Four hands, one keyboard – a playlist for IDAGIO

There’s a unique intimacy in the piano duet and a special etiquette must be observed when playing. For this reason, you need to be on friendly terms with your duet partner! The players sit very close together at the keyboard, often their hands will touch or cross over (Debussy’s Petite Suite contains much hand-crossing between the players), and each must be alert to the other’s part, sensitive to details of tempo, dynamics and musical expression, while details of pedalling and page-turns need to be agreed in advance. While some works for piano duet are undoubtedly aimed at children or junior players, many are highly complex, technically and musically challenging, such as Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands and works by Rachmaninoff and Messiaen. Some of the greatest pianists of the 20th century have enjoyed the very special relationship of the piano duet, including Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim, Radu Lupu and Murray Perahia, and Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick, the great British piano duo from an earlier era.

Listen to the playlist

(not available in the US and Canada)

An intensive piano week in Italy

Guest post by Claire Vane

If music be the food of love….play on….(but please let it be in Italy)

I know Italy well, and in particular central Italy – Le Marche – which is not, as imagined, anything whatsoever to do with marshes. It is a wonderful and prosperous area of Italy which brings together the mountains and the sea, greenery and sunshine, as well as many concerts and wonderful performances and, in addition, a Sferisterio in Macerata where operas are staged every summer in the most magnificent surroundings.

I decided that I would indulge myself by having a week of playing the piano in total peace and quiet in central Italy at Music Holiday Italy. Gil Jetley, who won the second edition of the prestigious triennial International Chopin Competition for amateurs in Warsaw in 2012, has set up a piano school in Italy. Although Gil has in the past run a number of group courses, he has now decided to focus on one-to-one tuition. If you think you’re going on a total relaxation holiday, forget it. But, I must admit, the food was delicious and the surroundings couldn’t be better. I adore the piano and take it very seriously… My children, who are now grown up, joke that it is at the top of my priority list… I perform as much as I can, and always for charity. I have been back at the keyboard for about ten years after a thirty-year gap and have been learning for the last three years with Warren Mailley-Smith, who is a marvel.

It’s late Saturday afternoon and I’m sitting in the Italian sun on a hill in southern Le Marche, contemplating the view and recovering from the physical exertion of playing the piano for 6 days, 6 hours a day. I agree that this is not a particularly huge amount if one is preparing for a recital and, in actual fact, I find 6 hours of practice, perhaps broken into two lots of three hours, not so physically demanding, but where this time is made up of six days, consisting of four hours of onte-to-one tuition, followed by 2 hours of practice, then the mental energy seems much greater.

The proof of the pudding….

I arrived in Ancona airport at Falconara to be whisked away in Gil’s Jaguar, into the mountains near Amandola and not far from Ascoli Piceno. Apart from speaking to Gil and the local grape farmers and restaurateurs whom we met in the evening, I did not speak to another adult, except on the telephone, for an entire week. It is a great place to avoid distractions and it is in sharp contrast to living in the middle of Cambridge where we ride bicycles because there are no hills.

What could be better doing the thing you love for a whole week? The only problem comes with everybody thinking that you’ve been on holiday. Do not be deceived by the name of the website!

Gil’s expertise in the kitchen is as excellent as his technique on the piano.

Every evening we ventured out to dinner, again in the beautiful Jaguar, and experienced the rewards of the region, including delicious salamis, wonderful mushroom risotto and the local restaurants around Montefalcone.

I was a little shocked to find that another piano nut such as myself did not have a name for his piano. My own piano, Charlotte, a Schimmel C189, would have been shocked to find that Gil’s mellow 7ft Italian Kawai did not have a name until I arrived.

I took with me a number of pieces including the Mozart Rondo K511, six Schubert Impromptus, the slow movement of Schubert D960 and the Mendelssohn Rondo Capriccioso… Gil is a man of detail and does not let anything pass. Though we did not always agree on interpretation or even sometimes on technique, Gil had me analyzing works in a way that I had not done for years and reminding me of harmonies long forgotten since my days at Junior College at the Royal Northern under Marjorie Clementi.

I stayed in the room called ‘Mozart’, which was a good choice for me, situated next to ‘Bach’, which was not occupied that week, and Mozart provided a lot of peace for me in a week when I was taking a break from the heat – both physical and mental. All in all an excellent learning experience, which I can recommend.

