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:

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


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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

Pascal Rogé in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The thirty-first Classical Conversation in my series features French concert pianist Pascal Rogé. We met earlier this month at Jaques Samuel Pianos in London to chat all about his life and work.

In 1962, at the age of 11, Pascal Rogé was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire, having previously studied with his mother. By the age of 15, he had won first prize for both piano and chamber music. At 18, he performed solo recitals in both Paris and London, winning first prize at the Jacques Thibaud International Competition in 1971. Several European engagements followed, and in 1974 he made his first tour to the United States, returning nearly every season. He has also become a favourite in Australia and Japan, where he has made over 20 tours.

Rogé’s particular strengths lie in his sensitive and personal interpretations of 20th century French composers; he has made recordings of complete cycles of Ravel, Poulenc, and Satie, among others. His repertoire also includes d’Indy, Saint-Saëns, as well as the great German masters — Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven. His recordings have received numerous awards, including the Grand Prix du Disque and an Edison award for the Ravel concertos. His first volume of Poulenc won the 1988 Gramophone award for Best Instrumental Recording, and his collaboration with Chantal Juillet and Truls Mørk won the 1997 Gramophone award for Best Chamber Music recording. In the twenty-first century, he began a new recording project for Onyx that included a complete Debussy cycle. He also began performing and touring with his wife, Ami Rogé. The pair commissioned a two piano concerto from Matthew Hindson, which they premiered in 2011.

He has also taught at the Académie in Nice. His solo performances have been recognized for their decidedly French elegance, while his collaboration with orchestras has been noted for its faultless musicianship, and made him a favourite of conductors ranging from Charles Dutoit to Lorin Maazel to Kurt Masur.

Pascal in action:

And the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews:

Melanie: French concert pianist Pascal Rogé came to prominence in 1971 when he jointly won the Long-Thibaud International Piano Competition and he’s been playing to great acclaim ever since. He’s particularly noted for his interpretation of the French repertoire and I’m so pleased he is joining me here today at Jaques Samuel Pianos for a Classical Conversation.

Pascal: Good morning.

Melanie: Lovely to chat to you today.

Pascal: Yeah, I love the idea.

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

Pascal: Yes, yes I was born with music, so it was really easy for me to, it was the most natural thing in the world to play music since my mother is a pianist, organist. My grandfather was a violinist. My grandmother was a pianist. So, it’s all about music in my family. So it was a lot of years for me to touch all the instruments that were around. My mother just put my fingers in the right place.

Melanie: You started very young?

Pascal: 3 years old. Because I wanted to bang the piano.

Melanie: Sure.

Pascal: My mother was a piano teacher, so instead of banging anywhere just put your fingers on the right keys and apparently, you know, I was kind of gifted. It was an immediate attraction. I couldn’t get away from the piano, it was my best toy. Ever since it’s been my best friend, a long long long love story.

Melanie: And so, which teachers then do you think were most crucial in your development as a pianist?

Pascal: Well, obviously, my mother, because she was my first and only teacher for 6 years and then, I must say, I was really lucky with my teachers. I don’t have any complaints. To the contrary, I admire them and l’m very thankful for all of them. So, from my mother I went to her teacher, which was Lucette Descaves at the Paris Conservatory. At that time she was teacher in Paris and obviously I went to her class because my mother has been one of her students many years before. So that was my second teacher then Lucette had an assistant, Louise Clavius-Marius, who’s not very well-known but she was a genius. She was really somebody who has helped me a lot, had fabulous knowledge about piano technique, how to practice, how to relax, all the things that are hidden behind the glamorous piano playing. And then, I was fortunate to meet Julius Katchen when I was 17. He was my, I don’t really consider him a teacher, but as a mentor, as somebody who really opened for me new things, so many doors, so many perspectives for the last 3 years of his life. He died in ’69. And I think that- yes, that was it. It was the end of my teachers, but they were all very crucial. I don’t mention Marguerite Longas a teacher, because I played only 3 or 4 times for her. I was very young and she was very old, but it’s still a basic memory today to think of her. A young boy playing in front of somebody that was so close to Debussy, Faure and Ravel, and I remember her telling me ‘ you know here Debussy told me….’ and that’s – you never forget.

Melanie: No, no.

Pascal: But, I was not really a student of her, but I met her and I think that was enough to really make her special. Same thing with Nadia Boulanger,I was not a regular student of her, but I was fortunate to know her, to have met her many times. She also was an advisor, someone that I could talk to, ask questions. That was a privilege.

Melanie: Yes, yes. So, how did you develop your technique or did you work at it?

Pascal: Well I don’t – That was never really my concern. That sounds very pretentious, but I think my teachers were very – my mother first was very clever to always make the technique part of the musical meaning. There was never something that you have to work- of course I did scales and things like that, but it was never boring. It was never an obligation. I knew somewhere that it was useful. I almost enjoyed it. It’s not a bad memory. Later on, in the Conservatory, my teachers told me to try to separate technique from interpretation. So they said, you have to build your technique and then you’ll be able to play anything. Don’t try to – for instance they always said, Chopin Studies are not for building technique they are for playing, so don’t use them as an Etude, but use more basic things like, Czerny, Hanon, Pischner, all those boring composers, not composers, but technicians, piano technicians. But, they’re believed in than that. We do a lot of – like dancers, we do a lot of exercises before dancing. I think it’s – I don’t believe that you should mix technique and interpretation. It’s two different things. So, I always follow that principle and I think it’s worked pretty well.

