British composer and singer Joanna Forbes L’Estrange has been commissioned by the Royal School of Church Music to write a special anthem to celebrate the Coronation of King Charles III on 6 May 2023. Read on to find out more about Joanna’s musical background, her influences and inspirations, and why there are “no rules” to composing…..

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

When I was 8 years old, my foster father suggested to my younger sister and me that we join our parish church choir of Bisley and West End in Surrey. The choir was small – I remember we only had one tenor, a rather elderly man called Harry – and Em and I were the youngest members by several decades, but it was there that I fell in love with singing in choirs and with church music. For the next ten years until I was 18, it was a routine of Thursday evening choir practices and Sunday services, crunching up the long gravel path to the church, our freshly-washed, dusky blue robes draped over our arms. Most Sundays it was Eucharist but, once a month, we sang Evensong and these were my favourite services. We would often sing the hymn ‘The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended’ which I thought had the most beautiful melody.

By the time I arrived at Oxford University to begin my music degree, I was longing to sing in a really good choir. There hadn’t been a choir at my comprehensive school so my sole experience of choral music had been my little church choir. I remember being at freshers’ fair, walking among the many stalls of clubs and societies and feeling distinctly overwhelmed, when I suddenly spotted a sign saying “Schola Cantorum of Oxford”. I thought: how cool would it be to sing in a choir with a Latin name?! and added my name to the audition sign-up list. A week later, as I walked into the audition room, it occurred to me that I’d never done an audition before and I suddenly became nervous. Imposter syndrome properly set in when I was asked if I’d done Eton Choral Courses – um, no – or been a member of NYC – er, no. I hadn’t actually heard of either thing and was starting to wonder what on earth I’d been thinking putting my name on this list. However, I knew I could sing and I knew that I was a strong sight-reader, having studied the piano and cello to Grade 8 and been blessed with perfect pitch, so I gave it my best shot and….got in! A whole new world of choral music opened up to me over those next three years: we gave concerts in stunning chapels, recorded several CDs and went on tour to France and Japan. I was in choir heaven.

Three years after graduating from Oxford, I joined the five-time Grammy® award-winning vocal group The Swingle Singers as soprano and Musical Director. Over the next seven years I became obsessed with jazz vocal groups and jazz close harmonies, listening to recordings by groups such as Les Double Six, Manhattan Transfer and The Real Group. I wrote some arrangements, my first one being for the four female voices of the group, my arrangement of Amazing Grace. I also enjoyed twenty extraordinary years with Tenebrae, one of the world’s most respected professional chamber choirs, performing and recording many of the greatest choral pieces.

When I was in my early 30s, my foster father became ordained and, a few months before his ordination, he asked me to write a piece of music for our parish choir to sing. I replied “but I don’t compose music” to which he said, in his typical no-nonsense fashion, “well, it’s time you did”. My father Sebastian Forbes is a composer and my grandfather Watson Forbes had arranged hundreds of pieces for the viola but it had never occurred to me that I too could be a composer. I’d written a couple of pieces for GCSE Music but, to be a “proper” composer, I was under the impression that you had to have a calling at birth and be composing from the age of six to qualify. I also thought you had to be a man. I’d been born into a family of professional musicians, sung in choirs for over 20 years, achieved Grade 8 on two instruments and done a music degree and yet I’d never once been exposed to any music written by a woman. It’s unthinkable, really, but that’s how it was. I still have my chorister’s handbook from when I joined Bisley choir; the whole book is about boy choristers and there’s not one mention of girls. We’ve come a long way since then, I’m happy to say.

I am forever indebted to Reverend Richard Abbott for asking me to compose that piece because it set me on my path as a composer. When he died last November, following a long battle with cancer, my sister and I returned to Bisley church for the funeral and the choir sang my setting of Go forth in Peacethe piece I’d composed for his ordination.

