Paul Badura-Skoda (Photo @ DR)
Saturday 10th May, 2014 – St John’s, Smith Square, London
Chopin
Waltzes – A minor, Op.34/2, C sharp minor, Op.64/2, D flat, Op.64/1; Nocturne, op. posth., Four Mazurkas, op. 30, Barcarolle, op. 60
Schubert
Impromptu in B-flat D935 No. 3 ‘Rosamunde Variations’

Sonata in B-flat D960

The words “great” and “world class” are all too frequently bandied about in reviews and articles about musicians (and artists and writers too). But how does one truly define these over-used descriptions? If “greatness” comes from a life spent living with, and performing and writing about, some of the finest music ever written, forming a profound relationship with it and its composers, understanding with intimate detail its structures and nuances, then Paul Badura-Skoda is a living example of this.

Paul Badura-Skoda is a pianist I have long wanted to hear live. I was aware of him more as a respected pedagogue, writer on music and editor of works by Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin and others. My teacher frequently refers to him, I have met pianists who have studied with him, and I have listened to some of his recordings (including his latest in which he plays Schubert’s final sonata on three different pianos) with interest and curiosity.

His concert at St John’s Smith Square was an opportunity for me and my companion for the evening (a fellow pianist) to share a unique musical experience – and one which will resonate with us for a long time to come. To attempt to “review” the playing, the pianism, the musical understanding and insight of such a master would be churlish.

Badura-Skoda created a special and intimate soundworld and atmosphere from the opening notes of the bittersweet A minor Waltz to the life-affirming closing cadence of Schubert’s final Piano Sonata, a place where generosity of spirit and good humour ruled, a place of great intimacy, as if we had been invited into his own musical salon for the evening. Of course, Paul Badura-Skoda is steeped in that particular European tradition of music-making, and his teacher, Edwin Fischer, connects him to an earlier golden age of music making and culture.

Despite his age (86), Badura-Skoda cuts a sprightly figure (compare his twinkling eyes and brisk gait with the frailer Maurizio Pollini at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in April, who is more than 10 years Badura-Skoda’s junior) and displayed an obvious pleasure in being at St John’s Smith Square. And if there were some smeared notes and uncertain rhythms, the overall effect was of a musician who has lived with this music for many years and whose knowledge and understanding allowed the music to speak for itself, free of ego and unnecessary gestures.

Before the Sonata in B flat, D960, Paul Badura-Skoda said a few words about the piece, how he regarded it as Schubert’s “farewell” (it was completed less than two months before the composer’s death in 1828), and how the sublime opening theme suggests the words of a hymn or prayer. The first movement had a spacious serenity in the main theme, and the range of colours and nuances which Badura-Skoda brought to the music shone a new light on a familiar work for me: for example, the bass trills were voiced differently each time which gave them a greater resonance and sense of foreboding, and the exposition repeat was observed. The slow movement’s ominous tread was relieved by a middle section of great warmth. The third movement bubbled with all the exuberance of a mountain stream, the darker Trio hardly interrupting the mood, while the finale had drive and energy coupled with wit and humour, despite one or two uneven moments. This was an engaging and entirely satisfying performance, which was met, deservedly, in my opinion, with a standing ovation.

 

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

I was inspired by my much older cousin Geoffrey who was at the Royal College of Music in London playing the piano when he and his parents came to us for Christmas. We had a good upright piano at home.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Ruth Railton of the National Youth orchestra and teachers Dorothy Hesse and Maria Curcio.

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

The greatest challenges have been getting to the top venues in the world.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

A performance in Carnegie Hall New York, after which I was signed up by a big agent.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Beethoven, most of the Romantic composers and Debussy.

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

It depends whether I’m preparing for a recording and include that repertoire, and playing works which didn’t feature in the previous season. Also learning something new.

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

The Wigmore Hall since I played there when I was twelve and it was the most exciting place in the world to me then. I love the warm intimate atmosphere.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Beethoven Op. 2 no. 3, the ‘Appassionata’, Debussy’s Estampes and the Chopin 4th. Ballade. I love listening to Martha Argerich playing Gaspard de la Nuit.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Schnabel, Lipatti, Julius Katchen, Vlado Perlemuter Rubenstein and Argerich.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

First time in the Royal festival Hall with Tchaikovsky 1 and the RPO.