Gil is a man of many parts, and is pretty handy with screwdrivers, saws and other tools required to turn an old property into a very comfortable home. Be warned that if you wish to go for walks in the afternoon; if you descend to the local village 5km away you have to come back up the hill again…and the hill is steep. This is also, of course, an opportunity to get very fit. If you want to do some touring and take your family then this is also possible, though I would imagine that that this takes some of the focus away from the purpose of going in the first place – mainly to play the piano intensively and to enjoy being solitary and focused.

If you would like a week of intensive piano learning and practice in a peaceful environment with glorious walks in the hills of Italy, then this is the place to be.

One-to-one tuition 

Further information about MusicHolidayItaly


14657451_10154312353421773_4844777016158226596_nClaire Vane read Classics with Languages at Cambridge. She was a Saturday exhibitioner at what was the Royal Manchester College of Music and was taught by Marjorie Clementi, and over the last three and a half years by Warren Mailley Smith. Claire holds an Associate Diploma in Piano Performance and performs for a variety of charities. She is a Human Resources Consultant by day and is the founder and MD of a bespoke HR and Recruitment Consultancy, Integrated Resources Ltd. She describes herself as a “piano nut”, and enjoys courses which help her develop musically on the piano.

Meet the Artist…… Paul Griffiths, organist

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

When I was ten years old, my best friend at school asked whether I wanted to come and join the local church choir. I said that I wasn’t interested until he said that I would be paid for my services! When I went along to my first choir practice he showed me the organ and from that moment on I was determined to learn. It was a real Eureka moment.

You’re also the CEO of Dubai Airports, how does your musical background influence your work life?

I believe that the ability to think through complex problems and break them down into small pieces, then reassemble them is the same process as learning a challenging piece of repertoire; having the patience to learn an instrument that demands the coordination of so many different events has so many applications in business. Running the world’s largest international airport is certainly demanding, so the application and discipline that I have learnt from music is very helpful.

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

When I was eighteen I was introduced to Malcolm Hicks, who has had a long and distinguished career as an organist and conductor. He took me under his wing and enabled me to appreciate a whole different level of musicianship. I had some notable successes in competitions and diplomas with him and have accompanied many choral performances under Malcolm’s baton.

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

Undoubtedly taking eighteen months to learn and perform the three-movement Suite, Opus 5, by Maurice Duruflé. It is a tour de force of the organ repertoire and many professional organists shy away from it. Inspired by Alan Rusbridger’s book ‘Play it Again’ which a pianist friend gave me, the book describes how it was possible to learn Chopin’s fearsome Ballade No 1 in G minor whilst being the editor of a major international newspaper. I decided I could learn the Duruflé Suite whilst running the world’s largest international airport. The most heart-warming part of the whole experience was the willingness of many professional musicians to give their time to help me prepare for my first performance.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

In 2004 I was the soloist in Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ and Strings at Birmingham Symphony Hall, under the baton of Lionel Friend. It’s a great piece and when I was in my teens I listened tirelessly to the recording made by Maurice Duruflé in 1961 in the presence of Poulenc himself, so being able to perform the work was a great thrill.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

As a student I used to tackle the standard repertoire of Bach and Buxtehude but then ventured into the world of Paul Hindemith, particularly enjoying his three Sonatas for organ. However, romantic music has always enabled me to really express my deepest emotions and latterly I became hooked on the French romantic output from the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Louis Vierne and Cesar Franck.

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

I always set myself the goal of learning new repertoire to expand the possibilities and contrast of performance. I enjoy creating connections and setting strong context in my programming as the organ can be rather dull to those who don’t encounter its repertoire outside of a sacred context.

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

The organ loft at Westminster Abbey is a very special place. Late at night when you are alone in the building you are very aware of more than 1,000 years of history all around you and the magnificence of the architecture and grand acoustic add so much to the performance of any major work.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I used to play for the Waverley Singers, an accomplished choral society based in Farnham, Surrey, which was conducted by Malcolm Hicks. We undertook several concert tours and accompanying the choir in the splendour of the Cathedral of St Bavo in Haarlem in Holland was a very memorable experience. Malcolm recently found a photograph of me at the organ during our tour in 1999 which he gave me.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I lead a very diverse life so I am not sure that I can give the answer purely from a musician’s perspective. However, the ability to express one’s inner soul and communicate on a completely different level through the power of music is unparalleled in any other form of human communication and having the ability and determination to achieve this is immensely rewarding.

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

The subtlety of artistic impression goes so deep that there can never be an end to the attention to interpretative detail; grasping this at a young age and applying it through hours of preparation can really set an artist on a whole different level of musical awareness and appreciation.

