The Classical Conversations Series

The Classical Conversations Series is three years old today! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed chatting to forty pianists and teachers on camera, and when I began my series, this concept was fairly unusual. It’s been a privilege to speak to so many eminent musicians, gleaning their respective  inspirations, pianistic loves and musical journeys.

Whilst I invariably asked similar questions (each pianist received my intended questions beforehand and very few ever asked to change them), the answers were often incredibly different. I learnt so much about their repertoire choices, teachers, performance ideas, and perhaps the most fascinating subject was their practice regimes and just how they had honed and developed their techniques. Of course, some spoke more about this than others, but I particularly enjoyed hearing how they had become acclaimed performers. Approaches to piano competitions was  another contrary topic – with many differing, interesting views too.

It was my aim to capture their personalities, and hopefully allow my audience and readers a glimpse at the person behind the public image;  something which can only be achieved effectively on camera, and this is probably the main reason why the series has become popular.

I’m extremely grateful to all those who have taken part, and I relished the opportunity to film in a variety of locations; from the Wigmore Hall to agent’s headquarters, private homes, hotels, and several London music conservatoires (Royal College of Music, Royal Academy of Music and Guildhall School of Music and Drama). But I will be eternally thankful to Steinway Hall and Jaques Samuel Pianos (both in London), where the majority of the interviews took place.

As you can see from the videos, each one has been recorded and edited by me on a Panasonic Camcorder – and as several pianists noted – I was indeed a one woman show! Every interview depended entirely on my efforts, which was sometimes challenging. Interviews were generally recorded without a hitch, but occasionally, there were inevitable issues with my camera, plug sockets, uploading gremlins, or simply interviewees wanting to edit or start again! (which was fine by me).

I know many of you have enjoyed and appreciated these interviews, and have asked if I will be continuing with the series. Watch this space! I am increasingly busy with writing projects, but there are a few artists who I would still love to feature.

You can watch (or read – each interview has a transcript) the whole series here, but for now, here’s a trip down memory lane, with a selection of popular interviews, starting with my first guest, Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa, whom I met on a cold wet day in Cardiff – we recorded this interview at her hotel, between rehearsals for a live BBC broadcast:

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.



Second Anniversary of the Classical Conversations Series


My interview series, Classical Conversations, celebrates its second Anniversary today. I have interviewed thirty-nine eminent pianists and pedagogues on camera to date (number thirty-eight will be published later this week), and it has been such an interesting project. To mark the occasion The Music Teacher Magazine (published by Rhinegold) have very kindly featured my Series in their November edition, which is a celebration of the piano (see the photo above). The article focuses on just three pianists from the series (all Leeds Piano Competition prize winners; Noriko Ogawa, Artur Pizarro and Federico Colli), by publishing sections of their interview transcripts, where they mention their musical training, teachers and education.

I always ask fairly similar questions throughout the series, but the answers have been fascinating; completely diverse and eclectic. I’m eternally grateful to my first guest, Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa, who on a cold, rainy day in Cardiff freely gave her time to chat, just prior to going on stage for a performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto in C minor Op. 18 at the Millennium Centre. You can watch this interview by clicking on the  link below; it has already accumulated nearly 43,000 views on YouTube. Since then, the Series has become increasingly popular and I’ve had the good fortune to interview many of the world’s greatest concert pianists and teachers.

I hope my interviews establish the connection between the sometimes rather isolated figure on stage and the human being behind the musical mask. This is why speaking to each pianist in person on film is crucial, as it’s the best way of capturing their individual personalities and immediate responses to the questions (although I always send my proposed questions before the interview!). This series also appears to be a fairly unique concept, as there are few other collections of filmed interviews focusing purely on concert pianists. I’ve learnt so much from speaking to every pianist, and it has been a great privilege and pleasure to meet them all.

Most of the interviews have been filmed at establishments: Steinway Hall and Jaques Samuel Pianos have been popular, and I thank them for always granting permission to film. I also travel to artist’s homes, the Royal College of Music, Royal Academy of Music, Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Wigmore Hall too. Constantly changing the venue provides much-needed variety.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.

Boris Giltburg in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The thirty-fifth interview in my Classical Conversations Series features Israeli concert pianist Boris Giltburg, and we met at Jaques Samuel Pianos in London earlier this week to chat about his life and career.

Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg was born in 1984 in Moscow and has lived in Tel Aviv since early childhood. He began his piano studies with his mother at the age of five and went on to study with Arie Vardi. He has received many awards for international competitions, notably at Santander (top prize and Audience Prize, 2002) and the Rubinstein (2nd prize and Best Classical Concerto, 2011). In 2013 he received First Prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, as a result of which his already flourishing international career has been catapulted to a new level, with a packed diary of additional concert engagements across the globe. In the same year he was nominated for a Classic Brit (Critics’ Award).

Since his breakthrough appearance with the Philharmonia in 2007, Giltburg has been an annual visitor to the Royal Festival Hall in London, and made his BBC Proms debut in 2010 with the BBC Scottish Symphony. Last season he made his first concerto appearance in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, with the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, and gave his London Philharmonic debut. He is a popular guest with many UK orchestras and has also appeared with DSO Berlin, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, Royal Flemish Philharmonic, Swedish Radio Symphony, Danish Radio Symphony, Prague Symphony, to name a few. In autumn 2013 he played for the first time at the Vienna Musikverein and debuted with the St Petersburg Philharmonic.

Giltburg made his debut with the Israel Philharmonic in February 2005, and regularly appears with all the major orchestras and in the leading recital series in Israel, as well as playing chamber music with members of the Israel Philharmonic. Having toured the USA as a teenager with the Israel Chamber, he made his North American orchestra debut in 2007 with the Indianapolis Symphony. In January 2014 he appeared with the Seattle Symphony, and in 2015 with the Baltimore Symphony. He made his Tokyo debut in 2005, toured China for the first time in 2007, returning to give a recital at the NCPA in Beijing last season, and he played with the Hong Kong Philharmonic in 2010. He has toured South America several times every season since 2002. He has collaborated with conductors such as Alsop, Brabbins, De Waart, Dohnanyi, Entremont, Fedoseyev, Neeme Jaervi, Karabits, Krivine, Lintu, Luisotti, Petrenko, Saraste, Segerstam, Sokhiev, Soustrot, and Tortelier.

Giltburg has played recitals to audiences across Europe in major venues such as the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Vienna Konzerthaus, Munich Herkulessaal, Paris Louvre, Zurich Tonhalle, Wigmore Hall, Teatro San Carlo in Naples and Madrid Sony Auditorium. Festival appearances have included the Klavierfest am Ruhr, Schwetzingen, Luzern, Piano aux Jacobins and Cheltenham. Highlights of 2013/14 included recitals at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Brussels Palais des Beaux-Arts, and a return to London’s Southbank Centre (International Piano Series).

In August 2012 Giltburg released the Prokofiev ‘War’ sonatas on the Orchid label to excellent reviews worldwide, and appearing in Gramophone as ‘Editor’s Choice’: “These performances of Prokofiev’s three ‘War’ Sonatas eclipse all others on record – even those tirelessly and justifiably celebrated performances by Richter and Gilels” (Gramophone, October 2012). He has most recently recorded sonatas by Rachmaninov, Liszt and Grieg.

Boris in action:

And the transcript for those who prefer to read my interviews:

Melanie Spanswick: Israeli concert pianist, Boris Giltburg, won first prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels last year. He’s also been nominated for a Classic BRIT Award, as well as many other accolades. So I’m thrilled he’s taken the time from a very busy schedule to join me here today at Jaques Samuel Pianos in London for a Classical Conversation. Welcome.

Boris Giltburg: Hello, Melanie.

Melanie: Lovely to be chatting to you today.

Boris: Thank you, my pleasure.

Melanie: I’m going to start by asking about your education. I always start by asking what age you started, why you started, whether you come from a musical family.

Boris: I do. My mom, my grandma, and my great grandmother were music piano teachers. And we always had a piano at home. So, for me it, seemed absolutely obviousI should play. Whereas, to my mom, it seemed I perhaps should do something more practical, and she was quite against the idea that I play the piano. So I, at 5 years old, was denied something I really really really wanted it, and I insisted and I insisted until the point where she relented and started giving me lessons. And that’s how we started. It was still in Moscow, before we moved to Israel. And the rest of my education, the main part of it, was in Israel. My big one teacher, the one teacher of my life, is Arie Vardi in Israel.

