The joy of hotel rooms
05 December 2008

It's 1.45am in Munich and I can't sleep. Hotel rooms can be depressing places at times.

Nevertheless, it has been a stimulating and varied day, in between performances of Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony with the Munich Philharmonic and Jun Maerkl yesterday, tomorrow and Sunday. I started learning Stravinsky's Concerto for PIano and Winds; met out of the blue Tim Busby, an old colleague of Jeannie from Singapore; received the 1st edit of my CD of Rachmaninov preludes which I am avoiding listening to (the first listen is often rather painful); and went to one of the most disappointing concerts of my life, the Herbie Hancock Sextet (the Gasteig acoustics are far too resonant for jazz, on top of which the playing was simply baffling and self-indulgent, to my ears at least. I didn't even make it to the end of the first half). On top of this, I just finished reading Sophie's World which I enjoyed greatly and was mildly disturbed by, for reasons I can't go into so as not to spoil it for those of you who haven't read it.

So what do you do with a surfeit of stimulation at 1.45 in a Munich hotel? Apart from write a blog post, that is. I have nothing else to read, I hate watching TV late at night, and there's no space to do Tai Chi in the room. I could look for creepy-crawlies in the bed (I had to move rooms because the first one had a minor infestation - that's a first for me) but that just breeds paranoia. I can get a bit phobic about insects. Soon after I met Jeannie we took a trip to Glen Coe and when we went to bed in the guest house I discovered there were a few midgies in the room. Well, those buggers can smell me from 500 metres so I spent the next 20 minutes squashing them against the walls. And Jeannie still married me! Enough rambling.

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Stéphane Denève
16 November 2008

It's been a while since my last post and rather than give you a blow by blow account, I'll focus on one of the most fun aspects of the last couple of months - working with Stéphane Denève at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

I often find musical chemistry goes absolutely along with personal chemistry, and with Stéphane all of this seems to work rather effortlessly. It helps that I've met him a number of times since he took over the directorship of the RSNO. One thing which I greatly appreciate - he takes the job of collaborating on a concerto very seriously and gives a lot of time to meet with the soloist before rehearsing. We did two different concertos in the last month - Brahms 2 and Rachmaninov 2. For the Brahms we talked and discussed for about an hour before playing with the orchestra; understandable perhaps because this is such a complex piece to put together. But the Rachmaninov took 2 hours talking together! I've never had an experience like this, working with a conductor who puts forward his ideas as being equally important to mine (normally they defer to the soloist). I think it led to a wonderful collaboration, with both of us responding to the strengths in each other's idea of the works, and offering some solutions to the weaknesses. The Rachmaninov is particular was something of a relevation to me. I hadn't played this work for many years so was rather open to new ideas, and I really learned a lot from Stéphane's view of the piece. It's very easy with these 'war horses' to take in all the normal conventions without much thought, no matter how much one tries to think of the piece afresh, and Stéphane opened my eyes to just how radical the shape of the first movement is, one enormous arc of increasing then decreasing speed. The concert, in Manchester, was probably one of the best of my life, which was very much influenced by the musical and personal connection I felt with Stéphane. In music, as in marriage, it helps a lot if you like your partner!
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Britten recording magazine article
16 November 2008

Like buses, you wait months for a blog entry then 2 come along at once. This is an article I was asked to write for the German magazine 'Piano News', talking about the experience of recording Britten's works for piano and orchestra.



"Recording is a fascinating and deeply stimulating business. I know some people have a 'moral' problem with it, as if it's fundamentally dishonest to create a composite performance out of many different takes, but I've never shared that view. Stephen Hough has a good line about it - the difference between concerts and recording is similar to the difference between acting in the theatre and in film. In both cases, the latter option utilises much more sophisticated technical means to create an idealised end-result. The danger in recording is that any sense of spontaneity and inspiration can be lost in the process, but equally much can be gained - one is able to reflect in great detail on the effectiveness of each musical gesture in one's interpretation with an intensity that is difficult to find in any other context. One of the strange things about being a musician is the difference between how the music feels when you play it and how it sounds in the auditorium, and I find it is almost inevitable when I hear a recording of one of my concerts that I am shocked by many things - how fast or slow something sounds, how I misjudged the pacing here or there, how much better this passage sounds than it felt, how much worse that one.... When I finish a recording, I am always left with a greatly deepened understanding of how to show directly to the listener what I feel about the music. This is both exhilarating and, frankly, a little horrifying ('how could I have been so ignorant about the music before?').

"Normally I bring an idea for a record to Hyperion to consider but in this case it was the other way round - they suggested to me the complete concertante piano works of Britten. I don't learn music very quickly so I'm quite choosy about what I take on, but immediately this was a project which excited me: I found so much interest, character and beauty in these works which are so seldom played, even in Britain (I don't remember seeing even one of them programmed). The concerto is a marvellous piece, full of energy and colour and contrasts, utterly exhilarating to play. Young Apollo has a wonderful lightness of touch and some great effects. But best of all is Diversions which, to me, is something of a masterpiece. How is it possible that a work so inventive, touching, witty and serious remains virtually unknown? Perhaps the answer is simple - it's a nightmare to learn. Written for only the left hand, at times one has to virtually defy the laws of physics to fit everything in. And there is your right hand sitting in your lap doing nothing; that's really cruel.

The recording process was a little unusual for me in that I had a cold which peaked on the first day in the studio. This day passed in something of a haze with my brain struggling to connect to my fingers. At times like these, one is very reliant on one's producer to assess the quality of what is being played, and I'm lucky to have made all my records with one of the best in the business, Andrew Keener, a man with great ears, musical instincts, and human understanding. Andrew has got me through many less-than-ideal situations and this time was no different. The remaining days of recording were much happier. I have worked with Ilan Volkov often and have great respect for his serious, insightful musicianship and prodigious technical skills. Likewise, I have a long and happy association with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. I think they were the first professional orchestra I ever worked with and I've had many friends in its ranks, not least my sister-in-law. I think everyone was aware that we were making a great record and by the end there was the closest thing to a party atmosphere as I've experienced in the recording studio. The best thing of all, though, was going to the pub afterwards, buying a beer, and staring vacantly at the wall. After three days of the most intense concentration, this feels like the most blissful thing in the world."
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NEWS: Complete Tippett Piano Music CD nominated for a Gramophone Award
29 August 2008

That's great news to read this afternoon, and so well deserved. Caroline
Posted by Caroline on 28 August 2008


Jerusalem quartet and anti-Israeli protests
29 August 2008

I attended a remarkable concert this morning given by the Jerusalem Quartet at the Queen's Hall in Edinburgh which was repeatedly interrupted by anti-Israeli protesters shouting slogans like 'Israeli army musicians'. It seemed for a while that the concert might have to be abandoned, for each time a protester was ejected and the concert continued, another would shout out within a few minutes. The festival director, Jonathan Mills, made a very astute announcement after the 3rd or 4th interruption - 'The quartet and I are betting that there are more movements left in the concert than protestors'. This established a sense of optimism in the audience, and it also turned out to be true: the 2nd half proceeded without incident. During the interval, I talked to one of those protesting outside to try and work out why he thought it was appropriate to blame civilians for the actions of their government. 'They were in the army' was one justification, this despite his knowing there is conscription in Israel. 'They haven't publicly condemned their governments' actions' was another. I pointed out that I haven't publicly condemned the Iraq invasion which he thought was illegal, yet he wasn't picketing outside my concert yesterday. In the end his justification was this - 'the disruption is a small price to pay for liberating Palestine'. He believed his groups' actions were building support for his cause; clearly he couldn't see the audience reaction inside the hall. What I find most strange about this attitude is that it is following just the kind of thinking which leads to the events he condemns: it dehumanises some to further the cause of others. By definition, civilian casualities must be a 'price worth paying' for both the Israeli army and the Palestinian suicide bombers or they would change tactics. I don't want to discuss the politics of this - I'm too uninformed and besides know that feelings run so extremely high on both sides of this debate. But I'm reminded of a passage in Shostakovich's memoir Testimony. He reflects on the way in which socialisms' ideals of caring for all men equally resulted in such a disfunctional Russian society and writes something like, 'You should never talk about loving the world. Try loving one person first. It's incredibly difficult, it's almost impossible to love one person without hurting someone else.' These protestors think they care about the Palestinians but if they care nothing for the feelings of 4 musicians and 900 audience members right next to them, how can they care about those thousands of miles away? I suspect, rather, that they hate the symbol of oppression that Israel is to them, and the Palestinians are bit-players in that internal drama.

All of which is to frame what a remarkable group the Jerusalem quartet are - they continued to play in the most engaged and creative fashion despite these frequent interruptions. For me, they represent chamber music at its best - all four are fantastic instrumentalists, capable of both playing utterly soloistically and also blending wonderfully. They have a fabulous range of colour, keen structural instincts, wit, seriousness, spontaneity, and enormous depth of feeling. I've played a few concerts with them, all of which were marvellous experiences, but hearing them from the audience's point of view gave me even greater respect for them. How many better quartets in the world can there be?
Very interesting post... Were the protesters British, then? You're right - they seriously don't get it if they think that disrupting a classical concert is going to help Palestine's cause. It just pisses people off.
Posted by ECB on 27 October 2008


Edinburgh Festival jump-in
28 August 2008

The poor old Edinburgh Festival has had a tough couple of days: last night the Dresden Staatskapelle had to cancel their concert because their instruments were stuck in a lorry in Prague. Tonight Hélène Grimaud is having to change from the Schumann piano concerto to Beethoven 4 because of a finger injury. And this morning I replaced Ivan Moravec who was unable to play a recital due to ill health. These occasions always arouse mixed feelings; of course, one is sad for the indisposed musician, but one also enjoys having the opportunity. For me, this is particularly true of Edinburgh's Queens Hall. I grew up attending and playing in concerts there, and it remains one of my absolute favourite venues with it's combination of great intimacy, acoustic and piano.

