All posts by The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Pianist, writer, music and arts reviewer, and blogger on classical music and pianism

Meet the Artist……Francesco Tristiano, pianist

Francesco-032 by Marie Staggat

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

There has always been a piano at my house, perhaps a strategic move by my mother. Soon I found myself curious about which sounds I could trigger out of the instrument. Then I realized the piano is itself a world.

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

Growing up I found the most inspiration in three musicians of the twentieth century: Paco de Lucia, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Joe Zawinul. And the discovery of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

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

Not to repeat myself, not to fall into a routine.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Pride is not a feeling I measure I measure my achievements with. Perhaps my album ‘Idioynkrasia’ (inFine, 2011) is my most personal, and ‘Piano Circle Songs’ (Sony, 2017) the most challenging.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

When I was 5 years old, I said to my piano teacher: “I only want to play the music of Bach, and my own music” She thought I was a cute little boy, and taught me how to play the piano.

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

The complete works for keyboard of J S Bach is a project for a lifetime, not necessarily a season.

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

I like a variety of venues, and also alternating them. There are some fantastic concert halls in Japan for instance, really pristine acoustics. D-Edge, a club in Sao Paulo, Brazil, has a great sound system and vibe.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Probably a show at Jeita Grotto in Lebanon. Stalactites and stalagmites, plus a 7-second reverb.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To be in line with what you do artistically. (Whether this works out commercially speaking is another question)

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

Wake up, listen up, be yourself.

What is your present state of mind?

Aspiring serenity.



Francesco Tristiano’s ‘Piano Circle Songs’ is released on the Sony label. Francesco performs music from his new album, with Canadian pianist and songwriter Chilly Gonzales with whom the project was developed, at the Southbank Centre on 20 September 2017 – details here

Francesco Tristiano’s biography


Artist photo by Marie Staggat

Revelatory late Schubert from Krystian Zimerman

xl1430177I missed Krystian Zimerman’s London concert last April when he stood in for the indisposed Mitsuko Uchida and gave what was by all accounts a remarkable performance of Schubert’s last two sonatas, works written in the dying embers of the young composer’s life yet imbued with nostalgia, warmth, an intoxicating bitter-sweetness and, ultimately, hope.

It’s rare for Zimerman to come to London; even rarer for him to release a new disc. He feels that high-quality digital recordings have created a homogeneous sound and style, robbing art music of spontaneity and leading audiences to expect perfection on disc and in concert (something I largely concur with, based on my regular concert-going). Thus, he’s very particular about what and when he records. This is his first recording of Schubert’s last two sonatas and his first solo album for a quarter of a century – and my goodness it was worth the wait! The recording was made in Japan using a Steinway with Zimerman’s own keyboard (which, incidentally, he made himself) inserted into the instrument (like the great pianists of the past, such as his mentor Arthur Rubinstein, he travels on the condition that his own instruments and/or separate, particularly-voiced keyboards accompany him, to suit the repertoire he is performing). The result is impressive, the bespoke action producing a sweetly singing tone and wonderful clarity. In the liner notes (which take the form of an interview) Zimerman explains that the special piano action “is designed to create qualities Schubert would have known in his instruments. Compared to a modern grand piano, the hammer strikes a different point of the string, enhancing the ability to sustain a singing sound…..

But of course it’s not just the bespoke action which makes Zimerman’s sound so special. No, there is more, much more to this performance. Overall, there is an immaculate sense of pacing, so sensitive and natural; the first movement of the final sonata, for example, unfolds like a great river plotting its final course, the hymn-like first subject theme imbued with joyful purpose which gives the music forward propulsion without ever sounding hurried (it’s a leisurely mässig). In the first movement of the D959, the grandeur of the opening sentence gives way to the wistfulness and intimacy of an impromptu  – and immediately Zimerman’s sense of phrasing is revelatory, shedding light on details hitherto skimmed over by others and demonstrating a complete understanding of Schubert’s architecture and narrative, both within movements and the works as a whole.

