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A journey through the piano music of Fryderyk Chopin

On 4th September 2015, British pianist Warren Mailley-Smith embarks on year-long survey of the complete piano music of Fryderyk Chopin through a series of 11 concerts at St John’s Smith Square, London.

Chopin’s life and music was a phenomenon. Unlike most composers, his music has never been out of fashion and this series is a rare opportunity to explore the reasons for his enduring popularity. The concerts focus on various aspects of Chopin’s output, including the Waltzes, the Preludes, the heroic Polonaise, the Ballades and the Scherzi.

Here Warren to explains what makes the piano music of Chopin so special and describes how he planned and prepared for this pianistic marathon.

What do you love about Chopin?  

Chopin is one of those composers whose music is equally rewarding to play, as it is to listen to. That may sound like an obvious thing to say, but it isn’t necessarily always the case. Some composers can create the most heavenly music to listen to, for example Beethoven or Rachmaninov, but it doesn’t necessarily ‘fall under the fingers’ or ‘lie in the hand’ in the same way that Chopin does.

Why is Chopin’s music so amazing to play?

His music is written in a way that allows the hand to follow a very natural movement over the keys, but is so much more than that. There is something very sensual and beautiful about the whole experience of PLAYing Chopin which is present in almost every one of his pieces. They are so driven by this ever-­present, persistent  cantabile line, which really gives you, as a performer, a feeling of singing through the piano.

Chopin also has the most amazing way of building up the most deeply felt and exhilarating climaxes in his music so that it can becomes the most overwhelming feeling when you are actually  performing  it.

Tell us more about your feelings on Chopin’s music  

For me there has always been something very exciting and gratifying about the way Chopin uses harmony to surprise and enthrall – for example, in the 2nd subject of the Barcarolle, or the transitional passage in the G-flat-major Impromptu. And in equal measure the way that he uses it to say something profound – as in the opening bar of the Polonaise Fantasy -­ and magical, for example, in the middle section of the Scherzo No. 3. But above  all, it’s the way that Chopin uses his harmonic progressions to build up to the most overwhelming climaxes,  for example in the last full statement of the theme in the 4th Ballade.

What is it like to play some of Chopin’s hardest music?

The short answer is exhilarating. Chopin rarely writes difficult music ‘for the sake  of  it’ – and there’s always an underlying musical idea, phrase or shape that  is involved. So, even when your fingers are flying around at 60 notes a second, your brain is able to focus on the bigger picture which makes it easier to make the passage sound convincing. But of course the complex passages (of which there are many!) require hours of slow, careful, repetitive practice in order to train the fingers, almost (but not quite) into ‘auto pilot’ which allows you to take your focus away from each individual note and concentrate more on the bigger shapes in the music – and of  course certain key turning points!

Concept of the programmes  

When you have an almost infinite number of possible combinations of pieces to build 11 programmes, it becomes necessary to have a structure behind it.  So I decided each programme had to:

  1. feature an important work, or group of works that stands out from his output as being exceptional or ground­‐breaking in some way.
  2. contrast well-known Chopin with lesser-known Chopin
  3. contrast early Chopin with late Chopin
  4. follow a chronological thread, through the Mazurkas.
  5. offer a sufficient contrast of moods, emotions and colour for the audience
  6. be well timed, with good key relationships

It’s actually been a lot of fun designing them over the past 3 years – and, as you can imagine, there has been a lot of tweaking, and juggling over that time.

Journey of the series  

Each individual programme is designed to stand alone as a compelling presentation of the composer’s genius. However, the series as a whole is designed to take you on a bold journey from his Op 1 in the first concert through to one of his last masterpieces, the breath-­taking Sonata No. 3.  By experiencing EVERYTHING, we can gain a fuller understanding of both the music and the man.

What is so special about Chopin  

As a man, Chopin was highly refined and reserved in manner, moving as he did in the upper echelons of society. But his music belies a highly-charged emotional and sensual depth – to the extent that, I believe he was using his music to express what he felt unable to say in words -­ or indeed actions.  It is surely the underlying emotional depth in every note he wrote that accounts for the enduring popularity of his music. 200 years on and his music is arguably more popular today than it has ever been, bearing in mind that his music has never really been out of fashion!

What does this series mean to you?