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

To play through repertoire to people prior to a performance, and a concerto with someone accompanying on another piano, and to feel absolutely prepared for a performance. Also to learn how to look good, to walk and bow, and not to be put off if things don’t go well. Go back to the drawing board and try your best to put things right.

What are you working on at the moment?

The Chopin B flat minor Sonata & the 4th Ballade and the Schumann and Gershwin concertos.

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

In 10 years’ time I would like to have gained greater recognition and have become a name synonymous with the top pianists in the world.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Either being on a horse or on a beach in the Bahamas.

What is your most treasured possession?

My cats and my grand piano.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Practising, and parties after concerts that have gone really well.

What is your present state of mind?

Optimistic.

Angela Brownridge performs Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in F minor, Op 57 as part of the third St Barnabas Beethoven Piano Sonatas Festival, 17-18 May 2014. Full details here

Angela’s playing restores spontaneity, character, and beauty of sound to the platform… Hailed as a major star in classical music Angela Brownridge has been compared with such pianists as the legendary Solomon, Rachmaninov, Cherkassy, and Bolet. She began her life in an atmosphere of freedom and individualism virtually impossible to find today. Under the guidance of Maria Curcio, who had been a pupil of Schnabel for many years, she absorbed the ability to produce every nuance of the piano, and to present music flexibly and persuasively instead of concentrating on a single method of technique or continual displays of brilliance, learning to deal with the differing requirements of a varied range of composers which recalls Cortot in his prime. Indeed, by realising that many pianists of a bygone age played with far more individuality, magic, and inspiration than has become the fashion, she was able to develop her own unique personality. In an age which has become over-fascinated with mere technique, and which seeks the degree of ‘perfection’ offered by over-edited CDs, Angela’s playing restores spontaneity, character, and beauty of sound to the platform.

A child prodigy, equally talented in composition, extemporisation, and technically brilliant, Angela first performed in public at the age of seven, and a year later had several pieces published. By the age of ten she had given her first concerto performance, and in her early teens was appearing regularly as a recitalist and concerto performer throughout Great Britain and abroad. She later won a piano scholarship to Edinburgh University, and after graduating B. Mus. was awarded a further scholarship for a two-year period of study in Rome with Guido Agosti. As the winner of several competitions she was able to continue her studies with Maria Curcio in London, where she now lives. Since then Angela has appeared in all the major London concert halls, and has visited Eastern and Western Europe, the USA, Canada, and the Far East, as well as performing extensively in the UK. She has been a soloist with many leading orchestras and conductors, and Festival engagements include Bath, Edinburgh, Warwick, Newport Rhode Island, Bratislava, Brno, Hong Kong, and Maastricht.

Her recorded repertoire is very varied, including some first ever collections of the complete piano music of Barber and Gershwin. Her recordings have received worldwide critical acclaim, several being voted “Critics’ Choice” by Hi-Fi News. She has also appeared on BBC TV in programmes which have involved her in discussion about the music she has performed. She often gives lecture recitals and master classes, and maintains her love of improvisation which has led her on occasions into the world of jazz. In 2004 Angela recorded the complete piano works of Kenneth Leighton who was her professor in harmony, counterpoint, and composition at Edinburgh University where she was on a piano scholarship. Leighton, who died in 1988 has been described as “the most important British composer of piano music of the twentieth century”. The three CD set is available on the Delphian label: DCD 34301. (Source: Mary Kaptein Management)

A busy week of enjoyable and varied concerts in Brighton and London. Here’s my round up:

Sunday 4th May – Helen Burford, piano, Brighton

Helen has a particular interest in contemporary British and American music, and an unerring ability to create imaginative and eclectic concert programmes which combine her interests with more mainstream repertoire. For her afternoon recital as part of the Brighton Fringe Festival, she opened with Somei Satoh’s haunting Incarnation II, a work which allows one to fully appreciate the full range of sounds and resonance possible on the piano. An extraordinarily absorbing and unusual work. The Japanese connection continued with Debussy’s evocative Pagodes, followed by Haydn’s C major Piano Sonata Hob. XVI No. 50 with two witty and sprightly outer movements enclosing a slow movement played with expression and warmth. In typical style, Helen cleverly paired Hush-A-bye, a work by contemporary American composer Julie Harris, with Debussy’s much-loved Clair de Lune. Both pieces recall nighttime – the first has night sounds combined with fragments from the lullabies, “All the Pretty Little Horses” and “Hush Little Baby Don’t Say a Word”, while the veiled harmonies and rippling semiquavers of Debussy evoke moonlight. Helen closed her programme with a lively and foot-tapping Rumba Machine by Martin Butler.

