Conductor, recording  producer and Artistic Director of the Hertfordshire Festival of Music Tom Hammond interviews Stephen Hough CBE, who this year is the Festival’s Principal Artist and Featured Living Composer – plus a cycle of his oil paintings will be on display at Hertford Theatre during the duration of the Festival (June 10-16).

Stephen, have you ever done an interview about your paintings that hasn’t referenced music, or the piano?
No I haven’t. In fact I’ve very rarely spoken about my painting, in speech or in print.
Do you remember a day when you put paint onto a canvas for the first time, and thought “Now, I’m a painter”?
I haven’t really thought in those terms. My painting is something very private, partly because it’s the most sensual thing I do artistically. Playing the piano is sounds in the air, writing music or words is marks on a page, but painting is dirty, physical, earthy – and tangible/present. I can look at what I’ve done and show it to someone. It exists. And it can be destroyed … gone for ever.
Can you describe your processes? What sort of paints, canvases, brush techniques, textures, etc.?
I’ve used mainly acrylics in the past but recently I’ve fallen in love with domestic gloss paint. Its liquidity and the vibrancy of the colours. I like to mix other things in with the paint – grit, sand, shredded paper etc. I use a palette knife mostly but also brushes. And fingers, but with surgical gloves!
When a painting is framed and/or hung, do you step back and think ‘finished’, or do you look at a canvas later and think ‘wish I’d done something slightly differently’?
I think with abstract art in particular it’s never finished. That’s one of its fascinations. It’s an improvisation like jazz. When is a riff or a solo finished?
Will you be nervous about people’s reaction to seeing one of your paintings?
The first time was hard – like taking off my clothes in front of strangers! And any time when someone else is in a position of judgement it is an emotional risk …
Is the process of painting cathartic, or stressful?
Mainly cathartic, though not relaxing. I get very excited and energized when I paint.
You’ve probably collected more air miles than Phileas Fogg; do you take paintings with you when you’re working in, Asia, Australia, South America…..?
In the past I tried doing small pieces in hotel rooms. But it’s pretty frustrating, and now I’m painting bigger works it’s impossible.
What was the last painting or other purely visual art that you saw that spiritually moved you, and can you explain why?
I loved the recent show at Tate Britain – All Too Human. I’m moved spiritually by the fragility of human life portrayed in art, not by angels and altarpieces. Christ in glory doesn’t move me; Christ as everyman suffering does.
In one hundred years time, would you like to be remembered for your paintings?
I honestly can’t think about that. But the indestructibility of paint perhaps means that when CDs are faded the globs on canvas which have avoided the landfill might still be hanging in there somewhere.

Stephen Hough will be in residence and involved in four events on June 10 and 11 at this year’s Hertfordshire Festival of Music. Book online, by telephone or in person. Full details here
Image: ‘Dappled Things’ by Stephen Hough

As friends and some readers/followers of this blog already know, I am leaving London towards the end of this month for a new life in Dorset, in the west of England. I say “new life” though in fact the county is familiar – my husband hails from Dorset (Poole) and we were married in Stourton Caundle, a tiny village near the attractive minster town of Sherborne. So I have had an association with Dorset, and visit regularly, for 30 years.

When I first mentioned I was planning this move, certain friends exclaimed “but how will you manage without the Wigmore Hall and all the concerts/music?“. It’s true that leaving London and its vibrant musical and cultural life will be hard – I have lived in or near London for 40 years and for much of that time, concert-going in the capital has been an important part of my life. But I will not lack music in the West Country: as another friend who relocated to Spain a few years’ ago said to me before she left, “I have lots of CDs to listen to and there’s Radio Three“. Many Wigmore Hall concerts are broadcast on Radio Three, as are concerts from other concerts halls around the UK and beyond, so even if I am not there in person, I can at least be there in spirit! In addition there’s also Spotify, Medici TV and much more. There is also plenty of live music making outside the Metropolis: I have already had friendly exchanges with Plush Festival (Andras Schiff is the headline artist at this year’s festival) and I look forward to reviewing some concerts there later this summer; and many leading artists play at regional festivals and concert societies before presenting their programmes at a London concert hall. It may take a little more effort to get to places, but my husband has promised to buy me a Smart car.

In addition, I am looking forward to forging new connections with musical people in the west country, many of whom I have already “met” online via social media.

