York2 is the piano duo of John and Fiona York
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?
John: My mother played quite well, we had a decent upright and the best teacher in Eastbourne lived round the corner. She was recommended to my mother by our piano tuner!
Fiona: My father. He was an extremely talented amateur pianist who was torn between career choices – Law won but he loved seeing me develop into a fully-fledged professional.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
F: My first teacher who was taught at Guildhall by Cimbro Martin, who also taught John, who also taught me…! The methods passed on to me are still going strong in my own teaching.
J: All four of my teachers – all very demanding and revealing – and my early, chance discovery of Debussy and French piano music in general which gave me direction for at least ten years at the start of my career.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
J: Doing the Tchaikovsky competition was tough, demanding, horrible and a bit distressing – ultimately pretty pointless, too, considering that the UK government had only just evicted over a hundred spies from London!
F: In the early days, learning the big repertoire and persuading fixers and audiences that they really do want to hear the entire Planets Suite played on one piano!
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
J: The York2 recording of Debussy’s La Mer – and one or two of our many Rite of Spring performances.
F: Of course the above, but also an extraordinary, impossibly fast, brilliant and thrilling four-minute piece called Impulse by Benjamin Wallfisch which he wrote for two pianos and two marimbas. We never actually met the marimba players…
Which particular works do you think you play best?
F: The big orchestral duet works and, in total contrast, some of the ‘smallest’ salon repertoire such as Dolly Suite by Fauré or Jeux d’Enfants by Bizet which are extremely sophisticated in their own way and ever popular.
J: Those same pieces with York2 – and the Beethoven ‘cello works with Raphael Wallfisch.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
[J and F discuss…] No particular plan – the usual delving into anniversaries perhaps, unusual repertoire perhaps, nice couplings and strong juxtapositions – whatever feels good and is attractive to promoters and audiences.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
J: Like everyone else I’d always say the Wigmore Hall and, more recently, the main Kings Place hall near King’s Cross station. Both are beautiful, sound great and have real atmosphere.
F: The Singing Hall in St.Paul’s Girls’ School is a favourite – [J interrupts: “I’d forgotten that one but absolutely agree!”]. It was designed and used by Holst in his role as Director of Music and the acoustic is still wonderful.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
F: To perform – The Rite. To listen to – Brahms 4
J: To perform – La Mer. To listen to – Bruckner 8, or the entire Ring cycle.
Who are your favourite musicians?
J: I’d always say one of the great orchestras before any soloist – but I admire some of the great singers – and also pianist Benjamin Grosvenor who has integrity and real class. I really believe very few other pianists deserve the adulation they get these days – you probably know who I mean!
F: He might say that – I couldn’t possibly comment.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
F: A particularly bad one was playing Lutoslawski Paganini Variations for two pianos, 20 feet apart, to six people at 11 o’clock at night in the Salzburg Festival and hearing the receding footsteps of one of those six, who turned out to be the janitor.
J: A bad one? – the Greenwich Festival 6-Steinway concert at Eltham Palace years ago, a horrendous, long, difficult, fractious, uncomfortable and very unpleasant experience.
A good one? – York2’s Wigmore Hall recital at my 30th anniversary concert.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
J: To read the score and study the context, not to impose ego or allow ignorance – only then you can allow yourself freedom with complete confidence.
F: To show the musical complexity of your repertoire and not patronise your audiences with over-simplified and obvious renditions.
What are you working on at the moment?
J: Some enormous cello and piano sonatas for upcoming concerts – and the complete works of Rebecca Clarke and Ernest Bloch for cello.
F: Some tiny, utterly beautiful miniatures for a friend’s Soiree.
[F notes that J is keen to answer all of the questions as follows…]
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Still strong and still giving concerts – and still enjoying doing it!
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
J: Does it exist? It sounds complacent. Life should be, and is, a good mix.
F chose just one question: A quiet mind – to love and be loved – an inextinguishable sense of humour.
York2 – John and Fiona York – four hands one piano
YORK2 has a reputation as the ‘piano duo with a difference’, gained through husband and wife team John and Fiona’s exploration of larger scale and contemporary scores, alongside the rich and familiar duet repertoire.
Fiona and John have given countless concerts in the UK, on BBC Radio 3, in Australia, for CBC TV and TV Ontario Canada, on boats on the Great Lakes, at the Salzburg Festival, concertos at the Barbican Centre and at the South Bank in London.
York2’s 2nd recording of ‘The Planets’ was released in 2010 on Nimbus, coupled with duet music by York Bowen. At that session, they also recorded, on a second disc, Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’, Debussy’s ‘La Mer’ and Ravel’s ‘Rapsodie Espagnole’. This special repertoire was released in 2010 to critical appreciation and admiration.
Their earlier recordings on the LondonHall label include minimalist music by contemporary Austrian composer Norbert Zehm, and their first recording (now deleted) of Holst’s ‘The Planets’ was recorded for Black Box in 2001. It was the world première recording of the composer’s own four-hands version and the disc also includes Holst’s complete piano solo works.
As well as giving concerts, Fiona has been a long-standing teacher at several London schools. She has worked in the junior departments of the Royal College, Trinity and Guildhall and this year marks her 15th year with the piano staff at St. Paul’s Girls’ School, London.
John was Professor at Guildhall for 33 years and was Senior Music Head of Department at St. Paul’s Girls’ School where Holst was Director of Music for 20 years in the early 20th century. During his time at the School, John discovered the long-forgotten four-hands score of The Planets in a cupboard in the room where it was composed, leading to York 2’s re-editing and recording of this great English score. Tony Palmer, the well-known film director, included them in his Holst bio-pic ‘In the bleak midwinter.’
A highly successful and emotional recital of ‘The Planets’, the ‘Rite’ and ‘La Mer’ at London’s Wigmore Hall in 2004 marked the 30th anniversary of John’s début in that hall. Although York 2’s repertoire is so demanding, at only one day’s notice in 2010 John and Fiona gave a recital of ‘The Planets’ and ‘The Rite’ in a major festival in Madrid, to a full house, broadcast live on Spanish radio.
The Independent and Financial Times reviewers were very enthusiastic –
“York2 goes stratospheric!” – “the playing was enough to confirm the evening in its ambition, scope and sheer grit as something exceptional, duly exciting a prolonged ovation from its capacity audience”.