This album contains a wealth of beautiful music that I think anyone can tackle, given time, passion and determination.

-Alistair McGowan

alistair-mcgowan

The debut album from Alistair McGowan sees the BAFTA-winning impressionist, comedian and actor in a new role, that of concert pianist. Called simply ‘The Piano Album’, it contains 18 short pieces of roughly Grade 5-6 standard, including works by McGowan’s beloved Erik Satie, mostly romantic or flowing music, and is intended to encourage others to play the piano by offering attractive well-known and lesser-known pieces which are accessible to intermediate level amateur pianists. McGowan feels that hearing someone like him, who returned to the piano as an adult having had only a couple of years of lessons as a child, is perhaps more inspiring than a recording or performance by a top professional playing Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, which many amateurs “could never play” (AG). Having spent the last few weeks listening obsessively to Krystian Zimerman’s exquisite new recording of Schubert’s last two piano sonatas, which have provided me with much food for thought and yes, inspiration, I am not sure I would agree. But as someone who goes to and reviews many piano concerts by top  international artists (Aimard, Perahia, Osborne, Levit, Hough…..), maybe I am not the ideal audience for this disc….

The pieces are played nicely with some good production values, but there is nothing striking about the playing, no moments of insight nor real wonder. Philip Glass’s Metamorphosis No. 5, for example, is pleasant enough. It flows, it’s in time, but it has neither the spaciousness nor relaxed sense of breathing space that a more experienced player or someone who has spent a long time living with and in the music would bring to it. In short, it is rather too “notey” and somewhat laboured. Most of the pieces lack real expressive depth or subtleties of musical colour, and the result is a rather bland trawl through some nice piano miniatures. As a pianist friend of mine remarked, “people with a vague interest in classical piano music who want a “first album” would probably love it. Those of us more used to Perahia, Brendel et al will be less enamoured“.

Having said that, kudos to Alistair McGowan for taking on the challenge of learning, finessing and recording the pieces for this album. Integral to this process were lessons with several concert pianists ,notably Anthony Hewitt and Lucy Parham, and quality time spent at piano courses run by Paul Roberts and at La Balie in France. He has not taken on this project lightly, and his dedication to, and passion for, the piano is to be commended. That alone should be an inspiration to other adult amateur pianists.

The Piano Album is available now on the Sony Classical label

Best known for his BAFTA-winning comedy show, ‘Alistair McGowan’s Big Impression’, in which he delighted audiences nationwide with pinpoint-accurate impersonations of celebrities such as David Beckham, Gary Lineker and Jonathan Ross, Alistair McGowan is now preparing for his most demanding role of all – that of pianist – as he releases an album of solo piano works for Sony Classical.

This debut album features McGowan performing several short classical pieces, all chosen and learned by the actor/impressionist (who could only ever play two pieces) but who then practised for up to six hours a day over a nine month period in his attempt to finally conquer this beautiful instrument, despite already being in his early fifties. Says McGowan: “By taking on the idea of making an album, I hope to encourage people of any age to play the piano, but perhaps particularly those at an age where it’s easy to think that it’s all too late”.

McGowan had started out playing the piano as a boy, but gave it up after only two years in favour of tennis and football. He went on to train as an actor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and worked for many years on television, on radio and in the theatre (being nominated for an Olivier Award in 2006), as well as successfully performing around the country for almost thirty years as a stand-up comic.

Having always yearned for the piano, in 2016, McGowan devised the one-man stage show, ‘Erik Satie’s-faction’, based on the French composer’s comedic writings, letters and music, for which he had to learn to play some short piano pieces by Satie and Debussy as an integral part of the show – the first time he had ever played in public. Emboldened by this well-received first public experience, it was not long before he was enthusiastically identifying and learning other short pieces which he felt that he – and others with similarly limited playing experience – could realistically manage.

