Barry Douglas in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The thirty-ninth interview in my Classical Conversations Series features Irish concert pianist Barry Douglas. We met for a chat in London recently, where he talked about his life and career.

Barry Douglas has established a major international career since winning the Gold Medal at the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, Moscow. As Artistic Director of Camerata Ireland and the Clandeboye Festival, he continues to celebrate his Irish heritage whilst also maintaining a busy international touring schedule.

Barry has recently embarked on a monumental recording project with Chandos Records – to record the complete works for solo piano of Brahms within five years. Having developed a wealth of musical experience in his 35-year career, Barry now feels the time is right to undertake this colossal project. The first disc of works by Brahms was released to critical acclaim in March 2012. The interesting programming of each disc, which has already garnered much critical praise, presents each album as a stand-alone recital, providing a varied and engaging listening experience. March 2014 will also see the release of his first recording of Schubert solo piano works.

Barry founded Camerata Ireland in 1999 to celebrate and nurture the cream of young Irish talent. The ensemble is made up of musicians from both Northern and the Republic of Ireland and has acquired a reputation for excellence. Camerata Ireland tours regularly throughout Europe, North and South America, and China. In addition to its busy schedule of concerts, the orchestra will perform a new cantata commissioned by The Honourable The Irish Society, “At Sixes and Sevens”, alongside the London Symphony Orchestra to celebrate Derry-Londonderry becoming City of Culture 2013. Barry Douglas is joint Artistic Director of this project.

Highlights of this season include returns to the London Symphony Orchestra, RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, Ulster Orchestra, Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Tonkünstler Orchestra both in Vienna and on tour in the UK, and the Macau Orchestra.  He has previously given concerts with the London Symphony, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Russian National, Cincinnati Symphony, Singapore Symphony, Seattle Symphony, Hallé, Berlin Radio Symphony, Melbourne Symphony, Czech National Symphony, Atlanta Symphony, Brussels Philharmonic, Shanghai Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Houston Symphony, and Helsinki Philharmonic orchestras, among others. Barry regularly plays in recital throughout the world, with upcoming performances in Switzerland, France, Mexico, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, the USA, and the UK, including a series of lunchtime recitals at LSO St Luke’s. He also performed the Penderecki Sextet at the 2013 Krzysztof Penderecki Festival in honour of the composer’s 80th birthday.

Barry’s reputation as a play/conductor has grown since forming Camerata Ireland, this season seeing him return to direct the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. In recent seasons, he has made successful debuts with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Indianapolis Symphony, Vancouver Symphony, Chamber Orchestra of the Romanian National Radio Orchestra at the Enescu Festival, Bangkok Symphony, I Pommerigi di Milano and Moscow Philharmonic orchestras.

Barry Douglas received the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2002 New Year’s Honours List for services to music.

Barry in action:

The transcript for those who prefer to read my interviews:

Melanie: Irish concert pianist, Barry Douglas, won the gold medal at the 1986 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, and he’s won many awards and accolades throughout his fantastic career. I’m thrilled he’s taken the time ahead of a very busy schedule to join me here in London for a Classical Conversation. Welcome.

Barry: Thank you Melanie.

Melanie: Lovely to chat to you today.

Barry: Good to chat to you, too.

Melanie: I’d like to start by asking all about your musical education, how you started, why you started, and whether you come from a musical family.

Barry: I don’t come from a musical family although my parents appreciated music. We went to concerts. I was very lucky, because growing up in Belfast it was very tough with the conflict at the time in the 60s and 70s. There was a lot of scope for learning different instruments. In my school and the school of music in Belfast, you were able to do whatever you wanted in fact and it was very reasonable for people who didn’t have a lot of money. It was a very democratic kind of situation. And I was able to learn. I studied the piano, of course. I did clarinet, cello, played the organ, timpani, conducted, and did all sorts of things. So all of that was kind of contributed to a very rich background and it really did fit into all of my musical activities later on. That took me right up to my mid-teens. That was roughly when I decided to be a pianist.

Melanie: Quite late, isn’t it?

Barry: I had to finally choose. It’s very late, very late.

Melanie: Yes. It’s very late. It’s amazing.

Barry: Because normally everybody was playing Transcendental Studies at the age of 2.

Melanie: So which teacher, then, do you think kind of was most important, would you say, in your development? Or you’ve got several teachers that have really helped you along the way?

Barry: All of my teachers, I’ve been very fortunate, gave me something, and that’s what teachers should do. They all give something different. But, why I decided to be a pianist. Because I was rather hoping to be a clarinetist at the time, was that I met through a chance meeting with my father meeting with a friend of his, I met this woman who was coming to visit her folks in Ireland, North and South, and she had been a pupil of Emil von Sauer, who was a pupil of Liszt. And so Felicitas LeWinter was her name and she was a Jewish refugee from Vienna at the time, in that terrible time just before the Second World War, and she was an amazing pianist and an amazing teacher. She gave me a whole series of lessons. First of all, she told me that I couldn’t play the piano, and then she gave me a whole series of lessons saying, “Well, this is how you do play the piano.” And she had an amazing sound at the piano and in fact her hero, apart from Sauer, her teacher, and of course Liszt, was a guy called Arthur Friedheim who had the most beautiful sound on the piano. And she said, “If you can achieve this one day then you’ll truly be a pianist.” And then many years later she came to hear me on the South Bank when I was in my late-twenties, mid-twenties and she said, “Finally, Barry, I think you have the Arthur Friedheim sound.” So, I thought, “Well, finally I’ve arrived!” [Laughter] But she was marvelous and she inspired me to be a pianist. I’ll be forever grateful to her. I also had a wonderful teacher at the Royal College of Music, John Barstow. And then had lessons, a lot of lessons with Maria Curcio privately in London. And she was a huge inspiration as well. She’d been a pupil of Schnabel, and so a whole mileage of tradition and an integrity and a sincerity about music making, about technique, about literature.

Melanie: I was going to ask, how did you develop your technique? Were you one of those pianists that practiced a lot of scales and studies or were you on learning the techniques within each work, do you think?

Barry: I did a bit of both because sometimes when I was very young, I tackled pieces that were really beyond me, but then that was good because Horowitz once said that he learned all his technique from playing music. So, I thought, I think the important thing is that you have to see the reason for a particular technical thing is it has a musical foundation and it’s not something in isolation. Yes, of course scales and arpeggios and exercises are very important, but they should be played in a musical way. Otherwise, if you divorce the technique from the musical expression, then somehow it’s very difficult to pair it up again. So, you should always make music even with an exercise, even with a scale. I remember when I was trying to make money when I was an 18-year-old in London, and I taught these kids the piano, and there was this one little girl who played the most beautiful C major scales. Her hand was incredible and it was just perfect. It was making music, and I used to get her to play it over and over again [Laughter] C major scale.

Melanie: Interesting. So, you won the Tchaikovsky. It must have had a tremendous impact on your career. How did it change?

Barry: Well, overnight, of course, it was a huge thing for me. Everything opened, you know, record contracts, agencies, concerts, festivals, orchestras, conductors, because in those days it was – I mean, Valery Gergiev has transformed the competition. The last edition was 2011. So it is really very interesting, but in those days just before the fall of the Soviet Union, it had a kind of mystery to it. I think everybody is kind of fascinated by what the Russians were doing behind the iron curtain. And of course it was a hugely important Piano School in the Moscow Conservatory, with great teachers and of course we knew these wonderful, and we love these Russian pianists. And so, for me, it was actually incredible to manage to win this, and I’m eternally grateful to my friends in Russia.

Melanie: Do you believe competition is still the best way of establishing a career for young pianists today or do you think we’ve got so many of them that they’ve become less important?

Barry: I think there are too many and they are less important. But that doesn’t mean that a young musician can’t come to a competition with the right frame of mind, with the right motivation. It’s not about running around the world and entering different competitions just for the sake of it. It’s about playing well, making music, and if some day you win, that’s great. If you don’t, it doesn’t really mean too much. It means, you know, you didn’t win on that particular day, but another day you might win. So, it’s not about the winning, Yes, it is about the winning. Well, I mean, you have to enter competitions and I really do want to win, because it is a competition. But, at the same time, I think you must have prepared yourself over the years so that music is the most important thing. I used to hear people talk about how they would change the technique or how they play the piece to suit the jury. I don’t know how they knew what the jury was going to like or not like, but that’s really the wrong way to do it. You have to love the music. You have to love the piano, and that should come first.

Melanie: Which composers do you love to play?

Barry: I don’t have any favourites, though I’ve been playing a lot of Brahms and Schubert at the moment.

Melanie: [Laughter] That was my next question, yes, because you’ve embarked on this 5 year project to record all of Brahms solo piano music. That’s incredible. What was the inspiration behind that? What’s so special about his music for you?

Barry: Well, I’ve always played Brahms. I’ve known most of his music for a very long time. Schubert a little bit less, but I’m playing more and more Schubert now. Brahms seemed the logical choice when Chandos asked me to do a series of a complete thing. I said, “Well, Brahms I think is-” and Beethoven, of course, would be also, but maybe that’s not for now for me, but Brahms has been a great voyage of discovery because I’ve learned pieces that I haven’t played before, and that’s interesting, but we’ve got another year and a half to go and then Brahms will be done and after that the Schubert. We’ve released one Schubert record. We’re going to do a second the next year and then we’ll get into a series.

Melanie: I was going to say, are you going to do a complete Schubert Cycle? What is the music-?

Barry: Yes, yes. I don’t know if it’s going to be complete, complete, complete. But it’s going to be certainly all the main, important works and some of the small pieces as well. But I’m not sure if I’m going to get every last thing wiped up.

Melanie: Yes. Quite a difference between Brahms and Schubert. Different completely styles.

Barry: Absolutely. And in fact with the Brahms, I wanted to make each disc a kind of piano recital. So, you know, you would come home from work tired, have a glass of wine or coffee, and listen to a recital. So, you don’t have to buy the whole thing. You can buy the whole thing if you want. I’m sure the guys at Chandos would be very happy and so would I. But I want each disc to be kind of self-contained, too, and have a little bit from the beginning, middle, and end of his life. So you can see the contrast and the different techniques and how he developed just in one disc. But the Schubert I’m going to do quite seriously with the sonatas, and then I’m also going to include in most of the discs the Liszt transcriptions of his songs just to have a little kind of different flavour and how another great composer commented and admired Schubert’s work.