The blog of course is not going anywhere – it is both local and global, and will continue in the same vein for as long as I have the interest and motivation to write it. So far, it has brought me many interesting and stimulating encounters with musicians, both professional and amateur, journalists, critics, writers and other bloggers on music and culture, a number of whom have become close friends of mine. This sense of “community” is very important to me, as are the meaningful interactions I have both via the blog and social media in general. It is for this reason that I have, unlike some other bloggers, kept commenting open on the site to encourage conversation and discussion.

In fact, my relocation will, I hope, offer more time to write as I will be giving up piano teaching (at least for the time being). A book has been on my mind for some years, and a number of other writing projects. I am also looking forward to having more time to play the piano – and to reflect on playing the piano (which no doubt will prompt further blog posts!).

Thank you to everyone who reads, follows and shares this blog. I look forward to sharing many more thoughts on music and piano playing with you.


Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I always wanted to be a musician. My grandparents on my mother’s side were both opera singers – my grandmother was a soprano and my grandfather a tenor, both were principals in the D’Oyly Carte and sang with Carl Rosa. My mother was an artist, an outstanding painter. So I was brought up surrounded by music and art, a lot of it surrealist. I went to some dreadful prep schools, but my mum got me to a Rudolf Steiner School, and there, at Michael Hall, I met the inspiring Mr Masters – Brien Masters. He was a wonderful teacher, musician and poet. He urged me to compose seriously and taught me how to notate, so I have him and that beautiful school to thank especially.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

Many people and things have influenced and inspired me and I have seriously eclectic taste. My childhood and grandmother’s stories about Gilbert and Sullivan productions no doubt triggered my passion for opera. Oscar Peterson inspired my teenage years. As a trumpeter, I initially wanted to be a jazz musician, then turned to the baroque natural trumpet and was hooked on Maurice Andre. My student years at the Royal College of Music were the best musical years of my life! Edwin Roxburgh had a profound impact on me, and every lesson was a masterclass in composition. So too did John Wallace, who was an utterly inspirational trumpet teacher and support. But I also learned much from Joseph Horovitz and Richard Blackford, and Michael Finnissy at Sussex – all very different composers. In my twenties I became obsessed with the art and architecture of South East Asia and spent a good twelve years writing pieces directly inspired by Angkor and Javanese temples. I could instil a clear design and adorn it with colourful fantasy – just as the temples are so direct in proportions yet so ornate in final result. In a curious way, that ties in with my love of jazz and spontaneous and effervescent lines. Symbolism too. I love saying things in music that I cannot dare to say in public.

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

I remember Ken Russell’s film about Delius. Towards the end, Delius grumbles that his music is only played on BBC radio once a fortnight when it had been on every day. It said at a stroke that composers/musicians/humans can often be unsatisfied with their lot – even lucky Delius! Personally, I have a hugely fulfilling creative life, which encompasses so many aspects of musical endeavour. However, I always wish for more time to compose. That is a general frustration. I would also say that the contemporary music scene can be too closed. When I ran Sounds New, I believe we broke the mould. We embraced contemporary music of a wide variety and were proud to do so. As a result we attracted ever-growing and increasingly engaged audiences. I think that in an attempt to appear ‘modern’ and ‘of the moment’, too many contemporary music platforms favour hard, gritty and sometimes ugly and dull music. Other more ‘mainstream’ organisations can choose the ‘soft focus’ and ‘easy listening’ approach, which achieves little in the long term. I don’t say that as a fuddy-duddy, traditionalist or dye-hard, just as an aficionado and devotee of all types of contemporary music who wishes to see it more widely appreciated, understood and regularly incorporated into concert life. I know very many who quietly agree with me.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

I am impelled to compose, irrespective of whether or not a work is commissioned. And… Commissions are not always easy to fulfil. They can be for forces or subjects that doesn’t immediately get the creative juices flowing. So one has to ‘make’ inspiration out of that challenge. That said, my last serious commission, for the London Chamber Orchestra and around 150 young people (performed May 2017), was something I’d always dreamed of doing – a substantial piece of music that was uncompromising yet totally ‘educational’. That was exceptionally rewarding to do, but hugely challenging in that I had to be totally flexible and continually write a range of parts that embraced the easiest possible – a challenge for us ‘complex’ souls.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Working with a special musician, artist or ensemble in mind can be deeply inspiring. To be able to take into account a specific human voice, for instance, understand its most special characteristics and incorporate those into the creative process, can be a beautiful thing. However, I would say that I think of particular musicians even when I am writing for personal pleasure. And when writing operas (my crazy passion) I do think of specific voices as I compose, indeed create a character or role. I think it’s fair to say that every mezzo-soprano part I have ever written has had Sarah Connolly in mind. Hers is the mezzo voice of perfection!

