The Joy of Duets: a guest post by Eleonor Bindman

I’ve been teaching at PIANO WEEK for the past two weeks. Held at Moreton Hall School in Shropshire (UK), it’s been a rewarding experience and a lot of fun, but also very hard work, involving six hours of teaching and coaching per day over a six day week. Therefore, today I’m handing over the ‘blog reins’ to pianist, chamber musician, arranger and writer Eleonor Bindman (pictured below).

Eleonor has, amongst many other projects, composed a new arrangement of the six Brandenburg Concertos for Piano-four-hands. Eleonor’s Brandenburg Duets were completed and recorded in 2017, released by Naxos Records on their Grand Piano label in March 2018, published by Naxos Publishing in 2019 and was Grand Piano’s best-selling album of 2018. In this post, she explains the inspiration behind her love for duets and how it has influenced her work.

For as long as I remember playing the piano, I remember playing piano duets.  “The Russian School of Piano Playing,” the method book “officially recommended for use in Children’s Music Schools throughout the Soviet Union,” was full of them  (images to the left, and below).  In the Soviet Union, official recommendations were not to be taken lightly. But this was one of those rare official recommendations which actually made sense. The first duets were 8-measure folk songs with names such as “The Young Girl Walked in the Pine Forest” but for me they were leaps into a different dimension.  Here I was, a struggling beginner, meekly navigating an ocean of black and white keys while trying to dutifully count 1-2-3-4 and keep track of the tiny fingering numbers on the page.  Then suddenly my teacher would get up from her chair, come over to the left of the keyboard and play along with me.  Those moments were magical: new sounds were added to mine and everything seemed in perfect order. I was making music.

Over the years, my appreciation for playing the piano with a partner has become a lot more informed. I came to the U.S. as a teenager and started teaching piano when I was in college. Piano duets were an important part of my tool kit from the start.  I would make up simple accompaniments for my students’ beginner pieces and play along.  If I taught siblings, they always had a duet assigned. Adult students, some of whom were actually unaware of the 4-hands possibility, were thrilled to discover it, reading through the uncomplicated works like Schubert’s dances, Debussy’s “Petite Suite,” Faure’s “Dolly” along with pieces from piano-duet anthologies that I always had in my teaching library. While working on my Master’s degree and attending Vladimir Feltsman’s master classes, I met Susan Sobolewski who became a wonderful piano partner and a dear friend.  After decades of hand-crossing and elbow-poking, a few arrangements and some recordings, 4-hand playing still feels like the best way of sharing what I love most.

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, piano duets provided an overwhelmingly popular and sociable medium of domestic music-making. Playing duets was the best way to bring popular orchestral and operatic works into the home, since radio wasn’t yet invented.  Many 4-hand transcriptions of orchestral works were made during that time since most city homes had a piano and a few people who played it.  And for some visitors, 4-hand playing provided a sanctioned opportunity for courtship; two bodies seated at extremely close proximity, inviting an occasional touch of hand and perhaps a slight electric shock, were however engaged in something quite wholesome.  Of course, there was the didactic use, when the teacher (the likes of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert) would come to a student’s house and play along, often composing pieces for the occasion.  Those composers well understood that their pupils should learn about steady rhythm, modulations, balance and interpretation not only intellectually but through imitation.

Unfortunately, the piano duet genre doesn’t enjoy as much popularity today.  Our entertainment and leisure pastimes have devolved into those not requiring much skill or effort.  TVs and other screens outnumber pianos in our households by a staggering ratio.  Active amateur pianists of child-bearing age are rare these days since we are all so busy; most children who take lessons will quit somewhere around the age of 12 and then will maybe start up again as adults when they are close to retirement.  On the professional classical music side, where star pianists must perform virtuosic repertoire to keep their reign, 4-hand repertoire is essentially dismissed.  Why would a star want to share a stage with someone instead of brightly shining alone, unless that someone is a sibling, a spouse or – as in our social-media dominated times – a commercially viable collaborator?  Of course, there are exceptions to this rule: some eminent performers do play duets together sometimes, and there are well-known piano duos, of which most of us can probably readily name 3 or 4. Other than that, in my humble opinion, the piano duet scene is in great need of revival.

Three years ago I decided to make a new piano duet arrangement of Bach’s 6 Brandenburg Concertos, to replace the existing one by Max Reger. Over the years, I tried to play through the Reger with my partner several times and it always seemed awkwardly done: the Primo part was hard to read with clusters of chords and little visual trace of the actual counterpoint whereas the Secondo mostly consisted of the low string parts in octaves.  I looked for performance evidence and found only a couple of YouTube videos of separate movements and only one complete although painfully ponderous version in a dark church. So I set out to suitably edit the old version but ended up starting from scratch with an orchestral score. You can read more about the process, here.

