British pianist James Lisney is looking forward to his spring and early summer concerts with excitement.

The Cross-Eyed Pianist caught up with James to talk about how he and the music industry in general has fared during the past two years of the pandemic, the challenges and unexpected benefits of the enforced isolation, and the expectation of returning to live concert-giving once again.

The last two years have been extremely challenging for our industry. Have you seen any benefit from the enforced isolation of lockdowns and lack of live music?

The life of a self employed pianist has, in many cases, not been too adversely affected by the pandemic. Study, recordings, writing and online teaching have filled the gaps – but I am aware that there are many musicians who have had their careers decimated by the collapse of orchestral choral concerts in particular. Their phones and emails went ‘dead’ almost as soon as Covid was flagged up and, even when concerts started again, the full forces have not been employed on a regular basis. This economic hardship has not been specific to the young musicians, but there are scary statistics about how many musicians of all ages have either decided to retire or change profession. Apart from the lack of income, the expenses of their vocation continue: large insurance payments, membership of industry bodies, diary service subscription, instrument maintenance etc.

The matter of concert cancellations has been frustrating but it has also allowed unexpected time to rest and to study. For me this has enabled me to learn two monumental piano challenges by Beethoven: the Sonata in B flat (‘Hammerklavier’); and the ‘Diabelli’ Variations’ which I’m programming throughout the group of concerts that I am giving this spring and early summer. The lack of time pressure has allowed for deep and relaxed study – processes that have refreshed my love of music and the piano.

With time suddenly becoming a plentiful commodity, I have had time to explore Scriabin (for the first time), work at the music of Jan Vriend (always a slow process for me!), Chopin’s Études and Liszt’s Feux Follets – and I’ve even studied technical exercises that I’ve been intending to ‘get around to’ for about forty years!

The concerts I’m giving this spring and early summer are a gift to myself (programmed around my sixtieth birthday) and feature works that are the fruits of the pandemic (including Beethoven’s ‘Diabelli’ Variations and Scriabin Vers la flamme, for example); and music that I have performed for over four decades (such as Chopin’s Sonate funèbre and Ronald Stevenson’s ‘Peter Grimes Fantasy’).

During the pandemic you gave a concert at St George’s Bristol to an empty hall. How do you feel venues have adapted to the “new normal” and supported musicians during the past two years?

St George’s Bristol have been a fantastic support for me and many other musicians during Covid. They have adapted finances and concert formats, organised industry-leading livestream events, and kept in touch with their community, both local and nationwide. I performed the final sonatas Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert in autumn 2020 to an empty hall, but arrived home to email messages from audience members in the USA, the Czech Republic and New Zealand!

I am very much looking forward to returning to St George’s with Chopin on 21 May.

Talking of Chopin, he is a composer who remains very close to your heart. What is the attraction of this repertoire, for both player and audiences?

Chopin has been central to my programmes since I was eighteen. Audiences love this music and it is a constant fascination to attempt to play it – but it is also a constant inspiration in my work as a teacher. Chopin gets to the heart of our physical relationship with the instrument – and to the beauty and meaning of the score. He exemplifies exactitude and classical values with the skills of poetic recreation and improvisation. When one considers, in addition, the premises of his teaching philosophy, it is difficult to find an area of his influence that is not essential to the study of music from almost all of the eras of keyboard music.

The Sonatas and Fantaisie [Opus 49] have been in my repertoire since my teenage years and continue to fascinate and evolve for me – each return to study revealing a more essential layer of understanding. The pandemic has been a chance to work on the Mazurkas – music as dense in implication and as demanding intellectually as late Beethoven. The trio of Mazurkas, opus 56, for example, cover a huge intellectual range and can hardly be considered as “miniatures”.

The music salon at the 1901 Arts Club

Pre-pandemic you launched your …petits concerts series at the 1901 Arts Club. Tell us more about this series.

I am looking forward to returning to the large recital halls such as St Georges, the Bradshaw Hall in Birmingham and the beautiful Stoller Hall in Manchester – but I have a special place for the resumption of the …petits concerts series held at the bijoux concert venue and salon that is the 1901 Arts Club in Waterloo, London. This project was thriving in the seasons before Covid and enabled a spontaneous and simple organisation for concerts, contact with a relaxed and intimate audience (both during and after the performances) and the chance to raise money for a variety of purposes. The latest instalments in this series will be fundraisers for The Amber Trust (which supports the musical expression of partially sighted and blind children), of which I am proud to be a patron, and Help Musicians, a charity which has done so much to help musicians during the pandemic.