Monday 5th May – Jonathan Biss at Wigmore Hall

Biss is a musician I was curious to hear live, having enjoyed interviews with him, and his insightful and intelligent writing about Beethoven. His recital opened with an early Beethoven Sonata, Op 10, No. 2, and there was much to enjoy in his nimble and witty rendition of the first movement. However, the second movement lacked shape and the final movement was too rushed. The second Beethoven of the concert was the ‘Waldstein’ which lacked structure and a clear sense of the underlying “four-square” nature of Beethoven’s writing. The end result felt rather superficial. Sandwiched between the two Sonatas were selections from Janacek’s On An Overgrown Path. These were enjoyable but lacked a certain sensitivity to the emotional depth inherent in these miniatures.

Wednesday 7th May – Behind the Lines: Music from the First War, MOOT, Brighton

Another lunchtime concert, hosted by Music Of Our Time, a wonderful music collective organised by the indefatigable Norman Jacobs. This year’s focus is on music and composers from the First World War, and the concert, duets and solo works performed by Helen Burford and Norman Jacobs, was a touching, tender and occasionally humorous tribute to composers such as Cecil Coles (who was killed in April 1918) and Frank Bridge, a committed pacifist who was profoundly affected by the war. There were also works by Debussy and Stravinsky, and the concert ended with a four hands version of ‘Mars’ from Holst’s Planets suite. The concert took place on the 99th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, which gave the concert an added poignancy.

Friday 9th May – David Braid, guitar & Sergei Pobdobedov, piano

The end of the week and a concert at the delightful 1901 Arts Club, a converted schoolmaster’s house not five minutes from the bustle and noise of Waterloo Station. One of London’s hidden gems, the venue seeks to recreate the ambiance and ethos of the European musical salon, with its gold and crimson decor and friendly, convivial atmosphere. It is the perfect place for intimate chamber music, and this evening’s concert was no exception.

I interviewed David Braid earlier this year and I was curious to meet him and hear him in performance, for his musical landscape and influences accorded, in part, with my own interests. He plays an electric archtop guitar, more usually associated with jazz or rock/pop musicians. He makes transcriptions for this instrument, with piano accompaniment (his duo partner Sergei Podobedov), of works by Renaissance and early Baroque composers such as Byrd and Sweelinck. The concert included music by these composers and Bach, together with piano solos of works by Chopin (two Scherzi, handled with stylish aplomb and energy by Sergei) and Schubert/Liszt, and some of David’s own compositions. Taken as a whole, this was a most intriguing and unusual concert, beautifully presented. It is hard to describe the sound of the archtop guitar with the piano: at times it recalls the Renaissance lute (which David also plays) while also sounding entirely contemporary, thus making the music sound both ancient and modern. David’s own compositions were haunting, delicate, fleeting – the Waltzes in particular had great poignancy and tenderness – and his contrapuntal writing connects his music to the Baroque masters whom he also plays. One of the nicest aspects of the evening, apart from the high-quality music, was that during the interval instead of disappearing upstairs, the musicians stayed in the salon to talk to the audience, further enhancing the sense that this was very much an evening of music amongst friends.

Tom Poster (photo credit: Sussie Ahlburg)

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

I don’t think it was the piano specifically that attracted me as a child – I just always loved music and wanted to be involved in it in any way possible. I don’t come from a musical family, and my parents didn’t really know any classical music till I came along (I was brought up on Motown, Bob Marley, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Queen…), but they’re both creative people and incredibly supportive, and recognised that I had an absolute fascination for music of all sorts from a very young age. The first ‘classical’ record I remember my parents buying for me was of David Munrow playing Mediaeval and Renaissance wind instruments, which I became quite obsessed with. As a child, I took up the recorder, piano, cello and oboe, but what I really wanted to be more than anything else was a composer. I’m not quite sure how I ended up being a pianist – I don’t remember a conscious moment of decision, and always feel the instrument chose me rather than the other way round. As for making music my career, I just never considered doing anything else, though for a long time I hadn’t the faintest idea how a career actually worked.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My first piano teacher, Hilary Morrison, was a schoolteacher who lived round the corner – she’d never taught the piano before, but it’s only with hindsight that I realise what a brilliant start she gave me. I wish she was still alive so I could thank her properly. I was incredibly fortunate to study from the age of nine onwards with Joan Havill at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, who taught me pretty much everything I know about playing the piano, pushed me to achieve things I thought I couldn’t, and inspired me to work much harder than I ever would have done otherwise. I owe her so much, and my life would have been very different without her. Many of the principles of chamber music playing which I hold dear were instilled in me by the wise guidance of Michael Freyhan at Pro Corda when I was in my teens. He showed me how to really listen – to myself and to others. There are so many other wonderful people who have had a huge influence on me, from primary school music teachers to chamber music colleagues; I can’t list them all for fear of leaving someone out, but I hope they know who they are!