This is a truly amazing opportunity for a performer to go on such a journey with an audience.  Although it will be an uplifting experience for me to pass my hands through Chopin’s entire works, I believe it will also be a great experience to offer audiences an opportunity to get to know the music of this great genius of the piano a little better and hopefully discover some  new favourites whilst reacquainting themselves with old ones!  This is something I have wanted to do for nearly 10 years and so for me it is the realization of a great ambition.

Why take on the whole piano works of Chopin?  

When you learn a piece of music by a composer, you obviously learn a little about their style, their feelings and the composer themselves. When you learn a second piece -­ you often discover something further, something contradictory or complimentary. The more works you learn, the more you learn about how to interpret any given piece by that composer and you start to build a very comprehensive picture of both the music and the man. I’ve obviously been playing Chopin for many years – and  after a while you start to fill in the gap your repertoire and before you know it, it’s not quite such a mammoth task as it might first appear.

This also happens at a very relevant time in my life. I will be the same age when I start the series as Chopin was when he died. It is quite a humbling feeling to have absorbed so many masterpieces, written by the same person in so few years

Why do this in London? 

As a Londoner, I began my performing career here in London nearly 20 years ago, at the same venue. I was just thrilled to have the opportunity to give these concerts at St John’s as it is a wonderful feeling to return to the same stage, with so many experiences of performing now behind me. I can honestly say that I am now a very different artist as a result of the many concerts I’ve given since m  student days and the many thousands of hours of practice that I’ve undertaken since then!

Have you got any plans to take the series to Poland? 

I certainly have plans to take these pieces with me everywhere I go from now on!

How long does it take to learn the whole cycle?  

I’ve spent 4 years planning these concerts. But that certainly hasn’t been 4 years of uninterrupted practice. Other concerts and demands have often taken priority for large chunks of time.  But I could not have prepared it any sooner, as the many big, complex works simply take a long time to ‘settle  in’ and you can’t force that number of notes into your fingers all in one go!

Are you doing it all from memory?

That is most certainly my intention. Simply because I believe one can perform to one’s best without the music there, because it removes a constraint between me and the audience.  Most of all I want the audience to feel that the focus of my attention  isn’t on the pages in front of me, but that my whole attention is focused on communicating what is in my fingers, to them. That is the goal!

How many hours a day do you practice?  

It really varies so much from day to day. But it doesn’t seem to matter how many hours practicing  I  do – 2  or 12 – I  always end up wanting to do a bit more.

Why do so many pianists love playing Chopin?  

I am sure that every pianist has had a slightly different reason for playing Chopin.  But the bottom line is that people love listening to his music and to watch a pianist performing his music live takes that experience to a new, more personal and heightened level. But for pianists themselves, I think that Chopin consistently takes the performer on a satisfying journey  – whether it’s a short hop, or an epic voyage, you nearly always feel better for having played it when you reach the last bar!

What will make these Chopin recitals different from the many others before them?

Any one combination of pieces paints a slightly different picture.  I think the 11 pictures, or programmes which I’ve painted, will portray striking contrasts of the man and his music. A number of pre-concert events are also designed to paint a truly comprehensive picture of his music and influences.  There will be talks, dancing, chamber music and workshops to complement the concerts.

How do you prepare for such a marathon as this?        

A lot of careful planning, advice, preparatory performances, honest self-assessment and a good deal of ruthless goal setting! It’s quite a lot of repertoire to learn over a sustained period of time, which makes it essential that one’s love for the music you are practicing is unquestioned. Therefore, it never really feels like work, but more like an extended indulgence in your favourite chocolates.

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Meet the Artist…….Martin James Bartlett

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

At a very young age I was drawn to the music room where my mother would be teaching the piano some evenings. When I was six she started teaching me and a few years later took me to audition at the Royal College of Music. During my ten years at the Junior Department I studied with Emily Jeffrey, who cultivated my love of music and inspired me to pursue the career of a concert pianist.

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

The most influential years of my musical and personal development were when I studied with Emily Jeffrey. Over the many years she always challenged me to be more disciplined and strive for greater heights. Apart from the wealth of knowledge she imparted upon me I can remember the many laughs and fun we had together. Her unerring passion and all-consuming dedication to music were a constant source of inspiration for me.

I am also immensely grateful for the constant support and guidance that my parents have given me, and their unequivocal belief in me.

