In these troubled times, it is reassuring to know that there will always be Christmas music – from the sublime Carols from Kings to ridiculous Christmas pop songs which are played ad nauseum in shops (though less so this winter, since most shops have been closed!). Whatever your taste in Christmas music, there is a wealth to satisfy musicians’ and listeners’ appetite for it.

Composer Richard Blackford, a recent recipient of an Ivors Composer Award for his choral work Pietà (the world premiere of which I had the pleasure of attending at Poole Lighthouse last summer), has written a short piano piece ‘Christmas Dawn’, released today by Nimbus Records, which, I think, expresses a certain wistfulness in keeping with both the spirit of this strange year and the turning of the season, but which also has a charming warmth and tenderness, and an uplifting sense of hope for the new year.

Richard Blackford explains how the piece came about:

In November 2020 I was asked by Em Marshall-Luck, Founder-Director of the English Music Festival, to write a piece for her Christmas Garland concert at short notice. Having promoted a successful two-day festival in St Mary’s Church, Horsham, Em’s belief in the vital importance of offering live music-making during the COVID pandemic was stronger than ever. I decided to write a short, atmospheric piano piece Christmas Dawn, in support of her….the festival and those who were willing to travel to Horsham to hear the music played live.

This attractive and very appealing piano miniature has a hymn-like quality, and begins with a simple lyrical melody over a chordal bass line. You can well imagine a SATB choir singing this, and I even found myself imagining words to fit the melody as I played it.

As the melody develops, the texture and figurations become more expansive. A brief contrasting section introduces ppp staccato chords in the treble, with an answering quaver figure in the left hand. Delicate and a little playful, it suggests snowflakes, the sparkle of Christmas lights or the excitement of children on Christmas Day. The main theme returns, this time richer and more joyful, and with a more florid accompaniment, before the music returns to the simplicity of the opening, closing with a prayer-like cadence and a brief, final sparkle in the last chord.

The piece has been recorded by pianist Simon Callaghan, who brings a persuasive warmth and spaciousness to the music. For those who would like to learn the piece, the sheet music is also available and I would say it is around Grade 6 level. There are a couple of tricky corners, including some large chords (which small-handed pianists could spread) and some passages of cross-rhythms, but the piece offers plenty of scope for expressive playing and I’m sure many amateur pianists would thoroughly enjoy it. In addition to its choral flavour, I particularly like the contrasting textures and some unexpectedly piquant harmonies and colourful modulations.

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I hope the music and the video will give pleasure at a time when Christmas cheer is much needed. – Richard Blackford

Meet the Artist interview with Richard Blackford


Richard Blackford studied at the Royal College of Music London, where he was awarded the Tagore Gold Medal and the Mendelssohn Scholarship, then in Italy, on a Leverhulme Award, with Hans Werner Henze. He was subsequently first Composer-in-Residence at Balliol College Oxford and later with the Brno Philharmonic. He completed his Doctorate at Bristol University, where he has also been Lecturer in Advanced Orchestration. His music, which includes three operas, two ballets and many works for orchestra, chorus and chamber ensembles, has been performed and broadcast all over the world and has been recorded on Sony Classical, Warner Classics, Decca, Signum and Nimbus labels.

 

To coincide with the release of ‘Regards sur l’Infini’, with soprano Katharine Dain, pianist Sam Armstrong shares insights into his influences and inspirations, significant teachers and the music he’d like to perform in concert in the future.


Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My parents are not musicians but my strong will to play the piano emerged quite clearly early on (at the age of 4 or 5). My first serious introduction to classical music was through the Great Composers LP series (I remember Beethoven Sonata recordings of Wilhelm Kempff and a Grieg Concerto by Stephen Kovacevich). I was also quite bowled over at a young age by the passionate music-making of Jacqueline du Pré in a TV documentary about her life.

The most important influences have been my two main piano teachers, Helen Krizos and Richard Goode. Helen was my teacher from the age of 12 and I stayed with her for a decade. I owe her everything in terms of learning to play the piano. She really ‘rescued’ me and helped me rebuild my technique with a much less tension and more ease and was wonderfully thorough and present every step of the way for the entire time I studied with her. She was demanding and exacting yet at the same time extremely supportive and warm. The very important things she instilled in me were the importance of beauty of sound, a deep sense of musical integrity and the necessity to adjust to whichever instrument I am playing on.

Studying with Richard Goode at Mannes College of Music in New York for four years blew open the ceiling for me in terms of sounds I thought it was possible to make on a piano, in terms of learning how to decipher a score with a combination of intelligence and instinct, the importance of getting to the emotional heart of a work and the necessity of specificity in communicating that. Also, very luckily the year I began studying with him he was featured artist in Carnegie Hall’s Perspectives series. I was able to hear him across 12 (I think!) concerts performing a huge range of repertoire from Mozart and Beethoven Concerti to Schoenberg’s Book of the Hanging Gardens, Janacek’s the Diary of One Who Vanished, Brahms Piano Quartets, Bartok’s Third Concerto and Schubert Lieder amongst other things. Hearing those outstanding concerts and witnessing his artistic range was an education in itself.

More indirectly I have been influenced by many others: masterclasses I had with Leon Fleisher and Pierre-Laurent Aimard were particularly illuminating.

As a listener, I have been hugely inspired by the conducting of Antonio Pappano being an avid fan and regular attendee Royal Opera House performances. Also the artistry and boundary-less repertoire of soprano Sonya Yoncheva is very special indeed. I will never forget solo recitals I heard from pianists Earl Wild and Aldo Ciccolini as well as a truly heartbreaking rendition of Schumann’s Dichterliebe with Christoph Eschenbach at the piano at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago.

