As befits an up-and-coming young artist who draws inspiration from James Bond not just in his music but also his image, pianist Emmanuel Vass’s debut at London’s Steinway Hall was stylish and suave. And the title of Emmanuel’s concert tour and debut CD, ‘From Bach to Bond’, reflected his varied musical tastes and repertoire.
He opened the “rush hour” recital (so-called because it started at 6pm) with Morton Gould’s Boogie Woogie Etude (1943), a work replete with classic foot-tapping boogie-woogie rhythms offset by traditional etude elements more commonly found in the music of Chopin and Liszt. The piece was a great opener, played with wit and energy. Placing it before Bach’s Italian Concerto was inspired: to hear Bach after Boogie-Woogie highlighted all the “jazz” idioms present in Bach’s music, some 300 years before the genre came to be – syncopation, counterpoint, and dynamic diversity. This was a lively and colourful account. The slow movement, which bears some relation to the Adagio of the Concerto in D minor after Marcello, was a study in restrained elegance. I was pleased too, that Emmanuel opted for a more reined in tempo in the final Presto, allowing us to enjoy all the elements of this movement. The entire concerto was convincing and proof that Emmanuel is equally at home in this type of repertoire.
The first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op 27 No. 2, the ‘Moonlight’, was pensive and mysterious, while the middle movement had a pleasing rusticity. There were a few anxious moments in the final movement, but despite this a strong sense of forward motion and purpose was retained.
Chopin’s Op 27 Nocturnes followed, with some sensitive handling of the melodic lines, the subtle shifts in mood and romantic sweep of these works. Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm reprised the humour and swagger of the Boogie-Woogie Etude. And another Etude closed the concert, the James Bond Concert Etude, Emmanuel’s own arrangement of classic Bond film themes, given a Lisztian treatment with vertiginous cadenzas and sparkling fiorituras. It could have been cheesey, but in Emmanuel’s hands it was classy and clever, and looks set to become a sophisticated virtuoso showpiece or encore.
Emmanuel’s debut CD includes more from his wide-ranging repertoire, including a sensuous Malaguena by Leuona, works by Debussy, and another of Emmanuel’s own arrangements, Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, all stylishly rendered.
Further concerts in the ‘From Bach to Bond’ tour:
Friday 3rd May – St. Saviourgate Chapel, York YO1 8NQ
Saturday 4th May – St James’s Piccadilly, London W1
Saturday 11th May – Heswall Hall, the Wirral, CH60 0AF
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?
It’s not a glamorous answer at all, I’m afraid. When I was about 5, I had this very basic toy glockenspiel that had different coloured keys. The toy came with a card which had different colours printed for different tunes. Together, these colours matched up with the coloured keys on the toy and you could play basic tunes; melodies such as ‘Ode to Joy’ and ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ etc. My parents could see how much I was enjoying it, and it was me who eventually said that I wanted to play the piano. I don’t come from a musical family at all, as such I don’t remember specifically watching or hearing somebody play the piano and wanting to emulate them. Who knows where I’d be if my parents hadn’t bought me that toy!
Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?
I think it would have to be a combination of my parents, as well as a legendary woman by the name of Penny Stirling. My parents both work full time and sacrificed an awful lot in order to provide my sister and I with what we needed. Whether it was taking me to evening concerts after they’d been working all day, taking a day off work to drive me to a music competition, or listening to me play a new piece in the living room of our house, they have been there every step of the way. Athletes and musicians have some integral things in common; one of the most important being totally supportive and dedicated parents. Penny Stirling is the founding manager of a government-funded scheme called Yorkshire Young Musicians. I started here at the age of 16, which saw me travel to Leeds every Sunday to receive advanced musical training, much like a junior conservatoire or specialist music school. Had I not studied at Yorkshire Young Musicians alongside my normal life as a comprehensive school/state school student, I very much doubt I ever would have gained a place at audition to study at the Royal Northern College of Music. Even now, at the beginning of my professional career in which I am quickly gaining some very prestigious opportunities and rapidly climbing up the ladder, I am still in contact with Penny for the odd bit of help, guidance and banter.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Getting over myself! I like to think that I work very hard and dedicate myself to improving my musical communication everyday. I absolutely love playing the piano, nothing compares to live performance and being on stage makes me feel the most alive. That said, from a young age I have “suffered” from sometimes crippling performance anxiety and an inability to replicate what I do so effortlessly in a practice room in front of an audience. Hours before a performance, I used to feel sick to the point of sometimes throwing up; I would shake, sweat, become tense and randomly develop a very runny nose. At the age of 23, I can now safely and proudly say I have managed to overcome these problems. I still feel the adrenaline rush, and I hope I always do. The big difference now is that I feel relaxed, poised, and in control. Physically I might sweat but it is no way near as debilitating as it once was. Being on stage is no longer an ordeal; it’s a great pleasure!