Throughout, there is subtle rubato in his contouring of phrases, thoughtful use of agogic accents to highlight intervallic relationships or strikingly piquant harmonies (so much a feature of Schubert’s late music), a Mozartian clarity in the passage work and repeated chords (for example in the development sections of both first movements) and an understanding of Schubert’s very specific rests and fermatas – attention to tiny details which create remarkable breathing spaces and enhance the structural expansiveness and improvisatory character and modernity of this music. Restrained use of the sustain pedal creates transparent textures, most notably in the slow movements: the Andantino of the D959, too often the subject of musical “psychobabble” and emotional wallowing, has a desolate gracefulness in its outer sections which contrast perfectly with the hysteria of the central “storm”. When they come, the Scherzi (both marked Allegro vivace) are light and ebullient, though Zimerman is always aware that Schubert is often more tragic when writing in the major key. In sum, every bar is carefully considered and insightful, yet at no point does this music sound fussy, overly precious or reverential. This is some of the most natural Schubert playing I have encountered and it suggests an artist with a long association with and deep affection for this music

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have spent the last three years studying and learning Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, D959. It has become something of an obsession for me, initially forming the bulk of my programme for a Fellowship Performance Diploma and now a piece of music I simply can’t let go of. I have heard many recordings of the sonata from Schnabel and Cherkassy to Andsnes, Leonskaja and Barnatan, in addition to five live performances (including by Piers Lane, Andras Schiff, Richard Goode and mostly recently Paul Berkowitz). When one spends so much time with a single piece of music, one can grow fussy, pedantically so, about how this music is presented in concert and/or on disc – so much so that I have stopped seeking out the work in concert because I listen far too attentively and critically for my own good…..and talking of “Goode”, the one and only live performance I really enjoyed, the one which left me with the feeling that this was how Schubert would have wanted his music performed, was by the American pianist Richard Goode at the Royal Festival Hall in May 2016 (of which more here). In Krystian Zimerman I have found my new benchmark, not just for the D959 but as a demonstration of how Schubert’s piano music should be played.

Very highly recommended

Such is the spell of your emotional world that it very nearly blinds us to the greatness of your craftsmanship

– Franz Liszt on Franz Schubert


Franz Schubert/Krystian Zimerman/Piano Sonatas D 959 and D 960

Deutsche Grammophon


Music Marathon at St John’s Smith Square 

A free 12-hour MUSIC MARATHON at St John’s Smith Square for Open House London Weekend

At 10am on Saturday 16 September, St John’s Smith Square opens its doors for Open House London Weekend 2017, inviting visitors to experience the stunning Baroque architecture while listening to and participating in musical activities.

There will be 12 hours of non-stop performance, open rehearsal and workshops from 10am on Saturday 16 September until 10pm that evening. All events are free of charge and people are encouraged to drop in at anytime to hear what’s happening. The schedule for the Music Marathon can be found on the St John’s Smith Square website at

This year’s Music Marathon once again has a fantastic selection of pianists throughout the day. Blüthner artist Yuki Negishi performs works by Chopin, Liszt, and Nikolai Kapustin and we welcome back The Cross-Eyed Pianist’s own Frances Wilson with a programme of Britten and Schubert (from 5.15pm). Praised for “exceptional musicianship, poise and supreme confidence” at the Blackheath International Piano Festival, Harriet Stubbs features with Leo Nicholson to perform the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 on our two grand pianos. Késia Decoté returns this year with her programme of piano works by contemporary female composers (including works for toy piano) and Niamh Beddy continues her collaboration with dancer and choreographer Alice Weber to perform Carl Vine’s Piano Sonata No. 1 and a world premiere from Stevon Russell.

Soloists take the stage in the form of young award-winner Emmanuel Sowicz performing classical guitar arrangements of Bach and Scarlatti alongside Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Sonata ‘Omaggio a Boccherini’ Op. 77. International percussionist Beibei Wang brings us Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 on the marimba coupled with a work by kiwi composer John Psathas combining percussion with electronics, and a world premiere of one of Beibei’s own compositions. Having graduated from both the Royal College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, violist Katherine Clarke brings her passion for contemporary music to St John’s Smith Square with works by Garth Knox and Paul Patterson.

The Wall of Sound Singing Ensemble make a welcome return to St John’s Smith Square with their uniquely-styled traditional folk arrangements. We’re also delighted to have back our London International A Cappella Choral Competition 2017 competitors, Iken Scholars, with a programme of Lobo, Scarlatti, and Lotti. 

There is a variety of ensembles participating, from the Eos Trio opening the marathon with Stravinsky, CPE Bach, and Khachaturian, to baroque trio Musicke in the Ayre exploring the repertoire of 16th and 17th century art song from across Europe, accompanied by lute and bass viol. The marathon closes with a very special performance from experimental music collective Echoshed of their new piece Dialogues, written especially for the Music Marathon utilising the different spaces around St John’s Smith Square.

This year will also feature short talks on the history and architecture of St John’s Smith Square from Artistic Director, Richard Heason.