Melanie: So, you won the Long-Thibaud International Competition? What impact did this have on your career? Did it change it completely or….

Pascal: No.

Melanie: No, it didn’t take off immediately afterwards or?

Pascal: No, it’s sad to say, being French and winning the most important piano competition in France. First, it came after I had already my first recording with Decca, I had already my first recital in Paris and in London. So, I sort of – I didn’t need it. I was a little bit pushed by the – my teachers in the Conservatory they wanted to do – at least have a French winning the competition. So, I did it but really it didn’t give me much apart from a few concerts, I mean it’s nothing comparing to the first recording with Decca or first recital in London. I don’t believe in competition. I must say, I have pretty bad memories of that competition, of any competition. But, this one in particular because for the first time, I mean I was already – even if I didn’t play much – I had already a feeling of being on stage is to communicate, it’s to express yourself. And so, yes, I was on stage to win, and that’s not right. I thought I was in the wrong place. Why do I have to play better than this person – I could feel that it was not the meaning of music. So, yes, I did it. I won it – that’s it.

Melanie: You’re known for your interpretation of French music and you’ve recorded a complete solo works of Ravel, Poulenc, Satie. What is it about French repertoire that you love so much? I mean, obviously you’re French, but there must be something in the music that just draws you back all the time.

Pascal: Yes, I think so because it’s – I loved that repertoire early, of course, with my teachers, because they were close to that repertoire. But then, when I started my career I used to play what every young pianist should play; Liszt, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Chopin, whatever, I was really interested to play anything until I discovered that maybe I should find my own Language, my own – what do I do best? I remembered a recital by Arthur Rubinstein. He was playing an all Chopin programme and I was absolutely amazed because I think – I thought, it’s not Rubinstein. It’s not Chopin. It’s just such a natural way of playing. He’s born with this music, it’s his language. Nobody plays Chopin better than him. Because he doesn’t have to play, he just speaks the music. I thought there must be music that I could play that way. With the years, I discovered that was the French repertoire. It’s logic, because it’s my language. I was born with it and all what my teachers told me, Marguerite Long,so close to those composers. I think that was an influence on how I – not the fact that I was born in France, but the fact that I had around me people that were so close to that music and they made me discover things that perhaps I might have never discovered without them. And the more I play then the more I discover that yes, this is the way that I can really express myself. I think it’s really like foreign languages, you can learn as many languages as you want, but there is to be a mother tongue. My mother tongue is French music, so.

Melanie: So, if you had to choose one French composer, who would you choose? Is it possible to say?

Pascal: It’s almost impossible. I love all of them and for different reasons, it would be unfair to say one. Of course, the first one, if I have to, would be Debussy. Of course, is the greatest and he brought a new language and he had so many ideas about how this sounds. He’s an inventor, but funny that I remember when I was very young. I was in love with Ravel. I think Ravel was my first real French composer. I remember saying that to my harmony teacher. I said, oh Ravel! Said, “I know, but later on you will discover the Debussy  is more important.” It was true, at that time I disagreed, but I understand that, of course, Debussy is more important, but every time I play the Ravel concerto it’s still magic. Those sort of memories from childhood, I think they stay forever. Even after if you can analyze or think differently. The first love, the first music love is Ravel. I think it’s still maybe the closest.

Melanie: Yes. Which other composers do you love to play, going away from French style?

Pascal: To play? Not too many. To listen to, of course. But, to play. Mozart, because I think he’s above all of the composers. You don’t have to be French or German or anything. To play you just have to be genuinely inspired. It’s maybe the most difficult composer to play, but I can’t not enjoy playing Mozart. But apart from him, I must say that I don’t feel like – I can play mostly anything, but it’s not as close to my heart as those composers. And with my experience, with my age, my concert life, I can choose. You know, that’s the privilege of age. You can say no. I mean, it’s very rare nowadays that people are offering me to play a Tchaikovsky concerto, but I can say no. When you’re 20, 30, you have to do everything because you have to establish yourself. But now, I have that privilege to say no, I’m not interested. I think most of the time people know what I’m good at. I’m glad that I chose to be restricted in my repertoire. I remember when I started that French direction, many people were asking me ‘Is it your record company? Have you been forced to do this?’ and no, no, no. It’s my choice. And now, I think they understood that it was really my choice. But, I am very proud to have found in music I can really communicate, touch people in a very special way. I always quote that, what Glenn Gould said ‘If you’re not convinced that you play this piece better or different than anybody else, don’t play it.’ It’s a bit extreme, like everything he said. But, it’s true. You really have – in order to play something personally, you have to be convinced that, yes, I’m unique in playing that. It sounds pretentious, but that’s the only way to be unique; and if you’re on stage, you have to be unique. Otherwise, I mean there’s so many good pianists. And that’s the difference, if you don’t have that particular language or touch or something that makes you different.

Melanie: Do you have a particular practice regime?

Pascal: I have to cope with a traveling life.

Melanie: Yes, that’s why I asked.

Pascal: It’s not always easy. I sometimes envy violinists or cellists to be able to carry some instrument. No, I mean I’ve practiced as much as I can wherever there’s a piano, here in this studio or a friend’s house or concert hall or dressing rooms. Of course, at home I have my own piano, but I’m almost never at home. So, I really have to cope with whatever piano I can find.

Melanie: You play a lot of chamber music, particularly two piano works?

Pascal: Yes, with my wife.