Upon hearing the news of my project, many people would ask: “Why not for 2 pianos?” Certainly two pianos would be much easier to arrange for.  No need to decide which string parts to omit completely, no need to transpose up or down an octave, no need to worry about density of texture in the middle register or about dividing a harpsichord cadenza between two players.  It would have also been easier to have an entire keyboard for each pianist: no feeling crowded, no deciding whose hand goes into an awkwardly high or low position, no issues of balancing different registers or exact sound/touch matching when sharing the same theme.  Yet needing a second piano is a huge logistical problem, in the home as well as in a concert or recording setting whereas as a 4-hand version, this music can be enjoyed at home with a friend whenever you are both available.  My goal, after all, was to replace the Reger version, finally giving piano partners a significant body of work besides those of Mozart and Schubert.

After nearly 2 years of work, the new “Brandenburg Duets” were finished and recorded in 2018. I am hoping that these gems – a total of 18 movements of the most wonderful and varied set of orchestral pieces ever transcribed for piano-4-hands – can become a new source of learning and enjoyment. The single-keyboard format dictates a thinner texture and therefore simpler parts for both pianists, suitable for intermediate/advanced levels.  Some slow movements are very easy to coordinate, some fast ones are quite difficult and there are many in between.  Many faster movements sound equally good at a slower tempo and may be used for exercises in finger dexterity and coordination. These pieces are a perfect reason for two pianists to come together at home or in a music school classroom and to spend a little time advancing the cause of the piano duet.   Playing in close proximity is such a joyful feeling!  And after all, we pianists are entitled to a little fun, aren’t we?

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.


Vanessa Latarche in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My Classical Conversations Series is celebrating its first birthday today! I started this series with Ukrainian concert pianist Valentina Lisitsa, whom I met in Cardiff on a very cold and wet day, before she performed Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto for Radio 3’s Children in Need concert; you can enjoy our interview here. My twenty-fifth interview features British concert pianist, Head of Keyboard and Professor of International Keyboard Studies at the Royal College of Music, Vanessa Latarche.

After studying at the Royal College of Music and completing her training in the USA and Paris, Vanessa was awarded many scholarships and prizes from international competitions. She has performed as a soloist with international orchestras and those in the UK including   the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Concert Orchestra, BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, Bournemouth Sinfonietta, working with many leading conductors.

Vanessa’s recital work has taken her to Europe, USA and to the Far East, as well as many festivals within the UK, including Cheltenham, Harrogate and Huddersfield. Her interest in Bach led to a performance of the complete 48 Preludes and Fugues at the Lichfield International Festival in 1992, the performances being given over four consecutive evenings.

She has broadcast for over 30 years for BBC Radio 3 and has also broadcast extensively on the BBC World Service and BBC Radio 4. She has been a juror for international competitions in Serbia, Italy,  New Zealand, and Hong Kong and has adjudicated the national keyboard final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year, which was broadcast on BBC television. In 2007 she was an advisor to the BBC TV programme “Classical Star”.

Since September 2005 she has been Head of Keyboard at the Royal College of Music having been previously a professor of piano at the Royal Academy of Music for fourteen years where she was made an Honorary Associate in 1997.

Vanessa frequently travels to give masterclasses, not only in UK conservatoires and specialist music schools, but also to such institutions as Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts, Tokyo College of Music, Beijing Central Conservatory, and Seoul National University. She is also a frequent visitor to Lang Lang’s music school, Lang Lang Music World, in Shenzhen, China where she has recently been appointed as a Vice- Chairman.

With many international piano competition prize-winners amongst her students, Vanessa was nominated for the FRCM, Fellowship of the Royal College of Music, for outstanding services to music which was conferred on her by HRH Prince of Wales in May 2010. In September 2011, Vanessa was appointed to the role of Personal Chair at the RCM, which has given her the title of Professor of International Keyboard Studies.

And the transcript, for those who prefer reading interviews….

Melanie: “British concert pianist and professor of piano, Vanessa Latarche, has performed extensively. She’s in demand as an examiner and adjudicator worldwide, and she’s head of keyboard and chair of professional keyboard studies here at the Royal College of Music in London.  And I’m delighted that she is joining me today for one of my Classical Conversations. Welcome!”