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

At home in East Sussex, at the console of the three-manual Aubertin organ which was installed in 2015.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Having spent my whole life wondering whether I should have become a full-time musician, becoming a full-time musician when I decide to relinquish my role running Dubai Airports

What is your most treasured possession?

My battered black briefcase which has been around the world with me countless times

What do you enjoy doing most?

Trying to befriend one of my three cats, called Kitty. She loves attention but then snaps into a tiger. Knowing exactly when to quit can become a near-death experience

What is your present state of mind?

I currently have the complexity of Durufle’s Toccata coursing through my head whilst sleeping and awake. It’s amazing how the human brain can absorb an idea, develop it and then create a whole new level of understanding without any apparent intervention.


Paul Griffiths performs at Westminster Abbey on 13th August at 17.45. Details here

Paul Griffiths began playing the organ at the age of ten and won first prize in the London Musical Competition Festival at the age of 13.  Whilst studying with renowned organist and conductor Malcolm Hicks, he gained the ARCO, ARCM and LRAM within a six-month period and the FRCO two years later.  In 1981, he was placed second in the Trianon Organ Competition.

Having been Organist and Choirmaster at St Mary’s Welwyn from 1980, he moved to Hong Kong in 1986, where he became Assistant Organist at St John’s Cathedral and Head of Organ at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.  He also featured in broadcasts with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and has also given recitals at the English Cathedrals of Ely, Peterborough, Wells, St Paul’s and at Westminster Abbey.  Paul also features regularly as an organist and continuo player in concerts and recordings in the UK and overseas and in May 2002, made a guest appearance at Birmingham Symphony Hall with Dame Gillian Weir.  He has also given recitals at St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, St John’s Smith Square and London’s Temple Church.  In 2003, Paul was appointed organist to the voluntary choir at Guildford Cathedral, where he studied the organ with Stephen Farr. In October 2004, Paul returned to Birmingham Symphony Hall to appear as the soloist in Poulenc’s Organ Concerto with the Birmingham Conservatoire Orchestra, conducted by Lionel Friend.
Outside of musical life, following 14 years as an Executive Director of Virgin Atlantic and the Virgin Rail Group, in January 2005 he was appointed Managing Director of London Gatwick Airport and, in 2007, moved to Dubai to become the first Chief Executive Officer of Dubai Airports, the owner and operator of the world’s largest international airport.  He is regularly requested for interviews on the BBC to contribute towards aviation-related issues, including the debate on Heathrow’s 3rd runway. 

Paul was appointed as a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in the Queen’s Birthday Honour List in 2015, for services to British prosperity overseas and to music.





Impressionist Alistair McGowan to release solo piano album 

Best known for his BAFTA-winning comedy show, ‘Alistair McGowan’s Big Impression’, in which he delighted audiences nationwide with pinpoint-accurate impersonations of celebrities such as David Beckham, Gary Lineker and Jonathan Ross, Alistair McGowan is now preparing for his most demanding role of all – that of pianist – as he releases an album of solo piano works for Sony Classical. 

This debut album features McGowan performing several short classical pieces, all chosen and learned by the actor/impressionist (who could only ever play two pieces) but who then practised for up to six hours a day over a nine month period in his attempt to finally conquer this beautiful instrument, despite already being in his early fifties. Says McGowan: “By taking on the idea of making an album, I hope to encourage people of any age to play the piano, but perhaps particularly those at an age where it’s easy to think that it’s all too late”.

McGowan had started out playing the piano as a boy, but gave it up after only two years in favour of tennis and football. He went on to train as an actor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and worked for many years on television, on radio and in the theatre (being nominated for an Olivier Award in 2006), as well as successfully performing around the country for almost thirty years as a stand-up comic. 

Having always yearned for the piano, in 2016, McGowan devised the one-man stage show, ‘Erik Satie’s-faction’, based on the French composer’s comedic writings, letters and music, for which he had to learn to play some short piano pieces by Satie and Debussy as an integral part of the show – the first time he had ever played in public. Emboldened by this well-received first public experience, it was not long before he was enthusiastically identifying and learning other short pieces which he felt that he – and others with similarly limited playing experience – could realistically manage.

McGowan notes: “I have become so passionate about the piano over the past three years. It has really taken me over and I have made the time to practise (time I never thought I had) with a few simple lifestyle changes. This album contains a wealth of beautiful music that I think anyone can tackle, given time, passion and determination. Learning to play the piano has been an incredible challenge – often frustrating – but, ultimately, hugely enjoyable and emotional. It’s so satisfying when you realise that you are improving daily. I hope this encourages everyone who harbours a secret ambition take up music -it really is never too late!