Melanie: With your wife, Ami? How did this come about and what repertoire do you love to play?

Pascal: Well it came when we met, almost 10 years ago now. That’s a repertoire I almost never played before. I was suddenly attracted to sharing the instrument with, not somebody, but with someone that really has the same touch, the same feelings, the same view about music; and it was completely new for me. I’d already played a couple of times with other pianists, but it was like, you know, trying to mix things together where there was no intimate connection. And I think to play two piano and especially with four hands you really need to be very intimate. So, it’s a wonderful new experience. We love traveling together, playing together. Again, French repertoire and we recorded some transcriptions. We did our own transcription of La Mer by Debussy and yes. That’s such a repertoire that I’d never heard of before. We do recitals. As I said, two hands, four hands; which gives another approach to the piano. Because then people realize how different it is when the piano is played by one person with four hands, it sounds different too, but at the same time, it’s the same instrument. So – I always liked sharing music with other musicians, before I did a lot of chamber music with strings and winds, but now with Ami, it becomes even more closer, and more personal.

Melanie: What are your plans for the future?

Pascal: Keep going with the life that I have, I’m enjoying it so much. So, it means to keep playing, keep discovering new cities, new worlds, new culture. We are learning at the moment The Rite of Spring. So that’s a big project. We’re recording it. I have some – It’s more about – I’m going to stay in that repertoire. I’m not going to tell you ‘oh finally I’m going to do the complete Beethoven sonatas,’ no, I’m still going to explore the French repertoire and extend it to maybe Contemporary music. We had an experience two years ago where we commissioned a two piano concerto from an Australian composer. It was the first time ever that I premiered a piece that was never played.  That was so exciting to play a music that nobody had played before. So, I hope we can have more experiences like that.

Melanie: What does playing the piano mean to you?

Pascal: Everything. I don’t know. I can’t do anything else.


It would have been very difficult if the – I hadn’t been able to achieve a career. As I said, from the age of 3, I played the piano and never stopped and never thought I could do anything else. I never wanted to do anything else. And I think it’s the most beautiful profession, because it’s doing what you love, sharing with the world, and bringing emotions to people. I’m so privileged in sharing that with my wife. I mean, it’s an ideal life. So piano is, yes, piano is everything.

Melanie: Thanks so much for joining me today.

Pascal: Thank you. Pleasure.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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



Valerie Tryon in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My nineteenth Classical Conversation is with British concert pianist Valerie Tryon. Valerie now resides in Ancaster in Ontario, Canada, but was visiting the UK to record a disc with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra when I caught up with her in London last week.

Valerie’s career as a concert pianist began while she was still a child. Before she was twelve she had broadcast for the BBC and was appearing regularly before the public on the concert platform. She was one of the youngest students ever to be admitted to the Royal Academy of Music where she received the highest award in piano playing and a bursary which took her to Paris for study with Jacques Février.

Her place among Britain’s acknowledged artists was assured when a Cheltenham Festival recital brought her the enthusiastic acclaim of the country’s foremost critics. Since then she has played in most of the major concert halls and appeared with many of the leading orchestras and conductors in Britain. Her career has latterly taken her to North America where she has appeared in such cities as Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Washington, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. She now lives in Canada where she is the Artist-in-Residence at McMaster University, but spends a part of each year in her native Britain.

Her repertoire is enormous and ranges from Bach to contemporary composers; it includes more than sixty concertos and a vast amount of chamber music. Among British composers, both Alun Hoddinott and John McCabe have dedicated works to her. She is well known for her sensitive interpretations of the romantics — Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninov in particular. When the BBC launched its Radio Enterprises record label, some years ago, Valerie’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Etudes Tableaux, op. 39, was the first classical disc to be released. More recently she has recorded the complete Ballades and Scherzos of Chopin for the CBC’s “Musica Viva” label, which Harold Schonberg of the New York Times described as “the best Chopin recording of the past decade.” Notwithstanding her involvement in the music of the nineteenth century, she retains a deep love of Scarlatti, whose keyboard sonatas she has delighted in playing in public since her childhood and early youth, and to which she remains deeply committed. Likewise, her ongoing series of the complete piano music of Claude Debussy, represents a special passion: she has twice performed this important repertoire in a demanding cycle of five successive recitals.

One of Valerie’s chief enthusiasms is chamber music. Two of her best-known duo partners in England were Alfredo Campoli (violin) and George Isaac (cello), with both of whom she made a number of significant recordings. Her performance with Isaac of Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata is now considered to be a collector’s item.

Since moving to Canada, Valerie has performed frequently with cellist Coenraad Bloemendal. Both were members of the Rembrandt Trio with violinist Gerard Kantarjian.

Valerie has been awarded several distinctions for her services to music. She was an early recipient of the Harriet Cohen Medal. More recently the Liszt Memorial Plaque was bestowed on her by the Hungarian Minister of Culture in recognition of her lifelong promotion of Franz Liszt’s music.

Valerie in action…..

And the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews:

MELANIE SPANSWICK: British concert pianist Valerie Tryon has given recitals and concerto performances all around the world.  She was one of the youngest students ever to be accepted to study at the Royal Academy of Music and has won many prizes in accolades for her playing including Harriet Cohen medal.  So, I’m delighted she’s taken the time today to join me for one of my Classical Conversations here in London , where she’s been recording the Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.


VALERIE TRYON: Hello Melanie.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Lovely to chat with you.  Thank you for joining me.   I am going to start by talking all about your musical education.  What age were you when you started, What’s the catalyst, and did you come from a musical family?

