Neither of my parents are musicians but there was always music in the house. My mother made tapes for me of Rubinstein or the Cortot/Thibaut/Casals trio and I fell in love with the music and these wonderful artists who were so full of love in their playing. I’ve kept that with me throughout my life as an ideal of what music is all about. My elder brother is also a concert pianist and, growing up, I always had someone to keep up with! I remember quite clearly deciding that I wanted to spend my life with the piano – when I was about twelve or thirteen.
Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?
I was lucky to have wonderful piano teachers who were all very different. Hilary Coates at school and then Irina Zaritskaya and Paul Roberts at music college in London. Gyorgy Sebok and Andras Keller subsequently made a big impact when I played to them. But really, I am constantly being influenced by concerts that I attend, books that I read, interviews I hear (most recently a wonderful hour with Nikolaus Harnoncourt) and, perhaps more than anything, the wonderful musical colleagues with whom I’m fortunate enough to spend my life. I have grown up with some of the most inspiring and intelligent artists around, many of whom have remained close friends. A lot of us get together annually in January in the Wye Valley.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Life as a musician is one of constant challenges. You are put in charge of some of the greatest works of art in the world and must do your best not to damage them and show them in their best light. Long periods of concerts, one after another, can take a physical toll and it can occasionally be a gruelling existence, finding more and more mental and physical strength from somewhere for each performance. Of course, the pay off is that we spend our lives with the most sublime music, visit many places and meet many interesting and wonderful people. The greatest specific challenges have been keeping my festival (now in its fifteenth year) and London Bridge Ensemble alive, dynamic and creative over so many years.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I am hardly ever proud of recordings. Listening to yourself on a cd is a trying thing! Still, I think some of my discs with the London Bridge Ensemble just about pass the test; the Bridge piano quintet, Schumann’s Liederkreis op 24 and, most recently, Faure’s C minor piano quintet. In terms of concerts, I was proud of recent performances of Schumann’s C major Fantasy and Mozart’s C minor Fantasy. I am always particularly proud of performances that are acceptable, if broadcast live. This is always a nerve-wracking experience. I find microphones off-putting and they have an unwanted psychological effect that is hard to shake off. I recently stumbled across a tape of myself playing the Berg Op 1 piano sonata when I was sixteen years old. It became clear that I was pretty good when I was sixteen!
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
The Great Room in Treowen Manor, home of my chamber music festival each January in the Wye Valley. It’s bursting at the seams with eighty people, many of whom are musical colleagues and there’s always a crackling log fire. Otherwise St Georges in Bristol and the Wigmore Hall in London. I’ve also recently been asked to curate a couple of projects at Kings Place in London, which is a fantastic venue for chamber music.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
I always love performing Mozart’s E flat Piano Quartet, Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’ Trio, Janacek’s Piano Sonata and Schubert’s last Piano Sonata. Those of you who know all of these pieces (especially the three Viennese ones) will notice a certain shared temperament between them which probably says something about my character! I love listening to opera. I always return to Mozart and Britten, but Debussy’s Pelleas and Tchaikovsky’s Onegin are particular favourites.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Alfred Cortot, Adolf Busch, Bela Bartok, Gerard Souzay. Ask me again tomorrow and the answers will be different. One cannot just live off the music-making of the past, though. I have been to wonderful concerts by Quatuor Mosaiques, Radu Lupu and Miklos Perenyi/Andras Schiff. The last, magical Susanna (Figaro) I saw was Aleksandra Kurzak. I always fall in love with Melisande, no matter who is singing.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Playing nearly a complete movement of Dvorak’s E flat Piano Quartet in the dark and from memory after the lights failed. I don’t know how we did it but it won us the biggest round of applause of the season! Playing Schumann’s Dichterliebe when both pianist and singer had just been jilted by the fairer sex. Poignant and painful, although I’m sure we were never better method actors! Hearing the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Harp’ Quartet at a friend’s wedding.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
If you don’t love music unconditionally then it’s not the job for you.
There’s always more to learn. Be an avid student and have respect for the musicians of the past as well as the present.
Forget your instrument – it’s just a means to an end.
Every note means something.
Always be open. Nothing kills music more quickly than dogma.
Music doesn’t speak for itself. It speaks through us, the performers.
What are you working on at the moment?
Haydn’s big E flat Sonata and the Beethoven F minor sonata, op 2 no 1. The two Brahms cello sonatas (Brahms is hard! – intellectually as well as physically), piano duets including Schubert’s mesmerising F minor Fantasy and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This is typical of my lifestyle. It’s very rare to have the chance to concentrate solely on one piece or programme for any length of time.
Tell us more about Beethoven Plus!
I’m working on a very exciting project at the moment with Krysia Osostowicz, based on the ten Beethoven Sonatas for violin and piano. We are commissioning a new piece to partner each sonata, all written by different composers as their reaction to the Beethoven work in question. We have some great composers already involved including David Matthews, Jonathan Dove, Matthew Taylor, Kurt Schwertsik and Judith Bingham. Beethoven is still such an important and influential figure, even for today’s composers (when we have approached them with the idea, enthusiasm has been immediate). It’s always rewarding and great fun to work with Krysia. She’s a wonderful artist, an eternal student, despite her huge experience with Domus, performing and recording sonatas, most notably with Susan Tomes, and latterly as leader of the Dante Quartet. The project is presently taking shape but we already know that we kick off our complete cycles at Kings Place in London in 2015 and St Georges Bristol shortly afterwards. We have already been rehearsing and performing most of the Beethoven sonatas this year.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Being with someone you love, after a great performance of one of Mozart’s Da Ponte operas, just as you open a very nice bottle of red wine.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Daniel Tong was born in Cornwall and studied in London, where he now lives. His musical life is spent performing as soloist and chamber musician, as well as directing two chamber music festivals, teaching and occasionally writing. Outside the UK he has performed in Sweden, France, Belgium and Portugal. He has recently released his first solo CD of works by Schubert for the Quartz label. He also recorded short solo works by Frank Bridge for Dutton as part of a London Bridge Ensemble disc and broadcast Janacek’s piano sonata live on BBC Radio 3.
Full biography here