Philip Fowke in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My twenty-seventh interview features British concert pianist and teacher Philip Fowke. We met up a few weeks ago at Steinway Hall in London for a fascinating chat about many aspects of Philip’s career.

Philip’s first piano teacher was Marjorie Withers. At seventeen he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London where he studied with Gordon Green (1905–1981), a pupil of Egon Petri. As winner of the National Federation of Music Societies Award, Philip made his London debut with a recital at the Wigmore Hall where he played Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 31 No. 2 in D minor, Schumann’s Carnaval Op. 9, Bartók’s Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs and Liszt’s Mephisto-Waltz No. 1. Also in 1974 Fowke won joint second place at the BBC Piano Competition (first place was not awarded). This led to broadcasts on BBC radio in a performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini Op. 43 with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra and Bernard Keeffe.

 In John Ireland’s centenary year, Fowke made his Proms debut with a televised performance of that composer’s Piano Concerto, where the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Simon Rattle. By this time Fowke’s career had really taken off with his London recitals gaining excellent reviews: ‘Mr Fowke sensitively shaped and delicately coloured Bach–Rachmaninov’s multiple lines with impressive dynamic and tonal insight.’ At the same recital, in October 1980, Fowke played Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 35 where his ‘…interpretation was appropriately informed by a single expressive thrust. There was some splendid pianism here…’ Fowke resurrected the ‘Golden Age’ tradition by ending his recital with Arabesques on themes from An der schönen blauen Donau by Adolf Schulz-Evler which he ‘…threw off with a fine display of apparently careless rapture which in fact concealed an admirably stringent discipline’. Other recitals from the 1980s included a Liszt Sonata in B minor where ‘…the sheer speed at which he dispatched the final fugal section without loss of discipline… was surely record-breaking.’

Philip made his United States debut in San Diego where he played the Piano Concerto by Arthur Bliss with David Atherton conducting the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. Fowke played in many European countries during the early 1980s and has performed in South Africa, South America, New Zealand and Canada.

 A musician who has always been interested in the byways of the piano repertoire, Fowke has become associated with many British composers including Cyril Scott, Arnold Bax, Frederick Delius, Arthur Bliss, John Ireland, Gerald Finzi and Alun Hoddinott. In 1983 he gave the première of the Haydn Variations by John McCabe, a work dedicated to him; and among other premières he gave the first performance of Richard Bissill’s Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in London. During the 1980s Fowke appeared regularly at the Proms and on BBC radio. When standing in at short notice for an indisposed Claudio Arrau at a Prom concert in 1983, he was summed up perfectly by Hilary Finch who wrote of him, ‘The co-existence of a high musical intellect with elegance, wit and unashamedly joyful showmanship, which marks out Mr Fowke among his own generation of pianists, has an unfailing alchemizing effect on those parts of the repertoire which will never be pure gold.’ This was describing his performance of the Burleske by Richard Strauss, and the Konzertstück by Weber which he played with ‘the most subtle panache’.

Philip taught at the Royal Academy of Music in London until the early 1990s when he joined the faculty of Trinity College of Music. Since 2000 he has been pianist with the London Piano Quartet which had a residency at the Dartington International Summer School.

Philip Fowke has recorded for many labels. His earliest recording, made in 1975, is of Saint-Saëns’s Le Carnaval des Animaux; the other piano is played by Peter Katin, with the Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Alexander Gibson. It is a fresh and bracing reading. In September 1980 Fowke was soloist in a recording for Unicorn-Kanchana of the Piano Concerto by Arthur Bliss with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and David Atherton: he became associated with this work, playing it often. One of Fowke’s best discs is Virtuoso Transcriptions for Piano on the CRD label. Recorded in 1981 this contains transcriptions by Rachmaninov, Busoni, Tausig, a wonderfully poetic performance of The Lark by Glinka transcribed by Balakirev, and one of the best modern recordings of Arabesques on themes from An der schönen blauen Donau by Adolf Schulz-Evler. The recording captures all of Philip Fowke’s subtle tone colouring. In 1983 Philip recorded the complete waltzes of Chopin, incorporating variants from three different editions. He often plays in the fashion of the pianists of the past, highlighting inner voices, making subtle changes on repeats and generally enjoying himself, and by doing so, giving delight to his listeners. In the mid-1980s he recorded various concertos for EMI. With the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Wilfried Boettcher he recorded a big, romantic version of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 as well as the rarely-heard No. 3 in E flat Op. 75; whilst with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Yuri Temirkanov there is an excellent Rachmaninov disc of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 and the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini Op. 43. Although again, playing with great dramatic sweep, Fowke finds time to highlight details that are often missed.

