The exceptionally gifted British composer William Baines died 100 years ago on 6 November 1922; he was just 23, yet he left behind a remarkably large body of work, which is celebrated in this new release from pianist Duncan Honeybourne, a long-time champion of Baines’ music.

Born in Horbury near Wakefield, Yorkshire, William Baines came from a musical family (his father was a cinema pianist and organist at a Primitive Methodist Chapel). He took piano lessons from a young age and also studied at the Yorkshire Training College of Music in Leeds, though his later compositional style was largely self-taught. At the age of 18, in the final months of the First World War, Baines was called up for military service and was sent to Blandford Camp, Dorset, for training. Within weeks he feel ill with septic poisoning and remained in fragile health after discharge from the military until his death in 1922. After the War, Baines set to composing, producing around 150 works by the time of his death, many of which were piano miniatures.

When a composer, such as Schubert or Mozart, or indeed William Baines, dies young it always begs the question “what might they have gone on to write”? There are certainly some intriguing hints throughout this generous disc.

Baines described himself as “like Debussy” and while some of his music is certainly impressionistic in style – in particular the Pictures of Light suite and the atmospheric diptych Tides, which evokes the coast and sea of his native Yorkshire – there are also unexpected and daring modernist idioms, unsettled harmonies and conflicting textures redolent of Scriabin, Ravel and Prokofiev (Baines’ Eight Preludes were written at the same time as Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives). Some of the pieces on this disc share that particularly English romantic/pastoral soundworld of Delius and Ireland, yet everything is distinctly Baines.

The album includes first recordings of Eight Preludes – Set 2, and Pictures of Light, together with Baines’ most well known works, Tides and Paradise Gardens. The album also includes a suite of five songs for tenor and piano, sensitively and emotionally sung by Gordon Pullin – also a first recording. At the Grave of William Baines is a substantial piece for piano written by Robin Walker, a fellow Yorkshireman who as a boy lived near to the house in York where Baines lived and died, and whose music also draws inspiration from the natural world and local landscapes. His tribute is surprisingly muscular, playful, and rather exotic, replete with hints of Baines, and imaginatively shaped by Honeybourne.

Duncan Honeybourne is very much at home in Baines’ picturesque, atmospheric music. He is ever alert to the ecstatic climaxes and sweeping, Lisztian romanticism, bringing supple, flexible tempi and subtle rubato to passages which feel almost improvisatory. And then there is a glittering clarity and multi-layered textures coupled with a gorgeously warm, yet transparent piano sound.

This album is a wonderful introduction to the imagination, originality and genius of William Baines, brilliantly illuminated by Duncan Honeybourne’s compelling performance.

Pictures of Light is available on the Divine Art label and also on Spotify

In response to my article Where Have All The Audiences Gone, a reader, and a keen concert-goer, makes this response:

First, we need a functioning transport system at a price that normal people can afford.  We need trains outside London running 24/7 as tube and bus has inside London for years.

Second, we need to radically reduce the “cost of experience”. I have no issue with venues making a profit but a sandwich in Waitrose is about £3 so a 10% uplift would seem reasonable – say £3.50.  Drinks likewise.  And have everything open!  Covid is being used as excuse for poor customer service – plain-as.

Tickets – bring the cost down and fill all the seats. The Proms was a case in point – much better to have ALL the seats filled for £10 each rather than the 50% empty I witnessed. I found £44 stalls seats for the Labeque Sisters on StubHub for £11, a sure sign that the market has collapsed. Have transport-included/subsidised offers – buy two tickets for concert X and get the associated rail fare for 50%.

And start giving out tickets for students and children for free via schools and heavily reduced for their responsible adults – get young, really young people back just as the Schools Opera and Robert Meyer concerts did for my generation.

And. Stop Talking about COVID! My view is that our reaction to it was totally overblown, likely to kill more people through a depressed economy than the illness itself. My generation (50s) has always been the cultural backbone audience and so many that I know have taken Covid as an excuse to curl-up into early retirement. I rage against the dying of that light.


