Talking Heads: Beethoven through the eyes of Susan Tomes

interview by Ben Hogwood

As part of our celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020, Arcana is talking to leading classical performers to get their perspective on the composer’s music. Pianist and writer Susan Tomes has a rich, four-decade history of Beethoven performance and recording, culminating in a complete set of the Beethoven piano trios made with the Florestan Trio for Hyperion. In this interview she talks of the challenges and rewards in playing the composer’s music – and why he remains the most original of all.

We begin, however, at the start. “I don’t remember the first time I ever played Beethoven’s music,” she says, “but there must have been a number of pieces I learned when I was a child, in Associated Board exams. My music teacher gradually introduced me to the easier sonatas and pieces, so I don’t have a moment where I remember first encountering Beethoven. It has always been an important thread, as it is for all pianists.”

Was there a specific line in the sand with the piano trios? “Not as such, but Britain has always been a great nation of sight readers, and that has always made it possible to read through things when you get to playing chamber music with colleagues. As a teenager, when I attended a Saturday school at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, I started playing chamber music, and we would sight read some of the easier Beethoven piano trios – not that any of them are very easy! Then I was in a number of different chamber music settings such as Prussia Cove, and over the years I think I’ve played all of them there with all kinds of different people. I must have played all these pieces not just with my professional, long standing groups but with different combinations of people. I really have played them a lot, and it’s amazing how every time you work on them with somebody there is a load of stuff to discuss.”

She tells of the many layers in Beethoven’s writing. “It’s difficult to know where to start, because they are very multifaceted pieces of music, and an awful lot of thought went into them on Beethoven’s part. There is always a lot you have to discuss and work through with whoever you’re playing them with. That’s something that is amazing about his music; you never get to the point where you think, “Well, I’ve cracked that, I know how that needs to be performed!” Sometimes you get that with other composers, where you feel like you’ve ‘got the measure’ of it, and you know how it needs to be put across so the audience can understand it. With Beethoven it’s not like that, it’s like a very deep well you are always having to look into, and every group of three people who play it will have slightly different ingredients to bring to it. It’s always a big task, even if you know them, a huge mountain that you have to climb all over again. I do know how to play the notes, and I know how I feel about lots of things with the pieces, but if you’ve got three very good musicians, each with their own kind of hinterland of musical experience, a lot of ingredients get mixed in and you start having to look at things from other points of view.”

Tomes is passionate about the effect the composer’s music has had on her own life. “It’s always a very enriching experience playing Beethoven trios. Before we had the Florestan Trio we had the quartet, Domus, and we all found that if the group was going to break in a division of opinion it was either two against two or three against one, or four different views. With a trio it is mysteriously different and feels like a more balanced set, as you have one of each type of instrument, so it feels like a tripod with a more stable structure. Everyone has their responsibility within the piece, which is theirs alone and not shared with anybody else.”

It is a natural presumption that a string quartet might be more balanced, but she is not so sure. “There is something interesting about the dynamic of a trio, where you tend to get three different personalities that work well together, perhaps more so than in a string quartet – if they’re all very different then they have perhaps got problems! A string quartet has to sound so blended to be really convincing; somehow with a piano trio you can even get three soloists that will work well as a piano trio, and that’s sometimes how you hear them. However I did come to feel that three well-known soloists working together briefly on a trio is never going to be as satisfying a result as three people who had really put the work in with one another over a long period of time on this music. I believe you can still get further if you’re really committed to doing it with the same group. It’s a difficult thing to explain but there is something about the mental landscape that you get to share, and the experience of playing it together. It’s a satisfying thing to work at a body of pieces like the Beethoven trios.”

Beethoven’s musical autograph for the Piano Trio in D Major Op.70/1, the ‘Ghost’ – an exhibit in the Morgan Library & Museum, New York

Talk turns to each of the trios individually. “My experience of them is that they are all very different in character”, she says. “There are seven of the major trios – the three of Op.1, Op.11, the two of Op.70, then the Archduke and a few miscellaneous pieces. There are seven big ones, and six that are strictly for violin, cello and piano as the Op.11 piece is for clarinet. It’s very sweet and works better with the clarinet I think.”

Each work has its own identity. “I feel these pieces have very distinct personalities of their own, which is a thing I think Beethoven was particularly good at. If you compare them with the piano trios of Mozart, which are perhaps more similar to one another, I always feel that he posed himself different questions with each of the trios, and set out to answer those questions. Because of that the trios have a different artistic personality, which I think is quite an achievement of Beethoven’s.”

