A conversation with Jon Jacob who blogs at Thoroughly Good

JJ: I read a few reviews this morning with star ratings. I’m reminded how they much they annoy me. I’m not entirely sure why they do. I was hoping our exchange might help me understand why a bit better.

Basically, I just think rating someone’s performance is a bit odd. Mean really. By stating how many stars you thought someone’s performance was you’re kind of elevating yourself – making out that your criteria for judging whether something is good or not is valuable.

What really irks is that so much marketing stuff makes use of these star ratings. Because when that happens that rating process is legitimised.

Do I need to lighten up? Am I missing something?

CEP: I have always been uncomfortable with the star rating system for reviews and was acutely aware of it when I wrote for an international concert listings and reviews site where star ratings were de rigueur. For me, when reviewing, it meant that I had to always been thinking “is this a …. star performance?” and the aforementioned site actually had guidelines for reviewers to help them decide whether the performance deserved five stars or fewer. Awarding three stars often felt quite mean-spirited to me – being in the middle of 1 and 5, 3 feels like you’re saying “it was ok”, when in fact it was quite obvious to me, being a musician myself, that the performer had clearly spent hours and hours preparing for the performance and was maybe just having an off day at the concert, for whatever reason (something I think many reviewers – and audiences – don’t appreciate: performers are human too and a disrupted journey to the venue, feeling under par and a whole host of other factors can affect one’s performance…..)

From the reader’s point of view, I think star ratings are very limiting, especially if they are published at the head of the review (as is common practice). The reader/potential audience may see a low star rating (and I think a lot of readers think 3 stars signals “mediocre”) and not bother to read on. There is, of course, a converse argument – that a one-star review might pique one’s interest to actually read the review and/or go and hear that performer out of curiosity.

As I think you know from my writing on this subject and our conversations, I do not think it is the reviewer’s role to “rate” the performance; nor do I think music performance can be rated via such a rudimentary metric as stars. We are not talking about hotel accommodation here where the criteria for star ratings are more easily comprehendable! I believe a music review should be a record of the event and as such serves to place the concert in context (for example, a composer anniversary or a premiere of a new work). I believe we still need to record the activities of performers/composers via intelligent, well-informed and well-written music criticism – in the blogosphere and in the mainstream media. Such writing prevents mediocrity and dumbing down, and, I hope, encourages variety, authenticity and objectivity. Unfortunately, I feel the star rating system discourages all of this by putting an undue focus on “rating” the event rather than describing it and bringing it to life for those who weren’t there.

I agree with your comment about the value of star ratings for marketing purposes and this troubles me for the same reasons you express. And to describe someone as a “five star performer” seems to me be an anodyne and lazy way of presenting what might be a really exceptional artist. Sadly, in our feedback-driven culture, where undue emphasis is placed on customer reviews on sites like Amazon or TripAdvisor, I don’t think we can easily escape this…..

JJ: Your response reminds me of the challenge in art music at the moment. On the one hand we want more people to enjoy it. I want people to experience a similar thrill discovering personal insights about the art. Such insights can’t be documented as a criteria or expectation from listening. They are by definition personal and distinctive. A Haydn sonata’s impact on you will be different from the impact it has on me, for example.

How do we report on a performance authentically and respectfully without stating implicitly or explicitly that the performance should be performed one way or the other? And how do we style that reporting such that it advocates attentive or active listening rather than promoting an erroneous requirement of prior knowledge in the subject? It’s as though we need to promote listening, rather than the content.

In that way, I’m not entirely convinced that star ratings support that approach to documenting events or promoting active engagement in performance.

There’s a personal perspective too. What if the star ratings apply to a soloist rather than an ensemble? Does the person using the rating mechanism have a responsibility for the way the rating might be interpreted by a large audience (ie the rater’s intent maybe entirely different from the audience/reader interpretation)?

I also don’t get the point in rating a live performance which is by definition a one-off. Fine for opera because there’s a run of performances, but a one off concert seems a bit odd.

But still, I wonder whether there’s another perspective I’m missing.

CEP: I agree re. star ratings for opera (or theatre/film, for that matter) – stars are more relevant if there’s a run of performances.