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

I think the one of the greatest challenges has been to maintain internal self-belief through the inevitable peaks and troughs of a career in music. In particular, to avoid feeling that how busy one is or not at a given moment is not necessarily reflective of how your career is going overall. It is important to acknowledge the role of circumstance and timing as well as work you have put in to constructing projects and laying the groundwork for things to happen. Also, it has been a challenge to learn not to expect a particular external result from a performance that you feel very happy with or hoped might take you forward in terms of career.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

This is NOT because it has just been released, but my album ‘Regards sur l’Infini’ with soprano Katharine Dain is something I am proud of as we had a very unusual situation in terms of preparation because of the pandemic. We chose to quarantine together starting in March and we ended up having months to fully prepare the rather complicated programme with no limits on how much we rehearsed. Normally rehearsal time is very short in professional life, so this felt like a real luxury to be able to explore the songs and poems so deeply, change our minds and give the music space to settle and breathe. Also, to prepare Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi (the main work on the album) with Pierre-Laurent Aimard was a huge privilege and totally game-changing in terms of understanding the codes to this complex music.

In terms of a performance I am proud of, my second Wigmore solo recital in 2012 is a performance I felt quite close to happy with – particularly in Schubert’s B flat sonata – a piece that is so vulnerable and hard to grasp and so much already in another world.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I’m not sure that musicians are very objective at judging themselves, but I am told by others that I have a strong connection with Schubert and Brahms (composers whose music I love deeply).

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

Listening to inspiring performances, long discussions with friends and colleagues and reading (I just finished a wonderful biography of Debussy by Stephen Walsh). Also, time in nature.

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

I found the Kleine Zaal (small hall) of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam to be particularly magical. Perfect piano, perfect acoustic, presented with flowers by the hall as a matter of course. It doesn’t get better than that.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

I think that a growing conversation between performers and public about composers as the vivid, colourful flawed humans they were/are rather than dusty abstract figures is going to be necessary to engage and grow audiences. Also that classical music is a beautiful mirror of all of the emotions and experiences of life.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My most memorable concert experience was my solo debut recital in New York at Weill Hall in Carnegie Hall. It was one of the very few concerts where circumstances meant that a large number of friends and supportive colleagues were able to turn out in force.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I think my definition of success as a musician is to maintain the will to get better, to improve and to get closer to get to the heart of this extraordinary music we are all lucky to play. On the other side, I think another type of success is to avoid becoming jaded by certain non-musical aspects of the music industry. Above all though is to keep searching for truth and equally to stay open to changing your mind and to other points of view.

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

That you never arrive. That we are always chasing something elusive. Also to learn to enjoy the process, as music will present new (and sometimes the same!) challenges every time you begin a new piece.

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

I hope still to be playing the piano for a living. I would like to have more autonomy over certain programming choices and to have the ability to convince promoters to get larger numbers of people together for certain repertoire (Janacek The Diary of One Who Vanished, Schoenberg Pierrot Lunaire, Ravel Trois Poemes de Stephane Mallarmé or the Chausson Concert for example). Also budgets that would to make it possible to bring people from different countries for fantasy football style chamber collaborations (which feels even more decadent and luxurious in these pandemic times) would be wonderful.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A small house on the Greek island of Hydra with a good piano and a excellent espresso machine.

What is your most treasured possession?

My hearing.

 

‘Regards sur l’Infini’ was released on 27 November 2020 on the 7 Mountain Records label. With this album of French songs centred around Olivier Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi, American-Dutch soprano Katharine Dain and British pianist Sam Armstrong have constructed a meditative programme that also includes Claude Debussy’s complete Proses lyriques as well as individual songs by Henri Dutilleux, Kaija Saariaho, and the little-known Claire Delbos, a violinist and composer and the first wife of Messiaen. More information


Hailed as ‘a major new talent’ International Piano and a ‘pianist of splendid individuality’ Arts Desk English pianist Sam Armstrong has made solo recital debuts at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in New York as well as at the Wigmore Hall in London, and as concerto soloist with the National Symphony of Ecuador.

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Guest post by Dr Mark Berry


On 6 October 1802, Beethoven penned one of the most deeply moving letters in the history of music. He never sent it to his brothers Carl and Johann, the intended recipients, nor to anyone else. It was discovered only after his death, in March 1827, and is now known to the world as his ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’, after the town in which it was written, now the nineteenth district of Vienna and home to more than one noted Heuriger. Beethoven’s despair, even to the point of suicide, concerning his ‘hopeless case’ of deafness stands in sharp contrast to the spirit of hope so many of us find in his music, to the hope his Leonore/Fidelio bids come in her heart-stopping aria. ‘I was compelled early on to isolate myself, to live in loneliness… how could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me in than others’. That Beethoven grew deaf to the world was a personal, if not from the selfish standpoint of posterity, an artistic tragedy.

2020 was to have been Beethoven’s year: 250 years, a quarter of a millennium, since a birth—of unknown date—that transformed the history of Western music like no other. And so it began: in February, I visited his birthplace of Bonn for the first time and heard chamber music in the hall now built to adjoin the house in which Beethoven was born. Lockdown undeniably hit hard. Then came deafness, this time of the world to Beethoven. In April alone, I was due to hear Daniel Barenboim conduct the Staatskapelle Berlin in all nine symphonies, followed by Fidelio from Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic. For many who find solace, inspiration, and necessary struggle in the communion of art and its public performance, 2020 has been a year bleaker than we could have imagined. A recording, however valued, remains a substitute, a compromise: it is the only way we shall hear Wilhelm Furtwängler, but now how we need to hear Barenboim.

