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.


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.


Peter Donohoe in conversation Melanie Spanswick

Today’s guest in my Classical Conversations Series is British pianist Peter Donohoe.

In the years since his unprecedented success as Silver Medal winner of the 1982 7th International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, Peter has built an extraordinary world-wide  career, encompassing a huge repertoire and over forty years’ experience as a pianist, as well as continually exploring many other avenues in music-making. He is acclaimed as one of the foremost pianists of our time, for his musicianship, stylistic versatility and commanding technique.

During recent seasons Peter’s performances included appearances with the Dresden Staatskapelle with Myung-Whun Chung, Gothenburg Symphony with Gustavo Dudamel and Gurzenich Orchestra with Ludovic Morlot.  He also performed with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and played both Brahms Concertos with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Last season his engagements included appearances with the City of Birmingham Symphony and Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestras and an extensive tour o South America.  He also took part in a major Messiaen Festival in the Spanish city of Cuenca, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

Peter played with the Berliner Philharmoniker in Sir Simon Rattle’s opening concerts as Music Director.  He has also recently performed with all the major London Orchestras, Royal Concertgebouw, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Munich Philharmonic, Swedish Radio, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Vienna Symphony and Czech Philharmonic Orchestras. He was an annual visitor to the BBC Proms for seventeen years and has appeared at many other festivals including six consecutive visits as resident artist to the Edinburgh Festival, eleven highly acclaimed appearances at the Bath International Festival, La Roque d’Anthéron in France, and at the Ruhr and Schleswig Holstein Festivals in Germany. In the United States, his appearances have included the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit Symphony Orchestras. Since 1984 he has visited all the major Australian Orchestras many times, and since 1989 he has made several major tours of New Zealand with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. He has recently returned from a highly acclaimed tour of Argentina with the National Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.

He has worked with many of the worlds’ greatest conductors including Christoph Eschenbach, Neeme Jarvi, Lorin Maazel, Kurt Masur, Andrew Davis and Yevgeny Svetlanov. More recently he has appeared as soloist with the next generation of excellent conductors such as Gustavo Dudamel, Robin Ticciati and Daniel Harding.

He is a keen chamber musician and performs frequently with the pianist Martin Roscoe.  They have given performances in London and at the Edinburgh Festival and have recorded discs of Gershwin and Rachmaninov.  Other musical partners have included the Maggini Quartet, with whom he has made recordings of several great British chamber works.

In 2001 Naxos released a disc of music by Gerald Finzi, with Peter as soloist, the first of a major series of recordings which aims to raise the public’s awareness of British piano concerto repertoire through concert performance and recordings. Discs of music by Alan Rawsthorne, Sir Arthur Bliss, Christian Darnton, Alec Rowley, Howard Ferguson, Roberta Gerhard, Kenneth Alwyn, Thomas Pitfield, John Gardner and Hamilton Harty have since been released to great critical acclaim.

Peter has made many fine recordings on EMI Records, which have won awards including the Grand Prix International du Disque Liszt for his recording of the Liszt Sonata in B minor and the Gramophone Concerto award for the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no. 2.  His recordings of Messiaen with the Netherlands Wind Ensemble for Chandos Records and Litolff for Hyperion have also received widespread acclaim. His recording of Brahms’ 1st Concerto with Svetlanov and the Philharmonia Orchestra was voted best available recording by the US magazine Stereo Review.

He studied at Chetham’s School of Music for seven years, graduated in music at Leeds University, where he studied composition with Alexander Goehr, and the Royal Northern College of Music, studying piano with Derek Wyndham. He then went on to study in Paris with Olivier Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod. His prize-winning performances at the British Liszt Competition in London in 1976, the Bartok-Liszt Piano Competition in Budapest in the same year, and the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1981 helped build a major career in the UK and Europe. Then his activity in the competitive world culminated in the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1982, which shot his name into world-wide prominence. In June 2011 he returned to Moscow as a jury member for the 14th International Tchaikovsky Competition.

He is vice-president of the Birmingham Conservatoire and has been awarded Honorary Doctorates of Music from the Universities of Birmingham, Central England, Warwick, East Anglia, Leicester and The Open University.

Peter Donohoe was awarded a C.B.E. for services to music in the 2010 New Year’s Honours List.

You can read Peter’s blog here.

Peter in action…………..

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

Melanie Spanswick: British concert pianist Peter Donohoe has had an extraordinary career spanning over forty years encompassing a huge repertoire. He was silver medalist in the 1982 seventh international Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and was awarded a CBE for his services to music in 2010. So I’m really excited that he’s joining me today here in London for one of my classical conversations.

Peter Donohoe: How kind of you. Thank you.

Melanie Spanswick: Lovely to chat with you.

Peter Donohoe: It makes me feel very old to hear that I’ve been in this profession for forty years, but thank you.

Melanie Spanswick: Not at all! Not at all!

Well I’m going to start right away by asking you all about your musical education, how old you were when you started to play, kind of what was the catalyst, do you come from a musical family?

