Tag Archives: British pianist

A lunchtime premiere: Richard Uttley at St John’s Smith Square

There was a palpable sense of tension and expectation as I made my way through the tourist crowds milling around the Houses of Parliament. Across the road, on College Green, the press pack was settling in for a long night ahead, tracking the results as they came in and offering minute-by-minute comment and analysis. Not far away, nestled amongst government buildings, is St John’s Smith Square, an English baroque church which is home to a wide variety of concerts, including an excellent lunchtime series. And on Britain’s 2015 Election Day it was a civilised oasis of culture for those of us attending Richard Uttley’s lunchtime piano recital.

Pianist Richard Uttley presented a programme whose theme was dance. Bookended by works by Bach and Beethoven, the middle part of the concert featured the world premiere of two movements of Matthew Kaner’s ‘Dance Suite’, which Richard commissioned from the composer. The first movement, Mazurka, drew many influences from the traditional Polish dance in its rustic rhythms but also from one of the greatest exponents of the form, Chopin, in its melodic fragments. There were references to Szymanowski too in the more reflective, haunting melodies. The second movement, Sarabande, was a more meditative and lyrical, redolent of the sombre elegance of Bach’s sarabandes which are found in his French and English Suites. Uttley is a keen champion of contemporary music and he seemed completely at home in this repertoire. In the lively ‘Mazurka’ he brought crisp articulation and robust rhythmic vitality, while the ‘Sarabande’ was graceful and sensitively shaped. This same attention to detail was evident in Bach’s Partita No. 4 which opened the concert. A florid and sprightly Overture gave way to a serene Allemande, given an almost romantic cast through Uttley’s elegant legato and subtle shaping. The Partita ended with a lively Gigue. Beethoven’s Sonata in A Op 101 seems to begin in the middle of things, as if we and performer have come upon it half way through. Its elegance mirrored that of slow movements of the Bach. This is offset by a lively March, which was emphatic and decisive. Another movement of serenity was followed by an exuberant finale, underpinned by that most stable of musical devices, the fugue, and played with much wit and vigour. As if often the way when contemporary music is programmed alongside more well-known works, the new revealed striking similarities in the Bach, Beethoven and contemporary works, while the old gave the listener a useful jumping off point into the new. I very much look forward to hearing further movements from Matthew Kaner.

More on Mazurkas here

On Messiaen – and more: Meet the Artist……Cordelia Williams, pianist


British pianist Cordelia Williams is undertaking a special project in 2015 exploring Messiaen’s ‘Vingt Regards sur l’enfant- Jésus’, arguably the greatest piano work of the 20th-century. In this interview she discusses the project and the particular attraction of the music.

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

I never really made a specific ‘decision’ to be a pianist – it has just always been what I am. Deciding not to pursue a career in music would be as ridiculous as deciding not to age! Having heard my mother teaching piano and harpsichord since I was born, I was impatient to start learning as soon as I could sit on the piano stool, and since then studying and playing music has always seemed completely natural to me.

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

Definitely my mother: she taught me for the first six years (age 3 – 9) and I’m sure my approach to music was set during that time. However, I’d also say the seven years I spent boarding at Chetham’s School of Music, because I started to learn then how to take charge of my own musical development. Finally, I think during the last couple of years the contentment I’ve felt in my life – growing older, an incredibly happy relationship and an adorable cat – has allowed me to really learn who I am as a musician and to find a greater honesty and confidence in my playing.

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

I suspect for me it has been finding the self-belief to deal with the knock-backs and disappointments of any performing career. My friends gently point out that I can (sometimes) be an overly emotional person, and chasing opportunities and career advancement does not come naturally to me. I have a constant battle between what needs to be done for my career and what I want to do as a person.

Musically, I would say recording my second CD (Schumann for SOMM, out in September 2015). It is such emotional challenging and complex music – I really had to struggle for a long time to feel that I knew what I wanted to say. And organising my ‘Messiaen 2015’ series has been an enormous learning curve; quite apart from learning the marathon Vingt Regards in the first place, there have been so many aspects to coordinate that I wasn’t expecting.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

Performing Beethoven’s Emperor concerto with the RPO at the Barbican in December 2014: it was a really special performance and something magical happened between the orchestra, the conductor and myself. Getting a standing ovation for Rachmaninov 3: it’s such a scary and enormous work to perform that I was quite overwhelmed with the reaction (may have cried a bit). And my recording of Schubert’s Impromptus for SOMM (2013): it was a big thing for me to release my first CD and, thank goodness, I still like it!