Of which works are you most proud?

At the time, I was very proud of my first opera, ‘The Fisherman’, which was (and I believe remains) the only full-length student opera that the RCM produced in many decades. I was told since Vaughan Williams. That said, VW’s first opera was written after he left the RCM, so I can’t work that out. Maybe it was someone else? However, I now see shortcomings in that early piece. Of other works, there are two specific operas: ‘Bayon’ (totally impractical, in five acts with an enormous cast and vast orchestra) and ‘La Belle et La Bête’ (just completed one act opera, for two voices and another foolishly large orchestra). Both are unperformed and may probably remain so, but I’m most proud of them. Of performed works, I’d cite ‘Three Old Gramophones’ (highly autobiographical, and not without humour) and ‘Don – a Cello Concerto’.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

People tell me that my music is strangely accessible. Often they say that in a surprised way, because it is often so complex, and they had anticipated it to be daunting. That pleases me. I like complex musical webs, yet I like music to be understood and to directly impact on people. Fundamentally, I believe that so-called hard-edged contemporary music can be beautiful and can beguile. I don’t ascribe to compromise, yet I do want the listener to be absorbed ‘within’ a musical voyage that has an effect on them and – for want of a better expression, ‘moves’ them.

How do you work?

In blocks of weeks – ideally uninterrupted, usually in the summer months as university work allows. I create in the morning, setting a rigorous routine. Then in the afternoon and often long into the night, I refine, orchestrate, develop the material I established at the start of the day. Ideas flow that way, and there is continuity to the creation. During the period of composition I am basically totally lost to all others! I write very quickly as a result.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Mahler, Messiaen, Takemitsu, Strauss, Mozart and Bach are among the composers I most adore and whose sound worlds continually inspire me. Exceedingly close behind are Beethoven, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel and Xenakis. Oscar Peterson is at the top of the first list too. If a genie ever granted me one musical wish, I’d choose to be able to play the piano like that. ‘OP’ had a profound influence on my development in my early years and I never tire of listening to him.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Creative fulfilment and the ability to make a positive impact on others.

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

Be open minded, hard working, focussed, creatively ambitious and giving. We are all vessels through which art passes, and we have a duty to nurture it, support it, create it, foster it and develop it. In other words, be a full part of the creative cycle.


Paul Max Edlin has a career that combines composing, conducting, trumpet playing, lecturing and artistic direction.

His compositions have been performed both nationally and abroad by many leading artists, ensembles and orchestras. He has a particular interest in opera, and his first opera, The Fisherman, was premiered to wide critical acclaim in a production for the London International Opera Festival. Opera Magazine described Paul as ‘our latest operatic prodigy’. His most recent full-length opera is an adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding in the translation by Ted Hughes. In 2013 he completed an operatic monodrama, Frida, a setting of the diaries of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Recent commissions include a new work for Sarah Connolly (Wigmore Hall, 2014), the UK Society of Recorder Players (Kings Lynn, 2015). In 2015 he completed a new work for orchestra, Five Illusions. In 2016 he succeeds Cheryl Frances Hoad as Composer in Residence for London Chamber Orchestra’s Music Junction programme.

Edlin’s works have received broadcasts on BBC 2, BBC Radio 3, as well as on Radio and Television abroad.

He was a founder member of the Artistic Group of Sounds New Contemporary Music Festival, of which he was Artistic Director from 2007 to 2013, a period in which it flourished. In 2005 he was asked to become Artistic Director of the Deal Festival of Music and the Arts, following on from the cellist Steven Isserlis and composer David Matthews. He stepped down in 2010, but was once again asked to return to this role in 2014.

He has many years of experience in university lecturing and teaching and is currently Director of Music at Queen Mary University of London, one of the country’s leading universities and in the Top World 100 (THE 2015). Formerly, he was Professor of Music at Canterbury Christ Church University from 2009 to 2012 having worked there in a series of roles for almost thirty years. In 2011 he was elected President of the Incorporated Society of Musicians.

