A student’s memories: Patricia Carroll (1932 – 2017)

Last Friday I attended the funeral (probably the most beautiful and moving I have ever witnessed) of one of my piano professors, and I felt compelled to write this short, personal reflection.

Teachers have a huge impact on our lives, particularly when we worked with them as youngsters; they influence everything from repertoire choices and technical development to performance practice and concert wear.

Patricia Carroll (1932 – 2017), pictured above, was a British concert pianist and, for over thirty years, a professor at the Royal College of Music in London. Patricia studied at the RCM with Arthur Alexander, winning the Chappell Gold Medal, after which she won a French government scholarship to study with Marguerite Long in Paris. Later, in Vienna, she attended the class of renowned teacher Friedrich Gulda, where her fellow students included Alfred Brendel and a young Martha Argerich (she often recounted wonderful recollections and witty anecdotes from these classes).

Patricia enjoyed a distinguished performing career encompassing recitals at the Wigmore Hall, Mozart Saal in Vienna, many BBC radio and television broadcasts, and countless concerto performances including appearances with the London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as many around the world. She performed on three occasions at the BBC proms, opening one season with Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16 in 1962. Later in her career, Patricia was especially interested in Victorian piano music and presented an ongoing series on BBC Radio 3 (and the World Service).

I first met Patricia on a cold, wet March morning. As a 15-year-old school girl, I nervously walked in to Room 70 (sadly, all room numbers have now changed at the RCM) to audition for a place at the Royal College of Music Junior Department. She was one of three on the audition panel, and as I sat down at the impossibly large Steinway, she enquired, in a commanding, rather foreboding voice, what I would be playing. I don’t remember a note of my performance (although I do remember my programme: Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 10 No. 1 in C minor (first movement), Chopin’s Waltz in A flat major Op. 69 No. 1 and Etude in C minor Op. 10 No. 12 (Revolutionary)), but I recall a tall, slim lady in a formal suit, with her hair tightly wrapped in a bun, bounding towards the piano afterwards, presenting me with some sight-reading; “Hmm, you’re not so good at that”, she laughed, “but your playing is pretty sound”.

And that was it. I was enrolled as a junior exhibitioner, and the following September, commenced my studies. Saturdays became my favourite day of the week and I spent several years working with Patricia, both at the Junior and Senior RCM. She had a strong, ebullient personality, which was full of wit, endless energy and infectious enthusiasm. Her stature and commanding voice could be intimidating, but as the years flew by, Patricia became a friend and an ardent supporter of all my professional endeavours, for which I will always be eternally grateful.

As a teacher, Patricia was a stickler for accuracy and above all, control. She could analyse a score from many different perspectives (and on various levels), continually finding different ways of working. We spent innumerable lessons dissecting pieces, and the more complex and Contemporary they were, the better. To this end, I studied a broad selection of lesser known works (alongside the classics) by such Twentieth (and Twenty-first) Century composers as  Stravinsky, Bartók, Shostakovich, Nielsen, Poulenc, Hindemith, Parry, Britten, Ireland, Rawsthorne, Bliss, Finnissy, Knussen, Berio, Schnittke, and Shchedrin, to name a few. Her love of Victorian music (especially by female composers) led to some interesting discoveries for me too.

On preparing works for competitions and performances (of which I took part in many at the RCM), Patricia would insist on several ‘run-throughs’; regular ‘performance practice’ classes were implemented every week for her students. On a Monday afternoon, we would run along to Room 70, clutching our latest piece (and woe betide if it wasn’t memorized). She was a firm believer in secure memorization, and there would be regular tests, just to ensure you really ‘knew’ your piece inside out; it’s attention to this important detail which enabled me to confidently perform complicated Contemporary pieces without the score.

When performances became serious affairs (i.e. end of year exams (or ‘gradings’ as they were known), final recitals, or external concerts), I was invited to her home in Wimbledon on a Sunday afternoon, where I would play my programme for her friends, family (including her Viennese husband, Hansi, and sometimes her children; Helena, Paul and Joanna) and a few students. Such concerts were followed by a sumptuous afternoon tea, with a finale of rich Sachertorte (a Carroll specialty), washed down with Earl Grey Tea, and, for those who stayed on into the evening, a glass or two of fine Chablis and smoked salmon canapés. Repeated concert and performance opportunities instigated a certain assurance or confidence, and it’s this element which I feel is one of the most useful tools I learned whilst at the RCM.

A less than ideal performance would be met with a stern look, quick grimace and something along the lines of “well, you’ll be better prepared next time” or “a bit nervous today, but at least you got to the end!”, whereas after a successful performance, one could witness Patricia literally dancing about in the green room, and on a couple of occasions, I actually received a box of Viennese chocolates – so I knew I must have made a reasonable attempt. I found her sharp honesty refreshing and necessary, and it’s something I undertake with my own students.

Concerto ‘trials’ (they were just that – auditions to perform with college orchestras) and competitions were omnipresent fixtures every term. We would select our works, learning them quickly, deciding which movements and then which ‘sections’ we would play (although for competitions, generally the whole piece was performed). Patricia and I would rattle through my elected pieces; she would sit at the second piano, enthusiastically playing the orchestral part; on one occasion (a competition in the Recital Hall) whilst playing Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Sz.119, we both had the flu and all three movements of this glorious piece were accompanied by coughing, sneezing, wheezing and unfortunate facial expressions, all of which the adjudicator was so kind not to mention at her adjudication!

Patricia was very keen on teaching her students to be good teachers, and to this end she introduced Art of Teaching classes at the  RCM. This may seem rather perfunctory and commonplace now, but during the 1980s and 1990s it was a fairly new concept. Undergraduates in their first and second year, preparing for the internal DipRCM teaching diploma, spent two terms at her weekly lessons, which sometimes lasted a good few hours. She methodically embraced every possible teaching dilemma, providing copious accompanying notes (which I still have today).

Sight-reading was another essential accomplishment; she was adamant about its importance, and as a junior I would spend significant amounts of time every day reading through repertoire (particularly Baroque works) with the aim of improving this skill.

Patricia moved into the realm of ‘legend’ at the RCM when she introduced her  now famous sight-reading classes. Groups of pianists would descend on one of the larger teaching rooms, where two or three (and sometimes four) pianos resided. Overtures, symphonies and various other orchestral works, all arranged for  several keyboards, and usually for eight (or more) hands appeared, and we would march through these pieces albeit at a fairly steady tempo. Patricia would conduct each masterpiece; any hesitation or error was deeply frowned upon, therefore focus and concentration became a necessity. Such was the huge sound emanating from these classes, that many a ‘passer by’ would peer into the glass windows (resplendent on each door in the main building) to see what on earth was going on.

After I left college, Patricia still supported my career, coming to concerts and book launches (and even my fortieth birthday party) whenever she could, and we would meet every year in our favourite little café situated on the Old Brompton Road (London). I last saw her in 2016, when I gave her a couple of books containing my compositions; she looked at them with her usual zeal and  delight, saying she would try the pieces with some of her six grandchildren who, of course, took piano lessons with her.

Patricia was a fervent supporter of women’s rights, and was one of the first female pianists to play a concerto at the Royal Festival Hall (in London). Consequently, she was extremely encouraging to her female students particularly, often helping them find work and musical opportunities (I became her deputy or assistant at the Royal College of Music Junior Department whilst I was still a student).

