Category Archives: General

Meet the Artist……Beth Levin, pianist

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

We owned an old Lester upright in the basement and I went to it very early on – played the music in the piano bench, composed a bit – it was a magical spot. My first teacher had come over from Europe to study at Curtis Institute and she gave me wise first steps at the piano. I didn’t think of it as a career then, but it was already at the center of my life.

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

My father always played the recordings of Richter and even in car rides would test me on the music and the artists emanating from the radio. He had a great ear and such a warm spirit.

My teachers – Maryan Filar, Rudolf Serkin, Leonard Shure and Dorothy Taubman – were perhaps the most important influences on me as a musician and also as a human being.

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

Some of the greatest challenges have been learning and performing the Goldberg Variations, the final three Beethoven Piano Sonatas and the Brahms D minor and Chopin E minor Concerti to name a few. This repertoire demands and allows the performer to go deep, to grow and be changed forever.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

I like the most recent –  Beethoven Op. 109-111 Sonatas on Parma Recordings.

And I’m also proud of the Bach Goldberg Variations on Centaur Recordings.

Which particular works do you think you play best? 

I probably play the Romantic repertoire the best. But I like to think I can handle music of any time.

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

I’m very influenced by friends – one recently suggested I learn Kreisleriana of Schumann and the big Schubert C minor Sonata. Having just played the late Beethoven program, this sits well with me. And I adore Schumann and Schubert.

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

I may be happiest in intimate spaces such as Bargemusic in New York – but  any stage is a happy challenge if one feels at home.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I love playing chamber music-(I’ll perform a cello/piano program tomorrow). A Brahms trio is heaven for me, or any of the great piano quintets…..
I adore and appreciate listening to singers – often from the past – and to strings.  One phrase of Casals’ Bach can be life-changing.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Hearing Stokowski live in Philadelphia and hearing Leonard Shure play a recital in Boston come to mind as outstanding memories.

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

Love for the music…….and of course titanic rhythm, deep phrasing and respect for the score.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I’m working on a modern work of Andrew Rudin – his Piano Sonata. And Schumann’s Kreisleriana. Also the Barber cello Sonata, Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata and the Brahms G minor Piano Quartet. I played the ‘Emperor Concerto’ recently and that is still with me.

What is your present state of mind? 

Because I play tomorrow I’m in a calm state of mind but ready to boil over at the right time.

Interview date: 8th March 2014

Beth Levin’s artistry invokes an uncanny sense of hearing for the first time
works long thought familiar, as though the pianist herself were discovering a piece in the playing of it. Such a style of refreshment and renewal can be traced back to Levin’s unique artistic lineage. As a child prodigy, she made her debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 12.

She was subsequently taught and guided by legendary pianists such as Rudolf Serkin, Leonard Shure, Dorothy Taubman and Paul Badura-Skoda (who praised her as “a pianist of rare qualities and the highest professional caliber”). Her deep well of experience allows Levin to reach back through the golden age of the Romantic composers and connect to the sources of the great pianistic traditions, to Bach, to Mozart, to Beethoven.

Levin has appeared as a concerto soloist with numerous symphony orchestras, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Pops Orchestra, the Boston Civic Symphony and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. She has worked with noted conductors such as Arthur Fiedler, Tonu Kalam, Milton Katims, Joseph Silverstein and Benjamin Zander. Chamber music festival collaborations have brought her to the Marlboro Festival, Casals Festival, Harvard, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Ankara Music Festival and the Blue Hill Festival, collaborating with such groups such as the Gramercy Trio (founding member), the Audubon Quartet, the Vermeer Quartet and the Trio Borealis, with which she has toured extensively.

Beth’s full biography can be found on her website

www.bethlevinpiano.com

At the Piano with Roberta Wolff

What is your first memory of the piano?

It is more of a feeling, I remember being struck by the beauty and loving the patterns of the keys.  I don’t remember a time when there has not been a piano near by calling me to play.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

Inspire is the right word and it was probably the music which did it. It had always been my long term intention, however, I also wanted to know about the workings of the instrument so trained as a technician first.  One day whilst tuning a piano I realised that I was ready to move into teaching.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

Beyond my lovely students from whom I learn continually I have had 6 teachers and they have all been significant in their own way.  If I had to pick one I would say Tim Barratt who snapped my playing, and practising into shape and guided me through the teaching diploma exams.  I also learnt more than expected, musically, during my time tuning for Steinway.  The sheer volume of high quality music I heard daily still runs through me.  I used to practise at Steinway over the weekends, helping myself to the concert fleet model Ds and receiving helpful passing comments from the likes of Alberto Portugheis and Charles Rosen.  When out on the road tuning I often had to wait for rehearsals to end, for me it was fascinating to listen in.  I am a better musician than I might have been as a result.

