All posts by Cross-Eyed Pianist

Pianist, piano teacher, music and arts reviewer, blogger, writer, cook, and Burmese cat lover

Meet the Artist……Adam Swayne, pianist & composer

Who or what inspired you to take up a career in music?

As a teenager I was lucky to have Jeremy Carter as my piano teacher. I also revered the rock’n’roll pianism of Jerry Lee Lewis (and still do).

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I struggled during my first couple of years on the demanding joint course between Manchester University and the RNCM, but my third year was something of a revelation. I learnt reams during my piano lessons with John Gough (including, crucially, a fresh and non-stuffy approach) and also took composition lessons with John Casken and lectures in postmodern music from Kevin Malone and Shostakovich from David Fanning. It was at this point I knew I didn’t want to do anything else. Fulbright studies in the US with Ursula Oppens sealed the deal.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Juggling a range of disciplines and trying (hard!) to excel in all of them. Alongside piano I compose frequently for many varied ensembles (that, strangely, hardly ever include piano – for example this one) and I regularly conduct performances of (mainly) new music. My work with CoMA (Contemporary Music for All) is really important because it involves getting amazing people from all walks of life participating in the music, and I also serve on the board of the Riot Ensemble in order to get the most cutting-edge of this stuff out there in concert. I love teaching and am lucky to supervise over 80 groups of all styles and genres as part of my role as Head of Chamber Music at the University of Chichester, and I also have a clutch of brilliant and talented students at the Junior Royal Academy.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I played Rzewski’s colossal ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’ in three venues last year, and I think I am proud to have scaled that particular pianistic mountain (although I haven’t been brave enough to listen to the recording yet!). I’m also pleased to have performed Lutoslawski’s terrific concerto – here’s a clip of the ending in my performance with the Northwestern Symphony Orchestra and Victor Yampolsky.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Probably pieces by Shostakovich. I relate well to nervous energy, tragedy…. and comedy!

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Whatever I think will be fun to prepare and fun for people to listen to.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Hmm, tricky one. I like venues where it is easy to blur the boundaries between the performers and the listeners, so it’s more of a community experience. Maybe St Martin-in-the-Fields?

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Kevin Malone wrote me a wonderful and hilarious piece involving plenty of theatre called Count Me In. You can watch a performance here. I also love the sound of wind orchestras and have been lucky to have been involved in quite a few over the years. You can’t beat the Americans for their brass sound.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I’d have to include Pierre Boulez – a great musical polymath with an amazing conducting style. You can see every single composerly detail in the gesture. My American conducting teachers (especially Mallory Thompson) taught me the importance of this. At other ends of the spectrum I love Eddie Cochran and The Who.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Probably my first outing of Amy Beth Kirsten’s ‘Speak to Me’ in which I have to adopt the persona of two female goddesses as well as play some really imaginative piano music. (You can listen to a performance here.) I’m playing this again in a Riot Ensemble concert on January 30th.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Just to give 100% energy and commitment to whatever is being asked of you, however big, small or unusual.

What are you working on at the moment?

This morning, the John Ireland ‘Phantasie’ Trio. I play in a piano trio with Ellie Blackshaw (violin) and Peter Copley (cello) and we are on a mission to present all three of the Ireland trios. They are wonderful and really reek of Sussex, which is where I live.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Doing the same sorts of things, but with less anxiety about note learning/ preparedness.

What is your present state of mind?

Anxious about note learning/preparedness!

Adam Swayne works with a vast range of musical media and styles that go beyond conventional labelling. He is just as at home giving a solo piano recital or conducting an orchestra as he is organising musical installations in art galleries or composing for amateur ensembles. He takes an inclusive, informative and innovative approach to his music making that is drawing an increasingly large audience.

Adam is a graduate of the joint course between Manchester University and the RNCM. He gained first class degrees from both institutions, and an MMus from the RNCM. Manchester University gave Adam their highest award (Sir Thomas Beecham Medal) along with other prizes including the Recital Prize. Prizes from the RNCM included the John Ireland Prize and an award for performances of contemporary music.

In 2003 Adam was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to begin doctoral studies at Northwestern University, U.S.A. He graduated in 2006 with distinction, having presented several U.S. premières of works by British composers.

Adam is now Senior Lecturer and Head of Chamber Music at the University of Chichester and piano tutor at the Junior Royal Academy of Music.

Adam’s Swayne’s full biography can be found on his website:

www.adamswayne.com

On performing: the highs, the lows and everything in between…..

Brunswick House
Brunswick House

Last week, I gave a formal concert as part of the South London Concert Series (of which I am Artistic Director) at the wonderfully eccentric Brunswick House, in the ‘Embassy quarter’ of London’s Vauxhall. Part of the London Architectural Salvage and Supply Co (LASSCO), Brunswick House is a magnificent Georgian mansion just a stone’s throw from Vauxhall Station, the MI5 building and the glittering new apartments of the Nine Elms development. The house is home to an eclectic collection of antiques and salvaged curiosities, all of which are for sale, including the early twentieth-century Bechstein grand piano which graces the opulent first floor Saloon (price £6000). The venue provides a great backdrop to the kind of programmes I favour (an eclectic mix of music of different eras and styles) and also acts as a splendid talking point for the audience who can enjoy exploring the rooms beforehand. I was joined in the concert by four pianist friends, three of whom have careers outside of music for their “day jobs”. And this for me is where it gets interesting…..

All of us had clearly prepared very carefully for the concert: we’d had “practise performances” at home, for friends, and at our piano group, and I had already played the pieces I was performing at two public concerts in the weeks leading up to the Main Event. We had all tried the piano at Brunswick House in advance of the concert, and I spent a couple of hours there with the tuner a few days before the concert. On the day of the concert we arrived in good time, warmed up, chatted to one another, set up the video camera and checked the lighting over the piano, and then waited quietly for the concert to begin. No one betrayed any nerves, nor discussed how they might be feeling: we all knew that we had to deal with our anxiety in our own way. What was most evident to me was the sense of excitement and anticipation amongst my fellow performers (and I admit I was pretty excited too – the concert was a sell out and the audience mostly comprised friends and family which made for a very warm atmosphere). We all performed with confidence, poise, musical understanding, sensitivity and expression. Because we were playing music we liked and enjoyed, the experience was wholly pleasurable, and I think our affection for the pieces we had selected, and our friendship, shone through every note.

Euphoric performers after the concert (L to R: Frances Wilson, Lorraine Womack-Banning, Petra Chong, Rob Foster & Jose Luis Gutierrez Sacristan)
Euphoric performers after the concert (L to R: Frances Wilson, Lorraine Womack-Banning, Petra Chong, Rob Foster & Jose Luis Gutierrez Sacristan)

Anyone who thinks performing to a roomful of people is “easy” needs their head examined. Of course it may look easy – and one of the great skills of the performer is to present what appears to be an effortless, fluent and convincing performance. In order to reach this point, one will have put in many hours of lonely practising – note-learning, refining, adjusting and finessing the pieces. Each performance throws up interesting new things or highlights areas which need to be worked over again to be made more secure (this is why it is important to perform a programme several times). On top of this, one needs to know how to cope with the inevitable performance anxiety, to hone one’s stagecraft, select the right outfit for the occasion, practise wearing the concert frock and shoes (for women), try the piano at the venue, talk to the tuner, if applicable, find out where the green room/loos are, and generally do as much as possible to remain calm and focused in the final moments leading up to the performance.

On the day of the performance, whether it is a concert or a recital for an exam, festival or competition, I have a clear strategy which I always follows to ensure I arrive at the venue with a clear head and a rested body. Rushing around, over-practising or doing too much can leave one feeling drained and flustered, and this can heighten one’s anxiety. In all the excitement of the actual performance, it’s easy to forget that one expends a vast amount of energy, in particular brain energy: keeping body and mind rested in advance of the performance is crucial.

