Leon McCawley (photo: Clive Barda)

My first concert outing of 2013 was to hear British pianist Leon McCawley at London’s Wigmore Hall. The penultimate concert in Leon’s Mozart Sonatas cycle was my first review for Bachtrack, back in April 2011. This is my third Bachtrack review of this fine artist, who seamlessly combines a calm, self-possessed stage presence with immaculate technique, versatility and musical integrity.

Read my full review here

Leon McCawley’s Meet the Artist interview

Alisdair Hogarth

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?

Initially I used to hear both my mum and dad playing a lot of different piano repertoire and I remember really wanting to be able to play some of those pieces like they did. They both studied with an excellent teacher in County Durham and they had a big range of repertoire, but I loved the impressive stuff…Liszt and Chopin Etudes, Impromptus and Ballades. I used to try to play these pieces myself way before I was ready but it was all good fun! My mum actually studied at the RCM which is where I studied after going to university. So they were my initial inspiration to play. I also remember my dad playing me a record of Ashkenazy playing the Chopin Ballades which I loved; I think I wore the record out, along with my parents’ sanity! I decided to make it my career after I began studying with the British pianist Philip Fowke; after one year with him I made my debut with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which was an incredible experience with his guidance, and it inspired me to take things further.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?

My main teacher, Philip Fowke, has been the biggest influence on my playing, and I still play things to him now before big concerts. He is a person of great humility, but such incredible gifts, both in his playing and his teaching. I went to him when I was 13 and he had a refreshingly healthy attitude to the piano; he was and still is, always willing to think outside the box. I remember at my first lesson, we worked backwards through the piece! Your At the Piano interview with him sums up a lot of his teaching very well, but the thing that stands out for me was the way he would cut through to the heart of what was difficult about a certain passage. And armed with that knowledge he’d find a solution that always seemed to work for me. The result of all this was that he encouraged me to explore lots of ways of doing things rather than following ‘methods’, which I still do to this day. He was also able to demonstrate exactly what he meant at the keyboard, and immaculately, which I believe is really important in a teacher; that they can practise what they preach. I have been to so many master classes where the teacher has suggested something wacky, and I feel like standing up and saying “Well that’s great in theory; now show us!”

Philip studied with the great teacher Gordon Green (who also taught John Ogdon, Stephen Hough, Martin Roscoe to name a few) and when I went to the Royal College of Music after university I was lucky enough to study with one of Philip’s best mates, John Blakely, who had also studied with Gordon. John was equally brilliant and was a master of helping you completely get your head around an issue in a piece by summing it up in one sentence. Technically, a lot of the things he taught were very similar to Philip, so it was great getting continuity on this front; I never had conflicting views. My final influence is Peter Katin, with whom I studied for two years after the RCM. Peter gave me some very detailed technical work and I studied the Rachmaninov Preludes with him; his recording of them remains one of my favourites. He also recorded Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals with Philip Fowke, so all three of my teachers are linked really.

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

I think balancing a career in performing and teaching, and at the same time balancing this with a family life. I’m lucky that a lot of my work can be done from home, so I get to see my wife and two kids during the day when we can have fun; then I’ll be off to work later in the afternoon and evening. Although…when I’m practising at home sometimes my 1 year old and 4 year old decide to play too; I’m used to shutting it out now and it almost makes it easier when I play a concert because I finally get to concentrate on what I’m doing with no distractions!

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?

