I “borrowed” the idea for this post from George Bevan, director of music at Monkton Coombe School, and author of the excellent Music@Monkton blog.
Like me, George is preparing for a performance diploma. He posted his Diploma programme on his blog and asked readers to suggest the ideal pianist for each piece. And I thought I would do the same……I know who my ideal pianist would be for each of my pieces, but I’d love to hear more suggestions, so please feel free to contribute via the comments box.
Bach – Concerto in D minor after Marcello, BWV 974
Takemitsu – Rain Tree Sketch II
Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K511
Liszt – Sonetto 104 del Petrarca
Rachmaninov – Etudes-Tableaux Op 33, in E flat and G minor
In April 2010, in the elegant sitting room of a large Victorian family home in north London, a young man, painfully shy and awkward, sat quietly composed at an antique Blüthner grand piano before proceeding to pull off a convincing, profound and highly polished performance of Chopin’s fourth Ballade. The day before I had played, somewhat tentatively due to anxiety, the C-sharp minor Étude from Chopin’s Opus 25. It was the first Chopin Étude I ever learnt, and the first time I had performed in “public” since my school days. Compared to the flamboyant Ballade, my effort seemed insignificant.
When the young man, whose name was Stephen, finished there was an appreciative silence from the tiny audience before the applause, the greatest accolade one can give a performer. I went home after the second day of what Alan Rusbridger in his book Play It Again calls “piano camp” – my piano teacher’s weekend course – inspired and terrified. Everyone else on the course was better than me, and Stephen, at just 17, was way, way ahead of the rest of us (I later learnt that he had only started playing the piano seriously at 14). On the last day of the course there was a concert for the participants, at which I played the Chopin Étude. When my teacher told me how well it had sounded, how much I had improved in the eighteen months since she first took me on, and turned to my husband to announce “Fran played really well today”, I burst into pathetically grateful tears, but when I got home, shattered after three days of intensive masterclasses and trying to remember what a Neapolitan Sixth was, I remembered Stephen’s Ballade. I Googled “piano diploma” and within two days I had downloaded the syllabus from Trinity College of Music: eighteen months later, I passed my Performance Diploma with Distinction, and felt I could claim to be “a Liszt player”.
Alan Rusbridger’s “piano epiphany” was similar to mine. At piano camp in the Lot Valley in France, he heard one of the other students play Chopin’s first Ballade in g minor, a performance notable for both its profound musicality and technical assuredness. Back home in London, Rusbridger decided he too would learn the first Ballade, in the space of just one year, but his hectic life as editor of The Guardian precluded lengthy practice sessions, so he set about learning it on only 20 minutes practising a day (if possible).
His new book, Play It Again, written in the form of diary extracts, charts not only his adventures with the Ballade, a project he likens to George Mallory attempting to climb Everest “in tweed jacket and puttees”, but also an extraordinarily busy year for his newspaper and the world in general: the year of the Arab Spring and the Japanese Tsunami, Wikileaks and the UK summer riots, and the phone hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Enquiry.
Chopin’s first Ballade is not some piffling little drawing room piece any old pianist can pick up and play. It is complex in its structure and meaning, physically and emotionally demanding, requiring advanced technique and musical understanding. It is a proper virtuoso work (as are the other Ballades), perenially popular with performers and audiences around the world. It is considered one of the high Himalayan peaks of the piano repertoire and is most definitely not for the faint-hearted. No right-minded pianist, whether student in conservatoire, professional, or advanced amateur, would set themselves the task of getting to grips with such a monster on anything less than two hours practice every day.
In the course of his study of the piece, Rusbridger meets other pianists, amateur and professional, who discuss their attraction to the piece and why it continues to hook them in. All the professional pianists he interviews (including Noriko Ogawa, Stephen Hough, Murray Perahia, Emmanuel Ax, the late Charles Rosen, and William Fong – Rusbridger’s tutor at piano camp) admit to learning the work as teenagers: its vertiginous virtuosity is a huge attraction for the young piano student, and the work often finds its way into end of year recitals in conservatoire, and diploma programmes. But the work continues to fascinate mature pianists as well.