From 1987 come Philip’s vivid accounts of Chopin’s two mature piano sonatas. In both he displays drama, exciting climaxes and an overall sense of structure. The scherzos of each are played with lightness and an avoidance of inappropriately fast tempi. The following year he recorded both of Ravel’s piano concertos and his Valses nobles et sentimentales. He also appears as soloist in Gerald Finzi’s Grand Fantasia and Toccata for Piano and Orchestra Op. 38 with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Richard Hickox.

The 1990s saw Fowke as duo partner with horn player Michael Thompson in a recital disc for EMI; and for Unicorn-Kanchana he recorded the Piano Concerto by Frederick Delius with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Norman Del Mar. As his career turned more to teaching, adjudicating and giving classes, Philip recorded less, but found time to make a disc for Chandos of piano music by Arthur Bliss which includes two première recordings. For Naxos Philip Fowke has recorded the Sonata for Piano and Horn by Franz Danzi, again with Thompson; and a disc entitled Piano Concertos from the Movies where he plays works such as Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto and Hubert Bath’s Cornish Rhapsody.

For those who prefer to read interviews, the transcript:

Melanie: British concert pianist Philip Fowke made his BBC Proms debut in 1979 and since then has played all around the world to great claim. He has a huge and varied repertoire, and I am so pleased he’s joining me here today at Steinway Hall in London for a classical conversation. Welcome.

Philip:  Thank you very much.

Melanie: Thank you for joining me.

Philip:  Great pleasure.

Melanie:  I’m going to start by asking you, what about your musical education? How old you were when you started. What was the catalyst, do you come from a musical family?

Philip:  Well no I didn’t come from a musical family particularly, but my parents were always very supportive. But it all began really with my sister Alison.  My older sister, and she was learning the piano, and I remember so vividly Melanie the day, that the upright piano was delivered to the house and I was a boy of about four years old. It came into the house and I can see it vividly in my mind’s eye, and no sooner had it been unwrapped and all the rest of it, but I sat down at the chair and started making up tunes. I was about four when it began.

Melanie:  But which teachers then do you think were crucial in your development?

Philip: I could get on my soapbox about this one, teachers, he said in parenthesis, but anyway, I hope there are no teachers out there listening to me. But anyway, no seriously, I was very fortunate to go to a school called Milford and it was run by this lovely lady called Miss France, Ursula France. And the school had probably been running since the 1930’s, you know, lovely, lovely place. And she was really quite an able pianist herself and I was fascinated watching her play the hymns in various sorts of dance classes because we did musical movement in the 1950’s, all good stuff. She invited me to play during milk break and being an intrinsic show-off, which I try so hard not to be, I sat down and made up tunes and harmonized things and she gave me my first lessons, and very good ones they were too. So I remember those well. In other words Melanie, she allowed me to just do the stuff, muck around at the keyboard in front of people instead of this tyranny  some people have of primers and middle C and fingers, one, two, three, four and literally, the gravitational pull of middle C I think has caused more trouble than you can possibly say.

Melanie: Yes, it is quite bizarre, that isn’t it?

Philip:  Why middle C? Why is it not A? Anyway, we won’t get into that.

Melanie: How did you develop your technique then? As you, As you..developed…

Philip: Well, what happened after Miss France, she got me to a particular point and felt that I needed, perhaps a little bit more strict guidance, and so she passed me on to a wonderful, wonderful musician called Marjorie Withers. And Marjorie, lived in Gerrards Cross, where I did and my family did and she was an extraordinarily gifted pianist and a gifted teacher of children and I was just so lucky. But she was immensely inventive about ways of practising, about exercises, scales, strengthening your fingers, you know all that kind of stuff. She presented it in such a way and gave me those pieces that I liked, that it built up those kinds of things, but she was very much into finger independence and all that. So when I was 6 or 7, you know I was really into that kind of thing and loved it.

Melanie:  You enjoyed doing that.

Philip:  I loved it. I used to make up my own exercises and it’s gone on from there.

Melanie: Right.

Philip: I’ve always, always enjoyed doing that and, I’m not giving you a moment to ask me any questions am I? It’s terrible.

Melanie:  It’s superb.

Philip: I do apologize. But anyway, I’m a great believer, having performed a lot, and taught also a great deal that I feel there’s not enough emphasis put on just mucking about, improvisation.