Peter Donohoe: Well, I think I do, but not in any way professional musicians. But, I remember my mother’s parents being very interested in music on a sort of light level. Light operetta and things like that. They seemed to know a lot of pieces. And my mother played the piano because they had a piano when she was young. By the time I was born she’d finished, basically, playing it, but it was there and I was attracted to it. Everyone seemed to know all the tunes. So it was in the family, but not it any practical sense.

My parents, particularly my father actually, would basically support whatever I wanted to do in a big way. The idea was always in my family, really whatever you decide to do, that’s up to you, but you must do it properly.

Melanie Spanswick: That’s so important isn’t it?

Peter Donohoe: Yeah.

Melanie Spanswick: That’s important.

Peter Donohoe: So if I decide to do something else they would have also supported that. And I decided to be, from really before I can remember, I decided to be a professional musician of some sort. Not necessarily the piano, although that was what I first gravitated towards. But music just fascinated me in all its forms including live music on the radio. So that’s how it came about. And I was very lucky. I was born lucky. I have to say, I don’t know how it comes about and I hope it never stops. Just the most extraordinary coincidences have made things very positive for me. One of them was that my parents didn’t know who to ask to be a piano teacher for me. They had no idea and they didn’t ask anyone either. They just looked in the book and saw the guy that was closet geographically to where we lived. He was literally a five minute walk away. And he was a really good teacher. That’s the most crucial thing of the lot.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: In the end. When you’re really…..I did learn from my mother for maybe three years. Not, obviously, a proper relationship in terms between teacher and pupil. But then my father persuaded me to go to proper formal piano lessons. And, you know, just to be chosen on that basis is a miraculous thing.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: Because it had been a bad teacher that would have been the end of it. And I think that happens so often.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah. Well, I was about say which teacher was crucial in your development as a pianist because the thing…

Peter Donohoe: Yeah, well, they’ve all been great. And, you know, he was the first. Alfred Williams, his name was. Alfred, who probably died in the 80s? Something like that. He was quite an old chap when I first went to him which was when I was 7, having started at the age of four with my mother. He was… he was a performer and I actually did go and hear him play Beethoven’s first concerto, maybe a year after I started with him, with a local orchestra. I think it was the Salford Symphony Orchestra. I’m not sure but I think it was. And, you know, he was a real musician. He wasn’t just someone picking up a few quid teaching on the side.

Melanie Spanswick: yeah.

Peter Donohoe: He was really dedicated and he made a really good job of starting me off, getting me to hold my hands properly and sitting in the right position.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes.

Peter Donohoe: And a lot of the things that first-time teachers don’t do.

Melanie Spanswick: It was crucial that, wasn’t he?

Melanie Spanswick: Absolutely, he was. He actually had a… [Coughs] Excuse me. He actually had a slightly acrimonious conversation with my father on the basis that he didn’t really know what to do with me. This was after, I don’t know, four years? Something like that. Basically I was totally undisciplined and uncontrollable and he had to send me to someone else because he didn’t know what to do anymore. And that’s what happened he sent me to a wonderful man called Donald Clark; who later, this is going to sound weird because he was my chemistry teacher at school.

He later became the director of studies for Chethams’s. He was, as far as I understand it, Donald was someone who could walk through any degree course he wanted to, in science. He was just naturally very able to do it, but wasn’t particularly interested it in. His deep love was music.

And he was, as a chemistry master, at Chetham’s school in Manchester, all his spare time was taken up going to concerts and doing private teaching on the piano. And he took me on for three years and he was great. He was a good chemistry teacher too.

Melanie Spanswick: Dual purpose!

Peter Donohoe:  Absolutely!

Melanie Spanswick: So then you went to Chetham’s and?

Peter Donohoe: Yeah, I went to Chetham’s and that coincided with Donald. And then three years later Donald did the same thing. Said “I can’t control this guy”. I’m not sure what the problem was but apparently I’m uncontrollable. And he sent me off to do an interview actually, an audition at the Royal Manchester College of Music to see if they would provide me with a part-time course. A visit once a week, essentially, after school to study with a teacher. And the person who was supposed to listen to me was the principle, Fredrick Cox, but he was ill and he sent someone he’d obviously highly regarded, Derrick Wyndham, to listen. And Derrick Wyndham said he wanted to teach me himself. And that was for eight years. Right through the rest of school and then on through university. And also, Royal Northern College which it had turned into by then. So that was the longest relationship. He was also a very fine teacher.

All three of them absolutely disinterested in their own ego and their own self-promotion. It was all down to doing the best they could for their pupils.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah, and I wanted to ask you, because you went to Paris to study with Messiaen.

Peter Donohoe: Yeah.

Melanie Spanswick: That must have been fascinating.