Richard Heason, Director of St John’s Smith Square said: 

“One again we celebrate Open House Weekend with a 12 hour marathon of continual music making at St John’s Smith Square. There’s a huge range of music on offer, with both new and old, familiar and fresh. St John’s will resound to the sound of choirs, orchestras, solo instrumentalists and electronic music and all of it is available to listen to free of charge in this magnificent Grade 1 listed concert hall. Come and join us as we embark on our marathon of music making.”


Full details of the Marathon:


The way is not the only way…..

I’ve never felt drawn to the idea of the definitive performance. Music is a performing art which keeps on changing

– Michael Tippett

When I was learning the piano as a child and teenager, I was led to believe there was a “right” or “standard” way to play Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Debussy et al. I didn’t really question it at the time, partly because I was not sufficiently musically aware nor experienced enough to challenge my then teachers, but growing musical maturity, regular concert-going, curiosity and personal study have made me constantly question “standard” ways of doing things. It seems to me that such standardisation comes from a number of sources:

  • Tradition
  • Teachers
  • Performers
  • Music competitions
  • Critics, commentators, academics
  • Recordings which create “benchmark” or “definitive” performances or set certain performance practices in stone
  • Audiences

Notated music is by its very nature approximate. The score – a sequence of lines, dots, squiggles and words (usually in a foreign language!) – is the closest concrete thing we have to signal the composer’s intent, but even then it is incomplete and should never be regarded as an “instruction manual for playing the music”, for the composer cannot tell us everything within the scope of the printed score. Consider, for example, the myriad dynamic possibilities within one marking piano, depending on composer, period, genre, key, etc. Add to that our own musical knowledge and contextual awareness, maturity, personal taste, experience (and I don’t just mean musical experience, but also life experience), and we have a wide range of possibilities to explore within the framework of the notated score. In effect, the score should be regarded as the jumping off point for much musical exploration and experimentation. This is the start of a wonderful process called “interpretation” which brings the printed score to life.

It troubles me when I come across teachers who firmly believe that their way/approach/interpretation is the only way, and such a dogmatic approach is both narrow-minded and egocentric. I had an encounter with a teacher some years ago when I was at the initial stages of my study of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata. When asked to outline my interpretation of the extraordinary second movement, I was immediately informed that my approach was “wrong”, yet the teacher offered no alternative view. My view did not concur with his, therefore it was simply “wrong”. I found such an inflexible, totalitarian approach rather disrespectful. I was, after all, an intelligent, mature person in my late 40s, not some callow youth in the teacher’s class in conservatoire, and even then, I do not think such a doctrinaire approach is necessary nor even appropriate. It does not encourage or support a student, allow them to develop musically to their full potential nor gain ownership of their music.

Unfortunately, many piano students – both children and adults – lack the confidence and/or musical knowledge/experience to challenge a teacher’s viewpoint and simply suck up what they are told without questioning it. I come across this attitude fairly regularly from adult pianists who attend a lot of piano courses and who play in masterclasses with famous or well-known teacher-pianists. Awestruck in the presence of such greatness, they may take in The Famous Pianist’s comments and statements as “the right way” (the use of pedal, or not, in Bach’s keyboard music, for example) without question. Having the courage of one’s convictions to question a teacher’s view is not always easy: some teachers have very entrenched views, but a good teacher will always be willing to consider an alternative approach and will respect and appreciate the student who asks questions or initiates a debate. Early or intermediate students often lack the musical knowledge or contextual background to give them the confidence to make interpretative decisions about their music, but even the most junior student has an imagination which can be called upon to explore possibilities and experiment within the music, and a good teacher will encourage this. I regularly ask my students “what do you think this music is about?” or “what do you think the composer is trying to say/convey here?“, and remind them that there is no “right way”, that I am keen to hear their thoughts and ideas and help them put them into practice.