Melanie:  Yes, improvisation.

Philip:  You say how does one develop technique, I mean what is technique? it’s so many things, not just the ability to put down the right notes, to make the sounds and patterns and voicing and articulation, eveness, all these things, and also, it’s not just the question of the fingers, it’s the arms, the eyes, the whole body. I had a fascination in those days with, well I loved syncopation, it’s the 1950’s, people like Billy Mayerl were still playing on the radio. The good old light programme, ghastly Radio Two! My idol was, well idols were Winifred Atwell and Russ Conway and I used to imitate them and I would listen to their records very, very, very closely and reproduce them. Of course, I was giving myself, unbeknownst to me, a tremendous aural training.

Melanie: Yes.

Philip:  And, I think I would say a fortune, and meantime, Marjorie Withers was putting me through exams and I was doing Beethoven, I was doing Grieg, the standard repertoire.

Melanie: Yes, you’ve participated in quite a lot of competitions, do you think that….

Philip: Well, you say that.

Melanie: No?

Philip: Well, if I give that impression, I don’t want to sort of dispell it, but I mean we jump ahead and I went to the Royal Academy, and studied with the great and wonderful Gordon Green.

Melanie:  Yes.

Philip:  And he had a very ambivalent view to competitions, which I think in a sense, we all rather absorbed, but I, I was never happy in the competition arena, but I was also in that unfortunate situation where people saw my playing as very much competition kind of playing. And so I was in a very unhappy place for me because I felt an obligation, whilst not enjoying them at all and so I had limited success in the few competitions I did.

Melanie:  Yes.

Philip: No, that’s not me playing. For example I did do Leeds twice, and I got into the second round the second time around. I did Tchaikovsky and got into the third round. But the one I did succeed in was the first Sydney Piano competition, when I was in the finals, didn’t win, but I had the great experience of being in the finals and playing Rachmaninov 3rd (Concerto) in the Sydney Opera House.

Melanie:  Yes, and that must have helped your career a little bit, or did you feel that it didn’t really?

Philip:  Well, no I didn’t think it did and my great sadness, it’s  nice to be able to voice it here, if anybody’s listening out there, I have never been back to Australia since.

Melanie: Really? Well that’s a pity isn’t it?

Philip:  And I, so dearly would love to have gone. I still would like to, but it hasn’t happened. So no, it didn’t help at all.

Melanie:  Do you have a particular practice regime?

Philip:  Well, I did. And I always remember, this is a wonderful moment, a sweet moment when I can drop names. But Ashkenazy said to me, that if anybody needs to practice more than four hours, then they’re in the wrong business. And I think that there is a tremendous amount of truth in that. I think today, in the competitive arena where you have it, youngsters practice frantically, feverishly, addictively and it has its place, we all do it, it’s all very well me saying that 40 years on, but I was a very methodical worker and I did work hard, especially when learning new repertoire on short notice, you’re just forced to have to do it. But, I think it’s become too much now, I think that there are too many, what I call, microwaved performances.

Melanie:  Yes.

Philip: And I’m sure everybody knows what I mean by microwaved performances. I’ve done them myself. The repertoire or the piece is just not cooked through, it’s hot, it’s fine, it’s presentable, it tastes alright, but it’s not, you know, it really hasn’t bedded in.  And you have to record and perform on that basis, and I think it’s a tremendous strain, and I’m sure Melanie, it accounts to some degree why so many young people these days are running into physical problems, which was far less common when I was their age. And I think this has a direct bearing, you know I’d love to say that music, when I hear a student playing to me, I always say, please don’t play at me, play to me.

Melanie:  Yeah.

Philip: And so often it’s this feeling of, being sort of, I’ve been aurally mugged. Music exists in silence, it can’t exist unless there’s silence, one wants to hear the silence in music, and there isn’t really time for that these days, everybody’s in such a rush.

Melanie: You play a lot of unusual repertoires, a lot of premieres, do you really specifically love doing this, or is it an interest?

Philip:  Well, a lot of premieres, I’m just trying to think what they are. It’s flattering that you say that. I don’t think it’s a lot of premieres, but I have done some first recordings of pieces.

