Mark Tanner

What is your first memory of the piano? 

Having a lovely time in my first piano lessons (but usually improvising when I was supposed to be practising), and nudging my mum off the piano stool so that I could take my turn. Also, listening to my father’s collection of jazz recordings – pianists such as Thelonius Monk, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck and Jacques Loussier: in fact, it was while sitting on stage right next to Loussier at one of his ‘Play Bach’ concerts at Bristol’s Colston Hall that I first woke up to the possibility of Classical music and jazz functioning plausibly together. Not too long after that, I had my own opportunity to play on that same piano as part of Fairfield Grammar School’s annual concerts, put together by the ever-energetic Bob Latham (whom incidentally I still rub shoulders with from time to time – we both adjudicate music festivals). I’ll never forget the feeling of smallness on that vast stage, surrounded by a sea of faces, nor the uproarious sound of the applause; it all seemed rather improbable to me at the time. At roughly the same time I appeared on a BBC TV piano competition as semi-finalist, and vividly remember having to improvise live on the programme in front of Sir David Willcocks in response to a video of a fire station amid full action-stations…

Who or what inspired you to start teaching? 

Teaching the piano, for me, seemed an inevitable adjunct to playing. I ‘fell into’ teaching I suppose, initially taking on an occasional youngster for a few quid while I was a first year student at college, and then getting rather more serious about it a little later on, with the taking of teaching diplomas and so on. I’ve always felt that teaching and playing are flip-sides of the same coin, and indeed that the crossover points are sometimes so hazy that it can be difficult to know who is gaining the most from the experience. I certainly never considered piano teaching to be a second-best option.

We all know that teachers regularly learn from their pupils (there’s nothing new in that, of course), and yet it strikes me that this is a crucial part of keeping going as a teacher. We hear constantly about how important our pupils are – well of course they are – but so is the mental health of their teachers! It’s worth bearing in mind that if teachers are insufficiently nourished by their daily experience, they may become jaded, semi-functioning box-tickers with one eye on the clock; not a recipe for happy piano lessons. Resisting this is easier said than done of course, and I have known of a number of perfectly good piano teachers who were simply not able to withstand the tide of fatigue and frustration that their jobs entailed. This is a real shame, and yet we shouldn’t be too quick to judge teachers who cave in under the strain of what is a tremendously tiring and responsible job.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers? 

I’ve been really blessed. Mrs Dean (I now realise that I never actually knew her first name), then Gwyn Pritchard – both as a boy in my hometown of Bristol – followed by Geoffrey Buckley, Philip Martin and Richard McMahon. I was given composition lessons by Richard Roderick-Jones and Andrew Downes and was fortunate enough to play in quite a number of masterclasses too, with John Ogdon, Peter Donohoe, John Lill and many more. Peter Johnson was my PhD supervisor at the Birmingham Conservatoire – he is a terrifically resourceful academic who never ran dry of suggestions or alternative ways of thinking about things; I owe him a great deal.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching? 

Well, inevitably all of the above people! Interestingly, my interactions with concert pianists quickly revealed to me that they operate quite differently, prioritise differently and hence directed me differently. To my thinking, the biggest challenge, from the perspective of a fragile music college student, is coming to terms with seemingly conflicting views. At first, it can all bubble up like a melting pot in one’s head, and one can end up feeling utterly rudderless and confused – until, that is, one wakes up to the startlingly obvious reality that one has to take one’s own view when it comes to matter of performance, and that often all one is really grappling with is a difference in emphasis.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?  

I suppose there are many individuals whom I feel I have been able to support along the way, and a number of these are ‘out there’ today, operating very comfortably within the music profession, as performers, teachers etc, even the odd rock star. It seems a bit ridiculous to single people out really, but I’ve often thought it remarkable that the very first piano lesson I ever gave as Assistant Director of Music at Taunton School in Somerset (arriving straight from a fairly harrowing PGCE course, I might add, where crowd-management seemed all too prevalent a feature), was to a lad who would turn out to be the most accomplished musician to come my way in sixteen years of teaching there. Each lesson was, in reality, a trawl through the great piano concertos – we’d hack our way through Rach. 3, the Grieg, anything I happened to have a copy of to hand, and his sight-reading was at least as good as mine, even then. (He is now much in demand internationally as a freelance organist and writer). School teaching was a very enriching experience for me, on the whole, and I certainly feel I learned a lot about aspects of music I’d never really come into contact with before, such as choral music and music technology. I also had the chance to do bits of conducting from time to time and to gain experience playing nearly all of the brass instruments that were lying about ownerless in the music school. During this time I was lucky enough to have both a head of department and a headmaster who were willing to let me off the leash, as it were, to perform all over the place and indeed to undertake research for my PhD, which involved day-release to Birmingham over a period of four years. Running concurrently with my school career, I did a fair amount of lecturing up and down the country, but notably at Dillington House and then at Jackdaws in Somerset; I feel an especial connection with Jackdaws to this day, generally running a couple of courses each year – notably a popular Summer School for Pianists. Jackdaws serves as a constant reminder to me that the learning process never stops, either for me or for the endless stream of people (many of a ‘certain’ age), who can amaze me with what they are doing at the piano. Incidentally, if you’ve not yet experienced Jackdaws, I’d suggest there’s a hole in your life that you’d better set about fixing straight away; it’s not necessarily because of the standard of playing (though there are some excellent players who attend the courses), more the level of human being.