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

In the earlier stages of my career I had to fight hard to avoid being pigeon-holed: I played a lot of chamber music from a young age, because I’ve always loved it, and discovered at a certain point that once people see you in that box, they often assume you’re not really a ‘solo’ pianist, despite the fact that I’ve always had a busy schedule of concertos and solo recitals. Such assumptions strike me as very odd, because it seems only natural to me that a pianist exploring Beethoven (for example) should want to play his solo sonatas, duo sonatas, trios, concertos, songs and so on – everything feeds into everything else. I’ve always thrived off the variety and balance of repertoire, and I’d hate to close the door on any part of it. And I already feel that being a pianist is more of a specialism than I’d originally intended!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m not sure that pride is a feeling I particularly associate with, but sometimes there are wonderful, indefinable moments in certain performances (I wish they happened more often!) where everything comes together in a magical way and it feels like you’re flying, as if anything’s possible. I have so many reservations about the process of recording (not least that I miss the audience hugely when I’m in a studio), and I find it very difficult to listen to my own recordings, but I do feel a sense of achievement over my new recital disc, In Dance and Song, which contains a very personal selection of works and reflects some of my wide-ranging passions. Also, the one time I dared to listen to it, I quite enjoyed the disc of the Chausson Concert which I recorded two years ago with Jennifer Pike and the Doric Quartet – it’s a wonderful piece, full of soaring melodies (and a ridiculous number of notes for the pianist).

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Not sure if I can answer that, but I’ve always adored melodies and vocal music, so I find pieces with a lyrical bent particularly gratifying to play.

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

Pianists are spoiled for choice when it comes to repertoire, and it would take so many lifetimes to explore all the great works – as time goes on, I realise more and more that it’s a waste of time for a pianist to play anything that doesn’t really grab them. I enjoy hugely (though it sometimes requires an exhausting amount of thought) coming up with interesting and (I hope) cohesive programmes. Often, however, the ones I’m most pleased with are then scuppered by promoters saying e.g., “[A much more famous pianist] is already playing most of those pieces in his recital this season” or “Can you include a barcarolle by Snosveldt to mark his 186th anniversary year?” or (and this is a genuine quote, from a much missed promoter in Ireland) “Fauré spells death at the box office”.

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

Among many others, I love the Holywell Room in Oxford, Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, and the Wigmore Hall. Playing at the BBC Proms is always a huge thrill. The Spoleto Festival in Italy when Gian Carlo Menotti was around was unforgettable.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

To play – far too many to list, but here are some which I find particularly enjoyable and/or rewarding to play: Beethoven concertos (including the Triple), Brahms piano quartets, Chopin solo works, Dvorak chamber music, Fauré (lots), Grieg miniatures, Mendelssohn chamber music, Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time, Mozart (all!), Rachmaninov concertos, Ravel (lots), Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, Schubert’s Trout Quintet, Schubert and Schumann Lieder, Richard Strauss’ early chamber music, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio. And – stretching back to my schooldays and early jobs in hotel bars – I’ve always loved playing Gershwin, Kern, Cole Porter and the Great American Songbook. To listen to – this changes a lot, but perhaps most consistently Bach, Mozart operas, Sondheim musicals, Ella Fitzgerald’s songbook recordings.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Along with the great composers whose music I play (of whom Mozart has perhaps brought me most joy of all) and the wonderful colleagues I have the pleasure of working with (not least my dear friends in the Aronowitz Ensemble), here is a very incomplete list featuring some musicians who have greatly inspired me in some way or other, which I’ve restricted to those I don’t know personally: Leonard Bernstein, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Emil Gilels, Fritz Kreisler, Dinu Lipatti, Radu Lupu, Joni Mitchell, Ginette Neveu, Luciano Pavarotti, Oscar Peterson, Lucia Popp, Nina Simone.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

