Ian Fountain in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ian in action:

The transcript for those who prefer to read interviews:

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



My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my 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.


Hamish Milne in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

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

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

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

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


Hamish in action:

And the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews:

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

Hamish Milne: Thank you. Thanks for inviting me.

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

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

Melanie: Yes, but it doesn’t matter.

Hamish: No, not at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Laughter]

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

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

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

[Laughter]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melanie: Do you have a particular practice routine?

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

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

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

[Laughter]

Melanie: Yes, Advanced students.

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

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

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

[Laughter]

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

Melanie: Which venues have you enjoyed performing in?

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

Melanie: What’s your most treasured musical memory?

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

Melanie Any, things that have influenced you.

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

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

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

Melanie: So, what are your future plans?

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

[Laughter]

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

[Laughter]

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

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

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

Melanie: Thank you very much for joining me today.

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


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my 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.


Philip Fowke in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My twenty-seventh interview features British concert pianist and teacher Philip Fowke. We met up a few weeks ago at Steinway Hall in London for a fascinating chat about many aspects of Philip’s career.

Philip’s first piano teacher was Marjorie Withers. At seventeen he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London where he studied with Gordon Green (1905–1981), a pupil of Egon Petri. As winner of the National Federation of Music Societies Award, Philip made his London debut with a recital at the Wigmore Hall where he played Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 31 No. 2 in D minor, Schumann’s Carnaval Op. 9, Bartók’s Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs and Liszt’s Mephisto-Waltz No. 1. Also in 1974 Fowke won joint second place at the BBC Piano Competition (first place was not awarded). This led to broadcasts on BBC radio in a performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini Op. 43 with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra and Bernard Keeffe.

 In John Ireland’s centenary year, Fowke made his Proms debut with a televised performance of that composer’s Piano Concerto, where the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Simon Rattle. By this time Fowke’s career had really taken off with his London recitals gaining excellent reviews: ‘Mr Fowke sensitively shaped and delicately coloured Bach–Rachmaninov’s multiple lines with impressive dynamic and tonal insight.’ At the same recital, in October 1980, Fowke played Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 35 where his ‘…interpretation was appropriately informed by a single expressive thrust. There was some splendid pianism here…’ Fowke resurrected the ‘Golden Age’ tradition by ending his recital with Arabesques on themes from An der schönen blauen Donau by Adolf Schulz-Evler which he ‘…threw off with a fine display of apparently careless rapture which in fact concealed an admirably stringent discipline’. Other recitals from the 1980s included a Liszt Sonata in B minor where ‘…the sheer speed at which he dispatched the final fugal section without loss of discipline… was surely record-breaking.’

Philip made his United States debut in San Diego where he played the Piano Concerto by Arthur Bliss with David Atherton conducting the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. Fowke played in many European countries during the early 1980s and has performed in South Africa, South America, New Zealand and Canada.

 A musician who has always been interested in the byways of the piano repertoire, Fowke has become associated with many British composers including Cyril Scott, Arnold Bax, Frederick Delius, Arthur Bliss, John Ireland, Gerald Finzi and Alun Hoddinott. In 1983 he gave the première of the Haydn Variations by John McCabe, a work dedicated to him; and among other premières he gave the first performance of Richard Bissill’s Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in London. During the 1980s Fowke appeared regularly at the Proms and on BBC radio. When standing in at short notice for an indisposed Claudio Arrau at a Prom concert in 1983, he was summed up perfectly by Hilary Finch who wrote of him, ‘The co-existence of a high musical intellect with elegance, wit and unashamedly joyful showmanship, which marks out Mr Fowke among his own generation of pianists, has an unfailing alchemizing effect on those parts of the repertoire which will never be pure gold.’ This was describing his performance of the Burleske by Richard Strauss, and the Konzertstück by Weber which he played with ‘the most subtle panache’.

Philip taught at the Royal Academy of Music in London until the early 1990s when he joined the faculty of Trinity College of Music. Since 2000 he has been pianist with the London Piano Quartet which had a residency at the Dartington International Summer School.

