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?

Music was part of the house in which I grew up as both my parents were  wonderful musicians: my father was the Cathedral organist in Ottawa, Canada for 50 years, and my mother a piano (and English) teacher. She started  me off when I was three years old, though I was already playing some toy  instruments before that. So they were the biggest influences of course.  I always had excellent teachers: Earle Moss and Myrtle Guerrero at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto (I never lived in Toronto, only  went there for lessons); and especially the French pianist Jean-Paul Sevilla at the University of Ottawa. He was a huge influence, being a marvellous player himself, especially of the Romantic and French repertoire. But he was also the first person I heard perform Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which he did magnificently. I also studied classical ballet for 20 years from the age of 3 to 23, and that was a huge influence on me in every way, and very beneficial for playing the piano.  I also sang in my father’s choir, played violin for 10 years, and also the recorder. All of those things made me the musician I am today.

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

The whole thing has been a challenge. From beginning to end. Even if you have the talent, it’s nothing without the work. I’ve sacrificed a lot to be where I am today, but that’s OK. I struggled to get known as a young  pianist. I did many competitions. I won some, got thrown out in others.  When I did win a big prize (the 1985 Toronto Bach Competition), at least that meant I didn’t have to do any more. But then it was up to me  to keep the momentum going. I’ve had good and bad experiences with agents. I’ve always done a lot for my own career. An enormous amount, actually. It was a challenge to come to London in 1985 when I was totally unknown and make a name for myself here. I worked hard at that.  It took me 15 years of renting Wigmore Hall myself before I started selling it out and being promoted by the hall instead. The recording contract with Hyperion I got myself. That was one of the best things ever, also thanks to the great integrity that label has. Artists of my  generation have also had to adapt to the social media world and work with that in a good way. Perhaps the biggest challenge is to stay sane and healthy when you are doing a job that demands the utmost of you, both physically and emotionally.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I’ve been happy with every recording I’ve done for Hyperion in the past 26  years. I never leave the studio unless I feel we have the best possible  versions. Of course things change over the years—that’s only natural.  But each CD is a document of how I best played the works at that time.  Apart from my Bach cycle, I am happy that I’ve recorded so much French music (Ravel, Chabrier, Fauré , Debussy, Messiaen, Rameau, Couperin) and  also the more recent Scarlatti CDs. Great stuff! I’m almost finished my Beethoven Sonata cycle which has taken me 15 years, and that gives me enormous satisfaction.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I’ve always done a very wide repertoire. People think I only play Bach, but no. In my teenage years I was more known for the big romantic works like the Liszt Sonata and the Schumann Sonatas, though of course everybody knew that I played Bach. I think it’s important for a good musician to play in many different styles. On the whole I like to take complicated works and make them sound easy (like Bach’s Art of Fugue).

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

Everything you experience in life goes into your music and your interpretations. Talking with friends, reading books, going to the theatre, travelling,  seeing a movie, reading the news, experiencing the tragedy of this awful  pandemic….all of that ends up in what you produce later on at the  piano.

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

Often it follows recording projects because I like to perform what I am going  to record, of course. But also it depends on what people ask you to do.  It’s a very difficult thing, choosing programmes for a whole year, and I’ve never been one to play the same programme all season. I can change  several times a month.

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

Oh, just one where people don’t cough!

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

Just go out and perform each time in a way that makes people want to hear you again. Then you build an audience. If a concert is boring, nobody is  going to return. You have to make people really want to go to hear you.  Of course there’s all the stuff about developing a younger audience, and that’s extremely important. I support a project in my home town of Ottawa, Canada called ORKIDSTRA which gives free music lessons to children in under-served areas of the city. It’s wonderful to see how  much learning an instrument adds to their lives and to their general  development and sense of community.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I don’t know about most memorable, but certainly playing the Turangalila  Symphony at the BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall in July 2018 was a night to remember. Fantastic performance, conducted by Sakari Oramo.  Very moving. Great audience. That’s the right hall for that piece. If I never play it again it doesn’t matter—I had that experience.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success?  Well, playing a piece you have worked very hard on, and finally  memorising it and performing it well in public. That gives great satisfaction. Material success, as we have seen with this pandemic, can vanish in an instant. I suppose success is when concert promoters think of you when they are putting together their season. You have to have something they want to sell. When you have that something and have totally kept your integrity and got there because you’re good and worked  hard, then I think that’s success. But I don’t really like to think of  “success”. It’s very fragile.

