Ensemble La Notte announce the release of their second recording, La Folia, a selection of baroque repertoire on the themes of chaos, madness and the bizarre.

Released to coincide with the anniversary of Telemann’s birth, and at a time when the world is still grappling with the chaos of a global pandemic, La Folia is particularly appropriate for our curious times.


From the liner notes:

Nowadays, we often associate the characteristics of Baroque music with order, but before the 17th century, the word “baroque” was used to describe art, architecture and music that was irregular, extravagant and ornate. French philosopher Michel de Montaigne associated the term ‘baroco’ with that which was ‘bizarre, and uselessly complicated’ – and this is how baroque music must have sounded to those used to the Renaissance style.

Many of the descriptive titles in this programme suggest these ideas of madness and chaos, and were often used to show a deliberate contrast to music that was more orderly. This CD is a celebration of this baroque idea of the bizarre, the chaotic and the mad, explored over a vast range of styles, nationalities and musical forms.


Launch video:

Track list:

Jean-Féry Rebel (1666 – 1747) arr. M.Wilson – ‘Le Chaos’, from Les Élémens & ‘Les Caractères de la Danse’

George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759) – Trio Sonata Op.2 no.5 in g minor, HWV 390a

Nicola Matteis (c.1670 – c.1720) – ‘Diverse bizzarie Sopra la Vecchia Sarabanda ò pur Ciaccona’

Nicholas L’Estrange (1603 – 1655) – Collected antimasque music: ‘The Furies’ and ‘The Apes Dance at the Temple’

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681 – 1767) – Trio Sonata in d minor, TWV 42:d10

Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695) – ‘Dance for the Green Men’ Act 3 from ‘The Fairy Queen’, Z 629

Jean Philippe Rameau (1683 – 1764) – ‘Les Sauvages’ from Les Indes Galantes

Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741) – Trio Sonata in d minor Op 1 no. 12 ‘La Folia’, RV 63

 

Performers:

Kate Allsop – Recorders

Maxim Del Mar – Violin

Mark Wilson – Bassoon

Mary Walton – Cello

Jonatan Bougt – Theorbo

Callum Anderson – Harpsichord

Recorded at St Francis of Assisi Church, Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, UK, 5 – 10 April 2021


For further press information, review copies and interviews, please contact Frances Wilson 

Books about piano journeys are rare and valuable – especially those written from the perspective of the amateur player.

A new book, by late-returner pianist and ex-technologist Howard Smith, adds to the genre and does so in a surprising (and delightful) fashion. In this article I list the six books I have read, and compare and contrast the approach each (very different) author has taken in narrating their adventures in pianism. My reading list comprises:

1. Piano Notes, The hidden world of the pianist, Charles Rosen

2. Piano Lessons, Music, love & true adventures, Noah Adams

3. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, Discovering a forgotten passion in a Paris atelier, Thad Carhart

4. Piano Pieces, Russell Sherman

5. Play It Again, An amateur against the impossible, Alan Rusbridger

6. Note For Note, Bewitched, bothered & bewildered, Howard Smith


589578._uy200_Piano Notes, The Hidden World of the Pianist, by Charles Rosen (first published in the USA by The Free Press in 2002., republished by Penguin in 2004).

The late Charles Rosen, a distinguished concert pianist, music critic and author of The Classical Style and its sequel The Romantic Generation, provides an eloquent description of the ‘delights and demands’ of the piano. The author explores every aspect of the instrument, from the physical challenges of technique to the subtle art of creating a beautiful tone, to the culture and foibles of conservatories and contests. The book is structured as a set of connected essays, scholarly in approach but highly readable and accessible. I read this book when I was beginning a tentative return to the piano in my late 30s and found Rosen’s wisdom inspiring and insightful.

9780385318211_p0_v2_s260x420Piano Lessons, Music, Love & True Adventures, by Noah Adams. Published in 1997 (Delta/Random House), the book explores why a fifty one-year old man would suddenly decide he has to own a grand piano: a Steinway. Adams, a radio journalist and host of NPR’s flagship news program All Things Considered, sets out a month-by-month chronicle of one year spent pursuing his passion for the piano. The book is packed with anecdotes beyond the telling of his own story of obsession, covering such diverse worlds as Bach, Pop, boogie-woogie, and is littered with his recollection of meeting with or speaking to masters such as Glenn Gould, Leon Fleisher and George Shearing. Adams is a consummate writer, and as each month and season in his year long journey spins by, culminating in his surprise ‘Christmas Party performance’ of Schumann’s Traumerei from Scenes from Childhood, he reflects on what could have been. ‘There’s been a secret, hiding in my heart about this piano-learning endeavor: Perhaps I do have a talent and no one knows.’ Adam’s dedication is ‘For all who would play’. Written by an amateur pianist who sets himself on a path to master the piano, this book is an engaging, entertaining and inspiring read whose sentiments will resonate with others on a similar journey.

