Meet the Artist – Margaret Fingerhut, pianist

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

I come from a musical family. All of my siblings learned an instrument when we were growing up, although I was the only one mad enough to have taken it up as a career. Myth also has it that my paternal grandfather (whom I never met) had a wonderful tenor voice, but he was too poor to have it trained. I was lucky in that from a very early age my parents took me along to all the concerts at our local music club. It happened to be one of the best in the country, which meant I regularly heard artists such as the Amadeus Quartet, the Beaux Arts Trio, Barenboim, du Pré, Brendel, Lupu, Menuhin, Perlman, Fischer-Dieskau, de los Angeles. The list goes on and on – I even heard Arthur Rubinstein a couple of times. How could I not want to be able to make music like these musicians?! It was subsequently one of my proudest moments when I stepped out onto that very same stage years later to do a recital myself.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I think that all of my teachers in turn helped to make me into the musician and person I am today – Cyril Smith, Angus Morrison, Vlado Perlemuter, Leon Fleisher. Even my very first teacher, a retired professor from the Royal Academy of Music, whom I remember as being quite strict and rather grumpy, but he ensured that I knew all the basics of harmony and counterpoint so that by the time I went to the RCM I already had almost half of Bach’s ’48’ under my belt. And I even managed to survive a few lessons from the legendary Adele Marcus (legendary for all the wrong reasons!), long enough to learn how to draw a beautiful cantabile out of the instrument. A massive inspiration for me was meeting and playing with Leonard Sorkin, the leader of the original Fine Arts Quartet in the USA. It was a formative time in my career when I was still in my early 20s, and I learned so much from working and performing with Leonard – he literally spoke from the heart through his playing, and his phrasing and articulation were so utterly natural and so ‘conversational’. I have always since tried to emulate that.

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

Combining motherhood with a performing career was definitely challenging as they are both so emotionally all-consuming. Undoubtedly though, the greatest difficulty for me was the decade I spent dealing with a seemingly endless succession of career-threatening physical problems. They were all apparently due to something my specialist told me was ‘dysautonomia’, a malfunctioning autonomic nervous system. I won’t go into the medical details here (otherwise it would be guaranteed to make my readers instantly click onto another page!), but I had to have operations on my shoulder and hand, as well as numerous cortisone injections in both arms. Thankfully that is now all several years behind me, and I am back playing again.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I remain particularly proud of the very first time I played at the Royal Festival Hall – Grieg Concerto with the Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra, and recorded by the BBC. I remember walking off the stage thinking: “Yes, I can do this!”.

I was also very proud of the live radio broadcast I did with Leonard Sorkin for WFMT Chicago. As I mentioned previously, I was at the beginning of my career while he was in the twilight of his. I remember the producer being visibly moved after we played the Brahms G major, saying it had reminded him of Bush/Serkin. As far as my recordings go, maybe they are are bit like children (or students) in that you’re not supposed to admit to any favourites! But if pushed, I do harbour a particular fondness my recording of the Russian Mighty Handful, such attractive repertoire and much of it still seldom played.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

That feels a bit like asking someone what they like/dislike most about their appearance, so I couldn’t possibly comment! My listeners might have their own views…

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

Obviously concerto repertoire gets discussed with orchestras/promoters – you have to fit in with their season. Solo recitals give one much more freedom of choice, and I have always loved to explore highways and byways, or to come up with some sort of theme or connecting thread in my programmes. I have always believed that you need to offer audiences something they wouldn’t normally just get listening at home.

You are performing in the London Piano Festival – tell us more about this?

I have known Charles Owen for a number of years and he has become a very dear friend. We used to live in the same neighbourhood and would meet each other for lunch or a walk in the woods and have a good old natter about life and the universe and all things music. So when he asked if I would like to take part in the two-piano gala at this year’s festival, the answer was of course a resounding yes!

Given my association with the music of Arnold Bax, it seemed obvious that we should choose something from the wealth of two-piano repertoire he wrote. We’ve picked two fabulous pieces: ‘The Poisoned Fountain’ which has a totally spooky atmosphere, and ‘Hardanger’, which is a light-hearted and infectious tribute to Grieg. I’m also playing a group of Poulenc pieces with Katya Apeshikeva which are sheer riotous fun!

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

My favourite concert hall is anywhere with a warm, supportive acoustic and a feeling of connection to the audience. Somewhere like the Wigmore Hall fits the bill perfectly, plus I have an extra fondness for the place as it was where my husband-to-be came into my life when he turned up backstage there a few years ago!

Who are your favourite musicians?

