Meet the Artist…….Richard Black, repetiteur

Richard Black

Who or what inspired you to take up your chosen instrument and make it your career?

I can’t remember what inspired me to take up playing the piano. I remember asking my mother for a piano for my 7th birthday. She bought me one, then made sure I learned it.

As for the career, I pretty much stumbled into it. I studied physics for my degree and worked for 8 years in industrial electronics, but never gave up practising the piano and was doing various accompanying work (initially unpaid, of course) from student days. Eventually I found I had enough to live on, though to this day I have one or two other strings to my bow, which I keep up as much for sentimental reasons as financial ones. Making recordings is one which has a frequent practical use, with singers and instrumentalists being often asked to submit recordings as a preliminary for competitions or auditions.

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?

I was lucky to have an excellent teacher, Bernard King, when I was in my teens, and also lucky to be at a school with a very good music department. Fellow-pupils gave me good advice which I forget in the specifics but remember receiving. One school-friend founded a record label and through him I met Ronald Stevenson, who has been a good friend for nearly 30 years: I’ve played a lot of his music, solo vocal and chamber. His playing was uniquely beautiful and passionate and his verbal advice no less inspiring. The latter is still true, though sadly his health prevents him performing these days. I met John Ogdon through the same record label and watching him play (I turned pages for him on many occasions) was an object lesson in achieving the (apparently) impossible.

I’ve also learned a lot from singers I’ve worked with, both seasoned professionals and those of my own generation. Sir Donald Macintyre has made me think a lot about effective sound production

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

Pianistically, the greatest challenge has been learning and performing Ronald Stevenson’s ‘Passacaglia on DSCH’. I hardly ever play solo anyway, and that’s a fair-sized challenge for anyone, so it was some way out of my comfort zone. Immensely rewarding, though. I promised Ronald back in the early 1980s I would do it, and hate to break a promise.

As an accompanist, I’ve played plenty of music that takes a bit of learning. One of the most interesting challenges was getting to grips with the songs of Bernard van Dieren. It took me several months to get a proper feeling for them, though I could sense from the first that there was real beauty there. I haven’t performed any in a while, and miss them. Alan Bush’s song cycle ‘Voices of the Prophets’ was a headscratcher – I reckon it includes the most difficult, second most difficult and third most difficult song accompaniments I know of.

Accompanying auditions is always a challenge. The singer (or instrumentalist) relies on you, and the accompanist can basically make or break a career. It’s no stress at all when someone turns up with a bit of ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ or ‘Carmen’, but sight-reading ‘Wozzeck’ or ‘Die Aegyptische Helene’ requires some concentration.

As an accompanist, you do sometimes get asked to do concerts at rather short notice, especially if you’ve a reputation as a reasonably handy sight-reader. That may be for no better reason than someone having forgotten to book anyone for the gig! But then there’s the situation where a soloist is flying in from another country and even if you have plenty of notice of the repertoire you may have very little time to rehearse together. One soon learns to work efficiently under such circumstances. Orchestral musicians of course are also all too familiar with the under-rehearsed scenario. When I got together with my two colleagues in the Pizzetti Trio, one of our main aims was to ensure we had adequate – plentiful! – rehearsal for every concert. It’s much more rewarding like that.

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?

I don’t do a huge amount of orchestral piano work, but the big difference from anything else a pianist does is that you don’t have the score, only an orchestral part, so you actually have to count – just like everyone else does all the time, of course. Once you’ve disciplined yourself to do that it’s not too tricky, though some of the piano parts are surprisingly awkward and of course you have to follow the conductor, usually from the back of the band.

In a chamber ensemble, by contrast, the pianist does have the score and so is, if not by any means the leader, at least the referee – you need to keep an eye on the other parts and make sure everyone is in the right place. And of course in any kind of ensemble work you have to listen to the whole sound, not just your own. This is why Wilhelm Fürtwängler said that if you can’t be an accompanist you will never be a musician. True! If you can’t accompany you’re obviously not listening properly. Fitting the sound of a piano seamlessly with voice(s), strings and/or winds is great fun.

Which recordings are you most proud of?