I’d love to know how much store audiences/potential audiences really set by star ratings (maybe we should run a survey?!). Do people really select concerts by performers who’ve received favourably ratings on the basis of those ratings (I know I don’t), or are there wider criteria (such as reputation of performer, venue, programme etc – the last point being my usual criteria for selecting a concert)? Do they think “oh I’ll book to hear Trifonov because he always gets 5-stars”? Not sure…. and I think audiences are actually far more discerning than mainstream reviewers/promoters give them credit for.

Your response ties in with something else I am pondering – the apparent need to find “meaning” in everything, specifically in classical music as a way, perhaps, of validating it or making it relevant to people today. In an way, reviews are complicit in this by trying to express meaning (whether it is actually there or not in the music) to the reader. It seems we can’t simply report on the concert, describing the sounds the performer/s made, the quality of the performance, our personal response to it. Everything must be freighted with meaning or “relevance”. The music is not simply allowed to “be”, or be “entertainment” (in the best sense of that word)… But I digress slightly.

When I was reviewing regularly, I would quite frequently receive comments from other people who had attended the same concerts and who might take issue with something I had said in a review. For example, I was accused of being “far too generous” to a very elderly pianist (now sadly no longer with us) because his Chopin performance was “riddled with errors and inconsistencies”, and why hadn’t I documented them? But I don’t believe it is my job as a reviewer to highlight a performer’s errors (unless they are really dreadful, in which case I simply wouldn’t write a review); nor do I think reviewers/critics should seek to tell the musicians how to do their jobs.

My personal “crusade” – and I think this is a sentiment we share – is to encourage people to enjoy classical music and to debunk this silly notion that one needs to be well-informed, knowledgeable or educated to a certain level in order to “appreciate” it. Unfortunately, some of the more high falutin or pretentious writing on classical music isn’t helping; but I also think people are becoming more suspicious of mainstream critics and reviewers and are turning instead to independent review sites/blogs where they can find longform/more considered writing which has a more personal/authentic voice to it.

JJ: We agree. For me I experience unfamiliar works, familiar ones, or new compositions as a journey of self-discovery. What or how the composer or performer does is of secondary importance to the effect their work is having on my emotions. That for me is the thrill of this art form. Being able to articulate when it works and when it doesn’t takes more than just a rating.

What I keep coming back to in our exchange here is the responsibility on the mediator – be it marketer, journalist, critic – to advocate the art form in a respectful way that pays deference not only to the effort involved in creating it, but also emphasises the listeners contribution to the end product.

I’m not sure I’ve arrived at the best way of achieving that preferred mediation, but I’m working on it.

On a single staff, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and the most powerful feelings. If I were to imagine how I might have made, conceived the piece, I know for certain that the overwhelming excitement and awe would have driven me mad

Thus wrote Johannes Brahms of the Chaconne, composed by J S Bach as the final movement of the Partita No. 2 for solo violin. Throughout much of its three-hundred year existence, the Chaconne has been a source of fascination for composers and performers on instruments other than the violin, inspiring numerous transcriptions by composers as varied as Johannes Brahms, Feruccio Busoni and Leopold Stokowski.

A tour-de-force of instrumental ingenuity, musicianship and virtuosity, cellist and composer Joy Lisney’s own arrangement is the latest response to the Chaconne and attempts to illuminate Bach’s music through the cello, occasionally taking inspiration from the instrument itself but mostly staying as close as possible to the original.

The monumental Chaconne is the centrepiece of a programme including works by Chopin and Brahms, performed by one of the UK’s most exciting cello and piano duos, Joy and James Lisney.

The programme concludes with Brahms’  Regensonate in D; an intensely nostalgic work that Clara Schumann described as “blissful” and “melancholic” – music that she wanted to accompany her “at that passage from here to eternity”.

8 May – Cheltenham, Pittville Pump Room

19 May – Bristol, St George’s

8 June – London, Purcell Room, Southbank Centre

Joy appears on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune on Monday 6 May

 


Praised for her stylish playing, musical maturity, formidable technical finesse and keen advocacy for new music, Joy Lisney is one of the most exciting young musicians to emerge in recent years in a busy career combining the cello with composing and conducting.