Comments are open if you would like to join in this discussion, or respond via Twitter

There has been a fair amount of commentary and angst in recent months about a noticeable drop in audience numbers for concerts as live music returns to (almost) normal post-pandemic. The subject of a number of articles in the press, the issue was also aired in an episode of BBC Radio Three’s Music Matters series. In almost every article and discussion, ongoing anxiety about Covid was cited as the main reason why audiences are not returning – whether anxiety about catching Covid in a crowded concert venue or opera house, or the possibility that the programme may be changed, or the concert cancelled at the last minute due to illness amongst performers.

In fact, audience surveys reveal that Covid is fairly low on audiences’ list of concerns (source here: https://www.audienceoutlookmonitor.com/post/june-27-executive-briefing-with-alan-brown-goodbye-again-hello-uncertainty).

So if it’s not Covid that’s keeping people away, what is it?

  1. Cost of tickets. Concert tickets have noticeably increased in price since the pandemic as venues try to recoup lost revenue when they were closed or forced to operate with limited capacity (West End ticket prices are about c30% since the spring). This is in the face of a serious cost of living crisis which means people have less discretionary spending, even those from the more affluent demographic which tends to comprise classical concert audiences. As pressure on personal finances bite, people cut back on activities and spending which they may deem to be “non essential”. Unfortunately, for many people concert-going may now fall into this category.
  2. Additional costs of attending a concert. On top of the concert ticket (c£25-£30 on average in London), there are additional costs such as travel and food and beverages (a glass of wine at a leading London venue now costs nearly £10!). Add these to the ticket price and it’s already turned into quite a pricey night out. (See 1. above.)
  3. Time value. Is this concert worth my time? Will I get value for money and value for my time if I attend? High ticket prices raise the level of audience expectation: the higher the price, the less likely that expectations will be met, leading to disappointment (see also 5. below).
  4. The seductively low or zero cost of streaming services at home. Why schlepp up town with all the additional costs of going to a concert or opera when you can watch from the comfort of your living room, the only spend being a reasonably-priced bottle of wine from Lidl.
  5. Programmes. Audiences are reporting that some promoters/artistic directors/venues are simply not offering them the kind of music they really want to hear. We have an inherent cognitive bias rowards minimising disappointment over maximising enjoyment; this especially works against ‘new’ content.
  6. Ease of booking. Organisers and promoters report that audiences are booking later and later, which is deeply anxiety-making for concert organisers. Because there is an assumption amongst concert-goers that there will be last-minute availability, and online booking is easily accessible via your smartphone, concert-goers will act accordingly and book at the last minute. This also ties in with 3. above, whereby people are weighing up the benefits/value to them of attending a concert and then deciding at the last minute whether or not to go.

Some possible solutions:

  1. Dynamic pricing — in which ticket prices increase as demand increases (a pricing model favoured by airlines such as EasyJet). To make this work, you have to first open with a low ticket price and step-up prices as demand builds. So, for example, you might run an ‘Early Bird’ ticket offer in the first instance, and increase prices as the concert date approaches. Audiences may be incentivised to book earlier because of the special offer.
  2. Lower prices across the board. Venues are reporting low audience numbers and while all of the points above may be contributing factors, price is the single most important issue at present. Most concert tickets are priced according to seat position in the venue – the best seats cost the most. While some people may enjoy the kudos of being in the most expensive seats in the house, I suspect many more would happily pay a lot less. Why not offer lower prices across the entire venue and enjoy potentially higher attendence?
  3. Give audiences the programmes they want to hear. It is possible to offer programmes which include both the well-known/popular works of the classical canon alongside lesser-known, rarely-performed or new music. Remember that people go to concerts for entertainment (in the best possible meaning of that word), to escape from life’s daily grind for a few hours, to meet up with friends, and because they enjoy live music.
  4. Build greater trust between promoter/organiser/artistic director and audiences. Nurture and respect your audiences and they will repay you with their presence. (I will write more about trust in a future article.)

Photo by Kilyan Sockalingum on Unsplash

Ayriel Studios is a new residential recording studio and creative retreat set within the spectacular landscape of the North York Moors National Park. Against all odds, the studio was launched during the pandemic and is attracting world-class musicians inspired by its idyllic rural location.

