The coronavirus is forcing us to practice social distancing and self-isolation. As I joked on Twitter the other day, musicians, and especially pianists, have been self-isolating for years!

The pianist’s life is, by necessity, lonely. One of the main reasons pianists spend so much time alone is that we must practise more than other musicians because we have many more notes and symbols to decode, learn and upkeep. This prolonged solitary process may eventually result in a public performance, at which we exchange the loneliness of the practise room for the solitude of the concert platform.

However, despite the need for frequent sequestration to get the work done, regular interaction with colleagues and students alleviates the loneliness and reminds us of the life beyond the keyboard and the importance of forging musical partnerships, professionally and socially. And in concert-giving, there is also the important connection and interaction with audiences.

With coronavirus sweeping the world, the concert halls and conservatoires are closed and we are being told to exercise social distancing and self-isolation to protect ourselves and our families and friends from this virus. Around my social networks in the days since the UK government ordered that we “stay at home”, many of my musician friends and colleagues have been posting details of how they intended to cope with this new way of making and sharing music. Some are excited about the prospect of weeks, maybe months, of enforced isolation as an opportunity to learn new repertoire, ready for when the concert halls and venues reopen and the music can be shared with live audiences once more. Others are exploring ways to give concerts online via platforms like YouTube. Unfortunately, neither of these activities make money and the sad truth of the musician’s working life is that it is very fragile. Most musicians are self-employed and many live almost hand-to-mouth, meagre concert fees (only the most internally-renowned musicians can command large fees) often supplemented by teaching which offers regular income.

Without concert bookings, many musicians feel marooned as the main focus of their daily lives is removed in one fell swoop. It’s all very well saying you’re going to learn the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto or the complete Liszt Transcendental Etudes, but without concert bookings it’s very hard to feel motivated.

“You’ve got more time to practice now!” people outside the profession might declare, and while this may be true, it’s not very helpful as musicians face the prospect of months without work, no fees, and the attendant anxiety which this brings.

For the amateur musician, by contrast, this is a time for extra, guilt-free practising; but for the professional musician it is rather more problematic. “I’ve really only dabbled at the keyboard” wrote one of my clients, a concert pianist, in an email a couple of days ago. The week before all this kicked off, he and I were discussing the next round of promotion for his concerts, which will, in all probability, be cancelled. And without concerts, the professional musician loses a significant motivation to keep working.

I think it’s important to exercise some self-care and not feel guilty about not working (by which I mean practising) as much during these strange, surreal and uncertain days, and especially not to compare oneself to others who may be busy with livesteam concerts, videocasting and daily broadcasts of Bach…. This time may serve to remind musicians how their lives are often lived at full tilt, and so perhaps this is an opportunity to slow down, pause and reflect?

In the meantime, stay safe and well.

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Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

The reason I started playing the guitar was John Denver. I loved his songs from the age of five and that put the idea of learning the guitar into my head. I started having lessons when I was seven. From my mid-teens I was set on studying music at university and then heading abroad for further study and to hopefully establish a career. I always loved making music both as a guitarist and on my second study instrument – percussion. I never seriously considered doing anything else.

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

My teachers John Casey (at home in Perth, Western Australia) and Gordon Crosskey (at the Royal Northern College of Music). John Williams and Julian Bream were the two guitarists I listened to the most when I was growing up. Many of my colleagues have been influential and inspirational as well: Paul Tanner (percussionist from Perth), David Juritz (violin), Roger Bigley (viola) and many more.

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

Just establishing a career is extremely challenging and involves some degree of luck. Capitalising on those moments of good fortune is an important skill too! Getting a foothold at the beginning of your career can be very difficult. I was very lucky to be offered a recording for Nimbus Records circuitously via Michael Tippett early in my career and that gave me a strong start.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Recording concertos is a huge privilege and was an opportunity I appreciated greatly. For Chandos Records I recorded all three solo Rodrigo guitar concertos with the BBC Phil and on another disc, three English concertos (Arnold, Berkeley and Walton) with Richard Hickox and the Northern Sinfonia. Recording with the very lovely, late Alison Stephens (mandolin) was a joy. I was proud of coming up with the idea behind the Chandos Records CD ‘Music from the Novels of Louis de Bernieres’ which sold really well when it came out in October 1999 at the height of the popularity of ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I really don’t know how to answer that! I try to do my best with all of the repertoire that I play. I love playing Bach in particular but I enjoy all of the music, chamber, concerto and solo that I perform. The only piece I would absolutely avoid playing again is Kurze Schatten II by Brian Ferneyhough.