9781407016979The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier, by Thad Carhart, became a New York Times Bestseller. First published in 2001 the book tells the story of how, while walking his children to school, the author chances upon an unassuming piano workshop in his Paris neighbourhood. Curious, he eventually wins the trust of the owner and is gradually introduced to the complexities of the engineering of pianos old and new, as well as the curiosities of the unique style of ‘trade’ in pianos between dealers, professionals and amateurs who wish to acquire distinctive and beautiful instruments. Along the way we learn much of the rich history and art of the piano, and the stories of those special people who care for them.

The parallel story is how the author returns to playing the piano by acquiring a Stingl grand piano and taking lessons himself – and here the “piano journey” once again resonates with those of us who have taken up, or returned to the instrument later in life.

It’s a captivating read, the boulevards and backstreets of Paris brought to life in an atmospheric and engaging narrative, and and author reveals a special awareness of the special attachment pianists, professional and amateur, have to their instruments. In an appendix titled ‘A Readers’ Guide’, Cahart explains how pianos occupy a special place in people’s lives. ‘Musically, they are unique,’ he explains. ‘But they are also just too big to ignore … Pianos are truly amazing receptacles of memory and emotion for many families’.

b45d34f1d09b64b19a931d666a4b8eecPiano Pieces, by Russell Sherman. Described by The New Yorker as ‘Startling … dreamily linked observations about the experience of piano playing and a thousand other unexpected subjects’. Sherman’s book is cerebral, esoteric and at times philosophical in its ruminations on the physical, metaphysical and emotional activity of playing the piano and being a pianist. It is packed with profound ponderings and thought-provoking insights, and although it is written by a professional pianist, it is relevant to anyone who plays and/or teaches the piano. For example, on coordination he says: ‘Coordination is what the teacher must begin and end with. As I stand next to my student I feel dangerously like a puppeteer trying to guide him or her through the vortex of ideas and feelings. I console myself in the realization that eventually students will internalise this role and learn to master their own fate’. In another ‘thought’ he simply writes: ‘When one plays Beethoven one must serve Beethoven. No, one must represent Beethoven. No, one must be Beethoven’. An unusual contemplation on the piano and what it means to “be” a pianist.

9780099554745Play It Again, An Amateur Against The Impossible, by Alan Rusbridger, is almost certainly the most well-known of the books in this niche genre. In 2010, the then editor of the Guardian newspaper, set himself an ‘almost impossible’ task: to learn, in the space of a year, Chopin’s Ballade No. 1, considered one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire that inspires dread in many professional pianists. Written in the form of diary extracts, the book charts not only his adventures with the Ballade, a project he likens to George Mallory attempting to climb Everest “in tweed jacket and puttees”, but also an extraordinarily busy year for his newspaper (The Guardian) and the world in general: the year of the Arab Spring and the Japanese Tsunami, Wikileaks and the UK summer riots, and the phone hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Enquiry. Despite this, somehow the author managed to find ‘twenty minutes practice a day’ – even if it meant practising in a Libyan hotel in the middle of a revolution. Much of the book is a glimpse into Alan Rusbridger’s “practice diary”, his day-to-day responses to learning the piece. For the serious amateur pianist and teacher, Rusbridger’s analysis, virtually bar-by-bar, is very informative, but you would want to have a copy of the score beside you as you read. There is also plenty of useful material on how to practice “properly” – something Rusbridger has to learn almost from scratch, with the guidance of, amongst others, eminent pianists such as Murray Perahia and Lucy Parham – and how to make the most of limited practice time. Alongside this, we also meet piano restorers and technicians to peer into the rarefied world of high class grand pianos (Steinway, Fazioli), as well as neurologists (with whom Rusbridger discusses the phenomenon of memory), piano teachers, pianists all over the world who have played or are studying the piece, other journalists, celebrities, politicians, dissenters, and Rusbridger’s friends and family.

Another aspect which comes across very clearly throughout is the pleasure of music making and its therapeutic benefits, for performer and listener, and the book is very much a hymn to this. Like the Ballade itself, the book hurtles towards its finale: will the author learn the piece, memorise, and finesse it in time for the concert….?