Philip Fowke has recorded for many labels. His earliest recording, made in 1975, is of Saint-Saëns’s Le Carnaval des Animaux; the other piano is played by Peter Katin, with the Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Alexander Gibson. It is a fresh and bracing reading. In September 1980 Fowke was soloist in a recording for Unicorn-Kanchana of the Piano Concerto by Arthur Bliss with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and David Atherton: he became associated with this work, playing it often. One of Fowke’s best discs is Virtuoso Transcriptions for Piano on the CRD label. Recorded in 1981 this contains transcriptions by Rachmaninov, Busoni, Tausig, a wonderfully poetic performance of The Lark by Glinka transcribed by Balakirev, and one of the best modern recordings of Arabesques on themes from An der schönen blauen Donau by Adolf Schulz-Evler. The recording captures all of Philip Fowke’s subtle tone colouring. In 1983 Philip recorded the complete waltzes of Chopin, incorporating variants from three different editions. He often plays in the fashion of the pianists of the past, highlighting inner voices, making subtle changes on repeats and generally enjoying himself, and by doing so, giving delight to his listeners. In the mid-1980s he recorded various concertos for EMI. With the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Wilfried Boettcher he recorded a big, romantic version of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 as well as the rarely-heard No. 3 in E flat Op. 75; whilst with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Yuri Temirkanov there is an excellent Rachmaninov disc of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 and the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini Op. 43. Although again, playing with great dramatic sweep, Fowke finds time to highlight details that are often missed.

From 1987 come Philip’s vivid accounts of Chopin’s two mature piano sonatas. In both he displays drama, exciting climaxes and an overall sense of structure. The scherzos of each are played with lightness and an avoidance of inappropriately fast tempi. The following year he recorded both of Ravel’s piano concertos and his Valses nobles et sentimentales. He also appears as soloist in Gerald Finzi’s Grand Fantasia and Toccata for Piano and Orchestra Op. 38 with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Richard Hickox.

The 1990s saw Fowke as duo partner with horn player Michael Thompson in a recital disc for EMI; and for Unicorn-Kanchana he recorded the Piano Concerto by Frederick Delius with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Norman Del Mar. As his career turned more to teaching, adjudicating and giving classes, Philip recorded less, but found time to make a disc for Chandos of piano music by Arthur Bliss which includes two première recordings. For Naxos Philip Fowke has recorded the Sonata for Piano and Horn by Franz Danzi, again with Thompson; and a disc entitled Piano Concertos from the Movies where he plays works such as Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto and Hubert Bath’s Cornish Rhapsody.


Philip in action:

And for those who prefer to read interviews, the transcript:

Melanie:     British concert pianist Philip Fowke made his BBC Proms debut in 1979 and since then has played all around the world to great claim. He has a huge and varied repertoire, and I am so pleased he’s joining me here today at Steinway Hall in London for a classical conversation. Welcome.

Philip:     Thank you very much.

Melanie:   Thank you for joining me.

Philip:      Great pleasure.

Melanie:   I’m going to start by asking you, what about your musical education? How old you were when you started. What was the catalyst, do you come from a musical family?

Philip:     Well no I didn’t come from a musical family particularly, but my parents were always very supportive. But it all began really with my sister Alison.  My older sister, and she was learning the piano, and I remember so vividly Melanie the day, that the upright piano was delivered to the house and I was a boy of about four years old. It came into the house and I can see it vividly in my mind’s eye, and no sooner had it been unwrapped and all the rest of it, but I sat down at the chair and started making up tunes. I was about four when it began.

Melanie:   But which teachers then do you think were crucial in your development?

Philip:      I could get on my soapbox about this one, teachers, he said in parenthesis, but anyway, I hope there are no teachers out there listening to me. But anyway, no seriously, I was very fortunate to go to a school called Milford and it was run by this lovely lady called Miss France, Ursula France. And the school had probably been running since the 1930’s, you know, lovely, lovely place. And she was really quite an able pianist herself and I was fascinated watching her play the hymns in various sorts of dance classes because we did musical movement in the 1950’s, all good stuff. She invited me to play during milk break and being an intrinsic show-off, which I try so hard not to be, I sat down and made up tunes and harmonized things and she gave me my first lessons, and very good ones they were too. So I remember those well. In other words Melanie, she allowed me to just do the stuff, muck around at the keyboard in front of people instead of this tyranny  some people have of primers and middle C and fingers, one, two, three, four and literally, the gravitational pull of middle C I think has caused more trouble than you can possibly say.

Melanie:   Yes, it is quite bizarre, that isn’t it?

Philip:    Why middle C? Why is it not A? Anyway, we won’t get into that.

Melanie:   How did you develop your technique then? As you, As you..developed…

Philip:     Well, what happened after Miss France, she got me to a particular point and felt that I needed, perhaps a little bit more strict guidance, and so she passed me on to a wonderful, wonderful musician called Marjorie Withers. And Marjorie, lived in Gerrards Cross, where I did and my family did and she was an extraordinarily gifted pianist and a gifted teacher of children and I was just so lucky. But she was immensely inventive about ways of practising, about exercises, scales, strengthening your fingers, you know all that kind of stuff. She presented it in such a way and gave me those pieces that I liked, that it built up those kinds of things, but she was very much into finger independence and all that. So when I was 6 or 7, you know I was really into that kind of thing and loved it.

