This atmospheric piece for solo piano, whose Afrikaans subtitle ‘Wind oor die Branders’ translates as Wind over the Waves, is by Richard Pantcheff  (b.1959). It comes from ‘Nocturnus’, a suite of six pieces written for different instruments; the final work in the suite is 4th December 1976, written in memory of Benjamin Britten on the fortieth anniversary of the composer’s death. Pantcheff was mentored in composition by Benjamin Britten in the last years of Britten’s life, and his music displays a distinct affinity with Britten’s soundworld, as well as that of earlier English composers including Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, Gerald Finzi and Elizabeth Lutyens.

A prolific composer of choral, organ, chamber and instrumental works, Richard Pantcheff was trained in choral music and composition from an early age, initially as a chorister at Ripon Cathedral, and studied music at Christ Church, Oxford, under Simon Preston and Francis Grier. His music has been widely performed and praised for its originality and technical brilliance, combined with intellectual and emotional depth.

I discovered this piece through ‘De Profundis Clamavi’, a recent recording by British pianist, and friend of mine, Duncan Honeybourne. Duncan is a keen advocate of English music and a champion of lesser-known repertoire, and his recording on which ‘Nocturnus V’ appears (together with Pantcheff’s substantial Piano Sonata, of which he is dedicatee) contains no less than eight world premiere recordings.

The piece is minimalist in style. Its title ‘Nocturnus’ obviously suggests a Nocturne or night piece, and although this work makes stylistic reference to Chopin’s Nocturnes in its flowing accompaniment (almost continuous semiquavers to suggest both waves and wind), it is perhaps closer to Britten’s ‘Night Piece’ (which also appears on ‘De Profundis Clamavi’) and ‘Night’ from Holiday Diary in atmosphere, harmonic language and some of its textures. But while the middle section of Britten’s ‘Night Piece’ is unsettled, full of curious nocturnal twitterings and scurrying, Pantcheff exchanges the fluid semiquavers for a rising chordal figure in triplets which climaxes in fortississimo (fff) chords high up in the piano’s register. The effect is hymn-like and joyful. The music then subsides and pauses, before the semiquaver ‘waves’ return, now in the bass, with soft, piquant chords in the treble.

Although not particularly difficult (I would suggest this piece is around Grade 5-6 standard), the challenge for the player comes in retaining evenness in the semiquaver figures and sustaining long notes in the other register. Sparing use of the pedal will avoid muddying the sound in these sections, while the middle section requires greater projection and brightness of sound. It’s a satisfying piece to play as it offers the player plenty of scope for expression and “sound painting” to portray the music’s inspiration. 


‘Nocturnus V’ by Richard Pantcheff, played by Duncan Honeybourne

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Birmingham International Piano Competition (BIPC) is to make a welcome return after a two-year hiatus caused by the pandemic. Under the proud custodianship of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (RBC), part of Birmingham City University, Head of the Department of Keyboard Studies, Professor John Thwaites, will act as Artistic Director, with the initial rounds taking place in June and grand Final open to the public at the Bradshaw Hall on Sunday 3rd July 2022.

The Bradshaw Hall

Rejoicing in the revival of this important annual performance platform and contest for the brightest keyboard stars of the future, the City can continue to celebrate the long-cherished place it has occupied for so many years within the cultural life of Birmingham.

Professor Thwaites said, “We have designed BIPC 2022 to offer a wonderful opportunity to a wide variety of international artists currently living in the UK. The entrance fee is modest, we are allowing Free Choice programming, and all our live rounds take place in the Conservatoire’s flagship concert venue, Bradshaw Hall.”

With state-of-the art performance facilities, including the Conservatoire’s exceptional fleet of concert grand pianos, the Bradshaw Hall provides an ideal venue for the Competition heats and the Final.

My hope is that those who travel to Birmingham will feel that the Competition has done everything possible to help them play at their best and to be rewarded accordingly”, added John Thwaites.

Professor John Thwaites

Proud Birmingham history

The BIPC has a legacy going back to 1979 when it was founded by and later named after, Gladys Lily Brant, who administered the Competition in the city for nearly two decades. The administration then passed to Town Hall/Symphony Hall and in 2017 the event was rebranded as Birmingham International Piano Competition before being inherited by the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, part of Birmingham City University, in November 2021. Previous winners of the BIPC can be found on the BIPC website, and include Mark Bebbington and Di Xiao, both of whom are on the RBC piano faculty.

Exciting future development

Now, as one of the foremost international performance platforms, and with a designated Administrative Director, Ella Lee, in place, this stellar event continues to provide young pianists aged from 18 to 28 an opportunity to further their career and perform in a world-class venue.

