Words and Music with Lucy Parham and Friends

British concert pianist Lucy Parham came to prominence when she won the piano final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1984, and  has since played with many of the world’s finest orchestras and conductors. More recently, she has become synonymous with performances of Words and Music. Lucy teams up with eminent actors, and themes her  concerts; each one delves into the lives (and often the loves too) of celebrated composers, such as Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Debussy.

Piano music combined with narration is indeed a popular concept, and Lucy has just released a couple of videos showcasing her work. You can enjoy them both by clicking on the links below:

If you would like to soak up the atmosphere and hear Lucy in person, here are a couple of forthcoming events:

Odyssey of Love (which focuses on Liszt and his women) will be performed on the 16th January at the Salisbury Playhouseand Lucy is joined by Joanna David and Martin Jarvis,  and also on the 17th January at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, where Harriet Walter and Henry Goodman will feature.

I interviewed Lucy as part of my Classical Conversations Series; she was one of my first guests:

www.lucyparham.com


My publications:

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

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


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Rachmaninov in an Ice Age

Something a little different today, courtesy of Israeli concert pianist Boris Giltburg. Boris won the Queen Elisabeth Piano Competition in Brussels in 2013, and is now busy forging a very successful career (read his blog here). This short film entitled Rachmaninov in an Ice Age, was shot in Denmark and is designed to generate greater interest in Classical music, by creating or suggesting a different perspective. Irrespective of whether it achieves its objective or not, you can enjoy Boris Giltburg’s account of Rachmaninov’s Prelude Op. 23 No. 7 in C minor by clicking on the link below:

 

I interviewed Boris last year and you can watch here:

This interview is one of a whole series where I chat to established concert pianists; it’s called the Classical Conversations Series.

 


My publications:

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

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


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

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


 

Cristina Ortiz in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My thirty-eighth interview guest is Brazilian concert pianist Cristina Ortiz. We met at her home in West London a couple of weeks ago to discuss her life and career.

Even though Cristina has been resident in Europe for many years, it is the passion, spontaneity and allure so characteristic to her Brazilian cultural heritage, which is central to her music making. Dominating a broad range of solo and concerto repertoire, she now adds the role of chamber musician ever more important in her make-up as a truly complete artist.
She has performed with Antonio Meneses, Boris Belkin, Kurt Nikkanen, Uto Ughi, Dimitri Ashkenazy as well as the Prague Wind Quintet; and besides collaborating with string quartets such as the Chilingirian, the Grainger or the Endellion, Cristina has just recorded the piano quintets of Fauré and Franck with the Fine Arts Quartet for Naxos.
There is no doubting her dedication to divulging Brazilian music, well evidenced in the American premiere of Guarnieri’s “Choro” at Carnegie Hall under Dennis Russell-Davies, or Decca recording of Villa-Lobos’ five Piano Concertos, recording which definitely confirmed her as the main interpreter of his music.
Cristina’s interpretation of a wealth of the most significant piano literature from Beethoven to Bernstein and beyond, has sustained critical acclaim as well as bringing to her public’s attention a number of lesser known works:
1. as in her CDs of pieces by Clara Schumann for Carlton Classics or that of Stenhammar’s 2nd Piano Concerto with the Göthenburg Orchestra under Neeme Järvi for BIS; or
2. as in the world premiere of Lalo Schifrin’s “Concerto of the Americas” in Washington DC and Kyoto; or performances of Erwin Schulhoff’s Piano Concerto with the Czech Philharmonic or the Hong Kong Sinfonietta.
Cristina Ortiz believes teaching is an invaluable source for self-analysis. Using her experience, she inspires young pianists to develop a feeling for colours and to broaden their range of emotions. In giving private tuition or conducting master-classes while on concert-trips throughout the world whenever possible, she dedicates special attention to the use of Pedal: that all-important yet nearly untaught art.
Since the days when invited by her mentor, Rudolf Serkin, she participated in his famous “Music from Marlboro” or when appearing at the “Festival of the Two Worlds” in Spoletto Italy, Cristina knows that an artist can but grow from sharing music with peers. She has recently organized chamber music concerts as well as several workshops for young pianists, with the intention of bringing music to her local friends in the south of France. In 2006, her first “C* O* & Friends Festival’’ there was music for wind instruments and piano, whereas in 2008, her second, that for strings and piano. To the delight of her audiences, an informal jazz-session ended both programs, in lighter fashion.
Ms Ortiz has worked with conductors such as André Previn, Kyril Kondrashin, Zubin Mehta, Neeme Järvi, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Maris Jansons, David Zinman and Dennis Russell-Davies among many more and played with orchestras such as the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic, Cleveland or Philadelphia Orchestras, Chicago Symphony, Czech Philharmonic, RPO and Philharmonia to cite but a few.
On the other hand, she especially enjoys directing from the keyboard, be it as in concert with the Prague Chamber Orchestra (at the Rudolfinum or the Musikverein, Vienna); with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, in Ørebro, Sweden; or in the recording studios with the Consort of London, for Collins Classics. Recently the 1st time in Brazil, she delighted the São Paulo public and orchestral partners alike with her relaxed yet visceral approach to music, directing and performing Beethoven’s Concerto # 3 from the keyboard. In her opinion this format of music making is the most complete and satisfying for a soloist, due to total commitment by all musicians on stage.
Cristina Ortiz as a true Ambassador, has started to perform classical music in the various Embassies of Brazil around the world, closely relating to the exclusive audiences by informally announcing what she chooses to play: be it Chopin or Lorenzo Fernandez; Schubert or Fructuoso Vianna; Brahms or Nepomuceno; Debussy or Villa-Lobos: all chosen composers, equally treasured by her.

Cristina in action….


And the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews……..

Melanie: Brazilian concert pianist, Cristina Ortiz, won first prize in the 1969 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and she’s played to great claim ever since. I’m so thrilled that she’s joining me for one of my classical conversations here at her home in London. Welcome.

Cristina: Thank you.

Melanie: Lovely to chat to you today. I want to start by asking you all about your musical education: how old you were when you started, what was the catalyst, why did you start to play?

Cristina: I think what happened was the moment I could climb up to the piano stool, I got close to the piano and I started experimenting with everything I heard came out, and the sounds. At about 4 years of age, my mother just decided to start me with some teacher because I might have some talent, and that was the beginning of it. I started with a wonderful concert pianist in Rio, and after that I went to the conservatoire kind of thing, and I won many competitions including a scholarship to go to France, in Paris. And there I went to study with Magda Tagliaferro, who was Brazilian born and had her academy in Paris. After that, I won the Cliburn. After winning the Cliburn in ’69, I decided to study with Rudolf Serkin, because I needed a diversification of styles and a little away from the perfume and flair and rhythm of the Tagliaferro school, quite different, the Cliburn in Philadelphia and did two and a half, three years with Serkin, and everything together with chamber music, which is the most important part of music, but then since 40 years now I’ve been living in London. My career was mainly in Europe anyway. I wasn’t very keen on American music. I mean the way that people relate to music, I wasn’t so comfortable. So, I did my studies and then when I could I just came back to Europe. I was in Paris between ’65-69, so I came back. That’s where I am.

Melanie: So, how did you develop your technique? Which teacher do you think developed it or who was the most important?

Cristina: I wasn’t technically – For me, technique is just a vehicle. So, it has never been very important. Unlike the Russian school where you have to acquire, and be really and athlete, and develop a power and everything. I was, I suppose rather natural. My hands just whatever, felt right, my fingers or whatever. I never really did technique. I just prepared whatever I was practicing on and the technique would develop. Whichever exercise I needed or technical problems, I had to conquer them by studying the passage and so on. So, I never think of technique as an important side of music.

Of course, you have to have it to get through the repertoire, but for me, the most important side of music is the sound. That’s a technique of the ear, isn’t it? And the projection of sound and so on. The preparation of getting something ready is just the background of making music. So, it’s not that important to me.

Melanie: The Van Cliburn Competition, it must have had a huge impact on your career? How did it change it, or did it not?

Cristina: No, it didn’t really. At that time it wasn’t as important as it is now, with the media and the coverage and everything. Everything is filmed from the word go. I followed Radu Lupu’s prize, and Radu at that time had just come out of Russia and was very. I mean he never changed so much. But he had cancelled, for instance, the European tour. And as a consequence, when it came to me, I had no European tour, because the Cliburn winner had not honored the prize and that kind of thing. So, mine had not such a very important coverage in the world and I suppose that’s why in the end I went to study with Rudolf Serkin to try to get through this German school. I wanted to come back to Europe, and I’ve never really been in the eye of the public.

Melanie: No.

Cristina: Like anybody these days winning a major competition, they immediately-

Melanie: goes mad

Cristina: goes mad for about 5 minutes these days, because there’s so many of us.

Melanie: I was about to say, do you think that’s still an important way to establish a career or do you think it’s not?

Cristina: I think it’s past it. And also, I don’t know if you see the corruption. The way things are just like politics, and the way that you get up there somehow. Not blaming the candidate, but it’s very difficult to judge music. It’s such an incredibly subjective art. And your opinion and mine, if we don’t discuss, there is no middle ground. And people do not like to discuss. People think it leads to a lot of abrasion and all of it. So, the winners coming out of a competition, they never – These days, they come and they go. There’s so many competitions. And then you hear what’s going on behind the scenes, people complaining on the way they were judged or marked and you say yes or no, and you take the higher mark out. It’s gone bonkers. It’s not something that you can say, “This guy is better than that lady.” You know? You can’t say that. It’s just how – If it’s obviously bad, then somebody can’t play the piano. That’s not the case anymore. But, it’s so subjective. It depends on your background. It depends on your makeup and emotional message. I mean, they’re too young when they come to competitions, so they try to show off this technique and pyrotechnics and things like that. My God! It’s scary. And the other side, when you’re trying to really be a kind of turned in to dig deep and try to show what you’re really made of, what is really important to you. It’s not obvious when it comes out. So it’s very difficult to pinpoint and say, “This is very stunning.” Also, the way that I think competitions are judged. There’s no more of this unanimous vote. And that, in the old days, that’s when you made the most important winners. Like Lupu, the people who were voted the best were incredibly talented, special, and with a lot to offer. Of course, you have to grow and experience life before you can really touch people, unless you’re born with this incredible way of touching people. And that for me is the most important technique. You started with it wrong. [Laughter] For me, technique is not necessary. It’s not something that I want to think, “Oh! What a technique!” I mean, everybody should have technique when you play Brahms’ 2nd. Not many people play Brahms’ 2nd. It’s not just having technique. It’s just having the courage to go and play some of the passages that other people just go, “Oh! This is impossible to play. I won’t play this piece.” So, you know. It’s all very subjective, very relative and difficult to decide and talk about what it is that makes a pianist.

Melanie: You’re synonymous with Brazilian, Spanish and Latin American music. Obviously because this is where you come from, but what is it that draws you to this music?

