Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?
I have never seen playing the piano as a ‘career’; rather I started enjoying a life with music when my parents had the foresight to purchase a ‘cottage’ Pleyel piano for nineteen shillings. It had beautiful veneer inlay, brass candlesticks and a soundboard that could only cope with a pitch of A 430. This piano was a playground for improvisation and storytelling during a pretty easy-going childhood: a country school just down the road, plenty of woodlands to explore and sports facilities attached to my parents’ workplace. Music was always a natural part of life and I was lucky enough to be assessed by Gordon Jacob at the age of six for a bursary that provided lesson fees and assisted in the purchase of a really good Welmar piano.
We lived in a tiny semi-detached house and I felt particularly sorry for my family and neighbours who had to endure my doodling at the keyboard and, much later, large scale ‘noise’, such as produced by hard work on Brahms’ Concerto in D minor. My neighbour retaliated by playing Fur Elise – every day!
The first concert I attended was following a masterclass given by Sidney Harrison. He was full of amusing stories and played really popular repertoire with great care and taste (I heard him years later and I was pleased to note that his Liszt Liebestraum was really excellent). The next concert was supposed to be given by Clifford Curzon but ill health necessitated his replacement by John Ogdon (this must have been around 1969) with a typical programme of Beethoven’s final two sonatas, Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, the Schumann Toccata and Balakirev’s Islamey.
On the radio there were musical encounters with Antony Hopkins (‘Talking about Music’), Semprini’s ‘Serenade’ – and Reginald Dixon on the cinema organ from Blackpool. Favourite early recordings included Serkin, Cyril Smith (playing the Dohnanyi Variations), Wilhelm Kempff, Solomon, Rostal and Schaefer, Eileen Joyce and The Beatles. Oh yes – I nearly forgot Danny Kaye.
Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?
My teachers. I cannot stress too much how important it is to have a really good start. There could have been none better than Jean Murphy, who combined great thoroughness with excitable inspiration (singing, dancing, trying to get my shoulders down and collapsing in giggles – what more could a young pupil want?)
Jean had studied with Phyllis Sellick and I was extremely fortunate to learn with her from around eleven years old for about a decade. An amazing artist, who took exceptional pains with preparation, tone, complete understanding of the music, a rich comprehension of how the body worked: I use her inspiration every single day. In addition, her memories of Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninoff, Bertrand Russell, the Sitwells, Solomon Cutner, Curzon – an apparently golden age – provided constant stimulus. When I was tiring from our long lessons, she would take me into the drawing room to listen to Horowitz’s left hand in Scarlatti or Scriabin, ‘Louis’ (Kentner) in Liszt, Rosalyn (Tureck) in Bach – a whole host of musicians that she seemed to either adore or know very well. Rosalyn Tureck was at the house on one visit and generously helped me with some Bach. Phyllis certainly gave me a sense of what musical Britain must have been like fifty years earlier: on one occasion, after we had worked on the Brahms D minor, she looked out the window and said that in the old days she would have phoned Henry Wood to see whether he would hear me. I am still waiting for the Proms to call……
After Phyllis came two more important teachers. John Barstow remains a strong friend and his gift was to broaden one’s appreciation of music and build confidence. Together we saw my first Parsifals (Reginald Goodall), Mahler Symphony of a Thousand (Pritchard), Alexander Nevsky (Rostropovich), Shostakovich String Quartet cycle (the Borodin Quartet) etc. All stirred into the mix of a love and respect for piano playing that was ultimately much ‘bigger’ than merely being a pianist. I believe it was Arrau who said that it was necessary to be ‘at least a virtuoso’ and John incorporated model playing with a wide range of musical images. We had very few lessons – but they were supplemented by discussions and shared musical experiences.
The last teacher was at a summer school in Nice in 1983. I was there courtesy of the Anglo-French Society, the first Perlemuter Scholar. The lessons were taken in the class of Dominique Merlet, a concise and accurate teacher who had the gift of the utmost support combined with the ability to demonstrate to an astonishing level. He was an example of what was possible, what was essential in terms of ability, knowledge and the craft to consider a life in music.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Pianistically, everything remains impossibly difficult and, ultimately, relatively easy. The music of Schubert and Beethoven remains my central marker – and everything they wrote appears to be frantically challenging and yet so completely natural, so human. The late sonatas of both of these masters provide constant challenges, opportunities to develop, but their early works, chamber music, song and miscellaneous pieces provide similar nutrition. It is as if their vision is in their musical DNA and that the explicit mysteries of the late works are implicit in every phrase of their lifetime’s work.
One of the biggest challenges of recent years has been my work on the music of Jan Vriend. Having heard me play the Beethoven ‘Cello Sonatas with the wonderful Alexander Baillie, Jan set about writing a bouquet of astonishing pieces for me. It is no exaggeration to equate this achievement with the late flowering in Debussy’s compositional life. Music of such vigour, virtuosity and concentration, it has really made me dig deep to cope with its complex language and strive to do justice to its amazing message. Having played Anatomy of Passion with Alexander Baillie, I am now benefitting from the process from preparing performances with my daughter Joy – she has grown up hearing Vriend’s music and appears to have absorbed it by osmosis. With Imagine the Mountain premiered with violinist Paul Barritt, JOY (written for ‘guess who?’), I have been amazingly blessed – and challenged. On top of this, my simple request for a piano triptych to emulate a set of Debussy’s Images or a book of Albeniz’s Iberia, resulted in the astonishing Meden Agan, with its exuberant ‘Erotica’ movement. I loved taking ‘Erotica’ to the Amsterdam Concertgebouw for my fiftieth birthday series – but this is music to build into the repertoire and live with for many years. Thank you Jan!