Melanie: You set up Camerata Ireland in 1999 and you direct and conduct this orchestra. What made you go into that, into conducting? Because that’s quite a departure.

Barry: Well I was conducting choirs and orchestras in my teens so it was always kind of there. The whole thing with Camerata was not really to start conducting. It was a moment in history of the island, which was transformative. We had peace. We had parliament and there were a lot of things about to happen. I think we artists should make a contribution to that, too. Excuse me. [Coughs] So, I wanted – I guess the mission of the orchestra is really a free flow, one is to show the international audience that Ireland can do some beautiful orchestra and play beautifully and Camerata has being touring ever since 1999, all over the world. Another one was to build in the peace process and make those connections North and South and say, well, actually – we get on with people and here’s the positive side of Ireland, what it has to offer. And also then to create a kind of a nurturing place for young musicians in the first few steps of their careers. It’s not a youth orchestra, but it has a strong element of young people in it. Maybe from the ages of 23 to 35, something like that, which is about maybe 50-60% of the orchestra. But I think it’s very important that they should play with their older colleagues and their established colleagues should be able to play with the younger people. I think it’s a very nice mix. And so, I’ve directed most of the concerts, but we do have guest artists. We’ve had Sarah Chang to come and direct. The orchestra is 15 years old and is doing very well, and we’ve made records and we have our own festival. So, it’s very exciting.

Melanie: You’re Artistic Director of a couple of festivals in Ireland. Tell us of your involvement in most festivals and how they’ve progressed over the years.

Barry: Being an all-island orchestra, all-Ireland orchestra, we have kind of two of everything. We have two offices. We have two companies. We have two concert series. We have two education hubs, one in Derry, one in Cork. We had two festivals. We had Clandeboye in the North near Belfast and we had Castletown in Kildare near Dublin in the South. The Castletown thing was sort of magnificent Stately Home, but we decided that after maybe five or six festivals, that we would move on. I think we’re going to find another festival somewhere else. The building is not, it is difficult for chamber orchestras because a lot of it is very well protected because anything could happen to it. For instance, bringing the piano in, you can’t bring the piano up the stairs, because these are steps which are – there’s no support. And so you can see a standard concert grand going up the stairs, and you’d think, “My goodness! What’s going to happen to the stairs?” And so we have to bring them by crane. So, it turned out to be quite costly, but certainly it’s a venue for any concert. And they have their own series of concerts, which they do on the ground floor, because the big concerts are on the first floor. Anyway, so to cut a long story short, we’ll be finding another festival in the South of Ireland. But we have Clandeboye, and Clandeboye is 12 years old this year. We’ve had 160 young musicians go through. We invite international guest artists and they work with the young ones. They play chamber music, give masterclasses, and the Camerata plays. We have theatre. We have cooking master classes. We have a fashion show. So, it’s all of our young people, young designers, young chefs, young actors, young poets. And so it’s all about creating a forum for people to be able to try things like that.

Melanie: So, what are your plans for the future? Concerts? Recordings?

Barry: The recordings are set obviously with the Brahms and Schubert. I might do the two Brahms concertos also. As regards to concerts and continuing my travels around the world, this year I’m going to some new places or places I haven’t been for a while, like Israel. It was my first time in Mexico a couple of years ago and we went with Camerata last year. I went again this year. So, there’s some countries where I’ve been playing a lot in recently. Of course around Europe, I was at the Proms this year. There are new pieces being written for me. Kevin Volans who wrote a concerto for me at the Proms a couple of years ago, is writing another piece for the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group that has piano, a piano solo. So, working with composers is very important, too. What else? The festival, I went to grow the festival because I think it’s very important to reach as many young people as possible. It’s the same as the other festival and I really want to get education in Ireland up and running where kids and schools can really experience the greatest of music and understand and be, in a sense, energized and inspired to probe further and learn more.

Melanie: That’s so important.

Barry: It’s a tough time for education in Ireland and in many countries. With cutbacks and everything, music always seems to be the first one to suffer. So I’m determined to say, “Well we have to really concentrate. This is a priority.”

Melanie: Absolutely. So, what does playing the piano mean to you?

Barry: Well, it’s, you know, it’s all enveloping. I bought a new Steinway grand or concert grand recently and I’m so – I’m finding new sounds. I find most artists who are serious will say ‘I’m learning all the time’. It is really like that! You do learn all the time, and you learn different ways of playing. You discover things about pieces that you’ve known all your life. I think that’s fascinating. It’s exciting. So, it is my life, but it’s part of my life, too. Because I have my own life. My life away from the piano, but the piano – I feel very fortunate. It’s a great instrument, great music.

Melanie: Thanks so much for joining me today.

Barry: 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.


Leslie Howard in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The thirty-sixth interview in my Classical Conversations Series features British concert pianist and Liszt specialist Leslie Howard. I met him at his home earlier this month for a most interesting chat.

Renowned concert pianist Leslie Howard has given recitals and concerto performances all over the world. His repertoire embraces the whole gamut of the piano literature from the time of the instrument’s inception to the music of the present day. As a soloist, and in chamber music and song, Howard is a familiar figure at numerous international festivals. With a vast array of more than 80 concertos, he has played with many of the world’s great orchestras, working with many distinguished conductors. Leslie Howard was born in Australia, educated there, in Italy and in England, and has made his home in London for more than thirty years.

Howard’s gramophone recordings include music by Franck, Glazunov, Grainger, Grieg, Granados, Rakhmaninov, Rubinstein, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and, most important of all, Liszt. For fourteen years he was engaged on the largest recording project ever undertaken by a solo musician: the complete piano music of Ferenc Liszt – a project which was completed in a total of 95 compact discs on the Hyperion label. The publication of the series was completed in the autumn of 1999. The importance of the Liszt project cannot be overemphasized: it encompasses world première recordings, including much music prepared by Dr Howard from Liszt’s still unpublished manuscripts, and works unheard since Liszt’s lifetime. Leslie Howard has been awarded the Grand Prix du Disque on five occasions and a further Special Grand Prix du Disque was awarded upon the completion of the Liszt series. Other Hyperion releases include the Tchaikovsky Sonatas; two double CDs of music by Anton Rubinstein; two double CDs containing – for the first time – all seventeen of Liszt’s works for piano and orchestra, with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra and Karl Anton Rickenbacher, and a double CD, The Essential Liszt, presenting highlights from the series. In 2002, a recording of New Liszt Discoveries was released, and a further CD was released in 2004 – the research is never-ending! Recent releases include the re-issue of the acclaimed Rare Piano Encores on Hyperion’s second label Helios – including Howard’s own operatic fantasy for piano: ‘Réminiscences de l’opéra La Wally de Catalani’, and several recordings for Merlin Classics, including the piano sonatas of Sibelius, Gade, Palmgren and Grieg, and the complete music for cello and piano by Rakhmaninov, Glazunov and Balakirev, with cellist Jonathan Cohen.

Leslie Howard’s work as a composer encompasses opera, orchestral music, chamber music, sacred music and songs, and his facility in completing unfinished works has resulted in commissions as diverse as a new realisation of Bach’s Musical Offering and completions of works by composers such as Mozart, Liszt and Tchaikovsky. Recent works include The Owl and the Pussy-Cat (an entertainment for flute, horn, violin and piano with narration), Kinderspiel (a chamber piece for children), several motets, a piano quintet and a concerto for marimba. Howard is also a regular writer and speaker on music, and broadcaster on radio and television, and he gives regular masterclasses in tandem with his performances around the world. Leslie Howard is a member of The London Beethoven Trio with violinist Catherine Manson and cellist Thomas Carroll. Since 1988, he is the President of the British Liszt Society, and he holds numerous international awards for his dedication to Liszt’s music.

In the 1999 Queen’s Birthday Honours Leslie Howard was appointed a Member in the Order of Australia [AM] ―for service to the arts as a musicologist, composer, piano soloist and mentor to young musicians. In 2000 he was honoured with the Pro Cultura Hungarica award, and in 2004 was decorated by the President of Hungary with the Medal of St. Stephen. In 2007 Leslie Howard conducted the English Chamber Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall in the presence of the Prince of Wales.

2009 has been another busy year for pianist Leslie Howard. Tours of America, China and Australia and numerous engagements in Britain and on the Continent have seen him enthralling audiences with his customarily adventurous repertoire. In November 2009, he was invited by the Alkan Society in London to become their new president.

During the past year Leslie Howard has recorded four new CDs: Liszt New Discoveries 3 – a 2-CD set of world première recordings for Hyperion, bringing his celebrated Liszt cycle to a total of 99 CDs; 25 Études in Black and White – his own compositions recorded for ArtCorp; and the Rachmaninov Sonatas for Melba Recordings.

In addition, Leslie Howard has produced an Urtext edition of the Liszt Sonata for Edition Peters and a new reconstruction and orchestration from Paganini’s original manuscript of his fifth violin concerto for the collected Paganini Edition in Italy.

Leslie in action:

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

Melanie Spanswick: British concert pianist, Leslie Howard, is the only pianist ever to have recorded the entire solo piano works by Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. He’s won many awards and accolades for his playing, and I’m so pleased that he’s joining me here today at his home in London for a Classical Conversation. Welcome.

Leslie Howard: Hello, Melanie.

Melanie: Lovely to chat to you.

Leslie:  And to you.

Melanie: It’s a very hot day.

Leslie: It’s too hot.

Melanie: And getting hotter.

Leslie: I don’t know. When it gets north of 18 degrees, I don’t want to know!

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

Leslie: I suppose really the catalyst was – well there were two. There was a piano in the house on which my mum had had a few lessons when she was a teenager, but let’s just say it didn’t take; and my dad, who was a very enthusiastic listener, and had done a bit of musical hall singing in his years. But no musicians in the family.  I’m the first of four siblings, and we were all musicians of one sort or another. Don’t quite know how that happened.

Melanie: Did you start very young?

Leslie: I started to play when I was two. I could play anything that my parents could sing or pick out on an instrument. I could copy immediately, and anything I heard on the radio I could copy. The only thing that was difficult was learning eventually to read music properly, because, it slowed me down quite a bit, I remember I was four, and I thought, “This was surely not the way to go forward.” But it turned out to be all right. It was only a brief space before one thing caught up with the other.

Melanie: So which teachers, then, do you think were most crucial in your development?