From Rusbridger’s elevated platform as a high profile journalist with a myriad connections, the book was an immense success when it was first published, due in no small part, one suspects, because the text will appeal as much to those with an interest in current events as it does for amateur pianists chasing a similar virtuosic feat of pianism.

n4nfrontcoverAnd so we come to the new kid on the block: Howard Smith’s Note For Note, Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered. Released in 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Smith’s book was described by amateur pianist and performing arts clinician Marie McKavanagh as, ‘A brutally honest personal testimony of a human experience that enriches life via the intimate physical act of working with a musical instrument.’ Over thirty-eight chapters, covering a period of just three years, Smith charts his unexpected transformation from software-geek to musician or, as he points it ‘from the digital to the analogue: from the bits and bytes of the computer industry to the world of melody, harmony and musical performance’. Covering topics as diverse as lead sheets, mental performance, unblocking, the musical ‘fourth’, the circle of fifths, two-five-one progressions, modes and chord-scale theory, theory and practice is blended with what Victoria Williams of MyMusicTheory called ‘captivating story-telling’. The result is a unique memoir and simultaneously an educational text for all amateur pianists, described by educator Andrew Eales (who blogs as Pianodao) as ‘Essential reading for 2021’. However, Note For Note is not a textbook; nor is it a novel. Smith calls it a ‘musical fable’; a message as much about how not to go about learning the piano as it is a guide to best practice. The author claims that every word is true, and I have no reason to doubt him. In the song-writing chapters, for example, Smith enumerates the process of his work with his teachers in composition and lyric-writing, presenting every chord symbol and poetic line as it happened. (One day, he tells me, he will release this music.) Smith’s story (and writing) unfolds as it happened, or as he says, ‘from the theory to the practice’. Devoid of any artifice, perhaps the most surprising aspect of this book is depth of wisdom it embodies for someone who, at the time of writing, had only been playing for a couple of years. We learn that Smith is the proverbial ‘late returning’ amateur, and this reality (and his narrowing ‘window of opportunity’) weighs heavily on him at key points in the text. He returned to the piano, leaving the IT career he loved, after a ‘gap’ of forty-five years, having only achieved a modest ‘grade three’ as a child; a child engineer who found the mechanism of the piano and its ‘physics of sound’ more interesting than any disciplined ‘practice’. Note For Note is a book written by an amateur pianist for amateur pianists, especially those, like Smith, who struggle to make the transition from ‘intermediate’ to ‘advanced’. The author does eventually learn what it means to ‘be a musician’, and you believe him: concert pianist Murray McLachlan, Head of Keyboard at Chetham’s School of Music, called it a ‘A truly inspirational odyssey’. As to how the book came to be written, that must remain strictly ‘no spoilers’.

***

To summarise, each of these books charts the mystery that is our “piano journey” but do so in very different and distinctive ways. Each demands your attention, offering up a rich brew of ideas, topics and insights that will help every pianist (or teacher) at any level to advance their own art and practice.

After five months of enforced silence, Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concerts resumed with two splendid recitals by concert pianist and Artistic Director Duncan Honeybourne. 

Schubert’s melancholy sonata in a minor D784 was complemented by Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata, the luminous, transcendent Op 110 which closes with one of the most uplifting finales in the piano sonata repertoire. It felt wholly appropriate – to celebrate not only the resumption of live classical music in Weymouth but also the instrument for which the music was written. The second concert in this “mini series” as a prelude to the launch of the 2021/22 season will be on Wednesday 7 July distinguished concert pianist and noted Schubert interpreter James Lisney will perform Schubert’s second set of Impromptus together with some of Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert’s Schwanengesang (Swan Song), including the much-loved Ständchen

We are currently working within social distancing guidelines in the church in central Weymouth where the concerts are held and this has meant we can only admit a limited number of audience members. This has not deterred our very loyal audiences, and tickets for Duncan’s concerts sold out almost immediately. The enthusiastic support of our audiences is encouraging and cheering and a sign that people have really missed live music during the long months of lockdown. 

The 2021/22 season will be a celebration of the piano (we are lucky to have a very fine Yamaha C6) – as both a solo and chamber instrument, and also one which can accommodate not one, but two pianists at the keyboard! Do keep an eye on the Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concerts website for updates and details of forthcoming concerts and performers.

Meanwhile there are some tickets still available for James Lisney’s concerts at 12 noon and 1.15pm on 7 July.

Pianist, educator and mentor, Professor Julia Mustonen-Dahlkvist is Artistic Director of Ingesund Piano Center in Arvika, Sweden, and founder of the IPC’s Artists-in-Residence scheme, where up to ten young pianists are rigorously selected to take a ‘deep dive’ into their artistic, career and personal development. Each residency is fully funded.

An accomplished pianist herself, Professor Mustonen-Dahlkvist’s training in Russia, Germany, France, and Spain informed what would later become her own methodology, which when combined with her nurturing and passionate nature, has resulted in a unique formula for success, mastery and excellence. Here she talks about her early influences and how she was inspired to develop the programme at IPC.


Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I have multiple sources of inspiration. I have been consciously searching for musicians and pedagogues from whom I can learn something valuable. Everything started with my mother. She was a piano teacher at a music school working with kids, and wanted me to become a piano teacher too, simply because in the era of the USSR, this was a very good profession and a respected job to have. I grew up in communist Siberia at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 80s. It really was a different planet. My grandparents were deported to Siberia and despite a not very pleasant time during my childhood there, I was very lucky to meet Larissa and Valery Starodubrovsky in the early stages of my life. They were actual students of the great Heinrich Neuhaus and studied together with Sviatoslav Richter, and were deported to Siberia during Soviet times to “help to develop the culture” in Siberia. Larissa was an especially important teacher for me, and I stayed connected with her until the very last moments of her life. Even when I was already living in Finland and Germany, I still travelled to Moscow to play for her (where they returned to after the dissolution of the USSR). I also kept contact during the years of my master’s degree in Berlin.

Another very important teacher for me was Vitalii Berzon. He could really tell his students that playing piano was not difficult technically; he showed us exactly how to play and gave us students all the tools for it. Erik T. Tawaststjerna in Helsinki told me how I will exactly achieve my dreams to become a pedagogue and pianist and showed me the way. After that, and essentially the most important part for me as a musician and pedagogue was meeting and studying one year with Alicia de Larrocha. To be able to see and hear so closely the sound world of such a legendary pianist was very special. If you hear this once in your life, you can’t unhear it anymore and my whole life I have been searching for all possible methods just to get closer, bit by bit, to her amazing sound world. I feel like every year I come closer and closer in understanding her heritage, which I was fortunate enough to experience in person.

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

I think my whole life was built on challenges. It feels like I have gone through many problems like long term injuries, deep psychological problems with stage performances, a not very easy upbringing with lots of trauma, and difficulties with finding out how to deal with piano playing and psychological balance. It took me many years to find a way to be a confident performer and it took several years to establish any kind of stability in pedagogical process – even if I was always sure that it is my true calling to be a pedagogue. In the beginning of my pedagogical career, I found it very challenging to be a young professor and also a woman in this position.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

Everything! I tend to learn from each special or new moment of my life and compare it to music, seeing how I can use it. Very often we can find inspiration in everyday situations in life, because the emotional content in music is unlimited, the same way as the emotional content in life.

Tell us more about the Ingesund Piano Foundation. What was the motivation for establishing this Foundation, how does it support young artists, and how do you choose the students?

The Artists-in-Residence idea stemmed from the growth of our class over the past years. As the class grew into a group of pianists of vastly different cultural experiences and personalities, it became a nurturing ground for those who are striving for the same goal – excellence and depth in music-making.

Our students decided to come to Ingesund in Sweden because of the compatibility we share. To us, what matters most is how well we may understand each other, and whether our style and approach fits best for the individual’s improvement in their current state. This created an absolutely fantastic environment of trust, openness and true musical exploration.

To decide to work together with a student is a very difficult and long process, because the whole professional life of this person will largely depend on the productivity and quality of our work. Personally, I get very attracted if I hear somebody with their own unique voice in their music making. Everybody has their own voice of course, but some are more intriguing than others. In my case I have to intuitively see “hundreds of steps” forward, regarding how I may help to bring this pianist to become what he or she is dreaming to sound like. Most of it is down to hearing, and executing correctly. How realistic the process may be, and what kind of particular steps I can do to make it happen. Sometimes I absolutely love the musician, but after some trial – it may just not fit. I am intuitively always searching for pianists who possess some quality or potential to be the “real deal”. However, often these talents may not be the simplest personalities to deal with, and not the easiest musicians to teach. I guess we are indeed learning a lot from each other in the process.

Learning at the same time while teaching and developing together with the students is something very important to me. I have striking realizations from time to time and they often change the whole direction of my teaching and music making. In this particular moment, I am actually finding myself in such a revelation. It feels like I have never understood what piano playing was about earlier, compared to what I know now.

You were inspired by the Netflix programme ‘Playbook’. Tell us how this has influenced your approach and your role at IPF?

