Another opportunity to see Alan Yentob’s superbly insightful and myth-dispelling programme about the tortures and the triumphs of making it as a concert pianist. With contributions from Benjamin Grosvenor (aged 12), Stephen Hough, Evgeny Kissin, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Joanna Macgregor, Lang Lang, and rare interviews by Arthur Rubenstein. Available via the BBC iPlayer here…….and a taster from YouTube
This time last year I wrote a piece for this blog arguing for a change of venue for the Proms, London’s two-month summer classical music festival. We’re a fortnight into the current season, and I have already attended two Prom concerts, courtesy of Bachtrack. One was at Cadogan Hall, a lovely venue just off Sloane Square, with comfy seats, a great view of the stage wherever you sit, a fine acoustic (it’s a converted church), and a champagne bar. Here I heard the young harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani give an exquisite and at times idiosyncratic performance of Bach’s iconic Goldberg Variations (read my review for Bachtrack here). And then, last Friday, I attended the Proms ‘proper’, if you will, for a lively evening of Franco-Hispanic music by Debussy, Ravel and de Falla: from Bach’s Baroque world in microcosm to a sweeping panorama of Spain evoked in lively and atmospheric orchestral music.
As a child and teenager, I used to go to the Proms every year with my parents, who would pour over the programme as soon as it was published (this, of course, many years pre-internet, and the Proms booklet would be for sale in WH Smith). There wasn’t such competition for tickets then, although tickets for the First and Last nights were allocated by ballot. I heard a wide variety of music, and sometimes we would sit in the choir stalls behind the stage, affording one a wonderful view of the orchestra at work. About 10 years ago, I heard Lang Lang, playing Tchaikovsky, before he shot to superstar status, and before that Evgeny Kissin. The last time I was at the Proms, before last Friday, we sat high up in the vertiginous upper circle, where we sweltered, and from where Stephen Hough, the soloist, was but a speck on the stage, and Rach Three was rather lost in the vastness of the Albert Hall. In the interval we drank warm white wine out of plastic glasses and had to sit on the stairs near the ladies’ loo. Not especially enjoyable. The whole experience was rather tiring, fraught and effortful. After that, I decided I would avoid the Proms.
The Proms have not always been resident at the Royal Albert Hall. The concert series was pioneered by a Mr Robert Newman, and its first home was the Queen’s Hall. In those early days, the programmes were far more varied, and somewhat eccentric or lacking in coherence (a trawl through the BBC Proms Archive site reveals some interesting programmes, cram full with a huge variety of music in one single concert), and often included unscheduled musical offerings. For example, the violinist Fritz Kreisler liked to warm up both himself and the audience with an unprogrammed “appetiser” such as his own ‘Praeludium’. Robert Newman conceived the Proms to encourage an audience who would not normally attend classical music concerts, enticing them with the low ticket prices and more informal atmosphere. From the earliest days, promenading was permitted, as was eating and drinking. Smoking was also allowed, though patrons were requested “not to strike matches between movements or during quiet passages”. After Newman’s sudden death in 1926, Henry Wood took over the directorship of the concert series. The Proms took up residence at the Royal Albert Hall in 1942 after the destruction of Queen’s Hall, though they moved again during the war to Bedford Corn Exchange, home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra since 1941, and remained at this venue until the end of the war.
What is so wonderful about the Proms is that the original spirit in which they were conceived continues today. Even as we approached the hall last Friday (I went with a friend who had never been to a Prom before), there was a buzz of excited expectancy amongst the people milling around the hall, queuing to “promenade” (pay a fiver and stand in the arena, or up in the gods), or for returns at the box office. It was a fine summer evening, the Albert Memorial gleamed in the setting sun, the park was still full of people enjoying the last warmth of the day, lovers strolling hand in hand, children running across the grass, a patient queue at the bus stop.
