Leon McCawley (Photo credit: Clive Barda)

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

My parents didn’t come from a musical background but bought an upright for my two older sisters to learn so I am eternally grateful for that decision. For some mysterious reason I was drawn to the sound of the piano as an infant. I finally got my way and started piano lessons at the age of 5. It was my own choice and by the time I was 12, I had decided that I wanted to be a concert pianist.

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

My amazing teachers: Heather Slade-Lipkin, Eleanor Sokoloff and Nina Milkina. I feel very fortunate to have studied with the right teacher at the right time in my development. My playing is also very inspired by my wife, the artist Anna Paik. As she works hard on achieving a subtlety of different colours and nuances in her studio upstairs, I’m not that far away from these creative concepts in my own studio downstairs.

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

An artistic career will inevitably have its ups and downs and often many aspects of it are out of one’s control. The greatest challenge is remaining true to oneself, to forge an individual path without any compromises and not to be shattered by any frustrations that one may experience along the way. I feel so fortunate that I am pursuing my childhood passion and making my living out of something that I thoroughly enjoy. When I face any challenge, I always remind myself of this.

Which recordings are you most proud of?

With every recording I feel I am growing and learning more as a musician, as in every concert season. Recording the complete Mozart Piano Sonatas for Avie Records in 2006 was a huge undertaking and I am very glad to have accomplished this early in my career. I am happy to have a wide variety of repertoire in my discography: Barber, Beethoven, Chopin and Schumann to the less familiar Hans Gál and British composer Ronald Corp. I have two more discs out this year of Brahms solo piano works (Somm) and Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy (Naxos).

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

We have so many good ones in the UK so it’s hard to single out one. I love Wigmore Hall, The Sage Gateshead, King’s Place and Symphony Hall Birmingham to name but a few. I have happy memories of playing in the Rudolfinum in Prague and also the fine acoustics at the Meyerson Symphony Hall in Dallas.

Who are your favourite musicians?

From the past, I aspire to the pianism of Sergei Rachmaninov and Artur Rubenstein. I’m a great fan of Murray Perahia and always try and attend his concerts in London whenever I can.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Performing at the Musikverein when I won the Beethoven Competition in Vienna back in 1993 is high up there. Also the sheer thrill of walking out on stage at the vast Royal Albert Hall at the BBC Proms is special.

What is your favourite music to play?

I love the music of Schumann and am currently wrapped up in his glorious Carnaval. As a pianist there is endless scope and I am constantly updating my repertoire from season to season.

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

Concentrate on your own goals and try not to be affected by all the pressures around you or make unhealthy comparisons with other musicians.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Lounging on the sofa with my cat on my lap!

What is your most treasured possession?

My wedding ring: a gold band with a blue sapphire, designed by my wife.

English pianist Leon McCawley leapt into prominence when he won both First Prize in the International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna and Second Prize in the Leeds International Piano Competition at the age of nineteen in 1993.

Since then, McCawley has given highly acclaimed recitals that include London’s Wigmore Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall, Berlin Konzerthaus, Lincoln Center New York, Prague Rudolfinum and Vienna Musikverein. McCawley performs frequently with many of the top British orchestras and has performed several times at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. He broadcasts regularly on BBC Radio 3 in recital and with many of the BBC orchestras. Further afield he has performed with Cincinnati Symphony, Dallas Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, Netherlands Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra and Vienna Symphony among many others. Conductors he has worked with include Daniele Gatti, Paavo Järvi, Kurt Masur and Simon Rattle.

McCawley’s wide-ranging discography has received many accolades including two “Editor’s Choice” awards in Gramophone and a Diapason d’Or for his boxed set of The Complete Mozart Piano Sonatas.

McCawley studied at Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester with Heather Slade-Lipkin and at the Curtis Institute of Music with Eleanor Sokoloff. He also worked with Nina Milkina in London.

