Let us now praise British pianists

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In her recent interview in ‘The Observer’, Dame Fanny Waterman expressed fears for the future of British pianism, blaming the popularity of “electric keyboards”, children starting to learn the piano later than in other countries (in particular the Far East) and lack of discipline for declining standards of playing and competition success. The article also infers that success in international competitions (such as the Leeds International Piano Competition, which Dame Fanny co-founded in 1961) is the benchmark by which “great” pianists should be measured. I have already written two responses to Dame Fanny’s comments (here and here), and acclaimed pianist and writer Susan Tomes has also written on this subject, in particular on the thorny issue of competitions. The interview created a lively debate across my networks on Facebook and other social media, with many people taking issue with Dame Fanny’s inference that there are no “great” British pianists active today.

I don’t agree with her: in my concert-going and reviewing activities, I have been fortunate to hear some fantastically talented British pianists, and some young, emerging artists who are definitely “ones to watch” for the future.

But what defines “greatness?”, and what criteria should we use to determine the most desirable qualities in a “great” performance? Are these criteria also influenced by fashion and changing taste, recordings and performance practice?

I feel it is time to celebrate British pianists, and I’d like readers to submit their own “greats”, which can then be compiled into a comprehensive list of great British pianists active today.

A handful of my personal choices to get the ball rolling:

Steven Osborne – his affinity with and understanding of late-nineteenth century and twentieth-century French music, in particular Ravel and Messiaen, is, for me, hard to match.

Peter Donohoe – for the sheer range of his repertoire and for bringing lesser-known composers, such as Henry Litolff, to the fore

Benjamin Grosvenor – a young British artist who is already showing huge promise, not least for his exquisite control of sound and touch, and his understated, thoughtful approach.

Please submit your nominations via the comments box below or contact me.

 

46 thoughts on “Let us now praise British pianists”

  1. David Gordon, pianist and harpsichordist, jazz and classical, if we are to include musicians who don’t fit the competition scenario.

  2. There are ‘alternative’ musicians too such as the jazz pianist and harpsichordist, David Gordon – i.e. pianists who don’t fit the competition scenario.

  3. If you are thinking of sending your list to Fanny, you had better include Michael Roll ! Still a fine pianist…. And some of the best young pianists now have joint British nationality – Jayson Gillham, Meng Yang Pan and Karim Said spring to mind. At a more exalted level, both Brendel and Perahia have honorary KBE – so if not exactly British, not far short of it. Best wishes.

  4. How about some of the best younger British pianists ? Ashley Fripp, Mishka Rushdie Momen, Kausikan Rajeshkumar, Tom Hicks, Sam Armstrong, Erden Misiorglu, Alex Soares etc, with sincere apologies to the many other excellent young pianists I have forgotten to include. In a slightly older generation there’s Viv McLean, Tom Poster, Tony Hewitt, Dan Tong, Alasdair Beatson, Danny Driver, Ashley Wass etc etc. Further up the age scale, there’s Colin Stone, Caroline Palmer, Julian Jacobson, Margaret Fingerhut etc etc. All the above have played at St Mary’s Perivale…. And in addition to the obvious front-runners (Hough, Osborne, Lewis etc) don’t forget a great and much underrated pianist from a previous generation – Peter Katin. Don’t know whether he is still playing, but his CDs are very fine indeed.

    And a very, very happy New Year to everyone. Must get out now (23.20 on NY Eve), have some champagne and watch the fireworks….

    Hugh Mather

  5. Philip Edward Fisher – Great teacher and player
    Roger Vignoles – Never ending problem of accompanists not being recognised as equal musicians to their soloist colleagues
    Gerald Moore – Same again, good sense of humour
    Martin Jones – Funny guy! Has played everything, great teacher
    Gordon Fergus-Thompson – gigantic repertoire
    Robert Markham – my teacher, an inspirational pianist, diverse repertoire and a rock solid understanding of technique, a true musician in every sense.
    William Fong – Great interactive teaching style with solid backing in technique and excellent explanations

  6. Jonathan Plowright,Mark Gasser(based in Oz now but from Sheffield),Murray McLachlan are other favourites of mine.

    1. +1 for Viv, saw him recently performing with Corinne Morris and Fenella Humphreys. He played wonderfully well and so sensitively.

  7. I sincerely believe Sarah Beth Briggs to be one of the finest British pianists today. Approaching her work with scholarly insight, she has a formidable technique which can produce sounds ranging from the most delicate and lyrical to those requiring great warmth and passion. Her recordings on Semaphore of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and Debussy are outstanding and deserve to be given wide publicity and recognition.

  8. I’m a bit late to the conversation, but glad to see Stephen Hough, Steven Osborne amd Kathryn Stott mentioned. Also Susan Tomes surely? I’ve long-admired her – lively yet balanced performances of Classical works and gorgeous recordings of French repertoire. I’m looking forward to hearing Alisdair Beatson some day. I also would like to add Clifford Benson who I heard perform only once during a summer course, but he was a wonderful musician and teacher and made several recordings. This is a great initiative, thanks Fran!

  9. Leon McCawley, Jayson Gillham (Australian-British), Stephen Hough, Philip Fowke, Steven Osborne, John Lill, Margaret Fingerhut, Grovesnor, Roscoe. Not alive anymore but – Moura Lympany and Curzon are two of my favourites. The list can go on!

  10. Music critics give brilliant reviews for Sarah Beth Briggs and sometimes comment that they have not heard of her. How can this be? I have known her since she played with Manchester Camerata as a teenager and have followed her career closely. Her CDs, particularly the two most recent, are wonderful and are there for all to hear. Listen today!