One final thought: a teacher might well be defined by their student successes, but it’s their sheer dedication which proves most vital. Effective teachers frequently go way beyond their call of duty (that of providing mere lessons); they seek to afford moral support, whether at a performance (or before and after), thorough (sometimes round the clock!) advice, constant and careful guidance, as well as a critical ear. Thankfully, I was fortunate to have found one such effective teacher in Patricia. She left the RCM in 1999, returning occasionally to adjudicate competitions and end of year exams. Her spirit will live on through her students and all those who were lucky enough to come into contact with her during her long and successful career.

Patricia’s obituary in the Daily Telegraph

Royal College of Music


My Books:

For much more information about practising repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.

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Ruth Nye in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The twenty-fourth interview in my Classical Conversations Series features Australian pianist and esteemed teacher, Ruth Nye. I caught up with Ruth a few weeks ago and we chatted at Jaques Samuel Pianos in London.

Ruth was invited to study in New York with Claudio Arrau after the Maestro heard her perform in Melbourne, Australia.  A close personal and musical relationship developed which included accompanying him on countless tours around the world and lasted until his death some 30 years later.

After her work with Arrau in the United States she made London her home and a full international performing career followed which included six Queen Elizabeth Hall, and five Wigmore Hall performances.

Ruth has taught at the Yehudi Menuhin School for over twelve years and is also a member of the Keyboard Faculty at the Royal College of Music.  She is in demand to conduct masterclasses in countries around the world and frequently adjudicates on international competition panels.

In recent years her pupils have received The Chappell Medal at both the Royal Academy of Music (where Ruth was formerly on staff) and the Royal College of Music, won the concerto competition multiple times at the Royal College of Music, won places in the Junior Tchaikovsky Competition, Japan and the Bechstein competition, Berlin, won a solo Wigmore Hall recital (2005) and places in the keyboard finals of the BBC Young Musician of the Year (2005).

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

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Australian concert pianist and  esteemed teacher, Ruth Nye has performed extensively.  Her students have won both national and international competitions.  And, she studied with Maestro Claudio Arrau with whom she became a close personal friend.  So, I’m really excited that she’s joining me here today at Jack Samuel Pianos in London for a Classical Conversation. Welcome.

RUTH NYE:  Thank you very much. 

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Lovely to be here chatting to you.

RUTH NYE:   Thank you Melanie.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  I am going to start by asking you what about your musical education?  How old are you when you started?  What was the catalyst?  Did you come from a musical family?

RUTH NYE:   Well, I started to play when I was five.  Basically, I suppose because I had an older brother who’s… who was already playing the piano and like all little sisters you know, you want to do what your older brother is doing so, so my father said ‘I think we ought to get her taught properly instead letting her fiddle about by herself’.  And my father was probably the big driving influence and he drove with a pretty strong hand  in a sweet glove in a way.  But he came from what you call one of those intensively amateur musical families.  Music was a great thing in the whole family’s life, you know, that the…  he played the violin, he sang, he and his sister won a lot of Eisteddfods and things like this, singing and as amateurs you know, extraordinary, and  he also conducted but wasn’t… wasn’t brought up theoretically well, he just had music in his veins somehow and I think when he realized he had a couple of children that were really…

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   were talented.

RUTH NYE  …talented, he was delighted.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yeah.

RUTH NYE:   And so, he kept…keep…  kept this pressure.  We had to do our practice there was no slipping out of it! But I probably got away with a lot more than my brother did.  I remember for some time I’d be up to read a book while practising  my scales.  You know, the book up on the–

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  I’ve heard that before actually. People just playing their scales whilst reading!

RUTH NYE:   Don’t tell the students.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Right. No!

RUTH NYE: But I’d been certain place in the book that I didn’t want to let it down and as long the piano was going I thought I was safe!… Anyway, but it was… it was a very good background to have come from and it started with a wonderful….  this was in Brisbane, Australia which is not a very big city.  It was the capital… it’s the capital of Queensland.  It didn’t have a conservatoire but we did have this wonderful teacher.  I mean, she was meticulous, not… with some sense of humour, but she was determined that she would teach us as well as she could and she not only taught us to play…. she did teach us all the theoretical background.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Which is so important.

RUTH NYE:   So important.  It’s no point to learn… if say to the students, well go back to the F minor modulation and they look at you, what? You have to know these things obviously otherwise it’s like a ship that’s completely got no rudder. So, she was… she was great and my brother and I were brought up to play a lot of duets, lot of two piano music and she did it all and we won a lot of compositions of course but…  and then that went…went on for quite a while until my father was advised…  I think my brother would have been probably 15, 16, that he should be sent to Melbourne , where there was a very strong musical conservatory and a whole ethic was right there and a wonderful teacher as well called Lyndsay Biggins. And then we didn’t play or work together-

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Oh.

RUTH NYE:   –until… until when we were both in our 30’s when we actually did perform the Mozart Two Piano Concerto. After it was over, my brother Ronald said to me, ‘you know, the first performance of that was given by Wolfgang and Nannerl and I wonder how many other brothers and sisters have played it’.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes.

RUTH NYE:   combinations of brothers and sisters.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes.

RUTH NYE:   But we didn’t research it I’m afraid so we don’t know.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   So, you didn’t know?

RUTH NYE:  So, we were… we were very fortunate.  And fortunate in many ways in Australia too because it’s… we got a lot of, lot of opportunities to perform.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes. I can imagine.

RUTH NYE:   Whereas, here, it’s a much bigger population, much more drive in the arts than when we were children and Australia’s …  much stronger now of course.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes.

RUTH NYE:   But we did because we were good we got a lot of opportunities which you can’t…I will say to the youngsters nowadays, you know, you can’t just sort of say, I’ll buy that when you’re twenty.  If you had that…  If you had this experience behind you, it’s like, you’re putting something in a safe deposit in a bank and it’s all experience that you cannot buy later on.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   So, do you feel competitions are very important?  That was one of my questions.  Do you think they can … Can they establish a career, even today because we have so many of them, don’t we?

RUTH NYE:   We do.  We’re swamped.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   I don’t know… I read there was 350 last year and that’s professional ones you know.  I mean, does … does it mean anything at all?

RUTH NYE:   I’m… I’m not… I don’t keep up with them.  From that point of view, I’m not a good teacher.  I’m not one of those teachers saying, ‘this is coming up, you must go for it’.  They come to me and say, can I do this?   Occasionally, I will say I think you should do it.  I think when we were young; it was… it was a much more gentle atmosphere.  It wasn’t so cut-throat.  I know that when people, perhaps particularly parents, saw our names on the list they say ‘oh God’, because we would usually win but… but it wasn’t… it wasn’t anything that was… you… you felt that you will be belittling somebody that didn’t win.  It is much quieter, calmer, I think. Even the big competitions in Australia were…were gentler somehow I felt.  But, I think, throughout, a lot about the whole work because it would have been a handful of really, really big—like the Geneva one…..

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes.

RUTH NYE:   — ones you know, the sort of thing but well, after the war, Second World War, I think and then they sprang up like mushrooms, didn’t they?  I call them a mixed blessing.  I think… I think to get the experience of doing them is good for the students as long as they don’t fall down when they get knocked out in the first round.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes

RUTH NYE:   You get the philosophy that if you’re knocked out, you’re knocked out. You get on with it. The danger of them… I think there are many dangers.  One is that the youngsters carry the same repertoire for too long because they feel they’ve got a good competition repertoire and they’d go from one to the other playing same thing, so mostly they ask for much the same things, works to play, repertoire.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.  Yes.

RUTH NYE:   So, that’s… that’s one danger.  So, they are not pushing their horizons with their own repertoire enough, nearly enough.  And the other danger is of course, that if they do win, sometimes they’re not equipped to carry off the prize which is a lot of playing.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   A lot of concerts, different repertoire.