Such entrenched views about the “right way” often come to the fore during international music competitions – and one of my personal grouches about competitions is that they seem to promote standardisation in performance because some competitors (and their teachers) feel this is what the judges want. Recall the furore over Lucas Debargue, the “maverick” young French pianist who came fourth in the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition, probably the most prestigious of all the international piano competitions. His playing was wonderful (in my humble opinion) but according to some commentators and critics his scale fingering in certain passages was “wrong”.  Most of us are taught standard scale and arpeggio fingerings and we largely stick with them, because most of the time they work. But there are occasions when a standard fingering scheme is not appropriate and so we adapt to fit the situation. Lucas Debargue had clearly found a fingering scheme which worked for him (it certainly enabled him to get around the keyboard nimbly and to produce a lovely sound): it may not have been a “standard” scheme, but it certainly wasn’t “wrong”! This is a very good example of how editorial markings in the score, specifically fingering schemes, should not be taken as a one size fits all – and in the case of fingering, size matters! Different sized hands may require or benefit from an adapted fingering scheme. The same rule applies to metronome marks which should be taken as advisory: don’t do what an adult student of mine did at his first lesson with me. He played the opening movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 5 at a break-neck speed, littered with inaccuracies and errors – in short, it was an unholy muddle. When I questioned his choice of tempo, he informed me that not to adhere to the given metronome mark was “wrong” and would result in him failing his Grade 8 exam. I pointed out that an examiner, and indeed an audience, would far rather hear a slower account of the sonata’s movement which was notationally accurate, fluent and rich in expression.

While on the subject of tempo, a concert pianist acquaintance of mine was performing the Andantino of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata during which a member of the audience hissed “too fast!” at his choice of tempo (approx. quaver equals 90 bpm). Many famous pianists like to take this movement at an almost funeral Adagio and this anecdote is a neat example of how the performances of the great pianists lead audiences to believe there is only one way, or a “right” way, to play this music.

Many of us have pianists and other performers whom we much admire. Their particular approach may concur with or confirm our own view of how certain works should be performed and then becomes the benchmark by which we measure other performers’ interpretations, and our own. For some, only So-and-So’s interpretation of Bach, or Mozart, will do, an attitude I find almost as inflexible as that of the overly dogmatic teacher’s. In my own concert-going, I try to select concerts based on repertoire rather than performer (though I admit there are certain pianists who I will always try and hear if they are in London – Maria Joao Pires, Mitsuko Uchida, Murray Perahia, Piotr Anderszewski and Marc-André Hamelin, to name a few). This gives me the opportunity to hear a wide range of interpretations of the same music. Such open-minded listening can be revelatory (and occasionally disappointing), and hearing the same pianist play the same repertoire at an interval of several years can be very interesting indeed – proof that one’s interpretation is not set in stone. Glenn Gould’s two recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations are a notable case in point. Sadly, I am noticing more standardisation in concert performances, particularly from younger artists who offer a tasteful, middle of the road approach which they feel will best appeal to audiences and critics. Once again, I suspect the influence of over-bearing didactic teachers, as well as the wide-availability of very high-quality recordings, and the desire to emulate or imitate more senior or highly-regarded international artists.

In my own approach to my music making, I try always to remain open-minded, inquisitive and alert to new possibilities or alternative ways of doing things. The process of experimentation and exploration in practising is exciting and stimulating, it prevents practising from becoming routine or boring (which can kill one’s pleasure and joy in one’s music), and encourages one to see the bigger picture of the music. I believe this approach should also be supported by regular “listening around” the music one is studying, to gain insights into the composer’s distinct soundworld and to hear other musicians’ approaches (not to imitate, but to give one ideas about aspects such as phrasing articulation, dynamics, breathing space, gesture and presentation). In addition, as my inclination tends towards the intellectual, I also like to read about the music I am working on. Such an open-minded and inquisitive approach gives one a much broader picture of the music and leaves one open to many interpretative possibilities. Gradually, as one gets to know the music intimately, a personal approach will emerge, and provided one is convinced by one’s own approach, others will be convinced too.

We are all individuals, and our personal approach to our music will, if we allow it, bring imagination, vibrancy, authority and integrity to our playing. With such an open-minded approach and trust in our musical self, the score becomes a basic road-map for a vivid and varied journey of discovery.

Returning to Sir Michael’s Tippett’s quotation at the beginning of this article, consider for a moment just how many recordings there are of, say, Beethoven’s piano sonatas or Chopin’s Etudes. No two recordings are the same, and no single recording offers “the right way” to play this wonderful music. And why does this repertoire appear so frequently in concert? Because there is still so much to say about it, so much more to be revealed.

I leave you with Richter and Tirimo, two contrasting approaches to the opening movement of Schubert’s Sonata in G, D894.

Scottish International Piano Competition Winner Announced

Turkish pianist Can Çakmur has been named the 11th winner of the Scottish International Piano Competition (SIPC).

The 20-year-old receives £10,000, the Sir Alexander Stone Memorial Trophy and the Frederic Lamond Gold Medal, and will perform with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in their 2018/19 season.

Born in 1997 in Ankara, Can Çakmur has studied at the Hochschule für Music Franz Liszt Weimar, and with Diane Andersen in Belgium. He had won a number of international competitions and awards, appeared in major festivals throughout his native Turkey, and performed as soloist throughout Europe.