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

To play their instrument with joy and not to be stiff and tense when they play. They must easily communicate with their audience and show that every part of their body is feeling the music.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Alive.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Playing for a friend and having a meal afterwards.

What is your most treasured possession?

My new Fazioli F278 concert grand piano.


One of the world’s leading pianists, Angela Hewitt appears in recital and as soloist with major orchestras throughout Europe, the Americas, Australia, and Asia. Her interpretations of the music of J.S. Bach have established her as one of the composer’s foremost interpreters of our  time.

Born in 1958 into a musical family (the daughter of the Cathedral organist and choirmaster in Ottawa, Canada), Angela began her piano  studies age three, performed in public at four and a year later won her  first scholarship. In her formative years, she also studied classical ballet, violin, and recorder. From 1963-73 she studied at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music with Earle Moss and Myrtle Guerrero, after which she completed her Bachelor of Music in Performance at the  University of Ottawa in the class of French pianist Jean-Paul Sévilla, graduating at the age of 18. She was a prizewinner in numerous piano  competitions in Europe, Canada, and the USA, but it was her triumph in the 1985 Toronto International Bach Piano Competition, held in memory of Glenn Gould, that truly launched her international career.

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“Bach first became my beacon when I was about 10 years old. I remember sneaking a peek at my piano teacher’s notebook and seeing the words “plays Bach well” under my name. That vote of confidence shaped my musical identity…”

Eleonor Bindman, pianist


The Six Solo Cello Suites are some of the most celebrated and much-loved works in the classical repertoire, and they continue to fascinate and inspire performers and audiences alike. In this brand new transcription for solo piano, Eleonor Bindman pays tribute to this music’s enduring allure. The Cello Suites project grew out of Eleonor Bindman’s ‘Stepping Stones to Bach’, arrangements of orchestral and choral music which aimed to help amateur pianists play Bach successfully. The 2-volume collection includes transcriptions of some of Bach’s most popular music, including the ‘Badinerie’ from the Suite BWV 1067, the chorale prelude “Wachet Auf”, “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” from the St Matthew Passion, and three movements from the Cello Suites. Inspired by how gratifying it felt to play those, Eleonor researched existing piano versions of the complete Cello Suites and was surprised not to come across any that were really true to the original.

The only straightforward piano transcription of any movements of the Cello Suites, dating from 1914, is by Russian pianist and impresario Alexander Siloti (1863-1945), a student of Franz Liszt. Siloti’s transcription gave Eleonor the resolve to pursue this project and arrange the complete 36 movements as closely to the original as possible. Playing through other variously enhanced piano versions, including an arrangement of all six Suites by Joachim Raff (c.1869-71) and of Suites 2, 3 and 5 by Leopold Godowsky (1924), Eleonor became convinced that the Suites didn’t need any “improvement.”

In her transcription, Eleonor has made a number of adjustments due to the different capabilities of the instrument, including slightly faster tempi especially in the Sarabandes, which also help make the harmonic structure more discernible. Here too she endeavoured to imitate the cello sound most closely, which would not have been possible without the marvellous baritone register of her Bösendorfer piano on which her recording was made. Some transpositions have also been necessary, and a variety of embellishments in repeats, some conventional and some more original. The transcription offers scope for some adventurous interpretation, particularly in the wonderfully playful pairs of Minuets, Bourrées and Gavottes.

The Cello Suites are the essence of Bach, a meditation which mysteriously connects us to ourselves and to the universe at once. My new transcription of this beloved set shows a refreshing perspective to a pianist, unencumbered by counterpoint and zooming in on the individual line, patterns, tone quality, and the great composer’s vocabulary. I find the experience of playing the Suites on the keyboard not only aesthetically satisfying but also relaxing and joyful. We could all use an opportunity to enjoy our music-making without unnecessary stress, especially in current times. I am also eager to bring these 36 pieces to many pianists and students because they are immensely beneficial for working on tone and finger technique.” –Eleonor Bindman

The recording of Eleonor’s transcription, made on her own Bösendorfer piano, is released on 9 October 2020 on the Naxos Grand Piano label, and the sheet music is also in preparation. This is aimed primarily at amateur pianists (intermediate to early advanced level) who relish the opportunity of playing music other than Bach’s works specifically for keyboard and who would like to be free of the rigours of complex counterpoint. Like the works included in her ‘Stepping Stones to Bach’, Eleonor has provided pianists with yet more repertoire to explore, and her elegantly, meticulous transcriptions shine a new light on this wonderful music while also remaining true to the original.