RUTH NYE:   Different repertoire.  And they’ll be asked to play a concerto, that they have to learn, in four months time somewhere and of course, even as they say yes, but big concertos need more than four months to gel.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes. That’s right.

RUTH NYE:   To mature inside you, which has to work. So, they’re dangers but if… but if… I mean, they are with us.  We can’t ignore them.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.

RUTH NYE:  So, we… we have to… we have to take the good side and I hope that we can… gentle, as they take about horses! So the student is not to get upset if they’re knocked out.

 MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yeah.  That’s true.

RUTH NYE:  And they often make great friendships because they all meet each other…..

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, they must know each other very well…..

RUTH NYE:   Yes. They do. Yeah.  Seriously, I… I… I am quite ambivalent about them.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Which teachers do you think were most influential in your life, especially when you were young?

 RUTH NYE: Well, I… I only had three teachers in my life.  I mean, one can learn from going to to a performance of somebody’s and then think wow. And I know that John Lill said that the greatest teacher he ever had was Arrau even though he never had a lesson from him in his life. He was a great devotee of Arrau but he would go to all his concerts.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yeah.

RUTH NYE: So, that is possible you know, you do learn from performances. But, I was lucky that I didn’t… I didn’t have that sort of wandering search for a good teacher.  They almost arrived in my lap.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yeah.

RUTH NYE:  So, from… from Edna Hosking in Brisbane to Lindsay Biggins in Melbourne, who was I would say very different.  Lindsay had a huge personality and was really wonderful at getting you prepared for performances.  He had this innate sense that he mustn’t allow any tension… bad tension to spring in, but of course we need some tension, you won’t play a note if you don’t have some tension.  You got to know how to get rid of it.  So, that was good.  So, nothing ever grew up, grew into us that had to be knocked out, but he… he had a flair.  He was talented, no doubt about it.  He was great.  And then from then, to be offered from Arrau, to go out to study with him in the US.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  It’s fantastic.

RUTH NYE:  And that was… that was not a… How should I put it?  Not a sort of volcanic change but it was… it was such a widening of my whole piano experience.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  It must have been…  that was my next question, it must have had a huge impact on your… on your playing.

RUTH NYE:   Yes.  Yes.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  And your career.

RUTH NYE:   Yes. Yes, it did. He did say to me when I first played to him… I was about twenty.  He said, who taught… who taught you  to play like that?  I said,  like what?  What do you mean?  You know, everything is organic.  And so, I was really… I was quite natural.  So, and of course he was delighted with that.  So, it was… It was great.  Because he was unique, you know.  He was sent by the Chilean Government, the family was sent from…  he was the age of five or six, six, it would have been, I think.  He was playing concerts at five and… And the Chilean Government didn’t know what to do with him… they have this young genius on their hands.  So, they… they paid for the whole family to go to Germany and that was the best scholarship they could offer him and fortunately in time, when he was about nine, he found the teacher called Martin Krause. Who was one of Liszt’s late students, and so this wonderful hereditary line we have is great. Goes from, through to Liszt, through to Czerny and through to Beethoven.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes.

RUTH NYE:  It’s wonderful. We pride ourselves on it but we’re just lucky.  But… So, Krauss was a father figure to Arrau.  His father died when Arrau was two years old.  But he… he was pretty tough to, you know, I think Arrau… they… they rented a house in the same street that Krause lived with his daughter.  And Jenny Krause was a piano teacher too, and Arrau used to leave his house and go stay for the whole day while Krause was at the Stern Conservatoire teaching, he would practice there.  And he would come home in the evening and work there, practising. It was really, really tough but… and he realized that Arrau played  in… but he that said Arrau played like Liszt played. He said everything was natural at the keyboard.  It was nothing that was restricted.  The sound was fantastic.  So, he left that alone but… but he certainly did insist that all the technical work was done absolutely a hundred and ten percent.  So, I think he just realized that this boy knew it all. Now when Krause died, when Arrau was sixteen, which is a horrible time because he just almost got out of short pants into long pants, after being that child prodigy, then suddenly he having  to be that ‘ultra’ performer and so it was devastating.  He…. he died because of that awful flu epidemic that came after the First World War . And he… He was invited by so many people to go and study with ‘this one, that one and he said I don’t know where he got the strength because he was always quite a shy person, but he got the strength to say to all these people, no.  No.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Especially at such a young age.

RUTH NYE: Yes. And so then, he was by himself and he then thought ‘why is this sound I make different from a lot of pianists’ and so our good fortune is that he set mirrors up all around (a bit like in here) he… he just watched what he did.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Okay.

RUTH NYE:  — with everything and so he was able to pass it on, because if he hadn’t done that, he wouldn’t have known what he did… so he wouldn’t have known how to teach it.

 MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Gosh.

RUTH NYE: So, that was from my point of view a wonderful thing, that was a pretty devastating couple of years for him. But his repertoire was unbelievable.  I mean, he … he performed the whole Bach works, and I know you have met Angela Hewitt….

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.

RUTH NYE:  And she is wonderful.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yeah.

RUTH NYE:  I’m sure she has performed most if not all of Bach. And… But he did a whole cycle of all Bach works in Berlin and… and he…he you know, he’s done so many of these, played all the Mozart sonatas, he just…   he did all these chunks of huge repertoire,  in his early years and it’s a… as an experience, I feel very privileged to be able to pass on to others.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.  I can imagine. What are your special memories of him?  Do you have any?

RUTH NYE: Special memories and lessons, let’s do the serious side first.  I remember the first, the very first lesson in New York, when I was doing the Appassionata and when I played it, he was just sitting over there upright. He never used another piano when he taught and I’d go along with this because you don’t want them to copy you.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes.

RUTH NYE:  You have to put it into words so that they can  translate it and then do it, whereas, so many people play it and the students get an idea but they don’t find it for themselves, you’re not really teaching them anything.  You’re teaching them to be monkeys – to copy.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yeah.

RUTH NYE: Anyway when I turned round  and saw him  the… and he started to speak in a gentle, quiet voice and not because I was unhappy but I was so overwhelmed that my eyes were filled with tears and they just rolled down my face for probably the whole lesson and  he said, ‘oh dear, don’t.  Have I distressed you?’  I said, ‘no, I’m happy’. So, anyway, I had a few tissues so it was alright. But… but his teaching was… always with words, he had a wonderful gift of, because at one stage he was fluent in five languages.  I think couple of them got a bit rusty as he got older, but he could speak, because of his life, that’s what he could do.  But he had this wonderful sense of being able put across with words what you then had to take in and make your own and bring out yourself.  He never… He never said like this and played it, and that was… that was a rare, rare thing.  It’s so… so often you see a teacher just… just play, you know.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.

RUTH NYE: Yeah.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes. Just sit and the piano.  Just mimicking.

RUTH NYE: Yeah.  Yeah.  I remember one person when I had this wonderful birthday, concert given to me at the Menuhin school last December and a musical friend came up after this, cause a lot of my students came back and played , and the whole concert was made up, and the Director of Music organized all.  It was all a secret from me.  I didn’t know what’s on the programme until I got there.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   No.

RUTH NYE:   But somebody came after the concert, amazing things are all different and I took that as a great compliment.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.

RUTH NYE:   I really did.  They had all the same, what I call, philosophy of the way  to play the piano.  But you have to let the person run themselves musically and not just stamp your image. They’ve got to find their own way.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Sure.  Sure. You’re… you’re a very celebrated teacher now, you teach at the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Royal College of Music.

RUTH NYE:   Yeah.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   What is it that you love about teaching so much? Because you’ve devoted a lot of your time to it.

