Readers who enjoyed Peter Donohoe’s lively and very well-observed diary of his participation in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1982, published on his website earlier this year, and his selection of ’50 Great Pianists‘ as part of the BBC’s Piano Season, will relish his account of his visit to the Leeds International Piano Competition this year. In it, he discusses, in part, the merits of not coming first (Peter was himself joint silver medallist at the Tchaikovsky Competition, and has subsequently gone on to enjoy an acclaimed international career). Like his Moscow diary, this is a detailed and insightful account, which will appeal to anyone who has followed the competition with keen interest.

You can access Peter’s blog here

Leeds International Piano Competition winner 2012 Federico Colli

Sarah Beth Briggs (image credit: Clive Barda/ArenaPAL)

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

My father was my initial inspiration. He was an English teacher, but he always had a few piano students coming to the house. I was intrigued and wanted to do what they were doing. So he started me off when I was four. Having someone to help me when I was in the mood, rather than being forced into playing was probably the greatest encouragement.

Career wise – I suppose there is a point when music just takes over. It was never an active choice. It happened fairly early for me. I was (at the time) the youngest ever finalist in BBC Young Musician at 11 and things went from there.

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

Denis Matthews was the most incredible inspiration. I was very fortunate to be taught by him from the age of eight until his death. He was such a terrific all round musician. He made me understand that there was far more to being a good musician than playing the piano. Lessons would involve listening to Mozart operas, Beethoven string quartets, Brahms symphonies etc and then making the piano ‘become’ a singer, a string quartet, a pair of horns – always looking way beyond the dots on any given page!

I was then lucky to study chamber music with the great violist, Bruno Giuranna and go on to work with Chilean concert pianist, Edith Fischer (an Arrau pupil) in Switzerland.

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

The path of a freelance musician is a rocky one and the route to success is never simple. My first huge challenge was to lose my mentor, Denis Matthews (who was a close personal friend in addition to being such a huge musical inspiration) at such an early age.

Poor instruments are always a challenge – battling with the impossible to some extent, but it is a pianist’s responsibility to achieve the very best possible from any given instrument.

Perhaps, however, the greatest challenge of all is to remain true to yourself (whatever external pressures try to dictate). The music business is fickle and it’s impossible to please everyone. A huge self awareness is constantly necessary and being as faithful to the score as possible is, to me, the single most important thing to aim for.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?  

There is something very satisfying about feeling that I have contributed towards a particularly exciting chamber music performance, so perhaps my happiest moments of performing to reflect on have been when I’ve been part of a really exhilarating musical collaboration. As far as recordings go, I suppose my latest disc (of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven) is the one that I feel the most pride in looking back on.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

Actually, no – so much depends on each individual occasion and, to some degree, the association that certain places hold. In terms of beauty, performing at the Mozarteum in Salzburg is special. Whilst it’s not aesthetically the most pleasing hall, I love the acoustic of Fairfield, Croydon (and I particularly like its new model D Steinway). Performing at Stern Grove in San Francisco to 20,000 people was exciting (in spite of the acoustic problems of playing outdoors) and at the other end of the scale, playing to something like 120 people in the delightfully intimate atmosphere of St Mary’s Church in Lastingham was just as special. So, it varies hugely for me and the most prestigious venues in which I’ve played haven’t necessarily been my preferred spaces. I do, however, long to play in the glorious acoustic of the Wigmore Hall – a particular favourite for concert going.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

The answer to the first question has to be whatever I am currently performing – otherwise the performance couldn’t be convincing.

One wonderful thing about being a pianist is the vast repertoire of superb music that we are so lucky to have to perform. Composers I couldn’t survive without performing are: Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, Brahms, Debussy and Chopin and on the next tier: Schumann, Bartok, Prokofiev and Mendelssohn. I have notably missed out JS Bach whose music I love but have decided (in the main) to save performance-wise until a few more years have elapsed.

When it comes to listening – anything that isn’t solo piano! My strong preferences lie in the symphonic and chamber fields – if I had to name just a handful of composers – orchestrally, I would again have to choose Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Brahms but with a definite addition of Sibelius. Chamber wise – yet again Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn Brahms, Schubert (perhaps at the top of my chamber list) and Schumann. Oh – and the ‘wild card’ is Faure’s Cantique de Jean Racine……six and a half minutes of pure, deeply moving beauty that always manages to de-stress me even in my most highly-charged moments!

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Several of the musicians who I have the good fortune of playing chamber music with – perhaps unfair to single out! When it comes to other pianists, I suppose my very favourites would have to include Radu Lupu, Murray Perahia, Paul Lewis and the stunning Benjamin Grosvenor.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Being locked in the dressing room at Morpeth Town Hall (aged 10) with a load of alcohol ready for a wedding reception and not being able to get to the stage. I can still sense the anxiety of knocking on that door and being unable to get out!!!!!