Melanie: That’s what I was about to say, “Which teacher do you think was most crucial?”

Boris: Well, I would say both Mom and him, because I studied with him for 15 years almost. And so, it’s a long time. Almost everything I think and do in what concerns sound, style, to musical text, phrasing, to almost everything in musical interpretation is by the prism of what he taught me or what I’ve learnt from him, but I know that, from my mom’s point of view, I can rely on her 100% every time. She’s not at all, “Oh, this is lovely!”


She’s a very strict critic, and I know that if something is bad,she would always tell me.

Melanie: So, how did you develop your technique over the years? Did you used to practice sections in pieces or did you practice studies?

Boris: No, I hated studies.


And scales, all of that. Most every piece of classical music is full of scales and study-like passages. Whereas, if you do just the studies, there’s sometimes boring technical exercises. If you do them inside a musical work, then the technical part becomes just one variable of it – of the entire thing, and in good music, the technique is always in service of a higher musical aim of some sort. And when you work on a piece of music and you want to get a certain musical result, then the technical challenge becomes – It’s not annoying. It’s not an obstacle. It’s something which you want to overcome and integrate inside the interpretation to get to the musical result you want to get. So, it’s easier to solve problems in Liszt’s Piano Sonata than in some of Czerny’s etudes.

Melanie: And more enjoyable, too.

Boris: Yes,much more so.

Melanie: Now, you won the Queen Elisabeth prize. It must have had a huge impact on your career. How’s it changed and shaped it do you think?

Boris: It gave a very big push. There’s was a very big list on engagements right after the competition. Not only that, but the prestige of the Queen Elisabeth was one of the reasons why I wanted so much to participate, many of my biggest musical heroes have won it in the past, including Gilels, and Oistrakh, and Ashkenazy. So, to have won this – and this is probably the last one – not probably- this is definitely, this is definitely, this is definitely the last competition I’m going to take part in.

Melanie: Well, that was going to be my next question. How do you feel about competitions in general? Because you’ve taken part in quite a few.

Boris: Yes. Many more when I was a small kid. In the last 10 years, just three. I won Santander in Spain 2002. Then I took part in Rubinstein Competition inTel Avivand won 2nd prize. And then Brussels last year. I think when you’re a small kid, it’s just sheer fun. You have nothing to fear, nothing to lose. The older you become, the more heavy the responsibility when going to a competition and, I think I’m extremely happy to be able to end my competition career on this note with this prize at this competition.

Melanie: Sure. Which composers do you love to play?

Boris: I’m omnivorous,so almost everything, but two big groups. from which I almost always draw works for recitals are the Germans and the Russians. A lot of variety inside this group, from Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Schubert,all composers who are German.Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Scriabin, Shostakovich, in the Russians. The Russians, I think, are easier to explain, because even though I grew up in Israel, I’m still very much a Russian person inside. Or more exact is to say that Russian culture, Russian language, Russian literature, poetry, and music are extremely close to my heart. The Germans, I just love them.

Melanie: You like them all?

Boris: Yes, no logical explanation. They just appeal to my imagination, to – both my heart and head.

Melanie: You’ve recorded the late Prokofiev sonatas, the War sonatas, to great acclaim. What attracts you to this music?

Boris: War sonatas? Prokofiev in general is a master story teller. He – even his early works, he- within a few bars, he weaves an entire world around you and then places the music as a story told within this world. And this is something which I find extremely attractive. It appeals to your imagination in a very dark way. He’s also sometimes very visual, like a good filmmaker. He knows how to mix close-up scenes with the wide angle shots. So, he’ll take you into the action or take you out and show you the larger perspective. His harmonic language is quirky, fun and very spiky in a rude kind of way. He adds bad notes and somehow it all sounds right and it ends right.

Melanie: I feel it suits your articulation, which is absolutely fantastic, if I may say.