Cristina: Well, funnily enough, it’s just now I’m finding in my old age that I decided to try to pass it on to people. It’s just obviously my makeup, the way I was born. You’re born with a metronome very strong rhythmical diversity and things. So, you have a one-up on other people. I remember playing and having a lesson with an Oriental pianist and he just asked me, “Do you think I’ll ever be able to play these rhythms?” I said, “Well, of course you can play! But you have to go and live first in Brazil for a little bit and try to absorb how people move to beats and the different beats coping with 3 against 4, 5, and 7s. You have to live to be able to, if it doesn’t come naturally. But the flair of it, I mean, with a name like name people think I’m Spanish. There’s no recollection of Spanish blood at all, but Ortiz must have started somewhere in Spain via Portugal, etc. So, that just speaks very much to me, the way I am and also the luminosity and the French music, because I was living in France and Tagliaferro was very, very special at living French music differently from the way that French pianist consider it. I call it the paste. You put the pedal down and you create something that you – It’s just impressionist. No, it’s nothing to do with this, there’s rhythm. There’s light. So this background of course I like to think that Brazilian, Spanish and French music are my forte. But when I was younger, I was always trying to stay away from it. Otherwise I would be labelled. So when I came here I tried to get a larger repertoire, going through, Bach. I’ve never been comfortable performing Bach because I’m too much of a lively person and Bach is just intellect and, of course, beautiful sound, but I was never prepared to just do that. And concentrate on, you know, the shape of music. Now I am, but it’s too late to go to Bach. So from, you know, Mozart onwards and Haydn and so on. I just try to get all of the different styles and be musician, a complete musician, by Beethoven sonatas and all this. Then after Tagliaferro, of course talking about great teachers that I only had Tagliaferro, after Tagliaferro. I went to Philadelphia to study with Rudolf Serkin, a great fantastic musician, at the Curtis Institute. And that’s where I got down to the German side of- You know, do not add one bit of octave. Nothing. I mean, respect the score and the architecture of the work and how to organically get to new tempi and respect the meter, the pace, and the structure of the work. So, you know, I tried to. I’m an Aries and then I tried to balance it with apparently my ascendance is balance. So this is the way I am. I’m all emotion and intuition and whatever the word may be, but, you know, just coming out with naturalness. And then I tried to be rigid and tried to contain some of that so that you go through the channels of classical music and then you relax with French music. With Brazilian music, when you go to play Brazilian music, many, many young people in Brazil – but no, you have to respect. You have to go deeper and find what it is from your roots. I find things that, it’s always there, you know? You bring it forth, bring it out and make sure that it’s out there. Not just be ashamed that it’s rhythmic, it’s a little bit funny, and you have to swing a bit when you play. It’s not theatre, but it’s necessary to add another layer of interest. That’s why now that I want to show that I can play better than many other people, it’s very interesting. It’s sort of a different side of me. And it’s always been there. So people say, “Oh, please play some Brazilian music and some Spanish music,” and so on.

Melanie: Yes!

Cristina: It’s always been very difficult to programme it, because it takes an awful long time. So, usually I would take a second half of that and now I’m coming back to this because people ask for it. I like cycles. I like large structures and I like to play all the Scherzos and Ballades and intertwine them. And I like to play sonatas and I like to play big stuff, you know, cycles. I like to play Brahms 1 and 2 in the same night, if possible. 5 Beethoven concertos. I like cycles, and it’s not so easy to programme it.

Melanie: No, but you also play a lot of less familiar work, contemporary music. How do-

Cristina: Yes. Not contemporary, not really. Not so much. Really, I just like to bring forth, things that needed reviving or deserved to be heard. That’s something I like to do things different like the Stenhammer concertos, which I’d never heard of. I have one friend of mine that finds music and says, “Cristina that’s got your face. You must listen. You must play.” And then I discovered Schulhoff and I played Schulhoff’s Concerto. I was writing yesterday about it. With Larry Foster I will play almost the premiere of the concerto in Prague and that’s where Schulhoff was born, but because of the Germans, you know, he died in a camp. In a concentration camp, his music was forbidden and so now there’s a revival of that. So you hear things and you want to play them, not to be different, but because you really believe in something like that. The last thing I did was, again the same friend said, “You’ve got to hear this,” and it was the Bowen. I just recorded that for Naxos.

So, Bowen, British born, taught at the Royal Academy for 50 years or whatever and not many people – I mean of course now it’s coming out. It’s fantastic music which deserved to be heard. I don’t play anything I don’t like, because I really have to enjoy it. It’s very difficult for me to sit and do something just because – no. Now, for instance, I would love to do his concerto number 4. Nobody does it. I would like to play Bowen’s Concerto No. 4. It’s a fantastic piece of music. You know, what’s the point of always doing the same? Of course, it’s wonderful to go through the 5 Beethoven concertos, but if you can add something and with experience you can add something. You go through different times in your life and cycles and you change. You have happiness. You have sadness. You have everything you cope with. You have all of this, and everything is reflected in the way you make music.

So, experience and life is very necessary for going through emotions and projecting emotions. For me, music is sound and touching people and projecting. None of this: to impress 3000 people. I’m not there to impress. I’m there to touch people. Applauses – It’s very nice to be applauded and play encores but hearing warmth and joy and showing more of your facets of your makeup, and then it’s, “Ok, let’s see. What do you want to hear?” I haven’t played a little Schubert, a little Rachmaninoff, a little Brahms, a little Chopin, and after having given your message. I’m like that. That’s the way I’ve been, and it’s not so easy to keep it up.

Melanie: What’s your most treasured musical memory?

Cristina: Gosh!

Melanie: Too many?

Cristina: No, I don’t know.

I don’t know. I just live through everything I do so intensely. I plan things, and when you expect too much of something, it doesn’t-

Melanie: Yes, yes.

Cristina: I’m not very good at planning, and when it happens I’m just very, very glad when it goes well. And it depends on the feedback, if something is most important, but it’s not so easy. Critics, they hardly exist these days, you know? And sometimes you couldn’t really pay attention to many critics, because they might have a problem at home [Laughter] they go to concerts, they sit there. Everything is negative or they would give you a great review. And so what? And then the managers will say, “Well, we can’t just sell-” And it’s all so difficult, the career for young people. I’m amazed at so many of them. Especially with the opening in China, my God!

Melanie: quite a different perspective-

Cristina: Terrifying how many pianists, mostly athletes, which is more than I look for, but anyway. How they keep it up and they come. I love teaching, and I see them all striving and, “How do I do this?” And they have no idea anymore, many people. The tradition of wonderful teachers to go through the styles, it’s hard. You know, when you have people almost teaching with their phone and…..

Melanie: Yes, I agree. [Laughter]

Cristina: With their internet, the Google, and the Youtube, people copy things. Young people don’t know how to play. They say, “Oh, I just like the way he plays this. Oh, he plays-” They play the way that they hear. They will not sit and open a score from zero and read without going and listening. It’s frightening what’s going on in the world.

I’m a little bit negative about this but it’s difficult. It’s difficult sort of changing times, and it will get a lot worse before it gets better. But it’s frightening how the young people, they know it all. They copy it all. They do not digest. They do not think for themselves. It’s really difficult to sit and talk about sound and, “You cannot do that in Beethoven.” “Why not? I like to.” You can’t do that! You can’t take time here. Or “Oh, I feel like doing it.” This kind of thing because there’s no traditions anymore. So, it’s really difficult! But, I love coaching. I don’t teach, but I love trying to make them aware of sound and trying not to worry too much about the technical side. You have to know your hands, know your potential, to know the keyboard, you know, not seeing the keyboard. Because you have to be able to know where to go and not to miss, and people don’t know how to do things. They don’t know how to use a pedal. Nobody teaches pedal. I’m a crazy person about pedal effects and so on. It’s very difficult to teach it. I don’t know. I’ve always been like that. So, it’s something that I would like to pass on, and I do. “How do you do this?” “they don’t know! But are you reading music? The pedal goes down until magically – take the pedal off.” “Oh!” You have to be able to play without the pedal. You know? I mean I never had a teacher teaching me pedal, but this is very important for me. Pedal is a luxury and only when you take it off will you know what it can add. It’s fascinating. I mean, the middle pedal is my specialty. When I was in Paris I discovered the middle pedal. I said, “What is this?” And then I discovered how to use it and since then I bought my first Steinway, which is a little Steinway, which is now in Paris.

But it didn’t come with a middle pedal at the time, because it wasn’t standard. People didn’t use it, people who don’t know what it is for. So I had it added and started going after it. Because there’s so many effects that you can get from it. It’s something that you can get a different dimension to the sound it creates. Like picking out different – and holding a chord that’s important for the harmony. I mean, you know, it’s just – These guys come and immediately they can’t start doing that because they are going to forget that they have no idea how to play Beethoven and they want to focus on the middle pedal, you know, the use of the middle pedal. You’ve got to live. You’ve got to suffer. You’ve got to get knocked on your head. You’ve got to get bad reviews and have something that makes you say, “I know I can do it.” And competitions, too many of them are not judged fair.

Melanie: No. No.

Cristina: So, and also that wave of going to competitions, people are protected. Now there’s a competition somewhere in my country. You know, because people are scholarship paid. In France, they immediately, they go through the backdoor into the competition, an international competition. They have no level for that, but they take the place of other people who might really deserve it. It’s corruption. Well, I won’t say it’s corruption, but it’s wrong, and there’s all sorts of middle ways of doing things, and poor guys. They just have to survive somehow. They will survive! [Laughter] If they will get what’s important to them. If they find the right way to go about it. Which is difficult.

Melanie: What does playing the piano mean to you?

Cristina: Everything. It’s my breath. I can’t live without playing the piano. ´

Although I never force it. If I’m tired, I cannot accomplish anything if I’m tired. So, I immediately stop if I’m tired. I’m never tired. Never. I have plenty of energy. Funny enough I just did workshops in my house and so on and I had a concert that I put together. Just to tell you a very funny story, just talking about energy. At the end of one week of playing together, I tried to put together a chamber music concert in 4 days, 3 days and 4 hands and singing and violin playing and – Anyway, at the end- I’m never tired. I don’t sleep. I sleep very badly and so on, but I’m never tired. And I’ve never thought, “Oh, I didn’t sleep 3 hours!” Hours and hours and hours. If I don’t sleep, 3 hours later I’m up if there’s a concert I have to play. Maybe I’m not moving in the right important circle anymore, but this is the way I am. So, at the end of this week, three people who were leaving in the last day, they got together a little card and it said, “And here is for you to get rid of your amazing energy when we’re gone.” And they had bought me a little skipping rope [Laughter] all beautifully shined and so on. Very sweet. So, the energy is very important makeup for the athletes that we are. To have energy, never complain. You’re not jetlagged when you get to the other end of the world and you’re playing in Japan, eight hours or whatever later in the middle of the night and you have to play Prokofiev 3 on the third night, which is the worst for jetlag for me. You have to get out and you have to open the tap and the water must flow. So, it’s really a tough, tough, tough life and how to start, nobody has the right way. So without piano playing, I would be nowhere. Nowhere.

Melanie: Thank you so much for joining me today.

Cristina: Thank you very much.


My publications:

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

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


Nicholas McCarthy in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My Classical Conversations Series continues today and features British left-handed concert pianist Nicholas McCarthy, who is my thirty-seventh guest. He met with me earlier this month at Steinway Hall in London.

Nicholas was born in 1989 without his right hand and only began to play the piano at the late age of 14 after seeing a friend play Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata.

Studying at the prestigious Royal College of Music in London, his graduation in July 2012 made history and drew press headlines world-wide, being the only left-hand alone pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music in its 130 year history.

Nicholas has performed extensively throughout the UK in major venues including The Royal Albert Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, St Martin-in-the-Fields and the Wales Millennium Centre among others. Internationally Nicholas has performed at The Kennedy Centre in Washington D.C, The Capetown Convention Centre & The Linder Auditorium in South Africa, The Vilhena Palace and the Offices of the Prime Minister in Malta and the Abay Opera House Kazakhstan.

Nicholas is widely featured throughout national and international press and regularly gives live performances and interviews on television and radio including shows for BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4, BBC television Channel 4 and ITV. Nicholas has been the subject of both a BBC documentary and featured in one by Channel 4. Nicholas ‘s television appearances have been responsible for drawing a cross-section of new audiences to his imaginative recitals, many of whom had never been to a piano recital.