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

This is an interesting one and the first thought that comes to mind is this……. when I was around 15, a piano teacher told me that I did not have a good enough ear to consider tuning pianos as a career.  By 22 I was tuning for Steinway covering Wigmore Hall and BBC Proms Concerts.  As a result I will never discourage a student but rather guide them in what they need to do to achieve their goals.  For me it is also important to keep myself musically stimulated through attending concerts, lessons and meetings with other musicians, taking the best from these experiences and passing it on.  I find trusting my intuition to be a very open and reliable way of working.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences? 

They are probably the individual breakthroughs that students make after some time of careful work.  These delight me, no matter what the level, because of the personal feeling of success it brings the student.

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

As well as the joy music brings, there is so much to be gained, on a personal level, from learning something later in life.  It is wonderful to watch adult students begin to trust and rely on the process, accept their mistakes and move away from their natural tendencies to be over analytical and critical.  The challenge for me is to lead by example!

Tell us how you developed the Music Me Piano Practice Books and how you think it will benefit piano students and teachers:

Music Me Piano is a piano practice note book available in three versions.  They developed out of a practice-a-thon my students took part in which highlighted a vast difference in achievement between the two week event and normal termly lessons. We realised that the speed of their progress during normal term time was hampered, not by the difficulty or time requirements of what I was asking them to do, but by their ability to divide up their work and use their practice time smartly.

During lesson time student and teacher plan what needs to be practised day by day for the week ahead.  Students benefit from very clear weekly targets which set in motion a positive cycle of achievements.  Their self-efficacy and enjoyment is increased but they also develop really powerful learning skills which translate to any subject.

Teachers benefit because they are working with more motivated students who are placed in a greater position of responsibility.  Teachers ensure, through the Reference Section, that the student has all the information needed to practise their work correctly.

A happy by product of all this is that lesson planning is a much more fluid process done in conjunction with the student.  The book opens up a discussion between teacher and student on the topics of practice and all the different areas which need to be covered to develop into a rounded musician.  The book can be used when you are teaching exam syllabuses and is also incredibly inspiring to use when lessons are not following the exam curriculum.  Providing a tool for teachers to connect all aspects of theory, form and musicianship through the piece being studied. A great way to set your own syllabus tailored to your student, and a super way to teach and learn!

What do you expect from your students?

The same as I expect from myself……..To give it their best, remain open and never ever say “I can’t”

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

As long as you approach them in a level-headed way when the time is right they are valuable learning experiences.  Also, I really feel music should be shared, so developing performance skills is important

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

Actually they are not that different.  Follow the sound you are making, you can learn so much this way.  Don’t confine your musical education to the time spent in front of the piano, live it, music is everywhere.  Go to concerts, you need to experience many different styles, lines, tones and colours before you can go in search of what you want to create.  Observe yourself.  Play from the heart.  Know the value of deliberate practice, there is no quick fix which will give comparable results!

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

For me it is important to do both because developments in one area fuels the other in ways I may otherwise have missed.  Without stretching myself I would soon lose true empathy for my students; my best teaching and breakthrough moments with students come when I am working through difficulties of my own.  As well as that, performance needs to be taught and students learn much from watching.  I make sure I perform to all my students and parents during termly concerts.  We are all human, we all make mistakes, some people are just more practised at letting them slip by.

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?

Alfred Brendel, tone colour and mastery of every nuance and line.  Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, I was blown away by his playing last year, I think it was one of those special concerts where music, pianist and venue work perfectly.  Mitsuko Uchida, Maria Joao Pires, Krystian Zimmerman, especially the Schubert Impromptus.  I think it is good though to keep listening to new pianists and new music in new venues.

If you would like to know more about Music, Me, Piano please visit www.musicmepiano.co.uk

For more information on lessons, book presentations and book details please contact Roberta on info@robertawolff.co.uk or via her website www.robertawolff.co.uk

 

Review of the Music Me Piano practice notebook

Meet the Artist……Jeffrey Biegel, pianist

Jeffrey Biegel, pianist

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

There was a piano in the house – an old Estey upright. I gravitated to it after my sister’s piano lessons. Like a magnet, I was drawn to the piano.