After picking up the tickets at the Press Office, we had a drink in the bar near door 9 and at the appointed hour drifted into the hall where we had excellent seats in the circle. Inside, the hall vibrated with the hum of 5000 people in that special state of eager expectation a few minutes ahead of the start of a concert. The orchestra were taking their places, the ‘prommers’ claiming their ‘pitch’ in the arena. Above the stage, a plush red and gold velvet swag proclaimed that these were the ‘BBC Proms’. Then the formalities began, first with the arrival of the assistant leader of the orchestra, then the leader, and finally the ‘master of ceremonies’, conductor Juanjo Mena (who takes over as principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in September). With the raise of his baton, the evening’s entertainment was underway.
I am well aware of the limitations of the Albert Hall as a music venue: small scale, chamber and solo recitals are often lost in its vast space, and its dodgy acoustic can give the sense that the music is being heard from a next door room. Even the full-size orchestra last Friday struggled at times to be heard, especially in the quieter passages of the opening piece (Debussy’s ‘Gigues’ from his Images for orchestra), but at other times, the woodwind and brass sections (who were particularly fine throughout the concert) sang through perfectly, clear, bright, melodious and mellow, while the strings were silky and translucent.
“Where are they off to?” my friend asked after the applause for Ravel’s wonderful Rhapsodie Espagnole and the orchestra started to drift off the stage. I pointed out it was the interval and therefore time for another glass of perfectly chilled rosé in the bar. Nick expressed his delight at being there, spoke intelligently about what he had heard and what we would hear in the second half. He seemed intrigued by the idea that I could have come to any Prom I care to, courtesy of Bachtrack. Around us people chatted and laughed; the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed. Afterwards, walking back to the tube station along the tunnel at South Ken, we overhead other people’s responses to what they had heard (always useful grist to the reviewer’s mill!). We talked all the way home on the train and agreed that we’d had a great night out.
And this, to me, is what the Proms is all about. Too often people are put off attending classical music because they perceive it as stuffy, elitist and populated by (largely) snooty octogenarians who demand hushed reverence. The Wigmore audience is perhaps the very worst example of this, although it doesn’t bother me any more, and without those people the Wigmore probably wouldn’t exist. But at the Proms, everyone is welcome. In recent years, the programmes have definitely become more “populist”, with themed concerts such as a Dr Who Prom, and, this year, a Human Planet prom and forthcoming Horrible Histories and Spaghetti Western proms. Music snobs and critics may throw their hands up at this, but I think these concerts are a great way of introducing classical music to people who may have no previous knowledge or experience of it. The atmosphere inside the Albert Hall is very friendly and good-natured, with its special Prom traditions: the Prommers always yell “heave-ho!” as the piano lid is raised, for example. And if people applaud during movements, so what? To me, it’s a spontaneous, instant response to something they have enjoyed, and should not be sneered at as ignorance of “concert etiquette”. (The habit of not applauding between movements had not existed before the twentieth century.) So, hip hip hooray for the Proms and all they stand for, and long may they continue. You can be guaranteed a huge variety of music, from new commissions to old favourites, works on a vast scale (Havergal Brian’s monumental Gothic Symphony), to intimate chamber music and solo miniatures.
I am back at the Proms towards the end of August for a late-night recital of Liszt, including the beautiful Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude, performed by Marc-André Hamelin. I am not sure how Liszt’s solo piano works will fare in the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall, but I have little doubt that this is the kind of venue, and concert experience, of which Liszt himself would have thoroughly approved.
This post comes via my friend Somewhere Boy, who in turn sought inspiration from Gramophone, which poses the question “what does iTunes Shuffle reveal about your [music] collection?”. As Gramophone states, “the concept is simple: you just open up iTunes, press shuffle, and see what the first ten recordings to emerge are”.
I rarely use the “shuffle” function on my iPod or in iTunes (though I notice pianist Paul Lewis opts for the “snuffle” function when he performs), partly because it annoys me when a four-movement Schubert sonata is interrupted by, for example, a Chopin Prelude or a track by Baroque group l’Arpeggiata. What I have used quite frequently is the ‘Genius’ function in iTunes, which will compile a playlist for you based on one track (good for creating mixes for parties, long car journeys or boring gym sessions). Anyway, here goes…..I’m pressing Shuffle now. Let’s see what happens…..