At the same time, it’s good to remember that sometimes progress is measured in inches, not miles. Success for one person might constitute a complete disaster for the next, so ultimately the only person worth comparing yourself with is you. That way, you keep nudging your way forward, at whatever rate you are capable of, mindful of the fact that any distance travelled down the road of progress is better than none (even if it happens to be a tad less impressive than people half your age). I say this because I can call to mind a number of ex pupils who were less than remarkable as younger players, but who found their legs later, and it is so gratifying to learn that something you said or did as a teacher helped to bring about a eureka moment, maybe decades later. The dedication angle usually turns out to be absolutely crucial to succeeding in music – in my view diligence is at least as important as natural ‘talent’ (and let’s face it, could you ever find two people who could agree what talent actually is?)

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?

Adults are not big children (and therefore, it goes without saying, children are not small adults). To treat either as such is to misunderstand them, and it’s only a short step from here to underestimating them, patronising them and losing sight of what playing the piano actually means for them: experiencing enjoyment and fulfilment. In 95% of cases our adult pupils hanker after personal enrichment and a sense of engagement with something tactile and beautiful – and all of this is perfectly achievable without becoming a serial devourer of grades, diplomas or other gongs (helpful though these can undeniably be, though in a relatively small number of cases in my opinion).

Adults tend to talk rather a lot in lessons, I’ve noticed! This used to bother me – after all, surely it’s taking money under false pretences if much of the time is not spent ‘on the job’…then, one day quite a few years ago, it came to me in a flash…we all need different things from our piano lessons. Confidence-building can take many forms, and we don’t all need bolstering to the same extent or in quite the same way. I no longer feel guilty about having a cup of tea and a chat during a lesson…

Adults often lack an awareness of where they are at, both technically and musically, especially if they are not working under the auspices of a regular teacher; hence, they might turn up wearing a beaming smile, brandishing hopelessly unrealistic volumes of late Beethoven Sonatas, or whatever, and within two bars of stumbling about, I know this will end in tears, particularly if the student in question has already committed him/herself to an exam of some kind for which they are wholly unsuited. Related to this, is that I find adults frequently don’t seem to know what they don’t know, if you see what I mean, and hence, left to their own devices, they fixate on unreachable goals such as attaining a higher diploma, a qualification which is really designed to meet the needs of aspiring professionals, not amateurs. I’m all for working towards something a little way off, but in extreme cases only the most strong-willed teacher can succeed in imposing a restraining order.

Nevertheless, while the risks may sometimes be greater with adults, arguably the gains can be greater also. After all, unlike many children, adults know what their lessons are costing them in time, money, conflicting family pressures and so on, and hence in many cases it matters more to them. The adult learner is often a ‘returner’ – I can’t help noticing that the world seems to be full of grade 3 pianists who ‘gave up’ thirty-odd years ago. Things change, and life can overtake us, causing us to bid a reluctant farewell to the piano for a while, and yet thankfully, most people cherish the prospect of coming back to playing some day when the children are married off, they can afford a decent instrument and they rediscover that elusive bit of ‘quality time’. It can be terrifically rewarding as a teacher to help returners, but it certainly helps if they bring a measure of realism and common sense to their approach and are prepared to be guided.

What do you expect from your students? 

I suspect I’m rather untypical. As an examiner and trainer for ABRSM you might imagine that I spend much of my time ‘selling’ the Board’s wares…actually, I’ve always been a little slack in this area, to be frank. I generally wait for students to mention exams, and then I respond in the way I feel is right, but rarely do I initiate such discussion. I’ve known parents to be a little problematic if they carry with them personal ‘baggage’ (such as wanting their child to have the opportunities they didn’t, etc.) and this might mean that the teacher feels cajoled into entertaining the next exam before the time is ripe. I suppose I expect students to take their playing seriously, not to waste my time (or their own), and to aim to make the most of their attributes, be they great or small. In return, I try to be a cheerful motivator and to have a positive influence on the course they have chosen to undertake.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions? 

Interestingly, I notice that the question deliberately groups together exams, festivals and competitions as if they all amount to virtually the same thing. To my mind they are all very different; festivals may well be the right way to go for musicians who are more interested in participation than direct attainment, or for the musician who simply can’t get to grips with all of the supporting tests that are expected for the various grade syllabi. Here too though, teachers and parents all too often get the wrong end of the stick, and the poor child is frogmarched onto the stage, quivering like a jelly, with little hope of acquitting him/herself positively. I have adjudicated dozens of festivals up and down the country, and although overall I do feel they have an important basis for helping amateurs to evolve, I privately worry about the impact on the more fragile contestants who end up proving to themselves what they’d suspected was true along; a real pity. Following on from my comments in relation to the previous question, I feel that exams can play an important role, but only when all of the circumstances are right; they’re a double-edged sword. I deplore the sausage-machine approach (the minute grade 3 has been achieved, a spanking new copy of the grade 4 pieces is magically prised out, like a rabbit from a hat, with no time for consolidation, reflection, fun…).