Patrick Mouratoglou, the coach of Serena Williams, is a genius who is capable not only of understanding but also working with human nature, understanding the psychology of highest-level performance under tremendous pressure. His ability to see the talent and foresee the steps of creating world-class players is very inspiring. The connection was immediate when Patrick, in the very beginning of the episode, started by comparing the practicing process of difficult details and passages at the piano, to the polishing of moves in tennis. He says, “Piano can be beautiful, if you listen to the piece from the start to the end. But if you repeat the same thing all the time…it drives people crazy. Of course it’s tough, and that’s why not many people can be Number One”. He is a huge inspiration for me, and in the same way, the work that we do is an inspiration for him. He talks about how the greatest weaknesses can become the greatest strengths, how emotions are your worst advisers, and how mistakes should not define you. I could suddenly relate to every word he is saying and recognize every situation he described in the preparation for the big stages. How can it be so similar? The psychology of the elite sport and the art of the piano performance, especially in competitions.

It does not matter what we do professionally, we are all humans, and our conditions in top-level performances are strikingly similar. Patrick said that his goal in coaching is very simple: we are there to help people to achieve their dreams. This is exactly the whole purpose of my piano teaching too.

What are the challenges facing young classical artists today and what are you doing to support and encourage them in their professional careers?

The challenges have been and will be always the same. First of all, it’s generally very difficult to get to the point where young artists are able to be ready professionally for all challenges for the future, and afterwards, once you are ready, it’s very difficult to get on the stage and be heard.

I personally hope that I am the pedagogue who is able to help professional development in a rather distinct manner. But lately I started to feel that it was not enough – because the professional world out there is not easy to enter for a young soloist and it’s not easy to get the right exposure. At Ingesund Piano Center we are trying to establish a useful platform and trying to think and work differently – curating an education which does not only take care of exams and degrees, but an education which would help to make a difference in the pianists’ careers and success on stage.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

I think we just need to find, recognize, support and educate young musicians, who can play their instruments at the highest possible level, have an ability to captivate audiences and make a difference with their performances on stage.

Many musicians are nowadays very well-promoted, but not really giving this experience to the audience which would make them go back to the concert hall. It’s like going to a very well-designed restaurant, where the food is not good. You will not go back there.

But I have also experienced many times people becoming the biggest lovers of classical music when they get a revelation provoked by some very good performances, which could open up this whole world to the people. Good musicians and talented performers are our best ambassadors.

As a musician and pedagogue, what is your definition of “success” in the world of classical music?

The biggest success is the inner success in finding who you actually are and what you can contribute to this music world. And after you find the purpose, you also find the balance between the professional and personal lives. I guess success is something very personal, for some, they really need a completely full schedule to feel successful, for others, it is enough to have a few small events to feel this way. Generally, I think it’s very difficult to define success because it’s something very personal. The biggest success is if you can contribute exactly what you have dreamed about and that you know yourself well enough to place yourself rightfully with regards to your inner talent in the music world.

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

Never stop searching, evolving and developing. Never think that you have any limitations, try always to search for ways how to go above them. Do not be arrogant, but be aware of who you are. Be always clear in your mind, about your current situation, your possibilities and problems, and always have very clear goals and paths to go, search for help that exactly pinpoints and solves problems in the playing for example, and drop all delusions as soon as possible, do not try to give yourself too much international display and attention too early, before you are really ready, but never stop dreaming!

Led by Julia Mustonen-Dahlkvist, Ingesund Piano Center in Arvika, Sweden, offers young world-class pianists the support to cultivate international, sustainable and high-profile performing careers. The final concert in Ingesund Piano Center’s inaugural NORDIC STAGE Gala Concerts takes place online 10 June. The earlier concerts are to view via the IPC’s website

Read interviews with the participating pianists here


Paul C.K. Wee, an Australian with Singaporean-Malaysian heritage, is a London-based barrister, and also a concert pianist. He took up the piano as a young child, made his Royal Albert Hall debut at the age of 12, and studied in New York City at the Pre-College division of the Manhattan School of Music under the tutelage of Nina Svetlanova. At 18 he made the decision to study law at Oxford University rather than continue his musical studies in New York. But the piano has remained a very significant part of his life. He has released two recordings, to wide acclaim, and he continues to perform, when his schedule permits, as a recital soloist, concerto soloist, and chamber musician, both in his current home city of London and internationally.

In this interview, he reveals his influences and inspirations, how he balances his professional career with practicing the piano, and what drew him to record Sigismond Thalberg’s l’Art du chant….


Who or what inspired you to take up the piano?

My brother, who had just started playing the piano at about the age of 6. I was around 4 years old myself, and at that age I wanted to do everything my brother did. So I started on the Suzuki method. Neither of my parents had a musical background, but my father has always been a music lover, and I have many childhood memories of hearing Rubinstein and Ashkenazy playing Chopin, Gould playing Bach, and Pollini playing Beethoven through his stereo system. The tipping point for me came one day when I was listening to a CD of Rubinstein playing Chopin – I must have been 9 or 10 at the time – and something clicked. I knew then and there that rather than just playing what my teacher had assigned to me, I had to learn to play those works for myself, whatever it took and however difficult they may be. That was the real start of my musical journey, which ever since then has been principally self-motivated. Probably much to the frustration of some of my teachers over the years!

