Tag Archives: interviews with pianists

Meet the Artist…..Ivana Gavric, pianist

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

I have been surrounded by music since birth. My mother is a pianist and teacher and I spent my childhood listening to her practice and being taken to concerts, the opera and ballet. I was particularly fascinated to hear and see ‘magic’ on stage, and then meet the artists afterwards, with their ‘mask’ off. I started attending the Sarajevo Junior Music School before I started main school. I do remember wanting to be an opera singer initially, but the piano somehow won, and I am very happy that it did! Although I loved being immersed in music, later, if anything, I almost tried to avoid it as a career.

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

My long-term teachers, Niel Immelman and Peter Bithell. Working with singers while I was a student – they taught me how to breathe, phrase and tell a story. Dmitry Bashkirov who taught me to listen and colour every note in a way I didn’t think possible before. Steven Kovacevich for instilling discipline in me!

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

Learning to say no.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

My debut disc ‘In the mists’, because it had humble beginnings as an intended demo CD: As a coincidence, shortly after I recorded a few pieces at Champs Hill, Champs Hill Records was set up. They took my disc on, it was launched at my first Wigmore recital in 2010 and suddenly it started to receive wonderful reviews worldwide culminating in the Newcomer of the Year award from the BBC Music Magazine.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Usually what I’m playing at the time, especially if I am revisiting a work after some time away from it.

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

Mostly, there is a thread to my programming, a story. I try to bind together works I am drawn to play, and sometimes ones I have been asked to play, into a well-structured and balanced programme.

I have realised, somewhat retrospectively, that I have been especially drawn to composers who have sought to develop a sense of a national voice through their music. It all begun with my intrigue of the Russian Mighty Five while I was still at Cambridge. I then immersed myself in Janacek’s oeuvre, and afterwards in Grieg’s. More recently, I have loved spending time with Chopin Mazurkas. Although they are very stylised and sophisticated works, some, especially the early ones, are rather rustic and jagged, and I find this quite charming.

I’m also excited and honoured that one of the most interesting living composers, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, will be writing a Piano Concerto for me next year, in homage to the Haydn D major Concerto. It’s been long-in-planning but we’re very happy to make it happen. I wish promoters were not so afraid of commissioning new works.

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

The Wigmore Hall, of course! It’s a beautiful and intimate venue.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Favourite pieces to perform: in short, piano concertos. There is no greater feeling to me, than the thrill of playing concerti, and especially when it feels like you and the orchestra are making chamber music together, on a large scale. With listening, I usually go back to the same pieces: Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, Rachmaninov Songs and anything written for the Ballets Russes. I’m also very fond of Ivor Cutler’ quirky recordings. Most of the time though, I just love putting the radio on.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Martha Argerich, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Annie Fischer, Ivan Fischer, Bernard Haitink, Teodor Currentzis.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Every concert experience is memorable in some way. Performing concerts is such an intense and intimate experience, and yet over in an instant, that nothing else I know comes close.

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

Grab every opportunity. Remember that we spend our days with beautiful things.

What do you enjoy doing most?


Ivana Gavric will be performing at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday 23rd April at 1130am, as part of the Coffee Concerts Series. Further information here

Her new album ‘Chopin’ will be released on Edition Classics on Friday 21st April and is available for pre-order now

British pianist Ivana Gavric created a sensation with her debut disc In the mists, winning BBC Music Magazine Newcomer of the Year for ‘playing of an altogether extraordinary calibre’. Her third disc of works by Grieg, also on Champs Hill Records, was selected as Editor’s Choice in Gramophone and noted for ‘an electrifying performance’ (BBC Music Magazine). The Grieg Society has voted the CD as its ‘Recording of the Year’. Ivana has performed with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, the Trondheim Soloists, Aurora Orchestra and South Denmark Philharmonie. She has collaborated with conductors including Rafael Payare, Nicholas Collon, Christian Kluxen and Ben Gernon.

Following her US solo debut, the Washington Post described Ivana’s playing as ‘impressive, insightful… a ravishing performance’. Ivana has been heard on the major concert platforms including The Wigmore Hall, the Barbican, Royal Albert Hall, Royal Festival Hall, KKL Lucerne, Gilmore Festival Rising Star Series, as well as across China, in Canada and Japan. Attracting considerable praise for her interpretations of Janacek’s music in particular, Ivana has curated festivals dedicated to the composer’s solo and chamber works. Also a dedicated chamber musician, Ivana performed with violinist Maxim Vengerov as part of Live Music Now, the outreach scheme established by the late Lord Menuhin.

She has partnered colleagues on the concert platform in festivals in the UK and Europe, taken part in the IMS Prussia Cove Open Chamber Music Sessions and is an alumna of the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme. Outside the concert hall she is featured playing Chopin and Beethoven in BBC2’s adaptation of The Line of Beauty, and Bach in Anthony Minghella’s film Breaking and Entering.