All of my experiences singing in choirs have informed my composing but the most significant is my time singing in my local church choir. There are plenty of composers, my father for one, who write highly complex and challenging music; I love to sing that kind of music myself but, as a composer, that’s not what I feel moved to write. It’s strange to recall that after I met my husband, who’d been a star chorister in the choir of New College, Oxford, I went through a phase of feeling quite bitter that I hadn’t been a chorister in a big cathedral choir. Throughout my singing career I’ve become aware that most of my colleagues did indeed attend Eton Choral Courses and National Youth Choir when they were younger and, again, I have felt annoyed that I wasn’t given such opportunities. But now I realise my calling as a composer is to write the kind of music which choirs like the one I sang in as a child and choirs like it all over the world can sing and enjoy singing. I care deeply that my music is as accessible as possible to choirs of all sizes and abilities which is why I record demos of all of my pieces so that singers who aren’t necessarily confident in reading music can listen to their vocal line and learn the notes by ear instead.

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

At the start of my career as a freelance singer I was full of self-doubt and rather shy. I’d come from a family of high-profile professional musicians, which felt like a lot to live up to. I was forever comparing myself with my viola-playing grandfather, my composer father, my opera singing uncle and aunt, wondering if I’d ever make the grade. I now know that comparison is the thief of joy – thank you Brené Brown – and try to avoid comparing my career with anyone else’s. I also didn’t know where to begin as a freelancer because, in those days, there weren’t all of the wonderful apprentice schemes that there are now. I had to learn to believe in myself, trust my instincts, forge my own path and seek out mentors. This is the advice I now pass on to young people entering the profession. Everyone’s route into the music business is different and there’s no single path to follow. We have to find our own way and hope to meet people who can give us good advice.

When I became Musical Director of The Swingle Singers, I had to deal with a few sexist comments such as “women are too emotional to be in charge” and “arrangements for just upper voices wouldn’t work because there’s no bass line”. It also took me a while to get used to the particular style of male banter peculiar to those men who’ve been choristers in all-male choirs most of their lives. Leadership of The Swingles had been rather male-dominated since the 1960s and so it was a challenge at the beginning to be a female MD but I’m happy to say that that tide had turned by the time I left the group and Ward Swingle, the group’s founder, wrote me a beautiful card thanking me for having established a sense of togetherness in the group, which meant everything. At Ward’s funeral eight years ago, my arrangement of Amazing Grace was sung as his coffin was lowered into the grave; that was a moment I’ll never forget.

Covid was a huge challenge to all artists, of course. I kept myself sane by being creative, writing and recording a lot of music at home, but I missed the camaraderie of being with other musicians. There’s nothing like it.

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

I love writing to a commission brief because having certain parameters in place before I put pencil to manuscript paper actually gets the creative juices flowing more readily than when I’m composing without a brief. For example, with the commission for the coronation piece, the scoring, duration, subject matter and accessibility were all established before I began writing. Once I’d found my text, the music came relatively quickly. I’m currently working on a number of other commissions: I’m writing a grace setting for Churchill College in Cambridge for their non-auditioning choir Inter Alios to sing at formal dinners; the brief here was to keep it short and simple and for the style to be something along the lines of my Give us Gracewhich is a gospel-inflected setting of a Jane Austen prayer. I’m also writing a part-song for a wonderful upper voices choir in north London called Jubilate; for this one, I’ll write my own words which is something I enjoy doing; it’ll be about the joys of singing in choirs.

Of which works are you most proud?