To listen to sample tracks or pre-order, click here

For press information about Eleonor Bindman’s Cello Suites for Solo Piano, please contact Frances Wilson

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

They always say that you don’t choose music as a way of life, it chooses you. From when I was about six years old I remember endlessly doodling  at the family piano, generally making up my own pieces rather than  learning how to play what was put before me by my piano teacher. I  couldn’t write down what I was making up until a few years later, but the impulse to compose something of my own was always there. I was fortunate to go to a school where music was an important part of the curriculum, I sang in the school choir, and by the time I was in my  teens I was showing up my little compositional efforts to our director of music Edward Chapman, who was always encouraging and never tried to  steer me into any particular style or genre. I was immensely enriched by  a friendship that developed between me and John Tavener, who was a year  ahead of me in school and streets ahead of me in compositional  technique and sophistication. It wasn’t until he left to go on to the Royal Academy of Music and I went to Cambridge that I came out from  under his shadow, but I owe him a great debt for the encouragement he gave and the example he offered. There was never any doubt that he would  become a professional composer, but I had no thought of that happening  to me, and in fact I was advised by my headmaster to go for an academic career (not in music), advice I’m very glad I didn’t take. 

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

This really follows on from my previous answer, and I’ll confine myself to  those I have known personally; I could give you a long list of composers  and other musicians from the past who have inspired me. My kindly college at Cambridge allowed me to do a music degree, even though I had applied to study modern languages, and I was fortunate again: I was assigned Patrick Gowers as a composition teacher, who was a considerably  gifted composer now remembered mainly for his atmospheric and finely-crafted music for a TV serialisation of Sherlock Holmes which ran  for many years, but who was open to all sorts of music (he was a very  good jazz pianist) and who let me go my own way. Also at Cambridge I met  and got to know Sir David Willcocks, the renowned director of King’s  College Choir who believed in my compositional talent and took me under  his wing. It was thanks to him that my first little compositions (a  group of Christmas carols!) were published, and this led to my  association with Oxford University Press which has lasted for a very  long time. David continued to champion my work, and he remained a mentor  and friend to me for the rest of his life. I could list many other key  figures who have offered me opportunities, encouragement and support, I  have been so fortunate: no one I respect has ever told me ‘look, you’re  no good, retrain for another profession’. 

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

The greatest challenge is to keep yourself fresh, not repeat yourself too  much, and find a balance between exercising the skills you know you’ve  already got and learning new ones. Finding the will power and stamina to write when you’re tired and busy with other work is hard. Every day of my life I’m shamed by the quantity and quality of music that so many composers have succeeded in writing when there are only twenty-four hours in a day. I’m not prolific, but then I divide my energies: composition is the compulsion, I guess, but conducting is the pleasure, and being among musicians, sometimes in the role of recording producer,  is a great joy and privilege. My only frustration is that I don’t get  more done. 

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

It’s many years since I’ve undertaken commissioned work. In the 1980s I contracted a debilitating illness, ME (also known as post-viral fatigue syndrome), and, like malaria, it cycles on and off so you have good weeks and bad weeks. When you accept a commission there is a binding obligation to deliver on time, and I had to accept that I might not always be able to do that, so I stopped. After about seven years I made a  full recovery, but did not by then want to go back to what had become a  treadmill, so I continued in a pattern that I have stuck with ever since: from time to time I respond to invitations and suggestions from  the outside world, but then I also work on my own projects. I’m less  productive than in the years I was doing commissions, but I’m less  stressed. The challenge with a commission is to come up with something  that fits the required specification, the pleasure is to be told that it  does fit and that you have actually surpassed expectations. 

