Critically acclaimed British pianist Brenda Lucas Ogdon returns with her new album ‘Ravel que J’Aime’ (released 1 October 2021).

The album marks only the most recent chapter of Brenda’s rich musical history. Having been awarded the Gold Medal from the Associated Board for the highest marks in any Practical Subject throughout the British Isles, Northern Ireland, and Eire, Brenda has since gone on to perform amongst the London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Scottish Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and across the US, Australia, the Soviet Union, Hong Kong, and more.

Brenda Ogdon has announced that her royalties from the album will be donated to Shelter – the UK homeless charity. This act follows in the spirit of the artist’s previous charity work. In 1993, Brenda established the John Ogdon Foundation – a foundation which completely funded three scholarships for gifted young musicians allowing them to pursue romantic and contemporary piano to a post graduate standing. The initiative was founded in honour of Brenda’s late husband concert pianist John Ogdon who died in 1989.

[source: press release]

In this Meet the Artist interview, Brenda Lucas Ogdon talks about her influences and inspirations and the experience of travelling and performing with her husband when he was still alive.

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

I was inspired by the lovely, glamorous pianist Eileen Joyce. Not only by her amazing pianism but by her elegant changes of beautiful dresses during her recitals. I was also inspired by the recordings of the Beethoven Sonatas/Concerti by the great pianist Artur Schnabel.

What has been the greatest challenge of your career?

The sudden, unexpected death of my husband, John Ogdon. I was a widow at the age of 53 and my life was turned around. After performing the duo piano works with John for at least 12 years, I had to revive my solo career. It took some time but eventually it happened.

Of which performances/recordings are you most proud?

I am very proud of the send recording we made of the two Rachmaninov Suites for 2 pianos. EMI amalgamated these with other recordings we made for them of Debussy, Bizet, Arensky, Khachaturian, Shostakovich, in a two-CD set, still available on the Warner label. I am also proud of my solo discs of The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 2 by J. S. Bach, released in 2018 on Sterling Records.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I really do not have a view on that question. At the moment I am releasing a double album of Ravel “Ravel Que J’Aime”, so I am hoping that it is Ravel.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I am always listening to other musicians which gives me a lot of inspiration. My daughter Annabel and I listen frequently to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra via their website.

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

I do not tour or give live concert performances anymore as I am 85 years old and those glory days are not possible for me physically. I have always loved recording so that is what I am happy to do now. The Ravel is for the charity Shelter – I am donating all my royalties to this charity, which I feel passionate about.

What is you favourite concert venue and why?

The Wigmore Hall in London. It is just such a perfect recital hall.

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

More funding for primary education in instrumental tuition in state schools. The rest will follow.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Difficult to pin down one experience against another: several memorable Promenade [Proms] concerts with John; a travel nightmare to give a concert in Spain when the French air traffic controllers were on strike so we missed the date. We eventually travelled and arrived in Malaga in the middle of the night. We played the concert a day late and when we walked on stage the audience erupted in the loudest applause I have ever heard! It was quite memorable and great fun.

As musician, what is your definition of success?

Success is when everything that you have worked and prepared for clicks into place at the right moment.

What advice would you give to young or aspiring musicians?

For performing musicians it is a tough world at the moment. Competition is strong and standards are very high – for example, the recent Leeds International Piano Competition where really amazing pianism was evident. Young musicians should listen to performances by major artists. They should try to accept the fact that there will be disappointments as well as triumphs in the life ahead of them and deal with that in a calm manner.

What is your most treasured possession?

My Yamaha Model C6 Piano

Brenda Lucas Ogdon’s latest album ‘Ravel que J’Aime’ is released on 1 October 2021, preceded by two singles of Miroirs: II. Oiseaux Tristes and À la manière de Borodine. All royalties from the album will donated to the homeless charity Shelter. 


Brenda Lucas Ogdon graduated with honours from the Royal Northern College of Music, where she met her future husband, John Ogdon.  She embarked on a world-wide solo career and a piano duo partnership with John.  This took them to almost anywhere in the world where grand pianos existed.  Brenda has appeared at the Cheltenham, Aldeburgh and Edinburgh Festivals, and also Sintra in Portugal and Maine in the U.S.A.  She has recorded for several major labels including EMI & Decca and her work has frequently been broadcast.  She has appeared with major orchestras throughout the UK, Australia and the U.S.A.

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Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

My parents foremost – there was music around the house at all times, and my mother had a beautiful voice and sang often with my father accompanying. Then my first teacher, from age 5, Barbara Boissard. Then Kathleen Long, a natural pianist and musician with a beautiful sound. I stayed with her until I was 12 when I went to study at the Paris Conservatoire for 6 years. By then my mind was firmly made up – but these people were good early influences who would have helped my resolve to be a musician grow. 

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

In my younger years, there was an injury or two which involved some important last minute cancellations, which I hated being obliged to do. You have to keep faith that you will heal completely, which of course I did. However emerging from the pandemic is really challenging – planning impossible and great flexibility needed, as well as zen-like qualities. 

Of which performances/recordings are you most proud? 

It depends on which period of my life. The Philips recordings of Lieder with Wolfgang Holzmair were very special for me. As were the Schubert Live recordings from South Bank Centre a little over a decade ago. They were tough days, the rehearsal was recorded, as was the concert, with a patch session until late into the night. Each was a real marathon. 

But my set of recordings for Chandos have been, still are, a wonderful journey – all done at the amazing Snape Maltings with an excellent team. I have a particular fondness for the Liszt/Wagner recording, as well as for the Beethoven Diabelli Variations and “Iberia y Francia” , a lovely mix of French and Spanish masterpieces, large and small. 

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best? 

It’s not really for me to say. I don’t take up any work if I am not 150% convinced by it, and feel that I have something really personal to express through a piece. I guess that Schubert and Schumann are particularly close to me. 

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage? 

Get away from music! Read, be in the great outdoors, preferably walking..

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

Dominated either by practicalities (recordings, requests from promoters, festival themes) or, simply by a movement of the heart that impels me to such and such a composer..

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

There are so many. The Wigmore Hall is particularly dear to me as to so many of us – but also Spivey Hall near Atlanta GA in the US, Severance Hall in Cleveland, the Recital Hall in Melbourne, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam…I hate to leave any out, but am obliged to!

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

I would like to think that the amount of filming of concerts on the web during the pandemic, and their easy availability, might entice new audience members when venues open up more. If only newly interested viewers could realise what an even richer experience it is sitting in a hall sharing an amazing musical experience with others – the synergy between platform and audience…There is honestly nothing like it.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

One was certainly the first time I played the last three Schubert Sonatas together in one concert, a marathon if ever there was one. It was in the hall at Westminster School, on a freezing cold night – a packed audience sat huddled up in their coats and listening so attentively. It was a two hours-and-ten concert, and I was like a rag doll at the end, but proud to have stayed the course..

As a musician, what is your definition of success? 

When I see that the music for which I have been a vessel has really reached the depths of people’s hearts and souls and that they are the better, or the wiser, for it. It is like speaking a message that has been clearly heard. If music-making is not about that, then for me it is not about anything. This has nothing to do with commercial success which is another story. 

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

Be humble about your ambition, whilst keeping your vision and goals clear. Be patient. And work work work – it is never enough. 

Where would you like to be in 10 years? 

Alive!

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Walking in the Italian countryside in spring, with the prospect of a simple meal with friends at the end of the day. 

What is your most treasured possession? 

My house and garden.

What is your present state of mind? 

Sane, mostly. 

Imogen Cooper performs at this year’s Petworth Festival on 24 July, playing music by Schubert, Liszt and Brahms. More information/tickets


Regarded as one of the finest interpreters of Classical and Romantic repertoire, Imogen Cooper is internationally renowned for her virtuosity and lyricism. Recent and future concerto performances include the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle, Sydney Symphony with Simone Young and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Ryan Wigglesworth.

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(Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke/Askonas Holt)

In this wide-ranging conversation Frances Wilson (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist) talks to pianist, recording artist and teacher Eleonor Bindman about the world of the amateur pianist, the pleasures and frustrations of being an amateur pianist, how teaching adult amateurs presents interesting unique challenges for teacher and pupil alike, and much, much more…..


Pianist, educator and mentor, Professor Julia Mustonen-Dahlkvist is Artistic Director of Ingesund Piano Center in Arvika, Sweden, and founder of the IPC’s Artists-in-Residence scheme, where up to ten young pianists are rigorously selected to take a ‘deep dive’ into their artistic, career and personal development. Each residency is fully funded.

An accomplished pianist herself, Professor Mustonen-Dahlkvist’s training in Russia, Germany, France, and Spain informed what would later become her own methodology, which when combined with her nurturing and passionate nature, has resulted in a unique formula for success, mastery and excellence. Here she talks about her early influences and how she was inspired to develop the programme at IPC.


Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I have multiple sources of inspiration. I have been consciously searching for musicians and pedagogues from whom I can learn something valuable. Everything started with my mother. She was a piano teacher at a music school working with kids, and wanted me to become a piano teacher too, simply because in the era of the USSR, this was a very good profession and a respected job to have. I grew up in communist Siberia at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 80s. It really was a different planet. My grandparents were deported to Siberia and despite a not very pleasant time during my childhood there, I was very lucky to meet Larissa and Valery Starodubrovsky in the early stages of my life. They were actual students of the great Heinrich Neuhaus and studied together with Sviatoslav Richter, and were deported to Siberia during Soviet times to “help to develop the culture” in Siberia. Larissa was an especially important teacher for me, and I stayed connected with her until the very last moments of her life. Even when I was already living in Finland and Germany, I still travelled to Moscow to play for her (where they returned to after the dissolution of the USSR). I also kept contact during the years of my master’s degree in Berlin.

Another very important teacher for me was Vitalii Berzon. He could really tell his students that playing piano was not difficult technically; he showed us exactly how to play and gave us students all the tools for it. Erik T. Tawaststjerna in Helsinki told me how I will exactly achieve my dreams to become a pedagogue and pianist and showed me the way. After that, and essentially the most important part for me as a musician and pedagogue was meeting and studying one year with Alicia de Larrocha. To be able to see and hear so closely the sound world of such a legendary pianist was very special. If you hear this once in your life, you can’t unhear it anymore and my whole life I have been searching for all possible methods just to get closer, bit by bit, to her amazing sound world. I feel like every year I come closer and closer in understanding her heritage, which I was fortunate enough to experience in person.

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

I think my whole life was built on challenges. It feels like I have gone through many problems like long term injuries, deep psychological problems with stage performances, a not very easy upbringing with lots of trauma, and difficulties with finding out how to deal with piano playing and psychological balance. It took me many years to find a way to be a confident performer and it took several years to establish any kind of stability in pedagogical process – even if I was always sure that it is my true calling to be a pedagogue. In the beginning of my pedagogical career, I found it very challenging to be a young professor and also a woman in this position.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

Everything! I tend to learn from each special or new moment of my life and compare it to music, seeing how I can use it. Very often we can find inspiration in everyday situations in life, because the emotional content in music is unlimited, the same way as the emotional content in life.

Tell us more about the Ingesund Piano Foundation. What was the motivation for establishing this Foundation, how does it support young artists, and how do you choose the students?

The Artists-in-Residence idea stemmed from the growth of our class over the past years. As the class grew into a group of pianists of vastly different cultural experiences and personalities, it became a nurturing ground for those who are striving for the same goal – excellence and depth in music-making.

Our students decided to come to Ingesund in Sweden because of the compatibility we share. To us, what matters most is how well we may understand each other, and whether our style and approach fits best for the individual’s improvement in their current state. This created an absolutely fantastic environment of trust, openness and true musical exploration.

To decide to work together with a student is a very difficult and long process, because the whole professional life of this person will largely depend on the productivity and quality of our work. Personally, I get very attracted if I hear somebody with their own unique voice in their music making. Everybody has their own voice of course, but some are more intriguing than others. In my case I have to intuitively see “hundreds of steps” forward, regarding how I may help to bring this pianist to become what he or she is dreaming to sound like. Most of it is down to hearing, and executing correctly. How realistic the process may be, and what kind of particular steps I can do to make it happen. Sometimes I absolutely love the musician, but after some trial – it may just not fit. I am intuitively always searching for pianists who possess some quality or potential to be the “real deal”. However, often these talents may not be the simplest personalities to deal with, and not the easiest musicians to teach. I guess we are indeed learning a lot from each other in the process.

Learning at the same time while teaching and developing together with the students is something very important to me. I have striking realizations from time to time and they often change the whole direction of my teaching and music making. In this particular moment, I am actually finding myself in such a revelation. It feels like I have never understood what piano playing was about earlier, compared to what I know now.

You were inspired by the Netflix programme ‘Playbook’. Tell us how this has influenced your approach and your role at IPF?

Patrick Mouratoglou, the coach of Serena Williams, is a genius who is capable not only of understanding but also working with human nature, understanding the psychology of highest-level performance under tremendous pressure. His ability to see the talent and foresee the steps of creating world-class players is very inspiring. The connection was immediate when Patrick, in the very beginning of the episode, started by comparing the practicing process of difficult details and passages at the piano, to the polishing of moves in tennis. He says, “Piano can be beautiful, if you listen to the piece from the start to the end. But if you repeat the same thing all the time…it drives people crazy. Of course it’s tough, and that’s why not many people can be Number One”. He is a huge inspiration for me, and in the same way, the work that we do is an inspiration for him. He talks about how the greatest weaknesses can become the greatest strengths, how emotions are your worst advisers, and how mistakes should not define you. I could suddenly relate to every word he is saying and recognize every situation he described in the preparation for the big stages. How can it be so similar? The psychology of the elite sport and the art of the piano performance, especially in competitions.

It does not matter what we do professionally, we are all humans, and our conditions in top-level performances are strikingly similar. Patrick said that his goal in coaching is very simple: we are there to help people to achieve their dreams. This is exactly the whole purpose of my piano teaching too.

What are the challenges facing young classical artists today and what are you doing to support and encourage them in their professional careers?

The challenges have been and will be always the same. First of all, it’s generally very difficult to get to the point where young artists are able to be ready professionally for all challenges for the future, and afterwards, once you are ready, it’s very difficult to get on the stage and be heard.

I personally hope that I am the pedagogue who is able to help professional development in a rather distinct manner. But lately I started to feel that it was not enough – because the professional world out there is not easy to enter for a young soloist and it’s not easy to get the right exposure. At Ingesund Piano Center we are trying to establish a useful platform and trying to think and work differently – curating an education which does not only take care of exams and degrees, but an education which would help to make a difference in the pianists’ careers and success on stage.

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

I think we just need to find, recognize, support and educate young musicians, who can play their instruments at the highest possible level, have an ability to captivate audiences and make a difference with their performances on stage.

Many musicians are nowadays very well-promoted, but not really giving this experience to the audience which would make them go back to the concert hall. It’s like going to a very well-designed restaurant, where the food is not good. You will not go back there.

But I have also experienced many times people becoming the biggest lovers of classical music when they get a revelation provoked by some very good performances, which could open up this whole world to the people. Good musicians and talented performers are our best ambassadors.

As a musician and pedagogue, what is your definition of “success” in the world of classical music?

The biggest success is the inner success in finding who you actually are and what you can contribute to this music world. And after you find the purpose, you also find the balance between the professional and personal lives. I guess success is something very personal, for some, they really need a completely full schedule to feel successful, for others, it is enough to have a few small events to feel this way. Generally, I think it’s very difficult to define success because it’s something very personal. The biggest success is if you can contribute exactly what you have dreamed about and that you know yourself well enough to place yourself rightfully with regards to your inner talent in the music world.

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

Never stop searching, evolving and developing. Never think that you have any limitations, try always to search for ways how to go above them. Do not be arrogant, but be aware of who you are. Be always clear in your mind, about your current situation, your possibilities and problems, and always have very clear goals and paths to go, search for help that exactly pinpoints and solves problems in the playing for example, and drop all delusions as soon as possible, do not try to give yourself too much international display and attention too early, before you are really ready, but never stop dreaming!

Led by Julia Mustonen-Dahlkvist, Ingesund Piano Center in Arvika, Sweden, offers young world-class pianists the support to cultivate international, sustainable and high-profile performing careers. The final concert in Ingesund Piano Center’s inaugural NORDIC STAGE Gala Concerts takes place online 10 June. The earlier concerts are to view via the IPC’s website

Read interviews with the participating pianists here


Paul C.K. Wee, an Australian with Singaporean-Malaysian heritage, is a London-based barrister, and also a concert pianist. He took up the piano as a young child, made his Royal Albert Hall debut at the age of 12, and studied in New York City at the Pre-College division of the Manhattan School of Music under the tutelage of Nina Svetlanova. At 18 he made the decision to study law at Oxford University rather than continue his musical studies in New York. But the piano has remained a very significant part of his life. He has released two recordings, to wide acclaim, and he continues to perform, when his schedule permits, as a recital soloist, concerto soloist, and chamber musician, both in his current home city of London and internationally.

In this interview, he reveals his influences and inspirations, how he balances his professional career with practicing the piano, and what drew him to record Sigismond Thalberg’s l’Art du chant….


Who or what inspired you to take up the piano?

My brother, who had just started playing the piano at about the age of 6. I was around 4 years old myself, and at that age I wanted to do everything my brother did. So I started on the Suzuki method. Neither of my parents had a musical background, but my father has always been a music lover, and I have many childhood memories of hearing Rubinstein and Ashkenazy playing Chopin, Gould playing Bach, and Pollini playing Beethoven through his stereo system. The tipping point for me came one day when I was listening to a CD of Rubinstein playing Chopin – I must have been 9 or 10 at the time – and something clicked. I knew then and there that rather than just playing what my teacher had assigned to me, I had to learn to play those works for myself, whatever it took and however difficult they may be. That was the real start of my musical journey, which ever since then has been principally self-motivated. Probably much to the frustration of some of my teachers over the years!

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

I think I have been most influenced by those artists who first opened my eyes to the sheer breadth of colours and sounds that a piano can produce: to name just three, the likes of Ignaz Friedman, Vladimir Horowitz, and Sergio Fiorentino, who could each shade a chord, bend a phrase, or sculpt a line in such a way as to set a sunset in a cadence or a lifetime in a pause – all in ways that go far beyond the mere notes that are printed on the page.

As to repertoire, I have definitely been influenced by those who have looked beyond the four corners of the standard repertoire, and brought numerous neglected gems and treasure to broader attention. Marc-André Hamelin is a real hero of mine in this respect.

As to interpretation, I am strongly convinced by the legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin’s theory of creative interpretation, which provides the descriptive and normative framework that I use to approach questions of interpretation as a musician.

Finally, as to my musical life today, I have to credit three people in particular: Nina Svetlanova, for giving me the pianistic and technical foundations for my relationship with the piano today; Mike Spring, for being the driving force behind my first Alkan recording and ever willing to talk pianists and pianism over a beer; and Robert von Bahr of BIS, for being willing to take a punt on the improbable proposition of a barrister playing Alkan and Thalberg, and for being both the most supportive partner and the dearest friend that any musician could hope to find.

Which particular works/composers do you think you play best?

When I play for myself, I often turn to Bach and Schubert for the deepest fulfilment, whether in the original or in transcription. But that is very different from saying I think I play those composers best, or that others would agree. I know audiences have responded particularly well to my performances and interpretations of Alkan, both live and in the studio. But I firmly believe that my interpretations of other works and composers, both within and outside the standard repertoire, are just as compelling and persuasive. Over time, it will be interesting to see whether audiences agree!

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage or in the recording studio?

I think my honest answer to this probably has to be – either being a barrister by day, or simply not being a full-time professional musician. That’s because music is my escape, not my day-to-day existence. I revel in every opportunity that I have to sit down at the keyboard, and this means that my relationship with music is constantly refreshing and reinvigorating – it is one hundred percent pure delight. I know my love for music wouldn’t have been any lesser if I had become a full-time professional pianist, but if I were reliant on performing or playing week in and week out to put a roof over my head, I wonder whether I might have sometimes felt fenced in or suffocated by the very music that I had set out to enjoy. That is why I have the utmost respect for full-time professional musicians whose conviction and passion for music remains undimmed. I know there is more than enough fulfilment to be found within music to make up for all the sacrifices that a musician’s life entails. But I am also very glad to approach music and the piano from another angle, in which merely making music and playing the piano in the first place gives me all the joy and inspiration I could ever need, for stage or studio or beyond.

Your latest CD is Thalberg’s l’Art du chant. What initially attracted you to this repertoire?

I first learned of the existence of L’art du chant as a teenager, at around the same time as I was first exposed to the much flashier operatic paraphrases for which Thalberg was and is much better known. While I was greatly taken by the ingenuity and hyper-virtuosity of the pianism in the Moses and Don Pasquale paraphrases, I was also fascinated by the prospect of this set of transcriptions with a very different purpose – the cultivation of a singing tone. Some years later, I managed to obtain the scores for some of these transactions, and discovered to my delight that they were every bit as stunning and well-crafted as I had hoped. Thalberg had clearly taken his mission statement very seriously, and the level of craftsmanship and care that he had put into these transactions to capture the illusion of a singing line can be seen in the extraordinary level of detail captured in the notation. But for some reason, L’art du chant still remained largely neglected, and no recording of the entire set was widely available. It therefore sat on my “wish list” of projects for many years, and so when the opportunity arose to consider possible follow-ups to my debut Alkan recording on BIS, I leapt at the chance to suggest L’art du chant – not only for all of the reasons I’ve just mentioned, but also because of the very different challenge that it posed to the Alkan.

And what have been the particular pleasures and challenges of working on it and recording it?

The principal challenge lay in achieving the musical and aural results that I was striving for in these transcriptions, knowing that I was asking listeners to consider works they may already know in their original vocal forms, and experience them afresh through the lens of the piano. These transcriptions are all about creating the illusion of a singing line on the piano, which is a percussion instrument after all. And while Thalberg’s ingenuity and craftsmanship provide you with many of the ingredients to create that illusion, it is quite another thing to bring it to life, especially given the differences between the modern Steinway concert grand and the pianos that Thalberg would have had in mind when writing L’art du chant. The emphasis on power and projection that has driven much of the evolution of the modern piano – whether manifesting in the deeper and heavier actions, the far lengthier sustains, or the much weightier bass registers of modern instruments – poses many riddles for a pianist grappling with the subtleties of soundwork that these transcriptions require. And all that is on top of the difficulties of the pianism itself in L’art du chant, which – unusually for Thalberg – is far more difficult to play than it sounds!

But if those were some of the challenges, they were more than outweighed by the pleasures. First and foremost was the joy of revelling in these wonderful transcriptions, which really are gorgeous pianistic settings of the most beautiful melodies – even my wife confessed that she didn’t mind listening to me practicing them! At the recording sessions themselves, it was a delight to work with the dream team of Andrew Keener, my producer, and Dave Hinitt, my sound engineer, as well as Kait Farbon, my piano technician extraordinaire – all in the loveliest setting at Wyastone. Another enormous pleasure was making the recording on the most wonderful Steinway from Ulrich Gerhartz’s C&A fleet in London, which was the perfect partner for this repertoire, with all of the best attributes of the modern piano for this type of music and then some. And finally, there was the quieter satisfaction of doing my part to try to bring L’art du chant to a wider audience.

In your working life you are a barrister. How do you balance your professional life with the need to practice, learn new repertoire and maintain your existing repertoire and technique?

With difficulty, but through discipline. I am a barrister first and foremost, and a career at the London Commercial Bar is demanding. My clients know that I give my cases all of the time and attention that they require, and this frequently means that I have to go for weeks without sitting down at a piano. I am very fortunate in that my technique doesn’t require much by way of maintenance and upkeep, and when I sit down at the piano after an extended break away, I can generally pick up from where I left off with no real loss of facility. That stems from the foundations that I built with my last teacher, Nina Svetlanova, who helped me to understand what it meant for technique to reside in the mind and in the ears, not in the fingers – though that is probably a subject for another time! I also find I can still learn new repertoire fairly quickly, even if not as swiftly as in my youth. Overall, when I have a performance or a recording session in the calendar, I have to treat it like any other court hearing or trial in my diary, and manage my time accordingly. As a barrister, you rapidly become familiar with the demands of juggling multiple cases and deadlines at once, each demanding more hours in the day than you can give. The discipline this forces you to develop is the same discipline that I draw upon to keep my musical activities in the mix too.

Are there any similarities or crossover between your working life as a barrister and being a pianist?

Yes – there are many! But I’ll touch on just one for now, which is the performance element. Every appearance in court is just as much of a performance as an appearance on the concert stage. As a barrister, you have one chance to persuade, to cross-examine, to get the right answers out of a witness or to give the right answers to questions from the

Judge. Whether in the courtroom or on the concert stage, a good performance requires both careful preparation in advance and successful execution on the day. And just as I might kick myself over a few dropped notes following a concert, I sometimes find myself wishing I had put a slightly different question to a witness, or handled a judicial intervention somewhat differently. But that is all part of the thrill of live performance.

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

I firmly believe that the key lies in education and exposure. The riches of what is called “classical music” are so broad, so deep, and so accessible that if children and young people are given the chance to engage with classical music early on and free of any preconceptions, I am convinced that this may give them a foundation for the appreciation of classical music that can be drawn on in later life. I’m thrilled to see the hard work and efforts that are being poured into this sphere, by amazing organisations like the Benedetti Foundation (www.benedettifoundation.org), and I’m wishing them every success along the way.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Exploring and performing the literature for one’s instrument at the highest technical and interpretative level. For me, it is enough to do that for myself and without any broader audience, to my own standards and in accordance with my own interpretative convictions, in the privacy of my own music room. Of course, if others are interested in seeing and hearing what I have to say at the piano in the literature that I love so dearly, then that is nice enough, so far as it goes. But I don’t condition success on winning approval from others. Ultimately, I don’t play the piano for other people, but for myself, and my interpretative convictions have more robust foundations than external validation.

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

The single most important point I would stress is to remember that your love for music and your instrument isn’t linked to your identity as an aspiring or professional musician. A genuine love for music isn’t the same thing as being in love with the idea of being a successful professional musician. Sadly, I’ve known many musicians who have confused the two. Ask yourself at every stage why you are doing what you are doing, and never lose sight of why you fell in love with music in the first place: treasure that flame. The joy and riches to be found in music are far bigger than any career, and if you don’t end up being a professional musician, that won’t detract from your ability to enjoy all the treasures that music has to offer – in fact I sometimes wonder whether it leaves you better placed to appreciate them.

What’s next for you? Where would you like to be in 10 years?

In ten years’ time I know I will still be playing the piano – whether for others, in live performances or via studio recordings, or even only just for myself. More imminently, I’m looking forward to resuming occasional recitals once concert life is able to resume, and also to the recording plans I have lined up with BIS. As to those, I’m tremendously excited by the two further recordings that we currently have planned, one featuring Beethoven-Liszt and Mozart-Alkan and the other featuring piano concertos by Henselt and Bronsart. Just as with my Alkan and Thalberg albums, both of these recordings will be childhood dreams come true.

157_elan_katharina_2011_crop_highresElan Sicroff is one of the leading interpreters of Thomas de Hartmann’s music and his extensive recording project with the Nimbus label brings de Hartmann’s chamber and solo piano music to a wider audience. Here he talks about the project as well as his own influences and inspirations and the experience of recording and performing de Hartmann’s music.


Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

There were two people who influenced my decision to become a professional musician:

I met J.G. Bennett in December 1972. He directed an academy in Gloucestershire modelled after the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, founded by George Gurdjieff, a spiritual teacher and polymath. At the time I was ambivalent about my path as a musician, and he said to me “If you have talent, it is a gift. It doesn’t belong to you, and you have an obligation to share it.”

Bennett was particularly interested in Beethoven’s music, and we worked together on the late sonatas Op. 110 and 111. During this time I also came across the music of Thomas de Hartmann, beginning my lifelong involvement with his music.

A second important influence is the guitarist Robert Fripp. In 1985 he produced my CD Journey to Inaccessible Places – the music of Gurdjieff and de Hartmann. Since 2006 he has helped me with a 21-year effort to bring de Hartmann’s classical music back to public awareness. In 2010 he introduced me to Gert-Jan Blom, Artistic Producer for the Metropole Orchestra in the Netherlands. We embarked on a five year recording project in 2011, resulting in six hours of music for solo piano, voice and chamber ensemble, now being released by Nimbus Alliance Records.

I would like to mention one other, overwhelmingly important influence on my pianistic and musical development. This was Jeaneane Dowis. When I first met her in 1964 when she was 32 years old: elegant, beautiful, and brilliant. In her early 20s she had become assistant to Rosina Lhevinne, on the strength of her ground-breaking discoveries in piano technique. Rosina had taught Van Cliburn, winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia in 1958, and students flocked from around the world to study with her. She sent those with technical problems to Jeaneane, and soon she was teaching 70 hours a week. I was 14 years old at the time, and she agreed to teach me if I was accepted by the Juilliard Preparatory School. The four years I spent with her were consistently exhilarating. She had astonishing insights, not only in technique but also in musicianship and interpretation. I went back to her again in the 1980s for further study, and her teaching had moved to another level: her remarkable discoveries about ease of movement, related to skeletal anatomy and visualization, deserve to be more widely known.

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

After nearly 40 years teaching piano, I was thrust into the world of professional musicians in 2011, due to the needs of the Thomas de Hartmann Project. The recordings in the Netherlands that began in 2011 presented many firsts for me.

The repertoire was very demanding. Many of the pieces contained technical difficulties, and once those were surmounted the task of turning them into music could be challenging. This was especially true for the later works, like the Commentaries on Ulysses Op. 71 and Musique pour la fête de la patronne Op. 77.

Accompanying vocal music was something I had never done before. Working with musicians of the calibre of Claron McFadden – a celebrated soprano in the Netherlands; and Nina Lejderman, a talented young opera singer, was quite a stretch.

Recording is an uncomfortable process and presents its own challenges. I have had to overcome my self-consciousness, which was magnified whenever the engineer said “You’re On!” After five years in the studio I have learned to trust the process. I now find myself looking forward to it: the birth pains are unavoidable, but the result is worth it.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

In 2016 the Thomas de Hartmann Project gave two memorable performances at Splendor in Amsterdam. The venue is quite special, founded in 2010 by a group of musicians, composers, and artists who needed a place to experiment and perform as they saw fit. When the de Hartmann recording project in Hilversum came to an end, many participants offered their services, pro bono, for the recitals. Music for saxophones, a trio for flute, violin and piano; sonatas for violin and cello, works for solo piano as well as de Hartmann’s songs were among the works featured. The response was very positive, confirming our belief that the listening audience was becoming ready to embrace de Hartmann’s music, after many years of neglect.

As for recordings: I have made 3 CDs of the Gurdjieff/de Hartmann music. I like all of them, but my favourite is Laudamus…, released in 2010.

That said, the Thomas de Hartmann Project CDs, now being released by Nimbus, occupy a special place for me. They represent the first commercial recordings of Thomas de Hartmann’s work, ever. I am so happy that this music is now available for the public to enjoy, and also to play. The contributions of Gert-Jan Blom, producer extraordinaire, and Guido Tichelman, one of the leading recording engineers in Europe, cannot be overstated. Gert-Jan brought his wide-ranging knowledge and enthusiasm to the project, and the sound quality that Guido captured is of the highest order.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I find myself attracted to composers who are able express deeper meaning in their music. In May 1970 I sang in a performance of Mozart’s Requiem at the National Cathedral in Washington, presented by the Oberlin Conservatory, as an act of protest against the Vietnam War. I was strongly affected by how Mozart expressed the meaning of the words through his music. It was a seminal moment, which lead me to look for more works by Mozart and other composers that had this power.

Beethoven’s struggles with deafness are well known – he even contemplated suicide in his thirties as a result, but decided to continue and compose for the benefit of mankind. His compositions became a chronicle of his inner life. The same can be said for Schubert – contracting syphilis was a death sentence, and his music often reflects his inner struggles, sometimes leading to defiance, at others to acceptance.

Thomas de Hartmann attempted to express psychological ideas that he encountered through his work with Kandinsky and Gurdjieff, in addition to wide-ranging literary influences. Along with the colour, vibrancy and beauty of his music, his attempts to insert meaning in his music continue to fascinate me.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I find that physical work of various kinds is essential to my feeling of well-being. These days I walk and have a vegetable garden. I also practice yoga and the Alexander Technique, which help to tune the whole body, before sitting down to the instrument.

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

Since 2011, there has been a flow that has made choices for repertoire fairly easy. The aim to present a body of representative works by de Hartmann for the public, resulted in our recording a substantial portion of his output for piano solo, voice, and chamber ensemble…though to be accurate, we’ve only scratched the surface of his vocal output.

A group of musicians has now come together to form the Thomas de Hartmann Consort. The aim for our programming has been to integrate de Hartmann’s work into the rest of the classical canon. The programming possibilities are almost endless:

— Music by de Hartmann’s composition teachers, Anton Arensky and Sergei Tanaieff.

— The music by Debussy and Ravel, to compare and contrast de Hartmann’s own work with Impressionism.

— Music that relates to de Hartmann’s quest for meaning: Beethoven and Schubert.

— De Hartmann’ Bach transcriptions for Pablo Casals provide the opportunity to perform them next to the originals.

— Music by contemporaneous Russian composers, from Rachmaninoff to Scriabin, Prokofiev, etc.

— Music by Bartok and Kodaly, delving into early attempts to bring World Music to the West.

As for recording, the Piano Concerto Op. 61 is next on the agenda, scheduled for this autumn. There are also a few solo piano pieces that need to be recorded, including a 25 page sonata written when de Hartmann was 17, and some very late works from the 1950s.

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

Most of my performances have taken place in small halls that seat several hundred people. I particularly like Carnegie (Weill) Recital Hall for its intimacy and acoustic. I’ve played at many universities and conservatories, including the University of Anchorage, Alaska, UCLA and UC Berkeley in California, and the Longy Conservatory in Boston. I always enjoy the energy and enthusiasm of these audiences. Young musicians represent the future, and if de Hartmann’s music is going to be established, it will be those people who will give it voice.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

Quality education is the highest priority. Very young children should hear top-notch recordings and performances to develop an ear for music. This means that parents need to get involved. It also helps when elementary and high schools have good music programs: Zoltán Kodály brought solfège to the Hungarian school system, and Japanese schools also have a quality music program. Dr. Shinichi Suzuki revolutionized violin teaching when he developed the “mother-tongue approach,” in which young children learn to play an instrument in the same way they learn to speak. He has been a major force in bringing youngsters to classical music.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Following are two answers to this question, from opposite perspectives: first as performer, secondly as audience participant:

In 1975 Mme. de Hartmann had organized a recital of her husband’s music at McGill University in Montreal. I had been asked to play the Two Nocturnes Op. 84, written in de Hartmann’s late classical style.

This was my first meeting with her. Madame may have been diminutive in size, but she was truly a force of nature. She had been a member of the Russian aristocracy, close to the Tsarina before the Russian Revolution, and had strong ideas that sometimes ran contrary to the relaxed attitudes of young people in the later years of the hippy era. She didn’t approve of women wearing jeans, of young men with beards, or grand pianos on movable platforms being used in performances of her husband’s music. She told me to ignore the audience and play only for her, to look up at the ceiling before playing ‘the Music of the Stars,’ and that a musician must rest on the afternoon of a performance to conserve energy for the event. I was still impressionable at the age of 25, and took it all in.

When my performance was a success, it began a relationship that lasted for 4 years until her death in 1979. It opened the door for further recitals under her tutelage, as well as instruction in de Hartmann’s music.

One of the most memorable performances I ever saw took place in London in the mid 1970s, when I heard the cellist Paul Tortelier give a solo recital. I had not heard his name before, and had no idea what to expect. He came onto the stage, an elderly man, thin, with a shock of white hair. He seemed to float over the cello when he played. The first piece, a Boccherini sonata had 3 movements, but he was so pleased with himself after the first two that he stood up, took a bow and moved onto a Bach cello suite! Then he stopped, began speaking in French, and changed to English: “If you want to cough while I play, please leave the room!” The audience was noticeably taken aback.

In the second half he played the Franck Sonata and (if I remember correctly) also the Debussy cello sonata. By the end he had won the audience over, and began playing encores – without leaving the stage, he continued for another 45 minutes, even including the entire Kodály Unaccompanied Cello Sonata. By this time the audience was in a frenzy, with some people standing to watch him in amazement. Finally he stood up, closed the lid of the piano, and walked off the stage, not turning back….

In the programme notes I noticed that he had studied with Gerard Hekking. De Hartmann had dedicated his cello sonata to him, so I went backstage to ask Tortelier if he knew of the piece. “Yes,” he said, “it has a beautiful second movement, but the rest is not for the masses.”

I walked out of the hall feeling that I had witnessed an event that was a throwback to the Romantic Age, reminiscent of stories I’d read about Liszt and Paganini in performance.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I view my work in music as a process, with different stages, and it is necessary for some form of success to enter into each of them. First there is the functional work of learning the notes, understanding the structure, and overcoming technical challenges. Then another level comes: the music must begin to speak. In some ways it is the opposite of the functional work – activity ends and receptivity begins: one must listen, be still, be open, questioning. This stage is sometimes quite agonizing: the piece still is not music, and one cannot “make it happen.” When one completes this stage and is prepared, the final stage comes with performance. Here the audience becomes a participant, adding its listening to the music. There are then three aspects: the performer, the audience and the music. Occasionally there is an “event,” where something new and memorable occurs. Success!

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

In 1972 I went to see Nadia Boulanger in Paris, to inquire about becoming her student. One of the most memorable things she said to me was “If you can live without Music, do!”

This statement has resonated with me over the years. It covers a lot. Anyone considering a career in music should have an all-consuming love for it. If one is fortunate enough to realize that there is nothing one would rather do than make music, then there really isn’t a choice…!

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Seven years remain until the end of the 21-year Thomas de Hartmann Project. For a long time I’ve an image of what completion would look like: I will be standing in front of Carnegie Hall, looking at the billboard announcing the performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and Thomas de Hartmann’s Symphonie-Poème. This would indicate that de Hartmann has finally “arrived.”

I’d be happy to substitute specific works in this visualization – it might be another symphony or concerto by Thomas de Hartmann. Another orchestral work by Beethoven might also be acceptable….!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I would say that true happiness results from a life well lived, in which one manages to achieve one’s goals. As a working musician, I find that self-satisfaction comes from overcoming obstacles in learning the repertoire that I value, and performing it well. Each time this occurs, it gives a taste of happiness.

On 2 April, Nimbus release three volumes of the Music of Thomas de Hartmann. More information here.


Elan Sicroff is known as an interpreter of the music written by Thomas de Hartmann, both the classical works as well as the music from the East composed in collaboration with Gurdjieff . In the 1960s he studied with Jeaneane Dowis, protégée and assistant to Rosina Lhevinne at the Juilliard School. From 1973-75 he attended the International Academy for Continuous Education at Sherborne, in Gloucestershire, England, as a student and later Director of Music. The Academy was directed by J. G. Bennett, a leading exponent of Gurdjieff’s teachings.  It was here that Elan was introduced to the music of Thomas de Hartmann. Between 1975 and 1979 he studied with Mme. Olga de Hartmann, widow of the composer, focusing on the music which de Hartmann composed in the classical idiom.  He performed many recitals under her auspices, and in 1982 toured the United States.

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(video credit: Victor McSurely )