It’s hard to say because each piece/song I’ve written has made me proud for different reasons. I’ve written a number of songs for upper voices, often incorporating ideas surrounding gender equality, including Twenty-first-century Woman which we recorded at Abbey Road Studios in 2018 with an all-female choir, band, engineering team and production team. I conducted the session and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. We also made history by being the first ever all-female recording session to take place at Abbey Road Studios. That was a proud moment. I made a music video which features, among others, Prue Leith, Joanna Lumley, Ruby Wax, the Bishop of London, the Harlequins Rugby Team… I also wrote a song called A place for us maids to mark 40 years of women students at Cambridge and one called A woman (wearing bloomers) on a wheel which is a witty Victorian-style song about the impact which the invention of the bicycle had on women’s clothing. It’s been made into a wonderful film by the National Youth Girls’ Choir of Great Britain, filmed on location at the Beamish Museum in Durham. For the Military Wives Choirs of Great Britain I co-wrote a song, with my husband Alexander, called We will remember them which tells a war story from the perspective of wives married to fighting soldiers.

Of my church pieces, I think I’m most proud of my King’s College Service and my Preces and Responsesbecause they’ve been sung so many times by choirs in the UK and the USA. I’m also thrilled that Tenebrae chose to record my Advent ‘O’ Carol on their latest Christmas album. It’s a stunning recording.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

A good tune, something memorable such as a refrain or chorus, jazz-inflected harmonies, rhythms which spring from the natural rhythms of the words I’m setting. I’m not a ground-breaking composer, I’m not stretching the boundaries of choral music or finding a brand new compositional language. I don’t have any desire to win competitions (although I do have a secret desire to write an Oscar-winning end credits song for a film!) or to have accolades bestowed upon me. I just want to write lovely music which choirs want to sing.

How do you work?

I write at my lovely old Steinway piano which I inherited from my father when he inherited his mother’s piano. I have to have a tidy room in order to feel creative so I often start the day with a general clear-up – I have two teenage sons so there’s always plenty of stuff lying around! Then I settle down, recite the text aloud a number of times until (with any luck) a melody begins to suggest itself to me. At this point, I start to sing as I accompany myself on the piano. Harmonies come as does an overall shape and, once I start to commit the music to manuscript paper, I’m immersed and tend not to come up for air until I’m hungry for lunch. If I feel blocked, I go for a blowy stroll across the fields into the village and usually get some great ideas as I walk which I sing into the voice-memo app on my phone, much to the amusement of passing dog walkers!

Tell us more about ‘The Mountains Shall Bring Peace’, your special coronation commission from the Royal School of Church Music….

I was keen to find words which reflected not only King Charles’s faith but also something of his passion for the natural world and his love of the outdoors. When I think of our former Prince of Wales, I picture him walking in the Welsh mountains or in the Scottish Highlands; I’m Welsh born and my father’s side of the family is Scottish so it’s familiar territory for me. I’m also all too aware that this Coronation is taking place during a very turbulent time for our country and our planet and so I was searching for words which would in some way give us all hope for the future. I settled on the opening verses of Psalm 72 because they perfectly encapsulate all of this and more. It’s generally believed that this Psalm was the coronation hymn for the King of Judah; the words speak of the king’s role in relationship to his people and to God. But best of all is the third verse which, in the King James version, reads: “The mountains shall bring peace unto the people”. What could be more perfect? It also gave me my title.

Central to the commission brief was a big, singable tune, the kind of memorable melody which anyone and everyone can enjoy singing at the tops of their voices. So, instead of writing the piece from start to end, I began with this melody, honing it over time until I was satisfied with it. When I was setting the words “the mountains shall bring peace unto the people” I created a melodic shape comprising rising and falling 4ths which, together with the melodic sequence, depicts the mountains.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

If you can make a living doing something you love, to me that is success. Contentment is everything. I may have made more money being a barrister (which is the profession suggested to me by a school career’s advisor!) but I don’t think that would have made me happy because I always knew, from the age of 2, that I wanted to be a musician. When I’d just graduated from Oxford I wasn’t ready yet so I did a PGCE and taught music in a secondary school for three years, having singing lessons every week until I felt ready to start auditioning for singing work.

I never take my career for granted and am grateful every day that I get to earn a living from composing, singing and coaching choirs.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring composers?