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
This is a very difficult one. I am permanently upbeat about my concerts (I enjoy performing immensely) – but also extremely critical. They are never ‘good enough’ but, at the same time, my vanity or standards are not what they are about – they are events for audience and performer alike; it’s ‘about the music’.
Given that caveat, I recently heard some live playing from the late 80’s on Classic FM (an early Performer’s Platform kind of programme with Petroc Trelawny, and performed on a Boston piano and surrounded by office desks and computer screensavers). It was a set of Rachmaninoff transcriptions (Bach, Kreisler, Bizet and the like), and I was rather proud that I managed to deliver adequately in not the most glamorous of circumstances. That it was Rachmaninoff makes me extra proud as he is a composer of whom I am particularly fond.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I remember playing in the Ateneul Roman in Bucharest, one year after the end of Ceausescu. A Christmas concert – one of the first in many years – and I was playing Mozart K 488. The orchestra, amazing hall and spirit of the audience crystallised a remarkable musical experience.
St George’s in Bristol is one of the United Kingdom’s best halls for the kind of music I play (along with the Arts Centre in Stamford – a gem!)
I also love non-standard and small halls. I have played almost one hundred and seventy times at the little concert hall at the Hindhead Music Centre (on the remarkable Steinway that dropped from the Covent Garden stage) and I regularly play at the Mosterdzaadje in Santpoort–Noord, the Netherlands – a model of how a modest hall can be run simply, beautifully and with great warmth, providing music within a quiet suburb. No public subsidy, and no cuts.
When one can add the library at Wittem, the Palau de la Musica Catalana, Studio Music in Brightlingsea, my series at the Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham etc I think I can say that I have completely failed to answer your question!
Who are your favourite musicians?
Well, there are many pianists but Gould, Arrau and Richter seem to be on a different level from the rest. After that, I would not want to be without Cherkassky, Tureck, Sokolov and special performances from the likes of Horowitz, Haskil, Ogdon and many more. I heard Ernest Levy recently and I thought his Beethoven and Liszt to be some of the most affecting and remarkable performances I have heard in many years.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
The Borodin Quartet playing the final two Shostakovich Quartets perhaps, or the awe-inspiring Richter playing Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis in the Grange de Meslay. I was also lucky enough to visit Bayreuth………and then there are the performances that one comes across by so called ‘amateur’ pianists at summer schools or suchlike: little glimpses of heaven, pure music making, generously given.
In terms of my own performance, however, I have one choice: the Bremen ‘Konzert im Dunkeln’ Schubert recital I gave to raise money for stroke rehabilitation and to commemorate the centenary of Phyllis Sellick. This was at the fabulous Bremen Sendesaal – a venue that has a remarkable series of concerts that are given in the complete (and utter!) darkness. I will never forget coming out onto the stage to give my recital, the lights dimmed and the packed audience very excited by the novel idea. As the switch was thrown on the lights, plunging us into an all-enveloping black, the audience gasped as if they were at a fairground. It was a lesson to me in reaching out with music, without professional vanity and, on a practical level, how it is inner hearing that enables us to perform accurately and reliably rather than any visual cues.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Returning to my opening idea of not having a career, I also would advise musicians not to ‘aspire’. It is more a case of finding a way to live with this remarkable music, to enjoy and, if possible, to share it. Whether it is helping a small person to play First Tune by Barbara Kirkby Mason, my continuing struggles with Beethoven’s late sonatas or playing chamber music with colleagues, I can only advise that we enjoy the process.
If I read the question in terms of those who wish to dedicate a large proportion of their time to music (and even, on occasions, use it to pay the mortgage) then the advice is to spread as wide as possible. Improvise, compose, explore, teach, read, remain curious – and make your own mistakes. The cult of the teacher is not one that I subscribe to – try to build your own musical life, way of playing, whatever, from one’s own personality. Recently a wise friend said that he felt that Cherkassky’s great talent was to play every note entirely true to himself.
Oh yes – if you are going to depend upon music for a living, be prepared to work insanely hard, keep as fit as possible and it helps to have extremely good ‘chops’! (fingers!)
As a musician, how do you define “success”?
Success can mean all manner of things.
These days – and to paraphrase a recent BBC satire – a measure of success for me in performance means playing ‘more music, fewer times, better.’ I have created bucket lists of works that I need to explore and I am afraid that the result is a task that would fill at least two lifetimes.
I am prepared, however, to be surprised. Surprised by how the events of my life, my researches, the inspiration of other musicians could open new doors for me – and rewrite my list. As well as studying new works, revisiting music, refracting it through decades of experience is a particularly exciting activity; it can be hugely enlightening both in what has improved – and also in what is now unsuitable.
Success also comes in seeing music refreshed and rethought through my daughters. Joy and Emma are extraordinary musicians, and I constantly have to stretch to see how they – and their generation – look at things that could easily be taken for granted. Staying on track with an artistic pursuit within the often conflicting environment of commercial interest and superficial media agendas, is not an undertaking to take lightly. Their discoveries and solutions stimulate me to look again at what is desirable and possible.
Increasingly, I am measuring success in empowering adult pianists to take charge of their music, to give it priority within their busy lives and have the confidence and skills to explore as artists rather than as eternal musical submissives. Their curiosity (often enriched by their life experiences and professional skills) provides invaluable insights and significant benefits to themselves, their families, to me. I hope that it is not too ingenuous to hope that it provides benefits for society
James Lisney has launched a new series of summer piano courses in France. More information
[Original interview date: 12 September 2013, updated December 2018]