“Your wonderful Bechstein has afforded me great joy.”

Sviatoslav Richter

I have recently sold my Yamaha upright piano, to fund the purchase of a 1913 Bechstein grand. Naturally, I am very much looking forward to becoming the owner of a grand piano and to exploring the wider range of possibilities afforded by a larger instrument (and a very beautiful one too), but I can’t help but feel more than a twinge of sadness to be saying farewell to my trusty upright. Purchased brand new from Chappell of Bond Street in 2007, six months after I set up my piano teaching practice, the piano has given me many hours of pleasure (and quite a few hours of frustration too!), and has seen my students through their lessons. It has brought exam success, for my students and myself, and has acted as a form of therapy, a companion and a much-loved piece of furniture.

Pianists have a curious relationship with pianos: unlike other musicians, who take their own instrument with them wherever they play, the pianist is expected to arrive at the venue and accept the instrument provided. Of course, top class concert instruments in venues such as Wigmore or Carnegie Halls are beautifully set up, and the soloist will spend some time with the technician before the concert discussing any adjustments that need to be made. The tuners and technicians who work with concert artists and instruments are highly skilled people, sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of instrument and performer. Once upon a time, in the days before air travel, the pianist might travel by ship or by train with his own instrument. There is some lovely footage in Bruno Monsaingeon’s film about Sviatoslav Richter, showing the great man selecting a grand piano at the Yamaha showroom in New York ahead of a performance. These days such executive treatment is largely afforded only to the greatest. The pianist Gary Graffman, in his book I Really Should be Practising, relates an occasion where he arrived at a concert to find that one of the notes on the piano when depressed sounded with all the subtlety of a gunshot: to remedy this, Graffman simply replaced the action of that note with one seldom-used from the top of the register.

Of course, we grow attached to and familiar with the piano which we play most regularly, usually the one we own and play at home. It took me awhile to really get used to my piano. It has quite a stiff action and a very bright tone (I had it voiced twice to make it more mellow), and I know there will be a “settling in” period as I get to know my Bechstein. I have played a few pianos in my time and I can remember something about nearly all of them. A friend has a lovely Steinway B which I play fairly regularly. The first time I played it was like driving a Porsche after pottering around in a Ford Fiesta. That is not to say it is an “easy” piano to play: sure, it is beautifully set up and it feels very well-made and finely engineered, but it is quirky too, and, just as when driving a sports car, one needs to be alert to its particular traits. Probably the most wonderful piano I have played is the Model D in Steinway Hall in central London: not just its size, but also the feel of it. The local music society, where I occasionally perform, has a very old Steinway (at least 100 years old) which is rather eccentric: rattly and squeaky keys and a tendency to wobble alarmingly when the pedals are applied. Perhaps the worst was the Edwardian upright (complete with decorative candelabra) at the old people’s centre where I used to play at lunchtimes. In fact, it didn’t matter because the music gave so much pleasure to the very elderly audience.

Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997)

In his memoirs, Richter describes playing on indifferent school pianos in the Russian provinces during the war, forcing him to think beyond the instrument. The sound of the piano could not be changed but through his extraordinary imaginative powers, he could draw the audience along with him and take them to another place, to make them focus on higher things. This has to be our aim, as pianists, when confronted with an indifferent instrument, or one not exactly to our liking. We play, and the best we can hope is that we capture the audience’s attention and imagination, and get beyond ourselves and our ego to convey the meaning and emotion in the music.

I “borrowed” the idea for this post from George Bevan, director of music at Monkton Coombe School, and author of the excellent Music@Monkton blog.

Like me, George is preparing for a performance diploma. He posted his Diploma programme on his blog and asked readers to suggest the ideal pianist for each piece.  And I thought I would do the same……I know who my ideal pianist would be for each of my pieces, but I’d love to hear more suggestions, so please feel free to contribute via the comments box.

Bach – Concerto in D minor after Marcello, BWV 974

Takemitsu – Rain Tree Sketch II

Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K511

Liszt – Sonetto 104 del Petrarca

Rachmaninov – Etudes-Tableaux Op 33, in E flat and G minor

 

Over to you, dear reader…..