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

I’ve always had an affinity with Beethoven’s 3rd, 4th and 5th concertos. Schubert’s C minor Sonata (D958) has been a special work for me, as has Schumann’s Fantasie op. 17. And perhaps also Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat – someone once remarked that my performance reminded him of Dinu Lipatti, which for me is the highest compliment.

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

There’s always something that I’m desperate to learn, so I usually plan programmes around that, gradually introducing new repertoire so that I always have some new works and some more familiar. I try to make every concert a holistic listening experience for the audience: interesting, sometimes challenging, but always rewarding and complete.

Tell us more about your ‘Messiaen 2015’ project.  What was your motivation for organising this series of concerts and events focussing on Olivier Messiaen?

It was the music itself – the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus is such a fascinating work that I wanted the chance to explore it further, make new discoveries and look at it in different lights. And I wanted to share all that with anyone who was interested. So the commissions, collaborations and events were developed in a very organic way.

What is the particular appeal of this composer’s music for you? 

I think he must have been a wonderfully interesting man, because his music is! He combines so many different musical layers, symbolism, theology, literary inspirations, images from paintings and ideas from all walks of life, to create music which is worked out in minute and precise detail but which sounds natural, passionate, reverent and overwhelming. All of existence and all of non-existence is within Messiaen’s music.

What are the challenges and pleasures of studying and performing his piano music?

It’s unbelievably complicated to memorise! It really took me ages to learn the Vingt Regards. But I’ve found that, because it’s so pattern-based, once it’s learnt it stays in quite well. On the other hand, I love how thought-provoking his titles and commentaries are: he has allowed me to contemplate new concepts and look at familiar scenes (e.g. the Nativity, the Annunciation) in a totally new way.

What have been the special pleasures and challenges of working with poet Michael Symmons Roberts and artist Sophie Hacker on this project? 

I can’t think of any challenges! But it has been a real pleasure to discuss the music with them and to see their own individual responses take shape. I couldn’t even have imagined what they’d come up with – it has been a true example of the sum being greater than the parts.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

I think either performing the Vingt Regards in 2013 in King’s Chapel, Cambridge, which was wonderfully atmospheric, or my debut recital at the Royal Festival Hall in 2011. I was stupidly nervous! But in the end, the performance I gave was a huge achievement for me, and lots of my family and friends turned out to support me. We all got drunk at Las Iguanas afterwards.

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

Goodness – I don’t feel qualified to answer this yet! Ask me again in 30 years.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Having a lazy Sunday morning at home together with newspapers and coffee (perhaps, in the future, surrounded by children), a walk in the countryside and then cooking a big roast lunch for friends.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My friends and family and my health. And my engagement ring, not for what it’s worth, but for what it symbolises.

What is your present state of mind?

Excited about life and unusually energetic.

Cordelia Williams’ ‘Messiaen 2015′ project, an exploration of the ‘Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus’ in music, words and art, continues at various venues in London and beyond. The next event in the series is a Study Day at King’s College, London on Tuesday 28th April. The event is free, but registration is required to attend. This in-depth exploration of the Vingt Regards and their origins includes sessions on Messiaen’s historical and musical context, compositional style and theology. The day includes sessions with poet Michael Symons Roberts and artist Sophie Hacker, an exhibition, poetry reading and a lunchtime concert by Cordelia Williams. Full details here http://www.messiaen2015.com/event/kings-college-london/

For further information about other events, please visit the dedicated Messiaen 2015 website

The ‘Messiaen 2015′ project was made possible by the generous support of the City Music Foundation.

Hearing her mother teach piano, Cordelia wanted to learn to play too, and began lessons at home as soon as she could climb onto the piano stool. She gave her first public piano recital to celebrate her eighth birthday. She spent seven years at Chethams School of Music in Manchester, studying with Bernard Roberts and Murray McLachlan. She went on to work with Hamish Milne in London, Joan Havill and Richard Goode, and is grateful to have received support from the Martin Musical Scholarship Fund, the Musicians Benevolent Fund, the Stanley Picker Trust, the City of London Corporation, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the City Music Foundation.

Cordelia Williams’ full biography

Meet the Artist……Robin Green, pianist

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

It was a combination of different influences.  At around the age of 13 I was introduced to Glenn Gould’s recording of the Goldberg variations (the 1955 recording). I was fixated with it, and for many months I listened to nothing but Bach! I suppose my passion and energy for music arose from then.

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

There are too many to count! Tom Waits, The ‘Heiliger Dankegesang’ movement from Beethoven String quartet op 132, Mahler’s 6th Symphony, Oscar Peterson, Strauss’s Metamorphosen, Schubert songs. The list is always growing….

