I was fortunate to catch James Naughtie’s interview with pianist Piotr Andersweski on Radio Four’s Today programme on Saturday morning. Anderszewski has just won the coveted BBC Music Magazine Recording of the Year award, for his album Schumann Humoreske; Studies for the pedal piano; Gesänge der Frühe. Now in his mid-40s, the reclusive Anderszewski has received much critical acclaim for his performances and recordings, in particular those of his countrymen Chopin and Szymanowski. (I am listening to his recording of Chopin’s 4th Ballade as I write – it has a beautiful lucidity in the introductory section).

During the interview, Naughtie asked Anderszewski, who is famously self-critical (he walked off the stage during the semi-finals of the Leeds Piano Competition in 1990 because he wasn’t happy with his playing) about performance anxiety and the loneliness of the soloist. Anderszewski’s responses reminded me of some paragraphs I’d written on this subject some years ago in a novel I wrote (unpublished) in which the protagonist is a concert pianist:

It was like dying, this masochistic art: you did it entirely on your own and no one went with you. And all that went before, the practise and preparation, was undertaken in lonely isolation as well, closeted, hermit-like, with that great box of a piece a furniture, the machine that was the piano. The audience sat in a state of complacent anticipation, applauding loudly, hundreds of palms coming together to acknowledge him, demanding brilliance, ignorant of the hours and days and weeks of preparation that made up a recital lasting just under two hours.

And on performance anxiety:

There was a dry nausea at the back of his throat, and the ache in his gut was worse now, compounded by faint, but noticeable palpitations and a throbbing forehead. Soon these symptoms would be joined by others: cold, sweaty hands, tremulous fingers, a tightening in the chest. All part of the deal, he thought miserably, but no less difficult to cope with for that. It was irrational and uncontrollable and, as an adult, he knew he shouldn’t still be blown away by this experience. In this culture of emotional restraint, having to endure such an overwhelming onslaught of feelings seemed childish and immature. It wasn’t a life or death confrontation. The feelings were excessive compared to the risk involved. He was not about to perform delicate brain surgery, or disable an unexploded bomb, though what he was about to do represented a highly refined task of physical control in its own right. Yet body and mind seemed determined to react as if it was a huge gamble; the feelings were real and demanded to be confronted.

This may be from a work of fiction but the symptoms described are very real: I know, because I have experienced them, and I have met musicians who suffer from similar symptoms. Some suffer very badly – in a recent blog article pianist Stephen Hough described how Adele Marcus (one of his former teachers) actually vomited on the keyboard because she was so overcome with nerves. Some performers find their performance anxiety is so great that they simply cannot perform at all (Glenn Gould, for example). Another pianist, whom I met some years ago while researching my novel, said he was “usually too busy” ahead of a performance “worrying about sandwiches, tickets and things” to feel nervous, though he did acknowledge that the adrenaline rush of performance anxiety is useful as it can “lighten” one’s playing.

Anxiety affects each of us in different ways, and we all have strategies for coping with it. I recently had to undergo a series of long and involved dental treatments to have a crown fitted over a broken tooth. The treatment necessitated root canal work, which, in the bad old days, could be painful and laborious. I am fortunate that I have very good teeth and, until this year, rarely had to have any treatment beyond a routine check up and clean. Despite this, I harboured a very deep and totally irrational fear of the dentist. In the past, less sympathetic dentists (all male, I might add) laughed at my fear, but my current dentist, a very kind and sympathetic Swedish lady, allowed me time to understand and accept my fear. Thus, when I went for the root canal treatment I was able to rationalise the anxiety and cope with it. In the end, the procedure, though long, was absolutely painless – and by the fourth visit to the dentist, I felt no fear whatsoever.

There is a lesson in this anecdote, and one which Piotr Anderszewski highlighted in his interview with Radio Four: acceptance. Here’s what he said: “Accept that there is no recipe……….The best way to cope is to fully accept that there is no way to cope.” He also explained that while one may wish to try and recreate that marvellous recital at Carnegie Hall last week, it is, of course, impossible to replicate a performance – because each performance is unique (this is why live music is so exciting). “The best way to cope with the loneliness and stress and pressure is to fully accept who you are this evening…..say, 8pm 20 April 2015. This is how I am, I am not trying to make it nice…..”

