Wednesday 10 September 2014

Interview with Mark Ainley

Few personalities in the classical music world garner as much serious attention as Mark Ainley, whose daily updates on his Facebook page "The Piano Files" demand thoughtful consideration from piano-philes all over the world.  If there is ever an internet jukebox for the greatest piano performances, it would have to be Mark's brilliant selections. 

Facebook has become a successful platform for sharing knowledge, useful or otherwise, and our generation has come
to depend upon it for everything from news reports to wardrobe choice.  One of Facebook's successes comes from its concise delivery of updates where within the time of finishing a macchiato shot we could read about grandma's latest recipes, Horowitz' fetish for bowties and everything in between.   However, not everything can be said on Facebook, or at least not fully.  I caught Mark mid-flight between Japan and Canada to talk about things you don't find on his Facebook updates. 

Now Tokyo to Vancouver isn't exactly a stone's throw away from each other, so do yourself a favor and pour a big cup of coffee. 

E - Ernest
M - Mark

E:  Describe your specialty.
M:  My special interest is historical recordings of great pianists, primarily recordings made in the first half of the 20th century (or earlier or later in some cases) - recordings that show a different side of piano playing than is the current norm.
E:  The Golden Age pianists - we love them, but many modern day listeners still find them inaccessible. Without going at long length (as this topic surely does warrant a doctoral dissertation) what is so alluring about the Golden Age pianists?

M:  I’m not sure that all modern-day listeners find them inaccessible - it depends on the individual; I’ve been pleased to meet some university students recently who were fascinated by these recordings and very open-minded to what they were hearing interpretatively. For some, the poorer sound quality of earlier recordings can be off-putting, and that’s a shame - people still watch black-and-white movies, or even silent films, because there is something of artistic importance to experience, and in fact the piano sound in older recordings (record scratches notwithstanding) is actually more faithful to how a real piano sounds than most modern digital recordings.
As far as the playing goes, it can be so radically different to what we are used to that some of these performances can indeed be challenging to ears trained in the modern era of performance practice. We live now in an age where technical precision in the form of ‘right notes’ is more important than the emotional and spiritual message communicated in an individual way - the competition circuit and modern recorded technology both have had a role to play here - and so listening to interpretations that are so markedly unconventional from what is accepted today, and with occasional wrong notes too (since early record technology didn’t allow for editing), can take some adjustment and some of these performances don’t immediately appeal to everyone.
But it is certainly worth the effort: after all, why would we not want to hear pupils of Liszt perform, people who learned actual pianistic techniques and interpretative insights from that legendary composer and pianist himself? Or students of students of Chopin (unfortunately, none of Chopin’s students made records), or people who were coached by Brahms and Clara Schumann, or composers themselves like Rachmaninoff, who was also a terrific pianist? Listening to how a composer plays their own works - and recognizing how differently many people might play those same pieces today - ought to be of prime importance for anyone who claims to want to explore music (though, of course, we mustn’t discount the reality that any interpreter could indeed find valid possibilities that composers themselves were unaware of). The Golden Age pianists had techniques of tone production, phrasing, voicing, and timing that seem to have been lost to all but a handful of pianists, and so we have much to learn by hearing their playing with our own ears as opposed to simply reading about their playing or theories about performance practice.
E:  When you approach a recording for the first time, what is the first thing you listen for - tone quality, interpretation, technical brilliance, or other aspects of piano playing?

M:  It’s a combination of these factors, and there isn’t one thing that I listen for, though perhaps one thing will jump out at me above all else. With Alfred Cortot, what I first hear is the tone, phrasing, and rhythm; with Josef Hofmann, also the tone, along with his unique terraced voicing; with Dinu Lipatti, the balanced metrics, consistent voicing, focused tone, and logical but heartfelt approach. Unfortunately ‘technical brilliance’ has become an end in itself as opposed to a means to an end. We don’t praise an actor for saying all the words in a script, so why do we speak highly of a pianist for playing all of the notes unless they do so in a way that brings something significant to their interpretation? Wouldn’t it be ridiculous to comment on an actor being great because he uttered all of the words that had been written in the text? It’s absurd - but people do that with pianists. I would say that a pianist who plays all the right notes but not with a beautiful sound, fluid phrasing, and consistent voicing actually has an incomplete technique: it’s like being able to say the words on the page but not do so with feeling, in character, or with an appropriate tone of voice - that’s not acting, it’s reading. And why should one label pianists as having ‘poor technique’ if, in an inspirational moment, they drop some notes while communicating something emotional? Unfortunately, many pianists today are like amateurish television actors with grossly exaggerated mannerisms, while the great pianists of the past are much like classically trained British actors, who could subtly raise an eyebrow or enunciate a certain syllable in a particular way that discreetly adds an interpretative twist to what they are saying.
E:  You are definitely a seasoned concert goer, and I am a pianist who enjoys a vast repertoire. Why do you think a large part of the repertoire (such as those of Medtner, Godowsky, etc) is avoided by most commercial pianists?