The recording I’m most proud of is the first recording I did with my group The Prince Consort for Linn Records: ‘On an Echoing Road – Songs by Ned Rorem’. Also our debut at Wigmore Hall with Graham Johnson joining me at the piano was a pretty special time too. Graham gave us some great insights into how to make the most of Wigmore’s amazing acoustic; tips that we still take on board when we perform there now.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

Well there are lots of places I love playing, but the place that I’ve performed the most is Wigmore Hall in London; it’s a beautiful hall to play in, with an incredible acoustic. Most of my work is with singers and they love it too. The Director there, John Gilhooly, is extremely forward-thinking but also realises the importance of respecting traditions which is something I try to bring into my own work too, so I enjoy working with him on new programmes for the venue. I also like Perth Concert Hall in Scotland, for its amazing pianos, great space and forward thinking programming led by James Waters.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I think my favourite solo piano piece to perform is the Rachmaninov Sonata No. 2 Op. 36 and I play it in the original 1913 which I prefer to Rachmaninov’s revision (as do many pianists). In the song repertoire, I always enjoy playing the Brahms Zigeunerlieder; I just recorded it with my buddy, the mezzo Jennifer Johnston for the BBC.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Too many to mention, but I enjoy hearing musicians who are great at what they do in all fields of music, including jazz and musicals.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

It’s not really a concert experience, but when we (Prince Consort) were performing in the Gramophone Awards, we were told by the Dorchester Hotel that there was no rehearsal room available as it had to be used for press, so they told us to rehearse in the room where they were serving cream teas. We were performing a particularly turbulent piece by Stephen Hough, that included hitting the keys with your fists; Simon Lepper and I looked up from the keyboard to find Sharon Osborne looking straight back at us, eating a scone. Then we all got told to leave; it felt like the X-Factor!

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

My best advice would be to find other musicians and people that work in the music industry that you admire and trust, and really listen to their advice; both about how to play, but also how to manage the myriad of other things involved in being a musician. Having said that, I also think it is important to find your own personal way of doing things once you have taken this advice on board. I also think it’s important to play music you love and that you are really excited to learn, as well improvising and generally messing about at the keyboard.

What is your most treasured possession?

Apart for the obvious things like my wedding ring and personal items, my Steinway Model A; it was owned by Benno Moiseiwitsch, and then Philip Fowke, and I had all my lessons on it from the age of 13 – 21.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Hanging out with my wife, who is awesome, and our two beautiful kids.

What is your present state of mind?

Chilled, I’m having a pint!

 

With a prominent background in both solo and song-accompaniment, Alisdair Hogarth is a versatile pianist combining a robust technique with a fresh, contemporary edge.

He made his concerto debut in 1996, at the age of fifteen, as soloist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall broadcast live on Classic FM, and has since performed many concertos with a variety of orchestras, including tours of Hungary and the Czech Republic (Rudolfinum).

He regularly broadcasts for BBC television, BBC Radio 3 and World Service, Classic FM and New Zealand Concert FM. Recent performances have included the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Wigmore Hall, Purcell Room, Cadogan Hall, Bridgewater Hall and Philharmonic Hall, as well recitals for British music societies and international festivals. Most recently he performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in New York with the National Symphony Orchestra under Anthony Inglis as well as a performance at the 2010 Gramophone Awards. Future performances include many appearances at Wigmore Hall as well as recitals abroad including the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam.

Committed to song-accompaniment, Alisdair formed a group of young professional singers, The Prince Consort, which focuses on piano-accompanied song. Following their highly-acclaimed recital debut at the Purcell Room as part of the ‘Fresh’ Young Artists Series they perform frequently at music societies and festivals throughout Europe and the USA. They made their Wigmore Hall debut in 2009 where they were joined by Graham Johnson for the Brahms Liebeslieder Walzer. Their first commercial CD, a recording of songs by Ned Rorem released on Linn Records, was Gramophone Editor’s Choice and won an Outstanding award from International Record Review. They also have a close relationship with the Britten-Pears School in Aldeburgh where they held a residency to prepare for the recording and performed a recital in the prestigious Britten Weekend. Alisdair has performed with Sir Thomas Allen, Rosemary Joshua, Lillian Watson, Donald Maxwell and is the regular accompanist to many of his generation’s finest young singers, including Anna Leese, Jennifer Johnston, Andrew Staples, Jacques Imbrailo and Tim Mead. He has just returned from Korea where he gave two recitals with Barbara Bonney. Current projects include a recording on Linn Records with Philip Fowke and Stephen Hough, performing Brahms Liebeslieder and a new song cycle written by Stephen Hough specifically for The Prince Consort. This CD was selected as Classic FM Editor’s Choice in October 2011.