Competitions are a rather different ballgame – these are for your more go-getter types who have probably already shown considerable aptitude in grades and/or festivals, and are now looking for something with a bit more ‘edge’ to keep them on their toes. But, with every winner there will be, by necessity, a whole bunch who did not win (or are ‘working towards’, to borrow a more politically correct term). Teachers ought to guard against exposing their pupils to less than positive experiences, and they should be continually guarded to the less than helpful influence parents can unwittingly bring to the situation. Whereas few parents would attempt to influence the strategy of, say, an A level maths teacher, some feel qualified to steer the piano teacher down avenues they’d rather not go, resulting in a less than happy outcome. All of this adds to the teacher’s lot, I’m afraid; ultimately, it’s about maintaining diplomacy and compassion, while keeping the pupil at the heart of it all.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students? 

For beginners, I feel lessons ought to be about helping them to fall in love with the sound of the piano – its vast range of effects, colours, idioms and styles. For this reason, I am a fan of demonstrating a lot in lessons – it’s not really showing off, so much as showing the instrument in the best possible light, to help them to recognise good playing when they hear it and to want to move towards that in their own playing. I’m not too fussed about introducing notation, not for quite a bit longer into the process than is seen as conventional. I believe that learning to read music is, especially for younger beginners, a big, unnecessary distraction that could easily wait until it is properly needed – in other words, I advocate the learning of notation on a strictly ‘need to know’ basis. After all, learning to play and learning to read are two quite separate things, notwithstanding the collision course that eventually occurs once they are properly up and running. I’d draw the line at an overly Suzuki approach however – the minute reading music shows the potential to become more of a help than a hindrance, it ought to find its way into the teaching. After all, we learn to speak years before we learn to write, and we learn to enjoy food years before we learn how to follow a recipe, so what’s the big rush with learning to read music?

With advanced students, I reckon there is generally still too much emphasis on whizzy-fingered playing. Technique is relatively easy to teach, in the scheme of things, and so teachers may be tempted to place undue emphasis on it, even when it ought to be clear there are more important musical issues still to resolve. My maxim is: come to an understanding of what you wish to achieve musically, and only then get to work on the technical procedures needed to make these achievable. The ‘notes-per-minute’ card can become a distraction from what I call ‘grown up’ piano playing, by which I mean things like chord-voicing (how many pianists, even at diploma level, know what that is?) and acquiring an understanding of what makes the music ‘tick’. There seems to be a prevailing confusion that pianists play, composers compose and analysts analyse, but I believe this to be too simplistic and ultimately somewhat limiting. A pianist who is really able to get to the soul of a piece has, perhaps instinctively, come pretty close to feeling what the composer felt when s/he wrote it. There has to be a measure of structural awareness therefore underpinning the playing, even if there is a shortfall in the ability to articulate it. It annoys me when people derive pleasure from referring to certain jazz pianists as non-readers, as though this in some way absolves them of the need to acquire high-level reading/analytical skills. (Besides, although Oscar Peterson didn’t read music, he understood it more profoundly than most).

Furthermore, only rarely do advanced students seem to be the ‘complete’ musician. Your average grade eight pianist wouldn’t be capable of playing a simple Christmas carol by ear in the key of B major without several minutes grappling and swearing, which I think means we as teachers must be overlooking this type of skill in favour of a more one-dimensional approach. I wish, too, that advanced players were more regularly encouraged by their teachers to measure their accomplishments in relation to the quality of what they are producing, rather than the self-evident complexity of the dots scattered over the paper. If a teacher were to suggest to a teenage boy that, despite having already gained his grade seven he might consider performing a grade five piece in public, I suspect a typical reaction would be that this is some kind of insult to his manliness, or at any rate, an inferred retrograde step. Surely, advanced players are so because they bring a heightened musical intelligence, stylistic awareness and flexibility of technique to their playing, and this should at all costs not be confused with being able to race through a piece at top speed with hurdles tumbling at every stride.

What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching? 

I’m guessing you are asking whether it is possible to teach the art of performance? If so – yes! (…and no…). I reckon it’s the case that teachers can only hope to tease out what is already there to be brought out. By the same token, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Having said that, I once had a pupil who gained a distinction in her grade 8 piano exam (mind you, it took her over a year to prepare the pieces) and only by applying every single nuance, tenuto, pedal effect that I handed to her on a plate. Left to her own devices, she demonstrated an alarming incapacity for artistry, but because she was bright, an attentive observer and a hard worker, she acquitted herself very well in the exam, and I remember feeling that she deserved her success. (I can’t help feeling, however, that if I’d handed her three similar pieces and put her on a desert island for another year without any help, she would revert to type: a grade 8 pianist going on grade 5).