RUTH NYE:  Yes, I have over the last twenty years, really.  Because I contracted Dupuytren’s contracture in my finger in the early 90’s.  And, that really started to put the end to my playing. I’ve got arthritis but anyway, apart from I’ve been lucky enough to find fulfillment–

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.

RUTH NYE:  — in teaching.  Fortunately, with a lot of…with an awful lot of talented people.  So, I say to the… to my students when they start to teach, I say look at … when a little youngster coming to you, has to have one of two qualities,  they have to be musical or they to be enchanting that you can’t resist them, you know.   But… But that is true, you know.  But, what I love about it is you get somebody who has musical gift there and has talent and that… that varies you know, you can find somebody who works at the piano and has no problems at all. You find someone who’s hand is perhaps not quite the right thing for the piano and you got to make it right. But what I love about it as much I think, most… two things that I do,  I’m able to do, is to see a human being develop as a person because we’re developing the talent inside them. And if that talent wasn’t developed, I don’t say they would be a lesser person but they’ll be a different person and to see this growing so wonderfully with confidence and they’re prepared to express themselves that is… that is wonderful.  And then of course the… from ability to do it. You have to teach them that as well.  So, it’s very fulfilling.  It’s… It’s… It’s wonderful when they find things for themselves to you know, say well, someone was playing and I said ‘ why… why did you want to do that accelerando there?  It’s not marked.’ ‘well I just thought it would be, you know’, I just said…It’s not convincing.  Play it again and convince me.  If you convince me, you can do it.  But play it again, and convince me.  Nine times out of ten Melanie, they’ll play it again and then turn round to me and say, ‘ no, it didn’t work to… didn’t work.’  And that’s the best way because they find it out themselves.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes.

RUTH NYE:   Whereas, if you just come and say, ‘don’t do it’.  And  they… Hmm… Hmmm..say ‘I want to do it’.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes.

RUTH NYE:  But when they find out themselves, it doesn’t work.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes.  What aspects of piano study are most important when you take a young… young pianist and you start training them? What do you think is the most important?

RUTH NYE:   I… I just got a new youngster…at the Menuhin School…a little boy and he’s incredibly musical.  He’s nine years old, I think. And what I found that his theoretical knowledge is very patchy, even for a nine year old, it’s patchy. So, I… I… I, he’s had two weeks of school with me but already I’m starting to… to build that foundation to make sure there is no holes anywhere.  There comes a time when he… you know, if he doesn’t know that F sharp  major has  6 sharps.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Oh, yeah.

RUTH NYE:  He doesn’t know there the order of  sharps and flats.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yeah.

RUTH NYE:  Which he didn’t.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yeah.

RUTH NYE: It might sound trite but it’s important, you know.  And the…  all these foundations, these cornerstones, that we must make sure are in place and if you suddenly find there’s is a gap then you’ve got to fill it in, making it fun, making it an adventure. If it’s dry and boring, they get dry, they get bored.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yeah, sure.

RUTH NYE:  But if you make it an adventure and then they can  see it then and they apply it to what they’re doing.  What key are you playing in?  Why have you got a B natural there?  What’s happened?  And make them think.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes.

RUTH NYE:   Make them use their brains.  So, that’s… that is very important.  The other thing is you’ll find a lot of this business.  And sometimes, it’s easy to break and other times it just takes a little time because it’s quite ingrained but just… you just gently keep pushing it down ‘cause that’s also puts awful  tension through the whole body. If you’ve got a restriction anywhere, I feel that you cannot get the sound out of the  instrument that you want, because you’re finally, no matter what you do, you finally just might get a pencil and go ‘bonk’.  You need… You need to know what you want to do with your body to get that particular sound, ‘cause we are playing… we are playing a machine really.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.

RUTH NYE:  We’re not in, we’ve got an E.  We’ve got all the mechanics that work inside but we can make that particular  note sound different.  One… One thing I find is that people only think of expression like, pianos and fortes or mezzo fortes, that sort of thing… and they think of them in decibels.  They don’t think what type of mezzo forte that I am wanting to produce?

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  That’s true.

RUTH NYE: And the range that is huge but… but how can we produce it?  That… That range when you’re touching something, work something  inside and I… it’s magic because if… if you have the image of sound in your head, and you just… use your body in the correct way, the sound will come through. If you don’t have the image, well then you’re lost. But you have got to have the image first and then it turn… it just… it happens and this is I think, was the… why Arrau said to himself, ‘why do I make a different sound?’  Not only a different sound, but a range of sound. Not in decibels but in that area of … of that one little string.  If you… If you think of the world, you get it like in painting.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.

RUTH NYE:  You’ve got a beautiful pink jacket on , well  there are a lots and lots and lots of sorts of different pinks jackets aren’t there? But it’s still a pink jacket?

MELANIE SPANSWICK: That’s very true.

RUTH NYE:  Yes.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  So, what does playing the piano and teaching the piano mean to you?

RUTH NYE: I suppose it means a huge amount. I think I was very lucky when this thing happened to my finger that I was able to go into teaching.  I think if it had been taken away from me completely.  I think you’d be a different person.  I don’t say you’d be a worse person or a better person, I think you’d be a different person.  I don’t think you’d be the same person.  I think I’m lucky that the other side of my life is good.  I’m… I’m very lucky, I’ve got a wonderful family and so, it’s not that I would feel pushed out because I know I still have that behind me that’s solid… solid thing. And… But, I think if you take any artist or you take any art away from any person you… you must end up as a different person.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.

RUTH NYE:  And I’m sure I’m afraid although I love my garden, and I love my gardening, I’m afraid as every year I past the ground gets further  away all the time. So, in as much as I could have spent hours and hours in the garden, I can’t now.  So, I just have to enjoy… enjoy it a  little… little… a little and often but not a long time.  So, there are… I… I don’t think I’ve been miserable but I would be bereft.  Yeah.

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

RUTH NYE:  It’s a pleasure.  Thank you, Melanie.

Piers Lane in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My twenty-first Classical Conversation is with Australian concert pianist Piers Lane, who chatted to me last week at Steinway Hall in London.

London-based Australian pianist Piers Lane has a flourishing international career, which has taken him to more than forty countries. Highlights of the past year include world premiere performances of Carl Vine’s second piano concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Hugh Wolff, the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sinaisky and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra under Marko Letonja, a standing ovation for Busoni’s piano concerto with the American Symphony under Leon Botstein at Carnegie Hall, New York, the Grieg concerto with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis and the John Ireland concerto with the La Verdi Orchestra in Milan. His three Wigmore Hall appearances this season included a sold-out recital of the complete Chopin Nocturnes, a Schubert lieder recital with the German tenor Markus Schaefer and a late-night performance with actress Patricia Routledge of Admission: One Shilling, a presentation about Dame Myra Hess’s wartime concert series at the National Gallery. He also appeared as pianist and narrator in the London Philharmonic’s Prokofiev Festival, curated by Vladimir Jurovsky at the Royal Festival Hall.

His diverse discography of over fifty CDs includes acclaimed recordings of Romantic concertos, transcriptions of Bach and Strauss, complete sets of etudes by Saint-Saens, Skryabin, Henselt and Moscheles and the piano quintets by Arensky, Bloch, Bridge, Dvorak, Elgar, Harty and Taneyev with the Goldner String Quartet. His most recent releases feature twentieth-century encores and rarities (Piers Lane Goes to Town), sonatas by Strauss. Respighi, Walton, Britten and Ferguson with violinist Tasmin Little and Liszt’s transcription of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy with violist Philip Dukes. Five discs await release on the Hyperion and ABC Classics labels, including the six concerti by Malcolm Williamson and two Mozart concerti.

