Thursday, 21 July 2016

#49 Daniel Grimwood: Concert Pianist

Daniel Grimwood

A lot of pianists talk about projection but there’s another way of doing it which is less about projection and more about drawing people in 

“The thought of performing my favourite composer on the modern piano that most suits him gave me the idea of playing an all Schubert concert, because he works so beautifully on Bösendorfer pianos. These pianos have a tonal aesthetic that harks back to the nineteenth century. The original Mr Bösendorfer was taught by Brodmann, one of the great builders of the Viennese hammerflugels.  Bösendorfers have been built in an unbroken line since the early 19th Century, (I believe Czerny owned one), and there’s something of the refinement of tone of the old Viennese instruments that’s being carried through.

I recently recorded on a Bösendorfer Imperial model; it’s a great big beast of a piano and you can create this huge wall of sound, but nonetheless it’s still always very transparent and very refined. Which pretty much are the same words I would use to describe Schubert’s keyboard music; transparent and refined.

But this time I was recording piano works by the German composer Adolph von Henselt; a hobbyhorse of mine. He was the teacher of Rachmaninoff’s teacher, born in Bavaria but he moved to Russia. I think you can’t overestimate the importance of the influence that his output had on Russian composers.

As long as I like the music it matters to me little who wrote it. I try to have as encyclopaedic a knowledge of repertoire as possible; I think it’s not sufficient to know that Chopin was a great composer, for example. I think I need to know everything about the world in which he was writing, and that means the music that he performed and taught, the music that was being performed at the same time. Sometimes you come across music that’s not as great as the Greats that we’ve received, and that shows us what really is great about those composers. But sometimes you come across a composer who really should be better known. And then we have composers like Schubert, who is one of the most famous, but there’s a lot of his music that is never performed. For example, I think to date, there are only two or three complete recorded cycles of his string quartets. How often do you hear the first three symphonies performed in concert? Almost never! If he’d been two composers and if one had written the early works and the other the late works, I think the early works would be heard more.

Schubert scholarship is going through a period of change at the moment. For example, Schubert’s Beethoven Project by Gingerich which talks in depth about how Schubert was trying to build on Beethoven’s achievements. After his year of crisis he starting writing fantastic masterpieces in the Beethovenian genres - the piano sonata being one of them. It’s also interesting to understand what position the piano sonata had in European society at that time; it was predominantly a domestic form. As we know, none of Beethoven’s piano sonatas were performed in public during his lifetime and likewise, Schubert sonatas wouldn’t have been considered to be public music. The sonata was a feminised and domestic art form. There were of course virtuoso male performers who were starting to emerge at that time in the wake of Beethoven, but that wasn’t what Schubert was expecting to be published for (what little of it that was published in his lifetime).

There was a tradition of keyboard sonatas being published in threes, and for some time now it’s been considered that Schubert’s three last sonatas belong together, they are cut from the same cloth. I’ve played these three before and I don’t like separating them because they work so beautifully together. Having become accustomed to that, I always feel they seem a little out of place when they’re not in the company of their brothers and sisters, so to speak. The sonatas that I’m currently preparing to perform are the three that proceed the final three.

As I’m preparing this programme I’m starting to feel quite strongly that I’m not practising three sonatas, I’m practising three gigantic movements of a huge structure. It’s definite that Schubert intended them to be published as one set and they are also cut from the same cloth. There are thematic similarities; there’s this curious knocking rhythm that begins in the first movement of the first sonata and finishes at a structural point in the final movement of the last sonata. It’s a strong rhythm, like someone knocking on the door. I’ve spent time in the south of Germany and Austria in landscapes that Schubert would have felt at home in, very similar to the landscape surrounding Vienna … and there are qualities in Schubert’s orchestral writing such as the way he treats the woodwind … the horn calls … all of the things we associate with German Romanticism that were largely inherited from Weber … all of these things that come from the land, and I picture these when I’m playing Schubert. I had a moment once when I was walking through Vienna and I was on one of the bridges over the Danube and I could just hear in my mind’s ear the trio section from the Scherzo of the Great Symphony …

