Ian Fountain in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The thirty-third Classical Conversation in my series features British concert pianist Ian Fountain. We chatted at the Royal Academy of Music earlier this month, where Ian is professor of piano.

In 1989 Ian Fountain became the youngest winner of the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Masters Competition in Tel Aviv at the age of 19. He began playing the piano at the age of five and he was a chorister at New College, Oxford. He continued his studies at Winchester College and at the Royal Northern College of Music, working with Robert Bottone and Sulamita Aronovsky.

Since that time Ian has performed extensively throughout Europe, the USA, the Middle East and the UK, with orchestras such as the London Symphony Orchestra with Sir Colin Davis, Philharmonia, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Hallé, English Chamber Orchestra and London Philharmonic Orchestra. He has also worked with the Israel Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra with Jiri Belohlavek, RTE Dublin with Gunther Herbig, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Vienna Chamber Orchestra, Warsaw Philharmonic, Jerusalem Symphony, Utah Symphony and Singapore Symphony Orchestra. In Moscow he played Brahms Bb Piano Concerto to open the 1992/1993 season of the Great Hall of the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire and in Poland he was invited to mark the 150th anniversary of Chopin’s death by playing both Chopin concertos in Krakow.

As a recitalist Ian has appeared in major centres such as New York, Paris, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Tel Aviv and Chicago whilst in London he has given several recitals at the Wigmore Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall. He is a regular guest of international festivals such as Schleswig-Holstein, Berlin, Kuhmo, Prague, Davos, Bucharest and Hambach.

Engagements in the recent past and in the near future include a complete Beethoven concerto cycle with Sinfonia ViVa, performances at the Prague Spring and Autumn Festival and the Chopin Festival in Marienbad, Czech Republic. In March 2005 he performed the Beethoven Triple Concerto in Warsaw in the Beethoven Festival and in July 2005 he appeared with the Czech National Orchestra at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. A recent season highlight of his recital tours with cellist David Geringas was a complete cycle of Beethoven works for cello and piano at the Philharmonie in Berlin.

As a chamber music player Ian Fountain enjoys many longstanding collaborations with musicians such as Ulf Hoelscher, David Geringas and the Mandelring and Emperor Quartets performing in concerts and festivals throughout Europe, Japan and Korea. He has also recently embarked on a conducting career and plays and directs from the keyboard.

Ian Fountain has made several critically acclaimed recordings: for EMI (recital of 20th century sonatas); CRD (Beethoven Diabelli Variations); CPO (Max Bruch Piano Quintet); Meridian (‘Non-Beethoven’ Diabelli Variations) and Hessischer Rundfunk (Schumann Novellettes).Since 2001 Ian Fountain has been a piano professor at the Royal Academy of Music.

The transcript for those who prefer to read interviews:

Melanie: British concert pianist Ian Fountain was the youngest ever winner of the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition and he enjoys a highly successful career. He’s also professor of piano here at the Royal Academy of Music in London where he’s joining me today for a Classical Conversation. Welcome.
Ian: Nice to see you.
Melanie: Great to chat to you today. I want to start by asking all about your musical education, how old you were when you started, what was the catalyst, did you come from a musical family?
Ian: I come from a musical family. I was one of those people who was lucky enough to be born with a certain hearing for music, so I could pick out tunes very easily on the piano when I was already very young and my parents therefore got the impression that I might be a little bit musical, so they started me with lessons. I didn’t really want to have lessons to start with, of course, because I could play tunes, somehow, quite easily and I didn’t really see the need to go through the hassle of learning music and how to read and all that, but gradually, I got into all that, and then, I was sent off to a choir school in Oxford, which involved mostly singing actually, so there wasn’t much practising of the piano involved in those days. We got, if I remember correctly, about 20 minutes a day before breakfast, so it was kind of boarding set up there. So, I can remember we practiced roughly from 7:15 until 7:35 or 7:40 or something every morning and until I was about twelve that was the extent of my practicing of the piano which is pretty shocking actually.
Melanie: Unusual. But of course, singing was a good way to start?
Ian: In a way, it was musical education first and the piano was just the instrument which I could play most easily. I also tried to play the violin, but I found that absolutely impossible. I still do whenever I try to play it.
Melanie: So, which teachers then do you think were crucial in your development?
Ian: Well, a bit later on I came to a lady called Sulamita Aronovsky here in London and that was when I was about 16….
Melanie: Quite a lot later then.
Ian: So, quite a lot later, and in a way, the years before that were quite difficult because, by then, I was incredibly enthusiastic about music and playing the piano. That’s all I wanted to do, but I had no idea what I was doing, you know, I was full of intentions, but very little technique and very little know-how with the instrument. So, those years were quite tricky and I was telling people I wanted to be a pianist and they were saying well, you know, maybe, you know, that’s nice, but, you know, keep studying other things, but somehow with Mrs. Aronovsky, she knocked me into shape, if that’s what it was.
Melanie: Yes, so how did you develop your technique then?
Ian: Well…..
Melanie: Obviously quite late.
Ian: Fairly late, you know, I mean, I had – I think a certain natural-
Melanie: Must have been.
Ian: Some sort of affinity with the instrument, but equally that’s just the basis. You know, there’s so much you have to know about everything, of course. And so, all that was crammed into actually quite a short period because from period 16, 17, 18 were incredibly demanding growing years as a pianist.
Melanie: So, what did you do to develop your technique? Did you work on studies or did you work on the technique through pieces?
Ian: I was never given the studies.
Melanie: Wow.
Ian: Fortunately.
Melanie: Yes!
Ian: And, believe me, I never give them, you know, now I’m a teacher and I always feel that music contains everything you need to know about how to move your fingers and when you start taking that out of context of music then that to me can, and often does, create quite an unhealthy sense that we’re not serving music when we play an instrument. We’re actually doing something for the sake of moving the fingers correctly, and so, I’m- I don’t regret it that it was that way, but it’s just a certain school of music making.
Melanie: So, you won the Arthur Rubinstein prize at a very young age, 19, and what impact, do you think, had this on your career?
Ian: Well, it was quite a big moment obviously, but equally I was, I mean, barely 19. I was hardly out of short trousers. So, it was, in a way, a massive leap into the unknown, and I’m looking back, who knows if it was not too early for many things because I had very little experience of anything, you know, let alone playing – I had to play Brahms’ Concerto with Mr. Mehta. You know, the only time I played that piece before was with an amateur orchestra a couple of years earlier.
Melanie: Quite a change.
Ian: And, of course, only the greatest, you know, the Mozarts or the Barenboims are fully formed as a musician when they’re at that kind of age. I think that’s generally a difficult thing, but people tend to get judged and put in their niche very, very early in life. Not necessarily, but the process of becoming a musician is, you know, a very, very long road.
Melanie: You had to learn, kind of, on the road as it were, yes?
Ian: On the road, yes. So, you’re always playing new pieces and often in very exposed places and under very critical gaze and not everyone has the, you know, the possibility to do everything in an organized way. If you say no to something, then you’ll probably – you missed your moment, but equally sometimes, if you say yes, it’s wrong as well.
Melanie: Do you think competitions are still a good way to establish a career for young pianists today?
Ian: I don’t think they establish a career. They don’t even, in some cases, even give you a helping hand. They sometimes give you a bit of encouragement that what you’re doing is okay and that you’re on the right tracks and that’s obviously valuable, but it seems the competition world is actually in a healthier state than the concert world, I sometimes get that impression.
Melanie: That’s interesting.
Ian: Because many towns now have a very well-funded competition with lavish prize money and sponsors all over the place and in the same town the orchestra has had to cut their season and sack players, the chamber music series doesn’t exist anymore because the subscribers have all disappeared and gone on somewhere else and youth orchestras are less than they were. But, somehow, competitions – maybe people like competitiveness. So, I think it’s more of a problem what’s happening with the concert life, those players, if they are invited to give a recital, they’ll be offered a miserable fee sometimes, for playing their heart out and months of preparation. So, I don’t blame anybody who wants to take part in those competitions. It is a way of performing and learning your craft.
Melanie: Getting yourself out there. Which composers do you like to play?