Leslie: My very first one was a lady called June McLean. She’s in her late eighties now, and who had returned to Australia, where I was born. She’d been studying in France with Cortot. I’m very lucky, because I had a very very good technical grounding from the beginning. So, I didn’t have bad habits that had to be fixed later.

Melanie: That was my next question. How did you develop your technique? What did you do?

Leslie: Well, I was impatient to run before I could walk, because my hands were too small to play all the music that I wanted to play. I remember the first time I tried to play the Liszt Sixth Rhapsody, and I really could only just take octaves alright. And since there’s five pages of them at the end without relief, I thought that was – then I thought that was an impossible piece. Now it’s just very difficult like everything else. But that’s how it started. I had really to wait to be physically mature to do everything I wanted to do. My next really good teacher was my uncle Donald Britton who was head of music at my secondary school. I don’t really – got a performing diploma when I was 13 or something. And I supposed I thought I could play, and I rolled into my first lesson with him. And you know, I’d passed the audition, won the scholarship, all of this sort of stuff but then he just put a Haydn string quartet up on the music disk and said, “Play that.” And I was really thrown. Nobody had ever made me read a C clef before, let alone all four staves at once. I was determined not to be beaten by him again, so I went off and did the work. I learned how to do it. So, I turned up to the next lesson, within a week later. He put up the full score of Vaughan Williams’ Setting of the Hundreth Psalm. And I said, “Come on. This is a bit difficult isn’t it Sir?” And he said “No, no. Just the choral parts.” So reading the choral parts, hoping not to forget that the tenor had to be played an octave lower than what was written, got to the end of that without making too many mistakes and he said, “Very good. Now, play it again in D minor.” So it doesn’t matter what I did. He made me do something more, and convinced me at the right age, I think, that playing piano was all very well, but being a musician was much more important. And so then, of course, I learned how to do a counterpoint and composition, and how to play the organ and the harpsichord and the oboe – all of the things that a good music master makes you do when you’re at school and which helped later because I played the oboe in pit orchestras and did times as an organist and choir master. You do all of the stuff that makes your general musicianship stay alive. I have to confess that I haven’t practiced the organ properly for decades, but I still love to play it occasionally. The most likely thing I’m ever asked to do is to play for friends’ weddings.

Melanie: That’s quite fun though, isn’t it?

Leslie: It is, and that I do, you know, thirty minutes’ practice. It’s very naughty. I’m not recommending this as a thing to do, but all pianists should actually have a go at playing the organ. If nothing else just to learn what it is like to play Bach on an instrument he might have recognized, because one of these 9-foot Steinway thingies, I don’t think would have pleased him greatly at all. I never quite understood why we all do it, but I’m quite fond of playing transcriptions of things that were not written for a harpsichord or a clavichord. Such as, you know, one of those big organ works transcribed for piano, that’s quite a nice thing to do, but I’m not quite sure about doing things like playing The Well-Tempered Clavier on the piano in concerts. I know everyone studies them, and everyone should study it, but somehow the temptation to put in pianistic things like crescendos and diminuendos or accents or, the very worst habit of all, playing the subject and the surrounding texture. That’s just a bad habit which the piano encourages in a way, but the harpsichord absolutely forbids. So everyone should also learn to play the harpsichord and learn to read figured bass, all of that.

Melanie: How did you establish your career did you take part in competitions?

Did you broadcast for radios? I know you-

Leslie: I started broadcasting around when I was 13, and played quite a lot on television in Australia when I was a kid. Won a competition there which paid for me to go abroad to study, and I didn’t leave there until I already had a couple of degrees, was, I wriggled out of being turned into a fulltime musicologist, which was my professor and university wanted me to do. He said, “You can always play. You can always play. We need someone like you on the staff teaching people all about musicology.” I said, “Well actually no, I really want to go abroad and do the playing that I know I was put on this Earth to do, and do as much musicology as I can around the edges.” And I have managed to do that. Never really went to too many competitions. Went to a few and got a few prizes. I was usually regarded as too unorthodox. Mostly because of my repertoire choices, because if they said, “Play a piece of Baroque music,” I – my favourite was to play the Kuhlau Biblical sonata about David and Goliath. I wasn’t just going to play them a Bach Prelude and Fugue or a Scarlatti Sonata, but that’s the enthusiasms of youth, I’ve used because of having, in more recent years, sat on juries. Some jurists like to hear music they don’t know, and others absolutely cannot bear it because they think it makes it impossible for them to make a judgment. Which I think is really rather terrible. All of the competitions on which I’ve ever sat on the board, I have done my rather best either to fix it so the repertoire is free, or else fix it so that it forces people to learn interesting and less familiar pieces, because for the piano we’ve got the largest repertoire of any instrument by some colossal distance. And it really is extraordinary how good it is, and yet there’s a sort of core repertoire which keeps cropping up again and again as if no one’s ever looked any further. And even within famous composers. There are some Beethoven sonatas which are a rarity unless somebody’s playing all of them, but it’s a long time since I heard a recital in which someone said they showcased Op. 7. The number of young people now who – almost the first Beethoven sonata they learn is the last one he wrote, and I really think that ought to be heartily discouraged. I remember my other marvelous teacher in Italy, Guido Agosti, who in his classes – he’d see another 15 year old American girl, who was quite gifted, came and played Op. 109, and he really couldn’t deal with it at all, and he just closed the book and handed it back to her and said, “I’m sorry. I can’t do anything with this.” and she looked terribly shocked. He said, “Tell me. Do you not have any sonatas Beethoven wrote before this one?” and she had a rough stab, and it wasn’t bad, and he said, “How many of those have you studied?” “Oh, one.” “Well, when you’ve learned the other 29, please bring this one back.” But he was quite right.  And I’ve – I don’t have my own students really. I just teach master classes, because I travel too much as a player. But whenever I have any chance to influence what people put in their repertoire – of course they’ve got to play Beethoven sonatas and so on, but start at the first one. Learn – if you want something that looks good on a programme, play the three sonatas from Op.10. You’ve got to be a proper musician to do that, or the three from Op.31, or the two of Op. 27, which go together fantastically well. But try to create a repertoire that makes you look a little bit different from everybody else, because all of these people who do competitions where you have to do a prelude and fugue, four studies and a Beethoven sonata, they all play the same stuff and there isn’t the work out there for them. And they get concerts as a result of winning a competition, but those concerts are predicated on the winner of the competition, not on the person. So when the competition comes around again, somebody else gets those concerts and establishing yourself in the business is a lot harder. I was very lucky. Firstly, to be asked to make recordings when I was only in my mid-twenties. And that was also back in the day when you did the BBC audition, which you’d eventually pass. And I used to get a dozen broadcasts a year and you’d go into a BBC studio – there aren’t these things anymore- specifically designed for performing, like the concert hall, broadcasting house, which no longer is a concert hall. All the other marvelous studios like Pebble Mill, I did all the BBC studios up and down the country. I was being asked to do this because I actually pursued an interesting repertoire. If all I had to offer was the Appassionata Sonata, I would never have got it. And it wasn’t just because I was playing Liszt but because I was playing a lot Haydn and a lot of lesser known Beethoven and other lesser known composers, but things that – things that people play now but they didn’t play then, like the Rachmaninoff sonatas, in the 1970s they were fairly rare, especially the first one. The Glazunov sonatas, which I recorded in 1975. Would love to do them again now, but I couldn’t possibly listen to that. I don’t listen to any of my records anyway, but I’m not alone in that. Most performers don’t, but some do.

Melanie: Tell us a little bit about the Liszt project, because it’s quite an achievement to record all solos works by Liszt.

Leslie:  Well that started really because I was completely hooked on him from the first time I heard some of his orchestral music. It had nothing to do with piano at all. I heard a live performance of the Faust symphony when I was about 13, and I just thought, “This is the most amazing piece.” And so, I started looking for his music and found out how much there was that wasn’t piano music and, you know, took a close interest in all of it. I played his organ works, got involved in conducting some of the choral pieces, and got busy with him. And the more I looked, the more interesting a composer he became and I kept on reading the odd rude remark written by all sorts of musical pundits sand it usually transpired that what they really didn’t like was the way young piano players played Liszt music rather than Liszt music itself. So they blamed him for writing the music that made them play that way. But I don’t think Liszt music actually asks you to play in a vulgar or nasty fashion. It sometimes comes as a surprise when you tell people there’s well over 3000 pieces of one sort or another for all sorts and traditions of instruments or voices of which 1400 are for piano. But out of these 1400, there’s about 50 that are in standard regular circulation, and a lot of the performances don’t actually show any depth of understanding of the composer at all. And I think people need to look a bit wider. It distresses me that people want to play the Sonata – either as the first piece of Liszt which they learn or it’s the second piece of Liszt which they learn. And you think, “You know, you would play this piece a lot better if you studied the Grosse Concert Solo, or the Scherzo and March, Weiner Klagen Variations. You know, there’s lots of the Sarabande and Chaconne, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, and there’s a surprise to find out that Liszt wrote more quiet pieces than loud ones, more slow pieces than fast ones, and many many more of his pieces end softly than quietly, than loudly. There’s no excuse now. I’m happy to have played some part in this.

Melanie: And it goes into 99 CDs, is that right? The recordings?

Leslie: It does. Well I beat the Liszt edition, which is in Budapest, to recording this music before they published it all. Well they started printing these volumes in 1968 but it’s been quite slow. It’s a good edition, but I’ve just always wanted some of the – instead of starting with the things everybody had in their collections. They really should have started right in with the things that you couldn’t find anywhere. That would have been better, and then they would have had more subscribers and would have sold faster. They would have been better financed. But to start with, they wanted to print only the final versions of Liszt music. Anyone who’s had a good look at Liszt music will know that he was a veteran reviser of his works. Sometimes it’s because he wanted to thin it out technically. Sometimes it’s because of the much increased heaviness of the piano touch. By the time he got to his middle life the instruments that he played really was actually on stage. Most people don’t remember that his great career as a solo player only lasted for about 9 years and that he gave up in 1847. So that’s before the first Steinway was built by some distance. The biggest pianos that he would have played by then would have been the best 7 foot Érard and he would have played a Broadwood that went for six and a half octaves. By the end of his life, of course, he’d been playing piano or teaching on pianos at any rate, which we would find pretty similar to the instruments we have now. Including the piano with the sostenuto pedal from Steinways, in 1883. It’s trying to recreate the sort of playing that he must have been able to do is quite hard, because it’s clear that all of the things with the super human difficulties that he wrote when he was in his early 20s really didn’t cost him any physical effort at all. They cost him a great emotional effort. There’s a famous account of him fainting, and actually they published an obituary of him in Paris when he was only 17. He fainted again when he was 20 when he was playing his concerto for two pianos, Grosses Konzertstuck on themes from Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, a piece which then disappeared from view and wasn’t published until the 1980s – which I happened to edit, but I recorded that for the BBC with Ian Munro in 1987 or something, and although it’s a taxing piece there was no sign of anyone fainting. When he last played it, he had to be carried off on a stretcher. So he must have gotten very involved with what he was doing. For the rest of it, it was the thrill of looking for things that you knew existed but they were not found. On the recordings there are 300 pieces, which at the time were not published. Quite a few of them have been published since. The new Liszt edition very kindly has decided that if it’s in my recording of Liszt, that they better see what they can do about printing them. So they changed their mind about not printing only one version. Because people kept asking them, people kept saying, “Excuse me. Howard’s recorded this piece. Which volume can I find it in?” So I’ve given the project a bit of a kick in the backside, so they’re producing 13 supplementary volumes. That’s how much extra music there is from what they were originally intending to publish just for the piano solos.