When I arrived at Brunswick House a couple of friends of mine were already at the bar and greeted me eagerly, admiring my dress and wishing me luck for the occasion. I didn’t want to linger to chat (keeping the head clear!) and I promised I would speak to them afterwards. In terms of final preparation, lately I have become interested in “mindfulness” and have been applying it to my performing. At a concert I gave in a very cold church on a less than perfect, but huge Petrof piano a few weeks ahead of the Brunswick House gig, I decided to employ some mindfulness techniques to play “in the moment” and not worry about what happened. I was pleased with the resulting performance and instead of dwelling on “what might have been”, I went to the piano to practise the next day with the thought “what can I do differently/better next time?”. Of course there were areas of my pieces which needed special attention, but there was nothing that caused me serious worry. And in any event, after the concert, there is nothing to be done, for we can’t go back and change what has already been.

As performers we are often our own worst enemy – and all my pianist friends, professional and amateur, are frightful perfectionists. We worry about our note-learning, our memorisation, our expression, musical understanding, how we communicate to the audience, and so much more – and of course we want to give a note-perfect and characterful performance on The Day. It is crucial that we are perfectionist in the practise room because this will enable us to do the correct, careful preparation for the performance. Looking at the video of the concert afterwards of course there are moments when one might wince a little and wish that you’d played this or that note or phrase differently. The audience, however, enjoys the music in a different way, and a well-rehearsed, fluent performance which is rich in expression and communication will engage an audience, no matter if there are a few slips or errors (in fact, audiences rarely notice the mistakes we fret so much about, and people who go to concerts to gloat about spotting errors in the performance are thankfully a rare breed).

The photographs my husband took of the event clearly demonstrate that we had a really wonderful evening: as one of my co-performers said afterwards “it was an unforgettable experience of music and friendship” – and the congratulations and bravos we received from the audience were a testament to how much everyone had enjoyed the occasion. This continued into the bar, some of us staying very late before venturing out into the freezing January night.

The day after a concert one often hits the ground with an unpleasant thump. As the adrenaline leaves the  body, one experiences a distinct “low”. This is often compounded with a deep tiredness, of brain and body, and it may be hard to motivate oneself to do anything the day after a concert (in fact, I took two days “off” the piano and instead lolled around the house, glum and moody, much to the disgruntlement of the rest of my family!). In fact, the best remedy for this special kind of post-concert depression is to get back to the piano and get working again. In my case, I was excited to start practising again because I had new work I wanted to look at, and other pieces which needed to be brought back up to scratch for a private charity concert in which I am performing in the Spring. What remains of the Brunswick House concert are memories of a very special evening, of music played by friends, with friends and for friends, an important reminder that music was written to be shared. We have photographs too, and videos, as mementoes of the event, and I would like to thank my co-performers, and Rebecca who turned the pages for me, for their special and wonderful contribution to a magical evening.

www.slconcerts.co.uk

LASSCO Brunswick House

Further reading

The Day After the Concert

On Performing

Performance Anxiety Anonymous

Adult Amateur Piano Competition

Grand Passion Pianos & The London Piano Meetup Group present a competition exclusively for adult amateur classical pianists. It is a two-stage event with a preliminary audition via YouTube. Ten pianists will be selected to go forward to the competition final in June.

The adjudicators for the preliminary round of YouTube auditions will be pianists Clara Rodriguez and Walid El-Yafi. Muzzaffar Shah from Grand Passion Pianos will also be joining Clara and Walid on the adjudication panel.

We are delighted to confirm that internationally-acclaimed pianist Leslie Howard will adjudicate the second stage of the competition.

The overall winner of the competition will be offered a solo recital with the South London Concert Series in 2016/2017. The competition organisers will select the runners up to perform as supporting artists.

Please read the information below (including the competition rules) and then email londonpianoevents@gmail.com for an application form. An entry fee applies to both the first and second rounds.

Audition Details:
YouTube video – send a link to your performance that is filmed with clear sound and vision. Please bear in mind that the quality of your recording will affect the jury’s ability to accurately judge your performance.

  • Length: 10 minutes maximum
    Entry Fee: £16.50
  • At least 2 contrasting pieces – your selection of pieces will be taken into account when adjudicating.
  • Deadline for sending audition videos: 1st March 2015
  • Please note that individual feedback will not be given for Round One. Entrants may not enter into any kind of discussion with the adjudicators
  • The adjudicators’ decision is final

Notes for Competitors:

Your recording and subsequent performances must display contrasting classical styles with a minimum of two pieces (e.g. Classical & Romantic, Baroque & 20th Century; Baroque & Romantic, and so on). You are welcome to offer more than two works provided the total playing time does not exceed 10 minutes for the audition and 15 minutes for stage two if chosen.

The recording must be without announcements and keep strictly to the time limits.

Please include a short covering letter, telling us about yourself including D.O.B. and musical achievements relating to graded exams and performance diplomas.

10 pianists will be chosen to go through to the second round on 27 June 2015, to be held at a central London location.

Competition Rules:

Open to adult amateur pianists aged 27 and over.

Pianists who have studied a Music Performance Degree (or equivalent) at a conservatoire or similar tertiary education establishment are not eligible for this competition. Pianists deriving the majority of their income from music performance are not eligible.

Teachers who do not perform as part of their teaching role are invited to enter provided they have not been awarded a University/Conservatoire music degree within the last 20 years.

All entries will be subject to a background check to determine whether the entrant is publicly recognised as a professional pianist. In case of ineligibility, your entry fee will be refunded. If at any point during the competition process it comes to light that any fraudulent information has been provided, we reserve the right to remove the entry.

Download a copy of the Competition Rules

Meet the Artist……Joanna Marsh, composer

Joanna Marsh

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I think it was watching ‘Young Musician of the Year’ on our black and white telly in the 1970s ignited my competitiveness and made me get on and do some practice. Although much of that ‘practice’ was improvising and composing because that is what principally interested me – though I took a long time to acknowledge it. For ages I thought the only way to have a career in music was to be a performer.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

One day when a pupil hadn’t turned up I decided to show some of my music to a talented composer friend. His reaction was pretty straightforward – I needed to do more and to get my work “out there”. I hadn’t had any real affirmation of my music before and although it sounds ridiculous, I was on a high for about a week after that.

Later I met Judith Bingham who became a tremendous friend and mentor. Early on, she insisted that I wasn’t taking myself seriously enough, which forced me to examine my approach. Organists can be a bit “throwaway” about the production of music, which is so often done on the spur of the moment with very little thoughtful preparation. Composing is different, not because of the speed of creativity; it’s about the preparation and decision-making in advance. It is the pre-compositional process that leads to the depth and meaning of the music which is eventually created.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

When I moved to Dubai because of my husband’s job, my worry was, “That’s it. Game over”. But actually, the experience has taught me a huge amount about seeking out opportunities and making things happen rather than waiting around hoping to be noticed by others.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? 

I really enjoy the sense of “team involvement” and having people invested in you. Knowing there is someone else interested in what you are producing is such a relief because composing is such an isolating process. I also deeply appreciate having deadlines. Luckily I have never had a commissioner who has “got in the way” of the process.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Having dedicated professional musicians rehearse and perform your music is always a revelation. They breathe life into the thing you have struggled and grappled with for weeks or months. They’re the chefs who turn your recipe into a feast, checking with you that the taste is just as it is intended to be.

Working with musicians who haven’t prepared or even thought about your music is all about damage limitation. It’s very draining.

I once wrote a piano piece for a pretty well respected European pianist. He’d had a run of completely insane projects (including playing the complete Liszt in 48 hours!) and hadn’t opened the score before he arrived at the venue to rehearse. He sight-read very roughly through my piece while I sat there cringing and it was not much better in the performance the next day. I’m sure he felt bad about it, but I definitely felt worse because I had to sit there in the performance pretending my piece was really supposed to sound like that. It was nothing like!

Which works are you most proud of?

