Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and pursue a career in music?
There was a piano at home (actually, there were two pianos, at one point three pianos, but that had more to do with my parents hoarding things in general rather than any family obsession with music). My mother taught beginners the piano most evenings of the week, and my older sister played, and I remember that the sound of the piano was omnipresent in the house and became a focus for my attention. I begged and begged to have lessons from about the age of 4, but my mother quite sensibly waited until my 5th birthday before I was allowed to start, with a local teacher called Olivia Lee who has since sadly passed away (she was actually very good friends with Ruth Gerald, though I didn’t know that until much, much later).
From early childhood, I remember being fascinated by the TV programmes of Ashkenazy that seemed to be on all the time – I especially loved the live video of him playing Chopin’s Etude Op.10 No.1 from the Christopher Nupen film (and also the Beethoven Bagatelle in B minor). I had a VHS (and a Betamax) of this film and watched it several times… It seemed like quite a fun way to spend your life, and I remember idly telling my mother that I was going to be a concert pianist when I grew up. She told me that I would have to do 8 hours of practice a day for several years, but this seemed totally ridiculous; it never occurred to me to worry about whether being a pianist was in any way a sensible or realistic choice, it’s always been what I’ve wanted to do. I remember when she bought me my first two piano LPs – Favourite Chopin (Ashkenazy) and Jazz Club (with some kick-ass Oscar Peterson on it that completely mesmerised me). My father had given me an LP player when I was 4, and I had inherited a lot of records from my grandparents that I used to really enjoy listening to, as well as my sister’s pop records.
My grandparents loved Chopin, and had cassette tapes of Małcużyński and Bunin that they played quite often when I was at their house. I was always a quick reader, and voraciously devoured any sheet music that came anywhere near me; I remember looking through the scores at Southampton Central Library to try and find the hardest and most unusual music I could – that element of challenge that is thrown-up by composers pushing possibilities, developing their aesthetic, has always been a real motivation to me.
In 1988 we had a family trip to Poland, driving all the way in a Volkswagen camper van to Wrocław to visit my grandmother’s sister and her children and grandchildren. We went to the music shop in the Main Square in Kraków, and my father bought the complete works of Chopin for me (Paderewski edition) for about £2.50 – and another copy for my teacher at the time (Kathleen Borland) who was delighted to receive it. We went again 2 years later and were surprised by how quickly things had changed. Already at that stage I remember contemplating some very strong connections between my music making and my understanding of self. Chopin’s music represented, to me, my grandparents not being able to return to Poland in the aftermath of WWII. My experiences of listening to Chopin intermingled with my experiences of listening to my grandparents’ stories about life before coming to Britain, and led to my first efforts to understand political and cultural issues in what seemed at the time to be a rapidly changing world. I have always experienced music in this way – I know that some other musicians view music as a form of entertainment that allows the audience to escape from life, but this approach doesn’t work for me. Ever since I can remember, music has been, for want of better words, a fascination or perhaps even a compulsion – something that demands devotion and further exploration precisely because it provides us with a way to understand our lives differently (not escape from them).
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I don’t feel that I can really answer this question. When I stop to think about it, it seems as if everyone and everything has been an important influence. My parents certainly gave me their full support to follow music as a career, and were always at my side through thick and thin. I’ve had a number of very supportive teachers – Olivia Lee, Kathleen Borland, Gwilym Stacey, Anthony Green, Douglas Finch and Jane Coop – who have all influenced me considerably. God knows I haven’t been an easy student!!!!!! I don’t know how they coped with me at times, but I’m very grateful that they did. There have been many other role models, too, those who have told me about their own lives, approaches to music, methods of practising etc. – Chris Caine, Phil Colman, Cristine Croshaw, Corey Hamm, John Henry, Philip Fowke, Doreen Oke, Ken Paige, Yonty Solomon, John Thomas, Martino Tirimo, Simon Young, Marc-André Hamelin, many more! (Who have I forgotten to list? This is terrifying!!) And also my many, many collaborators – I learn from them on a daily basis.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Looking back, I can’t really think of anything that could be described as a ‘greatest challenge’, nothing that dramatic. Alternately, I would say that every piece, every concert is a great challenge – the life of a working musician is endless problem-solving, with each solution only leading to new problems/issues to address. In a way, every moment is a great challenge, as you’re always reaching for a perfection that can never be achieved (though at times you can surprise yourself when things seem to come together and become better than you expected they could be). There have been times when I’ve had to do a ludicrous amount of work in a short space of time, but you soon learn not to put yourself through that again (at least, I’m beginning to learn that I shouldn’t put myself through that again). The omnipresent challenge in my career is to stop myself from getting involved in too many projects at the same time! I tend to be very enthusiastic, and it’s a challenge to keep a lid on this at times. This aspect of my personality was a major frustration to all my teachers, without exception.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I’m proud of all my recordings, but I don’t really know which ones I should be proud of – I’ll let other people decide that. While I was listening to the takes from my first ever recording session, I realised that my opinion regarding what was good or not depended entirely on what mood I was in; ever since then I’ve abandoned any real attempts at judging my achievements objectively. I have my own personal ambitions – to play a phrase in a particular way, to create a cohesive interpretation, to nail a really difficult passage – but I would describe these as leading to satisfaction rather than pride. In my mind, pride only leads to complacency, so I avoid pride wherever possible; satisfaction is okay, pride is unnecessarily egotistical.
