A great deal is said and written about “integrity” and “honesty” in musical performance. For most people, this means respecting the score by following the composer’s markings and attempting, as far as possible, to interpret the composer’s intentions in the music. In addition, musicians who are praised for “honest” performances tend to play without surface artifice or flashy pianistic pyrotechnics; they attempt to “let the music speak”, free of ego, offer insights into the music, and communicate with the audience.

But there are other aspects to the musician’s honesty which are not immediately obvious to audiences, nor generally acknowledged within the profession, yet these can have a profound effect on a musician’s approach to their music making and their professional life.

For young musicians there is great pressure to conform to established ways of learning and presenting the music. A large part of this is concerned with repertoire, where student musicians or those at the beginning of their professional career may feel under pressure to play certain works to satisfy teachers, concert promoters or critics. (This is borne out when one considers the piano concertos which regularly appear in piano competitions and which are held up as “core works” which every young pianist should play or aspire to play.) Yet for some, these works may not suit them or be to their taste, and as a result they may not play them at their best. Being honest about the kind of repertoire one enjoys and wants to play will make practicing more productive and bring greater integrity to one’s performances. 

This is related to another aspect of the pianist’s honesty – accepting that one cannot “play everything”. Again, the notion that one should have broad musical taste which extends to what one should play is often inculcated during training. There are very few professional pianists whose repertoire extends from the Baroque to the present-day, the notably exceptions being Maurizio Pollini and Marc-André Hamelin (who seems to be able to play anything!). The British pianist Stephen Hough has been open about his reluctance to play the music of J S Bach, a composer whose oeuvre is revered and resides, for many, at the very heart of the core canon. In interviews Hough has admitted, to gasps of horrified disbelief, that he doesn’t feel a deep connection to Bach’s music. Such honesty is commendable in a world where choosing not to play music from the core canon is regarded by some as a form of musical heresy!

There is another more personal kind of honesty, which is to be admired, and that is when musicians open up about injury or performance anxiety. By doing so, they support others who may be similarly suffering, and being honest about one’s frailties helps break down the taboo surrounding musicians and injury. This goes even further in the case of pianist Lars Vogt, who in very public statements on social media and a particularly moving interview for Van magazine revealed that he has cancer and is receiving chemotherapy. It takes a special kind of honesty, indeed courage, to share such personal information, but for Vogt from the outset this was what he intended to do:  “This is a part of my life. It gives people the chance to take part in it. It was supportive, the amount of kindness I encountered….” (interview with Van magazine).

Allied to this is the ability to accept and admit that it is time to quit the concert stage. The great pianist Alfred Brendel, who retired in 2008, wanted to stop performing while still at the peak of his powers in order to pursue other activities, such as writing and lecturing. It takes a degree of personal insight and honesty to make such a decision; for others, the honesty of friends and colleagues may be the catalyst to encourage a musician to review their career and adjust it according to their age or personal circumstances.


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The above letter appeared in the September/October issue of International Piano magazine. I felt compelled to respond thus, and my letter appears in the November/December issue:

I cannot let Mr Erauw’s simplistic and frankly disrespectful letter in issue No. 51 concerning Alfred Brendel go unchallenged. Although now retired from the concert stage, Mr Brendel is a highly regarded pianist whose performances and recordings of the core of the classical canon – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt – are considered amongst the finest, and whose thoughtful writing on composers, music and the exigencies of the pianist’s life is intelligent and considered, the result of a lifetime spent with this music. Mr Erauw may not like Brendel’s playing, but that does not warrant such an unpleasant attack on the man, particularly while he is still alive – nor on his protégé Paul Lewis, a respected artist in his own right.

Mr Erauw seems to regard piano playing as some kind of Olympic sport where those who play the most, the widest repertoire, or who triumph in piano competitions are considered the “greats”. Brendel chose to devote himself to a relatively small corner (but by no means “narrow” if one considers the huge variety and complexities of writing by those composers with whom he is most closely associated) of the repertoire because these were the composers to whom he presumably felt the closest affinity. Many other “great” pianists have chosen this route and are renowned for their interpretations of, for example, Bach (Angela Hewitt, Andras Schiff) or Mozart (Mitsuko Uchida, Maria Joao Pires). Some pianists choose to devote a lifetime to performing and recording the works of only a handful of composers, with whom they feel a particular connection or affection, often revisiting works in concert series and recordings, in the knowledge that one never plays the same thing twice, and to offer a fresh perspective as one’s interpretation matures or changes over time. Such a long-standing intimacy gives one deep insights into the music and soundworld of that particular composer or composers, and as such these pianists’ interpretations and performances are often highly prized. Such is the case with Alfred Brendel.