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

To be able to develop an individual voice whilst trying to honour what we believe the composers’ wishes would have been as much as possible. I think the hardest thing to teach is not so much the sounds as the silences – the way notes are placed and the whole concept of how to breathe is something that really needs to be innate. And yet as teachers, we need to attempt to put our students on the right track. And finally – can anyone help to improve someone’s staying power? I guess that being able to impart the notion that any aspiring musician will need dogged determination is very necessary.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Away from the piano, I love good food and wine (both at home and discovering it on my travels) the theatre, exploring the countryside with my delightfully lively cocker spaniel and spending time with close friends and family.

Sarah Beth Briggs latest CD of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert is available now. Further details here

Newcastle born pianist Sarah Beth Briggs was (at that time) the youngest ever finalist in the history of BBC Young Musician competition at the age of 11 and gained a Myra Hess Award at the same age. At 15, she jointly won the International Mozart Competition in Salzburg. She studied in Newcastle, York and Birmingham with Denis Matthews and in Switzerland with Edith Fischer. A Hindemith scholarship also led to chamber music study in Switzerland with violist, Bruno Giuranna.

A soloist and chamber musician, she has broadcast and performed live in the UK, around Europe and the USA and has worked with many renowned orchestras including the Halle, London Mozart Players, London Philharmonic, English Chamber Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic, Ulster Orchestra, Manchester Camerata, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Northern Sinfonia and Vienna Chamber Orchestra. She has also given numerous masterclasses and chamber music coaching sessions in the UK and abroad.

She is the pianist in three chamber ensembles, The Anton Stadler Trio (with clarinettist Janet Hilton and violist Robin Ireland), Clarion³ (with Janet Hilton and bassoonist Laurence Perkins) and Trio Melzi (with violinist Richard Howarth and cellist Hannah Roberts).

Sarah has produced recordings of Bartok, Beethoven, Brahms, Britten (the world premiere of whose Three Character Pieces she gave in 1989) Chopin, Haydn, Mozart and Rawsthorne on the Semaphore label.

(image credit Clive Barda/ArenaPAL)

Interview date: October 2012

Claude Debussy – Images Books I & II, Images oubliées

Toru Takemitsu – Les yeux clos, Les yeux clos II, Rain Tree Sketch, Rain Tree Sketch II

Rika Zayasu, piano

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude Debussy, pianist Rika Zayasu has released a CD of two books of Images and Images oubliées, and four pieces by Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu.

Recorded at St Bartholomew’s, Brighton, this CD is produced and mastered by Claudio Records, using their new ‘Q-Lab Sound/192-Stereo High Definition Audio’, a technique which results in a remarkably pristine and natural quality of sound (undoubtedly helped by the fine acoustic of the recording venue and the quality Steinway instrument). CDs produced using this technique can be played on high-quality DVD-Audio equipment and Blu-Ray surround sound systems.

Rika plays with great sensitivity, displaying grace and precision in touch and use of pedal, and her understanding of Debussy’s music is clear from the range of musical shadings, nuances, colours, articulation and rhythmic vitality she brings to these works. The first Image from Book I, ‘Reflets dans l’eau’, is supple and fluid, with a rippling, luminous treble over a rich bass, which never overpowers. The oriental elements of this music (as in the other pieces in this suite) are highlighted, reminding us of Debussy’s fascination for Japonisme and eastern gamelan music. ‘Hommage à Rameau’ is haunting, stately and antique, its tempo relaxed but not dragging, so we never lose a sense of its structure, underpinned by the underlying 3-in-a-bar pulse, with some beautifully paced climaxes (again, evident in other works on the CD). ‘Mouvement’, in contrast, is sprightly and animated, with bright, joyful, bell-like sounds which continue into ‘Cloches a travers les feuilles’, in which Debussy evokes the sonorities of bells and carillons, and Far Eastern percussion. Here, there is some lovely, subtle highlighting of the internal melodic lines of this complex music. ‘Poissons d’or’ is vibrant and colourful, shimmering and characterful.

The Images oubliées are more introspective (Debussy described the pieces as “not for brilliantly lit salons … but rather conversations between the piano and oneself.”) . The ‘Lent’ is expressive and melancholy, while the ‘Sarabande’ (later reworked for the middle movement of Pour le Piano, with a few adjustments to harmony and phrasing) moves with a solemn, ancient elegance, with some lovely bright, clean fortes in the climaxes on the final page of the music. ‘Tres Vite’ is humourous, with toccata-like qualities which recall both the ‘Prelude’ and ‘Toccata’ from Pour le Piano, and ‘Jardins sous la pluie’ from Estampes.