As a conductor, Edlin tends to focus on contemporary repertoire. He has conducted many premieres of new works as well as UK premieres of such pieces as Beat Furrer’s Ensemble II and Ernst Krenek’s Sestina. In 2010 he conducted the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Malta, allowing him an opportunity to explore the more romantic repertoire of Puccini and Verdi. As a trumpet player, he particularly enjoys the ‘clarino’ repertoire of Bach, Handel and Purcell and has played in many performances of works such as the B Minor Mass, Christmas Oratorio, etc.

Paul Max Edlin studied at the Royal College of Music (composition with Edwin Roxburgh, Richard Blackford and Joseph Horovitz; trumpet with John Wallace and Richard Walton, and conducting with Christopher Adey). He has won many composition prizes including the IX Premio lnternazionale Ancona. He received a Leverhulme Studentship for further postgraduate study at the RCM. He continued his studies with Michael Finnissy at the University of Sussex where he took his doctorate.

A Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Fellow of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, he has served on the boards of several music and music education organisations and charities, including Cantoris Charitable Trust, which supports Canterbury Cathedral choristers. He is Chair of the Board of Ora, one of the UK’s most prestigious vocal ensembles, and he sits on the board of the newly formed East London Music Group. Paul Max Edlin has two musical sons. Peter, an artist, photographer and designer, plays lead guitar in the progressive rock group The Boot Lagoon, while Timothy is a bass-baritone.

The Keyboard Faculty at Trinity-Laban Conservatoire invites pianists to a series of Yoga and Mindfulness sessions taught by Professor Elena Riu especially designed to address Performance Related Anxiety, injury prevention and build resilience before the final assessment run.
The sessions will take place on Thursdays from 8.15-9.30 am on May 10th & 17th in Room G29 at Trinity-Laban.
Some of the well-documented benefits of yoga :
  • Increases resilience and stamina
  • Reduces anxiety and stress through increased Parasympathetic activation (relaxation)
  • Encourages brain integration and emotional regulation
  • Greater lung capacity and improved Heart Rate Variability
  • Improved circulation, digestion and mental functions
  • Promotes self awareness , self esteem and empathy
  • Prevents injury as it maintains lubrication in all the joints and restores full range of motion
  • Increases concentration and mental focus
The Yoga exercises and breathing we did on the course were easy and calming. Playing the piano afterwards is always different, the anxiety and other negative things get pushed to the back of the queue … I can concentrate much more on the type of sound I want to produce and the mood of the piece.  It was very noticeable when listening to others, the sound made could be incredibly different afterwards.
Jackdaws Music Course participant , May 2015

Elena Riu has been a concert pianist for many years and is a Professor of piano at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance where she has recently led a Pilot Study about the benefits of yoga for musicians suffering from PRA and MSD’s. The pilot study was jointly funded by Better Practice: Musical Impacts, Teaching and Learning and the Keyboard Faculty. She also has a dance background.
Elena has taught kids classes at The Special Yoga Centre and at Yoga Home. Last summer and this summer she organized the Yoga for Kids and Families activities at Santosa Yoga Camp where she taught Yoga , Mindfulness and Yoga Nidra for children, workshops on how to incorporate Tich Nath Hanhn’s Pebble Meditation into a yoga class and Womb yoga.

Please don’t shoot at the pianist; he’s doing his best

I sometimes get the feeling people think musicians are invincible….

We engage in a highly complex, technical and artistic activity which requires huge physical and mental agility and concentration. When we perform, our meticulous preparation enables us to make everything we do look effortless, synthesised and beautiful. In the moments of performing, we offer the music to the audience as a cultural gift to be shared between us in the wondrous experience that is live performance. On stage we dissemble, we act, to maintain a veneer of confidence and poise. Because no one can know how many goddam hours you put in in the practice room or that your journey to the venue was delayed, how tired you are feeling from working all week without a break, or how much that recurrent shoulder problem has been troubling you. To publicly admit to these vulnerabilities would quickly destroy the mystique of the performer.


As performers, vulnerability is integral to the profession. By performing we choose to put ourselves out there, hold our music, and ourselves, up for scrutiny, for praise and criticism. It can be a lonely, masochistic activity, never more so in an age where live performance has become almost an Olympic sport in its obsessive need for perfection and the general competitiveness of the profession.