Piers been Artistic Director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music since 2007 and the annual Myra Hess Day at the National Gallery in London since 2006. In the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Birthday Honours, he was made an Officer in the Order of Australia for services to the arts as pianist, mentor and director.

www.pierslane.com


Piers in action….

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

Melanie:   Australian concert pianist Piers Lane came to prominence in 1977 at the inaugural Sydney International Piano Competition and has since then gone on to develop a wonderful career playing with all the major orchestras and conductors around the world.

He’s won many prizes for his piano playing and is artistic director for several music festivals and I’m delighted that he’s taken the time to come and chat to me today as part of my Classical Conversations series here at Steinway Hall in London.

Welcome, Piers.

Piers:   Thank you, Melanie.

Melanie:  Lovely to chat to you today. I’m just going to start by asking all about your musical education, how old you were when you started, what was the catalyst, and did you come from a musical family.

Piers:   I certainly did come from a musical family. My father was a Londoner and met my mother when they both auditioned at the Royal College of Music. My mother was Queensland-born from Australia and so I started life actually in London and I was only five months old when I was shipped south. But there was always that umbilical connection which meant something to me later in a strange way.

                                Anyway, I loved – when I was a little boy – listening to lessons taking place in the home. You know, I would lie under the dining room table while my father taught adult students and then I’d hear them discussed at the table. So, I was always very much part of my parents’ teaching life.

                                I didn’t start lessons till I was seven, in a little class that my mother had, and went ahead quite quickly. And I think I used to read through the rest of the book, you know. I used to love pulling music out of the cupboard and sight-reading, and I remember when I was nine, finding the Grieg Concerto and just thinking, “Ah, this is fantastic!”

Melanie:    Yes.

Piers:    Yes. So, I did have a musical upbringing and that counts for a lot, I think. It was always very natural.

Melanie:    So, which teachers then do you feel were most influential or most inspiring?

Piers:    Well, my mother was my first teacher and I studied with her till I was about twelve. She used to hate it later when I’d say that many of my lessons were called out from the ironing board, but it was true, and there were just lots of little things.

                                I remember sight-reading through the Mozart K. 488 – slow movement once and feeling a little bit pleased with myself – I was only very young – and my mother said, “Yes, but it’s supposed to be very sad.” And I thought, “Oh, I haven’t done it right,” and I went and played it in a totally different way. Just that sort of thing, there was instant response to what I did at home – very important.

Melanie:  That’s a big help, isn’t it?

Pier:     So, mum was a terrific teacher.

                                And then, I went to Dr. William Lovelock – you may have heard of him because he wrote endless textbooks on harmony and counterpoint – and he wasn’t an academic sort of piano teacher at all, funnily enough. He himself would study with Henry Gayle who left a set of hand development exercises, mainly with the intention of getting rid of the webbing between fingers so that you could increase span and that sort of thing, and independence. But Gayle had studied with Leschetizky so there was that sort of connection which was lovely. I went to him originally to study Bach and, when I was twelve, took the C minor Toccata. But I think I only ever learned one other partita with him and he asked me the next week to bring Aquarelle by Dr. William Lovelock. So, it was quite fun because he was interested in that salon style as well which was of great use in my life as we’ll hear later perhaps.

But after Lovelock, I went to Nancy Weir. You may not have heard of her but she was a great pianist and she was a very great person. A wonderful raconteur as well. She had been a child prodigy. She grew up in a tiny town in outback Victoria where her father was an Irish publican and guests in the pub used to hear this little child do whatever they asked for on the piano. She could play by ear amazingly. And someone said she should be with the nuns in Melbourne and she was sent to Melbourne, studied the rather formidable Ada Freeman – later Ada Corder – who was a phenomenal teacher and she was the first in Australia to play the Elgar Piano Quintet, and a lot of Ravel. She had telegrams from these people thanking her for performing in Australia. Amazing connections there, but Nancy, when she was twelve, played Beethoven 3 with the Melbourne Symphony. There were mounted police keeping back the crowds on the way in as she was a celebrity at twelve sort of thing. But the people of Victoria raised funds to send her to Berlin at thirteen to study with Artur Schnabel, and Schnabel loved Nancy, and she was part of his class for three years, and used to holiday with his family in Como during the summer, and that sort of thing.

When she was seventeen, she came to London and studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Craxton and later with Matthay, and at the same time as Moura Lympany they were there together.

When the war came, she joined the WAFS. She was in Air Force intelligence actually because, of course, she had totally fluent German from having lived her teenage years in Berlin. And so, she became a code-breaker and that sort of thing. Fascinating.

Melanie:    Yes.

Piers:   She was highly intelligent and played in Egypt and Italy – where she was stationed during the war – with extraordinary orchestras composed of big names later on from the string world and that sort of thing. They were serving at the time. Amazing years those. But she returned to Australia in 1964 after touring out there with Galliera, the great conductor, and had never been home since she was, you know, twelve years old. But stayed in Melbourne to begin with and then moved to Queensland and that was where I studied with her when I did a degree at the Conservatory of Music, when my father was a great lecturer in Harmony and Counterpoint, and director of studies. I still meet many people all over the place who loved his lectures and loved him. He was a marvellous teacher. I know that Brett Dean attributes his compositional knowledge to dad and that’s a lovely thing that Brett has gone on to become such a figure in the world. I learned a lot from him.

                                And then, when I left Nancy, it was probably the biggest influence in my life. I should say a bit more about her style, really, because she studied with Schnabel so she had all that German background and the English school as well. But she had known Shura Cherkassky from when she was twelve and he was sixteen on his first international tour. They’d met in Australia and they were friends for life, and I think she almost was slightly jealous that she hadn’t studied with Joseph Hoffman in America the way he had. And she loved the Russian style of playing – Russian colour and Russian high jinks on the piano. And so, her teaching focused on that as well, very much. She had a very great breadth of understanding of pianism and of music. And I think I was the beneficiary of that, really.

                                From her, I won a Churchill Fellowship. In those years, they offered a two-year special performance award which took me away to America for eight months where I studied with Béla Síki, Hungarian. And I’m very glad I had that influence. He had that rigorous Hungarian background himself. He’d studied with Dohnanyi and he also studied with Lipatti, and in fact, took over for Lipatti when he died in Geneva. He’s still alive in Seattle and he had such lucidity of mind, very simple outlook in a way. Great sense of structure of the music and a really crystalline sound on the piano, and that was a great counter-influence, in a way, to Nancy’s rich German approach, and colourful Russian one.

                                After Siki, well, while I was in America, actually, I played to Jorge Bolet as well, and he invited me to come to his master classes in the Edinburgh Festival. So, when I moved to London in ’79, the first thing I’d do was go to the Edinburgh Festival and worked for a week with Bolet in a class he held there, and that was a magical time. His sound was just extraordinary and this small room was almost overwhelming the cantabile that he had. And we worked on the Liszt Sonata, on the Liszt E flat Concerto, on Petrushka of Stravinsky, Gaspard (de la Nuit) we’d worked on in America, and his way of thinking, and his way of peddling, of thinking of sound, of fingering, all of that has stood me in great stead. I didn’t have a lot of contact with him but it was very influential, actually.

                                I went then to the Royal College of Music and studied with Kendall Taylor who had taught my mother all those years previously. And so, it was lovely to continue that tradition. But then, I also studied with Yonty Solomon for a little time there and Yonty was such a fabulously imaginative musician. He had a great ear for sound. He had great understanding of psychology as well as music, many things, all of the arts, and this wonderfully liberating sense of imagination. So, he remained a friend for life, really.

Melanie:   Lovely man.

Piers:   Oh, he was a terrific person, wasn’t he?