Melanie:  And a lot of unusual repertoire……

Philip: Certainly unusual repertoire, yes, but again you know Melanie, it was especially with starting out, and I think for youngsters today, you’ve got to have a peg, if you’re doing that, and you’ll get the date, or the BBC will take you up or whatever, and it looks good to be commissioning new music. I never commissioned a piece, I was too scared of what might be presented. I don’t know whether this is going to be cut, but anyway, but  I did premiere a fine piece by John McCabe, The Haydn Variations, which he wrote for me, and that was great, but I don’t know that I’ve been entirely comfortable in that arena, I think I’m rather more traditionally grounded, what I love doing when teaching is working at contemporary scores, no matter how abstruse they may be or complex. The one thing I will not do and I will absolutely not do it, is anything to do with prepared piano or fiddling around with strings, or hitting, that is unethical to me and I know that’ll be controversial if this goes out, but I think the piano is a piano, if you want to invent another instrument, by all means, but leave this alone.

Melanie: How did you become interested in the piano music of Sir Arthur Bliss, because you’ve done several recordings and the piano concerto.

Philip: Well, yes, that’s quite a story Melanie, we have to go back to 1973, there was a wonderful, wonderful musician, teacher, pianist, composer,called Ruth Gibbs, and she died, oh, possibly twenty years ago, but she ran a marvelous orchestra called the London Repertoire Orchestra, which was a sort of rehearsal orchestra, which also did dates and all that. She was a great fan of the Bliss piano concerto, and I had just won the National Federation’s as it was, the Music Society’s Award, that’s the one thing I did win. And I had also done quite well in the BBC Piano Competition as was before it transmodified into the Young Musician of the Year.

Melanie:  Oh, Okay.

Philip: And, I was sort of quite a young up and coming pianist and she got hold of me and said Philip, I want you to do the Bliss Piano Concerto, and of course I said, yeah, I’ll do it, went down and bought the music, as one did.

Melanie:  Yes.

Philip:   Not having even heard the damned thing. I shouldn’t say that, it’s a beautiful thing.

Melanie:  It is, quite a shock though.

Philip:  Oh, it was a tremendous shock, it was a big date, it was at the Fairfield Hall, with the London Repertoire Orchestra, it’s a professional group, and I only had, that was the beginning of what really became a habit, I suppose, four months to learn it, and because I wasn’t used to that kind of learning, in those days, and I can remember Melanie, having a real panic, about a month or six weeks before saying to, phoning up Ruth, saying, she was known as Widd, saying I’ll do this, but I want to use the music, I just can’t, it’s just not, and she said pooh, pooh, of course you can do it and put the phone down. It was probably the best thing she could do.

Melanie:  No.

Philip:  I just, had to do it.

Melanie: Had to do it.

Philip:  And, you know, occasionally you need that kind of treatment, so she gave me a smack on the wrist, which was good. And I did it, and then it became quite a piece.

Melanie:  Yes, he’s written some great pieces.

Philip:   Sadly, I just missed Arthur himself because I went to the house up in Marlborough Place in St. John’s Wood, to run it, to play it to Stansfield, but he was very ill, he actually did,

Melanie:  What a shame.

Philip:  He had just died, just, before I could do it, but dear Trudy, his widow then, came to the concert and he had only died about two weeks before.

Melanie:   Oh gosh, that’s such a shame.

Philip:  So that was when we became good friends after that she was very supportive.

Melanie:   Yeah, you recorded a lot of his, probably all of his piano music I would say.

Philip:    Not all of his piano music, but a fair amount of it. That was a few years ago for Chandos, and I had hoped that a few more things would happen but life simply had said not yet.

Melanie:  Which venues have you loved playing in? What’s your favourite?

Philip:    Well now that’s, of course one, it’s difficult, I mean the Wigmore Hall has such associations and it’s such an instrument in its own right, it’s warm and I just love those cinema tip up seats. I feel, in its refurbishment it’s lost a little bit of the old style, it had a certain sort of, sort of, shabby glamour and it’s lost that. Even the two gas lights that used to be on the side of the stage didn’t they, they went, little things like that. But, it has a beautiful acoustic, I’m afraid to say the Festival Hall, it’s like playing a huge aircraft hanger. But the hall I like  in London, which people don’t necessarily like architecture is the Barbican Hall, I find that actually a pleasant place and the dear old Fairfield Hall, is a lovely, lovely hall to play in.

Melanie:   What exciting plans have you got for the future?

Philip:    Not much, I’m not one of these people with great plans and projects because, you know I had this very pressured quite high profile performing career at the age of, well my middle forties and throughout the time, leading up to that, I always enjoyed teaching very much.