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

It always helps if you have the sound of a particular artist or ensemble in your head as you write: you’re writing specially for them. I always try to find out as much as I can in advance about who I’m writing for.  If it’s a group I’m thoroughly familiar with – King’s College Choir in the radiant acoustic of its chapel – I’m half way there before I start.  It’s a poor composer who can’t craft a piece well for its intended  performers. The problems can start when other groups, perhaps not as skilled as those you have written for, have difficulty and think your  music is unreasonably hard, or maybe they just don’t get it. 

Of which works are you most proud? 

That would be like admiring yourself in the mirror. I don’t think about my past work except when I find myself conducting it. I just want the next  piece I write to be the best yet. 

How would you characterise your compositional language? 

Eclectic. Conservative. Accessible. But I hope recognisable as my own. 

How do you work? 

Hard, but not as hard as I used to. 

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

Too many to list. There’s no reputable musician/composer from whom you can’t learn something. If I dislike what I’m hearing, I tend to blame myself.  

As a musician, what is your definition of success? 

To have achieved at least part of what you set out to do. 

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

Be very, very good at what you do if you possibly can. Work harder and more perseveringly than anyone round you. Prepare thoroughly. If you are a performer, try to be true to the composer’s vision; if you are a composer, be true to yourself. If you have a spark of something, it will communicate, regardless of style. 

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Still on this earth and working. 

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Being too busy to think about it. 

What is your most treasured possession? 

I don’t rate possessions. 

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Enjoying a meal with family and friends after a concert or recording has gone well. 

What is your present state of mind? 

Immersed in my current projects.


John Rutter was born in London in 1945 and studied music at Clare  College, Cambridge. His compositions embrace choral, orchestral, and  instrumental music, and he has co-edited various choral anthologies  including four Carols for Choirs volumes with Sir David Willcocks and the Oxford Choral Classics  series. From 1975-9 he was Director of Music at Clare College, and in  1981 formed his own choir, the Cambridge Singers, as a professional  chamber choir primarily dedicated to recording. 

Rutter’s choral works, including his Requiem and Gloria, are frequently performed around the world. In 2003 Mass of the Children, a major work for adult and children’s choir, soloists, and orchestra,  was premiered in New York’s Carnegie Hall conducted by the composer.

johnrutter.com

 

 

At the risk of sounding clichéd, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown into sharp focus the precarious nature of most professional musicians’ lives. With concert and opera venues closed – and only now beginning to reopen cautiously – many musicians have been faced with the very frightening situation of being without any means to earn money. This survey by Encore, the musicians’ booking platform, reveals the current dire state of the UK music industry.

The profession has always been unstable. Most musicians are self-employed and many combine performing with teaching to supplement meagre concert fees – high salaries are reserved only for the ‘celebrities’ at the very top of the tree. For most, concert and teaching fees are not truly commensurate with the amount of time and commitment musicians must put in to sustain their careers. There are few jobs in the developed world which are so highly skilled yet so poorly remunerated, and many musicians are simply not economically resilient. The events of this year have highlighted this to an even greater extent, and there is absolutely no guarantee that life will return to “normal” for musicians when venues do re-open. Added to this, there exists a certain societal misunderstanding, sometimes bordering on contempt, for people who make a living in non-standard ways – musicians, writers, artists, actors. The inference is that these people should get “a proper job” and quit moaning.

During lockdown, and its aftermath, those musicians for whom teaching provides a significant part of their income have fared better than those for whom concertising is the only source of making money. But for the professional performer, the lack of concert engagements can feel like the loss of a limb because for many musicians their very identity and raison d’être is defined by performing.

We’re going to have to be a lot less fancy in future” remarked a concert pianist friend of mine, when we were talking about the effect of the pandemic on concerts and concert-going in the early days of the UK lockdown. He means, to be brutally frank, “beggars can’t be choosers“. Venues and concert organisers/music societies will have less cash to spare and musicians will be chasing fewer engagements; an already competitive profession is likely only to become even more cut-throat. As a consequence, musicians will have to take the work when the opportunity arises without worrying about the prestige of the orchestra, ensemble, or venue.

To accept that the profession, for which one has spent many years training and honing one’s craft and one’s skills, putting in hundreds of hours of practicing and, as a consequence, giving up many aspects of life which other people outside of the profession would consider “normal”, can no longer be one’s primary source of income comes as a bitter blow to many musicians. When one’s identity is defined by one’s music-making and one’s very personal attachment to one’s chosen instrument, it can feel like an attack on one’s very body and soul.