Melanie:  Yes, I had a few lessons with him. He was wonderful.

Piers:     Yeah.

Melanie:    Yes, really.

Piers:    So many people miss him at the Royal College and outside. So, they were the main influences.

Melanie:   And how did you develop your technique?

Piers:   Well, I think I was lucky I had a natural sort of technique from childhood. Probably watching two pianists at home – not that mum and dad had much time to play themselves. But my mother was a very fine teacher of young people, and older ones. But she gave certain precepts, I think, at the start that held me in good stead always. She gave me the Wieck Exercises which are wonderfully natural. It’s just a five finger thing where you da-da-dee-dee-dee. But when you reach the top there are thirds and it teaches you to relax into the keys, to release at the end, and then go up to the next note.

                                There was a little exercise which I always recall with great affection, run and float. It might have be a Joan Last exercise.

Melanie:    It sounds like one of hers.

Piers:   Yes. But Mum gave me that, and all children that, and it’s just a matter of starting on middle C and then releasing the wrist. And, of course, you do a swan’s neck, and when you’re a child, you do a swan’s neck sort of as high as you could reach, and then come down, onto to the next group and up again. But it’s training the wrist to release the whole time. And I find when I give master classes in all sorts of places, now there are so many brilliant young pianists but they have no idea how release their wrists and their muscles, you know. They hang onto chords. Once they play them, they grip them still, and they don’t know about breathing with the wrist and just releasing the arm.

So, I think my foundation was very good. It set me up in a way where I was very free in the arms and the wrist. I didn’t practice scales or anything religiously at all. I was always very naughty. With Dr. Lovelock, he gave me these Gayle exercises and Hanon to be played in all keys, and he felt that if you could play the first five studies of Opus 740 of Czerny, you could play anything.

Melanie:    Yes.

Piers:    He’s very probably right.

Melanie:  Yeah.

Piers:     I certainly think I got from an early age the sense of using economical use of the shoulder to get you across the keys as economically as possible. That is a great thing, you know, if you can play arpeggios up and down very easily with a very natural thumb position. That holds you in great stead later. But I used to turn the corners of the pages down. I’d go for a lesson, to look as if I’d practised them a lot and he’d say, “Now, don’t do too much. You can do too much of this sort of stuff.”

                                But, when I went to Seattle to study with Siki, I did for eight months really concentrate on technique in a way I hadn’t before. I used to practice scales with pairs of fingers like one-two-one-two-one-two in all keys, and two-three-two-three, and four-five-four-five, and chromatic scales just with two fingers or with three fingers. And that’s another thing that Mum put me onto very early was chromatic scales – not one-three-one-three but using one-two-three and one-two-three-four – so that you float up and down, and it became like glissandi, and again, with a very natural use from the shoulder.

Melanie:  Yeah.

Piers:   That was very useful for later on, too. But that work I did in America, practicing with metronome pianissimo scales, making sure that every note was even, that was very timely, I think. I had to leave it afterwards, you could get crazy. I practiced various Chopin Etudes like the Winter Wind, doing all of the Cortot exercises religiously. And it really did refine my technique.

                                When I came to England, I let go of all that and really played as being the greatest teacher of technique, I think. Knowing what you want in your head first, hearing the sound you want first, and then replicating that usually teaches you how to cope with something technically. If there is a problem, often you’re playing it too fast, and so, if you put a metronome on, discover what you’re doing, often you’re concentrating on the wrong thing. You’re not actually aware of what you’ve got to actually sort out in the texture. When you do actually look at the texture, you think, “Oh, that’s happening in that little phrase. That’s happening there. Actually, I’m totally neglecting the left hand,” and you realize that priorities of the texture, it’s amazing what sorts itself out technically.

Melanie:    Yeah, fascinating.

                  You’ve played in a lot of competitions as well.

Piers:   I didn’t, actually.

Melanie:    Yeah, but you did?

Piers:    No, I stopped doing competitions when I was twenty-three and I used to enter them after that. Like, twice I entered the Tchaikovsky competition. It didn’t go either time. So, I didn’t do that many. I did several small ones. I was in the first Sydney International Piano Competition and won a prize for The Best Australian Pianist and that did lead to concerts afterwards. The ABC asked me to play with the West Australian Symphony of Queensland and the Adelaide Orchestra’s the next year which was lovely. And, of course, it was a great thing to do. I learned Rach 3 for the finals. I wasn’t in the finals. I was in the semi-finals but, when I was asked to do a concert with the Queensland Symphony, they asked for Rach 2. I said, “Could I possibly do Rach 3?” because I wanted to do that for the competition. And so, it made me reach new levels.

                                The year before, I had entered the Liszr-Bartok Competiton in Budapest when I was eighteen and that was a fantastic time. I, again, played in the semi-finals. Met all sorts of people, including Annie Fischer, and it was wonderful. She invited me to her house and I became too scared to go and play for her. It’s funny when you’re young, you know, I had no fear of the competition until I started to do well and then suddenly started to become a bit self-conscious. Then, she invited me to my first Wagner opera. I went along to the opera house in Budapest and thought I’d be in the stalls, and they said something in Hungarian. I ended up being in the second-best box in the house which was her box. It was next to the royal one which was only used by Communist party heads in those days. And she later joined me with her sister. We went to a restaurant where all the waiters lined up and bowed to her. And, you know, that was heavy stuff for an eighteen-year-old from Brisbane. And I was invited to give various concerts in and around Budapest, and that was a great experience as well. It was a real eye-opener. And to be in a Communist country at that stage was fascinating, too. The Hungarians were wonderfully rebellious, I think, and they had to do their Marxism exams before they could do their piano exams. But it was fascinating to meet people my own age in those circumstances and I’ve always loved Budapest. I was there a few years ago, standing in the top of the opera house to watch a ballet performance. There were no tickets left and I looked back fondly down at the box where I sat as an eighteen-year-old.

Melanie:  Which composers do you love to play?

Piers:    Well, that’s a hard one. I love to play so many different composers. I probably play more of the Romantics than anything else – certainly a lot of Chopin.

Melanie:   We talked about Chopin the other day and you were playing the complete Nocturnes.

Piers:    Yes, I’ve been playing them as a set since the bicentennial year, 2010, when the Chopin Society asked me to open the year of celebrations, playing all the Nocturnes in St. Paul’s Church. And it was a wonderful experience. It’s such a voyage. You would think playing twenty-one slow pieces in a row would be terribly boring, but it’s not with the Chopin Nocturnes. I do them chronologically and it’s fascinating hearing Chopin’s language change right throughout when you compared the early E flat say with the last E major. There’s a world of difference in the language and in the profundity. You hear Chopin getting older but also there’s extraordinary variety within them. It’s an amazing journey and I’ve done it so many times since. I did it at the Wigmore late last year but I’ve played them in Bridgewater Hall in Manchester and many places around the world. Just last week in the Machynlleth Festival, Julius Drake’s Festival up in Wales. I did them across two nights then, candlelit. Next year, six people in America have asked for them and it’s funny. It something that seems to be going on and so I do play a lot of Chopin.

                                I’ve always loved Bach. More and more, I play Schubert. I couldn’t live without Schumann and Brahms and certain Liszt. Mozart I’ve played since I was a child. The Russians as well. I love playing Rachmaninoff and Scriabin – I suppose that follows on from Chopin. So, I’m a bit greedy, really.

Melanie:  Now, I want us to talk about the less well-known composers because you’ve done a whole series of rare Romantic composer Concertos for Hyperion and that’s fabulous. So, what makes you want to play slightly less well-known pieces that perhaps most people wouldn’t know?