She has been performing internationally since her teens, at leading venues including the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Queen’s Hall Edinburgh, St. George’s Bristol and the Southbank Centre, in concerts featuring some of the best known works for cello as well as specially-commissioned new music and her own compositions. Her first string quartet was premiered by the Arditti Quartet in 2015 and she premiered her own composition ‘ScordaturA’ for solo cello in 2017 at St John’s Smith Square as part of the Park Lane Group concert series. Joy has also given world premieres of works by Judith Weir and Cecilia McDowall.

Read more


James Lisney’s website

 

Artist photos by Krisztian Sipos and Suzie Maeder

 

On preparing for a performance diploma

As the summer approaches, the exam season looms and in addition to graded music exams, many people will be also taking performance diplomas, recognised professional qualifications which extend and challenges one’s musical abilities far beyond the graded exam framework (the Licentiate level diploma – LRSM, LTCL or LLCM – requires the equivalent level of ability to a student in their third or fourth year at conservatoire).

Based on my own experience taking three performance diplomas (and, I might add, in my late 40s having returned to the piano after a long absence), here I offer some advice to ensure you are full prepared for your performance diploma – in the lead up to the recital, on the day and afterwards.

As mentioned earlier, a performance diploma at whatever level is a professional qualification, and one should therefore treat all aspects of the preparation and actual performance in a professional manner. To prepare for my diplomas, I observed professional musicians at work in concerts and in other settings to understand and appreciate all the aspects which go into presenting a professional performance, including programme planning and programme notes, stage deportment, attire, and one’s demeanour and presence at the instrument.

Preparation is everything!

At least a month ahead of your diploma recital….

  • With the exam recital only a month away, your programme should be learnt, secure and finessed
  • Get into the habit of playing through the entire programme regularly (at least twice a week), without stopping to correct mistakes, and with appropriate pauses between works. This helps build stamina and allows you to experience the flow and energy of the individual pieces and how they work together in the programme as a whole.
  • If using a page turner, have several rehearsals with the page turner and ensure your turner is clear about repeats, DCs etc. If you are using the score without a turner, photocopy pages to avoid awkward page turns and include these in your score so you get used to seeing them/the sequencing of pages etc. Make sure your page turner turns discreetly and removes and replaces the scores as quietly and discreetly as possible.
  • If you intend to use an iPad or tablet instead of paper scores, check that that exam board will permit this. Make sure any additional technology such as a bluetooth page turning device is working properly
  • Record the programme to check for timings, of the entire programme and individual pieces. You will need to include this information in your programme notes (for each piece and the overall programme). Be as accurate as possible, as marks may be deducted if you timings are incorrect or your programme is outside of the allotted time limit.
  • Try and perform the entire programme at least three times ahead of your diploma recital. Get a bunch of friends round and perform to them, organise a concert in a local church or arts centre, or hire a rehearsal room and play there with a few friends/colleagues in attendance. This helps manage anxiety and also allows you to really project the music to others. Also good for practising presentation skills such as walking to the piano, body language, presence etc., and page turns (if playing from the score). Interesting things can occur in run-through performances and may reveal weak spots in your music which you can then make absolutely secure in your practising.
  • Choose your outfit for the diploma recital and practise playing in it to ensure it is comfortable. Clothing should be appropriate for a “lunchtime or early evening recital”, so formal but not evening dress. Remember you will be marked on your attire as part of the ‘presentation skills’ element of the diploma.
  • Try and play a variety of different pianos, particularly grand pianos. It is easy to hire a rehearsal space or use a piano in a church.
  • Write your programme notes and have them checked/proofread by someone else. Use a clear typeface with no fancy decorative elements, photographs or biography. Print the programme on good-quality paper or lightweight card.

A couple of weeks before the recital….

