Fryderyk Chopin’s evergreen Mazurkas lend themselves to a wide variety of interpretations, and on her CD on the Delos label, Korean pianist Klara Min shines another light on them in a personal survey of her favourites.
The mazurka is a Polish folk dance in three time with an accent on the second or third beat. Chopin elevated the form into the concert miniature, in effect creating a new genre that became known as the “Chopin genre”. The sixty-nine Mazurkas that he composed in his lifetime remain amongst his best-loved music for piano. They offer some of the most intimate musical insights into Chopin’s relationship with his homeland, with their lilting rhythms and harmonies, poignant suspensions, tender, meandering melodies and falling cadences, and the subtle use of rubato. Others are more lively, with bright rhythms and piquant textures; yet all seem imbued with zal, that untranslatable Polish word so often associated with the music of Chopin, suggesting nostalgia and longing.
Klara Min’s approach to these works is sympathetic and thoughtful, if occasionally a little too studied in some of the phrasing and use of tenuto. But overall she neatly captures the individual idiosyncrasies, and shifting nuances and textures of these miniatures, with melodies sensitively highlighted, though never at the expense of the interior architecture of the music (the Mazurkas are replete with complex harmonies and counterpoint). A warm tone and wide-ranging pianistic colours, combined with supple tempo rubato, a plaintive tenderness, which runs through all the works on the CD, and Min’s technical acuity result in a charming reading of these exquisite miniatures. The selection closes as intimately as it opens, with the heartrending Op 68, no. 4, Chopin’s last composition – a piece which my piano teacher says she never teaches to students “because it is so very special”.
The CD comes with detailed notes and is produced with vibrant, clean sounds.
Klara Min will feature in a forthcoming Meet the Artist interview
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano/composing, and make it your career?
I made a choice to give some kind of career in music a chance whilst in my last year studying Social and Political Sciences. However at the time I was not exactly sure what, where or how and in some respects I am an accidental composer, as a result of taking a job making tea in a post-production house that specialised in the sound for commercials.
I found my piano improvisation (or fast composition) skills were in demand and it developed from there. At the time, I was setting strict targets about what I needed to achieve (e.g. after 6 months, I said to myself I would quit if I was still making tea!), but after 3 or 4 years with about 100 or so broadcast adverts under my belt, I realised I had become a ‘professional’ musician. This prompted me to go and study! Although this time, I did Composition for the Screen at the Royal College of Music.
Who or what were the most important influences on your playing/composing?
The composers I particularly remember enjoying playing when I was studying piano at school were Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Bartok and Gershwin. I had a flat mate, Tim Fairhall, for a couple of years who was working towards a jazz bass postgrad and playing with him I developed a further interest in improvisation and I started to compare classical and jazz approaches to playing and writing. Now my wife, Kim Sheehan, who is an opera singer, has an important influence on my music-making, as she is always pushing me to be better!
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
My first orchestral film session was pretty scary. It was for Vito Rocco’s indie feature called Faintheart. I did my best to pretend I was an old hand at such stuff, but everyone could see straight through me obviously!
The first year or so of Piano Interrupted too was very challenging: first finding a synergy in the studio we were happy with between piano and laptop and then working out how on earth we would play our intricate digital musings live. And life as a musician- managing the business of music if you like- is of course a constant challenge.
Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?
Perhaps I am doing that musician-and-their-most-recent-project thing, but I am proud of how my first dip into the fashion world turned out last February, writing the music for Carolina Herrera’s New York Fashion Week show. We made the recording in the overwhelmingly-historic Abbey Road Studio 2 with the London Contemporary Orchestra and the ‘premiere’ was for 1000 guests of Mrs Herrera in the Lincoln Center in New York.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
I am only now becoming a regular performer. And the types of venues Piano Interrupted are likely to play tend to be slightly alternative, rather than the traditional concert hall system. I very much enjoyed playing in the Union Chapel in Islington, London.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
I’m not very good at favourites! I like the early/mid 20th century Russians, the American minimalists, Jazz from the 60s and 70s. I also try in general to support music written by people who are still alive.
As for performing, it’s all Piano Interrupted at the moment and it’s a privilege to be playing my own music.
Who are your favourite musicians?