I would say this: there are no rules. Stay true to yourself and write the music you feel compelled to write, whatever form that takes. Authenticity is everything. By all means be inspired by other people but don’t feel you have to write like they do. We are all different and we were put on this earth to be uniquely ourselves. Don’t compare yourself with other composers; stay in your own lane.

On a more practical level, having additional strands of income which can sustain you during lean composing patches can be a lifeline. For me, it’s being a session singer for film and TV soundtracks and coaching choirs and a cappella groups. It’s good to have lots of strings to your bow if you want to be a freelance musician. I learned that from my grandfather Watson Forbes whose autobiography is actually called “Strings to my bow”. He was the viola player in the Aeolian String Quartet but he also wrote arrangements for the viola, conducted orchestras and was an examiner for the ABRSM.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

We need to foster a love for classical music when children are in primary school and keep that going all the way through to the end of secondary school. Singing in choirs, learning to play an instrument, going to orchestral concerts, hearing wonderful choirs in beautiful acoustics….all of these experiences at a young age create adults who love classical music just as listening to pop music, playing in a band and going to see bands live create adults who love pop music. The trouble is that unless the government makes music a priority in schools again by investing in schemes such as free instrumental lessons for a year, trips to concerts etc classical music will be seen as elitist, exclusive to the independent school sector or to families who can afford to pay for instruments and music lessons. I went to very unremarkable schools but, in the 1970s, even there we had a recorder group in my primary school and sang every day in assembly and in the classroom. The problem we’ve got nowadays is that very few primary schools have someone who can even play the piano. It’s been proven time and time again that schools thrive where there is a good arts programme; failing schools have been revived by installing a good arts programme. Music should be an essential part of the curriculum as learning an instrument improves learning across the curriculum.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about but you think we should be?

Gender bias. I have been singing on film soundtracks for over 20 years and have never been conducted by a woman and have only once (last year) recorded a soundtrack composed by a woman. It used to be the case that all of the sound engineers and producers were men too but that has changed in recent years and you’re just as likely to see a woman setting up the microphones etc as a man. We now have (at last) girl choristers and women lay clerks and choral scholars so things are gradually moving in the right direction. Let’s see more women on the conductor’s podium in London’s studios next, please!

What do you enjoy doing most?

Spending time with friends who enjoy making music for fun, even if it’s also their profession. On New Year’s Eve, our house was full of friends and music. We had everything from a teenage bagpiper to a jazz jam around the piano with our sons Harry (piano) and Toby (double bass) to an impromptu performance by my friend Grace Davidson (soprano) of Handel’s Let the Bright Seraphim, accompanied by Nigel Short (Artistic Director of Tenebrae) on the piano and trumpet obbligato courtesy of Mark Armstrong (NYJO Director), to a raucous sing-song of a brilliant arrangement by my husband Alexander L’Estrange (who writes for The King’s Singers) of ABBA’s Happy New Year at midnight. We also love to have a cappella singer friends over for dinner and to sing Take Six arrangements for fun. Once a month, we meet up with friends in a pub in London who love to sing 16th-century music by Tallis, Tye, Byrd and Gibbons from part-books with original, early notation. Eclectic is the word! No matter what the style of music, there’s nothing better than making music with friends.

The Mountains shall bring peace is Joanna Forbes L’Estrange’s specially-commissioned coronation anthem for the Royal School of Church Music. Find out more about the project here