The brainchild of internationally-renowned cellist, artistic director and cultural entrepreneur, Jamie Walton, it has taken six years from inception to completion. The studio is in a large, converted barn, with three adjacent self-catering farm cottages that sleep up to 12 people, surrounded by stone-walled fields on one side and heather moorland on the other. It is a musical haven, where artists enjoy an extremely personal and bespoke service that starts from before they arrive with help for travel arrangements. Artists may stay on site and have everything taken care of, including home-cooked meals, so they can relax and focus fully on their project.

The L-shaped, oak-floored studio is expertly designed, offering a unique sound – rich, clear, natural – with great acoustic versatility and an unusually broad reverberation range (from 0.8 to 2.6 seconds) suitable for all musical genres. The studio space is overlooked by a comfortable, well-equipped control room housing the latest SSL Origin 32 channel analogue mixing desk, ideal for an all-digital workflow and easy to use. Both spaces are flooded with natural light.

We aim to provide the optimum working conditions for our guests,” comments owner and technical director, Simon Hopkins. “The studio is temperature controlled and benefits from a continual air exchange, keeping the air as fresh inside as it is outside. We offer the studio on a 24-hour day rate, so artists can work whenever they want and for as long as they want. Noise is never an issue as the building is so well soundproofed.

A sense of timelessness and freedom is what helps this studio stand out from the norm” observes artistic director, Jamie Walton. “We’ve created a space for musicians to do their best work, to focus on their creativity and self-expression, and to completely immerse themselves without distraction.

It seems to be working – pianist, Peter Donohoe, surprised himself by recording 17 sonatas in one visit, Viktoria Mullova and Alasdair Beatson recorded a disc of Schubert and finished early, and I recently recorded The Bach Suites in three days.”

Other notable classical artists to have discovered Ayriel Studios include oboist, Nicholas Daniel OBE, who described it as “the most beautiful place imaginable to record.” To find out more about Ayriel Studios visit www.ayrielstudios.com, or call the studio manager, Hannah Ahrens, on 01287 669900 for rates and availability, or email bookings@ayrielstudios.com.


Source: press release

(Image credit: Paul Ingram)

It seems that whenever Icelandic pianist Vikingur Ólafsson touches a piano, beautiful sounds flow from the instrument – whether it’s Bach, Rameau, Debussy or Philip Glass. His latest release, From Afar, is no exception, with the added sonic treat of two pianos, offering contrasting colours and timbres.

This new album, the most personal of all Ólafsson‘s recordings to date, reflects his musical DNA, from childhood memories growing up in Iceland to his international performing career and contemporary inspirations, including the pianist, composer and pedagogue György Kurtág, whose music appears on this disc interleaved with works by J S Bach, Schumann, Brahms, Mozart, Bartok, Ades, and Icelandic composers Kaldalóns and Birgisson.

The inspiration behind the album comes from a life-changing meeting with Kurtág in Budapest in September 2021, which left Ólafsson with “a feeling of lightness and joy” and sparked memories of music he loved as a child – the pieces on the album by Bach, Mozart, Schumann and Bartók. From Afar, its title inspired by Kurtág’s Aus der Ferne, is both a tribute to his hero and a return to his musical roots.

On the first sight, the track listing looks eclectic – we move from Bach to Schumann, Mozart to Kurtág in the space of a few moments (and each piece is no more than around four minutes long), but the selection, organisation and of course the playing of the pieces succeeds in creating a pleasing and intriguing listening experience – and I love the way Ólafsson segues from piece to piece, creating an almost uninterrupted flow of music.

The other intriguing aspect of this recording is that it’s a double album, with the pieces recorded on both a Steinway concert grand piano and an upright with a layer of felt covering the strings, effectively a permanent soft pedal. György Kurtág and his wife Marta recorded many of their four-hand Bach transcriptions and pieces from Játékok on a felt-softened upright piano “with marvellous results” (Ólafsson), and so this aspect of the recording is another homage to Kurtág. It also creates a wonderful, nay “marvellous” soundworld – delicate, hushed, intimate, tender (and if you, like me, have had the privilege of hearing Mr & Mrs Kurtág performing you will recognise and appreciate this very distinctive, almost whispered sound that the felted piano offers). Here, the microphones are set so close to the piano that you can hear the keys being depressed and released, and the occasionall rattle and tap of the keys connecting with the keybed. The upright also calls for a different kind of playing to a grand piano: of course it has its limitations in terms of breadth of sound, colours, dynamic palette, but there is something deeply appealing about the more hushed timbres of the upright piano. For Olafsson its “its imperfections become acoustic opportunities.” It also makes a connection with countless music students and domestic piano players whose most familiar instrument was or is an upright piano.

