Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?
I guess I would have to credit my mother as the first inspiration to take-up the piano. She was a very fine pianist who earned her degree from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. When I was an infant and young child (and even when I was in the womb!) she was regularly practising four hours a day, and playing a dozen or so concerts each year. So I heard all the big works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Debussy, and so on, from the time I was born. She also had a record collection which I regularly availed myself of — I remember that it included a recording of La Traviata that I listened to so many times, that by the time I was five I had completely ruined the vinyl! So, I guess it was fairly natural given my ear and inclination for music and the piano, that I was begging for lessons, which she gave me, starting at age four. My mother also regularly took me to concerts, and I remember vividly going to hear Rubenstein, Horowitz, and Van Cliburn before I was even a teenager. I think this early exposure to hearing pianists in concert, along with listening to my mother practice, and the family friends who were also concert performers, gave me an early notion of what it meant to perform. So, I suppose this really lit the spark within me. I recall making a conscious decision when I was about twelve years old and watching the Finals of the Van Cliburn Piano Competition on the television. I remember listening and watching and thinking “I’m going to do that.” Well, I did win one international competition, but by 1989, which was the year I had always planed on entering the Cliburn, my right hand was already suffering from focal dystonia, so I was unable to compete.
Who or what were the greatest influences on your playing?
I have been fortunate to have had many wonderful experiences which have influenced my playing, but to narrow it down, besides what I discussed in the first question, I would have to credit two of my teachers in particular. At the University of Southern California, I was a student of John Perry for six years. His approach to teaching suited me so perfectly, and I trusted him completely. What I have always appreciated the most about how he taught me, was that he gave me the tools to do what I wanted to do, better — rather than trying to make me into a replica of Perry. I never had the feeling that he tried to change me; instead he was able to show me how to give my own voice wings, to have the freedom to play as I wanted.
As great a gift as Mr Perry’s teaching was to me, I must still credit my teacher before university, Maria Clodes Jaguaribe, as being the deepest, most profound influence on me as a pianist. I worked with Maria during the Summers I spent at the Tanglewood Music Festival, while I was a teenager. Musically and technically she is at the core of my approach: the sound I listen for, the way I make a line “speak”, rhythmic inflection, and the attention to harmonic movement as well as the inner life of each line in counterpoint. (I remember working with her on the Schubert Op. 90 No. 3, and she had me sing the tenor line as I played the whole piece!) From her I truly gained the understanding of weight transfer, the importance of a relaxed and flexible wrist, and the necessity of strong fingers and a stable bridge of the hand to support the weight of the arm. All of these things were hugely important parts of both my mother’s and Mr Perry’s teaching as well, but there was something particular in Maria’s teaching, and her own playing, that resonated with me most strongly. From the time I first worked with her, there has rarely been a moment when I have not felt her presence while at the piano.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career?
With out a doubt, the greatest challenge for me was the development of focal dystonia in my right hand. If you are unfamiliar with focal dystonia, here is a link where you can read about it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focal_dystonia. About a year and a half after I made my London debut at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (1984), and a year and a half before my return engagement at the Barbican Centre (1987), I began to notice something very subtle, but very deep, was going wrong in the 2nd finger of my right hand. The first thing that gave-way were scale passages, or anything which required individual finger movements. The gradual breakdown of control happened over the course of several years, not all at once. Not that it was easy, but I think this actually helped me adjust to the loss, rather than having it all taken at once. I do remember in 1988 when I had to cancel a Tchaikovsky concerto that I was engaged to play in California, I had a bit of a break-down. But, as I tend to do, I rallied and proceed to embrace the idea that when life deals you lemons, make lemonade! I focused more deeply on teaching (which I had already been doing since I was a teenager). My teaching eventually led me to ideas for educational products which got me stated in publishing. Later, I dug into the wonderful world of music that is available for the left hand alone, and have enjoyed playing this music in concert over the last decade. Despite the injury to my right hand, I have enjoyed a rich and wonderful career in music, and have come to believe that our greatest challenges often reap the greatest rewards.
Which CD in your discography are you most proud of?
This is going back a bit, but I still feel such a thrill about the recording we made in 1987 of the Carnival of the Animals. The other pianist was Anton Nel, and we played with the Academy of London Orchestra under the direction of Richard Stamp. We recorded it for Virgin Classics. The disc also included Prokofiev Peter and the Wolf and Mozart Eine Kleine Nacht Musik. This was all wonderful, and we did a good job and the disc sold well; but the things that still really thrill me are the fact that we recorded in Studio One at EMI Abbey Road Studios, and that the narrator was Sir John Gielgud. I mean, really, how do beat that for a thrilling life experience?! (I also recall that the Steinway D I used for the recording is still one of the finest pianos I have every played.)