Rachmaninov – Prelude in B, Op 32 No. 11 (John Lill). I learnt this a few years ago and then forgot all about it. Nice to be reminded of a piece I actually enjoyed playing. Maybe I should revive it?
Beethoven – Six Bagatelles, Op 126. I. Andante con moto. Beethoven’s Bagatelles always remind me of childhood piano lessons and exams, which is unfair, since many of them are really wonderful and deserve proper study.
Brahms – Clarinet Sonata in E Flat Op 120 No. 2, 3rd movement. The second movement of this sonata formed part of my Grade 6 clarinet exam, the memory of which still causes the hair to stand up on the back of my neck…. Enough said! Beautiful music, though….
Enigma – Je T’aime Till My Dying Day. I have never, to my knowledge, listened to this, or indeed any of the other tracks on this album, though I do like Enigma’s first album….. Must’ve downloaded it while asleep/by mistake.
Schubert – Suleikas Zweiter Gesang, D717. I often listen to Schubert’s songs on my way to work: it makes a boring commute more pleasurable. I have two albums streamed together, Ian Bostridge’s fine Schubert collection and another by Lynda Russell (one of those budget Naxos ones). I met Ian Bostridge a few years ago, after he’d sung the part of the Evangelist in Bach’s St John Passion. I say “met”…… Tanked up on Sauvignon, I flung my programme in front of him and demanded an autograph, while declaring huskily, “Oh Ian! I just LOVE your Schubert album!!’. Poor man! He’d just sung very demanding and emotional music, only to be confronted, post-concert, by a mad fan. He was seen exiting the Barbican at high speed soon after….
Say “Glenn Gould”, and most people will reply “Bach”. Horowitz? Liszt. Schnabel? Beethoven. Lipatti? Chopin. Many great pianists (and even some lesser ones!) have become associated with one particular composer, and this “composer connection” still prevails today: Mitsuko Uchida and Maria Joao Pires are noted for their interpretations of Mozart, Evgeny Kissin for Chopin, Alfred Brendel for the great Austro-German triumvirate of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert (though there are far better interpreters of these composers’ music than Brendel!).
So, why is it that certain pianists become so closely associated with a particular composer, or group of composers? A definitive recording, a well-received concert tour, the praise of respected critics, all these factors contribute. Some pianists choose to devote their life to playing and recording the entire Chopin Etudes and Preludes, or the complete Beethoven piano sonatas (Brendel – three times, Barenboim – twice), while others prefer to play more wide-ranging repertoire. The great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter seemed able to turn his hand to anything, from Bach to Britten, Handel to Hindemith (he claimed he had enough repertoire for “around eighty programmes”). Claudio Arrau is another noted all-rounder, along with Maurizio Pollini, who is also a champion of the sort of late twentieth-century repertoire many modern pianists of a similar stature won’t touch (‘The Pollini Project’, his personal survey of piano music from Bach to Boulez, draws to a close next Tuesday).
But is it also perhaps that some pianists choose to immerse themselves in one particular composer, or composers, because the music reveals something about their own personality? We talk of so-and-so having an “affinity” for, say, Bach, or Debussy. The word “affinity” originates from the Middle English affinite and the Latin affinitas which is defined as “connection by marriage”. This suggests an even more intimate connection between musician and composer, and perhaps it is that very intimacy which enables some interpreters to really get to the heart, and soul, of the music?
This sounds fanciful: of course, musicians pick up repertoire because they like it, not because they want to marry it! Why learn something you dislike, or because you feel you should? Even at the most junior level, with my students, I would never force them to learn music they do not like: it is wholly unproductive. I have clear memories from my childhood piano lessons of being confronted with the same dreary page of score week after week, my piano teacher insistent that I learn the damn thing. As a teenager, and, admittedly, a rather tiresome, smug, academic teenager, I claimed to love the music of Bach. I’d only scratched the surface of his oeuvre, but there was something about the tight construction of his music that appealed to my intellect. And still does. While at 16, learning a Chopin Nocturne (Op 37, no. 1) for Grade 8, I loathed what I considered its overblown sentiment. Now, I can’t get enough of Chopin, and studying and learning his music is an enormous, if difficult, pleasure (and, no, I don’t consider his music to be full of overblown sentiment any more!). Liszt has been another revelation – a composer I refused to touch until this year, for the same reason as my dislike of Chopin my teens. Again, I was wrong. Meanwhile, much as I love his music, Mozart remains a tricky option, the words of Schnabel never far from my mind “too easy for children and too difficult for artists”, and I’m not convinced I have the mindset for Mozart.