Vanessa: “Thank you, Melanie.”

Melanie: “Lovely to be chatting here with you today.”

Vanessa: “And you, too! Great.”

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

Vanessa: “Right. Well, my mother, actually, is a piano teacher. And, in fact, she used to teach at the Junior Royal College of Music here years and years ago. But, as a child I suppose, I started at the age of nine, which is quite late.”

Melanie: “It is, yes.”

Vanessa: “You know, especially these days, when people tend to start much, much younger. But, before that, I was very interested in ballet. Still am actually, love ballet. And, as a teenager, went through, but realized very young that, actually, I wasn’t going to be able to be a ballerina. I was too big for that.”

Vanessa: “So, it’s one of my passions, but anyway there we are. I love music, of course, all the music and choreography and everything that went with it. My grandfather was – my mother’s father – was a piano- I suppose what you would call him these days- a piano technician. Although, in those days, they used to balk at any idea of that name. And so, he was a piano maker, worked for Bösendorfer’s actually, Monington and Weston’s the British  piano makers, though sadly no longer with us. And, he had this wonderful piano at home, because of my mother. He would encourage me to play and, even though I was dancing, my real passion was the piano. I would see it there and kept on trying to play by ear, and he would teach me things by ear and by rote. So, eventually, he and my mother decided that that was it. You know, get piano lessons. Get them sorted and, in those days, I picked up, I think, quite quickly. I think one of my biggest claims to fame in my life is that I managed to get through Mini Steps Book 1 in a week. Anybody who knows me will know that that is a hilarious story from my first teachers. Big claim to fame.”

Melanie: “So, which teachers then do you think were fundamental in your development as a pianist?”

Vanessa: “Well, I always think that the first teacher is probably the most important in development. How you set – Everything’s set up for you pianistically, and the most inspirational and formidable lady that I learned with Eileen Rowe in Ealing.  She teaches you – She taught you about sound and how to develop good sound quality. She was an amazing woman and a spinster and a big lady, but she really would work on sound as at the heart of what you did. And I suppose that to me was one of the most important aspects – still is to me – in my own teaching. And I still reflect on how she teaches these days. So, that was for a while. Then, I had a few lessons for a couple of years with Christopher Elton, and I came to the Royal College, and I studied with Kendall Taylor, who’s very interesting man to learn with. Beethoven specialist, of course. And then, when I left the college, I went to Alexander Kelly, who, I think, was one of the most inspirational teachers and somebody who could just bring you out of you.”

Melanie: “That’s interesting. Yeah, a lovely man.”

Vanessa: “Wonderful person and, it was just who I needed at that time. I think if you find the right teacher at the right time – that’s probably one of the crucial elements about finding the right teacher. It’s not necessarily the right teacher for you for your life, but it’s the right time of your life.”

Melanie: “Yes. So, how did you develop your technique?”

Vanessa: “Oh, difficult question. Well, I wasn’t brought up on sort of Hanon.”

Vanessa: “It wasn’t one of those things that I was drilled in. In fact, I suppose if anything, from the early days, always encouraged to play pieces rather than studies and to develop your technique around – you know, find the technique to fit the piece, as it were.”

Melanie: “Right.”

Vanessa: “But, later on, realized when you become serious in the teenage – teen years, that you actually have start learning and start doing some proper technical work I suppose. But technique, I suppose, can really encompass a lot things. And, it doesn´t necessarily mean playing fast does it? It’s how you do something. How you articulate. How you express, actually.”

Melanie: “So, you did a lot of competitions I think, when you were younger?”

Vanessa: “Yes.”

Melanie: “Do you think they were important? And, crucially, can they still establish a concert pianist today? Or do you think we’ve moved on from that? Are they still important?”

Vanessa: “That’s, I suppose, a loaded question.”

Melanie: “It is rather yes. Sorry.”

Vanessa: “No, it’s fine!”

