Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) is surely one of the greatest – if not the greatest – composers for the piano in the history of the instrument.

It probably helped that Rachmaninov was an extraordinarily talented pianist himself and the instrument dominated his creative thinking from the outset. He began playing the piano at a young age and by his early teens he was already performing in public. He went on to study at the Moscow Conservatory, where he received a rigorous musical education that included extensive training in piano performance. This background gave him a deep understanding of the instrument, both technically and artistically, which is clearly reflected in his piano music.

As a master of the piano, who fully understood its capabilities, one of the hallmarks of Rachmaninov’s piano music is its virtuosity. His music is technically demanding and requires exceptional skill and dexterity to perform. But he was also careful to ensure that his virtuosity always served the music, rather than being an end in itself, and his works for piano – from the miniatures and salon pieces to the great piano concertos – are not just impressive displays of technical prowess, but also deeply expressive and emotionally evocative, full of brooding passion that remained a powerful force in his music throughout his compositional life. His music is often intimate and personal. He wrote many of his pieces as a way of processing his own emotions and life experiences. His pieces are full of passion, nostalgia, and a sense of yearning; they plumb the depths and scale the heights of emotion, and they speak of and to the human experience in a way that is both universal and also highly intimate.

Another important aspect of Rachmaninov’s music is his use of harmony. Reacting against the trend towards modernism and the avant-garde, which dominated classical music at the turn of the 20th century, Rachmaninov remained true to the late Romantic style of which he was a master. His music is replete with lush harmonies and emotional expressiveness, and he used a wide range of complex chords and sweeping arpeggios to create a sense of richness, vivid colours, depth and emotional power.

He also had a wonderful gift for melody, and his piano pieces are full of beautiful, memorable themes which are often developed over the course of the piece, becoming more complex and intricate as the music unfolds to create a sense of narrative and emotional progression.

For the advanced amateur, and even the professional, his music can be daunting. Many pianists believe they cannot play Rachmaninov’s music because of the physical demands it places on the player – a misconception to which I subscribed for a long time, until I decided to include two of the Op. 33 Etudes-Tableaux in one of my performance diploma programmes.

I believed my hands were too small for Rachmaninov, that I didn’t have a big enough hand stretch (a ninth, at a stretch; Rachmaninov could famously stretch an octave plus 4) or the necessary power and stamina to manage the big, hand-filling chords or the tempi. So what did I do? I selected a piece (op. 33, No. 7) which included both of these challenges – and I rose to them, with the help of my then teacher who showed me that one needs neither hands like shovels nor a specially-adapted piano keyboard to play this magnificent music.

Yes, technique is crucial in mastering Rachmaninov’s music, but perhaps the harder aspect is interpretation – and for that one can hear the master himself playing his own music. Recordings of Rachmaninov playing Rachmaninov offer some remarkable insights into his approach to tempo, phrasing, dynamics, interpretation, a gift for counterpoint, and so much more. There is much expressive freedom in his performances coupled with a profound emotionality (as opposed to sentimentality), rendered with great clarity and drama. He offers us the best interpretation possible of his own music. It is therefore surprising to learn that Rachmaninov declared, “I can’t play my own compositions.”

His most famous works for piano are surely the second and third piano concertos, the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, and the Preludes in C-sharp minor and G minor. But his oeuvre for piano is extensive and varied – the opp. 23 and 32 Preludes, two sets of Études-Tableaux (opp. 33 and 39), transcriptions, salon pieces like the Morceaux de fantaisie and Moments musicaux, the Symphonic Dances, works for four and six hands piano, variations (on themes by Chopin and Corelli), two piano sonatas, and many other miniatures and shorter works.

Which pianists should we turn to for inspiration in this remarkable repertoire? Of today’s pianists, Evgeny Kissin is, for me, one of the finest Rachmaninov players – an opinion which was fully reconfirmed when I heard Kissin in concert at the Barbican in March; the second half was all Rachmaninov (to mark the composer’s 150th anniversary). Kissin’s technical virtuosity and musical understanding allow him to reveal the full range of Rachmaninov’s music, from hauntingly beautiful, intimate melodies to thunderous climaxes.

This Etude-Tableaux, from the Op. 39 set, is one of my favourites:

When preparing for my diploma, John Lill’s recording of the Etudes-Tableaux was one to which I returned many times, but I also very much like Nikolai Lugansky in this repertoire. His performances of Rachmaninov’s music in general are marked by a rare combination of technical mastery, emotional breadth, and interpretive insight which showcase the full range of the composer’s vision. Steven Osborne is another pianist whose recording of the Etudes-Tableaux I much admire for its clarity, multi-hued dynamic palette and beautiful quality of sound, coupled with a thrilling “in the moment” spontaneity.

Pianists from an earlier era must surely include Vladimir Horowitz, who was greatly admired by the composer himself, and who helped bring the third piano concerto to prominence in the USA. His recordings of the Prelude in C-sharp minor and the Vocalise in particular are also widely admired for their emotional intensity and technical brilliance.

And no collection of favourite Rachmaninov recordings should be without Sviatoslav Richter. Renowned for his technical command and expressive power, and his ability to create a sense of “controlled risk”, Richter’s performances of Rachmaninov’s music are considered some of the finest ever recorded.

Other pianists to seek out in this repertoire include Emil Gilels, Cyril Smith, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Yefim Bronfman, Byron Janis, Martha Argerich, Arcadi Volodos, Daniil Trifonov, Yuja Wang, Peter Donohoe, Khatia Buniatishvili, Valentina Lisitsa….. Each of these pianists brings their own distinct interpretive style to Rachmaninov’s music, resulting in memorable performances that are technically fluent and emotionally rich.

En Pleine Lumière – Sandra Mogensen, piano

A multi-volume recording and concert project

Women such as Clara Schumann, Amy Beach and Cécile Chaminade are now recognised as a significant pianist-composers, who also enjoyed international performing careers, but in the course of her research, pianist Sandra Mogensen discovered many other women composer-pianists who were well-regarded, but whose names and music are hardly known today. These include Mélanie Bonis, Helen Hopekirk, Agathe Backer-Grøndahl, Luise Aldopha Le Beau, and Laura Netzel. The piano music of these composers was widely known and played during their lifetimes, but for much of the 20th century, their works were rarely played. Now, in the changing climate of classical music, with a greater emphasis on diversity, these once-forgotten composers are being given the recognition they deserve.

The music I have found is again incredibly beautiful….and all of it is new to me

Sandra Mogensen

Released in December 2019, the bicentenary year of Clara Schumann’s birth, the first volume of pianist Sandra Mogensen’s multi-CD and concert project, En Pleine Lumière (“in full light”), focuses on piano music by women composers born in the middle part of the nineteenth century (c.1840-1870). Each composer is represented by two short works and the entire project will have an international reach. Volume one includes composers from France (Chaminade and Bonis), the USA (Beach), Scotland (Hopekirk), Norway (Backer-Grøndahl and Lærum-Liebig), Sweden (Netzel and Aulin), and Germany (Le Beau and Menter). The subsequent two volumes will include music by women composers from Canada, Russia, Australia, Austria, Croatia, Germany, Latvia, Estonia and the Netherlands.

En Pleine Lumière will eventually comprise six albums, each focusing on a 30-year period – rather like a recital disc. En Pleine Lumière Volume 1 was recorded at Immanuelskirche in Wuppertal, Germany in June 2019, produced by an all-female team, and crowdfunded via Indiegogo. The subsequent volumes will be recorded with the same team and also supported by crowdfunding.

En Pleine Lumière is available on CD or digital download.

Canadian pianist Sandra Mogensen is equally at home in two worlds: performing as a solo pianist and co-performing with singers in recital. She has played in concert in both capacities in Canada, the United States, Denmark, Latvia, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Austria. Sandra is also well-known as a vocal coach and piano pedagogue

Meet the Artist interview with Sandra Mogensen

“perhaps the most impassioned music I have ever written.”
Robert Schumann writing to Clara Wieck, March 1838

Never one for disguising his emotions, Robert Schumann wore his heart on his sleeve and his music reflects his joy at being alive – and of being in love. His Fantasie in C, composed in 1836, is a remarkable display of soul-bearing, a piece imbued with passionate and unresolved longing, and the heart-fluttering panoply of emotions from ecstasy to agony which being in love provokes. It was written during a particularly long separation from his beloved Clara Wieck, at a time when their future together was far from certain.

The Fantasie in C is a love letter in music, a culmination of passion, virtuosity and delicacy. No salon sweetmeat, this is a highly demanding, sweepingly romantic large-scale work which pianists approach with trepidation.

Originally intended as a tribute to Beethoven and eventually dedicated to Franz Liszt, the Fantasie is cast in three movements. It alludes to sonata form but like its dedicatee’s B-minor Sonata, Schumann dissolves the formal structure to create a work of striking improvisatory freedom which heightens its emotional impact and poetic narrative. The ‘Clara theme’ which pervades the work is heard immediately in the descending octaves of the right hand. The music is an intriguing mix of grandeur and intimacy: the opening statement, a rolling dominant 9th chord, expresses the full depth of the composer’s passion and the music moves from a state of yearning to one of subdued tenderness before the restatement of the opening. The Adagio coda begins with a secret love message to Clara: a phrase quoted from the last song in Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte: “Take, then, these songs, beloved, which I have sung for you.”