Boris: Well, from the technical point of view I find that his style of writing suits my hands like no other composer. I don’t know, maybe his hands were somewhat similar; but, for example, Rachmaninov, whom I love just as much, but technically he’s much more difficult for my hands. But Prokofiev, the music just seems to sit very comfortably in the fingers. The articulation, like you said, this kind of thing – I was just working on-just now- on two Rachmaninov concertos, the Second and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. I was thinking how much easier I find the Rhapsody, where the technical approach is closer in some way-to Prokofiev.

Melanie: I was going to say that, yes,it is isn’t it?

Boris: So, less blocks – less heavy blocks of chords and more I would say percussive, but more single line voices, shifts between hands, and more clarity and transparency. I think the Prokofiev in some ways, even in its most thick texture, he’s a neoclassicist of some degree, to a certain degree and he always retains a transparency, which one would expect to find rather in Beethoven or Mozart or Haydn, imitating like whom he wrote the classical symphony. He wants to write something which he might have written if he lived at that time. And the way his music, whereas Rachmaninov is extremely visceral, and he goes directly into your heart. Prokofiev- Playing his Second Piano Concerto, for example, is like reading a great novel by Kafka and the War sonatas, which you asked me about, they’re are of course knowing the circumstances in which the music was written- so, not only the invasion of Russia by Hitler in the Second World War, but also the terror within Russia. It was just after the great purge of Stalin in ’37-’38, in which nearly two million people were made to disappear without a trace, and Prokofiev himself lost many friends and people he knew. And the combination of those things, the terror within and the terror without, they lead to three works which are – it’s like a chronicle of the time, and it’s – I think it’s a masterpiece, even by his standards and something he has never surpassed in his other works of piano. There’s a kind of, it’s actually in the Eighth. The way he manages to reach some sort of objectivity. So, in the Sixth for example, it’s very much inside theaction in the sonata, and it’s the enemy marching towards with blank dead eyes. There is no objectivity at all there. The Seventh for me is more about the terror of which I’ve told you, Stalin’s – Stalin’s kind of terror, and the fabulous finale which, he thought was the triumph of humanity over all obstacles; which this could just as easily signify or depict the triumph of a well-oiled machine over everything, including that spirit of humanity. It just tramples everything in its path to glory, anything. But it in the Eighth, he manages to surpass even those two. It reaches some altitude of – all of his energy and quirkiness is still there, but there’s also wisdom and objectivity as I said, and a tapestry which he creates, especially in the first movement. I think it’s a masterpiece, a work of art of any time and period. So playing it is a big privilege and a very special experience.

Melanie: And do you plan to record all the sonatas? A whole Prokofiev project?

Boris: Well, I’ve recorded some Romantic sonatas and my last CD, which I’ve just recorded last week and will be released in the winter, is Schumann. As for more Prokofiev, maybe the concerti. The exercises, I love very much number four. I like very much number two and three. One, five, and nine, I’m – at the moment, I still find a bit hard to understand. Well, Five specifically is very obscure work for me. Nine is lovely. It’s a bit weaker, I find, than the others, and one is just very early work. So, it’s not easy to sense the essence of Prokofiev in it. But I think that even those three sonatas – just on their own – if Prokofiev left nothing else, they would be testimony of a very great artist.

Melanie: Do you have a particular practice routine?

Boris: Not really.

Melanie: I read somewhere you practice on a silent piano?

Boris: Yes and no. The grand piano which I have at home has a silent piano mode on it, so if I need to practice, this is quite a life saver. And it acted as a life saver a few times, but this is just for an emergency. For a normal kind of work, you must have the real response of the real key, the real sound. One thing which I do is I record myself quite a lot and then I listen to it right away, because often it’s hard when playing to hear the larger line, to hear the movements or the work in its entirety; and also many things which you don’t notice when you are at the keyboard, suddenly when heard from a distance, they sound really – they’re very prominent. This is something which is part of the daily work. And other than that, it’s just practicing, just working as much as possible.  The material we are working with is so rich. It’s inexhaustibly rich. It’s like a mine which you can never reach the bottom of. And those works, they grow with you. So if you come back to visit and play it five or six years ago or ten years ago, you’ll usually find that there’s more to discover, more layers to bring up. This makes the everyday practice not really work, but a journey of discovery. So it can be sometimes frustrating when you are unable to do something you want to, and sometimes you don’t know why. You don’t know what you need to change in order to get there, but still I think that the positive points overcome the landslides, over the others.