Who or what have been the most significant influences on your musical life?

I think I have been most influenced by those artists who first opened my eyes to the sheer breadth of colours and sounds that a piano can produce: to name just three, the likes of Ignaz Friedman, Vladimir Horowitz, and Sergio Fiorentino, who could each shade a chord, bend a phrase, or sculpt a line in such a way as to set a sunset in a cadence or a lifetime in a pause – all in ways that go far beyond the mere notes that are printed on the page.

As to repertoire, I have definitely been influenced by those who have looked beyond the four corners of the standard repertoire, and brought numerous neglected gems and treasure to broader attention. Marc-André Hamelin is a real hero of mine in this respect.

As to interpretation, I am strongly convinced by the legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin’s theory of creative interpretation, which provides the descriptive and normative framework that I use to approach questions of interpretation as a musician.

Finally, as to my musical life today, I have to credit three people in particular: Nina Svetlanova, for giving me the pianistic and technical foundations for my relationship with the piano today; Mike Spring, for being the driving force behind my first Alkan recording and ever willing to talk pianists and pianism over a beer; and Robert von Bahr of BIS, for being willing to take a punt on the improbable proposition of a barrister playing Alkan and Thalberg, and for being both the most supportive partner and the dearest friend that any musician could hope to find.

Which particular works/composers do you think you play best?

When I play for myself, I often turn to Bach and Schubert for the deepest fulfilment, whether in the original or in transcription. But that is very different from saying I think I play those composers best, or that others would agree. I know audiences have responded particularly well to my performances and interpretations of Alkan, both live and in the studio. But I firmly believe that my interpretations of other works and composers, both within and outside the standard repertoire, are just as compelling and persuasive. Over time, it will be interesting to see whether audiences agree!

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage or in the recording studio?

I think my honest answer to this probably has to be – either being a barrister by day, or simply not being a full-time professional musician. That’s because music is my escape, not my day-to-day existence. I revel in every opportunity that I have to sit down at the keyboard, and this means that my relationship with music is constantly refreshing and reinvigorating – it is one hundred percent pure delight. I know my love for music wouldn’t have been any lesser if I had become a full-time professional pianist, but if I were reliant on performing or playing week in and week out to put a roof over my head, I wonder whether I might have sometimes felt fenced in or suffocated by the very music that I had set out to enjoy. That is why I have the utmost respect for full-time professional musicians whose conviction and passion for music remains undimmed. I know there is more than enough fulfilment to be found within music to make up for all the sacrifices that a musician’s life entails. But I am also very glad to approach music and the piano from another angle, in which merely making music and playing the piano in the first place gives me all the joy and inspiration I could ever need, for stage or studio or beyond.

Your latest CD is Thalberg’s l’Art du chant. What initially attracted you to this repertoire?

I first learned of the existence of L’art du chant as a teenager, at around the same time as I was first exposed to the much flashier operatic paraphrases for which Thalberg was and is much better known. While I was greatly taken by the ingenuity and hyper-virtuosity of the pianism in the Moses and Don Pasquale paraphrases, I was also fascinated by the prospect of this set of transcriptions with a very different purpose – the cultivation of a singing tone. Some years later, I managed to obtain the scores for some of these transactions, and discovered to my delight that they were every bit as stunning and well-crafted as I had hoped. Thalberg had clearly taken his mission statement very seriously, and the level of craftsmanship and care that he had put into these transactions to capture the illusion of a singing line can be seen in the extraordinary level of detail captured in the notation. But for some reason, L’art du chant still remained largely neglected, and no recording of the entire set was widely available. It therefore sat on my “wish list” of projects for many years, and so when the opportunity arose to consider possible follow-ups to my debut Alkan recording on BIS, I leapt at the chance to suggest L’art du chant – not only for all of the reasons I’ve just mentioned, but also because of the very different challenge that it posed to the Alkan.

And what have been the particular pleasures and challenges of working on it and recording it?

The principal challenge lay in achieving the musical and aural results that I was striving for in these transcriptions, knowing that I was asking listeners to consider works they may already know in their original vocal forms, and experience them afresh through the lens of the piano. These transcriptions are all about creating the illusion of a singing line on the piano, which is a percussion instrument after all. And while Thalberg’s ingenuity and craftsmanship provide you with many of the ingredients to create that illusion, it is quite another thing to bring it to life, especially given the differences between the modern Steinway concert grand and the pianos that Thalberg would have had in mind when writing L’art du chant. The emphasis on power and projection that has driven much of the evolution of the modern piano – whether manifesting in the deeper and heavier actions, the far lengthier sustains, or the much weightier bass registers of modern instruments – poses many riddles for a pianist grappling with the subtleties of soundwork that these transcriptions require. And all that is on top of the difficulties of the pianism itself in L’art du chant, which – unusually for Thalberg – is far more difficult to play than it sounds!