And now to contradict myself… in terms of performances, memorising the Jolivet Flute Sonata (to perform with Wissam Boustany) stands out as being a very difficult task that required a lot of time; that was a bit of an Everest. I took it on because I had the appetite for the challenge and the time to commit to preparing for it. Giving the premiere of the Rzewski Piano Trio, after two other professional trios had given up on it, was a proud moment, especially when Fred gave his approval – he told me to stop playing so many right notes and to go and smoke a spliff! We had absolutely slaved over that piece, so that was a rare moment when I was happy and not at all guilty to feel proud!
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I honestly have no idea. I know which works I find technically easier, which composers’ works I can memorise extremely quickly, and which works give me less problems in terms of perceiving the overall structure… but this doesn’t mean that I play them well! Sometimes I feel that it’s the opposite, a struggle with a piece often makes you try harder, whereas feeling that you are in a comfort zone can create coasting. I remember my last teacher, Jane Coop, would often say to me, ‘Stop coasting!!!’, as I played to her (needless to say she was always absolutely right!) As a piece becomes more familiar and easier to play, it’s dangerously tempting to think that you have it all under control, and straight-away the performance can become a rather light-weight, vapid rendition.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
There is so much music to play, so many pieces that I love, that I often start by asking the promoter(s) what they would like me to play. If it’s something that I don’t want to do then I say so – with the piano there are so many other options that there’s never been an issue (yet) with finding a suitable alternative. I’ve yet to have a piece forced upon me. Of course, you often grow to like a piece by working on it, which is what happened with the Beethoven Triple Concerto – I could only understand this piece after having learnt the piano part and given a performance with my trio.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I don’t think that I do… To me, the venue is not something that I explicitly enjoy. When preparing for a concert, I do my practise and create my interpretations, go to the venue, then deal with the situation that I find there. I enjoy playing in different places, on different pianos, to different people and embrace all of these variables as part of the experience of the concert. Playing under ‘perfect conditions’ is a bit of a chimera; some great performances have been given seemingly against all odds, while at other times having everything in its place has not resulted in anything particularly special. Concerts are like parties – you never know in advance whether it’s going to be one of the great ones; you simply do what you can beforehand to put the odds in your favour.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
This is a much easier question to answer – at last!! Most of my work is in presenting first performances, as it’s a great joy to bring something into the world for the first time. In non-contemporary repertoire, I especially like piano parts that can be interpreted successfully in many different ways, so that when I sit down to start I see several clear paths open to me that I can choose as the performance develops. I like being able to improvise my interpretation, to some degree. With some pieces, for one reason or another, there are not so many options; often it’s because it’s been written to have a very specific interpretative approach, other times because you hit upon a winning formula and it’s difficult (unnecessarily risky, or perhaps too egotistical) to move away from it; these pieces are still incredible, and still enjoyable to perform, but not so much as those which appear to be endlessly flexible and can be adapted on a whim. Works that come to mind include: Franck Sonata, Prokofiev Flute Sonata, Dutilleux Sonatine, Chopin Fantasie-Polonaise Op.61, anything by Schumann!!. Runswick’s Third Sonata has been deliberately written to explore this aspect, as has a lot of Rzewski’s music. The Scriabin Fantasy is a very satisfying piece to play, I get the feeling that Scriabin was completely in love with the physical feeling of playing the piano when he wrote that piece.
To listen to… this has the potential to be a very long section. In general, I love the sound of dodecaphonic music. I remember being introduced to Webern during music A-Level, and thinking that it seemed very ‘right’; for the next 6 months I wrote a lot of music in this style!! I also absolutely love listening to electronic/electro-acoustic music. I relate completely to Schaeffer’s and Cage’s comments about listening to/enjoying sound – I find it quite liberating to be able to focus on timbre in this way.
Who are your favourite musicians?
In terms of pianists living today, I hugely admire the approaches that Krystian Zimerman and Arcadi Volodos have developed towards the instrument. In terms of those who are no longer with us, I am most moved by Rubinstein, Horszowski, Małcużynski, Cziffra and Richter. A couple of months ago, someone gave me a tape of Richter playing the Blumenstück by Schumann, live in Sweden in the 1970s (recorded off the radio); the artistry in that performance was simply jaw-dropping. I thought that I knew that piece rather well, but listening to this interpretation was a rather humbling experience.
In terms of non-pianists in the classical tradition, I am very fond of the violinist Henryk Szeryng. I also love the live recording of Francescati and Fournier playing the Brahms’ Double Concerto.