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

In piano playing, my teachers, of course. Aside from Morton Estrin and Adele Marcus, I would have to say Josef Lhevinne, Artur Schnabel, Rachmaninov and of living pianists, Murray Perahia among many others.

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

The greatest challenge in any career is to maintain a steady flow of employment. Fortunately, with standard repertoire, new concerto projects written for me, plus recordings and teaching, there is a nice flow and momentum to keep evolving as a musician.

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?  

I would have to say in 1983, performing my debut with orchestra, Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, with the Juilliard Philharmonic in Lincoln Center; same concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC; Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra; and performances of concerti with the following composers in the audience: Keith Emerson, Neil Sedaka, Lowell Liebermann, William Bolcom, Richard Danielpour, Charles Strouse, Marjorie Rusche and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I love playing everything actually. I never know which is best, however.

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

I normally base the repertoire on new works being premiered and recorded, and the concerti asked for that particular season. next season includes Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, Saint-Saens Concerto no. 2, Grieg’s Concerto, and Rachmaninov Concerti nos 2 and 3.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

I enjoy everywhere I perform – each venue has its own magic.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Too many to list!!

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Too many to list!! In the pop world, David Foster, Keith Emerson, Neil Sedaka (and I can’t get Pink’s song, ‘Just Give Me a Reason’ out of my head – liking it!); pop/classic pianists, Victor Borge and Liberace; classical world – everyone! I always enjoy listening to other pianists and hearing their interpretations of music we all know and love.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

If I must narrow it down, it would have to be my New York recital debut on April 14, 1986, in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall for the Juilliard William Petschek Piano Debut Award–an annual honor given to a pianist. I remember looking out through the backstage to see all of my family, friends and colleagues go to their seats. It was like getting married to the instrument, formally, in New York, in front of everyone I know.

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

I would suggest creating and maintaining a network of musician friends, and friends in all artistic capacities. You never know when you might collaborate in special projects in performance, audio/video recording etc.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I am now at work for a recording project in the fall of 2014 featuring the following works:
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (1924)
Ellington: New World A-Comin’ (1945, orchestration by Maurice Peress; solo cadenza by Sir Roland Hanna)
Keith Emerson: Concerto no. 1 (1977)
Neil Sedaka: Manhattan Intermezzo (2010; piano part enhanced by Jeffrey Biegel)

Additionally, I will record Lucas Richman’s “Piano Concerto: In Truth” during the 2014-15 season; orchestra tba; and will learn a new concerto based on the famous rock group, The Monkees, to be composed by Dick Tunney out of Nashville. That will be premiered with Orchestra Kentucky in January 2015, along with Peter Tork’s “Moderato ma non troppo” for piano and orchestra. Kenneth Fuchs will be composing a Piano Concerto for me, which will have its world premiere in 2015-16 with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra in Massachusetts with Kevin Rhodes conducting. For the Dicterow-DeMaine-Biegel trio, I will be learning Suk’s “Elegie”, and Dohnanyi’s “Quintet” for our January debut in Fort Worth, Texas. Also, the world premiere of Jeremy Lubbock’s new composition, “Moods–a duet for Piano and Strings” will take place in February 2015 with the orchestra of Moravian College in Pennsylvania.

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

Still alive, performing and recording.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

A peaceful world, allowing us to travel anywhere, anytime, without religious or political boundaries.

What is your most treasured possession? 

A photo of pianist Josef Lhevinne to his student (and my teacher) Adele Marcus from May 26, 1928 – Adele changed the date to 1938 to make her younger!

Jeffrey Biegel’s biography

My review of Jeffrey Biegel’s CD ‘A Grand Romance’

 

 
 

South London Concert Series – 2014/15 season launch

Praised for its ability to combine quality music making, varied programmes and a convivial atmosphere, the South London Concert Series 2014/15 season launches on Sunday 14th September with a special concert at one of London’s most beautiful small venues.

fitch flyer

‘Notes&Notes’ combines music and words in a concert of music by J S Bach and Joseph Haydn by acclaimed pianist and teacher Graham Fitch. Join Graham after the concert for a cream tea and the chance to socialise with other music lovers.