M:  It’s a challenging situation - all music was once new, wasn’t it? Certain things stayed in fashion, and those things generally continue to be in vogue. Sometimes a pianist will go out on a limb to program works that others ignore, and those works might become popular again, although the pianist’s career might not go as well in the short term: Marcelle Meyer revived Rameau back in the ‘30s and recorded his complete works in the ‘50s, when prior to that time only a work or two had been arranged and played by Romantic pianists, and the same goes for Scarlatti, who was largely ignored until pianists like Meyer, Casadesus, and Horowitz started programming his delightful sonatas. Today, at a time when CD sales and ticket subscriptions are waning, few companies and promoters want to take a risk on unknown repertoire - Meyer actually had a difficult time making a career because she insisted on programming some unpopular repertoire, and it’s surely the same issue today. And yet then some pianists I know today have the challenge of not being booked because other artists are playing the same works as them in a given season!

When it comes to works by Godowsky, it could be that so few pianists can play his music at all, let alone well! But with Medtner, there isn’t much of an excuse - he wrote some marvellous music and it warrants being heard more, as does much else (Chabrier, for example, another composer that Marcelle Meyer brought back to public attention). Hopefully some bigger-name artists whose concerts sell well can program some of this unusual repertoire (Stephen Hough has certainly done well here), even if it’s a bit at a time, and then hopefully concertgoers will start to be a little more adventurous. Philip Thomson’s recording of Blumenfeld piano music was a revelation to many listeners, not only for the stunning playing but for introducing so much high-quality Romantic music that was all but unknown before the CD was issued. Imagine how much more wonderful music might be out there! And it’s also worth remembering that some works aren’t heard for a perfectly good reason - Chopin wrote some compositions that weren’t his best, and the same is true of many less-frequently performed works. But it’s worth exploring less-known repertoire, definitely.
E:  Your most memorable concerts?