And yet, the world’s will to deafness had manifested itself earlier: especially among US liberals who, with typical imperialism, presumed to impose their particular, local concerns on the rest of the world. By 2018 at the latest, one group were falling over themselves to impress on everyone else, at least on Twitter, quite how much they wished not to hear a note of Beethoven’s music this year. (As if we cared!) They might actually have deigned to struggle, as Beethoven would have done, for the causes, many worthy, they claimed to pursue. Instead, in their disingenuous faux-struggle against racism and misogyny—less, be it noted, class struggle—firing off a few anti-Beethoven tweets ensured a volley of mutual congratulation loud enough to drown out the Ivesian cacophony of several simultaneous performances of the Ninth Symphony and Missa solemnis. Anything, of course, to avoid confrontation with the compromises and contradictions of liberalism.

Such narcissistic emoting is not Romanticism; it is barely postmodernism, even in its most debased, late-capitalist sense. If only such people would look to Beethoven or to anyone other than themselves, they might learn to structure and thereby more convincingly express their thoughts and feelings. However, listening, performing, studying, thinking, and even feeling are hard work in any emphatic sense (how old-fashioned!) Why not instead adopt a levelling, free-market-led cynicism, and bask in the oven-ready plaudits?  Enough, however, of that. In a sense, they have had their way. Much, if not quite all, public performance of Beethoven has been silenced. If they feel that has been a good thing, so be it. If ‘their’ Beethoven is nothing more than an accident in consumer ranking, let them have it. Perhaps one day they will listen again and realise there was more to it than that; if not, our Beethoven(s) will remain. Who or what is mine?

My Beethoven has always been there. He has not, of course, always been there, yet it feels that way. I was certainly not playing the piano sonatas as a small child. An early memory, however, of early piano lessons is a poster on my teacher’s wall, displaying ‘The Three Bs: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms’, combined with a piece on the same subject—I remember it involved hammering on Bs in different keyboard registers—in one volume of the John W. Schaum piano course through which I was making my way. Beethoven’s music probably appealed most strongly to me. Bach unquestionably came later, not least as a consequence of having taken up the organ. Brahms I probably associated more with that lullaby than anything else. His is not really music for children, or at least was not music really for this child. Beethoven, however, was exciting, dramatic, Romantic: his biography as well as his music, for who could not respond to the tragedy of his deafness? I even wrote a little story about it for my piano teacher, to go in a display of written work accompanying an end-of-year concert. By then, I had played some of the sonatinas and bagatelles—little did I know quite what musical riches lay within the latter—and a simplified version or two of Für Elise. This, I knew, and not only because people told me so, was ‘real music’.

When, in my teens, the blinding aural light hit me and I realised just how much, both as pianist and listener, music mattered to me, it was perhaps above all via Mozart, but Beethoven more or less stood alongside that music, even offered a necessary contrast. Whatever oppositions I might draw between them could and should readily be deconstructed, but perhaps they offer some insight into my Beethoven, if not necessarily yours. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, I have found myself especially interested this year—whether at home or, at the beginning and, very occasionally since—in what the two composers have in common, in how much Mozart is there not only in ‘early Beethoven’, its challenges and riches still now underestimated, but right up until the end.

However, it is the particular subjectivity of ‘middle-period’ Beethoven—again, a construct to be deconstructed, yet not here—that captures the essence for so many and did for this teenager. Even the holy ground of the late music can seem, not without reason, to be defined in relation to the heroism of the Eroica, the Fifth, the Waldstein, the Razumovsky Quartets, and so on. If this is the Beethoven of which people have tired—it would often seem to be—then perhaps they have tired not only of life, but of the human impulse to create, to nurture, to survive. By all means listen to other music; by all means avoid the deadliness of mediocre performance. Such mediocrity, more of spirit than of execution, is not Beethoven’s fault, however. Its baleful presence does not diminish the human spirit’s need for that archetypal journey from darkness to light, for the portals of heaven to open at the close of the transition from C minor scherzo to C major finale. Listen to Furtwängler (or Barenboim): all will again be revealed.

Should it not be, for whatever reason, then struggle with something else, for struggle is the thing. Take the Mass in D major, op.125: the Missa solemnis. Take to heart Beethoven’s unique formulation, inscribed above the ‘Kyrie’, ‘From the heart – may it return to the heart!’? The thunderbolt of the ‘Gloria’ sounds like nothing we have heard before; we fancy that we hear not a description of the heavenly throng itself singing the Almighty’s praises, but that singing itself. Hints of Mozartian Harmoniemusik are gratefully received, though we are never in doubt that such paradise has been lost forever. Most personal of all is the imploring ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis’. Beethoven kneels—at the name of the one person (Person) before whom or which Beethoven would ever kneel.

Nowhere, however, is Beethoven’s struggle with belief more manifest than in, appropriately enough, his setting of the Creed; here he speaks to and for humanity in a plight recognisably of our time as well as his. Credo quia absurdum (a perennial misquotation of Tertullian)? The plainchant and Renaissance polyphony in which Beethoven had immersed himself come to resound as if through history, if not eternity. Echoes of what we now call ‘early music’ resound on profession of the mystery of the Incarnation, human soloists and flautist differentiating the Holy Trinity’s Second and First Person. One feels, as in a Bach Passion, the unbearable agony of Gethsemane and Golgotha upon the word of suffering, Here, more so than in the oratorio Christus am Ölberge, is Beethoven’s Passion. ‘Passus’: it is compassion expressed for, as much as through, Christ: Christ as man, evoking the humanism of Fidelio. And yet, at the same time passion and compassion extend beyond earthbound confines, pointing to Kant’s ‘starry heavens above’, as noted in an 1820 conversation book. Beethoven’s notoriously difficult vocal writing compels us to ask: does he, do we, believe? Uphill struggle, almost a literal expression of ‘ascendit’ and yet so much more than that, is valiantly, vigorously worked until finally we may return to ‘Credo’: in this case, belief in the Holy Ghost, yet more belief as such. As Mahler would later have it, ‘O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube!’