James Lisney will give concerts in Norwich, London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Cheltenham and Tunbridge Wells between April and June. For full details and booking, please visit his website

Readers can enjoy generously discounted tickets for the first …petite concerts recital on 25 April at the 1901 Arts Club. Use code LUDWIG when booking.

Pianist friends Alison Bestow and Claire Vane set up Pianissimi, an adult piano course, five years ago. I caught up with them to find out how their venture is progressing….

Pianissimi has been running for five years now; what is the secret of its success?

Claire: We have both been to many other piano courses, both in the UK and abroad. We are therefore very clear about what we want from a piano course; maximum face-to-face tuition, both in masterclasses and in individual lessons, and opportunities to perform every day. We also want to create a supportive, friendly environment and excellent organisation to keep the whole thing running smoothly. Many people have been with us for several iterations of the course, so we think we’re on the right track.

What do people most enjoy about Pianissimi?

Alison: Our tutors are first-rate. Warren Mailley-Smith and Penelope Roskell have been with us from the start, and this year we have achieved our ‘dream team’ which includes Graham Fitch and Nicholas Moloney. The tuition is intensive and so we make sure to keep participants fuelled with home-made cakes during the day and wine and snacks in the evenings, which people always appreciate, especially after performing following dinner.

Claire: Participants always say how friendly everyone is. The location is really beautiful, on the side of the river Orwell with spectacular views, so the environment is inspiring.

Alison: For me one of the highlights is playing the Fazioli grand in the recital hall with its tiered seating. Although I know you prefer the Bechstein, Claire….

What are the challenges of both running and attending the course?

Alison: We split up the organisation between us, and we have very different skills, so it works very well.

Claire: I do publicity, networking and the loot. Alison does the tedious timetabling which would drive me mad.

What have been the best moments of the course?

Alison: I love all the evening concerts; there is always such a variety of performances and I always come away with something new that I am inspired to learn. I have made many new piano friends.

Claire: We did a scratch eight hands two piano duet last year which was hilarious. I loved the visit from Chris Norman of 1066 pianos who told us more about how pianos work, Steinways in particular, and how he goes about voicing them.

Alison: And the talk from Colin Hazel about women composers was fascinating.

Any sticky moments?

Claire: The accommodation is in school boarding houses, and one year we were given high bunks beds with a desk underneath – not ideal for one participant who was pregnant and another with a dodgy knee. The school sorted it out for us; never again!

Alison: The staff at RHS are brilliant.

Who is this course aimed at?

Alison: We want the course to be very inclusive for anyone who loves the piano as much as we do, so we suggest that attendees are grade 7 onwards and including diploma level and post-diploma. The levels of experience and performance are varied, but we try to ensure that everybody feels comfortable and confident playing in a group. The course is also ideal for those with a specific aim, such as preparing for a graded or diploma exam, or getting ready for a particular performance. There will be lots of performance opportunities for those who want them. But there won’t be any pressure on people to perform if they don’t want to.

How can I book?

Claire: There are a few places left for the June course. All the information about the course is on our website: http://pianissimi.wordpress.com/


Pianissimi is held at the Royal Hospital School, 8 miles from Ipswich, Suffolk.

Course dates: Thursday, 2nd June 2022 (5 pm) to Sunday, 5th June 2022 (5 pm)

View the location and facilities here

One Sunday afternoon I was idly leafing through a copy of Vanity Fair, which I found lying around at the country home of my parents-in-law. On the back page was a revealing interview with A Famous Person, based on the Proust Questionnaire, a set of questions which the French author Marcel Proust answered at different times in his life. Later that day, I thought this might make an interesting addition to my blog – a weekly interview where each respondent answers the same questions. And thus, in April 2012 the Meet the Artist interview series was born.