“Portfolio career” is a fashionable term for “doing a variety of jobs” and musicians are masters of the peripatetic working life. Now more than ever, a willingness to be adaptable is crucial – and that may mean drawing one’s main income outside of music.

Some musicians regard this as a sign of failure, but why should there be shame in taking work outside of the profession? Maybe now is the time to be less squeamish about “non-musical” jobs? In straitened times, pragmatism must come before art, and if that means taking a job outside the profession, there should be no shame in doing this: you are no less a musician just because it is not your main source of income.

Unfortunately, the musician’s training tends to discourage looking outside of the profession for work. Sure, you might have worked in a bar or helped with front of house duties at a concert venue when you were a student, but very few conservatoires and music colleges offer specific courses in business skills and entrepreneurialism for musicians – from the basics of setting up a personal website to more sophisticated self-promotion, marketing and PR. In addition, they do not necessarily encourage students to consider other careers within music, such as arts administration or orchestral management, publicity/PR/marketing, music publishing, or working for a venue or recording label. Conservatoires train musicians to be performers and many continue to peddle the idea that a career as a performer is a sustainable one.

Of course, working outside the profession comes at a cost to one’s practice regime: if you’re doing a 9 to 5 job elsewhere, you still have to find the time to practice – and that’s a full-time job even without concerts.

I’ll close with some thoughts from musician friends and colleagues:

I really never want to give it up as a profession. After a few days not practicing I lose a lot of mechanism, so going into a 9-5 job would devastate everything I’ve worked for. But undoubtedly this will see people off…..There never was a “career”. I still don’t really know how it’s meant to work, I just got called for random things that all added up. I had an amazing last 10 years and I hope to God it’s not over. There’s always playing but it wouldn’t be the same. A lot of us have been very, very lucky to get to do this. (RS)

I am a great believer in turning everything to one’s advantage, and I feel that this could be a very liberating time in which musicians can feel that they have permission to explore other interests and career paths which they may have otherwise put on hold. As a pianist, I feel that I identify so strongly with that vocation that to choose any other direction would be a betrayal of that identity, and deemed by others to be a strange decision or even a sign of a lack of success in that area. Musicians are under huge pressure to always look busy with their music, and even made to feel guilty when doing something other than practising(!) – there is no shame in admitting that music isn’t actually the *only* thing which makes you tick. (LKP)

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We all knew the Proms would be different in this, the year of coronavirus (or The Virus, COVID-19, the Rona….). Rather than cancel the entire festival, the BBC came up with a compromise – a truncated festival which involved, in the first weeks, broadcasts of previous Proms, not necessarily a “best of the Proms”, but rather a selection of memorable or particularly striking performances and performers. I enjoyed these broadcasts, revisiting Proms of years past and recalling the excitement and pleasure of attending Prom concerts, which I have done since I was a little girl – that special atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall which is like no other (for all the right, and wrong, reasons!).

For the last fortnight of this year’s season, the BBC broadcast live Proms from the Royal Albert Hall and a handful of other venues around the country. These included performances by the LSO with Simon Rattle, the Aurora Orchestra playing Beethoven 7 from memory (why?!), Benjamin Grosvenor and Mitsuko Uchida, violinist Nicola Benedetti, and Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason. Some performers originally booked to appear were not able to travel to London due to the UK government’s confused, scattergun quarantine rules, so others valiantly stepped in at the last minute. The programmes often reflected our strange times – music of quiet intimacy (Kurtag’s … quasi una fantasia …, performed with incredible delicacy by Mitsuko Uchida, following an equally compelling and introspective first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata), hope (Vaughan Williams’ 5th Symphony, first heard at the Proms in the midst of the Second World War), reflection and memorial (Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin), confidence (the rollicking joy of the finale of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony gave a much-needed boost to those of us who feel utterly ground down by the long months of lockdown and restrictions on daily life – including concert-going). The Last Night of the Proms, this year the subject of even more pearl-clutching and eye-pulling than usual, ended up as a compromise; bereft of its usual jollity and silliness (at least in the second half), it felt restrained and subdued, as if too much exuberance and celebration, balloons and whistles, flag-waving and a good old massed sing-along were inappropriate in these corona times.

