Murray McLachlan plays Piano Sonata No. 5 by John McLeod

I wrote last week about the Overseas Masters Winter Piano Academy held at the Yehudi Menuhin School (you can read the post here). Students and teachers could enjoy the recitals and lectures given by the faculty during the evenings.

Scottish pianist Murray McLachlan is Head of Keyboard at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, and Professor of Piano at the Royal Northern College of Music. Murray (pictured above) presented a lecture and a recital at the OMWPA. Whilst the lecture focussed on his new book, The Foundations of Piano Technique published by Faber Music, the recital consisted of two piano favourites, which were juxtaposed with a new piece written by Scottish composer John McLeod. Murray is a keen champion of new music, and he commissioned McLeod to write a sonata.

The concert began with Chopin’s beautiful Berceuse in D flat major Op. 57. Murray spoke briefly about each work beforehand; this is a really good idea, and establishes an immediate rapport with audience members (I wish musicians would always introduce pieces). After claiming the Berceuse to be ‘a sugary, sweet introduction’, he gave a committed account, the increasingly complex passagework and filigree was delicately played, effectively characterizing the musical line.

Next came the John McLeod work; Piano Sonata No. 5 (2013). Murray has spent the last few months performing this work, both in the UK and abroad , and has no doubt lived with it for much longer) It was interesting to hear the similarities in terms of structure and concentration of ideas to that of Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor (which concluded this concert). The harmonic language however, is totally different from Liszt’s.

A work in one movement, with two dominating themes. The first is a bitingly dissonant motif, which catapults its way all around the keyboard. Highly chromatic and breathtakingly dramatic, it’s both exciting, captivating, and occasionally, terrifying! The second theme is more lyrical, with a gentler waltz-like feel, providing the necessary relief and contrast. The two motifs are akin to completely different ‘characters’ who continue to banter, never feeling completely settled; there are countless moments of virtuosity and sudden changes of mood, as the spikey dissonant theme persistently tries to take charge.

The performance was full of drama and pathos; both themes were given their own colour and personality. Murray made light work of the copious complicated figurations, many running the length and breadth of the keyboard, requiring scintillating virtuosity and power. Yet amidst the turmoil, there were flashes of tenderness, passion and reflection too. A tremendous tour de force of piano playing (and memory), and a compelling, provocative work, which will hopefully receive the attention it deserves.

The recital ended with one of the great piano masterpieces of the Nineteenth Century. Liszt’s Piano Sonata B minor S. 178 had been reworked by the composer many times (as Murray pointed out in his introduction), yet it consistently sounds fresh and enthralling. This rendition was given a real sense of space (tempos were always well judged); themes were elegantly stated, and the work was given a clear sense of architecture and structure.

After a tumultuous reception, two encores ensured; one by Ronald Stevenson (with whom Murray studied), and the other, by Scriabin. The inclusion of a large-scale Twenty-First Century work in between Romantic favourites is an extremely effective way of presenting commissions or ‘new music’, and this superb concert proves the success of such a format.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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