Immediately after finishing a piece I usually worry that it is complete rubbish. It’s often only years later that I get any kind of perspective. In my second year of living in Dubai I wrote my orchestral piece Kahayla and had the idea that I could write the score out on a giant piece of paper so it looked like a picture of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. So I did it and it always gets mistaken for an actual drawing. But the musical content was the only important thing as I was writing. The ideas behind it were strong and a sense of flow was there.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Among my composer contemporaries I love the music of Joseph Phibbs. He has a unique voice: beautiful and extraordinary, especially orchestrally.

I find pianist Katya Apekisheva’s playing wonderfully lyrical. And what a communicator! I hope she is huge in the future.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

I recently heard the Syrian ney flute player Moslem Rahal in Abu Dhabi play a solo accompanied by rabab and Arabic percussion. It was a partly improvised piece derived from a mediaeval Spanish folk melody; very lyrical and rhythmically complex. He found a huge number of voices and colours in that instrument and virtuosic multiphonics appeared and disappeared seamlessly in the texture. There was no sign of him taking a single breath in those 20 minutes. I was riveted with awe: it was quite an outer-body experience.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

You need to be open to what life brings you. Don’t just think of the next thing coming up as the real opportunity, what you have on your plate NOW is the opportunity.

What is your present state of mind?

Slightly wired. I have lots of projects going on at the moment.

 

Joanna Marsh’s new work “Arabesques” is being premiered by The Kings Singers at Kings Place on 29 January as past of the London A Cappella Festival 2015. “Arabesques” is inspired Middle Eastern culture and is a setting of three poems by three contemporary Arab poets (Sa’adi Youssef, Abboud al Jabiri and Khaled Abdallah) each about a woman they have known. The music is also infused with mesmerising repetitive motifs which characterise each movement.

Joanna Marsh is a British composer who has been living in Dubai since 2007. The inspiration for Joanna’s compositions often comes from seeing contemporary subjects in a historical perspective. For example, “The Tower” (2008) for the BBC singers, (John Armitage Trust) was a reflection on the Burj Khalifa, Dubai’s famously tall tower, and its curious parallels with the mythical Tower of Babel. Her other piece about the Burj, Kahayla – written two years later, uses allegory to look at Dubai’s desire to ‘win’, comparing building the tallest tower in the world with winning a horse race. Horse racing is the national sport and a big part of Dubai’s cultural heritage.In addition to her concert music, Joanna composed the music for the short film “The Morse Collectors” which has won prizes at seven international film festivals including the Chicago Children’s Film Festival. Her songs for children’s choirs based on the poetry of Brian Patten, have been performed at festivals and choral competitions internationally and across the UK including Choir of the Year. In 2005 she wrote a musical installation for the Pier 6 Bridge at Gatwick Airport which is still playing in 2014.

Joanna is Programme Curator and Composer in Residence for THE SCORE, which most recently put on the region’s largest choral festival in Dubai: ChoirFest Middle East 2014.

Joanna (b. 1970) studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and was an organ scholar at Sidney Sussex College Cambridge. She studied composition with Richard Blackford and Judith Bingham. Joanna was selected as one of the composers on the ROH2 “Composing for Voice” programme at the Royal Opera House, which culminated in a performance with members of the London Sinfonietta in 2008.

Her experience of the Middle East has provided inspiration for many of her compositions including “Arabesques” for The King’s Singers and “A Short Handbook of Djinn” for harpist Catrin Finch, “The Travels of Ibn Battuta” for the Maggini Quartet and “The Hidden Desert” for pianist Gergely Boganyi.  The British Embassy in Dubai commissioned her brass fanfare “The Falcon and the Lion” written for H.M. Queen Elizabeth II’s state visit to Abu Dhabi in November 2010.

www.joannamarsh.co.uk

New Boganyi Piano launched today – meet its creator here

World-renowned Hungarian pianist Gergely Bogányi is the ambitious innovator behind a project to create a completely new instrument, and the focus of the revolutionary Bogányi piano is on the clearest, boldest, premium quality sound possible.

Gergely Bogány kindly completed my Meet the Artist questionnaire in which he discusses his motivation for designing a new piano, and his many other influences and inspirations.

(© Zengafons 2015)
(© Zengafons 2015)

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

I grew up in a very musical family.  We were always listening to music. Mostly Bach, as my father played the organ.  He was the leader of several choruses at the time, and the singers were always coming round to our house to rehearse. My mother plays and teaches the piano and she taught me too. My siblings and I grew to love music very much thanks to our parents.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Liszt! And, of course, Chopin. Later on, I got to know the music of Dohnanyi, the genius Hungarian composer and pianist. There aren’t many recordings of him playing, but still I can say that it inspired me very much. By listening to LP recordings when I was studying some 15 years ago, I discovered the music and piano playing of musicians like Rachmaninov and Cortot.   As a pianist, Rachmaninov made a deep impression and the musical interpretations of Alfred Cortot are the pinnacle.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Two answers: every concert is the greatest challenge, because each time I seek to transmit a message, as communication is key to be a performer, and each time, we have to manage a different piano, for good or bad, and get the best out of it.  This is where my obsession with creating my own idea of a “perfect” piano came from and the subsequent development of the Bogány Piano.

Technically speaking, my greatest challenge took place in 2010 at the Palace of Arts in Budapest when I performed every piano work that Chopin composed in a marathon over two days with ten recitals. One recital “dose” of his beautiful and powerful music just didn’t feel enough.  I was craving more and also imagined that audiences felt the same way too.  I hope that they went away with a great appreciation of his music after 10 doses.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Of about 20 recordings, I can’t single out any one CD in particular, but I can say that there are moments and tracks, which I feel are acceptable. One of my proudest recording moments was recording the full Chopin marathon for live broadcast to celebrate the composer’s 200th anniversary.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I enjoy playing romantic repertoire as much as playing Mozart.  I don’t specialise in performing the work of any particular composer, but if I would have to pick one, I would say Liszt. He has set an example to me both personally and musically.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I simply choose to play what I like.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

As a performer, I believe that we need to be able and prepared the transmit the music’s message in any condition. If a concert hall enables and supports this, then I am happy. It’s difficult to single out one specific favourite venue, as fortunately there are many excellent concert venues. However, I would like to point out the Great Hall of the Liszt Academy, not because of its ultimate superiority, but because the venue contains the successful combination of both excellent acoustics as well as its beauty. It has been created by instinct and not based on factual calculations.

What do you consider to be most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I would like to advise future musicians to concentrate on exploring the music in great depth and forget about all the hype about building a career.

What was the main motivation for designing a new piano?

Having performed for years in the world’s most renewed concert halls, I played with a sound I had in mind, that was different from what I heard when I was playing. My search to look for a more beautiful, harmonious and flowing sound, was the motivation to start experimenting with the sound board on my own piano and to bridge the gap between the sound in my head and the sound I was actually hearing.

What makes this new instrument unique and special?

The Bogányi Piano looks like a traditional piano in a special new design, but the technical details and use of modern materials makes it unique. The sound-board is made of multi-layered carbon-fibre with a rippled surface that is sprung and detached from the piano frame. Making use of that material makes the piano resistant to exterior conditions like heat, humidity, cold, damp and dryness and prevent the soundboard from breakage. More importantly, the sound of the piano is very powerful and round, which is acoustically supported by the design of two legs (instead of normally three) that act as a reflector to enhance the sound towards the audience.

11-boganyi-piano©jarailaszlo

Where would you like to be in 1 years’ time?

I would like to come across the Bogányi piano in unexpected places across the globe.

What is your present state of mind?

I always try to be humble, intelligible and very passionate. That is what I am aiming for.

The Boganyi Piano

Gergely Bogányi is a born musician, from a musical Hungarian family. His brilliant technique, coupled with a deeply expressed, artistic interpretation has made him an outstanding international performer. Born in Vác, Hungary, he began playing the piano at the age of four. He continued his studies at the Liszt Academy in Budapest with László Baranyay. He also studied at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki with Professor Matti Raekallio, and at the university of Indiana in Bloomington with Professor György Sebök.

