Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
We had an upright piano in the corner of the dining room, which one of my older sisters was learning on. Aged about 6 I used to sit at it, crashing about on the keys and flailing my arms around as I imagined concert pianists did – maybe I saw one on the TV. I think my parents realised my enthusiasm needed channelling and took me to a teacher who reminded me of Cruela de Vil – brown hair on one side and blonde on the other! I had a wonderful teacher at secondary school, Elaine Hugh-Jones, who was very inspiring and supportive. For a long while I toyed with becoming a solo pianist, but turned down the opportunity to study piano at the RNCM in preference to taking up an instrumental scholarship at Oxford. Over time I began to realise that my musical temperament did not lean towards life as a soloist, and there were many other ways to pursue a performing career. The Guildhall School of Music and Drama (GSMD) held those answers for me.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
A chance conversation with Roger Vignoles prevented me from giving up altogether…I needed a teacher who knew about accompanying-he suggested some lessons with Paul Hamburger, and, as well as with him, at the GSMD I had the chance to work intensively with Graham Johnson, Martin Isepp and Iain Burnside, who were all hugely inspirational to me in their different ways. Playing for masterclasses at Snape for wonderful singers/teachers such as Elly Ameling, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Elizabeth Soderstrom were also fantastic learning opportunities. In latter years, especially after moving to Shropshire, I have Roddy (Roderick Williams) to thank for continuing to take me with him on his musical journey, whilst it may have seemed I disappeared off the musical world’s radar; and for his natural, intelligent, sublime interpretations. Oh, and his irrepressible sense of humour.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Trying to keep it going!! The move to Shropshire, having three children in close succession, and getting divorced made it particularly challenging to carry on playing at all.
Musically, I think some of the contemporary works I’ve performed have challenged me greatly, such as the four Songs by Torsten Rasch, commissioned for Gloucester Three Choirs Festival; and more recently getting out of my comfort zone and having to use an elbow in a new work called “The Rain is Coming” by Emily Levy.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
Going way back, one which comes to mind is playing for Nathan Berg in the Gold Medal final at GSMD. He was singing Mahler’s Ruckert Lieder – trying to do these incredible songs justice for Nathan meant so much to me I was sick beforehand! Luckily it paid off – and he won. A recent performance of Die Schöne Mullerin with Roddy had a feeling of musical and emotional synchronicity – I was so glad to be part of that performance too. And I’m really proud to have been given the opportunity to record the new SOMM CD, songs that I have performed with Roddy many, many times over the years, all of which I adore.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
You may have to ask others about that!
Accompanists have to be like chameleons. It’s important to be able to feel comfortable in as many styles as possible. I like to think I can play best whatever I happen to be working on. Having said that, I have a particular penchant for the serious and intense, for example I think I can put across a pretty convincing “Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen” (Mahler)… I also feel I now have a more confident approach to playing Schubert – Die Schöne Mullerin is a personal favourite; although tomorrow it may be Schwanengesang, and the day after, Winterreise.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
As an accompanist with many other demands made on my time, these choices are frequently not mine. Quite often my job is to fall in love with whatever repertoire I am tasked with – I enjoy that challenge.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Roddy and I did a tour of Schwanengesang in 2016. One of the venues was the Sam Wanamaker Theatre at the Globe in London. It was a very special place to play. It is an utterly beautiful bijou Jacobean-style space for starters, and as the performers, we were cocooned by the audience above us and around us, all of us bathed in the most atmospheric candlelight – a truly memorable experience.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
A festival in 2013 – memorable for the wrong reasons! I was attempting to give my all in an exceptionally beautiful postlude of Richard Sisson’s “So Heavy Hangs the Sky”, when the city council rudely began to empty the huge glass-recycling bins outside the venue – the sound continued for a good ten seconds… The second half of the concert was accompanied by reversing vehicle noises, pretty much matching the pulse, but not the atmosphere of Britten’s “The Sunflower”. The audience were not happy!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
The ability to be able to move an audience through musical communication.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Respect the composer’s intentions, whatever you perceive them to be; try to communicate the spirit of the piece; enjoy the practice journey; have fun. Respect and support your colleagues.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Back at the Wigmore Hall
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
The Beach House Goa Retreat
What is your most treasured possession?
My Steinway piano, given to me when I was 14
What do you enjoy doing most?
Walking the dog in the Shropshire hills with my kids
What is your present state of mind?
Roderick Williams’ new CD, with Susie Allan, piano, ‘Celebrating English Song’ is available now on the SOMM label. Further information here
Susie Allan studied Music at Worcester College, Oxford, as a Hadow Instrumental Scholar, and Piano Accompaniment at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She won the GSMD Accompaniment Prize, the Gerald Moore Award, and a Geoffrey Parsons Memorial Award. Her teachers included Paul Hamburger, Graham Johnson and Iain Burnside. She has accompanied many masterclasses at the Britten-Pears School at Snape Maltings, Suffolk and elsewhere, and has been a Professor of Accompaniment at the RCM and the RWCMD.