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

At a young age I was always a little agitated and anxious before a performance. I disliked the tense moments before walking onto the platform, however once I started to play those feelings dissipated and the enjoyment took over.

After a few successful concerts my confidence began to grow and it gradually became less challenging

Which performance are you most proud of? 

I am proud of my performances throughout BBC Young Musician, at the ‘BBC Proms in the Park’ in Belfast and also my recent debuts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Royal Albert Hall.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I greatly enjoy performing and listening to so many works from totally different periods. Personally I feel a natural affinity to the works of Bach, Mozart and Rachmaninoff, however I also love the works of Schumann and Prokofiev.

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

I hope to offer fresh interpretation and convey the emotions from the repertoire that I perform, so I keep this in mind when I select certain pieces.

I also spend many hours deciding on programme length, balancing the stylistic aspects and contrasts.

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

I wouldn’t say I have a favourite hall, because there are many different aspects from every hall that I enjoy. I love the intimate atmosphere and acoustic of halls such as Cadogan Hall and Wigmore, however I also appreciate the immense space and grandeur of halls such as Usher Hall and the Royal Albert Hall.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I greatly enjoy listening to operas such as ‘Tosca’, ‘La Traviata’ and ‘Tristan und Isolde’ and all the Tchaikovsky Symphonies. My current favourite pieces to perform are Gershwin ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, Prokofiev Sonata no. 7 and Mozart Concerto in D minor K466.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I hugely admire Leonard Bernstein, for his immense talent as a musician but also his dedication to musical education and inspiring younger generations. Maria Callas is another idol of mine, due to her unwavering, serious dedication to Opera.

Pianistically I am inspired by so many different artists, but Vladimir Horowitz and Martha Argerich are amongst my favourites.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The final of BBC Young Musician is a performance I will never forget. The BBC team were so supportive and encouraging and on stage I was totally immersed in the atmosphere and the music.

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

Firstly, to embark on a musical career, one must absolutely love and enjoy music. Of course there is a huge amount of dedication and work to be done to succeed, but the most important aspect is to passionately devote yourself to it. Stay true to yourself, the composer and the music.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Watching the sunset with a glass of red wine, an excellent book and a recording of Dinu Lipatti performing ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’

What is your most treasured possession?

I have a collection of complete recordings from Vladimir Horowitz, Maria Callas and Shura Cherkassky that I could not live without!

What is your present state of mind?

Introspective, a little anxious and excited for the future.

Martin James Bartlett performs Gerhswin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ in Prom 32 with Eric Whitacre and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Further details and tickets here

In May  2014, at the age of 17, Martin James Bartlett was awarded the title of BBC Young Musician. His winning performance of Rachmaninov’s ‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’, with conductor Kirill Karabits and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, received overwhelming acclaim from Edinburgh’s Usher Hall audience and from those tuning into the live recording broadcast on BBC4 and BBC Radio 3.

Martin began his piano studies with Emily Jeffrey at the Royal College of Music Junior Department when he was 8 years of age, and then at the Purcell School also some 5 years later. Last autumn, he commenced his undergraduate studies with Vanessa Latarche at the Royal College of Music, notably as a coveted Foundation Scholar. Martin also previously studied the bassoon and the recorder, achieving Grade 8 Distinction on all three instruments by the age of 12.

Throughout these formative years, Martin enjoyed considerable success in numerous competitions and festivals. During his time at the Royal College of Music Junior Department, Martin won the Gordon Turner Competition, the Teresa Carreño Competition, the Angela Bull Competition and the Peter Morrison Concerto Prize. He was several years running a top prize winner also in the Jaques Samuel Junior Department Piano Festival. In 2012, Martin was granted a Tsukanov Scholarship, which generously supported his final years of study at the RCMJD. During his time at the Purcell School, Martin won the Middle School Concerto Competition, the Freddy Morgan Competition, the Wigmore Competition (both solo and chamber) and the Senior School Concerto Competition. At the end of his studies at both RCMJD and Purcell, Martin was honoured to be awarded the prestigious Leaver’s Prize for Outstanding Musical Contribution, the Esther Coleman Prize and the Rosemary Rapaport Prize.