Going forward, I feel the competition will really embody exactly what the Conservatoire is about: a unique atmosphere that challenges everyone to play at their very best, whilst never losing the wonderful undercurrent of support and community”, said Ella Lee. “It seemed an only natural fit for the Competition’s new home to be Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, given that it plays a major role in Birmingham’s musical landscape, and the Bradshaw Hall has already welcomed a myriad of world-class artists in the few short years since its opening. Ultimately, we are very happy to be providing further opportunity for young pianists to be heard, and to welcome new faces to RBC.”

2022 Competition

Over the course of two preliminary rounds – this year taking place on 23 and 24 June – four outstanding pianists will be chosen for the Final, to be held on 3 July, in which they will each perform a forty-minute recital in front of a public audience.

The international jury is to be drawn from across the music industry and will include Katya Apekisheva, Philip Fisher and Carole Presland.

BIPC programme and how to attend

Bradshaw Hall, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, 200 Jennens Road B4 7XR

23 June – preliminary heat (open to the public)

24 June – preliminary heat (open to the public)

3 July, 14:30 – Final (open to the public)

Tickets will be available on the door, and in advance via the website: www.bipcomp.co.uk

Previous winners www.bipcomp.co.uk/recent-winners.html

The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire www.bcu.ac.uk/conservatoire


Source: press release

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

My primary influences are my Catholic faith and the art and folk music of the Slovacko area of South Moravia, to which I am connected through both my parents.

Teachers: the composer Miloslav Ištvan (with whom I studied at the Janáček Academy in Brno) and the way of life of St. Francis of Assisi,

From the European music tradition: Gregorian chant, Moravian folk music, the late orchestral works of Antonín Dvořák and the late works of Leoš Janáček.

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

The greatest challenge in my career has been (and continues to be) exploring the possibilities of unison technique since the end of the 1990s. It has also been a challenge to hide away and completely concentrate on composing to the best of my ability and as much as my own character, my family life and my teaching profession allow.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?

Without a doubt a most special experience for me was my collaboration for over 30 years with the Schubert Ensemble – both with the Ensemble as a whole and with its individual members. This collaboration brought me an independence from the music life of Brno; it is a very important thing in a composer´s life to be independent of one’s position in one’s own birthplace.

I should also mention an important collaboration in Brno throughout my whole working life with the excellent percussionist Martin Opršál

Of which works are you most proud?

My proudest creative works are my three daughters, Magdalene, Veronika and Miriam, and, at one remove, my granddaughter Julia.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

It is not easy to answer this question: I try to clear a path from the mess of complexity to the order of simplicity

Tell us more about your 24 Preludes & Fugues for solo piano. What was the inspiration behind this set of pieces? Were the templates set by Bach and Chopin influential at all?

From the very start the inspiration for my Preludes and Fugues was the Bible. From the point of view of the musical form, I was influenced more by the thinking of Anton Reicha than by the counterpoint of J.S. Bach or by Chopin’s Preludes. But everything I have written is strongly connected to the classical European tradition.

During my military service in Prague (1981-2) I wrote a single Prelude and Fugue for piano, which stands alone. In 1989 William Howard asked me to write something for him. I composed two Preludes and Fugues and the cycle continued from there. The inspiration for the cycle from the very beginning was the Bible.

William Howard and Pavel Novák

Pianist William Howard has recorded the entire set. What was the experience of working with William on this music?

My collaboration with William was like my real composition degree course. Thanks to his extraordinary patience in studying and re-studying my endless corrections, I had the chance to pursue and to develop my own musical imagination – and not just in writing for piano. But certainly it also helped me to develop a new feeling for piano composition, which has continued in further piano pieces (a left hand piece for Steve Warzycki and my 6th and 7th Sonatas, both for William), and has influenced other aspects of my composing. William’s experience as both a soloist and a chamber player has given him a sense of colour and a rhythmic precision that you can admire in the recording of the Preludes and Fugues.

As a composer, how do you work?

I try to imitate the great composers of the past, composing every day, but the result is a bit different. They wrote hundreds of fantastic pieces in an extraordinarily short time. I add five bars in the morning and cross out seven bars in the afternoon every day…

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I remember some successful premieres (my piano quintet ‘Royal Funeral Procession on Iona’ at Wigmore Hall with the whole Schubert Ensemble, the premiere of my Third Symphony for piano and strings at Dartington with William at the piano, the UK premiere of the Preludes and Fugues at St. Giles, Cripplegate in London), some great occasions, friendly audiences, nice reviews, perfect recordings, ongoing collaborations with musicians…. but then I think of Schubert and of Van Gogh and reflect that there are other ways to define success in the world of art. Maybe for the composer success is also the perfect score, the ideal piece, without the need for any response from the world around. And for a painter it is the ideal picture, regardless of how it is perceived in the artist’s lifetime.

What advice would you give to aspiring composers?

1. Write the first version of your pieces by hand. It is all too easy these days for us to become greatly estranged from our own work.