Other than that, I have hundreds of LPs and CDs, and even more digital files from the pre-streaming age that would demonstrate that I like almost all music. It’s very hard to pick some of these over others – I love Tropicalia music, Busoni Doktor Faust, everything by Messiaen, Elgar, Stravinsky, Elliot Carter, Hindemith, Led Zeppelin, the indie music of my youth as well as pretty much anything from the 1980s, Szymanowski, Frescobaldi, Lutosławski, Korngold, Dutilleux, Strozzi, Fauré, Berio,… I’ve never warmed to country music – that horrible jangly guitar sound and cutesy vocal style puts me right off (I like The Byrds, but that’s as near as I can get).
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Playing the Messiaen Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine with the Torino Opera House Orchestra, in Torino, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Cardinal’s ordination, to an invitation-only audience of Italian clergy. It was quite an occasion! The first half was the Poulenc Organ Concerto with David Titerrington, and the conductor was Jan Latham-Koening. I also really enjoyed getting to play the Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto with the UBC Symphony Orchestra after winning the concerto competition there; that’s a really fun piece to play. I also remember playing a trio concert at The Space in Docklands when there was only one person in the audience (David Harman of course!) and on another occasion, being booked to accompany a violinist at a lunchtime concert in London at which no-one turned up! (We still played, and someone came half-way through and stayed to the end).
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I think that, first and foremost, music is a vocation. In order to devote your life to music you need to feel called to it, to feel that life without it would be wrong. Once that decision is made, of course you need to be wise and realistic and strategic with how you use your time and your efforts, to make the most of your talent and your hard work, but I do believe that no amount of marketing or business nous can really replace whether you actually love music or not. What saddens me most of all is when students try to take a short cut; they are under enormous pressure to do so – there are multiple demands on their time, they have been given the illusion of a short time frame in which to succeed, and of course, they have this counter-productive exam ‘what’s my grade?’ mentality thrown at them throughout their secondary education. If your musical development is led by the joy of self-discovery then you will be much happier and you will certainly progress very fast.
The other really important concept is NOT TO COMPARE YOURSELF TO OTHER PEOPLE. I say to my students that they are the best (and only) person in the world at being themselves, and their job is to be the best they can be at being themselves. With the piano, your physicality and your personality becomes your expression at the instrument. If you refine this it becomes a very powerful expressive force, as made manifest through the repertoire. Being inspired by others is great, examining the technique and sound of others is great, but actually trying to be like someone else is a real non-starter.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I’d be happy doing what I do now. Hopefully having made time to learn and play some more of the big, complicated pieces that take time to absorb. There are a couple of pieces that I haven’t performed yet that I really want to, including the Turangalila Symphonie and the Ligeti Piano Concerto. There are also a stack of pieces composed for me that I haven’t been able to programme yet, and many unfinished composition projects.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
That’s a rather troublesome concept – that’s like saying, ‘What is your idea of ‘infinity?’ I suppose, in a way, all happiness is perfect. Anyway, I can’t write an answer to this question that’s worth reading.
What is your most treasured possession?
I try very hard not to treasure possessions – I don’t want to be a hoarder like my parents – but I do still have my grandfather’s dressing gown, and a photo of him wearing it while holding me as a baby. I would be upset if something happened to that, but I also remember once, when I was living in a flat in Stepney, my father was round visiting and I dropped and smashed an old cup that had belonged to my Grandma that I had kept as a ‘treasured possession’. I was distraught! But my father said – ‘Aleks, it’s only a cup!’ And he was right – all this stuff is pretty meaningless. The only things that really matter to me are my family and my pets (1 cat and 1 snake) – but of course, they are not my possessions.
What do you enjoy doing most?
I am interested in many, many things – too many things, in fact – so I’m fortunate in that there are a great many things that I enjoy doing. At this time of year, I really enjoy spending time at my allotment. I have two plots and manage to grow enough veg for us and also several friends who live nearby. A good bout of digging is a very good way to clear the mind after a practice session!
I would also say that I’ve always felt most at peace when hanging out with composers. I feel much more ‘with my tribe’ in that context than when I’m with a gang of pianists.
What is your present state of mind?
I’m finishing this off while on a delayed flight, coming back from Sicily, sitting next to Wissam Boustany. We’ve just given three days of classes in Catania, and a concert in Barcelona, on a BEAUTIFUL Ibach piano, which brings us back to the first answer in this interview. Before this concert, the last Ibach piano that I had played on was one of the three pianos in my parents’ house. It later traveled with me to London, but I’m afraid it had to go into retirement after a year of merciless practising of Stravinsky’s piano concerto! A chap called Colin bought it for his collection of pianos in Cornwall (I think he had about 90 of them at the time…)
Aleksander Szram will perform the premiere of Daryl Runswick’s ‘Concerto for Piano and Nine Instruments’ in a gala concert celebrating the composer’s 70th birthday at Cadogan Hall on Tuesday 6 June 2017, with i Solisti di Londra, conducted by Daryl Runswick. Further information here