VALERIE TRYON:  My mother was a pianist and a singer, and she was an actress.  She had so many talents.  My father loved music but his …   his art laid with painting.. drawing. So I suppose you could say that I did have artistic parents.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, very much so.

VALERIE TRYON: But I don’t know.  I know that I started playing when I was four.  My mother told me I tried to push her off piano stool at two and that’s how it start and it  hasn’t finished now that I’m a hundred and two.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  So, which teacher then do you think was crucial to your development or maybe most helpful?

VALERIE TRYON: Well, the first teacher I had was across the road.  My mother thought I think that it would be better for to have lessons from someone other than the family. And so, she sent me across the road to Mr. Lawrence, who said hello to me and let me in, sat me at the piano and then went upstairs and did his eblutions. And I had him shaving and then he would come down  after I finished the piece and say “Very nice Valerie . Next week I want you to play this.” That was my first . ..

MELANIE SPANSWICK:.Your.introduction.

VALERIE TRYON:  Yes. But my mother has taught me as well.  And then, I went to a Mr. Whittaker at Leeds College of Music. And he was a teacher of the Matthey method.


VALERIE TRYON:  ..and that I think was my blessing because I’ve never ever  had a single problem with my hands and fingers.  Some pianist usually get something.. Tendonitis . but I think the Matthey method saved me because it was all natural from the beginning.  I didn’t have to learn it.


VALERIE TRYON:  I had the relaxation given to me.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: That was.. That was my next question because I have the good fortune to hear you so many times and you have what  seems to me to be an effortless technique. I was gonna ask how you..you know, developed that?

VALERIE TRYON:  Well, it isn’t effortless actually.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: It looks effortless. It really does.

VALERIE TRYON:  I do work hard.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: I know. I’m sure but it’s .. it’s amazing.

VALERIE TRYON:  But I have… I have learned how to … how to do stuff without making too much effort and without getting stiff.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Perhaps you would like to explain about that? The technique?

 VALERIE TRYON:  The technique?


VALERIE TRYON:  Well, there is a book I think about Matthey. And I think MyraHess was a Matthey student and Moura Lympany I believe.  They all had this basic technique taught them when they were little. I only remember this kind of things for practicing.  And falling the weight (does an arm movement).. Falling on the keys and your fingertips taking the weight. And in… in… in my recent years, I found that the most important thing which I never realized to was just common sense really to see where the problem is and to figure out the best way to dealing with that. It may be fingering, or the way your arm is going, or it might be all kinds of things. But if you can work it out, then you can deal with the problem.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Sort it out.  But it’s to do with making, you make a beautiful sound it’s obviously to do with the arm weight..


MELANIE SPANSWICK: And you made your debut when you were very young.


MELANIE SPANSWICK: So do you encourage young pianists to get a lot of performance practice when they’re young? Do you think it’s a good idea to be exposed to performing at a young age?

VALERIE TRYON:  I don’t know.  I used to play for all kinds of short things.  I used to play things  like the Minute Waltz and I played with a little orchestra called Henry Crowdson String Orchestra but I didn’t play actually with them.  I had solos in between.  But the things that worried me then were whether I go on the right way …whether I bowed properly or whether I would fall over the wires on the way out. I never actually worried about playing.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: You didn’t worry about playing at all.

VALERIE TRYON:  No.  But now, of course it’s the opposite way.  Sometimes I wish I could trip over something.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Oh dear. You were a major prize winner of Liszt International Competition.

VALERIE TRYON:  No, No I wasn’t.


VALERIE TRYON:  No, I wasn’t a major prize winner.  I don’t know how this ever came about.  I feel embarrassed about it.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: It’s… It’s  on your biography isn’t it?

VALERIE TRYON:  It does it say there?


VALERIE TRYON:  Oh, I never put that.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: But you played in the competition for ..

VALERIE TRYON:  Oh, yeah.  I got a prize .. but it wasn’t one the main ones. They  actually.. Annie Fischer was one of the jury and I believe Moura Lympany too.  It was a very distinguished jury. And there were four of us in the competition that they felt deserved the prize although it wasn’t on the menu as it were. So, the main prizes were Lazer Berman was third on this competition and they added the four. There was Annie Petit , who was a French girl, me, and I think somebody  who’s called Ashanski who’s a Hungarian, and I can’t remember the other one.  But we were all given this one..added on  — .
MELANIE SPANSWICK: a special prize.

VALERIE TRYON:  Yes, which was called Concours or out of  the competition.  And there was money too.  I was able to spend lots of money and take stuff home so it was something.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Did you find that it kind a shaped and changed your career, winning this prize? Or did you….



VALERIE TRYON:  No, Nothing has changed my career.  Nothing I’ve had rave reviews, it hasn’t made any difference.  I’ve had bad reviews, that hasn’t made any difference. Nothing. I just plod along the same way.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: You just played wonderful concerts. You’ve got huge, major repertoire. You play so many different composers. Which composers are you drawn to?

VALERIE TRYON:  The ones I think I play best are probably the Romantics… I feel more at home with the Romantics. I love Bach, but it frightens me to death.   I love Mozart, I love Hadyn,  I love Beethoven, Schubert. I love them all. I’m totally promiscuous. I love all of them.  And the ones I’m playing at the time are my favourites.