People say to me, “how can you feel nervous? You’re so good, you play so well!” which is all very flattering, but no matter how good you are, a degree of anxiety is inevitable, and normal. The symptoms of anxiety are produced by the powerful hormone adrenaline, which is part of the body’s acute stress response system, also called the “fight or flight” response. Without it, our ancestors would not have stood a chance against that sabre-toothed tiger!

As a performer, if one accepts the symptoms as part and parcel of the experience one can then use them positively. I was surprised in my Diploma exam how the adrenaline kicked in to make my performance of Schubert’s Impromptu in E flat one of my best, despite the fact that the piece felt unstable and liable to run away at any moment when I was playing it. As my teacher said when we discussed the exam report, adrenaline can produce interesting effects on one’s playing, often allowing one to stand back slightly from the music and simply “let it go”.

My own strategies for coping with performance anxiety offer no “magic formula” but they work for me:

  • Ensure you are fully prepared. This was the most important lesson I drew from my Diploma experience. I was so well on top of the repertoire that small slips did not throw me or distract me during the recital exam. If you go into a performance situation – a concert, exam or competition – knowing you are under-prepared, you immediately set off negative feelings about yourself and your music.
  • In practice, get into the habit of “playing through” pieces without stopping to correct mistakes.
  • Learn how to concentrate. This may sound daft, but it is possible to train yourself to concentrate better. This will help enormously in a performance situation: audience noises, distractions such as a siren or other “noises off” won’t throw you off course.
  • Take every opportunity to perform your programme ahead of The Day. As I keep telling one of my adult students who failed her Grade 2 exam last summer because nerves got the better of her, the only way to overcome performance anxiety is to perform.
  • If you have been working on the repertoire for a long time, try to recall what excited you about it in the first place and what makes each piece special/important for you.
  • On the day: don’t practice too much, and whatever you do, do it slowly and quietly. Ensure body and mind are rested. Don’t eat too much. Allow plenty of time to get to the venue/exam centre etc.
  • Do deep-breathing (Pilates thoracic breathing) and some light exercises to loosen and warm up arms and fingers. Imagine the first few bars of the first piece, visualise playing them and hear them in your head.
  • At the piano: breathe in, exhale slowly and allow the fingers to float onto the keys for the opening notes. Keep breathing!

I also take Rescue Remedy ahead of a performance. It just takes the edge off my anxiety.

Remember – people come to concerts because they enjoy live music and they want to hear us play, not to spot mistakes and slips. Most people are amazed by and full of admiration for any of us who can get up on stage and just do it, at whatever level.

Hear the full interview with Piotr Anderszewski here

Stephen Hough on performance anxiety

The ‘Sonetto 123 del Petrarca’, from the second, Italian, Années de Pèlerinage, was my first serious foray into Liszt’s music, and formed part of my ATCL Diploma programme. While waiting for the Diploma results at the beginning of this year, too superstitious to start looking at LTCL repertoire, I dabbled with the ‘Sonetto 47’ (I will return to it and learn it properly at later date). Now I’m working on the middle, and most popular work of the triptych, the ‘Sonetto 104’.

Laura de Noves

The three ‘Petrarch Sonnets’ are often performed together, separately from the rest of the Italian Années. They are inspired by the poetry of Italian Renaissance poet Francesco Petrarca, and are all concerned with love, in one form or another, which links them, yet each is a meditation on love in itself, specifically the poet’s love for Laura de Noves. Originally conceived as songs for piano and high tenor voice, Liszt later recast them as solo piano works. His extreme sensitivity to Petrarch’s original text allows him to beautifully capture the atmosphere and sentiment of Petrarch’s words, though they do not take their cues directly from the text (a comparison with the scores of the original song versions is useful when studying these works). Rather, they reflect Liszt’s own response to the poetry in the same way as earlier pieces in the Italian Années, ‘Spozalizio’ and ‘Il penseroso’, convey the composer’s response to a painting and a sculpture by Raphael and Michelangelo respectively.