At this time, I’d been writing this blog for nearly two years. Originally intended as a place where I could record my thoughts about returning to the piano after an absence of some 20-odd years, it had quickly become a kind of online classical music ‘magazine’ with varied content: concert reviews interspersed with articles on piano technique, teaching, and repertoire, and more esoteric ‘think pieces’ on music. More importantly, it now had the beginnings of an established, regular readership, albeit still quite small (today it enjoys c30,000 visitors per month). A series of interviews with musicians seemed a good addition. Classical musicians have an aura of mystique (usually created by audiences and others, rather than the musicians themselves) and there is, I find, a great curiosity about what classical musicians do; not just the exigencies of life on the concert platform – the visible, public aspect of the profession – but, in effect, ‘what musicians do all day’. The Meet the Artist interviews offer a snapshot of other facets of the profession, giving readers a chance to get “beyond the notes”, as it were, and in doing so reveal some fascinating insights.

The willingness and openness with which people respond is refreshing, often unexpected, and largely free of ego. In addition, the interviewees give advice and inspiration for those considering a career in music, and attempt to define “success” in a profession where one’s ability to communicate with and move an audience is placed considerably higher than monetary returns.

Tamara Stefanovich

I never sought out the “big name” international performers like Angela Hewitt, Ivo Pogorelich, Tamara Stefanovich or Marc-André Hamelin (or indeed prog rock legend Rick Wakeman!), but as the series grew in reputation, so I found these people were happy to be interviewed, either directly (usually by email, occasionally in person) or via their publicists and agents. The series has become not only a valuable compendium of surprising, insightful, honest, humorous and inspiring thoughts from a wide range of artists, but also a platform for young and lesser-known artists in particular to gain exposure in an industry which is highly competitive. Others use the series as a means to promote upcoming concerts, recordings or other events, while also leaving an enduring contribution to audience’s and others’ understanding of how the music industry “works” and what makes musicians tick. It has received praise from the likes of pianists Stephen Hough and Peter Donohoe, both of whom are featured in the series.

James MacMillan, composer & conductor

From strictly classical artists such as harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani or composer and conductor James MacMillan, two of the earliest interviewees, the series has broadened in its scope over the years and now includes musicians from the world of crossover classical music, folk and jazz. Yet regardless of genre, what these interviews often reveal is how one’s chosen instrument and its literature exert a strong attraction, seducing would-be professionals from a young age and continuing to bewitch and delight, frustrate and excite.

To date, the series features over 1600 interviews from some of our greatest living musicians to young artists poised on the cusp of a professional career. Every single interview has value, and I am immensely grateful to the many musicians who have freely offered their insights, reflections and advice in their interviews.

To all of you who have taken part in the Meet the Artist series to date, THANK YOU.

Frances Wilson, The Cross-Eyed Pianist, April 2022


The Meet the Artist series is ongoing – if you would like to take part, please click here for more information

James Lisney

 

ames Lisney’s  acclaimed …petits concerts series returns to London’s 1901 Arts Club, a bijoux salon-style venue close to Waterloo Station.

In keeping with the ethos and ambiance of the venue, and inspired by the annual series of concerts given by Charles Valentin Alkan at the Erard showroom in Paris in the 1870s, James Lisney’s …petits concerts present classical music in an intimate and convivial setting.

The series feature piano music by Debussy, Stevenson, Chopin, Haydn, Liszt and Beethoven. Concert goers can enjoy a glass of champagne at a pre-concert reception and an opportunity to meet the performer and mingle with other music lovers. These concerts are in support of two charities, Help Musicians (formerly the Musicians Benevolent Fund), which has done so much to support musicians during the pandemic, and The Amber Trust, a charity which provides opportunities for blind and partially sighted children, and children with more complex needs, of which Lisney is patron.

 

READER OFFER: ENJOY DISCOUNTED TICKETS TO 14 MAY CONCERT with CODE FREDERyK

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Guest review by Adrian Ainsworth


Edna Stern’s latest release is a fascinating find. Beautifully performed, for sure, but those performances are led by an intriguing, impeccably realised idea.

The pieces on this disc are well-loved and oft-recorded: the first four ‘Impromptus’ (D899) and the ‘Moments Musicaux’ (D780). But Stern, following the courage of her convictions, has arrived at a new way of hearing them. Or perhaps, more accurately, a very old one.

The artist’s sleeve-notes explain the background at length, and if you buy this album, you’ll find they are an excellent read. So I will just try to summarise here. Broadly, Stern became disenchanted with modern digital recording – in particular, the facility to edit performances into ‘perfection’. To the non-expert listener, what can sound like a seamlessly executed rendition of a work is sometimes a painstakingly finessed collage from multiple takes. Flashes of divine inspiration that don’t conveniently occur within the same run-through are made to do so, after the fact.