Piers:    That all started in Australia. I think that was the great thing about growing up in Australia compared with London, or anywhere else. There was no particular school of piano playing and there were no boundaries, really. It worked both ways.

                                When I was seventeen, I said to my teacher Nancy Weir, “I found a piece in the cupboard at home last week by Liszt that I think’s rather good.” She said, “Oh, what is it?” I said, “Oh, it’s a sonata in B minor.” She said, “Oh yeah, it is rather good.” She didn’t let on that it’s sort of the acme of the romantic period of piano composition. And I learned it in ten days and played it at concert practice at the conservatory then, you know, then included that in concerts. I really wasn’t aware just what standing it had, and that’s great in a way, you know?

Melanie:   Yes.

Piers:     There was no problem attacking something like that at seventeen. But likewise, I’ve found things, when I was sixteen, I was staying with my grandparents in North Queensland and at Christmas-time there were two programmes on the telly featuring Isador Goodman who was originally English but lived in Australia and was a wonderful pianist. And there was the Schulz-Evler transcription of the Blue Danube, Concert Arabesques Beside the Beautiful River Danube, and I thought, “Wow! I’d love to play that!” I, that year, played Dohnányi’s Naila Waltz arrangement of Delibes and that virtuoso sort of salon piece appealed and I tried to get hold of it but it wasn’t in print and I was a bit shocked by that. Amazingly enough, later that year, my German teacher, wonderful chap to whom I played the Naila Waltz said, “I’ve got a piece that’ll fox you,” and he pulled out this dog-eared old copy of the Blue Danube. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

                                So, I learned it and I played it, and that piece always brought me good luck. And once, sometime in the 80s, I did three Queen Elizabeth Hall recitals and I finished one of them with the Blue Danube of Schulz-Evler. I think, funny enough, playing it after the Op.23 Preludes by Rachmaninov and the next year, there was a message on my answer phone from Mike Springer from Hyperion and he’s the sales manager there but he’s an extraordinary pianofile as well and responsible for a lot of the decisions about pianists to be recorded and piano pieces to have been recorded by Hyperion over the years.

                                Anyway, he left a message saying that Hyperion had some money given to them to start a series of rare Romantic piano concertos and he thought I might be the sort of person who might be interested in that, and I thought, “Not half,” and I rang in the next day and I said, “What sort of things are you thinking of doing? Things like the Moszkowski?” And he nearly dropped the phone because that was exactly what they wanted to start the series with, Moszkowski and Paderewski. And I knew the Moszkowski because Nancy had played it. Michael Ponti when he visited Australia in the early 70s was shocked to discover that Nancy had already played the Moszkowski that he was playing there with orchestra. And she had played that on the BBC, for the BBC, way back in the 40s. And when I came to play it somewhere in England, there was this old BBC library copy with cuts marked and she had to make cuts – because of the size of the programme or something – on the spot for this live broadcast that she’d done all those years before and it was probably the same copy that her conductor had used.

                                Anyway, I said, “What made you think of me?” It was because he’d been in that Queen Elizabeth Hall recital performance and heard me doing the Schulz-Evler and thought that I was a pianist who liked having fun at the piano as well. And so, he was quite right. That was the start of that.

Of course, once you start recording unusual works, people love to put people in boxes.

Melanie:   Yes.

Piers:   It can be a great problem as well. And so, many times I’ve been asked to play unusual pieces, but not the unusual ones I already play. People want me to play their rare music. I’ve ended up accruing a great deal of rare repertoire. But I do love looking at the texture of history as well because it didn’t lurch from one genius to the next. There was a whole texture behind things. Chopin wouldn’t have been Chopin without all sorts of other composers at that time doing things, and Chopin wouldn’t have written the E Minor Concerto without Hummel having first written his B Minor Concerto and A Minor, and I’ve played both of those and, you know, it makes so much sense of the Chopin then when you play that afterwards.

                                It’s lovely finding out about history and the fabric of history through these rare composers. Of course, you’re not going to find a Beethoven 4, or very, very unlikely to. But there’s often great musical fun to be had, and a lot of depth as well. I love sharing those pieces, too. It’s great fun when you can produce a piece that nobody’s heard of before.

Melanie:   Definitely, yeah.

Piers:    And they find they love it, and that’s a great joy.

Melanie:   You’re artistic director of the annual Myra Hess Day at the National Gallery.

Piers:    Yes!

Melanie:   And also, you do a performance with the actress, Patricia Routledge.

Piers:     Yes.

Melanie:  I just wanted to ask how that all came about really.

Piers:   Well, it was all thanks to a marvellous lady called Carmel Hart who is full of brilliant ideas and she wanted to put on a day in memory of Dame Myra Hess’ wartime series. You know, that series is legendary. People speak of it always. But there had never been an actual celebration of it at the gallery. And so, in 2006, she called a group together, including the Jewish Music Institute and various others of us and Myra’s nephew, Nigel Hess, the composer, her other nephew – various people. Anyway, we got together and she asked me to put the programme together. And so, I organized a lunch-time concert and an evening concert and an event in the afternoon which included nine pianists sharing Carnaval which was great fun. That was something that they’d done on New Year’s Day in 1940, I think, and in the actual wartime concerts.

                                Anyway, it was a big success and all sorts of people came out of the woodwork. In fact, I had Yonty Solomon play the Goldberg Variations as the lunch-time concert and it was one of the last times Yonty played before his brain tumour caused too many problems and that, I was always feel so grateful for and Yonty  of course, along with Stephen Kovacevich had been one of Dame Myra’s main students. But it was a great success and there were some people there who had actually performed in the concerts. There were many who had been taken there when they were teenagers or younger. And so, we thought, “Maybe we should do a second one,” and the gallery asked if I would direct it. And then, the third year, we put it to the gallery that maybe it should be an annual event and that’s what it’s become. There’s an Annual Dame Myra Hess Day which I still direct and love doing as well. The next one’s on November 22nd this year.

                                I also direct the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. I’ve done that since 2007 and that’s a great joy to have. Well, it’s just over about three weeks ago, actually. We had forty-four artists this time, I think, and that twelve from this part of the world, and the rest were Australian. And we have ten days of concerts – three concerts a day, plus the winter school and master classes and other events. Always a concert outside Townsville where it’s based. Funny enough, my mother and her parents were all born in Townsvillle and it’s odd that I now direct a festival where they were all born. It’s on a barrier reef in far north Queensland and it’s winter-time there but that means 21 to 26 degrees which is ideal. We always have a concert outside Townsville. This time it was on Magnetic Island and it was just amazing hearing a wind quintet, and brass quintet, and an accordionist, and Nick Daniel on oboe with David Malouf reading from his own An Imaginary Life,  about Ovid between the six pieces of the Metamorphoses of Britten on oboe, and all sorts of exciting things happened there. But yes, I love directing things as well.

Melanie:    Putting things together. Which one’s been your favourite venue around the world?

Piers:       Gosh. Well, the Wigmore Hall springs straight to mind.

Melanie:    Yes.

Piers:     Just up the road from here. Funny enough, when I first played in the Wigmore Hall years ago, I found it slightly intimidating because it was such as small stage. I was used to having a lot of space around the piano and, the Wigmore, there isn’t that much space. You know, now, I adore playing there. You just have to touch a note and it sings to the background of the balcony. I love that intimacy that it has.

                                There are all sorts of venues I’ve loved though. Gothenburg, there is a hall that is a simple wooden shoebox. We were always told they had the best acoustic sound and they really do. That place, it’s the only time I’ve played Tchaikovsky 1 when I felt I haven’t had to bash out the opening. It just sings and the orchestra does rehearsals in there, does its concerts in there, and records in there.