One of my adult students, a rather stiff, anxious woman, had a breakthrough recently learning Bartok (the Quasi Adagio from For Children, which is part of the ABRSM Grade 1 syllabus this year). While other students have struggled with the simple yet highly emotional nature of this piece, this lady has reveled in it, creating the right nuances and shadings, despite her inexperience, and bringing a plaintive poignancy to the tiny piece. So then we looked at ‘Kummer’ (‘Grief’) by Alexander Gedike (ABRSM Grade 1 2009-10 syllabus), and the same wonderful thing happened. She admitted that the sorrowful, minor-key nature of these pieces suited her personality, and it’s true that she plays both extremely well. So, maybe this is an example of the music “fitting” the personality of the performer?
Performers need to balance their own personality with the expression of the composer’s ego: there is, for me, nothing worse than going to a performance where it is all about the performer (Lang Lang, Fazil Say). It just gets in the way of the music and is, in my opinion, hugely egocentric. The best performances are those where the performer stands back from the music a little, with a “passionate detachment”, a little deferential, thus allowing the music (and its composer) to speak for itself. As conductor Mark Wrigglesworth says in his article which, in part, inspired this post, “the best results are of course when the personalities of both the piece and its performer lie in perfect harmony”. The one notable exception to this is perhaps Glenn Gould, whose personality is, in many ways, all over the music in his muttering and humming. Some people can’t bear this, but to me it’s a sign of Gould’s total engagement with the music, and his enjoyment of it too.
Richter playing the opening movement of his favourite Schubert sonata (G major, D894).
I had the great privilege to embark on my postgraduate studies with Peter Wallfisch, studying with him from 1980 for two years (but returning on occasion thereafter). During my time with this remarkable man, my playing blossomed and I grew not only as a pianist but also as a musician. I look back on this chapter of my life with gratitude and a tremendous fondness for a teacher I came to love dearly. Last year, when I visited his widow, Anita Lasker, I walked into the studio where I had had my inspiring, magical lessons and was overcome with emotion as so many wonderful memories flooded back.
Peter Wallfisch was born in Breslau in 1924, and had sought refuge from Hitler’s Germany in Jerusalem and Paris before settling in Britain in 1952. His tenure as a professor of piano at the RCM was from 1973 to 1991, during which time he influenced many notable pianists now active in the profession. He was head of a musical dynasty that includes his wife Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, (cellist and founder of the ECO), son Raphael (international concert cellist), daughter-in-law Elisabeth (noted violinist), grandsons Benjamin (composer and conductor) and Simon (cellist and tenor). Peter was a musicians’ musician who is remembered not only a solo pianist but as an ensemble musician. His lineage was the Germanic tradition from Bach right through to Reger and Krenek, but he also championed very many British composers (including Kenneth Leighton, whom he raved about) and other slightly unusual composers (such as Novak). He confessed to having a passion for organ music, and he was not overly keen on Chopin or Rachmaninov.
One time I arrived for my lesson and Peter was not in a good mood. Sensing this, I asked him if he was OK and he pointed to a stack of scores on his desk, bemoaning the fact that he had been roped into learning it for the BBC and for concert engagements. It turned out to be by Frank Bridge, whose music at that time had fallen into neglect. The following week, I asked him how he was getting on with it. His face lit up and he enthused for many minutes on the undiscovered qualities of this music and how wonderful it was. Peter was at the forefront of the revival of interest in Bridge’s music, which rubbed off onto me. He immediately suggested I learn the two pieces “In Autumn” and I had much success with them. Among my prize possessions is Peter’s score of the sonata, littered in his inimitable way with crayon and pencil markings that only he could make sense of, certainly a testament to a practical musician!