As a listener – a concert in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge in 1999, part of John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage; most specifically the final aria of BWV 159, one of the most heart-stopping moments of my life so far. As a performer – I think I have a pretty good memory, so I remember most of my concert experiences, both good and bad, quite vividly. Two experiences which I will always associate with a wonderfully heady mixture of fear and immense joy both involved Robin Ticciati and the SCO – touring with the Ligeti Concerto in 2010 (the most fiendishly difficult piece I’ve ever played, but also utterly enthralling), and playing my first Brahms 2 at three days’ notice when Pierre-Laurent Aimard cancelled. (That wasn’t actually my most last-minute stand-in: I once got off a plane at 4.30pm and, when I turned on my phone, there was a message asking if I’d play the Grieg Concerto at 7.30pm that evening. The rehearsal had already taken place, but I jumped in a taxi and somehow got through the performance unscathed, and with a curious sense of liberation on stage!) I will always remember with huge fondness my appearance in the BBC Young Musician final back in 2000, under the starry ceiling of the Bridgewater Hall. It was a big, thrilling moment for a rather naïve boy who’d always felt something of an outsider and who’d never experienced anything remotely on that scale. It also opened a lot of doors. On a non-pianistic note – and perhaps reflecting my early desires to be an actor as well as a musician – I enormously enjoyed appearing as reciter in Walton’s Façade a few years back at Aberystwyth Musicfest (where I’ve also played the swanee whistle in drag).

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

First and foremost, that music is the most important thing, and if you love it so much that you can’t be without it, then immerse yourself and go for it – but try to be flexible and open-minded about your exact path. Avoid cynics and negative people – there are a lot of them around, such as the ones who like to hover after a concert and say helpful things like, “It’s a terrible struggle, the music business, isn’t it? Must be very difficult for you.” Of course there are tricky times, but no money in the world could persuade me to switch to another profession.

Regarding education, I personally think it’s important to remember there are valid alternatives to the music school/music college route. All my schooling took place in the comprehensive system, and my first degree was at university. It dismays me when people express surprise (which they really do) that some of us in the classical music profession hail from a regular state school background; I’m also immeasurably saddened that, if music in state schools continues to be eroded and marginalised by the government, before long there may not be many aspiring musicians to pass such advice to.

What are you working on at the moment?

On my music stand right now are three mini-concertos which I’m performing soon: Bach F minor, Judith Weir, and Finzi’s Eclogue. Also Dohnanyi’s Variations on a Nursery Theme (a truly brilliant piece for piano and enormous orchestra), Beethoven ‘Pastoral’ Sonata, and Ravel La Valse. I still compose a little – I’m currently writing a chamber opera for puppets, The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak, in collaboration with my brother’s theatre company, Wattle and Daub Figure Theatre, as well as a short score for an independent film. And trying to finish some DIY before my girlfriend gets home from tour.

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

Doing pretty much what I am now. Though I’d like to have written a hit West End musical in the interim. And to have successfully campaigned (without it having taken up too much time) for the provision of free music education for all children, which would incidentally have enabled world peace.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

To see an aardvark, moose, tapir or dugong in its natural habitat.

What is your present state of mind?

Sleepy.

Tom Poster’s new solo CD, In Dance and Song, is available from Champs Hill Records. Further details here

Tom Poster is internationally recognised as a pianist of outstanding artistry and versatility, equally in demand as soloist and chamber musician across an unusually extensive repertoire. He has been described as “a marvel, [who] can play anything in any style” (The Herald), “an unparalleled sound-magician” (General-Anzeiger), a “young lion” (The Guardian), and as possessing “great authority and astounding virtuosity” (Est Républicain). He won First Prize at the Scottish International Piano Competition 2007, the Ensemble Prize at the Honens International Piano Competition 2009, and the keyboard sections of the Royal Over-Seas League and BBC Young Musician of the Year Competitions in 2000. 

Tom’s full biography and diary is available on his website: www.tomposter.co.uk

Interview date: 10th March 2014

The first of a new series of occasional posts…..

I was given this album by a friend for my 40th birthday in autumn 2006. I thought turning 40 would be easy: I told myself it was “just a number” and that it had no real significance, that it was just another day in my life. In fact, my birthday coincided with a difficult period in my adult life, when I realised, with a shock, that the boundaries of one’s emotional life are not completely impermeable, and that being married does not make one immune to another person’s attention and admiration.