Melanie: What are your future plans, concerts, recordings?

Boris: Well, for recordings after the Schuman, the next CD is probably going to be Beethoven, Beethoven sonatas. For concerts, next season is fully packed. Many things in Europe. Many things in the Far East.Many things in South America. A few things in the States. I’m playing for the first time with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with Marin Alsop. In Japan, China, then many things in Israel, too, in my home country. It’s an exciting time.

Melanie: Sure, of course. What does playing the piano mean to you?

Boris: It’s my life. It’s one of the best things I know of. This is one of the many things that drive me forwards, that makes me want to go and do things. My main way of doing things is by playing. I would say it’s about expressing myself a little. It’s about reaching some kind of musical truth in the piece. And this truth might change with time; but, for tonight, there is something which we know is there in the piece, and when you are able to reach it and to show it or play it for the audience, this feeling is incomparable. I wouldn’t be able to do this without playing the piano. And I also love playing the piano because it’s a hands-on experience. As opposed, for example, to conducting, where you need to make other people do the music you want. I imagine it’s even more complicated. For me just the physical sensation of doing it with my own hands, with my own body, this is also a big part of the fun. And yeah, I think so.

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

Boris: My pleasure.

Melanie: Thank you.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.




Federico Colli in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

This is the twenty-eighth interview in my series and today my guest is Italian concert pianist Federico Colli. Federico is the most recent winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition held in 2012, and I chatted to him at Jaques Samuel Pianos in London.

 “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving that wonderful memorable recital in Leeds. You were a great success and a great sensation from every point of view. Your playing was magisterial and you have the flair for communicating with your audience because you have charisma.” (Dame Fanny Waterman – University of Leeds Concert Hall, April 14th 2013).

After the First Prize at the Salzburg Mozart Competition 2011 (playing with the Camerata Salzburg conducted by D. Russell Davies) and the winning with Gold Medal “Daw Aung Sun Suu Kyi” at The Leeds International Piano Competition 2012 (playing with the Hallé Manchester Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir M. Elder), Federico Colli embarked on a series of prestigious concerts all over the world, achieving great success from audiences and critics.

“With Federico Colli, Italy has again, after long time, a young pianist who has every chance to reconnect with the great tradition of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and Maurizio Pollini… His sense for the strong contrasts, for a brilliant and resolute sound aims to the passion. His dizzying coherence in the interpretation and his focus on the changing lights are not exhausted in a virtuosic performance, but they serve to the structural explanation of the work.” (Ruhr Revierpassagen, Germany – June 12th, 2013 by W. Haussner).

His interpretation of Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto with Y. Temirkanov and St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra was particularly appreciated in Milan, Teatro degli Arcimboldi, and in Turin, Auditorium Lingotto, for the MiTo International Festival 2013.

“With clear and shrill sound, Federico Colli not only conquers the goal- showing a technique of extreme virtuosity- but also manages to conquer a his personal reading of the demoniac Rach 3.

He reveals the nature “liberty”, decorative and insinuating of the concerto, more American than Russian, more silk than fur. Very well.” (Il Sole 24 Ore, Italy – September 15th, 2013 by C. Moreni).

Highly acclaimed have been his performances held in a German concert tour with the Klassische Philharmonie Bonn conducted by H. Beissel at the Konzerthaus in Berlin, at the Beethovensalle in Stuttgart and Bonn, at the Herkulessaal in Munich and at the Laeiszhalle in  Hamburg, at the Musikverein in Vienna, at the Nikkei Hall and at the Musashino Cultural Hall in Tokyo, at the ITAIM Theatre in Sao Paulo do Brasil, at the Sala Nezahualcoyotl in Mexico City with the Orquesta Filarmonica de la UNAM conducted by P. C. Orizio, at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, at the Amphi Saal in Dortmund for the Piano Festival Ruhr, at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford with M. Papadopoulos and the Oxford’s Symphony Orchestra, at the Dora Stoutzker Hall in Cardiff for The Steinway International Piano Series, at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg with the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra conducted by D. Botinis for The Musical Olympus Foundation International Festival. For the Chopin and his Europe International Music Festival, he also played the Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto at the Philharmonic Concert Hall in Warsaw with J. Kaspszyk and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, in a thrilling concert with Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire.