The four pieces by Takemitsu perfectly complement the works by Debussy, and are related to them in the use of titles to stimulate the listener’s imagination. Les yeux clos (The Closed Eyes – three pieces in total) are inspired by a lithograph by the French symbolist artist Odilon Redon, which depicts a bust of a woman whose eyes are closed. It suggests a dream or inner world. Takemitsu’s music reflects this in the use of fragmented melodies over sustained pitches, with flexible durations, which freely connect to one another. Similarly, the Rain Tree Sketches were inspired by a poem by Japanese novelist, and friend to the composer, Kenzaburo Oe, which describes ‘the clever rain tree’, an ancient tree whose thousands of tiny leaves collect and store rain water, so that after the storm has passed, rain continues to fall from the tree. Precipitation is suggested through single droplets of quiet, lone sustained notes and sudden dissonant clusters of sounds, as if shaken from saturated branches.

All four pieces are played with immense control and insight. Soft, pastel-coloured sound showers and radiant trebles chime over rich bass sonorities and pedal points, while the silences are as carefully judged as the notes between them. These pieces are evocative and ethereal, their transcendental nature emphasised through the precise use of pedals, and the pianist’s ability to allow sounds to resonate and ring, or fade to nothing, which create an exquisite sense of stillness.

My Meet the Artist interview with Rika Zayasu

Rika Zayasu plays Takemitsu Rain Tree Sketch II

Harry Bennett of Apollo5

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

My grandfather was the man that gave me the push to explore the full capacity of my voice. He was a keen musician and would organise music festivals in Kent where he lived while bringing up his young family. In his later years he was a committed member of his local choral society. Music was very important to him, and while he only heard me sing a few times, he clearly saw my passion for singing when I was very young. He saw an advert in the Telegraph for choristers at Rochester Cathedral and encouraged my mother and me to apply. Four years later, I bowed out of the choir as deputy head chorister, and I’d had the biggest head start to my singing career I could ever ask for.

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

Being in a cathedral choir, you’re repertoire is fine-tuned to a fairly specific genre. There’s no secular music at all, so the biggest influences were certainly the composers whose works I was singing, namely Byrd, Tallis, Stanford, Poulenc, Duruflé, Vaughan Williams to name a few. On the performance side of things, my director of music at Rochester, Roger Sayer, was a huge influence. I learnt all my foundations of singing from him. In more recent times, I’m now a member of the a cappella group Apollo5, and that has opened my eyes and ears to the previously undiscovered world of secular music! We sing a huge variety of genres and composers from Byrd to Broadway. I’ve loved singing the more current repertoire, like Jim Clements’ arrangement of Smooth Criminal. Jim arranges a lot of music for VOCES8 (whom Apollo5 work very closely with), and it’s a real treat to be able to sing such funky harmonies which I missed out on when I was singing in cathedral choirs!

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

There’s one which stands out: I started my undergraduate studies on a Biology BSc course, and while I enjoyed studying science at school, it took me a while to realise that I couldn’t leave music on the back burner. After 1 1/2 years into my biology degree I finally accepted that I wasn’t happy, so I started my undergrad from scratch, but this time I was working towards a Music BA. It was an incredibly tough decision to make because I’m probably the most stubborn person I know, but I was worried that I would be perceived as a failure. It’s now 3 years later, and I’m about to graduate and start working as a workshop leader for the charity which runs Apollo5 and VOCES8, Voces Cantabiles Music (VCM), and I can’t wait to start inspiring people through music. It’s definitely been the best decision of my life.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

In chronological order, one of my favourite recordings was from my days in Rochester. We recorded a disc of Vaughan Williams’ choral works (A Choral Portrait of Vaughan Williams, Lantern Productions- 2000), and that definitely fuelled my love for his music. One of the prominent features on the disc was his Mass in G minor. My solo performance which I’m most proud of is certainly my final undergraduate recital. I chose a programme of Finzi, Fauré and Quilter. What I was most proud of was my delivery of the text; having sung in a cathedral for most of my singing career, I haven’t been used to “acting” my text because your job in a cathedral choir is primarily to aid worship, and the music should not distract the congregation from the main focus of the worship. My final recital was the first time I engaged with the text so much that I almost cried during The Clock of the Years (from Finzi’s Earth and Air and Rain). My favourite performance with Apollo5 has to be last month’s performance at the Royal Albert Hall with Surrey Arts. We do a lot of education work with a variety of clients from businesses like Vodafone to help to further their team building, community choirs to strengthen their passion for singing, and all the way through to schools like Red Balloon centres for severely bullied children which aim to recover them and return them to mainstream education.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

Apollo5 loved performing at the Royal Albert Hall with Surrey Arts and Westminster Palace with Red Balloon! But sadly we don’t get the opportunity to perform at these venues every day. We usually perform a series of Christmas concerts at Ham House in Richmond, and we love performing those. You certainly feel the Christmas spirit when you’re rehearsing for these towards the end of September!