With two distinct soundworlds provided by the different instruments, the album explores evocative, wistful themes of home, childhood and family, Hungarian and Icelandic folk songs, nature-inspired works, homages and three previously unreleased transcriptions by Ólafsson: the Adagio from Bach’s Sonata for solo violin in C major, Mozart’s Laudate Dominum – which he dedicates to Kurtág – and Icelandic composer Sigvaldi Kaldalóns’ Ave Maria (the first work Ólafsson ever transcribed)This piece was the first single from the album, which Ólafsson performed as Lockdown Artist in Residence for BBC Radio 4’s Front Row programme in 2020. Broadcasting live from an empty Harpa concert hall in Reykjavík, his tender, thoughtful performances brought comfort and a much-needed connection to live music to millions of listeners around the world.

This album offers a similar kind of comfort, with its flow of miniature works, exquisitely, often caressingly played, with Ólafsson‘s beautifully luminous sound, crystalline articulation and sensitively colouring. It feels homely and intimate, the kind of music one would play at home, by oneself or with a small group of friends.

There are some real jewels in this album – Schumann’s Vogel als Prophet from Waldszenen, played on the felted upright, Bartok’s 3 Hungarian Folksongs from the Csik, and Mozart’s Vesperae… are stand out tracks for me, but there is much to enjoy here, such is the variety of repertoire and Ólafsson‘s sensitive lyricism. It’s an album to curl up with on a winter’s evening.

From Afar is released on the DG label

Meet the Artist interview with Vikingur Ólafsson (from 2017)

J.S. Bach (1685-1750) Toccata in E minor BWV 914

F.J Haydn (1732-1809) Piano Sonata 47 h.o.b. 32 in B minor

F. Liszt (1811-1886) Deux Legends S. 175 – 1. St. François d’Assise: La prédication aux oiseaux S. 175; 2. St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots

Stephen Gott, piano


The splendid new Bechstein piano showroom in Manchester, the piano maker’s first purpose-built showroom in the United Kingdom since the Bechstein (now Wigmore) Hall was opened in London in 1901, boasts an attractive recital room with a C. Bechstein Model C 234 concert grand. The showroom hosts regular recitals and on Thursday 13 British-American pianist Stephen Gott performed music by Bach, Haydn and Liszt.

I have known Stephen for nearly 15 years now: we first met on a piano course hosted by our teacher, Penelope Roskell, where he gave a mature, thoughtful performance of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade, the memory of which has stayed with me ever since. Stephen is a very dedicated, hardworking young pianist, who started to learn the piano relatively late, in his teens. He studied at London’s Trinity-Laban and the University of Huddersfield, and is currently studying privately with Pascal Nemirovski.

His programme for his Bechstein recital displayed a nicely balanced range of repertoire from Bach to Liszt. The Bach Toccata in E minor was suitably serious in mood (E minor being perhaps Bach’s darkest, most serious key) and Stephen neatly portrayed the fantasia elements in the opening section, while the section second had energy and focus, with a good sense of forward motion.

The Haydn sonata was spirited, its elegant middle movement a pleasing contrast to the drama of the outer movements. But it was in the Liszt Legendes that Stephen really impressed and in which I felt he seemed most comfortable (and I know from conversations with him that he adores the music of Liszt, especially the more serious works such as these). From the fluttering, twittering birds of the first Legende (‘St Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds’) to the rolling, swelling waves of the second, Stephen played with sensitivity, expression and a clear understanding of not only the structure of these pieces but also the Biblical narratives which inspired Liszt. The second Legende was particularly rich in drama, the rise and fall of its narrative tension masterfully managed by Stephen, and providing an exciting, virtuosic close to this recital.

Meet the Artist interview with Stephen Gott