the Czech Philharmonic, there’s Liszt 1, all sorts of lovely concertos ahead.
Well, lots of travel.
Melanie: What does playing the piano mean to you?
Piers: Oof! It’s been the whole focus of my life. It was the focus of my childhood, it took me through young adulthood, it made me shift to England from Australia, it’s directed the rest of my life, really. It’s taken me, well, I travel almost every week of my life, I would say at least every month, and most weeks. And that’s all been directed by the piano. It’s led me to develop other areas of myself. I’ve written and presented many radio programmes for the BBC. I’ve written a lot of articles and CD notes and things like that so
. I’ve written and presented many radio programmes for the BBC. I’ve written a lot of articles and CD notes and things like that so it’s developed that writing side. It’s led me into artistic direction, led me into teaching, I taught at the Royal Academy for many years. I’ve stopped for the moment but will, no doubt, come back to that later. I don’t know. It’s allowed me to find meaning in life, I suspect, and it’s allowed me to express meaning in a way that nothing else could. I don’t know how people who don’t love deeply one of the arts cope as they get older. I think music has so many layers. It always has more there than you can ever bring to it. And so, deeper and deeper levels available to you as you mature.
At some times, it’s even made feel better physically. I sometimes realize I haven’t played for a few days and I might be feeling slightly off-colour or something and I play the piano and I’m actually fine. It’s just missing that connection with the piano. So, I think the piano keeps me well – psychologically, and emotionally, and even physically.
Melanie: Thank you so much for joining me today, Piers.
Piers: Thank you.
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.