Showing posts with label pianists. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pianists. Show all posts

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.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Help the resuscitation of a lost genius

Writing a piece about the Golden Age of Pianists for Primephonic, I couldn't resist including one of the most startling, inspiring and terrifying musicians I have yet encountered on record: the Hungarian pianist Ervin Nyiregyházi. You may not have heard of him, but maybe it's time you did. All you can expect of him is the unexpected.

Kevin Bazzana's biography reveals the life of a man who lurched between genius and mental breakdown, from wild success to sleeping rough in the subway, from wife to wife - ten of them (eat your heart out, Henry VIII) - yet who was never anything less than his own true self.

The cover to be. Photo: Yoshimasa Hating
Tomoyuki Sawado of Sonnetto Classics is having a Kickstarter to raise funds to release Nyiregyházi's comeback recital of 1972 on CD. Please have a listen and consider contributing. He has 9 days left to raise the remaining 49 per cent. More details at the Kickstarter page here.

My Primephonic article explores what exactly the magic of those so-called Golden Age artists was about. It's not a comprehensive survey or a Top 300 list or similar, and is designed for general music lovers as well as serious pianophiles. I chose a selection of pianists from different places, with contrasting personalities and life stories, and wondered what brings them together under the same umbrella. It's a personal choice and assessment. There are probably 50 more who could have been included, yet the article is already double its intended length.

Anyway, hope you enjoy it. And do take a look at that Kickstarter.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Pianomania on the BBC

Yes, that is a picture of Lang Lang playing a piano on a flooded heath. As I always say, chacun à son gout. He made quite a pig's ear of the Beethoven 'Emperor' Concerto at the Lucerne Festival the other week, providing surface beauty aplenty, but turning it into nothing more than a series of pretty episodes and pulling it around so much that several times it nearly fell apart at the seams. I pitied the poor wind players when he was supposed to be accompanying them. My full review will be in International Piano in due course.

Lang Lang, though, is a phenomenon that's more than the sum of its parts: he has become emblematic of our day and age (as I've explained in a lengthy essay introducing DG's new boxed set of his complete recordings 2000-2009). He could have been the world's greatest pianist and ten years ago seemed set to become just that; perhaps he still can be, once the commercial phase wears thin and deeper waters begin to beckon.

And he is at the centre of a tremendous pianofest that's fast approaching on the BBC and up in Leeds. The Leeds International Piano Competition is kicking off shortly and Lang Lang is to be its "global ambassador" (though exactly why isn't clear, as it's not as if he were a past winner, or even, as far as I'm aware, a past entrant...).

The piano is rolling off to flood the BBC airwaves much more thoroughly than the pond above. The three-legged monster is set to eat up the schedules on Radio 3 and BBC4, with extensive coverage of the Leeds contest on both, a series of Monday evening piano recitals on Radio 3, a major focus towards those actually learning the instrument, and much more. The full wonder of the piano is something exceptional, something magnificent, something magical, and if this unique season of pianomania can help to bring the essence of it to a wider audience, that is terrific. Let's see what happens.

For TV, Alan Yentob has made a movie about...oh yes, Lang Lang. I wish he would make one about someone else as well. Lang Lang has been featured on plenty of films before now, yet the truly towering musicianship of such artists as Grigory Sokolov, Mitsuko Uchida, Krystian Zimerman, Andras Schiff, Murray Perahia, Radu Lupu and plenty more remains scandalously under-documented.

Besides, if you want an interesting story out of China, then talk to Fou Ts'ong. We hear a lot about how 60 million children in China have taken up the piano under the influence of "the Lang Lang effect". We hear a lot about "tiger mums". We hear virtually nothing any more about the fate of an entire generation of Chinese artists and intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution. And we should. (I think it's high time I unearthed my interview with Ts'ong for the old Classical Piano magazine in the mid-90s and re-ran this space...)

Wishing all the very best of luck to all the entrants at Leeds - and may the finest musician win.

Finally, at the risk of being accused of just posting the BBC's press release, I'm just going to post the BBC's press release (or part of it) and then you'll know what they're doing.