A retrospective of music I’ve reviewed over the year. 2012 has been one of my busiest years as a concert-goer, not least because of my reviewing job for Bachtrack (since April 2011). This has enabled me to get to many more concerts, and I’ve heard a great range of performers (not just pianists) and repertoire. Where relevant, I’m including a link to my review.

January

Peter Jablonski at QEH: a bit hit and miss, this one. I felt Jablonski was far more comfortable in the jazz-oriented repertoire (Copland and Gershwin) and Barber’s Op 26 Piano Sonata. But I’m glad I went, because he was a pianist I was curious to hear. Review

February

Marc-André Hamelin, Wigmore Hall. Hamelin wowed me at the Proms last summer, in a late-night all-Liszt programme, and he did it again with an ambitious, athletic and highly varied programme of music by Haydn, Villa-Lobos, Stockhausen, and more Liszt. Definitely one of the highlights of my concert year. Review

Peter Donohoe, QEH. Peter showed how Debussy should be played in his performance of Estampes, and then went on to demonstrate the invention and intellect of Liszt in an absorbing and at times very personal performance of the first year of the Années de Pèlerinage. His concert closed with a coruscating Bartok Sonata. A fine concert by one of the UK’s most acclaimed pianists (and a thoroughly nice bloke too!) Review

Peter featured in my Meet the Artist interview series – read his interview with me here

March

Truls Mørk (cello) and Khatia Buniatishvili (piano), Wigmore Hall. I love the lunchtime concerts at the Wigmore and quite often nip down there after work for an hour of quality music. Mørk and Buniatishvili came together to perform one of Beethoven’s most miraculous late works and Rachmaninov’s atmospheric and wide-ranging Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19. Review

François-Frédéric Guy, QEH. A Frenchman who bears more than a passing resemblance to Beethoven, playing Beethoven. A sensitive opening movement of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, and a monumental and philosophical Hammerklavier. Sadly, the evening was marred by much throat-clearing and coughing from the audience, which did not go unremarked by the performer. This is a pianist I would definite hear again. Review

Leif Ove Andsnes, QEH. A pianist whom I much admire for his understated manner and ability to allow the music to speak for itself. An enjoyable mixed programme in which Andsnes moved seamlessly from the mannered classicism of Haydn through to the romance of Chopin, the percussion of Bartok and soundwashes of Debussy. Review

May

Yuja Wang, QEH. I went to hear Wang purely out of curiosity, for much has been written about her playing and her concert attire. It was an interesting concert, but I felt this artist needs to live with some of her repertoire for longer to fully appreciate it and communicate it to the audience. Review

Leon McCawley, Wigmore Hall. Another excellent lunchtime concert by another pianist who is able to put the music first before ego. Chopin, Debussy and Schumann followed by an enjoyable green room chat. Review

Leon McCawley features in my Meet the Artist series – read his interview with me here

Lars Vogt, QEH. Another rather mixed offering. Some charming pieces for children and an ill-judged approach to Chopin’s iconic Funeral March from the B-flat minor Sonata. And Vogt’s gurning was rather off-putting too. (Hear me talking about this concert in my podcast for Bachtrack). Review

July

François-Frédéric Guy & Jean-Efllam Bavouzet, Wigmore Hall. French elan and Russian avant-garde combined in a stunning lunchtime concert. The sparkling two-piano version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring certainly roused many elderly Wigmore regulars out of their post-lunch slumber! Review

L’Arpeggiata, Cadogan Hall (Chamber Prom 3). An ensemble I have long admired on disc, it was a real treat to hear l’Arpeggiata live, and they did not disappoint with a lunchtime Prom of toe-tapping Baroque music enhanced by sensuous and energetic dancing. Review

August

Jennifer Pike (violin), Igor Levitt (piano) & Nicolas Alstaedt (cello), Cadogan Hall (Chamber Prom 4). Two duo sonatas and a trio in music by Debussy and Ravel. Exquisitely executed and presented. Review