  • Make sure you know where you are going to take the diploma and plan a route which will allow you to arrive in good time to warm up and settle ahead of the performance.
  • Photocopy your music and put it in a folder with the printed programme to hand to the examiner at the diploma recital. If you are including own-choice repertoire, include a copy of the approval letter from the exam board (this is applicable to Trinity diplomas) with the copies of your music.
  • By this point your practising should really just be maintenance, but don’t get complacent. Practise intelligently and listen all the time. Record yourself, reflect, adjust.
  • If you have been working on the repertoire for a long time, try and recall why you chose it in the first place and what you like about it. Maybe even write some notes about it. This can help “refresh” the music if you feel it is becoming a little tired and enables you to create a vivid “story” of the music when you come to perform it.

The day before the recital….

  • Check you have all your music, and photocopies of music, etc in a folder ready to hand to the examiner at the start of the recital.
  • Check your clothing
  • Do very light or little practise.
  • Try to keep body and brain rested (take a day or afternoon off work if necessary and do as little as possible)

On the day of the recital….

  • Arrive at the exam venue in good time to warm up and then focus on the task ahead. If you have a routine to alleviate anxiety, go through your routine.
  • Practise self-affirmation – “I am well-prepared”, “I can do it!”, etc. Turn “I’m nervous” into “I’m excited to share my music with others”
  • When you go into the exam room, greet the examiner/s politely/shake hands and give them your programme notes etc.
  • Treat the recital like a professional public performance and do not speak to the examiners between pieces.
  • Stow your music neatly or ask your page turner to look after it
  • At the end of the performance stand and bow.

After the recital….

  • Try not to post-mortem your performance too much or dwell on things you weren’t happy with. Instead focus on the positives and then go and have a large glass of wine, or three….
  • The day after the performance you may feel very tired and moody, with almost flu-like symptoms. This is a side effect of adrenaline and other stress hormones settling back to their normal levels. Allow yourself time to recover, but the best cure for the post-performance depression can actually be playing music – not your diploma repertoire but music you simply enjoy.

Frances Wilson AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist offers support for people taking or thinking about taking a performance diploma including advice on planning a programme, writing programme notes, presentation skills and managing performance anxiety. For more information, contact Frances

The London Piano Meetup Group hosts an annual Diploma Day for people preparing for a performance diploma, led by Graham Fitch. Further information here

It always surprises me how entrenched people are on the subject of memorising music, especially with regard to pianists, and it was probably a mistake on my part to argue on Twitter for a relaxation in playing from memory in concert (and elsewhere) with a professional pianist whose attitude and approach to memorisation was inculcated from a young age and reinforced during professional training in conservatoire.

There are sound reasons for playing from memory and it should not be regarded simply as a virtuoso affectation (the ability to memorise demonstrates a very high degree of skill and application). It can allow the performer greater physical freedom and peripheral vision, more varied expression and deeper communication with listeners. But the pressure to memorise can also lead to increased performance anxiety – I have come across a number of professional pianists who have given up solo work because of the unpleasant pressure to memorise and the attendant anxiety. I have also heard of promoters who won’t book a pianist who doesn’t play from memory. To play or not to play without the score should surely be a personal artistic decision?

The custom of the pianist playing an entire programme from memory was established in the mid-nineteenth century, Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt setting a trend for concert pianists which persists to this day. Beethoven disapproved of the practice, feeling it would make the performer lazy about the detailed markings on the score; and Chopin is reported to have been angry when he heard that one of his pupils was intending to play him a Nocturne from memory.  Today it’s considered de rigueur – for concerts, competitions and auditions – and is a significant aspect of the pianist’s skill set.

Somehow the idea persists that for a pianist to use a score in a performance suggests a lack of mastery or sufficient preparation

– Anthony Tommasini, New York Times

Audiences too have fairly trenchant views on the subject and expect a professional pianist to play an entire programme from memory. It’s all part of the virtuoso ‘persona’, and it’s almost as if they think the pianist who uses the score is not up to the job; yet more and more I am seeing pianists in concert playing from the score or using an iPad (a more discreet way of playing from the score). Notable examples include Alexandre Tharaud, Artur Pizzarro and Richard Goode (whose wife turns the pages for him). For some pianists (and, I suspect, many more than who would admit it openly) memorisation can actually limit the range of repertoire performed in concert as some soloists won’t commit themselves to more than a handful of works each season because of the burden memorization places upon them.