There is no question that in all the live concerts the music was performed with absolute commitment. Watching the musicians (and thanks to lots of clever camera work, it was possible to read the range of emotions experienced by the musicians as they played), one sensed a collective sigh of relief, that they were working again, doing what they do best, united after long months of separation.

But something was missing. A very big something – and that was an audience. The Proms aren’t really the Proms without an audience, some 5000 people filling the Albert Hall’s vast auditorium with an infectious enthusiasm for the amazing shared experience that is live music. Admittedly, the BBC and Proms organisers tried their best this year to inject some “atmosphere” into the concerts by placing members of the brass section or singers in the boxes around the hall, enhanced by sexy lighting effects and clever camera angles. But for me all this did was to highlight the sad fact that there was no audience presence. It looked contrived, artificial – and perhaps the worst thing, in my humble opinion, was that it seemed to reinforce the notion that classical music is a ‘museum piece’, to be admired, revered even, from afar, instead of a living, breathing, vibrant artform.

The Albert Hall is vast; it would not have been impossible to bring in a limited, socially-distanced audience, but the organisers’ timidity regarding this reflects, to me, a general timidity amongst bigger organisations and institutions towards the resumption of live performance. It is possible to present live concerts within the current government restrictions – and the Proms could have led the way in this, signalling that live music, with an audience, is far from dead.

Let us hope that the 2021 Proms festival is able to go ahead in its “normal” format, with a full Albert Hall, a roster of fine musicians and a varied programme of great music.


All the performances are available to listen to/watch via the BBC Proms website

(Header image: BBC)

An interview with pianist Beth Levin by Gil Reavill

I assume you’re in quarantine along with the rest of us. How have the months of isolation influenced your creativity, or, on a more commonplace level, changed your practice routines?

I’m not sure. Everything is different—that much I know. I’ve been working on music that I would have performed in the spring and summer- specifically Schumann, Chopin, Beethoven and Yehudi Wyner. But I notice that I’m approaching it in ways that match the longer road we’re on—taking time to pull things apart, to muse, to examine voices and phrasing and only then putting the pieces back together. Even in the most “presto” passages now there seems to be an inherent slowness. I was always saying things like, “I wish I had a year to learn that concerto,” or, “I wish I had two years for that set of variations.”

“The pandemic is a portal,” states novelist/activist Arundhati Roy. Do you find it so?

Perhaps it is an inward portal. One’s creativity really can be nurtured right now because we are in a blank state, with nothing pressing, nothing other than music and time. I’m amazed at how much emotion rises up as I practice—nothing is there to stop it. Also I’m looking back, perhaps too much. I’ve put many old performances on Soundcloud and listening has been cathartic. This passage from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets came to mind:

The river is within us, the sea is all about us

The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite

Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses

Its hints of earlier and other creation

You seem to be attracted to tremendously challenging works, and have recorded The Goldberg Variations and The Diabelli Variations, with your recording of the Hammerklavier sonata forthcoming.

Well, first, that’s a tradition from my teachers, particularly Shure and Serkin. And I like works that are made up of variations such as the Goldbergs, Davidsbundlertanze, The Schumann Symphonic Etudes, Diabelli, etc. I have never let not being able to play something stop me from learning a new work—ha-ha! Honestly, I have friends who won’t play this or that because of a large stretch or a fiendish page or two. If a work has a great and true expressive quality (practically anything of Schumann, say), but is technically challenging, expression wins out.

I’m interested to know the ways in which the emotional tenor of a work such as the Hammerklavier might change in the run-up to performing it in concert or preparing for a recording, shifting with the player’s increasing facility, familiarity, or understanding.

I find closer to a performance that the whole endeavor seems utterly impossible. I felt that way with the Hammerklavier even after months working on it. I mean you have good days when you feel that there is hope and everything is coming together. Just that fact of making Op. 106 feel like one piece is quite a challenge. Thinking in the longest lines possible helped and not being afraid of glacially slow or impossibly fast. The dynamic range asked for was also exciting in its scope. There is an ecstatic aspect to the sonata that may only be truly realized on stage. I think you can understand aspects of the Hammerklavier, be familiar with it and even have the facility to play it well—but the work has its secrets. I think in the end you play it to see where it will take you and take the audience.

You write poetry. What sort of cross-fertilization do you detect between language and music?