14 September 2014 Notes&Notes: Graham Fitch Craxton Studios, Hampstead, London NW3.

Buy tickets

Greenwich shot3 October 2014 Matthew Sear at the 1901 Arts Club, London SE1.

Classical guitarist Matthew Sear plays works by Benjamin Britten and John Dowland, together with his own compositions from his new album. Matthew is joined by supporting artists Rebecca Singerman-Knight, Muzz Shah, Jennie Barham and Julie Cooper in music by Prokofiev, Bortkiewicz, and Rachmaninoff. Early Bird Tickets now available. Buy Tickets

large12 December 2014Ernest So, piano, at the 1901 Arts Club. ‘Russian Romantics’.

A concert with a special accent on lesser-known Russian romantic repertoire, including works by Bortkiewicz and Medtner. Ernest is joined by supporting artists Rob Foster, Clio Chu, Petra Chong and Claire Hansell. Buy tickets

IMG_228122nd January 2015 Frances Wilson at LASSCO Brunswick House, Vauxhall, SW8. The South London Concert Series returns to the opulent setting of the Saloon at Brunswick House, a magnificent Georgian mansion which is home to an eclectic collection of antiques and salvaged curiosities. Join SLCS Artistic Director Frances Wilson and supporting artists for a concert of piano music by Debussy, Pärt, Schubert, Satie, and Messiaen, plus the world premiere of Preludes for piano by Matthew Sear.

Early Bird tickets now available. Buy tickets

17 September 2015Daniel Roberts, piano, and Hannah Woolmer, violin, at LASSCO Brunswick House. Set in the wonderful opulence of the Saloon at Brunswick House, we present a recital of music for violin and piano and solo piano. Programme and supporting artists to be announced. Buy tickets

Meet the Artist……Ho Wan Jeremy Leung

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

Not just a single person has inspired me. I’ve had some great piano teachers before and during my time at university. My last lessons were with Mikhail Kazakevich from Trinity College of Music. I found it amazing that every piece I wanted to learn he was already able play from memory, while looking at me, and could really shake the grand piano playing Liszt. It was a really relaxed environment where I was able to not just ask questions, but also have discussions about the music and I learnt an incredible amount from this. I discovered during this time how to really uncover and convey the music’s narrative as opposed to just learning the technical aspects of a piece.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

Unsurprisingly, especially for the people that know me, I relish the spotlight and the idea of putting on a grand performance is always on my mind. However, I do a lot of lounge jazz playing, and I love having an audience who are doing other things and where music isn’t the main focus. I feel completely free to explore music and try new things without the pressure of the spotlight. It’s really easy to make the space a performance for myself.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I love the intense emotion and raw power of the late romantic Russians (Rachmaninov, Mussorgsky, Scriabin, etc). I think this is in part due to my style of composition, as I love creating piano works in their style and I can never resist learning a challenging piece of music. However, I’ve always loved the simple beauty and lyricism of Chopin, so I always try and have a piece of his on the go.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Musicians like Vladimir Ashkenazy and Leonard Bernstein I really aspire to, as they are greats in more than just one field. However, for specific pieces, composers and genres I have my favourites. Jazz Trio playing – Brad Mehldau, Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto – Olga Kern, Conducting Stravinsky’s Firebird – Valery Gergiev. The very long list goes on.…

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

My first time as a concert pianist, I was performing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. This was such a fun piece to learn, and even though I was nervous before, the moment I started playing I relaxed into the music and for 15 minutes the audience didn’t exist, it was just the music and me. It was over way to soon, and I felt such an incredible rush I wanted to do it again straight away. However, I wasn’t fully satisfied and I think I will always be looking for bigger and better things to get involved in. After the concert, I was told there where children dancing at the back, a success in my opinion!

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

Always have a performance to work toward otherwise it’s really easy to put practicing to the side. Keep an open mind to new pieces of music you are introduced to, I know my taste in music has dramatically changed over the last few years. Join in everything!

What are you working on at the moment? 

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition for a concert later this year, and Blumenfeld’s Etude for the Left Hand, Op.36 for my birthday party/jam night next week – I want to be able to finish a drink in my right hand before the piece is over!

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

I would love to have my hand firmly in the three things I love, which is Performing, Composing and Conducting. My idea of perfect happiness is centre stage in a grand concert hall abroad with the Berlin Philharmonic performing and conducting a piano concerto I have composed.