VALERIE TRYON:  But I feel, should I say, so comfortable with Chopin, Liszt and Brahms even, and also the Impressionists.  I feel very comfortable with them partly I suppose  because I had lessons with Jaques Février and he gave me the.. he gave me  the lowdown on style.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: You went.. You studied with him in Paris.


MELANIE SPANSWICK: And also, you’ve recorded and performed the complete Debussy piano  music.

VALERIE TRYON:  Yes. And Ravel.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: and Ravel. Why? What attracted you to this.. this style?  Is it the sound?

VALERIE TRYON:  I just… I feel very thrilled with the colours for one thing. I love the mystery and the resonance and the differences of the colours you can make, and the vagueness and the rhythm because I think that’s important… very important.  Février told me Ravel didn’t like his music sentimentalized at all.  He liked it to be heartfelt and very expressive but not overdone so the phrases would flow on to the next without stopping. That kind of thing.



MELANIE SPANSWICK: You were the Ferenc Liszt Medal of Honour by …  in 1986 by the Hungarian Minister of Culture.

VALERIE TRYON:  Yes, that was nice.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, for your interpretation of Liszt. I know you love Liszt so what attracts you to his style?

VALERIE TRYON:  I think it just ah…  he … he appeals to my soul in some way.  Well, they all do.  I think he has some special harmonic  chime  somehow.  I love his poetry. I don’t have any particular love for the histrionics and flamboyant Liszt but I do love the poetic side.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes.  Tell us about your love for Scarlatti because I know you play a lot of the Sonatas.

VALERIE TRYON:  I love Scalartti.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Very difficult repertoire actually.

VALERIE TRYON:  You have to be very on the ball, don’t you with that?


VALERIE TRYON:  You can’t.. you can’t make a mistake.


 VALERIE TRYON:  And you can’t flubb anything. It has to be right there. Well, I just love the rhythm and the whole thing. I wouldn’t really like to play it on the harpsichord.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: That was my next question. Have you tried it on harpsichord?

VALERIE TRYON: I wouldn’t like that because the piano is so perfect.


VALERIE TRYON:  And for Bach too.


VALERIE TRYON: I don’t think we can compare it.  I’m sure Bach would have loved and the piano and the pedal.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: So which venues have you really enjoyed performing in around the world?

VALERIE TRYON:  Mostly, my own home.  I don’t…

MELANIE SPANSWICK: You say you’re living in Canada now.


MELANIE SPANSWICK: Lived there for quite a few years…

VALERIE TRYON:  Yes. I’ve always felt more at home in the recording studio than a hall.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: That’s interesting.

VALERIE TRYON:  I like the privacy in a recording studio. And although you are giving to an audience and they’re giving back, it’s more stressful for me.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: performing in concerts..


MELANIE SPANSWICK: Well, you always look so incredibly relaxed.

VALERIE TRYON:  It’s all an act.

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

VALERIE TRYON:  Future.. well, I have this recording that I am just doing now.  That will come out nice and….

MELANIE SPANSWICK: I’m sure it will. Have you recorded the other concertos as well?

VALERIE TRYON:  No.  I’ve never recorded… The last concerto I did were two Mozarts and a Rondo which I liked so much and I like playing Mozart. I really enjoyed it. But I haven’t.. I haven’t done any of the Beethoven and that is partlys because I leave that to other people I think. I always feel.. I know it sounds funny but I feel that I’m a woman when I play Beethoven.  It doesn’t affect any other composer. But it’s like my adverse feeling towards women pilots. It’s something very weird inside men.  I’d rather have a man pilot and ..

MELANIE SPANSWICK: … and rather playing Beethoven.


MELANIE SPANSWICK: That’s interesting. So, have you never recorded concertos?


MELANIE SPANSWICK: Really? You must have played them.

VALERIE TRYON:  I played them a lot yes.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: But not recorded them…


MELANIE SPANSWICK: What does playing piano mean to you?

VALERIE TRYON:  Well, I really can’t imagine not playing the piano. All these years I have played the piano.  If some people say “Are you going to retire?”  and..  I have all my faculties. I mean,  I still have my brain I think and my fingers still work.  And I feel that unless something happens to cripple me, I shall just go on playing because it would feel very strange if I didn’t.  And I don’t know how I would feel.  I think I would feel as if my raison d’etre had gone.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes. I could understand that. But that’s good for us because you are one of my favourite pianists.  Thank you so much for joining me today.

VALERIE TRYON:  Thank you for having me Melanie.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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


Steven Osborne in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The eighteenth interview in my Classical Conversations Series is with British concert pianist, Steven Osborne. We met for a chat during rehearsals for the Midsummer Music Festival held a few weeks ago in Latimer, Buckinghamshire, where Steven was giving chamber music recitals.