Is Beethoven picking up the baton from Mozart rather than Haydn in his writing for the piano trio? “When Beethoven was in his early twenties and studying with Haydn I think Haydn had not yet been to England, and he hadn’t published what we think of as his great piano trios, so probably it was Mozart if anyone that Beethoven was picking up from. It is as though he made a conscious choice to start with trios because it was a format that was perhaps not Mozart’s greatest success. Mozart had mastered the string quartet and the opera, the symphony and the piano concerto, but the piano trios are possibly not one of his really top genres. Perhaps it was a smart idea of Beethoven’s to set out with a type of music where there was room to show that he had something new to offer. He probably intended them for amateur musicians of a rather posh kind or in aristocratic circles, and was probably writing for experienced musicians more than the public concert hall at that point.”

The Florestan Trio made their Hyperion recordings in the Henry Wood Hall in London, and Tomes gives an honest appraisal of them. “Recording sessions I have always found very arduous”, she says. “At no other point do you have to play pieces of music over and over and over, with absolute maximum attention to detail and energy, so I have always found it a very stressful experience. It became obvious very early on that you really didn’t want to leave mistakes on the finished product. I started off saying to our producer that I felt as long as the atmosphere was right and the spirit was right then I didn’t mind about mistakes. Our producer said, ‘Trust me, you will mind if you hear wrong notes and mistakes on the finished product, you will wish that you had taken the time to correct them!’ So we took that attitude the whole way through, and we did make sure that everything was absolutely right at some point during the day. Hopefully we tried to get as many things right as we could on the first take, but that is never possible and the more people you have involved the less possible it is. Even you yourself might hit a lucky streak, but as sure as eggs is eggs somebody else will not play ball, and then you can’t use it. With three people playing exposed parts it multiplies the things that could go wrong simultaneously.”

The demands are clear. “I can’t say I’m a fan of recording, because I’m concentrating so hard on accuracy and at the same time trying to maintain the right kind of mood and spirit, which is really hard. As it goes through the day you find the accuracy rate tends to go down, and sometimes the atmosphere or spirit of the thing can go up. If that happens at a time when you’re making mistakes and getting tired, then that’s not good either. I think most of our recordings ended up being a patchwork of takes from different parts of the day, put together in such a way that they were accurate and had the right feeling behind them. I would not personally have been involved in the editing process, because I just thought I would get so confused by trying to put things together, and would be listening for those takes where I was good or played everything right! I might be tempted to select those rather than one where one of my colleagues was absolutely brilliant. I would happily leave that mainly to Andrew Keener, who as a producer is a brilliant editor. He knew us well enough to know we wouldn’t be happy with just the accurate takes; that he had to find something which had the right feeling about it as well.”

Are there any particular technical challenges about playing Beethoven? “One thing I would like to make clear about the piano trios is that I think the piano parts are as demanding as any of his piano parts, be they solo sonatas, even the concertos. I have played that repertoire as well and honestly think the piano parts in the trios contain as many technical challenges. There is the additional challenge of collaborating with others. Technically they are very challenging, and even from the start. Op.1/2 is extremely difficult for the piano particularly, and it has to sound so effervescent, like a Mozart opera in piano trio form. It’s actually very difficult. At the other end of the spectrum is the Archduke trio, where you need a lot of stamina and a lot of physical strength and energy to play. It keeps going at such a pitch for 40 minutes that you really do need to work up to that.”

As for Beethoven’s originality and invention, Tomes is in no doubt. “Whenever I was working at the trios I always had the feeling that Beethoven could really out-think any composer who came after. Today’s composers know so much about compositional techniques, and modern techniques that he never thought of, but in a way Beethoven has more inventiveness than anyone. Although he was writing in conventional keys, rhythms and notation, the way he constructs from little cells of musical material, and the way he can build enormous structures from small things, and the range of moods and emotions that he can somehow convey; he has such an extraordinary brain and imagination. I always came out feeling that one has to respect Beethoven more than anyone. The power of his thinking is quite amazing really.”

Initially this could be intimidating. “When I was a child I found a lot of Beethoven’s music off-putting almost, I found it over dramatic. You know his typical sudden changes of mood and pace – when I was young I couldn’t understand what he was driving at, I thought it was showing off. It gradually dawned on me, the kind of enormous terrain of feeling and imagination that he was trying to get down on paper. The more I got to know it the more I could see what a giant composer he was, and in a way I think more than anybody else – and I say that as someone whose favourite composer is Mozart – but I think Beethoven is so varied. One can say that even in the six or seven trios, just the number of styles he can write in and the number of things he can suggest to the listener puts him practically in a category of his own.”