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
Difficult one, as I don’t wish to sound like I’m simply reeling off some of my best experiences. I am really proud of the recital I gave for Lord Levy and the Russian ambassador within his residency at Kensington Palace Gardens. It was such a beautiful environment, and I was so excited to be playing within Kensington Palace Gardens at the age of 19. Equally, I am still dead chuffed that I performed alongside The Manfreds, Blake and Lulu for the Prince and Princess of Monaco, and I got to meet them both after I performed. Who ever thought a Yorkshire lad from rural and quiet East Yorkshire would be performing in front of high European royalty! That concert gave me a tantalising taste of what might lie ahead for me, and really gave me a confidence boost straight out of graduating out of music college at 22. I always seem to remember the recitals I give for a reduced fee for charitable causes – I know artists are divided as to whether you should ever reduce your fee or “play for free”, but sometimes I think it’s important just to remember how lucky you are and help those who are in a less fortunate position.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
No, not really. Anywhere with a half-decent piano and people willing to listen and appreciate will do just fine thank you!
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
I adore performing anything by Bach. I think his music is so pure and expressive, and says so much in such a seemingly simple and elegant way. As a pianist, there are challenges with performing his music live, memory being one of them, but it is nevertheless very rewarding and fulfilling. Favourite pieces to listen to will take far too much time to detail. Let’s jut say during a long journey, I can get through everything and everybody starting from Monteverdi right through to the Spice Girls! (Am I allowed to openly admit that…?)
Who are your favourite musicians?
The majority of them are non-classical musicians, does that make me a bad person?! I really admire The Beatles and wish I could have been alive when they first exploded onto the scene during the 60s. A lot of people seem to forget that they were basically copying what a lot of African-American musicians were doing over in the States, but I still admire the way in which they brought it to a mass audience and developed their own unique sound. Listening to ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ from their album Revolver blows my mind pretty much every time I hear it. The same goes for David Bowie, T-Rex and Queen during the 70s; for me, everything they touched was pure gold. In terms of classical music, I am a massive fan of the British pianist Stephen Hough. I remember first listening to him play during one of the BBC Proms as a teenager. I just had no idea what had hit me, it was amazing! I also like how in interviews/writing, during masterclasses and even on Twitter, he comes across as a nice human being, as opposed to some sort of histrionic, pianistic machine that I have witnessed at times in other famous pianists.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
The first time I ever performed in public at the age of 7 at my village Methodist Church. I remember thinking, “Ey up, this is great!” I performed “Minuet in G major” by Bach from his Anna Magdelena notebook, “Walking in the air” from the Snowman, and “Yesterday” by The Beatles. Strangely enough, this mixture of playing different repertoire and styles has stayed with me right through to my career as a young adult, I never realised that until now. How strange!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Work hard, always stay human and keep an open mind about your future. I think keeping an open mind about your future is the most important.
What do you enjoy doing most?
For me, my ideal day involves going for a long run in the morning, usually up and down some big inclines to really get the heart racing. I’d then do some piano practice after lunch, followed by cooking a roast dinner for my close friends in the early evening. It would most likely be rosemary roast lamb or lemon and garlic chicken with all the trimmings, followed by ice cream or vanilla cheesecake for dessert. Probably both to be honest. Oh, wine would obviously be compulsory.
Emmanuel Vass was born in Manila, Philippines and grew up in East Yorkshire. Having passed Grade 8 piano with distinction at the age of 15, he subsequently studied with Robert Markham at Yorkshire Young Musicians, the centre for the advanced training for gifted young musicians based at Leeds College of Music. This was followed by four years at the Royal Northern College of Music, where Manny studied with John Gough and was supported by scholarships from the Leverhulme Scholarship Trust and the Sir John Manduell Scholarship Trust. He graduated in 2011.