With pupils on the cusp of giving recitals in public, I spend quite a bit of time on ‘owning the moment’, i.e. how long to wait before taking the first bow, how to create the right atmosphere before the first note is played, how fast to walk on and off the stage, etc. The theatrical element is, after all, an integral part of what goes into creating an impression with an audience, and even with very polished players it all needs properly tackling until it begins to feel natural. I also spend quite a bit of time working on memorising, programme building, developing sufficient stamina and generally getting to grips with the finer details that go into making a memorable performance.

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why? 

Among my favourite pianists would have to be Ivo Pogorelich, Murray Perahia and Howard Shelley. All three place artistry and finesse high up the agenda, but (certainly in the case of Pogorelich) in rather different ways. Technical aspects are so thoroughly embedded into their playing that one barely notices things like notes, just the larger musical gestures that add up to a persuasive personal account. I generally dislike players who possess an overly heavy foot (no names!) – after all, we play the piano with our fingers, not our feet, and that the sustain pedal is as likely to contaminate the sound as to assist it (ditto vibrato for singers, incidentally – and, rather like chilli powder, a little goes a long way). I also find it difficult to enjoy piano playing when it seems overly encumbered by exaggerated body movements in order to justify a massive rubato, especially when, in a recording, the visual element is no longer there to help us understand what on earth is happening.

Mark Tanner will be teaching at the following summer schools in 2013:

Chetham’s International Summer School for Pianists: 20th-26th August

Mark Tanner was born in Bristol in 1963. His first tentative solo appearance at Bristol’s Colston Hall, aptly described as “intrepid” by the Bristol Evening Post, came at the tender age of 13, and shortly after he appeared on BBC TV, playing Liszt. Studying piano with Philip Martin, Richard McMahon and Geoffrey Buckley, Mark gained his PhD from the Birmingham Conservatoire; he was awarded their honorary degree in 2009. He has appeared in many of Britain’s most celebrated recital halls, including five consecutive appearances at Wigmore Hall, the Purcell Room and St John’s Smith Square in London, as well as a number of prominent educational establishments including the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, London, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, RWCMD, Birmingham Conservatoire and Chethams International Summer School for Pianists. With duo partner Allan Schiller, Mark appeared at St George’s Bristol as part of the Mozart 250 celebrations; he has appeared there on many other occasions besides. He is a popular recitalist onboard cruise liners around the globe, including the entire Cunard, P&O and SAGA fleets, having now given several hundred recitals at sea, many of which have been with flautist partner Gillian Poznansky; the duo’s recording of music by Graham Lynch was chosen as an ‘Outstanding’ disc of the month in International Record Review and is broadcast regularly on BBC Radio 3. Together they have premiered several important new works at Wigmore Hall and elsewhere, with recent recitals at festivals in Spain and Denmark. Mark has broadcast several premières live on BBC Radio 3, and his many recordings have attracted consistently high critical acclaim. Of his York Bowen double-disc, Bryce Morrison wrote:

“Tanner’s performances are magnificent. Most pianists would give an arm and a leg, or at least a finger, to achieve his sumptuous sonority and seamless legato…such enviable breadth and poetic commitment.”

Mark has contributed hundreds of reviews and articles for International Record Review, Classical Music, Musical Opinion, International Piano and Piano Professional. He has also published scholarly articles in the USA and UK, including 19th Century Music and the Liszt Society Journal, and edited several contemporary scores for Peters Edition and Europa Edition. For Spartan Press he has published thirty albums of original music and a piano-friendly edition of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book in a much lauded new graded series. As a trainer and international examiner of grades and diplomas for ABRSM, Mark has undertaken tours to all five continents; he adjudicates festivals for the British and International Federation of Festivals and on three occasions judged the EPTA Piano Competition; he has given numerous lectures on a diverse range of subjects, as well as masterclasses in the UK, Europe and mainland China.

For sixteen years Mark was Assistant Director of Music at Taunton School in Somerset; he has now been active in music education for some 30 years and is currently a visiting lecturer of piano and composition at University College, Falmouth. He also enjoys preparing students for diplomas, college entry and recitals from his homes in Cornwall and Somerset. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a member of Mensa, and his first novel, Life on Mars? A Catinel’s Chance was published by Llama Press; with it he undertook a successful book-signing tour of Waterstone’s stores.

Mark Tanner’s website

Leon McCawley (photo: Clive Barda)

My first concert outing of 2013 was to hear British pianist Leon McCawley at London’s Wigmore Hall. The penultimate concert in Leon’s Mozart Sonatas cycle was my first review for Bachtrack, back in April 2011. This is my third Bachtrack review of this fine artist, who seamlessly combines a calm, self-possessed stage presence with immaculate technique, versatility and musical integrity.