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

My solo repertoire evolves over time but I am always learning new chamber music. Having played percussion for many years as a second study, I really love playing with other people in groups of all sizes. I have regularly performed with strings, voices, percussion, mandolin, accordion, saxophone and flute over the years and have had shorter associations with the kanun (Middle-Eastern lap harp type of thing!) and other styles of guitar (metal, lap-slide). My repertoire choices are partially influenced by projects on the go or in development while my solo recital repertoire also develops depending on requirements of certain promoters, commissions and my own areas of interest.

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

The best and most rewarding venues to play in on the guitar tend to be small, resonant spaces such as small churches. I’ve played in exquisite college chapels in Cambridge and Oxford, comparable churches all over the UK and then of course stunning venues such as the Wigmore Hall. My favourite type of venue would be any beautiful space with a lovely, resonant acoustic, with absolute silence all around.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

It’s tricky to single out one but playing in the Royal Albert Hall would have to be up there, performing Rodrigo’s famous Concierto de Aranjuez.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Being well prepared and giving something close to your best performance.

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

There are many different elements that go in to building a successful career. How to practice, thinking positively, relaxing while playing, the importance of pulse both in terms of shaping interpretations and also as the key tool in communicating with other musicians. Other issues include working effectively with colleagues, developing relationships with promoters, being imaginative and innovative with programme development and collaborative projects. Most of all, remembering to love what you are doing and to savour every moment.

What is your most treasured possession?

If I am thinking in terms of what to leave when I’m gone, it would have to be my 2011 Greg Smallman guitar. I was extremely fortunate to win my first Smallman in 1993 in Darwin, Australia and the current one is my third. They are beautiful, lyrical instruments. At a more personal level I absolutely treasure photos I have of my kids, and also photos of surfing holidays with some of my friends from Perth. Although I haven’t lived in Australia since 1990, some of my friends from school and university are my closest friends and the photos of our time together are some of the most precious things I have.

As part of the London Mozart Player’s “At home with LMP” series, Craig Ogden will launch the first of LMP’s ‘Saturday Sessions’ live-streamed from his home via the LMP’s Facebook page at 7pm on Saturday 28th March.  Ogden will bring the soothing sounds of the classical guitar right to your living room with a relaxing performance of much-loved classics from the guitar repertoire, including Scarlatti’s Sonata in E major and excerpts from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez: www.londonmozartplayers.com/athome

 


Australian born guitarist Craig Ogden is one of the most exciting artists of his generation. He studied guitar from the age of seven and percussion from the age of thirteen. In 2004, he became the youngest instrumentalist to receive a Fellowship Award from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.

One of the UK’s most recorded guitarists, his recordings for Virgin/EMI, Chandos, Nimbus, Hyperion, Sony and Classic FM have received wide acclaim.

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intense, immersive, impassioned, hugely demanding and hugely enriching

Jonathan Biss, pianist

It’s the single most humane music imaginable

Igor Levit, pianist

Somewhere in the world right now, as I write, a pianist is performing or recording the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, maybe just a select handful of them, maybe all 32 in a crazy, Herculean marathon of music and emotion. At London’s Wigmore Hall alone, the past three years have seen cycles by Igor Levit, Llyr Williams and Jonathan Biss (currently). In autumn 2019, Igor Levit released his recording of the complete sonatas; Jonathan Biss’s boxset of was released this month, his personal vision of  these sonatas. These are just a few of the many pianists who feel compelled to perform and record “the 32″, the most comprehensive single body of Beethoven’s output.

Each generation brings a fresh crop of pianists willing to rise to the challenge of this music, from the pre-war recordings by Arthur Schnabel, with their fistfuls of wrong notes, which can give comfort to the keen amateur, to those of Wilhelm Kempff, Friedrich Gulda, Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Maurizio Pollini, Steven Kovacevich, Andras Schiff, Ronald Brautigam (on period instruments), Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Paul Lewis, François-Frédéric Guy, Igor Levit…. the list of illustrious names goes on and on. (As a teenager, my prized possessions, along with a three-volume crimson clothbound edition of the complete sonatas, were my LPs of British pianist John Lill playing these sonatas.)

The compulsion to play and record this music, combined with, more often than not, a fair degree of reverence, is very much alive and well. Yet today it seems a curious, almost anachronistic act, which harks back to the sort of enforced serious music appreciation of the latter part of the nineteenth century, and something which would have probably amused and surprised Beethoven, since hardly a single movement of one his sonatas was performed to a paying audience in the concert format as we understand it today. Felix Mendelssohn performed the entire ‘Moonlight’ Sonata in a public concert in the 1830s, and Franz Liszt, the greatest pianist of his age, played the supposedly unplayable ‘Hammerklavier’ for an invited audience in Paris, but he only played two of the sonata’s four movements when he next performed it, perhaps concluding that the audience did not wish to sit through the entire work!

The pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow was the first to perform Beethoven’s piano sonatas in a single concert (the last five in 1878), declaring that “Berlin must have sunk very low if it cannot listen to my reading of Beethoven’s complete testament”. It was von Bülow who called the 32 Piano Sonatas the “New Testament” of the piano repertoire, thereby setting works, which were originally mostly composed for private study and domestic performance, on a high pedestal of veneration. Von Bülow often used religious rhetoric in relation to music, and his concerts were serious, didactic affairs, proclamations of “musical gospel” to the “congregation” of the audience. This created a quasi-religious veneration of Beethoven’s music, and specifically the 32, and this aura of reverence around the piano sonatas remains today.

Initially hard to sell, by the late 1880s von Bülow had launched and was touring with a four-concert Beethoven cycle. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Artur Schnabel was performing sonata cycles in Europe and the US, and in 1932 HMV launched the Beethoven Sonata Society through which subscribers could purchase Artur Schnabel’s recordings of the piano sonatas. He was the first pianist to record the complete sonatas, a monumental feat in itself given the limitations of the technology at the time. Schnabel was one of the pre-eminent Beethoven interpreters on record, and his performances remain highly prized for their simplicity of approach and his anti-virtuoso nature, which reveal the essence of this music. The American music critic Harold Schonberg called Schnabel “The Man Who Invented Beethoven”, and his recordings and performances brought the piano sonatas to a wider audience at a time when they were not that well-known or admired. It was Schnabel who also described this music as “better than can be played”, thus contributing to the cult, almost mythic status of the 32.

Today, this music continues to enjoy an elevated stature which goes far beyond the notes on the score, and despite some relaxation in the rituals and etiquette of classical concerts, the 32 are still regularly presented in an atmosphere of awed reverence. Any pianist who takes on this colossal challenge enjoys special respect: not only is this music physically and psychologically demanding, but the hand of history, tradition and expectation weighs heavily upon their shoulder.

There’s something seductive about this process of really going to your limit with this music

Jonathan Biss

For the completist – both performer and listener –  the 32 provide a satisfyingly significant opportunity to explore their composer’s output across three distinct periods of his career and to be immersed in repertoire on a grand scale (the complete cycle comes in at around 11 hours of music – a few pianists have performed all 32 sonatas in a single day, a crazy feat of stamina and perhaps a performance stunt too…. it’s more usual to hear a complete cycle over the course of 8 concerts). For any pianist embarking on this great journey, the experience is fascinating, frustrating, uplifting, intense and absorbing. This is music which places one face to face not only with Beethoven’s genius but also the sheer force of his personality. He’s stubborn, explosive, intimate, witty, rhetorical, angry, forbidding, despairing, anxious, joyful, his humanity evident in every phrase, his innermost feelings expressed with a startling lucidity. It is this, amongst other things, which makes his music so remarkable, inspiring and shocking. It is this too which allows so many pianists to bring their personality to this music, presenting his emotions through the prism of their own life experience and throwing a fresh perspective on this music every time it is performed or recorded.

He’s also incredibly precise in his writing and every marking and direction must be understood in its context: why, for example, does he differentiate between different kinds of staccato, or place a crescendo over a single note (a physical impossibility for the pianist!)? Yet he also leaves plenty open to one’s own interpretation and personal vision. In this respect, his music embodies the maxim “through discipline comes freedom”: it demands both a laser-like focus and also total abandon.

Beethoven never wants us to be in any doubt about what he is saying. Even when he asks the pianist to create an illusion……….the intention behind the sound, and the message it conveys, remains clear.

Paul Lewis, pianist

Playing the 32, your ego is constantly being tested because this is music which is bigger than you are. To meet a Beethoven sonata head-on, it stops being about you, how fast you can play, how technically accomplished you are. It is about getting beyond yourself, becoming ego-less, humble before the greatness of the music, trying to get so far under the composer’s skin that Beethoven’s ideas became your own. As one layer is uncovered, so another presents itself; the summit of this music is always just out of reach. There is no sense of a final arrival, an end to the journey with this music, and this is what makes it so endlessly fascinating for players and audiences alike.