We travel through the devotion of the most intensely personal devotion of ‘Sanctus’ I know, a purely instrumental evocation of the Elevation of the Host; the descent of the Holy Ghost in the guise of solo violin, a masterstroke that in lesser hands might have sounded sentimental, yet here instantiates sublimity itself; the ‘Benedictus’ section, which, for Theodor Adorno, touchingly called to mind ‘the custom attributed to late mediaeval artists, who included their own image,’ in this case related to a theme in the E-flat major String Quartet, op.127, ‘somewhere on their tabernacle so that they would not be forgotten’; to the ‘Agnus Dei’, in darkest, most despairing dark B minor, permitting eventual, hard-won return to the work’s home key of D, its relative major. What could be more Beethovenian? The sounds of war, trumpets and drums ablaze, heard before in Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli, yet here let loose with modernistic fury, terrifyingly recall for Beethoven the recent experiences of Revolutionary and Napoleonic Europe and look forward to the terror of our own unstable world, interior and exterior. Beethoven takes us to the abyss. His Mass alienates itself in its fervent attempt to wrest reconciliation from the jaws of despair. And yet, that aura cannot entirely be disrupted, nor should it be.

A lesson, then, for this of all years, in its refusal to yield: as much, if not more so, to trite ‘solutions’ as to despair. In the modern world, our world, contradiction exists, whether we like it or not. We must struggle, even if we know not how. Or, in words, inscribed on a Toledo monastery wall, from which kindred spirit Luigi Nono derived such inspiration for his late music: ‘Caminantes, no hay caminos, hay que caminar’ (‘Travellers, there are no roads, there is just travelling’). Like those words and Beethoven’s—whether above the Mass’s ‘Kyrie’ or in his Testament—Beethoven’s music can seem essentially always to have been there. Nowadays, some find that a problem; to an extent, I think I can understand why. That, however, does not mean that I agree, far from it. Rejection is as wrong-headed as it would be for Shakespeare or Michelangelo; so long, that is, as we do not take them for granted.

Yes, let us pay more attention to Beethoven’s contemporaries. Schubert and Rossini can manage perfectly well without, but there is a good deal of music here more or less ignored, some unjustly neglected. My hot tip here is Anton Eberl, whose scores I have recently begun to explore. This music is, by any reasonable standards, the real thing; if Beethoven’s standards are unreasonable, we can afford to suspend them from time to time. We do not always want to listen to the Missa solemnis. Eberl’s E-flat Symphony was premiered at the same concert as Beethoven’s (the Eroica). We can all smile knowingly at contemporary criticism that lauded Eberl’s work while remaining sceptical of Beethoven’s. There is nevertheless music here worth performing in many genres—not least Eberl’s piano concertos. Let us also pay more attention to Beethoven’s predecessors, to his successors, to those who have struggled to escape his shadow, to those who have little or no connection with him at all—perhaps above all to the final group. We do Beethoven no dishonour by that, quite the contrary. Let us not presume, though, that it is for us in seldom acknowledge privilege to bar others from riches we have discovered or disdained. If ‘elitism’ is anything, it is that.

The tragedy of Beethoven’s deafness continues to be repeated, yet never literally, no more so than in any ‘recapitulation’ worthy of the name. Beethoven found his way forward from despair; we must find ours. His music may help us; it may not. Sooner or later, however, we may find that we need it: not only for our sake, but for that of something beyond us: for the music’s own sake, for humanity’s, even for the sake of that which, if like Beethoven, we continue to struggle, we may dare still to call God. Perhaps He will thereby dare once again to call us humans. ‘From the heart – may it return to the heart!’


Mark Berry read History at the University of Cambridge, continuing there to study for an MPhil and PhD, before being elected in 2001 as a Fellow of Peterhouse, where he remained until 2009, upon his appointment as Lecturer in Music at Royal Holloway. He has lectured on subjects ranging from political culture at Louis XIV’s Versailles to European Marxism and music after 1945. His research has tended to draw upon his interests in both History and Music, as well as upon other disciplines, such as Philosophy, Theology, Art and Architectural History, Theatre Studies, and Literature.

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How often a listener returning from a recital by an important performer remains unsatisfied. Not because of the imperfection of the artist’s playing but because of lack of penetration into the composer’s ideas – ideas that the amateur has cultivated lovingly and at length, developing his own special plan of interpretation in his own modest efforts at playing alone. How unwavering sometimes is an amateur’s conviction that he alone has found ideas and expressive possibilities in the piece that surpass everything he has heard in concert performance…….An amateur does not completely trust the professional. He treats each new public interpretation of his favorite work with jealousy, accusing the performer of superficial, insufficient love, and lack of selflessness in his chosen pursuits.

Samuil Feinberg

If you’re an amateur pianist like me, and you have a decent amount of repertoire in your fingers and brain, you probably hear the music you are learning, or have learnt, fairly regularly in concert, on the radio or on disc. Hearing other people, whether professional musicians or amateurs, playing the music you know well can be inspiring and instructive, shining a new light on the music, offering insights and ideas, and helping us shape our own interpretations of that music.

As a young person hearing a piece I was learning played in concert by A Famous Pianist lent a special tingle of recognition, for these were the same notes and sounds my fingers were exploring and creating. There was also a sense of adventure: not only was the music elevated by being performed in the rarefied surroundings of the concert hall (as opposed to the dining room of my parents’ home, where my piano lived), the familiar was revealed in new or intriguing ways. Yet even at quite a young age, I felt a rather jealous possessiveness about the music I was learning: because it was “my” music.

When we learn music, we develop a sense of ‘ownership’, and making it one’s “own piece” is something that musicians strive for. A strong sense of ownership connects one to the music, and enables musicians to create a special communication with the audience.