I don’t think I’ll ever live long enough to see the rest of their edition. At this rate, I think it’ll be going for another 250 years before they get everything out. That does happen with collective editions because people get bogged down with various bits of scholarships, and it’s also very expensive.

Melanie: But you’re writing two books on Liszt, currently?

Leslie: Trying to!

Melanie: Could you tell us a little bit about them?

Leslie: Trying to do more than I can manage really, because in between I’ve produced quite a lot of editions, you know critical editions with proper scholarly apparatus and so on, of Liszt and also of Paganini, just things that I’ve learned enough about, but they take a long time to do. And I started them with a friend of mine in 1991, a man called Michael Short, who’s in the Liszt society, and he does all of the documentary research and I do all the music research and analysis of manuscripts and what have you. But we’re producing a thematic catalog of the complete works and we’re about – well the paperwork bit of it, getting the information, we’re about 90% done putting the themes into the computer which is an endless task and a thankless one. I’m about halfway there. It’s been going for over 20 years, but of course at the beginning – the beginning was before they invented decent music writing paragraphs on the compute. There were a couple, but they were impossible. But I know some people swear by Finale, and I swear by Sibelius, I presume for no better reason that I finally learned how to do it. So when I did the Paganini Fifth Concerto, I actually did the setting that’s reproduced in the edition which saves a lot of trouble as long as you don’t make any mistakes and you do have to show it to other people.

Melanie: I was about to say, it must be edited or it must be looked at.

Leslie: Well you – it’s like you need another pair of ears to listen to you play occasionally and tell you a straight from the shoulder report. One of my dearest friends is my old teacher that I came to London to study with Loretta Conti, and she was not a musicologist type of teacher. She was much more instinctive, but absolutely on the ball. You’d play something, and she’d say, “It’s very nice, my Leslie, but it’s a little bit boring.” and because I was very keen when I was in my 20s. Just get this music out there and play it, and people, you know – but I’d forgotten a few things while I was doing it, like how to get it to pass over the foot lights into the souls of the listeners, and she was marvelous at curing me of that. I used to be very straight-laced, because you know it really is important. You’ve only got 25 minutes, you, the Sibelius Sonata and the people, if you want to sell it to them, it’s got to be done then. You can’t do it on a promise of having written a nice programme note, it’s actually got to grab them when you play it. So that’s what I tried to do, and I hoped to succeed more times than not. You never can tell, and you do need other ears and you do need other eyes when you edit from a manuscript. My eye, looking at this manuscript, is I think pretty good. Because if you show a manuscript to someone who’s never looked at one, they take one look and well – how can you make head or tail of that? So if you’ve never seen a manuscript of Beethoven’s and you have a look at his handwriting of the Op. 111 Sonata you can only marvel at the genius of the engraver who made the first edition, that he got through that nightmare. And yet when you get used to working with Beethoven’s handwriting, it’s not so bad. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems that are not easily solved. I occasionally spend a morning with Jonathan Delmar. He’s doing a tremendous job editing Beethoven, but a man of proper conviction and decent humility who – when he’s got the job done – instead of just rushing into print with it, he goes to people who’ve lived with the music often for longer than he has  – but we haven’t done the same work as he has – and just to say, “You know, is there any way that this slur can possibly be here because it seems wrong and it’s not in anyone else’s edition but it is in the manuscript so is it a mistake or do we put it in?” He questions himself and either you rattle back and reinforce his opinion, or you suggest “Well actually, it might be right, but it might be right for another reason.” He just gave me some extraordinary fingering which crops up on an odd page for the piano part of Beethoven’s Op. 70 No.1 Trio, and it’s not in the printed edition, but it is handwritten in a copy of it by Beethoven and it’s ridiculous fingering of the most unorthodox nature, but if you use it, it works. You just think, “You know, that’s not the fingering Czerny would have written for it.” But let me try this, and you try it and you think, “Well, it’ll do”, because it forces you to put the right fingers in the right place to make all the appropriate articulations and accents and so on. And sometimes you can’t do all of the composers fingering like that, but it’s very much worth having these things and to have a look why a composer sometimes writes something odd. And you’ve got to be very careful about dismissing it as the slip of the pen, and sometimes it must be. But if you’re doing a proper edition, you’ve got to show them what was there and if there are differences between the manuscript and the edition and we don’t have any of the information about what took place in between, like a corrected proof copy or a letter, which we sometimes have where somebody says, “Well, please add that bar at the beginning of the slow movement, Which we have of Beethoven for the Op. 106. You know, that’s tremendous when you can do that. In the case of the last cello sonata, we have a copyist manuscript which is more important than the original manuscript in several particulars, because in that Beethoven added four more bars in the beginning of the last movement, and we wouldn’t be without them, would we? So, I occasionally have to give little talks to young music students about how it’s not just a question of going down the street and buying it. If you really want to know how this piece was put together, actually see if you can find out how it was put together, see if there is a manuscript that you can look at, because it will force you to think about the real way this music came to be, and that might actually help you in your playing. It’s not just because you’re just there to discover that there might be a wrong note in bar 33 that nobody’s found before – though that sometimes happens – It’s just to immerse yourself in something of the creative process behind the piece and – I tell people to do that, to have a look and see what the composers were writing at the same time and see what other composer are writing at the same time your composer might have known. Above anything else, it’s fun. It’s as entertaining as following any soap on television. To know – well sometimes people look at their subject very narrowly, and of course there’s so much information in this world about so many things, it’s harder and harder to be a Renaissance man. But you know, music isn’t created independently of social history or political history sometimes, and it’s worth it to know what it was like, to find out what was the temperate like in concert hall. You know, what did it smell like?

Melanie: And you really recreate it.

Leslie:  Well, you know, you can’t actually do this – you can’t do everything, but it’s worth knowing as much as you can about the circumstances and knowing – as people quite often forget- that a sonata that was premiered say by Mozart, would very often have its movements played separated one from the other by other events going on in the evening, same with the string quartets and symphonies and concertos. And if people liked it, they might clap in the middle of a movement and they might give the way for it to be repeated.  It’s a completely different way of doing things from how we play it now.

Melanie: I was about to say, quite different from today.

Leslie: Well, we’re so reverend -as we should be – in the face of some of these pieces, but we all know that even a work so magnificent as Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, just in case the audience had fallen off the middle, the violinist of the first performance gave some impromptu improvisations imitating the sounds of farm animals on his instrument, just to keep the public amused before he went into the slow movement. You know, that’s barbaric. But they were frightened the people wouldn’t stay paying attention to this concerto which was of course for its time far in a way the longest violin concerto ever written. And it’s one of those pieces that’s just perfect, and you know if it could go on for another 20 minutes, you’d be quite happy. It’s you know, but Beethoven was taking risks. He took colossal risks with all sorts of things. He had this tremendous strength of knowing that he was right, and it comes out in his letters – even when we was wrong of course. Because when he was wrong, he was magnificently wrong. He was magnanimous in his apologies afterwards if he offended somebody, but it would have been like walking a tightrope to be his friend. He’s – you know, if anyone said the wrong thing or did, in his eyes, the wrong thing, he would be further than rude as you could ever possibly imagine anyone being, and then he would calm down.

Melanie: What about future concerts and recordings? What have you got coming up?

Leslie: The next recording is one I did in Italy, and it’s with a friend of mine called Mattia Ometto, and we recorded all of the two-piano music by Reynaldo Hahn. Now, Reynaldo Hahn, people I’m sure these days know some of the songs, but there a marvelous piano quintet, and there’s a piano concerto, and there’s all sorts of good stuff. Very interesting composer who could also sing and in fact recorded a couple things himself, and he came from Venezuela, but he’s essentially French. But you know, there’s something extra in there, and he was admired by people as different as Poulenc and Stravinsky. You don’t have to spend too much time before you think, “This man writes not only marvelously crafted very agreeable music, but quite individual music as well.”  So, that’s the next one out. The last one out is the Rubinstein piano quartet for Hyperion, and they were first recordings. Anton Rubinstein is one of those composers that everybody knows about. He’s mentioned in every musical history, especially if you get to the end of the 19th early 20th century and you’re talking about musical education, he’s there. You know, his plan for the courses at St. Petersburg Conservatory, is still used. Nothing wrong with it, you know, but all of his music- of which there is a great tide I have to say – but you know it’s much harder to revive that, and yet I think it’s worth it, well worth it. We did get a concert performance of his opera The Demon a couple of years back, but some of the critics were a bit sniffy about it. But, you know, without The Demon you just wouldn’t of heard of Eugene Onegin. It would have been completely different. So, Rubinstein’s creation of Tamara in The Demon has some serious bearing on Tchaikovsky’s treatment of Tatiana in Onegin, and Rubinstein’s concertos – well, imitation being the sincerest form, as they say, you know? The cadenza in the beginning, in Tchaikovsky First Concerto is so clearly taken from the cadenza in Rubinstein’s Fourth. It’s obviously a homage. It’s not a steal, and he crops up all over the place – Brahms said some rude things about him, but copied him, used bits of his music in all sorts of places including his Second Piano Concerto. Clara Schumann was rude about him and said all of his music will be forgotten. She was quite sure that none of hers would be. She might have been wrong there. She was a very strange lady, but anyway composers like Anton Rubenstein please me a great deal and next year will be the 150th anniversaries of Sibelius and Glazunov, and of Nielsen for that matter, but I’m trying to get in here first. So I’m doing Sibelius and Glazunov Sonatas at the Wigmore in September. I’m doing them at a few festivals on the continent before then and, I love that stuff. It’s marvelously written. Almost nobody knows that Sibelius wrote piano music, but there’s over 200 piano pieces. People don’t play them really.  It’s like the Dvorak piano music there’s more than 200 pieces of his – or the Rossini piano music, more than 200 pieces.