This came to a head, Stern tells us, when working with a sound engineer who produced an edit that was stitched together to the point where she could barely recognise her own interpretation. For this project, then, each of the ten pieces is represented by a single, intact take. Of course, Stern recorded them several times in order to choose her favourite, but no artificial mix-and-match took place. She picked the versions she found the most interesting or appealing, if not necessarily the most accurate: the integrity and spirit of the performance outweighed the occasional stray note or tempo.

One of the reasons I enjoyed Stern’s booklet essay so much is the extremity of her position. While she acknowledges the value and skills of everyone involved, she calls that game-changing edit a ‘monster’, and likens the studio correction of mistakes to offering a performance from a robot over a human. It’s forcefully argued stuff.

And thought-provoking. Schubert-lovers who are tripping over Impromptu recordings – anyone with shelves (or hard-drives) full of versions of their favourite works: what are we looking for? I realise there’s an element for many of seeking an ideal version that matches the one in their head, of looking for the ‘best’… and I don’t envy critics who have to make these sorts of comparisons all the time. But what it’s really about, surely, is hearing the works you love ‘renewed’, enjoying the surprise and delight of seemingly infinite reinterpretations of the same music.

You could argue that, most of the time, these differences survive modern recording techniques. What must be Stern’s worst nightmare – correcting every error or deviation from the score so that every pianist’s Schubert CD comes out identical to all the others – hasn’t come to pass. But by removing the safety net, Stern has thrown down a gauntlet of sorts – will other classical musicians follow suit and subject their unvarnished playing to scrutiny?

I use the word ‘classical’ here deliberately. Pristine clarity may be the common goal in this genre, but over on the rock side of the fence, many acts have often wanted to go back to the source, in their search for authenticity. There’s the huge number of bands who went through the ‘Unplugged’ rite of passage in the 90s. There are producers like Steve Albini, who seems to carry out the intensive labour upfront, listening to his clients and finding exactly the right place for the microphones in the room – then documenting the resulting live sound, with staggering results. There’s the formidable roster of groups – perhaps most famously, the White Stripes – who have made records at London’s Toe Rag Studios, renowned for their totally analogue set-up.

There is a rock-snob trap here, of course: “when it’s me, it’s authenticity – when it’s you, it’s nostalgia”. But Stern is totally alive to this, seeking to recapture the sound of the recordings she loved most during her early development. Has she succeeded?

When you start ‘Schubert on tape’, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d just lowered the stylus on to vinyl, or pressed the clunky play button on a cassette player. You hear the room before the piano. Instead of a CD’s usual dead silence, you hear an ambient noise that I instantly want to describe as ‘warmth’: it’s not disruptive, there’s no hiss or clicking, just a hushed presence that replaces any potential dryness or sterility.

There’s no doubt about it. I was hit by two waves of entirely pleasurable nostalgia. One, true: my youth, playing records and tapes in my room. Two, false: the feeling evoked by Stern of being at a Schubertiade, hearing the composer perform his work in intimate, informal surroundings.

Because once the music starts, you are there in the room (especially if using a decent pair of headphones). You can hear some of the pedal work – towards the end of Impromptu No. 4, for example, there’s a passage where this almost becomes a percussion feature – and the rise and fall of the keys, even (I think) accompanied once or twice by the click of a fingernail. This sustained, audible ‘physicality’ really brings home the effort involved in a good performance and, in the salon of the imagination, makes you feel genuinely close to the player.

I think there is also a pleasing effect on the dynamics. I was reminded of something the rock writer David Hepworth said on a podcast, when discussing the merits of vinyl over CD – almost his instant response was: “The drums don’t hurt.” Analogue recording as evidenced here has a generosity of scope – I can hear that Stern is across every pp and ff, and all points between, but the sound never becomes a bang or a whimper – it’s all accommodated in the bandwidth.

We hear chiming, keening top notes and a gorgeous bass rumble – particularly in, say, Impromptu No. 2 or Moments Musicaux No. 2 – reminiscent of a fortepiano (I was interested to read that Stern also plays this instrument). The dexterity and sensitivity of Stern’s playing is still immaculately conveyed, shining through – while benefiting from – the tape’s ambience.