But if those were some of the challenges, they were more than outweighed by the pleasures. First and foremost was the joy of revelling in these wonderful transcriptions, which really are gorgeous pianistic settings of the most beautiful melodies – even my wife confessed that she didn’t mind listening to me practicing them! At the recording sessions themselves, it was a delight to work with the dream team of Andrew Keener, my producer, and Dave Hinitt, my sound engineer, as well as Kait Farbon, my piano technician extraordinaire – all in the loveliest setting at Wyastone. Another enormous pleasure was making the recording on the most wonderful Steinway from Ulrich Gerhartz’s C&A fleet in London, which was the perfect partner for this repertoire, with all of the best attributes of the modern piano for this type of music and then some. And finally, there was the quieter satisfaction of doing my part to try to bring L’art du chant to a wider audience.

In your working life you are a barrister. How do you balance your professional life with the need to practice, learn new repertoire and maintain your existing repertoire and technique?

With difficulty, but through discipline. I am a barrister first and foremost, and a career at the London Commercial Bar is demanding. My clients know that I give my cases all of the time and attention that they require, and this frequently means that I have to go for weeks without sitting down at a piano. I am very fortunate in that my technique doesn’t require much by way of maintenance and upkeep, and when I sit down at the piano after an extended break away, I can generally pick up from where I left off with no real loss of facility. That stems from the foundations that I built with my last teacher, Nina Svetlanova, who helped me to understand what it meant for technique to reside in the mind and in the ears, not in the fingers – though that is probably a subject for another time! I also find I can still learn new repertoire fairly quickly, even if not as swiftly as in my youth. Overall, when I have a performance or a recording session in the calendar, I have to treat it like any other court hearing or trial in my diary, and manage my time accordingly. As a barrister, you rapidly become familiar with the demands of juggling multiple cases and deadlines at once, each demanding more hours in the day than you can give. The discipline this forces you to develop is the same discipline that I draw upon to keep my musical activities in the mix too.

Are there any similarities or crossover between your working life as a barrister and being a pianist?

Yes – there are many! But I’ll touch on just one for now, which is the performance element. Every appearance in court is just as much of a performance as an appearance on the concert stage. As a barrister, you have one chance to persuade, to cross-examine, to get the right answers out of a witness or to give the right answers to questions from the

Judge. Whether in the courtroom or on the concert stage, a good performance requires both careful preparation in advance and successful execution on the day. And just as I might kick myself over a few dropped notes following a concert, I sometimes find myself wishing I had put a slightly different question to a witness, or handled a judicial intervention somewhat differently. But that is all part of the thrill of live performance.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow and maintain classical music’s audiences?

I firmly believe that the key lies in education and exposure. The riches of what is called “classical music” are so broad, so deep, and so accessible that if children and young people are given the chance to engage with classical music early on and free of any preconceptions, I am convinced that this may give them a foundation for the appreciation of classical music that can be drawn on in later life. I’m thrilled to see the hard work and efforts that are being poured into this sphere, by amazing organisations like the Benedetti Foundation (www.benedettifoundation.org), and I’m wishing them every success along the way.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Exploring and performing the literature for one’s instrument at the highest technical and interpretative level. For me, it is enough to do that for myself and without any broader audience, to my own standards and in accordance with my own interpretative convictions, in the privacy of my own music room. Of course, if others are interested in seeing and hearing what I have to say at the piano in the literature that I love so dearly, then that is nice enough, so far as it goes. But I don’t condition success on winning approval from others. Ultimately, I don’t play the piano for other people, but for myself, and my interpretative convictions have more robust foundations than external validation.

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

The single most important point I would stress is to remember that your love for music and your instrument isn’t linked to your identity as an aspiring or professional musician. A genuine love for music isn’t the same thing as being in love with the idea of being a successful professional musician. Sadly, I’ve known many musicians who have confused the two. Ask yourself at every stage why you are doing what you are doing, and never lose sight of why you fell in love with music in the first place: treasure that flame. The joy and riches to be found in music are far bigger than any career, and if you don’t end up being a professional musician, that won’t detract from your ability to enjoy all the treasures that music has to offer – in fact I sometimes wonder whether it leaves you better placed to appreciate them.

What’s next for you? Where would you like to be in 10 years?