Read my full review here

Leon McCawley’s Meet the Artist interview

Alisdair Hogarth

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?

Initially I used to hear both my mum and dad playing a lot of different piano repertoire and I remember really wanting to be able to play some of those pieces like they did. They both studied with an excellent teacher in County Durham and they had a big range of repertoire, but I loved the impressive stuff…Liszt and Chopin Etudes, Impromptus and Ballades. I used to try to play these pieces myself way before I was ready but it was all good fun! My mum actually studied at the RCM which is where I studied after going to university. So they were my initial inspiration to play. I also remember my dad playing me a record of Ashkenazy playing the Chopin Ballades which I loved; I think I wore the record out, along with my parents’ sanity! I decided to make it my career after I began studying with the British pianist Philip Fowke; after one year with him I made my debut with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which was an incredible experience with his guidance, and it inspired me to take things further.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?

My main teacher, Philip Fowke, has been the biggest influence on my playing, and I still play things to him now before big concerts. He is a person of great humility, but such incredible gifts, both in his playing and his teaching. I went to him when I was 13 and he had a refreshingly healthy attitude to the piano; he was and still is, always willing to think outside the box. I remember at my first lesson, we worked backwards through the piece! Your At the Piano interview with him sums up a lot of his teaching very well, but the thing that stands out for me was the way he would cut through to the heart of what was difficult about a certain passage. And armed with that knowledge he’d find a solution that always seemed to work for me. The result of all this was that he encouraged me to explore lots of ways of doing things rather than following ‘methods’, which I still do to this day. He was also able to demonstrate exactly what he meant at the keyboard, and immaculately, which I believe is really important in a teacher; that they can practise what they preach. I have been to so many master classes where the teacher has suggested something wacky, and I feel like standing up and saying “Well that’s great in theory; now show us!”

Philip studied with the great teacher Gordon Green (who also taught John Ogdon, Stephen Hough, Martin Roscoe to name a few) and when I went to the Royal College of Music after university I was lucky enough to study with one of Philip’s best mates, John Blakely, who had also studied with Gordon. John was equally brilliant and was a master of helping you completely get your head around an issue in a piece by summing it up in one sentence. Technically, a lot of the things he taught were very similar to Philip, so it was great getting continuity on this front; I never had conflicting views. My final influence is Peter Katin, with whom I studied for two years after the RCM. Peter gave me some very detailed technical work and I studied the Rachmaninov Preludes with him; his recording of them remains one of my favourites. He also recorded Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals with Philip Fowke, so all three of my teachers are linked really.

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

I think balancing a career in performing and teaching, and at the same time balancing this with a family life. I’m lucky that a lot of my work can be done from home, so I get to see my wife and two kids during the day when we can have fun; then I’ll be off to work later in the afternoon and evening. Although…when I’m practising at home sometimes my 1 year old and 4 year old decide to play too; I’m used to shutting it out now and it almost makes it easier when I play a concert because I finally get to concentrate on what I’m doing with no distractions!

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?

The recording I’m most proud of is the first recording I did with my group The Prince Consort for Linn Records: ‘On an Echoing Road – Songs by Ned Rorem’. Also our debut at Wigmore Hall with Graham Johnson joining me at the piano was a pretty special time too. Graham gave us some great insights into how to make the most of Wigmore’s amazing acoustic; tips that we still take on board when we perform there now.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

Well there are lots of places I love playing, but the place that I’ve performed the most is Wigmore Hall in London; it’s a beautiful hall to play in, with an incredible acoustic. Most of my work is with singers and they love it too. The Director there, John Gilhooly, is extremely forward-thinking but also realises the importance of respecting traditions which is something I try to bring into my own work too, so I enjoy working with him on new programmes for the venue. I also like Perth Concert Hall in Scotland, for its amazing pianos, great space and forward thinking programming led by James Waters.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I think my favourite solo piano piece to perform is the Rachmaninov Sonata No. 2 Op. 36 and I play it in the original 1913 which I prefer to Rachmaninov’s revision (as do many pianists). In the song repertoire, I always enjoy playing the Brahms Zigeunerlieder; I just recorded it with my buddy, the mezzo Jennifer Johnston for the BBC.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Too many to mention, but I enjoy hearing musicians who are great at what they do in all fields of music, including jazz and musicals.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

It’s not really a concert experience, but when we (Prince Consort) were performing in the Gramophone Awards, we were told by the Dorchester Hotel that there was no rehearsal room available as it had to be used for press, so they told us to rehearse in the room where they were serving cream teas. We were performing a particularly turbulent piece by Stephen Hough, that included hitting the keys with your fists; Simon Lepper and I looked up from the keyboard to find Sharon Osborne looking straight back at us, eating a scone. Then we all got told to leave; it felt like the X-Factor!

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

My best advice would be to find other musicians and people that work in the music industry that you admire and trust, and really listen to their advice; both about how to play, but also how to manage the myriad of other things involved in being a musician. Having said that, I also think it is important to find your own personal way of doing things once you have taken this advice on board. I also think it’s important to play music you love and that you are really excited to learn, as well improvising and generally messing about at the keyboard.