Vanessa: “No! No! No! We often talk about it here at the college, and I’m very interested in the competition circuit. When I was in my teens, I used to do. As a kid, I used to do a lot of piano festivals. That was a thing. I loved doing it. It was an opportunity to perform, something that you could learn your repertoire for. It was a carrot at the end of everything.  You think ‘oh good’ I could play it in the festival. A very, very good performance experience. I still believe in the festival movement very strongly.  As regards International competitions, then, of course, I did quite a lot of those. With a mixed kind of response and that’s where I learned that, you know, there are many, many opinions on piano playing and what’s good and what isn’t. And it was a bit of a shock to me in the beginning, I think. But then, it was a very steep learning curve. And then, I appreciated that. Actually you know – You have to – There’s a sort of competition animal out there. And you get – You develop your ability to learn fast, to retain a lot of repertoire in your head, your memory. Some people tend to hike the same competition repertoire around all the competitions, and you know jury members often – I sit on juries myself now – you often hear some people play some pieces for years and years and years, and they don’t change very much. They just kind of suitable for a competition. So, it’s really interesting. I do think the value of competitions is important. I do think in a young professional pianist´s life, the piano in competition has its place. I think it’s very important to try them. Not everybody will be successful, and often the most individual people are not successful. Yeah, but often they are, you know. And sometimes, they go into a competition for the very first time and come out with the big first prize, and that, someone like Perahia for instance, and that does indeed, in those days particularly, launch their careers. It still does, to some extent, if there’s a very very special personality behind the player.”

Melanie: “Yes.”

Vanessa: “But, there are many competition winners, and of course, you’re only as good as until the next competition. And then, somebody else comes around and wins it. But, it still helps to launch solo careers, but you need much more versatility, as I’m sure many people tell you that, and you know anyway”

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

Vanessa: “Well, I’ve always been in love with Rachmaninoff and Russian and romantic repertoire. All the Rs. But, I suppose nowadays my slant has gone more to Bach and Baroque music, and I’ve just always been excited by Fugues.”

Melanie: “I remember that.”

Vanessa: Do you?”

Melanie: “Yes, yes you often played him – the Bach Preludes and Fugues”

Vanessa: “Yes, it’s not. It’s just something- how funny that you should remember that, must be something strange in my brain! ”

Melanie: Definitely, because I remember you playing on Radio 3, they are not easy to remember.”

Vanessa: “I make no, no apologies for playing with music these days.”

Melanie: “Yes.”

Vanessa: “Yeah, it’s not a problem as long as you play it well, that’s what matters.” But, I’m actually fascinated by the textures and complexities and the way that they develop. It’s not a form, it’s a device, and how they build. So yes.”

Melanie: “Yes, do you have a particular practice regime?”

Vanessa: “What a good question! I used to have, when I didn’t have this job. Now, with this job, which is full on”

Melanie: “Yes.”

Vanessa: “I practice as and when I can. If  I’ve got something really important coming up, I try and practice very early in the morning. At least I have a couple of hours of me time and space in my head. Because balancing a lot of things, as I do, is important to be true to yourself. So, the beginning of the day has always been a good time for me. So, early in the morning, before I come into the college. Oh, sometimes when I come in and put the blinds down and say, “Go away for a bit, I’m doing my stuff.” That’s it. And then, occasionally late at night as well. It’s very – It is difficult, and I’ve always always start with scales, if I did nothing else – I start with scales – I know I said I didn’t have any sort of technical training, but I always do about 20 minutes worth of scales. It keeps you keep a little bit more lithe”

Melanie: “Well, you’re head of keyboard here at the Royal College. What is it that you love about teaching, because you’ve taught for many, many years?”

Vanessa: “Yes, I have – I gave you some lessons”

Melanie: “You did indeed, a long time ago! We won’t talk about that! It’s too long ago!”

Vanessa: “Well, it’s always been a passion, as well as playing the piano. It’s always been very important to me, to nurture someone else as well as bring them, you know, along. And, I suppose, what I love about it – I love the communication. I love seeing somebody develop. I particularly – I’m very interested in teaching all people of all levels, but, you know, it’s at the college now there are some very special talents, and it’s just amazing to see them fly.”

Melanie: ‘You’re also Vice-Chairman of Lang Lang’s new music school in China. That’s fantastic, many congratulations!”

Vanessa: “Thanks.”

Melanie: “And you have worked a lot in the Far East. What are the differences in the approach to music between the Far East and here in the West?”

Vanessa: “Well, it’s – first of all, it’s a real privilege to be vice-chairman of his school because it’s in Shenzhen. It’s a piano school basically, and as you can imagine, the facilities are marvelous, and the students are great, and it’s only been going for two years. They’re really developing and working well. And my role there is an advisory role, I suppose to some extent. I go and give classes and train the teachers and help them develop. The work ethic in China and the far East in general – but particularly in China – is extraordinary. The students will practice for hours, even from little, little tots. So, I see a big development in them very early. They go forward very fast. Technically, they move forward fast. What they need help with and advice is in the big cultural divide. And I’m not saying that we know everything. We don’t. But, we can learn a lot from them, because they have this tremendous skill and also a real facility for playing the piano. There’s something about the work that they do that gives them a tremendous amount of polish and sparkle and brilliance.”