Much of the book is a glimpse into Alan Rusbridger’s “practice diary”, his day-to-day responses to learning the piece. For the serious amateur pianist and teacher, Rusbridger’s analysis, virtually bar-by-bar, is very informative, but you would want to have a copy of the score beside you as you read. There is also plenty of useful material on how to practice “properly” – something Rusbridger has to learn almost from scratch – and how to make the most of limited practice time. Alongside this, we also meet piano restorers and technicians (Jeffrey Shackell, Terry Lewis) to peer into the rarefied world of high class grand pianos (Steinway, Fazioli), as well as neurologists (with whom Rusbridger discusses the phenomenon of memory), piano teachers, pianists all over the world who have played or are studying the piece (with whom Rusbridger connects thanks to the wonders of social media), other journalists, celebrities, politicians, dissenters, and Rusbridger’s friends and family. Rusbridger interweaves his journey into the heart of the Ballade with his daily travails at The Guardian, offering fascinating insights into his working life, at a time when the very future of British journalism was being called into question as a consequence of the News of the World phone hacking scandal.
Another aspect which comes across very clearly throughout is the pleasure of music making and its therapeutic benefits, for performer and listener, and the book is very much a hymn to this. Like the Ballade itself, the book hurtles towards its finale: will Alan learn the piece, memorise, and finesse it in time for the concert?
The final section of the book contains extracts from the score and insightful commentaries from top class international pianists, essential reading for anyone who wishes to study the work seriously.
This is an inspiring read for the competent amateur who aspires to play some of the “greats” of piano literature. The book is a celebration of the dogged persistence of the determined ‘amateur’ (in the French sense of the word – “a lover of….”), which will give hope and support to pianists seeking a challenge from new or more complex repertoire. The fact that Rusbridger pulled it off will doubtless inspire others to follow his example: I certainly hope so.
Who or what inspired you to take up the organ and make it your career?
Two simple events: first, sitting next to the piano on my first day at primary school (I asked to have a go after assembly was over, and started piano lessons soon after); second, the local church organist breaking the world record for non-stop organ playing the same year. My parents took me to hear him one afternoon, and I was hooked. No great philosophical epiphanies; it really was as simple as that.
Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?
Some really superb teachers; and many other musicians, some organists, some not. Good singers, increasingly.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
In an obvious sense there have been plenty of tricky pieces to learn, and a few times I’ve been called in to learn very difficult things at short notice – overnight, more than once. But probably most people have a story like that to tell. If you’re an organist I think it can be easy to get into a rut; that sort of comfort zone can be very alluring, so the constant challenge of my career is to give myself a nudge at the right time and keep looking outwards as a musician.
What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?
Concertos are always a bit of an exotic experience for organists – opportunities to play them don’t come up all that often. In orchestral/ensemble situations, being one of a team who has to conform to someone else’s requirements, when you spend most of your performing life being your own musical boss, is demanding. There’s also the added dimension of having others reliant on you. The most stressful week by far of my career to date involved playing the (horrendously difficult) organ part in a contemporary orchestral score – an hour of counting and a minute of terror. But it’s satisfying being part of a group rather than a lone recitalist – I especially love continuo playing for just this reason.
Which recordings are you most proud of?
Judith Bingham’s ‘The Everlasting Crown’ I think, but I really can’t bear listening to my own playing, so ‘proud’ in this context is a relative term. I just can’t be in the same room with my playing of 10 years ago.
Do you have a favourite concert venue?