Peter Donohoe: Well, that was at the end of my college career, which was a fairly colourful four years. I didn’t know what to do with myself because I hadn’t, at least at the time of making the decision, I hadn’t fully decided that I wanted to be a solo pianist. I was just doing it because people kept asking me to do it.

Melanie Spanswick: Incredible isn’t it?

Peter Donohoe: And I wasn’t convinced that, well, a) that I wanted to do… be part of the life style that I know enjoy.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: Because I didn’t’ really know what it was. And also, I wasn’t convinced that I was good enough. Simple as that. I didn’t know whether that’s really true, I was very self-doubting. And also I was also fascinated by other music that didn’t involve the piano. I played a lot of other instruments, mostly very badly, but one of them was percussion and I was good at that. I was in fact offered the job in the Halle as a percussion player, which I turned down in the 70s sometime. And I nearly, I nearly went for it. I could’ve been a professional percussion player for the rest of my life. I don’t know whether I would have found it rewarding in the end, possibly not, but it seemed to be very attractive at the time because it was security and it was being involved in what I then considered to be a very exciting life.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes, I can imagine.

Peter Donohoe: As a member of an orchestra, touring around, playing pieces that pianists don’t get exposed to. And all the friends you get as a member of an orchestra.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah. Which is something pianists never get.

Peter Donohoe: It’s an opportunity that’s, that’s really not, it doesn’t come our way at all. That kind of friendship. Whether it’s real friendship is another question. That all depends on the individual. But it does feel like it. It’s a group of

Melanie Spanswick: Musicians working together.

Peter Donohoe: Comrades, yeah. And of course a very anti conductor and, yeah, all that stuff. [laughs] while we’re playing this god-awful programme, again. And all those things. And, obviously, I liked that. And I’m very aware of it now. That’s that’s what they’ll be thinking.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: Why do we have to have this soloist again? [laughter] You know?

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: I can… I’m actually very glad to say I’ve been exposed to that. It was a fun time, really. But then I left, as you said, I went to Paris. And it was almost like I was trying to find some way that I could continue to study music without doing the obvious route, without going to New York to study at the Julliard or Moscow. I just didn’t want to do the obvious. And I loved Messiaen. I discovered Messiaen when I was still at school and when I was taken to a prom concert in 1969. That still remains possibly the most important formative event of my teenage years in terms of what I do now.

When that Charles Groves conducted the Turangalila Symphony. And it was a most stunning event. It was party because I’d been to London several times as a child, but that was the first time in quite some years I’d actually set foot in the capital, and I’d never been to a prom, and it was a very hot summer and it was the summer of love and …

Melanie Spanswick: Very exciting.

Peter Donohoe: Incredible, yeah. Kensington Gardens was full of hippies. And the Turangalila Symphony was about love. It had love plastered across a poster and they all decided “I must go to my first classical concert”. So the audience was full of hippies and they were all doing this [gestures peace signs].

Melanie Spanswick: Oh wow!

Peter Donohoe: Doing this for the fifth movement and crying with emotion during the sixth movement. It was an extraordinary day and I think it convinced me.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah [laughs].

Peter Donohoe: That’s what I wanted to do. And I did. I was very, I mean I was ambitious to do something that most people would have said “There’s no chance whatsoever”. But I played at the Turangalila Symphony at the Proms in 1986.


Melanie Spanswick: Determination!

Peter Donohoe: Yeah! But actually the funny thing about it was that I wanted to be in the percussion session, when I first heard it in 1969. It wasn’t really the piano part that attracted me then, but that’s what I became known as, a pianist.

Melanie Spanswick: Now, I must ask you, how did you develop your technique?




Peter Donohoe: Who knows? Who knows the answer?

Melanie Spanswick: Where you a Czerny study practicer? A Chopin study practicer?

Peter Donohoe: I was unwilling, but I was persuaded to do Czerny. And more specifically, or more relevantly actually, I was persuaded to do Hanon. And the reason that’s become very relevant is because I do it now. And I recommend other people do it now as well. And I know plenty of my colleagues who would say that was the opposite of what we should do; that it was some kind of anti-musical experience that you don’t need to do. And I don’t agree with them because I have definitely felt many improvements in what I do from playing those exercises.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes. Sure.

Peter Donohoe: Mostly in that way in terms of sound. Not particularly dexterity, but sound production and variety and confidence, actually.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: And that was Donald Clark who got me onto that when I was 12. And I was so bored of it. I can’t tell you. And I was so unwilling to do it. Donald use to tear his hair out, what bit there was of it, and he threw plenty of tantrums at me. He shouted and bawled and went red and slammed doors and all sorts of things at me because I was so difficult. And that was one of the reasons I just wouldn’t play the exercises. But you know, how it comes back, when you get older, you remember, “oh yeah”.

My father and I had the same kind of relationship. All sorts of things that he told me I should do and I resisted. And we argued and argued and argued. And once he died, which was when I was 21, I suddenly realized how right he’d been. And I’ve been trying to please him ever since.