Ownership also implies a certain possessiveness about the music, and many of us become deeply attached to the music we have learnt and play. Hearing the music in concert or on disc may provoke feelings of pleasure and excitement – that frisson of familiarity – but also dissatisfaction or irritation with another person’s performance and interpretation when it doesn’t quite match up to our own expectations of and attitude to the music.

One such piece for me is Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A, D959. I spent three years learning and studying this sonata in preparation for a Fellowship performance diploma, and I became very familiar with its details, its narrative and its architecture. I also developed a very clear personal vision of the piece and an authoritative interpretative standpoint, which I could defend convincingly when challenged by one of the people who mentored me during the course of my study (and who happened to be something of an expert on Schubert’s piano music). This almost overwhelming sense of ownership was crucial in my mastery of the sonata, and reflected the depth of my study. I was also fiercely possessive of the sonata – it was “my” sonata, and no matter who else played it, it was – and still is – “my” sonata.

As part of my study, I heard the sonata on disc and in concert many times (6 or 7 live performances, as I recall). And every time I heard the sonata live in concert, in addition to seeing every page of the score in my mind’s eye as I listened (possibly related to my synaesthesia, and a not entirely comfortable experience), I found myself bristling at the performer’s treatment of the music. The opening statement of the first movement was too rushed, or too sluggish; the Andantino – the subject of much discussion and whataboutery as to the meaning of this curious movement – was too slow (far too many pianists, in my humble opinion, take it at a funereal tempo); the Scherzo was too fast, or not sufficiently light….and so forth. At each concert, I would find myself fussing over minutiae of the music, rather than simply allowing myself to submit to someone else’s reading of the work. This is not to say that I didn’t gain from hearing these performances: I believe it is important to go to each performance with open ears and mind, and to take something from the performance; for example, when I heard Andràs Schiff play the sonata, a performance which I largely found overly-mannered, I was fascinated by his treatment of the rests and fermatas in the first movement, and this gave me useful food for thought as I continued my work on the sonata.

I’m sure I’m not alone in these feelings; in fact I know I’m not, because when I go to concerts with other amateur pianist friends (most of whom play at a similar advanced level to me), we always have lively conversations about what we’ve heard, the performer’s approach, interpretation, sound, and a whole host of other details.

Another aspect of this sense of possession, and one which Samuil Feinberg touches on in the quote at the head of this article, is the fact that amateurs often develop very strong feelings towards the music they are learning and playing. The word “amateur” comes from the French “to love” and much of the amateur’s activity seems to me to be in the service of love towards the music. Of course, professional musicians may also love the music they are playing (and I know many do) but there also has to be a separation, a standing back from the music, to enable them to work. A deep attachment to a certain piece may cloud one’s vision of it. Additionally, I think we each of us hold a “perfect” version of the music in our head (and heart) against which every performance or recording may be measured.

It frustrates me when the views of amateur pianists are dismissed by professionals or teachers, as if what they have to say about the music carries less value or gravitas because they have not had the training or experience. Many of the amateur pianists I know take their music-making very seriously; not only do they practice assiduously, they read around the music they are learning, do research, and thoroughly immerse themselves in their study. That we have the time to indulge in this kind of activity is one of the great pleasures of being an amateur musician – and if we guard our music with a jealousy bordering on obsessiveness, it is simply a mark of how much we care about that music.


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Further reading

Learning from Listening

Ahead of the release of ‘Regards sur l’Infini’, with pianist Sam Armstrong, soprano Katharine Dain shares her influences and inspirations, and the experience of creating this album while in quarantine


Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My decision to try singing professionally came relatively late – at the end of my university studies. But certain encounters before then were crucial, even if I didn’t know it at the time. I had a passionate and encouraging high school choir director and an unusually gifted first voice teacher. I was borderline obsessed with Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell, and a scratched LP of Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. As a teenager, I heard, incredibly, one of Leontyne Price’s last recitals in my North Carolina hometown. In college, performances of the St Matthew Passion and Così fan tutte were utterly formative. (Fiordiligi was my first opera role—good thing I had no idea how tough it was when that plan was hatched in a practice room with the friend who conducted the shows!)

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

My instrument is my body, so it is always in flux, and my identity as a singer has gone through many transformations as a result. Think of the hugely different expectations (and stereotypes) of people who sing early consort music, or virtuosic operatic roles in staged productions, or avant-garde repertoire full of extended techniques, or intimate songs with piano. I’ve done all of these professionally. Each comes with its own physicality, jargon, social codes, areas of assumed knowledge, and musical and performative habits; shifts in my repertoire always seem to trigger a corresponding identity crisis. Also, singing is affected hugely by illness, grief, stress, travel. It’s tough not to equate your whole sense of self-worth and value with what your body is producing at any given moment. Repertoire, health, physicality – it all feels terribly personal, and I’ve had some difficult years when nothing seemed to be working and I didn’t know whether I would ever sort it out.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m exceptionally proud of the CD I am releasing this month, Regards sur l’Infini, a collection of French songs by Messiaen, Delbos, Dutilleux, Saariaho, and Debussy recorded with pianist and long-time friend Sam Armstrong. I’ve had the programme in mind for a long time, but our decision to quarantine together at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown gave us an unprecedented opportunity to rehearse and assimilate the music together over a long period.

One of my favourite live projects last year was singing Donna Anna with the Orchestra of the 18th Century in the Netherlands and Belgium. I’ve known and loved the music for so long, but with a period orchestra and a deeply sympathetic conductor in Kenneth Montgomery, the shapes and shifts in that extraordinary score were as transparent and arresting as I’ve ever managed.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I am endlessly fascinated by the explosion of idiosyncratic expression in vocal music from the first half of the 20th century – Schoenberg, Strauss, Messiaen, Britten, Barber, Stravinsky, Poulenc – and in more contemporary scores. But I also find that Handel and (especially) Mozart feel utterly like home to me, and more so with every passing year.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I write, I read, I cook, I knit, I walk, I make friends with strangers, and I ask too many questions!