Alisdair studied privately with Philip Fowke and subsequently with Peter Katin, and also at the Royal College of Music with John Blakely and Roger Vignoles where he won all the major prizes for piano accompaniment. In the same year he was selected as a Park Lane Group Young Artist. He was an RCM scholar supported by the Fishmongers’ Company Music Scholarship, Michael Whittaker and Robert McFadzean Whyte Awards and is an alumnus of the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme. Alisdair acknowledges the kind and generous support of Simon Yates, and Philip and Chris Carne.

www.alisdairhogarth.com

www.theprinceconsort.com

The Prince Consort’s new album, Other Love Songs, is now available for high-quality download on http://www.linnrecords.com/recording-other-love-songs.aspx

I am very much looking forward to reading Alan Rusbridger’s forthcoming book Play It Again: Why Amateurs Should Attempt the Impossible in which he describes the monumental task he set himself to learn Chopin’s First Ballade in just one year. The Ballades are considered some of the most challenging pieces Chopin wrote and are amongst the most popular with concert artists and audiences around the world. While he was studying the piece, Rusbridger was also kept exceedingly busy by his day job, as editor of The Guardian newspaper at a time when a number of major stories broke, including Wikileaks and the phone hacking scandal, so the book is also an account of how Rusbridger balanced his day job with his love of the piano.

Alan Rusbridger at the piano (photo: Graeme Robertson)

Rusbridger is a keen and very competent amateur pianist. A hundred years ago the word “amateur” was a compliment: indeed its Old French origin is “lover of” (from the Latin amator). But the meaning of the word has changed and has come to mean “hobbyist” or a certain cack-handed incompetence.

I have met plenty of “amateur” pianists – at courses, masterclasses and other piano events – and many of them are very fine pianists, who play to a near-professional standard and with the same commitment and devotion as the seasoned pro. Some studied at music college or conservatoire but decided not to pursue a career as a professional musician, some learnt as children and continue to learn, as adults. Others have come later to the instrument, or returned to it after a long pause (as I did). But all of the amateurs I have met (and I include myself in this description) love the piano and its literature. Some of us perform, many of us are studying for exams or diplomas, others are happy to play purely for pleasure. We don’t really like the tag “Sunday pianist”, because many of us practice every day, often for several hours. We are incredibly committed and we love every minute of the time we spend at the piano. I very much hope that Alan Rusbridger’s new book will redefine the word “amateur”, casting it in a positive light and proving that it needn’t be synonymous with ineptitude or lack of skill.

More about amateur pianists here

I will be reviewing Alan Rusbridger’s Play It Again after the book is published on 17th January.

Alan Rusbridger goes to piano boot camp

Bach 50 shades

The best-selling “mummy porn” erotic fantasy 50 Shades of Grey (and its sequels) is notable for being short on culture and long on bad writing and naff BDSM sex scenes. I know this because I weakened, while bored on holiday at Christmas, and read the damn thing (a friend sent me a PDF of the book so I could read it in secret on my iPad!). Those who know me well – as a voracious reader of books on pianism and classical music, and the works of contemporary novelists such as Alan Hollinghurst, Ian McEwan, Helen Dunmore and Paul Theroux – are probably now, as I write, throwing their hands up in horror at this confession. However, as a reviewer and one who will join in noisily with a good debate around the dinner table, I believe it is necessary to read, hear or see the rubbish so that one can a) offer criticism based on knowledge, rather than hearsay; and b) really appreciate great literature, music or art when one comes across it.