I’ve done very few recordings for commercial sale (though certainly over 200 demo and private recordings), and I think my first is probably my favourite: three song cycles by Ronald Stevenson (initially on CD, now on iTunes, CDBaby and all the rest). Moira Harris, Wills Morgan and me. I think we did the music justice, and we organised it all ourselves, which was a useful lesson in musical practicalities. I did the technical stuff and editing too.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

The Wigmore Hall, as much for sentimental reasons as any others. I’ve played there a couple of times and it’s a lovely feeling, but I’ve been in the audience countless times, often listening to friends performing, and it’s great. I’m not sure it’s the ultimate acoustic for piano, but it’s as good as it gets for string quartet, which is a favourite genre of mine, and voices bloom in there too.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I’ve already mentioned Ronald Stevenson and John Ogdon, and among pianists I could also mention Marc-André Hamelin, Marta Argerich, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Art Tatum, Percy Grainger… and lots more, of course. A rather random handful of other kinds of musicians might include Igor Markevitch, John Barbirolli, Furtwängler, Maxim Vengerov, Wissam Boustany, Alexander Ivashkin, Elizabeth Connell, Hans Hotter, Pavarotti and Dame Anne Evans.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Hearing John Ogdon play Busoni’s ‘Fantasia Contrappuntistica’ at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the late 1980s. He was in a bad mood and played with the kind of intensity you just don’t forget. The opening of the Coda Stretta, where there’s a fortissimo bass ostinato, was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard from a piano, by a long way.

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?

For me, few things can match the pleasure of playing Brahms’s and Beethoven’s chamber music – trios and quartets and the sonatas for various instruments. I also love playing Wagner’s operas in rehearsals: some of the piano reductions are very ingenious transcriptions, done in many cases by Liszt pupils.

I couldn’t possibly single out one composer or genre as a favourite to listen to, but string quartets by anyone rank highly, alongside symphonies by all the usual suspects and a few more besides, Martinu for instance. Anything at all by van Dieren and Ildebrando Pizzetti, two of my favourites among less-well-known composers. Stevenson, Shostakovich, Alkan…

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

My work as a repetiteur is often very much about detail, and I do think that developing an eye and an ear for detail is crucial. But what I find myself missing most often in contemporary performances, by comparison with recordings from 50 or more years ago, is the sense that the music really means something to the performer. There’s no point at all in going after ‘individualism’ as an effect – that’s just a party trick. If you can work out for yourself what a piece means (which of course need not be verbal in the slightest), and transmit that through attention to the details, you’ll be individual all right.

What are you working on at the moment?

Untypically, a work for two pianos, ‘The Fortress of Illusion’ by Michael Maxwell Steer. It’s a marvellous piece in three movements which we’re playing at the Chetham’s Summer School in a few days from now. After that I’ve got a singer to accompany at the Leicester Square Theatre in a show based on Noel Coward, repetiteuring and coaching on operas of all kinds, accompanying auditions here there and everywhere and a handful of exams. This is why I enjoy my work: it’s practically never the same two days running.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Solving problems.

Richard Black is a highly versatile pianist whose work takes in opera, the symphony orchestra, chamber music and song recitals. He has worked for opera companies great and small in the UK, on operas ranging from half-forgotten gems of the late baroque (Opera Italiana) to the largest works of Wagner (Scottish Opera, Longborough Festival Opera) to new pieces composed in the 21st century (Royal Opera House, Tête à Tête Opera). His ability to play almost anything at sight and his wide knowledge of the opera repertoire have made him a familiar face at opera auditions, and he employs similar talents in accompanying students of every voice and instrument at Goldsmiths College.

As a recital accompanist, Richard has played for singers at Wigmore Hall and St John’s Smith Square, as well as in New York, Paris and Luxembourg. He has accompanied a wide range of instrumental works and played in a variety of chamber ensembles: he recently gave what was almost certainly the first UK performance in some decades of the piano trio by Pizzetti. He has for over 20 years had a strong interest in music by the Scottish composer and pianist Ronald Stevenson, and has performed and recorded many songs by Stevenson as well as playing several of his chamber and solo piano works, including the large-scale Passacaglia on DSCH. Other recordings include songs by Alan Bush and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and he has broadcast several times on BBC Radio 3.

Apart from playing the piano, Richard is an experienced recording engineer, producer and editor and a consultant on audio technology.