Nicholas’ specialist repertoire is rich and varied encompassing numerous great pieces for left hand alone including original exciting pieces by Scriabin, Liszt and Brahms with striking arrangements of Schubert and Bach (Wittgenstein’s arrangements) Gershwin and some Chopin/Godowsky studies amongst others including Nicholas’ own transcriptions for left hand of more familiar ‘well known’ two handed piano works such as Chopin’s G Minor Ballade and Roses of Picardy by Haydn Wood. Nicholas’s programming caters for a broad range of classical and mainstream tastes. Besides this solo repertoire Nicholas also has numerous concertos in his repertoire. Famed not only for his virtuosic displays at the piano but also for his sensitive and warm interpretations.

One of Nicholas’s proudest moments was performing with the British Paraorchestra at the Closing Ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic games where they played alongside Coldplay and gave a rendition of the Paralympic anthem in front of an audience of 86,000 people and half a billion worldwide viewers.

Nicholas recently performed at the International Cheltenham Festival and gave an extensive range of Schools workshops in conjunction with this. July/August will see Nicholas present two of the world-famous BBC Proms, to be televised on BBC4.

Nicholas is Patron of Carers Gloucestershire, The Towersey Foundation and has recently been appointed ambassador of The One Handed Musicians Trust (OHMI) and works alongside a number of other charities including The Tadworth Children’s Trust all of which are very close to Nicholas’s heart.

Speaking engagements have seen Nicholas speak across the country in a range of Schools and businesses including the annual ITV ‘Big Think’ Conference and most notably his TED Talk at The Royal Albert Hall.

And Nicholas in action…..

And the transcript for those who prefer to read my interviews…..

Melanie: British concert pianist, Nicholas McCarthy, made history when he was the first left-handed pianist ever to graduate from the Royal College of Music here in London. Born without his right arm, he has a very varied and unusual repertoire. So, I’m so pleased he’s joined me here today at Steinway Hall for a classical conversation. Welcome!

Nicholas: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Melanie: It’s lovely to get to chat to you finally.

Nicholas: I know. It’s been a couple of years since we’ve seen each other actually and a lot has happened.

Melanie: Absolutely. You’re doing so fantastically, but I’m going to start by taking you back and asking you how you began, because you started quite late. You were 14 or so?

Nicholas: 14, that’s right, and that’s quite late for someone who wants to carve a career in the classical industry.

Melanie: What was the catalyst then? What was behind it?

Nicholas: I actually wanted to be a chef. I had no interest in piano whatsoever.

Melanie: That’s quite a different career.

Nicholas: I quite liked classical music, but, you know, only things I’d heard my mum and dad play like Nigel Kennedy and things like that in the background. And at the age of 14 I saw a friend of mine playing Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, which I adore. It’s one of my favourite, favourite pieces. And it was at that moment really for me that I kind of sat up and had one of those moments. I thought, “Oh my God, that’s amazing! That’s what I want to do.” Quite naïvely probably at 14, on the one hand it’s not obviously the first choice of career. And I do remember when I went home and told Mum and Dad, “Mum, Dad, I want to be a concert pianist!

And they go, “Really?”

Melanie: [Laughter] So, you must have got going quite quickly? Which teachers do you think were most influential for your development?

Nicholas: Well, I self-taught for the first couple of years.

Melanie: Oh, right!

Nicholas: Yea, and then my parents enlisted a local private teacher, because I think my mum and dad just thought it was going to be a bit of a fad, you know?

Melanie: [Laughter]

Nicholas: But they were encouraging as well. And I think for me probably the turning point was when I auditioned for the Junior Guildhall. That was when I used to play with my little arm, what I call affectionately my little arm, and my left hand. So, I actually auditioned with Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor and things like that, where I would play with little arm and my left hand. And I was accepted. The only condition were I was encouraged to specialize in left hand alone repertoire, which at the time actually I didn’t like. You know, I’d worked really hard, because I love Mozart. I love Beethoven. I’d worked really hard to get to this stage, and to be accepted into this music school.

But then all of a sudden it was like, “Great! But, you can’t play Mozart anymore. You can’t play Beethoven anymore. No Mendelssohn for you anymore.” You know, all of these composers which I’d grown to love for the past years when I’d got to that stage, I had to wave goodbye to, which was tricky. Being a quite headstrong teen, I was a bit, you know – I had Lucy Parham, who taught me at the Junior Guildhall. So, she had a bit of a difficult time with me I think. So, when I see her, I should probably apologize for that back then. It was just because I think that’s a difficult time as an artist anyway at that time, plus teenage years. But she was very, she learned to live with me as well, and I think she could understand the kind of artistic dilemma that I was probably in at that point.

Melanie: So, she was your first teacher? What other teachers did you have?

Nicholas: She was my first proper teacher if you like, where I really, really focused on the piano in a different way, because I had to. When you’re at any of these Junior colleges, like Junior Royal College or Junior Guildhall, you have to work really hard. So Lucy was probably my first proper teacher. I then went on and auditioned for the Royal College of Music and was offered a place there and I studied – I went through a lot of teachers actually at the Royal College, but to no fault of theirs or my own. I think with me and obviously left-hand repertoire, not everyone knows everything about it. So, it was quite nice for me to take a snapshot of everyone’s knowledge, if you like. So, I studied for a while with Andrew Ball, and then went on to Ian Jones, and then I studied with Nigel Clayton. Probably for me, Nigel Clayton was the one I felt most influenced by through my career. And even now I have his voice in my head telling me things like, “No!” and things like that. And I often see his markings. I think he got me completely. He understood everything about my playing.

The other side of my career. You see, with me, it’s not all about piano playing all the time. I’m not one of these people that do 90 recitals a year and things. I’ve got a lot of other media stuff that I do, and he really understood that. He knew the time restraints that I had to deal with and offered advice for those things. I think for me, at that time, it was so beneficial to be learning from him.

Melanie: So, how did you develop your technique? Because it’s quite a different type of development, I would imagine.

Nicholas: Yea. Again, when I first started with Lucy, she did a lot of groundwork with me, because I had a lot of holes in my technique at that time because I’d started at the age of 14. I hadn’t been doing Hanon and Czerny from the age of 3 or things like that. So, I really, really had to try and hone that technique as best as I can and to sew those holes together. I think a lot of that foundation work Lucy accomplished with me. And then obviously once I was at the Royal College and having to do technical exams and things like that, things come to take a turn.

And in that sense, in a technical sense, you really see your technique skyrocket. I think for me what really developed my technique was probably my second year. I saw a real rise in my second year of the Royal College, when I was learning the Chopin/Godowsky Studies, which were probably too difficult for me at the time. I mean, I’m playing them now, but at the time they were too tricky. But they really raised the bar in my technique. And it was almost when I then performed something which probably was then in my range, I found that it was much easier. I could do things and double thirds and things like that, weren’t as difficult as they were before. I really think they helped me a great deal, a great deal. And now, you know I perform them a lot. I perform them as encores sometimes. I don’t find them tricky like I used to. The writing of them is so masterful, but I think they’re actually very, very well suited for me in that sense.

Melanie: So, what are the challenges then of being a one-armed pianist do you think, what do you find?

Nicholas: I think the challenge is probably stamina, for one. And I think people often forget that you’ve got one hand trying to create that two-handed sound. You know, often if you were to count the notes, it’d probably be still as many notes sometimes as there would be in a two-handed piece. I think that’s difficult and obviously still being expected to deliver a 90-minute recital, the same as someone with two hands. So, you know, I think probably stamina is a tricky thing. Especially if I’ve got lots of concerts all at once or on a tour, rest periods are imperative.

Melanie: Absolutely [Laughter]

Nicholas: Of course. I think piano is quite an exhausting instrument for anybody. But I do think probably me, as a left hand pianist, I do probably feel it a bit more. After the concert it does feel like I’ve been to the gym for about four hours.

Melanie: [Laughter] How much of your repertoire is original and how much is arrangements? And how do you decide? In concerts, do you have a certain amount of arrangements, a certain amount of original? What would you say you do?

Nicholas: That’s quite an interesting question actually. I wouldn’t be able to probably give a percentage, because there’s so much repertoire for left hand. There really is. There’s so much. And a lot of the works that I play are original or have been transcribed by Paul Wittgenstein or another left-handed pianist of the day. So they are original in that sense of being written, you know, not in present day. But I think choosing programmes, I’ve always been very careful with. Again, left hand repertoire is quite esoteric, a lot of people don’t know about it. They’ve never heard of it, or they’ve heard of me and they haven’t really – They only know Ravel left-hand concerto or something. So, whenever I programme I always want to try and give as big a snapshot as I can of what’s available. So, I have those quite nice familiar pieces that people know and love, and even if you don’t like classical music you would recognize. As well as some complete unknown composers who probably only I’ve heard of in the world, because I’ve done research for this left-hand repertoire. So, I try to combine that as best I can.

Recently, I’ve started transcribing my own-

Melanie: I was about to say, “Do you do lots of the arrangements yourself?” It must be a tendency to want to re-write things yourself.

Nicholas: I’ve only just started doing it actually.

Melanie: Ahhh

Nicholas: And this is a question I used to get asked all the time. “Do you compose?” And I said, “I’m a really bad composer. I don’t compose.” But transcribing, obviously the work has been done for you, taking that and making it for left-handed, that’s something I really, really enjoy doing and especially for my upcoming tour in November. I’ve transcribed, I’ve taken a few of the famous wartime songs and Roses of Picardy and Novello’s Keep the Home Fires Burning and things like that, which people know and love. They actually work so well for left-handed. Sometimes when I finish I think, “Oh, that’s even as good as the original.” It’s really nice when that happens. Whereas, obviously sometimes with left-handed repertoire you do lose something. Whereas, other times you don’t. You kind of keep that sound. You keep that, and I think that just varies with each transcription.

Melanie: So, which composers do you love to play? Which would you say are your favorites?

Nicholas: That’s really difficult. I always play Scriabin’s Prelude and Nocturne. Probably everyone’s sick to death of me playing it. I mean, it’s a great piece and it was actually my first piece of left-hand repertoire. So, it’s very special to me. It was the first piece which made me sit up and think, “My God, I love this repertoire!” It was almost a catalyst for me to wave goodbye to my composers that I loved, as I said earlier, and say hello to my new repertoire. And I think that’s why it’s so special to me, and I think I have actually played it in every single performance that I’ve given.

Melanie: Oh, really?

Nicholas: Every single recital. I just love it. I love Liszt, but Liszt unfortunately only wrote one quite mediocre left-hand original arrangement. But there’s lots that Wittgenstein transcribed lots of pieces of Liszt and I play a lot and I like them. I always think if I had two hands, Liszt would be probably a composer which I’d be quite, have a good relationship with I should say. I really like the transcriptions of Liszt that I play. I play the Schubert The Earl King transcription for left hand of that and things like that. And the Wagner/Liszt Liebestod which Wittgenstein transcribed, I think those kind of pieces I have quite an affinity with.

Melanie: Is there a lot more left hand repertoire to learn or have you learned most of it, would you say?

Nicholas: I said in an interview about two weeks ago, I said that I estimate that I’ve covered about a third of the repertoire. And to think I’ve been working solidly since I was 17, I’m 25 now. So, I think that gives you a scope to what’s available. I mean, the amount of solo works, concertos – what is the number? I think there’s about 27 concertos for left-hand, which a lot of people don’t know. But the solo repertoire as well is just absolutely vast. And obviously then there’s the solo transcriptions so.

Melanie: Get practicing.

Nicholas: Yes, get practicing. There’s a lot of work, and you should see my piano at the moment. It’s just covered.

Melanie: Do you have a particular practice routine?

Nicholas: I’m really quite bad actually. I always have been and Lucy – If you spoke to Lucy or Nigel or Ian, they would always say. And I think again, I probably blame this a lot actually on the fact that I only started at 14. I think because I never had that idea of practice from a child. You know, if you started at 4, you have that notion of what is practice. But for me, I never had that. I was playing out with my friends and things like that. So at 14, to kind of get that discipline – It’s always been difficult for me and even now I have to force myself. It’s never a kind of routine. And also with the other things I do in life, I often aren’t by a piano. Also there’s the interview side of things that every pianist has to do. But then that’s time away from the piano. I’m probably not the best instructor in my practice and never have been, but I get it done. I get it done eventually.