Melanie:   Yes

Philip:    Really backed off performing. But my last Prom was the Warsaw Concerto, that was a few years ago now, and that was televised, but no I haven’t got, the thing is Melanie, and this is perhaps an opportunity on this medium. I find that the whole business of music making, performing and specifically the piano, but in general, has become so, sort of packaged, so promoted.

Melanie:   Yes.

Philip:   I just find that we’ve lost, you know I like, just to sit down and play, if I feel in the mood. I just sit down and play. What I feel like, without having a theme to it, it’s got to include all this, or all that, and the other thing I absolutely live in dread of are Anniversaries.

Melanie:   Yes.

Philip:   You have all these things, why can’t one just play? And the reason that you can’t just play what you want and when you want is because it’s all so competitive.

Melanie:   It is.

Philip:   You got to plan it, you have to have an angle and all that. I want the angle to be me, rather sort of selfishly. Is anybody out there, it’s me, if you want me to play, you know, e-mail me and I’ll come and play. When I fancy playing.

Melanie:  You heard it here!! What does playing the piano mean to you?

Philip:   That’s a toughie. What’s it mean to me? You floored me on that one. I think slightly, not answering your question, but I am meaning to answer the question. For me, performing, was always something that, it seemed that I was good at, and that I was encouraged to do. I was always labelled as a showman,  even in my reviews and all that, and I know that I have got that in a way. But that’s part of it, you know it’s like the iceberg, you see what’s above the water, but what’s below the water is even greater and perhaps more significant. I have had a rather ambivalent attitude toward performing over the years, I find, the thing about performing, which a lot of people, and I include myself, can find quite hard, is the balance between doing something which is so intensely private in public. And I think that’s what I have found problematic at various times of my life. You’re on stage and you’re sharing something immensely private.

Melanie:  Yes.

Philip:   So what’s the piano mean to me? It’s very rare that I would go to a piano and sit down and play it much now, I mean it’s so rare, I mean I just recently got rid of my pianos.

Melanie:  Really? That’s amazing.

Philip:   But, having had, and I was known for my beautiful pianos in my well known studio in London.

Melanie:  Yes, yes.

Philip:   But I’m, I find, and I’ve had my pianos, beautiful ones for thirty, forty years.

Melanie:   Sure.

Philip:    All of that, and it’s been wonderful, but I found, when I went to concerts, that the pianos weren’t a patch on my own, and now I find that I am happy to play anything, and I don’t have to compare it to my own, nor do I have to tune it, regulate it, turn it, voice it, heat it, light it, no anything, I just play other people’s pianos, free, you know. I’ve got this place, it’s come a long way.

Melanie:   Of Course.

Philip:   So, I’m sort of quite happy about that, but, I don’t know if I have quite answered your question, what does it mean to me? I think in my teaching, I have always wanted to make it clear to my students, that they don’t have to do it, whilst encouraging them as well, I hope.

Melanie:   Yeah.

Philip:  But I think that we live in a climate today where if a child shows what is perceived as talent, sometimes it’s over-inflated, doesn’t mean to say that you have got to be a professional musician.

Melanie:  No.

Philip:   And I think that the future music making life certainly supports this, and I do a lot of work with for example adult amateurs, but I think the word amateur has become rather pejorative, it means less than good. I think it means no such thing. I’ve come across amateurs that are immensely gifted and more gifted than some people who are struggling professionally, but they just didn’t go down that road. I think that you know, music making in people’s homes, on the upright piano, that kind of thing, we’ve lost that spontaneity.

Melanie:  Definitely.

Philip: And I think that is a grievous loss. And I think modern technology is wonderful, it bamboozles me half the time, but it is marvelous, I can see all that. But when I see an iPod, or all these iPhones, I think of the wind up record, which I still have, turning up the thing and all the hissing and all the rest of it, and nothing is lost and a great deal is gained you know Melanie, because I’ve kept my machine, and occassionaly when I play some of my collection, to you know students, young musicians in their twenties, even later, they are so amazed by the quality of sound, for one thing, but the sense of performance because these recordings weren’t taped, it was just one take. You could do several takes, but it was still one take. You know, so there are a few blemishes and fluffs, the reality of performance. And part of performing is to share your vulnerability. Now a days, people don’t want to know about vulnerability, you’ve got to be rock solid, it’s got to be glitteringly perfect, and I think with that, you lose that sense of warmth and humanness, if someone does get rid of it, not that you would wish. I think it has become a little bit contrived.

Melanie:  Thank you so much for joining me today, Philip.

Philip:  It’s been a pleasure.


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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.