Follow the project on social media with hashtag #singfortheking

Joanna Forbes L’Estrange is an internationally renowned British soprano and jazz vocalist, specialising in contemporary music of all styles. A Master of Arts music graduate of Oxford University, she began her career as soprano and Musical Director of the five-time Grammy® award-winning a cappella group the Swingle Singers and, since then, has enjoyed a busy freelance career as a concert artist, studio session singer, song writer, choral composer and choral leader. She has also appeared on television as a judge for the Sky 1 series Sing: Ultimate A Cappella.Joanna has performed on many of the world’s most famous stages, from New York’s Carnegie Hall to Tokyo’s Orchard Hall to La Scala Milan and the Châtelet in Paris. In the UK, she has sung to a packed O2 Arena with Pete Tong and the Heritage Orchestra and at the Proms, Edinburgh International Festival and Glastonbury as well as for the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. She is much in demand as the soloist for Will Todd’s Mass in Blue and her solo concert repertoire also includes Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts and numerous works by Steve Reich, Stockhausen, John Adams and Luciano Berio, whose iconic masterpiece Sinfonia she has performed fifty times with the world’s leading orchestras and conductors. Recordings include a cappella and solo jazz albums, contemporary orchestral works, CDs with the award-winning chamber choir Tenebrae and hundreds of soundtracks to video games and Hollywood films.Joanna’s choral compositions and songs are published by RSCM, Faber Music and andagio. In 2018, she made history by organising and conducting the first ever entirely female recording session at London’s Abbey Road Studios, recording her song Twenty-first-century Woman as a charity single for International Women’s Day with an all-female band, choir and production team. All proceeds from downloads of the song go to charities supporting girls’ education worldwide.

Episode 2 of the Piano 101 podcast with The Cross-Eyed Pianist and Dr Michael Low is now available on YouTube, Spotify and SoundCloud

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Columba Dromgoole-Cavazzi (violin) & Duncan Honeybourne (piano)

Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concerts, 25 January 2023

Spring came early to Weymouth with a fine performance of music by Beethoven, Debussy and Cecilia McDowall at the first concert of 2023 presented by Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concerts (of which I am concerts manager).

Concert-goers escaping a cold, grey January day were warmed by the elegance and expression in Columba’s playing. This was a significant concert for her – her first post-graduation professional engagement.

Beethoven’s ‘Spring’ Sonata in warm F major reminded us that warmer days are not far away now. This was an enjoyable opener, Columba and Duncan finding an appealing ‘conversation’ between their two instruments, with some lovely interplay and humour, especially in the third movement, and a delightful freshness in the first and final movements.

After a short pause, the mood shifted to more unsettled, nocturnal territory with Cecilia McDowall’s Strange violin, the work inspired by the poem Der Nachbar (The Neighbour) by the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. For me this was the highlight of the programme and, I felt, an unusual choice for a young violinist at the start of her professional career. And one which demonstrated very clearly that Columba is already at home with this kind of repertoire. Once again the violin and piano were in conversation, of a sort, yet this one was haunting, atmospheric, and elegiac. Long phrases in the violin, requiring great control to achieve a special lyricism and intensity of sound, contrasted with plangent, bell-like sounds in the piano before a more agitated middle section.

The concert closed with Debussy’s Violin Sonata, written in 1917 near the end of his life when he was terminally ill with a particularly unpleasant cancer. He wrote that the work was “an example of what may be produced by a sick man in time of war” and certainly the mood is autumnal and nostalgic, freighted with emotion, often unsettled. In his introduction, Duncan explained that he and Columba really enjoyed playing this piece and this came across very clearly in their performance which was highly expressive, replete with contrasting timbres and textures, and ever-alert to the mercurial moods and shifting colours of the music. In the final movement, turbulence and introspection are replaced by “tumultuous joy” (Debussy) and the piece closed on a triumphant note, a spring-like positivity returning.

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A thriving concert series serves music lovers of West London and provides a vital London debut venue for emerging pianistic talent through regular concerts, livestreams and an impressive video archive.

Tucked down a narrow lane in Ealing, west London, is St Mary’s Perivale, a tiny redundant medieval church. Just 7 miles from Marble Arch, St Mary’s Perivale is a classical music centre with a national reputation and growing international outreach. Concerts at the church are run by the indefatigable Hugh Mather, a retired doctor with a passion for the piano and classical music in general.