2. Rewrite pieces by classical masters (e.g. Perotinus, Bach, Webern). By following every note of their scores your imagination will develop and you will be able to compare your own solutions and your own ideas with their way of thinking. I am worried that two thousand years of well-tried and tested techniques are in danger of being lost.

3. Maintain a basic classical music education; play a string instrument and sing in a choir. When composing you can easily lose connection with live instrumental and vocal performance.

4. Do not interpret your own music! Sit in the audience and listen. Players have quite different worries from composers.

5. Sit at home and work every day. Do not organise performances of your pieces – they will come by themselves.

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

In the Czech Republic, programmes for bigger ensembles and for orchestras could be improved – they repeat famous pieces from famous composers again and again. They should play more early works by well-known composers (e.g. the early symphonies of Dvořák and Ives…..) and they should perform more early music on modern instruments (e.g. Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Bach…..). Glenn Gould showed us how to play this repertoire on a modern instrument in his recordings of early music.

What are your most treasured possessions?

My faith, my family, my musical gift.

Pavel Zemek Novák’s “dazzlingly original” 24 Preludes and Fugues for solo piano is now available in a newly published edition, available as a digital download from Music Haven Ltd. Find out more

Pianist William Howard has recorded the 24 Preludes and Fugues on the Champs Hill Records label


Composer Colin Riley writes: “ISOLATED PIECES is the culmination of the work of 27 contributors from across many genres of music. As an experiment on ‘connection’ and ‘trust’ during the isolating period of lockdown, I asked musicians I knew to respond to several small fragments of piano music I’d created. Everyone said yes and emailed back all kinds of unexpected fragments of connected material. It came in from percussionists, string players, singers, poets, and electronic musicians. This was my box of musical Lego. I set to work building the music from these disparate elements, knowing that at their root, there was some DNA that held them together. After a 18 months the album was complete.”

A good deal of music – and art, poetry and more – has come out of lockdown as composers, musicians, artists and writers have tried to make sense of, or cope with the strange situation we found ourselves in during 2020 and 2021.

Despite the isolation, composer Colin Riley found connections with fellow musicians through his online project Isolated Pieces. Begun in 2020, the project is based on musical “trust”: none of the 25 musicians involved in Isolated Pieces knew who else was part of the virtual musical ensemble (called Assemblage). The music on the album is the result of a back-and-forth exchange of fragmentary responses in the form of short audio files which Colin then assembled to create a larger whole, an album of 18 pieces released in Spring 2022.

The 27 artists involved in the project come from a range of musical genres as well as poetry, and include up-and-coming artists as well as established names such as Steve Hackett (guitarist with Genesis), keyboardist Roger King, jazz pianist Liam Noble, and dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah.

The pieces are miniature musical haikus, a matter of a few minutes in length, 5 minutes at most, with pithy titles which, for me at least, reflect some of the sensations and scenarios many of us experienced during lockdown – for example, ‘Sunlight Patterns’, ‘Most of My Day’, ‘Ease the Pressure’ or ‘Look Back’. While each piece is different, Riley employs repeating textures, instrumentation, electronics, loops and other sound effects, which make connections between the pieces and create the sense of an album as a whole, rather than an assemblage of disparate fragments. There are elements of jazz, folk, minimalism, experimental music and spoken word within these fleeting pieces, and the result is an intriguing compilation. The range of moods is interesting too – some pieces are intimate, reflective, at times almost painful (Dislodged) while others are upbeat (Twister), moving forward with pulsing rhythms.  I found the vocals of Savannah Roberts particularly haunting in the opening track Sunlight Patterns.

Some critics think so

Guest post by Michael Johnson

The crisis in the piano world hit home last week when I realized nobody was interested in buying my Baldwin upright. I can’t even give it away. In fact I would have to pay transport costs to dump it in the knacker’s yard. What a heart-breaking finale for a fine middle-range instrument that has given me 35 years of pleasure.

As in many modern homes, the standard upright or grand takes up too much space, needs costly visits by tuners, and doesn’t even make that much music any more. In the long term the 88-tooth monster looks doomed like the dinosaurs.

The piano mechanism under the lid is based on a 130-year-old design and many specialists believe it is time to dispense with those delicate moving parts. An Australian piano builder Wayne Stuart told me recently, “The piano has been crying out for a rethink for over a hundred years.”

How will the art of the piano survive? By going electronic or at least hybrid. Here’s an indicator. Try staking out the best hotels on the eve of a concert and you might spot the star pianist checking in with an electronic keyboard slung over his or her shoulder. Is this is the future? It would seem so. With headphones, pianists can run through their programme in their hotel room, limbering up fingers for the real event and not bothering anyone.

I recently gave a talk at Escola Superior de Musica de Catalunya in Barcelona on these trends. I constructed a one-hour presentation complete with videos and slides, warning of impending doom. Everyone in the audience went ooh and ahh except the local Steinway dealer. He approached me afterward, fuming. “We are not going away,” he grinned nervously.