Following his success in such competitions, Martin has given solo recital performances in the Purcell Room, Wigmore Hall, St. John’s Smith Square, Bolivar Hall and Novi Sad Town Hall, as well as the Royal Albert Hall’s Elgar Room, Steinway Hall and Moscow’s Multi-Media Arts Hall. He has also participated in masterclasses with Lang Lang, Stephen Kovacevich, Mikhail Petukhov, Kathryn Stott, Aaron Shorr and Alberto Portugheis. In addition, Martin has organised and performed in numerous charity concerts too, to date raising over thirty thousand pounds for a wide range of deserving causes.

In September 2014, Martin made his debut at the BBC Proms, performing Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ with the Ulster Orchestra at the “Last Night” celebrations, which were broadcast live from Belfast on the internet as well as BBC Radio Ulster. Martin has also performed with the BSO in Bournemouth Pavilion as soloist in the opening concert of their 2014/15 Season.

Martin was one of 27 international artists, including Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Nicola Benedetti and Alison Balsom, to be chosen by the BBC to record a cover of the Beach Boys classic ‘God only Knows‘. The song was first aired on the 8th October 2014 on all BBC TV and Radio channels and later was released as the BBC Children in Need single with the first ever collaboration between Warner, Sony and Universal music.


Meet the Artist……Nick van Bloss

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

When I was 11, by chance, I saw a piano in a front garden in my street. It had a sign on it saying’ Good Home Wanted. I wanted it! We wheeled it home and I was instantly drawn to it. I somehow knew that it contained something life-changing. From then on it was just a matter of learning, studying, and finding a way to make the piano speak. I knew when I first touched the piano that it would become my life.

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

That warrants a multi-layered answer, I’m afraid, as there have been so many! One hugely important aspect has been my personal drive – not a ‘pushy’ drive, but more an absolute necessity to strive to play and communicate. A kind of influence from within…

Studying with Yonty Solomon when I was at the Royal College was life-changing. Up until then I’d never been taught – teachers had never nurtured or enhanced anything musical in me, and I now put this down to ego-driven, lazy, (non) teaching. Yonty was so generous and humble – I often worked every day with him. He opened up a whole new world of sound, expression and creativity. His ability to make me aware of things the piano could do was sheer genius.

Finally, although it sounds a bit downbeat, I have to admit that going through tremendous turmoil and difficulty in life has influenced and strengthened everything I do musically. From anguish comes understanding and creativity…

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

Although I didn’t quite realise it at the time, I think making a ‘comeback’ concert after some 15 years of not even owning or touching a piano was a huge challenge, physically and emotionally. Not to mention musically! And I hadn’t played to an audience of any size for 18 years. So, a packed Cadogan Hall, plus critics, TV cameras and radio, and the English Chamber Orchestra on stage, and then playing two concertos (a Bach and Beethoven No. 5) could’ve been a recipe for disaster. I’m not quite sure how I did it, actually!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Along with the above performance, I have to say I’m incredibly proud of my recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It was my first CD – released after the ‘comeback’, but recorded just before it – and it was sheer joy to finally connect with the piano after so many years away from it. It felt like ‘coming home’ and embracing something truly wonderful.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

That’s such a hard question. I adore performing Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schumann solo works and concertos. I can only leave it to others to decide which I perform best…

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

It’s not difficult: I re-learn works that are programmed each season, and then I usually decide to add some new works to the mix. But I’m very, VERY traditional – core Classical repertoire only for me: Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and then Schumann and Brahms as the Romantics. I spent too many years thrashing away at Liszt, Prokofieff et al. Now I realise that there’s little room in that repertoire to stamp an absolute ideal, my own personality, or even something a bit different. It all pretty much sounds the same no matter who plays it – and so many do play it, and so well. But it still all sounds pretty much the same…

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

I have to make an admission here: I usually love each hall I play in, at the time, Then, on reflection, I usually end up thinking it wasn’t such a great hall to perform in after all! It’s probably more to do with the actual pianos. The perfect piano in the perfect hall is so hard to find. Each needs the other. Alas it’s the life of a pianist to have to adapt to so many differing instruments.

But, there is one hall I do absolutely adore. The Metropolitan Festival Hall (Bunka Kaikan) in Tokyo – playing there was a dream as I really did have a perfect piano in an utterly magnificent hall.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Gosh, that’s a hard one. In theory, I love every work I’m playing. But, there’s nothing quite like performing the Goldberg Variations – yes, it’s massive and very draining by force of sheer concentration, but the experience is indescribable and almost other-worldly.