Leon McCawley is a professor of piano at London’s Royal College of Music and is married to the painter, Anna Hyunsook Paik.

www.leonmccawley.com

(Original interview date: April 2012)

 

In our celebrity-obsessed, ‘image is everything’ times, it seems that the fledgling concert pianist’s path to the modern concert arena – the ‘Three C’s’ of Conservatoire, Competition and Concerto – has turned professional piano playing into a kind of Olympian activity whose creed is “faster, higher, louder”, and has reduced the vast and wonderful repertoire to a relatively small stable of over-played warhorses, most notably, perhaps, the ubiquitous Rachmaninov Third Concerto. Today’s young piano superstars are using technique as the be all and end all, rather than as a means to serve the music. Thus, while we might be impressed by flashy technical prowess and grand gestures, we are often being offered only superficial display.

Just as the four-minute mile has been shaved down by 17 seconds over the 50 years since Bannister’s record-breaking run, certain pieces in the standard piano repertoire seem to be getting faster – and/or louder. I ran an informal poll amongst my Twitter followers and Facebook friends to see what other people thought about this. As one person said, “….people are generally and more easily drawn to the more obvious things in life (just take a look at anything in the media today). Faster and louder is definitely more obvious than subtle and artistic. It also requires less work….”

Thus, certain pieces are wheeled out over and over again by young, ‘generic’ pianists, not because they are necessarily the hardest in the repertoire, but because they are the most impressive, both visually and aurally. And here I must admit that I was absolutely gob-smacked by the speed at which Marc-Andre Hamelin’s hands moved around the keyboard at his late-night Liszt Prom, even though I didn’t like the actual piece (Fantasia and Fugue on B-A-C-H) that much. But in his Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude, Hamelin proved that he is not just a brilliant technician: his account was ethereal, luminescent, profound and emotional, and it spoke of a long association with the music, something which younger players may not appreciate with their desire to rush from showpiece to showpiece.

My informal poll revealed a general consensus about certain works, acknowledged amongst pianists to be some of the most challenging in the repertoire, in terms of technical difficulty and/or length. These include, in no particular order (links open in Spotify):

Beethoven – Op. 106, ‘Hammerklavier’. The daring opening leap should, of course, be played with one hand!

Ravel – Gaspard de la Nuit

Stravinsky – Trois Mouvements de Petrushka

Chopin – Etudes (especially Op 10 Nos 1 & 2, Op 25 Nos 6 & 11)

Liszt – Transcendental Etudes (especially Feux Follets, Wilde Jagd)

Liszt – B minor Sonata

Brahms – Paganini Variations

Rachmaninov – 3rd Concerto

Prokofiev – 2nd Concerto

Bartok – 2nd Concerto

Alkan – Concert for Solo Piano

Messiaen – Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus

Godowsky – transcriptions of Chopin Etudes

Sorabji – Opus clavicembalisticum (a piece which lasts around 4 hours)

Of course, while being hugely technically and physically demanding, many of these works, when played well, sound effortless (which, of course, is what we as pianists are all striving for!). And yet even the simplest piece, such as Mozart’s Adagio for Glass Harmonica, which I heard played as an encore at an eccentric little arts venue in Highgate some years ago, can sound sophisticated and refined – ‘Olympian’ even – in the right hands!

As a postscript, my own personal ‘Olympian’ works include:

Chopin – Etude Opus 10, No. 3. As my teacher said, the difficulty lies less in the technical demands, and more in the fact that this Etude is so well known, so one wants to do it justice.

Messiaen – Regard de la Vierge, no. IV of the ‘Vingt Regards’. For someone who had not really attempted any true atonal music before, the difficulty in this piece lay, initially, in “tuning” my ear into the discordant harmonies. Also, at first sight it looks utterly horrendous on the page!

Debussy – Prelude & Sarabande from ‘Pour le Piano’. The Prelude requires playful, fleet and pristine fingers, while the big, hand-filling chords of the Sarabande presented their own problem for the tenosynovitis in my right hand. Exercises and solid technique have enabled me to play this piece comfortably and without pain.

More on ‘Pianistic Everests’ from Tom Service