Sacred – St Paul’s Cathedral, London; secular, Royal Albert Hall. No matter how hard you try to be hard-bitten about it, walking out to perform in the Proms is a genuine thrill. As a listener, I like Symphony Hall in Birmingham.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Alfred Brendel; Wilhelm Furtwangler; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; Carlos Kleiber; J S Bach.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I’m going to cheat a bit here because some of the most memorable moments for me are to do with recordings. First, hearing Elgar 1 for the first time; the slow movement was playing in a London record shop where I had gone to buy some Dufay or something, and I had never heard anything so beautiful as that slow movement. I was literally (much-abused word, but accurate here) rooted to the spot for 10 minutes. Second, hearing ‘authentic’ instruments for the first time (English Concert, Brandenburg Concertos, c. 1983); I can remember the clarity and brilliance of No. 2 as if it was last week. And, very much less properly, having a helpless giggling fit all the way through Ligeti’s ‘Atmospheres’ in the RFH when I was 8 – we had been taken on a school outing by our very thoughtful music teacher, and I’m ashamed to admit I disgraced myself. Mr Cole, if you’re reading this – I’m sorry.
What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?
Bach and Jehan Alain. Bach, late Beethoven, Brahms. Schubert, Schumann, Mahler, Messiaen, R Strauss…
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?
Work very hard; don’t fool yourself that second best is ever acceptable. Keep your eyes and ears constantly open, your mouth mostly shut, and be open to the possibility of learning things from anyone, anywhere, no matter how apparently unlikely the context. Read Schumann’s Musical Rules for the Young, there’s a lot of good sense in there, however quaint some of his recommendations seem now. ‘Studying is unending’.
What are you working on at the moment?
Mainly contemporary things – Judith Bingham, Nico Muhly, some Jonathan Harvey. Bach’s Clavierübung Part III needs revisiting. A Wagner transcription which I have been asked to play for a special occasion and would really much rather hear played by an orchestra than by me, but I’m stuck with it. Shortly to start writing a PhD dissertation, so spending a lot of time in libraries.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Playing, when it’s going well.
What is your present state of mind?
Pensive, a bit sleep-deprived
Recognised as “one of the brightest and most active English recitalists” who “plays with immaculate finish and buoyancy” (Classic CD), Stephen Farr is widely regarded as one of the finest organists of his generation, with a virtuoso technique and an impressive stylistic grasp of a wide-ranging repertoire. He combines a busy freelance playing career with the posts of Director of Music at St Paul’s Knightsbridge in London, and ACE Foundation Director of Music at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
My first concert outing of 2013 was to hear British pianist Leon McCawley at London’s Wigmore Hall. The penultimate concert in Leon’s Mozart Sonatas cycle was my first review for Bachtrack, back in April 2011. This is my third Bachtrack review of this fine artist, who seamlessly combines a calm, self-possessed stage presence with immaculate technique, versatility and musical integrity.
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?
Initially I used to hear both my mum and dad playing a lot of different piano repertoire and I remember really wanting to be able to play some of those pieces like they did. They both studied with an excellent teacher in County Durham and they had a big range of repertoire, but I loved the impressive stuff…Liszt and Chopin Etudes, Impromptus and Ballades. I used to try to play these pieces myself way before I was ready but it was all good fun! My mum actually studied at the RCM which is where I studied after going to university. So they were my initial inspiration to play. I also remember my dad playing me a record of Ashkenazy playing the Chopin Ballades which I loved; I think I wore the record out, along with my parents’ sanity! I decided to make it my career after I began studying with the British pianist Philip Fowke; after one year with him I made my debut with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which was an incredible experience with his guidance, and it inspired me to take things further.
Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?
My main teacher, Philip Fowke, has been the biggest influence on my playing, and I still play things to him now before big concerts. He is a person of great humility, but such incredible gifts, both in his playing and his teaching. I went to him when I was 13 and he had a refreshingly healthy attitude to the piano; he was and still is, always willing to think outside the box. I remember at my first lesson, we worked backwards through the piece! Your At the Piano interview with him sums up a lot of his teaching very well, but the thing that stands out for me was the way he would cut through to the heart of what was difficult about a certain passage. And armed with that knowledge he’d find a solution that always seemed to work for me. The result of all this was that he encouraged me to explore lots of ways of doing things rather than following ‘methods’, which I still do to this day. He was also able to demonstrate exactly what he meant at the keyboard, and immaculately, which I believe is really important in a teacher; that they can practise what they preach. I have been to so many master classes where the teacher has suggested something wacky, and I feel like standing up and saying “Well that’s great in theory; now show us!”