Nowadays children and young artists are encouraged to play everything (and earlier and earlier) in the belief that this is what audiences and concert promoters crave. Personally, I am not convinced that having a huge variety of repertoire in one’s fingers necessarily brings insightful or compelling performances, but rather superficial Olympian displays of pianism and “style over substance”.

Mr Brendel’s life’s work should be celebrated and respected while he’s still with us.

Frances Wilson, October 2018

To the Wigmore Hall last night for an evening of late Schubert piano music, performed by Paul Lewis. A few years ago, Lewis stamped his mark emphatically upon the international piano world with his concert cycle and recordings of Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas, thus elevating him to the rank of one of the top flight pianists of his generation. Now, in another epic world tour, he is exploring the late music of Schubert.

Lewis was taught and mentored by Alfred Brendel – and it shows. Brendel famously does not teach – except for the chosen few (Imogen Cooper, Till Fellner). He performed (he retired in 2008), choosing to concentrate on the Viennese school, he writes and he gives lectures on music. His on-stage persona is austere, didactic, intellectual, highly disciplined.

Watching Paul Lewis play music composed in the last six years of Schubert’s short life, I felt the shadow of Brendel at his shoulder throughout the evening. The opening Waltzes, D145, written in response to the seemingly unending desire for dance music in Vienna, were largely serious, grand and solemn. Only occasionally was the music allowed to “let go”, offering brief glimpses of the private life of a composer who enjoyed evenings of music, song, women (and men, it is said) and wine with his friends, students and writers, radicals and intellectuals. As opening pieces, I would have liked more lightness, more spirit, more playfulness. And maybe a touch less darkness.

In the D899 Impromptus there was a greater sense of the music being thought out in advance, each signpost along the journey of these pieces clearly highlighted, lest we miss it. In the opening C minor Impromptu, there was less coldness in those early measures, less of a sense of the tyranny of the bare G which marks the opening, reminding us that this is a work which falls post-Winterreise. There was warmth in the major key measures and lyricism, but towards the end, from bar 160, the repeated Gs in the treble and bass were too mechanical, too obvious, robbing the music of its portentous chill.

The E flat Impromptu was rapid and polished, and, as a consequence, lost some of its agitation and hysteria. At times, during the Trio, the touch was too heavy and occasionally muddy. Though many measures in this section are marked fortissimo, at times there was not a proper sense or attack, or if there was, it was quickly reined in, cheating the music of its startling contrasts and harmonic and emotional shifts. This was even more evident in the final Impromptu of the set, the A flat. The opening semiquavers never really took flight, and some smeared or inaccurate notes suggested a tiredness on the part of the performer, possibly the result of having played this programme several times already.

The Hungarian Melody D817 was a pleasing opener for the second half, settling us in before the expansive G major sonata. It was enjoyable if overly dark, its folksy elements muted in favour of a grander delivery. (For a really wonderful performance of this piece, I would flag up Imogen Cooper’s from her ‘Schubert Live Vol 3’ album.)

The G Major sonata, D894, was the favourite of Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, and, in his hands, the spacious opening movement, marked Molto Moderato e Cantabile, comes in at 26 minutes, roughly the same length as an entire Beethoven piano sonata. It is graceful and meditative, Richter achieving an amazing stillness in the first motif. Paul Lewis opted for a brisker tempo, which suited the second subject elements better, but rather robbed the first subject of its grace and philosophy. In the middle movements, my attention began to wander: I craved more life, more bounce and vivacity. Throughout, the very cerebral reading of the score was evident (witness the powerful influence of Brendel!). The final movement was more questioning, charming and humourous, but overall I felt the sonata was played with too much gloss and a curious ‘intellectual complacency’ that diluted the music’s spontaneity and tempered the ever-shifting soundscape and emotional landscape of Schubert’s writing.

Paul Lewis repeats the programme at the Wigmore on Thursday night, and then in Oxford and Schwarzenberg, Austria, before returning to London next week for performances of Die Schëne Mullerin with tenor Mark Padmore.

As a postcript to this review, I must also mention Paul Lewis’s annoying habit of snuffling and “chuffing” as he plays. I have been aware of this “tic” before, and it seems to be getting worse. It was particularly noticeable during the quieter or more profound measures, and was obvious from the earliest bars of the first Waltz.

Sviatoslav Richter – Schubert: Piano Sonata No.18 in G, D.894 – 1. Molto moderato e cantabile