Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

I did not grow up in a musical family and so started playing the piano relatively late, shortly before I turned 10 years old. I was bought a battery-operated keyboard for Christmas – soon outgrown! – and was instantly gripped. I frequently had to be torn away to do my school homework. The real catalyst for my wanting to pursue a career in music was when I attended by first BBC Prom concert. I was so captivated by the atmosphere, the music, the sound of the orchestra and the grandeur of the Royal Albert Hall!

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My teachers have, without a shadow of doubt, been the greatest influences on my life as a musician. My first principle piano teacher during my formative years studying at the Purcell School and RCM Junior Department (2001-2007) was Emily Jeffrey, and she has had a remarkable and sustained influence on my life and music-making ever since. Ronan O’Hora, my subsequent teacher is a musician of the highest order whose teaching balances high demand on artistic integrity with a philosophical outlook that enables the individual within to find freedom. My current professor, Eliso Virsaladze, is an extraordinary person (not least because she can demonstrate any repertoire sublimely from memory at the drop of a hat, and that she can speak ten languages fluently!). Her artistry and teaching is legendary the world over, and justly so. It is a tremendous privilege to be able to work with her.

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

Maintaining the willpower to keep growing and developing all the time takes huge energy, but I suppose it gives a certain type of energy back. In real terms, I sometimes struggle with the public aspect of life as a performer – the need to be your best always, the business of “networking” and actively telling people about your work etc. It is sometimes at odds with my rather more introverted nature. Despite what people may see on the outside, or when I am on stage, I am, in principle, a private person and sensitive to my moods. Sometimes I really want to perform yet there is no concert until next week, and when there is a concert to perform, I just want to lock myself away practise late into the night by candlelight or read a wonderful book!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Certain performances stand out as more memorable and for different reasons. In 2007 I performed Rachmaninov’s 2nd Concerto with the RCM Junior Department Symphony Orchestra having won the concerto competition the year before. I would probably dislike many things about that performance were I to listen it now, but I remember feeling at the time that it really represented my work over six years with my first main teacher and was somehow my “graduating” performance. Last year I gave my second recital for the Chopin Society, that time on Chopin’s own Pleyel piano. I just felt a complete sense of abandonment of all physical or psychological inhibitions and felt so engaged with the beauty of the music on the piano Chopin himself had played. It was a magical experience. Also, my latest CD for Willowhayne Records is a source of pride, not least because it features the first recording of Thomas Adès’s Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face other that the composer’s own. It’s a monstrously difficult piece (he’s arranged it for two pianos in the hope of having it played more!).

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Some pieces feel as though they come so much more naturally than others. I remember when I first started studying Chopin’s Barcarolle and his Andante Spianato et grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22 they felt as though I had played them before. It usually depends on my affinity with the qualities of individual pieces and sometimes this can change from day to day. Repertoire is rather like people and friends in that sense.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Mostly this would be wish lists, but I try to find interesting themes, or tailor programmes to suit the requirements of certain organisations. I think being flexible and open to discovery is really important.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I have been fortunate to have played in some really amazing halls, but the Brahms-Saal of the Musikverein in Vienna and the Philharmonie in Cologne were among the most heavenly experiences. Aesthetic beauty and superb acoustic made them particularly effortless joys. For a pianist, the instrument is every bit as important and, when I was on my ECHO Rising Stars tour, Kawai supplied me with a Shigeru Kawai concert grand (which I had chosen in Germany the year before) and a master piano artisan technician for the concerts. With every venue I could walk out on stage with absolute trust that the instrument would not only respond to my every demand but inspire me further still.

Who are your favourite musicians?

There are too many! At least among the living pianists I would include (in no particular order) Martha Argerich, Richard Goode, Eliso Virsaladze, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Radu Lupu. If I were to talk singers, string players, conductors we’d be here forever! However, I could not fail to mention the likes of Arthur Rubinstein, Cortot, Arrau, Richter, Clara Haskil from the past, however…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Purely for the fun of it: when the pedal lyre fell off altogether during a Tchaikovsky Concerto and another time when the fire alarm went off during my encore after a Chopin Concerto in Germany. When I played in the same hall the following season I just had to play the same encore to finish it!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Better for other people to decide!

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

Also a difficult question to find a suitable response to, because everybody needs different advice to follow their own unique path. The most important thing may be to have the courage to keep searching for the truth in the music, whatever that may be. Keep your integrity as high as you can, but be flexible and open to discover. Never imitate anyone, least of all yourself. Read lots of books and see as many great paintings as you possibly can!