He participated in several master classes by Annie Fischer and Ferenc Rados. Among his professors he fondly remembers Annie Fischer who made a deep impression upon his art. She instructed him regularly and was a cherished mentor until her death.

From a young age, Gergely Bogányi has had success in several national and international competitions. He won a prize at the national piano competition in Nyíregyháza at the age of six, and three years later he won top prize there. 

In Helsinki he was a three-time winner of the Finnish radio “Helmi Vesa Competition.” He won first prizes in both the Chopin and the Mozart competitions in Budapest in 1993, and Indiana University’s music competition in 1994. In 1996 he earned the gold Medal at the “International Franz

Liszt Competition” in Budapest, one of the most distinguished piano competitions in the world.At the exceptionally young age of 22, Gergely Bogányi was appointed a citizen of honor in his native town of Vác. In 2000 he was awarded the “Liszt Prize” by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage in Hungary. In 2002 he was also presented the “Cross of Merit of the White Rose” of Finland by the President of the Finnish Republic. In 2004 he received the “Kossuth Prize” from the President of the Hungarian Republic, the highest artistic award of his native country. In November 2010 he was awarded a unique “Art Citizenship/ Chopin year” passport by the Polish government.

 

Celebrating 150 years of Sibelius and Nielsen

(photo credit: Gareth Barton)
(photo credit: Gareth Barton)

Violinist Fenella Humphreys and pianist Nicola Eimer celebrate the 150th anniversaries of Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen in a concert combining works for violin and piano by these two composers, together with new works by contemporary composers.

Alongside works by Sibelius and Nielsen, the duo will premiere a new set of five pieces composed on the footprint of Sibelius’s Five Pieces op.81 by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Alasdair Nicolson, Matthew Taylor, David Knotts and Anthony Powers.

Programme

Jean Sibelius: 4 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.115
Cheryl Frances-Hoad: New work for PUR 4 Feb 2015 after Sibelius’ 5 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.81
Alasdair Nicholson: New work for PUR 4 Feb 2015 after Sibelius’ 5 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.81
David Knotts: New work for PUR 4 Feb 2015 after Sibelius’ 5 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.81knotts da
Matthew Taylor: New work for PUR 4 Feb 2015 after Sibelius’ 5 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.81
Anthony Powers: New work for PUR 4 Feb 2015 after Sibelius’ 5 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.81
Jean Sibelius: Sonatina in E for violin & piano, Op.80
Interval
Carl Nielsen: Violin Sonata No.2 in G, Op.35

The concert takes place on 4th February 2015 at the Purcell Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre. Further information and tickets here

‘Fenella Humphreys responds to its elegiac reflection and technical display at top flight level’ (Orchestral Choice CD, 5* BBC Music Magazine)

‘Nicola Eimer is an outstanding artist’ (The Strad Magazine)

No talking in the stalls please!

Last weekend I gave a concert in a church in Chiswick. The audience was small, but they listened attentively and seemed genuinely engaged by the music. All except one person (someone who is connected to me through marriage – but not, I hasten to add, my husband!) , who talked throughout the entire performance. This was extremely discourteous, not only to me but also to the other members of the audience. Luckily, it didn’t put me off my playing, but I was aware of the talking during the quieter passages of my programme.

Extraneous noise at concerts – coughing, unwrapping sweets, rustling programmes, whistling hearing aids, talking – is the bane of the performer, and the concert-goer. In her latest book Sleeping in Temples, pianist and writer Susan Tomes devotes a whole chapter to the subject of coughing and audience noise in general (she wittily calls the chapter ‘Bullfrogs’) and the blogosphere was alive with exclamations and hand-wringing not long ago when violinist Kyung Wah Chung berated the parents of a young child who coughed during her recent concert at London’s Southbank Centre.

The popularity of smartphones has added another irritant to concerts – people taking photographs, filming and texting during the performance: a couple of years ago, I watched most of the second half of a concert by Yuja Wang through the video app of someone’s iPhone. The illuminated screen can be disturbing to other concert-goers, and if you are texting or browsing the internet during a performance, it suggests you are not concentrating fully on the music, which is just plain discourteous to the musicians who have spent hours upon unpaid hours in rehearsal to bring this wonderful music to you.

A curious dichotomy exists in the world of live classical music concerts. Tradition and concert etiquette dictate that we sit in hushed reverence during the performance, stifle coughing and generally attempt to be extremely quiet. This enables us to concentrate on the music and avoids unnecessary distractions for the performers. Yet, as John Cage proved in his work 4’33”, in a concert hall there is no such thing as “absolute silence” – for people are living, breathing, moving….. For performers, the sound of the audience can be extremely helpful, and most of us who perform actively enjoy the sound of the audience listening and engaging with the music (I also really like that “collective sigh” that seems to come at the end of a fine performance, before the applause, almost like a giant cat uncurling and stretching). It undoubtedly adds to the excitement of a live performance and reminds us that the music we play is intended to be shared with others. I love being at, or giving a concert where one has a strong sense of the the audience listening very carefully, that sense of combined concentration.

Of course, people can’t help coughing (go to a concert in London in the winter, and there is often a veritable cacophony of raucous coughing and nose-blowing), or moving in their seats, or turning the pages of the programme, but whispering and talking, tapping away or filming on a smartphone, or fidgeting is just plain rude in my opinion.

Returning to the badly behaved talker at my concert, my page-turner, who also noticed it, told me afterwards that when not concentrating on the music, she fixed the person in question with a basilisk stare.

Audiences behaving badly

Susan Tomes on the subject of coughing

Coughing and the Art of Concert Etiquette

At the Piano with……Andrew Eales

AndrewEales

What is your first memory of the piano?

I was seven years old. My older sister was taking lessons. I had double-pneumonia, and was recovering in bed. I remember hearing her playing and wishing I could learn too.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

A friend of mine was a classroom music teacher. He asked me to give lessons to one of his sixth form students, who had self-taught up to about grade six, but with major flaws in his playing. I was working for EMI Classics and commuting to London – which I hated. So I gave the student an evening lesson, and fairly instantly knew that I had found my vocation.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

I was lucky to have several outstanding teachers. My first teacher was quite scary, and had a reputation for shouting at students, but having made a decision that I wanted to grow up to be a great musician I was happy to take my chances with her. In fact she was always tender and encouraging with me, although she did periodically wander off to another part of the house to shout at her husband! When I told her I liked Grieg, she said that when I grew up I would prefer Sibelius. When I said I had enjoyed hearing Bizet’s ‘Carmen’, she announced that in a few years time I would like Wagner. I think she recognised that I was musically inquisitive and deliberately goaded me, but she knew exactly what she was doing and before long my musical taste grew in many new directions. When I was eleven I won a music scholarship to boarding school, and as a parting gift she gave me a copy of ‘The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book’, an unusual present for sure. That seed lay dormant for many years, but remains one of my favourite possessions in terms of sentimental value.

Many years later I was studying for my music degree at Birmingham University. David Ponsford was assigned to teach me the harpsichord, and he had a very profound influence on me. Of all my teachers he is the one I feel most indebted to, and following on from those lessons I chose to specialise and study the Early Music course at the RCM, where I learnt with Robert Woolley.

My final piano teacher was Joseph Weingarten, the Hungarian concert pianist. He had studied with Dohnanyi at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest before coming to the UK in 1934. There was a clear sense that he was connected to this incredible heritage, that his teaching was authoritative, and yet he was so supportive and gently encouraging. He had a perfect balance there, which I can only attempt to emulate!

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

The biggest influence is actually my love for the music itself, and all it communicates. And by that I include music from a wide range of traditions, not just classical. When I hear great music I am just inspired, and want to share it with others, so that informs my teaching from one day to the next. For me, music is an incredible journey of discovery – and my students are also on their own journey, so it’s a privilege to share that and play a part.