50 Shades…. has been responsible for sending Thomas Tallis’s wonderful, soaring 40-part motet Spem in Alium to the top of the classical music charts (it’s the piece Christian Grey, the controlling, BDSM-obsessed ‘hero’ of the book, is listening to the first time he seduces our ‘heroine’, the irritatingly immature Anastasia). Another piece which has enjoyed a resurgence of interest thanks to the book is the ‘Adagio’ from J S Bach’s Concerto in D Minor after Marcello, BWV 974. Christian Grey, who is not only drop-dead gorgeous and richer than Croesus but also a talented amateur pianist (natch), is playing this piece (naked at the piano, I might add) the first morning-after-the-night-before:

I hear the music.The lilting notes of the piano, a sad sweet lament……

Christian is at the piano, completely lost in the music he’s playing. His expression is sad and forlorn, like the music. His playing is stunning……I listen enraptured. He’s such an accomplished musician….

When he’s finished, Christian tells Anastasia that it is Bach’s transcription of an oboe concerto, originally by Marcello.

I first came across this arresting piece on the soundtrack of a French film called ‘Je Te Mangerais’ (in English ‘Highly Strung’) about a couple of French lesbians (one of whom is a pianist), which I saw just after I’d done my ATCL Recital Diploma in December 2011. I was looking for some repertoire to keep me occupied while I was waiting for the exam results, and, by a neat coincidence, the entire Concerto was on the repertoire list for the LTCL, which I decided to attempt after I’d received my ATCL result.

It is the pure beauty of the Adagio, a limber solo melody over a hypnotic, repeating bass line, that makes it so compelling: a serene oasis between a witty, rhetorical opening movement and a Presto finale, an exuberant 3/8 romp, scored almost entirely in semiquavers.

Bach transcribed 16 instrumental concertos by other composers for solo harpsichord during the 1710s. Six were originally works by Antonio Vivaldi. Alessandro Marcello lacked the style and innovation of Vivaldi, and it is possible that Bach selected this concerto to transcribe to test his own skill and adaptive ingenuity. Bach’s transcription, like its original, is in the usual three movements of an Italian concerto. The shell of the first movement is clearly Marcello’s work, though Bach is quick to thicken the lean textures of the original, particularly in the middle of the movement where the writing is very dense.

In the Adagio, the right hand melodic line is highly ornamented, suggesting improvisation, and is perhaps an opportunity for Bach to show off the emotional possibilities of the harpsichord, as well as the technical prowess of the keyboard player. When I first started learning it, I was also working on Chopin’s Nocturne in E, op 62 no. 2, a piece in which a beautiful simple melodic line is decorated with ornaments and fiorituras. Chopin revered Bach, and learning the two pieces concurrently demonstrated the influence and inspiration Chopin drew from JSB.

As for playing the piece, a soft, light right hand and arm is crucial to achieve a beautiful singing tone in the melody. Keep the mordents and trills quite leisurely/lengthened, and the demi-semiquaver bars relaxed to create a sense of improvisation. I like to spread some of the chords – e.g. bars 5 and 13. Keep the LH chords soft – “floating chords” where the keys are depressed just enough to create sound – and think 3 in a bar (rather than 6 quavers). Throughout, the piece needs to ‘breathe’, so observe Bach’s phrasing where marked (there is limited phrasing in my Barenreiter edition) and don’t overdo the drop slurs (e.g. at bar 18), and don’t push the LH. Remember, this is 5 minutes of serenity between two dramatic and exciting outer movements.

For me, the benchmark recording of this work has to be Glenn Gould’s. His treatment of the ornaments is particularly fine, and the rest of the Concerto is splendidly orchestral. James Rhodes has also recorded the Adagio but to my mind it is an overly contrived, self-conscious reading of the piece. A quick trawl around Spotify threw up some other interesting interpretations of the work, including a ‘cello version with Rostropovich, and a rather smooth, “lounge” style improv by Gabriela Montero. When studying the concerto, it is worth listening to Marcello’s original to hear how Bach has handled the orchestral writing, and where he has stripped out material to highlight the capabilities of the harpsichord.