Melanie:   You enjoyed doing that.

Philip:     I loved it. I used to make up my own exercises and it’s gone on from there.

Melanie:   Right.

Philip:   I’ve always, always enjoyed doing that and, I’m not giving you a moment to ask me any questions am I? It’s terrible.

Melanie:    It’s superb.

Philip:     I do apologize. But anyway, I’m a great believer, having performed a lot, and taught also a great deal that I feel there’s not enough emphasis put on just mucking about, improvisation.

Melanie:  Yes, improvisation.

Philip:    You say how does one develop technique, I mean what is technique? it’s so many things, not just the ability to put down the right notes, to make the sounds and patterns and voicing and articulation, eveness, all these things, and also, it’s not just the question of the fingers, it’s the arms, the eyes, the whole body. I had a fascination in those days with, well I loved syncopation, it’s the 1950’s, people like Billy Mayerl were still playing on the radio. The good old light programme, ghastly Radio Two! My idol was, well idols were Winifred Atwell and Russ Conway and I used to imitate them and I would listen to their records very, very, very closely and reproduce them. Of course, I was giving myself, unbeknownst to me, a tremendous aural training.

Melanie:   Yes.

Philip:    And, I think I would say a fortune, and meantime, Marjorie Withers was putting me through exams and I was doing Beethoven, I was doing Grieg, the standard repertoire.

Melanie:   Yes, you’ve participated in quite a lot of competitions, do you think that….

Philip:  Well, you say that.

Melanie:  No?

Philip:    Well, if I give that impression, I don’t want to sort of dispell it, but I mean we jump ahead and I went to the Royal Academy, and studied with the great and wonderful Gordon Green.

Melanie:  Yes.

Philip:  And he had a very ambivalent view to competitions, which I think in a sense, we all rather absorbed, but I, I was never happy in the competition arena, but I was also in that unfortunate situation where people saw my playing as very much competition kind of playing. And so I was in a very unhappy place for me because I felt an obligation, whilst not enjoying them at all and so I had limited success in the few competitions I did.

Melanie:   Yes.

Philip:   No, that’s not me playing. For example I did do Leeds twice, and I got into the second round the second time around. I did Tchaikovsky and got into the third round. But the one I did succeed in was the first Sydney Piano competition, when I was in the finals, didn’t win, but I had the great experience of being in the finals and playing Rachmaninov 3rd (Concerto) in the Sydney Opera House.

Melanie:   Yes, and that must have helped your career a little bit, or did you feel that it didn’t really?

Philip:    Well, no I didn’t think it did and my great sadness, it’s  nice to be able to voice it here, if anybody’s listening out there, I have never been back to Australia since.

Melanie:   Really? Well that’s a pity isn’t it?

Philip:     And I, so dearly would love to have gone. I still would like to, but it hasn’t happened. So no, it didn’t help at all.

Melanie:   Do you have a particular practice regime?

Philip:   Well, I did. And I always remember, this is a wonderful moment, a sweet moment when I can drop names. But Ashkenazy said to me, that if anybody needs to practice more than four hours, then they’re in the wrong business. And I think that there is a tremendous amount of truth in that. I think today, in the competitive arena where you have it, youngsters practice frantically, feverishly, addictively and it has its place, we all do it, it’s all very well me saying that 40 years on, but I was a very methodical worker and I did work hard, especially when learning new repertoire on short notice, you’re just forced to have to do it. But, I think it’s become too much now, I think that there are too many, what I call, microwaved performances.

Melanie:   Yes.

Philip:  And I’m sure everybody knows what I mean by microwaved performances. I’ve done them myself. The repertoire or the piece is just not cooked through, it’s hot, it’s fine, it’s presentable, it tastes alright, but it’s not, you know, it really hasn’t bedded in.  And you have to record and perform on that basis, and I think it’s a tremendous strain, and I’m sure Melanie, it accounts to some degree why so many young people these days are running into physical problems, which was far less common when I was their age. And I think this has a direct bearing, you know I’d love to say that music, when I hear a student playing to me, I always say, please don’t play at me, play to me.

Melanie:    Yeah.

Philip:    And so often it’s this feeling of, being sort of, I’ve been aurally mugged. Music exists in silence, it can’t exist unless there’s silence, one wants to hear the silence in music, and there isn’t really time for that these days, everybody’s in such a rush.

Melanie:   You play a lot of unusual repertoires, a lot of premieres, do you really specifically love doing this, or is it an interest?