Steven is one of Britain’s foremost musicians, renowned for his idiomatic approach to a wide variety of repertoire from the mainstream classical works of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms to the rarefied worlds of Messiaen, Tippett and Britten.  He has won numerous awards and prizes including the 2009 Gramophone Award for his recording of Britten’s works for piano and orchestra, as well as first prize at both the Naumburg International Competition (New York) and Clara Haskil Competition.
Concerto performances take Steven to orchestras all over the world including recent visits to the NHK Symphony, Berlin Symphony, Deutsches Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Munich Philharmonic, Finnish Radio Symphony, Bergen Philharmonic, Residentie Orkest, Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.  With these orchestras he has enjoyed collaborations with conductors including Christoph von Dohnanyi, Alan Gilbert, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Sir Charles Mackerras, Ludovic Morlot, Leif Segerstam, Andrew Litton, Ingo Metzmacher, Vladimir Jurowski and Jukka-Pekka Saraste.
In the UK he works regularly with the major orchestras, especially with the Philharmonia, City of Birmingham Symphony and BBC Philharmonic Orchestras.  His concerts are frequently broadcast by the BBC and he performs every year at the Wigmore Hall.  He has made eight appearances at the Proms, most recently in September 2010 when he performed Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 1.
Steven’s recitals of carefully crafted programmes are publically and critically acclaimed.  He has performed in many of the world’s prestigious venues including the Konzerthaus Vienna, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, de Doelen Rotterdam, Philharmonie Berlin, Musikhalle Hamburg, Palais des Beaux Arts Brussels, De Singel, Suntory Hall Tokyo, Kennedy Center Washington and Carnegie Hall.  His regular chamber music partners include Alban Gerhardt, Paul Lewis, Dietrich Henschel and Lisa Batiashvili.
Amongst the highlights of 2010/11, Steven will perform with the London Philharmonic/.Jurowski (Beethoven), Yomiuri Nippon Symphony/Kalmar (Mozart), Stuttgart Philharmonic/Felz (Messiaen), Bergen Philharmonic/Mena (Messiaen), Hong Kong Philharmonic/Boyd (Mozart) and Sydney Symphony/Ashkenazy (Mozart).  He completes his four part exploration of Schubert’s chamber music performing trios with Alban Gerhardt and Alina Ibragimova and the last three piano sonatas.
Steven has won many awards for his recordings on Hyperion.  In addition to the Gramophone Award in 2009 (Britten), his recording of Rachmaninov’s 24 Preludes was short-listed for a Gramophone Award and won a Schallplattenpreis whilst being chosen as “Editor’s Choice” in Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, International Record Review, Musical Opinion and The Daily Telegraph: “This is outstanding Rachmaninov playing of acute perception, discretion and poetic sensibility, limpid, powerful and luminous in equal measure.” BBC Music Magazine May 09..  His double CD of works by Tippett was nominated for a BBC Music Magazine Award and his CD of Messiaen’s complete Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus was also nominated for both a Gramophone Award and a Schallplattenpreis in Germany. Other recordings include Debussy’s complete Preludes, solo works by Alkan, Liszt Harmonies poetiques et religieuses, and solo works by Kapustin which was also nominated for a Schallplattenpreis.  His latest recording of Beethoven sonatas was released in May 2010.
Born in Scotland in 1971, Steven studied with Richard Beauchamp at St. Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh and Renna Kellaway at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.