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

Performing Stockhausen’s ‘Mantra’ with my piano duo (the Francoise-Green duo) was especially memorable. It was 70mins of extremely difficult piano music, as well as playing crotales, a wood block, ring modulators and a radio! But generally, I don’t look back, I am always looking forward to the next challenge.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

I am proud of my latest CD ‘Dialog mit Mozart’, with the Austrian violinist Daniel Auner. We recorded 3 Mozart violin sonatas on the Gramola label. We approached the project by studying the original manuscripts, and discussing in detail how Mozart should be played naturally and instinctively.

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

I have always insisted on performing lots of different repertoire. There is so much great music, that it is a crime not to try it all in a life time. This month I have performed works by Strauss, Schubert, Mozart, Stravinsky, Saints-Saens and Steve Reich, so my musical life is always extremely varied. I have a huge passion for chamber music from the Classical era and try to perform this as often as possible. I am very happy that I will be performing the Beethoven Cello Sonatas this season with my good friend Christian Elliott, the cellist of the Zehetmair quartet.

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

This very much depends on which concerts/festivals I am invited to, and who I will collaborate with. This coming season, I will perform a number of concertos for the first time, including the Mendelssohn Double concerto in Japan.

You are performing Rzewski’s ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’ at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival. Please tell us more about this piece, its challenges and the appeal of learning and performing it.

‘The People United Will Never be Defeated!’ is a phenomenal work that rarely gets performed.

The theme is a Chilean revolution song from the 70’s. Within the 36 variations that follow, one hears music in the style of Beethoven, Chopin, George Crumb, Phillip Glass and Boulez. The listener also hears extreme virtuosic piano writing, whistling, free improvisation, slamming the piano lid, blues and beautiful romanticism.

Apart from the extraordinary compositional technique, what really interests me about the piece is its relationship with its audience. Rzewski was focused writing music ‘for the people’. For this work, I believe he wanted to break down the barriers that can exist within the classical music medium and at the same time keep the integrity of the art form. He successfully created a 55 minute piano work that is complex yet popular and holds the attention to the public.

After the 36 variation marathon, Rzewski gives the performer the freedom to improvise a cadenza! I have performed improvisation in concerts, but never within such a huge work. I find myself excited to see how the improvisation will develop, I am currently thinking it should all be played inside the piano!

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

Performing at Wigmore Hall is very special. It has an astonishing Steinway piano, and a magical acoustic. I was also very excited to play in Berlin recently at the Piano Salon Christophori. There is a concert series in a working piano factory, where the owner has over 120 pianos! It is a magical atmosphere and a very attentive audience. There were over 250 people, and half the audience was under 40. A good sign for 2015.

Favourite pieces to perform?

Whichever piece I am about to play.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Whoever I am about to play with.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I once played at the BBC Proms with the European Union Youth Orchestra on the organ! We played ‘Tarus Bulba’ by Janacek, which includes very exposed solos. That was my first time playing an organ, so it was quite an overwhelming experience! Perhaps I can officially retire as an organist now I have played at the Royal Albert Hall.

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

Never stop learning, never stop working and never stop dreaming. When the cellist Casals (then age 93) was asked why he continued to practice the cello three hours a day, he replied, “I’m beginning to notice some improvement.”

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

Doing exactly what I am doing now.

Robin Green is Artist in Residence at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival. Full details of the festival and Robin’s concerts here. He will perform Frederick Rzewski’s ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’ on Saturday 23rd May. Full details here

He is also performing with violinist Sara Trickey and

‘A light touch and an engaging tone’ (The Strad magazine), Robin Green enjoys a busy career as a soloist, chamber musician, conductor and ensemble pianist.

Robin’s first CD, ‘Dialog mit Mozart’ with the Austrian violinist Daniel Auner, released on the Gramola label, was ‘Editors choice’ in the December 2014 issue of the Strad Magazine.

Robin has performed recitals in many of the world’s most important concert venues including the Wigmore Hall and the Vienna Musikverein. His festival appearances have included the Festspiele Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the ‘Interlaken Classics Festival’, Davos Young Artists Festival, the International Musicians Seminar ‘Open Chamber’ Festival at Prussia Cove, the Pharos Trust, Festival de Radio France et Montpellier and Le Jardin Musicaux Festival.

As a concerto soloist, Robin directed a performance of Poulenc´s ‘Aubade’ from the piano with the European Union Youth Orchestra. Other concerto highlights include the Martinu Double Concerto with Sinfonia Cymru and Camerata Nordica at the Small Nations Big Sounds festival.

Together with the pianist Antoine Françoise, Robin is part of the Françoise-Green piano duo. The duo are the first prize winners of the Royal Overseas League Chamber music competition, and the Concours Nicati in Switzerland. In 2015, the duo were finalists of the YCAT competition at Wigmore Hall.