Playing with the score on the music desk of the piano doesn’t mean you don’t know the music. Far from it – and if you watch a well-prepared pianist playing “from the score” you will notice that they don’t actually look at the music that often. The entire work may be memorised but having the score there can remove a layer of anxiety which may enable one to play better. I don’t think it should be seen as some kind of crutch or security blanket. It is also common to see a performer using the score for very complex contemporary or new music, and one rarely encounters collaborative pianists playing from memory.

In amateur piano clubs and meetup groups, attitudes to memorisation are amongst the most fervent I have ever encountered, perhaps because many members of these groups revere the great pianists and aspire to their skills, of which playing from memory is seen as the apogee of pianistic brilliance. To these people a “proper” pianist plays from memory. (Those of who do not, such as myself, are therefore “improper pianists”?!). Such is the need to prove oneself in the (sometimes) competitive environment of the piano club, that members will attempt to play from memory, often failing dismally because of 1) lack of proper preparation; 2) anxiety; 3) ego (this is the person who doesn’t even have a copy of the score in her bag, just in case, at the meetup event).

As a regular concert-goer, I am less concerned with how the performer transmits the music to me, and more interested in the performer’s ability to communicate the music, to weave stories, create myriad musical colours, provoke an emotional response (for isn’t that the primary reason why we go to hear and enjoy music?). If you get that right, nothing else should matter…..

For me there was something touching about seeing a great pianist play a Bach prelude and fugue using the score. Every wondrous element of this complex music is right on the page. It looks almost as beautiful as it sounds.

– Anthony Tommasini, New York Times


Header image: the author’s 1913 Bechstein model A piano with scores of music by Fryderyk Chopin, Joseph Schwantner and John Adams on the desk

 

The late great Sviatoslav Richter playing Schubert from the score

 

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

I knew when I was about 12 that the piano was going to be an essential part of my life. I was quite shy and reserved as a child, and felt I could only express certain things and be truly myself when playing the piano. It felt immediately like a close friend that was always there and with whom I could share all the ups and downs of life. I did not know then what being a professional pianist meant, I just knew that music would always be an essential part of my life.

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

There are so many. If I was going to put one at the top of the list, I would say Ruth Nye – she was my teacher during my studies at the Yehudi Menuhin School and Royal College of Music. She was not only my mentor but rapidly became like family, and remains to this day an inspiration. She has shaped my artistic, technical and philosophical development like no other person in my life. Also Nikolai Demidenko, Murray Perahia, and Dominique Merlet all taught me crucial things at various stages of my development.

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

Challenges go hand in hand with a performing career. Of course, I have had to go through many stressful situations, dealing with tight deadlines and intensive performing periods. But these are to be expected and it is nothing special. A good example of that was when I did my first concerto recording. This was a three concerto album, performed live at the Cadogan Hall in one concert. The very next day, I had a recital at the Wigmore Hall. I remember coming home late that night after the Cadogan performance and practising until about 4 am.

But the most important challenge is to get up everyday and thrive to reach a deeper artistic understanding of the music I am playing, to always question, to remain insatiably curious and never stop learning. In art, movement is everything. The music grows with me everyday, and I hope that the second I have performed or recorded something, my interpretation will have already started to evolve.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Pride is not really a feeling I would associate with a successful performance or recording. But I guess more a feeling of exhilaration during a special moment shared with an audience or in the intimacy of a recording studio with my producer and recording team. But perhaps if I had to choose one, I would say my first Wigmore Hall recital; I remember doing a crazy programme, including Bach-Busoni chaconne, Beethoven Sonata op. 110 and Liszt B minor Sonata. I remember the Beethoven op. 110 in that hall as one of these rare moments when you feel you are no longer physically there. There was a real link between me, the music and the audience that night.

In terms of recordings, I think my latest Hyperion concerto recording of works by Bronsart and Urspruch (two Liszt students) with the BBC Scottish Symphony and Eugene Tzigane is particularly interesting. It was a fantastic experience for me to record these hardly known romantic works and bring them to life with such wonderful musicians. My Chopin preludes album as well; I think we managed to capture an intimate sound that allows one to hear all the details, yet distant enough that the poetry remained intact.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I am not sure about using the word best, but I would say that this non-exhaustive list of pieces are some of the works that are very close to me: Liszt B minor sonata and Après une lecture du Dante, Ravel Gaspard de la nuit, Bach-Busoni Chaconne, Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition, Schumann Études Symphoniques, Beethoven sonata op. 110, Chopin preludes op. 28, Schubert sonata in Bb D. 960, Mozart concerto in D minor K. 466 and Brahms concerto No. 1 in D minor.