Steven in action…

The transcript for those who prefer to read interviews.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: British concert pianist, Steven Osborne, is in demand as a soloist and chamber musician throughout the world. He won first prize at the Naumburg International Competition and the Clara Haskil Competition and has won many awards for his recordings. And, I’m delighted that he’s taken the time to join me here today at the Buckinghamshire for a classical conversation. Welcome.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Lovely to be chatting to you today.
STEVEN OSBORNE: Thank you. Good to be here.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: I’m going to start by asking you all about your musical education, how old you were when you started, and what was the catalyst and whether you coming from a musical family.
STEVEN OSBORNE: Yeah, well my dad—well, both of my parents were musicians, but my dad played organ at the local church and roundabout different places. He was a very musical man. He sometimes would improvise on piano just doodling around and it was always really beautiful. And we had a piano in the house for when I was as tall enough to reach the keys, I started beginning to do that. And you know I seem to really remember that. We got a lot of pleasure out of it. Then, I started getting lessons when I was four I think, maybe five. So, I don’t know; it’s something that I was always drawn to. I used to—well, I never used to sleep very much as a kid. I’d wake up very early and I would go straight downstairs and start playing the piano at four-thirty in the morning.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Oh yeah. (laughs)
STEVEN OSBORNE: Poor dad would come down and tell me to stop. He put a big notice on the piano saying ‘please don’t play the piano before 7:30.’ Terrible those hours just sitting around waiting.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: So, which teachers do you think then, that were crucial in your development?
STEVEN OSBORNE: Um, well I got different things from different teachers. When I was at St. Mary’s School in Edinburgh from ten to seventeen, I was with Richard Beauchamp, a New Zealand man; very into relaxation, trying to find a good way of working with the body—very interested in physiology. So, that kind of put a little bit into what he taught. Um, when I was at Music College I was with Renna Kellaway, South African, but her education had been in Europe. Um, in Amsterdam, particularly—uh, I can’t remember elsewhere, she played for Clara Haskil actuallya bit.
STEVEN OSBORNE: So, a kind of very strong European tradition in her teaching which is all about beauty of sound, singing line and cleanliness of approach, you know, you know, not using pedal to cover a multitude of things. So, and actually just simple, technical work. I did a lot of technical work with her, which I really needed. So probably in terms of, um, how do you say it, in terms of practical influence of what my playing sounds like, she probably has the greatest influence because she really molded things technically. There were other teachers that I played for that were very influential. I actually played for Charles Rosen a few times. And I mean, not so much as teaching, but just interacting with such an amazing man and an incredible musical mind absolutely cutting through. Such a great sense of view—an incredibly clear sort of view of things, which you could agree or disagree with. It was incredibly stimulating. There was a Brazilian man, Arnaldo Cohen, who’s also a really wonderful pianist. He’s a really amazing teacher. Able to teach in extreme detail and also the broadest questions and ideas. And you know, it’s not very often that you get a teachers who can work well in both of those areas. Um, beyond that—oh, I have to mention my old head of music. My piano teacher who’s a violinist, Nigel Murray, at St. Mary’s Music School. But, he’s just an amazing man. Somebody who loved music so much that it’s absolutely infectious. Such a love of it. He was the conductor for the school orchestra and technically, you know, he may not have been the greatest conductor, but he just drew you in so much to the experience of making music for people around you.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: What about developing your technique? How did you do that?
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Were you a Czerny practiser?
STEVEN OSBORNE: Yeah, well, Renna put me through all these kind of things. I guess training Czerny is what I kind of started off with. There was a lot of Brahms exercises and partly doing things through picking particular pieces with technical problems. I mean to be honest, I’m not really sure how it all worked. Because I do very little teaching myself, and I’ve never had to build someone’s technique up like that. So, not really seeing that process of, you give people these things and this is what comes out of it.
STEVEN OSBORNE: I remember suddenly—actually, I do remember one thing very clearly. It’s this Brahms exercise. It goes (plays piano)
STEVEN OSBORNE: I remember practicing that for a couple of weeks and suddenly I noticed my hand looked different. It was really fascinating that this (points to top of hand) was suddenly…
MELANIE SPANSWICK: The fourth and fifths started to………..
STEVEN OSBORNE: Well, no, my knuckles were suddenly more pronounced. I thought, ‘that’s weird.’ That’s the only thing I can really remember about seeing something…
STEVEN OSBORNE: Change. I mean, apart from anything else, it made me much physically stronger. My fingers and I mean if you’re going to play in a big hall you need to be a strong player.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: So, you won two major competitions. How did they shape and change your career do you think?
STEVEN OSBORNE: In a couple of ways. Firstly, you know, it’s a kind of catch-22 thing. In order to get better at playing concerts, you have to play concerts. So, it was incredibly useful to have just a few concerts coming out of that, after winning competitions. Just gradual steps along the way towards feeling more relaxed on stage and trying to negotiate the questions of nerves and new repertoire and all that stuff. But also, when I won the first competition at Clara Haskil, then it made it much easier to get an agent. It was something which people could look at and think ‘oh wow, there is some kind of sign of approval from someone else.’ It wasn’t long after that that I started working with my manager.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Right. So which composers do you really love to play?
STEVEN OSBORNE: Oh, God there is so many. I mean we are so lucky with piano repertoire—that you really couldn’t get through all the masterpieces that there are in a lifetime. Certainly, Ravel, certainly Beethoven, Rachmaniniov, Messiaen, Schubert. Those are the ones I really have this incredibly strong physical reaction to. I mean, that’s something that I absolutely love. I love the Mozart sounding, Michael Tippett….
MELANIE SPANSWICK: I was just about to ask you about that Tippett. Your recording was nominated for a BBC Magazine Award. What kind of attracted you to that style? It’s quite a brittle style isn’t it?
STEVEN OSBORNE: Well it’s very varied. Tippett was a composer Who’s ambition, exceeded his technical ability to utilize it. Certainly, his operas—he’s trying to deal with very weighty themes of existence. Even the piece, The Child of Our Time, he’s trying to, how do you say, condense the entire history of the universe into this one piece. And, the music doesn’t always quite live up to that really, but, for me the instrumental music is actually best part of his output although he’s really well known for his operas. He has a—very much like Beethoven; he confronts things head on. And he tends to set up a kind of structure which is asking certain questions. For example, the Second Piano Sonata, it’s very disjointed. He’s asking the questions, what happens if you never let, the momentum develop? You’re always cutting from one thing to another. He was looking at mosaics actually, so it’s a very striking arrangement I think as he cuts from one thing to the other. I mean the structure is, again as with Beethoven, incredibly important. Structure is a big part of what the piece says. But he is also capable of incredible lyricism in the best of his music. I just find there is a grittiness to it that I really respond to. It’s not easy for the listener. I mean, certainly, particularly the later music it can seem a bit impenetrable, but I find it really really; I mean even when I started learning the later sonatas I was like, ‘what is there in these?’ I asked a friend who played the last piano sonata, ‘is it actually rewarding to play’, and he said ‘oh yes, it’s amazing to play’ and I said ok, ok!
