Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?
My parents didn’t come from a musical background but bought an upright for my two older sisters to learn so I am eternally grateful for that decision. For some mysterious reason I was drawn to the sound of the piano as an infant. I finally got my way and started piano lessons at the age of 5. It was my own choice and by the time I was 12, I had decided that I wanted to be a concert pianist.
Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?
My amazing teachers: Heather Slade-Lipkin, Eleanor Sokoloff and Nina Milkina. I feel very fortunate to have studied with the right teacher at the right time in my development. My playing is also very inspired by my wife, the artist Anna Paik. As she works hard on achieving a subtlety of different colours and nuances in her studio upstairs, I’m not that far away from these creative concepts in my own studio downstairs.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
An artistic career will inevitably have its ups and downs and often many aspects of it are out of one’s control. The greatest challenge is remaining true to oneself, to forge an individual path without any compromises and not to be shattered by any frustrations that one may experience along the way. I feel so fortunate that I am pursuing my childhood passion and making my living out of something that I thoroughly enjoy. When I face any challenge, I always remind myself of this.
Which recordings are you most proud of?
With every recording I feel I am growing and learning more as a musician, as in every concert season. Recording the complete Mozart Piano Sonatas for Avie Records in 2006 was a huge undertaking and I am very glad to have accomplished this early in my career. I am happy to have a wide variety of repertoire in my discography: Barber, Beethoven, Chopin and Schumann to the less familiar Hans Gál and British composer Ronald Corp. I have two more discs out this year of Brahms solo piano works (Somm) and Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy (Naxos).
Do you have a favourite concert venue?
We have so many good ones in the UK so it’s hard to single out one. I love Wigmore Hall, The Sage Gateshead, King’s Place and Symphony Hall Birmingham to name but a few. I have happy memories of playing in the Rudolfinum in Prague and also the fine acoustics at the Meyerson Symphony Hall in Dallas.
Who are your favourite musicians?
From the past, I aspire to the pianism of Sergei Rachmaninov and Artur Rubenstein. I’m a great fan of Murray Perahia and always try and attend his concerts in London whenever I can.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Performing at the Musikverein when I won the Beethoven Competition in Vienna back in 1993 is high up there. Also the sheer thrill of walking out on stage at the vast Royal Albert Hall at the BBC Proms is special.
What is your favourite music to play?
I love the music of Schumann and am currently wrapped up in his glorious Carnaval. As a pianist there is endless scope and I am constantly updating my repertoire from season to season.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?
Concentrate on your own goals and try not to be affected by all the pressures around you or make unhealthy comparisons with other musicians.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Lounging on the sofa with my cat on my lap!
What is your most treasured possession?
My wedding ring: a gold band with a blue sapphire, designed by my wife.
English pianist Leon McCawley leapt into prominence when he won both First Prize in the International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna and Second Prize in the Leeds International Piano Competition at the age of nineteen in 1993.
Since then, McCawley has given highly acclaimed recitals that include London’s Wigmore Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall, Berlin Konzerthaus, Lincoln Center New York, Prague Rudolfinum and Vienna Musikverein. McCawley performs frequently with many of the top British orchestras and has performed several times at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. He broadcasts regularly on BBC Radio 3 in recital and with many of the BBC orchestras. Further afield he has performed with Cincinnati Symphony, Dallas Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, Netherlands Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra and Vienna Symphony among many others. Conductors he has worked with include Daniele Gatti, Paavo Järvi, Kurt Masur and Simon Rattle.
McCawley’s wide-ranging discography has received many accolades including two “Editor’s Choice” awards in Gramophone and a Diapason d’Or for his boxed set of The Complete Mozart Piano Sonatas.
McCawley studied at Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester with Heather Slade-Lipkin and at the Curtis Institute of Music with Eleanor Sokoloff. He also worked with Nina Milkina in London.
Leon McCawley is a professor of piano at London’s Royal College of Music and is married to the painter, Anna Hyunsook Paik.
(Original interview date: April 2012)