My attitude to venues and audiences is quite simplistic; give me a piano that works and people who want to listen and I’ll do it anywhere. I don’t have a favourite venue because the venue gives me less than the people listening to me. I have given salon style concerts, most recently in the Gregynog Festival in Wales. I took up my 1801 Broadwood square piano, which is an elegant toned instrument and invites a more intimate form of music making. Concert giving should be intimate. A lot of pianists talk about projection but there’s another way of doing it which is less about projection and more about drawing people in. I went to hear Richard Goode perform the last three Schubert sonatas at the Royal Festival Hall. Even though I’d bought my ticket at the last minute and had to sit far back, Mr Goode’s unique skills drew in the entire audience and the room shrank. I’m lucky enough to be one of the few pianists of my generation to have heard Richter perform in concert and again, it was this sensation of the room actually shrinking to fit the performance; it was quite beautiful.” (Daniel Grimwood was speaking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence Lola Perrin)


July 27th at 7pm
Daniel Grimwood performs at Markson Pianos Concert Series

3 Schubert Sonatas
Sonata in A minor, Op. 42
Sonata in D Major, Op. 53
Sonata in G Major, Op. 78 

St Mary Magdalene Parish Church, Munster Place, London NW1 3PL
Tickets £6/£4 on the door


Daniel Grimwood first discovered the piano at a neighbour's house aged 3 starting a musical journey that has led him to share his music with audiences across the world amassing a repertoire ranging from Elizabethan Virginal music to works of living composers.  He enjoys a solo and chamber career that has taken him across the globe, performing in many of the world’s most prestigious venues and festivals, including the Wigmore Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room in London, the Rachmaninoff and Gnessin Halls in Moscow, the Carnegie Hall’s Weill Hall in New York, as many others throughout the world.  Winning a scholarship to the Purcell School of Music where he became head boy, and later completed his studies with Vladimir Ovchinnikov and Peter Feuchtwanger. Please visit his website for discography. 

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

#48 John Dawson: Professional piano accompanist

Programme Note from John Dawson's Bedford Festival Vexations performance
... what I discovered was that I was not bored at any time during the 19 hours of playing. It was absolutely fascinating all the time ...

“Although there’s a certain constituency of people interested in Satie’s Vexations, most people you talk to about this piece think it’s mad! I’ve been lecturing on 20th Century music to residents of Bedford Retirement Education Centre and when I told them about the Satie work I was met with very puzzled faces. They asked me why on earth anyone would want to play the same short piece of music 840 times in one sitting lasting 19 hours …

In fact I’ve performed Vexations twice. I had been interested for a while but it’s almost impossible to find a concert venue interested in staying open all night. The opportunity arose when I was a lecturer at London College of Dance and Drama and I discovered that the students were going to have a 24 hour sit-in, meaning the building would have to stay open round the clock. This was exactly at the same time as reports coming in about the Ethiopian famine that prompted Bob Geldof to organise Live Aid. So I played Vexations through the night and raised a few hundred pounds for Live Aid. But I played so fast it only lasted 12 hours instead of 19, and even worse, I found out several years later by examining the five bar charts recording the number of repeats that my support team had made a mistake and I probably only played the piece 836 times instead of 840 …. but as I ended up marrying one of the people who had been counting I forgave her! We’re still married after 30 years so something must have gone right.

That was a fairly informal performance in a small music room with people wandering in and out, including a very confused caretaker. There were people there who were so culturally divorced from what we were doing that there was no point in trying to explain ..! 