You can listen to clips from the Florestan Trio’s recordings of the complete Beethoven Piano Trios at the Hyperion website here For more on Susan Tomes’ writings, head to her own website. Her book Beyond The Notes – which is strongly recommended – includes a chapter on rehearsing Beethoven’s first published trio, which Arcana will be appraising soon.

Talking Heads: Jess Gillam

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Jess Gillam’s bright tones will be familiar to many a BBC Radio 3 listener, both as a saxophonist and a regular broadcaster with her program This Classical Life. Often (rightly!) referred to as a breath of fresh air, the Cumbrian-born musician has recently moved to London and is on to the second chapter of her album-making career with Decca. When we talk Kentish Town, where she lives, has just emerged from lockdown. As she confesses, “It’s all a bit weird!”

Gillam’s progression from the wide open, wild spaces of Cumbria to the cramped streets of North London is a striking one. “I lived in Manchester for three years, and then moved to London,” she says. “It was a big shock, a completely different atmosphere. London never stops and that is quite difficult to adapt to sometimes. Culturally the difference is unbelievable. Cumbria has incredible landscapes and scenery, really lovely people, and a really strong sense of community, but there is nowhere near as much culture and things going on as London.”

She had to be careful not to over commit her diary. “I found as soon as I was in London that I was really busy, but also that I wasn’t in London so much as I thought as I was touring and playing in different places. I remember moving on the Monday, I had a rehearsal in the afternoon and a concert the next day. It was a mixture as before I couldn’t commit to too much, but now I love the different challenges. I would love to go to more theatres and watch more concerts though – that’s something I plan to do much more of when they reopen.”

We move on to talk about TIME, that second album for Decca, due for release at the end of September. It was recorded with the Jess Gillam Ensemble, a chamber-sized group of accomplished session musicians and percussionists. Several teasers for the album have appeared, in the exciting form of new and specially commissioned pieces by Luke Howard (Dappled Light) and Will Gregory (Orbit). The tracklisting is pleasingly adventurous, with new interpretations of tracks by James Blake, RadioheadPhilip Glass and Michael Nyman.

Gillam was already aware of Gregory’s pop music. “I’ve been a fan of Goldfrapp since I was quite young”, she explains, “and have listened to their albums. I knew that Will was a sax player and have played various pieces by him – so I just approached him and asked if he could write a piece. Goldfrapp have blossomed as they have gone on, and that’s one of the things I find really inspiring about Will, is that he can write in a classical style, with a score for orchestra, but he can write in so many areas and have a distinctive voice still. For me it makes his music more authentic, and it’s one of the reasons I love it.”

On Dappled Light, I comment that the colours of the cover and match up to Luke Howard’s music rather nicely. “I think he wrote beautifully for the forces that we had”, says Gillam, “and the way he used the percussion was really interesting with the piano. It really paints a picture and a scene I think. The cover art wasn’t planned but we ended up with it because of lockdown. I think it went together really well!”

Jess has a number of new commissions under her belt already. Does she feel it is important for a new composer to capture her personality as well as writing well for the saxophone itself? “I think for me music is all about people, about telling people stories and communication”, she says. “It is a deep level of communication and conveying a story, an emotion or a feeling. I think with whatever piece it is – a Mahler symphony or a Shostakovich string quartet for instance – each one has a history that is linked to a particular person. I find the interpersonal relationships interesting, to find out that music a lot of the time is about people, for people or with somebody in mind. It is really nice to have that human interaction and quality to a new piece, but it’s not essential. I think it’s really nice when a composer listens to your sound and captures that, but I think it’s nice and not essential.”

While listening through the album, the big surprise for this particular listener was Gillam’s cover of James Blake’s Retrograde, in an arrangement by Benjamin Rimmer. The surprise in this case was the vocal qualities of the instrument. “I think it’s an underrated element of the saxophone, it’s almost insane the vocal quality that it has! The way a sound is produced is quite akin to how you would sing, and quite similar to how you would produce the sound if you were a singer, and the things you would think about where the sound is being made are similar through your vocal chords. Whatever you put through the saxophone is a direct representation of how sound comes out. If you’re shouting or whispering, it would be totally different. You get that to some extent on a piano, but it is so connected to our bodies and the physicality of it is just like singing. When I was recording Retrograde it was about looking at how James Blake had got that sound, and replicating some of it on the saxophone.”

Jess has shown through her concerts how adaptable the saxophone can be, showing in an hour-long recital at Wigmore Hall how composers from the last 400 years can find their music in a new dimension. “It is unbelievably versatile, and I have been saying for a while how it’s like a chameleon of instruments. I was reading the famous David Bowie quote where he says people describe him as a chameleon but he’s not a chameleon of styles, because a chameleon puts a lot of effort into changing its colour! It’s the same with the saxophone, you don’t really have to change that much. Of course there is a whole different set of equipment and techniques to play jazz and classical, and you can learn to do it very well, but on a very basic level you don’t need to change anything to be able to play baroque music or Motown or classical, whatever it might be. It has the versatility of sitting right in that hole.”