McGowan was mentored by concert pianist and ‘Olympianist’ Anthony Hewitt and he has also attended exclusive piano summer school La Balie in south-west France. He practised on friends’ pianos and used ice packs to relieve tension and pain in his hands and legs, the result of his long practise sessions.

His solo piano album features music from composers as diverse as Bach, Chopin, Glass, Grieg, Liszt and Satie, together with vocals by Alistair McGowan’s singer wife, Charlie.

Alistair McGowan: The Piano Album is released on 29 September on the Sony Classical label



At a recent Wigmore Hall concert, given by the wonderful young Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, I eschewed the printed programme and went into the hall empty-handed. It hardly mattered – I knew what was on the programme (and I could peek at my concert companions’ programme if I needed to) and it was rather liberating not to be clutching a large-ish booklet for the entire evening.

The printed programme is a traditional accoutrement of the classical concert format. When I went to concerts with my parents as a child, I found the printed programme a curious, esoteric document, full of complex, often foreign words and concepts. As I recall, I liked looking at the pictures of the soloist or conductor, many of whom had artistically wild hair (conductor Louis Fremaux, for example, who worked with the CBSO in the 1970s), but the programme notes were largely incomprehensible to me. When my musical studies were more advanced, I was better able to decipher programme notes: I understood terms like Ternary Form, Rondo or Coda, but still the notes seemed to inhabit a rarefied world of musicology which only a select few could enter.

Usually I don’t like audiences reading their programmes as one plays

– Steven Isserlis, cellist

I understand where Steven Isserlis is coming from with this comment from a recent tweet. If your head is buried in the programme, you’re obviously not going to give the music and the performer/s your full attention. Without a programme to read during Pavel’s performance, I found myself listening even more attentively than usual (and, by my own admission, I am generally an attentive concert-goer). My ears were alert to every dynamic nuance and expressive shift, and I found myself making interesting aural connections between the different composers in the programme (C P E Bach, Schubert and Schumann). In short, I was fully engaged and absorbed by the music. This is, of course, largely due to the performer’s skill in drawing the audience into his personal soundworld and communicating the composer’s intentions, but programme notes can be distracting, and without them, one tends to listen more carefully.

Programme notes have changed a great deal since my earliest concert going days in the 1970s. The esoteric, musicological or high-falutin language has largely disappeared, replaced with text which is accessible, readable, informative and informed, though some still remain nothing more than a sterile playlist. The best programme notes offer the audience a way in to the music (this is especially useful when hearing new or lesser-known music). Good programme notes will give an overview of the context in which the works being performed were created, some biographical details about the composer, and information about the structure of the music, but will also include text which can stimulate our anticipation of what we are about to hear or highlight the emotional content of the music, which often makes its more relateable to an audience of non-specialists. Sometimes there are anecdotes about how the work was received when it was first performed, or a quote from a contemporary observer or critic, or how the work is related to another piece or pieces in the programme. For song or choral recitals, programme notes usually contain the song texts in the original language and in translation. In general, today’s programme notes are well-written documents which I often return to after the concert has been and gone.

Sometimes performers writer their own programme notes, which adds a more personal take on the music, and the practice of the performer introducing the programme via a short pre-concert talk is becoming more common. I really enjoy such talks, especially when the performer offers more personal insights about the music or explains the music as he or she sees it. Most audiences are very interested in a performer’s reasons for choosing certain repertoire or why it is special to them, both compositionally and in terms of what it is like, physically and emotionally, to play it. Talking to the audience also breaks down that awful “them and us” barrier that can exist at concert venues, thus giving the audience a greater connection to the performer and a sense that a concert is very much a shared experience.

Modern technology has also changed the traditional programme note. Many concert venues now post videos or podcast interviews with performers or commentators ahead of a performance, which “adds value” to the printed programme. And some venues offer audiences the option to download a copy of the programme in advance. This is a very good innovation, in my opinion. One thing that does irk me about concert programmes is the cost of them: some are as much as £5 and contain page after page of advertising (the Proms programmes being a particular case in point – a veritable bumper edition of advertising and just 5 pages of actual programme notes……). Interestingly, when I attended a Sunday morning concert at the Vienna Konzerthaus, the programme contained only 5 adverts, of which 4 were directly related to the venue and its resident orchestra.

