On 12 March 2020, pianist Igor Levit tweeted the following:

He then rushed out of his flat to purchase a cheap camera stand, returned home, then realised he also needed a stand for his phone, so he slipped out again. A friend was co-opted to help ensure the livestream was working. At 7pm Berlin time, Igor Levit gave his first livestreamed “haus konzert”.

Two days before, on 10 March, his birthday, Levit gave a concert in Hamburg; the next, in Cologne, the following day was cancelled, and it was now clear that live music, and similar activities, were being shut down, who knew for how long, in response to the global coronavirus pandemic.

Levit gave 52 house concerts via Twitter, dressed casually and livestreamed from his flat, its minimalist decor interrupted only by the shiny grand piano and a striking painting on the wall behind. It became a nightly ritual, for pianist and audience. He performed whatever repertoire “felt right” – from Beethoven to Morton Feldman, Nina Simone to Schubert and Bach; it didn’t matter, for these performances were about being together when we were isolated in lockdown. Hundreds of thousands of people tuned in via Twitter every night and the livestream feed was crammed with comments, compliments, emojis; there was a potent sense of a shared experience, even though we were all listening on our own, separated by lockdown, yet together. Spontaneous and unplanned, these house concerts helped to alleviate Levit’s – and others’ – lockdown despair and isolation, a means of keeping live music going when it was unclear when we would be allowed back into the concert halls to enjoy live music again, together. The Observer chose Levit’s online recitals as number one in its top ten classical picks for 2020.

From a pragmatic point of view, the house concerts were also an incentive for Levit to keep practising, an impulse shared by so many musicians whose performing careers stopped dead in March 2020. Like many of his musician colleagues, in the months before the covid lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, Levit was enjoying a busy career: without concerts, what was the point of practising?

Igor Levit performing in his Berlin flat during lockdown

Igor Levit’s new book ‘House Concert’ (published in the UK by Polity press in November) is about these Twitter concerts – the musician’s need to play, to express oneself through music, and the experience of playing in isolation to an unseen audiences of tens or even hundreds of thousands – but it’s about much more than this too.

Organised in a series of conversations and diary-type entries between Levit and German journalist Florian Zinnecker, ‘House Concert’ explores what it is to be a professional musician in the 21st century, and charts Levit’s career from an unknown young pianist to an internationally-acclaimed performer who plays to sold out houses around the world. It’s about the development of an artist; what it means to “be” a pianist and the need to perform, to share one’s music with others; the role and power of social media, in particular Twitter; the classical music industry; and wider issues of whether it is appropriate for an artist to engage in politics and other pertinent issues of our time – the pandemic, racism, climate change.

Levit’s path to international fame was not an easy one. As anyone who has attended one of his concerts will know, he is an uncompromising player who has a remarkable ability to create an intensity of sound and concentrated emotion when he performs (Alex Ross of The New Yorker describes him as “a pianist like no other”). His choice of repertoire may be considered “narrow” by some: eschewing the big showpieces or “top of the pops” of the pianist’s repertoire, he has instead chosen to focus on a handful of composers, recording and performing the complete piano sonatas of Beethoven, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and Rzewski’s mighty ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’, together with lesser-known works by Busoni, Reger and Ronald Stevenson. As a young pianist at the start of his career, his uncompromising attitude and refusal to “play to the gallery”, as it were, to satisfy the whims of the market by including the popular classics in his programmes, meant that he was overlooked by artist managers and agents who felt he was not sufficiently marketable. This section of the book offers some really fascinating, honest and sometimes brutal insights into the workings and attitudes of the classical music “industry” today – where marketability is placed above artistic integrity. Levit didn’t fit the image that record companies were looking for and he was not willing to compromise; as a consequence it was a long time before he was picked up by a manager who was sufficiently sympathetic to his way of doing things. (An indication of how the industry reacts to the maverick, when Levit recorded Beethoven’s last five piano sonatas for his debut disc, there were more than a few mutterings that he was too young, that it was an impertinence that he should record these works at his age. It was a risk, but it was a worthwhile one: as anyone who has heard Levit perform late Beethoven knows, he is a master in this repertoire.)

The Twitter concerts throw an interesting light on the ecosystem of the classical music business and the power structures within in. In his house concerts, Levit demonstrated that it was possible to reach an audience directly via social media, without the usual tools of the business – marketing, publicity, staging. The simplicity of the Twitter concerts made them special – and for Levit they made him feel strong, that he wasn’t a fake.

For the pianist, Levit makes some challenging assertions regarding interpretation, context and the over-intellectualisation of music and its performance. He eschews the notion that music must have “meaning” or a distinct narrative, or that there is a “right way” to play it, and feels it is “just there to be experienced”. He sees the role of the musician as an “enabler”, one who brings the music to life from the page by making the piece his own.

“I’m telling my own story…the one that’s closest to my heart. The information about what happened to this piece one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago isn’t really my business.”

Igor Levit

In the realm of classical music, with all its conventions and tradition, where fidelity to the score and an appreciation of the context in which the music is written is regarded as essential to any “authentic” performance, Levit bucks the trend. Because he’s not interested in tradition or convention; for him it’s all about the music. He’s not interested in whether in his performances of Beethoven we hear the sound of Beethoven. For him, “it’s Beethoven, of course, but played by me.”

A keen activist, the book also explores Levit’s vocal opposition to German right-wing attitudes to immigration, anti-Semitism and online hate crime, and his advocacy for environmentalism, the plight of Syrian refugees. He’s received abuse and even death threats for his views but he refuses to submit to “artistic neutrality”. Does he believe music can make a difference, shift attitudes and effect change? Absolutely not: “If you believe music will make fascists less fascist, then you’re just naive” – and for this reason his music and his activism are kept largely separate, though his large social media following and reputation undoubtedly serves his activism.

This absorbing and highly readable book is neither diary nor straightforward artist biography. It shifts back and forth between periods in Levit’s life, from student days, to now, and explores a variety of themes, not all of them musical. It not only showcases the remarkable achievements of a charismatic classical musician, it also reveals their anxieties and doubts, strengths and weaknesses, and offers an important snapshot of the difficulties faced by professional musicians in a highly competitive industry riven with convention, power structures and tradition. The success of Levit’s house concerts – and similar livestream projects from other musicians all around the world – perhaps prove that the industry does not necessarily need all the trappings of “the business” to communicate and share the power and joy of music with others.

‘House Concert’ is published by Polity books (November 2022). Further information here

American pianist Beth Levin in conversation with Max Derrickson on her upcoming recital programme at Merkin Hall, New York, and new recording of Liszt and Mussorgsky.


[MD]: It’s a pleasure to have the chance to talk with you, Beth! Thank you. You’re a well-known concert pianist with an extremely impressive career. Particularly, your musical heritage with some of the most famous pianists on the 20th Century as your teachers (Marian Filar, Leonard Shure and Rudolph Serkin) could be plenty enough for an interview. But if you’ll allow, let’s focus on a specific recital and recording that you are recently doing (in 2022), which includes two very important, and extremely difficult, piano works: Liszt’s Sonata in B minor and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Anyone familiar with these works likely knows that they are “bears” to perform – technically, and no less so, musically. And you decided to perform both on one program. Would you talk about your choice of performing these two virtuosic works together?

[BL]: Thank you, Max. Lovely to explore the works with you! I think that the Liszt Sonata was really new territory for me and that appealed to me. I had learned the Mussorgsky many years ago and am just now revisiting it. The juxtaposition of the new and the old felt right. Let me say that I’ll be opening the recital with Portrait Miniatures: Three Women by Andrew Rudin which is very much a modern work and a wonderful departure point for the rest of the program. Friends had been urging me to play the Liszt Sonata for quite some time and up to now I resisted it. Suddenly the time seemed right to open the music. From the first read-through I was utterly and completely hooked. Playing through Pictures had more of a nostalgic feel and a reminder in some ways of my Russian/Ukrainian roots (my grandparents on both sides are from Odessa). The music elicits reactions from me as a musician – timing, color, character – that surprise me and I hope will translate to the listeners.

In terms of the pieces being difficult, I never like to admit to it. I play for weeks before I realize that I had really better isolate and practice those octaves!

I recorded the pieces this summer and that was a marvelous education into the music and into the preparation behind the performances.

[MD]: Roots in Odessa! Odessa’s like the breadbasket of the world of music! But we can return to that momentarily, as well as to the recording you made this summer. But before we get there:

Your programs are always, for me, so challenging and thoughtful… and brave. I have you to thank, actually, for introducing me to Andrew Rudin’s excellent and modern music. It’s intriguing to me that you’re beginning with his three Portraits. Each are under three minutes long, and I gather that they each have a sort of inside joke to them – for example, his dedication of the second portrait to Rose Moss was written for her as a parting gift to her after a summer at the MacDowell artist’s retreat in New Hampshire – and titled To a Wild Moss Rose, which plays (pun-fully and musically) on one of Edward MacDowell’s most famous piano miniatures, To a Wild Rose (Edward, of course, the founder of the MacDowell retreat). How do you see Rudin’s miniatures as departure points to Liszt and Mussorgsky? And, can you say more about your history with this fine composer’s music?

[BL]: Originally, I planned to play Andrew’s work in between the Liszt and the Mussorgsky, and he laughed and said he didn’t mind being sandwiched in the middle of two giants.

But I think starting with Portraits makes more sense. They can be likened a bit to the portraits that Mussorgsky paints in Pictures. And I like that the program will begin here and now and work its way back in time which will give the program a path to follow. The Liszt by itself is a vast arc and so the pieces will be arcs within arcs. I simply want the audience to come on the adventure with me.

I have played and recorded Andrew Rudin’s work over the years and am very honored that his piano sonata was written for me.

[MD]: I really like the arc idea in your programming here – it sounds like a fun adventure! Regarding the Rudin Portraits, I admire that you are adding this contemporary piece to fit in with Liszt and Mussorgsky on your recital at Merkin Hall in October (2022). You also added a contemporary piece on your last CD, playing Carosello: Disegno per piano No 3 (2005) by Swedish composer Anders Eliasson, in between Handel and then Beethoven’s colossal Hammerklavier Sonata. Do you have a particular philosophy about performing new music? Also, do you have a particular model, or philosophy, about choosing programs?

[BL]: Sometimes it’s as simple as working on a piece such as the Hammerklavier or the Liszt Sonata and wanting to experience something utterly different. The Rudin for instance is a lovely change from the Liszt when one is practicing and I think it may work that way for listeners as well. The pieces take over your life for a while and it’s good if you love the music you are working on. A program has to feel right and get one excited – but I’m not sure that I have a philosophy about choosing one.

Finally, I really enjoy playing the works of friends – scores that arrive in the mail and are fresh and newly printed, a reminder of when the Liszt and the Mussorgsky were just written.

[MD]: I can completely understand about a piece of music taking over! And so, your method of balancing that out is to play something entirely different. But importantly, I think, as you said, the three short Rudin pieces are a wonderful balance to the weightiness of the rest of your program for your concert audience.

I can imagine your glee over getting fresh copy in the mail… there’s something really very delightful about that. Opening the package, feeling the score, first glances and first impressions, and all that wonderful stuff. Do you recall your first impressions of Pictures at an Exhibition? Of Liszt’s Sonata?

[BL]: I do remember opening the score to the Liszt Sonata in January and feeling many emotions at once. It was as if the whole work had been in the back of my mind for years just waiting to move to the center.

I had to talk to a close musical friend about it and I remember making immediate plans to play it. I had never performed much of his piano music and barely knew anything about the sonata. But I was instantly committed to learning it.

Pictures at an Exhibition had been sitting on my shelf for years – I went to it mainly questioning how it would feel to work on it again.

I’m surprised at how differently I seem to be approaching the portraits. A kind friend who has heard both versions said he thought I was taking more time now and going deeper into the character.

With both the Liszt and the Mussorgsky there is the chance to explore so many artistic facets and create a musical world. But some days I just stare at all the octave passages and technical high jinks! haha.

[MD]: Looking at the score of the Liszt, and seeing those technical high jinks, some might faint, I think! Perhaps in another interview, we can talk more about relationships with pieces of music – they become such a part of the performer’s life at a certain time – the performer devotes so much heart and psyche to a work, and the score becomes a sort of whiteboard for notes and suggestions, and a reflection of our relationship to the music. Life can get tangled up in a piece of music. We can explore some of that, too, when we talk more about your revisiting Mussorgsky.

In the meantime, though, considering those challenging parts of any piece of music, how do you approach conquering them? What’s a typical practice/routine response for you? How have you been tackling the Liszt?

[BL]: The desire to simply play is so strong perhaps because of the extreme expressiveness of the Liszt Sonata. I start out playing a page or so extremely slowly but then the musical sweep takes over and I just have to ride the waves. But in many passages first I practice slowly, evenly, and within a strict context. Speed often comes on its own – you can’t really push. In the octaves I worked out the shapes inherent in the writing and those also seemed to come at their own pace.

I worked on the Liszt this morning and it was just that combination of how I will ultimately perform the work with a few moments of “Whoa Nellie!”

Having the recording as a deadline was very helpful, I think. Playing for friends was crucial as well – their suggestions and the mere act of playing through.

[MD]: I think Liszt would have appreciated hearing some “Whoa Nellies!” along the line. And … I can only imagine how delightful it must be to be the friend who gets to listen to your putting one of these masterpieces together.

Some deeper specifics about the Liszt: Liszt dedicated his Sonata to Robert Schumann as a thank you in reciprocation for Schumann’s dedication of his solo piano work Fantasie in C major, Op. 17 (1839) to Liszt. Liszt completed his Sonata in B minor (in 1853-4), however, after Schumann had been committed to a mental asylum following his attempted suicide. It thus arrived at the Schumann household sans Robert, and finding Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, both virtuoso pianists. As Brahms played through Liszt’s Sonata for Clara, she famously found it rather awful, lamenting that she had “to thank him for that!” – but we should report that it didn’t take long for the Sonata to find its place as one of the great, and one of the most unique, solo piano works of the 19th Century. Nonetheless, it’s considered a thorny piece in several regards. Besides its technical challenges, another of those thorns is its rather difficult-to-categorize, some say genius, hybridization of structural form – somewhere between a true Classical sonata and a Liszt-ian tone poem. How do you approach this structural uniqueness/ambiguity? Does the arc of the piece let the Sonata dictate its own path?

[BL]: I lean more to the idea of the work as a tone poem and yet I can see how he structured it as a sonata within a sonata. The “Andante sostenuto” can be read as the slow movement. Apparently, Liszt said very little about the new form of his Sonata but it certainly influenced composers far into the future. His exquisite themes flow so perfectly and inevitably into one another that you almost feel like he’s taking your hand and saying “just follow me.” I think one can be very free and expressive in one’s interpretation exactly because the structure is so solid. I know that he transcribed Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy for piano and orchestra and may have been very influenced by that same idea of freedom and fantasy within four movements … sort of a Garden of Eden within marble walls.

[MD]: I really do love your description … and it makes sense to me, that Liszt sort of left the mystery out of the mix…. clever and again by half…. yet his Sonata carries you along the way, whatever the overall form is. The Garden of Eden within marble walls is a lovely metaphor. I think, too, that inside the Garden also lives a serpent…

About Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition: You mentioned above that your “grandparents on both sides are from Odessa.” We won’t confuse Ukraine with Russia, though to be sure, there are connections. Nonetheless, did you feel, and, or do you feel now, that you “hear” the Mussorgsky a little more deeply? And were your grandparents musicians, may I ask?

[BL]: Do you mean was there something in the borscht that gives me the inside track into Pictures at an Exhibition?

Seriously, I know that my parents grew up in households where everyone either played the violin, sang or played the piano. Music was a strong element in the lives of my parents and grandparents. But I realize that doesn’t make me an expert on Mussorgsky. I do feel certain instincts for Pictures and I try to be careful about assuming that every instinct is a correct one. I do employ rubato, color, timing and phrasing in ways that I think match and enhance the music and I hope that others will enjoy my interpretation.

[MD]: I think borscht can do a lot of things… but I appreciate the wisdom, and humility, regarding your instincts. Mussorgsky feels, to me, powerful and raw and immensely musical. And so, I’m not sure that one can get too far afield from his intentions once immersed in a performance, do you know what I mean?

About the piano version: I (and probably most listeners) have been mesmerized by Pictures since I first heard them … first in Ravel’s orchestral version. It was surprising to me, when I first heard the original piano version, how exceptionally well they still sound without all the bells and colors of an orchestra. The music is extremely hardy!

Now that you’ve been close to the piano version twice around, do you think Mussorgsky had an orchestration in mind when he was writing Pictures – or do you feel he was truly thinking of the colors of the piano? Are there any really favorite moments for you?

[BL]: A bit of background: one of Modest Mussorgsky’s best friends was Viktor Hartmann, an artist who tragically died of an aneurism in 1873 at the age of 39. Two weeks after Hartmann’s death his friends and supporters organized a major exhibition of his works at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. About a year later Mussorgsky composed Pictures at an Exhibition. Completed in only twenty days, Pictures was originally a set of short pieces for piano in which Mussorgsky depicted himself walking through the exhibition and contemplating Hartmann’s works.

I think Mussorgsky was writing a piano piece – period. He was thinking of the piano as an orchestra at times – complete with bells. But I don’t think he was thinking of orchestration. He knew that the piano is a great chameleon and can recreate almost any vision.

One of my favorite “pictures” is “Il Vecchio Castello”” based on an architectural sketch by Hartmann. The melody is so expressive and the rhythmic underpinning so graceful. Also, I appreciate the way that each “Promenade” is so different from one another. “Tuileries” was inspired by a now lost crayon drawing of the Tuileries Gardens in Paris. It is so delicate and I love playing it. “The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” is another favorite – my only desire is not to leave too many feathers on the ground!

The weightier movements such as “Gnome” or “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” require the power of a huge sound. I enjoy how Mussorgsky will contrast heaviness with something frothy in the following piece – from an oxcart to a tulle tutu.

A favorite arrival point for me is the “Sepulcrum Romanium Catacombs.” After much activity this piece is slow, austere and as cavernous as a tomb. It may have been an expression of Mussorgsky’s feeling of loss for his friend Hartmann. The music is exhaled in long breaths and marks the point at which “Baba Yaga” and “The Great Gate of Kiev” take over and end the work.

[MD]: When one hears a fine performance of this work, I think it’s easy to hear that Mussorgsky was treating the piano like an orchestra at times – which serves to remind us of the extraordinary talent and intellect that Mussorgsky possessed.

I love your image of stray notes falling off the keyboard like little chick feathers! And I think it illustrates part of the work’s true genius – it’s ability to evoke emotions and images. Each “picture” is a little masterpiece. “The Old Castle”… what a beautifully expressive tune. And I completely agree that the balancing of heavy and light, the pacing, and the overall direction of Pictures is really a masterful compositional achievement.

There are, as we know, only a few of Hartmann’s artworks left to see from that exhibition. And only several of the one’s that Mussorgsky immortalized still exist. I think I’d really love to see the Polish Oxcart and The Old Castle. Which would you really love to see? And do you think seeing them would inform your performance differently?

And… do you ever get lost in there… in the Exhibition? That you just want to linger a little while longer at a particular “picture”?

[BL]: I’d also love to see the Polish Oxcart and The Old Castle. Not seeing the images isn’t necessarily a bad thing and can allow your own imagination to flourish. It reminds me of haiku – better to simply let the words paint a picture … in this case let the music describe the art. Mussorgsky’s great skill as you said becomes so apparent exactly because he is a master at bringing Hartmann’s portraits to life. I think he even goes beyond that and creates an aura, a world in which the art can exist.

I think that I do linger here and there in the music when it seems right. I would love the audience to get lost inside the music.

[MD]: Are there any “pictures” that you find particularly daunting to play?

[BL]: The final two, “The Hut of the Baba Yaga” and “The Great Gate of Kiev” have a few thorny places and they occur in great speed. Speed often magnifies difficulty but what would great music be without challenges?

[MD]: I completely agree with your assessment about Mussorgsky creating a world beyond the art – thinking of the “Unhatched Chicks,” for example … in Mussorgsky’s wildly wonderful music for that, it rather looks as though Hartmann’s illustration was created secondly, for the music, not the other way around.

Regarding the challenges of the last two “pictures,” now I’m feeling a little guilty … I think you mentioned that you never like to admit something is difficult … did I just trick you into that?

But speaking of challenges, what about the Liszt Sonata? Are there any particular passages that you find really tough?

And, though the Sonata is a work that really shows off virtuosity, it also really shines with radiant poetry. Which passages do you find breath-taking?

[BL]: Haha – that’s what makes you a wonderful interviewer! No, I think that dwelling on technical issues such as virtuoso octaves can be insignificant.

The genuine task is to present the work as a whole, get inside it, portray what Liszt had in mind, and give a performance. If I miss a few notes or octaves, so be it – that pales in comparison to the actual fulfilment of the work. On the other hand, you need an expressive, flexible and physical technique, but more as a tool, not as an end all. That is probably true for any art. When I’m confronted with a few difficult passages I do laugh at myself knowing that they are merely reminders of imperfection on a path to art.

If I get swept away in the Sonata it is where the music melts into pianississimo. For all its grandeur, the poetic passages are truly the ravishing moments in the music. The final “Andante Sostenuto” is so moving and the final three chords are like a prayer.

I hope that the audience feels the emotion of the piece and that I simply express what is there.

[MD]: I hear you well on that, Maestra. I think we all have heard when a performance is flawless, technically, but at the cost of being soulless. I’ve never heard any of your performances suffer from that, Beth! And I guess the only thing I can respond to about those beautiful moments, and those last three, heart-stoppingly blissful chords is, “Amen.”

Before we start wrapping up our lovely conversation, could you tell us a little more about the recording session that you had for the Mussorgsky and Liszt? And do you know when the CD might be issued?

[BL]: I recorded with old friends Philip Valera (audio engineer) and Mark Peterson (producer) whom I knew at Boston University when I was studying with Leonard Shure and they were both budding organists. We had an easy rapport and were able to kid around when we weren’t doing the more serious work of recording Liszt and Mussorgsky. But I think that is so important when you begin a recording session – the ability to laugh creates a relaxed atmosphere for everyone. There were a few snags: the microphones were nowhere to be found when we first met at ten in the morning on a Wednesday in late May. And the weather in Wilson, North Carolina was extremely humid. The Steinway was freshly tuned but the piano keys were actually damp in Kennedy Hall at Barton College. Not to mention my hair!

I don’t yet have a release date for the recording by Aldilà Records. They produced my last CD of the Hammerklavier sonata, Handel and Anders Eliasson and I was so happy with their dedication to detail. Through the years I guess I’ve learned: if a conductor calls, call back. If a record label wants your mastered CD, just be grateful.

[MD]: The recording engineers that I’ve known are a band of very lovely, smart, laid-back and capable people… and funny. That has to help the recipe in cooking a recording! But … damp keys?? What on earth do you do about that? (Let’s not even touch the hair subject.)

Adilà Records has produced some really great recordings! I hope we see yours very, very soon.

Allow me, now, to pull way back, and ask you: you have a few years of an illustrious career informing your approach to performing – how might you characterize your playing of these great pieces today, in comparison to when you were, let’s say, in your twenties?

[BL]: I think that I rehearse differently now which affects performance – slower, more thoughtfully.

I have always tended to be a bit wild at the piano but after years of playing I have more control of things. Coaching with the conductor Christoph Schluren influenced my playing – as it relates to phrasing, mostly.

I think the wisdom from my teachers sort of synthesized for me at some point and now when I look at a score I bring to it more than I did.

I wish I could say, “I’m much smarter now.” Haha – I can only hope.

[MD]: It’s a wonderful realization to recognize your own personal musicianship as a monument to the other great musicians, friends and teachers who shared their talents in the service of the expression of art. Of course, their expertise is wrapped in the gold leaf of your great talents, too. Thanks for that beautiful sentiment, Beth.

And thank you for your time and generosity of soul that you’ve shared with me in this interview. Good luck with your recital, and I can’t wait to hear your CD!

[BL]: Thank you so much, Max, for your wise questions. I have enjoyed looking at aspects of the Liszt and the Mussorgsky with you as a guide!


Beth Levin performs Mussorgsky, Liszt and Rudin at Merkin Hall, New York, on 27 October. More information

Frances Wilson in conversation with Maxim Vengerov

I’ve admired world-renowned violinist Maxim Vengerov ever since I first heard him at the Proms in 1999, when he played a fabulous, varied programme which included Brahms’ Violin Sonata No 3, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, Ravel’s Tzigane, and a selection of glittering concert showpieces, including a spellbinding performance of Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie. It was just him and pianist Vag Papian, on a special stage set up in the arena (promenading) area of the Royal Albert Hall, playing to a packed house.

In September this year he returns to the Albert Hall, for a special concert celebrating 40 years on stage – or rather 42 years on stage as this concert, originally scheduled for June 2020, was postponed because of the pandemic. In addition to a celebration of his remarkable performing career, it is, for him, also a celebration of his connection with British audiences. “I’ve been here from right at the start of my career. This is like my second home.” As well as giving many concerts in the UK, since 2016 Maxim Vengerov has been a visiting professor at London’s Royal College of Music.

London was also where he studied with Mstislav ‘Slava’ Rostropovich, an adored mentor and friend, whose name comes up frequently during our conversation.

I have great memories with Slava, of visiting his home in Maida Vale. Without him I would be a different musician today. He opened my vision for music and he inspired me also to continue and to share music. Not just to be a performer, but to share it. That’s why I became a teacher at the age of 26. I always wanted to make space for teaching, in spite of my busy schedule.”

The two years of the pandemic and lockdowns, and the shutdown of live music, have had a profound impact on the lives of musicians, and for Vengerov, like many others, it was a time to reflect on the demands of the profession. With an empty concert diary, confined to his home with his family and parents-in-law, the first month of lockdown was an “amazing time with family. I’ve never stayed so long with my family…. But after a month, my elder daughter Lisa says, ‘Daddy, aren’t you going away?’. It was the biggest shock of my life! I realised that for my family, I was the father who was always travelling and sometimes coming back. Today it is different; despite my heavy schedule….in my family’s mind and my own, I am the father who is at home and sometimes on tour.

During lockdown, Vengerov was keen to do something for other people. “It was horrific that we weren’t able to make music, and people weren’t able to listen.” So, as Artist in Residence at ClassicFM, he gathered together a trio and organised a livestreamed concert, an hour of live music, broadcast to some quarter of a million listeners worldwide. This inspired him to continue, to communicate to the world and to share his experience, this time via the medium of interactive online lessons. With the help of a brilliant tech team, he built a platform, created a website and held in excess of 150 free live online lessons with optimal sound and high-quality visuals. These remain in the archive of his website, available to all, while new material is regularly added.

Of this particular lockdown project he says “It was so traumatic to see so many people leaving the profession, but so understandable, because nobody cancelled paying mortgages or bills! But we needed to continue what we feel passionately about and we needed to give some hope. And I did that in my own little modest way.

Now live music is back and audiences are thrilled to have concerts again “Every venue was full – Elbphilharmonie, Salzburg festival, Carnegie Hall, all amazing experiences! People were crying.”

With such a long performing career, how does he maintain the interest, the excitement and the inspiration? “I am never bored!” Vengerov replies immediately, and then goes on to illustrate this point further:

“How many things are involved in the process of making a concert? It requires great preparation, great delivery on stage, great spirit, great instrument [he plays a 1727 ‘Kreutzer’ Stradivari], great hall, acoustically – a wonderful acoustic together with my instrument is always a different experience because my instrument reacts differently to every concert hall and I always play differently in every hall. Then of course partners that I work with, chamber music…. And audiences…they don’t necessarily have to be educated, but they have to be open, and they have to be there for the right reasons, to discover music. And if you’re not in love with the composition you’re performing you should better not do it! There is not a moment when you can be bored….it’s pure enjoyment and pure challenge.”

Away from the concert stage, he draws inspiration from his family and friends, good food and socialising, playing tennis, and walks with his Shiba Inu dog, Toto. And of course the music.

Returning to his forthcoming London concert, we talk about the Shostakovich Violin Concerto, the centrepiece of this concert, and a work which he has played many, many times. The challenge here is keeping the music, and the performance, fresh, and once again the conversation turns back to Slava, and his advice to always play the work as if performing it for the very first time – or “perhaps the last time”. Deep knowledge of the music is important too, and this is where training to become a conductor has helped Vengerov gain crucial insights into the score which inform his performances and lend greater enjoyment and fulfilment. “Once you know the full score, it adds a new dimension to your performance. It’s no longer a violin piece with orchestral accompaniment… you can refer to one or another line in the orchestra and that’s where you draw your inspiration….The impact that the orchestra has on the soloist is vast. And if you’re not part of it, then it’s a different piece.”

The other major work in this concert is Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, for which Vengerov will be joined by cellist Mischa Maisky and pianist Simon Trpčeski. Too often regarded as a “party piece”, Vengerov asserts that the Triple Concerto is “a most profound work” that requires a very particular relationship between each member of the orchestra and the soloists. The orchestra in this instance is the Oxford Philharmonic, conducted by Marios Papadopoulos, with whom Vengerov has a long-standing association, having shared “so many wonderful things” during his residencies with them. “They are like family members.” Orchestra and soloists will also be joined by students from the RCM for a special arrangement of Sarasate’s Navarra, to celebrate the joy of music-making and music education.

How does it feel to play in such a large venue as the Royal Albert Hall, I ask him, and he replies that it’s important to make the venue “feel cosy”, regardless of its size. He tells me that he encourages students to “play to the last row” when performing at a hall like RAH, to encourage them to think less about volume of sound and more about projection and vibration.

It’s evident from our conversation that for Maxim Vengerov the ongoing pleasure comes from performing and sharing his music to impact people emotionally.

At the age of 5 I didn’t understand why, but when I played in front of an audience, I understood. It gave it [the music] purpose. I’m the lucky one that can bring it alive – and this is the greatest joy.”


Maxim Vengerov celebrates 40 years on stage in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 19th September, with Mischa Maisky, Simon Trpčeski, the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra and Marios Papadopoulos, and students from the Royal College of Music.

Find out more/tickets 


This site is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours to research, write, and maintain. If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of this site

Make A Donation

Image credit: Diego Mariotta Mendez/IDAGIO

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I didn’t begin to compose until I was sixteen. At that time I had given up piano lessons (I learned the piano between seven and thirteen) and attended a school where there was no music teacher, so composing was something I had to teach myself, or rather with the collaboration of my younger brother Colin, who also began to compose shortly after me. What made me start to compose was hearing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for the first time, and thinking that this was the most wonderful music I’d ever heard and that I must write a symphony of my own – so I did, and spent the next two years writing one, and when I’d finished, writing another. Beethoven is still my favourite composer, the ideal of everything I believe in. Meanwhile Mahler, all of whose works I’d got to know, became a huge influence, not just the music itself, but also what he stood for as a composer in Beethoven’s succession. Many other composers too were influential, Sibelius and Stravinsky pre-eminently, as I spent all my spare time listening to music and studying scores.

When I left university – where I read Classics as Music wasn’t possible as I hadn’t got music A level), I had the great good fortune to have got to know Deryck Cooke, who had made the performing version of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony and whom Colin and I later helped with a comprehensive revision. Deryck introduced me to a number of significant people in the musical world, among them Donald Mitchell, who had just founded Faber Music, mainly to publish Britten’s music. I began working freelance for Faber Music and quite soon Britten needed someone to help him with editorial work. Donald suggested me, and I then worked part time for Britten for four years. As the greatest living composer in this country, he was probably the most important influence in my life. He didn’t give composition lessons but I learned from him how to be a composer – see your later question, how do you work?

Other important influences were Michael Tippett, whom I also got to know and on whose music I wrote a short book – I liked his music even more than I liked Britten’s; Nicholas Maw, who became a friend and an unofficial teacher – I thought him the best of the younger composers; and the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, whom I met in England in 1974 and who became a close friend until his death in 2014. I visited many him many times in Australia and we collaborated on three film scores. Peter said that the music of the whole world was tonal, so why we should we pay attention to a few central European composers who said tonality was no longer possible? From Australia I saw music in a new light.

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

The greatest challenge was getting my music played when I was young. As I hadn’t been to a music college I knew virtually no musicians. But I did send the score of a string quartet to the BBC when I was about 23 – they then had a reading panel – and it was played and broadcast; and when I was 26 I sent two orchestral songs to the Society for the Promotion of New Music (which sadly no longer exists) and they were performed at the Royal Festival Hall by Jane Manning with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Norman Del Mar (who became a friend and who commissioned my Symphony No.1 – I’d withdrawn my three earlier ones). That was a big step forward. However, I didn’t get a full publishing contract from Faber until 1982.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

It’s easier, I find, to write a piece if you are given some limitations – i.e. how long it should be, the instrumentation, etc. I wouldn’t want too precise instructions, but that rarely happens. I’ve just written a flute piece for Emma Halnan for the Hertfordshire Festival of Music and what was ideally wanted was a solo piece rather than flute and piano, and a duration of about two and a half minutes. I’ve been able to compose a piece of exactly that length.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?

Well, to carry on with Emma Halnan, I know her and know how she plays, and she’s performed two of my pieces before. So I could imagine her playing it as I was writing. I much prefer writing for musicians I know (as Britten almost always did). I’ve recently written an Oboe Sonata for Nicholas Daniel, someone I know well and for whom I wrote a Concerto. He has a very individual sound, a wonderful ability to play long sustained passages without taking breath, and extraordinary virtuosity. It was a real pleasure writing for him and hearing his special sound in my head.

The same with singers, of course, and with string players. I’ve written two CDs worth of solo violin music for my violinist friend Peter Sheppard Skaerved, and his Kreutzer Quartet are recording all fifteen (so far) of my string quartets, of which five were written especially for them. They know exactly what to do with my music as they’ve played so much of it. I’m not a string player but Peter has taught me so much about string technique. And with orchestras, I have a special relationship with the BBC Philharmonic, for whom I’ve written three of the last four of my ten symphonies. I can write for them knowing just how they will sound, and I’m also careful not to write anything that they won’t enjoy playing.

Of which works are you most proud?

I enjoy listening to my own music – well, if the composer doesn’t like his own music he shouldn’t expect anyone else to! There are quite a few pieces I’m proud of; for instance among my symphonies, No.8, several of my string quartets; also my Cello Concerto, Concerto in Azzurro, written for Steven Isserlis and recorded on CD by Guy Johnston. The piece I’m most proud of is my choral and orchestral piece Vespers, of which there is a splendid recording by the Bach Choir and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Hill. And in the last two years I’ve composed my first opera, which hasn’t yet had a stage performance, only a run-through with piano, but I hope I’ll be proud of it if and when I hear it with orchestra.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

It’s tonal, though usually not in a traditional way. I use very wide-ranging harmony. I use counterpoint modelled on the way the great masters of the past used it, and above all I try to write memorable melodies. I think the loss of memorable melody in most contemporary music is very sad.

How do you work?

When I’m composing, I like to work every day from after breakfast until lunch. I may go back for a while in the late afternoon. I learned regular hours from Britten. But I’m always thinking about the piece I’m writing, and I quite often wake up at night with ideas.

I try to start a piece well in advance of the deadline (another thing I learned from Britten: always meet deadlines). I think a lot about what character the piece will have, and its shape, and then I have the first musical idea, generally a melodic idea, and after that I may leave the piece to grow inside my head for some while before I start it properly. Once I’ve started, I don’t often get stuck – just for a day or two perhaps. I revise a lot while I’m writing, and don’t usually write more than ten to twenty bars a day, though sometimes more when I’ve almost reached the end.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

My music is concerned with my feelings about life, expressed to the best of my ability in melody, harmony and counterpoint, and in a form that I hope conveys what I intended. I’m happy if I think I’ve done my best with these aims. I also hope that the musicians, who work so hard to bring my pieces to life, will enjoy playing what I have written.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring composers?

Don’t write pieces that present impossible difficulties to players. Also, be patient, it may take a long time before you can get your pieces played regularly. And find your own voice, don’t get led astray by fashion.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

Of course it worries me that a lot of people who are brought up on a constant diet of pop music find classical music difficult, and especially modern classical music. Because of this, audiences for contemporary music are almost always small. It’s this that worries me most: I feel that a lot of new music today supplies very little to move audiences, if it’s written in a virtually incomprehensible language, and often a very aggressive, off-putting one. And then, except (rightly) for the Kanneh-Mason family, none of the brilliant young musicians around now are being praised by the mass media, which now largely ignores classical music. Their extraordinary talent should be widely celebrated.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about but you really think we should be?

I’m worried that decisions about what new music to programme, by the BBC for instance, are no longer based purely on quality, which I think they should, but on other criteria. I’m very happy to hear music by women composers, but it must be good music. To play it just because it’s by a woman is in fact insulting.

What next – where would you like to be in 10 years?

Still alive – as long as I can keep my current good health, and still composing reasonably well, if I’m still able to.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Sharing a meal at home with my wife.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Apart from composing: reading, drinking good wine, walking in the countryside, and watching and listening to birds.

British composer David Matthews is this year’s Featured Living Composer at Hertfordshire Festival of Music (2-11 June). David’s music will be performed throughout the festival, by flautist Emma Halnan and guitarist Jack Hancher, the Hertfordshire Festival Orchestra, and the Maggini Quartet. David will also be in conversation with fellow composer and HFoM Artistic Director James Francis Brown. Full details on the HFoM website.


With a singular body of work spanning almost 60 years, David Matthews has established an international reputation as one of the leading symphonists of our time. Born in London in 1943, he began composing at the age of sixteen. He read Classics at the University of Nottingham – where he has more recently been made an Honorary Doctor of Music – and afterwards studied composition privately with Anthony Milner. He was also helped by the advice and encouragement of Nicholas Maw and spent three years as an assistant to Benjamin Britten in the late 1960s. In the 1970s a friendship with the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe (leading to collaboration and numerous trips to Sydney) helped Matthews find his own distinctive voice.

Read more

David Matthews’ website

British pianist James Lisney is looking forward to his spring and early summer concerts with excitement.

The Cross-Eyed Pianist caught up with James to talk about how he and the music industry in general has fared during the past two years of the pandemic, the challenges and unexpected benefits of the enforced isolation, and the expectation of returning to live concert-giving once again.

The last two years have been extremely challenging for our industry. Have you seen any benefit from the enforced isolation of lockdowns and lack of live music?

The life of a self employed pianist has, in many cases, not been too adversely affected by the pandemic. Study, recordings, writing and online teaching have filled the gaps – but I am aware that there are many musicians who have had their careers decimated by the collapse of orchestral choral concerts in particular. Their phones and emails went ‘dead’ almost as soon as Covid was flagged up and, even when concerts started again, the full forces have not been employed on a regular basis. This economic hardship has not been specific to the young musicians, but there are scary statistics about how many musicians of all ages have either decided to retire or change profession. Apart from the lack of income, the expenses of their vocation continue: large insurance payments, membership of industry bodies, diary service subscription, instrument maintenance etc.

The matter of concert cancellations has been frustrating but it has also allowed unexpected time to rest and to study. For me this has enabled me to learn two monumental piano challenges by Beethoven: the Sonata in B flat (‘Hammerklavier’); and the ‘Diabelli’ Variations’ which I’m programming throughout the group of concerts that I am giving this spring and early summer. The lack of time pressure has allowed for deep and relaxed study – processes that have refreshed my love of music and the piano.

With time suddenly becoming a plentiful commodity, I have had time to explore Scriabin (for the first time), work at the music of Jan Vriend (always a slow process for me!), Chopin’s Études and Liszt’s Feux Follets – and I’ve even studied technical exercises that I’ve been intending to ‘get around to’ for about forty years!

The concerts I’m giving this spring and early summer are a gift to myself (programmed around my sixtieth birthday) and feature works that are the fruits of the pandemic (including Beethoven’s ‘Diabelli’ Variations and Scriabin Vers la flamme, for example); and music that I have performed for over four decades (such as Chopin’s Sonate funèbre and Ronald Stevenson’s ‘Peter Grimes Fantasy’).

During the pandemic you gave a concert at St George’s Bristol to an empty hall. How do you feel venues have adapted to the “new normal” and supported musicians during the past two years?

St George’s Bristol have been a fantastic support for me and many other musicians during Covid. They have adapted finances and concert formats, organised industry-leading livestream events, and kept in touch with their community, both local and nationwide. I performed the final sonatas Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert in autumn 2020 to an empty hall, but arrived home to email messages from audience members in the USA, the Czech Republic and New Zealand!

I am very much looking forward to returning to St George’s with Chopin on 21 May.

Talking of Chopin, he is a composer who remains very close to your heart. What is the attraction of this repertoire, for both player and audiences?

Chopin has been central to my programmes since I was eighteen. Audiences love this music and it is a constant fascination to attempt to play it – but it is also a constant inspiration in my work as a teacher. Chopin gets to the heart of our physical relationship with the instrument – and to the beauty and meaning of the score. He exemplifies exactitude and classical values with the skills of poetic recreation and improvisation. When one considers, in addition, the premises of his teaching philosophy, it is difficult to find an area of his influence that is not essential to the study of music from almost all of the eras of keyboard music.

The Sonatas and Fantaisie [Opus 49] have been in my repertoire since my teenage years and continue to fascinate and evolve for me – each return to study revealing a more essential layer of understanding. The pandemic has been a chance to work on the Mazurkas – music as dense in implication and as demanding intellectually as late Beethoven. The trio of Mazurkas, opus 56, for example, cover a huge intellectual range and can hardly be considered as “miniatures”.

The music salon at the 1901 Arts Club

Pre-pandemic you launched your …petits concerts series at the 1901 Arts Club. Tell us more about this series.

I am looking forward to returning to the large recital halls such as St Georges, the Bradshaw Hall in Birmingham and the beautiful Stoller Hall in Manchester – but I have a special place for the resumption of the …petits concerts series held at the bijoux concert venue and salon that is the 1901 Arts Club in Waterloo, London. This project was thriving in the seasons before Covid and enabled a spontaneous and simple organisation for concerts, contact with a relaxed and intimate audience (both during and after the performances) and the chance to raise money for a variety of purposes. The latest instalments in this series will be fundraisers for The Amber Trust (which supports the musical expression of partially sighted and blind children), of which I am proud to be a patron, and Help Musicians, a charity which has done so much to help musicians during the pandemic.


James Lisney will give concerts in Norwich, London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Cheltenham and Tunbridge Wells between April and June. For full details and booking, please visit his website

Readers can enjoy generously discounted tickets for the first …petite concerts recital on 25 April at the 1901 Arts Club. Use code LUDWIG when booking.

One Sunday afternoon I was idly leafing through a copy of Vanity Fair, which I found lying around at the country home of my parents-in-law. On the back page was a revealing interview with A Famous Person, based on the Proust Questionnaire, a set of questions which the French author Marcel Proust answered at different times in his life. Later that day, I thought this might make an interesting addition to my blog – a weekly interview where each respondent answers the same questions. And thus, in April 2012 the Meet the Artist interview series was born.

At this time, I’d been writing this blog for nearly two years. Originally intended as a place where I could record my thoughts about returning to the piano after an absence of some 20-odd years, it had quickly become a kind of online classical music ‘magazine’ with varied content: concert reviews interspersed with articles on piano technique, teaching, and repertoire, and more esoteric ‘think pieces’ on music. More importantly, it now had the beginnings of an established, regular readership, albeit still quite small (today it enjoys c30,000 visitors per month). A series of interviews with musicians seemed a good addition. Classical musicians have an aura of mystique (usually created by audiences and others, rather than the musicians themselves) and there is, I find, a great curiosity about what classical musicians do; not just the exigencies of life on the concert platform – the visible, public aspect of the profession – but, in effect, ‘what musicians do all day’. The Meet the Artist interviews offer a snapshot of other facets of the profession, giving readers a chance to get “beyond the notes”, as it were, and in doing so reveal some fascinating insights.

The willingness and openness with which people respond is refreshing, often unexpected, and largely free of ego. In addition, the interviewees give advice and inspiration for those considering a career in music, and attempt to define “success” in a profession where one’s ability to communicate with and move an audience is placed considerably higher than monetary returns.

Tamara Stefanovich

I never sought out the “big name” international performers like Angela Hewitt, Ivo Pogorelich, Tamara Stefanovich or Marc-André Hamelin (or indeed prog rock legend Rick Wakeman!), but as the series grew in reputation, so I found these people were happy to be interviewed, either directly (usually by email, occasionally in person) or via their publicists and agents. The series has become not only a valuable compendium of surprising, insightful, honest, humorous and inspiring thoughts from a wide range of artists, but also a platform for young and lesser-known artists in particular to gain exposure in an industry which is highly competitive. Others use the series as a means to promote upcoming concerts, recordings or other events, while also leaving an enduring contribution to audience’s and others’ understanding of how the music industry “works” and what makes musicians tick. It has received praise from the likes of pianists Stephen Hough and Peter Donohoe, both of whom are featured in the series.

James MacMillan, composer & conductor

From strictly classical artists such as harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani or composer and conductor James MacMillan, two of the earliest interviewees, the series has broadened in its scope over the years and now includes musicians from the world of crossover classical music, folk and jazz. Yet regardless of genre, what these interviews often reveal is how one’s chosen instrument and its literature exert a strong attraction, seducing would-be professionals from a young age and continuing to bewitch and delight, frustrate and excite.

To date, the series features over 1600 interviews from some of our greatest living musicians to young artists poised on the cusp of a professional career. Every single interview has value, and I am immensely grateful to the many musicians who have freely offered their insights, reflections and advice in their interviews.

To all of you who have taken part in the Meet the Artist series to date, THANK YOU.

Frances Wilson, The Cross-Eyed Pianist, April 2022


The Meet the Artist series is ongoing – if you would like to take part, please click here for more information