As for listening, I don’t really do as much of it these days as I’d like. So much music is whirring through my brain when I’m away from the piano that to add to it, by listening to something else, gets a little overwhelming.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I’m afraid they’re all dead. I am never unmoved by the commitment of Klemperer’s conducting. The effortless musicianship of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s voice. The power and pathos of Birgit Nilsson’s. Glenn Gould for the eccentric mind that drove his playing – and sometimes even for the odd giggle at what he does. Myra Hess’s piano playing, for the artistry. Youra Guller, a practically unheard of pianist now – but she was incredible. And so many more…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Hearing/seeing ‘Tristan und Isolde’ in Munich a few years back – with the magnificent Waltraud Meier singing Isolde, and Zubin Mehta conducting. Earth-shattering!

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

To work on each piece as though your life depends on it. But always try, with or without a teacher, to find something ‘personal’ to put into the music – something uniquely ‘you’. Nothing distasteful or silly, I’m talking more about making each piece really mean something on an emotional level. Aspiring musicians are so often schooled to play for exams or competitions, or to please this or that teacher, that the music is lost sight of. If there’s going to be any hope for the future of Classical Music, then we have to get back to basics: music is about feeling. Those pieces, even if composed hundreds of years ago, contain emotions just as valid to us today as they were to the composer. These are not ‘elite’ feelings – they’re simple and real and available to everyone. We can all connect on this level. Let’s not lose sight of it!

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m juggling Beethoven and Schumann: Beethoven Concertos 1 and 4. And Schumann’s ‘Kreisleriana’ and the ‘Etudes Symphoniques’. Next week I’ll add a Bach Partita to the mix. I think I need a holiday!

What is your most treasured possession?

A silver chain my late mother gave to me the night before I recorded the Goldberg Variations. She wore it every day for 40 years. I am never without it.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Spending time at home with my partner and my dog.

What is your present state of mind?

Focused. Yet still raring to go. And it’s 3am!

Nick van Bloss’s new CD of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations is available now

Nick van Bloss was born in London and began piano lessons at the age of 11. His musical training began as a chorister at Westminster Abbey and he entered the Royal College of Music at the age of 15 as a Junior, attending full time from the age of 17, studying with Yonty Solomon and winning prizes for his playing. Further studies were with Benjamin Kaplan. In 1987, on hearing him play, the great Russian virtuoso, Tatiana Nikoleyeva, described van Bloss as the ‘finished article of a pianist’.

Read Nick’s full biography here


Meet the Artist……Christina McMaster, pianist

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

I am the youngest of three girls and I always wanted to do everything my sisters did including piano – which I think they found quite annoying! I begged my Mum to allow me to have lessons too, and when I was finally allowed there was no stopping me! A few years on I remember listening to Ashkenazy play Beethoven’s ‘The Tempest’ Sonata in the car and feeling so excited about this fantastic piece and thinking how amazing it would be if I could play it one day. Forging a career as a pianist is not something I really thought about until I went to the Purcell School. Being surrounded by musicians already performing on the International circuit was slightly intimidating, but it motivated me to strive for a career as a performer.

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

There have been so many. More recently my mentor Joanna MacGregor has been an immensely important figure for me. Whilst at the Royal Academy of Music she taught me so much about programming, presentation, life skills, all in addition to playing the piano!  My parents have also been influential. They have been very supportive in a non-pushy way which has allowed me to find my own path and have a genuine passion and drive for what I do.

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

Maintaining balance and focus between my many musical projects, overcoming the post-concert come downs and performing Birtwistle’s Harrison’s Clocks in front of the composer!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

I have just recorded my debut album Pinks & Blues which will be released later this year. It’s a mix of classical and contemporary to jazz and blues and includes music by György Ligeti, Bill Evans, Gerswhin, Rzweski, Ravel as well as two new commissions. It took me a long time to decide on the content and order but am proud of it because as well as being my first album I think it takes the listeners on an excursion of familiar and unfamiliar sounds which I hope they’ll enjoy discovering!

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I feel a strong affinity to American Music of the 20th Century. The American ‘can do’ attitude resonates strongly with me. I love a challenge and that is what is often presented by these composers. Charles Ives’s music can often be extremely complex – 13 note chords for example! Ives, Henry Cowell, John Cage and others pushed boundaries, proving that we are not limited by the piano or traditional techniques.