My wife Louise works in child and adolescent psychiatry, and it would be remiss of me to ignore the huge influence this also has on my teaching ethos. Her insight into the issues that affect the lives and mental wellbeing of children and families in contemporary society inevitably has a massive impact on my own approach to people.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

Working for the local authority Music Service in schools in the 1990s was formative and very significant, forcing me to think carefully about my understanding of music education. Although a pianist, most of my work at that time was teaching electronic keyboards in a group context. The ensemble programme that I created took me down a very exciting creative route that I wouldn’t otherwise have experienced, and led to a lot of opportunities both here in the UK and in the USA.

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?

Adults have more understanding of the journey they are on as musicians, and they know what music they like and what they don’t like. So that is a different type of challenge to teaching a child, who might be more open to new experiences. Because my teaching is driven by my own love for music, it’s important that the student’s interests and tastes coincide to some extent with mine. But often I have found that a student’s enthusiasm for a composer or style has fed back into my own interest, and that’s a real joy too – another discovery that feeds my enthusiasm as a teacher.

What do you expect from your students?

Respect. If a person doesn’t respect me – both as a musician and as a human being – then I can’t teach them.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

There are the three essentials that underpin all playing: literacy, musicianship and technique. They need to be developed in tandem, and it’s the same whether a player is a beginner or more advanced. And again, the most important thing of all is to develop a proper LOVE for the music. We must be careful not to trivialise music or pretend it has to always be “fun”, but it must never be dull either.

The big enemy (as always!) is tension. I believe that the way to overcome that is to use physical movement away from the piano, and I have developed specific exercises based on Qigong forms and theory, which are proving very effective. Once a player is more relaxed, their musicality and creativity finds better freedom to be expressed.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Exams can be great if used as a celebration of achievement, provided we don’t let them dictate the way we teach, or neglect creativity. Most of my students take selected ABRSM Grades, with positive experiences and fantastic results. I use ABRSM because I like the professionalism of their service, the positivism and consistency of the examiners, and the superb published resources.

My students do not compete in festivals. Growing up, I won virtually every competition I ever took part in, but I didn’t enjoy a single one of them. In fact they turned performing into something I dreaded, although I didn’t upset my teachers by admitting that to them at the time!

These days of course we have a much better understanding of the direct link between the public criticism of players and their performance anxiety. The welfare of our students is more important than upholding any tradition, however well intended, and as music teachers we can have a powerful role in remoulding and recasting our performance culture for the better.

What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?

While we are all individuals with different strengths, I believe it is really important for performers to also teach, and for teachers to also perform.

I also believe that all musicians should try to compose and/or improvise. I see creating, performing and teaching as the three key areas of musical activity.

How do you approach the issue of performance anxiety/tension?

Performance anxiety primarily feeds off three things: the fear of failure, of looking silly, and of being compared critically with others. So we have to cut off this toxic food supply. Firstly, we minimise the fear of failure by ensuring students are well prepared, realistically confident, and focussed on enjoying the music they play. Secondly, we can ease their fear of looking silly by diminishing the formality and ritual associated with classical performance. And thirdly we can move away from the practice of having an adjudicator publicly evaluating and comparing performers, and in so doing establish a more positive context for both public performance and private, constructive feedback.

So long as we remember that music is an art form, not a competitive sport, performers and audience alike can all come away from concerts feeling entertained and enriched. Having performed in popular music settings as well as classical, I know the positive feelings that a good concert should engender, but sometimes it appears to me as if the classical world is deliberately trying to eschew enjoyment!

Once we have this basic understanding that performing music should be a celebration, we can start to look at how we approach a performance in terms of our preparation, how to deal with natural nerves and the effects of adrenalin in our system, breathing and stretching exercises, mental control, diet, and so on. This is again an area where I personally believe that Qigong can offer a genuine breakthrough.

ANDREW EALES is a pianist, teacher and educational consultant based in Milton Keynes UK.

His ‘Keyquest’ tuition books for electronic keyboard have sold many thousands of copies in the UK and overseas, and he has contributed to several other publications as composer and author.

To find out more please visit www.keyquestmusic.com

Andrew is also the founder of the online community The Piano Cloud, which brings together creative pianists from around the world. www.thepianocloud.com

Andrew’s next publication, ‘Piano Qigong’, is planned for Spring 2015.

Meet the Artist……Zsolt Bognár, pianist

Zsolt Bognár, pianist

Zsolt Bognár, pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career? 

I was somewhat tricked into playing piano: when I was a child I wanted to play the organ immediately after hearing it. I was told I needed to start on piano, and quickly forgot about the organ as I had a very charismatic first piano teacher. I was 12 when I realized that I wanted music to be my life: I heard a Beethoven recital by Alfred Brendel that was so inspiring in its range, and I had no idea a concert could impart such experiences. It was also that year that I heard for the first time the music of Robert Schumann, whose impassioned flights of imagination made me almost delirious.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing? 

Aside from the many friends and family members who provided crucial support and encouragement, there were my two main teachers: the first was Roger Shields, who among other things showed me much about life with his refined sensibilities. The second is Sergei Babayan, with whom I studied for many years. His insistence on musical and human integrity is without fail, as is his ability to impart warmth, modesty, and a spirit of curiosity into all aspects of life.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Musicians trying to find their paths can be flooded with such doubts and anxieties. One must be self-critical to a point for growth, but this must be balanced with humour and perspective. Fortunately, one can find solidarity in the letters of almost all musicians and composers: few were ever completely self-satisfied.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?  

I worked tremendously hard on the Schubert and Liszt CD (on the Con Brio Recordings label) which I recorded with the legendary producer Philipp Nedel in Berlin. It was one of the most intense periods in my life, and I tried to put everything into my work in my days there. Outside the recording studio, a blizzard was raging, and when working into the dark hours of the night, the music of Schubert carried new meaning. Nedel’s calm and sustained input somehow inspired me to want to reach ever higher with these pieces.

Listen to the excerpts from the CD here:

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

I prefer very old venues – to imagine those artists I admired all my life, playing in the same setting once upon a time always ignites me.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

The composer whose magic never fails to resonate with me is Schubert.

Who are your favourite musicians

First is Carlos Kleiber – his balance of lightness against depth is as much of a marvel as it is to watch him at work. Of living artists, I heard many great examples: the singer Cecilia Bartoli’s nuanced exuberance always inspired me, as did the pianism and musicianship of Martha Argerich, Krystian Zimerman, and my own teacher Sergei Babayan, who is one of the greatest artists I have ever witnessed in person. Of collaborative musicians, the most astounding for me is the pianist Julius Drake.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Of my own concert experiences, it depends on what perspective. A recent smaller concert in Indianapolis, for example, was an occasion in which I felt I finally reached total inner freedom all the way through an entire recital. Of bigger concerts, I will remember the audiences at my debut in Suntory Hall in Tokyo in 2009, and especially the audience at my Berlin debut at the Konzerthaus in 2012. After the second piece, a rarely-heard work by Liszt (the “Scherzo and March”), the audience gave a standing ovation during the middle of the recital; even after repeated curtain calls and rhythmic unison clapping, I was hardly allowed to start my next selection. It felt incredible, as an acknowledgment of a piece I strongly believed in. Furthermore, in the audience were some of my closest friends, to whom I could play directly.

Of concerts I attended, I will remember the recent experience of being on stage to turn pages for Sergei Babayan and Martha Argerich in a two-piano concert in Lugano – the energy was beyond belief.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

I notice that most of my concert opportunities, even the bigger ones, come from my friends, or because of them – a feeling confirmed by more established musicians. The very successful pianist and teacher, Paul Schenly, told me “careers are about friendships.” One can aspire to many projects, and they must be fulfilled with the help of many. Without these friendships, the experience would be far less rich anyway.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

For me it is connected with at least two things: the music that elevates and heals, and secondly with the friendships and human connections that give life and art a reason to be.