I’m a sucker for a world-class jazz pianist- Brad Mehldau, Fred Hersch, Ethan Iverson. And any fabulous opera singing too- Gerald Finley in Doctor Atomic or Florez and Dessay in La Fille du Regiment immediately spring to mind as being utterly mind-bogglingly good.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Radialsystem with Piano Interrupted last December. We had not played a concert outside of the UK, but we were given a fantastic (sold-out) welcome in Berlin. I think Radialsystem started life as a water factory and now it is a beautiful arts space. The artists the night before had hired a Steinway D, so I got to borrow that too! I find German audiences are particularly receptive to new and/or experimental music. Or at least my music at any rate!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Nurture your talent, practice hard, make as many connections with other creative people as you can, keep an open mind to different styles, approaches and attitudes towards music. I firmly believe that the harder you work, the luckier you’ll be.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am just starting on what is easily my biggest and most challenging project to date. I have been commissioned by Silvana Schroeder and Thüringen Staatsballet to write an 80-minute ballet for about 60-70 players. It is called ‘Waiting Room’ and Silvana and I are also collaborating on the book together. I will also be incorporating lots of live electronics, so all in all it promises to be some undertaking. The premiere is on the 6th June 2014.
Before that, Franz Kirmann and I have to get the second Piano Interrupted album out the door by August, so we can tour it in November.
What is your most treasured possession?
The Steinway that I don’t own yet!
What is your present state of mind?
Excitement – after a super productive meeting about the ballet.
Tom Hodge’s album ‘Two By Four’ is available now. Tom will be touring with Piano Interrupted in July and August. Further information and sample soundclips here
Tom Hodge was born in England in 1975 and grew up in Melbourne, Australia before returning to London.
He has been scoring music to picture for just over ten years and his credits include 3 feature films, a handful of TV themes and over 200 commercials for practically every major worldwide brand including Audi, Nike, Smirnoff, Pantene & Max Factor, as well as Sumito Sakakibara’s BAFTA-nominated short animation ‘Kamiya’s Correspondence’
As part of an extremely diverse portfolio. Tom has contributed music to a number of theatre pieces in the UK and his music has also featured in a Carolina Herrera fashion show in New York and at the Thüringen Ballet in Germany.
Other credits include the classical remix of Daft Punk’sAerodynamic (still the only remix ever to be sanctioned by Daft Punk for synchronisation) released in the UK and Australia on Ministry of Sound, Paganini Rocks with Rob da Bank, Tom Middleton and Au Revoir Simone on Sunday Best and We Anchor In Hope, a remix for post-rockers Codes In The Clouds on Erased Tapes.
“One of the few voices on the scene capable of not just mimicking the serene beauty of classical music, but of matching its compositional intricacy to boot.” Tobias Fischer, Tokafi
‘Discernment’ is a new blog by Betty Herbert, author of The 52 Seductions, in which she explores “the art of choosing well”. I was invited to contribute a guest post on how to acquire taste in classical music, not the easiest subject to write about – you can read my thoughts and suggestions here
I also compiled a Discernment playlist on Spotify. This is of course highly personal subjective, and is by no means a definitive list of suggested listening. I was simply trying to offer a broad sweep of classical music from Baroque to present day. Readers are most welcome to suggest further music for the discerning listener.
When I was around 5 years old a piano appeared in our house. I can’t remember now how it came to be there – I think it may have been inherited from my grandmother. I can remember watching my father play the piano by ear. I would stand at one end of the piano, joining in playing notes too, fascinated by the effect. Not long after I began to make up little tunes of my own. The ability to play by ear and to improvise has stayed with me all my life.
Who or what inspired you to start teaching?
My first introduction to teaching piano was teaching the two young children of some friends while I was studying piano at Auckland University in New Zealand. I was really quite novice at it then and can’t imagine how effective I was as a teacher. However later when I came to study and work in London it eventually became a necessity to earn part of my living as a piano teacher and gradually my ability to teach developed.
Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?
A number of teachers remain very special to me. My first significant teacher, Mary McClafferty, was a very fine musician, who took me through my advanced piano grades and diplomas whilst I was at school. She was so modest – she would have never told me at the time but in her obituary I read that the great Henry Wood invited her to play in the proms when she was young. I remember she always spoke very fast – perhaps trying to fit in as much as possible in the time allotted!