Melanie: The Nielsen, I used to love playing Nielsen.

Leslie: Well, the suite by Nielsen I haven’t heard played live since John Ogden did it and that was a while ago. They don’t play the 3 pieces of his Op. 59 which were very thorny, but absolutely worthwhile. But people aren’t adventurous enough. They will admit that Nielsen’s symphony is good, but then they think they’ve done the job there. You try and say “Well. actually you know, did you go and see Maskarade when they did it at Covent Garden”, He writes operas?” “Well, yes” That’s one for the hard things to do with students too. Even when you put concerts on free to get them to go to them. To get a piano player to go to a string quartet concert or a violinist to go to a song recital is apparently a very hard job and I’ve never understood why. Why wouldn’t you be curious to know what else Faure wrote apart from that fiddle sonata, you know? You don’t think that might have some bearing? You know, if you play a Mozart piano concerto without ever having seen The Marriage of Figaro, I think you’re an idiot. It’s not as if it’s impossible to see it. You can see all these things on DVD if you can’t afford the prices down at the opera house, but there’s more of this stuff available than ever and in quality performances and productions. So, there’s really no excuse. And how can you play Haydn piano sonata if you don’t know his trios or his quartets?  You can’t. But well you can, but not in an informed way let’s say. I like people will be informed. Then they can be spontaneous and original, but first be informed.

Melanie: What does playing the piano mean to you?

Leslie: It’s not the only way I think about music. For example, I’d never compose for the piano unless I compose like in the old days with pen and paper, and these days straight from the computer. But the piano is a great place to go when I want to improvise and when I want to play just to myself. And when I do want to play just to myself, it’s frequently not to play piano music. It’s mostly either to play bits of operas, or ballets, or string quartets or musicals or songs by Cole Porter. Nobody’s ever going to get me to sing any of these things. They would be too awful, but I get a lot of pleasure from older popular music. I think popular music today just isn’t a patch. The general standard of musical nuance that popular composers had in the ‘30s ‘40s ‘50s- now they were properly educated people. They knew what a consecutive fifth was and how to avoid it. They knew how to make modulations. They knew how to manipulate the most amazing harmonies. From – Everybody from Jerome Kern to Duke Ellington, there’s just buckets to learn from those people, and pop music on the whole doesn’t have you – certainly doesn’t have me- agog with curiosity, which is where I’d like to be with most music. What’s it going to do next, isn’t that amazing, isn’t that extraordinary? Half the time you know perfectly well what they are going to do next. When I say next, I mean for the next 5 minutes. And you just think, “A little bit of imagination would have helped there.” And I’m not quite sure where the pop group as this sort of cool thing that has developed so little over the last 40 years. You’d think there would have been room for a lot more. I know around the fringes there’s a lot more going on, but you know the mainstream stuff seems to be very very conservative. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it? And harmonically less interesting than before and rhythmically much less interesting than before. When The Beatles came out, they wrote songs that started in 4/4 and went to ¾ in the middle. They did musical things that kept you absolutely on the edge of your chair, and very intelligently written and nicely harmonized, and they used a string quartet. All of the things they did – and it wasn’t an experiment. It was actually a musical idea that they put into practice. I think there’s been a lot less of that since, and that’s really a pity. But, that’s also why their stuff is still appreciated and bought and recorded and rerecorded –

Melanie: and enjoyed.

Leslie: Yes. Well, most people who around the age of – to have heard them, that’s 46 years ago, isn’t it? It’s a while. 44, sorry. That’s strange. You know, I was fascinated by listening to old recordings of classical music too, because we forget sometimes that it wasn’t always played the way we play it now. There are things that I remember laughing intemperately at Alfred Cortot’s wrong notes. You can’t do that, when you think about the way they used to record those things. You know, it’s amazing. If somebody played a wrong note or fluffed a pedal or made an extraneous noise or what have you, because we’re not allowed to do that. You can’t leave a wrong note on a record. Because you know there is a difference in giving a solid performance and what you do in a concert, concerts and recordings. The hardest thing in recordings is to try to recreate what you do in a concert hall. You’ve got to stop and analyze what you do in a concert hall, and sometimes you’ve got to watch out because you can play all the right notes because you’re a bit timid about making mistakes in a recording season and what comes out is a document. You know, all the notes ladies and gentlemen. We didn’t have enough time to put the music in. A lot of recordings, because of the constraints and people being frightened and there not being enough time. When Rachmaninoff recorded a double sided ten inch 78, he had a whole day or even two days to do it. So he could stop. The machine would be off. He could practice for an hour and then do a take. He also got paid even, even in strict monetary terms, more for one side than most people get for making five CDs now. That’s without allowing for the difference in the currency rate. So, add two zeros. They knew what they had. They knew every time he went into a studio, he was going to make a recording that was going to sell, because he was simply marvelous and I’d like to see anyone brave enough to say that his recordings are not marvelous. I think he’s the best player who recorded. Who knows what his records might have been like? But we know about his records and also he knew how to work in a studio. On most recordings from that era, the matrix number gives the take number at the end, and we’d be embarrassed if all our take numbers were published. Some of it is because you had to avoid the bird flying around inside the church or the tractor outside or the ambulance siren or whatever or mostly the airplane, because we don’t really have soundproof studios. But, you look at all of those Rachmaninoff recordings and the number of issued takes that are take 1 or take 2 – it’s just impressive to a degree. It means he didn’t record it until he knew he was going to do the performance. So, if he ever takes more than that, you can get a peculiar idea of what a bad day at the office for him might have been like. Most notably, his transcription of the Scherzo from Midsummer Night’s Dream. I think the issued take is 21, but that’s by many many numbers more than the next one down, which I think is seven. But, even those recordings of his concertos, each side is mostly take 1 or take 2. It’d be nice if I could do that. But then of course you’d have to be allowed to record like that and play like that, because this has got to be one straight honest performance of five minutes of music and that’s it.

Melanie: Thank you so much for joining me today.

Leslie: It’s a great 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.


Andrei Gavrilov in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My twenty-sixth interview is with the Russian concert pianist Andrei Gavrilov, who I met at Monkton Combe School near Bath (in the UK) a couple of weeks ago, before he gave a series of master classes in the West Country.

Andrei Gavrilov was born in Moscow in 1955 into an artistic family.  His father Vladimir Gavrilov was a great painter, his mother a pupil of Henrich Neuhaus, was his first teacher. He graduated from the central music school in Moscow in 1973 where he studied with Tatiana Kestner. Later that year he entered Moscow conservatory where his teacher was Lev Naumov.

Andrei won first prize in the 1974 International Tchaikovsky Competition at the age of 18 and in the same year made a triumphant international debut at the Salzburg Festival, substituting for Sviatoslav Richter. He has subsequently enjoyed a distinguished international career which has included performances with many of the world’s greatest orchestras.

He made his London debut in 1976 with Paavo Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. In 1978 he performed with the Berlin Philharmonic in a major European concert tour of 30 concerts. By 1980 he had performed in all the major cultural centers in the world.

Andrei made a triumphant return to the British concert platform in 1984, after a politically enforced absence, giving recitals at the Barbican and the Royal Festival Hall. He successfully petitioned Mikhail Gorbachev for his freedom, and became the first Soviet artist to be granted permission to stay in the West without having to file for political asylum.

Following his Carnegie Hall debut in 1985, Andrei was proclaimed as a major artist by the New York Times’ Donal Henahan. He has since performed with orchestras in New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia, Montreal, Toronto, London, Vienna, Paris, Berlin, Munich, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Moscow, St-Petersburg and many other major orchestras with conductors including Abbado, Haitink, Muti, Ozawa, Svetlanov,Tennstedt, Rattle and  Sir Neville Mariner among numerous others.

Between 1976 and 1990, Andrei was an exclusive artist with EMI, winning several international prizes including a Gramophone award in 1979, Deutscher Schallplattenpreis in 1981, Grand Prix International du Disque de L’Academie Charles Crois in 1985 and 1986, and International Record Critics Award (IRCA) in 1985. Among his other awards are the 1989 Premio Internazionale Accademia Musicale Chigiana (the jury of music critics proclaiming him as the greatest pianist in the world). In 1998 Andrei Gavrilov was selected as one of the pianists to be featured in Philips Music Group’s Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century collection.

In October 1990 Andrei signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Gramophone, leading to acclaimed recordings of Chopin, Prokofiev, Schubert, Bach and  Grieg. From 1994 until 2001, Andrei had a 7 year pause in his career and virtually ceased performing. He studied philosophy and religion and was searching for new ideas in his approach to music.

In 2001 he made his triumphant comeback to Russia after 16 years, playing four piano concertos in one evening in the Moscow Conservatory. Since then he has played more and more regularly around the world with great success.  In 2008 he came back for a concert in the United States and in 2009 he undertook a world tour which included a four month long all Russian tour with enormous success. In February 2010 he was invited to the Vienna Philharmonic Golden Hall to play four concerts in a row after a 14 year break. The concerts were received with great critical acclaim. Gavrilov is planning numerous CDs and DVD recordings for the first time since 1993 with works by Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and others. Forthcoming engagements include performances throughout the world.

And Andrei in action:


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

Melanie Spanswick: “My classical conversation today is with Russian concert pianist Andrei Gavrilov. Andrei came to the public’s attention in 1974 when he won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and he’s been playing to great acclaim ever since. I’m delighted that he’s joining me here at Monkton Combe School in Bath. Welcome.”

Andrei Gavrilov: “Thank you very much.”

Melanie: “Lovely to be here talking to you. I’m going to start by asking: How old were you when you began? What was the catalyst? Whether you come from a musical family?”