That was almost a dry run for the real thing because ten years later I was invited to perform for the Bedford Music Festival. I couldn’t find a suitable piano on which to perform a traditional classical recital. When I found out that the venue was prepared to stay open all night I decided to do Vexations again. This was in 1997 and being before the days of the Internet, we couldn’t find any evidence that the piece had been performed anywhere in the world by one person. We invited the Guinness Book of Records but they weren’t interested, they missed the point because the actual piece to be repeated is very short. Of course nowadays, ten minutes on the Internet will show you that Richard Toop performed it in 1967, but in the late 1990s it was much harder to research things like this. There were one or two accounts of people who’d tried and failed.  For example there was an Australian pianist who abandoned the performance after 593 repetitions saying the music was “evil” - I suspect that had more to do with his own demons rather than anything intrinsic in the music. But so few people were attempting the work, it really was an underground activity. 

I thought it would be good to put on a straightforward concert of it, so that’s what we did. Everything this time was designed so I could concentrate solely on the music. I had a manager and counters were in place to keep count in relays. I was as military as I could be to make sure that everything would go right so that once I sat down I would concentrate solely on the music. I didn’t make any serious mistakes (and my planning was good so I didn’t have to stop for a toilet break at any time). 

I’ve always been patient and I was very curious to see if I could actually do it.  There is an egotistical element in every performer, but I was also really interested in seeing what effect a performance of this type would have on me. And what I discovered was that I was not bored at any time during the 19 hours of playing. It was absolutely fascinating all the time. For the first dozen repetitions I just bedding in; it’s such an awkward, difficult piece to play that I was scared of making mistakes. So I was making sure I was playing the right notes, that my body posture was comfortable, I was concentrating as if I was in a Grade exam. After around an hour I started to move into another state. I supposed it’s similar to being carried away by a Mozart slow movement for example; you do go ‘somewhere else’ but it’s a strange paradox: you think you’re being carried away but in reality you cannot let go because if you did, your technique would vanish. For much of the time I felt a sense of timelessness. I had an awareness that I was producing a monotonous hum, but even though I wasn’t thinking of other things, my mind was somewhere else. This took place in a big old church in Bedford called St Pauls, with its cavernous space and big stained glass windows, a magical atmosphere, especially in the middle of the night. The audience numbers fluctuated during the performance but I did notice that a handful people sat there for several hours. 

Now, I’m sure Satie meant this as a joke, he couldn’t possibly have intended anyone to play this 840 times. If you look at the score there are inconsistencies that don’t make sense. He tells you to 'present' the bass theme at the sign, but the sign occurs twice, at the beginning and at the end, so what does that mean? I think it’s supposed to be a paradox, un-performable, and he’d probably be laughing at people who try to perform it. But, like any joke, you can call his bluff and see what happens. It’s had an effect far beyond the quixotic joke that he possibly had in mind. 

And as a piece, there’s something about the sheer pointlessness and aimlessness of the chords. They are all diminished triads, or augmented triads; all very carefully calculated to give a sense of senselessness. There isn’t really a beginning or an end. Ironically, it is peculiarly suited to a piece that you play 840 times. You may think any piece would do, but this is just about the best piece that you could choose to play 840 times - so in that sense it is a successful composition, it’s the change that the repetition brings about in the listener’s mind that’s interesting.

The audience experiences were vastly different. Some people were puzzled. One of my friends - a Hindu - sat entranced for well over an hour in the middle of the night and later told me that he had found the whole experience incredibly powerful and relaxing almost like religious meditation.

I do feel that this music has the power to transform the listener. The closest music I know to Vexations is Plainsong that you find in a monastery; monotonous but not boring – and capable of producing a truly transformative experience in the listener who engages with it on their own terms.” (John Dawson was talking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence Lola Perrin)


Wednesday, 6 July 2016

#47 Lorraine Liyanage: Concert Harpsichordist, Piano Teacher and Dulwich Music Festival founder

Just because you don't win doesn't mean you don't give up

"I run a private piano teaching studio in East Dulwich, South London and was sending my students far away to Croydon and Bromley to take part in music festivals.  I dont drive and it was always difficult for me to get to there so it occurred to me that I should set up on my own festival.  In 2012, I founded the Dulwich Music Festival for my students, and for other local students and piano teachers. The festival started as a small-scale once a year event but has now grown to around 5 events a year and is part of the Federation of British and International Festivals.