The clunky, heavy, expensive classic piano, critics argue, may eventually end up in a museum, displayed as fine furniture.

Only a few piano makers survive in the United States compared to dozens just a few years ago. Some 80 percent of piano production is now in China, mostly for the Chinese market.

New electronic models storming in from Asia are undercutting the classic piano in price and performance with digital or hybrid keyboards that feel and sound just about right. Young players love them. Yamaha, Casio, Guangzhou Pearl River, Samick, KORG, Kawai and others are competing in this transition period.

Sales projections for electronic keyboards exceed a million units worldwide annually. Steinway, the market leader in high-end acoustics, says it can produce only about 3,000 a year.

Another sign of decline is the destruction of the classic wooden model as a popular sport among college-age boys who enjoy tipping a upright (like my beloved Baldwin) from their dormitory rooftop, capturing it on video as it hits bottom.

Others have derived pleasure out of stuffing the case with explosives and, amid raucous laughter, blowing it to bits or dragging it behind a pickup truck, watching it disintegrate.

Over the years, the Steinway influence has been mixed. Critics such as Stuart refer to the brand as “Stoneway” for its innovation lethargy. The latest new thing, the Spirio, is the best Steinway can come up with. Aggressively marketed at as much as $200,000, it seems to be a toy for the very rich, delivering recordings of leading pianists to run on an electric player piano in private homes. Will a hologram of the player be the next step? The technology is there. But who wants Lang Lang in their living room?

Upmarket brands struggle to maintain smaller share of the market in Steinway’s shadow. Each has its personality, measurable in tiny increments. Boesendorfer, Bechstein, Fazioli, Grotrian, Sauter, Shigeru Kawai, Steingraeber and Yamaha all claim to be the world’s best. In my mind, the American aphorism applies: “Even if you are on the right track, you will still get run over if you just sit there.”

This is not to say the world has fallen totally out of love with the classic piano, whatever its drawbacks. No instrument quite manages to produce such a range of sound, loud or soft, to convey the beauty of our great music. Leading players help keep seats filled in concert halls by staging dramatic performances in short skirts, low tops, high heels, and – for the men – eye makeup and acrobatic writhing, hair flicks and in Lang Lang’s case, the occasional wink at the audience.

We are lucky to be alive as the piano undergoes this metamorphosis. It will be an unsettling, disturbing period, just as Christofori, Erard and Heinrich Steinway dared to rethink the instrument in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Now it’s our century. Now it’s our turn.


Michael Johnson is a music critic and writer with a particular interest in piano. 

He has worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is a regular contributor to International Piano magazine, and is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux, France. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

Contemporary music publisher Music Haven has launched a new digital download service for its sheet music collection. Available via the Music Haven website, this service will initially offer digital downloads of piano music, the centrepiece of which is the first published edition of Czech composer Pavel Zemek Novák’s 24 Preludes and Fugues for solo piano.

William Howard and Pavel Novák

Described by British composer David Matthews as “one of the finest piano works of our time, a worthy companion to Ligeti’s three books of Etudes”, Pavel Novák’s 24 Preludes and Fugues were composed for pianist William Howard between 1989 and 2006, and were recorded by Howard on the Champs Hill label in 2011. But like much of Novak’s music, this work has remained unpublished until now.

Peter Fribbins, composer, writes:

“Music Haven Ltd. is delighted to announce the publication of Pavel Zemek Novák’s 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano. An ambitious and important contribution to the contemporary piano repertoire, they are written in a musical language that has immediate connection and expressive presence. We are also pleased to be able to make Novák’s work more widely and easily available around the world by launching this work via our digital publishing platform.” 

The new edition has taken several years to prepare and the process has been extremely challenging. Painstakingly typeset by composer Cydonie Banting from a hand-written manuscript replete with complex and idiosyncratic notation, and edited by Pavel Novák and William Howard, the work is divided into four books, which reflect the evolution of Novak’s musical language.

Excerpt from score, before & after typesetting

Now for the first time, pianists can explore this remarkable music in an accessible and beautifully typeset digital edition, available from Music Haven. Pianist William Howard says: “I am confident that other pianists around the world will now take up this powerful and dazzlingly original work.

The complete score is available to purchase as a digital download from Music Haven’s webshop


Music Haven Ltd publishes and promotes new classical music in all its manifestations. At its core are the works of a number of established contemporary British composers, including James Francis Brown, Peter Fribbins and Alan Mills, whose music is complemented by exciting new discoveries, or reconstructions, of lost classical works of the past. Scores are beautifully presented and edited to the highest standards.

A key part of Music Haven’s mission is to foster meaningful collaboration between composer and performer, and in doing so, bring fine music to a wider audience.

Music Haven website: musichaven.co.uk