Born into a musical family in Sarajevo, and raised in the UK, Ivana studied at the University of Cambridge and at the Royal College of Music. Her teachers include Niel Immelman, Peter Bithell and James Gibb. Additionally, Ivana has had the opportunity to study with esteemed musicians such as Menahem Pressler, Ferenc Rados, Dmitry Bashkirov, Boris Berman, Stephen Kovacevich and Leif Ove Andsnes. Ivana is indebted to the support of many trusts, including the Frankopan Fund (Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts), the MBF, The Solti Foundation, The Nicholas Boas Trust, The Richard Carne Trust and the RVW Trust. Ivana is proud to be an Ambassador for the charity ‘Music Action International’.


Meet the Artist……Renée Reznek, pianist


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

When I was four years old, my parents went away on a long European holiday, leaving me and my younger brother in the care of our grandmother and a much loved adopted “auntie”, a retired piano teacher. To keep her happy, they rented a piano which she played every day. One evening, Auntie Bessie played Schumann’s Arabesque Opus 18 and I vividly remember the overwhelming emotions which resulted in floods of tears! She responded by teaching me to play; by the time my parents returned I could perform simple pieces. It is my belief that from that time, music became an essential resource for me, filling the hole left by the absence of my parents. I didn’t envisage a performing career; that developed later on, but I knew there was no other path for me but to study music.

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

I grew up in South Africa where very little 20th century music was performed. However, when I was a B. Mus. student at the University of Cape Town, my Harmony and Counterpoint lecturer, now Professor Emeritus James May, asked me to play Schoenberg’s Suite Opus 25 and Webern’s Variations Opus 27 in a concert. Despite not knowing these pieces at all and initially finding them incomprehensible, I was determined to honour my commitment and in the process became “hooked”. What fascinated me in the Suite for instance,was recognising the phrasing of a Gavotte or Minuet despite the unfamiliarity of the serial language.This felt exhilarating, like learning a new language. So thanks to James May, this was the start of my journey into 20th century and new music.

The teachers who influenced me most for very different reasons were Gyorgy Sandor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Susan Bradshaw in London. Sandor changed my piano technique with advice on arm weight and a flexible wrist; he was a pragmatic teacher, a problem solver. Lessons on the music of Bartok, who was his teacher, were revelatory, but his interest in 20th century music stopped there.

Susan Bradshaw was the perfect guide to performing 20th century classics and new repertoire. Her incisive intelligence simplified complex textures. She taught me how to articulate phrasing in unfamiliar contexts and to make new repertoire as accessible as possible at a first hearing. She introduced me to composers such as Robert Saxton who wrote a Sonata for me, which led to my giving my first London premiere in the Purcell Room. The experience of working together with a composer like Robert to produce a first performance was life changing.

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

I could say that performing the complete solo works of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern from memory in the Wigmore Hall was one of my most challenging concerts.

However the real challenge for me was returning to performing after a long break following the birth of our two children.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I am proud of my new CD of recent South African piano music which I hope will introduce some fantastic composers to those unfamiliar with South African contemporary music: Kevin Volans, Michael Blake, Rob Fokkens, Neo Muyanga, David Earl, Peter Klatzow, Hendrik Hofmeyr and David Kosviner. The majority of the pieces on the CD are rooted in traditional South African music though some are European in origin; this is diverse repertoire which reflects a rich and varied culture. With one exception, these works have never been recorded and many have been dedicated to me.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Schoenberg’s piano music occupied me for years so thank goodness I am told I play it well! I treasure the review from Peter Stadlen, a pupil of Webern, who liked my performance of Schoenberg’s Suite Opus 25 : “Schoenberg has come of age” he wrote; thank you Peter Stadlen!

However, maybe what I do best is what I enjoy the most, which is trying to communicate unfamiliar music in as clear a way as possible.

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

Sometimes one is free to choose, or a festival or concert series may stipulate a particular work or composer. On the whole I have been able to perform the music I want to play. I enjoy creating programmes which are cohesive in some way, not merely a collection of disparate pieces.

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

It is the audience who create the atmosphere in a concert and an enthusiastic audience can transform any venue into somewhere special.

However, recently, I loved performing at the Turner Sims in Southampton; fabulous piano and intimate hall. I will be recording there again soon on the Fazioli.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I admire musicians who engage with the music of their own time as well as performing traditional repertoire. Maurizio Pollini comes to mind or Stephen Hough who is that rare musician in today’s world, a composer-performer. Both Pollini and Hough bring an illuminating intelligence to whatever they play. Having said that, I will go anywhere to hear Angela Hewitt play Bach

What is your most memorable concert experience?

At the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival in 2015, I gave the first South African performance of Neo Muyanga’s Hade Tata (Sorry Father) composed in tribute to Nelson Mandela. That was a very special occasion for me.

One of the most memorable experiences was taking part in the Park Lane Group’s 25th Anniversary celebrations in the Queen Elizabeth Hall; 25 pianists playing 25 Steinway grand pianos on raked stages, conducted by Sir Colin Davis!

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

When I am asked to talk to young musicians, I advise them not to choose a career in music if they think it will make them rich or famous but only if music is their reason for getting out of bed in the morning! This is a difficult and unstable profession.

Being a professional musician requires hard work, humility, curiosity, passion and stubborn persistence! It requires an ability to “bounce back” from rejections.

Keeping fit and well in order to deal with the rigours of practice, performance and travel is vital; regular exercise, meditation and control of the breath also aid relaxation.

In practice, it is important to work from the inside out, from the notation, not outside in, imitating a favourite recording; it is essential to understand how the music is put together. Every performance should sound like a first performance even if the repertoire is very familiar.

I encourage young musicians to remember that while there is a vast legacy of repertoire from the past, we are living in the 21st century and there is a wealth of music being created right now which deserves some of their attention!

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

I hope I will still be excited about playing new music.

What is your most treasured possession?

Peace of mind.

Renée Reznek’s new disc ‘From My Beloved Country’, new piano music from South Africa is released on 31st March on the Prima Facie label
Renée Reznek was born in South Africa. As a child she studied with Adolf Hallis, who was a pupil of Tobias Mattay. She graduated with distinction from the University of Cape Town with a Bachelor of Music degree. During these years Lamar Crowson was her teacher.
Read Renée’s full biography here

Meet the Artist……Jonathan Biss, pianist

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

I have two musician parents and had a musician grandmother. I grew up in a house where music was quite literally everywhere, and I think that was probably the single most important influencing factor. I really do believe in this idea that music is a language and you feel comfortable in the language that you hear from the beginning of life. I heard music from the beginning of my life, and I think I just wanted to speak that language

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

You go through a musical life and you’re exposed to so many people and it’s not easy to narrow this down. But probably studying with Leon Fleischer was the most formative experience in my life, beyond growing up in the house I grew up in.

I had grown up hearing his recordings long before I met him, and he was a huge influence before I even knew what he looked like. And then I met him and spent four years studying with him. He’s one of those rare musicians who is equally eloquent as a player as a teacher – a musical philosopher. Hearing music described by him and seeing the unbelievable integrity with which he approached music, I think that really marked me.

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

It’s all hard! I don’t mean that in a negative way, but basically you spend every day touching these masterpieces but you never come to some end point where you can say “that is just the way I want it” because you’re always looking for more in them. That is exactly what is so wonderful about them too, but it is simultaneously what is very difficult. So I guess maybe the challenge is finding a balance between being very driven and determined and ambitious (and I don’t mean ambitious in a career sense), but to also take a real joy in playing these works.

There’s a wonderful quote from Schnabel that over the years he taught, relatively many students who could convey sorrow in their music making, but only a couple in all of those years could really convey joy. It’s a huge part of music’s expressive vocabulary and hugely important not to lose sight of that.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I have certain love for Schumann’s music. Not that I love it more than other pieces, but I feel a kind of closeness to it, that it speaks to and for me in a way that it is different from other works.

And of course I feel unbelievably pulled towards Beethoven – who couldn’t be?! – so I can’t say I have any real favourites. But this is the music that is most important to me in my life at the moment.

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

The first thing is that I have to love the music that I play. I have to really want to play it. And then I start thinking about recital programmes, how a good programme would be to put together. What programmes work well, how much repertoire can I handle in a season without becoming overwhelmed, how much do I need to feel there’s enough variety

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

I have many. I have had a very long, very very happy association with the Wigmore Hall, which I think is a really very special place. I love playing at the Concertgebouw, in the big and small halls. I’ve lived in NYC for 16 years now so Carnegie Hall has a special resonance for me as well.

I played at Milton Court (London) in November (2016) and it was a fantastic pleasure. This is another small-ish hall in London which is totally different in vibe, has a different audience, with an excellent acoustic

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

The first thing is that as you work – and as a young musician you have to work hard – you must never lose sight of what made you fall in love with music in the first place. You have to find a way, and it’s a question of hours where you really strive to improve, but you never move away from that aspect of music which drew you to it. You should never let the work become a distraction or be dutiful. That I think is incredibly important and not easy to achieve.

I think the other main thing that you have an incredibly profound responsibility to try to understand the mentality of the composer. It’s very difficult and you will never do it perfectly: notation is so abstract, but that does not absolve you of the responsibility of trying. You have to really, really try to look for what this person is trying to communicate – if you choose to play music which is not your own music, you have a responsibility to do more than just play the notes.

How do you feel a musician should approach this?

I think a close interrogation of the music is necessary and it takes many forms. Even though in Beethoven piece to piece he changes enormously, you should not play the piano sonatas without knowing the quartets and symphonies. I really believe that

Understanding structure, the way the music is put together, the way it functions psychologically is unbelievably important – I don’t think it’s that important for the audience, but it’s especially important for anyone who wants to play music. This is abstract music, not a literal reflection of the life of the composer, but I do think especially when talking of the music of the past, because the world has changed so much, trying to understand the world these composers lived in – and it will only get you so far – remains a real responsibility.

Talking specifically of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, D959 (which Jonathan Biss will perform at his concert in London on 2nd May 2017) do you feel the slow movement of this sonata is a reflection of the composer’s mental and physical state?

All this is intensely subjective, but I would say yes. When I play the second movement I really do think it’s a composed hallucination. There’s no other piece by Schubert or anyone else that is like it. The are little moments in his earlier music, but in the late music alongside the lyricism, which is so incredibly beautiful, there is this sense of real terror, and I think when you know this is a person who was months away from death, it’s very difficult not to think there is a connection [in the second movement]. The warmth of the finale is really astonishing in contrast to that.

Tell me a little more about your Late Style project. What drew you to this examination of composers’ late music?

As with all my programming this is music which is important to me. Beyond that, it really has interested me that there are so many composers who were already writing great music but still at the end of their lives moved in new directions. For example, with Beethoven because the late works are so special, had he stopped at Op.80, we’d still say he’s one of the greatest, but he still found a new language in later life. This is also true of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and figures as diverse as Britten, Bartok, Shostakovich and Gesualdo. I am just fascinated by this idea that the combination of accumulated wisdom and the sense that time is finite, limited, seemed to have focussed so many composers’ imaginations in a very specific way. Either age and/or coming to the end of life it seems you reach the point where you just say what you need to say, you don’t worry about how it will be received. All of these works are very different but I think the link is that these people have the freedom to say what they need to say.

Jonathan Biss performs late works by Schumann, Chopin, Kurtag and Brahms at Milton Court on 27 March, and Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A, D959, and Schwanengesang, with Mark Padmore, on 2 May. Further information here

(Interview date 28 January 2017)

Jonathan Biss’ biography

Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

Meet the Artist……Kirill Gerstein, pianist

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

I think for me, music and the piano emerged from the fog of my earliest memories because the piano was always in the house for as long as I can remember. My mother was teaching in a music college but also at home, so in that sense the piano, and especially music, were always there. It started as a sort of game with my mother: that was the trigger.

As for this whole music “career” business, I didn’t know until I was about 10 or 11 that I adored the piano. I loved music more than the instrument to begin with and then the love of the instrument came at a later stage. So I knew I wanted to do something with music but not whether I would or could be a concert pianist. But from about the age of 10, I switched to a better teacher and all of a sudden I had this tremendous interest in the instrument. Then I won a children’s competition in Poland and one thing led to another…

I can’t point to an earth-shattering moment when I knew “this is what I want to do” – it was more of a gradual, organic process.

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

The most significant teachers (and this is not to do any disservice to other people from whom I received advice) and musical influences would be Dmitri Bashkirov with whom I studied in Madrid, and Ferenc Rados, who I studied with in Budapest, and wherever else we would meet. Those two are really the most significant musically speaking. But then I have received a lot of inspiration and ideas from Andras Schiff, for example, and Alexis Weissenberg, who, when he was still alive, gave me some very important impulses. Then there are conductors, like Semyon Bychkov, who have given me a lot of inspiration and advice, so I must say I feel very fortunate. It’s always been purposeful, because I seek out these people to learn something from them and that has been incredibly fruitful and stimulating. But when thinking about music and playing music, Bashkirov and Rados have been the most significant.

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

Well let’s start with the fact that music is difficult and the piano is a bloody difficult instrument to play! On the one hand it’s challenging, but on the other hand, it’s what keeps it so incredibly interesting and vital to continue, otherwise life would be terribly boring. Playing music on an instrument with one’s body is an extremely challenging occupation. Then there’s the fact that as an instrumentalist, you are forced to reflect on everything inside yourself – psychological limitations, fears, advantages, disadvantages. So staring at your reflection day in day out with such great intimacy and with the purpose of self-improving is also a challenge but is one that I nevertheless love and think is a great way of reaching a better understanding of oneself.

Other challenges include not allowing oneself to be distracted by the so-called “business” of a musical career and everything that that entails, to maintain a good level of mental and spiritual energy, trying to improve every day, learning new repertoire, getting better, and so on.

I think this balancing act is quite hard. And as everybody knows, the so-called “music business” is challenging because it comes with a lot of hurdles, but at the end of the day, it’s not the most significant thing in the world. To keep the soul in balance is a challenge, but generally balance is difficult to find in life! And what is important to know is that this balance is ever-changing.

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

Eclectically (!) which I think is important and also in some ways purposeful. It has to start with something that deeply interests me: for example, the Transcendental Études are an interesting challenge for myself but one that I hope I can make interesting for audiences too because it’s not just for me.

It also comes from particular personal interests. I hate programming that looks like “Oh here’s another piece I learnt so let me play that for you”, so eventually there needs to be some kind of coherence or connection or inner logic which isn’t necessarily musicological or historical. This then influences what I choose, what goes well with what, a bit like making a menu… Alexis Weissenberg once said to me, “nothing betrays the personality of the pianist better than the way he puts together his recital programmes and the height of his stool at the instrument” and I think there is some witty wisdom in that comment. Especially in the case of concertos, less so with recital repertoire, I’ve been quite open to external impulses or suggestions from a conductor. There are a number of concertos I would not necessarily have thought of learning but then you fall in love or become intimately associated with the piece. So I enjoy external influences in that sense. But essentially I don’t agree to do anything that I don’t like or can’t believe in.

What is the special fascination of Liszt’s Transcendental Études for you?

It’s multi-faceted: I think Liszt is a great fascination because as modern pianists we owe the majority of our musical and pianistic lives to him in the sense that he has shaped our hands through the pianistic advice he has created, and he influenced the majority of what is played since his time. Everything that came later – Busoni, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Prokofiev – is the result of everything that Liszt came up with during the 20-25 years he was occupied with the Transcendental Études in their various incarnations. So the Transcendental Études are the Everest of piano literature, but also a distillation of Liszt as a pianistic experience. But obviously we owe him far more than the pianistic experience: there are the musical inventions, without which we would not have Wagner, Strauss, Mahler, Debussy, Busoni etc. There’s also the whole business of performing recitals as a soloist which we owe largely to Liszt – as Busoni said, “Liszt is the tree and we are all branches of that tree.”

It’s also a personal project. I wanted to take the “Transcendental Études journey” in order to self-improve through working on it and pursuing it as a cycle as I don’t think it is a random collection of 12 studies. It’s also of course so much more than a technical journey. Arthur Friedheim, an important student of Liszt, said something like “I had the privilege and honour of walking in the footsteps of the great” and I think the sentiment relates to Liszt, and essentially all the other great composers that we play. We get to follow in the “finger steps” of these great minds and spirits that have walked the keyboard, and in that sense it’s really a tremendous experience to be in touch with history in this way. But it’s not just a question of digging archaeologically; it’s about making the music, and therefore history, alive again so it can be felt in the air until it dissipates. This is one of the great privileges of being a performer. When playing Liszt, it’s the most amazing experience when you let him take over your hands, body and mind.

Having said that though, this wasn’t the intended outcome. When I started studying the Transcendental Études a year before I recorded them, I wasn’t certain whether I would be able to play them let alone very well. Everything began to emerge as I went further along the journey.

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

There are very divergent styles of concert venues – old concert halls, such as the Musikverein, are incredible. Boston Symphony Hall is also of this kind. Those two could easily be named as favourites. Then there are the great American halls of the turn of 20th-century and the 1920s – Carnegie, Severance Hall (Cleveland), Orchestra Hall (Chicago). There are also some really excellent new venues, but they are hard to compare to the old ones because of the different mentality towards sound.

Symphony Hall in Birmingham is also wonderful, and I quite like the hall in Copenhagen and the KKL in Luzern … but it would be hard to say if I prefer a particular hall. They are all different animals and it’s wonderful to have the variety.

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

Generally, at the risk of sounding condescending, I do feel it’s important to share one’s experiences because they may resonate with a person who is on an earlier but similar path to yourself – and this is one of the reasons why I started teaching relatively early at the age of 26. I am not sure whether it’s possible to “impart” curiosity but it’s important to stimulate it along with a love of what we do. Love and curiosity are almost one and the same thing or at least are closely related.

The curiosity about the big and small aspects of we do – how your index finger may depress that one key, curiosity about the repertoire, the culture, what role music and art can play in our lives – these are all a big part of that. If someone is not curious, you cannot impart curiosity. But when someone is curious, I think it is our responsibility to nourish and stimulate it.

Kirill Gerstein performs Liszt’s Trancendental Etudes, together with music by Brahms and Bach on Sunday 12th February at St George’s Hall Concert Room in Liverpool. Further details here

The multifaceted pianist Kirill Gerstein has rapidly ascended into classical music’s highest ranks.  With a masterful technique, discerning intelligence, and a musical curiosity that has led him to explore repertoire spanning centuries and styles, he has proven to be one of today’s most intriguing and versatile musicians. His early training and experience in jazz has contributed an important element to his interpretive style, inspiring an energetic and expressive musical personality that distinguishes his playing.

Mr. Gerstein is the sixth recipient of the prestigious Gilmore Artist Award, presented every four years to an exceptional pianist who, regardless of age or nationality, possesses broad and profound musicianship and charisma and who desires and can sustain a career as a major international concert artist. Since receiving the award in 2010, Mr. Gerstein has shared his prize through the commissioning of boundary-crossing works by Timo Andres, Chick Corea, Alexander Goehr, Oliver Knussen, and Brad Mehldau, with additional commissions scheduled for future seasons. Mr. Gerstein was awarded First Prize at the 2001 Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition in Tel Aviv, received a 2002 Gilmore Young Artist Award, and a 2010 Avery Fisher Grant.

Kirill Gerstein’s full biography


(photo: Marco Borggreve)

Meet the Artist……James Lisney


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

I have never seen playing the piano as a ‘career’; rather I started enjoying a life with music when my parents had the foresight to purchase a ‘cottage’ Pleyel piano for nineteen shillings. It had beautiful veneer inlay, brass candlesticks and a soundboard that could only cope with a pitch of A 430. This piano was a playground for improvisation and storytelling during a pretty easy-going childhood: a country school just down the road, plenty of woodlands to explore and sports facilities attached to my parents’ workplace. Music was always a natural part of life and I was lucky enough to be assessed by Gordon Jacob at the age of six for a bursary that provided lesson fees and assisted in the purchase of a really good Welmar piano.

We lived in a tiny semi-detached house and I felt particularly sorry for my family and neighbours who had to endure my doodling at the keyboard and, much later, large scale ‘noise’, such as produced by hard work on Brahms’ Concerto in D minor. My neighbour retaliated by playing Fur Elise – every day!

The first concert I attended was following a masterclass given by Sidney Harrison. He was full of amusing stories and played really popular repertoire with great care and taste (I heard him years later and I was pleased to note that his Liszt Liebestraum was really excellent). The next concert was supposed to be given by Clifford Curzon but ill health necessitated his replacement by John Ogdon (this must have been around 1969) with a typical programme of Beethoven’s final two sonatas, Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, the Schumann Toccata and Balakirev’s Islamey.

On the radio there were musical encounters with Antony Hopkins (‘Talking about Music’), Semprini’s ‘Serenade’ – and Reginald Dixon on the cinema organ from Blackpool. Favourite early recordings included Serkin, Cyril Smith (playing the Dohnanyi Variations), Wilhelm Kempff, Solomon, Rostal and Schaefer, Eileen Joyce and The Beatles. Oh yes – I nearly forgot Danny Kaye.

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

My teachers. I cannot stress too much how important it is to have a really good start. There could have been none better than Jean Murphy, who combined great thoroughness with excitable inspiration (singing, dancing, trying to get my shoulders down and collapsing in giggles – what more could a young pupil want?)

Jean had studied with Phyllis Sellick and I was extremely fortunate to learn with her from around eleven years old for about a decade. An amazing artist, who took exceptional pains with preparation, tone, complete understanding of the music, a rich comprehension of how the body worked: I use her inspiration every single day. In addition, her memories of Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninoff, Bertrand Russell, the Sitwells, Solomon Cutner, Curzon – an apparently golden age – provided constant stimulus. When I was tiring from our long lessons, she would take me into the drawing room to listen to Horowitz’s left hand in Scarlatti or Scriabin, ‘Louis’ (Kentner) in Liszt, Rosalyn (Tureck) in Bach – a whole host of musicians that she seemed to either adore or know very well. Rosalyn Tureck was at the house on one visit and generously helped me with some Bach. Phyllis certainly gave me a sense of what musical Britain must have been like fifty years earlier: on one occasion, after we had worked on the Brahms D minor, she looked out the window and said that in the old days she would have phoned Henry Wood to see whether he would hear me. I am still waiting for the Proms to call……

After Phyllis came two more important teachers. John Barstow remains a strong friend and his gift was to broaden one’s appreciation of music and build confidence. Together we saw my first Parsifals (Reginald Goodall), Mahler Symphony of a Thousand (Pritchard), Alexander Nevsky (Rostropovich), Shostakovich String Quartet cycle (the Borodin Quartet) etc. All stirred into the mix of a love and respect for piano playing that was ultimately much ‘bigger’ than merely being a pianist. I believe it was Arrau who said that it was necessary to be ‘at least a virtuoso’ and John incorporated model playing with a wide range of musical images. We had very few lessons – but they were supplemented by discussions and shared musical experiences.

The last teacher was at a summer school in Nice in 1983. I was there courtesy of the Anglo-French Society, the first Perlemuter Scholar. The lessons were taken in the class of Dominique Merlet, a concise and accurate teacher who had the gift of the utmost support combined with the ability to demonstrate to an astonishing level. He was an example of what was possible, what was essential in terms of ability, knowledge and the craft to consider a life in music.

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

Pianistically, everything remains impossibly difficult and, ultimately, relatively easy. The music of Schubert and Beethoven remain my central marker – and everything they wrote appears to be frantically challenging and yet so completely natural, so human. The late sonatas of both of these masters provide constant challenges, opportunities to develop, but their early works, chamber music, song and miscellaneous pieces provide similar nutrition. It is as if their vision is in their musical DNA and that the explicit mysteries of the late works are implicit in every phrase of their lifetime’s work.

One of the biggest challenges of recent years has been my work on the music of Jan Vriend. Having heard me play the Beethoven ‘Cello Sonatas with the wonderful Alexander Baillie, Jan set about writing a bouquet of astonishing pieces for me. It is no exaggeration to equate this achievement with the late flowering in Debussy’s compositional life. Music of such vigour, virtuosity and concentration, it has really made me dig deep to cope with its complex language and strive to do justice to its amazing message. Having played Anatomy of Passion with Alexander Baillie, I am now benefitting from the process from preparing performances with my daughter Joy – she has grown up hearing Vriend’s music and appears to have absorbed it by osmosis. With Imagine the Mountain premiered with violinist Paul Barritt, JOY (written for ‘guess who?’), I have been amazingly blessed – and challenged. On top of this, my simple request for a piano triptych to emulate a set of Debussy’s Images or a book of Albeniz’s Iberia, resulted in the astonishing Meden Agan, with its exuberant ‘Erotica’ movement. I loved taking ‘Erotica’ to the Amsterdam Concertgebouw for my fiftieth birthday series – but this is music to build into the repertoire and live with for many years. Thank you Jan!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

This is a very difficult one. I am permanently upbeat about my concerts (I enjoy performing immensely) – but also extremely critical. They are never ‘good enough’ but, at the same time, my vanity or standards are not what they are about – they are events for audience and performer alike; it’s ‘about the music’, not James Lisney.

Given that caveat, I recently heard some live playing from the late 80’s on Classic FM (an early Performer’s Platform kind of programme with Petroc Trelawny, and performed on a Boston piano and surrounded by office desks and computer screensavers). It was a set of Rachmaninoff transcriptions (Bach, Kreisler, Bizet and the like), and I was rather proud that I managed to deliver adequately in not the most glamorous of circumstances. That it was Rachmaninoff makes me extra proud as he is a composer of whom I am particularly fond.

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

I remember playing in the Ateneul Roman in Bucharest, one year after the end of Ceausescu. A Christmas concert – one of the first in many years – and I was playing Mozart K 488. The orchestra, amazing hall and spirit of the audience crystallised a remarkable musical experience.

I’ve played music by Beethoven and Jan Vriend at St George’s in Bristol and I think this is one of the United Kingdom’s best halls for the kind of music I play (along with the Arts Centre in Stamford – a gem!)

I also love non-standard and small halls. I have played almost one hundred and seventy times at the little concert hall at the Hindhead Music Centre (on the remarkable Steinway that dropped from the Covent Garden stage) and I regularly play at the Mosterdzaadje in Santpoort–Noord, the Netherlands. I recently opened the thirty-first season of Mosterdzaadje – a model of how a modest hall can be run simply, beautifully and with great warmth, providing music within a quiet suburb. No public subsidy – and no cuts.

When one can add the library at Wittem, the Palau de la Musica Catalana, Studio Music in Brightlingsea, my series at the Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham etc I think I can say that I have completely failed to answer your question!

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Performing – (mostly) what I have chosen to play. Recently came back to the warhorse concertos of Grieg, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky and they gave me a real buzz. If anyone out there wants to commission me for a Brahms concerto, please get in touch…

Listening to? Wagner and Mozart operas. If anyone out there wants to take me to Parsifal, please get in touch….

Who are your favourite musicians?

Well, there are many pianists but Gould, Arrau and Richter seem to be on a different level from the rest. After that, I would not want to be without Cherkassky, Tureck, Sokolov and special performances from the likes of Horowitz, Haskil, Ogdon and many more. I heard Ernest Levy recently and I thought his Beethoven and Liszt to be some of the most affecting and remarkable performances I have heard in many years.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The Borodin Quartet playing the final two Shostakovich Quartets perhaps, or the awe-inspiring Richter playing Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis in the Grange de Meslay. I was also lucky enough to visit Bayreuth………and then there are the performances that one comes across by so called ‘amateur’ pianists at summer schools or suchlike: little glimpses of heaven, pure music making, generously given.

In terms of my own performance, however, I have one choice: the Bremen ‘Konzert im Dunkeln’ Schubert recital I gave to raise money for stroke rehabilitation and to commemorate the centenary of Phyllis Sellick. This was at the fabulous Bremen Sendesaal – a venue that has a remarkable series of concerts that are given in the complete (and utter!) darkness. I will never forget coming out onto the stage to give my recital, the lights dimmed and the packed audience very excited by the novel idea. As the switch was thrown on the lights, plunging us into an all-enveloping black, the audience gasped as if they were at a fairground. It was a lesson to me in reaching out with music, without professional vanity and, on a practical level, how it is inner hearing that enables us to perform accurately and reliably rather than any visual cues.

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

Returning to my opening idea of not having a career, I also would advise musicians not to ‘aspire’. It is more a case of finding a way to live with this remarkable music, to enjoy and, if possible, to share it. Whether it is helping a small person to play First Tune by Barbara Kirkby Mason, my continuing struggles with Beethoven’s late sonatas or playing chamber music with colleagues, I can only advise that we enjoy the process.

If I read the question in terms of those who wish to dedicate a large proportion of their time to music (and even, on occasions, use it to pay the mortgage) then the advice is to spread as wide as possible. Improvise, compose, explore, teach, read, remain curious – and make your own mistakes. The cult of the teacher is not one that I subscribe to – try to build your own musical life, way of playing, whatever, from one’s own personality. Recently a wise friend said that he felt that Cherkassky’s great talent was to play every note entirely true to himself.

Oh yes – if you are going to depend upon music for a living, be prepared to work insanely hard, keep as fit as possible and it helps to have extremely good ‘chops’! (fingers!)

What is your present state of mind?

Very happy, keen to learn more music and determined to do it better. Advancing middle age is a great period in life, and taste, emotions, awareness seem to get deeper and more focussed. Arrau said that passion intensifies with age, and I can only agree with him – and try to emulate a little of what he achieved in terms of identification and self-fulfilment.


[Original interview date: 12 September 2013]

Meet the Artist……Alexandra Dariescu, pianist

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

My mother was the one to introduce me to the wonderful world of music. I grew up in communist Romania, where kids didn’t have piano lessons as an after school thing but my Mum saved up lots of money and bought a beautiful mahogany upright. I got into the specialist music school in Iasi age 7 and had my debut with an orchestra 2 years later with Mozart D major concerto. I remember walking on stage, surrounded by adults, tripping over, conductor panicking, music stands falling, scores flying all over the place. My mum freezing in the first row. But I stood up, smiling and loved every single second of that performance. I came out and said “I want to become a concert pianist!”. I feel blessed to have had very encouraging people in my life, who believed in me and gave me a chance. I learnt from a very early age that hard work will always take you a long way. I don’t come from a musical family, therefore I didn’t have any expectation on how things should go. I didn’t set myself a target, I simply followed my intuition, learning from every situation and felt grateful for every opportunity that came my way. And the same as my falling, I learnt I can always stand back up and keep going.

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

My teachers have had the greatest influence on me, starting with my high-school teachers in Romania, to the late Mark Ray, Nelson Goerner, Alexander Melnikov, Dina Parakhina, Ronan O’Hora, Andras Schiff and Imogen Cooper. I have been incredibly privileged to study with fantastic musicians, who taught me not just about music, but enriched my life through advice on staying true to myself and always discovering new things. The thirst of knowledge and curiosity is one of the most beautiful things in life.

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

I believe we all find ourselves at crossroads at some point in our lives. The greatest challenge is to take the right path for you. I usually analyse and over-analyse and once I have taken a decision, that’s it! I try to never look back and believe in the power of instinct- after a lot of research has been done!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Every recording I have ever made is the result of hard work, a long time planning, creating a vision and sticking to a plan.This year saw the release of my concerto debut disc- Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto 1 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on Signum Records coupled with the ‘Nutcracker Suite’ arranged by Pletnev. The joy of having my first concerto disc out is not easily put into words- honestly, a dream come true!

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I try to identify myself with whatever piece I am playing. I like reading about the story behind the music, I like to find out about the political situation of that time, where the composer was at the point in his life, what were his fears, his joys. The notes on the page are just the start of the journey.

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

I think long term. I like creating projects and putting programmes together that make sense. I am working on my Trilogy of Preludes at the moment, a project supported by the wonderful team at Champs Hill Records, who have very enthusiastically welcomed 3 CDs of complete preludes: vol I Chopin and Dutilleux, vol II Szymanowski and Shostakovich (both released) and vol III Fauré and Messiaen coming out next year. I enjoy introducing my audiences to new pieces, I like to challenge them with something they might not know they would love.

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

Every venue has its own personality, the same as pianos do. As a pianist, one has to adapt very quickly – I simply cannot describe how thrilling it is to step into a hall where so many of the great legends have played. There’s a huge pressure but in the same time there’s something humbling and magical about it.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I love performing the Nutcracker Suite. I feel the versatility of the piano makes it possible to recreate the orchestral sound and it allows me to imagine all the magical world the story tells in a very intimate setting. I love listening to everything, from jazz to folk, pop to classical.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Goodness me, where should I start?! Every concert is memorable, from a little hall in the middle of nowhere to the big giants. My first time at Carnegie Hall will always be the icing on the cake (and lots of the readers will know I love cake!). Getting a standing ovation at the Concertgebouw was quite something. My Buenos Aires concert in front of a packed 5000 seat hall (at lunchtime!) had me on my toes (I was told Beyoncé performed there the night before- make of that what you will!). Performing with youth orchestras is always truly rewarding- we all learn from each other and I always feel happy amongst them.

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

Always be true to yourself. Never give up. Always follow your dream- patience and perseverance will get you a long way. Never stop learning, from anyone and from every situation!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being able to enjoy each moment as it comes, living in the present. Making a difference, standing up for what I believe in. Change lives through music!

What is your most treasured possession?

My piano.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Play my piano, communicate, bake, cycling with hubby, being with people.

What is your present state of mind?

I am truly grateful for everyone and everything I have around me. I feel blessed to be able to follow my dream.


From London’s Royal Albert Hall to Carnegie Hall in New York, the young Romanian pianist Alexandra Dariescu, recently named as one of 30 pianists under 30 destined for a spectacular career (International Piano Magazine), dazzles audiences worldwide with her effortless musicality and captivating stage presence.

Read more about Alexandra Dariescu here