Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?
I had played the piano for some years, and was playing occasional concerts by my early-teens, but for me the epiphanic moment was watching Jorge Bolet giving masterclasses and performing on BBC television. I suppose it came at just the right point in my musical and personal development, but suddenly I was obsessed, and pretty much every waking moment became about playing, listening to and reading about music – rather to the detriment of my school work.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Here I have to mention my first teacher, June Luck (who died recently). She was my local piano teacher in Ipswich, and had certainly never had a performing career, but she instilled one truly great maxim that has shaped my life and career: you can be anything you want as long as you’re willing to work hard enough. Then there were two teachers at the Royal College where I studied for my undergraduate and master’s degrees – John Barstow, who was really responsible not only for teaching me how to really control the instrument but also how to make friends with it, and the composer Edwin Roxburgh, who really opened my ears to contemporary music for the first time. After college, of course, there were many other teachers and mentors including Lev Naumov in Moscow, David Dubal in New York and Martino Tirimo in London, but special mention must be made of Ronald Stevenson. By the time we met at the end of my 20s I had established a performing and academic/lecturing career and was fairly well-known for my passion for Busoni. Ronald, who was the preeminent authority on Busoni and his circle made me understand the much larger perspective around early Modernism and its relationship to the piano, and led me along so many ‘paths less travelled’ in our epically long days in his music room and library which he called his den of musiquity!
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Of course, the early years, establishing a career are always difficult, but my particular career as a pianist-lecturer seemed to baffle friends, colleagues and promoters alike – I suppose, back then before the internet and the portfolio career as a norm, it seemed strange that I didn’t fit into an easy pigeon-hole. Fortunately, the Royal College of Music awarded me a fellowship for two years during which time I was able to show how such a career could and did work, and indeed it set me on my third, rather unexpected path as an academic professor.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I’m soon to be performing the Busoni piano concerto in London. I’ll never forget the day when I discovered John Ogdon’s recording of it in a second-hand record shop, and then a few weeks later, listened through to it with a score borrowed from Westminster Library. It was simply overwhelming, and as I started to pick my way through the score’s complexities, I couldn’t really begin to imagine how I could ever learn it. Eventually, about ten years ago, I gave a series of performances of it in the UK and New York with my amazing friend and colleague, Aleksander Szram playing the orchestral parts at a second piano (although we also had a live choir for the last movement). A couple of those performances are up on YouTube and although I certainly play it differently now, I am inordinately proud of the journey I made with that music.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I’m very influenced by the idea of ‘Sprezzatura’ which was a term used by 16th-century courtiers to refer to a noble disdain. The idea is that you have to study every detail of your task, and then throw away the rulebook. I think I probably perform best those compositions which respond to such an approach – certainly Liszt, Busoni and Enescu amongst them.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Of course, I’m still influenced by promoters and venues, so for instance I recently gave some Medtner recitals in Bengaluru to celebrate the life of the Maharajah of Mysore, and a little while back was asked to give the premiere of the Edwin Roxburgh Piano Concerto. However, for the last few years I have also ensured that each season I include a work or two from my ‘bucket list’ which I’ve kept since my teens. This year it was the Schulz-Evler transcription of the Blue Danube, whilst previous offerings have included the Godowsky Passacaglia and Sorabji’s Jardin Parfumée. I realise I’ll never complete the list, but it’s really important to still treat myself to works I’ve always wanted to learn.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
For the last few years I have been living in India (my family home) for a few months each year, partly trying to offer educational opportunities to young musicians and teachers and partly giving concerts in my capacity as the first Indian Steinway artist. The concerts are sometimes quite traditional, but the really memorable ones have been where audiences have literally never seen a piano or knowingly heard Western music before. That’s a real privilege and responsibility, but it also sometimes reminds me of the memoirs I’ve read of the early years of the piano recital – the piano circus life as Liszt called it. So, I’ve headlined music festivals (even had a review in Rolling Stone magazine for performing Liszt!), given recitals to with brand tie-ins from wine to sports cars, and played for royalty (and was given the snuff-box to prove it!).
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Leading others (students and audiences) away from the increasing mundanity of our everyday lives to see the truly extraordinary in our world, ourselves and one another – whether just for a few minutes in a concert, or as an inspiration for future living.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
To have an imagination, and then to work hard in order to turn into a reality both for themselves and their audiences, whilst at the same time trying to avoid the perils of narcissism (especially in the age of the selfie).
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I’d like to have helped to create the first degree-awarding conservatoire in India, and have my own den of musicquity by the sea on the south coast of England, with a Great Dane by my side.
Karl Lutchmayer performs Busoni’s Piano Concerto in C at St John’s Smith Square on 30 November, with Seraphin Orchestra, conducted by Joy Lisney. This concert is the culmination of his 3-day concert series ‘Busoni – The Romantic Modernist’ which explores Busoni’s music beyond his well-known transcriptions of J S Bach.
Karl Lutchmayer is equally renowned as a concert pianist and a lecturer. A Steinway Artist, Karl performs across the globe, and has worked with conductors including Lorin Maazel and Sir Andrew Davis, and performed at all the major London concert halls. He has broadcast on BBC Radio 3, All India Radio and Classic FM, and is a regular chamber performer. A passionate advocate of contemporary music, Karl has also given over 90 world premieres and had many works written especially for him.