Praised by the German press for his sold-out 2012 Berlin Debut at the Young Euro Classic Festival at the Konzerthaus in Gendarmenmarkt that was “intellectually shaped, powerful, and of crystalline precision”, Zsolt Bognár’s performances in North America, Europe, and Asia have been praised as “overwhelmingly visceral…a phenomenal sound world realized through maximum palette” (Leeuwarder Courant, Holland).  

With recent debut performances in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Munich, Brussels, Vienna, and in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, Mr. Bognár releases his first CD album of works of Schubert and Liszt in 2013, recorded in Berlin with the legendary producer Philipp Nedel. Recipient of the 2007 Arthur Loesser Prize and having studied with Sergei Babayan for over ten years, Mr. Bognár is frequently invited to perform chamber music with members of the Cleveland Orchestra in live NPR broadcasts.  

Winner of numerous international piano competitions in North America and in Europe, he is the host of a documentary film series of interviews with musicians from around the world, presented by Elyria Pictures in New York. His musical collaborations and diverse projects were the recipient of an International Festival Society Grant in 2013 to spend a week with Martha Argerich, and have included international speaking engagements, publications, and residencies in performance series and universities. Mr. Bognár especially noted for his insights in the works of Beethoven, Schubert, and Russian repertoire. For more details, please visit www.zsolt-bognar.com

Interview date: August 2013

Guest post: On the significance of Liszt’s keyboard music

by Dr Mark Berry

The following arises from a lecture given in Bergen op Zoom as part of a three-day symposium, ‘Liszt meets Ibach’. I was asked to give a general overview of the significance of Liszt’s keyboard music to complement the more specialised masterclasses, performances, and lectures. 

In considering the significance of Liszt’s keyboard music, one can and should consider its significance both as keyboard music and more broadly in general musical terms, bearing in mind that, although Liszt often expressed himself best through his own instrument(s), he was not narrowly a ‘keyboard composer’, nor even a ‘piano composer’. That is not to say that I intend perversely to spend most of my time speaking about his symphonic poems, wonderful and neglected though many of them might be. (Even there, I might add, there would be a good deal to say with respect to the organ, not least in terms of Orpheus, transcribed in 1860 by Alexander Gottschalg, court organist in Weimar, but crucially – and in this, Liszt’s practice has something in common with his essay writing, early versions sometimes being penned by others – then carefully revised by the composer himself.)  

Let us start nevertheless with some of Liszt’s extraordinary achievements in terms of keyboard technique and ambition.  First and perhaps foremost, we have Liszt as the quintessential piano virtuoso. Just as we immediately think of Paganini as the exemplar of the type for the violin, however much the technical difficulties of his music may since have been superseded, so we do for Liszt and the piano – and more broadly, perhaps, the keyboard family. (It is less clear, by the way, that all of the technical difficulties of Liszt’s music have been superseded, even though an unhealthy number of musicians now seem able to toss off, say, the B minor Sonata, the Transcendental Studies, or indeed the organ Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale, ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam.’)

There is, as Dana Gooley has pointed out, in his book, The Virtuoso Liszt, something of the magician to the virtuoso. He writes, ‘Virtuosity is about shifting borders. The musician, the athlete, and the magician are potentially virtuosos as soon as they cross a limit – the limit of what seems possible, or what the spectator can imagine.’ Of course, then, ‘Once this act of transgression is complete, the border shifts, and the boundaries of the possible are redrawn.’ However, as Gooley also points out, there is a considerable difference between the ‘clichés of the professional magician – mere craft,’ and what he describes as a ‘truly surpassing virtuoso,’ whether of the magical or musical variety. ‘To be a truly surpassing virtuoso,’ he writes, our artist ‘must have his own tricks,’ and I shall add in passing that the ‘his’ is indicative of a notably gendered role here too, ‘inventing new impossibilities to be transcended, for these are the only impossibilities that will any longer seem truly impossible’. Liszt then, as Gooley summarises ‘remains the quintessential virtuoso because he was constantly and insistently mobilising, destabilising, and reconstituting borders. … None of his protégés and imitators … came even close to him in extending the virtuoso’s relevance qualitatively – beyond the sphere of music and into the social environments he entered.’

To be a virtuoso pianist or indeed to be a virtuoso upon any musical instrument during the nineteenth century was also to be a composer. There still exist musicians who ‘do both’ and indeed who do various other things too, though many of you will be aware of the distrust with which some instrumentalists, perhaps especially pianists, meet when they take up conducting. (To digress briefly just for a moment, that seems to have been the reason Maurizio Pollini cut short his conducting career, and even Daniel Barenboim took a long time indeed properly to be accepted as a conductor, nevertheless gaining reassurance from Arthur Rubinstein, very much an old-school pianist, who rightly encouraged him. Such, in any case is a modern division of musical labour which would have astonished Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Bartók, and many others, as well as a host of ‘lesser’ names and, of course, audiences.) So Liszt, in terms simply of being a composer, was not different from his ‘rivals’ – and I think I use the term advisedly, ‘competition’ being very much an issue in the world of the nineteenth-century virtuoso.

Where Liszt differed them ‘competitors’ such as the Swiss pianist, Sigismond Thalberg was, of course, his greatness as a composer and the ultimate seriousness, despite the magical side of things, with which he approached and understood his social role – especially as time went on, but the distinction may be observed all along, if not necessarily entirely without exceptions. The celebrated ‘duel’ between Liszt and Thalberg fought itself out both on stage and in the Parisian press, following Liszt’s arrival in the city in 1836. Parisians have always enjoyed an artistic controversy, whether between Gluckists and Piccininists or Thalbergians and Lisztians. Liszt’s programmes were of course not free of display, far from it, but they were eminently more ‘serious’ – in a sense even Wagner would have appreciated – than Thalberg’s; for instance, he gave what may have been the first (semi-public) performance of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata in the city. Berlioz sang his praises, writing of Liszt, and foretelling future talk of the ‘music of the future’ of their so-called New German School, as ‘the pianist of the future’, who, in his performance of that technically but above all musically challenging work had shown highly commendable fidelity to the score – a sign again of seriousness – whose difficulties recalled ‘the riddle of the Sphinx’. Liszt had made ‘comprehensible a work not yet comprehended,’ not through interventionism but quite the contrary: ‘Not a note was left out, not one added … no inflection was effaced, no change of tempo permitted.’ I have my doubts that our modern-day apostles of ‘authenticity’ would agree – and in any case, so much the worse for them – but Berlioz’s words and message rankled with Thalberg’s supporters, and the situation became more explosive when Liszt himself reviewed Thalberg, whose music he found frankly worthless, for the Revue musicale.  The celebrated duel, in a princess’s salon, as the climax – I am honestly not making this up! – of a three-day charity bazaar, fetched prices of 40 francs a ticket. As pianism, both musicians acquitted themselves finely; it was certainly not the decisive Lisztian victory that many early biographers claimed it. But it was equally acknowledged that there was far more to Liszt than being simply a piano virtuoso; even the hostess, Princess Belgiojoso, commented: ‘Thalberg is the first pianist in the world –Liszt is unique.’

How, then, did Liszt go on to show himself ‘unique’, as a pianist-composer? Essentially by out-‘virtuosoing’, as it were, the virtuosi, albeit through musical, compositional as much as musical, performative means. (However, it must be said that defeating them on their own territory was a necessary part, though only part, of the plan, whether conceived as such or not.) The following years, roughly 1839-47, have often been termed by writers on Liszt, his ‘years of transcendental execution’. His rate of performance was quite extraordinary, utterly unlike anything that had come before or indeed since; travelling from Britain to Turkey, from Russia to Portugal, he was often giving three or four concerts a week. He was also to all intents and purposes the inventor of the modern piano recital, giving entire programmes from memory, playing the whole repertoire – at least as it existed and was understood then, and, also as enlarged by him – from Bach to Chopin. In the words of Alan Walker, the author of a splendid modern three-volume biography of Liszt, ‘Whatever else the world may debate about his life and work, one thing is generally conceded: Liszt was the first modern pianist. The technical “breakthrough” he achieved … was without precedent in the history of the piano.’ Indeed, as Walker goes on, ‘All subsequent schools’ – and, I should add, perhaps the very idea of schools of piano playing in a modern sense – ‘were branches of his tree. Rubinstein, Busoni, Paderewski, Godowsky, and Rachmaninoff – all those pianists who together formed what historians later dubbed “the golden age of piano playing” – would be unthinkable without Liszt.’ And crucially for us, that is as much through his composition as through his admittedly unparalleled virtuoso career, which was actually surprisingly short.