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

I get strongly possessed by certain composers and styles. When that happens, I’ll expend a huge amount of energy (for years at a time, if I have to) seeking out ways of singing the music. Sometimes the game has to be very long indeed – I knew that there were certain roles that I would be perfectly suited to eventually (Konstanze, Donna Anna), but it took a decade to sing them how I wanted and to find the right opportunities. In the meantime, repertoire also finds me. I learn quickly, so I’m often called for jump-ins on scores I’ve never learned. I’ve discovered some incredible pieces this way: jewel-like Lieder of Marx and Korngold; an oratorio by Luigi Nono that is devastatingly powerful; perfectly balanced songs with chamber ensemble of Ravel and Zemlinsky and John Tavener. Other times, trusted colleagues recommend me for repertoire I wouldn’t necessarily choose, but their confidence makes me braver and the resulting work makes me stronger. This has happened in recent seasons with Berlioz, Strauss, and Wagner.

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

One of my favourites is the Concertgebouw in Nijmegen, a glorious hall with a stunningly warm acoustic in the east of the Netherlands. I performed there as soloist with orchestra twice in the 2019-20 season before the pandemic shut everything down. This summer, while the hall stood empty, Sam and I recorded our album there over three days. After months of practicing in the boxy acoustic of my living room, it was a pleasure to lean into the generosity of the space. I was reminded just how much the venue contributes to the artistic and musical result; our CD feels like an equal collaboration between singer, pianist, producer, and the atmosphere of the hall.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

I’ve performed a lot of concerts throughout the United States for an outreach organization called the Piatigorsky Foundation, including many concerts for school-age kids. That work has convinced me that any conversation about increasing classical music’s visibility must start with prioritizing education. Kids are the most open-minded audiences of all, if the music is presented in a thoughtful and charismatic way. The slashing of school culture budgets has done more harm to this art form than anything else, and I think any effort to improve the situation has to be focused there first.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There was that time I performed in a bar in Wyoming, and we were literally taping the upright piano back together until minutes before the performance began. I think a pencil and some rubber bands were involved.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Many years ago, an unusually wise teacher pitched this question out to an opera scenes class. Every student had to answer individually; most said they wanted to be working in top-level opera houses or represented by a prestigious management agency. When my turn came, I said, a bit hesitantly, that I wanted to be making great music with good and smart people. The teacher gave me a shrewd look and said: that’s achievable; you’ll do it. He was right. My understanding of that goal – making music at a high level, with people I like and respect – has become more nuanced over the years, but it’s still the guiding principle in how I make decisions about what work to accept or pursue, and it’s still how I know if I’m satisfied with the job I’m doing or not. It can be achieved in many situations and at many levels of development, so there have been moments all along when I’ve known I was getting what I wanted, whether the external markers of success (fancy contracts and management) were happening for me or not.

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

Patience; curiosity. The process of becoming a professional musician (whatever that means to you) will likely be long, vulnerable, and full of rejection. Your curiosity and love for the music is sometimes the only thing keeping you moving forward. If you lose that, you’ve lost the most precious thing you have, so keep that flame alive. Keep listening. Keep exploring. Keep your heart and mind open and vulnerable. Keep caring for yourself.

At the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown in mid-March 2020, Katharine Dain and Sam Armstrong, long-time friends and collaborators, decided to quarantine together. The period of lockdown lasted much longer than anyone anticipated, and the enforced months of isolation at home allowed for unusually deep and slow exploration of repertoire for voice and piano.

‘Regards sur l’Infini’ is released on 27 November 2020 on the 7 Mountain Records label. With this album of French songs centred around Olivier Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi, American-Dutch soprano Katharine Dain and British pianist Sam Armstrong have constructed a meditative programme that also includes Claude Debussy’s complete Proses lyriques as well as individual songs by Henri Dutilleux, Kaija Saariaho, and the little-known Claire Delbos, a violinist and composer and the first wife of Messiaen. More information here


American-Dutch soprano Katharine Dain is a musician of insatiable curiosity, active in opera, orchestral repertoire, oratorio, and chamber music in Europe and North America. After taking the top prize in the Clermont-Ferrand Competition (in which Diapason called her a “revelation”), Dain debuted as Konstanze in a production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the opera houses of Clermont-Ferrand, Avignon, Rouen, Massy, and Reims. Other recent highlights include Mozart’s Donna Anna with the Orchestra of the 18th Century under Kenneth Montgomery, orchestral song cycles of Dutilleux and Berlioz with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ryan Bancroft, Brahms Requiem with Cappella Amsterdam under Daniel Reuss, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony with LUDWIG, and songs of Berg and Zemlinsky with Het Collectief under Reinbert de Leeuw at Austria’s Osterfestival. A passionate promoter of chamber music and song, she is a co-founder of Damask Vocal Quartet, whose 2018 debut album “O schöne Nacht” won France’s Choc de Classica award and universal acclaim in the press. Dain holds degrees from Harvard University (Boston), Guildhall (London), and Mannes (New York), and she currently lives in the Netherlands.

katharinedain.com

Guest post by Walter Witt

We live in a crazy world.  Some would say a world out of control. Fake news from politicians themselves instead of fake news about them. Conspiracy theories pushed by populist (read authoritarian) leaders  – or as the case may be, soon to be ex-leaders.  “End of timers.” “Anti-vaxxers.” “Science deniers.” Unchecked corruption, without the slightest regard for what was once called the rule of law. And, as if that weren’t enough, the world faces the prospect of a never-ending pandemic, a virus simmering among us, killing the elderly and young alike, while people refuse to wear masks just to make a “political statement.” How then, amidst all of this, and more, can music, the simple act of studying the piano, help us resist this real world onslaught? How does studying piano help us improve the quality of our everyday lives?

