On Messiaen – and more: Meet the Artist……Cordelia Williams, pianist


British pianist Cordelia Williams is undertaking a special project in 2015 exploring Messiaen’s ‘Vingt Regards sur l’enfant- Jésus’, arguably the greatest piano work of the 20th-century. In this interview she discusses the project and the particular attraction of the music.

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

I never really made a specific ‘decision’ to be a pianist – it has just always been what I am. Deciding not to pursue a career in music would be as ridiculous as deciding not to age! Having heard my mother teaching piano and harpsichord since I was born, I was impatient to start learning as soon as I could sit on the piano stool, and since then studying and playing music has always seemed completely natural to me.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life? 

Definitely my mother: she taught me for the first six years (age 3 – 9) and I’m sure my approach to music was set during that time. However, I’d also say the seven years I spent boarding at Chetham’s School of Music, because I started to learn then how to take charge of my own musical development. Finally, I think during the last couple of years the contentment I’ve felt in my life – growing older, an incredibly happy relationship and an adorable cat – has allowed me to really learn who I am as a musician and to find a greater honesty and confidence in my playing.

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

I suspect for me it has been finding the self-belief to deal with the knock-backs and disappointments of any performing career. My friends gently point out that I can (sometimes) be an overly emotional person, and chasing opportunities and career advancement does not come naturally to me. I have a constant battle between what needs to be done for my career and what I want to do as a person.

Musically, I would say recording my second CD (Schumann for SOMM, out in September 2015). It is such emotional challenging and complex music – I really had to struggle for a long time to feel that I knew what I wanted to say. And organising my ‘Messiaen 2015’ series has been an enormous learning curve; quite apart from learning the marathon Vingt Regards in the first place, there have been so many aspects to coordinate that I wasn’t expecting.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

Performing Beethoven’s Emperor concerto with the RPO at the Barbican in December 2014: it was a really special performance and something magical happened between the orchestra, the conductor and myself. Getting a standing ovation for Rachmaninov 3: it’s such a scary and enormous work to perform that I was quite overwhelmed with the reaction (may have cried a bit). And my recording of Schubert’s Impromptus for SOMM (2013): it was a big thing for me to release my first CD and, thank goodness, I still like it!

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

I’ve always had an affinity with Beethoven’s 3rd, 4th and 5th concertos. Schubert’s C minor Sonata (D958) has been a special work for me, as has Schumann’s Fantasie op. 17. And perhaps also Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat – someone once remarked that my performance reminded him of Dinu Lipatti, which for me is the highest compliment.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

There’s always something that I’m desperate to learn, so I usually plan programmes around that, gradually introducing new repertoire so that I always have some new works and some more familiar. I try to make every concert a holistic listening experience for the audience: interesting, sometimes challenging, but always rewarding and complete.

Tell us more about your ‘Messiaen 2015’ project.  What was your motivation for organising this series of concerts and events focussing on Olivier Messiaen?

It was the music itself – the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus is such a fascinating work that I wanted the chance to explore it further, make new discoveries and look at it in different lights. And I wanted to share all that with anyone who was interested. So the commissions, collaborations and events were developed in a very organic way.

What is the particular appeal of this composer’s music for you? 

I think he must have been a wonderfully interesting man, because his music is! He combines so many different musical layers, symbolism, theology, literary inspirations, images from paintings and ideas from all walks of life, to create music which is worked out in minute and precise detail but which sounds natural, passionate, reverent and overwhelming. All of existence and all of non-existence is within Messiaen’s music.

What are the challenges and pleasures of studying and performing his piano music?

It’s unbelievably complicated to memorise! It really took me ages to learn the Vingt Regards. But I’ve found that, because it’s so pattern-based, once it’s learnt it stays in quite well. On the other hand, I love how thought-provoking his titles and commentaries are: he has allowed me to contemplate new concepts and look at familiar scenes (e.g. the Nativity, the Annunciation) in a totally new way.

What have been the special pleasures and challenges of working with poet Michael Symmons Roberts and artist Sophie Hacker on this project? 

I can’t think of any challenges! But it has been a real pleasure to discuss the music with them and to see their own individual responses take shape. I couldn’t even have imagined what they’d come up with – it has been a true example of the sum being greater than the parts.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

I think either performing the Vingt Regards in 2013 in King’s Chapel, Cambridge, which was wonderfully atmospheric, or my debut recital at the Royal Festival Hall in 2011. I was stupidly nervous! But in the end, the performance I gave was a huge achievement for me, and lots of my family and friends turned out to support me. We all got drunk at Las Iguanas afterwards.

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

Goodness – I don’t feel qualified to answer this yet! Ask me again in 30 years.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Having a lazy Sunday morning at home together with newspapers and coffee (perhaps, in the future, surrounded by children), a walk in the countryside and then cooking a big roast lunch for friends.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My friends and family and my health. And my engagement ring, not for what it’s worth, but for what it symbolises.

What is your present state of mind?

Excited about life and unusually energetic.

Cordelia Williams’ ‘Messiaen 2015’ project, an exploration of the ‘Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus’ in music, words and art, continues at various venues in London and beyond. The next event in the series is a Study Day at King’s College, London on Tuesday 28th April. The event is free, but registration is required to attend. This in-depth exploration of the Vingt Regards and their origins includes sessions on Messiaen’s historical and musical context, compositional style and theology. The day includes sessions with poet Michael Symons Roberts and artist Sophie Hacker, an exhibition, poetry reading and a lunchtime concert by Cordelia Williams. Full details here http://www.messiaen2015.com/event/kings-college-london/

For further information about other events, please visit the dedicated Messiaen 2015 website

The ‘Messiaen 2015’ project was made possible by the generous support of the City Music Foundation.

Hearing her mother teach piano, Cordelia wanted to learn to play too, and began lessons at home as soon as she could climb onto the piano stool. She gave her first public piano recital to celebrate her eighth birthday. She spent seven years at Chethams School of Music in Manchester, studying with Bernard Roberts and Murray McLachlan. She went on to work with Hamish Milne in London, Joan Havill and Richard Goode, and is grateful to have received support from the Martin Musical Scholarship Fund, the Musicians Benevolent Fund, the Stanley Picker Trust, the City of London Corporation, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the City Music Foundation.

Cordelia Williams’ full biography