What is your most treasured possession?

Apart for the obvious things like my wedding ring and personal items, my Steinway Model A; it was owned by Benno Moiseiwitsch, and then Philip Fowke, and I had all my lessons on it from the age of 13 – 21.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Hanging out with my wife, who is awesome, and our two beautiful kids.

What is your present state of mind?

Chilled, I’m having a pint!


With a prominent background in both solo and song-accompaniment, Alisdair Hogarth is a versatile pianist combining a robust technique with a fresh, contemporary edge.

He made his concerto debut in 1996, at the age of fifteen, as soloist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall broadcast live on Classic FM, and has since performed many concertos with a variety of orchestras, including tours of Hungary and the Czech Republic (Rudolfinum).

He regularly broadcasts for BBC television, BBC Radio 3 and World Service, Classic FM and New Zealand Concert FM. Recent performances have included the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Wigmore Hall, Purcell Room, Cadogan Hall, Bridgewater Hall and Philharmonic Hall, as well recitals for British music societies and international festivals. Most recently he performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in New York with the National Symphony Orchestra under Anthony Inglis as well as a performance at the 2010 Gramophone Awards. Future performances include many appearances at Wigmore Hall as well as recitals abroad including the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam.

Committed to song-accompaniment, Alisdair formed a group of young professional singers, The Prince Consort, which focuses on piano-accompanied song. Following their highly-acclaimed recital debut at the Purcell Room as part of the ‘Fresh’ Young Artists Series they perform frequently at music societies and festivals throughout Europe and the USA. They made their Wigmore Hall debut in 2009 where they were joined by Graham Johnson for the Brahms Liebeslieder Walzer. Their first commercial CD, a recording of songs by Ned Rorem released on Linn Records, was Gramophone Editor’s Choice and won an Outstanding award from International Record Review. They also have a close relationship with the Britten-Pears School in Aldeburgh where they held a residency to prepare for the recording and performed a recital in the prestigious Britten Weekend. Alisdair has performed with Sir Thomas Allen, Rosemary Joshua, Lillian Watson, Donald Maxwell and is the regular accompanist to many of his generation’s finest young singers, including Anna Leese, Jennifer Johnston, Andrew Staples, Jacques Imbrailo and Tim Mead. He has just returned from Korea where he gave two recitals with Barbara Bonney. Current projects include a recording on Linn Records with Philip Fowke and Stephen Hough, performing Brahms Liebeslieder and a new song cycle written by Stephen Hough specifically for The Prince Consort. This CD was selected as Classic FM Editor’s Choice in October 2011.

Alisdair studied privately with Philip Fowke and subsequently with Peter Katin, and also at the Royal College of Music with John Blakely and Roger Vignoles where he won all the major prizes for piano accompaniment. In the same year he was selected as a Park Lane Group Young Artist. He was an RCM scholar supported by the Fishmongers’ Company Music Scholarship, Michael Whittaker and Robert McFadzean Whyte Awards and is an alumnus of the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme. Alisdair acknowledges the kind and generous support of Simon Yates, and Philip and Chris Carne.

The Prince Consort’s new album, Other Love Songs, is now available for high-quality download on

Karl Lutchmayer

What is your first memory of the piano?

Actually, and rather embarrassingly, I used to use the spaces between Bb and C# and Eb and F# to park my Dinky cars – and run them along the fronts of the white notes! It always vexed me that the spaces between other black notes weren’t wide enough for such a clearly useful purpose. However, it is also true to say that, at about the same time, I would hear my mother playing those timeless classis such as Rustle of Spring, Maiden’s Prayer and In a Persian Market.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

I am ashamed to say that in my 20s it was simply an economic necessity! However that changed significantly when I was awarded the Lambert Fellowship to return as a member of the keyboard faulty at the Royal College of Music, and it was here that I realised that I was far better at connecting with older minds, and it was at this time I stopped working with younger pupils.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

One always remembers one’s first teacher! June Luck (with whom I had tea recently!) taught me from middle C up to my Diploma and entry to the RCM, and I know it’s a cliché, but probably taught me as much about life as she did about playing the piano. Then there was John Barstow, who, somehow, and I really don’t know how he did it, managed to turn youthful dreams into grown up realities (as long as students were willing to work!). And here again too, broader culture was as important as practice – he expected students to go to concerts, the theatre, read literature, follow current events. After that there were of course many other extraordinary musicians who helped me to grow, but perhaps Lev Naumov (formerly Neuhaus’ assistant) stands out for showing me how to throw away the score!

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

Of course my own teachers, but also the many extraordinary treatises, from CPE Bach, and Czerny to Schnabel, Brendel, Rosen etc. Each time I open up one of those tomes I become acutely aware of my own ignorance, and try to become a little better! Also Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, which has been by my side for a couple of decades now, but most importantly, as any teacher knows, my students, from whom I learn at least as much as I attempt to impart.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

Every time a student tells me that I’ve made a difference to their life – I can’t imagine anything more significant than that.