Melanie: You’ve got a lot of exciting things coming up including a tour, Music in Remembrance. That’s quite soon, isn’t it? So, tell us a little bit about that.

Nicholas: That kicks off 7th of November in Liverpool and again that’s quite nice. I’ve never performed in Liverpool before. It’s a nice little exciting place to perform in. The Music in Remembrance tour came about because I was – funnily enough, I was doing a bit of research in my family tree. I got quite interested with my aunt and she had done a little bit. And I discovered that my great Nan, Annie Taylor – She just absolutely fascinated me, what she did in the war. Basically, she worked in a canteen and she kind of served the injured servicemen that came through. But what really fascinated me was I found a picture of her all dressed up, and it was on Armistice Day. It had the date on the back. And I just felt for her- It was just so interesting, her life. She then went on. She lost her son in the Blitz.

She was injured in the Blitz as well and things like that, and you just imagine- I didn’t imagine that I had a great Nan who did that. But in one of her diaries, she was talking about music that she loved, and she mentioned Ivor Novello, and she mentioned Roses of Picardy, and I’d literally just transcribed these two pieces anyway for when I was playing and the Cheltenham Festival. It all kind of married together, and I thought, “This would be great. This would be great to do in a tour.” And so, I spoke to my manager and it all kind of came together. I’m excited about it because, for people who come to my recitals, they know my playing. They know I always kind of give them a little surprised of a new piece of repertoire which they obviously wouldn’t have heard. But I think they’ll be particularly surprised by this one, because I’ve obviously got to Keep the home fires burning. I’ve even transcribed Elgar’s Nimrod and it’s almost even more poignant to a certain extent, because you’re transported back to the repertoire that I have, so much that has come from injured servicemen, Paul Wittgenstein etc..

All of these concert pianists who lost limbs in the First World War, and I think it makes people remember that. Remember that this music has often come from the atrocities that happen. I’m very excited about it.

Melanie: So, you’ve got – Is it 4 concerts or is it more?

Nicholas: It’s 4 concerts, yes, quite a small tour. I start off in Liverpool on the 7th. I’m then at the Royal Albert Hall in Elgar Room on Remembrance Sunday, which I’m thrilled about. It’s going to be a nice poignant date to do the concert on. I’m then in Cheltenham on Armistice Day, so, another poignant date, November 11th. And then I’m at my hometown Colchester to play there at the end of November. So, it’ll be nice. It’ll be nice to be able to intertwine this new repertoire, which obviously it’s not classical repertoire but it’s got a classical twist to it, but to intertwine that with my old classical repertoire. So, I’ll also be playing the Wittgenstein arrangement of Bach/Gounod’s Ave Maria and the Scriabin Nocturne will be in there. You know, pieces which people are familiar with me playing, but as well as this new repertoire.

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

Nicholas: What does playing the piano mean to me? That’s a really difficult question. Has everyone you’ve interviewed always said it’s a difficult question?

Melanie: They do. They do say it’s a difficult question, but it’s interesting.

Nicholas: I think for me, I’ve always been drawn to it since that time I saw my friend performing the Beethoven sonata. For me, it kind of gives me that comfort. Even when I see it in my house, I see it here, sat next to a piano, it’s a comfort feeling for me. So that’s why when I go on stage, I don’t get nervous. Because for me, walking on stage toward a piano, it’s like going to a comfort blanket when you’re a kid or something like that. So, I think for me, it’s certainly and obviously an integral part of my life, but it’s always a comforting part of my life as well. It’s always there, you know, even if I’m not practicing like I should. It’s always there. And yeah, that’s what I’d probably say, for me.

Melanie: Thanks so much for joining me today.

Nicholas: Thank you. Thank you.


My publications:

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

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


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

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


 

Martin James Bartlett in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The thirty fourth interview guest in my Classical Conversations Series is BBC Young Musician 2014, Martin James Bartlett. Martin is a student at the Royal College of Music Junior Department and is about to start an undergraduate degree at the RCM Senior Department in September, where he will study with Professor Vanessa Latarche. We met up for a chat at Jaques Samuel Pianos earlier this month, where he talked about his life and career.

Martin James Bartlett began learning the piano at the age of 6. From the age of 8, Martin has been studying at the Royal College of Music Junior Department with Emily Jeffrey, with whom he has been learning at the Purcell School since becoming a student there in 2010. Martin has also been studying the recorder and the bassoon and, indeed, by the time Martin was 12, he had achieved Grade 8 Distinction on all three instruments.

Martin has performed in many competitions and festivals, where he has enjoyed considerable success. For several years running he has been a prize-winner in the Jaques Samuel Intercollegiate Piano Competition, which has resulted in a series of Wigmore Hall solo performances. At the age of thirteen, Martin won the Purcell School’s Middle School Concerto Competition, performing Mozart’s D Minor Concerto K.466 with the Purcell Sinfonia. More recently he has performed Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto K.491 with the Vanbrugh Ensemble.

At the Royal College of Music Junior Department, he has won The Teresa Carreno Competition, The Gordon Turner Competition and the Peter Morrison Concerto Competition. He has also won the Freddy Morgan Competition and the Wigmore Hall Competition at the Purcell School. From his success in these competitions he has performed solo recitals in The Purcell Room, Wigmore Hall, Royal Albert Hall (Elgar Room), Steinway Hall, Bolivar Hall,  John’s Smith Square, The Beaumaris Festival, Moscow Multi-Media Arts Hall, Calbourne Isle of Wight, Novi Sad Town Hall and Fazioli Concert Hall in Italy.

Notably, in March 2012 Martin was one of only five pianists chosen nationally to perform in the Keyboard Final of BBC Young Musician of the Year 2012, which was held in the Dora Stoutker Hall in Cardiff, the live performance of which was broadcast on BBC4 in April 2012.

Martin has performed in fundraising and charity concerts raising over thirty thousand pounds. He has received master classes from Lang Lang, Stephen Kovacevich, Kathryn Stott, Mikhail Petukhov and Alberto Portugheis.

His great love and involvement with chamber music playing extended with the forming of a duo partnership with the BBC Young Musician of the Year 2012 winner, ‘cellist Laura van der Heijden.  Having returned from an International Chamber Music Course in Montepulciano, Italy, in 2012, they have since given numerous recitals together at such venues as the Elgar Room, The Britten Theatre [Royal College of Music], and a Live Broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s “In Tune”.

Future engagements in 2014 include performances of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on the Theme of Paginini with the RCM Symphony Orchestra and Windsor and Maidenhead and Symphony Orchestra, Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto K491 with The Watford Symphony Orchestra, and Beethoven’s 2nd Piano Concerto with The Welsh Chamber Orchestra.

He is again one of five pianists to reach the Keyboard Finals of BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014. In March 2014 he performed in the Dora Stoutker Hall, in Cardiff. The live performance was broadcast on BBC 4.

Since 2012, Martin has been awarded a Tsukanov Scholarship, which supports all his studies at The Royal College of Music. More recently Martin has been awarded three full scholarships to study at three London Conservatoires.

Martin in action…….


And the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews…..

Melanie Spanswick: Young British concert pianist, Martin James Bartlett, has just been crowned BBC Young Musician 2014. He’s currently a student at the Royal College of Music Junior Department and the Purcell School and so, I’m so pleased he’s joining me today here at Jacques Samuel Pianos in London for a Classical Conversation. Welcome.

Martin James Bartlett: Thank you very much.

MS: I want to start by congratulating you. It’s fantastic that you’ve won the Young Musician.

MJB: Thank you so much.

MS: Brilliant, and I want to start by asking you all about your musical education, how old you are when you started, why you started, whether you’ve come from a musical family.

MJB: Well, my mum taught me first and I started at the age of six, and then at the age of eight, she decided that I should go somewhere else to carry on my studies. So, I went to the Royal College and I’ve been there for the last ten years now, and I suppose I started the piano because my mum was always teaching people in the house and we always had the radio on and CDs all the time and I just grew so accustomed to hearing it, that I really kind of wanted to follow in what she was doing and everything I could hear.

MS: And so, what teachers then do you think were crucial in your development. I think I know the answer to this.

MJB: No, definitely my mum first started me off really well and then when I went to Emily Jeffrey, she really just, I’ve been with her for the last ten years and she just, was just such an inspiration to come to, and she has so much patience with me and even sometimes I didn’t use to practice that I kind of wasn’t feeling it so much as other times I used to come in and she just used to, you know, carry on going, come back next week and we just have such a great relationship. It’s amazing.

MS: We should talk a little bit about Emily because she’s quite phenomenal, she’s not only had yourself, but she’s also had Lara Melda as Young Musician of the Year as well. So, she’s a phenomenal teacher.

MJB: Yes, she is fantastic and I think one of the reasons we set her apart from other teachers is because she doesn’t play so regularly to me and she just tries to describe how I should feel some of it with different adjectives and things. It makes me find my own sound and my own way of playing, so I don’t copy the way she plays. I have my own kind of voice when I’m playing.

MS: So, how did you develop your technique? I’m always asking this question. It’s fascinating how people start when you play, studies, scales, whether you learn the difficulties within a piece.

MJB: I suppose when I was younger, I used to occasionally do some Czerny Etudes, things like these, but I never really concentrated on a technique because it was always something that we thought, you know, the more we push ourselves with different repertoire it will come anyway.

MS: Right.

MJB: And I never wanted to become mechanical in any way, with the way I practiced, so when I did practice scales, which of course, I did when I was younger, we would, you know, we used to phrase them and do different dynamics and try to get as many kind of techniques in as possible.

MS: Yeah, that’s interesting. So, you know, you’ve won Young Musician. It’s gonna have a huge impact on your career, no doubt, but how do you feel about competitions, in general, because this isn’t the first time you’ve entered, you actually entered in 2012 and did very well as well.

MJB: I think competitions, I think you have to have the right attitude when you go in, and I think, you really can’t be going in to win. I think you’ve really got to go in just to develop yourself more as a pianist and musician, and I think they really push you, in terms of, there’s lots of pressure and you gotta learn new repertoire and of course, lots of international competitions have the set repertoire to go through, the Bach Preludes and Fugues in the first round and things like this, which I think is really good, ‘cause it kind of develops you more, as long as you go with the mindset of I’m just gonna go and give an amazing concert and not worry about the actual prizes or winning.

MS: So, do you feel that you might enter international competitions in the future or do you feel that the Young Musician is enough?

MJB: I suppose, I have no idea what I would do, you know, when it comes to things but I would love to because all those are my idols and things, you know, won the Chopin, and the Tchaikovsky and things. So, I would like to enter some in the future, yes.

MS: That’s a yes. I think it’s good experience isn’t it?

MJB: Yeah, exactly and you just, I mean, I’ve lost so many competitions and I really have, I think everybody loses lots and you just gotta, you carry on going and take it the right way.

MS: Which composers do you love to play?

MJB: I suppose, there are so many that I could mention but I think I quite have a special affinity with Bach. I love Bach but also Beethoven, I absolutely adore, and Schumann as well, but I also love Prokofiev and Romantic composers as well.

MS: And how many concertos do you have in your repertoire? How many do you play with orchestra involved?

MJB: I have around six or seven. When I was younger, I used to play quite a few Mozart concertos and a few Beethoven and also Rachmaninov as well. So, I play, I think, three or four with orchestra but I think concertos are so great because it’s all that chamber music aspect. You don’t really, with solo recitals it’s quite daunting, you know, it’s just you on you’re own, and the good thing about chamber music is if you’re with a fantastic orchestra, you just push each other further, you know, and you get even more out the music than many solo recitals you would do, I think.