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

Mostly of my own choosing: the piano repertoire is extremely vast and there are so many works that I want to explore! Though choosing a programme has to be done carefully. It is like putting together a meal. I will only perform something if I feel I have something truly special to say playing this work, that it has become a part of me. Also, other considerations come into play. The venue is one; I might not choose to play the same thing in a big London hall and in an outdoor summer festival. Also, I might be in the process of recording specific works, and of course a particular season might coincide with a composer’s birthday, for example, Beethoven’s 250th birthday in 2020.

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

For me Wigmore Hall is very special. I have wonderful memories there. It has perfect acoustics and is just the right size to be intimate yet not too close; you can hear everything right down to the very last row.

Who are your favourite musicians?

There are many: Claudio Arrau would be one of the most important ones. His sound, colours, depth of interpretation, but perhaps more importantly, he is the artist who resonates with me the most in terms of philosophy and approach to performing. He was completely uncompromising, putting the music and respect for the score at the centre of everything with such integrity. But also Dinu Lipatti, Ferruccio Busoni, Alfred Cortot, Martha Argerich, Yehudi Menuhin, Jacqueline du Pré, Daniel Barenboim, Leonard Bernstein and many many more!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I think it would have to be the first time I performed Brahms’s first piano concerto as a young student, conducted by Andrew Litton. I had won the Royal College of Music’s concerto competition. We had three big rehearsals, which of course never happens in the professional world. This allowed for some truly special music making – Andrew Litton was amazing, the orchestra was full of passionate and eager music students wanting to give everything they had to the music and the conductor. I hold the memory of this concert very close to my heart.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

That is a very hard question. But at the same time, as strange as it may seem, I don’t think I spend too much time thinking about it. I guess, doing what I love to do for as many years as I am lucky enough to be able to do it! Being a musician is who I am no matter what, music is my oxygen and it’s at the very core of my identity.

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

I would say that for me, the most important thing is to keep remembering what is at the centre of it all – the music. That as performers we are a middleman, a link between the music and the audience. The hardest thing I think on this journey is to keep a healthy psychological compass and to not fall into the traps of vanity or self-doubt, as both extremes are equally destructive. It’s a delicate balance: one has to remember that if you are a talented artist, you have a unique message and personality; that is what you have to cherish, nurture and put at the service of your art to the best of your ability with integrity and complete dedication.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

All these precious simple moments spent with my wife and baby daughter.

To be on stage performing beautiful music, on these rare moments when everything clicks into place and there is a real link made with the audience is a wonderful feeling.

 

Emmanuel Despax will be performing live on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune programme on 29th April at 5pm, ahead of his performance of both Chopin concerti with string quintet at the Menuhin hall on 30th April (more information)


“Poetry fused with breathtaking technical perfection” (Concertclassic) and “A master colourist with genius-like ability” (Classical Source) is how the brilliant French pianist Emmanuel Despax was described after his acclaimed recitals at the Louvre auditorium in Paris and Wigmore Hall in London.

Despax is establishing himself as an artist whose interpretations bring a rare sincerity and imagination to the music. He performs internationally and is regularly broadcast on many radio stations including France Musique, BBC Radio 3, Classic FM and Medici TV.

His latest Romantic Piano Concerto album for Hyperion – with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Tzigane – received a glowing review from Gramophone: “It’s hard to imagine it being better played than by these forces, Emmanuel Despax displaying a wide range of colours combined with an easy virtuosity … It requires prodigious playing from soloist and orchestral musicians to make it sound as effortless as here, and that it does is tribute as much to conductor Eugene Tzigane as to Despax.” The recording features two romantic concerti by students of Liszt, Hans Bronsart and Anton Urspruch.