September

Platinum Consort, King’s Place. I have been following Platinum Consort, a young choral octet, with interest after interviewing their director/founder, Scott Inglis-Kidger, and their composer-in-residence, Richard Bates, for my Meet the Artist series. At their King’s Place debut Platinum gave a faultless and highly absorbing performance of music by Renaissance and Baroque composers, new works by Richard Bates, and James MacMillan’s monumental Miserere. Review

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Cadogan Hall (Chamber Prom 8). Aimard impressed me in his first Liszt Project concert at QEH last winter – his intellect, his technical facility, his total immersion in the music – and he did not disappoint in a lunchtime recital of Book 2 of Debussy’s Preludes. Review

October

Noriko Ogawa, Wigmore Hall. Another lunchtime at the Wigmore and a pianist I have long wanted to hear live. Noriko opened her concert with Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch II, a piece I am working on myself for my LTCL programme. It was so arresting, so perfectly presented that I could have happily listened to endless repeats of the work. But Debussy’s Études were wonderful too, Noriko bringing a great range of colours and moods to the music. Review

Peter Donohoe, Sutton House. Peter opened Sutton House Music Society’s 2012-13 season with a programme called ‘Opus 1’, which allowed him to present works by Tchaikovsky and Schumann alongside pieces by Prokofiev, Bartok and Berg. Great to hear Peter again, at a delightful and intimate small venue Review

Benjamin Grosvenor, QEH. Grosvenor’s Southbank debut came hot on the heels of a host of awards, and, unsurprisingly, the venue was packed. I admit I have been avoiding Grosvenor, as the tag “prodigy” always worries me, so I heard him with a mixture of curiosity and repulsion. There were some fine moments in the concert, but I never really felt he caught fire and I feel he needs to mature as a performing artist. I hope that such significant early success does not lead to burn out and obscurity as Grosvenor grows up (it would be nice to think his career trajectory is akin to Kissin’s: we shall see…..). Review

November

Elena Riu, Sutton House. Another enjoyable trip to Hackney for ‘Inventions’, a fascinating juxtaposition of Bach’s Two- and Three-Part Inventions with inventions by contemporary composers, including Finch, Ligeti, Gulbaidulina and Lutoslawski. Review

Elena’s Meet the Artist interview

Metier Ensemble, The Forge. My first visit to this great little venue in Camden, which successfully combines an arts venue with a bar and restaurant in a purpose-built imaginatively designed space. Metier are a piano, flute and cello trio, and the programme of their ‘Keys and Coffee’ concert was perfect for a Sunday morning. Review

Meet the Artist: Elspeth Wyllie (pianist with Metier Ensemble)

Other musical highlights during this year include

Left-handed pianist Nicholas McCarthy’s graduation recital at the Royal College of Music, in which McCarthy demonstrated that one hand playing can be as beautiful and subtle, powerful and dramatic as two; it was a great privilege to be invited to Nick’s recital. Review

My students’ concert at Normansfield Theatre, Teddington in May was a wonderful shared celebration of music-making and a tribute to all the hard work my students put in during the year.

Late Schubert piano music in Surrey, performed by an acknowledged Schubert expert, including the Moments Musicaux, Klavierstücke, and both sets of Impromptus. Review

Concert highlights to look forward to in 2013:

Leon McCawley, Wigmore Hall

Mitsuko Uchida, RFH

Quartet for the End of Time, QEH (with the Capuçon brothers)

Piotr Anderszewski, QEH

Steven Osborne/Messiaen – Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus, QEH

Since January 2012, I’ve also been reviewing exhibitions for Bachtrack’s sister site, One Stop Arts. You can find all my art reviews here

Say “Glenn Gould”, and most people will reply “Bach”. Horowitz? Liszt. Schnabel? Beethoven. Lipatti? Chopin. Many great pianists (and even some lesser ones!) have become associated with one particular composer, and this “composer connection” still prevails today: Mitsuko Uchida and Maria Joao Pires are noted for their interpretations of Mozart, Evgeny Kissin for Chopin, Alfred Brendel for the great Austro-German triumvirate of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert (though there are far better interpreters of these composers’ music than Brendel!).