As a result, I think Stern’s particular strengths and this style of recording are perfectly aligned. A successful experiment, then – I look forward to seeing the research continue, and hearing which composer becomes its next subject.

Schubert on Tape is available on the Orchid Classics label

This review first appeared on sister site ArtMuseLondon.com


105491206_266430451442172_334752493078903436_nAdrian Ainsworth is, by day, a copywriter specialising in plain language communications about finance and benefits. However, he spends the rest of the time consuming as much music, live or recorded, as possible – then writing about it, often on Specs, his slightly erratic ‘cultural diary’ containing thought pieces, performance and exhibition write-ups, playlists, and even a spot of light photography. He has a particular interest in art song and opera… and a general interest in everything else.

Twitter @Adrian_Specs

Pianists and co-Artistic Directors Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen reveal another exquisite line-up for the seventh London Piano Festival (LPF) which returns to Kings Place from 6-9 October 2022. Four days of classical and jazz piano performances will see Festival debuts from star soloist Tamara Stefanovich, jazz sensation Vijay Iyer and rising star Dominic Degavino, in addition to Dame Imogen Cooper who has been a Patron of the London Piano Festival since its launch in 2016. Returning artists include Noriko Ogawa and Paul Roberts, as well as the Festival’s Artistic Directors Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen. Under 30s tickets are available for all concerts at a reduced price of £8.50. The Festival is delighted to be working with International Piano magazine as media partner for the seventh year running.

Co-Artistic Directors Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen commented, “We are delighted to present the seventh edition of exciting piano-themed concerts featuring an exceptional line-up of pianists in the welcoming setting of Kings Place. The recent return to unrestricted live music-making, complete with extra appreciative audiences has been energising for performers around the world. This year there will be a particular focus on the joys of musical collaboration between pianist friends, a sharing and exchange of ideas. Nothing can ever quite reproduce the visceral impact of a live event, the sheer thrill of experiencing music in real time.”

Visionary pianist Tamara Stefanovich opens this year’s Festival with a programme exploring form and freedom, beginning with Bach’s Aria variata (BWV 989) interweaving the birdsong-inspired pieces of Messiaen and Rameau, and ending with Messaien’s mesmerising Cantéyodjayâ [6 Oct].Piano duets have been performed at the London Piano Festival every year since it launched in 2016, helping to introduce audiences to new works whilst also celebrating rarely-performed masterpieces. This year Dame Imogen Cooper is joined by Katya ApekishevaCharles Owen and Dominic Degavino, pianists who have all benefitted from her skill and unique insights through masterclasses and teaching sessions over the years, for an evening of piano duets. The four pianists will take to the stage in different pairings to perform Schubert’s piano duets whilst recreating the atmosphere of an intimate social gathering [7 Oct].Katya Apekisheva and Noriko Ogawa explore contrasting 20th-century preludes in their afternoon recital [8 Oct]. Apekisheva will perform Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes, a collection of short pieces in all twenty-four keys, taking the audience through a diverse assortment of moods across the complete set. By contrast, Ogawa will play Debussy’s 12 Préludes, Book I, an imaginative collection which doesn’t follow any strict harmonic template.Later that evening award-winning jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer will perform a solo improvised set [8 Oct]. Known for performing internationally with ensembles and his own trio, this special evening of solo jazz improvisation will be a rare treat for London audiences.To celebrate the launch of his new book, concert pianist and lecturer Paul Roberts returns to the Festival to present a lecture-recital with Charles Owen celebrating Liszt’s passionate response to the poetry of Francesco Petrarca [9 Oct]. Roberts’ new book – Reading Franz Liszt – explores the inspiration Liszt drew from the poetry of Francisco Petrarca (1304-74), revealing the link between two major artists born 500 years apart.The London Piano Festival was founded by pianists Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen in 2016 and takes place every October at Kings Place, London. Previous visiting artists have included Alfred Brendel, Alexandra Dariescu, Julian Joseph, Gabriela Montero, Stephen Kovacevich, Jason Rebello and Kathryn Stott, amongst many others. The Festival has also commissioned a number of new works for two piano, working with composers including Sally Beamish, Jonathan Dove, Elena Langer and Nico Muhly.

Full details atwww.londonpianofestival.comAll concerts take place at Kings Place, 90 York Way, London, N1 9AG

www.kingsplace.co.uk

[Source: press release]