Melanie Spanswick: That’s funny, yeah. Well, I wanted to ask you also because you came second in the, silver medal, in the Tchaikovsky and you’ve been a major prize winner in many competitions

Peter Donohoe: Well, sort of, yeah.

Melanie Spanswick: How did they shape and change your career? Do you feel they were really important or would you have been as successful without them?

Peter Donohoe: It’s impossible to know, isn’t it? What would have happened? You can’t… I wouldn’t have gone to the Moscow competition had I not done the [Leeds?] competition the year before. Which, essentially, I didn’t do well at all. I’ve only… well to be honest, I’ve only taken part in four competitions, but I was a finalist in all four of them and didn’t actually win any of them. But they all contributed a huge amount to my development. And you can make any can make any negative experience a positive one. I’d like to think that, well I’m sure very few people who are listening to this and I’m sure you won’t’ remember it because it was a long time ago, but I did the Leeds competition in 81.

Melanie Spanswick: I do remember it, actually!

Peter Donohoe: Yeah?

Melanie Spanswick: I was watching, yes.

Peter Donohoe: I was actually the recipient of a lot of sympathy votes from that. Including the BBC and the Proms and various sources around the UK who really thought that was a bad result and they kind of put their money where their mouth was. Which was wonderful. For the next year I was doing all kinds of dates because of that, that I wouldn’t have done otherwise and I was very grateful.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: It made me feel that it was worthwhile. The thing about competitions, and I know this now as a jury member, it’s one thing to be eliminated from the first round because nobody knows anything about it. It’s quite another to make the finals.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: And then come in at the end of the queue. Which is what happened then. Interestingly, in the 2012 competition in Leeds, I was a guest and we had a, Fanny Waterman and I had a kind of public discussion about the whole thing of competitions and whatever came up, essentially. And of course my appearance in the 81 competition was brought up and we talked about it. And actually it was really moving and touching, the content both on stage and in private with Fanny It was a really remarkable… it was sort of closure.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah?

Peter Donohoe: It was great. It was wonderful. And that, the real truth is that competition in 81 was the reason that I entered Moscow. I didn’t realize, basically, what a connection, I instinctively have with Russian music. Had no idea, apart from Stravinsky, whose music I always loved when I was younger. Which is more European than Russian in some ways anyways. But during that next year I put a lot of effort into studying and understanding the great Russian composers and then I went to the competition and it seemed to work. I don’t, I can’t explain it. I don’t know. The moment I walked into the Soviet Union with all its problems and difficulties and its climate and all the terrible things that had happened, the terrible hotel, you know all the things. For all of that, I loved it there and I still do. And it’s not because it was Soviet and it’s not because it isn’t any more. It’s something to do with the place and the people and the culture. It’s really phenomenal. And there’s nowhere quite like it. It gets under your skin like people say about Africa or South American.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: Yeah.

Melanie Spanswick: Do you think that competitions can still establish young pianist, because we got so many of them now, haven’t’ we?

Peter Donohoe:  Too many.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes, I was going to say do you think they actually mean anything anymore?

Peter Donohoe: I don’t know how else you could do it as a young person, that’s the problem.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes.

Peter Donohoe: There are more and more people wanting to be musicians and less and less people wanting to listen. Which is a really serious problem.

Melanie Spanswick: It is.

Peter Donohoe: And this includes the musicians. They don’t really listen to each other either. One of the most important aspects, and we just mentioned the Soviet Union, one of the most important things about that culture is that they all went to each other’s concerts. And they discussed it all, you know? It’s almost conjured up an image of Brahms and all his colleagues at the Red Hedgehog in Vienna talking about and also the 20s in Paris, Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. And all the artists as well all talking on this very high level. And that doesn’t happen anymore. People practice and play concerts and make recordings and they’re not really as, I know there are exceptions, but they’re not as interested as they should be in other performers. And learning from each other. Essentially we’re all magpies in the end. We need to be able to do that. We need to admit it, that that’s very much a part of what culture is. So if you have a situation where there are less and less listeners and less opportunities to start a career, the only possible way is a competition.

There is a huge, and always has been as long as I can remember, a huge movement against competitions. But you can’t stop them and there’s no alternative. I’m quoting Fanny Waterman. What are you going to do instead?

Melanie Spanswick: So you’ve been on many competitions, many juries, and what are you looking for when you… when you… what is it in a soloist that you want to see? For the winner?

Peter Donohoe: I wish I could. I wish I could identify it. It’s actually not true that I’ve done an awful lot of it. I’ve been on eight juries.

Melanie Spanswick: That’s quite a few though.

Peter Donohoe: Is it?

Melanie Spanswick: I would imagine.