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?

The passion – the idea that amidst a busy life here are people who want to be part of the tradition of human creativity. Of course, bringing such a wealth of experience, often quite, quite different from one’s own is also exciting as it offers so many various ways of discussing and understanding a concept. But it is so hard for adults to get used to the idea of necessary repetition, when its something they usually left behind at the school gate.

What do you expect from your students?

I expect them to do all they can with all that they have. The results don’t actually matter, as long as the journey is honest, which is why I get upset with the lazy ones, and those just in it for the buzz/fame/ ego, no matter how good they are, but the honest student with meagre talents is always a joy. If it isn’t about the journey of a whole person I really don’t know what the point is.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Gyorgy Sandor once told me that in his day pianists played concerts, but now they played piano competitions because there were no concerts left! In some ways he was probably right. A judicious use of exams/festivals/competitions in order to fire the work ethic/enthusiasm seems very wise – so that the young artist understands what it is to throw themselves at a particular goal at a particular moment (and let’s be honest, unlike most professions, we can’t just stand up in the boardroom and say ‘sorry been very busy, will a week next Tuesday do?’!), but as soon as they become an end in themselves they can only harm the art. After all, the artist has to throw himself wholly at his art every single day. I remember, when I was teaching in America, how students would ask whether it ‘would be in the test’ – when music becomes about jumping over hurdles, or acquiring laurels then it inevitably forgets about touching souls.

However, perhaps we should start being more honest in the big international piano competitions. We all know they’re fixed, whether through outright skulduggery or old fashioned juror bias, so why not instead make it a purely sporting event. Speed trials with time penalties for wrong notes and split-screen TV coverage, loudest chords and fastest octaves measured electronically, a speed learning competition, audience prizes for the most dolefully dreamy stare into the middle distance etc – what a great spectator sport, and at least it would be honest! 😉

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

I don’t really teach beginners, but from the wrong end of the telescope it seems to me that the fundamentals must be entirely thorough – fluency and lack of tension in the body, a real understanding of notation (I have yet to meet a 1st yr college student who understands the very different purposes of a slur and a phrase mark), a sense of musical style and an understanding of how music works.

For my advanced students these are all the same issues! But most particularly the idea of interpretation – the art of investing a score with life in an honest and coherent way. Once that is understood, adapting one’s skills to allowmit to happen in concert is just a matter of hard work!

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects the job?

Best is to see a musician grow and be able to help that process, and to meet so many wonderful people (anyone who loves the piano is going to be a friend of mine!). Worst is dealing with the many terrible neuroses which seem to come out so clearly in music making and so hamper the individual.

What is your favourite music to teach? To play?

To teach – Haydn. He knows all the rules, and constantly subverts them! It’s just so joyous!

To play – hmmmm. I love playing Liszt and Busoni, and at the moment I’m thrilled to be immersed in Alkan for the bicentenary next year, but every time I approach Beethoven I know I’m in for a rollercoaster ride – so vexing and daunting, but there is nothing like that moment after you’ve just played the last chord of one of the sonatas!

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?

Pierre Laurent Aimard – an extraordinary artist at his best (although it does sometimes appear that he does too much) and his masterclasses combine the practical with the truly revelatory.

David Dubal – although he rarely plays the piano these days, his unique way of challenging, beguiling and even outraging his students, and his unbelievable breadth of culture pays the most extraordinary dividends. A true educator (recalling that the word ‘education’ actually means to draw forth, quite different from instruction, which is putting in!).

Karl Lutchmayer studied at the Royal College of Music under Peter Wallfisch and John Barstow and also undertook periods of study with Lev Naumov at the Moscow Conservatoire. For his Masters’ degree he conducted extensive research into performing practice in the piano music of Busoni, since when his research interests have grown to include Liszt, Alkan, Enescu, The Creative Transcription Network, reception theory, and the history of piano recital programming. He later returned to his alma mater and started his lecturing career when the prestigious Constant & Kit Lambert Fellowship was awarded to him by the Worshipful Company of Musicians – the first time in its history that it was awarded to an instrumentalist.

Full biography here

Benjamin Grosvenor (photo credit: Sussie Ahlberg)

A recent recipient of two Gramophone awards, young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor made his Queen Elizabeth Hall debut in a concert focusing on stylised dances – from the stately Allemandes and Sarabandes of a Bach Partita through Polonaises, Mazurkas, and Waltzes to a foot-tapping Boogie-Woogie for an encore. Read my full review for Bachtrack here

International Piano Series at the Southbank Centre

Peter Donohoe (image credit: Susie Ahlburg)

Tchaikovsky – Scherzo à la Russe, Op. 1 No. 1 Intermezzo in E flat minor, Op. 1 No. 2