Philip:   Well, a lot of premieres, I’m just trying to think what they are. It’s flattering that you say that. I don’t think it’s a lot of premieres, but I have done some first recordings of pieces.

Melanie:  And a lot of unusual repertoire……

Philip:    Certainly unusual repertoire, yes, but again you know Melanie, it was especially with starting out, and I think for youngsters today, you’ve got to have a peg, if you’re doing that, and you’ll get the date, or the BBC will take you up or whatever, and it looks good to be commissioning new music. I never commissioned a piece, I was too scared of what might be presented. I don’t know whether this is going to be cut, but anyway, but  I did premiere a fine piece by John McCabe, The Haydn Variations, which he wrote for me, and that was great, but I don’t know that I’ve been entirely comfortable in that arena, I think I’m rather more traditionally grounded, what I love doing when teaching is working at contemporary scores, no matter how abstruse they may be or complex. The one thing I will not do and I will absolutely not do it, is anything to do with prepared piano or fiddling around with strings, or hitting, that is unethical to me and I know that’ll be controversial if this goes out, but I think the piano is a piano, if you want to invent another instrument, by all means, but leave this alone.

Melanie:   How did you become interested in the piano music of Sir Arthur Bliss, because you’ve done several recordings and the piano concerto.

Philip:   Well, yes, that’s quite a story Melanie, we have to go back to 1973, there was a wonderful, wonderful musician, teacher, pianist, composer,called Ruth Gibbs, and she died, oh, possibly twenty years ago, but she ran a marvelous orchestra called the London Repertoire Orchestra, which was a sort of rehearsal orchestra, which also did dates and all that. She was a great fan of the Bliss piano concerto, and I had just won the National Federation’s as it was, the Music Society’s Award, that’s the one thing I did win. And I had also done quite well in the BBC Piano Competition as was before it transmodified into the Young Musician of the Year.

Melanie:  Oh, Okay.

Philip:   And, I was sort of quite a young up and coming pianist and she got hold of me and said Philip, I want you to do the Bliss Piano Concerto, and of course I said, yeah, I’ll do it, went down and bought the music, as one did.

Melanie:    Yes.

Philip:     Not having even heard the damned thing. I shouldn’t say that, it’s a beautiful thing.

Melanie:    It is, quite a shock though.

Philip:   Oh, it was a tremendous shock, it was a big date, it was at the Fairfield Hall, with the London Repertoire Orchestra, it’s a professional group, and I only had, that was the beginning of what really became a habit, I suppose, four months to learn it, and because I wasn’t used to that kind of learning, in those days, and I can remember Melanie, having a real panic, about a month or six weeks before saying to, phoning up Ruth, saying, she was known as Widd, saying I’ll do this, but I want to use the music, I just can’t, it’s just not, and she said pooh, pooh, of course you can do it and put the phone down. It was probably the best thing she could do.

Melanie:    No.

Philip:   I just, had to do it.

Melanie:  Had to do it.

Philip:  And, you know, occasionally you need that kind of treatment, so she gave me a smack on the wrist, which was good. And I did it, and then it became quite a piece.

Melanie:  Yes, he’s written some great pieces.

Philip:   Sadly, I just missed Arthur himself because I went to the house up in Marlborough Place in St. John’s Wood, to run it, to play it to Stansfield, but he was very ill, he actually did,

Melanie:  What a shame.

Philip:  He had just died, just, before I could do it, but dear Trudy, his widow then, came to the concert and he had only died about two weeks before.

Melanie:   Oh gosh, that’s such a shame.

Philip:  So that was when we became good friends after that she was very supportive.

Melanie:   Yeah, you recorded a lot of his, probably all of his piano music I would say.

Philip:    Not all of his piano music, but a fair amount of it. That was a few years ago for Chandos, and I had hoped that a few more things would happen but life simply had said not yet.

Melanie:  Which venues have you loved playing in? What’s your favourite?

Philip:    Well now that’s, of course one, it’s difficult, I mean the Wigmore Hall has such associations and it’s such an instrument in its own right, it’s warm and I just love those cinema tip up seats. I feel, in its refurbishment it’s lost a little bit of the old style, it had a certain sort of, sort of, shabby glamour and it’s lost that. Even the two gas lights that used to be on the side of the stage didn’t they, they went, little things like that. But, it has a beautiful acoustic, I’m afraid to say the Festival Hall, it’s like playing a huge aircraft hanger. But the hall I like  in London, which people don’t necessarily like architecture is the Barbican Hall, I find that actually a pleasant place and the dear old Fairfield Hall, is a lovely, lovely hall to play in.