Held as a triennial event, the Scottish International Piano Competition this year welcomed 23 competitors from 15 countries across 3 continents. The panel of 8 jurors included internationally acclaimed pianists Steven Osborne and Olga Kern and was chaired by Head of Keyboard at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Aaron Shorr.

Second Prize of £7,500 and the Lawrence Glover Silver Medal went to Florian Mitrea, 27, from Romania. Florian also won best performance of Gordon McPherson’s The Pounding Room, a new work commissioned as the test piece for this year’s competition. Georgian born Luka Okros, 20, now based in the UK, took home the Third prize of £5000 and The Douglas McKerrell Memorial Prize. Finalists prizes were supported by SIPC Patrons and Friends, Merchants House of Glasgow, the McKerrell family and Arnold Clark.

The three finalists all performed a concerto on a Fazioli piano with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under Thomas Søndergård, at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Sunday 10 September. This is the first time a Fazioli piano has been the choice of piano for 100% of the finalists in an international competition.

The concert, dedicated to the memory of Lady Marion Fraser, was recorded by SIPC media partner Classic FM for a Full Works concert to be broadcast at 8pm on Tuesday 19 September 2017. Videos of the performances can be watched here:

Since launching in 1986, the competition has enabled many talented young musicians to gain recognition at an early stage in their professional careers, many of whom have gone on to international acclaim including Tom Poster (2007), Katya Apekisheva (1998), Charles Owen (1995), Susan Tomes (second prize 1986) and Graeme McNaught (first ever winner 1986).

Held under the auspices of the World Federation of International Music Competitions, SIPC is only one of three major international piano competitions held in the UK, and the only one in Scotland.

Source: Vicky Pitchers Arts PR

Photo ©Robin Mitchell 

Meet the Artist……Lisa Smirnova, pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
It was an coincidence that I took up the piano. But later I chose independently to pursue a career as a musician, because I noticed that nothing other than making
music made me feel great.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Practically, it was my teacher Karl Heinz Kaemmerling, and my wonderful colleague, the violinist Benjamin Schmid – both during my studies at Mozarteum in Salzburg. Exposure to Friedrich Gulda and Nikolaus Harnoncourt were turning
points and led to greater inspiration for my musical understanding.

You are performing in the London Piano Festival this October – tell us more about this?
I loved Katya and Charles’ idea of performing what one likes most, and immediately said “yes”. Repertoire from the baroque and classical periods is my best repertoire. My interests and performing style have nothing to do with the “Russian piano school”, and I am deeply convinced that the modern piano offers the widest range of possibilities to create the sound appropriate for these works.
So I chose three composers: Scarlatti – his sonatas, of which there are so many, are one better than the next and always perfect for a discovery. Mozart is simply my favourite composer – I feel very close not only to his music, but to his entire personality. And Handel’s Suite is part of my award winning recording project for ECM.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
To start up from absolute zero with no money whatsoever. And to realize later on, that it is not only the musicianship, but Marketing and PR that you have to put your efforts in – a very disappointing discovery.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
The already mentioned Handel Suites for ECM, and the brand new Mozart Piano Concerti with my New Classic Ensemble Vienna – we just recorded and produced them for the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?
Mozart Piano Concerti

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
It is a mixture between requests from promoters and the works I would like to study or perform again – I try to find challenging combinations.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
The Concertgebouw Amsterdam. Everything feels perfect to me: The size, the acoustics, they always had a wonderful piano when I played…. and the red carpet on the stairs when you come down on stage feels like Hollywood….

Who are your favourite musicians?
Glenn Gould, Maria Callas, Friedrich Gulda, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Andras Schiff

What is your most memorable concert experience?
The one when my “plan” with a certain piece of music worked out, and fortunately there have been many.

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

To be honest, I don’t know, as I am still learning something new myself each day.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Happiness is the flow to be so entirely occupied with what you do at the moment that nothing else exists. Naturally this cannot last your whole life, but also happiness cannot.

What is your most treasured possession?
My time.

Lisa Smirnova performs in the 2017 London Piano Festival at Kings Place in two concerts on 7 October. Further information and tickets here

Austrian-Russian pianist Lisa Smirnova is an internationally recognized concert artist renowned for her interpretations of baroque and Classical repertoire. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recently remarked that her “sense of style, use of phrasing and ornamentation and tempi, that make the piano an instrument of harmony of vibrating strings, gave her performance its transcendent and unmistakable character.”
(picture © Lisa Smirnova)