Where do I start? – it’s a long, long list! Pianists past include Rubinstein, Cortot, Lipatti, Curzon, Gilels, de Larrocha, Annie Fischer. Pianists present include Lupu, Perahia, Goode, Schiff, Kovacevich, Fleisher, Peter Frankel. And that’s just the pianists…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My most memorable concert experience has to be the super-glam concert of film music I took part in at the Royal Albert Hall. The LSO was conducted by John (Star Wars) Williams and the evening was compered by Sir Richard Attenborough. I got to perform some wonderful pieces, and Michel Legrand had even made a special arrangement for me of his music from “The Go-Between”. There was a great deal of razzmatazz about the whole concert, although I have to say it did take me by surprise when they changed the colour of the lighting each time the music changed key!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

The definition of success for me is when I manage to meet my own exacting standards – it could be a single phrase, or a movement, or maybe (but rarely!) even a whole concert.

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

When I was starting out, a friend of my parents who had been a professional violinist very helpfully advised me that if I loved music I shouldn’t take it up as a career! Of course I ignored his advice but, joking aside, his provocative words did make me realise how important it is never to lose sight of why we have chosen to do music in the first place. There will inevitably be times of struggle and disenchantment which could severely test one’s love of music. Whatever happens, we must try to keep our passion for music intact whether we are performing or teaching. On a practical level, in an over-saturated market, it is vital to be creative and flexible in the way one manages ones career. If we are still going to persuade people to come and hear live music, we have to find ways to make that experience more meaningful and relevant, be it collaborating with other genres such as dance, the visual arts or theatre, or working with living composers, or simply being able to talk to your audiences in an engaging manner.

Where would you like to be in 10 years time?

Still playing and teaching, please.

What is your present state of mind?

If we are talking about the way the world is heading, I am very worried. But if it’s on a personal level, then I am happy and contented, being surrounded as I am by a warm, loving family and many wonderful friends. On a professional level I am feeling really excited as I have a major recital project happening next year. It is based on an idea that is very close to my heart. As it is still in the process of being organised, I can’t talk about it just yet except to say: watch this space!

Margaret performs in the London Piano Festival’s Two-Piano Marathon on Saturday 6 October. Further information and tickets


Margaret Fingerhut is regarded as one of the UK’s most distinguished and poetic pianists, renowned for her exploration of the highways and byways of the repertoire. As a concerto soloist she has appeared with the London Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the London Mozart Players, in major venues such as the Royal Festival Hall, Royal Albert Hall and the Barbican. She is often heard on BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM and many radio stations worldwide.

Her extensive and eclectic discography on the Chandos label has received worldwide critical acclaim and won many accolades. Her numerous discs reflect her long-standing fascination with exploring lesser-known repertoire, including works by Bax, Berkeley, Bloch, Dukas, Falla, Grieg, Howells, Leighton, Novák, Stanford and Suk as well as several pioneering collections of 19th century Russian and early 20th century French piano music. She was the soloist in the première recording of Elgar’s sketches for his Piano Concerto slow movement, arranged by Percy Young. Other première recordings include Edgar Bainton’s Concerto Fantasia, Bax’s Octet and works by Howells, Leighton, Lennox Berkeley and Michael Berkeley. “Margaret Fingerhut deserves our most heartfelt admiration for her championship of the byways of the British repertoire twentieth century piano repertory.” (MusicWeb International). Margaret also made the first recording of a student piece by Rachmaninoff, as well as two solo piano pieces by Sergey Taneyev.

Two of her Bax recordings – the Octet with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble and the Concertante for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra with Vernon Handley and the BBC Philharmonic – were short-listed for Gramophone awards. Her disc of solo piano music by the Polish/French composer Alexandre Tansman was awarded the accolade of “Diapason D’Or” in France and received high praise: “A triumph of piano playing” (Pianist). Her recent CD of encores, “Endless Song”, was Featured Album of the Week on Classic FM and was selected as “Editor’s Choice” in Pianist magazine as well as being awarded an “Outstanding” accolade in International Record Review.

Margaret also maintains a keen interest in working with contemporary composers and she has commissioned and performed works by Paul Spicer, James Francis Brown, Peter Copley and Tony Bridgewater, in venues such as the Wigmore Hall, Purcell Room and at the Three Choirs Festival.

Margaret is a Professor of Piano at Trinity Laban Conservatoire and a Visiting Tutor at Birmingham Conservatoire where she was recently awarded an Honorary Fellowship. She is a regular guest at summer schools such as Chetham’s, Jackdaws and Dartington. Her teaching at Dartington was described by The Spectator magazine as demonstrating “enormous skill and sympathy”. She has given masterclasses in the USA, Canada, China, and Japan, and she has also been on the jury for many competitions including the BBC Young Musician of the Year.

Born in London of Polish, Ukrainian and Irish ancestry, Margaret went to the Royal College of Music where she studied with Cyril Smith and Angus Morrison. She subsequently studied with Vlado Perlemuter in Paris and Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, Baltimore. Margaret lives in London and East Sussex.

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