His previous Chopin preludes album on Signum Classics was chosen as “Album of the week” by Classic FM in the UK and received a five-star review on Diapason in France: “The young artist’s poetic work of entomology left me speechless. Rarely has the text of these 24 pieces been thus read, enhancing the least articulation or pedalling detail in relation to tempi, sound weight, projection from a prelude to the next, from a group of preludes to another, transmuting his Fazioli into a 1900s Pleyel, iridescent as needs be – intimate and very beautiful.”

In his native France, Despax has appeared in prestigious venues such as Paris’ Salle Gaveau, Salle Cortot, the Louvre Auditorium and the Festival International des Nuits Pianistiques in Aix-en-Provence. He performs regularly across Europe and has given recitals at the Fazioli Auditorium in Italy, the Gasteig Blackbox in Munich and the Palais des Beaux Arts in Belgium.

UK highlights include recitals at Wigmore Hall, the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham, the Chipping Campden and Petworth Festivals and a performance of three piano concerti at Cadogan Hall. This concert was recorded live and released on Signum Classics. “Emmanuel Despax is a formidable talent, fleet of finger, elegant of phrase and a true keyboard colourist.” (Gramophone)

Having studied in the UK at the Yehudi Menuhin School and Royal College of Music with Ruth Nye, one of Claudio Arrau’s finest students, Despax draws inspiration from a long tradition of pure artistry and uncompromising commitment to the score. His passion lies in retaining and regaining the true role of a performer, as a faithful vessel for the composer’s message.

Now based in London, Despax has performed with many UK orchestras including the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Orpheus Sinfonia, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

emmanueldespax.com

 

Artist photo: Luca Sage


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“perhaps the most impassioned music I have ever written.”
Robert Schumann writing to Clara Wieck, March 1838

Never one for disguising his emotions, Robert Schumann wore his heart on his sleeve and his music reflects his joy at being alive – and of being in love. His Fantasie in C, composed in 1836, is a remarkable display of soul-bearing, a piece imbued with passionate and unresolved longing, and the heart-fluttering panoply of emotions from ecstasy to agony which being in love provokes. It was written during a particularly long separation from his beloved Clara Wieck, at a time when their future together was far from certain.

The Fantasie in C is a love letter in music, a culmination of passion, virtuosity and delicacy. No salon sweetmeat, this is a highly demanding, sweepingly romantic large-scale work which pianists approach with trepidation.

Originally intended as a tribute to Beethoven and eventually dedicated to Franz Liszt, the Fantasie is cast in three movements. It alludes to sonata form but like its dedicatee’s B-minor Sonata, Schumann dissolves the formal structure to create a work of striking improvisatory freedom which heightens its emotional impact and poetic narrative. The ‘Clara theme’ which pervades the work is heard immediately in the descending octaves of the right hand. The music is an intriguing mix of grandeur and intimacy: the opening statement, a rolling dominant 9th chord, expresses the full depth of the composer’s passion and the music moves from a state of yearning to one of subdued tenderness before the restatement of the opening. The Adagio coda begins with a secret love message to Clara: a phrase quoted from the last song in Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte: “Take, then, these songs, beloved, which I have sung for you.”

clara_schumann

“It makes me hot and cold all over,” Clara wrote of the march-like second movement, which grows more intense (and difficult to play) by its continuous dotted rhythms. It’s a majestic outpouring of joy which reaches its zenith in the exuberant coda, whose celebratory leaps (marked Viel bewegter – “with much movement”) would give even the most practised virtuoso some anxious moments.

Sublimely beautiful, tender and intimate, the third movement is an extended song without words, with ravishing diversions into the remote keys of A-flat and D-flat major which create an extraordinary sense of time suspended. In this movement the passion may be downplayed but it is no less powerfully felt. Falling motifs (drawn from the slow movement of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto), and melodies of intense poignancy give way to a section of delicate tenderness, a waltz in all but name with 2 voices – treble and bass – singing together. One can almost picture Robert and Clara clasped in a deep embrace. The coda is an ecstatic declaration, gradually increasing in speed, before pulling back to Adagio for the close and three hushed C-major chords which are at once peaceful and yet tinged with sadness.

Here is Piotr Anderszewski in the final movement: