Hamish Milne in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The thirty-second Classical Conversation features British concert pianist and professor of piano at the Royal Academy of Music, Hamish Milne. We met last month at Jaques Samuel Pianos in London to chat about his life and work.

Hamish has appeared as soloist with most of the leading British orchestras and has given over two hundred broadcasts for the BBC. Overseas engagements in recent years have taken him to the USA, the Far East, Africa and several countries of the former Soviet Union as well Western Europe. He is also well known as a chamber musician, formerly with the Parikian/Milne/Fleming Trio and currently with the Pro Arte Piano Quartet and the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble, appearing in London’s Wigmore Hall and at several major music festivals in the UK and abroad. In the past few seasons he gave concerts in Armenia, Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Georgia, Germany, Italy, Japan, South America and the USA as well as UK venues.

He has recorded for Chandos, CRD, Danacord, Decca and Hyperion labels. He has made a special study of the music of Nikolai Medtner and has performed his music on four continents and was prominently featured in the Medtner Festivals held in Moscow in 1995, 2006, 2007 and in a similar event in New York in March 2004. There is a discography of some twenty commercial CDs. Recent releases include Concertos by Holbrooke and Haydn Wood, described in the press as ‘An exemplary release’ (The Gramophone) and ‘Mesmerising’ (Fanfare, USA), Schubert’s ‘Trout Quintet’ with the ASM Chamber Ensemble and the first CD recording of the Russian Anatoly Alexandrov hailed by International Record Review as ‘altogether exceptional playing’. In 2005 an album of Russian Bach transcriptions was awarded the coveted ‘Diapason d’or’ in France. In 2007, Hyperion released the first ever recording of the Complete Skazki (Tales) by Medtner (2 CDs) which was a Gramophone Award nominee (Instrumental). His recent Busoni CD was also awarded the ‘Diapason d’or’.

He is a piano professor at the Royal Academy of Music and a Professor of the University of London.


Hamish in action……

And the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews…

Melanie Spanswick: British concert pianist, Hamish Milne, is Professor of Piano at the Royal Academy of Music here in London and, also, Professor at the University of London. He’s renowned for his interpretation of less familiar Romantic repertoire, and I’m delighted that he’s joined me here today at Jacques Samuel Pianos for a Classical Conversation. Welcome.

Hamish Milne: Thank you. Thanks for inviting me.

Melanie: Lovely to chat to you. I want to start by asking all about your musical education, how old you were when you started to play, what was the catalyst, and whether you come from a musical family?

Hamish: Ah, yes. My father was a music teacher actually, so there was music in my house all the time, you know? Both me and my brother we started the piano at about 7 which is quite late these days actually. It was post-war years. So, you know, things weren’t that easy. So, that’s probably why we started so late.

Melanie: Yes, but it doesn’t matter.

Hamish: No, not at all.

Melanie: Many people go on to do great things starting even later than that.

Hamish: No, it was a great advantage. I mean there was music in the house all the time.

Melanie: Yeah, sure sure. So, which teacher, then, do you think was crucial in your development as a pianist?

Hamish: Well, I studied with Harold Craxton at the Royal Academy. He was probably the most well-known teacher around at that time, and then completely by accident I studied for two years with Guido Agosti in Italy. I intended to go to Russia actually it was Cold War days, and actually the scholarship was canceled about three weeks before I was supposed to leave, which is why I ended up in Italy. But it was very positive actually, because I had a wonderful time with Agosti.

Melanie: So, how did you develop your technique? I always love to ask this question. Everyone’s so different.

Hamish: Well, I didn’t go through the mill in the sense that, you know, a lot of the French or Russian pianists have exercises- Mr.Craxton used to recommend Beringer’s exercises and later on I found Dohnányi’sfinger exercises which are very economical and somehow you seem to get away with doing more with actually less work so.

[Laughter]

So I mean there was a time when I did play them night or day actually, but that was a long time ago.

Melanie: And you specialized in less familiar Romantic repertoire, why? How did this come about? What makes you really interested in this genre?

Hamish: Well, I mean I’m a professional. I play what I’m asked to play basically.

[Laughter]

I think I probably got known for it because of my interest in MedtnerTherefore, I got associated with this kind of music. But actually, when I played chamber music I – In a way I probably prefer to play classical music actually.

Melanie: Oh, ok. That’s interesting. So it’s a solo-

Hamish: Yeah, it seems to be. I just seems to be the tag. I remember when there was a lot of music on radio Three, I was asked to learnobscure, enormous romantic concertos.

Melanie: Yes, I noticed that. But Nikolai Medtner, how did this come about, this interest, and how long have you-

Hamish: Again, complete accident. When, probably Robert Simpson was in the BBC he asked me to learn this enormous sonata, the so-called Night Wind Sonata, and I didn’t really know the music. And I got some huge volumes out of the library and found myself turning the pages, you know, beyond the one piece I was supposed to learn. And from that time I was completely hooked.

Melanie: So, what was the reason, do you think? What really draws you to his music?