To become a little more technical – in performing rather than analytical terms – Liszt seems both to have invented and to have solved a good number of keyboard problems. Despite attempts, some of them doubtless interesting and valuable, to resurrect older methods of keyboard playing – organists amongst you will not need to be told about French Baroque fingering and so forth – for the most part, modern keyboard performance and modern keyboard composition can helpfully be understood in a post-Lisztian manner. That is not to say that everything comes directly from him, but a great deal comes from him either directly or indirectly through his successors and theirs. To quote Walker again, in an invaluable chapter from that biography, entitled ‘Liszt and the Keyboard’, ‘Liszt’s influence … had to do with his unique ability to solve technical problems. Liszt is to piano playing what Euclid is to geometry. Pianists turn to his music in order to discover the natural laws governing the keyboard.’ I am a little wary of speaking about natural laws; such matters are surely more constructed, but if we replace the ‘natural’ with a more historical understanding, then there is surely little to argue with there. Although he would later turn to the orchestra and indeed would enter court service at Weimar largely with the idea in mind that he would have an orchestra there at his disposal, as a new ‘instrument’ almost on which to experiment, for these earlier years and indeed beyond, he was resolved in often quite systematic fashion to explore the capabilities of his first and most beloved instrument.

Fingering, then, is always well worth studying in his music – and, when one can, in his editions of other composer’s music. They exist of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, and other composers – and one sees in them the essential truth of Berlioz’s claim regarding fidelity. Liszt’s editorial practice is not ours, but he is at all times clearly concerned to bring out what he regards as the truth of the work, certainly not to impose anything external upon it – just as, for instance, Wagner was concerned to divine what he called the melos of a work he conducted, whether his own, Beethoven’s, or someone else’s. But to return to fingering: Liszt practised every scale with the fingering of every other scale, so as to achieve the utmost independence of every finger. As Walker puts it, a central truth concerning Liszt’s technique was, however, that ultimately ‘he did not conceive of a pianist’s hands as consisting of two parts of five fingers each, but as one unit of ten fingers’. Interchangeability and interlocking of fingers were important goals – and achievements. Consider ‘La campanella’, the third of his Six Grandes études de Paganini, written in 1838 and revised in 1851. The chromatic scales interspersed between the hands in a sense took Paganini as an initial inspiration yet went far beyond him, and not only on account of the greater capabilities of Liszt’s own instrument. Likewise the persistent leaps across the keyboard and the notorious repeated notes, reimagining the violin in pianistic terms and ultimately having one forget the original.

It was in the Paganini and the Transcendental Etudes that that technical foundation for modern pianism was laid. And they remain, like Chopin’s essays in the genre, so much more than mere ‘studies’, despite Liszt’s dedication of the latter to his sometimes teacher, Carl Czerny, ‘in gratitude and respectful friendship’. However, he extended his distinction from the ‘mere’ virtuosi by putting his discoveries in such works, admittedly as much musical as technical even there, to more overtly ‘poetic’ and even ‘absolute’ – in the dubious sense of ‘absolute music’ – ends.

The whole issue of ‘programme music’ has, as Carl Dahlhaus noted some time ago, been clouded by unhelpful debates concerning superiority and inferiority, which date back to the dawning of the very notion and its opposite, Wagner’s derogatory coinage of ‘absolute music’, later reclaimed by Eduard Hanslick’s school as a badge of honour. We need not trouble ourselves too much, or indeed at all, by such issues; we can surely now appreciate Liszt and Brahms. But Liszt’s exploration of the keyboard, and especially the piano, as a poetic instrument, as a way of expanding music’s Romantic connections with other art-forms such as literature, painting, and architecture, as well as the natural world, is deserving of our attention in itself. An especially celebrated example of such expression and connection is the three-volume collection of pieces, Années de pèlerinage. Poetic, natural, literary, visual artistic varieties of inspiration are palpable in far more than the individual titles – as indeed is the composer’s love of travel. ‘Au Bord d’un source’ from the first, Swiss book sounds, inevitably for us, to look forward beyond his own late Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este to the water-inspired music of Ravel, and indeed the music of Ravel and Debussy – call it impressionism, or whatever we like – is inconceivable without that of Liszt. The water music of all three is, moreover, quite inconceivable without the technical advances Liszt had made during this time, and arguably without his poetic imagination too.

Such explorations also laid the seeds for many of Liszt’s later orchestral explorations too, especially with respect to his symphonic poems, a form of his own invention. Wagner, who was certainly not wont to extol the music of any of his contemporaries, let alone to do so unduly, went so far as to posit them as an intermediary stage between Beethoven’s symphonies and his own music dramas, to a certain extent in defiance of the chronology. Liszt’s poetically-inspired motivic transformation – a technique that would have implications beyond, for Schoenberg and indeed even later serialism – was here being presented as a crucial step in the ability of the orchestra to depict, to represent, to comment, even to think and certainly to have us think. Wagner elsewhere – it is worth noting in passing that he was certainly no great pianist – noted that Liszt’s move away from the purely instrumental was a sign of progress, shunning what he, Wagner, that is, understood to be, the desire of the purely instrumental musician to divorce himself from the community and to make music alone. ‘Truly,’ Wagner wrote in his Opera and Drama, ‘the entirety of our modern art resembles the keyboard: in it, each individual component carries out the work of a mutuality, but, unfortunately, in abstracto and with utter lack of tone. Hammers – but no men!’ It was no accident, Wagner then commented in a footnote, that Liszt, the miracle worker of the piano, was now turning his attentions to the orchestra, and thereby, to the human voice. Whatever we think of that, we know, as indeed did Wagner, that Liszt had only been enabled to paint on a grander canvas by virtue of his explorations of the piano – for which he in any case would of course continue to write until the end of his life.

We should also remember the formal achievement of a work such as the B minor Sonata. (I am using it as an exemplar rather than as a sole case.) Many of Liszt’s piano works, let alone his others, are terribly neglected; one cannot make the claim of this sonata. But that perhaps offers a different danger, of coming off poorly in the wrong sort of performance. What it should not sound like – and I realise I am being prescriptive here, but Liszt often needs help – is a celebration of that ‘mere’ virtuosity Liszt first disdained and then vanquished. Of course it requires virtuosic, almost transcendental, technique, but that, as Liszt realised, is only a starting point: a way to beat the mere virtuosi at their own game. After that, and above all, stand the musical challenges. Analysis of this score can operate upon so many levels that it is difficult to know where to begin, but only briefly to consider its formal ingenuity and the dramatic issues that presents is to realise the scale of the achievement – and of the challenge. The Introduction will initially baffle; in what key do we find ourselves; what are those mysterious scales? Yet it prepares the way with well-nigh Schoenbergian economy for the thematic material of so much that is to come, much of it undergoing that thematic transformation in which Liszt’s pianistic and orchestral explorations came to influence one another.  One commentator even went so far as to suggest a ‘programme’ of ‘the transformation of Man brought about through Christ.