McGowan notes: “I have become so passionate about the piano over the past three years. It has really taken me over and I have made the time to practise (time I never thought I had) with a few simple lifestyle changes. This album contains a wealth of beautiful music that I think anyone can tackle, given time, passion and determination. Learning to play the piano has been an incredible challenge – often frustrating – but, ultimately, hugely enjoyable and emotional. It’s so satisfying when you realise that you are improving daily. I hope this encourages everyone who harbours a secret ambition take up music -it really is never too late!

McGowan was mentored by concert pianist and ‘Olympianist’ Anthony Hewitt and also attended the exclusive (and very expensive) piano summer courses at La Balie in south-west France. He practised on friends’ pianos and used ice packs to relieve tension and pain in his hands and legs, the result of his long practise sessions.

His solo piano album features music from composers as diverse as Bach, Chopin, Glass, Grieg, Liszt and Satie, together with vocals by Alistair McGowan’s singer wife, Charlie.

Alistair McGowan: The Piano Album is released on 29 September on the Sony Classical label

 

erik-sartie
Erik Satie – his music, his words, your ears

St Mary’s Barnes, London SW13

Alistair McGowan, words & piano

Daniel Turner, piano

Charlotte Page, soprano

Monday 14th March 2016

The comedian and impressionist Alistair McGowan has had a longtime fascination with the French composer Erik Satie 1866-1925). His first encounter with the eccentric composer’s music was at the age of 9 when he heard the beautiful, spare Gymnopédie No. 1. As an adult his fascination has led him to take up the piano again and to research Satie’s life in more detail, resulting in a play and documentary for radio, and now this words and music presentation, which had its first performance as part of the 2016 Barnes Music Festival. As it happens, McGowan is a resident of Barnes, and Satie’s parents married in the church where the performance took place.

McGowan’s narration was drawn from Satie’s own writings and musings (he was an avid letter writer, often writing letters to himself to remind him of important appointments), he wrote poetry and he drew witty and fantastical cartoons. He started composing in the 1890s and influenced composers such as Debussy and Ravel, Poulenc and Milhaud, and the Minimalists. His music defies categorisation – today we might describe his simple and often repetitive structures as “minimalist”, but descriptions such as “surrealist”, “symbolist” and “impressionist” are also appropriate.

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McGowan played Erik Satie, dressed in a grey suit with bowler hat and black neatly-furled umbrella (Satie is said to have owned around 100 such umbrellas, together with identical grey velvet suits). He was accompanied on the piano by Daniel Turner, though he also played some pieces, revealing himself to be a competent and expressive pianist (in the version of this show which McGowan will tour, ‘Erik Satie’s Faction’, he intends to play all the music himself). McGowan brought Satie to life, revealing the composer’s eccentricies and idiosyncrasies through a series of engaging and often highly entertaining readings. We learn that Satie only ate white food, that he kept to a strict regime regarding work, mealtimes, walks, that he had only one love affair in his life (with Suzanne Valadon, which left him devastated when it ended), that Debussy enjoyed “eggs and chops”, that he was both entirely sure of his own opinions, but also quite self-deprecating.

McGowan inhabits Satie’s persona with ease and delivers his narration with character and obvious regard and affection for the quirky composer. The narration is interspersed with extracts from Satie’s music (mostly on this occasion the Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes) and my only frustration with this otherwise engaging and enjoyable show is that there wasn’t enough music. Pieces were begun, only to pause, mid-flow, and it would have been helpful to have had a playlist of works referenced in the programme. There were song extracts too, sung by McGowan’s wife, Charlotte Page, her voice floating ethereally around the roof of the church, suggesting the ghostly presence of Satie’s lover.

2016 marks the 150th anniversary of Satie’s birth and this show pays a warm, informative and entertaining tribute to the composer. McGowan will be touring with the show over the following months – do catch it if you can: it is well worth seeing.

More on Satie by Alistair McGowan

The Unsent Letters of Erik Satie

Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear

 

(photo of Alistair McGowan – BBC)