The lighting – or lack thereof – at some venues (Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Coliseum, for example) renders reading the programme during a performance almost impossible, which is probably a good thing. Programmes can be read and enjoyed before the performance, or during the interval, or indeed on the train on the way home. For many of us, the programme becomes a cherished souvenir of a memorable event – especially if it is signed by the performer!

Piano Dances – a playlist for IDAGIO

The dance is as old as music itself, and many dances for keyboard or piano have their origin in folk dances such as the Mazurka, Polonaise, Polka, Tarantella and Tango. These folk dances and their characteristic rhythms and metres were taken by composers such as Fryderyk Chopin and elevated into refined salon pieces which are popular with audiences and pianists alike.

Playlist curated by Frances Wilson.

Listen to the playlist

The Goldilocks school of “Just Right”

Guest post by Gil Jetley, pianist, teacher and director of Music Holiday Italy

Whilst putting on his music critic’s hat, George Bernard Shaw once declared with great wisdom that the primary function of a conductor is to beat time.  

Er, yeah – I think we might have guessed that!  

But maybe not in the way he meant. You see, he meant that in beating time the conductor was setting the tempo – his point being that for any given work there is one tempo which is right. And other tempos (or tempi, if you must) which are not.  

With this view I largely agree; but it doesn’t only apply to orchestras. It seems to me these days that many pianists, even those great virtuosos that should know better, often play much too fast (and sometimes too slow).

If it’s too fast the sense of the music becomes unintelligible, a meaningless gabble of sound. No chance for it to breath or convey an expansive thought. And because the professionals do it, so too do too many students. Often for no better reason than because they can. There’s no doubting the phenomenal technical skills of the present generation – if measured in accuracy and speed (and one might add volume!) it’s very probably considerably higher than ever before. But since when did music become an Olympic event?

The same applies at the other extreme – taken too slow all sense of continuity, line, and phrase are lost. I recall a memorable masterclass with Andras Schiff where he parodied a famous colleague by playing ultra slow with hugely ‘expansive’ rests and declaring, “You see, I am so profound because I am so slow. The slower I get, the more profound I become!” (The movement in question, in case you are interested, was the Adagio from Beethoven Sonata

GBS was right – for any given work there is a tempo that is right for the musical sense, and the tolerable range either side of that tempo is not very great. A true musician would be unable to bring himself to step beyond those boundaries. Even with the likes of Argerich and Yuja Wang, one might occasionally ask, ‘Well yes, most impressive, exhilarating, astonishing even, but is that really what the music means to you?’ Or one might put the opposite question to Baremboim. But never either to Wilhlem Kempff.

Related to that, I have two students preparing works at opposite ends of technical demands – one has the gently introspective Schumann ‘Scenes from Childhood’ and the other the mighty Bach/Busoni Chaconne. From the Schumann, a classic example of an excess of “tempo-induced-profundity” destroying the continuity is the genuinely profound final item, The Poet Speaks. But others in the set too (‘Dreaming’, ‘Almost too Serious’, ‘Child falling Asleep’) are equally at risk of being taken too literally!

In fact, if one is to perform the whole set it is rather nice to find an overall idea of tempo that works for all the pieces. That’s not to say they should all be played at one consistent tempo, but that there can be some feeling that the tempo of each individual piece is in harmony with that of the others. Without a shadow of doubt, the whole work is SO much more satisfying to hear in this way. And surely it’s more in keeping with Schumann’s intention, which was not to write instructional pieces for children, but an adult’s reflection of childhood.

Now much more controversially (oh goody!) let’s consider the Bach/Busoni Chaconne. Yes, we all know this is about how Bach, with astounding ingenuity, restated the same basic idea 64 times without ever repeating himself. But the Chaconne is absolutely not simply a set of variations – and that applies even more to Busoni (in this particular case). Busoni’s Chaconne is not a mere piano arrangement of an original violin solo. Even calling it a transcription belittles it. It’s substantially more than that; in fact, it’s a total reconstruction. The initial basic thought of Bach has been dismantled down to its very essence – and then reassembled in multilayered permutations (64 times), but using the entire resources of a new and foreign instrument of very different capabilities.

Yet how often it is played as nothing but a set of variations, complete with preposterous drama-filled fluctuations of tempo ranging from “profoundly” stately to undignified scramble. Such thoughtlessness utterly destroys the integrity of the massive edifice Busoni constructed.