The ‘Sonetto 104’ is perhaps the most passionate, agitated and dramatic of the three, based on the Sonnet Pace non trovo (‘I find no peace…..’ Canzone CXXXIV; sometimes erroneously noted as Sonnet 47). In it, the poet ponders the confused state love has put him in. Enthralled to his lady, he feels imprisoned yet free, he burns with love, yet feels he is made of ice: in modern psychological parlance, a true state of ‘limerence’ (a life-altering and passionate love or infatuation for someone, often unrequited). Reading the original text, one has a sense of the protagonist caught in an emotional ‘trap’ of his own making: while wallowing in the contrasting and sometimes painful emotions, he is also enjoying them. Liszt achieves these rapid changes of mood – the ‘highs and lows’ of romantic (and possibly physical) love – with the use of contrasting sections, dramatic, often unexpected, harmonic shifts, declamations, ‘meaningful’ fermatas, and cadenza-like passages. There are moments of calm contemplation, shot through with soaring climaxes and intense agitation, the surprising harmonies emphasising the protagonist’s confused state of mind. The piece ends calmly, with a restatement of the recitative-like opening motif with a languorous coda and some uncertain harmonies before a prayer-like final cadence.

When studying this piece, it is worth having both the original text by Petrarch and a copy of the libretto to hand for reference (available to download from IMSLP). The beautifully expressive melodic line, from the song versions, is retained in all three ‘Sonetti’.

Recordings: I like Thomas Quasthoff in the song versions, and Wilhelm Kempff and Christine Stevenson in the Années de Pèlerinage. Lazar Berman’s recording of the complete Annees is very fine too. You can hear my version of the ‘Sonetto 123’ via my SoundCloud.

Francesco Petrarca CANZONE CXXXIV

Pace non trovo

Pace non trovo, e non ho da far guerra,

E temo, e spero, ed ardo, e son un ghiaccio:

E volo sopra ‘l cielo, e giaccio in terra;

E nulla stringo, e tutto ‘l mondo abbraccio.

Tal m’ha in priggion, che non m’apre, né serra,

Né per suo mi ritien, né scioglie il laccio,

E non m’uccide Amor, e non mi sferra;

Né mi vuol vivo, né mi trahe d’impaccio.

Veggio senz’occhi; e non ho lingua e grido;

E bramo di perir, e cheggio aita;

Ed ho in odio me stesso, ed amo altrui:

Pascomi di dolor; piangendo rido;

Egualmente mi spiace morte e vita.

In questo stato son, Donna, per Voi.

I find no peace, but for war am not inclined;  
I fear, yet hope; I burn, yet am turned to ice; 
I soar in the heavens, but lie upon the ground; 
I hold nothing, though I embrace the whole world. 

Love has me in a prison which he neither opens nor shuts fast; 
he neither claims me for his own nor loosens my halter; 
he neither slays nor unshackles me; 
he would not have me live, yet leaves me with my torment. 

Eyeless I gaze, and tongueless I cry out; 
I long to perish, yet plead for succour; 
I hate myself, but love another. 
I feed on grief, yet weeping, laugh; 
death and life alike repel me; 
and to this state I am come, my lady, because of you. 

Pianist Anna Maria Stachula was born in Poland, and began playing the piano when she was 6 years old. She studied at the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music in Katowice with C. Stanczyk and Klara Langer-Danecka, and moved to the UK five years ago.

She possesses a level of talent and virtuoso technique one would be happy to hear at the Wigmore Hall, yet despite this she is presently virtually unknown in the UK. By day, she works in a Post Office sorting office. She is currently studying with pianist John Humphreys at Birmingham Conservatoire.

On 27th May Anna is giving an afternoon recital at The Red Hedgehog, an intimate arts venue in north London. Her programme includes Beethoven Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op 57 ‘Appassionata’, Chopin Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, and the Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise brilliante Op. 22, and Schumann ‘Abegg’ Variations, Op. 1 and Carnival, Op. 9. Do please support this talented artist by attending her concert, if you can.

Tickets and further information here

Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage Suisse (published 1855) are not fictional imaginings conjured up at home but his responses, in music, to the alpine landscape and landmarks of Switzerland, which he visited with Marie d’Agoult during the period 1835-1839. While owing a great deal to the romantic poetry of Goethe and Byron (in particular Childe Harold), these are also musical ‘postcards’, and the landscape and places they describe can still be viewed and visited today.

