Fantasy Piano Recital

As a piano student, I was never taught to memorise music – in my ignorance, I think I just assumed that it was something which you could either do or you couldn’t, and since I couldn’t, I didn’t. I suspect that I was also guilty of going to piano recitals  and singularly failing to observe what I now believe to be an extraordinary feat, that of memorising a whole recital programme with apparent ease. This, coupled with the equally extraordinary technical and musical mastery which the world’s finest pianists also command, makes me wonder whether the sharing out of gifts sometimes seems a little unfair!

With this in mind, a recent article in The New York Times, which suggests that playing with the score is more acceptable these days, couldn’t have come at a worse time for me! For me, being a real pianist means all of the above, and having just discovered (okay, perhaps a little late in life!) that actually I can memorise, I don’t need to hear just now that maybe it’s not so important after all.

Learning to memorise is difficult, and requires a methodical approach with reference to the technical, aural, harmonic and visual, to name just a few of the many strands which come together to form a system which is utterly reliable. Plus determination, self-belief, perseverance, time and a great deal of hard work. I am not for a moment suggesting that pianists who play with the music are not able to convey great musicianship; it’s just that I am looking for that artistic freedom which comes from knowing the score completely. And if it proves difficult? I’ll find a way, but can’t is not an option for me. [link here to an excellent blog by Mel Spanswick on the same subject.]

In order to force my own arm on the issue, I have set myself the challenge of preparing for an ABRSM diploma this year. Candidates are required to give a 35 minute recital; memory is not a requirement, but I am adding this self-imposed element to the challenge. My ultimate objective – to be a better pianist. And along the way I am increasingly awed by those pianists who hold so much music in their heads!

He is my proposed recital programme:

Bach Prelude & Fugue in g minor (Bk 1), BWV 861
Beethoven Sonata in c minor, op.10 no.1 complete
Schubert Impromptu in G flat, D.899 no.3
Fauré Impromptu op.31 no.2 in f minor
Stravinsky Piano-Rag-Music

To help in my preparation, and in particular to gain further insights into possible interpretations, I would love some ideas for a Fantasy Piano Recital. Please feel free to nominate your preferred pianist for each of the works above ie. Bach – Glenn Gould, Beethoven – Barenboim etc. I look forward to hearing your ideas.


[subsequent progress reports here and here!]

17 responses to “Fantasy Piano Recital

  1. Bach – Gould, definitely, or Perahia, who is so skilled at highlighting all the interior architecture of Bach’s music

    Beethoven – I love Arrau in the Beethoven Sonatas

    Schubert – Maria Joao Pires or Mitsuko Uchida. Both have a wonderfully sensitive approach to the Impromptus, and indeed elsewhere in Schubert’s late piano music….

    Faure – I don’t know this work but I always think French pianists do justice to music by their countrymen. Maybe Pierre-Laurent Aimard or Jean-Efflam Bavouzet?

    Stravinsky – Peter Donohoe, for sure. He’s great in this kind of repertoire. He has a remarkable ability to balance percussive playing with extremely expressive/beautiful sound

  2. Wow , George, you really don’t like a quiet life do you? But then I suppose you wouldn’t be a musician if you did!

    As a non- musician I can’t understand how important this challenge is, but happy to offer my listening suggestions:

    Bach- am a fan of some of the Gould recordings but for fewer “noises off” etc why not try Tatiana Nikolaeva. Her performances of the Bach p&f’s inspired Shostakovich to write his own set.

    Beethoven – Rudolf Serkin or Alfred Brendel

    Schubert – Andras Schiff. I love his idea that so much of Schubert’s piano music has the flow of rivers and streams in it and you get that in his performances

    Faure – Jean Phillipe Collard

    Stravinsky – there seem to be piano roll recordings available, so why not start with the composer himself?

  3. Funnily enough my Bach fugue is developing into what I imagined was quite a Gould-like interpretation; but then when I listened to Glenn’s recording his performance is surprisingly ‘normal’. Hmmmm……!

  4. Love your ideas George….you should perhaps mention that you are a fabulous organist and so probably would never have needed to memorize! Glad you agree with me on this controversial topic 🙂

  5. Bach: Edwin Fisher
    Beetthoven: Richard Goode
    Schubert: Maria Joao Pires
    Faure: Samson Francois

  6. Hey George,
    Realised that I didn’t answer your question!
    Bach: Tatiana Nikolaeva
    Beethven: Daniel Barenboim
    Schubert: Maria Joao Pires
    Faure: Valerie Tryon
    Stravinsky: Nikolai Demidenko

  7. Philippa Chalkley

    Not widely experienced enough to answer this, but I like my Radu Lupu and Murray Perhia recordings so they can choose what they want to play – and Daniel Barenboim playing Beethoven. What about giving a young person a go – Lara Melda (Omeroglu) who won BBCYMY in 2010 could have a go, so she doesn’t get stuck with Grieg all the time! Anyway, all the best. Flags out for Carolyn I say!!!!