  11. Terrific web page here! I’d like to nominate Sarah Beth Briggs — I’ve listened to all her CDs and find her recordings compelling, insightful and refreshing. Regards, David Hertzberg

  12. Ian Fountain, Mark Gasser, Mark Viner, Hamish Milne (how come he’s not come up yet?), Nic Hodges, Tom Poster, Anthony Goldstone, Murray Mclachlan, Yuri Paterson-Olenich … could go on. No shortage at any rate.

    1. Rolf Hind and Timothy Horton … and, good point, Hiro: I can’t quite keep track of how many Asian and Russian/CIS pianists are now British citizens, so I’ve played safe!

  13. Andrew Wilde

    One of the greatest British pianists alive or dead whom Fanny Waterman made sure was kept out of the finals of her 1990 Leeds because he was from the wrong establishment – the RNCM in Manchester – where, many years before she’d not been given a job and vowed, according to the then Principal Sir John Manduell, “nobody from here will ever win the Leeds Competition”. Fortunately the broadsheets, the BBC, Shura Cherkassky and others said Wilde had been robbed. When asked what he thought about it all Wilde replied, “At least I don’t have to do another BBC audition – I’ve been rejected three times!” This pianist is revered by Barenboim, Hough, Brendel (in Chopin) and Ashkenazy and is held in the highest regard by his British colleagues. Martin Roscoe said of their four hand Schubert collaboration it was one of the best of his life. Wilde teaches at Manchester University and privately and as long as he does so British piano teaching will never be in peril.

    Leon McCawley, whom Fanny Waterman was currently listening to at the 1993 Beethoven Competition in Vienna when she realised she’d had him rejected from the selection of competitors for the Leeds earlier that year! “Françoise [Fanny Waterman’s then PA] get him included.” “But the letters have already gone out!” “Then say there’s been an administrative error” By the way, Fanny seems to have forgotten that Leon’s teacher, Heather Slade-Lipkin, is still alive and well and still teaching. She also taught Stephen Hough and many others.

    Christian Blackshaw enjoying something of a renaissance and not before time

  14. About “electric” or digital pianos even – there is a genuine concern that they are replacing pianos at the low end and even middle market – a visit to Yamaha which used to be Chappell in Wardour Street W1 is edifying (formerly film land – as Chappell used to be PEC where I used to buy splicing tape and film lamps etc, etc, now all gone gone gone in the digital image and sound recording take over)

    The whole of the ground floor are now Yamaha digital. Electric keyboards with each note a pre-recorded unalterable sound is made to go loud or soft with touch … But this is the equivalent of entering FI or FO in film sound edit – gone are the myriad of resonances produced by strings against a seasoned sound board – a drum – we enter the world of binary, grids, squares, lines – to enter a sine wave takes half an hour, so only fools like me think an audience can tell the difference – we have an external uncontrollable corporate global market factor and control to deal with – Yamaha took over Boesendorfer so they could apparently keep producing strings for Yamaha grands – the workshop in Marylebone Lane or part of it could be shifted to Poland – horror of horrors when we went to a painting exhibition of my old friend Jock McFadyen in some hideous big bank building in Canary Wharf to find a gleaming shiny plasticated grand piano with its lid open to display its offensive robotic ghastly digital innards – and that’s invasion at the top end of the market where the Exhibitors and the controllers have got the dosh to make things shift forver one way or another – so I’m not really being hysterical about the losses I can see with music education and musical instruments just around the corner – there used to be a wonderful institution in London called the Centre for Young Musicians and my daughter and hundreds of other children from every background every background received comprehensive music tuition all day on Saturday for free. That, like peripatetic individual tuition for a musical instrument of your choice in infant and junior school has long gone, like student maintenance grants and then tuition fees for colleges and universities. This means
    less students selecting arts and humanities subjects and pure sciences, less contemplating research subjects. Poetry is slung out in favour of IT and marketing. So it’s just possible that Dame Fanny has observef a point, but is right off the mark for why this should be so and the universities will only tell you how few British students are now electing to study arts and humanities when they have the prospect of interminable debt and financial insecurity – bring back the Mother post war world II of free tuition for all from school to post graduate level in every subject – particularly the arts and save the planet –
    happy new year to all aspiring artists and musicians and poets

  15. Paul Lewis, James Rhodes, Joanna McGregor, Nicholas McCarthy. Sir Philip Ledger has got to be in there somewhere- he could play like no one I’ve heard before or since.

  16. Stephen Hough, Stephen Osborne, Murray McLachlan, Benjamin Frith, Martin Roscoe, Kathryn Stott, the crazy James Rhrodes, Christian Blackshaw, Barry Douglas..other bright young stars like Martin Bartlett and Yuanfan Yang…I could go on and on……!

  17. Daniel Grimwood

    and some female pianists
    Kathryn Stott
    Imogen Cooper
    Jill Crossland
    Joanna McGregor

    to name a few off the top of my head

    1. JiIl Crossland indeed. I encountered her at a fringe venue, Lancaster Cathedral with an audience of 40. but the most beautiful and interesting Bach I’ve ever heard. All memorized too, not that that is the be-all, but always suggests to me a top level of intellectual and artistic command (assuming quality is in the actual playing too, which it was).

    1. Paul Lewis for his poetic&intelligent Beethoven playing.Stephen Hough,whose refreshing&really youthful sounding Schumann concerto I heard recently.He just lived in every note.Nothing was unconsidered.Tom Poster,whose beautifully poetic Liszt transcription encores reduced mee to tears about 6 years ago&still stay in my memory.

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