Andante maestoso, as the score is headed, is hardly a license for extreme “profundity”. Nor does Più vivo at the end provide an excuse to suddenly double or even treble the pulse. It doesn’t help that Busoni plastered throughout the score multiple expressive indications which many students (and so-called great pianists) choose to interpret as grandiose tempo variations. They are not. They are clarifications of where the music is going. In most cases the required shift in emphasis Busoni has already provided with a change in register, dynamics, or note values. Subtle inflections of tempo, to ‘go with the flow’, are surely all he meant.

There is only one pianist I have heard who’s managed to find a unified tempo that serves the entire 64 restatements in all their variety. His name is Konstantin Scherbakov, and when the work is played in that way it takes on a dignity, a majesty, an Almighty-inspired truth. It becomes so powerful that pianist and audience together cannot help but bask in sense of fatherly approval from J.S.Bach himself. Not for nothing has it been said of Scherbakov’s playing “As if there were no other interpretation.” (Frankfurter Allgemeine).  

And wouldn’t we all like that to be said of us! 🙂 
Read other insightful posts by Gil Jetley at

Meet the Artist……Christopher Glynn, pianist & accompanist

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

I picked out tunes on our piano at home, then my grandfather showed me how to play showtunes by ear on his Hammond organ. My first professional jobs were as a church organist (including an inspiring year at Lincoln Cathedral), a jazz pianist in bars all over the Midlands, and a one-man backing-group for a Patsy Cline tribute act! I came to accompanying when singers at university started asked me to play for them in their recitals. I immediately loved the experience of playing in a duo and was fascinated the idea that it is possible to ‘play words’ as well as notes. I’m still fascinated by it now…

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

David Whittle (a music teacher at school), John Streets and Malcolm Martineau could hardly be more different, but were inspirational and incredibly generous teachers. I’ve also been influenced and inspired by many of the singers and musicians I’ve worked with. One of the first was Anthony Rolfe Johnson, whose straight-from-the-heart singing I will never forget.

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

The biggest challenge for a piano accompanist is also the most interesting part of the job: to reinvent constantly the way you play pieces you know well and have played many times to reflect new ideas brought to the table by different partners.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m excited about two I’ve just finished making, both of which will come out early next year. I’ve always loved his music of Percy Grainger and was thrilled when Claire Booth asked me to collaborate on a disc of his folksong arrangements. I also really enjoyed unearthing the little-known songs of Donald Swann (of Flanders and Swann fame, but also a ‘serious’ composer) for a recording with Felicity Lott, Kathryn Rudge, John Mark Ainsley and Roderick Williams.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I find that very hard to answer and will have to leave it for others to judge!

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

A lot depends on what I’m invited to do by the singers and instrumentalists I work with – and it’s nice to be surprised. My own projects are often motivated by an interest in finding new ways to present old music, such as a recent venture to present the Schubert song cycles in new English translations by Jeremy Sams.

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

I love the Wigmore Hall for its unique atmosphere and audience. There is a special excitement to playing in Carnegie Hall, but I also love the modesty and intimacy of the Holywell Music Room in Oxford. I also really enjoy the wonderfully varied venues of the

Ryedale Festival that I’ve got to know so well – from Castle Howard to remote country churches.

Favourite pieces to listen to?

I love early English music, especially Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons and Purcell. Anything and everything by Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Schubert. Operas by Verdi and Janacek, string quartets by Bartok and Shostakovich, piano music by Chopin, Liszt, Mussorgsky, Debussy, Fauré and Ravel. Orchestral music by Elgar, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Bruckner, Mahler and anything recorded by Harry Christophers’ choir The Sixteen. Favourite albums by Leonard Cohen, Edith Piaf, The Smiths and Joni Mitchell. I also love musicals, my new favourite being Tim Minchin’s amazing Groundhog Day.

Who are your favourite musicians?

My musical heroes include Sviatoslav Richter, Alfred Cortot, Martha Argerich, Gerald Moore, Clara Haskil, Benjamin Brittten, Andras Schiff, Daniil Trifonov, Bernard Haitink, Trevor Pinnock, Jacqueline du Pre, Peter Schreier, Janet Baker, Maria Callas and Victoria de los Angeles.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The experience of taking part in the Passion project with Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen was unforgettable. We staged Bach’s St Matthew Passion with professionals performing alongside people with experience of homelessness – the results were moving and inspiring.

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

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’. Learn how to read a score and acquire the technique you need. Then feel like you are improvising. Tell stories and paint pictures in music. Distrust anyone who thinks they have all the answers. Stay curious.