I suspect there are some of you who are musicians and are simply curious about what I am going to say. Others who are professionals with non-professional artistic interests, interests which you work hard to pursue. Others among you who are parents and wondering how in the dickens you are going to convince your kids to stop surfing Instagram or Snapchat and instead practice the piano for at least 15 consecutive minutes..

Around 10 years ago, my daughter, who was 9 at the time, had taken the delightful habit of dancing while listening to me play a Chopin Etude or a Brahms Intermezzo. One day, while I was practicing, she turned to me and asked: “Papa, who taught you to play like that?” Her question got me thinking. Who was it in fact who taught me to play? And what did I really learn from them, not only about the piano, but about the important lessons of life? Or about myself? And why am I even doing this ‘piano thing’ anyway, sitting at a keyboard while my back gets stiff – what’s the point?

Unbeknownst to my daughter – and, thankfully I did not drop these weighty questions on her then as she would have no doubt run from the room, hands in the air, screaming – I started to put pen to paper and write down my thoughts.

Learn what it means to accept challenges

I realize now what my father, a surgeon but also a pianist and organist equally talented in both instruments, meant when he said: “sitting down at the piano can be the hardest part of playing the piano.” There is a moment when you decide to learn a piece. Something tells you there is no alternative. No more playing around with a melody here or a passage there. It is like thinking of that client or project, mulling it over, but never actually signing the contract.

So you accept the challenge before you. You realize it is time. Sometimes it can take years – like finally saying hello to a neighbour. You meant to do it earlier, thought about what to say, but you never started the conversation. It was too much effort at the time or something else came up. There was always an excuse. But now you are going to learn this piece because you want to yourself, not because someone else wants you to. So you start that long difficult job or project. You say hello to that neighbour. You finally greet the music before you.

When I start a new piece, I invariably think of my beloved childhood piano professor, Mae Gilbert Reese, a student of Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory near Paris. I see her standing next to me. She is saying: “this is the beginning of a journey. I helped get you to this point but you brought yourself here alone. The journey will be difficult. You will stop at points as you travel, stumble over notes, get stuck in a phrase and think you cannot move forward, that there are too many obstacles. Your back will ache. Your fingers will ache. But you know what the piece must sound like. You can hear it. You can see where your destination is, so you go on. You return to the piano and get on with it.”

Then when I start the piece, my reflexes turn on. I am an athlete again. A pianist approaches the entire act just as an athlete does, investing oneself fully in the moment, through a process of constant self-preparation.

Respect your body

There are exercises Mrs. Reese taught me – how to relax your arms, your hands, your wrist, your fingers. Lean over and let your lower back muscles stretch out naturally. Your upper body slowly drops the ground as gravity takes over. Let your hands drop flat on the ground, watch them drop. Soak your hands in hot water for a minute. Do this first. Then sit down at the piano.

Prepare yourself physically first for what is ahead. Always do this, no matter what you do.

Take your time.

When you start a piece, you sight read. It’s the same as looking over a job and preparing an action plan for the project first. Your reflex is to go fast. Resist this reflex. Start at quarter tempo, no more. Simply listen more closely to the harmonies and the structure of the piece as you play it slowly for the first time. You are outlining the job ahead. Think of the composer writing the piece out with his pen, the time he or she took to write each note. So slow down, watch your hands and examine each note. The notes enter your fingers correctly from the start this way. You are starting what could be a difficult task, trying to solve a problem. It is like a relationship which can be difficult. There are emotions to sort out. You have to decide what to do.

Start slowly and later, you can speed up. When you learn to drive you don’t drive on the highway first, especially with a brand new license. You start on the surface streets. There will be time for the highway later.

Think of what are looking at while you are looking at it

When I was a kid, I needed to remind myself this early on. The reason was I did not see well sometimes, even with my glasses, perhaps why I am not as a good a sight reader as I would like to be. It really is a question of eyesight. You need to see what is in front of you on the page. It’s like seeing what’s in front of you in life and focusing on it. If you do this, you are fortunate – seeing something for precisely what it is, and not thinking you see something when in fact you don’t.

Sometimes it is easier to see what you want, in certain instances. All of us do this. It is a human frailty, perhaps linked to our capacity to dream, a gift which distinguishes us from animals, as far as we know. One’s dreams do not have to be an entirely new world or creation either. They can be the slightest of differences from reality.

I can remember taking off my glasses just to see how long I could get around my day without them. So what if things are a little blurry, right? I would leave them off. Unfortunately, my glasses had an annoying way of disappearing that way! So I kept my glasses on. To see things as they are in life – the sharp details of responsibilities. Don’t worry about taking the time it takes to see something and to understand it. Resist the temptation not to look at the hard edges. It may be perfectly human to do so, but you can’t afford to do it, especially in today’s world.

Learn how to listen – really listen!

Most people have no idea what listening means.

My sister and I used to play a game, before I started the piano. My sister would sing a note. I would go to the piano, look at the keyboard, and play the note. Then she would sing a melody. I would listen and sing it back. Then I would play it on the piano. My sister would then turn me around and tap a chord on the piano while I faced the wall and ask me what chord it was. I would go back to the keyboard and play the chord. To end the game, she would finally lift both hands and – in a surprisingly energetic gesture – bring both hands down, randomly, on the keyboard! I would return to the piano, find the notes and play them. I had perfect pitch but more importantly, I learned early on to listen.