With a capacity of just 70, the venue reaches a much wider audience via its livestream concerts which are broadcast using state-of-the art video facilities (9 high-definition cameras, including one which gives a bird’s eye view of the piano keyboard, and 6 high-quality microphones), a good piano, perfect acoustics, and a dedicated fibre optic link to the internet. The result is outstanding livestreams and videos, enabling a far larger online audience to enjoy concerts from St Mary’s. In 2022, Hugh Mather and the team at St Mary’s were awarded ‘Lockdown Star’ by the Critics’ Circle for their activities during the pandemic in providing significant support to musicians who had little or no performing work otherwise.

Hugh Mather says:

Over the past four years we have taken a lead in livestreaming classical concerts, and pride ourselves of now being the foremost UK video broadcasting venue for instrumental and chamber music. During the pandemic, we initially broadcast daily recordings from our archive, and then over 150 ‘live’ concerts with no audience in the church. Since being allowed to admit an audience in September 2021, we have streamed another 150, making a total of over 300 broadcasts since June 2020 – more than any other venue.

We are passionate about the future of livestream classical concerts, which came to prominence in the pandemic in June 2020, when they were the only means of providing performing opportunities and income for musicians. At the time they were presumed to be a temporary pandemic phenomenon, but they have now become established as an important new way of enjoying concerts. There is a huge swathe of the population who cannot travel to attend concerts, and the convenience of being able to enjoy a concert in the comfort of one’s home, particularly via a smart TV, for little or no expense, is obviously attractive. While the livestream is not a complete substitute for the ‘real thing’, it is a different and valid option for many concert-goers. It is admittedly difficult to obtain emotional involvement in a concert when sitting alone at home, but this can be partially resolved by participating in ‘live-chats’, sharing opinions with other viewers, leading to the formation of on-line communities enjoying concerts together. The frisson of a ‘live’ event is important, providing an authentic ‘feel’ compared with watching old performances on YouTube.

St Mary’s Perivale has now developed a ‘hybrid’ concert model, catering for two separate audiences simultaneously: a small cohort of c50 local music-lovers in the church, and perhaps ten times as many viewers watching the broadcast on YouTube or Vimeo, either concurrently (about 50) or in the following few days (about 250 to 500 viewers, and sometimes more). The audience in the church provides the ambience and applause, and their donations usually cover the musicians’ fees. For the musicians, especially those who are at the start of their professional careers, the concerts, livestreams and videos offer important exposure from the viewing of their performances around the world – so far in over 50 countries. All concerts remain freely available to view for 3 weeks after a concert, and most are retained permanently.

View St Mary’s video archive here

The concert series presents 120 concerts per year or 3 a week in ‘term time’ and boasts an impressive roster of performers, including Pascal Nemirovski, Viv McLean, Emanuil Ivanov, Thomas Kelly (2021 Leeds competition finalist), Coco Tomita (strings category winner, BBC Young Musician 2020), Siqian Li, Evelyne Berezovsky, Tyler Hay (winner of the 2022 International Dudley Piano Competition), Peter Donohoe, Yuki Negishi, and many more, and in March presents a New Faces weekend festival to showcase up-and-coming young artists. The whole organization is run by unpaid volunteers, and receives no public subsidies or sponsorship

Full details of the spring/summer programme of concerts here

I’ve been writing a series of essays for InterludeHK on pianists and their composers. Some are obvious choices – Gould, Schiff and Hewitt for Bach, for example. The selections are neither comprehensive nor definitive, and are by their very nature subjective – because they are selected by me. These articles are simply intended to offer readers some listening suggestions or a pointer to explore pianists and/or recordings with which they may not be familiar.

I tend not to read comments on my published essays these days, but I was amused – though not surprised – by some of the responses to my Pianists and their Composers articles. It is inevitable that such compilations will omit your favourite pianist for Bach, Beethoven, Schubert et al, and your choices will not necessarily align with mine.

“Wot, no XX, XX or XXX?” declared a ruffled reader on Twitter in response to my article on the music of Chopin. “How could you omit so-and-so?” demanded another on reading the article on Beethoven’s piano sonatas.