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

Still playing – and able to say I’ve done something to bring classical music to a wider audience. Also to have written my book and a hit musical (some way to go on both those last two!)

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

The sort that appears when you least expect it and aren’t looking for it.

What is your most treasured possession?

A first edition of Schubert’s Schwanengesang.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Spending time with my children and those closest to me. A pint in a good pub with a friend.

What is your present state of mind?

Excited, as I’m deep in planning for my festival – the Ryedale Festival – next year.


Christopher Glynn is a Grammy award-winning pianist and accompanist, working with leading singers, instrumentalists and ensembles in concerts, broadcasts and recordings throughout the world. He is also Artistic Director of the Ryedale Festival, programming around 60 events each year in the many beautiful and historic venues of Ryedale, North Yorkshire.

Described by The Times as having ‘beauties and insights aplenty’ and praised in Gramophone for his ‘breathtaking sensitivity’, Chris has performed with singers including Sir Thomas Allen, John Mark Ainsley, Sophie Bevan, Claire Booth, Susan Bullock, Allan Clayton, Lucy Crowe, Sophie Daneman, Bernarda Fink, Michael George, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Christiane Karg, Jonas Kaufmann, Andrew Kennedy, Yvonne Kenny, Dame Felicity Lott, Christopher Maltman, Mark Padmore, Joan Rodgers, Kate Royal, Kathryn Rudge, Toby Spence, Bryn Terfel, Sir John Tomlinson, Robin Tritschler, Ailish Tynan, Roderick Williams, Catherine Wyn Rogers, Elizabeth Watts and many others.

He has also performed with instrumentalists including Julian Bliss, Andrej Bielow, Adrian Brendel, Michael Collins, Nicholas Daniel, David Garrett, Tine Thing Helseth, Daniel Hope and Steven Isserlis; with ensembles including the Elias, Heath, Fitzwilliam and Szymanowski Quartets, London Winds, Britten Sinfonia and Scottish Chamber Orchestra; and with choirs including The Sixteen.

Chris was born in Leicester and read music an organ scholar at New College, Oxford, before studying piano with John Streets in France and Malcolm Martineau at the Royal Academy of Music. His many awards include a Grammy, the accompaniment prize in the 2001 Kathleen Ferrier competition, the 2003 Gerald Moore award and the 2002 Geoffrey Parsons award.

Since making his debut at Wigmore Hall in 2001, Chris has performed in major concert venues and festivals throughout Europe and North America, and toured to Japan, China, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Russia and Canada. He has made over 20 recordings on labels including Hyperion, Decca, Erato, DG, Coro and Signum. He has also made many studio recordings and live broadcasts for BBC Radio 3.

Chris enjoys working with young musicians and is a Professor at the Royal College of Music, an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music, a coach for the Jette Parker Young Artist Programme at the Royal Opera House, and a course leader for the Samling Foundation. He has been an adjudicator for many international competitions.

Recent highlights include recording the piano soundtrack for the forthcoming film ‘Altamira’ (starring Antonio Banderas), the world premiere of a newly-discovered work by Mendelssohn on BBC Radio 4, performances at the BBC Proms, collaborations with the Richard Alston Dance Company and Rufus Wainwright, rediscovering the ‘serious’ songs of Donald Swann for a forthcoming CD, and ‘The Passion’ with The Sixteen and Streetwise Opera.

Future plans include a series of concerts entitled ‘Songbooks’ that he will curate for Wigmore Hall, Winterreise with Mark Padmore at the Endellion Festival, and a forthcoming CD of Grainger songs and piano pieces with Claire Booth. Chris will also join Toby Spence, Roderick Williams and Sir John Tomlinson for the first performances of new English translations he has commissioned from Jeremy Sams of Schubert’s song cycles.

(interview date: November 2016)

Darkness and Light: Prom 20

Robert Schumann died in a lunatic asylum on 29th July 1856. On 29th July 2017, at Prom 20, British pianist Stephen Hough gave a performance of a work suffused with melancholy and darkness, the composer Johannes Brahms’ response to the tragedy of Schumann’s mental illness.

According to Brahms’ friend and colleague Joseph Joachim, who conducted the première of the First Piano Concerto in Hanover in 1856, the work reflects Brahms’ emotions on hearing Schumann, his artistic patron and musical father figure, had attempted suicide in the Rhine. The concerto opens with a ferociously portentous drum roll and darkly-hued, angst-ridden orchestral tutti, and the entire first movement charts a terrain of pain and instability, in which orchestra and piano seem at odds, engaged in a battle of drama and rhetoric. Given that this is the work of a young composer “without his beard” (Stephen Hough), the darkness and profundity of the First Concerto is shocking, its message visceral and emotionally charged. It flames with intensity and rhetoric.