MS: Do you have particular practice regime?

MJB: I suppose occasionally when it gets really tough, I have to write down what pieces and time and everything like that. Normally, warm up a bit but normally I warm up away from the piano, so I do a few stretches, run my hand under some warm water, just to loosen up my joints and everything, but then I think you can’t spend so much on technical studies because you’ve got so, there’s such a vast amount of repertoire to learn. You really have to just get stuck in and just go through as many pieces as you can.

MS: Do you ever practice away from the piano?

MJB: I do a lot of practice away from the piano in different ways, such as, you know, sometimes I’ll be looking at the score and listening through recordings or sometimes I just sit in bed after a hard day at work and I’m thinking, you know, now let’s get the score out and we can just look at all the markings and make sure I’m clear about what I’m doing.

MS: Yeah. So, what are your favourite pianists, or I should say who are your favourite pianists, Martin?

MJB: My favourite pianists, I love Horowitz. I love Martha Argerich for clarity and the sound as well. Claudio Arrau, has a sound like a bell like sound and really sings out. I also love Shura Cherkassky for these dazzlingly light runs, I mean, those transcriptions like Strauss, I mean there’s so many who I love.

MS: And Horowitz?

MJB: I think, the thing about Horowitz is that there are some moments, if you watch him play and there’s so many flaws in part and there’s, you know, it’s quite inaccurate and you think to yourself, “Oh, you know, is this really him playing?” And then, a moment later there’s a most incredible thing which is just not human and it’s that combination of kind of inconsistency that makes me love his playing so much.

MS: So, which works are you hoping to tackle in the future?

MJB: I’m really hoping in the near future, I’m hoping I’m gonna tackle Rachmaninov 2 and Tchaikovsky as well. Not so many people play Tchaikovsky anymore and I think it’s such a warhorse, it’s gotta be brought back in a way, but in the long term future, of course, I’d love to play Schumann concerto and Rach 3, but I’m kinda waiting for that ‘cause I don’t wanna, I wanna graduate the Rachmaninov concertos up until I hit Rach 3.

MS: When was the light bulb moment when you decided ‘I want to be a pianist?’

MJB: I suppose, it was when I was ten I think, because when I was seven I was not sure and I wanted to kinda…I had several job options…!

MJB: It was really when I was ten, exactly, I wanted to be a marine biologist at some point and a physicist and then when I got to ten, I think, I heard an amazing recording of Claudio Arrau doing Beethoven 4th and when I listened to that, I thought, “You know, this is what I’ve got to do because it just, that really inspired me a lot.

MS: What are your future plans, coming, upcoming concerts?

MJB: I have quite a few upcoming concerts. I have one next week in Wigmore Hall but at the moment I don’t have my diary because the Young Classical Artist Trust have my diary. (YCAT) Yeah, they’re helping me sort things out. I have a meeting with them tomorrow to sort out some things, but they kind of get all the work in and then we can discuss it and work out what works with dates and everything like that. So, I’m not really sure what I’m doing. I’m just gonna see them and they’re gonna tell me what I’m gonna do, so.

MS: What does playing the piano mean to you?

MJB: Playing the piano means so much to me, but I would say that it’s not playing the piano that means so much to me. It’s just music, in general, and I’ve always thought that there’s so much in music that I would really love to do and God forbid but if anything ever happened that I couldn’t play the piano like I would, I would just love to do some conducting and teaching, and there’s just so much that I’d love to do in the profession.

MS: Watch this space?

MJB: Well.

MS: Thank you so much for joining me today, Martin.

MJB: Thank you very much.

Melanie Spanswick: Young British concert pianist, Martin James Bartlett, has just been crowned BBC Young Musician 2014. He’s currently a student at the Royal College of Music Junior Department and the Purcell School and so, I’m so pleased he’s joining me today here at Jacques Samuel Pianos in London for a Classical Conversation. Welcome.

Martin James Bartlett: Thank you very much.

MS: I want to start by congratulating you. It’s fantastic that you’ve won the Young Musician.

MJB: Thank you so much.

MS: Brilliant, and I want to start by asking you all about your musical education, how old you are when you started, why you started, whether you’ve come from a musical family.

MJB: Well, my mum taught me first and I started at the age of six, and then at the age of eight, she decided that I should go somewhere else to carry on my studies. So, I went to the Royal College and I’ve been there for the last ten years now, and I suppose I started the piano because my mum was always teaching people in the house and we always had the radio on and CDs all the time and I just grew so accustomed to hearing it, that I really kind of wanted to follow in what she was doing and everything I could hear.

MS: And so, what teachers then do you think were crucial in your development. I think I know the answer to this.

MJB: No, definitely my mum first started me off really well and then when I went to Emily Jeffrey, she really just, I’ve been with her for the last ten years and she just, was just such an inspiration to come to, and she has so much patience with me and even sometimes I didn’t use to practice that I kind of wasn’t feeling it so much as other times I used to come in and she just used to, you know, carry on going, come back next week and we just have such a great relationship. It’s amazing.

MS: We should talk a little bit about Emily because she’s quite phenomenal, she’s not only had yourself, but she’s also had Lara Melda as Young Musician of the Year as well. So, she’s a phenomenal teacher.

MJB: Yes, she is fantastic and I think one of the reasons we set her apart from other teachers is because she doesn’t play so regularly to me and she just tries to describe how I should feel some of it with different adjectives and things. It makes me find my own sound and my own way of playing, so I don’t copy the way she plays. I have my own kind of voice when I’m playing.

MS: So, how did you develop your technique? I’m always asking this question. It’s fascinating how people start when you play, studies, scales, whether you learn the difficulties within a piece.

MJB: I suppose when I was younger, I used to occasionally do some Czerny Etudes, things like these, but I never really concentrated on a technique because it was always something that we thought, you know, the more we push ourselves with different repertoire it will come anyway.

MS: Right.

MJB: And I never wanted to become mechanical in any way, with the way I practiced, so when I did practice scales, which of course, I did when I was younger, we would, you know, we used to phrase them and do different dynamics and try to get as many kind of techniques in as possible.

MS: Yeah, that’s interesting. So, you know, you’ve won Young Musician. It’s gonna have a huge impact on your career, no doubt, but how do you feel about competitions, in general, because this isn’t the first time you’ve entered, you actually entered in 2012 and did very well as well.

MJB: I think competitions, I think you have to have the right attitude when you go in, and I think, you really can’t be going in to win. I think you’ve really got to go in just to develop yourself more as a pianist and musician, and I think they really push you, in terms of, there’s lots of pressure and you gotta learn new repertoire and of course, lots of international competitions have the set repertoire to go through, the Bach Preludes and Fugues in the first round and things like this, which I think is really good, ‘cause it kind of develops you more, as long as you go with the mindset of I’m just gonna go and give an amazing concert and not worry about the actual prizes or winning.

MS: So, do you feel that you might enter international competitions in the future or do you feel that the Young Musician is enough?

MJB: I suppose, I have no idea what I would do, you know, when it comes to things but I would love to because all those are my idols and things, you know, won the Chopin, and the Tchaikovsky and things. So, I would like to enter some in the future, yes.

MS: That’s a yes. I think it’s good experience isn’t it?

MJB: Yeah, exactly and you just, I mean, I’ve lost so many competitions and I really have, I think everybody loses lots and you just gotta, you carry on going and take it the right way.

MS: Which composers do you love to play?

MJB: I suppose, there are so many that I could mention but I think I quite have a special affinity with Bach. I love Bach but also Beethoven, I absolutely adore, and Schumann as well, but I also love Prokofiev and Romantic composers as well.

MS: And how many concertos do you have in your repertoire? How many do you play with orchestra involved?

MJB: I have around six or seven. When I was younger, I used to play quite a few Mozart concertos and a few Beethoven and also Rachmaninov as well. So, I play, I think, three or four with orchestra but I think concertos are so great because it’s all that chamber music aspect. You don’t really, with solo recitals it’s quite daunting, you know, it’s just you on you’re own, and the good thing about chamber music is if you’re with a fantastic orchestra, you just push each other further, you know, and you get even more out the music than many solo recitals you would do, I think.

MS: Do you have particular practice regime?

MJB: I suppose occasionally when it gets really tough, I have to write down what pieces and time and everything like that. Normally, warm up a bit but normally I warm up away from the piano, so I do a few stretches, run my hand under some warm water, just to loosen up my joints and everything, but then I think you can’t spend so much on technical studies because you’ve got so, there’s such a vast amount of repertoire to learn. You really have to just get stuck in and just go through as many pieces as you can.

MS: Do you ever practice away from the piano?

MJB: I do a lot of practice away from the piano in different ways, such as, you know, sometimes I’ll be looking at the score and listening through recordings or sometimes I just sit in bed after a hard day at work and I’m thinking, you know, now let’s get the score out and we can just look at all the markings and make sure I’m clear about what I’m doing.

MS: Yeah. So, what are your favourite pianists, or I should say who are your favourite pianists, Martin?

MJB: My favourite pianists, I love Horowitz. I love Martha Argerich for clarity and the sound as well. Claudio Arrau, has a sound like a bell like sound and really sings out. I also love Shura Cherkassky for these dazzlingly light runs, I mean, those transcriptions like Strauss, I mean there’s so many who I love.

MS: And Horowitz?

MJB: I think, the thing about Horowitz is that there are some moments, if you watch him play and there’s so many flaws in part and there’s, you know, it’s quite inaccurate and you think to yourself, “Oh, you know, is this really him playing?” And then, a moment later there’s a most incredible thing which is just not human and it’s that combination of kind of inconsistency that makes me love his playing so much.

MS: So, which works are you hoping to tackle in the future?

MJB: I’m really hoping in the near future, I’m hoping I’m gonna tackle Rachmaninov 2 and Tchaikovsky as well. Not so many people play Tchaikovsky anymore and I think it’s such a warhorse, it’s gotta be brought back in a way, but in the long term future, of course, I’d love to play Schumann concerto and Rach 3, but I’m kinda waiting for that ‘cause I don’t wanna, I wanna graduate the Rachmaninov concertos up until I hit Rach 3.

MS: When was the light bulb moment when you decided ‘I want to be a pianist?’

MJB: I suppose, it was when I was ten I think, because when I was seven I was not sure and I wanted to kinda…I had several job options…!

MJB: It was really when I was ten, exactly, I wanted to be a marine biologist at some point and a physicist and then when I got to ten, I think, I heard an amazing recording of Claudio Arrau doing Beethoven 4th and when I listened to that, I thought, “You know, this is what I’ve got to do because it just, that really inspired me a lot.

MS: What are your future plans, coming, upcoming concerts?

MJB: I have quite a few upcoming concerts. I have one next week in Wigmore Hall but at the moment I don’t have my diary because the Young Classical Artist Trust have my diary. (YCAT) Yeah, they’re helping me sort things out. I have a meeting with them tomorrow to sort out some things, but they kind of get all the work in and then we can discuss it and work out what works with dates and everything like that. So, I’m not really sure what I’m doing. I’m just gonna see them and they’re gonna tell me what I’m gonna do, so.

MS: What does playing the piano mean to you?

MJB: Playing the piano means so much to me, but I would say that it’s not playing the piano that means so much to me. It’s just music, in general, and I’ve always thought that there’s so much in music that I would really love to do and God forbid but if anything ever happened that I couldn’t play the piano like I would, I would just love to do some conducting and teaching, and there’s just so much that I’d love to do in the profession.

MS: Watch this space?

MJB: Well.

MS: Thank you so much for joining me today, Martin.

MJB: Thank you very much.


My publications:

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

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


 

Ian Fountain in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ian Fountain has made several critically acclaimed recordings: for EMI (recital of 20th century sonatas); CRD (Beethoven Diabelli Variations); CPO (Max Bruch Piano Quintet); Meridian (‘Non-Beethoven’ Diabelli Variations) and Hessischer Rundfunk (Schumann Novellettes).