Sometimes when I practice a piece, I play the right hand quietly or not at all, moving my fingers like phantoms floating lightly over the keys. Then, as the fingers of my right hand move silently, I play the left hand full voice. I listen closely to what the left hand is saying. I hear new voices that were previously neglected.

Walk in the streets, close your eyes and listen to what you hear. Listen to bits and pieces of conversations as people pass by. A couple are talking about each other’s workday — “this girl in my class is very shy” a woman, a schoolteacher, says to her husband. “I can’t stand my job anymore,” the husband says to his wife. You hear a mother encouraging a child riding her bicycle for the first time. “Very good – keep going,” she says. “Very good.” Then other people approach. You can hear them greeting each other. You listen to their steps as they pass. You listen to the wind moving through the trees. Concentrate on listening to the moment itself. You will be surprised how much better you listen afterwards.

Beware of the pedal

No pedal at first. The pedal has a way of making you think you play better than you do. The pedal is like a hoax that you perpetrate on yourself. It is similar to a good bottle of wine: you wake up at some point, probably with a hangover, and realize that without that pedal, without that bottle of wine, you are not quite as beautiful as you thought you were! Be honest with yourself – no pedal to start.

Look ahead

Always. When you work through a piece, remember that you are going somewhere – that the music has to go somewhere. Think of the notes you are playing but also the next note, the next phrase. Prepare yourself. Position your hand. Construct your fingering for where you are going next.

Get yourself into position first, no matter what you do in life. Otherwise you may have to improvise a passage to survive (this happens to everyone these days!). Think where you are going first, anticipate. Plan on how you are getting there, then act accordingly. Think of where you are going as you go.

Remember to rest

Close your eyes for 5 minutes. Drop your arms by your side — no movement, just like that stretching exercise. I remember how Mrs. Reese would stop me abruptly after a long session on a piece: “I think we’ll stop for a while here, go on to another piece. We will come back later,’’ she would say. She knew that the intensity of music fills you completely. You become saturated. Music, particularly great music, is that way, particularly when you perform it. Stop to rest no matter how large the problem may appear to be. Then start again.

Be conscious of your environment

Always remember the key you are in as you play. You are A minor, or F minor, or E-flat major. Think of the flats or the sharps. It is like your surroundings on a journey. Are you in the city? In the country? Are you surrounded by people? Are you alone? Think for a moment and then play the scale on the piano, just to clear your mind. Stop and think of the place you are in and then return to the problem. You will have a better idea where you are going if you do.

Watch your time

Watch your time when you practice. Keep moving through the piece, otherwise you will become tired. Or hungry. You will call it quits! Your body simply becomes weak. Later on in life, you become conscious of the limited time you have left. It will weigh on you and can even become your greatest suffering. We all must guard against wasting time in life on things we can’t control, no matter how crazy they may seem. Keep track of your time on this earth.

Don’t fool yourself with the easy parts

Whatever you do, don’t play the easy parts first! They are like the downhill slopes on a cross country race. Instead, go straight to the difficult passages. My teacher, Mrs. Reese, would call these the “technical” passages, sections of a piece that seem impossible to start. The ones that scare you and are terrifying to look at, even on the page. The technical passages are the challenges which you will face in life. Go straight at them. Do not flinch or look for the easy way out. You will delude yourself and end up going nowhere.

Take notes

Keep a pencil ready with you to mark your thoughts as you go. Mark comments on your performance but above on the performances of others. As you are play the passages, mark the score and write down your thoughts. Note the dynamics, the crescendos and diminuendos in your life as you live it.

My father was a champion note taker – he had to be, writing histories and physicals on his patients or surgical reports. My father wrote me letters over the years, no matter what continent I happened to be on at the time. They were just short notes, to say he was thinking of me or to let me know how things are. The letters were never long. Nor were they ever in the least way self-aggrandizing. In fact, I never recall a single time in his letters when he mentioned an honour conferred on him in the course of his work, although there were many. I read these letters again sometimes as they have given me comfort through the years. It wasn’t until later however that I realized I had been reading his notes to me, in my piano, every day. “Don’t hurry,” he tells me in the margins of my Cortot edition of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade, marked in pencil at the recapitulation. “Steady,” he says, at the beginning of the coda at the end of the piece. I see my father’s handwriting next to Mrs. Reese’s in the margins of the same score. They are invariably clear, concise written words – “hold,” “softly,” “slow down.” Clear and concise. Sometimes they are simple translations from Italian or French for example —‘Spianato’ –Italian ‘spanare,’ to smooth over, simple, plain” …. ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ : The maid with the flaxen hair. My father never spoke French, or Italian for that matter. He understood however the importance of language, of precise meaning, and certainly for the purposes of his piano.

Classical music is a precise business, and a precise business merits note taking. Every note and phrase, the sense of a phrase and what each phrase means, counts. The composer intended each phrase to mean something. So take the time mark even as you are playing. Sometimes I will lift my left hand and mark as I play while my right hand continues playing, circling a note to accent, marking “piano” here, “pianissimo” or “forte ” there. It is like writing a journal. You jot down the relationships which count for you, whether you made the right decision to go somewhere or meet someone. Perhaps you see something beautiful which delights you. Or something else which repels you. Write down your thoughts as you go through life wherever you are. You will come to think differently of the journey.

These “lessons from the piano” will resonate more with some perhaps, and less with others. On the whole however, they are lessons that have served me well, keeping me strong, particularly in difficult times such as those we are living through today. I hope they will do the same for you.

home-page-2Walter Witt is a classical pianist, composer and educator based in Paris.  A lifelong student of the works of Chopin, Walter captivates audiences with his innate musicianship and dynamic presence  at the piano. Together with his advocacy for classical music and its educational importance, these talents make him one of the most  compelling figure in classical music today.

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