Prokofiev – Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 1

Bartók – Rhapsody, Op. 1

Schumann – Abegg Variations, Op. 1

Berg – Sonata, Op. 1

Brahms – Sonata No. 1 in C major, Op. 1

Peter Donohoe, piano

Acclaimed British pianist Peter Donohoe opened the 2012-13 season of concerts hosted by Sutton House Music Society with a coruscating performance of music by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Bartók, Schumann, Berg and Brahms. Intriguingly entitled ‘Opus 1’, the programme featured early works by these great composers. As Peter said in his introduction, ‘Opus 1’ does not indicate the first ever piece written by the composer, but rather the first published work. These works are revealing in that they all contain fascinating pre-echoes of the composers’ later music, as well as highlighting the diversity, originality, and future maturity of these composers. The theme of the concert also enabled contrasting composers – Tchaikovsky and Berg, for example – to be programmed together. The first half of the concert was all Slavic composers, the second all Germanic.

“My first published piece was Scherzo à la russe, Op. 1″ so wrote Tchaikovsky in a letter to Nadezha von Meck, in 1879. Dedicated to the great pianist Nikolai Rubinstein (who famously rejected Tchaikovsky’s first Piano Concerto as unplayable), the Scherzo a la russe and Impromptu in E-flat minor both show evidence of the composer’s later style, particularly that of the Nutcracker ballet score.

The Scherzo, based on a Ukrainian song which the composer heard from the gardeners at Kamenka, the home of his sister, begins innocently enough, with a naive melody, executed with a disarming simplicity by Donohoe, before moving into more chorale-like territory. The return to the opening theme is marked by cascades of octaves, all handled with ease. The Impromptu, meanwhile, marked ‘Allegro Furioso’, opens in a brash, excitable gallop, cast in unremitting quaver triplets, which gives way to an arresting, Chopinesque middle section played with great expression and beauty of tone.

Anyone familiar with Prokofiev’s later works, striking for their uncompromising, exciting and original harmonic landscapes, could be forgiven for mistaking the Sonata No. 1 for a work by Glazunov (one of Prokofiev’s professors). Although not part of the composer’s juvenilia, nor does it hint at his later style: rather, it is a showcase of the composer’s pianistic skills. It was not especially well-received, and was attacked by modernists for being “too orthodox”, perhaps because it shows the influence of composers such as Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Busoni, and, above all, Anton Rubinstein (a favourite composer of Prokofiev’s mother). Scored in a single movement in rigid sonata form (exposition, development, recapitulation), it suggests an unwritten second and third movement, and has a sweeping lyricism with a strong emphasis on melody. It was played with flamboyance, with bright fortes and passages of great warmth, intensity and romance.

Bartok’s Rhapsody Opus 1 is full of premonitions of his later works – bass drones, open fifths, folk melodies and dances – yet has a strong affinity with Liszt in its thunderous virtuosic passages, sweeping scale and its masterful juxtaposition of the ethereal (in the opening Adagio) with the ominous in the boisterous and colourful second section. It was performed with great involvement and commitment, Donohoe highlighting perfectly the contrasting moods, colours and textures of the music, including some wittily executed glissandi and hushed pianissimo passages.

Schumann’s ‘Abegg Variations‘ felt like more familiar territory, with arabesques and fiorituras, and cantabile melodies redolent of Chopin. Despite its opus number, this work was neither Schumann’s first work, nor his first set of variations. With its letter-to-pitch derivations, the music prefigures ‘Carnaval’, and the later fugues on the name BACH. Each variation was executed with delicacy of touch, a rich mellifluous tone, and sparkling flourishes.

The Berg Sonata, like the Prokofiev, is cast in a single movement, with an exposition that includes two contrasting themes, a development section in which the themes are expanded, a recapitulation, in which the themes are restated, and a plaintive coda. It makes use of many tonal suspensions, which create some particularly haunting passages. The work is poignant and passionate, with a dramatic intensity, which Donohoe maintained throughout, playing with great commitment, at times as if for himself alone.

In contrast, the Brahms Piano Sonata opens with a thrilling opening gesture reminiscent of Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata, offset by a tender second theme, which prefigures the composer’s later writing for the piano. The slow movement is tender and songful, the Scherzo all Beethovenian swagger and rhythmic vitality, while the Finale reprises the ‘Hammerklavier’ idea in a dancing Rondo theme with contrasting episodes. In it, Donohoe demonstrated his ability to switch seamlessly between power and resolution, and warmth and lyricism. This was truly a thrilling finale to a fascinating, insightful and deeply involving concert.

Sutton House Music Society is based at Sutton House, a Tudor house run by the National Trust in Hackney, east London. Concerts are held in Wenlock Barn, an intimate recital space which allows audience to feel very connected and involved with the performer/s. The Music Society hosts a varied selection concerts, offering audiences the chance to hear top-flight artists as well as up-and-coming talents. For details of forthcoming concerts, please click here.

The next concert at Sutton House is on Sunday 18th November and is given by pianist Elena Riu. Elena will feature in a Meet the Artist interview ahead of her concert.

My Meet the Artist interview with Peter Donohoe

Sutton House Music Society website