Having just enjoyed another holiday in the French Alps, quite close to the places of Liszt’s peregrinations, it is easy to see how the landscape inspired him. Driving down the autoroute south of Dijon, the first intimation one has of a change in the landscape, from the dull, flat agricultural land of the French interior only occasionally relieved by sugar-beet processing plants and statuesque wind turbines, are the Jura mountains, but these are mere trifles compared to the soaring grandeur of the Alps, whose snowy peaks rise up around Geneva and its lake. One really begins to appreciate their awesomeness when one leaves the motorway to begin a 30 minute ascent up twisting mountain roads to one of the many villages and ski stations that nestle in the high valleys. With spring now underway, there are cowslips and other wild flowers in bloom, and streams, augmented by the melting snow, gush noisily down the slopes, rushing headlong to sea level.

The peaks and high slopes are still snow-covered and on a sunny day the snow glints and glistens like crystal. The sky is intensely blue, the sun, in the thinner mountain air, hot on one’s skin. After a few days in this glorious landscape, one feels refreshed and healthy, released from the smog and noise of the city. Franz and Marie probably felt the same.

Looking towards Mont Blanc, from Mont Chèry, France

The alpine landscape of today isn’t so different from the landscape Liszt encountered in the mid-nineteenth century. Approaching Switzerland from the east, he probably enjoyed the great peaks of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. Travel would have been far more difficult then, with few proper roads through the mountains, but local guides could be hired to take one on walking tours, and there were plenty of refuges and hostels for weary travellers to rest in at the end of a day spent hiking.

In ‘Pastoral’ Liszt evokes lush mountain pastures, wild flowers, birdsong and fauna, and the pleasure of being in such a landscape; while ‘Au Bord du Source’ describes a mountain stream, playfully carving its course towards the sea. ‘Au Lac de Wallenstadt’ vividly captures the image of a beautiful mountain lake, a light breeze ruffling its clear surface.

‘Orage’ describes the rapidly changing weather of the Alps: I’ve sat and watched a storm brewing in the opposite valley, dark clouds rolling in, the heavy sky scored with shards of lightning, and Liszt brilliantly captures the storm with unsettling chromatic scales in octaves, massive left-hand chords and cadenza-like passages.

‘Vallee d’Obermann’ is a more pensive and philosophical piece, and the place itself does not exist. Rather, the music is based on a romantic literary construct. Built on a simple descending figure, which is recapitulated many times throughout the piece, the music is both imposing and wistful, with its impressive double octaves, evoking the grandeur of the landscape, and graceful melodic lines.

‘Eclogue’ returns to the pastoral mood of the earlier pieces. Short and gentle, it evokes the joy of the dawning of a new day. In ‘Le mal du pays’ the homesickness of the traveller is evoked, tinged with depression and yearning, and a poignant farewell to country. Its ending, in the lower register, brings no relief from the melancholy mood. In the final piece of the suite, ‘Les cloches de Genève’, (‘The Bells of Geneva’) the music is less evocative of the sound of bells, but its mood, underlined by one of Liszt’s more romantic melodies, suggests joy and love, providing an antidote to the dark mood of the previous piece.

British pianist Peter Donohoe describes these pieces as ‘very personal and visual… highly emotional for composer, performer and audience’, and a good performance (such as Donohoe’s at the Southbank in February – review here) can be intense, romantic and highly concentrated. The works from the second year (Italy) are, by contrast, more concerned with literary and artistic impulses (a painting by Raphael, a sculpture by Michelangelo, the poetry of Petrarch) but are no less interesting and absorbing, to listen to and to play.

For a good recording of the complete Années de Pèerinage, look no further than Lazar Berman, though I also like Wilhelm Kempf, particularly in the three Petrarch Sonnets.

Leif Ove Andsnes (photo credit: © Özgür Albayrak)

The excellent International Piano Series at the Southbank Centre continued with a fine recital of music by Haydn, Bartók, Debussy and Chopin by acclaimed and very popular (judging by the full house) Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes.

In this age of flashy piano pyrotechnics and daring designer concert outfits, Andsnes comes across as refreshingly understated……..read my full review here

'God Save the Queen' poster promoting the Sex Pistols
© Jamie Reid. Photograph by Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria & Albert’s new blockbuster exhibition celebrates British design, creativity and innovation in this the year of ‘London 2012’. Read my review for OneStopArts here