M:  Only one or two is hard as there are quite a few. One of the most incredible was the first time I heard Radu Lupu, at the Lucerne Music Festival in about 1991. I was in Switzerland doing some Lipatti research and was passing through Lucerne overnight and managed to score a cheap ticket (I was a student back then) and I couldn’t believe what I heard: his sound just glowed, and I thought ‘this is how Lipatti and Haskil must have sounded.’ Paul Lewis played all of the Beethoven Sonatas here in Vancouver a few years ago, and in the final concert, he held his hands above the keyboard after playing the final notes of Op.111 and the audience was completely still for what seemed like ages - as he moved his hands away from the piano, it seemed like a wave of energy swept through the auditorium - I swear I could feel and hear a ‘whoosh’ flow through the space - and the audience sat spellbound for another 15 seconds or so before the rapturous applause; I still get goosebumps thinking about it. From the opening passage Stephen Hough played of the Brahms Second Concerto in Vancouver, you could sense the entire audience leaning forward to listen, aware that how he was burnishing the melodic line was different than what one would normally hear; he held their rapt attention for the entire work. And then there’s Benjamin Grosvenor, who for me is the most astounding of the big names on the concert platform today - on New Year’s Eve 2012 in Seattle he played a Rachmaninoff Second Concerto that left me completely stunned, with the highlighted inner voices and soaring melodic lines sounding like what one might have heard from a pianist like Hofmann or Moiseiwitsch. I’ve also heard him elsewhere with orchestra, in chamber music, and in recital, and each occasion has been inspiring and memorable.
E:  Your favorite picks?
M:  It’s a tough choice - there are so many that I can think would be an introduction to great piano playing in historical recordings. One that always stuns the listener is Dinu Lipatti’s outstanding 1948 recording of Ravel’s “Alborada del Gracioso” - especially given that stories of Lipatti’s suffering from illness has led many to believe he wasn’t a strong pianist. This performance is simply unbelievable: the ‘bite’ to his crisp articulation, the ‘bounce’ that he achieves throughout, the incredible balance of voices and seamless phrasing...he plays with such orchestral textures. And then he plays those graduated glissandi - single-hand glissandi in thirds and fourths - with such sweep and power, and then the silky-smooth decrescendo on the last one... and this was done without tape editing! Simply incredible!
Then there is a pianist who has been a favourite of mine for 25 years and who is only just starting to become more widely known: Marcelle Meyer. This remarkable artist worked with some of the most important new composers in early 20th-century Paris, such as Satie, Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, and the Group of Six. Her recordings reveal remarkable sensitivity but with strength and incredibly refined nuances. One of the first recordings that I heard of her comes from her amazing 1955 Chabrier cycle (a composer, as mentioned earlier, who deserves to be performed more widely), a lovely work called ‘Feuillet d’album’. The phrasing is so exquisitely elastic, the nuances so remarkably refined, and her tone just beguiling.
When I first started exploring historical recordings, I referred to Harold C. Schonberg’s book The Great Pianists to learn more about the artists who had made recordings. Schonberg’s praise for Josef Hofmann was absolute, yet records of his playing were very hard to come by. I would eventually find copies of concert performances issued by the International Piano Archives in second-hand record stores and was stunned by what I heard - Schonberg’s detailed descriptions could only paint a basic sketch of the unique sound world Hofmann created at the piano. This concert performance of Rachmaninoff’s famous G Minor Prelude Op.23 No.5 gives an idea of the playing Rachmaninoff had in mind when he composed his legendary Third Piano Concerto, which he dedicated to Hofmann (who, unfortunately, never played it). The soaring line in the middle section seems to be coming from another instrument altogether - absolutely magical!
Youri Egorov was one of the great pianists in the second half of the last century, and like Lipatti he died tragically young (at the same age of 33). He had a wonderful tone that was never aggressive or harsh, an incredible sense of rhythmic momentum, and an amazing capacity to phrase with long lines. This rare recording made in 1975 when he was only 21 of Bach's Prelude and Fugue No.24 in B Minor, BWV 869 from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier is incredibly bold in its broad tempo and spacious phrasing that never loses its tensile stability.  
One of my all-time favourite recorded performances - one which had a profound impact on me and my view of the piano world - is a concert recording by the American pianist Joseph Villa of Rachmaninoff’s Second Sonata. I was sent a cassette of this 1991 performance by Gregor Benko, founding president of the International Piano Archives, and wondered why he was sending me a recording of a pianist I’d never heard of in a work that I never particularly liked. When I heard the volcanic playing, I was mesmerized: such unbridled passion and incredibly refined details the likes of which I had never heard. One could be so overwhelmed by the power of the performance as to overlook the incredibly sensitive attention to nuance and voicing. I would meet Villa the following year, a few years before his untimely death, and was stunned by his intellect and interpretative powers. This interpretation by this virtually unknown pianist might have disappeared into thin air as did so many concerts through the ages if an amateur recording  device had not captured the event and preserved it for posterity.  

E:  Now try to answer the following as quickly as you can. 
Name a historical person you'd like to invite as house guest.
M:  Well, other than some of my favourite pianists that I’ve mentioned, I believe I would choose Leonardo da Vinci. I have always appreciated his broad perspective of how things are interrelated.
E:  What would you rather lose: pianistic power, taste buds, ability to ever love again?
M:  Tough choice. But since I’ve never had much pianistic power anyway (my fingers never really did what I wanted them to), I would give that away easily - I love food too much, and I don’t want to become Alberich from Wagner’s Ring Cycle in renouncing love!
E:  Your least favourite color.

M:  Hmmm... I think it would be that shade of green that one finds in hospitals and elementary schools. 

E:  Your least favourite sound.
M:  A drill at a dentist’s or construction site - so abrasive!
E:  Bill Gates gives you a billion dollars to do whatever you want.  What's the first thing you do?

M:  Take a trip to Europe to start exploring radio station archives in the hopes of finding lost recordings.

E:  How old do you see yourself?

M:  I’m 23. Always.

Still some coffee in your mug?  Get more of Mark's interesting picks by subscribing to the Piano Files at

No comments:

Post a Comment