The ear and one’s sense of pulse has so much to do with both language and music. Especially if you read a poem aloud—you can hear how the pure sound of the words has a musical and rhythmic basis. I’m quite an amateur poet and never feel I know what I’m doing. I’m pretty seasoned as a pianist, and a novice at poetry writing. But my musicianship does help me as I write a poem. This strange pandemic seems perfect for using time in creative ways and in ways we might not try otherwise.

You’ve had a long association with the works of Robert Schumann, recording Kreisleriania and performing other works, and have also written about him recently. How do you engage with Schumann as a composer and creative force?

I probably have an affinity for composers who don’t want to be tied down, completely understood or caught. When I think of Schumann I think of someone reaching upward, yearning, seeking and with an ardent intensity. And I think of ultimate contrast. As soon as you meet Florestan and Eusebius in his writing, you experience Schumann’s own extreme dual nature. Schumann loved words as well—see his writings in Neue Zeitschift für Musik. I was given the music of Schumann as a child and am still discovering it. Most recently I performed the Piano Trio in D minor with Roberta Cooper and Eugene Drucker and currently I’m working on the Symphonic Etudes for piano. His music is uncannily intimate and so on that level it is very easy to engage with it. On the other hand Schumann strove to write orchestrally for the piano and wound up writing some deliciously hard music for the instrument. Schumann wrote fondly of Clara’s performance: “The way you played my Etudes—I won’t ever forget that; they were absolute masterpieces the way you presented them—the public can’t appreciate such playing—but one person was sitting there, no matter how much his heart was pounding with other feelings, my entire being at that instant bowed down before you as an artist.

There’s been some back and forth of late about whether Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was written for harpsichord or clavichord. With cellist Samuel Magill, you’ve performed preludes from the piece, arranged by the virtuoso Ignaz Moscheles. Any thoughts on period instruments versus their modern offspring?

The music of Bach has that ability to survive just about any treatment and still emerge as Bach. When I first saw the Moscheles transcription the word “schlock” may have crossed my mind. But Sam won me over with his gorgeous playing and love of Romanticism. I believe we began the programme with the Bach and after the concert it was one of the most remarked upon works.

You often perform and record contemporary composers. Do you seek out connections, comparisons, commonality, or inheritances in earlier works of the Baroque, Classical, Romantic or Modern canon?

Some of the contemporary music I’ve played seems to spring very naturally from earlier periods—say, the music of David del Tredici, Yehudi Wyner or Scott Wheeler. Other works break off from tradition completely; Bunita Marcus comes to mind. Lately I’ve been sending little music notebooks to composer friends and one, Frank Brickle, has begun writing me pieces for piano. I can’t wait to see the result. I think as in more traditional music you have to find the voice of the work itself and not make comparison studies.

Beth Levin, Brooklyn, NY, August, 2020


Beth Levin’s recording of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata and other works mentioned in this interview will be released by Aldila Records

Blurb:

When Beth Levin released her third live album seven years ago, she summed up Ludwig van Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas under the motto ‘A Single Breath’. At the time, a critic called her a titan and wrote that she played as if she was a contemporary of Eduard Erdmann, Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Backhaus and Walter Gieseking. This has not changed. Since then, colleagues, admirers and connoisseurs have repeatedly asked her to present her interpretation of the Hammerklavier Sonata. She has now complied with this request, also with a ‘Live in Concert’ recording. And again she plays in a highly explosive manner, spontaneously as in an improvisation and at the same time with an incorruptible inner logic, with inexhaustible power and an immense dynamic spectrum of expression.

The Hammerklavier Sonata forms the symphonic climax of Beethoven’s piano work with its final fugue that transcends all boundaries. This concert program is introduced with a suite of George Frideric Handel, including a set of wonderful variations. Handel was Beethoven’s favorite composer, and the motto “All power to the dominant” could stand above both composers. Between the works of the two old masters is the 3rd Disegno by the great Swedish composer Anders Eliasson, who died in 2013, entitled ‘Carosello’. This free-tonal cantabile study in 5/4 time creates a sphere of weightlessness in contrast to the cadential purposefulness of Handel and Beethoven.

“One may agree with it or not. No one plays Beethoven like Beth Levin.” (Christoph Schlüren, 2013)

https://www.bethlevinpiano.com/