Read the full review here

Give it a rest

On leaving and returning to familiar repertoire

240_f_103173724_1wrksn0coxd91de5mebzkmiywytpkm1cI’ve recommenced work on Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata (D 959 in A), following a few months’ hiatus due to family health issues, during which I was unable to give the music my full and proper attention. Regular readers of this blog will know (along with my husband who works at home and hears me practising every day!) that this sonata has become something of an obsession for me since I embarked on a study of it in autumn 2014 (read more about this here.)

This is not the first time I’ve taken a break from the sonata. In the immediate aftermath of receiving my (disappointing) diploma result last September, I wanted nothing more to do with the music. The score was consigned to the back of the bookcase in my piano room, firmly hidden away. I needed time away from the music, to reflect and regroup. At the time, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to go near the piece again, but as a pianist friend of mine pointed out, “You just need to let it ‘marinade’ for a few months“. And gradually during that marinading process I found myself returning to my books and articles on Schubert, to listening to his music again, absorbing new details, new thoughts about the sonata, allowing his distinctive, highly personal idioms to seep into my musical consciousness.

Some works reveal their subtleties, depths and complexities more slowly than others. This is certainly true of Schubert’s music which has so many details to be unearthed and explored that one cannot expect to cover all of them in one go – nor even two or three. Rather like the layers of an onion, these details are peeled away over time and through repeated “returns” to the score. For example, in my latest work on the sonata, I am finding more interesting bass details and inner voices/instrumental lines to be highlighted. Whether these details will find their way into a final version, I cannot say, but the process of exploration definitely throws light on other aspects of the music and throws up new ideas for consideration.


Another satisfying aspect of returning to a piece after a rest is finding that certain passages which previously seemed intractable or particularly challenging can now be played with ease and suppleness. This may seem curious, since one has spent weeks not practising the music at the instrument, but it strikes me that one needs time away to allow technical and musical details to embed in one’s mind and fingers. A rest also encourages one to practise differently: I have found myself returning to very simple practise in some areas of the work, stripping the music back and then rebuilding it.

When working on very complex repertoire one can reach a state of saturation where it becomes impossible to take in new ideas, nor even process existing ones. At this point, you may find yourself making silly or careless errors – this is usually the time to put the music aside and give it, and you, a rest.
There is plenty of useful work to be done while the music is resting – listening, reading (both score and books/articles about the music and composer), thinking and reflecting. If, like me, one is focussing on one specific composer or work, “listening around” the work in question is always helpful, in my opinion. I have a very large Spotify playlist of late music by Schubert, including string quartets, the ninth symphony, songs and other piano music, in addition to some works by Beethoven which have a connection to the Sonata I am studying. And of course while some music is resting, other repertoire can be explored and enjoyed. In fact, I find playing music which seems almost diametrically opposed to Schubert (20th century minimalism, for example) incredibly refreshing, allowing me to return to the Sonata with renewed enthusiasm.
There is such a thing as “over-practising” (though some students don’t believe me when I tell them this!). Over-practising can kill a piece of music, as we become complacent about the work and inured to errors, which are then very difficult to erase. Over-practising can also lead to boredom, which can make us careless in practise, and can cause injury which may leave us unable to play for weeks or months. Then an enforced rest from the music and instrument may be necessary, though one can still continue with work away from the keyboard as described above.
When I recommend taking a break from the music to students, they usually exclaim that they will “forget everything” when they return to the music. In general, this is not the case. Music which has been thoroughly and thoughtfully practised and is well learnt remains in the brain and fingers and can be brought back to a good standard very quickly. Returning to a work after a rest can be a wonderful experience, like reacquainting oneself with an old friend, while also making new friendships.
A work can never truly be considered ‘finished’ and thus resting and returning to the same work many times becomes an ongoing study. Often a satisfying performance of a work to which one has devoted many hours of study can be said to put the work ‘to bed’, but only for the time being. Rest the work and return to it, and suddenly new things come to light, informed by our reading, listening, life experience, and so forth. American pianist Bruce Brubaker, in his sensitive and thoughtful blog Piano Morphosis, describes this as a process of “continuing”. Thus, one performance informs another, and all one’s practising and playing is connected in one continuous stream of music-making.

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture