Friday, March 29, 2019

It's International Piano Day!

So on 29 March 2019 something momentous was meant to happen, but it isn't - phew, at least for now - thank EU very much! And we can, instead, celebrate what is apparently International Piano Day. Here are a few of the pianists who helped me to fall in love with the piano as a child/teenager and were among the formative influences in how I think and write about it today. This is a tribute to them all.


I never heard Dame Myra Hess in person (I was born the year she died), but I became aware of her very early on. First of all, my mum's name was Myra too - unusual and 'clockable' when you are small - and there is something similar about their profiles. We lived in north London and used sometimes to go for walks on the Hampstead Heath Extension. There was a blue plaque to Hess on her house in Wildwood Road and we always used to try to park outside it. Later, of course, I heard all about her National Gallery concerts during World War II, which was enormously inspiring. But above all, the quality of her artistry shines from every note. 


The first piano recital I ever attended was by this eminent Hungarian pianist at the Royal Festival Hall. He played the complete Chopin waltzes (I expect he'd just released this recording) and I do remember that I had a beastly cold and having quite a to-do with my mother over nose drops before the concert began. Vásáry must have done something right because these gorgeous pieces have been close to my heart ever since. 


My father adored Brahms. He'd sit and compare different recordings of the symphonies for fun on a Sunday afternoon. And he had a big box on LP of the complete piano music, played by Julius Katchen. When cassettes were invented, he transferred all the LPs onto them and we'd have them on in the car on long drives during holidays. I can still see the countryside bowling by as I listened to this dusky, rich-toned Hungarian dance, which seemed to capture a whole world of which I then knew nothing, but have been chasing ever since.


We knew him first as pianist of the glorious Beaux Arts Trio. A force of nature, his playing filled with  bounce, light, life and love, Pressler brought his unique touch and irrepressible charm to chamber music repertoire that in his hands seemed the best thing in the world - and still does. What a wonderful way to get to know the Schubert Trios, Dvorák's Dumky, and even the Korngold. I longed (as a seriously fed-up university student in Cambridge) to go and study with him in Bloomington, Indiana, but I never had the courage to try. And he's still going strong at 95. I interviewed him when he was 82 and asked if he never thought of retiring. "Why would I want to play golf when I can play Beethoven?" he said.


The first time we heard Zimerman in concert was at the Royal Festival Hall on 8 June 1981. He was very young, though already an international superstar, and he played Brahms's Sonata No.3 in F minor, the Chopin G minor Ballade and the 'Funeral March' Sonata. I will never, ever forget it because that was the day I realised that a piano was much, much more than a musical instrument. It was a whole world. A universe was unlocked in my brain by the magic of his playing. I hope he will forgive me for using this video today.


After hearing Zimerman I started taking the piano more seriously and worked much harder at it. At 16 I went for the first time to the Dartington International Summer School - my school friend Laura Roberts (who now teaches at Guildhall) had been there the year before, adored it and persuaded me to go there with her. We both auditioned for a rising star Hungarian pianist named András Schiff, who was about 28 at the time and flamed through Dartington setting everyone alight with his vivid, beautiful, radical Bach playing. It was the era when on one hand you were supposed to do What's In The Score and nothing else, so people were sometimes puzzled when András produced notes inégales or changed the register of a Goldberg Variation on a repeat, but this was actually authentic performance practice. On the other hand, you weren't supposed to play Bach on the modern piano... One way or another I astonished myself by actually being accepted for the class and I played a Schubert impromptu, quaking in my summer sandals... Above, a more recent class in which he coaches the splendid Martin James Bartlett on another impromptu from the same set, and years may have passed, and Martin wasn't yet born when I went to Dartington, but the maestro isn't really so different.


The following year I went back to Dartington and got into Imogen Cooper's masterclass. This time I played some Beethoven and totally mucked it up and was really, really upset afterwards and went off into the gardens to have a howl, as one does. Imogen came along later and found me; she gave me a very sweet, understanding pep talk. She was always a vast inspiration - again, like Hess and Schiff, for the purity of her sound, her values and her depth of artistic understanding, and watching all of this deepening and expanding more and still more has been one of the great joys in my past 35 years. We can be very glad that Chandos has recorded her extensively. Above, she talks about beloved Schumann.

Well, one could go on and on about this and add Rubinstein, Barenboim, Ashkenazy and Anthony Goldstone (a great favourite of my mum's). We could add Arrau, whom I was lucky enough to hear twice in concert, and Richter, who I nearly met but didn't, though spent an hour in the same house in another room, and Fou Ts'ong, and the incredible Rosalyn Tureck. But I have to go out and catch a train as a very dear friend has just flown into town from New York. 

Remember: whatever happens this afternoon and in two weeks' time or next year, we are all citizens of music if we want to be.