She may be two albums in, but Jess is still at a very early point in her career – which is something of a double-edged sword. “It’s amazing but also terrifying!” she exclaims. “There is so much to explore with the instruments. The way we consume music now means that people have such eclectic tastes, because you can listen to whatever you like whenever you like on a streaming platform, and you don’t have to sit down and listen to a whole album before getting up and changing the gramophone. It’s a lot easier listening to music now, so the styles we like and are listening to I find are much more based on mood and what we feed our emotions, to inspire or to concentrate. I think people are using music in quite a different way now. The saxophone feels like an instrument that has the potential to sit in so many different places and to explore so many new possibilities. There is so much music still to be made for it I think, because it’s such a young instrument and has so many places to go.”

These new ways of experiencing music, primarily through digital platforms, are at the heart of This Classical Life, her successful weekly show on BBC Radio 3. It appeals to a wide range of listeners, and not just the new technology recruits – from experience, much older gramophone lovers are enjoying her open and diverse approach to music, casting off the genre stereotypes. “There has been a big range in the response I have had, with all age groups from primary school children to 90-year-olds. I think the most magical thing about music is the sense of discovery, and knowing that you can never listen to all the music in the world. There is always something to discover. Regardless of what age you are, that never leaves you, the idea of hearing new sounds, stories and different people!”

These principles are at the heart of her approach, both as a performer and a presenter. “I think listening to new music and finding new artists that they love brings people so much joy. When you find somebody new you can listen to all their music and find out who they are, and what they’re like. It’s one of the greatest things to discover.”

Has the lockdown period given her a greater appreciation of music? “It’s been such a strange time, but it has made me realise even more that I don’t go a single day without putting on some kind of music. It can completely change the surroundings, it can transform your mood, it can make you think a different way, and it can really transform a day. You can be locked down like we have been inside our houses, but listen to music and suddenly you’re in a completely different country, thinking completely different thoughts, and you’re with someone else. It’s an amazing thing.”

Gillam has done a good deal of work over Zoom in the last few months, setting up the hugely successful Virtual Scratch Orchestra during lockdown. It brought musicians of all abilities together for the closest experience to live performance they could achieve in isolated conditions – and in total 900 people were assembled online for a distanced account of Let It Be.

Although Zoom has to an extent saved live music during the Coronavirus pandemic, there are still keen limitations, as Gillam freely admits. “Technology is amazing, and it’s incredible that we can still be a part of something bigger and still connect via the internet in the way we can, but nothing will be able to replicate the feeling of playing with other people in a room, or playing to other people. I’ve been taking part in the Royal Albert At Home concert, and practising playing to a screen is the most bizarre feeling. There is no clapping, no communication with the audience, no way of judging how it’s going! It’s the most inhuman experience in a way but at the same time you know people will watch it and you hope they will enjoy it. It’s a very strange feeling.”

Her set for the Royal Albert Hall was typically varied, including music from Marcello to David Bowie – which puts me in mind of how important the saxophone was through his music. Gillam emphatically agrees. “He played the saxophone himself, and often in his music it acts as a catalyst for the next section, or the next drop, or the next rise in emotion and intensity. The way he would use it, he deployed it as an instrument to take things to the next level.”

She has also used Zoom for lessons with her teacher, renowned British saxophonist John Harle. “I’m just finishing my Masters year at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, and I submitted my recital only yesterday. We’ve been having video lessons leading up to that. It’s great to be able to keep studying, but again it isn’t quite the same, it’s quite a strange method over the internet!”

Now the recital is submitted, TIME is of the essence. We’re getting everything together for the September release – the cover and booklet notes, the track order. The whole album was mixed in lockdown, which was quite a technological feat! The producer Jonathan Allen was incredible, he was giving a live feed over to me and we could comment in real time, using WhatsApp. It’s amazing to see what’s actually possible when you need it to be!”

Jess Gillam‘s album TIME will be released by Decca on 25 September. It will include the singles Dappled Light, Suspirium, Orbit, Truman Sleeps and Joby Talbot‘s Transit of Venus. You can read more about the album on her website, and keep up with new audio releases via her Spotify and YouTube pages

Talking Heads: Paavo Järvi

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

If anyone typifies the flexibility of the modern conductor today, that person is Paavo Järvi. Like his father Neeme and younger brother Kristjan, he has an eye-watering workload and schedule, but such is his deep love for his art that it is not a factor in his musical life.