When I went to Auckland University to study music I had the unique experience of studying with two piano teachers simultaneously. This was only possible as one had been the pupil of the other. They worked in perfect tandem, covering a wide range of solo and chamber repertoire between them with each student. Janetta McStay (who sadly died just recently at the age of 95) was not only a great teacher but a really world class musician and performer. During the 1970’s I heard her play as an equal with many wonderful musicians during their visits to New Zealand and it was not surprising that the Borodin Quartet especially requested her to join them on a tour of Russia. I also studied with her former pupil, Bryan Sayer, also an excellent pianist and teacher, who had studied in Paris with Vlado Perlmuter. They have both remained lifelong friends and mentors. In the five years I studied with them I learnt such an enormous amount from them: about technique, style, detail and precision, beauty of tone and phrasing. The list goes on…
Later in London I was privileged to study with the late Peter Wallfisch – a very special pianist and musician and so incredibly generous: he would think nothing of giving a three or four hour lesson, if he felt the music required it. He had such wonderful imagination and made you really think about interpretation in a very deep and creative way. In his teaching I felt there were connections back to great teaching pedagogues such as Artur Schnabel.
Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?
All of those wonderful piano teachers have left their mark in different ways through their generosity, high professional standards and complete commitment to their art.
I am also influenced by the playing I do with other musicians as I am being constantly challenged to remain open to different ways of working, which keeps me fresh.
I find much can be learnt from observing master classes. Andras Schiff, Richard Goode and Murray Perahia have all given me much to think about. I am also fascinated by less conventional approaches: Nelly Ben–Or is a pianist who offers a unique take on performance due to her training as an Alexander Technique Teacher. William Westney (American pedagogue and prize winning pianist, influenced by the teaching of Jacques Dalcroze) also offers a completely original and refreshing approach to practising and performing. I recommend reading his inspiring book The Perfect Wrong Note (published by Amadeus).
Lastly and certainly not least I am always learning from my students!
Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?
Whether modest or momentous I find there are regular moments of satisfaction and delight with teaching that are too numerous to recall. It is always a joy when a student experiences a break through, whatever level they are at.
What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?
I have a number of adult students these days and enjoy very much working with them. Sometimes it is necessary to make their aims more realistic – “Schumann’s Carnival is a great work but let’s start with exploring some of his shorter piano pieces first”! However, age needn’t be a barrier to progress and playing the piano is great exercise for the mind as well as for physical co-ordination. It is also self-sufficient and there really is a fantastic repertoire to choose from.
What do you expect from your students?
Enthusiasm, commitment and a willingness to try something new.
What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?
They have their place and can be an excellent goal for students and of course some students thrive on competitions although I believe they shouldn’t be the end all. All performance opportunities are important however– what is music if not communicated?
What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?
The teaching of beginners can be much underestimated in importance. It really does require careful planning and patience to teach well at this level and deliver a sound and well balanced programme of musicianship and technique. Elements such as pulse, rhythm and pitch need to be broken down and taught in small achievable steps. Introducing the sound before the symbol is so important- too many tutor books immediately push notation first.
To make the journey towards artistry the advanced student needs to be encouraged to develop their interpretive ability as well as their technical proficiency. It’s about having something individual to say as a musician.
What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?
I believe one helps the other. How often when I teach I find I am telling myself what I also need to take on board in my own playing. Playing oneself gives one the ability to empathise with the student, to understand the process. I will regularly demonstrate in my teaching to make sure I have offered a clear aural model of the ideas I am suggesting.
Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?
There are too many pianists to name but I listen to them to be inspired. We are lucky to have a rich heritage of recorded performances of many great pianists of the past to draw on. There are still a lot of wonderful classical musicians out there playing live. I am also drawn to jazz – there is so much creativity happening in this field, which harkens back to the era of composer/ performers.
Catherine Riley graduated from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, with an M.Mus degree in Performance, with first class honours. Following successes with the two major New Zealand concerto competitions, she recorded for Radio New Zealand and undertook several professional piano concerto engagements.
A grant from the NZ Arts council enabled her to continue with post graduate studies at the Royal College of Music with Kendall Taylor and Peter Wallfisch. Several awards led to concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Purcell Room and Fairfield Halls. She has also given performances in the Barbican Centre as well as St. John’s, Smith Square and St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
She has performed as both soloist and chamber musician and given numerous recitals and chamber music concerts in the UK and in Europe and has recorded the complete works for violin and piano by Grieg with American violinist, Christopher Collins Lee. In 2007 she formed the Johannes Piano Quartet with colleagues who are fellow tutors at the Centre for Young Musicians, in London. She has also recently formed a duo with the pianist Graham Fitch.