Download the score of the complete Concerto in D minor BWV 974 from IMSLP. For a simplified version of the score, click here

Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis

If you’re interested in reading quality erotic literature, take a look at the book reviews and recommendations at Mucky Book Club

The main focus of 2013 will, of course, be the bicentenary of Richard Wagner (1813-1888) and the centenary of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), a composer whose music I have loved since I was a small child who was taken on holiday to Aldeburgh (where Britten could occasionally be spotted walking along the seafront with Peter Pears).

In all the excitement of the Wagner/Britten celebrations, many other composers, whose anniversaries also fall in 2013, may be overlooked. Here is a small selection:

Giles Farnaby (1563-1640) English composer and virginalist. His best-known works can be found in the ‘Fitzwilliam Virginal Book’, and include Giles Farnabys Dreame, Fancies Toys and Dreams, His Rest, Farnabyes Conceit and His Humour

John Dowland (1563-1626) Dublin-born English Renaissance composer, singer and lutenist. In recent years his music has undergone a huge revival of interest, and is today considered some of the finest and most profound music written for the instrument. His most famous works include the song ‘Flow My Tears’, and the Lachrimae (Seven Tears), a set of seven pavanes for five viols and lute, each based on a theme from ‘Flow My Tears’; ‘I Saw My Lady Weepe’; and ‘In darkness let me dwell’. The tenor John Potter created The Dowland Project to rediscover the essence of Renaissance song from the perspective of the modern performer. His album Care-Charming Sleep includes post-Dowland English and Italian songs, performed on Renaissance and modern instruments, including clarinet and saxophone.

Alexander Siloti (1863-1945) Russian pianist, conductor and composer who is perhaps best known for his transcriptions of Bach. His also transcribed works by Vivaldi, Beethoven, Liszt and Tchaikovsky.

Isidor Philipp (1863-1958). French pianist, composer and distinguished teacher, Isidor was also a grand-pupil of Chopin, via his teacher Georges Mathias. Other notable teachers include Stephen Heller (1813-1888, a pupil of Czerny), Camille Saint-Saens and Theodore Ritter (a pupil of Liszt). He met Claude Debussy while studying at the Paris Conservatoire, with whom he remained lifelong friends. Compositions include 6 Concert Studies after Chopin’s Études, Concert Étude after Chopin’s Minute Waltz, a concertino for three pianos, and a considerable number of works for left-hand only. The British pianist Phyllis Sellick studied with Philipp in Paris.

Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) Polish composer and conductor, Lutoslawski was one of the most significant European composers of the 20th century.. His early works show the influence of Polish folk music, but from the 1950s onwards, he began to develop his own characteristic compositional techniques, such as building harmonies from small groups of intervals, and ‘aleatoric’ processes in which the rhythmic coordination of parts are subject to chance. I first encountered his music via my father, who played some of his works for clarinet.

 

Charles Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) Apart from Benjamin Britten, Alkan is, for me, the most interesting composer whose anniversary falls in 2013. Often misunderstood and little known by many, his piano music has been dismissed as unplayable, except by a select, skilled few. Yet he was one of the greatest pianists of his day, friend to Chopin (who greatly admired him and his work), he was venerated by Liszt, Busoni, Anton Rubinstein and the artist Delacroix, and was studied by Debussy, Saint-Saens, Franck and Ravel. His phenomenal pianistic technique is evidenced by the huge technical and physical demands his music places on the player: Liszt praised Alkan’s extraordinary technique, and admitted that Alkan was the only person he was afraid of performing to.

Charles-Valentin Alkan

He fell into obscurity for a century, largely because he himself withdrew from the concert platform and became increasingly reclusive. In the mid-twentieth century, the British pianist Ronald Smith (1922-2004) was responsible for a revival of interest in the piano music of Alkan, and recorded many of his works. Latterly, the French Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin has championed and recorded his music. In 2013, a number of pianists will be exploring his music, including Karl Lutchmayer and Jonathan Powell.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

19,000 people fit into the new Barclays Center to see Jay-Z perform. This blog was viewed about 130,000 times in 2012. If it were a concert at the Barclays Center, it would take about 7 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.