Ashley Fripp’s CD of music by J S Bach, Ades and Chopin is available now on the Willowhayne Records label.


British pianist Ashley Fripp frequently appears as solo recitalist, chamber musician and concerto soloist in many of the world’s most prestigious concert halls, having performed extensively throughout Europe, North America, Africa, Asia and Australia. Recent international highlights include the Carnegie Hall (New York), Musikverein (Vienna), Concertgebouw (Amsterdam), the Philharmonie halls of Cologne, Paris, Luxembourg and Warsaw, the Bozar (Brussels), Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, the Royal Festival, Barbican and Wigmore Halls (London), the Megaron (Athens), Konserthuset (Stockholm) and the Gulbenkian Auditorium (Lisbon).

Read more

Composer, musician, singer-songwriter, record producer and conductor, Mike Batt has teamed with record label Guild Music to release a special recording of Holst The Planets that he conducted in 1993. Here he shares his thoughts on why The Planets is such a significant work and the challenges of working on it with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, together with some insights into his musical and creative life…..

What it is about The Planets that makes it such an attractive piece to conduct?

It’s a seriously wonderful piece of orchestral composition. Maybe that’s obvious but The Planets has such melodic strength, and depth of orchestration and it ranges across the entire spectrum of emotions and dynamics. It’s not just “Programme music” like a piece “about” each particular planet. In Saturn – The Bringer Of Old Age, you feel the emotional weight of old age, in the dark, lumbering opening. Later in that movement you get a bit of feisty madness, maybe even confusion coming in, always in an original and musically striking way. It’s a real adventure for the listener just as it must have been for the composer.

Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?

For some reason, as soon as I heard orchestral music. I wanted to be a conductor. I didn’t grow up in a musical family. There was almost no music in the house. The junk mail leaflet from Concert Hall records dropped through the letterbox when I was about 11 and that was it. Once I heard Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, I wanted to conduct it. The fact that my granny sent me an LP called “Music for Frustrated Conductors” with little diagrams of a cartoon bloke diagrammatically conducting the basic rhythms, might have contributed! I read an interview a while ago where Simon Rattle said he had partly been influenced into conducting by that very same album!

Mike-Batt-conducting-Credit-Claire-Williams
Mike Batt conducting (photo: Claire Williams)

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?

My love for music is almost too eclectic for my own good, to the extent that people might be confused by it. But I wouldn’t change the chameleonesque nature of my “theatres of operation” and my passions and influences, which range from from Mozart to Bartok and The Beatles, The Rolling Stones to Frank Zappa and Count Basie.

How exactly do you see your role as a conductor? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?

An orchestra definitely gets a vibe from a conductor and vice versa. The conductor needs the orchestra to feel confident that he or she won’t let them down by screwing up, or make them play a piece in ways that they don’t feel appropriate (eg., tempi that they hate) – although that’s part and parcel of being an orchestral musician. If an orchestra “likes” a conductor and empathises with him, they will play better for him. If they can see it matters to him, they will try to deliver. A bit of an eye contact just before a woodwind or horn entry, for example, works wonders to make the player feel that you know where he or she is coming in and would like to share the moment. If you punch the air at the brass section just as they are breathing to come in fortissimo they actually do play fortissimo!

As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?

The best way is by body language. You should be able to walk in and just play, maybe with a little pre-explaining any particular ideas you have, but it should mostly come from your baton, body and face. You are sort of dancing with the band , and you are “leading” the dance. A great orchestra will observe a rubato moment that has never been discussed, just by what they see and feel from the conductor. They should and do follow that baton, far more than non-musicians could ever imagine. Conducting a great orchestra is like driving an F1 car. They respond completely to the slightest gesture.

This was your first time working with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. What was the most challenging part of conducting them?

I’ve worked with them many times since – but this recording was 25 years ago. It’s always a thrill to meet a new orchestra and when you know you have top notch players, you know the job will get done, and to the standard you want. Call me an optimist! But “meeting” a new band is rather like a first date. There are a few nerves. It takes only a few seconds for the conductor to size up the orchestra, and crucially for me, vice versa! So the challenges are only psychological. If you have top players the challenges are shared, – you are all after the same thing, a brilliant performance. When I was younger I had an experience where an overseas orchestra decided they didn’t much like me after only a few seconds. You could just tell. You learn by such experiences. You still get the job done but it’s less comfortable.

And what is the most fulfilling aspect of conducting the RPO?