Discover a Suite of Piano Programmes on the BBC this Autumn
Saturday 15 September until Tuesday 6 November
This autumn, the BBC will be dedicating a suite of programmes to the music, people, history and beauty of one of the world’s most iconic instruments, the piano.
Piano Season on the BBC is a major six-week season celebrating a single instrument.  The season will explore the piano’s wide-ranging influence from the 1700s to the present day, as well as delve into the lives of the people behind the piano and the music created for it.
Highlights of the season include an in-depth insight into The Leeds International Piano Competition, a Jazz Battle live from Trinity Laban College Greenwich, a downloadable A-Z of the piano, Peter Donohoe’s 50 Greats, an online masterclass for budding pianists and well-loved personalities from around the UK, such as Woman’s Hour’s Jane Garvey, Radio 1’s Dev and Olympic medal winner Samantha Murray, taking up the challenge of learning the piano for the first time, with eight of them taking part in the season finale, Gala Concert in Cardiff on the 29 October 2012.
The season begins with extensive coverage of the Leeds International Piano Competition with live broadcasts of the Final on BBC Radio 3 and a six-part series about the finalists on BBC FOUR.  The season will culminate on November 6th with a special episode of Imagine on BBC One focusing on Lang Lang as he turns 30.
The Leeds International Piano Competition on BBC FOUR will be presented by Suzy Klein, herself a pianist, and will showcase the six finalists and their concerto performances in full.  The series will also take viewers behind the scenes to discover why ‘The Leeds’ is admired worldwide, take a closer look at the mechanical marvel that is the piano, speak directly to the woman behind the competition, Dame Fanny Waterman, who has inspired a generation of young musicians and delve into what makes a world-leading concert pianist. With arguably one of the piano world’s biggest stars taking an ambassadorial role with the competition, we’ll also hear from Lang Lang on why ‘The Leeds’ still matters as it approaches its 50th birthday.
BBC Radio 3 listeners can follow the competition live with both Concerto Finals nights and the Sunday Afternoon Gala Concert broadcast live from Leeds. Piano Season on BBC Radio 3 continues with artists such as Lang Lang, the Labeque Sisters and Malcom Martineau sharing their musical inspirations, as well as hearing from experts such as David Owen Norris and Peter Donohoe. Programmes will feature some of the greatest piano music ever written by composers who themselves loved and played the piano; including Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt, Beethoven, Debussy and Chopin alongside late night jazz programming exploring some of the greatest names in jazz pianism.
Monday nights will be 'Piano Night' when BBC Radio 3’s Live in Concert will offer listeners a series of unique piano recitals, from different corners of the nation, given by an array of international artists. Past Leeds finalist Sunwook Kim will play Beethoven and Schubert and  Russian Evgenia Rubinova presents a programme of music from her native country; Ukrainian Alexei Grynyuk plays Chopin and Liszt; Pascal and Ami Rogé play French music for two pianos; while Radio 3 New Generation Artist Igor Levit performs Rzewksi’s  celebrated and fiendishly difficult Variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated”; Ashley Wass and Huw Watkins team up to perform Robin Holloway’s  pianistic tour-de-force “The Gilded Goldbergs”.
In BBC Radio 3 ‘s morning programmes, listeners will have the chance to hear the ‘50 Great Pianists’ – a short daily focus on one of the fifty greatest names from the world of pianism as selected by Peter Donohoe, while regular programmes such as ‘'Composer of the Week' will explore the lives of composers who wrote for the instrument, from Clementi to Rachmaninov.  Special guests and piano lovers including as Kathryn Stott, Valentina Lisitsa, James May, Alan Rusbridger and Benjamin Frith will be joining the regular BBC Radio 3 presenters through the season to talk about their passion and experiences with the iconic instrument.   There will also be online master classes, exploration of the historical and social history of the piano and an entertaining A-Z of the piano in BBC Radio 3’s late afternoon programme ‘In Tune’. 
Trinity College London and the ABRSM [Associated Board of The Royal Schools of Music] will be helping budding pianists hone their skills in ‘110%’ on Friday nights.  We’ll be treated to great performances of Piano Syllabus pieces and hear from the experts on what make them so special and how to get 110% in their exams.
Later on in the autumn, BBC One’s Imagine will return with a special documentary presented by Alan Yentob on Lang Lang, arguably one of the greatest pianists of his generation, as he turns 30.  Lang Lang’s dazzling technique and musicality have inspired a generation of young pianists and delighted audiences throughout the world. Imagine follows him on an impressive schedule of concerts in Shanghai, New York, London and Berlin and reveals a personal story that began with great hardship and a family dream that nearly ended in tragedy.  In this auspicious 'Year of the Dragon' Lang Lang celebrates his 30th birthday at a concert in Berlin with Herbie Hancock, opens his own piano school in China, plays for the Queen at the Diamond Jubilee, performs sell-out concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, and becomes the first classical musician to headline at a British pop music festival.
BBC FOUR will also celebrate Lang Lang being appointed as the Global Ambassador of the Leeds International Piano Competition with two one-off documentaries on Friday 2 November. Lang Lang at the Roundhouse will give viewers an opportunity to see this stunning performance at London’s legendary Roundhouse, recorded at the iTunes festival in July 2011.  Lang Lang performs a remarkable Liszt recital as the only classical music artist in a true rock-star surrounding, next to international pop stars like Coldplay, Adele and Linkin Park.  And Lang Lang: The Art of being a Virtuoso follows Lang Lang through China, the US and Europe and offers a glimpse into life on tour with the superstar.

Photo credit: BBC/Steve Brown

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Wilhelm Kempff, 112

Wonderful Webmaster, a fount of anniversary knowledge, writes to remind me that today is the birthday of Wilhelm Kempff, who was born in Juterborg on 25 November 1895. Here is the great pianist doing what he did best: profound Beethoven. The slow movement of the D minor Sonata Op.31 No.2, the 'Tempest', recorded in Paris in 1968.

Monday, August 20, 2007

A marvel in Manchester

The final evening of the Manchester International Concerto Competition for Young Pianists last Friday was quite an event. With two categories - the 16 and Under and the 22 and Under - the competition had already reached a climax the night before, with four superb youngsters strutting their stuff in Bach and Mozart; but, perhaps ironically, the 22 and Under's strongest impression was left by someone who was also under 16: Jan Lisiecki from Calgary in Canada, who played Chopin's Second Concerto. He's only 12.

Jan took joint second prize with the excellent 18-year-old Jamie Bergin, a student at Chetham's, but much of the buzz focused on him, with grown professional musicians drifting about the cathedral afterwards making remarks like 'touched by God...'. Jan already has a considerable track record, having played 12 times with orchestras including the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, and having performed in a gala concert with Yo-Yo Ma, Manny Ax and Pinchas Zukerman.

Still, first prize went to the right winner: Anja German from Slovenia, who played Beethoven 3 just beautifully. She is 22 and ready for anything. She's studying at the Mozarteum in Salzburg and has also won prizes in the National Competition in Slovenia and the EPTA International Competition for Young Pianists. She wins a series of excellent high-profile engagements around the UK, including London, and the chance to make a CD on the Dunelm label. Child prodigies may be prodigies but they are also children; young Jan deserves time to study and grow up before being plunged into the concert circuit, as he probably will be.

Plaudits too to third prizewinner, 17-year-old Walid El-Yafi, also studying at Chet's, who gave a strong and musical account of Saint-Saens' Third. Bravo to the Manchester Camerata, conducted by Chetham's head of music Stephen Threlfall, navigating four very difficult and exposed works with what must have been limited rehearsal time.

Competition founder Murray McLachlan, head of piano at Chethams', ensured another twist that seems valuable: the jury consisted entirely of concert pianists, an inspiration, he said, from the old days in the 'golden age' of pianism when musicians, rather than pedagogues, critics and others hunting power, were the norm on such panels. Murray wrote an interesting article for Classical Music's 'Soapbox' column a few months back, taking a fresh look at piano competitions, which is reproduced on the competition's website.

The competition has a good roster of backers and media partners and looks set to continue in fine style - and it has steered a clever course that doesn't bring it into headlong collision with the mighty Leeds, serving a different and complementary role in its young contestants' rites of passage. It attracted an extremely international crowd: around us in the packed cathedral we heard Chinese, Russian, Polish, Korean, French, Japanese and more. Hand in hand with the stunning new-look Manchester International Festival, which wants to rival Edinburgh (and may succeed), and the general transformation of Manchester from grimy, industrial, depressing lump to buzzing, happening, modern metropolis, the competition is part of an inspiring north-western renaissance.

Read more about the competition in the Manchester Evening News, here.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Manchester International Piano Competition kicks off

The semi-finals of the First Manchester International Concerto Competition for Young Pianists, to give it its full name, kicked off yesterday; the finals are on Thursday and Friday.

Organised by Murray McLachlan, head of piano at Chetham's School of Music, the contest's top-notch jury is made up entirely of concert pianists, many of them figures I admire for their sensitivity and musical integrity - Philippe Cassard, Noriko Ogawa, Anton Kuerti, Peter Donohoe, Kathryn Stott and more - and the finals are to take place in Manchester Cathedral, with the Manchester Camerata accompanying the candidates. What's relatively unusual is that the age limit is from 16 to 22 - I'd anticipate that a competition like this will perhaps help to provide invaluable experience for youngsters with their sights set on Tchaikovsky, Chopin or Leeds, occasions on which you definitely don't want to be playing a concerto for the first time. The semifinalists include pianists from the UK, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Korea, Singapore, Switzerland, France, Norway, Canada and India.

I'm going to the final night: Murray thought a reading from Alicia's Gift might help to entertain and distract everyone while the jury makes up its mind. Since the book is about a young pianist from the Manchester region and features competitions in quite a big way, it's maybe appropriate to some degree...

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Misha in Manchester

Talk of the town this weekend is Russian pianist Mikhail Rudy's stage version of The Pianist, which opens for a two-week run at the stunning Manchester International Festival today. Misha has written a piece in The Guardian's arts blog about how/why he's doing this, and there is an excellent feature in The Sunday Times too.

The show has already had tremendous success in France, capturing the public imagination in a very positive, encouraging way (it's not all Kismet out there, thank God). Combining music and words is far more difficult that it looks, and Misha and his team appear to have hit the nail right on the head.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Shoo, man

My poor old piano has been a bit neglected lately. Last week my editor (novels) went on holiday for half term and I can't make much progress on the revision of Hungarian Dances until I have her feedback. Instead, with an hour or two to spare, and Tom safely shooed away to Glyndebourne, I took the plunge and opened the lid.

The great thing about being an official amateur - no concerts, no lessons, no exams, no pressure - is that nobody can tell you what to do, or, more importantly, what not to do. No-one can say, "Don't you dare touch the Schumann Fantasie, it's too hard for you!" So I dare. I touched the Schumann Fantasie. I read through the first and last movements and as much of the March as I could manage without going cross-eyed, and nobody could hear me or stop me. And it's heaven. Surely no piece represents pure romanticism more than this one. To touch Schumann is to hold starlight in your hands, even if only for a second.

Here are two favourite recordings: Marc-Andre Hamelin (Hyperion), full of wonder and tenderness and fleetness; and Jonathan Biss (EMI), replete with good sense, empathy and a deep, pure humility in the representation of genius.

Achtung, piano fans: Jonathan Biss is playing the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday afternoon, 3 June. Beethoven, Webern and Mozart, and guess what? The Schumann Fantasie.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Ashkenazy stops, but Perahia is back

Opera Chic has some distressing news: Vladimir Ashkenazy has apparently decided to stop giving concerts as a pianist because he has a degenerative joint condition in three fingers of his left hand. He'll still be conducting and recording, though. (Report was in the Milan Corriere della Sera). I remember hearing him give an all-Beethoven recital at the RFH about twenty years ago (possibly longer...) and retain an impression of beautiful tone, utter absorption and intense empathy with the late sonatas. Allegro Films is hoping to release Christopher Nupen's documentary about him on DVD in November.

The good news, though, is that Murray Perahia, who had a lot of trouble with a lingering hand injury, is back and giving a London recital at the Barbican Centre on Monday. The programme includes Bach, Beethoven, Schumann & Chopin - info & booking here, PDQ. Here's Perahia playing a very lovely Mendelssohn Song Without Words:

Monday, February 19, 2007

The real Uchida

So today I had a call asking me to go on BBC Radio 4 to talk about Hattogate. Dropped everything and ran to Broadcasting House...only to discover, when I got there, that the programme also had to fit in Art Garfunkel and Robert de Niro, who were real, so the finer details of how easy or otherwise it is to tell the difference between...well, you get the drift, my spot was off. So to speak. It was nice to have been asked...

But in the Broadcasting House foyer (where, my dears, you see everyone who is anyone), I bumped into Mitsuko Uchida, who was on her way to Radio 3 to appear on In Tune. Now there's one truly great artist - a pianist you couldn't fake if you tried. Her playing could never have been anybody else's. I've often felt that for her, the piano is like a second voice box. It's part of her, indivisible from her personality, indeed her soul, and that's how it ought to be.

She's playing Mozart piano concertos with the LSO and Colin Davis at the Barbican on Wednesday and Thursday. Further details here and here. UPDATE: BOTH CONCERTS are now sold out. Earlier this evening, there were seats available for Wednesday, but...

UPDATE: To hear Mitsuko's interview on In Tune, go here, browse the Radio Player for In Tune and click on MON. You can listen to it online for the rest of this week.

Here's a treat for those of us who can't get to the concerts:

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Return of the pied pianist

Marc-Andre Hamelin will be at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday afternoon, 18 February, 3.30pm, to play Beethoven's two last sonatas and Schubert's B flat sonata D960. Marc has possibly the greatest piano technique on earth, but he's the human face of virtuosity. Those twinkling fingers are there to serve a great heart. Not just speed, but tenderness. While he's always been recognised more widely for performances like the second of the two extracts that follow, I can't wait to hear him in Op.111. Box office: 0871 663 2500.

I have to get rid of a nasty bronchial lurgy before then. Feeling too crap to write much today, so will let Marc speak for himself through his piano in these must-see video clips. [Anyone looking for a response to Pliable will find it in his Comments box on On An Overgrown Path.]

Marc plays Beethoven Op.109, movements 1 & 2

Marc plays Chopinata by Doucet....

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Rustem Hayroudinoff, Wigmore Hall, Thursday 21 December

Rustem Hayroudinoff is one of those musicians who knock the spots off overhyped oriental kiddies and wolf-keeping Europeans in terms of genuine artistry, but have had to struggle for much too long to achieve the recognition they deserve.

But at last I get the feeling that his boat is in sight of the shore: his latest recording for Chandos, Rachmaninov's Etudes Tableaux, is the instrumental Pick of the Month in the newest BBC Music Magazine and he'll be playing Rachmaninov's Third Concerto with the London Philharmonic on 14 January (Eastbourne, 3pm).

A big Russian-school technique - rich, glowing tone, layered voicing and spacious phrasing - plus an artistic awareness that encompasses painting, literature, cinema, jazz (which he plays jolly well), terrific intelligence and a great sense of humour, all add up to fresh, heady and colourful artistic results. Rustem is a Tatar from Kazan, trained in Moscow and London, where he now lives, and is the most vivid raconteur I know. Tomorrow (Monday) he's on BBC Radio 3's In Tune programme around 6.15pm. (Along with Juan Diego Florez!! no kidding.)

On Thursday next week he's giving a Wigmore Hall recital. Do come and hear him if you're in London.

Bach English Suite No. 3 in G minor

Debussy Suite Bergamasque

Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues op. 87

No. 2 in A minor

No. 4 in E minor

No. 15 in D flat major

Chopin Mazurkas:

Op.56 No. 2 in C

Op.17 No .4 in A minor

Op.63 No. 3 in C# minor

Scherzo No. 3 op. 39

Prokofiev Sonata No.7 op. 83

Tickets: £22 £18 £14 £10
Wigmore Hall box office: 020 7935 2141

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Nina Milkina 1919-2006

The wonderful Russian pianist Nina Milkina died last week at the age of 87. I was lucky enough to meet her a few years ago for an interview about her long and fascinating career, and was much struck by her combination of qualities: humour with passion, intelligence with intuitiveness, delicacy with real gumption. She hadn't been at the forefront of musical life for a while, but her recordings are exquisite, displaying a rare sense of magic and nuance in such worlds as Mozart and Scarlatti as well as Chopin et al. This recording, live from the Wigmore Hall, is a treasure: contact details of how to get it are included on the musicwebinternational page. She was a much-loved figure among the younger generation of pianists here in London, where she lived; Leon McCawley (who introduced me to her) in particular cites her as an inspiration and mentor, not least in his impressive new set of the Mozart piano sonatas. She will be sorely missed. I wrote an obituary of her which was published yesterday and can be read in my archive, here.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Krystian Zimerman notches up half a century today. When I was 14, I went with my parents to hear him play at the Royal Festival Hall. He was 23 and I'd never heard anything like it. There was a world in his piano that rolled together everything that was finest about art, poetry and pure, white-hot energy. He played the Brahms F minor Sonata Op.5, the Chopin First Ballade and the 'Funeral March' Sonata. Nothing was ever the same again. Ten years later, I had a job on a music magazine and I suddenly realised that all I needed to do was sell him to an editor, call up his manager and fix an interview, and then I could ask him all the questions I wanted to about what made that musicianship tick.

That was quite a while ago, but to this day, this man gives me faith in human nature, because he is as special a person as he is a pianist. The finest musicians play as they are; listening to the playing, you listen to them speak. You can hear their essence, distilled, in their music-making. Krystian is no exception. Few pianists have this degree of sensitivity, tenderness, intelligence and visionary wisdom, and few people.

Here's his page at Deutsche Grammophon: follow the link to the discography...

Happy birthday, Krystian! Have fun!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Here's the review from the New York Times of Pogorelich playing at the Metropolitan Museum a couple of weeks ago, which I finally got round to reading.

It's very upsetting. The photo is distressing enough - Kojak? - but I can well believe that Mr Tommasini is telling it how it was, since at the last concert I heard Pogorelich give in London, his playing fitted this description with appalling precision. It was a Rachmaninov piano concerto several years ago; I think it was supposed to be No.2, but what emerged was so distorted as to be almost unrecognisable. Yet a recital of his that I heard at London's Royal Festival Hall, probably the better part of 10 years back, was astonishing: so full of colour, nuance and brilliance that it was like watching a Kandinsky in a kaleidoscope.

I interviewed him in 1993, when I was the editor of Classical Piano magazine, as well as encountering him socially a couple of times. For the interview, I was asked to visit him at home in Surrey, where his spacious modern mansion included an exquisite wood-lined music room. He was charming, intelligent and well-informed, and as handsome as his photos (he was every piano student's pin-up). His motto was, more or less, 'no compromise': artistry had to be all or nothing. If I can find the article I'll post it in my permasite archive.

What has gone wrong? His wife, who was his former teacher from Moscow and to whom he seemed utterly devoted, died of cancer some time ago. It looks, from the outside, as if he has never quite found his feet again. Rumours circulated that he was ill and that he had given up performing; and the return journey does not appear promising. Perhaps it would be best if he did indeed bow out gracefully while and if he still can, leaving us with the memories of his artistry at its finest, untainted by this tragedy.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Not trying to promote a rival paper, but...

...The Guardian has got hold of all Andras Schiff's lectures at the Wigmore Hall and you can listen to them online here. The Guardian isn't exactly my favourite paper (I'll spare you my views on the Lubianka of Farringdon Road) but occasionally they do turn up trumps with something like this.

Sunday, October 08, 2006


My article for International Piano about Grigory Sokolov is now available to read on my permasite. Click here.

Anyone who remembers me writing a few months back that I had just done an interview with someone who may be the world's greatest pianist will now know what I was talking about. I went over to Barcelona to hear and meet him back in March, in company with a valiant Russian cellist as interpreter; we heard a most stunning recital at the Palau de la Musica, interviewed the great man after his concert - around midnight - and even found ourselves having breakfast with him in the hotel the next morning. Sokolov's performances have been among the greatest revelations of my musical life. And I've had a few. Read on...

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Leeds is back

The Leeds International Piano Competition is underway again, and the full list of competitors can be found on its website here. With Leeds - actually, with most international piano competitions - I'm always struck by the dominance of pianists from Russia, China and, this year, Korea. But Italians have quite a history of doing well in this contest (especially ones with high cheekbones, for some reason) and there are even two British candidates for patriotic pianophiles to cheer on if so inclined. I will be interested to see how the hugely talented Tom Poster gets on.

Lack of numerous Brits in British competitions is a perennial grouch in this country, when anybody can be bothered writing about music competitions at all. But the explanation is really very simple. Pianists in Russia, China and Korea are valued highly, supported in their training by the state and taught thoroughly in a fine tradition and in a system of specialist music schools from the very beginning. Pianists in the UK, on the whole, are not. That's life.

My next novel, ALICIA'S GIFT, explores the life of a gifted young pianist growing up in Derbyshire. It's about what her talent does to her family, and what her family does to her talent. I am proof-reading it now. Writing this post is a displacement activity.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Meet Simon Trpceski

Simon Trpceski
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.

If you haven't already. Simon is one of the greatest young pianistic talents I've ever heard. He's 26 and hails from Skopje, Macedonia. About five years ago he shot to fame - like so many others - by NOT getting first prize in a piano competition (London) where most people thought he should have. Since then his reputation has been more than consolidated by such things as inclusion in the BBC Radio 3/Wigmore Hall New Generations programme and performances and recordings that receive rave reviews. He'd blown my socks off a couple of times - I think he plays Pletnev's transcription of The Nutcracker better than Pletnev - and when I interviewed him for PIANIST Magazine's latest issue I discovered he was also one of the most charming, engaging, warm, natural and unpretentious musicians I'd come across.

Sounds excessive? Then just hear him play. Yesterday at the Queen Elizabeth Hall he gave a recital of works that he'd told me were all new to his repertoire - Brahms Op.117 and one piece from Op.118, Scriabin's Second Sonata and both books of Debussy's Images. The Brahms was very slow but hypnotically beautiful, with exquisite tonal control and a powerful inwardness that you don't expect from an otherwise extrovert youngster. The Scriabin drew on the music's gentler, Chopinesque aspects, with perfect clarity and power that didn't make sensitivity concede - and proved that you don't have to go nuts with Scriabin as so many do. The Debussy was to die for: I can't imagine it played more beautifully (and I've played Book II myself so tend to pick holes in it whenever possible!). Meanwhile, he'd played Shostakovich's First Piano Concerto with the LPO on Friday evening and is doing so again on Wednesday - fab ensemble with Vladimir Jurowski and an atmosphere as if everyone was having tremendous fun. That's what orchestral concerts should be about but unfortunately often aren't. If you can get to the QEH on Wednesday 7th, GET THERE.

The photo above is by Jillian Edelstein and is printed with my article in PIANIST.

UPDATE, Tuesday 1pm: Here's Robert Maycock's review of the LPO/Jurowski/Trpceski concert from today's Independent.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Warming the cockles

The Pianist Magazine/Yamaha Amateur Piano Competition held on Saturday night for the first time has awarded its first prize to a 79-year-old piano tuner who once prepared instruments for Liberace but has never played in a concert hall before. Jamie Cullum awarded the prize and magazine editor Erica Worth is justifiably very, VERY proud of the event she's initiated. Doesn't this just warm the cockles of your heart? What a change from all those beastly, corrupt, political piano competitions that young pros have to endure... Read more about it here.