Peter Donohoe: It’s certainly very hard work to do it well. It’s probably quite easy to do it badly. And maybe some do. To be honest I’ve never really had any issue with more than a couple of people that I’ve been involved with on juries. It’s very very tempting though, I think, to be the bad guy. You know, the young pianist identifies the one who’s a thorn in their side, to make sure they don’t do well. It’s kind of, it’s very tempting. It’s a power trip and of course you must avoid that. You must at all costs avoid manipulation, you must be prepared to listen to someone you’ve never heard of before with the same ears as one of your own students. You know, things like that. And that’s very hard to do. It’s very easy for people to say “he’s prejudice”.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes.

Peter Donohoe: And it’s very easy to be prejudice. It’s very difficult to avoid it. You have to work extremely hard, you have to make sure your listening to everyone with equal intention. You do not go to sleep, you don’t complain that it’s early in the afternoon and you just had red wine for lunch because you shouldn’t be having it if it affects you like that.

Melanie Spanswick: That’s right.

Peter Donohoe: And so on. You know it’s, it’s a difficult job and I’ve been.. I’ve been very critical of juries in the past when I was myself a competitor. Of course, that’s what we all do.  You spent… I mean at the Moscow competition I was there for five weeks and there’s nothing else to do in Moscow in those days, nothing at all. There’s plenty to do now, but in those days you stayed in the hotel bar and a piece of cucumber and polish beer and very little else was available and you talked about the jury. Because that was your biggest preoccupation at that stage.

Melanie Spanswick: Sure.

Peter Donohoe: Now that I’m regularly on the juries of these things, I can see the other side. It’s very easy to do, it’s very easy to fall into the trap. I’ve been looking out whenever I’ve been on the jury for an example of someone who is blatantly, well not so blatantly, manipulating anything and I honestly haven’t really found any.

Melanie Spanswick: That’s good.

Peter Donohoe: It is. I’m prepared to walk out if somebody does. And I was actually the chairman of one in Vilnius Lithuania. A smallish competition, but a nice one. Very nice. In something like 2007 or so, I think that was when it was. Actually, no it wasn’t. It was earlier in 2003 or 4. I was, I was ready to deal with any problem and the only people I had to deal with were the press. The people in the jury where fantastic and every one of them was so determined to do the right thing.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes. Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: And not to feel that they were a part of this imaginary set of corrupt prejudice bigots that we tend to imagine so many of them are. I don’t think… if they do exist I’ve not come across them, put it that way, but you know in Moscow in 2011 I was on the Tchaikovsky competition jury, which of course was an amazingly emotional experience.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah. Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: Because I was coming back to the… to the place that started me off, at least international. And, well, I was absolutely ready, and even to say so to the press, to leave if there was any funny stuff. And there wasn’t. I hear rumors at other things, but on the piano jury we had a wonderful time and everyone behaved themselves impeccably and abided by the rules that were set and we didn’t talk about things in the bar the way you’re supposed to not do, you know. I hear stories all the time that people do that and if they do, they shouldn’t. It’s just that I didn’t come across it.

Melanie Spanswick: Sure.

Peter Donohoe: It’s very difficult though. My biggest problem with being on a jury will always be comparing someone who plays generally very professionally in a very experienced way and is a really good musician all around, compare that person with someone who plays on piece really wonderfully and the rest of what they play isn’t so great or is up and down in some way.

Because it could be that the part that they’re playing really fantastically well is actually greater than the other person and how do you know how that’s going to develop? If they get the prize, the first prize particularly, but any prize really in the Tchaikovsky competition produces a career and there are 12 prizes, so you know. If they get one of these prizes, they will then experience something that will change their play anyway. I they don’t, they won’t experience it.

 Melanie Spanswick: Yes. I can imagine, yes.

 Peter Donohoe: So, it’s a very responsible position to be in and you can destroy someone just by ignoring their great qualities and coming out with a result that does not represent what they did. And you can make someone temporally who shouldn’t be made, because of some anomaly in the voting system or something. It’s very nerve racking.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: Every competition I’ve been on has a wonderful atmosphere before it starts.

Melanie Spanswick: [Laughter]

Peter Donohoe: And in fact, that atmosphere continues up to the first round and then you make a decision about who goes to second round. All of a sudden, you make enemies and it’s inevitable. It’s dreadful.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes I can imagine. Yes.

Peter Donohoe: There’s actually a photograph somewhere on the internet. That was taken from the audience when the jury when I was in Moscow, including me, were set on the stage in a semi circle and the announcement was being made of who was going through to the second round and there’s a photograph of me in tears, and I’m not inclined in that way I promise, but it got to me really seriously at that point because we had to reduce, I think it was 30 down to 12 people, so 18 people had to be thrown out.

Melanie Spanswick: 18 wonderful players. I’m sure.

Peter Donohoe:  Almost all of them were very good yes.  I maybe even appeared on the internet. When were being interviewed, maybe I appeared over the top, I don’t really know but I was god smacked by the level of all of them, by almost all of them, I can’t say a 100% but almost everyone that played was wonderful to listen to. And to actually have to tell 18 of them they couldn’t go to the second round really somehow just churned me up. It was awful. Particularly in the case of those who are too old to enter again.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes, the last chance.