Melanie: “Yes.”

Vanessa: “What we can give is poetry, inspiration, culture, and background. So, I suppose, it’s very interesting when you see students that come to the college from different backgrounds. And they might come from a background where they have been maybe drilled, you know?”

Melanie: “Yes.”

Vanessa: “And not have quite so much exposure to art and culture. And then you have – you might have people from Europe – I don’t know – from America maybe even, that have had a lot of exposure to art and culture, but maybe not the – and this is big generalization, so you know, don’t quote me on this, or anyone. They may not have the same kind of discipline or have the same regimen, as it were. And – same as eastern European- you know, they have both kind of this tremendous determination and drive and technical foundation with also a huge foundation of culture. So, you know, when you get a combination of everything, then that’s when you get the real stars.”

Melanie: “What are you looking for when a young student comes to audition here?”

Vanessa: “Potential. Now, how do you judge that? Really hard. Thought about that long and hard for many, many years, and it’s something that, you know -You still sit at an audition, and you still think, “Goodness me! How far are they going to go?” But, you get a nose for it Melanie.”

Melanie. “Over the years?”

Vanessa: “Yeah, you do, and you get sort of a feeling for a personality. If there’s a person inside there, this personality within in them that you could really unlock, and you think, “Yes, this person has a bit – has something about them. They might have entrepreneurial skills or they might have something that’s just a little different. And, of course, we’re looking for a basic level of great foundation as well. Too often you get people who are unaware of the standards now, and in an international institution such as this. When I was a student here – which was a long time ago, probably also when you were a student here as well.”

Melanie: “Absolutely, it’s quite a different standard I think.”

Vanessa: “Yeah, well, I didn’t think it was a different standard. I think it’s more a different make-up of the student body. So, there are different elements to it. When I was here studying, there were basically English people studying with occasional overseas students.”

Melanie: “When I was here, it was about 50%, 50 to 60 %.”

Vanessa: “Right. Oh, okay. That’s interesting. So, it’s developed further than that now.”

Melanie: “OK”

Vanessa: “In my faculty, we’ve got 160 students. Very big – very, very big faculty and I think, probably- I can’t remember how many there are – but probably about 75 are from overseas. That means outside of the EU, and then there – We are a lot from the EU as well: France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece. So, it’s very interesting, the mix of students. So, although it might not seem as if we’re supporting our own as much, they’re in a different field. They are having to compete internationally at audition. Perhaps when I was here, they were certainly not having to. That’s the difference.”

Melanie: “Which venues have you loved playing in?’

Vanessa: “I love the Wigmore Hall, always come back to the Wigmore Hall. It is just so wonderful. The sound is wonderful. The feeling of intimacy, but it’s big. It’s the classic shoebox shape. It’s a wonderful, wonderful hall.”

Melanie: “What exciting plans have you got for the future?”

Vanessa: “Gosh! For the future? Well, I suppose to continue to develop myself in terms of my repertoire, because you’re always learning. To continue learning from my students, which I do learn – I hope – as much from them as they learn from me. I hope so. I like to think I do, because there’s never ever the same person that walks through the door. It’s always a different issue with a student, always problems – sometimes in terms of talent – so you have to handle it. It’s very, very interesting. To develop a little bit more with my work with Lang Lang’s school, and try to incorporate them here with bringing them here, and have them come play for us actually, and to keep that liason and collaboration going.”

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

Vanessa: “I used to say that I was married to piano, and I suppose now I would say it’s my life blood. It’s what makes me tick. Music, not necessarily the piano. And I don’t know – If that was taken away from me, I don’t know what I’d do.”

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

Vanessa: “Pleasure, thank you.”

My publications:

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

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


Angela Hewitt in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angela in action…

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

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

ANGELA:  Hi Melanie.

MELANIE:  Lovely to meet you.

ANGELA:  It’s nice to be here.

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

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

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

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

MELANIE:    So, how did you develop your technique?

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


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

MELANIE:   That’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

MELANIE:  Yes that’s right!

ANGELA:  Other than on the road.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MELANIE:  …away from the piano..

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

MELANIE:  Especially in Bach.

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

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

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

MELANIE:  That’s a lot….

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

MELANIE:   Sounds fun.

ANGELA:  Yeah.

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

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

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

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


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

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

ANGELA:  Thank you, Melanie

My publications:

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

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