“Your wonderful Bechstein has afforded me great joy.”
I have recently sold my Yamaha upright piano, to fund the purchase of a 1913 Bechstein grand. Naturally, I am very much looking forward to becoming the owner of a grand piano and to exploring the wider range of possibilities afforded by a larger instrument (and a very beautiful one too), but I can’t help but feel more than a twinge of sadness to be saying farewell to my trusty upright. Purchased brand new from Chappell of Bond Street in 2007, six months after I set up my piano teaching practice, the piano has given me many hours of pleasure (and quite a few hours of frustration too!), and has seen my students through their lessons. It has brought exam success, for my students and myself, and has acted as a form of therapy, a companion and a much-loved piece of furniture.
Pianists have a curious relationship with pianos: unlike other musicians, who take their own instrument with them wherever they play, the pianist is expected to arrive at the venue and accept the instrument provided. Of course, top class concert instruments in venues such as Wigmore or Carnegie Halls are beautifully set up, and the soloist will spend some time with the technician before the concert discussing any adjustments that need to be made. The tuners and technicians who work with concert artists and instruments are highly skilled people, sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of instrument and performer. Once upon a time, in the days before air travel, the pianist might travel by ship or by train with his own instrument. There is some lovely footage in Bruno Monsaingeon’s film about Sviatoslav Richter, showing the great man selecting a grand piano at the Yamaha showroom in New York ahead of a performance. These days such executive treatment is largely afforded only to the greatest. The pianist Gary Graffman, in his book I Really Should be Practising, relates an occasion where he arrived at a concert to find that one of the notes on the piano when depressed sounded with all the subtlety of a gunshot: to remedy this, Graffman simply replaced the action of that note with one seldom-used from the top of the register.
Of course, we grow attached to and familiar with the piano which we play most regularly, usually the one we own and play at home. It took me awhile to really get used to my piano. It has quite a stiff action and a very bright tone (I had it voiced twice to make it more mellow), and I know there will be a “settling in” period as I get to know my Bechstein. I have played a few pianos in my time and I can remember something about nearly all of them. A friend has a lovely Steinway B which I play fairly regularly. The first time I played it was like driving a Porsche after pottering around in a Ford Fiesta. That is not to say it is an “easy” piano to play: sure, it is beautifully set up and it feels very well-made and finely engineered, but it is quirky too, and, just as when driving a sports car, one needs to be alert to its particular traits. Probably the most wonderful piano I have played is the Model D in Steinway Hall in central London: not just its size, but also the feel of it. The local music society, where I occasionally perform, has a very old Steinway (at least 100 years old) which is rather eccentric: rattly and squeaky keys and a tendency to wobble alarmingly when the pedals are applied. Perhaps the worst was the Edwardian upright (complete with decorative candelabra) at the old people’s centre where I used to play at lunchtimes. In fact, it didn’t matter because the music gave so much pleasure to the very elderly audience.
In his memoirs, Richter describes playing on indifferent school pianos in the Russian provinces during the war, forcing him to think beyond the instrument. The sound of the piano could not be changed but through his extraordinary imaginative powers, he could draw the audience along with him and take them to another place, to make them focus on higher things. This has to be our aim, as pianists, when confronted with an indifferent instrument, or one not exactly to our liking. We play, and the best we can hope is that we capture the audience’s attention and imagination, and get beyond ourselves and our ego to convey the meaning and emotion in the music.
Who or what inspired you to take up a career in singing and directing?
My grandmother was a painter and she always saw and showed me the world through an artist’s eyes. My mother was a singer, and although my father was a physicist, he would always play classical music at full volume at home or in the car, conducting the radio and screaming at the tempi.
Later, my passion for singing derived from the physical sensation when producing the classical sound, as well as from the different facets of the art form itself, including the drama, languages and poetry in the various genres of opera, oratorio and song. After I had been active as a singer for many years, I wanted to be involved in opera productions at a much earlier stage in the process. I became interested in the ideas and concept of staging and directing opera, and found it riveting to work with a team on finding solutions to express a particular way of telling a story.
Who or what are the most important influences on your work?