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

My concerts are often curated and informed by my interests – I like to keep adding new repertoire or presenting the old in new ways. For my next performance at St John’s Smith Square (June 25) I have programmed the Debussy Preludes interspersed with the lesser-known Ruth Crawford-Seeger Preludes for a new perspective. Other concerts coming up include an American programme with violinist Lizzie Ball, a two week residency at Dartington International Summer School performing Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine with fantastic soprano Sarah Gabriel and a Film and Piano programme – so I like to keep it varied!

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

This year I performed at the Holders Season in Barbados; it was a grand outdoor venue and a beautiful place – I would definitely like to return there! I also recently performed in a private house concert in Holland Park; I loved the freedom of playing in this relaxed and intimate atmosphere, with some people sitting on the floor, others standing. Here I felt a real involvement and concentration from the audience.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

This changes all the time and depending on the season or even what time of day. I go through phases: recently I had a Mozart Sonata period, listening repeatedly to the complete recordings by Maria João Pires – this is good before noon and it helps to clarify my thoughts. The Britten/Pears recordings of Schubert’s Winterreise are another favourite – I would love to work with a singer on this work. I also spend a lot of time of Spotify exploring new pieces and for when I go running I definitely need something with a beat!

Who are your favourite musicians?

I have so many, but to name one of them: Radu Lupu. I adore his deep and warm sound and in particular his Schumann and Brahms recordings.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Martha Argerich at the Royal Festival Hall. I was just a few seats back from the front row watching her play Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto and I could hear, feel and see everything – WOW!

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

Well, I am still learning myself, but I would say enjoy challenges, avoid imitation and explore other interests. There never seems enough time to practise at music college, but developing your character and having substance is absolutely crucial.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have recently been studying Debussy with Maestro Bernard Flavigny in Aix-en-Provence. He is a wonderful, charming and very funny man (90 years old!) and was in the same class as Pierre Boulez at the Paris Conservatoire. It was really special working on Debussy with him particularly as he has a direct lineage to the composer through his teachers Messiaen, Cortot and Gieseking.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Practising (with a good coffee and high quality chocolate). When I first left Music College I found I had to do so much aside from practising in order to progress in my career. It was a basic yet incredible discovery for me that I am only happy if I have practised at least several hours a day. Without this I definitely notice a feeling of incompleteness and I’m probably not very pleasant to be around!

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

New York. It’s a city I’ve always been drawn to – it’s a City for dreamers and big ambitions – I love that it never stops – a bit like me and I guess that’s why I am so attracted to it!

Christine McMaster performs works by John Cage, Harrison Birtwistle, Debussy, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Sofia Gubaidulina and Richard Bullen at St John’s Smith Square, London on Thursday 25th June. Further details and tickets here

Christina is a highly innovative pianist and curator with a continually growing reputation for bold and vivacious performances.  Christina has performed extensively in major venues including at the Southbank Centre, Kings Place, Aldeburgh Festival and The Holders Season, Barbados. She has won numerous prizes including the Jacob Barnes Award, The Royal Academy Christian Carpenter Prize, The CAVATINA Chamber music trust prize and audience prize, and the audience prize in the Jacques Samuels Intercollegiate Competition.  

Christina attended the specialist music school Purcell School and achieved a first from the Royal Academy of Music in 2013, where she studied with her mentor Joanna MacGregor. Christina has continued her education and exploration of 20th Century French Music taking masterclasses with Maestro Bernard Flavigny who has a direct lineage to Debussy.

She has collaborated with a diverse mix of genres and arts, recently working with the Brodowski Quartet, violinist Lizzie Ball, rapper Tor Cesay, Director Richard Williams, actors from Central Saint Martin’s and a number of designers for London Fashion week. Christina is a strong supporter of diversity within and outside of the arts and recently founded Ensemble WOW – an organisation dedicated to promoting equality through unique and imaginative programming.  

Christina is a dedicated performer and discoverer of new music working with established composers including Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Tansy Davies and Stephen Montague as well as emerging composers – collaborating most recently with Freya Waley-Cohen and Richard Bullen.

Upcoming performances include a residency at Dartington International Summer School, Guiting Festival and Ronnie Scott’s. Lookout for Christina’s debut album Pinks & Blues – a fusion of classical, contemporary, jazz and blues released later this year.

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.




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