                                Some of the most exciting places I’ve played, of course, the Royal Albert playing at the proms – nothing quite like that. I remember my first prom, people standing just there. It was terrifying in a way but so exciting and so supportive, at the same time, this enormous warmth that comes from Prom’s audiences.

                                And I remember in ’91, playing for the centenary after Bliss’ birth, the great piano concerto of Sir Arthur Bliss which meant a lot to me because my father was 14,000 miles away at 5:00 AM in the morning, listening. He’d attached some wire outside and could pick up the broadcast from BBC out in Australia while it was happening live and he’d introduced that piece to me, the Solomon performance, when I was about twelve. So, that was a lovely circle completed.

                                The greatest thrill venue-wise in recent years has been Carnegie Hall. December before last, I played the massive Busoni Piano Concerto there to a packed hall and got a standing ovation afterwards. It was terribly exciting. But, to walk out a few days before when I went to try the pianos to select which Steinway I’d use, surrounded by the ghosts of that place, they’re palpable, you know? Rachmaninov played there. It’s thrilling and that wonderfully elegant massive hall that was a great excitement.

                                But there have been small venues that have meant lots of things to me, too. I remember playing in the church once in some little outback place in Zimbabwe to sixty-five people. But some of those people had come from dozens of miles away to come to this concert. I thought the little Broadwood piano wouldn’t take it. I was playing an opus of Chopin Etudes and Pictures at an Exhibition. I thought, “How’s this going to go?” It did. You know, miracles sometimes happen.

                                And I remember with Tasmin Little, the violinist, once gave me a concert in Loja in Ecuador. We had this frightful flight where you were flying between spurs of a mountain and had to corkscrew the land and then a jeep ride. And this wonderful audience – it seemed like the whole town had turned out – the page-turner wanted me to play some British contemporary music to see what it was like, and the party to end all parties afterwards.

                                There have been amazing venues around the world, in unexpected places, apart from the sort of big ones.

Melanie:   Sounds like it. What’s your most treasured musical memory?

Piers:      Well, going back to when I was a child, hearing my parents’ play two pianos together was a very special thing and I think that set up my love for two-piano work and for working with others. They, as I said before, didn’t get much time to practice. They had five children and my mother had seventy students at one stage. My father was often away examining and adjudicating apart from lecturing and that sort of thing. So, it was a treat when they got together and would play Bach arrangements or something, or Rachmaninov, or Mozart on two pianos. But, playing-wise, gosh! It’s so difficult. Those venues I was talking about before, they’ve led to very memorable concerts.

Yeah, I don’t know if I had to select absolutely one concert, what it would be. Certainly Carnegie Hall, Busoni, in recent years, many times at the Wigmore, the Proms certainly, special things like playing in Bombay – the first professional performance of Rachmaninov 2 with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra – that was a special thing. You rehearsed at 7:00 AM back when I did that because it was hot there during the day and a lot of people had full-time jobs as well. But nearly the whole orchestra shook my hand as they came off-stage and then stacks of people flocked around.

I’ve played in some unlikely places in the world and have loved doing it and its left very special memories.

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

Piers:     Well, more the same, really. Recital-wise, I’m playing in the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in December which is very exciting. That’s a new place for me but lots of exciting plans there. We were going to talk about Patricia Routledge and the show before in connection with Myra Hess Day. You asked how that came about and it’s an on-going thing.

                                When we did the first Myra Hess Day in 2007, Patricia Routledge was in the audience. You know, she’s a musician as well and she goes to a lot of concerts. Oh, yes, she’s a wonderful singer. She’s got a glorious contralto voice and, actually, she does a show at the moment with Edward Seckerson talking about her musical life and she sang in twenty-six musicals or operettas or whatever, including premiering Bernstein on Broadway. Fascinating, but she was in the audience and we had met, funnily enough, in Melbourne. I was playing Rach 2 with the Melbourne Symphony back in 2000 and she was doing Oscar Wilde in Melbourne at the time and couldn’t come to one of the concerts and so came to one of the rehearsals and that was where I first met her. But anyway, we met at the National Gallery, and I said, “If ever we did anything portraying Myra Hess, would you consider playing her?” Because a friend in the audience that day got the fright of his life – he looked around and he thought he saw Myra Hess sitting in audience. It turned out to be Patricia Routledge and that’s what put the seed in my head which sowed something. And so, two years later, I approached Nigel Hess, Dame Myra’s great-nephew, the composer, about putting our scripts together from Myra’s diaries, and from interviews with her, and from Kenneth Clark’s book about the wartime concerts. And he put together a script, and Patricia, and he, and Chris Luscombe, the director and I met for lunch – it turned into four or five lunches, wonderful times which extended for hours. It was full of laughs and we went through every word, editing it together. We were all on the same wavelength and produced this show. Nigel and I selected the music and I play ten short pieces, about three minutes long each, from Myra’s repertoire, and Patricia narrates the story, basically, in Myra’s words. And there are images projected on a screen behind us from the time and they add a lot to it as well. And so, we did that at the National Gallery in 2009 and there were four or five festival directors in the audience and Cheltenham invited us to go and do it at the festival and we wondered how it would be away from the National Gallery where people loved it, and then, we were asked to do it in Canterbury – wonderful school there – and we had about 800 in the audience and we thought, “Not necessarily all musicians in this audience,” they loved it. And so, we realized it had appeal and we’ve done it dozens of times now. In fact, we’re doing it later this year, several times in Belgium. I’m absolutely thrilled that Patricia, at her stage of life, has agreed to come to Australia next year and we’re doing about twenty-six performances throughout Australia in May next year so it’s terribly exciting.

Melanie:   Yes, fantastic.

Piers:    Well, that’s been a treat. But other future things in different directions, well, more Australian Festivals of Chamber Music. I’m already planning next year. You know, we only finished the last one. It’s something that takes up every week of my life. Concerto wise there’s Grieg, more Busoni on that horizon next year and Nights in the Gardens of Spain which I’ve never done before, Beethoven threes, I’m doing a three Beethoven fives with the Czech Philharmonic, there’s Liszt 1, all sorts of lovely concertos ahead.

Well, lots of travel.

Melanie:    What does playing the piano mean to you?

Piers:     Oof! It’s been the whole focus of my life. It was the focus of my childhood, it took me through young adulthood, it made me shift to England from Australia, it’s directed the rest of my life, really. It’s taken me, well, I travel almost every week of my life, I would say at least every month, and most weeks. And that’s all been directed by the piano. It’s led me to develop other areas of myself. I’ve written and presented many radio programmes for the BBC. I’ve written a lot of articles and CD notes and things like that so

. I’ve written and presented many radio programmes for the BBC. I’ve written a lot of articles and CD notes and things like that so it’s developed that writing side. It’s led me into artistic direction, led me into teaching, I taught at the Royal Academy for many years. I’ve stopped for the moment but will, no doubt, come back to that later. I don’t know. It’s allowed me to find meaning in life, I suspect, and it’s allowed me to express meaning in a way that nothing else could. I don’t know how people who don’t love deeply one of the arts cope as they get older. I think music has so many layers. It always has more there than you can ever bring to it. And so, deeper and deeper levels available to you as you mature.

At some times, it’s even made feel better physically. I sometimes realize I haven’t played for a few days and I might be feeling slightly off-colour or something and I play the piano and I’m actually fine. It’s just missing that connection with the piano. So, I think the piano keeps me well – psychologically, and emotionally, and even physically.

Melanie:    Thank you so much for joining me today, Piers.

Piers:      Thank you.

Melanie:    Thank you.