Andrei: “Yes, that’s very trivial, err the musical mum, she was a pupil of Neuhaus, a very famous teacher in Moscow Conservatory, and I constantly was surrounded by music, but it happened accidentally. I heard a live radio transmission of Mozart’s Requiem and was absolutely shattered. I was three-years-old. I was scared by “Confutatis” and absolutely crushed by “Lacrimosa”. I cried and cried and cried and cried. Really, a very sensitive kid was I. Then next day I just came to the piano and started to play “Lacrimosa” and “Confutatis” to a great surprise to my Mum, and I had never touched the piano. She was – I had an older brother and he was already in the Central Music School and my Mum was very busy with him because Central Special Music School is the very school from where all big Russians came and so it’s very difficult to learn there from the very beginning, from the first day, it’s a very hard programme.”

Melanie: “Yeah, sure.”

Andrei: “Hard training. They – All mothers and all families are involved when their kids are at Central Music School. Those days, now it’s different, and so, I was still mostly having a fun time, with my toys! but since I played these couple of numbers from the “Requiem” and my Mum said can you go, can look forward, can continue and I started to continue. Well, of course, it was not the full scale two handed playing, but it was still quite impressive and that’s how I started. Next day I was already there.”

Melanie: “Which teachers then? There must have been a teacher or teachers. What teachers are crucial in your development?”

Andrei: “You know, there were several because I mean there are many paths, many dimensions of developing a musician. It’s – there’s pianistic mastership, this is – there’s also their musicianship which is totally different. I mean, the pianist is mostly, it’s training. It’s about training; it’s about pedology and things like this. And, for that, irreplaceable was Central Music School because they are based on the best combined traditions of German, French, and Russian schools in the 19th century. This school was created by Goldenweiser, a very important teacher, friend of Tolstoy, beautiful, beautiful pianist of the 19th century. He lived a long life and even I reached him when he was in the conservatory. He was in his 80’s or 90’s or so but he grounded the Central Music School. In 1928 as a new era of those days, new soviet free state. There were a lot of ideas invested in there. There were a lot of hopes in the beginning of the Soviet Union, which all unfortunately went down it was too  – The idea was good but it was still too early. It needed to wait a couple thousand years for such a state where there was no money, everybody’s honest, everybody’s respecting each other, everybody’s loving each other, everybody’s giving. A total giving society. Maybe one day. So this school was combining the best of the best, and it was crucial for – in the developing as the pianist. After finishing this school, you can play everything, I mean you can play like this. You can play like this. You can play like this. You can play with your legs, feet, whatever.”

Melanie: “Yeah, I can imagine.”

Andrei: “We were trained like monkeys. Then, the rest of the Russians they hated us, because when– the team from Central Music School was going to the conservatory, ‘they came from central’ They’re going to take 99% of the places, no chances. And it’s true, it was true.”

Melanie: “But how did you develop your technique?”

Andrei: “You know, it’s difficult to explain because – well, it is not difficult to explain, but for that you have to go through the whole process which is – the process of education at Central Music School was 12 years. They were putting in all these 12 years. It’s a very special programme which was developed during almost a hundred years. It’s the position of the body, the position of the hands, training your nerves, with very special tricks and there are so many- millions of different dimensions of preparing. The best athlete if you wish. The best of the best, who could stand any pressure, playing in space. So, it’s really difficult to tell in the interview. So half a year was dedicated to finger technique, half a year was dedicated to elbow technique, shoulders technique. Then it was every quarter of the year we had a special exam for a special technique. Let’s say in the 7th grade, 7th class as they say, 7th year of our education we had a – and after each exam a filtration like 20 people would be taking the exam, the next day 10 people would be out of the school. It was brutal, brutal.”

Melanie: “Wow that’s interesting.”

Andrei: “Yes, very brutal. Then it would be another 10 entering from next year and then – the filtration was really – and no mercy.”

Melanie: “And hours and hours a day I presume?”

Andrei: “Yes.”

Melanie:  “Exactly how much?”      

Andrei: “We were in school since the very first class from 8 o’clock in the morning until 7 in the evening. It was all in one building, and it all about all kinds of education.”

Melanie: “Amazing.”

Andrei: “Yes, very special. It was – and the school was built in the backyard of the Moscow conservatory. It was also done on purpose so we, the little kids, could be inspired seeing – let’s say – people like Shostakovich or shaking their hands. They were coming to us, into our backyards having cigarettes. In those days they all smoked. So we constantly were seeing Rostropovich chatting with Shostakovich. All these kinds of people and it was becoming normal for us being among those Gods. So, when we were in our early teens we were already kind of a part of this family. There is also the psychological thing which worked very well.”

Melanie: “So, you won the Tchaikovsky prize, what impact did this have on your career, because this must have-“

Andrei: “Jumped. Next week I was in Salzburg replacing Richter, who couldn’t go there and I had a fantastic success and it all started I was invited everywhere.”

Melanie: “So, do you believe the competitions are still good for youngsters today? Or do you think – yes- do you think – do you think we’ve moved on from that now?”

Andrei: “Yeah, I think that was a different era, those days. It was just the beginning of competitions I mean you cannot run thousands of competitions and producing all the time geniuses. I mean for example look at the history of the Tchaikovsky competition, there were only 5 competitions that survived on the level which was established in the first competition in ’58 when Van Cliburn won the first prize, then it was John Ogdon, Ashkenazy and – then my competition in ‘74 where Andras Schiff was only fourth and hardly survived until the third round. It was so strong. Really. But we were all post Second World War generation and a lot of the moral and psychological, metaphysical forces related to the great suffering of the whole planet. And that produced as well in street culture like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and all these stuff, hippie movement. It was a very creative time. But then, when it became regular and the number of competitions grew enormously in the space of 10-12 years. It turned to be very corruptive. Instead of promoting the real talents, it just became an industry, a part of the so called music industry, which I hate. People say music industry not understanding that it’s a contradiction. I mean, the industry and music does not go together. I mean music – the industry goes with the tracks or tanks or whatsoever, but industrialization of music making – it’s just absolutely crazy. This is still a very rare product. And it’s still done by unknown forces and an unknown combination of circumstances, but definitely not on the belt. And in our days it’s just a running belt, like the cheap Ford productions. Doesn’t go. I think in the 21st century we need a total rebranding of music. First of all we have to get rid of music industry, of all this stupid combination of senseless words. We have to get rid of music-money connection, because there are a lot of musicians who are just going to this business for well, living and not understanding what they actually ought to do. What they have actually – to my opinion, the beginning musicians, they have to play for years for free. Like a priest, sort of.”

Melanie: “Absolutely.”

Andrei: “And when they will acquire the love and need from people, people will be needing them. Then, they can be paid for their services, just a little. Instead, we have completely priceless crazy situation. The teenager who is running fast passages, paid enormous fees all over the world, travelling around and spoiling and corrupting all the young audiences, because they all think that’s all about music. Just to play fast and precise. And if music is industry or at least nice entertainment. We have to come back to the values of music is, in fact, a secular  religion. If after the concert, my philosophy is, after the concert of people who came together as union and you’re transmitting the geniuses to them. If they’re not changing for good after the concert, during the concert, if it’s not a lifetime event for the audience, every concert, it’s a bad concert. It’s a charlatan, nothing else.”

Melanie: “Do you have a particular practice routine?”

Andrei: “Yes I do, as much as possible.”

Melanie: “What do you do? Do you have a specific way of warming up or do you just go straight to-“

Andrei: “I’m always warm, hot hot hot! You know, it says in the Bible, one of the beautiful passages. I think it is from Apocalypse, yeah. There is a verse which says ‘because you’re warm I hate and reject you. If you are cold or hot I would, I would have loved you. But, because you are only warm, I rejected you.’ “

Melanie: “Which composers do you love to play?”

Andrei: “You know, there’s so few.”

Melanie: “Really?”

Andrei: “Geniuses, really few, a handful. Since Bach, I mean how many we could really call geniuses? We all know Wagner, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin. And, well it would be- I don’t want to give numbers but there are every few for three hundred years”

Melanie: “You retired from the concert platform for a while, and then you came back. What prompted your return and why did you decide to stop performing”

Andrei: “ Because it was a very important decision and a crucial decision of my life. And in the beginning of 90’s I started realizing that I’m becoming a part of the music industry and I became a perfect industrial boy. Having what I always – loving it  – as the big and important agents like to say that you have a solid and steady career. That’s what I had, a solid and steady career, the regular recordings, regular tours, and no development at all. And you’re just getting older, you’re just getting more and more experience, you’re slightly developing in the way of being master of manipulating and pleasing audiences. But it has nothing to do with art. And in this phase of being part of music industry you cannot move. First of all, you can’t be free with your spirit and your ideas because you have to follow certain rules, and there are many.

Secondly, you cannot move forward the music itself. If you look back for the performing arts, we have been doing the same for 200 years. It’s rattling and rattling and rattling again, and it doesn’t go forward, therefore I decided that I have to do something radical, say goodbye to wellbeing, start my life from the scratch and die or find a new way of developing music, developing performing arts. And I knew that I would be alone. Bye bye wealthy life, hello poverty. But it was difficult, I was suffering, I was suffering a lot because I spoilt a lot – for a certain life style for a couple of decades. Then, I got accustomed to it, my new situation, and I was starting to search and listen to myself and I didn’t find much interesting.”

Melanie: “But you found a way back, you came back.”

Andrei: “Oh yeah, it was also decided those days in the beginning of the 90’s that I come back only when I will be so rich in a different way.”

Melanie: “In a different way.”

Andrei: “In a different way.”

Melanie: “Yes, of course.”

Andrei: “Then, I could share with the rest of the world for a thousand of years. The ideas, the new things, new sounds and turn every single meeting with an audience into a lifetime event. Only when I am feeling confident that I can do it then I’ll come back. So I had to work hard to achieve that, I didn’t though for a long time. In ’93 I quit. The first try I’ve done in 2001 already the 21st century, but I started only really working only in the well, last couple of years.”

Melanie: “That’s interesting. You’re giving master classes here today. What do you love about teaching?”