Drawing upon Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann, Liszt goes at least as far as anyone before Schoenberg (I think especially of the First Chamber Symphony, op.9) in synthesising and radicalising the relationship between individual sonata ‘movements’, if indeed they may now be thought of as such, and the form of the whole. Within what must in some respects at least be considered a single movement, we also hear the traditional four, and that is before we even begin to consider issues such as the false dawn of a recapitulation denied, or rather deferred. A similar path is taken in the piano concertos, amongst other works, but here the tightness of construction and singularity of purpose are, if anything, still greater. And what does it all mean? Should it be considered in extra-musical terms? Faustian? Christian? Both possibilities, and indeed others, have been suggested. Then again, do we perhaps pay Liszt a disservice by stressing potential or even real extra-musical associations? Are we again implying a certain lack of ‘absolute’ compositional rigour? As I mentioned a little earlier, æsthetic debates about the superiority or otherwise of ‘absolute music’ take us nowhere, just as they did at the time, yet at times we seem destined to replay them. Might Liszt now actually offer us a way out? A work such as this shows us that we can appreciate its stature with or without a ‘programme’, perhaps with equally satisfactory results.

Liszt was also, of course, a great populariser of, advocate for, and arguably commentator on other music, not just as a performer but also as a transcriber. His sympathies ranged widely both as a performer and, more crucially for our purposes, as a transcriber. The operatic fantasies, for instance, should not be considered with a broad brush. There is a world of difference between the virtuoso antics – perhaps he comes closer, though still only closer, to the ‘mere’ virtuoso here – of some of the early French and Italian paraphrases and the more earnest, musically rewarding, work on Wagner’s behalf. The astonishing dramatic re-imagination of Mozart in the Réminiscences de Don Juan is another thing again: though highly virtuosic in its demands, this ‘grandest of the Liszt paraphrases’, to quote Charles Suttoni, remains ‘virtually free of virtuosity for its own sake’. The principal interest today of a work such as his 1829 Grande fantaisie sur la Tyrolienne de l’opéra “La Fiancée”, that is a grand fantasy from Auber’s now-forgotten opera, would for most be the ways in which, to quote Alan Walker, ‘the opening pages, black with hemidemisemiquavers, confirm that tendency towards extreme virtuosity,’ thus leading towards the ‘transcendental’ technical breakthroughs of the 1830s. There he was perhaps exploiting Auber’s frankly rather slight music to other ends, though there is no reason to doubt Liszt’s genuine interest, at least at this stage in his life and career, in the world of the opera as it existed rather than as Wagner would later wish to reform it.  Brahms, as distant from a fervent Lisztian as any sensible man could be, admired greatly what he described as ‘the true classicism of the piano’ present in such fantasies and paraphrases. However, that is a very different world, both in source and in fantasy, from what Liszt would describe as ‘modest propaganda on the inadequate piano for the sublime genius of Wagner.’

Transcriptions for the organ tended to be more along such lines too, and, as with the piano, lines would often be blurred between transcription and ‘original’ composition, a piece such as the Evocation à la Chapelle Sixtine, based on Allegri’s Miserere and Mozart’s Ave verum corpus, providing both, first in its piano version and then later in its organ version. Liszt’s final piece of such ‘propaganda’ would be based on music from Parsifal, the Solemn March to the Holy Grail as far from grandstanding as possible.

Another way in which Liszt’s super-virtuosity was arguably able to defeat ‘mere’ virtuosity lay in his increasing inclination also to write musically fascinating yet technically quite simple music. No one could accuse him of writing in such a manner out of any technical inability, but older age perhaps brought a greater willingness to distil to essentials, although certainly not to eschew experimentation. Such experimentation would, however, often be of a harmonic or other ‘musical’ variety; after all, the composer seemed pretty much to have conquered the piano. In some of the extraordinary pieces of his old age, he approached and even achieved the abandonment, or perhaps better, suspension, of tonality. Not for nothing did composers such as Schoenberg, Bartók, and Debussy revere him. In a 1911 tribute, so after he had made his own break with tonality in the 1908 Second String Quartet, Schoenberg lauded Liszt for his ‘fanatical faith’. ‘Normal men,’ he wrote, ‘possess a conviction,’ whereas ‘the great man is possessed by a faith’. Schoenberg praised Liszt for the degree to which there was much that was ‘truly new musically’ in his work, ‘discovered by genuine intuition. Was he not after all,’ Schoenberg asked, ‘one of those who started the battle against tonality, both through themes which point to no absolutely definite tonal centre, and through many harmonic details whose musical exploitation has been looked after by his successors?’ In a sense, Schoenberg suspected, the consequences might prove to be even greater than Wagner’s, since Wagner had ‘provided a work too perfect for anyone coming later to be able to add anything to it.’ Busoni, who when he re-examined his work, his piano technique included, turned to Liszt, thought similarly on both accounts. Pierre Boulez programmed no fewer than five works by Liszt in his first season at the New York Philharmonic, the 1971 opening concert featuring Totentanz, with Jorge Bolet as soloist, the second introducing Malédiction, and the third given over entirely to Die Legende von der Heiligen Elisabeth.

Introversion, desperation, bitterness, and death were the hallmarks of Liszt’s late piano pieces, whether explicitly elegies – for instance, for Wagner and for Seven Hungarian Historical Portraits – or not. Chords constructed on fourths and sevenths, augmented chords, the so-called ‘Gypsy’ scale we heard at the beginning of the B minor Sonata, biting clashes between major and minor scales and intervals: such devices and more are very much part of what may perhaps rest as the ultimate ‘late’ experimentalism. A Bagatelle without Tonality from 1885, the year before Liszt’s death, made explicit what Liszt considered the future to be. The grey clouds of Nuages gris, written in 1881, proved especially interesting to Debussy and even to Stravinsky. Its harmonies appear not so much to have rejected as to have drifted away from tonality.

And so, as Liszt looked forward in his spoken utterances, even if he did not yet use them, to quarter-tones and to something approaching twelve-note music, being preoccupied with the idea of a twelve-note chord from which composition would subtract notes, he saw his late mission, as he told Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, as being to ‘hurl my lance into the boundless realms of the future’. He even went so far as to discourage his pupils from performing his late music, lest they damage their careers by doing so – a considerable extension of the idea of Beethoven’s writing for posterity in his late quartets. This truly was ‘music of the future’, by the erstwhile ‘pianist of the future’. Liszt is, I think, the greatest musical avant-gardist of the nineteenth century, perhaps the greatest before Webern or Boulez. Wagner might often be thought of as such, and, to be fair, he has a very important claim, but Liszt probably pips him to the post. (The relationship between Wagner and Liszt is in any case endlessly fascinating and endlessly complex.) Schoenberg might often popularly be thought of as such, but there is such a strong current of traditionalism to his thought and indeed to his practice – not for nothing did he write the celebrated lecture, ‘Brahms the Progressive’ – that the picture is far more mixed and subject to qualification in his case. Liszt, on the other hand, could write: I calmly persist in staying stubbornly in my corner, and just work at becoming more and more misunderstood.’

He had perhaps come a long way since his virtuoso years, but as I have tried to argue, it was those years and their triumphs that enabled the future triumph – perhaps still lying in our future – of his later works. Still suffering from hostility towards his virtuosity as a pianist – ‘how could he also be a great composer?’ – and from hostility and indifference towards his avant-gardism as a composer, Liszt remains a cause for which we need to fight. Understanding a little more clearly and deeply the relationship between those two crucial strands, virtuosity and avant-gardism, might just help.

Mark Berry regularly reviews concert and opera performances, both in London and abroad, especially in France, Germany, and Austria. These often attempt to combine his research interests with imperatives of live performance and theatrical production, and may be found, alongside other material, on his blog. He writes regularly for The Wagner Journal, which he has guest edited (November 2013), as well as Times Higher Education, Music and Letters, and various other journals. Other musical engagements include regular broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 (‘Night Waves’, ‘Opera Bites’, Proms, etc.), speaking engagements (e.g. British Library, English National Opera Study Day, Seattle Opera Ring, the Netherlands Opera, BBC Symphony Orchestra), and writing of programme notes for, amongst others, the Royal Opera House, the Wigmore Hall, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Salzburg Festival. His book After Wagner: Histories of Modernist Music Drama from ‘Parsifal’ to Nono was published by Boydell and Brewer in 2014.

Mark Berry’s full biography