Pianist, broadcaster and teacher David Owen Norris presented an engaging, informative and entertaining masterclass at the BBC Radio Theatre as part of the autumn season The Piano on the BBC. The event was filmed for the Radio Three website and BBC YouTube Channel and featured five young pianists, all recent graduates/post-graduates from music college or university.
The masterclass was called ‘Sooner or Later’ because it sought to explore, through individual performances of whole pieces by each pianist and then detailed work on aspects of the score, how pianists can play more expressively and ‘poetically’ by arriving at a note or phrase sooner or later, in effect using what musicians call tempo rubato.
Tempo rubato (literally “stolen time” in Italian) is perhaps most closely associated with the music of Fryderyk Chopin, his friend and fellow composer Franz Liszt, and other composers of the Romantic period. But it is possible to achieve rubato effectively in Bach and other baroque music: indeed, all music, to a greater or lesser extent, should contain rubato in order for it to sound natural. While we should never lose a sense of pulse, music that is strictly metrical, with no sense of space or shape within phrases or sections, can be dull and monotonous, both to listen to and to play. Playing with rubato gives the music expressive freedom, allowing it space, room to breathe – just as the human voice has shifts in dynamic, tempo and cadence.
As David Owen Norris pointed out, other instruments are able to achieve greater expressiveness through sound alone, but because the piano is a percussive machine, the pianist must employ different techniques to achieve expressiveness. When listening to music, the audience want to be “surprised” or “satisfied”, and when we are playing, we should be aware of musical “surprises” within the score (unusual harmonies, suspensions, unexpected cadences etc) as well as instances of “satisfaction” (resolutions, full cadences, returning to the home key etc.). We can highlight these through dynamic shifts, and also by the use of rubato – arriving at a note or end of a phrase sooner or later to achieve either surprise or satisfaction.
Rubato is not always written into the score (though Liszt has “written in” rubato in many measures of the Sonetto 104 del Petrarca, largely through the use of syncopation) and is often at the discretion of performer or conductor. It is perhaps most obvious when one hears a singer perform, and as a pianist, we can learn much from reimagining – and singing out loud – the melodic line as a sung line.
David Owen Norris (DON) used the example of Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words in B minor, Opus 67, no. 5 to demonstrate how the composer uses directions such as “sf” (sforzando) to highlight points of interest in the music. A less refined pianist might be tempted to simply lay extra emphasis or force on these notes, but as DON pointed out, a more expressive effect can be achieved by simply delaying the arrival at the note. It is the placing of the note and the fractional silence before it that can achieve the most poetic effects.
I also liked his definition of the hairpin crescendo marking being an indication to “set the music free” and “let it take flight”. Often, our natural inclination when we see such a marking is to increase the tempo slightly, just as we might slacken the tempo with a diminuendo. We can also highlight other aspects such as dissonance or unusual harmonic shifts by varying the tempo slightly, or allowing a certain spaciousness when playing repeated notes (example from masterclass – the ‘Andante’ from Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso Op. 14).
Rubato is not easy to teach, and inexperienced students may find it hard to shape phrases or allow “space” between notes convincingly. The key to good rubato is for it to sound natural and uncontrived. In my experience, too many pianists, professional and amateur, when playing Chopin, feel the need to pull the tempo around far too much, making the music sound schmaltzy and saccharine. It is the subtlety of rubato that makes it so convincing. This is why it is a important to encourage students to sing a phrase, listen to the natural shaping the voice gives to the melodic line and then recreate that at the piano. My recent experience as an accompanist has also taught me more about rubato, and the subtle fluctuations in tempo that another performer will bring to the music: a skilled accompanist will have the requisite empathy to “read” or predict where the other instrumentalist might place notes or phrases. The best rubato comes from within, and it should always be intuitive and unforced. I agree with David Owen Norris that this ability to play rubato convincingly and intuitively comes from both a detailed study of the score to gain a fuller understanding of the composer’s intentions and a sense of one’s own “personal sound” at the piano.
“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides!”
– Arthur Schnabel, pianist (1882-1951)
Music examples from the masterclass (links open in Spotify):
Emmanuel Vass, one of the participants in the masterclass will feature in a forthcoming ‘Meet the Artist’ interview. The film of the masterclass will be released on the BBC Radio Three website and YouTube channel on 17th September.
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