I was officially registered for lessons with Peter at the Royal College of Music, but after a while my lessons moved from room 68 at the RCM to Peter’s home in Kensal Rise. Not only did I occasionally get to stay for tea and wonderful conversation with Peter and Anita (and Millie the cat), but my good fortune extended to lessons which went on all afternoon. Three hours was the norm, always without a break, and usually on just one work. He gave of himself unstintingly and generously and as I was walking down his garden path after the lesson, I felt that I had been given the ultimate secrets to the music we had just worked on. This went way beyond a mere piano lesson. There was one time I took a very half-baked Beethoven’s op. 109 sonata along, and yet after my lesson felt that I could almost have deputised for Barenboim that very night, such was the completeness of my understanding of Beethoven’s message. There were many such experiences where I left having had more than a lesson, but a Gestalt of the music – an experience of the essence of the whole picture even though my playing of it might yet be primitive. Pieces that stand out are the Brahms-Handel Variations, Bartok’s Third Concerto, Mendelssohn’s “Variations Sérieuses”, some Debussy and plenty of Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven…
It is difficult to describe how Peter taught. One thing I can say is he never, ever talked about piano playing as an activity in itself. His comments were always about the music. He would hear what I had brought in and would always give a totally honest appraisal of what he had heard. He was never one to mince his words, thus you could always rely on his reactions and comments as a very accurate barometer of how you’d done. If he didn’t like it, you would certainly know; if he did like it, he could ooze genuine enthusiasm and encouragement. You always knew where you stood with Peter.
Technical difficulties seemed to melt away, since through his lengthy verdicts and fabulous verbal descriptions of what he wanted to hear (he rarely demonstrated) you were literally infected with a mental and aural picture that left no doubt as to how the piece should go. There were so many times when, before he had finished talking, I was itching to play again because I knew exactly what he meant. After he had said what he needed, I would play again. What was difficult before now often wasn’t at all because I had an ultra clear picture of the sound, of the composer’s meaning. If you did ask for technical help – I mean specific pianistic help – he might even get annoyed. He really did not like talking about piano playing per se. Once I asked him what exercises he practised (I knew he had quite a warm-up ritual for himself). Again, he dismissed my question, saying that he did not want to burden me with it, nor did he like to do his dirty laundry in public.
There are SO many individual lessons I remember crystal clearly. During a lesson on op. 109 I missed a sforzando accent in the second movement and received a very painful dig in the ribs which taught me way better than words could have. Now, whenever I get to that place in the sonata, I feel a psychosomatic twinge of pain. There was the tail end of someone else’s lesson who crowed that he had managed to learn a Beethoven sonata in a week. Peter went red in the face and exploded: “How dare you say that! It took Beethoven months of time, sweat and blood to write that sonata, and you claim you can play it in one week!”. Another lesson that stands out for me was on a Bach Prelude and Fugue. After I finished he told me it was excellent and that he could not fault it. But I noticed a trace of disdain in his voice, and sure enough he said to stop it sounding sterile and boring, I had to find my own voice with the piece. When pushed, he made a few vague suggestions but would not be specific and it took a while before I figured out what he meant, that he expected me to take personal ownership of the piece.
Even after I had gone to America on my Fulbright Scholarship, I would return to Peter to play for him. I always received the same warm welcome and uncompromising advice. His influence is still with me to this day. I very often think of him, and I still miss him!
Graham Fitch is a London-based pianist, piano teacher, piano adjudicator, piano examiner, piano lecturer and writer/commentator on piano. www.grahamfitch.com
Having spent most of the afternoon compiling the wretched thing (time which would have been better spent practising, or sunbathing), I felt I should share my Classical music timeline here. There are sins of omission, I know, so please don’t contact me to point out who I’ve forgotten! It is intended simply as an overview, and, because I am a pianist, is somewhat weighted towards composers of the piano.
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