MELANIE SPANSWICK: You needed some encouragement.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: You recently performed Messiaen’s Vingt Regards at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and you have recorded it as well. Beautiful. It’s such complex and intellectually demanding music. What significance does this piece have for you and how do you create unity in playing the whole piece?
STEVEN OSBORNE: I mean, it’s a very interesting piece in terms of how the audience respond to it because still now, a lot of people are nervous about twentieth century music, late twentieth century music because they think it’s going to be ugly or whatever and so often, I mean, I think probably literally every concert where I play it someone comes up to me and says, ‘I enjoyed that so much more than I expected it was going to.’ There is something about Messiaen’s style when he was writing at that time during the 1940’s. It has a very direct, emotional effect in his music. Even in the most complex stuff. He has the widest contrasts of just about any composer from incredibly quiet to incredibly loud, from extremely gentle to the most violent. So, that’s part of the reason that the piece can sustain itself over two and a quarter hours, well almost two and a quarter hours. So it’s got an absolutely massive canvas, which he fills with this wildly varied landscape.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yeah, and you don’t have an interval do you?
STEVEN OSBORNE: No, personally I prefer playing it without the interval, I mean there is a point in the middle after the tenth piece in which it would—you could naturally take a break. But, it might be worth saying a little about the piece. Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus is twenty compilations centered of the child of Jesus. Massiaen was a very devout Catholic. So all of his music is written as a believer the same way that Bach wrote his passions. And yeah, so these pieces are as if different characters are looking at the child Jesus, God the Father, looking at him, the Holy Spirit. Then there’s various abstract things like time or science or the Heavens. It’s just an astonishing work. Again actually the structure of it—I mean, how he creates; well, you’re asking about unity. I mean, in many ways it’s written into the piece. There are certain themes that come back. There’s one theme in particular which begins the piece, also ends the piece, and comes back in different guises in the middle of it. The theme of God goes like this. (plays piano). So it’s very beautiful, very gentle. But, it’s actually even much slower than that. Like this (plays piano) So, it’s incredibly, spacious effect, during the piece generally, it’s quite contemplative like that. The end of the piece it comes back even simpler. He takes it literally this chord (plays piano) And simply sits on one chord (plays piano). I’ve not stopped the piece is still going (plays piano) It’s an astonishing idea…when I first looked at that piece, that particular one, I thought, this couldn’t possibly work because there was so little in it. And yet somehow, I mean, Messiaen was famous for writing very, very slow metronome marks. Again, those extremes are what he goes for. There is story that in the Quartet for the End of Time, the cellist (because there’s a movement for cello and piano) came to him to ask about the metronome mark which is marked semi-quaver equals sixty, and I can’t remember what number the marking was, no it’s maybe a bit slower. I can’t remember the number. The cellist said, ‘you don’t really mean it to go this tempo do you?’ And Messiaen said ‘No, slower.’
MELANIE SPANSWICK: (laughs) You play a lot of French music. You play evening recitals of Ravel and your recordings of Debussy’s 24 Preludes have been highly acclaimed, What is it that you love so much about impressionism.
STEVEN OSBORNE: Sound. I mean, what it does to make the piano not sound like a piano. In many ways, the simple sound of the piano is quite uninteresting. I think it’s always a challenge is how you get it to sound either orchestral, or how you create some kind of sonic effects. I mean even creating a sense of line in the piano is such a fiction (plays the piano). To hear this you can almost imagine the notes are joined, but really if you looked at a computer at what it sounds like (points) bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp, like this. But, for French music particularly, yeah, (plays piano) It’s so lovely. Most beautiful thing in the world. I mean, it’s not only sound of course but the particular…attitude, for lack of a better word, of composers. I mean, Ravel’s music there is so much emotion under the surface. Like a melancholy, it seems to me, and looking back at childhood. Something about that I find very compelling. Particularly Ravel’s music. Debussy, in a way, is more exploratory. I don’t know. I find it hard to put my finger on what it is about Debussy that I love. But, it’s an absolutely amazing openess in some way. To not control the way the music goes, but to just see what happens. And he keeps finding these amazing things.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: What are the greatest challenges involved in being a concert pianist?
STEVEN OSBORNE: I don’t know. Um, I mean, certainly, logistically, it can be tricky. I mean actually, one of the main things is that you’re taken away from your family a lot. And, in personal terms it’s very hard. You know, a lot of musicians, I mean, particularly if you have two musicians married, they’re both traveling a lot.
STEVEN OSBORNE: That’s incredibly difficult. But even if there is one traveling a lot and one that isn’t—I mean, well one’s traveling a lot and that’s very difficult. In terms of the actual job itself, I mean, it’s tiring traveling a lot, but you can’t really complain about that because it’s so nice seeing some of these places. In terms of the actual playing, I mean learning, assimilating, complex pieces can be very difficult on the brain. You need to have enough time.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: I was about to say especially learning quickly I would imagine.
STEVEN OSBORNE: Yeah. I mean after I learned all the Tippett piano music, I quite significantly changed how I worked because I had to learn a lot quite quickly. It was so complex that I really, I just, decided not to learn anything for about a year after that, maybe more, because I needed a break. And so then I started making sure I didn’t try to learn too many pieces at the same time. For me, learning naturally is much more enjoyable. Because it’s horrible having this feeling that you’re having to force…
STEVEN OSBORNE: stuff into through your fingers. And then you’ve actually got time to assimilate and think what is it that you actually wanted to do with the music..
MELANIE SPANSWICK: What exciting plans have you got for the future?
STEVEN OSBORNE: Well, there’s all these pieces I’m learning. The HammerKlavier Sonata. I’m doing that for the first time in a couple of months. That’s looming large. Yeah, just different pieces. Beethoven Second Piano Concerto, the Rachmaninov Etudes-Tableaux. Talking about getting things into your fingers, that will be a big job…..
STEVEN OSBORNE: It’ll be fun. Yeah, that’ll be it.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: What does playing piano mean to you?
MURRAY MCLAHLAN: I would say it feels, just utterly natural. It feels like the most natural way for expressing myself maybe. I feel it is an incredible privilege to make a living relating to these works, which are some of the greatest things that human kind has produced. It’s such a privilege working in an area which constantly keeps bringing you back to yourself. You have to feel, in order to play this stuff. Or I mean, in order for it to work. In order for the audience to get involved, you have to feel it. So, working with this stuff, you’re discovering more about your emotional life. Almost automatically if you engage with the music. That is just an incredibly lucky thing to be doing. I mean, if you’re working in a factory or something, if there is nothing of interest in your job, it must be very difficult to stay switched on.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Thank you very much for joining me today.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

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