A passionate chamber musician, Robin has collaborated with Gordan Nikolitch, Michael Collins, Thomas Carroll, Rolf Hind, the Cavalieri String Quartet, members of the Zehetmair quartet, Llyr Williams, the Rambert Dance Company and the Mercury Quartet, where he is a guest conductor.

Former recipient of the Leverhulme Chamber music fellowship at the Royal College of Music, Robin is now a piano professor at the Royal Academy of Music Junior department. Supporting his studies at the Royal College of Music and the Mozarteum, Salzburg, Robin has participated in masterclasses with Vladimir Ashkenazy, Menahem Pressler, Ivry Gitlis, Ferenc Rados, Stephen Kovacevich, Dénes Várjon, Imre Rohmann, Peter Lang and Rainer Schmidt.

Robin is the former pianist of the European Union Youth Orchestra, having won the Chairman’s award. As an ensemble pianist, Robin has performed with Orchestre National de Radio France, Aurora Orchestra and Nouvel Ensemble Contemporain.

Messiaen’s ecstatic visions: Peter Donohoe & Benjamin Frith at Institut Français

The piano music of Olivier Messiaen is not performed enough for my taste, partly because there aren’t that many pianists around who are willing to tackle it. One notable exception is British pianist Peter Donohoe, who studied with Messiaen’s second wife Yvonne Loriod, and who played the composer’s music to the composer himself during his studies in Paris in the 1970s.

The concert at London’s Institut Français, part of the three-day It’s All About Piano Festival, was originally to include the London première of La Fauvette Passerinette, a work fully sketched by Messiaen in 1961 which was discovered by Peter Hill, who worked with Messiaen between 1986 and 1991, and which Hill completed in 2012. Sadly, Peter Hill was unwell, and so the work was introduced by Elaine Gould from Faber Music and Peter Donohoe, who played brief, appetite-whetting extracts, and relayed some interesting and entertaining anecdotes of his studies with Monsieur and Madame Messiaen, and his experiences of performing Messiaen’s music. Benjamin Frith stepped in at the last minute to perform Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen with Peter Donohoe

Read my full review here

Meet the Artist……Susan Tomes

(photo: Robert Philip)
(photo: Robert Philip)

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

We didn’t have a piano in the house when I was little, but gradually my friends’ parents started reporting that I had been trying to play their piano when I came to their house. My parents were surprised (neither of them had had the opportunity to learn an instrument) but intrigued, and eventually they decided to take the plunge and acquire an upright piano. It was a make of piano I’ve never come across since: Eungblut & Eungblut. I remember that when it arrived in our living-room I already felt it was an old friend and I ‘knew how to play it’, though I can’t really account for that feeling as I hadn’t yet had a piano lesson.

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

I think I’d have to name various professors I met at masterclasses when I was in my twenties and had officially ‘finished my musical education’. In some ways, it was yet to begin! I met the Hungarian violinist Sandor Vegh at the International Musicians’ Seminar in Prussia Cove, Cornwall. Later on I met the Hungarian pianist Gyorgy Sebok when I was spending a semester at the Banff Centre in Canada. Those two musicians with their very different personalities and pedagogical approaches were hugely influential, opening my eyes and ears to a larger, more profound and multi-layered way of thinking about music.

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

I suppose being an introvert in a ‘public performance’ profession has been my greatest challenge. It isn’t straightforward, of course – I seem to have a deep need to communicate music to an audience and get their reaction, and I love to be appreciated, but there are many other aspects of being ‘on show’ that don’t come naturally. I’m very interested in people, but I’m quite a private person and need lots of time to myself. I suppose the friction between those things has been the reason that I took to writing about music and being a musician [I’ve written four books]. I find that writing about performance helps me to come to terms with the self-imposed challenge of being an introvert in an extrovert profession.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

I feel very fortunate in having lots and lots of concerts I’m proud of having been part of. I’ve worked with so many amazing musicians. Recording-wise, it’s a little different because I’ve never much enjoyed the process of making records. Nevertheless I am proud that many of my recordings have been well-received and have meant something to people. I guess my favourite one is still the first: the Domus recording of Fauré piano quartets. We were all novices then, of course, but we also had a very special bond. I can still hear our freshness and idealism when I listen to that recording.

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

I really hope I can say Mozart’s works, because he has always been my favourite composer, and I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to live up to his beautifully lucid yet deep and subtle music. Other favourites are Schumann, Schubert and the French composers of the end of the nineteenth century; I adore the piano music of Debussy, Ravel and Fauré. Then there are two ‘greats’, Beethoven and Haydn, whom I used not to feel so close to, but with time I’ve come to appreciate them more and more, and when I perform their music I feel more confident that I have something to say about it.