Born in Brescia in 1988, he studied at the Milan Conservatory, at the Imola International Piano Academy and at the Salzburg Mozarteum under the guidance of  S. Marengoni, K. Bogino, B. Petrushansky and P. Gililov, also taking part in Masterclasses with M. Rybicki, E. Virsaladze, J. O’Conor, F. Scala, A. Lonquich and J. Soriano.

In the Concert Season 2013-2014, he is expected in a Japanese concert tour with Y. Miyagi, at the Herkulessaal in Munich for the Winderstein Konzerte Klassik Vor Acht, at the Konzerthaus in Vienna with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra conducted by J. Hattori, at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool with V. Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Salle Cortot in Paris, at the Teatro Manzoni in Bologna and at the Muziekgebouw in Eindhoven.

To coincide with his debut at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London for the International Piano Series the next April 2014, it will be launched a solo CD produced by Champs Hill Records – England, with works by Beethoven, Scriabin and Mussorgsky.

Federico in action…..


And the transcript for those who prefer to read the interview:

Melanie :    Italian concert pianist, Federico Colli is the most recent winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2012 and he also won the Salzburg Mozart Competition in 2011, so he’s now in demand all over the world and I’m delighted that he’s taken the time today to join me here at Jacques Samuel Pianos in London for a classical conversation. Welcome.

Federico Colli:     Pleasure.

Melanie:     Lovely to be here today.

Federico Colli:     My pleasure.

Melanie:  I’m going to start by asking you 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?

Federico Colli:   You know, I always say that I am, I am the black sheep of my family because my father is a doctor, a pathologist and my mummy is a biologist and at the moment she’s teaching in high school, maths and science. I have a sister now who’s 20, so she’s littler than me and she started to take part in university and she’s studying chemistry. So, nothing about art.

Melanie:    Not musical at all?

Federico Colli:    No, nothing about art. So I don’t know why.

Federico Colli:    Just for fun my daddy used to play guitar just for music, just for fun. And my mum, adored – she’s in love with opera. You know, Verdi, Bellini, typical Italian opera, you know. And my grandpa also, he started to play piano when he was young. Unfortunately with the Second World War he needed to stop because other things more important contrary to playing the piano. I don’t why but maybe if I have to think in my family, the other side, this is rational, the rationality of culture and situations of “doctor” and “mother,” we could find a little love with art, you know my grandpa and my daddy.

Federico Colli:    So but I started to play the piano just for a joke you know. I was allowed to sit down, you know.

Melanie:  You were quite small?

Federico Colli:   Yea, three, four years old. The piano was really bigger than me. But just for joke you know. I was in love to sit down in front of the keyboard and play and discover myself and the music and the keyboards. The opposite to play football or to play with games, video games, I was in love to stay in front of the piano. Just for joke you know. My parents told me, “Why not? Just try it. You know. Try to do something you like.”

Melanie:   So which teacher then do you think was crucial in your development?

Federico Colli:    I started with very, a very strong Italian lady. She was very powerful for very little children. And I studied with her until eight. You know in this way with colour notes. I printed them into the scores. A lot of games you know. After eight something changed in my life because I started to follow the lesson of Sergio Marengoni. He’s very important in Italy and he was a formal professor in Milan Conservatory and I studied with him private lessons until 16 when I did my diploma in Milan. So the formal student career finished with a diploma in Italy because we don’t have nothing after. It’s not like another country of the world where after Bachelor you can Master and after Master you can find, a consecutive exam. In Italy, it’s not like this. I don’t know now because now I’m quite away from this world because I just finished my practice, my starting time. But after the age of 16 I formally finished my formal study, you know what I mean. I am very grateful to Sergio Marengoni because with him I understood a lot of the, what is necessary to…what is the base to play piano.

Melanie:  Yes. I was going to ask you, how did you develop your technique?

Federico Colli:  Yea. And I am very different because a lot of the personality and the technique I have on the piano, Sergio Marangoni gave to me. This is crucial, you know.

Melanie:  Yes and what did you do? Did you practice studies? Or how did you develop it? What did you focus on?