These sonatas speak of fundamentals: the meaning of life and shared values. And so when sharing the music with others, you are debating, with the audience, what it means to be alive, to be human – those basic philosophical questions of Beethoven’s time which remain with us today.

With Beethoven there is always a life beyond the mundane – the whole universe could be contained in a single sonata.

whatever your connection with these works, their infinite scope will never fail to reward, overwhelm and inspire

Paul Lewis

 


Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

My career in music has been an organic process of embracing a variety of opportunities that have unfolded as a result of my training as a multi-instrumentalist/ composer and following my intuition. The turning point in pursuing my musical career in particular happened during my years studying composition at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, where I met a wide range of musicians and had several professional opportunities that opened the door to a continuous flow of experiences to date.

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

My Mum (who decided I should start piano lessons at 4 years old), Sweet Honey In The Rock, David Smith (my principal piano teacher), Sue Sutherly & David Kennedy (my cello teachers), Stevie Wonder, Trinity Laban, Bach, Courtney Pine, Nitin Sawhney and Anoushka Shankar.

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

Moments of my own self-imposed limited thinking.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

My debut album Road Runner

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Roxanne

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

Every show is unique. I consider the venue, audience, music I have in my repertoire, whether it’s a solo or band show and then shape the performance accordingly.

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

King’s Place, London. It’s a beautiful venue in my hometown with great sound, two versatile rooms that are able to accommodate the range of my musical styles and the capacity is just right for me (intimate but big enough). I’ve had so many incredible pivotal performances there across my career and memories to last a lifetime.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Performing my song ‘Ain’t I A Woman?’ at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NYC, becoming the only non-American to win an entire season of Amateur Night Live.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

A stream of exciting musical opportunities that facilitate artistic growth and truly enjoying the music you’re creating and sharing.

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

  • Hearing your own inner voice, following your intuition as an artist.
  • Creative discipline – having a practice to enable development and excellence.
  • Recording your output so you can reflect and move forward with confidence.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

In 10 years time, I see myself engaging in a portfolio of amazing creative experiences including:

  • Creating an extraordinary multi-disciplinary live show and touring the world with
    my band, dancers and crew.
  • Composing music for theatre, dance and film.
  • Running a record label that supports release of music by other artists as well as
    my own.
  • Curating several music festivals worldwide.
  • Collaborating with some of my musical heroes including Sting, Anita Baker,
    Erykah Badu, Bjork and Take Six.
  • Composing for and performing with several orchestras including the London
    Symphony Orchestra, Chineke!, BBC Symphony Orchestra and Metropole Orkest

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Internal and external peace and fulfilment in all aspects of life in the present moment.

What is your most treasured possession?

Reuben, my cello.

What is your present state of mind?

Calm.


Singer, songwriter, cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson is a rare exception to the rule that classical and alternative r&b music cannot successfully coexist.

Graduating with a first from both Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and the Manhattan School of Music, Ayanna was a participant in the London Symphony Orchestra’s Panufnik Young Composers Scheme and become an Emerging Artist in Residence at London’s Southbank Centre. She was a featured artist with Courtney Pine’s Afropeans: Jazz Warriors and became the only non-American to win Amateur Night Live at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem, NYC.

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For American pianist Jonathan Biss, Beethoven has been a near-constant companion for almost his entire life. He has been playing and writing about the 32 Piano Sonatas, has spent nearly ten years recording Beethoven’s sonatas and has embarked on a cycle of concerts performing all the sonatas at London’s Wigmore Hall and in the US (and let us hope this wonderful series will be able to resume….).

the intensity of my current immersion with his music has become one of the most profound experiences of my life.

Jonathan Biss

This handsomely-produced boxset of the complete Piano Sonatas (Orchid Classics) presents the sonatas not in chronological order, as many sets do, but rather with a cross-section of sonatas on each disc, to demonstrate Biss’s conviction that each one stands as a brilliant masterpiece in its own right. This approach – one which he is also taking in his concert cycle – allows the listener to appreciate the individual qualities and distinct structures of each sonata, and the extraordinary development in Beethoven’s piano writing. Thus, the final sonatas, usually presented as a trilogy, in concert and on disc, are placed on separate discs within the context of sonatas from different periods of Beethoven’s compositional life. Biss refutes the notion that Beethoven had three distinct compositional periods as an over-simplification and instead urges the listener to view Beethoven’s compositional style in “a perpetual state of evolution”; even the final sonatas still betray some of his gruffness and a desire to shock, while the slow movements of the early sonatas look forward to later ones in their heart-stopping beauty and eloquence.