So, why is it that certain pianists become so closely associated with a particular composer, or group of composers? A definitive recording, a well-received concert tour, the praise of respected critics, all these factors contribute. Some pianists choose to devote their life to playing and recording the entire Chopin Etudes and Preludes, or the complete Beethoven piano sonatas (Brendel – three times, Barenboim – twice), while others prefer to play more wide-ranging repertoire. The great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter seemed able to turn his hand to anything, from Bach to Britten, Handel to Hindemith (he claimed he had enough repertoire for “around eighty programmes”). Claudio Arrau is another noted all-rounder, along with Maurizio Pollini, who is also a champion of the sort of late twentieth-century repertoire many modern pianists of a similar stature won’t touch  (‘The Pollini Project’, his personal survey of piano music from Bach to Boulez, draws to a close next Tuesday).

But is it also perhaps that some pianists choose to immerse themselves in one particular composer, or composers, because the music reveals something about their own personality? We talk of so-and-so having an “affinity” for, say, Bach, or Debussy. The word “affinity” originates from the Middle English affinite and the Latin affinitas which is defined as “connection by marriage”. This suggests an even more intimate connection between musician and composer, and perhaps it is that very intimacy which enables some interpreters to really get to the heart, and soul, of the music?

This sounds fanciful: of course, musicians pick up repertoire because they like it, not because they want to marry it! Why learn something you dislike, or because you feel you should? Even at the most junior level, with my students, I would never force them to learn music they do not like: it is wholly unproductive. I have clear memories from my childhood piano lessons of being confronted with the same dreary page of score week after week, my piano teacher insistent that I learn the damn thing. As a teenager, and, admittedly, a rather tiresome, smug, academic teenager, I claimed to love the music of Bach. I’d only scratched the surface of his oeuvre, but there was something about the tight construction of his music that appealed to my intellect. And still does. While at 16, learning a Chopin Nocturne (Op 37, no. 1) for Grade 8, I loathed what I considered its overblown sentiment. Now, I can’t get enough of Chopin, and studying and learning his music is an enormous, if difficult, pleasure (and, no, I don’t consider his music to be full of overblown sentiment any more!). Liszt has been another revelation – a composer I refused to touch until this year, for the same reason as my dislike of Chopin my teens. Again, I was wrong. Meanwhile, much as I love his music, Mozart remains a tricky option, the words of Schnabel never far from my mind “too easy for children and too difficult for artists”, and I’m not convinced I have the mindset for Mozart.

One of my adult students, a rather stiff, anxious woman, had a breakthrough recently learning Bartok (the Quasi Adagio from For Children, which is part of the ABRSM Grade 1 syllabus this year). While other students have struggled with the simple yet highly emotional nature of this piece, this lady has reveled in it, creating the right nuances and shadings, despite her inexperience, and bringing a plaintive poignancy to the tiny piece. So then we looked at ‘Kummer’ (‘Grief’) by Alexander Gedike (ABRSM Grade 1 2009-10 syllabus), and the same wonderful thing happened. She admitted that the sorrowful, minor-key nature of these pieces suited her personality, and it’s true that she plays both extremely well. So, maybe this is an example of the music “fitting” the personality of the performer?

Performers need to balance their own personality with the expression of the composer’s ego: there is, for me, nothing worse than going to a performance where it is all about the performer (Lang Lang, Fazil Say). It just gets in the way of the music and is, in my opinion, hugely egocentric. The best performances are those where the performer stands back from the music a little, with a “passionate detachment”, a little deferential, thus allowing the music (and its composer) to speak for itself. As conductor Mark Wrigglesworth says in his article which, in part, inspired this post, “the best results are of course when the personalities of both the piece and its performer lie in perfect harmony”. The one notable exception to this is perhaps Glenn Gould, whose personality is, in many ways, all over the music in his muttering and humming. Some people can’t bear this, but to me it’s a sign of Gould’s total engagement with the music, and his enjoyment of it too.

Richter playing the opening movement of his favourite Schubert sonata (G major, D894).

Glenn Gould – French Suite No. 2 in C minor, BWV 813/I. Allemande

Bartók : For Children – Quasi Adagio