Andrei: “Oh, that’s the same, part of the sharing, sharing. Sharing what I learnt. Being able to share, knowing that what I’m sharing – sharing with guys and students – nobody can. Nobody went through this, really. I mean the guys from the music industry, they can share different things. And therefore me, who was always rejecting the idea of teaching, I do it only 2 years. I do it only 2 years and do only master classes, and do it no more than – let’s say – four or five times a year. But this is kind of different a dimensional space flight, what I try to achieve during our gathering together with these youngsters. It’s not like you have to play this like this and this and this and that. I mean, this is all scholarship. What I try to share is – first of all, give the keys to the guys to be able to read the texts, because nobody can read the texts. Reading the text is the crucial thing. We all know the word interpretation and this is a very tricky one, because interpretation is mostly appealing to your intuition. One is feeling like this. Another is feeling like this. Another is feeling like this. To where we have thousands of interpretations that have nothing to do with the piece, but – they’re all expressing themselves in different ways, which is wrong. It’s the wrong perception. What I’m positive, and I’ve proven that it’s possible to do, it’s to grab from the text the real meaning of the composer. The composer, when he put something on paper – the genius composers, the real composer, who are rich, those kind of composers – from those composers, you know, every note has a meaning and content and from text- if you’re able to read the text – enormous amount of information and knowing how to read the text and knowing what composer is using a special – which technique to express a particular thing. Every composer has different tools for expressing themselves. Beethoven or Chopin or Rachmaninoff – but for reading Rachmaninoff for example, you ought to know the Orthodox culture. If you don’t know the religious culture of an orthodox believer – I mean forget about Rachmaninoff, because Rachmaninoff himself and all his music is a Russian religious song.  Nothing else. With all the quotations from the church services from the Russian nature and also filtered through the Christian mind, through the Christian conscious, but a very special one, the mixtures byzantine – the Russian, Eastern, Mongolian mixture of what is a very strange phenomenon as a Russian Orthodox church. And he was actually himself he was representing the church and that’s what the 99% percent of his music is. Except of some jokey or jazzy stuff, which is, would be 1% of the entire literature of Rachmaninoff. The rest would be this, and they have to know that. How would they have to know that? First of all, they have to study this. Second, you have to go to Russia and live there. Then you can, then you’re able to. If you don’t do this, forget about Rachmaninoff. Same with any other composer. If you are not drinking beer with a German Bauer in the German village, you wouldn’t know what Wagner’s written about. Half of Wagner is German songs. Still living, still singing, still being sang. And also, you have to know the protestant approach and all the things which are connected with the Lutheran and the time, and going deep in the Bach mind through the prism of being rejecting Catholicism on the German soil. That’s the environment where it was all created, but you have to know where the seeds are to be able to read the text. Again, this is a very very, very complex task. And that’s what I share.

Melanie: “What does playing the piano mean to you?”

Andrei: “Sharing love.”

Melanie: “Thanks so much for joining me today. Thank you.”

Andrei: “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.


Angela Hewitt in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

This is the Twentieth Classical Conversation in my Series, and I’m delighted to welcome celebrated British Canadian concert pianist Angela Hewitt to mark the occasion.

Angela Hewitt is a phenomenal artist who has established herself at the highest level over the last few years not least through her superb, award-winning recordings for Hyperion. Completed in 2005, her eleven-year project to record all the major keyboard works of Bach has been described as “one of the record glories of our age” (The Sunday Times) and has won her a huge following. She has been hailed as “the pre-eminent Bach pianist of our time” (The Guardian) and “nothing less than the pianist who will define Bach performance on the piano for years to come” (Stereophile). She has a vast repertoire ranging from Couperin to the contemporary. Her discography also includes CDs of Granados, Beethoven, Schumann, Rameau, Chabrier, Olivier Messiaen, the complete solo works of Ravel, the complete Chopin Nocturnes and Impromptus, a Handel/Haydn album, and three discs devoted to the music of Couperin. Her recordings of the complete solo keyboard concertos of J.S. Bach with the Australian Chamber Orchestra entered the billboard charts in the U.S.A. only weeks after their release, and were named Record of the Month in Gramophone magazine. A cycle of Mozart Concertos has begun, the first of which features the Orchestra da Camera di Mantova. In 2012 Hyperion will release her recording of solo works of Debussy, as well as the works for piano and orchestra by Robert Schumann in which she is partnered by the Deutsche-Sinfonie-Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu.

Angela has performed throughout North America and Europe as well as in Japan, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, Israel, China, Mexico, Turkey and the former Soviet Union. Highlights of recent seasons include her debuts in Carnegie Hall, the Concertgebouw and with the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as a North American tour with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Her recitals have taken her to the festivals of Edinburgh, Osaka, Prague, Hong Kong, Schleswig-Holstein, Brescia/Bergamo, and Oslo to name but a few. Her frequent Wigmore Hall and Royal Festival Hall recitals in London sell out months in advance.  As a chamber musician she has joined international artists at Lincoln Center in New York and in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.  With cellist Daniel Mueller-Schott she recorded the Bach Gamba Sonatas for Orfeo, and the complete works of Beethoven for Hyperion. With flautist Andrea Oliva, she recently recorded the Bach Flute Sonatas for Hyperion.

Angela’s entire 2007-2008 season was devoted to performances of the complete Bach Well-Tempered Clavier in major cities all over the world, including London (Royal Festival Hall), New York (Carnegie Hall), Los Angeles, Berkeley, Portland, Vancouver, Denver, Ottawa, Toronto,  Mexico City, Bogota, Singapore, Tokyo, Seoul, Macao, Sydney, Melbourne, Warsaw, Milan, Lisbon, Venice, Bilbao, Zurich, Stuttgart, Glasgow, Pretoria, and Hong Kong.  A special DVD lecture-recital entitled “Bach Performance on the Piano” was released by Hyperion to co-incide with the tour. Before the end of the tour, she re-recorded the work which was released by Hyperion in 2009 to great critical acclaim from around the world.

In July 2005, Angela launched her own Trasimeno Music Festival in the heart of Umbria near Perugia. Now an annual event, it draws an international audience to the Castle of the Knights of Malta in Magione, on the shores of Lake Trasimeno. Seven concerts in seven days feature Hewitt as a recitalist, chamber musician, song accompanist, and conductor, working with both established and young artists of her choosing.

Born into a musical family (her father was the Cathedral organist in Ottawa, Canada) Angela began her piano studies aged three, performing in public at four and a year later winning her first scholarship. During her formative years, she also studied violin, recorder, and classical ballet. At nine she gave her first recital at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music where she later studied. She then went on to learn with French pianist, Jean-Paul Sévilla, at the University of Ottawa. She won First Prize in Italy’s Viotti Competition (1978) and was a top prizewinner in the International Bach competitions of Leipzig and Washington D.C. as well as the Schumann Competition in Zwickau, the Casadesus Competition in Cleveland and the Dino Ciani Competition at La Scala, Milan. In 1985 she won the Toronto International Bach Piano Competition.

Angela Hewitt was named Gramophone Artist of the Year in 2006.  She was awarded the first ever BBC Radio 3 Listener’s Award (Royal Philharmonic Society Awards) in 2003. She was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2000, and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.  She was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2006. She has lived in London since 1985 but also has homes in Ottawa, Canada and Umbria, Italy.

Angela in action…

The transcript for those who prefer to read interviews…..

MELANIE:  Celebrated British-Canadian concert pianist Angela Hewitt gives recitals and concerto performances in major concert halls all around the world. She’s renowned for her interpretation of the works of J.S. Bach and was awarded the OBE in 2006. So, I’m thrilled that she’s joined me here today at Jacques Samuel Pianos in London for a Classical Conversation. Welcome.

ANGELA:  Hi Melanie.

MELANIE:  Lovely to meet you.

ANGELA:  It’s nice to be here.

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

ANGELA:    Yes, I do come from a very musical family. My father was organist and choirmaster at the Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa, Canada. He’d come from England and had gone out to Canada as a young man and so he was a really marvellous musician. And I heard him play from probably before I was born. And my mother was his student but was a pianist in her own right and had a girls’ choir at high school where she taught Music and English. And so music was very much a part of everyday life at home. And I think even before my 3rd birthday, my mother started me at the piano which I took to naturally and by evidently I asked for a lesson every day or twice a day. But I didn’t just do piano. I did violin from age of 6, also recorder very seriously. I did the Classical Ballet. I did Highland Dancing. I sang. So I did really have an all-around artistic education.

MELANIE:   Which teachers were most influential on your development as a pianist?

ANGELA:    Well, besides my parents who taught me up until the age of 5 or 6, I guess I was 6 when I started going to The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. We never lived in Toronto but I would make the trip there, first by train and then by bus and then by plane every 2nd week for lessons. And there I have some very good teachers. Earle Moss when I was very young who’s great with children and a wonderful pianist himself and then Myrtle Guerrero, who had been the wife of Alberto Guerrero, who was the only teacher of Glenn Gould but she wasn’t a pianist herself but had benefited from her husband’s teaching. And then, I decided to stay in Ottawa because a pianist who had come from France, Jean-Paul Sévilla, to teach at the University of Ottawa and I had heard his students and heard what progress they have made and was amazed. And so when I was just 15, I started with Jean Paul at the University of Ottawa, first as a special student and then enrolled in the national music programme in performance and he was fabulous. He had such a wide repertoire he could sit-down play anything; the Goldberg Variations, the Brahms-Handel, the Liszt Sonata, the complete works of Ravel, of Faure and gave us much more than piano teaching. He really taught us all about art and opera and took us to France every summer and had a wonderful joie de vivre and all of his students were friends. And it was a really terrific to have him in Ottawa. And then I went to study in Paris in 1978, he was back in there on Sabbatical that year so I finished up a lot of French music with him. I took some private lessons from Catherine Collard, a wonderful pianist, now dead, but who was a great Schumann player, especially. And Vlado Perlemuter who had studied with Ravel, but I really, by then, wanted to study by myself because Jean Paul had given me such a good beginning and I needed to find my own way. And so that’s what I did.

MELANIE:    So, how did you develop your technique?

ANGELA:    Well, technique, of course when I was young, I did my scales, my arpeggios, my broken chords, my Hanons. I mean, we have to do that for the Conservatory exams. That’s a good thing because I think it’s too often neglected but I always got technique more through the music. First of all, Bach is the best thing for developing your technique, and I always did love Bach, for developing your 4th and 5th fingers, you know. Every finger of every hand has to be strong in Bach. And even playing things like the Liszt Sonata which I did when I was 17, in all the octave passages, okay, you practice them with just the thumb only da … da … da … da …


ANGELA:   You know but still I always practice hard bits musically with the phrasing already in place, never purely mechanically. So the two were always very much linked with me. And I was had a good technique but I really had to build up the strength and my technique. I was never one to rattle off all the Chopin Etudes when I was 13, I still can’t rattle them off, but it doesn’t matter. I could rattle off all the complete Bach.