Vulnerability develops early on in the musician’s life, usually at an age when we are not yet fully formed, barely aware of our individual self or identity. The special training musicians undergo can engender multiple emotional problems – the autocractic teacher who constantly breaks down the student’s confidence, for example, or the competitive atmosphere of specialist educational institutions. We are taught how and why to practice and perform by more senior practitioners who cannot possibly know what our individual strengths and weaknesses really are, and who may not offer enough concern or advice on managing the complex aspects of the musician’s life. In addition, where one may have excelled at school, a “gifted pupil”, on arriving at music college one may face the uncomfortable fact that one is now just another among equals, and so begins the toxic habit of looking at what others are doing and constantly comparing oneself to them. The training then becomes a kind of rat race or “musical anorexia”, played out in cloistered, rarefied surroundings. Despite all of this, we find we can achieve great things, and so we carry these learnt habits, and vulnerabilities, into adulthood and career, reluctant to give them up.

Get a bunch of musicians together in a “safe space” and they will talk of their vulnerabilities, their anxieties and fears. In researching this article, I inadvertently created such a safe space and the discussion became a kind of help group where people could talk honestly about their vulnerabilities: it was eye-opening and humbling.

Like physical injury and performance anxiety, admitting to emotional vulnerability is a taboo area, an admittance of weakness or lack of ability which may lead to less work. Musicians have a precarious, peripatetic existence at the best of times. The good news is that musicians are beginning to feel more confident about discussing these issues, and some educational establishments now offer specialist support, including mindfulness training, Alexander technique and counselling. Opening up and discussing your vulnerabilities with others can be remarkably reassuring and often cathartic: you realise you are “not alone” – because many of us share the same anxieties.

In addition, growing maturity and confidence encourages us to discover and implement personal innate methods and motivation, which allow us to reject those early, sometimes toxic, influences or processes, and we become better able to manage and even appreciate our vulnerabilities.

each experience, good and bad…..has potential for helping my overall development

– Carla, flautist

Paradoxically, vulnerability makes us better musicians. Without the emotional sensitivity of our vulnerability, we would not be able to develop, create and play music in a meaningful way; nor would we be able to forge connections and unspoken lines of communication between colleagues and audience in performance. Vulnerability also keeps us humble in the face of the greatness of the music. Asking oneself “Am I good enough?” can be curiously empowering too, if one chooses to avoid comparing oneself to others and instead focuses on one’s own work, forging an individual path through growing maturity, self-determination, musical understanding, and mastery with a willingness to embrace setbacks and cul-de-sacs along the way and to learn and move on from these. Acknowledging and accepting the Inner Critic, without allowing its voice to overwhelm us, is also essential to the creative process and should not be regarded as a sign of weakness. It also prevents our ego getting in the way of our creativity.

openness to the full spectrum of our experience is the starting point for compelling and mature musicianship. Suffering and joy are equally endemic to the human condition, and sharing the full range of our emotions with our audiences, through our presence and through the music we make, is not a selfish act, but a generous one

– Nora Krohn, violist


It’s vital: vulnerability, doubt, openness – how else to communicate with any vestige of meaning?

– Rolf Hind, pianist & composer


I honestly don’t think you can play meaningful music without being at least a little bit vulnerable somewhere – it’s about caring a lot, taking risks and being human

– Carla, flautist

Further reading

Handling your vulnerability as an artist

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

I might not be doing this at all had it not been for my father, who was a very good amateur pianist. I’m told that as a very young boy I’d go to the piano when he played and watch him open-mouthed! I have a clear memory of the moment when he asked me if I wanted to take piano lessons. I said yes without hesitating! I seemed to have a predisposition for learning quickly, and it didn’t take long to discover that I had perfect pitch, like my dad.I remember his playing vividly. He mostly favored the Romantic period (Liszt and Chopin above all) and through him I was exposed very early to a sizable chunk of the literature.

At that point, of course, I had no notion of what a career in music would represent; at the beginning, music was something natural — a game, perhaps. I first studied with a local teacher for four years, and then my dad enrolled me at the Vincent-d’Indy school in Montréal, which was very prestigious at the time. And although I showed a natural facility almost from the very beginning, I was never touted as a prodigy.