Peter Donohoe: But you have to do it, you have to. But you are thinking, by the way all you can to do is contribute to vote; a democratic vote…14 people maybe, I don’t remember what the number was, the jury all do the same and what comes out of the machine at the end is the mean average. And so, your own particular desire might not be represented anyway. In fact, it very really is, in all honesty. Sometimes it is, sometimes it’s so obvious that everyone feels the same but occasionally it varies and you have a real…an obvious disagreement that can’t be aired. You can’t talk about it.

Melanie Spanswick: No. no, I can imagine.

Peter Donohoe: That’s quite right. You shouldn’t at least until it is over. And so, you know somebody is eliminated from one of the rounds of the competition and instinctively of course they hold every member of that jury responsible for that.

Melanie Spanswick: Of course. That’s very difficult. [Laughter]

Peter Donohoe: Well, it’s a bit disconcerting to know that you wanted them to go through but they didn’t or whatever.

Melanie Spanswick: I can imagine. Yes.

Peter Donohoe: Sometimes the other way round by the way [Laughter] But you know it’s very easy also, when somebody 30 years later is a huge success that was eliminated from the jury you were on at some point and you go to them, I voted for you, yes of course you did. And of course, I wouldn’t believe them either. But that does happen, of course it does. I know it, it happened in Moscow. I know. If I’m not to name anyone but I know that there was a wonderful pianist who was simply eliminated from the first round essentially because they haven’t been noticed. I know that sounds a bit odd,  but it’s like I’m trying to avoid being very specific, but if you appear as the first candidate on the second or third day of the first round, you’re in a very anonymous position.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes.

Peter Donohoe: It’s very difficult to be noticed however well you play and that can happen, it did happen and I do feel rather strongly that just it just went by, like that…..

Melanie Spanswick: You just hope that pianist has found some other way of drawing attention to themselves.

Peter Donohoe: Absolutely.

Melanie Spanswick: That’s the thing isn’t it?

Peter Donohoe: Well in fact for young pianists, it’s the ultimate, you might as just go home in most cases, you just might as well leave if you draw number one to play.

Melanie Spanswick: So much of luck.

Peter Donohoe: It’s terrible isn’t it? When I was in Moscow, as a candidate or competitor in 1982, there was a girl who’d been there 4 years earlier for the same competition and she drew number one for both. Which was unbelievable when you consider that there were 104 to choose from, she drew number one, the second time…

Melanie Spanswick: Very sad….

Peter Donohoe:  It was awful. Yeah. I don’t honestly know how she played because I didn’t listen to the performance but it was lucky bit doomed from the start, you know.

Melanie Spanswick: I want to ask you about some composers and pieces that you find most complex or demanding to play or things that maybe you wouldn’t necessarily be drawn to play or things that you started to learn and you thought, no this isn’t for me or you’ve had to work really hard at playing.

Peter Donohoe: Yes. In most cases when that’s happened, I’ve come back to it later and when I got a little bit older. Schumann was one of those. I found everything about Schumann very difficult to understand, the imagination that he had and the….. and actually the pure technical aspects of his playing, must be different in mine because I found it extremely difficult to come to terms with and I left it alone for a long time and then I came back to it and it’s amongst my favorite composers now and to play as well as to listen to and you know in my case, I’m not in any way breaking it either because it’s not necessarily an advantage that’s how I learn things very quickly. And sometimes it’s too quick. Sometimes if you’re not very careful you have to be very… vigilant about not relying upon talent, as what it is.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes.

Peter Donohoe: Quick memory, harmonic understanding of the music in a way that…. it’s good, it’s an advantage in some way. But in other ways, it makes it too easy to get it into your head and to memorise it and not to really explore the depths of it properly. And I’ve probably… for most of my adult life, I’ve worked on slowing it down, of making sure when something is coming which I don’t yet know, that… to spread it across two years rather than doing it to the last minute which I could do. It’s not good.

Melanie Spanswick: No.

Peter Donohoe: And I could promise everyone it’s not how your brain works, it is not good. It is always better to do it slowly. There is one short noticed engagement that I took on 1976 at five days notice, to play Liszt’s first concerto with the Halle, because somebody was ill…. And I didn’t know it, because we all know Liszt’s first concerto, but I didn’t play it. And I didn’t let on that I didn’t play it. I just learned it in 5 days and did it and it went quite well. In fact it went very well to be honest. It’s quite a difficult piece but by no means the hardest thing, if it had been Rachmaninov three, I don’t think it would have been remotely possible. But it’s not…you know, it’s not desperate, but the performance came and went, I did four in the same week and I would say… I would swear that 3 months later, I’ve forgotten it.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes, I can imagine. But memorisation is obviously not a problem for you, if we’re talking about memorisation.

Peter Donohoe: On the whole it isn’t, No.

Melanie Spanswick: So you got a kind of photographic memory or do you have to work at it digitally?

Peter Donohoe: I don’t know. It’s not… It’s not really photographic, it’s a little bit photographic, but not very… not very reliably so. I’ve learned a new word for it recently which is eidetic. Eidetic memory, apparently means that you use all kinds of different senses. It is very solid, it means you use the tactile one, the visual one, audio…. all kinds of different things, even smells. Although I don’t know how that works.


Melanie Spanswick: I’ve never heard of that before.

Peter Donohoe: No it doesn’t really work. But you know, if you imagine, that I know where the page turns are when I’m playing from memory and I know what the chords look like on the page in some places, but not all places and then you combine that with physical memory, which doesn’t really work so well if it’s very slow. Works well if it’s quick and difficult to practice, you know. There’s all sorts of other things that come into it, and I think if it goes into my memory too easily. And then  of course, if you’re not very carefully can fall straight out again particularly under pressure.

Melanie Spanswick: Interesting.

Peter Donohoe: For it to be solid in the subconscious, that’s very important.

Peter Donohoe: It becomes part of you coz it’s in your blood then. There have been occasional things that you know, I felt I knew perfectly well but then a couple of years later, I’ve forgotten all about them. It’s really strange. I just forget. No, I don’t even know how it start sometimes. It’s a very weird thing how it works. It seems inconsistent as well. You can’t really have a formula.

Melanie Spanswick: That’s interesting.

Peter Donohoe: There’s pieces that… actually this is a good example of what I was actually about to say. In 2005, for four years or so I made my main project to play and perform as many times as I could the Bach Preludes and Fugues, all of them. Which takes a long time. I think its 3 hours to 10 minutes in total and then I did them in 2 concerts sometimes on the same day. It’s the hardest thing I think I ever did in so many ways.

Melanie Spanswick: I’m sure.

Peter Donohoe: Yes, I mean by a very long way. In fact the most difficult, memorising those Fugues under pressure. I mean playing them from memory under pressure. It’s just so demanding.

Melanie Spanswick: Incredibly. I can imagine. You did all of them.

Peter Donohoe: Yeah I only did it once. I can probably play it from memory now in private but in public it’s a different matter…

Melanie Spanswick: Yes.

Peter Donohoe: And once you lose a Fugue you don’t get back. You might as well go onto the next one.  I did it once. I did it on Bach’s birthday in 2008. I did play all of them from memory on the same day which was a coincidence that it was his birthday to be honest, I didn’t even know when we planned the concer tbut something made it happen. And it was in Bath abbey….

Melanie Spanswick: Lovely.

Peter Donohoe: And the environment and the atmosphere and everything was just so perfect for it and I felt very at one with it. it was one of the most special concerts I’ve been involved in. It’s not possible to predict that it can happen again. It’s not possible to be sure. I certainly wasn’t sure the day before that. But it did, it worked. And it probably is the biggest single challenge from every point of view that any pianist could ever get involved in. The Bartok Second Concerto is nothing.  [Laughter] the Busoni, the Prokofiev Second, and all these things that we do. They are all very difficult but that’s the hardest of them all.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah. I believe that. Absolutely.

Peter Donohoe: Particularly for me, you know. I used to be a drummer. What do I know of that?

Melanie Spanswick: Which composers are you particularly drawn to? What do you really love to play?

Peter Donohoe: It’s much easier to answer what I don’t get drawn to. [Laughter] The longer I play, the more I love virtually everything. I don’t think… I hope that it’s not because I don’t have any critical faculties, it’s not just that I like playing anything because it’s there you know. I just seem to enjoy more and more particularly those I get to know with years, almost all composers. And there are maybe 3 major composers, fairly major anyway, who I’m not drawn to. I’m not going say who they are but you can have look at all the things I play you could probably work it out.

Melanie Spanswick: Well I want to ask you about British composers because I think it was in 2001 that you started on a whole project of recording British. I think it was a piano concertos?

Peter Donohoe: Yes.

Melanie Spanswick: It’s amazing, you’ve recorded loads – Sir Arthur Bliss, Alan Rawsthorne and Alec Rowley to name a few. So what draw you to this start? How did that come about?

Peter Donohoe: I think, without wishing to make  it  seem simplistic, I think it’s partly because I’m British and I love British music, opera and string quartets and choral music, particularly the oratorios. I love British composers long before I turned to the piano concertos. This is something, as with all nations, it’s something unique about the style. But actually, it was the Russian example that made me suddenly realize just how different we are. How unsupportive of our own culture we are instinctively.

Melanie Spanswick: That’s right. Yes.

Peter Donohoe:  And when you see the pride of the Russians which is like the opposite. Well actually, not just the great ones but the lesser composers and maybe even lesser performers. The Russians have such support, such belief from friends and families and well never mind the public you know. The whole thing is so different to the way we regard, I’m not talking about performers, I’m really talking about the music itself. The way British dismiss their own music, there’s only Elgar that anyone is actually prepared to mention. Literally there is not single British concerto in the repertoire.

Melanie Spanswick: No?

Peter Donohoe:  the standard repertoire, the one that comes close is probably John Ireland but he’s not playing very often. He’s certainly only regarded as a kind of oddity. Oh let’s put a bit of British music in for bit a change. I have accumulated a library of British concertos of a 147 pieces. I would say that 20 of them are probably really great pieces. One of them is probably up there with the best globally, and I think that’s the Arthur Bliss.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes.

Peter Donohoe: I think Britten and Tippett come quite close but I think the Bliss is just so phenomenal and there are so many others. Some of them are worth playing occasionally and of course some of them are not worth playing I suppose. You’ve got to admit it, every country has plenty of that but it’s worth giving an airing to. And to just automatically turn away from it just because it’s from Britain just seems to be so, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s instinctive or traditional or …

Melanie Spanswick: We are apologetic aren’t we?

Peter Donohoe:yes, It is something like that. Yes it’s like we’re embarrassed to be proud of it.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes.

Peter Donohoe: You know, the Russians don’t understand that. They will take the music of… I might as well name someone… the music of Dargomyzhsky or someone who is you know an interesting rather Eastern composer in the late 19th century, mainly of songs in Russia. And he is hailed as an absolute all-time great because he is Russian and because they believe in him. And they are right to believe in him. It’s just that he isn’t Shostakovich or Prokofiev, but he’s still an interesting composer.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah, it’s a shame.

Peter Donohoe: Yes, it’s a great shame.

Melanie Spanswick: What are the greatest challenges about being a concert pianist?

Peter Donohoe: How long have you got?


Peter Donohoe: I think the biggest single issue that I have to deal if a young person, a teenager is thinking of doing it, is that in order to do it well, you really do have to concentrate at such a degree on it that everything else goes by the board and if it doesn’t work, you’re then left with nothing. I think that’s a real problem and I was terribly lucky in that respect, because first of all the education in some way I received, although it was a little bit quirky, it was actually a very good one in languages and history in particular. So I was able to, to some degree it’s not about being able to do the subjecst, it’s about relating to other people and not just being a…

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: musician and having knowledge that isn’t all about music. I suppose also being able to place the music in context that does help as well. I was lucky in so far as I was on that side before, committed to the piano rather later than most people are, I was 24 before I actually said I want to be a pianist you know.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes.

Peter Donohoe: For all that time, I was resisting it. The challenge to me then I suppose was establishing that it was worthwhile. That I was actually did have something to offer, if not I would have gone the usual route. I suppose in other ways, the repertoire I played was very 20th century based at the time particularly in my early 20’s and I gradually went backwards. I’m not answering your question at all!

Melanie Spanswick: [Laughter] but it’s fascinating….

Peter Donohoe: What are the challenges? Oh there are so many issues to deal with. You are a soloist, you are perceived by the public and press and everyone else as a sort of hierarchy of conductor, soloist, orchestra. Sort of…

Melanie Spanswick: Yes.

Peter Donohoe: the deputy or something in a company. The deputy director.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes.

Peter Donohoe: and the orchestra is divided into foreman….and the workers you know. It’s all bit rubbish now because we’re all musicians and we’re all working together. And actually getting over that issue is a problem particularly in Britain because of instinctive class system and a that. But you know the people who are either at the top or the bottom of what they perceive of our class system, they actually behave in that way and you have to encourage them to be different. To actually have a voice, if you’re playing in the middle of an orchestra you do have a voice and in a piano concerto, it’s no different.  Plenty of music, as we all know, plenty of music’s got very important part for all the people in the orchestra but they have to be convinced that what they are doing is important as well as us. That’s very hard, that’s one of the challenges. Maybe I’m thinking about it because I used to be one of them. I was that soldier you know. I was at the back of the orchestra and I was being dismissed by a soloist or a conductor as unimportant, they got to me. This isn’t about some kind of hierarchical competition, this is about the piece. The guy who’s the boss wrote this and the rest of us are his servants. You know. I’m not… that’s something I found a big challenge over the years is to get maybe myself out of that frame of mind but certainly everyone else. You know.

Melanie Spanswick: what’s playing the piano mean to you?

Peter Donohoe: It’s a way of justifying my existence. I can’t do anything else. I used to play the drums but you know that’s a thing of the past. What does it mean? It’s what I… it’s what I’m on earth to do I suppose. It’s as simple as that because I started at a very early age to play the piano. I resisted the purely practical aspect of specializing in being a pianist until I was 24 and then I decided to go along with it. It’s all I’ve ever done really. You know. It’s what I am. That’s what it means. If without it, I would be nothing but if I decided at the age of 4, that I wanted to be a naval officer, perhaps the same would’ve happened then. I don’t know. Perhaps the navy would have been my life. I think probably that’s a plus to all of us isn’t it. You know, if you have a vocation of any sort.

Melanie Spanswick: Thank you so much for joining me today.

Peter Donohoe: It’s my 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.