As individual works, each is endlessly compelling on its own merits; as a cycle, it moves from transcendence to transcendence, the basic concerns always the same, but the language impossibly varied

Jonathan Biss

As mentioned in my review of his most recent Beethoven sonatas concert at the Wigmore, Biss is a “thinking pianist”, with an acute intellectual curiosity and an ability to articulate the exigencies of learning, maintaining and performing this music, its challenges and its joys, offering remarkable insights, “behind the notes”, as it were, from the point of view of the performer. “Here was vivid expression, vitality and flamboyance; no standing back from the music as if in modest reverence but rather a deep dive into its every nook and cranny to winkle out and reveal details afresh.”

So does Biss achieve a similar spontaneity, vitality and expressivity in the recording? I think so – and the set gets off to a energetic start with the Sonata in C minor, No 5, Op 10/1, its first movement dramatic and commanding, the finale a throbbing, quickfire rondo bookending a slow movement of immense elegance.

Biss also appreciates Beethoven’s humour and wit, and selects pacing, particularly in the up-tempo movements, to highlight this. He often finds the humour in the music which others often gloss over: quirky ritardandos and accelerandos, which may irritate purists, and laugh-out-loud fermatas. 

Purists may also baulk at shifts in pace which are not always marked in the score, but I like the often dizzying, sometimes unruly tempi, as if Beethoven couldn’t get his ideas down fast enough. There’s a strong sense of storytelling here too, with dramatic bursts of narrative presented with a gripping immediacy – the finale of ‘Les Adieux’, for example, overflows with heartfelt joy. Slow movements, meanwhile, become transcendent poetic interludes infused with grace, tenderness and warmth; and these often reveal the true depths of Beethoven’s imagination.

The famous opening movement of the ‘Moonlight’ sonata (too often the subject of rather lugubriously clichéd readings) is hushed and haunting, just teetering on the edge of tragedy, but always eloquent. Biss’s sound is luminous (“moonlit”?!) and liquid, his pace a gently rippling moderato. This is contrasted by a finale of almost unrelenting restlessness, occasionally bordering on a comic hysteria. It’s this kind of playing, combined with airy passagework, dramatic tempi, crisp articulation, and a vivid aural imagination that can harness the breadth of the piano’s sonorities (listen to his pedalling in the finale of the Waldstein and the kaleidoscopic sound effects he achieves), that had me on the edge of my seat for much of Biss’s recent Wigmore concert.

But it’s not all about fleet fingers. Biss gives us thoughtful long-spun melodic lines, well-balanced harmonies, taut, driving rhythms, rumbling tremolandos, dramatic fermatas, carefully-considered voicing, subito dynamic swerves, and colourful orchestration – all devices Beethoven employs to express an amazing range of emotions from joy to despair, wit and uproarious humour, stubbornness and rage, passionate ardour and transcendent serenity. The sheer force of Beethoven’s personality, his capriciousness and inventiveness, is illustrated by Biss with clarity and proportion, beauty and commitment. His Beethoven is direct, lively and spontaneous, ever alert to Beethoven’s shifting moods. And while he undoubtedly respects the composer and his music, Biss does not allow reverence to get in the way of telling an entertaining story (certain other Beethoven pianists would have us believe that because this is “great music”, it must also be Very Serious). Instead, Biss’s approach is delightfully optimistic – one senses his constant curiosity and open-mindedness about this music – and refreshingly liberated from more mainstream interpretative choices. One also has the sense of a pianist with a profound affection for this music which comes from a long association with it, but also an ongoing fascination; for Jonathan Biss, the journey is far from over.

This is, in short, beautiful, thoughtful and incredibly vivid playing, and because of the organisation of the sonatas, each disc feels complete and satisfying in its own right, like a recital. An invigorating addition to the catalogue of Beethoven piano sonatas.

Recommended


Jonathan Biss | Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas is available on the Orchid Classics label.

7372kArthur Sullivan, Haddon Hall

Following the critical success of ‘The Mountebanks’, John Andrews’ recording of Sullivan’s late opera ‘Haddon Hall’ with the BBC Concert Orchestra, BBC Singers  and a cast featuring Sarah Tynan and Henry Waddington was released at the weekend.

Further information and buy CD

Meet the Artist interview with John Andrews


 

img_5978En Pleine Lumière volume 1 – Sandra Mogensen, piano

This first album in the “en pleine lumière” project features 10 composers born in the mid-19th century, including Mel Bonis, Cecile Chaminade, Germaine Taillferre and Amy Beach.

Further information and buy CD

Meet the Artist interview with Sandra Mogensen