Federico Colli:  We studied a lot of Bach and classical repertoire and Mozart, [and] Beethoven. And in that years, I started to think of Mozart, would be, could be one of my favourite composer. And also a little of Romantic period. Focus on Schuman, Chopin- we studied a lot of Chopin. Pieces that is necessary for a young pianist to study. Pieces that is very necessary. And we did a lot of technique together.  

Federico Colli:    We practice a lot of about Hanon, Czerny Etude and Cramer Etude. So it was crucial. I mean I stayed a lot of time in front of keyboard to study, to improve my fingers. This is bad kitchen job, but it’s necessary. And after 16, I followed the lesson of Konstantin Bogino. And I always say that after 16, I started to follow the lesson of Russian teachers – Konstantin Bogino, Boris Petrushansky, and after Leeds, Pavel Gililov, so the Russian side of my life. I always say that my character is middle Italian, middle Russian. And with Bogino, I understood that he’s a pianist of Tchaikovsky Trio. He’s teaching a lot. He’s a wonderful, really wonderful teacher and his father was a legend about teaching in Russia. His father wrote a lot of books about how to play piano. And with Bogino, I understood, really the job of a concert pianist. That it is necessary to spend your life in front of the piano.

And the best time to play in the day is from 2 a.m. until midnight. So all the time is good for play piano. And the piece of music we are going to play is not outside of us, but they have to became part of our life, part of our destiny. And this situation, I started to take part in competition and I wanted to improve myself and to see what is this world, you know, this crazy world of competition. And 16 was a life changing experience. And another life changing experience in my life was when I met Boris Petrushansky when I was 20. And fortunately Bogino and Petrushanksy are in very good relationship. They studied together in a central school of Moscow. You know, this big Russian situation. Petrushansky, I’d like to say that it is impossible for him to teach how to play the piano because you have to arrive at Petrushansky that you are able.

Melanie:  Ah yes, sure.

Federico Colli:   And if he wants he is able to give to you one idea. “This is my idea, this is my personal view of the opera. Why not, you could choose, this goes together.” But, just idea. Just idea of music. Not the way to play this idea on the piano. Just idea. And this philosophical situation in my life was extremely important. After this, a young man is able to play piano, it seems of culture and philosophical expression is important to grow up more and more.

Melanie:  You won the Leeds. What impact has this had on your career?

Federico Colli:  It was maybe the most important point in my life. You know, immediately, a lot of popularity and immediately maybe everybody knows about you and the most important that I feel now is the responsibility that I have around my neck, you know. Because it’s not easy to win a big competition. Immediately when you are on the top of the mountain, it’s difficult to reach the top of the mountain, even it’s difficult to stay at the top of the mountain. But when you could see the world from up there, you cannot compare yourself with the other pianists but you have to compare yourself with the legend of the piano.

Federico Colli:  And Dame Fanny Waterman told me just after the final Leeds competition, “Be careful. You have a lot of celebrity. Now your “enemies” are not your young colleagues but it is always Michelangeli and Richter”. A little bit impressive, but I always try to do my best. In this way I am looking to put myself and my soul in the music. This greater possibility that I have.

Melanie:  Which composers do you really love to play?

Federico Colli:    Mozart for sure. But in general all the classic repertory. I mean Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn. I discovered Schubert when I was younger. I was worried about Schubert because I consider Schubert and Brahms the most difficult composers in all the history you know. But in general when you find, not altruistic music over there you can find the most difficult music.

Melanie:  I was going to ask you. You chose to play Beethoven, Emperor Concerto in the final. Why did you select that?

Federico Colli:   You know the fact of the competition is that you have to arrive at the final with a piece that is very sure and that you’ve played a lot before, Emperor Concerto. So I was very sure on the stage and it was easy for me to believe my interpretation and I know it was very relaxing and comfortable to play with Halle and Sir Mark Elder. Fabulous musician. It was only pleasure, no stress, not at all. Only pleasure. You can find a lot from music, inside. Beethoven. Even in Rachmaninov concerto, or Prokofiev concerto. But in Beethoven you are like, naked you know, naked. If your soul is not so pure, this music is broken off, so it fell down immediately.  