Ian: I’ve always played, I hope, a very wide amount of repertoire. I think, nowadays, I’m very much focusing towards the classical, which I didn’t so much before, I just played all the Mozart concertos and finally after- it took me nearly- just over 25 years to learn 25 concertos basically, but you know, methodically, I’ve tried to go through them all. So, now I’m looking for a chance to do them all in a season. That would be something I’d really like to try to do, and do a lot of Schubert as well, which I always avoided when I was slightly younger, don’t know why. There’s never a time when you really feel that you’re on top of music like that, but time’s going to run out so you’ve got to get going.
Melanie: There you go. Do you have a particular practice routine?
Ian: I have various ways of practising depending on what I’m trying to do. So, if I’m relearning a piece for the 10th time, there’s going to be a different approach. I like to play through consistently from beginning to end, just like I’m going to do it in the concert. Yes, I find that very helpful. You learn all kinds of things, you know. You learn where the weak points in your concentration are, where your hand gets tired and you don’t actually learn those things when you just practice bits. You may polish them up very finely and it might be wonderful, but then you actually come to play it and then you realize you need a completely different fingering.
Melanie: Yes, yes.
Ian: Did you ever find that?
Melanie: I did, yes.
Ian: You know? That you learn a piece really well, but then when you’re on the stage you suddenly realize oh, god, I need the thumb here because this poor little fourth finger doesn’t make the sound, but you can kind of get a hint of those feelings if you play through it a lot. But, of course, when you learn a new piece, you have to find out what on earth you’re doing.
Melanie: You’re a professor here at Royal Academy. What do you love about teaching and how’s your teaching evolved, do you think?
Ian: I’ve really enjoyed the work here and I think it’s very hard to teach. It’s really demanding. Also, physically, I’m absolutely exhausted after a day of teaching. You know, in a way, it’s much more tiring than playing yourself because there’s no letup of it. You have to, somehow, see into the students, what’s making them tick or not tick.
Melanie: It’s very psychological.
Ian: It’s just very psychological. Yes, absolutely. You have to really get a sense of what kind of personal approach they need. Some need bullying almost or they have to be pushed and others are too delicate for that, they have to be cajoled and persuaded and enticed. All of them have to be inspired, though. All that you can really hope for is to inspire them with your own enthusiasm for the subject and for the music. I want to be sympathetic. I like that they feel that I’m a fellow sufferer, you know, and teacher shouldn’t forget that it’s difficult what they’re asking them to do.
Melanie: Yes. You also do a lot of conducting, so how did-
Ian: Not a lot.
Melanie: Not a lot?
Ian: But, I’m trying to build it up a bit and let me call myself a conductor, but I’ve always wanted to do that because I’ve always been involved in orchestral, or interested in orchestral music. It’s another way of learning music as well and I’ve always tried to learn my scores I need to conduct by memory. So, how to do that, that’s another- you talked about practice regimes. On the piano, you learn everything physically and you learn it through the sensations of your fingers and your feet, but in conducting, you’re just sitting there and you’re reading a score and, somehow, you have to abide by everything it says and that, at the moment, that takes me absolutely ages. It takes me months and months to learn a piece whereas the same kind of piece I could learn in a 10th of the time on the piano, because I know how to do it with the piano, but I don’t really know how to do it with conducting, but it will come with experience, but, it’s a great thrill for me and I like, also, the feeling of starting something from the beginning. So, I feel like I did when I was 16 and playing the piano again.
Melanie: What’s your most treasured musical memory?
Ian: When I was very small, when I was maybe 10 years old, I can recall a day when I first felt the power of music, which I hadn’t until then because as a child you’re just- you’re doing something because you’re capable and you have to do it, but I remember I had to learn the Schubert Impromptu in A flat which has a very melancholy middle section in C sharp- this theme, and one morning, I was practising that and, suddenly, the power of this expression and this middle section, it really hit me like that, you know, really, for the first time, and I always remember that as the kind of moment of revelation about music and that’s always stayed with me.
Melanie: What are your future plans?
Ian: Next week, I’m going to play a concert in Berlin of the Philharmonie with my longtime ‘cello colleague David Geringas. We’ve been doing a series there with all the Beethoven sonatas for piano and cello as pianists call them there, ‘cellists call them ‘cello sonatas.
Melanie: That’s right.
Ian: And we’re doing also in each programme some other composers. So, we did Mahler in the first one, Hindemith in the second one, and this one has Strauss, the Sonata in F, also the Romance in F which is just a wonderful piece as well, and then, I’m going to play a Mozart concerto in Oxford, and then, I’m going to be on the jury of a competition, a Scottish International Competition.
Melanie: Quite varied.
Ian: Yes, I like to have some variety. Although, not too much, luckily though. I don’t have the chance to do too many things, the same things.
Melanie: What does playing the piano mean to you?
Ian: I never find this easy to answer because I feel what really fascinates me has always been music and the piano is the medium through which I can express that. Piano, in itself, is my instrument, but its real value is what it can do. It’s not quite the same thing. I went through a phase of being, you know, fascinated by the piano in itself, you know, my Horowitz phase, you know, every pianist has a teenage Horowitz phase. I was fascinated by what it could do lyrically, you know, and the balance, the fast stuff, isn’t so interesting to me, but this kind of fascination with the piano is something else, of course, but nowadays I feel music is my kind of needing impulse. It gives me a chance to do it.
Melanie: Thank you very much for joining me today.
Ian: It was a pleasure.
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.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Emilie says:

    How fascinating that he developed his technique so late in his teens!

  2. Piano Music says:

    This is a great article . i am very happy , thanks for sharing with us .

    1. Thank you. Really glad you enjoyed it 🙂

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