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

Again I must mention my father, because he was directly responsible for one important part of my development. His favorite artists were the pianists of the so-called Golden Age, the ones who were active during the 78RPM era. He collected all the reissues he could find, which in Canada wasn’t always easy, especially earlier on. He listened to these treasures constantly. He was much less attracted to more contemporary pianists and was in general very critical of them. I think the reason he liked the older pianists so much is because of the unbridled freedom inherent to their performances, a freedom which meant that the true letter of the score was often distorted or even disregarded. This cavalier attitude toward the finer points of notation became a part of my musical thinking. It was only much later, in my twenties, that I was sensitized to the necessity of taking composers’ markings seriously, probably because I had begun writing my own music and had become aware of how deeply meaningful and intricate musical notation really is.

And then there were my teachers, all of whom brought something different to my development. First there was Yvonne Hubert, who had once been Alfred Cortot’s assistant in France, and who had come to Canada in the twenties, completely revolutionizing the pianistic landscape at the time. She watched my purely pianistic progress very closely, but above all, she really awakened me to the importance of detail. I vividly remember one of my earliest lessons with her, at which I’d brought Bach’s D minor sinfonia. It was the most complicated piece I’d worked on by that time, and after an exhausting half-hour of her correcting elementary voicing details – several in every bar, it seemed – I realized that I hadn’t known the piece at all beforehand. She was also very instrumental in getting me to pay attention to my sound. An amusing detail: any of her students will recall how she could, sitting on your right as she always did, demonstrate a right-hand passage you had just played, with her left hand, perfectly.

After I moved to America, I spent some years under the wing of Harvey Wedeen, who had, I could say, a more broadly cultured outlook of pianism in general. Through him I really developed a keener awareness of style, among many other things. Lastly, I had a few lessons with Russell Sherman, who above all is a master in stimulating his students by providing constant musical or extra-musical sources of inspiration. I will never forget bringing him Beethoven’s Sonata in F major, op.10 no.2. In the middle movement – the second half of the trio, more specifically – whatever I was doing didn’t have the character he was looking for, so he said ‘Imagine these gigantic Roman temples, with these huge columns…..and behind one of them, Julius Caesar is being murdered!’

It’s a blessing that none of my teachers was ever ill-tempered or despotic. (The sole exception to this is the one lesson I had in 1987 with Juilliard’s Adele Marcus where, after two hours, I was reduced to feeling like an untalented, sub-human ignoramus. But that’s another conversation entirely.)

It would be a grave omission if I didn’t underscore the vital role that my wife Cathy has played in my life. Many friends of mine have taken special delight in pointing out her influence on my character, and how my playing seems to have transformed for the better ever since we’ve been together. To them there’s no doubt she’s the reason! Beside the fact that she has a heart of gold, her musical sensitivity is truly a thing of wonder. She is also an extremely gifted pianist, and all of this gives a real dimension to our life as a couple.

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

The biggest difficulty I’ve had over the years was overcoming a disastrous choice of management I made early on in America, one which I had to live with for thirteen years. Throughout that period, developing regular concert activity in the U.S. was very hard work. It wasn’t until I was finally able to change agents in the U.S. (around 2001-2002) that things really began to happen, almost exponentially you might say. Fortunately, in the meantime, I had acquired a very efficient manager in the UK, and that helped me start to get a good foothold in Europe. And all this time I was able to build a catalog of recordings which, in many countries, was the only way anyone could hear me.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

I always say that if I could play Schubert’s final sonata in every one of my recitals until the day I die, I wouldn’t be unhappy! For that reason, the recording of it that is just now being released is extremely important to me, and I would love it to do well; I value it almost as much as everything else I’ve ever done, combined.

Concerning performances on video that can be seen on YouTube – none of which I’ve ever posted myself – my thoughts on those vary a great deal. While I am proud of some of the things that have appeared there recently, a Brahms Second Concerto with the Warsaw Philharmonic being a good example, a lot of my solo performances, especially ones from the distant past, now make me cringe with embarrassment. I often didn’t realize just how quickly I was playing then, and I wish I could go back to that period and put everything right! I’d be telling myself, “Slow down, man! Smell the flowers!”

Which particular works do you think you play best?

If you asked audience members, you might get different answers! But for myself, works like the Schubert B-flat Sonata, the Schumann Fantasy, the Liszt Sonata, the Debussy Images and second book of Préludes, and the Brahms concerti come to mind.

