A busy summer

Once again I find that work has overtaken my blogging efforts. This summer was a taxing one, with a series of challenging projects. One of the most time-consuming was an innocuous lecture on improvisation I agreed to give at the Edinburgh Festival. It's a subject I feel strongly about, but trying to put my ideas into coherent form was like wrestling eels and took many more days than I expected. Before that, I had played a very unusual Rhapsody in Blue at the Festival conducted by Gunther Schuller, one of the most influential American musicians of the last 100 years (he straddled the classical and jazz worlds, and was at the forefront of experiments to bring them closer together). His ideas about the piece were largely concerned with getting rid of the Hollywood-style glitz and brashness you often hear, and restoring it to the dimensions of a chamber work, elegance replacing volume. It was a real shock for us all at first, but I went as far as I could towards his views, figuring here was a chance to really hear something new, and the result was quite beautiful.

Just before that, in early August, I had a wonderful but busy time in Aspen, playing recital, concerto and chamber music concerts in four days. That is one of the most heavenly places I've ever been to: incredible hiking, great food, and of course a top-notch music festival. Here's the view just 45 minutes walk (mainly up!) from the edge of town.

I've rarely been happier to receive a re-invitation.

Certainly the trickiest part of the summer came at the end, playing Rachmaninov 1st piano concerto at the Proms soon followed by 3 days recording Ravel. The prom was more stressful than usual because I had played the piece a few days previously in Belfast and had a couple of memory lapses which quite badly affected my confidence. After some thought, I decided to use the music in London. In classical music circles, there is a slight disapproval of performers, particularly pianists, using the music (I've heard that some British music colleges stipulate that solo piano exams be played from memory, for example, probably as a reaction to the stigma). Memory is a strange business - when you are relaxed everything flows easily but once you start to doubt it it can feel like turning off a tap (witness the people on TV game shows who say it's so much easier to answer the questions at home). I think there's just no point in adding needless anxiety to a performance, so I have little hesitation in using the music when I feel I need it (normally modern music), but then I'm lucky to already have an established career. How much harder for someone starting out, who maybe struggles with memory, feeling they need to try to 'make a good impression' by playing without music. It's quite cruel when you think about it, particularly when it's over something so irrelevant. Sviatoslav Richter played for years before his death only with the music. I can't think of any good reason for forcing people to play from memory that outweighs the stress it causes. In a state of anxiety one cannot properly access the rest of one's emotions; that in turn inhibits one's ability to communicate through the music.

And so finally to Ravel. In the middle of September I recorded the final installment of my complete survey of his piano music: Gaspard de la Nuit, La Valse, and Miroirs. The experience was both wonderful and terrible, to be honest; all Ravel's music requires so much concentration that by the middle of the second day I was already exhausted. But Andrew Keener, that most sympathetic of recording producers, helped me along with some good psychology and TLC, and in the end I felt excited that I'd managed to capture quite well what I want to say with the music. This is the most stressful part of it, to know you have something of great beauty and intensity to say with the music, but fearing you may not be able to communicate it: maybe because you become too tired, or because there is a problem with the piano, or you can't relax, or a house alarm ruined the best take, or the hall roof keeps creaking, or any number of other things which might interfere. So to finish a recording and feel that you have honoured both the composer and your own feelings about the music is always a cause for great satisfaction.