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

Philip:    Not much, I’m not one of these people with great plans and projects because, you know I had this very pressured quite high profile performing career at the age of, well my middle forties and throughout the time, leading up to that, I always enjoyed teaching very much.

Melanie:   Yes

Philip:    Really backed off performing. But my last Prom was the Warsaw Concerto, that was a few years ago now, and that was televised, but no I haven’t got, the thing is Melanie, and this is perhaps an opportunity on this medium. I find that the whole business of music making, performing and specifically the piano, but in general, has become so, sort of packaged, so promoted.

Melanie:   Yes.

Philip:   I just find that we’ve lost, you know I like, just to sit down and play, if I feel in the mood. I just sit down and play. What I feel like, without having a theme to it, it’s got to include all this, or all that, and the other thing I absolutely live in dread of are Anniversaries.

Melanie:   Yes.

Philip:   You have all these things, why can’t one just play? And the reason that you can’t just play what you want and when you want is because it’s all so competitive.

Melanie:   It is.

Philip:   You got to plan it, you have to have an angle and all that. I want the angle to be me, rather sort of selfishly. Is anybody out there, it’s me, if you want me to play, you know, e-mail me and I’ll come and play. When I fancy playing.

Melanie:  You heard it here!! What does playing the piano mean to you?

Philip:   That’s a toughie. What’s it mean to me? You floored me on that one. I think slightly, not answering your question, but I am meaning to answer the question. For me, performing, was always something that, it seemed that I was good at, and that I was encouraged to do. I was always labelled as a showman,  even in my reviews and all that, and I know that I have got that in a way. But that’s part of it, you know it’s like the iceberg, you see what’s above the water, but what’s below the water is even greater and perhaps more significant. I have had a rather ambivalent attitude toward performing over the years, I find, the thing about performing, which a lot of people, and I include myself, can find quite hard, is the balance between doing something which is so intensely private in public. And I think that’s what I have found problematic at various times of my life. You’re on stage and you’re sharing something immensely private.

Melanie:  Yes.

Philip:   So what’s the piano mean to me? It’s very rare that I would go to a piano and sit down and play it much now, I mean it’s so rare, I mean I just recently got rid of my pianos.

Melanie:  Really? That’s amazing.

Philip:   But, having had, and I was known for my beautiful pianos in my well known studio in London.

Melanie:  Yes, yes.

Philip:   But I’m, I find, and I’ve had my pianos, beautiful ones for thirty, forty years.

Melanie:   Sure.

Philip:    All of that, and it’s been wonderful, but I found, when I went to concerts, that the pianos weren’t a patch on my own, and now I find that I am happy to play anything, and I don’t have to compare it to my own, nor do I have to tune it, regulate it, turn it, voice it, heat it, light it, no anything, I just play other people’s pianos, free, you know. I’ve got this place, it’s come a long way.

Melanie:   Of Course.

Philip:   So, I’m sort of quite happy about that, but, I don’t know if I have quite answered your question, what does it mean to me? I think in my teaching, I have always wanted to make it clear to my students, that they don’t have to do it, whilst encouraging them as well, I hope.

Melanie:   Yeah.

Philip:  But I think that we live in a climate today where if a child shows what is perceived as talent, sometimes it’s over-inflated, doesn’t mean to say that you have got to be a professional musician.

Melanie:  No.

Philip:   And I think that the future music making life certainly supports this, and I do a lot of work with for example adult amateurs, but I think the word amateur has become rather pejorative, it means less than good. I think it means no such thing. I’ve come across amateurs that are immensely gifted and more gifted than some people who are struggling professionally, but they just didn’t go down that road. I think that you know, music making in people’s homes, on the upright piano, that kind of thing, we’ve lost that spontaneity.

Melanie:  Definitely.

Philip:   And I think that is a grievous loss. And I think modern technology is wonderful, it bamboozles me half the time, but it is marvelous, I can see all that. But when I see an iPod, or all these iPhones, I think of the wind up record, which I still have, turning up the thing and all the hissing and all the rest of it, and nothing is lost and a great deal is gained you know Melanie, because I’ve kept my machine, and occassionaly when I play some of my collection, to you know students, young musicians in their twenties, even later, they are so amazed by the quality of sound, for one thing, but the sense of performance because these recordings weren’t taped, it was just one take. You could do several takes, but it was still one take. You know, so there are a few blemishes and fluffs, the reality of performance. And part of performing is to share your vulnerability. Now a days, people don’t want to know about vulnerability, you’ve got to be rock solid, it’s got to be glitteringly perfect, and I think with that, you lose that sense of warmth and humanness, if someone does get rid of it, not that you would wish. I think it has become a little bit contrived.

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

Philip:   It’s been a pleasure.


My publications:

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

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