“It makes me hot and cold all over,” Clara wrote of the march-like second movement, which grows more intense (and difficult to play) by its continuous dotted rhythms. It’s a majestic outpouring of joy which reaches its zenith in the exuberant coda, whose celebratory leaps (marked Viel bewegter – “with much movement”) would give even the most practised virtuoso some anxious moments.

Sublimely beautiful, tender and intimate, the third movement is an extended song without words, with ravishing diversions into the remote keys of A-flat and D-flat major which create an extraordinary sense of time suspended. In this movement the passion may be downplayed but it is no less powerfully felt. Falling motifs (drawn from the slow movement of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto), and melodies of intense poignancy give way to a section of delicate tenderness, a waltz in all but name with 2 voices – treble and bass – singing together. One can almost picture Robert and Clara clasped in a deep embrace. The coda is an ecstatic declaration, gradually increasing in speed, before pulling back to Adagio for the close and three hushed C-major chords which are at once peaceful and yet tinged with sadness.

Here is Piotr Anderszewski in the final movement:

‘Divine Fire’ at Craxton Studios Hampstead, Saturday 3 November 2018

The fascinating story of Fryderyk Chopin and the authoress George Sand is brought vividly to life by Viv McLean (piano) and Susan Porrett (narrator) in 7 Star Arts’ mixed-genre production ‘Divine Fire’.

Interwoven with some of Chopin’s most beautiful and popular piano works, ‘Divine Fire’ traces the relationship from their first meeting in Paris in 1836 until their parting in 1847. The story unfolds through a compelling, dramatic narration of events by the RSC and National Theatre actress Susan Porrett, interspersed with mood – evoking piano pieces – fiery scherzos, heart-rending ballades, stirring Polonaises and poignant Nocturnes – played by the great Chopin interpreter Viv McLean.


£15 (normal price £20). Limited offer


‘An absorbing, moving and beautifully presented evening of words and music’

‘Divine fire’ was Sand’s own description of the intensity of her attraction to Chopin, suggesting a love that transcended the purely physical to a more spiritual plane, a meeting of bodies and minds.

The concert takes place at Craxton Studios in Hampstead, a fine example of English Arts and Crafts architecture and interior design. Originally built for an artist, the house was the long-time home of Harold Craxton, acclaimed concert pianist and teacher at the Royal Academy of Music. Craxton’s home became a creative hub for musicians, artists and writers – a tradition which continues to this day as the studio is regularly used for concerts, auditions, recordings and filming.

Viv McLean performs on Harold Craxton’s own Blüthner grand piano.

Divine Fire at Craxton Studios, Saturday 3 November at 7.30pm

‘The great strength of this format is the subtle interweaving of words and music…..Viv McLean’s understated, modest delivery always allows the music to speak for itself, while Susan’s words lend greater focus, encouraging us to listen to the music even more attentively.’

Read an interview with actress Susan Porrett about the creation of Divine Fire

Our times maybe troubled, deeply troubled, but thank goodness we can still gain pleasure and solace from music – and Daniel Grimwood‘s recently-released disc of piano music by Adolph von Henselt offers over an hour of unalloyed bliss.

If you didn’t know the name of the composer beforehand – and many may not – the opening notes of the first track might have you confidently exclaiming “oh it’s Chopin!”. There’s the same ominous tread in the opening as Chopin’s Op 49 Fantasie. And then you might think “it’s Liszt!” on hearing the tumbling virtuosic passages which sparkle under the lightness and precision of Daniel Grimwood’s touch.

Other works recall the bittersweet lyricism of Schubert or look forward to the richer textures of Brahms and Tchaikovsky. But this is Adolph Von Henselt, a little known Bavarian-born composer whom Grimwood champions.

Organised in the manner of an old-fashioned recital disc, there is much to savour and enjoy in the variety of works explored here. Virtuosic concert pieces sit comfortably alongside elegant miniatures, offering the listener a broad flavour of Henselt’s style and oeuvre. The Nocturnes, Impromptus and Études prove Henselt was every bit a master of these genres as his contemporaries Chopin and Liszt – and he made similar technical and interpretative demands on the pianist too. There are passages of vertiginous virtuosity which appear sweeping and effortless rather than merely showy with Daniel’s acute sense of the scale and pacing of this music. It’s lushly expressive but Daniel’s clarity and delicacy means it is never cloying or too heavily perfumed.

This disc would go into my “lateral listening” recommendations: if you love Chopin, I guarantee you’ll love Henselt just as much.

This is the second of Daniel’s recordings for the Edition Peters label and it has delightful cover artwork by Janet Lynch and comprehensive liner notes. As Daniel himself says of this disc: “It’s my small way of restoring Henselt… his rightful place in the repertoire

Highly recommended