In a strange way, it's quite fun doing jump-ins like this - the lack of preparation can be really advantageous to the quality of performance, adding to the spontaneity and sense of danger (I had 2 days to prepare). Whether that was true today, I don't know. I didn't quite get into the first half, partly because 11am is a really tough time to play a concert, partly because I'm experimenting with how I play Beethoven in anticipation of a recording next month. The second half felt better but Jeannie tells me the first wasn't too shabby. It's actually very important to have people whose opinion you trust in these matters - often the impact of a concert is very different from how it feels on stage, and Jeannie always gives me illuminating feedback. In fact, I first started falling for her when we went to a jazz club in Singapore and she started talking about the drummer's sense of swing - 'a chick that knows her jazz?' That got me really interested. The black dress didn't hurt either.

You can judge for yourself at lunchtime 11th September on BBC Radio 3: Debussy-Childrens Corner, Beethoven-Waldstein sonata and 5 pieces from Messiaen's Vingt Regards.
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Spontaneity? It's just not cricket
30 July 2008

I've just come back from a couple of days teaching at the Cadenza! summer music course which is organised (in a wonderfully chaotic manner) by John Thwaites of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. The highlight of this was an amazing evening of chamber-music by staff and students, whose tone was set by a sight-read performance of Tchaikovsky's piano trio by John, Daniel Rowland and Alexander Baillie. Some people would have felt inhibited by the lack of preparation but these players created the most vivid performance of anything I've heard for a very long time, diving with abandon into this most passionate of music, all three alive to each other's spontaneity. It resulted in a performance which was intensely engaging, touching, at times outrageous, and even genuinely funny (quite an achievement with this piece).

Alexander said to me afterwards, "Why don't we play like this all the time?" and I thought it was a great question. My thoughts on this involve sweeping generalisations for which I apologise in advance; I'm well aware this is only really a sketch of an argument. Nevertheless, I wonder if the answer lies, at least partly, in the erstwhile British preoccupation with decorum and politeness (all three Tchaikovsky performers were British, by the way). While such gentility might not be a conspicious part of our current social scene, it still holds a powerful sway over our instincts, I believe. We don't say to someone at the dinner-table 'Pass the salt' but rather 'Could you pass the salt?'. Why the latter? Because the directness of the former seems rude. Even as I write this I am thinking to myself, 'But surely it IS rude'. And yet such directness is commonplace in Russian conversation. Russians aren't very interested in the superficial veneer of civility Brits cultivate. I think sometimes British musicians (and others) are afraid of seeming rude, and prefer to keep musical style within tasteful, polite limits.

What that evening of chamber music really got me thinking about was the relationship between humility and egotism in performance. I have always seen egotism as a great fault and humility a virtue, but I realised that in performance the two need to be held in a dynamic balance. A performer has to be both humble and egotistical, to both respect the musical score and also to impose him/herself on it. This may sound like a contradiction, but I don't think it need be: as you become deeply immersed in a piece of music your instincts gradually start conforming to the musical world you are investigating.  I have an instinct to be repelled by performers who put themselves before the music, and yet am relatively comfortable with tasteful but boring playing. I think the truth is both faults are as bad as each other and that to abdicate responsibility for creating a performance of great individuality by hiding behind the thought, 'My job is simply to serve the composer', is as bad as the egotist who doesn't care for the details of what the composer wrote and simply remakes every piece in his own image. This is a complicated area and there's much more that could be written about it. One thing that's for sure, though, is that the idea a performance can simply serve the composer is a fantasy. We cannot help but recreate a piece of music according to our own individual emotional make-up. To hear what music sounds like without a performer's emotional world intervening, listen to this. Awesome. I'll be giving out prizes to anyone who listens to the end.

So how does a performer actually create this balance of humility and ego in performance? I've no idea. Ask me next year.
One of the problems I have with listening to chamber music is that any 'sense of spontaneity' is in fact just the opposite - the product of hours of painstaking rehearsal to arrive at a unified vision of a piece. I feel rather the same about un-conducted orchestras - rubato, special effects, extremes of dynamic etc all rehearsed in advance - nothing left to chance for the performance. Unrehearsed chamber music is incredibly exciting - it's a real test of musicianship to see if the participants can agree on things, make decisions etc without speaking, but purely by watching, moving, playing and listening. Just a thought. Have you ever done concertos un-conducted?
Posted by Ben Palmer on 08 August 2008
Hey Steven - thanks for your comments, really nice to know someone is listening!
Posted by Tom Davis on 20 August 2008


Holidays
11 June 2008

Well I've got a month off from concerts now so I'm taking the opportunity to have a break from the piano for a week or two. My wife's sister and brother-in-law are coming to stay in a couple of months so I'm doing some long overdue DIY - stripping wallpaper and repainting the kitchen and bathroom. I'd like to say this has been very therapeutic but actually it was rather stressful due to my woeful knowledge of electrical wiring. I had to change the switch for the bathroom light and couldn't get it to work again. I'm not telling you what I did - too embarrassing - but after a couple of hours of trying everything I could think of I was ready to call out an electrician. In the event I didn't need to since Edward McKenzie of Midcalder took the time to diagnose the problem over the phone. Great guy. Here, you can even have his phone number: 0800 037103
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