I will speak first about music for left hand alone that I love to play most, since that is what I do now. Then, a little bit about favourite pieces from my life as a two-handed pianist.
The first piece the comes to mind is the great Chaconne, from the Violin Partita in D minor by Bach, transcribed for piano, left hand alone, by Johannes Brahms. I never get tired of practising or performing this incredible piece of music — there seems to be no bottom to the gratification of working with this monumental masterpiece. Of course the powerful concerto by Ravel for the left hand alone is another work that one never tires of playing. I also adore the Scriabin Op. 9 Prelude & Nocturne for the left hand alone — so very beautiful. These works I have mentioned are among the most known of left hand literature, but there are also a few lesser known gems that I cherish. One is the Etude in A-Flat, Op. 36 by Felix Blumenfeld. Pretty much a perfect piece that is lovely to play, and always the stand-out audience favourite when I include in a recital. There is a little piece by Godowsky, the fourth of his six “Waltz- Poems” which is a real juicy delight. He manages to create three and four voice textures that hold together incredibly well in one hand. I am also a big fan of the Concerto in C-sharp by Korngold. A fantastic piece, rarely heard. I’ve not had the opportunity to play it yet, but do hope to do so!
Looking back at my two-handed days, pretty much anything by Mozart was a favourite. I loved to play the Chopin Ballades, and especially the Barcarolle. I also loved to play the Schubert Op. 90 and the Wanderer Fantasy. The “Deux Legendes” by Liszt (one usually only hears the second) were favourites; and Mussorgsky Pictures from an Exhibition frequently found its way onto my my recital programmes. Oh, and I love the Schumann G minor Sonata — especially the second movement is so gorgeous. The D minor Piano Concerto of Brahms is my hands-down favourite concerto, but I do adore any Mozart concerto as well.
As far as what I like to listen to, any and all Mozart — he would be my desert island composer. I also love the symphonic and chamber works of both Beethoven and Brahms. But I could easily start to spin out of control with this question, so I will stop here — there is just so much wonderful music in the world, and and for me, favourites ebb and flow at different times of my life.
Who are your favourite musicians?
I will stick to pianists for this, even though that field is rather wide as well. I have always found Evgeny Kissin’s playing a realisation of my ideals about piano playing. Many times after listening to him, I have thought that he played something how I always thought it should go, but just did not know that it was actually possible! I love how, despite his apparently unimpeded technique, he always sounds completely engaged in the process, nothing ever sounds too easy or too tossed off. To my ears, he pushes levels of expression and excitement right to the edge of the precipice, sometimes narrowly escaping falling off. I have never understood those who find his playing “cold”. Those who do must listen for something very different than I do.
I am also very fond of Marc-Andre Hamelin. Partly, I must confess, because of the friendship that has developed between us; but even before that, because he plays and has recorded so much of the left hand literature. He is the only one to have recorded the Korngold piano concerto for the left hand, and his recording of the Godowsky Chopin Studies is definitive (22 of the 53 are for the left hand alone). On his Wigmore Hall debut, he included the Alkan Fantasy for left hand alone, and the Etude No 7, from his own set of 12 Etudes in All the Minor Keys, is for the left hand alone. Needless to say, he was my left hand “hero” long before we met. But, setting his enthusiasm for left hand piano music aside, I find that there seems to be no bottom to Marc’s musicianship, pianism, artistry, or intelligence. He is, I believe, one of the most remarkably brilliant musicians in the world today.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to students/ aspiring musicians?
Play musically always. Listen, with a sense of responsibility, to every note. Say something; express something; find your own voice. I am so tired of listening to young pianists who play all the right notes of all the hardest pieces faster and faster and faster. It is a crashing bore! We take for granted that you will be accurate and have sufficient technical command, but that is all meaningless if the music is not about self- expression and revealing something of the human experience.
What are you working on at the moment?
My newest pet project is the Twelve Etudes for the Left Hand Alone, Op 92, by Moszkowski — a fabulous set of richly diverse pieces. I have also been looking a bit at the Seven Polyphonic Pieces for Left Hand Alone by Kapustin. The jury is still out on that one.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I love my morning tea ritual, and sitting for a bit staring at a beautiful view. Then, those first few minutes at the piano…and I always start my day playing Bach.
Keith Snell’s album ‘Verbs, Book 2’, 24 Preludes for Piano by Kathleen Ryan, is available now.