Category Archives: General

Daniel Trifonov in Chicago

Guest review by Patrick, a musicologist residing in the Midwest

img_0058Daniil Trifonov was annoyed. He walked out on stage with a pained expression, the cheery look of his youth victim of the trials, presumably, of a professional career. After two cursorily rude bows to the audience (which wrapped around the stage entirely), he jumped straight onto the bench, staring – grimacing – at the keys. Kinderszenen contained all of his trademark complexity of line and texture brought about by Trifonov’s utterly unique use of microdislocations – employed continuously throughout the whole set. This technique is the heart of his genius, allowing him to achieve extreme contrasts in texture, voicing, and phrasing of line. Can you think of any other pianist that developed the dislocation to such a degree? While it may seem like a product of his Russian education, is there another Russian pianist today that pursues the same innovation in performance technique? I doubt Trifonov learned in America either – I was certainly never allowed by my teacher to engage in such excesses. Neither can it be said that he is reviving some past performance practice – older Soviet pianists certainly employed dislocation to add emphasis to moments of arrival, but not in the pervasive manner employed here. Furthermore, the traditional type of dislocation – pressing the bass notes before the treble to create a sense of arrival – is decidedly not what one typically hears at a Trifonov concert. He must be taking a lesson from chamber music and vocal accompanying practice. After all, it is somewhat common among good accompanists to delay the bass arrivals until after the attack of the vocal notes fades into resonance. And this type of dislocation, with the bass (and also middle voices) delayed until after the treble, is what makes Trifonov’s artistry so special.

Back to the program: Kinderszenen was a feast to the ears of line and color. Dramatic passages were dispatched with great energy and aplomb. It must be said, however, that Trifonov’s typical lyricism seemed to be dulled this evening – perhaps a result of whatever annoyance was bothering him. The slower passages did not quite have that feeling of magical cessation of time, often miraculously whipped up by the pianist through an ingenious combination of tempo manipulation and textural contrasts. While these techniques were still very much present, there was the deadly feeling of impatience imposed over them. Notwithstanding, I cannot register a complaint, as what may have been lacking in the slower passages were more than made up for by the fire and drama brought to the climactic passages, especially as the recital progressed. The next piece, Schumann’s Toccata, testifies to Trifonov’s brilliance in program construction – after the lapidary miniatures of Kinderszenen, the audience was ready to be whipped into a frenzy, and the ploy worked – numerous people gave a standing ovation to the second piece on the program. The sound world of the Toccata (and of the Schumann in general) is very interesting. It seems to me that Trifonov has entered into a new phase of his career where he is exploring the mid-range of the piano. The Toccata was a great illustration of this, as the soprano and bass voices were hardly ever brought out in favor of a gritty voicing of the middle voice chords filling out the texture (another thing I would never have been allowed to do). This technique robs the Toccata of its flair as a dramatic showpiece with a thundering bass, but gives it a new lease on life by revealing its wacky side (I cannot help but now see a connection to Stravinsky’s Petrushka, occupying the place of finale in the other half of the program). As for the Kreisleriana, the masterwork of the first half, I can firmly declare that Trifonov is peerless in this work. No one other recording or performance that I have ever heard contains even half of his kaleidoscopic conception and range of texture, timbre, and tempo: my companion at the concert (a violinist herself) said that at several points she forgot that she was listening to the piano (an instrument she never took to that much) and instead thought there was a chamber ensemble on stage! Can you think of higher praise for a pianist than that?

Cartoon of Trifonov by @pianistswkitten

After a massive standing ovation for the first half and the pause, Trifonov sprints back out the bench and dives into his selections from Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues. These selections were not chosen in their original order, but arranged for maximum effect – the creepily gorgeous opening prelude leads us through a luscious set of figural fragrances and fabrics before ending with a fugue containing a stormy finish. After this piece, the audience not only stood up to clap, but starting to yell bravos as well – something I have never heard before in the middle of a program – obscuring even the start of the Stravinsky! Even more so than the Schumann works, Shostakovich provided a canvas for Trifonov’s deeply original creativity – the range of sounds coming from the piano was tremendous, but equally matched by a phenomenal sense of dramatic pacing and climactic energy. The metaphor of Trifonov as a chamber ensemble with independent-minded players never seemed more apt. The final work on the program – Stravinsky’s Petrushka and the highlight of the concert – must be heard to be believed. No longer can Petrushka be considered an empty virtuoso vehicle, indeed so much life was added to it that many parts simply did not resemble what we are used to hearing. On top of all the qualities emphasized above (including some marvelously voiced chords and textures), it was Trifonov’s undeniable genius at rhythmic shaping that brought the piece to life. In short, the rhythms were so powerful, the syncopations so strong, the polyrhythms so present, that one could hardly avoid falling out of your seat – indeed Trifonov seemed perilously close falling off the bench has he was what could only be called dancing on the bench. And the music was dancing too, in every nook and cranny of the piece Stravinsky’s vision of the Russian countryside came to life. For the first time, that old wild smile began to appear on Trifonov’s face.

After tremendous applause that began before the piece even finished, the audience was treated to two encores (desperate attempts to garner a third through yelling at the pianist proved unsuccessful). The first was Nikolay Medtner’s Op. 38/8 “Alla Reminiscenza” played at a breakneck speed, building up to a tremendous flourish. Let it be known that I would graciously donate an arm and a leg to hear Trifonov perform the whole set. The second encore was a delightful piece by Prokofiev bringing the nearly 3-hour concert to a close. The concert showed once again that Trifonov is the premier recitalist of the age – it was only marred by a phone endlessly ringing during the Kreisleriana, which, after being supposedly shut off, went on to ring again exactly 30 seconds later.