Somehow that day in 1993 when we recorded the Planets it was just a joy to do it. I could see they were enjoying it, and so was I. The room (Watford Town Hall) had wonderful acoustics and I can’t think of a panicky or unpleasant moment. I would cite that whole day of recording as one of the most fulfilling events of my musical life.

Is there one work which you would love to conduct?

Schubert: 9th Symphony (The “Great” C major)

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

The Royal Albert Hall. It’s intimate and cozy, strangely. Yet it has that special majesty and charisma. You also know the audience are taking in that wonderful atmosphere before you even play a note!

As a musician and composer, what is your definition of success?

It can be so many things, depending on how you look at it. The parameters of commercial success have changed so much that it’s hard to say what is a “hit” and what isn’t. But artistically, if a composition succeeds in moving the audience and conveying the feeling you had when you wrote it, that is success. If you felt tearful writing it, you can bet the audience will feel tearful listening. If you were writing a funny, witty piece and you chuckled or were amused, the audience will chuckle and be amused too. That’s success.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Partly answered above. But guitarists John Paracelli and Chris Spedding are “up there” as musicians. So many classical musicians to choose from. Nicola Benedetti is such a wonderful violinist, so I’ll choose her. The (sadly) late Douggie Cummings (former principal cellist of the LSO) was an astonishingly good “life force” to have in the room while working, a beautiful player. Composers? Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Brahms, Beethoven Schubert, Tchaikovsky. All possibly boring marquee names to choose, but that’s why they got there!

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

Don’t get into gangs and cliques. Seriously, snobbishness in music is necessary in getting everyone to feel special about their music, but leave the snobbishness (again, sadly) to the audiences. You as a practitioner should feel free to enjoy every genre and do what you like. Oh, and practice until you’re blue in the face. Be passionate. If you aren’t passionate don’t get into it full time. Do it as a hobby. Even then you’ll enjoy it more if you are passionate. Pretty obvious I guess.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Knowing that my family could be happy and secure and fulfilled

What is your present state of mind?

Restless, with so much more to do as time marches on and I get older. I wish I could live for a lot more musically capable, healthy years than will probably be the case. Does that mean there will always be a project that I’ve conceived that I will never see come to fruition? Probably. I’m not afraid to die, I’m just afraid of not being alive.

 

To mark the centenary of the first performance of Holst’s The Planets on 29th September 1918, Guild Music presents the first complete release of a recording that Mike Batt made in 1993 that has lain in the vaults for 25 years. Produced by Robert Matthew-Walker and engineered by Abbey Road’s Simon Rhodes. Further information


Michael Batt LVO is an English singer-songwriter, musician, record producer, director, conductor and former Deputy Chairman of the British Phonographic Industry. He is best known for creating The Wombles pop act, writing the chart-topping “Bright Eyes”, and discovering Katie Melua. He has also conducted many of the world’s great Orchestras, including the London Symphony, Royal Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, Sydney Symphony and Stuttgart Philharmonic in both classical and pop recordings and performances.

 

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

My family owned an old upright piano that had belonged to my grandparents. It was brilliant to muck around on, and I remember trying to play some TV themes: I got quite good at Grange Hill. There was quite a lot of music at home, as my two older brothers also learned the piano and we all sang in the local church choir, along with my Dad. Although, I did find dressing up in a cassock quite funny. I had really good teachers who were disciplined, while letting me do my own thing. When I was 11, my state school put on Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, and that was an incredible experience, even though I was only a badly behaved squirrel. A few years later I heard a recording of Debussy’s Prelude a’apres-midi d’un faune, which opened my ears to how sensuous and sexy music could be, and sent my teenage hormones through the roof. I then devoured music at the piano, mostly borrowing scores from the library.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career both as a performer and a composer?

There’s such a huge range of good music from across the centuries that I love, and nearly of it shares the same philosophy: that music’s essentials (melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, structure) can combine into something that reflects our lives. This shapes my work in what I play and compose/arrange. Making music should also be part of a community, and it can be linked with popular and folk styles while maintaining strength and depth. That’s one of the great legacies of people like Benjamin Britten and Percy Grainger, and their music is a big influence in different ways. Jazz has always had a big impact too, especially the composer/ arrangers like Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, Nelson Riddle, or Leonard Bernstein’s fusion of styles. It shows us that music can be dangerous, dirty, brash and raunchy as well.

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

Self-motivation: maintaining a belief that what you’re doing is worthwhile in a crazy and complicated world, especially during periods of depression. This seems to become harder the older I get.

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

There are so many things I’m lucky to have been involved with, as a performer, composer and arranger. Some of the orchestral pieces I’ve written for the BBC Proms are a highlight: ‘Wing It’ in 2012, ‘Gershwinicity’ in 2018. The ongoing Scary Fairy orchestral fairytale series is a lot of fun, with Craig Charles narrating his poetry. There’s also a concert of orchestral folk song arrangements with the singer Sam Lee, playing jazz songs with Jacqui Dankworth, recording Elgar’s 2nd Symphony on the piano, choral concerts, chamber music… too much to list. And I guess playing the piano at the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony: my Mum died of cancer that morning and I managed to hold it together, even though I was in the middle of having a complete emotional breakdown.

As a performer, how do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

When I do get the chance to choose, it’s always a very eclectic mixture of music, linked thematically in some way. I generally try and get in a new piece or arrangement of some kind, maybe something entertaining. After all, a concert can be fun too.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

Although it’s a bonkers barn of a place, playing at the Royal Albert Hall in the Proms always feels like a bit of a party. Playing the organ there can be a ridiculous ego trip.

As a composer, how do you work?

I do get tunes or harmonies that pop into my head, often as I’m just about to fall asleep, which can sometimes be a nuisance. Normally I throw all the ideas together by improvising at the piano, singing along at the top of my voice. This is scribbled down on semi-legible manuscript, worked at and crossed out until I’ve got a full complete draft. Then I typeset it on Sibelius software, so that I can actually read it.

How would you describe your compositional style/language?

There’s often a lot of jazz styles in there: swing, funk, blues and others, mixed with classical structures and colourful tonal harmonies. Clear melodies and strong rhythms play a big part too. Most of the time, the music is about our life experiences and emotions: joy, sadness, love, loss.

Tell us more about your new piano series……

I’m putting on A Mahler Piano Series at the 1901 Arts Club in London, in eleven weekly concerts. It features a wide variety of musical styles that influenced Gustav Mahler, as well as the bulk of his symphonic music arranged for solo piano. He played his symphonies on the piano to friends and accompanied singers on the piano, so it’s a recreation of those experiences in an intimate salon venue from the period. It’s about putting his music in the context of the European musical melting pot of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including folksongs, country dances, waltzes, klezmer, Jewish music, military marches, operetta, popular and salon music classical composers including Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner, a concert of works by female composers and the music of contemporaries such as Busoni and Schoenberg. I’m joined by some wonderful singers as well, so it will be a pretty epic adventure.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

As an audience member it was actually at the ballet, the first time I saw The Rite of Spring danced by English National Ballet. I was hyperventilating by the end.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

In a way, any musician that can make a living as a performer is a success, especially while trying to raise a family. Beyond that, I think anyone that can find new and inspiring ways to connect with audiences is doing it right. Giving people life-enhancing experiences outside of the mainstream is vital, including going into schools, hospitals, prisons.

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

Be versatile, work hard and try to stay as positive as you can. We’re pretty lucky to be doing this, when you think about it.

What is your present state of mind?

Buzzing like a beehive.

‘A Mahler Piano Series’ is at the 1901 Arts Club, London from September 12th to November 21st 2018. Full details and tickets


Iain Farrington has an exceptionally busy and diverse career as a pianist, organist, composer and arranger. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music, London and at Cambridge University. He has made numerous recordings, and has broadcast on BBC Television, Classic FM and BBC Radio 3. Through his multi-faceted work as a musician, he aims to bring live music to as wide an audience as possible. Iain’s concert programmes often mix popular and jazz elements into the traditional Classical repertoire. His many chamber orchestral arrangements allow large-scale works to be presented on an affordable smaller scale, and his compositions range from virtuoso display pieces to small works for beginner instrumentalists.

As a solo pianist, accompanist, chamber musician and organist, Iain has performed at all the major UK venues and abroad in the USA, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, Malaysia, Hong Kong and all across Europe. He has worked with many of the country’s leading musicians, including Bryn Terfel, Sir Paul McCartney and Lesley Garrett. Iain played the piano at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics with Rowan Atkinson, the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle, broadcast to a global audience of around a billion viewers. With Counterpoise he has worked with numerous singers and actors, including Sir John Tomlinson, Sir Willard White, Jacqui Dankworth and Eleanor Bron. As a session pianist, Iain has recorded numerous film and TV soundtracks for Hollywood, Disney and independent productions. His solo organ performance in the Proms 2007 on the Royal Albert Hall organ was critically acclaimed, and he performed his Animal Parade in 2015 at the Royal Festival Hall organ for a family concert. Iain was Organ Scholar at St John’s College, Cambridge University, and Organ Scholar at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.

Iain is a prolific composer and arranger, and has made hundreds of arrangements ranging from operas to piano pieces. He has composed two 40 minute Scary Fairy orchestral works combining poems by Craig Charles with a continuous full score, first performed and broadcast on BBC Radio 2 ‘Friday Night is Music Night’ with the BBC Philharmonic. For the BBC Proms he composed an orchestral work Gershwinicity in 2018, A Shipshape Shindig in 2017, a jazz guide to the orchestra Wing It, and a Double Violin Concerto, in 2012 for the Wallace and Gromit Prom. Iain’s choral work The Burning Heavens was nominated for a British Composer Award in 2010. He has made arrangements in many styles, including traditional African songs, Berlin cabaret, folk, klezmer, jazz and pop. Iain is the Arranger in Residence for the Aurora Orchestra who have performed and recorded his compositions and arrangements, including all the songs for the Horrible Histories Prom in 2011. His organ arrangement of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 5 was performed at the 2011 Royal Wedding in Westminster Abbey.

iainfarrington.com

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

I suppose I was inspired to learn the piano by watching my Father play. He studied at the RNCM and so music was a part of our home life. I was then lucky to study with a great teacher, Heather Slade-Lipkin, initially privately and then at Chetham’s School of Music – and the idea of a career in music followed on naturally.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My two teachers, Heather and Joan Havill, have been huge influences.

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

Currently it is finding time to practice with a 20 month old child! More seriously, I think that maintaining your desire to improve, the desire to work every day, and maintaining the love that made you start learning the instrument in the first place takes a deal of mental fortitude and effort.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

My recording of Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH stands out, in the quality of the finished product and in the sense of achievement in recording one of the longest and most difficult works for solo piano ever written. My performance of the Passacaglia lasts for 85 minutes. The work places colossal demands on technique, stamina, and the ability to pace a performance.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I don’t know! I think I’ll say Debussy as I am in the middle of performing all his solo piano music this year!

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I tend to look for potential projects and themes. So this year, being the 100th anniversary of the death of Debussy, I have devoted myself to the task of learning and performing all of his solo works. I am in the middle of a complete cycle of performances in Glasgow, and am curating a Debussy Festival in Edinburgh, at St Cecilia’s Hall, in December. The festival will feature the solo piano music, a selection of the songs and the late chamber sonatas.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

The Bridgewater Hall is fantastic. I love the feeling of space, and having to fill that space with sound and character.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I think I am very changeable! If Beethoven, then Brendel. Bach would be Perahia. Schumann would be Radu Lupu or Richard Goode. So I am a bit of a butterfly…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Performing a Mozart concerto in Calcutta Cathedral. High up the windows of the Cathedral did not have glass panes. It was an evening concert, and during the performance local birdlife came home to roost. That Mozart A major concerto was accompanied by singing from up high, a fitting complement to such a fabulous composer.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Personally I let other people decide as to my own success. I believe that if you are making a living from performing music, if you are trying to be the best musician that you can be, and if you are inspiring others – then that seems to be pretty successful.

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

To my students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland I have always stressed the need to be flexible and to be adaptable. Skills as a musician are essential, but on their own they are rarely enough. For most pianists a career playing Bach and Beethoven is difficult to obtain; one’s love of the great classical composers must be complemented by a practical interest in contemporary music, teaching, chamber music, taking music to young people, researching music that has been forgotten or overlooked. All of this is part of a musical career.

Who or what inspired you to take up piano, and pursue a career in music?

Though I didn’t start having piano lessons until the age of 7, I was already very interested in classical music much earlier. My great-grandmother was a piano teacher and we had a beautiful carved upright at home, which I loved. My parents, who were not musicians, loved classical music, especially operas, so they took me and my sister regularly to the opera. I enjoyed these performances enormously and listened to recordings at home as well. I especially loved Verdi and La Traviata was my absolute favourite opera (I still love it).

When at the age of 6 I started to attend school, I went to a music school, where we had singing lessons every day. I was singing in a choir as well and about twice a week we also had folk dance lessons. My parents didn’t want me to start having piano lessons during that year because school was already a big change in my life. But from my second school year it was natural to start piano and I had solfege lessons as well. I enjoyed it very much, though until the age of 11 I practised very little. Something happened to me at that time and suddenly I started to practise a lot and music really became the most important thing in my life. I was also reading a lot of music and at the age of 12 I made a successful entrance exam to the preparatory class for talented children at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of music and this changed my life completely. Here, I basically listened to concerts every evening, could meet and play for a lot of great musicians like Ferenc Rados, Zoltán Kocsis, Albert Simon. At around the age of 14, I started to have chamber music lessons as well, and a year later I was already a student of György Kurtág, with whom I studied for nearly 10 years. It was a very happy time of my life, full of great experiences and challenges and at the age of 16 I was able to start the first year at the Academy (today the Ferenc Liszt University of Music).

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I was very lucky, because the time when I studied at the Ferenc Liszt Academy we still had Ferenc Rados and György Kurtág working very intensively. They were both teaching chamber music, but all pianists played solo pieces for them as well. They both had an enormous impact on me and on my way of thinking about music and life. We usually had very long lessons, sometimes 2-3 times a week, and they worked in a very detailed way – sometimes with Kurtág we worked on just 8 bars for 2-3 hours. Of course it was not only about these few bars, but through working on a phrase he opened up and showed a whole universe with a lot of associations from music, literature, other arts, and this all happened with such an intensity I could not imagine before. He is also an incredible pianist, plays like only a great composer can play. As I often said with my musician friends, working with Ferenc Rados was like an X-ray examination. After playing 5 minutes for him, we got a diagnosis, which wasn’t easy at all, but was a task for a whole life. Studying with him was a very complex process, everything – the actual piece, the instrument, my own feelings, questions etc – were all in an incredible connection with each other. I learned from him how to practise, which is an incredibly important part of a musician’s life.

Besides these two great masters, another determining and most important experience was meeting András Schiff when I was 17. I regularly took masterclasses with him for the following 5-6 years in Vienna, at Prussia Cove, Siena etc, and later in Marlboro (USA) as well. It was a huge influence for me to play for him, to listen to his concerts, and to talk to him about music, literature, life etc. No other pianist made such an important impact on my development as a musician as him. Later I had the chance to play concerts with him as well, which meant a lot to me. I got to know through András, Sándor Végh and Heinz Holliger from whom I learned a lot and admired very much. For Sándor Végh I played chamber music several times in Prussia Cove and later had the chance to perform with his Camerata Salzburg with him as a conductor.

Heinz Holliger is also a kind of musical “Father figure” for me. During the last 20 years I played many concerts with him, as a soloist, in many different chamber groups. We have also made several recordings together and I also play his music, which I admire a lot.

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

The greatest challenge is the music itself. Every morning when I start practising I think of the fact that I am trying to get nearer and nearer to these great masterpieces and this is a greatest challenge. In my career, it’s quite challenging that I love equally playing solo and chamber music. I feel the best when I can find a good balance between the solo repertoire and chamber music.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I am extremely happy to record for ECM. De la nuit is my 4th album for them and I enjoyed all the recordings very much. For me sound is extremely important and I was always very inspired by the sound I could hear in the studio. Manfred Eicher has created something very special with his label and I am very happy and proud of my recordings for him.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I don’t know which works I play the best, I can only say which works and composers I love the most. For me a “love forever” composers are Beethoven, Schumann, Mozart and Bartók. Recently I’ve played Beethoven very frequently. I have been learning his last 5 Piano Sonatas and I have not enough words to express what it means to me to work on those masterpieces.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I love playing a lot of repertoire, I am not a type of pianist who would enjoy playing 2-3 programs a season. I play usually around 4-5 solo programs, 6-7 concertos and many chamber programs during a season. I always learn new pieces, especially for my recital programs.T here are certain pieces I come back to from time to time. For example, I just learned the Hammerklavier Sonata which I will play in many different programs during the next 2 to 3 seasons. Sometimes it goes together with Bartók, sometimes with Berg-Liszt-Kurtág, sometimes with Bach and Brahms. I also love creating festival programs. I organise a chamber music festival with my wife (pianist Izabella Simon) in Budapest. The Festival has a different theme every year which is the title of a great book. Each time, we make devise about 7-8 different chamber music programs around the theme, which is such a creative experience and gives so much to both of us.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I have a lot of favourite concert halls, but I have to mention two which are my absolute favourites. The first is the Great Hall of the Ferenc Liszt Academy, which is actually my second home. It’s a beautiful Secession style hall with a very warm atmosphere, and of course there a lot of personal aspects as well. I gave my so-called first “important” concerts there in my teens and still play there very often every season. I also had so many wonderful concert experiences there as a listener, hearing, for example, Richter, Annie Fischer, András Schiff or Sándor Végh.

The other Hall I would mention is the Wigmore Hall in London which is a most wonderful venue with an incredible acoustic. The audience is also so knowledgeable, I always feel it’s a feast to play there.

Who are your favourite musicians?

It’s a difficult question to answer since I have so many. From the past, Rudolf Serkin, Annie Fischer, Alfred Cortot, Pablo Casals, Sándor Végh, Carlos Kleiber, Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Maria Callas, Kathleen Ferrier just to name a few. The pianists I’ve listen to the most recently are András Schiff, Radu Lupu, Alfred Brendel. And I am really lucky because for many years I’ve played chamber music with some of my very favourite musicians like Steven Isserlis, Miklós Perényi, Tabea Zimmermann, Jörg Widmann, and Radovan Vlatkovic, among others.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My career started when I got the first prize at the Géza Anda Competition in Zürich in 1991. I was 23 years old and had very little experience playing with an orchestra. In the final round I played the Third Piano Concerto by Bartók (which is a very important piece for me) for the very first time. Of course I was very nervous but playing this incredible piece with the wonderful Tonhalle Orchestra in the beautiful Tonhalle Great Hall was an incredible experience for a young musician, as I was that time.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I am the type of musician who believes in a slower and persistent development rather than fast and spectacular jumps. I never wanted to make things to happen faster and I always wanted to give time for certain things. For me success is when I feel that a long process has a result and things are getting ripe. It is an inner process and that is the most important part of it, but if other people also notice it and react to it, that means a lot and can “give wings”.

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

This is also a hard question to answer. I would say the first is to love music and love the process of searching for the meanings of the great pieces we are playing. I also think it’s important that our every day practising should happen with a lot of curiosity and with the feeling that through practising, I am not only getting nearer to the masterpieces I am playing but also learning a lot about myself – this is a great chance for development.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Perfect happiness means for me an inner balance with a lot of challenges at the same time and of course sharing this with those people-especially my family-whom I love the most.

What is your most treasured possession?

My most treasured possessions are the drawings of my 7 years old daughter which she has made for me. She has done a lot and when I am travelling I always take them with me.

What is your present state of mind?

Quite positive and balanced. I just turned 50, which is a bit strange to believe, but I am full of plans and really enjoy the way my life goes now.

Dénes Várjon’s new disc De la nuit, featuring music by Schumann, Ravel and Bartok, is released on 31 August on the ECM Records label


Dénes Várjon, born 1968 in Budapest, studied at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music, receiving tuition in piano from Sándor Falvai and chamber music from György Kurtág and Ferenc Rados. Parallel to his studies, he was a regular participant of master classes with András Schiff. He was first prize winner of the Piano Competition of the Hungarian Radio,the Leo Weiner Chamber Music Competition in Budapest, and the Concours Géza Anda in Zürich.

Várjon is a regular guest at festivals including Salzburger Festspiele, Lucerne Festival, Schleswig-Holstein Musik-Festival, Biennale di Venezia, Marlboro Festival (USA), Klavierfestival Ruhr, Kunstfest Weimar, and Edinburgh International Festival, and has been a frequent contributor to András Schiff’s and Heinz Holliger’s Ittinger Pfingstkonzerte.

He has performed with major orchestras such as the Camerata Salzburg, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the Wiener Kammerorchester, the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra Budapest, the Camerata Bern, the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra, the Tonhalle-Orchestra Zürich, the Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the Bremen Philharmonic, Gidon Kremer’s Kremerata Baltica, and many others, and working with conductors including Heinz Holliger, Adam Fischer, Leopold Hager, Iván Fischer, Hubert Soudant, Peter Rundel, Thomas Zehetmair and many more.

 

Who or what inspired you to take up piano, and pursue a career in music?

My granddad was a fantastic singer, and my mom played piano beautifully. As a child I used to sing every song that was playing on the radio, and at the age of four I started having lessons.

The first time the inspiration to take up a career in music appeared when I was seven – I got accepted to a very good school that combined music and general subjects. But then it was too hard to study there, and I thought I had no chance to become a musician. Apparently I underestimated my passion for music.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I can’t be grateful enough to my teachers.

At the beginning of my studies I was blessed to have an amazing teacher of solfege, Irina Denisova: she gave me ears.

The empathy and kindness of Tamara Markova gave me the motivation to continue learning music.

It would never have worked had I not met Lilia Ter-Minasianthe professor who saw potential in me. Thanks to the countless of hours she spent with me over the Chopin Études, I now have technique, and thanks to her lessons on Haydn and Liszt, I understand what style and virtuosity mean. She taught me enthusiasm, and thanks to her support I started to believe I could be a musician. 

I was incredibly lucky to study performance with Graham Scott. His spontaneity and imagination brought out improvisatory qualities in my playing.

Julius Drake’s breathtaking decisions always had a “wow” effect on me. Studying collaborative piano with him was one of the best decisions in my life.

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

Overcoming the imposter syndrome… But seriously – trying to fit everything I am interested in: performing as a soloist, teaching, working as a staff member at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, conducting the choir, learning new repertoire, and collaborating with other musicians! But I don’t complain, I just need more hours in a day.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Playing the Barber Piano Concerto with the RNCM Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gergely Madaras, was a wonderful experience!

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I love playing Chopin, Rachmaninov, Schubert, Strauss, Debussy.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

As a solo musician I always play the music I love. There are some pieces I’ve been dreaming about for years, but they are hard to programme, for example Shostakovich’s Second Sonata. But next season I’m definitely going to perform it!

When I collaborate I get to learn some of the most exquisite music, but the programming is rarely done by me, and it is often a surprise.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Wigmore Hall is just the best place to play. I’ve performed there twice so far, first as a winner of the Worshipful Company of Musicians auditions, and second in the ‘Side by Side’ project by The Prince Consort.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Igor Levit, Robert Levin, Leonard Bernstein, Carlos Kleiber, Vladimir Horowitz, Friedrich Gulda, Stephen Hough, Julius Drake, Christophe Pregardien… I also love my friends Kabantu ensemble. Whenever I see them performing I start dancing and crying.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Igor Levit’s three last Beethoven Sonatas in Wigmore Hall. It was a late 10pm recital – having performed this same programme at 7pm, he played it again, and it was surreal, inhuman, beautiful. From the moment he started till the moment he finished my attention was glued to his playing, he never lost me, not even one note was untrue to Beethoven. I was transported, transformed, transfigured. It was a transcendental experience.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Being in demand and happy with what you do.

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

Don’t be afraid to do something new. Find your teacher and your way. 

What is your most treasured possession? 

My music library! I never thought I would be so possessive about scores.

What is your present state of mind? 

I am open to new endeavours. 


Belorussian Maya Irgalina is a versatile pianist, who successfully combines solo and collaborative piano playing. Over the last ten years she has performed internationally throughout the UK, Italy, Malta, France, Austria, China, Poland, Georgia, Russia and Belarus, highlights including performances at Wigmore Hall and the Barbican.

In the 2017/2018 season, Maya was a Britten Pears Young Artist; she was invited by the President of the Republic of Tatarstan to play Chopin’s First Piano Concerto in Kazan; she performed in the Malta International Arts Festival and the Accademia Filarmonica Romana with soprano Nicola Said; performed solo in the Zürichi Piano Express Festival, and represented Yamaha as concert artist at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

Her past engagements include playing Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto at the Batumi Music Festival, Georgia, and performing an all Chopin programme at the Rye Arts Festival, UK. A particularly memorable event was her appearance in the BBC Orchestra’s “Semyon Bychkov’s Beloved Friend Tchaikovsky Project”, for which she played both as soloist and chamber musician.

As a soloist she has played with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Manchester Camerata, the Belarusian Opera House Orchestra, the RNCM Symphony Orchestra, the Batumi Symphony Orchestra including many other chamber orchestras.

Forthcoming engagements include the Machynlleth Festival, the Lieder of Hugo Wolf at the Britten Pears Young Artist Programme, Chopin’s First Piano Concerto with the Scarborough Symphony Orchestra, the Zarzuela Project at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and performances of Schubert’s Winterreise with the mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron.

Maya has won many prizes in piano competitions, including Dudley, Sydney, Maria Yudina, Scriabin etc. She is the winner of the RNCM’s highest accolade for solo performance – the Gold Medal – and had her Wigmore Hall debut in February 2013 as prize-winner of the Worshipful Company of Musicians. Her playing was broadcast by ABC (Australia), BBC Radio 3 and Belarusian Radio. In 2015 Belarusian TV made a film about her.

Maya Irgalina’s first steps onto the concert platform were made under the tutelage of Lilia Ter-Minasian at the Belarusian Academy of Music where she was an undergraduate. She then completed the International Artist Diploma at the Royal Northern College of Music, studying with Graham Scott. In 2017 she graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she studied with Julius Drake and Ronan O’Hora.

For her studies Maya has won numerous scholarships including Leverhulme Trust, Yamaha Foundation, BelSwissBank. She was also the recipient of the “Gaude Polonia” award from the Polish Ministry of Culture, and twice became a laureate of a Scholarship from the Special Fund of the President of Belarus.

mayairgalina.com