During the year of my birthday, I started playing the piano seriously again after an absence of over 15 years (in the preceding years I was busy getting married, setting up home, working in publishing and antiquarian bookselling, having a child, and I lost interest in the thing about which I cared very passionately when I was at school). Some of the first pieces I returned to were Schubert’s D899 Impromptus and the Moments Musicaux, pieces I had always liked, and attempted and played rather badly as a precocious teenager (my mother bought me the score after hearing Alfred Brendel play them – more about this here). Returning to the piano after such a long time away was very hard, yet it was gratifying to find pieces that had been carefully learnt in my teens had not been entirely forgotten and were still “in the fingers” (as a professional pianist colleague of mine said once “the body does not forget that easily” – and it’s true). At that time, I didn’t even have a piano: I was playing, and teaching, on a digital piano, which did the job, but had none of the subtlety nor refinement of an acoustic piano.

At the time of my birthday, I was doing a lot of reading about Schubert’s Impromptus, pretending this was “research” for my (still unpublished!) novel ‘Facing the Music’. (Looking back, I realise the writing and “research” was a kind of displacement activity, self-preservation against a tide of confusing emotions.) The Impromptus have a special significance for the hero of my book – a young concert pianist poised on the cusp of a brilliant career until the First World War cruelly intervenes – and each one connects him to particular people or events in his life. It is significant that in his first concert after the war is over he plays the Impromptus as a way of reaffirming these connections and celebrating life and love.

Of course, in reality these late piano pieces of Schubert, together with the D935 Impromptus and the final three sonatas, are the works of a man who almost certainly knew the end was near. Dying from (probably) syphilis, these works, composed during a remarkable outpouring of late masterpieces, display many emotions, from anger and defiance (the D958 Sonata in C minor) to resignation and valediction (the last Sonata in B-flat, D960). The Impromptus are in many ways miniature versions of these big works: full of variety, containing a broad sweep of emotions from the chillingly bare G which opens the first of the D899 set to serenity of the third in G-flat and the final, life-affirming cadence in A-flat major of the fourth Impromptu.

The Fantasie in F minor, D940, which opens «Resonance de l’Originaire», was composed in 1828, the last year of Schubert’s life, and is written for four hands (two pianists at one piano). It has a four-part structure, not unlike a sonata, but the “movements” run into one another with stylistic bridges between each. Schubert had already explored the Fantasy form in his Wanderer Fantasie D760, a bravura work full of heroism and energy. By contrast, the opening motif of the D940 is elegaic and wistful, a distant horn call accompanied by murmurings in the lower register. In the hands of the pianists on this recording, the mood is melancholy, almost desperately tragic, yet tinged with great tenderness. Typically of Schubert, the mood soon takes a volte face with a new, more hopeful motif in the lower register, and throughout the work there are contrasting shifts of mood from poignant and heart-rending to dramatic, longing, intimate, charming and dance-like, and characteristic shifts between minor and major. The textures, shared between the two pianists, give the work an inner richness, and the reprise of the first theme is a touching reminder of the work’s underlying sadness.

This piece has, on occasion, reduced me to tears, not least for its connection to my emotional crisis mentioned above. When I was fortunate enough to hear it performed live by the artists on this disc, during Maria Joao Pires’ memorable Wigmore Hall residency in 2007, I think I wept throughout the entire performance, moved not only by the music itself, but also the fact that I was in the presence of an artist whom I greatly admired and respected (and continue to).

The other work for four hands on this double cd recording is the Rondo in D951, which provides a delightful salve after the emotional impact of the D940. Maria Joao Pires also plays one of the earlier sonatas, the genial D664 in A, while Ricardo Castro opens the second disc with the D784 in A minor, which shares some of the same emotional territory as the D940 in its sombre opening statement and dramatic Beethovenian gestures throughout the first movement. The final work on the disc is the Allegro in A minor, D947 “Lebensstürme”, also for four hands.

Musically and emotionally Pires and Castro seemed conjoined in the works for four hands on this album, while Pires’ solo performance in the Sonata in A is tender and delicately shaded. (This was more than borne out in their live performances at the Wigmore in 2007.) I haven’t listened to this recording for a long time: for a while, I found it just too painful, but when I decided to launch my new series ‘Music Notes’, it was the one thing I knew I wanted to write about. Listening now, with the benefit of 8 years of hindsight, life experience, this blog, two music Diplomas under my belt, a thriving and popular piano teaching practice, my concert and exhibition reviewing, and many other exciting and stimulating musical and writing activities, I have enjoyed the album for what it is: a sensitive and passionate reading of some of Schubert’s finest music for piano.