Philip studied with the great teacher Gordon Green (who also taught John Ogdon, Stephen Hough, Martin Roscoe to name a few) and when I went to the Royal College of Music after university I was lucky enough to study with one of Philip’s best mates, John Blakely, who had also studied with Gordon. John was equally brilliant and was a master of helping you completely get your head around an issue in a piece by summing it up in one sentence. Technically, a lot of the things he taught were very similar to Philip, so it was great getting continuity on this front; I never had conflicting views. My final influence is Peter Katin, with whom I studied for two years after the RCM. Peter gave me some very detailed technical work and I studied the Rachmaninov Preludes with him; his recording of them remains one of my favourites. He also recorded Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals with Philip Fowke, so all three of my teachers are linked really.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I think balancing a career in performing and teaching, and at the same time balancing this with a family life. I’m lucky that a lot of my work can be done from home, so I get to see my wife and two kids during the day when we can have fun; then I’ll be off to work later in the afternoon and evening. Although…when I’m practising at home sometimes my 1 year old and 4 year old decide to play too; I’m used to shutting it out now and it almost makes it easier when I play a concert because I finally get to concentrate on what I’m doing with no distractions!
Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?
The recording I’m most proud of is the first recording I did with my group The Prince Consort for Linn Records: ‘On an Echoing Road – Songs by Ned Rorem’. Also our debut at Wigmore Hall with Graham Johnson joining me at the piano was a pretty special time too. Graham gave us some great insights into how to make the most of Wigmore’s amazing acoustic; tips that we still take on board when we perform there now.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
Well there are lots of places I love playing, but the place that I’ve performed the most is Wigmore Hall in London; it’s a beautiful hall to play in, with an incredible acoustic. Most of my work is with singers and they love it too. The Director there, John Gilhooly, is extremely forward-thinking but also realises the importance of respecting traditions which is something I try to bring into my own work too, so I enjoy working with him on new programmes for the venue. I also like Perth Concert Hall in Scotland, for its amazing pianos, great space and forward thinking programming led by James Waters.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
I think my favourite solo piano piece to perform is the Rachmaninov Sonata No. 2 Op. 36 and I play it in the original 1913 which I prefer to Rachmaninov’s revision (as do many pianists). In the song repertoire, I always enjoy playing the Brahms Zigeunerlieder; I just recorded it with my buddy, the mezzo Jennifer Johnston for the BBC.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Too many to mention, but I enjoy hearing musicians who are great at what they do in all fields of music, including jazz and musicals.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
It’s not really a concert experience, but when we (Prince Consort) were performing in the Gramophone Awards, we were told by the Dorchester Hotel that there was no rehearsal room available as it had to be used for press, so they told us to rehearse in the room where they were serving cream teas. We were performing a particularly turbulent piece by Stephen Hough, that included hitting the keys with your fists; Simon Lepper and I looked up from the keyboard to find Sharon Osborne looking straight back at us, eating a scone. Then we all got told to leave; it felt like the X-Factor!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
My best advice would be to find other musicians and people that work in the music industry that you admire and trust, and really listen to their advice; both about how to play, but also how to manage the myriad of other things involved in being a musician. Having said that, I also think it is important to find your own personal way of doing things once you have taken this advice on board. I also think it’s important to play music you love and that you are really excited to learn, as well improvising and generally messing about at the keyboard.
What is your most treasured possession?
Apart for the obvious things like my wedding ring and personal items, my Steinway Model A; it was owned by Benno Moiseiwitsch, and then Philip Fowke, and I had all my lessons on it from the age of 13 – 21.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Hanging out with my wife, who is awesome, and our two beautiful kids.
What is your present state of mind?
Chilled, I’m having a pint!
With a prominent background in both solo and song-accompaniment, Alisdair Hogarth is a versatile pianist combining a robust technique with a fresh, contemporary edge.
He made his concerto debut in 1996, at the age of fifteen, as soloist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall broadcast live on Classic FM, and has since performed many concertos with a variety of orchestras, including tours of Hungary and the Czech Republic (Rudolfinum).