Concert date: 26 March 2017, CSO Chicago


Schumann – Kinderszenen

Schumann – Toccata, Op. 7

Schumann – Kreisleriana

Shostakovich – Selections from 24 Preludes and Fugues

Stravinsky – Three Movements from Petrushka

Medtner – Alla Reminiscenza from Forgotten Melodies [ENCORE]

Prokofiev – Gavotte from Cinderella [ENCORE]

The Perfectionism Trap


“Practise makes perfect” – that oft-quoted phrase beloved of instrumental teachers the world over…. It’s a neat little mantra, but one that can have serious and potentially long-lasting negative effects if taken too literally.

Musicians have to practise. Repetitive, committed and quality practise trains the procedural memory (what musicians and sportspeople call “muscle memory”) and leads to a deeper knowledge and understanding of the motor and aural components of the music. Practising in this way leads to mastery and enables us to go deeper into our music so that we become intimate with its myriad details, large and small. Meanwhile, setting ourselves high standards is fundamental to our improvement and continued growth as musicians.

But perfectionism is a human construct, an ideal as opposed to a quantifiable reality, and as such it is an impossibility. No matter how hard you practise the fine motor skills involved in playing a musical instrument there is still no guarantee that you will never make a mistake. Go to a concert by the greatest virtuosos in the world and you will hear errors, if you listen carefully. As human beings we are all fallible, and despite our best efforts, we are subject to things outside our control, no matter how long we spend in the practise room.

Unfortunately, the desire for perfection surrounds us in modern society, and the need to achieve perfectionism is inculcated in us from a very young age. “Getting it right” is drilled into children from the moment they enter the formal education system, where they are continually assessed and tested, where correct answers are rewarded with stickers and other symbols of approval and mistakes are regarded as “wrong”.

As musicians, if we carry the unrealistic ideal of perfectionism into our practise rooms we can easily grow frustrated with our playing if it is not note-perfect. This can lead to perpetual feelings of dissatisfaction, resentment and anxiety about practising and performing. It can put undue pressure on the musician, leading to issues with self-esteem, performance anxiety, and even chronic injury, such as RSI and tendonitis. And the striving for this unrealistic goal can destroy our love of the music we play and rob us of joy, spontaneity, expression, communication and freedom in our music making. In short, it can lead us to forget why we make music.
Perfection is not very communicative

Yo-Yo Ma, cellist 
The “practise makes perfect“, and alongside it the “practise until you never make a mistake” mantras encourage unhealthy working habits which lead to mindless, mechanical practising, which in turn can cause us to overlook crucial details in the music. Perfectionism filters into the subconscious and creates a pervasive, hard-to-break personality style, with an unhealthily negative outlook. It prevents us from engaging in challenging experiences and reduces playfulness, creativity, innovation and the assimilation of knowledge – all crucial activities for a musician. If you’re always focused on your own “perfect” performance, you can’t focus on learning a task. Because by making mistakes we learn.

A mistake can and should lead us to evaluate what we are doing: a misplaced chord or run of notes may indicate an awkward or incorrect fingering scheme – something which can be easily rectified. All errors and slips should be seen as opportunities for self-analysis and critique, resulting in self-correction, adjustment, improvement and progress. Repetitive practising should be more sensibly reassigned the mantra “practise makes permanent” – and it is the permanence, an intimate in-depth knowledge of the music, that comes from intelligent practising which ensures that in performance we won’t be derailed by slips or errors, and that we can continue to perform “in the moment” with creativity, freedom and vibrant expression.

People frequently – and wrongly – equate perfection with excellence. While perfectionism is negative and damaging, excellence, on the other hand, is realistic, achievable and positive. Excellence involves enjoying what you are doing, feeling good about what you’ve learned and achieved, it develops confidence and responsiveness and offers continued inspiration. And by striving for excellence we can stay connected with our artistic muse, our desire to make music, and the overall meaning of that music.

‘A Little Night Music’ – a playlist for IDAGIO

Launched in August 2015, IDAGIO is a music streaming platform where musicians can share their recordings and connect with a growing global classical community.

I’ve recently joined the IDAGIO team as a creator/curator of playlists, compiled from their archive of both new and vintage recordings. My first playlist for IDAGIO explores the ‘Nocturne’ – music evocative of the evening and night-time, generally calm, mellifluous, expressive and rather languid in character, perfect for evening or late-night listening.

Listen to the playlist

Read more about IDAGIO here


Learning from Listening


There are many benefits in listening to the repertoire you are working on, on disc and in concert, as well as “listening around” the music – works from the same period by the same composer, and works by his/her contemporaries. Such listening gives us a clearer sense of the composer’s individual soundworld and an understanding of how aspects such as orchestral writing or string quartet textures are presented in piano music, for example. You are unlikely to pick up any nuggets of technique in the concert hall – you’re often too far away from the stage to see details – but listening attentively is helpful. Keep ears and mind alert to details such as articulation, phrasing and breathing space, dynamic shading and nuance, wit and humour, giving rests their full value (or slightly more) to create drama, tempo, and a sense of the overall architecture and narrative of the piece. We should never seek to imitate what we hear, but there is much to be learned from this kind of focused listening and I regularly come away from concerts of music I am working on with new ideas and insights.

Conversely, hearing a performance which I may dislike is never a waste of time. When I heard Andras Schiff perform Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata (in A, D959), a work with which I have spent a long time in recent years, and continue to work on, I found myself balking at certain things he did to the music – not that anything was “wrong”, it was simply not to my taste. But one thing I took away from that performance was his pedantic treatment of rests (Schubert uses rests to create drama, rhythmic drive and moments of suspension or repose) and this has really informed my practising.

In broader terms, hearing a group of pieces in performance is instructive in demonstrating how a good (or bad!) programme is put together. At one time, performers were concerned with things like key relationships between pieces, but now a programme that “works” tends to be one which contains a variety of contrasting moods, tempi and characters which help to create flow from the start of the concert to the end, or which focuses on a particular theme. Audiences – and performers – enjoy different levels of energy within a programme, while a programme with too many longeurs of tempo and mood can seem overly long or dull.

Most of us are limited by our own imagination, experience and knowledge and great performances and interpretations can broaden our horizons, inspire us and inform our own approach to music. But listening at concerts, and particularly to recordings and YouTube clips does have its pitfalls too. Recorded performances capture a moment in time and while they can certainly offer ideas and inspiration, they can also become embedded in our memory and may influence our sense of a piece or obscure our own original thoughts about the music. This may lead us to imitate a magical moment that another performer has found in a note or a phrase – a moment over which that particular performer has taken ownership which in someone else’s hands may sound contrived or unconvincing. It is important that we form our own special relationship with our music, and in order to do that we must investment time and effort in our study, while remaining open-minded and receptive to new ideas or approaches.

The other problem with recordings is that some performers may take liberties with the score to make certain passages or an entire piece more personal. This tends to happen in very well known repertoire, where an artist will put their own mark on the music to make it more distinctively their own, while not always remaining completely faithful to the score. Thus, some recordings may not truly represent what the composer intended, yet these recordings have become the benchmark or “correct” version.

So when we listen we should do so with an advisory note to self: that recordings and YouTube clips can be helpful, but we should never seek to imitate what we hear. It is the work we do ourselves on our music which is most important, going through the score to understand what makes it special, and listening around the music to gain a deeper understanding of the composer’s intentions so that our own interpretation is both personal and faithful.

“Music in its purest form” – Remembering Dinu Lipatti

Guest post by Mark Ainley

Today officially marks the 100th anniversary of Dinu Lipatti’s birth and the fascination with this pianist continues unabated, his name continuing to be held in the highest esteem amongst piano fans and professionals alike due the truly exquisite craftsmanship of pianism found in the few recordings that he made before his premature death in 1950. His traversal of Chopin’s Waltzes is regularly singled out as the reference recording, as are his readings of the same composer’s Barcarolle and Third Sonata, and his Bach First Partita and ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ are among the most beloved Bach piano recordings ever made. It seems that each recorded performance by Lipatti is an example of pianistic mastery on every level – technically, emotionally, interpretatively, spiritually.

There are some who have wondered how much of Lipatti’s posthumous fame is the result of his tragic demise at the age of 33. Indeed, a good deal of mystique may be due to testimonials featuring religious terms: his recording producer Walter Legge said he had ‘the qualities of a saint’ and called him ‘a chosen instrument of God’ while Francis Poulenc apparently referred to him as ‘an artist of divine spirituality’. The story of his last recital in Besançon, France – where he was too weak to play the last Chopin Waltz he had programmed and played ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ instead – reads like something out of a Hollywood melodrama.

(Photo credit: Michel Meusy)

However, Lipatti received abundant praise for his playing and musicianship well before Hodgkin’s Lymphoma took its grip. The grandfather of cellist Steven Isserlis was on the jury of the 1933 Vienna Competition (Lipatti famously did not win first prize, much to Alfred Cortot’s consternation) and came home from the first round raving about “a 16-year old pianist from Romania who was so outstanding that he was convinced that he would win and become a world-beater.” The great Alfred Cortot, with whom Lipatti trained for five years, declared him “a second Horowitz” and stated that there was nothing to teach him – “one could, in fact, only learn from you.” Lipatti’s standing as a world-class pianist was evident in his teens, more than a decade and a half before his death, and his fame continued growing with each year.

The only large-scale solo work that Lipatti set down at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios was the Chopin Third Sonata, which won the Charles Cros Academy’s Grand Prix du Disque in 1949. The magnificent performance features a beautiful robust sonority, elegant phrasing, patrician timing, and subtle nuancing that is utterly beguiling:

Lipatti’s most famous recordings were made in Geneva under rather remarkable circumstances. Bolstered by outrageously expensive cortisone injections (paid for by wealthy patrons like Münch, Menuhin, and Sacher), Lipatti was enjoying renewed vitality and so at his doctor’s suggestion Legge had a van of recording equipment sent to Geneva from the Prades festival. A Radio Geneve studio was procured and over the course of ten days in July 1950 Lipatti set down critically acclaimed readings of works by Bach, Mozart, and Chopin that have never been out of the catalogue. The Bach Partita No.1 is particularly transcendent, with Lipatti’s incredibly consistent articulation and voicing, transparent textures, rhythmic momentum, and stunningly clear projection of motifs:

As remarkable as these performances are, Lipatti’s earlier recordings reveal a pianist with far more fire and bravura. A 1947 reading of Chopin’s Waltz in A-Flat Op.34 No.1 is much more virile, bold, and daring than his well-known 1950 account, with sparkling tone, a grand bass sonority, and brilliant runs, as well as some fascinating ‘breaks’ between phrases:

The recording that gives the greatest glimpse of the fullness of Lipatti’s pianistic and interpretative abilities is his April 1948 account of Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso. With rapid-fire repeated notes, taut rhythmic bite, breathtaking runs of extraordinary lightness, creative voicing and pedalling, and graduated glissandi (4:25-4:31) of staggering ferocity and dynamic control (how that last one fades into the faintest pianissimo!), this is a performance needs to be heard (multiple times) to be believed. It is worth keeping in mind that recordings made on 78rpm discs were unedited, with no tape splicing possible, so what you’re hearing is exactly what he played:

The pianist’s last public performance has become the stuff of legend and the recording of that recital is one of the glories of the gramophone. The emotion of the concert comes through in the recording, as well as in images by local photographer Michel Meusy – the transfixed look of intensity on the faces of the audience members reveals the magnetism of the event, and those who were present stated that it was clear that Lipatti did not have long to live (he died 11 weeks later). Most intoxicating to my ears is his mournful reading of Schubert’s G-Flat Impromptu, with a gorgeous singing line soaring over an undulating murmur in the accompaniment, with gloriously peaked phrasing with fluid legato:

A century after Dinu Lipati’s birth, his legacy continues to grow. There are now two websites devoted to his memory – and – and new publications are forthcoming, with a new edition of his biography being published in Romania alongside the first ever publication of a series of his letters (currently in Romanian but due to be translated). And new recordings by this supreme musician are coming to light: 15 minutes of previously unpublished material – private discs of Scarlatti and Brahms – was recently discovered and will be released in a multi-pianist compilation on the Marston Records label, and the search for more continues. In the meantime, we can continue to enjoy the stellar playing of this master musician, whose playing was, in the words of Herbert von Karajan, “no longer the sound of the piano but music in its purest form.”


Mark Ainley is an internationally recognized authority on the art of piano playing and historical recordings of great pianists. His clear insights provide important details about the mastery of the pianists of the past and present through his magazine articles, blog (The Piano Files) and social media pages, CD productions and liner notes, and lecture-demonstrations.

More about Mark Ainley here

Slowly, and with feeling

The opening track of pianist Lucas Debargue’s debut album is a fleeting sonata by Scarlatti (K 208). It’s a miniature miracle of control, voicing and expression, its emotional impact helped in no small part by the pianist’s choice of tempo and tasteful use of rubato. Here and there he lingers over the more piquant harmonies or intervals, creating delicious moments of suspense and delayed gratification.

It’s a wonderful opener to a fine debut disc, and the tempo of the piece has the effect of drawing the listener in, encouraging concentrated engagement with music and performer. In a live performance, opening a concert with a slow or slower work can have a very special effect on the audience: it causes them to focus on the music, to listen intently.

Tempo can have a profound effect on the way we respond to music. Upbeat or rapid music can raise the heart rate, blood pressure and skin response, making us more excited, more alert (why else do people choose fast-paced music as the soundtrack to exercise such as running or cycling?). Conversely, slow music is often used for meditation or relaxation because it has the effect of slowing the heart rate which makes us feel more calm. Listeners, especially the non-specialist listener, will normally equate slowness in music, particularly in classical music, with seriousness or more profound emotional content, and a performer’s choice of tempo can deliberately lead the listener into a particular emotional realm.

Some well-known works now seem to come with “standardised” tempi which have been set in stone by certain performers, critics, teachers, recordings, scholars and so forth. Take the Marche Funèbre from Chopin’s Piano Sonata No 2, for example: more often than not this is played as a ponderous Lento which immediately evokes (for those of us of a certain age) the passing of Soviet leaders. It’s sombre and gloomy, but if the tempo is increased very slightly, in the right hands it becomes majestic and proud, the contrasting Trio lyrical and eloquent. Similarly, the funeral march from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Op 26 (which was played at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral): this is actually marked Maestoso (“majestic”) and too plodding a tempo will rob the music of its heroic grandeur (and Beethoven is quite specific in his marking in the score that this movement is a funeral march on the death of a “hero”).

I wonder whether audiences have received notions about the speed of certain works, notions which are perhaps inculcated in them by certain acclaimed pianists, critics, and benchmark recordings where a not inconsiderable “bending of the rules” of the score has taken place and a new standard way of performing the work is thus established and acknowledged by many to be the “right” way (the subject for a future article).

Perhaps one of the most extreme examples of tempo “rule bending” comes from the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter in his reading of the first movement of Schubert’s G major Sonata, D894, where his interpretation of the Molto moderato tempo marking really pushes the boundaries of what is understood by the term “moderato”. Moderato usually means “not rushing or dragging” and Schubert often uses the German marking “mässig” in relation to Moderato, which implies the calm flow of a measured allegro. Coming in at 25 minutes (the length of an entire Beethoven piano sonata), Richter’s version is not rushing anywhere! For some this Moderato-verging-on-Adagio is far too slow, but there is, for me (and others), something about the concentrated, meditative yet expansive quality which Richter brings to it which convinces. Not everyone can pull it off, and most pianists prefer a walking pace moderato. In the right hands, the first subject of the movement retains some of the same qualities which Richter brings to it. Here is Sokolov, where his treatment of the dotted rhythms brings a lightness and dance-like quality to the first subject:

And here is Richter:

I’ve been pondering the nature of tempo, in particular slowness in music, as I continue to work on Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, D959. As noted in earlier articles on this work, the second movement preoccupies pianists, scholars and audiences more than any of the other movements of the sonata. It is generally acknowledged to be the most extraordinary piece of music ever written by Schubert, and many believe it is a direct musical manifestation of his mental state and his response to his illness (advanced syphilis), with its melancholy opening and closing sections, and frenzied middle section.

In terms of its tempo, it is marked Andantino, a rather ambiguous direction: as the diminutive form of Andante, Andantino should indicate a slower tempo than Andante, but  since the 19th century it has actually came to mean the opposite. It is absolutely not the same as Adagio, which means slow and stately, yet some pianists, who shall be nameless, treat this movement of the D959 with an almost funereal slowness, perhaps in the belief that slow equals profound emotion and seriousness, thus heightening the audience’s perception of the composer’s feelings of depression, melancholy, despair, impending death etc.

By choosing to take the Andantino at a funereal tempo, I feel the pianist is at once misinterpreting the direction indicated by the composer and forcing his or her opinion of how the music should sound upon the audience, emphasising the belief that the slower the speed, the more profound the music will appear. In fact, I am not even sure this is done deliberately: the interpretation may have been handed down to that pianist from a teacher or mentor, or is an imitation of another, greater pianist’s interpretation….. But for me, the profundity and emotional depth comes not from the tempo, but from the way in which the music is structured and organised.

So how does Schubert create such extremely emotional music? First, the key of the movement is curiously alien from the first movement – and yet it shouldn’t be because it is cast in f-sharp minor, the relative minor of A Major. But the opening movement avoids proper references to this harmony except for a few places towards the end of the exposition and thus the second movement seems very remote indeed. Secondly, there is the sense of stasis which Schubert creates in the opening section. The movement begins with a poignant melody full of sighing gestures portrayed by falling seconds over a simple barcarolle-like accompaniment. The hypnotic main melody recalls ‘Der Leiermann’ from Winterreise, and an almost static quality is created in the opening section through restrained melodic repetitions within a narrow register. It feels constrained and restricted.

Daniel Barenboim has described the opening section of this movement as “a melancholy folksong”, a description which has informed my approach, and which for me suggests a lilting rather than a plodding tempo. Played well, at around 90 BPM (the speed at which I choose to play it), the lyrical melody with its sighing gestures creates a feeling of stasis and melancholy contemplation without the need for extreme slowness.

Some may argue that a faster tempo will lessen the impact of the middle section, but in my experience, as a player and listener, this is not the case. Again, it is Schubert’s careful handling of material which creates the drama. The middle section unfolds like a Baroque fantasia, improvisatory in character and growing ever more dramatic with extremely harsh modulations. The music continues to build with increasing savagery via extreme registers, the use of trills to sustain tension, and the sub-dividing of notes to create thicker textures, increased propulsion and a sense of “hysteria”. The music eventually arrives at c-sharp minor, culminating in dramatic fortissimo chords. After this climax, a recitative-like section follows, repeatedly disrupted by sforzando chords. It is as if we have run up a mountain with Schubert, stared into the abyss, and then pulled back from the edge of the cliff at the last moment. Or to have been battered by a fierce storm only to look up and see a shaft of light in the louring sky as the music settles back into the landscape of the opening.

Of course there are some very fine performances in which the performer’s choice of tempo for this movement is decidedly slow, and while these are not to my taste, I can understand why the pianist may have made that particular interpretative decision. I have compiled a playlist to offer some comparison between different performances – it is interesting to note the wide range of timings, from a mere 6:16 to 9:25. I have also included some recordings of the opening movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op 27/2 (‘Moonlight’), another work in which the choice of tempo is quite varied.

London Piano Festival 2017 announced

“This piano day was altogether exemplary

Sunday Times | October 2016

Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva announce a Russian-themed programme for the second annual London Piano Festival, which runs from Thursday 5 to Sunday 8 October at Kings Place, London. The stunning line-up of pianist’s include Nelson Goerner, Ilya Itin, Lisa Smirnova, Jason Rebello, Danny Driver and Melvyn Tan. Co-Artistic Directors Owen and Apekisheva have commissioned Russian-born British composer Elena Langer to compose a new work and they perform her Kandinsky during the Two-Piano Marathon on 7 October.   Melvyn Tan gives the world premiere of a new composition by Kevin Volans.

The Festival links all aspects of the piano together, from traditional recitals to a family concert and jazz-fusion.  The inaugural festival last year was met with critical acclaim and enthusiasm from audiences in particular for the spirited Two-Piano Marathon, which saw multiple pianists grouping in different configurations with colleagues.
“This year’s concerts promise to build upon the excitement of the previous festival with many more superb artists, all of whom will perform music with which they feel a special affinity”
Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva, co-Artistic Directors

On the opening night Charles Owen performs music by Brahms, Schumann-Liszt, Liszt and Wagner-Liszt, and Katya Apekisheva performs Tchaikovsky and Weinberg, followed by a second-half duo recital of Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 2 and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances.On Friday 6 October, Argentine pianist Nelson Goerner will give a solo recital of Chopin, Albéniz and Liszt.  Goerner states that “Chopin is one of the closest composers to my heart […] he played an important role in my destiny as a musician”.  As a contrast, Goerner has chosen to pair the Chopin Nocturnes with music by Albéniz and Liszt.

To kick off Saturday’s daytime, bite-size recitals, Austrian-Russian pianist Lisa Smirnova brings a programme of Scarlatti, Mozart and Handel to Kings Place at 11:30am.  Smirnova has chosen repertoire by Scarlatti and Handel, who she described as “two of the most amazing keyboard virtuosos of their time” and pairs them with her favourite composer, Mozart.

Melvyn Tan’s afternoon recital on 7 October is centered around the world premiere of South-African composer Kevin Volans’ L’Africaine.   Tan explains that the piece “will spike the listener with vigorous rhythms and chants from the Continent”.  Tan has paired the premiere with Weber’s Invitation to the Dance and Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales and Miroirs.  

Described by the New York Times as “a brilliantly insightful pianist”, Russian pianist Ilya Itin has put together a programme of Schubert and Rachmaninoff for his afternoon recital.  As Itin states “there is an unusually grand scope and great sense of a journey into uncharted territory for both composers”, which he feels will be both challenging and rewarding for the audience.  Itin won the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1996.

For the Two-Piano Marathon, Saturday recitalists come together with Owen, Apekisheva and Danny Driver for an evening of duets in different combinations.  With a programme of John Adams, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Schumann, Shostakovich, Lutoslawski and the world premiere of Kandinsky by Elena Langer, the evening promises to be very special for both performers and audience alike.  Kandinsky is inspired by a selection of Kandinsky paintings to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution (8 March – 7 November 1917). This follows last year’s commission of Nico Muhly’s Fast Patterns (watch here). The Telegraph stated that last year’s Two Piano Marathon was “a reminder of what a fabulous variety of sound can be conjured from two pianos.  

Elena Langer wrote that “Katya and Charles asked me to write a short piece for their Festival. They wanted something connected to the 1917 Revolution. I was looking at pictures by Wassily Kandinsky from the same year: colourful, bold works which are very Russian, but also strange and unique. None of them actually depicts the Revolution, as if it weren’t happening! I would like my piano piece to achieve something similar in spirit.”

Owen and Apekisheva want the Festival to appeal to piano lovers of all ages. Following the success of last year’s family concert with Noriko Ogawa, Owen, Apekshieva and Driver present a children’s programme of Poulenc’s Babar the Elephant and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, narrated by actor Simon Callow (subject to availability).

The Festival finishes with a performance by jazz-fusion artist Jason Rebello.  Rebello has explained “I like to think that when you come to hear me play, you come on a journey with me and we both arrive at a joyful place together”.  He will perform material from his recent album ‘Held’ which won the Best British Jazz Album award in 2016, in addition to music from Sting to Errol Garner and beyond.

Explore the full programme

Critics’ response to inaugural London Piano Festival in 2016

***** “A reminder of what a fabulous variety of sound can be conjured from two pianos” Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph

***** “A remarkable evening of exceptionally fine pianism and inventive programming, hugely enjoyable and highly engaging” Frances Wilson (The Cross-Eyed Pianist), Bachtrack

“This piano day was altogether exemplary” Paul Driver, The Sunday Times


[Source: Nicky Thomas Media]

The Cross-Eyed Pianist Supports BAPAM

Frances Wilson (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist) is fundraising for the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM), a  unique charity set up to help musicians and other performers to stay healthy.


BAPAM holds free clinics where musicians (including music teachers) can obtain a free consultation with a clinician who has an expertise in problems affecting performers. These might include, among other conditions, playing-related injuries and pain, tension, hypermobility, voice problems, performance anxiety and stress.

BAPAM’s clinicians are from a wide range of backgrounds. They include general practitioners, physiotherapists, osteopaths, psychologists, rheumatologists and orthopaedists. These practitioners have a special interest in musicians’ health and well-being and many are musicians themselves with a deep understanding of the physical and emotional demands of the musician’s life.

Frances and other musician friends and colleagues have benefitted from consultations with BAPAM’s specialist practitioners, including physiotherapists and hand specialists, in addition to attending workshops and study days on musicians’ health and well-being.

Please make a donation to enable BAPAM to continue its important work.

Thank you in advance for your support

Stepping Back in Time at Wigmore Hall

For one night only, audiences at the Wigmore Hall were treated to a glimpse of the hall’s origins, in those pre-First World War days when it was Bechstein Hall and home to the German piano maker C. Bechstein’s London showroom.


When Bechstein Hall opened in 1901, Bechstein was Europe’s leading piano maker (it produced 5000 pianos in 1901),  its instruments preferred by most pianists outside America, where Steinway predominated. The Bechstein piano company built similar concert halls in Paris and St Petersburg to showcase its instruments and the leading performers and singers of the day. With its special barrel roof “shoebox” design, beloved of many musicians, the hall still boasts a fine acoustic, while its small size (its capacity is c600 seats) makes it the perfect place to enjoy intimate chamber and piano recitals.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Bechstein Hall on London’s Wigmore Street was promoted as the best of places for intimate music making, and boasted unrivaled comfort and facilities for patrons and artists with its elegant green room up a short flight of stairs behind the stage (so that singers did not arrive on stage breathless). At the time of its opening, concert life and leisure in general in London were enjoying something of a revolution. Theatres and music halls were opening across the west end, a wide public was being introduced to the experience of shopping for pleasure in the new “department stores” (Selfridges is a mere 10 minute walk, at the most, from Wigmore Street), and with cheap and efficient public transport, it was easy for people to enjoy these delights in the centre of the metropolis. A new breed of international concert promoters, agents and impresarios, such as Robert Newman, who with conductor Henry Wood founded the world-famous Proms, were dedicated to organising high-quality recitals, and Bechstein Hall alone scheduled two hundred concerts a year.

During the First World War, it became increasingly difficult for Bechstein Hall to trade viably. Strong anti-German sentiments and the passing of the Trading with the Enemy Amendment Act 1916 led to the hall’s closure in June 1916, and all property including the concert hall and the showrooms was seized and summarily closed. The hall was sold at auction to Debenhams, was rechristened Wigmore Hall and opened under its new name in 1917. Today Wigmore Hall enjoys an international reputation for high-quality music in an elegant and intimate setting.

To give the modern audience a flavour of those halcyon pre-war days of concertising in London, the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard gave a concert on an 1899 Bechstein grand piano, a piano which may well have been sold out of the Bechstein piano showroom next door to the hall on Wigmore Street.  The concert, which included music by composers active at the time when the Bechstein piano company was at the height of its powers, was preceded by a talk with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Peter Salisbury, a leading piano technician who restored the piano, and composer Julian Anderson, whose work ‘Sensation’, written for Pierre-Laurent, had its London premiere at the concert.

As Pierre-Laurent Aimard explained, the event was the culmination of a long-held dream: to present a concert of the kind of repertoire and composers – and instrument – contemporary with the hall when it first opened. Peter Salisbury talked about the difficulties of preparing a piano for a specific hall, for each space has its own distinct acoustic and the piano must be adjusted and voiced to suit venue, performer and repertoire. When the 1899 Bechstein was brought into Wigmore Hall, Peter noted how closely instrument and venue suited each other, evidence that Bechstein built concert halls to showcase their instruments at their best – and vice versa!

Prior to the First War, piano design and manufacture was still evolving, and each make had its own distinct sound and character. Bechsteins of this period are notable for their special resonance and projection, which result from their manufacturing process. Pierre-Laurent commented on the piano’s uniquely rich palette of colour and tones, combined with great clarity. Every note seems to have “many overtones”, resulting in an orchestral sound which is rich but not cloying.

For composer Julian Anderson, the Bechstein piano has a special place in his life: his own piano is a 1913 Bechstein, passed on to him from his father, and is the instrument on which he composes. He admitted a “great affection for the Bechstein tone”, and that it has a range of colour which “encourages metaphor” and makes it easier to imagine other sounds or instruments when composing.

The 1899 Bechstein has been restored by Peter Salisbury and retains the original soundboard and bridge. A new mechanical action was fitted to provide technical accuracy, with new hammers voiced according to Bechstein’s original sound concert. An attractive instrument with a polished black case with scrolled details, the piano has turned legs and a fan-shaped music desk. The instrument is 275 cms (9 foot)long, with 88 notes (not all pianos were at that time – my Bechstein has 85 keys), and it took 3 months to rebuild it fully. For Peter the piano represents “a portal to the past, a lost era of tonal distinction”.

Peter Salisbury’s 1899 Bechstein concert grand on the stage at a Wigmore Hall

After 1910, piano design and manufacture became standardised across makes, and today most concert pianos (most commonly Steinway) have a consistency of sound and touch which enables performers to move fairly effortlessly between a piano in a Tokyo concert hall and one in London or New York. Concert pianos have also grown bigger to project into larger halls, and in the 10 years that I’ve been going t concerts regularly, I’ve noticed the sound of these pianos is, generally, much brighter and often quite strident.

As the owner of a 1913 Bechstein model A, I was very curious to hear this slightly older piano in a concert setting in an acoustic for which it was built. The programme included music by Liszt (the first version of Harmonies poétiques et religieuses), Scriabin and Debussy (both of whom owned Bechstein pianos), Julian Anderson (b.1967)!and Nikoly Obukhov, a colouristic Russian composer whose music bridges the Russian and French compositional traditions of the first decade of the twentieth century. The first half of the concert proceeded without interruption for applause (something with several audience members near me seemed to find quite “difficult”, though I enjoyed the flow of music from one composer to another). From the first notes of the Liszt, I felt I was hearing my own piano in concert – those distinct resonances and layers of colour which drew me to my instrument when I first played it in my tuner’s workshop were made more explicit in Pierre-Laurent’s hands. A surprisingly deep bass resonance, but clear and bell-like, without the chocolatey Sachertorte richness of a Bosendorfer, and a remarkable sustain with unexpected harmonics evident in the sound decay. In the Scriabin pieces, the piano’s multi-faceted sound came to the fore, responding perfectly to Scriabin’s sensual textures with harmonies superimposed on different registers and layered overtones.

The selection of Debussy’s Études was particularly fascinating. Here Pierre-Laurent balanced clarity with tonal sensitivity and the studies burst into to life with delightful shifting colours. The sweet lucid treble was wonderful, so different to the rather strident treble sound one finds in modern instruments, and there were further opportunities to enjoy this sound in the works by Julian Anderson and Nikolay Obukhov. Despite the piano’s resonance and sustain, there was no sense of the sound being too big or overly domineering (again an issue, for me at least, with modern concert grands in medium-sized or small venues). For me, the highlights of the evening, aside from the opportunity to hear this period piano in concert, were the works Debussy and Obukhov – had I not seen the programme, I would have thought the latter was post-Vingt Regards Messiaen, yet this was music written prior to the Russian Revolution, avant-garde and way ahead of its time.

Wigmore Hall today (photo: The Telegraph)

One stick or more? Piano concertos for conductors and soloists

5f3e69_e385f87332164cdbbb4075d6aa12adf3Guest post by conductor and artistic director Tom Hammond

Two of my ambitions as a conductor are to maximise communication within ensembles (sounds simple, but isn’t), and to make concerto soloists feel like they are being accompanied by their own musical shadow.

If I can see the eyes, face, bows and fingers of the soloist I and the orchestra are accompanying, I can go with breath, speed of bow, a nod of a head or other subtle physical gesture… but when it’s a piano concerto, this is often impossible.

Nine times out of ten there’s no chance to see the fingers on the keyboard, I’m not close enough to hear inbreaths (which not every pianist makes audibly anyway) and if I try to lock on to eyes for an extra mode of communication – I can lose the connection with the orchestra. Basically – it’s all behind me!

In a recent performance of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ I even had the acoustic challenge of a piano that was (on the biggest stick) projecting beautifully into the hall, but away from my ears and couldn’t necessarily hear every note. Quite scary when picking up ends of cadenzas, I can tell you….

My solution is often simply not to even try more than a little eye contact for starts and ends of movements, and then rely totally on my ears. That’s sometimes harder than it might sound, as piano concerti often contain the trickiest technical moments for conducting; bringing in a tutti or a solo instrument off the back of a cascade of rapid notes when, with a string concerto for example, you can also use visual contact as well as aural. Moments in the Rachmaninov Paganini Variations and indeed ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ can really sort the men and women from the boys and girls in conducting terms…

All this led to me wondering how pianists feel about working with orchestras and conductors, and what factors might help make a performance comfortable at the very least, and something special at best. Two pianists I am accompanying in the coming weeks – Stephen Hough and Alissa Firsova – took time out of their hectic schedules to answer a few questions.


May0031407 Stephen Hough for DT ArtStephen Hough

What worries you most before a new concerto project? Is it the instrument, the orchestra, the conductor or the piece of music?
I never worry about the instrument until I see it. But with a new piece there is the uncertainty of how it will actually sound (or rather feel) in that first rehearsal. No amount of preparation prepares you for the oboe or horn or violas coming at you from that particular angle on stage. And because a collaboration with a conductor is like a blind date well … when the mask comes off who knows what to expect!
Have you ever found the ‘perfect’ position on stage for being able to communicate with a conductor during performance? How much is eye contact desirable?
I normally have a good view of the conductor’s buttocks which doesn’t help much … No, but seriously I don’t need eye to eye contact but out of the corner of my eye I’m taking in body language all the time and at certain crucial moments THE STICK!

How much rehearsal time do you like to have?
As much as we need is nice, but not more. I don’t like thrashing the details out until everyone’s exhausted. A little spontaneity is essential. But with certain pieces decisions have to be made, especially with the great works, the Brahms and Beethoven concertos for example.

Which concerti would you like to direct from the keyboard, but have never had the chance?
I’d be curious to try the two Brahms sometime, if only to decide that it didn’t work.


5f3e69_d3be6bedc9d64af0897015aab598ebdcmv2-1Alissa Firsova

What worries you most before a new concerto project? Is it the instrument, the orchestra, the conductor or the piece of music?
“Worry” is not a feeling that comes to mind when embarking on a new concerto project, but rather “excitement”, “curiosity”, “joy” and “gratitude” for the opportunity to take on a challenge and join forces with the conductor and orchestra to explore a remarkable piece of music. However out of the 4, the greatest achievement and dedicated work lies in the process of learning the piece and trying to master it to the best possible ability. Then when meeting the conductor and orchestra for the first time, it becomes a celebration. A bit like a process of making a cake: taking good care of all the ingredients, cooking it at the right temperature and for the right amount time, and then, eating it – the party begins! What I love about musical interpretation is that it is endless. It is so interesting to be able to get to know a new conductor and their personality and see what their ideas are about the piece, when there is a chance to play though sections and explore different ideas, this is gold-dust. I think it’s always important to have an open approach, to try new things, to be flexible in being able to adapt to a different acoustic or instrument or time of day.

Have you ever found the ‘perfect’ position on stage for being able to communicate with a conductor during performance? How much is eye contact desirable?
I think it is ideal to have the opportunity for eye-contact, for those few “magic moments”. Other than that, the most important thing is the listening. When that is completely in sync and focus with everyone, then we might as well be blind-folded. But sometimes it’s nice to be able to communicate visually, to bring that other dimension and to respond to each other. I’ve always felt at home having the orchestra around me. It gives a great support and warmth, a feeling of being all in it together, and the conductor marries the soloist with the orchestra. The priceless moments are those spontaneous ones during the concert, where everyone suddenly takes time or creates a new nuance that didn’t happen in the rehearsals. Thats when you know total ‘oneness’ has been reached.

How much rehearsal time do you like to have?
Even though ideally one would like to have as much rehearsal time as possible, in order to keep trying different things and perfecting corners as well as getting used to the overall structure and pacing of the piece, it’s also important to leave room for the spontaneity and freshness for the concert. I like to have one rehearsal before the day of the concert, and one on the day, an extra rehearsal could be a bonus.

Which concerti would you like to direct from the keyboard, but have never had the chance?
 Mozart Piano Concertos No. 21 in C and No. 27 in B flat
Tom Hammond conducts piano concerti by Beethoven and Brahms, with Stephen Hough and Alissa Firsova respectively, on 18th March and 6th May. Full details here