MELANIE:   That’s right.

ANGELA:   And octaves always suited me more than double thirds, for sure. But I think, it was this thing that I always developed technique through repertoire and not just, you know, thinking notes.

MELANIE:  You won many prizes both national and international, what, impact do you think this had on your career? Do you think it was crucial or not so important?

ANGELA:  It was important and I was one of the pianists of my generation at least of my age and those years who did the most competitions. I started international competitions I guess when I was 17, with the Bach competition in Washington D.C. where the Goldberg Variations was the test piece. It was all done behind a curtain so the judges had no idea who was playing and that gave me my American debut at the Kennedy Centre. Anyway, but I started doing them early on and I looked at them … I was successful in some, I was kicked out in the first round in many others. But I always look at it as a chance to, first of all, prepare repertoire, to perform it and especially to listen to others because I remember my first international competition in Europe was in 1976. I went to the Bach competition in Leipzig. And so I played I think I’ve drawn an early number so, and then I listened to everyone. And it was good because no matter what the result was in the end what the jury thought, I could form my own opinions and hear the Russians, and hear the Germans, and hear the Americans and then every nationality possible. And just sort of feel where I felt I was situated or just feel that yes, maybe I do have a chance at this. So, that was good. And so I tried to look on it positively. But then, when I finally won, I had won several but when it was Bach in competition in Toronto that they held in memory of Glenn Gould, and where Messiaen was on a jury with Yvonne Loriod and Leon Fleisher. That was in 1985. And when I saw the programme I thought that’s really my programme,  a combination of a lot Bach and on choice stuff and Classical sonatas, so when I did win that my first thought was great I don’t have to do anymore. Because that gave me enough of a launch but then, that was it. But it was more necessary perhaps in those days you couldn’t make a career on YouTube in those days.

MELANIE:  Well, that was my next question, do you think it’s still valid, it’s still important for young  pianists to take part in competitions?

ANGELA: Well, I think they can be but I think there’s so many of them now that even winners of big competitions tend to get lost. That’s one problem I think another problem is that too often winners of competitions are taken and pushed beyond all you know, what they should be by agents and record companies in too an early an age. And that I’m very much against. You know, I won my prize when I was 26 I guess but I’d already made my New York debut, my London debut at Wigmore Hall. But I already had a huge repertoire and a lot of concert experience but still it was another … I would say another, what even 10 years after that before I got in my contract with Hyperion and so … and I don’t regret at all those years of still working hard. There is your repertoire and living a life.

MELANIE:  Yes that’s right!

ANGELA:  Other than on the road.

MELANIE:  Yes, very few pianists play Bach convincingly, you’re one of the few, what draws you to this music so much?

ANGELA: Well, I’ve mentioned my background already so having heard all those great organ works, you know, as a child and wonderfully played so that they weren’t boring and they were fascinating. And I heard the structure and love that. I love the strength of the themes and what Bach did to them. You know, I think I always had it in my nature to take something complicated and then unravel it and make it simple, which I think that’s why I enjoyed just now working on the Art of Fugue ,the last sort of big project I’ve been … Bach project that I’ve done and, yeah, there’s for sure, something in my nature that enjoys taking the complicated and making it easy and that should be for Bach because of course there’s nothing written in the score so you have to know the style, you have to see how you can translate that to yourself using a modern instrument. But and also I love the dance aspect of it because of course, most of Bach is dance music whether it has the title of Minuet and Bourrée or a Prelude and Fugue could be dance music. So, a lot of the spirit in it that wonderful joy comes from the dance and that I feel inside me. And then just the great beauty of it. I mean, it’s simply beautiful music no matter on which level you appreciate it. It is, you know, beautiful melodies, and harmonies, and … but yeah, and also because you can keep playing it and never get tired of it in a way that you would in some other pieces.

MELANIE:  You played a lot of French music as well from Couperin, Rameau, right through to Messiaen, so what acttracts you to this country’s great music.

ANGELA:  Yeah. Well, I guess it was beginning my study with Jean Paul there when I was 15 and all the way I’d already played some Ravel and Debussy but he was the one who first gave me Messiaen and Faure and Chabrier, and right in those early years and I just loved it. I think again it was, well I had a wonderful teachers before because, you know, he was really steeped in the tradition and knew how this music should be played and we … you know, when I learned Faure, I didn’t just play the piece that was put in front of me, I listened to all the songs which I loved. I was learning French at the same time so the combination of the language and the music and when you’re playing French music, even when you’re playing music without words, it’s very important. The poetry in Ravel. The colours that one could get at the keyboard, the challenges of playing things like Gaspard de la Nuit. But it was just … the French wit, going to their country, living there because I lived in Paris from the age of 20 for seven years. So, yeah, it was … I don’t know, in Canada of course, we have French and I was taught it at school from an early age but I always did more than I needed to because it fascinated me so much.

MELANIE:   Who other composers do you really love to play?

ANGELA:  Well, I love Schumann, and then Mozart, Beethoven, of course. I’m recording at the moment all Beethoven sonatas and all the Mozart concerti but Schumann is another great love again I think through Jean Paul and Catherine Collard. When you are 15, 16, 17 those are big influences that hit you. But Schumann it was the Sonata in G minor Op. 22, that was my first big solo romantic piece. And Jean-Paul gave it to me and I came back a week later playing with the notes but then he sat down and showed me what could be done with it and I went “Wow!” And I never realized all the passion and everything that could go into an interpretation at the piano and so, I took it away and sort of imitated him a bit and found my own way and then that was it, that really got me going. So, yeah, I love Schumann for the combination of rigor and yet total fantasy, improvisation and quick changes of mood and craziness. Just what one can really give of oneself.

MELANIE:   Yes. Do you have a particular practice regime?

ANGELA:  Nothing set, but I usually start with Bach because I usually have some to play and so it’s good to get going in the morning get the brain alert and the fingers warmed up. The older you get, I think the more you have to sort of, you know, not start with the Liszt Sonata. It’s very important to warm up the muscles, actually, somehow before you begin to play more complicated things. But I work hard at practice now as much as I did when I was kid. There’s no slacking off at all. In fact I work probably much more attentively and carefully now. I work just as much on memory in fact, even more and more consciously, as well because you have to when you’re older and that’s a good thing. I study a lot away from the piano too when I’m in airplanes as if I have a new piece to memorize then I find that’s a very good to do that away from the piano….

MELANIE:  …away from the piano..

ANGELA:  … and just visualizing yourself playing in and memorizing and fingering. But, yeah, I do a lot of slow practice also but again with the phrasing already in there, I’m very careful with my fingering especially in Bach..

MELANIE:  Especially in Bach.

ANGELA:  99% of it is fingering. It’s all linked to articulation, to phrasing, to the clarity between the voices. Yeah. So, I’ve worked very carefully looking at everything in the score, the articulation mark. Because you know, so often, things like that are forgotten and if you all do is listen to 10 great pianists playing  Beethoven sonata then just, you know, sort of imitate them all and that’s probably the worst thing you can do.

MELANIE:   Yes. You set up the Trasimeno Music
festival in Perugia in Italy in 2005. Lots of pianists are setting up their own music festival, what’s the catalyst behind yours?

ANGELA:   Well, I bought this piece of land, rather unexpectedly, in Umbria on Lake Trasimeno. Friends of mine at that time were fixing up a house near there and I thought that it wouldn’t be bad to have a place in a country where I didn’t have neighbours, you know, where I could practice as much as I wanted. And so I looked on the map and found this lake, Trasimeno. I’m a Canadian I need to see water, and never had a cottage as a kid so, and to make a long story short, I found this piece of land for sale and I built a house. And I knew that there was the  Castle of the Knights of Malta, just a few minutes away in Magione and … the following summer after my house was ready, I went and saw … saw the inside of it. I saw this 15th century courtyard with a stunning acoustic. And thought ‘Wow, I have to have a festival here’ and the next summer in 2005, I already did. And so, it’s grown over the years and in 2014, we’re having our 10th festival already. And people come all over the world and I, we present seven concerts in seven days and I play in six of those had people said, “why do you play in so many concerts”

MELANIE:  That’s a lot….

ANGELA:  It is a lot but then, that’s the big pleasure from me. I don’t think I will do all the work for this festival. It’s simply too much all year round. Fund-raising and putting programmes together and, you know, I see every reservation that comes in, I mean, I work so hard at it, but I don’t think I will do that unless then I have the pleasure of playing with people like Anne Sofie Von Otter or, you know, that’s only one name, but all wonderful instrumentalists we’ve had and orchestras and conductors that … Yeah, so when they come rehearse at my house and we perform that’s really the pleasure for me. And also to see all my friends and fans all over the world get together in one place and they form friendships and that’s also wonderful.

MELANIE:   Sounds fun.

ANGELA:  Yeah.

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

ANGELA:  Well, lots and lots of concert all over the world, that’s for sure. I’m about to go to Australia and Japan for 6 weeks. On the recording front I have a Faure disc just now coming out. I have a fourth album of Beethoven. I’ll be recording a fifth in January. I just recorded the Art of Fugue that will be out and I’ll be doing a video also explaining it, I think. I’m going to start Scarlatti before too long not all of it not all 555 sonatas but some, you know, a good selection and Mozart concerti continue with the third volume, I just recorded it in Ottawa, So, Turangalîla recording in Helsinki in the new hall next January – Messiaen, which is a big thing. So, yeah, lots of things to learn, lots or repertoire that still interests me which is good, lots of concertos that I still want to play,  Brahms Concerto in D minor, and Ravel Left Hand Concerto, which is the only piece of Ravel I’ve never performed. So, always lots to keep me going, which is good.

MELANIE:  Yes. Good. What does playing the piano mean to you?

ANGELA:   Well, it’s my life. It’s what I do to express myself. It’s what I do to … I mean, I’m very lucky in the way that I get to earn my living by doing something that gives me and so many people a lot of pleasure. But, yes, if on a day I don’t play, unless I’m sick or something, I don’t feel quite right you know, you physically get quite restless.


ANGELA:  And … this week I have a few days off but then there’s so much business to do that I am still busy but, yeah, it’s my life and it has been since when I was a tiny child and it will be I hope   always. But, I think, music is the greatest way to communicate with people, to build bridges, to builds friendships, to spread something happy and meaningful.

MELANIE:  Thank you so much for joining me today Angela.

ANGELA:  Thank you, Melanie

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.