Love for what I do, and respect towards the piece in front of me and the people I am working with.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Figuring out what I needed to do in order to get to where I wanted to get to. This goes for my own life and career journey, but also for the individual projects and engagements I have been involved in.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently working on my third, new production of Bizet’s Carmen at Winslow Hall Opera (WHO) in Buckinghamshire. I am directing and also singing the role of Carmen, bringing my number of performances of this role to around 165, but still feel there is so much to tell about the story and the character. Joining me are a superb cast and team, and I can’t wait to get back into the experience that is WHO after last year’s success with Le Nozze di Figaro: high quality theatre making in very unique surroundings.
Italian tenor Gianluca Paganelli as Don José, South African baritone Njabulo Madlala (winner of the 2010 Kathleen Ferrier Competition) as Escamillo and Scottish-Polish soprano Natasha Day as Micaëla are leading a select cast which is supported by the company’s Founder and Music Director Robert Secret, set designer Francisco Rodriguez-Weill and lighting designer Tony Simpson.
What are the particular challenges/excitements of working in an opera company?
An opera company has to fulfil many different roles. Either subsidised privately or by the state, it has to find a healthy balance of serving its audience, finding and re-confirming a strong position in the artistic life of the community and its social calendar and co-operating with other art forms and arts institutions. But at the same time, it has to remain free to accommodate the integrity and space which the artistic process and the artists’ work demand.
Do you have a favourite venue?
There is no easy answer to this question. My favourite venue tends to be where I am at the present time. Certainly, Winslow Hall Opera has a very special place for me as I have worked closely with this company for many years, beginning in 2003 when it was still based at Stowe. It is an ambitious and inventive opera festival surrounded by the exceptional backdrop that only a magnificent 17th Century mansion by Sir Christopher Wren – the only Wren building outside of London – can present. It is now owned by former restaurateur Christopher Gilmour and his wife Mardi Gilmour, who have brought this festival to life with great vision and courage and out of their love for opera.
Who are your favourite musicians/singers/directors?
My favourite singer is the German tenor Fritz Wunderlich who unfortunately died too young at the age of 35. To me, his singing represents complete honesty in sound and emotion. Especially his Schubert songs are the “truest” kind of music-making that I know. One of my favourite musicians is the pianist Martha Argerich with her technical brilliance, power and risk taking. Both artists’ music always travels with me. But aside from those two, I get most of my inspiration from other artists such as jazz, soul and blues musicians and all kinds of cross over artists, painters and sculptors.
One of my favourite productions is Jean-Louis Martinoty’s Le Nozze di Figaro for the Théatre des Champs-Elysées in 2004, conducted by René Jacobs. Here, simplicity and beauty, detail and clear characterisations are given time and space in an admirable synthesis between the artistic and musical direction.
What is your most memorable performing experience?
The performances that are most memorable to me are the ones where all my performance skills and techniques were freely at my disposal and working perfectly together. But I’m afraid I can count on two hands the amount of times that has happened.
What is your favourite music to sing? To listen to?
My favourite music to sing is Italian verismo. I’m afraid that I cannot possibly say what my favourite music to listen to is. The music in my car at this moment is Afro Celt, Bach’s St Matthew Passion, Tom Jones, Steve Ray Vaughn, Paolo Nutini and Richard Strauss’ four last songs.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?
Be true and honest to yourself and others and then show yourself, your ideas and work with confidence. I am always amazed when holding auditions or interviewing potential team members, how quickly and clearly that comes across and how strong it features in the decision-making.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
The point at which a balance has been achieved between family, work, relaxation and finances.
What is your most treasured possession?
I feel slightly foolish, but it does seem to be my dishwasher and my SatNav!
What do you enjoy doing most?
Aside from work, I enjoy waking up in the morning to fresh snow and clear blue skies, deciding on half a day’s skiing, then sailing down a ski slope which is drenched in sunshine and cold, soft snow with my carvers at the bottom of my boots.
What is your present state of mind?
Now that I’ve just been thinking about skiing down a mountain, I’d say delirious.
Yvonne Fontane will be performing the title role and directing Bizet’s Carmen at Winslow Hall Opera on July 25th, 27th, 28th, 30th, August 1st and 3rd. Saturday and Sunday performances start at 5.00pm, weekday performances at 5.30pm. All performances will have a 90-minute supper interval. To book tickets to Winslow Hall Opera, please call 07504 298575 or email email@example.com
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