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

There can be many factors which might influence these decisions — too many to mention here. If you’re talking about a new work in your repertoire, I guess the main motivating impulse to program it for the first time is an instinctive feeling of being “ready” for it (whether right or wrong!). And even though I constantly try to expand my repertoire, I often revisit old friends — like the Schumann Fantasy, which I learned 40 years ago. On the other hand, I just recently learned Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie and 4th Scherzo.

As far as building a program, I usually start with one special work, then fashion a balanced set of pieces around it. I don’t generally tend to try to establish deep thematic connections of any kind between the works; my only aim is to provide an experience that is stimulating, thought-provoking, perhaps even challenging. This is why I usually include one or more less-often heard pieces on the program, as part of a lifelong wish to expand awareness of what pianists have been unjustly neglecting. (These days I’m becoming crazy over C.P.E. Bach – see for yourself what an explosively creative individual he was.)

And above all, though I have indeed played a great amount of highly demanding music — the type usually called “showpieces” (a word which I dearly wish would vanish from the dictionary), I do not go on stage to exhibit myself. For me, it’s all about sharing. I consider the public a friend, since I am fortunate enough never to have experienced stage fright. So, any outing on stage for me is an occasion for celebration, an extolment of the miracle of human creativity.

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

Living in Boston affords me the pleasure of being able to attend concerts in Symphony Hall and Jordan Hall, two of the most magnificent venues anywhere from an acoustical point of view. There have been many places over the years where I’ve felt the relationship between my musical intentions and the aural result was near-perfect. The concert space at the Domaine Forget in Saint-Irénée in Québec is truly wonderful – many CD recordings have been realized there – and some Japanese spaces I’ve played in were absolutely fantastic with their varnished-wood walls and flooring.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Impossible to answer with just a few names! I could fill a page with musicians who at one time or another have given me true pleasure – and we’re not just talking about pianists! As far as pianists are concerned, I always have time for those who truly treat the instrument as a singing, speaking, living, breathing entity, and who have a complete emotional connection to it. The occasional references one hears about the piano being a percussion instrument, to me, amount to blasphemy.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I don’t have too many anecdotes of that type, but there is something that happened a few years ago that will linger in my memory forever (and safe to say, in the memories of most of those who were there).

I was giving a recital in New York in the summer about 4 years ago, and one of the works on the program was Ravel’s triptych Gaspard de la nuit. It was very hot, but fortunately not enough to wreck my concentration. Near the end of the first piece (Ondine), I heard a slight buzzing sound, followed by the feeling of something landing squarely on my head. I had no idea what it was at the time. They told me after the concert that it was a fly, about as big as my thumb! I continued to play – there was no reason to stop, really – but I wondered what the audience was thinking. And that fly proceeded to stay there, on my head, unmoving from the spot where it landed, for the entire length of Le Gibet! That’s 7 minutes!! And the best part is that the terrifying poem that Le Gibet is based on describes a winged beetle plucking a hair from a corpse! I learned afterwards that some people in the audience were fantasizing that this creature was sucking my brains out…!

As a musician, how do you define “success”?

Achieving total trust from the public as well as from concert promoters, and being able to sustain it over decades.

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

First, it should go without saying that a thorough knowledge of the science of music – harmony, counterpoint, theory, aural training, analysis – is indispensable. Without these you cannot begin to truly understand what you’re doing. I am convinced, and have become more and more convinced over the years, that being naturally conversant in these matters will have a crucial influence on your playing. A clear musical mind with an overarching mastery of theoretical matters will have a much better chance at developing fluent pianism, even though this will probably not be apparent for a long while. I try to avoid using the word ‘technique’, since it’s really a misnomer; the word is usually used to indicate the purely mechanical side of piano playing, whereas it should also encompass the artistic and the emotional.

But, even more importantly, take time out of the practice room! The much-overused expression ‘get a life!’ fully applies here. It is pure folly to think that you can ultimately achieve anything artistically significant when the only landscape you ever glance at is the four walls of a practice space. Learn to concentrate your work as much as you can by zeroing in mercilessly on your shortcomings and don’t spend so much time on what you already know. This will allow you the time to blossom as a human being and to expand your horizons.
Marc-André Hamelin’s recording of Schubert’s last piano sonata and the second set of Impromptus is available now on the Hyperion label

Review here