  8. Looks like Maria Joao Pires is one performer to take note of. If you haven’t seen this clip, be amazed!

  9. My entry is in the post – no going back now!

  10. Christine Shaw


    I took my Dip ABRSM 3 years ago and just managed to scrape through it!
    I’ve now bitten the bullet and am having a go at my LRSM in July, but I won’t be playing any of it from memory, except for a few bars here & there! I think you’re very brave, but I saw you play in the Mid Somerset from memory last year and you looked very confident so I’m sure you’ll go sailing through!!

    I played the Bach and Schubert that you’re doing too, when I took my Dip, along with a Mozart Sonata in Bb maj & Brahms Rhapsody in G minor. I also learned the Poulenc Toccata but it killed my hands and I could never get it neat enough so dropped it at the last minute. Shame, but could have been a very messy way to end my program!!

    Anyway, here are my suggestions!…

    Bach – Glenn Gould of course!.. but I also like Rosalyn Tureck’s.
    I’d LOVE to hear Andrei Gavrilov play it, but he hasn’t recorded this one yet unfortunately!

    Beethoven – Glenn Gould!! Love it!!…

    Schubert – Andrei Gavrilov. Just beautiful!…

    Faure – I don’t know this, so I have no idea, but I’d probably choose someone french!

    Stravinsky – I agree with Steve Shaw above (no relation as far as I’m aware!) the Stravinsky piano roll recording! It’s always brilliant to hear the composer themselves!…

    I’d be interested to know which recordings of each you particularly like?!

    I fell across this page when I was on another website. Very interesting! 🙂

    • Hi Christine
      Thank you so much for your encouragement! I might have looked confident, but that was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life!! Much better prepared now, a year on, in terms of playing repertoire from memory; it’s been a hugely empowering experience actually. I’ve been practising entirely from memory for the past few months, which has moved playing from memory to become the norm rather than a stressful experience. I recommend it 🙂
      Good luck with the LRSM. Would you be interested in swapping dry-run performances? Very happy to ‘invite you over to play’ at Monkton, do drop me a line if you’d like to do that.
      As to recordings, much as I’m a Gould fan, I find his Bach G minor disappointingly ‘normal’ (it pains me to say it!) Can’t listen to his Beethoven, absolutely horrendous, monstrous even 😦 Love the Stravinsky piano roll, especially in the bits where he slows down to cope with the tricky bits….!
      George 🙂

  11. Christine Shaw

    Hi George,

    I’ll answer your e-mail in a minute, but just to carry on this thread!…

    I would NEVER have guessed that you were bricking it in the MidSomerset! You obviously should have won an Oscar for your acting skills, along with the MidSom trophy! 🙂
    I was scared to death when I saw that our class was in the Banqueting Room last year, having not played (solo) anywhere as big as that before. To my surprise I found that as soon as I got going, it was FAR easier than being in a smaller venue with the audience nearer your elbow. I get very distracted by things!… people sighing, adjudicators picking up their pen to write something when you have a mishap etc etc! I found that up on that stage in the Banq Rm, once I was playing I wasn’t aware of the audience at all, and was able to get engrossed in the music much more than I normally can!
    This year I was strangely disappointed to see that the class wasn’t in the Banqueting Room! 🙂

    Yes that sounds like a very good way to become secure from memory! I just never seem to be able to avoid having a blank somewhere when playing in front of people from memory though, no matter how well I know something. Probably again down to getting distracted by stupid things.

    I learned the Chopin Ballade No 2 whilst trying to decide on my LRSM program, and I HAD to learn that from memory because I couldn’t look in three places at once!
    I played it in a workshop at Steinway Hall and ground to a halt more than once, even though I knew it really well, and had barely looked at the music from the first day I started learning it. Very frustrating!! :-/
    I also find it really hard to remember every little detail, reminder, dynamic, fingering, nuance etc etc!
    Lovely as it would be not to need the music I’m scared to risk it again!.. except for the odd bar here and there to aid a page turn! 🙂

    Yes, I agree that Gould’s Bach G minor is a bit disappointing and normal for him, but I still like it, and find it weirdly fascinating how he does the trills in the Prelude!
    As for the Beethoven, well.. his is SO whacky I burst out laughing several times!
    I’m not saying I’d play it like that! Wouldn’t have the nerve! Especially in a diploma exam!! 🙂
    I just enjoy his quirkiness I guess! 🙂

    Do you have any particular favourite renditionings of any of your pieces yet?!


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  13. By the way, which exam are you preparing for? The LRSM?

    • Hi Leia, I’m doing the dipABRSM – thought I’d start at the bottom and work my way up! I have various organ diplomas (ARCM and ARCO) but I wasn’t sure whether these qualified me to start higher. Don’t think it makes much difference to me, it’s the overall challenge which I have found so engaging.

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