Since 2001 Ian Fountain has been a piano professor at the Royal Academy of Music.

Ian in action….

The transcript for those who prefer to read interviews…

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


My publications:

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

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


Hamish Milne in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

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

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

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

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


Hamish in action……

And the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews…

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

Hamish Milne: Thank you. Thanks for inviting me.

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

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

Melanie: Yes, but it doesn’t matter.

Hamish: No, not at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Laughter]

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

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

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

[Laughter]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melanie: Do you have a particular practice routine?

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

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

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

[Laughter]

Melanie: Yes, Advanced students.

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

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

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

[Laughter]

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

Melanie: Which venues have you enjoyed performing in?

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

Melanie: What’s your most treasured musical memory?

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

Melanie Any, things that have influenced you.

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

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

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

Melanie: So, what are your future plans?

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

[Laughter]

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

[Laughter]

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

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

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

Melanie: Thank you very much for joining me today.

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


My publications:

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

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


Artur Pizarro in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My twenty-ninth Classical Conversation features Portuguese concert pianist Artur Pizarro. We met recently at Blüthner Pianos in London to chat about his life and career.

Born in Lisbon, Portugal in 1968, Artur Pizarro gave his first public performance at the age of three and made his television début on Portuguese television at the age of four. He had been introduced to the instrument by his maternal grandmother, pianist Berta da Nóbrega, and her piano-duo partner, Campos Coelho who was a student of Vianna da Motta, Ricardo Viñes and Isidor Philipp. From 1974 to 1990 Artur studied with Sequeira Costa who had also been a student of Vianna da Motta and of Mark Hamburg, Edwin Fischer, Marguerite Long and Jacques Février. This distinguished lineage immersed Artur in the tradition of the ‘Golden Age’ of pianism and gave him a broad education in both the German and French piano schools and repertoire. During a brief interruption of his studies in the USA, Artur also studied with Jorge Moyano in Lisbon, and in Paris worked with Aldo Ciccolini, Géry Moutier and Bruno Rigutto.

Artur won first prizes in the 1987 Vianna da Motta Competition, the 1988 Greater Palm Beach Symphony Competition and won first prize at the 1990 Leeds International Pianoforte Competition, which marked the beginning of an international concert career.

Artur Pizarro performs internationally in recital, chamber music and with the world’s leading orchestras and conductors including Sir Simon Rattle, Philippe Entremont, Yan Pascal Tortelier, Sir Andrew Davis, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Yuri Temirkanov, Vladimir Fedoseyev, Ilan Volkov, Franz Welser- Most, Tugan Sokhiev, Yakov Kreizberg, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Libor Pešek, Vladimir Jurowski, Ion Marin, John Wilson and the late Sir Charles Mackerras.

Artur is an active chamber musician and has performed at chamber music festivals throughout the world. Artur Pizarro has recorded extensively for Collins Classics, Hyperion Records, Linn Records, Brilliant Classics, Klara, Naxos, Danacord, Odradek Records and Phoenix Edition.

Artur Pizarro has received various awards from his native Portugal for services to classical music and culture including the Portuguese Press Award, the Portuguese Society of Authors award, the Medal of Culture of the City of Funchal and the Medal of Cultural Merit from the Portuguese Government.

Artur in action….

And the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews…..

Melanie: Portuguese concert pianist Artur Pizarro won the Leeds International Concert Pianist Competition in 1990, and he’s been playing all around the world to great acclaim ever since. He has a huge discography, and this year he’s performing all of Rachmaninov’s solo piano music here in London at St. John’s Smith’s Square. So I’m so pleased he’s joining me today at Blüthner Pianos for a Classical Conversation.

Welcome!

Artur: Thank you very much! Lovely to be here.

Melanie: Great to chat to you today. I’m going to start by asking you all about your musical education.

Artur: Ok.

Melanie: How old were you when you started? What was the catalyst? Did you come from a musical family?

Artur: Umm. My maternal grandmother played the piano. Um, and right at about the time when I was born, she had just started up a piano duo with her teacher. So we lived in a, both families lived in one apartment building – various floors. My parents and I were on the ground floor, my grandparents on the second floor, the landlady was on the first floor. It was all very nice and near Lisbon on the coast. And so she would have rehearsals up on the top floor, and I would try to climb these huge, perilous marble stairs that would give my family panic attacks – if I fell and cracked open my head on the marble staircase. And basically, since the age of, what, one and a half, two I would sit and listen to their rehearsals. So my first contact was actually two pianos –

Melanie: Uh-hum…ok.

Artur: – as opposed to one, and what you could do with two, and how the only thing more fun than one piano is two pianos! And so, from about the age of two I started sort of going to the piano and try to imitate the things that I would hear them play, and I guess that I was accurate enough and successful enough in rendering my, my improvisations on what they were playing that I started having little lessons after their practice sessions with  my grandmother and her piano, duo piano player. And I did my – he was also a professor at the Conservatory in Lisbon.

Melanie: Ok.

Artur: Uh, my grandmother had her own private studio, but she also fed him some of her students, so that his end-of-year class auditions at the Conservatory were huge. Like forty to sixty students playing in one night –

Melanie: Wow!

Artur: – in their little five minute pieces, and all that.

Melanie: Yeah!

Artur: And I did my debut in one of those evenings when I was three-

Melanie: Goodness!

Artur: and then again when I was four. And then, um, when I was four, a former student of his had a programme on Portuguese television where he discussed the history of music, and invited his teacher to play some music, and his teacher invited me. So I had a little sort of five-minute spot on that programme for my television debut, um, and then I retired –

Melanie: [chuckles] Oh!

Artur: – at the age of five –

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: – and went to study with another student of this particular, um, teacher. Um, both had studied with – now, I have to give a little background of theirs, so you can know where it all comes from. Um, both studied with [José ] Vianna da Motta, who is a Portuguese pianist and composer/conductor, who studied um, with Franz Liszt and Hans von Bülow. Um, Campos Coelho, who is my grandmother’s partner, then also studied with Isidor Philipp and Ricardo Viñes. So you see the kind of, the pedigree that was going on. My teacher, Sequeira Costa, who was really my second teacher, then also studied in London with Mark Hamburg, in Switzerland with Edwin Fischer, and in Paris with Marguerite Long and Jacques Févrie. So between all of those, all the traditions that I was getting, um, I felt like a dog at the pet store with all this pedigree coming at me. Um, [chuckles] so there was lots of interesting, contrasting and complimenting traditions going on, into me from very, very early childhood. Not only in things they would teach me, but the repertoire that they would play. There was a lot of French music, there was a lot of Spanish music, um, but, then again, a lot of the Germanic school. So to have those all side-by-side was a little bit unusual.

Melanie: Hmm.

Artur: Um, and then so from the age of five, I retired from the concert stage, and started studying with Sequeira Costa, who I would study with for, roughly, fourteen years.

Melanie: So, your main, your main teacher? Yes.

Artur: [nodding] Um, my main teacher –

Melanie: Your main teacher?

Artur: Yes

Melanie: Yes.

Artur: – I followed him to the United States, where he was given a distinguished professorship at the University of Kansas, lived in the United States for twenty-one years. Um, took a couple of years off, went back to Lisbon to get my diploma at the Conservatory in Lisbon, where I studied with another Portuguese pianist, called Jorge Moyano, who had studied with Gary Graff at the Julliard, so, yet another branch of schooling, um, and is still a very good friend to this day. Um, and one year in Paris at the Conservatory with Aldo Ciccolini. So another Marguerite Long…

Melanie: Yes.

Artur: – lineage and French/Italian side slant of things. Then also worked with Géry Moutier who is now at the Conservatory in Lyon, who was Ciccolini’s assistant at the time, and also with Bruno Rigutto. So those two years that I was away from the United States completely blew my mind wide open as to what else you could do –

Melanie: Hmm.

Artur: – after studying with one person, with one point of view for 14 years.

Melanie: Yeah, sure.

Artur: So, although I didn’t have that much time with them, um, all those gentlemen really threw my horizons wide open, that there was an entire different –

Melanie: Yes.

Artur: – universe out there that could be explored. By that point, uh, reaching my late teens, I started doing competitions: at the Vianna da Motta Competition in Lisbon in 1987 and won that.

Melanie: Um-hmm.

Artur: I did the 1988 Palm Beach, Greater Palm Beach Symphony Invitational Piano Competition, a long, long title – I don’t even think it exists anymore.

Melanie: [chuckles]

Artur: Um, but it, um, basically, it was a small competition that offered you bucket-loads of money, uh, which we all needed in student days –

Melanie: Quite!

Artur: Scholarships were not around –

Melanie: No.

Artur: Um, but it was, it had to be six first prize winners of competitions members of the International Federation. So, six first prizes of six competitions, battling it out. And I won that one.

Melanie: [chuckles]

Artur: Then I went to Tchaikovsky in 1990, one Tchaikovsky Competition in 1990. Basically, did not wait for the results to come out first round because it was apparent that it was so problematical – lots of problems going on that were a little bit too apparent.

Melanie: Hmm.

Artur: and I think that in documentaries that have been done of that year’s competition, it was even more apparent what was going on.

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur: Jury members were coming out and saying, “I’ve just been handed a check by a competitor’s father –

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: – saying, you know, “Will you help out my daughter?” that kind of thing. So, just as well. Um, so, obviously, I was eliminated because I left –

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur: -before time –

Melanie: ok.

Artur: – which is what happens if you leave the premises where you are allowed to be, before you are kicked-out, or before the end of the competition, you are immediately disqualified, so, I was disqualified. Um, I came back home, uh, licked my wounds –

Melanie: [Chuckles]

Artur: – and thought, “Why don’t I do Leeds instead?” and won that. Sounds simple; it wasn’t. [Laughs]

Melanie: No, But, what impact did that have on your career? It must have –

Artur: Well, Leeds kind of turned my life upside-down and sideways and diagonally. And did exactly what it said in the tin. And all those things that people tell you that you don’t really believe like, however much you think you’re prepared, you’re not. Um, it took me a long time after that, that all happened for me to realize what had happened to me, because those first six, seven, eight, ten, fifteen years, um, you are living, um, in a parallel universe, and you’re not prepared for it.

Melanie: No.

Artur: Because up until that time, you’re living at home, you’re going school, you have your practice schedule, you have a very programmed, organized life. And as soon as you go out into the real world, you’re dealing with people whose interests aren’t necessarily yours, and sometimes are yours, but there are other things to consider. And you’re not socially, intellectually prepared to deal with them.

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur: You’re not prepared to make huge decisions about your life because you’ve never had to, and nobody’s really guessed what those are going to be. That organization and rigidity of scheduling goes straight out the window, all of a sudden you’re practicing where you can, how you can on whatever you can because you’re not at home all the time. Um, repertoire, you’d better learn quickly, because you think, and I did, I had a, I was very lucky in a sense, that I had a much larger repertoire than a lot of my colleagues at the time, so I thought I was going to be safe – no. The learning curve is still as huge as anything.

Melanie: Sure.

Artur: and, um, (ahem); pardon me. So it was a lot of – you get lost. You get lost, and you no longer know who you are, and you’re not quite sure you know how you want to do things and what’s important to you. And you don’t really have the time to figure it out.

Melanie: Because you’re always on the road?

Artur: Yeah.

Melanie: And I guess you got a lot of concerts –

Artur: Yeah

Melanie: in the years afterwards?

Artur: For about seven years there was a lot and a lot of work.

Melanie: Uh-hmm, I can imagine.

Artur: After that, you start your transition and that’s where it gets interesting!

Melanie: So, how did you develop your technique?

Artur: Um, let’s see. First couple of years, still with my grandmother and my first teacher. What they really concentrated on was just getting my hands, I mean, my hands are tight. I think I could do about a fourth or a fifth; that was about it, and that was with my hands wide open.