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

That’s always a blend of things that people ask me to play, and suggestions I put forward if I have the opportunity. Unfortunately, programmes usually have to be planned far in advance, which means that you find yourself committed to play something you suggested two years ago, and may not feel like playing quite so much when it comes to it! But somehow, just because you’re committed to playing a certain work on a certain date,  the appetite to prepare and perform it does develop when the time approaches.

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

For years and years I have loved the Wigmore Hall, where I first played as a child and have been fortunate to play in regularly ever since. Other favourites? Well, there was Domus’s white portable geodesic dome, in which we played memorable concerts and tried to forge a new way of presenting chamber music to new audiences. I also remember a wonderful old hall in Bilbao, very similar in character to the Wigmore in a way. I loved the feeling of Carnegie Hall, where the auditorium seems to open up before you in a very pleasing way as you look from the stage. The Konzerthaus in Vienna is pretty special; I was impressed by a beautiful new hall in Zaragoza, and I have a happy memory of playing in Grieg’s house in Bergen, where the audience sang me ‘Happy Birthday’! I always enjoy playing ‘house concerts’, especially in beautiful drawing-rooms; I often feel that these are the kind of rooms, and the kind of audiences, for which a lot of the classical repertoire was conceived. I love the intimate atmosphere and the closeness of the audience.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I don’t really have favourite pieces to perform; I find that whatever I’m working on occupies my imagination and becomes my ‘favourite’, or at least my obsession. Funnily enough, at the moment I don’t listen to all that much music when I’m away from the piano. When you spend a lot of time practising or rehearsing, you don’t particularly feel the desire to listen to even more music just for fun. I often listen to jazz radio when I’m working in the kitchen, but in fact I just as often enjoy silence.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

I couldn’t single out particular people from the amazing list of musicians I’ve been lucky to work with. There are so many different ways of being a good musician, and so many ways of collaborating with other musicians. Over the years I have been inspired by the attitude and standard of playing of many of the musicians I’ve met and worked with in Prussia Cove, both during the ‘masterclass seminars’ in April, and during ‘Open Chamber Music’ in September. Many of those people have become my long-standing musical colleagues. People travel from all over the world to be in Prussia Cove, and I’ve lost count of the illuminating and stimulating musical experiences I’ve had there. In general, I’ve always got most out of people who are interested in being good chamber musicians rather than single-minded soloists.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

As many writers say when asked which of their books is their favourite, I’d probably say that my most recent concert is the one that’s most vivid in my mind. I don’t have a ‘most memorable’ experience – there have been so many. Just for fun I might mention my first-ever piano trio concert when I was a teenager, still at school. Fellow students and I performed the Arensky piano trio, which we had learned in after-school sessions. Unbelievable fun, and we had such a sense of achievement!

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

For me, the most important thing to impart to students is that great music is not ‘entertainment’, nor just a social accomplishment, but a reflection of life. Most of the music I care about is a metaphor for life, of its complexity (and sometimes its simplicity). Great composers have found a way of channelling their thoughts and life experiences into music, in such a way that the rest of us can receive a kind of ‘distilled understanding’ through the music. Once a young musician has grasped this point, working on music becomes much more than a surface task, and they can begin a huge journey of exploration.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I’m usually pretty organised about working a long way ahead on repertoire. When I get to the day of a performance, I don’t want to have think about producing the right notes; I want all that to have sunk down into an unconscious layer. So I’ve usually got at least the next six months’ worth of concert repertoire on a sort of practising rota. Next up is Beethoven’s A flat major piano sonata opus 110. I’m doing a lecture-recital about the piece – quite a task. On February 16, I’m playing an all-Schubert programme in Wigmore Hall with the wonderful Austrian violinist Erich Höbarth. Our programme includes the rarely played Schubert Fantasie, one of the most virtuosic and most technically demanding pieces I know. Schubert’s imagination soars above the usual capabilities of merely human players with ordinary-sized hands. It’s supposed to sound effortless, too – something to aspire to!

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

In ten years’ time I’d love to be reading in the press that older women have outstripped every other kind of artist in popularity. They will be top of every concert hall’s agenda; they’ll be the toast of the town because of their wit and wisdom, and governments will plead with them to head important initiatives. Images of glamorous young musicians will disappear from adverts and brochures, to be replaced by iconic portraits of wise women. (We can dream – that’s one thing you learn as a musician!)

Susan Tomes appears at Wigmore Hall with Erich Höbarth on 16 February 2015. On 17 February at 7pm she will be talking about her latest book, ‘Sleeping in Temples’, at Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly. 

Susan Tomes is a leading UK pianist, a rare example of a woman who has achieved several decades as an acclaimed chamber music pianist. In 2013 she was awarded the Cobbett Medal for distinguished services to chamber music.

Born in Edinburgh, she was the first woman to study music at King’s College, Cambridge. She has been at the heart of three internationally admired ensembles: Domus, the Gaudier Ensemble, and the Florestan Trio, winners of the Royal Philharmonic Society Award in 2000. With these groups she has performed and broadcast all over the world. She is a long-standing participant at the International Musicians’ Seminars in Prussia Cove, Cornwall, where she met many of her chamber music partners. She has made over fifty CDs, many of which have become benchmark recordings, winning Gramophone Awards, Classic CD awards, Diapasons d’Or in France, and Deutsche Schallplattenpreise. At Hyperion Records’ 20th anniversary, Gramophone wrote that ‘Susan Tomes’s playing is always magnetic and concentrated whatever the repertory, a rare gift which she consistently employs not for her own glorification but in the cause of corporate music-making.’ Her recital repertoire focuses particularly on French music, Mozart, Schubert and Schumann; as a soloist, she has recorded Mozart piano concertos and 1920s piano music by the Savoy Hotel’s Billy Mayerl.

As well as performing, Susan is a champion of the art of the chamber music pianist, illuminating the role and promoting the status of the collaborative pianist over many years in radio talks, newspaper and magazine articles, keynote speeches, seminars, and masterclasses. She is the author of four books on performance issues: Beyond the Notes (2004), A Musician’s Alphabet (2006), Out of Silence (2010) and Sleeping in Temples (October 2014), which has already been a Books of the Year choice, a Christmas Books selection and Editor’s Choice in various journals. Her books are now studied in ‘performance practice’ courses in various parts of the English-speaking world. She has been a guest on the BBC flagship radio programmes, ‘Today’ and ‘Woman’s Hour’. She has served on many international competition juries and is often invited to give masterclasses at music conservatoires. She is a guest tutor at the European Chamber Music Academy, and holds her own masterclasses every year in London, attracting international chamber groups.

Susan is currently engaged on a long-running duo series with the Austrian violinist Erich Höbarth. They focused on Mozart for two years, and are now exploring the sonatas of Schubert. Susan is the solo pianist on a  record made by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra to celebrate Creative Scotland 2012 with the gift of a special CD for every child born in Scotland during the year.

www.susantomes.com

 

 

Tableaux and Pictures: Steven Osborne at Wigmore Hall

It is a mark of the popularity of the BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concerts at London’s Wigmore Hall, and the high calibre of the performers, that these hour-long recitals are regularly sold out. Indeed, when I arrived at the Wigmore to hear Steven Osborne in a programme of music by Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky, there was a long queue of people waiting for returns. I relinquished my spare ticket (concert companion was indisposed) so that someone else could enjoy Osborne’s superb pianistic mastery and sensitive musicality. The theme of the concert was pictures: Mussorgsky’s popular and evergreen Pictures at an Exhibition preceded by a selection of Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaux from the lesser-known Op.33.

Read my full review

Steven Osborne © Benjamin Ealovega
Steven Osborne © Benjamin Ealovega

 

Listen to the concert on BBC iPplayer

Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaux – an earlier article on the Opus 33

CD review: ‘Etude’ by Clare Hammond, piano

Pianist Clare Hammond (photo Julie Kim)

The piano study or ‘Étude’ has long engaged and challenged pianists, and the practice of writing etudes to provide practice material for perfecting a particular musical skill or technique developed in the early 19th century alongside the growing popularity of the piano. Many of us will remember working on studies by the likes of Clementi and Czerny as young piano students. But it was Fryderyk Chopin who elevated the student study into a work of great artistry and beauty, turning humble exercises into glittering concert pieces, and his Opp. 10 and 25 Études remain amongst the most popular works written for piano. Other notable composers of Études were Liszt, Alkan, Rachmaninoff, and Debussy, and the practice of writing piano etudes has continued into the modern area with composers such as Ligeti, Cage and Kapustin.

On her new disc for BIS, British pianist Clare Hammond explores the Étude in works by Lyapunov, Szymanowski, Kapustin and Chin, a truly international line up of composers (Russia, Poland and South Korea). The imaginative programme combines some of the most electrifying and adventurous piano works of the 20th and 21st centuries, ranging from the impassioned late-Romanticism of Sergei Lyapunov to the jazz-inspired rhythms of Nicolai Kapustin and the mercurial, post-Debussyan soundworld of Unsuk Chin. For Clare Hammond the choice of works on this disc represents some of the most innovative, invigorating and imaginative writing for piano and  the opportunity to explore what the piano is truly capable of. All the Études on the disc fulfil the traditional criteria of the Étude (in the Chopinesque sense) of a piece which combines the excitement of technical and virtuosic display with expression, colour and compositional inventiveness.