These responses demonstrate several important truths. First, that fans of classical music in general, and specific composers and artists in particular, care very deeply and are very attached to their favourite artists; secondly, that taste is a very personal, “me” thing.

Our musical taste is shaped from an early age, influenced initially by our parents’ listening habits, later by teachers, peers, friends, study, growing maturity, curiosity…. Our taste evolves and changes due to our experience of music, life experience, and a whole host of other factors – from mixtapes/playlists shared between friends at college to our first proper rock or classical concert or grand opera. Today the availability of a seemingly infinite amount of music of all genres means one’s taste and musical curiosity knows no bounds, if one allows it to graze freerange, uninhibited and with an open mind. Your taste won’t align with mine – and that’s fine. How dull life would be if we all liked the same thing!

But a word of caution: the quickest way to alienate me, or indeed anyone else who enjoys listening to music, is to tell them that their taste is “wrong”, or “bad”. Most of us don’t like music because we are told we should like it; nor do we stop liking it because we told shouldn’t like it!

Shameless begging bit:

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Piano Sonatas, Op. 10 Nos 1-3
Daniel Tong (fortepiano)
Resonus RES10307 

This sparkling new release from Daniel Tong opens with an explosive ‘Mannheim rocket’, the dramatic first sentence of the Piano Sonata in C minor, Op 10, No. 1, which sets the tone for an uplifting and very enjoyable listening experience.

Daniel Tong has been playing Beethoven “since I was nine years old and my teacher gave me a little Bagatelle by the master”, and the piano sonatas as well as the duo sonatas and piano trios are at the heart of Tong’s musical life. The pianist’s affection for this repertoire is evident not only in his close attention to details such as articulation or marks of expression, but also an appreciation of the composer’s wit and comic timing as well as his emotional depth.

Fortepiano made by Paul McNulty

This new release was made possible via crowdfunding and Tong recorded the sonatas on a copy of an 1815 Walter fortepiano, an instrument with which Beethoven would have been very familiar. The result is a more intimate sound, much more suited to the salon or hauskonzert than the grand concert hall. Yet these pieces are concert works and I am sure Beethoven intended them as such: these sonatas were written for the composer himself to perform, as a young piano virtuoso keen to show off his skill.

Chronologically speaking, these are “youthful” or “early” works, published when Beethoven was not yet 30, yet in their wit and inventiveness, range of expression and appreciation of the capabilities of the instrument they reveal a composer who had already absorbed the finer – and finest – points of sonata form. In these sonatas, we encounter a young composer with the world at his feet.

I have a special affection for the Opus 10 sonatas because I learnt the first one, in C minor, for my Grade 8 exam, taken back in the day (early 1980s) when one was required to perform an entire sonata. I loved the energy of the outer movements and the contrasting warmth and elegance of the slow movement whose melody and structure looks forward to that of the Pathétique sonata (Op 13). Tong neatly captures these contrasts: after the explosive energy and drama of the first movement, the slow movement is a welcome balm. Indeed, it is in the slow movements of each of these three sonatas, that I found the greatest depth of expression: the slow movement of the D major sonata (No. 3) is darkly sombre, spacious and operatic, and freighted with emotion, prefiguring the most profound slow movements of later sonatas.

For the listener more used to hearing these sonatas on a modern piano, Tong coaxes a remarkably rich range of details and colours from the fortepiano. The instrument is far less resonant than a modern piano, and the result is a more incisive, percussive and vibrant sound, with some wonderfully punchy bass details and a gloriously transparent treble.

Is this Beethoven’s piano sonatas as he might have heard them himself? Who knows – we are, sadly, not able to time travel back to late 18th-century Vienna, nor get inside Beethoven’s head to find out – but what this recording confirms is that Beethoven was a master of the sonata form, and Daniel Tong a worthy exponent of this wonderful repertoire.