Melanie: Um-hmm.

Artur: So they just made sure that my hands weren’t doing anything that would hurt the development, or hurt them. So I think they concentrated on my being as relaxed in front of the instrument as I could be. But it wasn’t until I started working with Sequeira Costa, that, and my hand was already a little bit bigger, that we really started on the correct position of the hand, uh, and creating the support arch.

Melanie: So important! Yeah!

Artur: – knuckles, making sure that the knuckles were the highest point of the hand, making sure that the wrists were never blocked, so, creating strength in the hand but not blocking the wrist, making sure the wrist was –  in permanent use, um, keeping this part, you know the nice circle that you have in this part of the hand, so, you know it doesn’t look flat, or –

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur: – make sure that the thumb is loose, all that kind of thing, that started from five onwards. And we didn’t do the really repetitive motion things, so, like the Brahms’ exercises were never big; the Pischna exercises were never big; the Joseffy exercises. None of those seriously repetitive, mechanical things. We used a lot of the various books of the Czerny exercises –

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur:  – from the Five-Fingers to the School of Velocity to – for example, the Daily Exercises, the ones that repeat every two bars –

Melanie: I love those, yes! They’re great!

Artur: – forty times, and all that, we didn’t do those so much.

Melanie: No?

Artur: We did do for example, The Art of Finger Dexterity.

Melanie: Yeah?

Artur: That is kind of where I wound up with the Czerny exercises. We did a lot of Gradus ad Parnassum the Cramer exercises and the Clementi exercises. And that was it. Lots of scales, lots of arpeggios, and doing scales correctly, so not only doing parallel octaves, parallel thirds, sixths, tenths,  um, not parallel, but at the distance of octaves, at the distance of thirds, sixths, tenth –

Melanie: Um-hmm.

Artur: – sometimes, parallel thirds, chromatic, the arpeggios, and all the inversions –

Melanie: yeah.

Artur: – and all of that. And legato, at various speeds, at various dynamics, all of that. So that the idea would be  by the time that I was ten or eleven, I would have physical command of the instrument; I would know how to play the piano.

Melanie: hmm.

Artur: Um, and even in lessons – lessons started with that, scales and arpeggios, then you had your Czerny exercises, or whatever other exercises; that was usually the first hour of the lesson, and then the last half hour would be, um, little Mozart Minuets, Bach Two- and Three-Part Inventions, slowly graduating into French Suites; hmm! Sorry! Slowly into, graduating into French Suites – this is all because of my cough; I apologize. Um. What else did we do? Little Beethoven Sonatinas, the Clementi Sonatinas. So, slowly and very progressively and methodically layering not only the technical issues, because also my hand had to grow.

Melanie: Hmm, yes.

Artur: So, very much like singers: singers have a certain age where they can start singing, and then there’s a certain age where they do a certain repertoire, otherwise you ruin the instrument. And we’re all very aware that singers are hyper-aware of their instrument because it is in their body, and they’re the only ones who have that instrument; well, no (motioning to the piano; holding up fingers). This is our instrument, and it’s part of our body, and it grows the same way. Our hands only really mature in our twenties –

Melanie: [nods]

Artur:  – and if you don’t layer the work very carefully, and if you don’t layer the work not only technically, but musically, so that as a person you develop and you develop your emotional output, you can cause problems. And if you give things too soon or too late, you’re out of whack, and you never really recover.

Melanie: yeah.

Artur: That I saw when I, when I then started teaching, and I did a few years at Guildhall, and I saw people in their late teens who were either doing repertoire that was well above what they should be doing, because they hadn’t been given the foundation to get there, or they were still playing things like Beethoven Sonatinas because they hadn’t been given enough. So, it’s a tightrope.

Melanie: yeah.

Artur: It really is a tightrope, and I have to really give thanks to the fact that everybody I had that worked with me, were actually performing musicians.

Melanie: So important! [nodding]

Artur: Makes a huge difference!

Melanie: Makes a huge difference!

Artur: Because you’re not only teaching how to play the instrument, you’re not only teaching the repertoire, you’re also having to teach and condition from a very early age what it’s like to be on stage and prepare the repertoire for that – whether you get there or not. Um, it is a slightly different path, and there is a slightly different confidence to it. And I find that the modern separation of you either play or you teach, I find it very, very toxic.

Melanie: Hmm.

Artur: Um, and a lot of information is being lost, unnecessarily.

Melanie: Absolutely.

Artur: so…

Melanie: Which composers do you love to play, which music, which pieces?

Artur: [chuckling] Let’s put it this way: if I was going to be stuck on a desert island and I had to take my scores, it had better be the size of Australia! So, lots!

Melanie: Lots!

Artur: And probably the ones I love the most are the ones that I’m playing at that very minute. So at the moment, I’m in Rachmaninov-mode.

Melanie: yes! Everything!

Artur: A few years ago, I was in serious Chopin-mode. I’m always in Bach-, Mozart-, and Beethoven-mode; and Chopin and Schumann, and, you know, the, the core repertoire is always there, and has to be there. And for example, at this moment since I’m doing all this Rachmaninov, and I need other things to keep me in balance and perspective.

Melanie: sure, sure!

Artur: otherwise I feel like a painter who sits in front of a blank canvas, and only has green on the color palette.

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: and if you only have green, you lose the meaning of that green, because there’s nothing to compare and contrast with. Um, but, lots! I think probably, what do – probably easier to say what I don’t like. Um, and then it’s not even so much that I don’t like, it’s that I don’t feel I have a place in it; it doesn’t speak to me, therefore, I leave it to all those other fabulously talented people out there that do that repertoire justice. For example, Second Viennese School, Schoenberg, Webern, not really me. Although, I love playing Berg; I love playing the Berg Sonata, love playing the Clarinet Pieces, love some of the songs. Schoenberg, I’ve done the chamber version of the First Kammer Symphony, and I loved doing that. But, it’s not something that I’m gonna go run to. I do, however, love playing the Schnittke Concerto for piano and strings. At this stage of my life, — the Second Viennese School is probably where I feel the least comfortable. That doesn’t mean I’ve closed the door; it probably means Schoenberg Piano Concerto, don’t hold your breath. At least not at the moment; I’ll let you know if that changes.

But otherwise, I think also because of all the other teachers I had with all the different backgrounds –

Melanie: Yes.

Artur: and also, one very important thing that I remember from one of my students. Sequeira Costa did one thing to me, which I was always very grateful. He always made me have, whatever programme we were working on at the time, and it was usually three or four per year, about three or four concertos per year, equivalent to about three or four recital programmes per year – [snapping fingers] You had to have it ready.

Melanie: Yeah, yeah.

Artur: there had to be per programme, or two of the four concertos, there had to be pieces I really didn’t like. And pieces that I really hated.

Melanie: Interesting, interesting.

Artur: And I’d say, “No, no, no, no! Please don’t make me play it!” and he’d say, “Yes, you are going to have to play that piece because you are going to be asked to play pieces you don’t like. And if you don’t do them, you may never get invited again. So, I want you to learn how to get over it. And even if it isn’t a piece that gets through to you intuitively, you’re going to learn how to build that piece, anyway.

Melanie: Hmm.

Artur: and how to put that piece together and how to figure out what it means, even if it’s not a piece that’s speaking to your heart, you’re going to have to learn how to play it well enough to convince an audience that this is a piece you’re playing and you’re giving 100% to it.

Melanie: Hmm

Artur: That was an incredibly useful tool.

Melanie: I’ll bet.

Artur: Because I find so many, you know, youngsters out there that have a very limited repertoire, and I say, “Why don’t you do this?” “Oh, I don’t like that.” And what happens if, you know, I mean, you happen to be in Hamburg and the soloist that night, and, were, you know, they find out that a week earlier, he’s late and you could have that week to get it ready, what are you going to say? “Oh, sorry. I’m not gonna play with the Hamburg Symphony because I don’t like the piece.” Really?! You’re gonna do that?

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: Uh-uh. You sit down; you work for twenty hours a day, and you get it ready. And you’ll learn how to do it. So that was a very useful thing. So, I guess that also made my love of the repertoire that much stronger and that much more encompassing.

Melanie: Hmm. I hear you have a huge collection of pianos.

Artur: Not big enough!

Melanie: So tell us how you acquired them. Where do you keep them?

Artur: I’ve run out of room

Melanie: I was going to say, do you, do you keep them all at home?

Artur: [nodding] Most of them. If people have any extra warehouses, airplane hangars that I could borrow, then I can keep going. At the moment at home there are five, and then there’s one in Portugal and one in the States. The one in the States went from Portugal, which was my original baby Petroff upright. You know the ones that are about that tall?

Melanie: Oh, yes!

Artur: And that was a present when, for my fourth Christmas from my grandmother, and that was the piano that I practiced on until my mid-teens. And it was lovely, because it was really dark, rich sound, heavy action – you know, Petroff’s usually –

Melanie: yeah.

Artur: very heavy action. So it was a good instrument to learn, and start on. And then, in Portugal, I still have my great-grandmother’s old Gavot  upright, 1890’s Gavot upright. It still has the brass candelabras and all that kind of thing. It’s beautiful.

Melanie: yeah.

Artur: I’m hoping to get that properly rebuilt in the next two years. And then at home, I kind of have one piano per century. The oldest one is a Lowman & Broadwood square from 1780.

Melanie: Wow.

Artur: – fully restored, ready for performance.

Melanie: Oh, how beautiful.

Artur: Then I have, next century, 1884 Broadwood concert grand. Straight strung, under-dampered old English concert action, the two big wooden paddle pedals, also fully restored, ready for concert work. Um, then I have a 1969 Hamburg Steinway D, which I bought with the money from the Leeds competition. Yes!

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: – used to belong to the British Music Society of York. I then found out it was a piano originally picked by Sir Clifford Curzon for the Litchfield Festival when it was new. Then it went to British Music Society of York, it became the hire piano for that part of England. So if you did concerts in Bradford and Wakefield and Scarborough, and all those places, that was the hire piano that went around until 1990, when I bought it.

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur: And I apparently upset a lot of people. “I used to have a piano that I could hire, and apparently you’ve bought it and took it.” And yes, I took it. I’ve had a lot of work done to that instrument, and it, she’s in great, great shape. She’s just had a facelift, so she looks all new, and casework’s been all done. Then, I have a 1990 Estonia 9-foot grand, so Tallin built, 9-foot concert grand, which has also had a lot of changes done to it: new soundboard, new pinblock, new strings – the action’s original, but has had a lot of replacement done to it. Um, because it’s basically a very good design in a company that, up until recently, it’s now seriously changed, mine is one of the last, if not the last Communist-era built 9-foot grand. So, the design was good –

Melanie: Um-hmm, yeah.

Artur: the materials to which they had access without hard currency, without having any money to move around, strangled by a Communist economy –

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur: – were not very good quality. And they were jerry-rigging things because that was the only way they could do it. So we cleaned up the piano and brought it back to what Estonia would have done had they had the resources. And, I’ve even used it in two piano recitals with a Steinway, and you can’t really tell which one’s which. And that’s a fabulous company in England that does amazing piano restoration work. If you ever want their name, I’ll happily pass it on to you.

Melanie: [chuckles] Very useful I’m sure.

Artur: And then I have my 21st-century piano, my Yamaha AvantGrand Hybrid, the “N1” model.

Melanie: Wow, yes.

Artur: Which is the one I now do my hard practice on, and it’s the one I bash, because it’s the one that can take it, and it’s never out of tune, and the voicing never goes.

Melanie: Yes. The Yamaha’s are great for that.

Artur: Yeah, and it’s a proper acoustic action. It’s the same that comes on the “C” series.