Maria Joao Pires returns to the Wigmore Hall later this year for a series of ‘Artist Portrait’ concerts to mark her 70th birthday.

 

 

Pianist Stephen Gott taking a bow after his performance at Normansfield Theatre, May 2012
Pianist Stephen Gott taking a bow after his performance at Normansfield Theatre, May 2012

‘Stagecraft’ refers to a number of aspects of performing and preparation for a performance from seemingly simple things such as appropriate dress and deportment to managing anxiety, programme planning and notes, communication (both verbal and musical), energy and emotional intensity, and movement and gestures.

Stagecraft is not just the ability to walk onto the stage without tripping over. From the moment the performer enters the stage, his or her communication with the audience begins, and the way one greets and acknowledges the audience can have an important effect on the way the audience receives and enjoys the performance which follows.

An understanding and appreciation of good stagecraft is very important and can help one produce a good performance, regardless of the level at which one plays. Stagecraft is an important factor in music diplomas and candidates are marked on their stage deportment, communication, programme notes and attire. Good stagecraft can also increase one’s feelings of confidence in a performance situation. Get into the habit of building good stagecraft into your practising and preparations and you will find you can pull off a poised and engaging performance.

Here are some suggestions on how to hone good stagecraft:

Preparation
This ties in with managing anxiety. If you are well-prepared and know your pieces you are far more likely to pull off a polished performance while also keeping nerves at bay. Play within your capabilities and make sure all tricky passages have been thoroughly ironed out.

Programme planning
This is an important aspect for people who taking are performance diplomas where one is judged on the ability to produce an interesting and varied programme. Think about the music from the listener’s point of view, rather than simply playing pieces you think the examiner wants to hear. Good programmes are like stories, with a beginning (perhaps a Prelude or short albumleaf), middle and an end, and the ability to vary degrees of energy in a programme will prevent it becoming too ‘samey’ or dull. Interesting and surprising juxtapositions – for example, a Baroque piece paired with something contemporary – can be very exciting and can help throw a new light on familiar repertoire. The late Phyllis Sellick apparently used to describe a programme by all one composer as ‘a list’, but single composer programmes can work really well if the performer has thought about differing levels of energy and emotional content in the pieces selected.

What shall I wear?
Choosing the correct attire for the time of day and venue is important. Full evening dress is not appropriate for a lunchtime or afternoon concert, and the style and atmosphere of the venue is also a factor in deciding what to wear. The performer’s concert attire is a means of differentiating you from the audience and defines your role for them. Getting ‘dressed up’ for a concert allows you to appreciate that this is an ‘occasion’, distinct from the practising and work done at home at the piano. The most important aspect is that you feel comfortable in your concert clothes, with plenty of freedom of movement and no distractions such as tickly labels or zips.

Walking to the piano
No matter how anxious you feel, your stage deportment should not betray your nerves. Walk confidently across the stage, greet the audience or bow, and sit at the piano. Take a moment to compose yourself before you play: this ‘breathing space’ at the start of a concert is vital, not just for you as the performer, but also for the audience, making them sensitive to the music about the wash over them.  Likewise at the end of the piece, don’t hurry away from the piano, nor scurry off the stage immediately. Take time to acknowledge the audience.

Talking to the audience
This is becoming more and more popular at professional concerts I attend, and a few words about the music being performed can immediately make the audience feel more engaged and connected to the performer. Talk clearly and don’t simply repeat the programme notes. Most people are interested in why the performer has chosen the repertoire and what makes it special for them. Never pre-empt your performance by telling the audience you played the piece well in practise at home, or that you are very nervous!

To play from memory or not?
The debate about whether playing from memory results in a better performance rages on, but if you do use a score, try not to cling to it as if you life depends on it. In particular, make sure tricky sections and page turns are memorised. Have someone turn for you, as this can increase the professionalism of your performance.

After the performance
Enjoy the compliments from the audience and never apologise for errors or slips in your performance. Save these things for when you next go to practise, for all these issues are useful and help prepare for the next performance.

Above all, learn to enjoy performing. It is a wonderful cultural gift to be able to share so much fantastic piano music!