In ten years’ time I know I will still be playing the piano – whether for others, in live performances or via studio recordings, or even only just for myself. More imminently, I’m looking forward to resuming occasional recitals once concert life is able to resume, and also to the recording plans I have lined up with BIS. As to those, I’m tremendously excited by the two further recordings that we currently have planned, one featuring Beethoven-Liszt and Mozart-Alkan and the other featuring piano concertos by Henselt and Bronsart. Just as with my Alkan and Thalberg albums, both of these recordings will be childhood dreams come true.

I have been very touched and moved by the many responses I received via this site and also on Twitter and Facebook in response to my article about my own estrangement from the piano during the past year, and I’m very grateful to people for writing with so much honesty – like David, a friend from my piano group, who has felt the loss of live music and singing with his choir really acutely:

Music was my release, my passion, my individuality and this was all taken away from me. Overnight. – David, amateur pianist & singer

Like me, David has found it difficult to engage with music via livestream, and regards making music, either solo as a pianist or with other people through his choir, as a more than just notes, but rather a “lifestyle” – something which brings not only pleasure, stimulation and self-fulfilment but also a sense of living a full life.

Others told me how the piano has been a lifesaver for them during a very challenging year. For Andrew, who was made redundant and had to move house, the piano has provided important continuity in his life:

I have played everyday through this whole traumatic period and I simply went back to the beginning. Bach. I opened book 2 of the ’48’ (I always seemed to play from book 1 in the past) and selected 2 preludes and fugues to start with and have slowly added another as I gained some sort of mastery over each one. The concentration, attention to detail, constant twists and turns in the part writing, compelled me to focus on this, and this alone for 60- 90 minutes a day. It was time away from the outside world and the pressure that surrounded me… without it I would have collapsed.

(It is interesting to note that several other people cited the music of Bach in providing much-needed stability and focus on their life, and I do think there is something about the structure of Bach’s music, coupled with its depth and beauty, that perhaps makes it a good choice for the long days of lockdown.)

It was my friend Rhonda who articulated so well what I had been feeling

In my experience, the loss of the music industry as I knew it feels as if the world has been upended. What had great meaning the day before the first lockdown felt drained of all relevance a month later. 

***

Few people would dispute that the last year has been difficult. Many of us have lived under extraordinary restrictions for months, unable to see family and friends and enjoy social and cultural activities. Largely confined to our homes, we have had to adapt to new ways of working, socialising and interacting with colleagues and friends.

For professional musicians, the last 12 months have been very challenging indeed. The almost complete shut down of concert venues and opera houses has led to loss of work and has highlighted the precariousness of the working life of musicians in an already insecure profession. The disruption from such a big external event as a global pandemic, and the loss of the music industry as they knew it, feels as if the whole world has been upended, and this has caused many to question whether live music will ever recover, and if so, what will it be like in the future? Some musicians are even considering leaving, or have left, the profession altogether.

In addition, many musicians – and I include amateur players in this too – have felt estranged from their instrument and the music they love. At times of stress, many of us turn to music for comfort and refreshment, as a listener and/or player. Yet the pandemic has, for some of us, put a huge gulf between us and the music we used to love to play and/or hear in concert. It no longer speaks to us or is meaningful in the way it was previously.

Rekindling that love will take time and patience. I felt a huge sense of loss when the London concert halls were forced to close in March 2020 and for many months I simply did not want to listen to or engage with classical music. It was akin to a sense of grief. Finding a way back to enjoying and playing music has been slow for some of us, and at times frustrating, but it is possible to rekindle the love.

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I am grateful to the people who have contacted me in response to my earlier article, who’ve shared their experiences, and who have offered practical advice, some of which I am sharing here:

  • Don’t feel guilty about not wanting to practice or listen to music. Be kind to yourself and accept that these feelings of dismotivation/disengagement will pass.
  • Seek out music that speaks to where your mind is now, even if it’s not what you would usually play or listen to. In recent months, as I’ve re-engaged with classical music, I have found myself drawn to more gentle, meditative or ambient “post-classical” repertoire.
  • If practicing feels like a huge chore, revisit previously-learnt repertoire which you like and know you can play well. Give yourself permission to just play, not make progress.
  • Try to gradually re-establish a routine, even if you’re only playing for 30 minutes a day. Routine fosters creativity and can also be very steadying in times of stress.
  • Talk to others. Many people are feeling the same and knowing you are not alone can be very supportive.
  • Listen to music – and listen randomly. Some of the music streaming services create random playlists based on your listening; this is a great way to discover new repertoire and may even encourage you to learn new pieces.
  • Be patient. The passion will return, don’t force it.