Ho Wan Jeremy Leung 梁皓雲

www.howanjeremyleung.com

Interview date: September 2013

Brenchley Summer Proms 2014

Marie-Luise Syré, Q11, AKGSet in the beautiful and historic village of Brenchley, Kent, the Summer Proms are a wonderful opportunity to listen to the highest quality music in informal and friendly surroundings. Concerts take place in All Saints’ Church, an inspired and inspiring place to make music, and this year’s Proms will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Adolf Henselt with performances of his complete chamber music, starting with his startlingly original Opus 1 and closing with his crowning masterpiece, the Concerto in F minor.

All concerts begin at 5.30pm in All Saints’ Church, Brenchley. The first concert is on Saturday 30th August and the Brenchley Summer Proms continue on each Saturday of September until 27th with a special concert in memoriam James Naylor, raising funds and awareness of safekent.org.uk

Brenchley Summer Proms are directed by pianist Daniel Grimwood and bring together a fantastic line up of international musicians, including Leslie Howard and Fenella Humphreys.

For more information about Brenchley Summer Proms, please visit brenchleyproms.co.uk

Meet the Artist……Daniel Grimwood

Meet the Artist……Fenella Humphreys

 

Meet the Artist……Graham Fitch

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

I was destined to read modern languages at Oxbridge but my heart wasn’t really in it. The piano was an all-consuming passion by my mid teens, and I’m afraid once the blinkers went on I couldn’t see myself being happy doing anything else.

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

Apart from my wonderful teachers Stephen Savage, Peter Wallfisch and Nina Svetlanova (each of whom gave me different parts of the puzzle), I was very influenced by András Schiff. Not only his playing (which blew me away the first time I heard it) but having the privilege of studying with him at Dartington in 1982 and then privately afterwards. Another profound influence was Leon Fleisher’s weekly piano class during my Peabody year, studying Chopin with Ann Schein and having some marvelous lessons with Julian Martin. Playing chamber music with some amazing string players and also playing the song repertoire have made me a more rounded musician than if I had just played solo.

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

I think juggling the various elements of what I do – playing, teaching, writing, adjudicating and now in my role as a principal tutor on the Piano Teachers’ Course (EPTA) UK. There never seems to be enough time to practise!

Which particular works/composers do you think you play best? 

I have played a wide variety of styles in my time, from the French and German baroque through to contemporary music. If push comes to shove I would have to say I identify most with the mainstream Classical and Romantic repertoire. I can’t imagine a world without Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin – to name but a few.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

If you mean as a listener, it would have to be Schiff’s Goldbergs at Dartington in 1982. One of the most memorable of my own would probably be playing the same work in Perth, Australia in the late 90’s – in front of an audience of pianists.

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

A love of music, an appreciation of how music is built and how to communicate this in your playing. Aspiring musicians need a heck of a lot of discipline if they are going to amount to anything, but so often they don’t really know how to work. Part of my mission seems to be helping them learn how to practise.

Your ‘Notes & Notes’ recital on 14th September includes works by J S Bach and Haydn. Tell us a little more about why you selected these particular composers and works? 

I chose to play these particular works because I think Bach and Haydn go very well together. The B flat Partita and the G major French Suite are very often played, and I find I often teach them. The Haydn C major is such an inventive work – I just love the humour in it.

Why perform and talk about the music? How do you think this approach illuminates the music and composers for the audience? 

There is a growing trend for performers to talk about music, and to engage with their audience on a more personal and intimate level. If the venue is small enough, it can be a great way of enhancing the listening by offering what are basically spoken programme notes – and maybe some personal observations and anecdotes.

Graham Fitch’s ‘Notes&Notes’ recital is on Sunday 14th September 2014 at 3pm at Craxton Studios, Hampstead, north London. After the concert, the audience is invited to join Graham for a cream tea and a chance to socialise with other music lovers. Further information and tickets here. This concert marks the launch of the 2014/15 season of the innovative and popular South London Concert Series.

Graham Fitch, now based in London, maintains an international career not only as a pianist, but also as a teacher, adjudicator and writer. He has been appointed to the piano staff at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and runs private teaching studios in South West London, and the West End of London.