Federico Colli:    So in this meaning I chose Emperor and I’m trying to focus myself in that kind of music, very deep, very philosophical with a lot of meaning inside. And I discovered Schubert for example and I played a lot, D. 142 from the last cycle of impromptus from Schubert and I tried to find my own things on this piece. And that I say to you that I am middle Italian, mid Russian- I am in love with Russia actually, with all the 20th century music – Russian, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and so on. By the way, I cannot forgotten that I am a young pianist and young pianist have to play some crucial piece of repertory…. like very big concerto Rachmaninov No. 3,Prokofiev Second, Beethoven Sonata Op. 111 and a big cycle of romantic pieces like Schuman First Sonata, Schuman Carnival, the big sonatas of Chopin. So it’s important. It’s necessary. Because I am in the moment that I have to explain and to show all my personality from all the sides of the personality from the deep joy to altruistic situations. Everything, everything. I could prefer Mozart and classical music. But at the moment it’s better that I show a lot.

Melanie:  Do you have a particular practice regime?

Federico Colli:   All the day.

Melanie:  Oh just all day?

Federico Colli:  Yes. All the day, it’s good to improve yourself in front of keyboard. I am very lucky because I am living in Brescia, in the north of Italy and my parents have, my grandparents actually, have a very big home near Garda Lake and over that I put my big piano and I am completely alone. I could practice all day, all night, Christmas Eve, Easter and then finish to practice and work in the middle of the wood, forest and near the lake and think about music that is always important you know. And spend a lot of time in front of keyboard because it is necessary because I am at the early stage of my career so my fingers, you know, they [get] strong…stronger and stronger.

But it is always necessary to improve your mind. So, go out from your study from your apartment and walk in the middle of nature and think about music and think about this very important meaning of life. Now, for example I’m practising Schumann’s Sonata No. 1, F sharp minor and the beginning, the introduction for the sonata is not difficult, not at first reading, but how many meaning you could find into this music. It is necessary only to think about what Schumann wanted to say with this piece of music and why he put an introduction before the Allegro and you have to try to find your answer to this very big question. And when you find and you believe in your answer, everything is easier. To do this, it is necessary to think and I am very happy to have this opportunity to improve myself.

Melanie: Tell us about your exciting, forthcoming projects. I know you’re playing in London fairly soon.

Federico Colli:  Really. It will be a very big debut, Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank Centre and such.

Melanie: And what date is that?

Federico Colli:  The 22nd of April for the International Piano Series. I chose a typical programme. Everything about sonatas. I started with Mozart Sonata G major K. 283 and then move to the Beethoven Appassionata Sonata for ____ and then Schumann Sonata No. 1, so that you could find the develop of sonata from the classical sonata, Beethoven sonata and Schumann – the construction of the form of sonata and all the continuities. The most important is the continuity, not the form. It will be a very big appointment, a very big engagement. Just the day before yesterday I was in Paris in and I will be in Bologna, Italy for a very big festival in Teatro Manzoni in Bologna and I will play the same recital in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. And then I will be in Serbia with Rachmaninov No. 3, with the National Orchestra of Serbia. I will play for my first time in October in Kiev, Brahms’ First Concerto and then I decided because I was worried, because Brahms’ is very big music and it’s necessary to have a lot of energy and so I’m really looking forward.

Melanie:   What does playing the piano mean to you?

Federico Colli:    Life. What is…Life. Pianissimo, fortissimo, crescendi, dimuendi. These are life. In one crescendo you could find your destiny. The meaning, why, this composer put Forte here and not Piano. Why, you know. This is our life, this is our destiny. This is not a situation outside of our soul. This is our soul.

Melanie:   Thank you so much for joining me today.

Federico Colli:  Pleasure. My pleasure.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


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.

Philip in action:

And 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.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


Piers Lane in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

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.

Piers in action….

And 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.

Welcome, Piers.

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!”

Melanie:    Yes.

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.

Melanie:    Yes.

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.

Piers:     Yeah.

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.

Melanie:    Yes.

Piers:    He’s very probably right.

Melanie:  Yeah.

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.

Melanie:  Yeah.

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?

Melanie:   Yes.

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.

Melanie:   Yes.

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.

Piers:    Yes!

Melanie:   And also, you do a performance with the actress, Patricia Routledge.

Piers:     Yes.

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.

Melanie:    Yes.

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.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.