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

We are very lucky that one of our Tenors (Matt) happens to be a great arranger. One of our favourite arrangements of his is definitely The Andrews Sisters classic Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, and this also looks great when our girls are wearing their fabulous Vivien of Holloway dresses!

Who are your favourite musicians?

Personally, I love to get into the Christmas spirit by listening to Bing Crosby. There’s nothing like having a bath with Bing! At other times of the year, I fill my iPhone with recordings by The Consort of Musicke and The Sixteen

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

If somebody gives you the opportunity to have more experience in something you love, you have to do it. It’s near impossible to improve if you don’t gain experience. Also, the more teachers you see, the better. You don’t have to visit them regularly, but it’s great to get a 2nd/3rd/4th (etc…) opinion on your technique/performance, because what might work for one person may not necessarily work for another. I think of seeing a variety of teachers as getting a pick-n-mix.

What are you working on at the moment?

Right now, I’m preparing to work for VCM on a more permanent basis by observing the workshops that the organisation offers with a view to leading some of these on my own. As a group, Apollo5 are preparing for our appearance at the Tolosa Choral Competition.

What do you enjoy doing most?

I love skiing, it’s something I’ve only recently discovered. I usually go to Alpe d’Huez with members of the choral foundation at Portsmouth Cathedral and we normally try to coincide our trip with a performance at Église Notre-Dame des Neiges.

Harry Bennett has just completed his studies at the University of Southampton and has been studying with David Owen Norris, Ian Caddy and Keith Davis over the last three years. Alongside his studies he is also a Bass Lay Clerk at Portsmouth Cathedral. His extensive choral background stretches back to 1997 when he was a chorister at Rochester Cathedral under the direction of Roger Sayer.

Harry began to explore workshop leading with the Portsmouth SingUp project, a government-led initiative which aims to help primary school children explore the idea of singing, and to consequently help boost their learning, confidence, health and social development. In 2010 he became a founding member of Apollo 5, the a cappella group which has been praised for their eye-catching performances under the Voces Cantabiles Music (VCM) umbrella and will be performing on various dates around Europe this year, and more notably at the Tolosa International Choral Competition. Apollo5 are Ensemble in residence with Surrey Arts and was honoured to headline the sold out celebration concert at the Royal Albert Hall in May 2012. From September this year, Harry will be implementing his skills gained from his SingUp experience in his appointment as a workshop leader for VCM.

As a soloist he has been gaining experience in oratorio and lieder performances, including Handel’s Messiah with Caroline Balding and Elizabeth Kenny in December 2010, and has appeared as Aeneas in Purcell’s opera Dido & Aeneas last June. Over the past year, Harry has been a member of Genesis Sixteen, the new training programme from The Sixteen which aims “to identify the next generation of ensemble choral singers and to give them the opportunity to train at the highest level”.


The stunning vocal quintet Apollo5 was formed in 2010 and has been praised for engaging and lively performances. The professional group has a wide repertoire of jazz, pop, classical and Christmas a cappella and will be touring across the UK and internationally for the first time in 2012.

Claude Debussy

Pianist and writer Christine Stevenson is marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude Debussy by exploring an A to Z of Debussy’s piano music in a series of blog posts. Each entry contains interesting facts about the pieces discussed, as well as analytical and stylistic notes, video and sound clips. Alongside this well-written and well-researched blog, Christine has been performing piano repertoire by Debussy in a series of recitals.

Explore Christine’s blog here

Twitter: @notesfromapiano


“spine-tingling beauty and conviction”

Platinum Consort will be performing at St Giles Cripplegate, in the heart of the City of London, on Friday 16th November, in a programme featuring three world premieres – two works by Platinum’s composer-in-residence, Richard Bates, and one by David Ianni. Following on from their stunning concert at King’s Place (which I had the great pleasure of reviewing), this promises to be a fabulous evening of choral music, in a beautiful setting. For a taster, Platinum Consort have released a short film:

To coincide with this concert, I will be publishing my Meet the Artist interview with David Ianni, composer of ‘Consecration Prayer’, together with a guest post by Scott on the excitement and challenges of working on new commissions.

Further details of the concert and tickets here

My review of Platinum Consort’s concert at King’s Place