He regularly broadcasts for BBC television, BBC Radio 3 and World Service, Classic FM and New Zealand Concert FM. Recent performances have included the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Wigmore Hall, Purcell Room, Cadogan Hall, Bridgewater Hall and Philharmonic Hall, as well recitals for British music societies and international festivals. Most recently he performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in New York with the National Symphony Orchestra under Anthony Inglis as well as a performance at the 2010 Gramophone Awards. Future performances include many appearances at Wigmore Hall as well as recitals abroad including the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam.
Committed to song-accompaniment, Alisdair formed a group of young professional singers, The Prince Consort, which focuses on piano-accompanied song. Following their highly-acclaimed recital debut at the Purcell Room as part of the ‘Fresh’ Young Artists Series they perform frequently at music societies and festivals throughout Europe and the USA. They made their Wigmore Hall debut in 2009 where they were joined by Graham Johnson for the Brahms Liebeslieder Walzer. Their first commercial CD, a recording of songs by Ned Rorem released on Linn Records, was Gramophone Editor’s Choice and won an Outstanding award from International Record Review. They also have a close relationship with the Britten-Pears School in Aldeburgh where they held a residency to prepare for the recording and performed a recital in the prestigious Britten Weekend. Alisdair has performed with Sir Thomas Allen, Rosemary Joshua, Lillian Watson, Donald Maxwell and is the regular accompanist to many of his generation’s finest young singers, including Anna Leese, Jennifer Johnston, Andrew Staples, Jacques Imbrailo and Tim Mead. He has just returned from Korea where he gave two recitals with Barbara Bonney. Current projects include a recording on Linn Records with Philip Fowke and Stephen Hough, performing Brahms Liebeslieder and a new song cycle written by Stephen Hough specifically for The Prince Consort. This CD was selected as Classic FM Editor’s Choice in October 2011.
Alisdair studied privately with Philip Fowke and subsequently with Peter Katin, and also at the Royal College of Music with John Blakely and Roger Vignoles where he won all the major prizes for piano accompaniment. In the same year he was selected as a Park Lane Group Young Artist. He was an RCM scholar supported by the Fishmongers’ Company Music Scholarship, Michael Whittaker and Robert McFadzean Whyte Awards and is an alumnus of the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme. Alisdair acknowledges the kind and generous support of Simon Yates, and Philip and Chris Carne.
I am very much looking forward to reading Alan Rusbridger’s forthcoming book Play It Again: Why Amateurs Should Attempt the Impossible in which he describes the monumental task he set himself to learn Chopin’s First Ballade in just one year. The Ballades are considered some of the most challenging pieces Chopin wrote and are amongst the most popular with concert artists and audiences around the world. While he was studying the piece, Rusbridger was also kept exceedingly busy by his day job, as editor of The Guardian newspaper at a time when a number of major stories broke, including Wikileaks and the phone hacking scandal, so the book is also an account of how Rusbridger balanced his day job with his love of the piano.
Rusbridger is a keen and very competent amateur pianist. A hundred years ago the word “amateur” was a compliment: indeed its Old French origin is “lover of” (from the Latin amator). But the meaning of the word has changed and has come to mean “hobbyist” or a certain cack-handed incompetence.
I have met plenty of “amateur” pianists – at courses, masterclasses and other piano events – and many of them are very fine pianists, who play to a near-professional standard and with the same commitment and devotion as the seasoned pro. Some studied at music college or conservatoire but decided not to pursue a career as a professional musician, some learnt as children and continue to learn, as adults. Others have come later to the instrument, or returned to it after a long pause (as I did). But all of the amateurs I have met (and I include myself in this description) love the piano and its literature. Some of us perform, many of us are studying for exams or diplomas, others are happy to play purely for pleasure. We don’t really like the tag “Sunday pianist”, because many of us practice every day, often for several hours. We are incredibly committed and we love every minute of the time we spend at the piano. I very much hope that Alan Rusbridger’s new book will redefine the word “amateur”, casting it in a positive light and proving that it needn’t be synonymous with ineptitude or lack of skill.
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