This disc is not only a showcase for the variety and ingenuity of these composers,  but also a fine vehicle for Clare Hammond to demonstrate a sparkling technical sure-footedness, clarity of touch and musical sensitivity (particularly in the Études by Chin, which are, by Clare’s own admission, extremely difficult). The works by Chin are more closely aligned to Clare’s particular interest in lesser-known and contemporary piano repertoire, for which she has received much praise, and these virtuosic and playful études skip and dance across the keyboard with wit, colour and vitality.

Clare brings a richness to the works by Lyapunov with which the disc begins. They recall the soundworld of Rachmaninoff in their scale and textures, and are modelled directly on Liszt’s set of the same title (Études d’exécution transcendante).

Karol Szymanowski’s Twelve Etudes, Op 33 share Chin’s interest in pianistic colour, and are more closely related the Études of Debussy rather than his fellow countryman Chopin. Fleet and mercurial, Clare deftly captures their transitory moods and luminous colours, dancing rhythms and haunting sonorities, while handling their technical demands with aplomb.

Finally, Five Études in Different Intervals complete this fascinating survey of the enduring appeal of the piano etude. Composed by Nikolai Kapustin, they are characteristic of his output, fusing formal classical structures with idioms drawn from jazz, which Kapustin studied from the age of 16. Clare pulls them off with precision and wit, and an evident relish for this kind of writing for the piano.

‘Étude’ by Clare Hammond is available on BIS Records label and is available from all major online retailers. 

Creating the Definitive Recording – an article by Clare Hammond on the process and experience of creating Étude

Creating the ‘definitive’ recording

A guest post by pianist Clare Hammond

 

As a child, I used to curl up on the floor in front of the imposing speakers of my grandfather’s sound system and work my way through his extensive collection of LPs. A lover of the core classical repertoire, he had little beyond Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but these composers were amply represented. While listening to Beethoven symphonies, piano sonatas by Mozart and Haydn’s string quartets, I imbibed a sense that these works were made permanent, somehow concrete, by their incarnation on disc. It seemed that these renditions were ‘definitive’, in a way that I didn’t feel when listening to live music. I hoped that one day, I too would be able to record ‘the’ Moonlight sonata and somehow set my interpretation in stone.

Despite this orthodox musical education, my specialisms now veer somewhat to the side of the mainstream repertoire and I find myself releasing a disc of études by composers from across the globe; two Russians (Sergei Lyapunov and Nikolai Kapustin), a Pole (Karol Szymanowski) and a South Korean (Unsuk Chin). These études represent some of the most innovative, invigorating and imaginative writing for piano and have given me the chance to really delve into what the piano is capable of (and, rather less pleasurably, where my limitations lie!)

I started preparing for this disc many months before the recording sessions. This was partly because the repertoire is extremely difficult technically, and also because this was a very personal project in which I had invested a great deal of emotional and creative energy. I have developed a reputation for playing works that lie at the more elaborate and frenetic end of the musical spectrum, so these études are essentially my ‘core’ repertoire, where I felt most at ease and most stimulated creatively.

I practised the pieces on different pianos, in varying acoustics, and performed them to different audiences, in order to explore the sonic options available to me. I listened to recordings of the études by other pianists, to orchestral repertoire by the composers, and read about their work in order to ‘live’ the pieces and make them my own. I had long abandoned the idea of a ‘definitive’ recording or interpretation, but I thought that I had a clear idea of what I, personally, wanted to achieve. At least, I did before I set foot in the studio…

The first few minutes in front of a microphone soon put a stop to any notions of creating my ‘ideal’ recording, although not in as devastating a way as you might expect. When recording, as in performance, you are suddenly faced with a single instrument which you may not have played before. In my case, at Potton Hall in Suffolk, I had a beautiful Steinway Model D which had been expertly regulated and tuned. However, all pianos have their foibles and if yours doesn’t have the bloom in the higher register that you had set your heart upon, or the percussive timbre that you sought in the bass, you have to find an alternative solution.

I had not anticipated how dramatically altered my physical state would be. I was nervous, though in a different way from live concert performance. We had a finite amount of time (5 days) to record two discs of challenging repertoire, these études and works by Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik. I wasn’t quite sure how far I could push myself, or for how long (8 hours per day before my wrists give up entirely…) as I’d never done anything this demanding before. The awareness of just how much effort both I and the wonderful team at BIS Records had put into assembling the project, and that my performance over the next few days could potentially undermine all of this, added an extra frisson of anxiety.

Fortunately, I was able to collaborate with producer Thore Brinkmann whose calm demeanour and consummate expertise made the whole process far easier and more enjoyable that I could have expected. We spent the first half hour warming up, with me at the piano and Thore at his desk altering the levels of the seven microphones poised some 12 feet off the ground in a semicircle around the piano. When I heard the first ‘playback’, I was astonished at the sound he had captured. It was so different from what I had heard at the piano. There was a clarity and a crystalline quality in some passages which had not been audible at ground level. Thus began my five-day guessing game where I made alterations at the keyboard whose result I could only hear minutes later in playback.

The specific character of one instrument, the resonance of an acoustic, or the choice of one brand of microphone, would seem to place limitations on the ‘ideal’ performance that I had in mind but, of course, in real life the most interesting results often come when you have to be most pragmatic. I started to respond to the situation and to find creative possibilities that I hadn’t previously considered. While I wouldn’t countenance incorporating the heady cry of a randy pheasant into a recording (and there was one point where I thought I would have to chase a number through the undergrowth away from the hall), certain effects were suggested by the depth of the sustaining pedal on the piano and, fancifully enough, by the vibrations of an aeroplane engine that had ruined a previous take.

It takes some time to fully appreciate that a recording is its own medium and most certainly not a convincing simulacrum of a live performance. For a start, there is no audience and the sense of reciprocal communication that you experience onstage is absent. Secondly, certain effects work much better on tape than they do in the hall. Why this should be, I do not know but there were a number of occasions where a take that I thought unusable, because of its vulgarity or my ineptitude, was by far the best in playback. While we tried to keep editing to a minimum, as with almost any recording, ours involved cutting and pasting tracks together to create a performance that never actually existed. Some may complain that ‘authenticity’ is lost but, again, this assumes that the aim of a recording is to recreate an ‘ideal’ performance for posterity. In reality, people listen to recordings very differently from a live performance and demand a greater level of accuracy and precision than a human being is capable of in one take. As a musician, knowing that if the next passage doesn’t go well you can always redo it, without having to jettison the performance up to that point, is enormously liberating. You are able to take risks that you would rarely contemplate in concert and that adds a vitality that is unique to the recording.

Fast forward nine months and I was able to hear the first edit of my Etude CD, around the time that the other disc, Reflections, of the music of Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik was released. This was a sufficiently long time that the pieces sounded ‘fresh’ to me and I was intrigued to hear what my family and friends thought of the recording. I was struck, as I am again now that the disc has been released, by how differently people listen to a piece. The concept of a ‘definitive’ performance is only meaningful if you can find a ‘definitive’ listener and, of course, both are a nonsense. Listeners bring their own experience, preferences and emotions to a recording and respond accordingly. While this might seem frustrating for the musician, it is actually an intriguing process and has certainly opened my ears to elements that I didn’t initially hear when performing in the studio.

If this is my experience as a pianist, how does the composer feel, compelled to translate their ideas into inadequate notation and submit them to the whims of a performer, and that’s before encountering the uncertainties of the recording studio? It’s important to remember that in order to be authentic, any art-form must be to some extent human and imperfect. The loss of control that one experiences, whether performing on stage or recording, can and should become an integral part of the creative experience. Learning to do this is difficult, and I can’t say that I have succeeded, but the process of becoming receptive to uncertainty is an extremely important part of anyone’s musical and artistic development. When I was younger, I felt that I should strive towards an abstract ‘perfection’ in music. The messy reality is far more interesting.

Clare’s new disc, ‘Etude’, has just been released by BIS Records and is available from all major online retailers. 

“unfaltering bravura and conviction”, Gramophone Magazine

“style and substance”, The Observer

“imagination and bravura”, The Sunday Times

Acclaimed as a pianist of “amazing power and panache” (The Telegraph), Clare Hammond is forging a reputation as an advocate of new and unfamiliar repertoire. In 2014, she gave debut performances at 7 festivals across Europe, including the ‘Chopin and his Europe Festival’ in Warsaw, and world premieres of works by 10 composers. Clare has now released two discs with BIS Records; Reflections, of works by Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik, and Etude, with études by Unsuk Chin, Sergei Lyapunov, Nikolai Kapustin and Karol Szymanowski.

More information is available at www.clarehammond.com/etude.html

Debussy updated for the modern age: Unsuk Chin’s Six Piano Etudes – guest post by Daniel Harding

Meet the Artist…….Clare Hammond

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

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)