Melanie: ok

Artur: So, if you have a C3, for example, or a C5, and you have an AvantGrande next to it, it’s the same action. You won’t feel a change –

Melanie: That’s interesting.

Artur: – going from one to the other.

Melanie: oh.

Artur: And the sound is about the highest sampling rate that you can have on any digital piano. And it’s a sampled CFX concert grand, so they actually sound really – I mean, between that and a cheap even baby grand, or an expensive upright, I would go for the sound and the quality and the touch that is most stable. But that’s the one I really do my hard practice on, and when it’s time to go rehearse, then I swap to the, to the concert grands, which has brought my maintenance bill down a lot.

Melanie: Ok, yeah. Amazing collection! Wow.

Artur: So that’s my growing and one of these, you know, one of these would be nice, but I don’t have the room for them, or a lottery ticket, but you know, you live in hope, you live in hope!

Melanie: So tell us about the Rachmaninov project that you’re doing here in the U.K.

Artur: Right.

Melanie: It’s six recitals, I think. How did you, how did it materialize, and how did you decide what to play in each concert, with such virtuoso music?

Artur: Well, we’re doing it, I’m actually doing it at St. John Smith’s Square and at two other places.

Melanie: Oh, ok.

Artur: So I’m doing the series three times –

Melanie: Three times? Oh!

Artur: – and then I’m really doing it a fourth time, and I’m also recording it.

Melanie: Oh, I was going to ask about that, yes, I’m sure.

Artur: I’m also doing it at Dame Cleo Laine’s Theatre, in Milton Keynes, at the Stables, then at St. John’s, and then in Lisbon at the Gulbenkian Foundation –

Melanie: Yes.

Artur: – in their brand new refurbished concert hall, which is opening… just opened, just re-opened, fully refurbished. Um, so that’s a lot of Rachmaninov.

Melanie: It is! How did you decide what to play, which to play and what order?

Artur: It was actually my just former manager’s, um, idea, because I had done a Beethoven cycle at St. John’s, and then various other places. And then I did a Debussy and Ravel joint one, and then I did a Chopin one, and I always like to give breaks in between these otherwise I’m going to be known as the marathon man – that wasn’t quite the plan.

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: But, those have been works, where even doing a complete cycle I have had, I’d say, about 90% of the repertoire ready. And with Rachmaninov, it’s not quite been the case.

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: I had all the concerto work; I had quite a bit of the two-piano repertoire ready; I had very little of the solo work ready. Because we think we know Rachmaninov –

Melanie: yeah.

Artur; – but we kind of don’t. I think what we really think we know about Rachmaninov probably covers about 20% – in the solo piano work.

Melanie: Um, yes.

Artur: We know the Concerti a lot better. We actually know some of the orchestral works, but a very small part again. Um, so I knew the Second Sonata; I played the Corelli Variations, I played a couple of the Etudes … that’s about it.

Melanie: Hmm.

Artur: So I had maybe half of one recital of a six recital series. But he talked me into this, he said, “Oh, you play Rachmaninov so well, you should do this; it’d be fun. Not something a lot of people do – and boy, can I tell you why!

Melanie: [laughs] —  It takes some serious practicing.

Artur: I keep telling him that by the end of this year, I will either be dead of a heart attack, or have a fabulous technique, or both! [laughs]

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: Here lies the corpse of a man with a great technique – hmm! Um, so it’s been a lot of practice; it’s been a lot of new repertoire; it’s been listening to a lot of that –

Melanie: Um, yes.

Artur: – music. It’s been reading a lot about Rachmaninov, which has been fascinating –

Melanie: Yes.

Artur: – which I also thought I knew a lot about, but with more research coming in and more works being found , it’s really fascinating. And it shows you how much the perception we have of him is still completely wrong, because we’re still being coloured, our opinions are being coloured by … Groves, for example, which still has the most asinine article on Rachmaninov ever created, and they still haven’t come up with something to replace it. Please, Groves, live up to your standards and your reputations. Re-do it! Please! It is so unfair to the composer, and to you! We have this outdated idea of oh, Rachmaninov, it was easy, it sounded like Hollywood film, it has all the tunes. You should hear some of the Etude Tableau; they’re positively bizarre!

Melanie: Um.

Artur: – really bizarre!

Melanie: Yes!

Artur: And really modern.

Melanie: Yes, it’s a cryptic language.

Artur: And then at the same time, you know, they speak about the Fourth Concerto, which is the least understood of them, which is probably my favorite, actually. Um, and people don’t understand it because it isn’t the Second Concerto with all the big melodies and the Hollywood tunes, because it is actually much more modern, therefore people refuse to accept it. So, there’s this big, huge conundrum going around Rachmaninov that I find fascinating. You know why I find it fascinating? Because after all these years, it’s still not easy to put him into a box. It still causes all kind of conversations, and arguments, and differences of opinion. And that, to me, is exactly the mark of a great artist that goes outside expectations.

Melanie: Um, yes.

Artur: Um, a lot of repertoire. So I said, Yeah, let’s try it! And then as soon as I said it, I started kicking myself and I’ve been kicking myself ever since. How did I plan the recitals? I really planned them as six individual recitals. I tried not to do it chronologically; I try not to put all the Preludes in one, and the Etudes in one and then the Sonatas in one, because I didn’t want it to turn into a scholastic experience.

Melanie: Um.

Artur: I want people to come and listen to Rachmaninov, and it’s a recital, and it happens to be in six series. If you want to hear all of it, you’re gonna have to buy six tickets. But, um, you know some have sonatas, variations, preludes, little salon pieces; there’s a lot of variety. I tried to put at least one big modern, one big very well-known piece in each programme –

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur: – so there’s something to attach it to.

Melanie: And is one of the programmes a transcription?

Artur: That is the only one that is (thematical ?). I said, No, there’s too much here. Why? Because there’s Bach, there’s Mendelssohn, there’s Bizet, there’s Schubert, there’s Schumann, there’s Tchaikovsky, there’s so much variety that that one is really going to be a basket full of lollipops. So that was the one that I thought could survive the thematic treatment. And that one will be in November. Which is great, because that’s the one that’s going to take me to get it into my fingers, because those transcriptions are horrendously difficult, but so much fun! When you actually get to sit down and play one of those from beginning to end and think, “Wow! I’m not only can I play it, I’m having fun with it!” It is such a rush!

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur: But you earned them; you earned every single note. It’s like climbing Mt. Everest. But, the other interesting thing is, however virtuosic Rachmaninov’s writing is, I find that it’s so ergonomic.

Melanie: Yes.

Artur: Unlike, for example, somebody like Brahms, which I find much less ergonomic. It doesn’t fit into the hands nearly as much. Rachmaninov, although it’s much more demanding from a virtuoso point of view, he knows exactly what the hand is supposed to do, he knows exactly what the piano does. It’s just that if you imagine you’re a track runner, and you’re running hurdles, it’s just that he puts hurdles with sort of a 3mm interval.

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: So, the difficulties of Rachmaninov are up here [motioning to the head]. It’s pacing yourself mentally. Because when you get to the end of the day, your hands, if you’re doing this properly, and not panicking, like this (tensing body up), your hands are not actually tired. Your brain, there are little clouds of smoke coming out of your ears – your ears, your eyes –

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: – you know, you can dry towels on top of your head, but the body isn’t being asked to do anything unnatural.

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur: And that’s been very fascinating, too. I suspected it, having played enough Rachmaninov, but I hadn’t had the 1000% proof that I, you know, feel that I’ve had from Rachmaninov. So, a very interesting composer that was much more searching and was much more forward-leaning in asthetic and impulses than a lot of people give him credit for.

Melanie: Um. Do you have a particular practice regime?

Artur: Yes. Whenever I can, however I can, for as long as I can.

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: It’s called cram. I mean, how do I do it? Ideally I would have my little sheet of paper telling me what I’m doing at that month, and that year, and I would assign a little bit of time to each –

Melanie: Hmm.

Artur: – so that by the end of the week … it doesn’t work that way! You try, and you try, and it doesn’t work that way. So I try to… If there is a piano available, a decent piano, because I find that when you get below a certain level of instrument –

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur: – you’re gonna do more damage than good. So there’s no point. If there’s a, “Oh, there’s my great grandmother’s upright. It was last tuned by Queen Victoria’s piano tuner…  No, let, let it go –

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: It’s, it’s only gonna frustrate you. So if there’s a decent instrument, and you’ve got half an hour, use that half an hour. If you have a decent instrument, but you’re too tired, no. Go to sleep, come back the next day; you’re fine. That’s something that happened to me since the Leeds competition since I was telling you, when rational behavior goes out the window. So, if I’m at home, I really try to get as much as I can. Usually it’s practice in the morning, your brain is still fresh –

Melanie: Yes.

Artur: – get three hours of really hard practice, and it’s also organizing your practice before you even sit down at the piano. Because there’s a lot that you don’t need the piano for: there’s a lot of reading, there’s a lot of listening, there’s a lot of even going through a score and finding out which pages are going to be problematical and which aren’t going to be problematical. For example, if you’re panicking about a whole piece, but it’s only because of 3 passages in that piece, why are you practicing the whole piece, if 75% of it you can practice without a problem? Mark the exact spots, focus on those. The rest will be fine.

Melanie: Yeah.

Artur: Um, I don’t have a problem with listening to other people’s performance of the same performance. It’s because, it will tell me what I’m looking towards, it sometimes tells me what I don’t want to look towards The risk of imitation is, (ahem) at this stage of the game is so far-fetched, because even if you’re trying to imitate, the fact that it’s going through your hands, a different instrument –

Melanie: Hmm.

Artur: – your experience, your culture, your age, your heartbeat; it’s all gonna come out differently. I’ve actually sat down with friends, you know, concert pianists, mutual admiration society, all that, and said, “You know, I really liked what you did that! This is…” and you play it, and the other person doesn’t recognize it. “Well, let me try again, I’m going to do it again. I’m going to try to do it exactly the way you do it.”

Melanie: [laughs]

Artur: and they sit down, and do it for me, and, no. We don’t recognize it. So, that, that fear for me isn’t there. And if a person has dedicated 15, 20, 25,30 years of their lives to that particular interpretation of that piece, and they’ve studied that much, why should I discount it? Why should I not learn from it? I treat, very much, listening to somebody’s recording or somebody’s performance as a Master Class. Because I’m not just listening to it and saying, Ok, this is how I’m going to do it. I’m constantly asking myself, “Why? Why did they do that there? Why did that person to that there? Why is the pedal there? Why is their mezzoforte different from my mezzoforte? Why?” And it’s when you start to figure that out that it gets really interesting. And that’s when those worries of, “Am I going to sound like that person?” they immediately disappear and cease to exist. So, I use a lot of recordings as lessons because I ask the questions. I make myself ask the questions. And then I don’t have to get in the car and go up to EPTA’s latest organized thing, although, I like to complement those too, because there’s nothing as live, you know. Having that live interaction is also so important. So, for the kids who stay home, saying ‘Oh, I can just listen to the CD, or download it off Spotify, or whatever’, no. Go and be with somebody.

Melanie: Yeah. Absolutely.

Artur: Go and talk; go do it live. It’s such a rush, and you make contacts, and you meet incredible people. So, all of the above.

Melanie: What does playing the piano mean to you?

Artur: Speaking. I think if some – I think if my hands fell off, or if my tongue was cut off, it would probably feel exactly the same. It’s me, telling a story, it’s me… I think it feels, for me, playing the piano for me feels what acting would feel for an actor, what painting would feel for a painter. It’s telling a story, it’s sharing something. Whether that story I’m telling actually has to do something, actually has to do with something that I’ve lived. Or, it’s just a story that I’ve particularly enjoyed sharing, it’s, it’s how I would express myself.

Melanie: Thank you so much for joining me today.

Artur: You are so welcome, and thank you for having me.


My publications:

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

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