The festival is an opportunity to feature most keyboard instruments from piano to fortepiano to harpsichord, and we may include the organ in the future.  The aims are to introduce young musicians to primarily historical instruments and also to have competitive piano classes.  We encourage contemporary music which provides the young musicians with the opportunity to meet the composers who wrote the music they’re playing. Weve just had our fifth annual piano competition this June and already have the date in the diary for next year’s event at Dulwich College which will be adjudicated by James Kirby.

We also run the Broadwood Horniman Harpsichord Competition which is the only harpsichord competition of its kind in the UK and so theres a lot of demand for it, with competitors coming from across Europe for last year’s event.

Our newest event is the Clementi Junior Piano Competition which had its inaugural event in March 2016. Whilst researching local Dulwich history, I found a connection with Muzio Clementi’s former home on Kensington Church Street which was previously owned by Dulwich Schools JAGs and Alleyn’s School in the 19th century.  When I discovered this piece of local history I thought it was great connection for the Dulwich Music Festival and I contacted Clementi House to establish a new event. Competitors perform set pieces by Clementi on a modern grand piano; the next competition is in February 2017 and entries are already open.

Of course, not everyone wants to compete.  I have colleagues who don’t enter their students into competitions and there are also parents of some of my students who do not want their children to participate in competitive events so we always include non-competitive classes. These provide the opportunity to receive feedback and it’s also great preparation for exams as it helps to combat the nerves by performing in public. 

I personally dont mind competitions; I took part in competitions such as the Ealing Festival regularly as a child so Im used to them and consider them a rite of passage for young musicians. Being at ease with playing to an audience developed my confidence with public speaking which is a skill that I regularly use now when performing as a harpsichordist and also as the festival director.  I didn’t win any competitions but I enjoyed the experience and also the excitement of performing - and it was a fantastic way to hear new repertoire before the days of YouTube and Spotify! In fact, the only time I remember “winning” is when I played in a class of two and I came second!  I was around 17 years old.  It didnt put me off. Just because you dont win doesnt mean you give up.

When I perform I love to play contemporary music.  Recently I performed music by the Australian composer Stephen Yates.  The composition, written in the 1990s, is based on a Baroque Fandango.  A wonderful aspect of performing contemporary music is that you can get in touch with the composer and ask what was in their mind when they were composing. This piece has a macabre character and goes into some very dark places so I asked the composer all about it and he provided me with fascinating information about the background to the piece. The music is about someone who wandered into a castle on his travels where he stumbled upon a crowd of people dancing at a ball. He is invited to dance in the fandango and suddenly it turns sinister and the dancers start swirling around him and drawing him into their ghoulish embrace.  I’ve also recently discovered the music of Greek composer Nikolas Sideris that I performed at a recent harpsichord recital.

One of my other passions is the music of Haydn played on the harpsichord. I am fortunate enough to have access to a Kirckman harpsichord built in 1772 that resides at the Horniman Museum and Gardens where I have performed several times. This instrument is ideal for the music of Haydn and I have a lot of Haydn programmed for 2017 recitals.

Im attracted by the repertoire and also by the harpsichord community which is very welcoming and mutually supportive.  And you tend to end up playing in amazing places; beautiful old buildings always seem to surround the harpsichord world.  Not long ago I was in the Museu da Música in Lisbon. To one side is the tube station and the other side is an amazing museum underground.  I went there just to try the instrument but it ended up being an audition so I look forward to playing there in the near future.  Another interesting place where I recently performed is The Asylum Chapel in Peckham.  This is a Grade II listed building created for retired pub landlords that was bombed in the war.  Although the whole of the inside was destroyed the stained glass windows stayed intact. The acoustics are wonderful and it makes for some stunning photos.  I had a very diverse audience for this concert and all ages came as well, it was fantastic, I think its what we call the South London effect!" (Lorraine Liyanage was speaking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence Lola Perrin)

To find out more about many of the events listed above, please visit Dulwich Music Festival

Upcoming harpsichord recitals are listed online