A published author, Graham has written several articles on aspects of piano playing and musical style. He has also produced a generation of teachers through his influence as a teacher. He is a regular contributor to Pianist Magazine, and is the author of a very successful blog, http://practisingthepiano.com/

www.grahamfitch.com

 

Music Notes – Stephen Hough plays Liszt’s ‘Benediction…..’

by James Holden

Stephen Hough’s recording of Liszt, ‘Bénédiction de Dieu dans le solitude’, Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173/III on the CD Rhapsodie espagnole; Mephisto Waltz; Bénédiction de Dieu  released on Virgin as 724356112926.

There are moments when the piano ceases to sound like a box full of hammers being thrown against metal. It ceases to be a blacksmith’s instrument, all anvil-struck notes, all blows and impact.

Stephen Hough’s performance of Liszt’s ‘Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude’ is one such moment.

I first heard this recording when I was still relatively unversed in the nineteenth-century piano repertoire. I had listened to some Chopin and knew a few of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words.I wasn’t familiar with anything by Schumann and knew no Thalberg, Alkan or work by any of the other virtuosos.What little I knew of Liszt I had learnt from reading, and not least from those references to him in Proust.

Like so many other happy cultural discoveries, I first borrowed the CD on which this recording is to be found from the local library (Barnsley). It was there on the racks with the other discs, compilations, popular classics, opera box sets and the like. Stephen Hough, Liszt: Rhapsodie espagnole; Mephisto Waltz; Bénédiction de Dieu.I turned it over, looked at the track listing on the back, weighed it up and then walked it to the desk. I thought, ‘Why not?’

The love I immediately felt for the ‘Bénédiction’ made me a confirmed musical Romantic.There is something in its combination of simple melody and complex accompaniment that, from the very first notes, seems to care for me, the listener, and seeks to protect me. This is not just music to love but music by which one is loved. I’ve only ever had this same feeling with a few other recordings, including Björk’s song ‘Undo’ from her 2001 album Vespertine.

Under Hough’s hands, Liszt’s notes spread outwards; they diffuse themselves. There is nothing struck here, or so it seems, nothing metallic. All is radiated.

Hough’s gestures respect both the work’s grandeur and the composer’s profound religiosity whilst never straining for emotion or effect. Consider, for example,the moment when the right hand part is extended by a series of arpeggios (the passage marked ‘poco a poco animato il Tempo’ on the score). The upper notes seem to open out of the main melodic material, as though the chord was always already there, in the tune, and has only now risen to an audible volume.What great touch on the keyboard; what pedal control!

No other performance of the ‘Bénédiction’ has affected me in quite the same manner. Leslie Howard’s recording of it for Hyperion is undoubtedly brilliant but its brilliance is that of the bright midday sun reflected off of polished stone surfaces. It’s a little too insistent, too sharp edged, a performance whose volume and clarity causes the overall effect to be lost. The more Howard makes things visible the harder it is to see the work. I own a recording of Claudio Arrau playing this piece that is, by contrast, seemingly formed of those reflective stone surfaces themselves. It gives the impression of blocks of notes being moved into place. The Andante is especially hard, too clearly delineated, too marked in outline.

For all its wavering poetry, Hough’s performance is unwaveringly certain of the work’s coherence. As the piece stretches out to over seventeen minutes this is very welcome – essential, even. To take some examples: we can sense the connection between the partial melody in bars 44-49 and that in the later ‘quasi Preludio’ passage; and at the end of that same Preludio, just before the return of the main melodic material, Hough calls our attention to the communication between the hands, the passing backwards and forwards of the notes. In the Coda we can feel everything combine in one final, calm cadence.

Hough’s recording has affected my own playing. I’m only an enthusiastic amateur at best and doubt that I’ll ever be able to play the ‘Bénédiction’ properly and in full (I can play the comparatively simple Andante and quasi Preludio sections). However, my joy at listening to this recording did lead me to learn Liszt’s ‘Schlummerlied’, another work in F♯ major, one with a similar, albeit much simpler, repeating C♯-D♯ right hand figure. When I worked at this piece it was like working at a ‘Bénédiction’ in miniature, only one within my ability range.

As the piece ends, as the last chord dies away I have felt myself suspended, unwilling to speak or move, to intrude into the space created by Liszt and Hough.

Dr James Holden was born in Ashford and educated at Loughborough University. He graduated with his PhD in 2007. He is the author of, amongst other things, In Search of Vinteuil: Music, Literature and a Self Regained (Sussex Academic Press, 2010). His website is www.culturalwriter.co.uk and he posts on Twitter as @CulturalWriter

© James Holden 2014