Hamish: Well, I don’t know. He’s such a complete – I mean, I’m often asked this question. It’s quite hard to answer, but I find him actually to be such a complete composer. Actually, a superb craftsman, but there’s something rather just deep in the music. That sounds a bit corny, I know. But I mean, I can’t see a better way to express it. There’s some sort of philosophical content, and although he writes in a, for his time in a very conservative idiom. But there’s something uniquely personal about his language, which I find I just don’t get tired of and worked at it for many decades.

Melanie: Yes, have you played most of them, the solo repertoire?

Hamish: I’ve played all 14 sonatas except for 2. I’ve played all the concertos. I’ve played all the chamber music and all the short pieces as well. Not all of the songs, which are as great as any of his music, but it’s just not the right opportunity.

Melanie: Do you have a particular practice routine?

Hamish: Well, probably not anymore. I used to, you know, when I was – it was the first thing I did every day. You know, if I wasn’t going somewhere was to sit down at the piano. Now I tend to practice for what I have to do.

Melanie: You’re a professor of piano at the Royal Academy. What is it about teaching you love and how has your teaching evolved do you think over the years?

Hamish: I just enjoy it so much, because I don’t really have a method of teaching. You know, I listen to what the kids do. Well, I say kids, big kids.

[Laughter]

Melanie: Yes, Advanced students.

Hamish: I try to help them to do it better actually. I’ve never really taught children actually. I do acknowledge that that is when the real art of teaching begins. You know, because if somebody turns up in a conservatoire and they have been badly taught from a young age, it’s very very hard to unravel the problems which they have. But I really enjoy seeing, you know, what problems they have technically and, you know, how I would approach it. And I say “Why do they find it so difficult?”, and then I ask myself questions about my own playing. In fact, you know, if I didn’t play, I’m not sure I would want to teach very much. I just find the two things so intimately related.

Melanie: I’m a huge Bartok fan, and I love your book, Bartok: Life and Times. How did this come about, because it’s quite different from the Romantic repertoire, so do you love playing Bartok or is it more of an academic interest?

Hamish: No, I’ve always admired him as a composer and well, I love his music. I also admired him as a man. You know, he was an extraordinarily courageous individual. You know, he was not physically strong but mentally and emotionally. He was incredibly strong. He took a stand against Hitler. Probably long before anybody else did it too, and also to the reactionary forces in his own country. He was just sort of a man we can all admire. You know, you can’t say this about every composer.

[Laughter]

And that’s one of the things which attracts me to him, but his music, too. It’s just so incredibly original and unique, you’ve only got to hear a few bars and you know that’s Bartok. He’s just such an extraordinary man in every way.

Melanie: Which venues have you enjoyed performing in?

Hamish: Well, I suppose the Royal – some halls – if you’re talking about the actual acoustics of the venues then there are some linger in the memory. The Small Hall in St Petersburg particularly, the Caird Hall in Dundee, they’re all old fashioned shoe boxes, you know? Somehow you get this feeling that what you hear on the stage is exactly what they hear anywhere else in the hall. I think that’s the best compliment you can pay to any acoustic. I mean, there are many other very good halls, but those two just leap into my mind since you asked me that question.

Melanie: What’s your most treasured musical memory?

Hamish: This one, I think I can’t probably give enough thought to- are you talking about my own performances or-

Melanie Any, things that have influenced you.

Hamish: Well, it’s funny, you know, when you go to a concert, there are some, very few, that you will remember for years and years and years. And I suppose you don’t really remember everything else in the performance, but you remember the effect it had. I remember Constantine Silvestri conducting Poem of Ecstasy of Scriabin in the 70’s I should think, and I remember just going dizzy, you know, with excitement after that. Almost every time I heard Annie Fisher play. Gilels I heard many recitals by him at the end of his life. One in particular, I suppose it was the first time I heard him actually. It was one of the ones which really still lingers in the memory. I can actually remember what he played.

Melanie: I was about to say do you remember what he played?

Hamish: Well, often you remember concerts, you enjoy them, but not quite sure what they played.

Melanie: So, what are your future plans?

Hamish: Well, I have some recordings planned. And I’m getting quite old now so.

[Laughter]

So, I’ve reached the stage actually, you know, when people ask me to play, I’m very happy. And if they don’t ask me, I’m still quite happy so.

[Laughter]

That’s fine, too. The last date in my diary is actually March, next year. I’ll see what comes after that, but for the next 12 months I’ll be pretty busy.

Melanie: Busy, yes. What does playing the piano mean to you?

Hamish: What does it mean to me? That is a difficult question. Probably it’s access to music, you know? Liszt famously said ‘my 10 fingers canrepresent the 100 players of an orchestra’. And, of course, that’s not quite true, even in Liszt’s case. But, it is true that you have access to everything. When I was a kid I used to play through operas, when I was 16, playing through vocal scores. And I think that’s what it meant to me originally, but then of course I became older. As I became more professional, I became more interested in the finer points, shall we say of actually mastering the instrument, trying to find new things that it could do that I hadn’t discovered before. And still do, I still do that, you know, I find something fascinating about the instrument. Different instruments, too, and what you can persuade them to do.

Melanie: Thank you very much for joining me today.

Hamish: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


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