When our conversation starts, Järvi has just finished rehearsing in Estonia – in his home city of Tallinn. This time his role is that of a visiting conductor, in charge of the NHK Symphony Orchestra. The Japanese group, now 95 years old, appointed him as their chief conductor in 2016 and recently extended the arrangement until 2022. Their recent recording releases present a partnership that can only be described as going from strength to strength.

On the night of our conversation they have a concert in Tallinn itself, followed by a visit to the Royal Festival Hall in London three days later. Their program is an enticing one, beginning with Takemitsu’s orchestral piece How slow the wind. Järvi confesses to being a slow starter with his music. “I have been an admirer of his music for a long time, but recently in the last couple of years we have recorded his works with the orchestra. It has just been released in Japan, and it includes all of his orchestral music. In the last couple of years it was a big project that we took on, especially with him being so big in Japan. He died before I ever had a chance to meet him unfortunately, but as you know he is a major figure in Japanese musical life. His is the only real name from the Western world that we would know as being from Japanese music. I grew up knowing the name but not the music. It’s been a new experience for me but something I am very proud of, a new musical experience.”

One of the NHK Symphony Orchestra’s recent releases with Järvi is a searing account of Mahler’s Symphony no.6, which they gave to great acclaim in London in 2017. Wishful thinking it may be, but I suggest that some of Takemitsu’s writing draws from Mahler’s ability to write chamber-like music in the depths of the Sixth. “I think it is more likely that the influences are Messiaen”, says Järvi, his sonorous voice deeper than ever. “It was Messiaen who taught him, and the line goes back to Debussy before that, but there are echoes of certain other worlds in Takemitsu’s music for sure. Mahler could have been one of them.”

Sol Gabetta joins the orchestra for Schumann’s Cello Concerto, a work which has seen its fortunes on the stage revitalised in more recent years, before Järvi leads the orchestra in Rachmaninov’s Symphony no.2 in E minor. This is a work he recorded with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra back in 2006, but as he admits his view of the piece has changed since then. “It has changed, and I have changed in that time too”, he admits. “I have fewer inhibitions since I made that recording, and I am not as cautious about the piece as I used to be. It is one of the most Russian works of Rachmaninov’s output, but it cannot be taken too literally. The orchestra have played the Second quite a lot, and it is extremely familiar music within Japan. There is certain music that they play really well, and the Second Symphony is certainly one of those pieces.”

Nor have they required much persuasion or coaching to make the move to Mahler in their recorded output. “The orchestra is extremely well versed in German Romantic music, and they have had a lot of conductors who have encouraged them to play it. Herbert von Karajan and Karl Böhm used to conduct regularly in Japan, and so did Eugen Jochum. Most of the Western conductors came with their own orchestras. A lot of Western conductors were connected with the NHK Symphony Orchestra – Wolfgang Sawallisch, Herbert Blomstedt and Horst Stein just to name a few – so they know the repertoire extremely well.

Alongside the Mahler release is a programme of Bartók orchestral works, comprising the Divertimento for string orchestra, the Dance Suite and the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Jarvi prides himself on the output, and the overall orchestral sound, which has an extraordinary clarity. “That’s something we have been trying to get”, he admits, “the directness of sound, so that it is transparent and clear. We had to work on that a bit for the Bartók, but as you can hear the orchestra is very versatile.”

The London leg of the NHK’s mini tour will take place on Estonia’s Independence Day, which Järvi describes as ‘a very nice coincidence’. This helpfully leads me on to a new recording he has made with the Estonian Festival Orchestra of the music of fellow countryman Erkki-Sven Tüür. The main work here is his Symphony no.9, dedicated to Järvi himself, with orchestral pieces Sow the Wind… and Incantation of Tempest.

He describes the new Ninth. “It’s a big piece, and very interesting. It describes the Estonian history from its beginnings right up to today, so it is a very long narrative – but it is very atmospheric too. He (Tüür) is a master of creating great layers of sound. I think it’s an epic piece, and because I have a lot of years performing his music it is very special for me as a culmination with the Estonian Festival Orchestra. It makes it even more special because it is very close to home.”

Järvi’s familiarity with the music of Tüür goes right back to the 1990s, and a disc of new music by him and fellow Estonian contemporaries. “It’s a great place for new music”, says Järvi of his home country. We have a lot of good new music, and established composers like Arvo Pärt and others.” In spite of his worldwide travelling, he keeps up with developments. “ It’s not difficult to keep in touch with the possibilities for Estonia”, he says, “as they are all there with the internet. I am always looking at what’s happening in musical life in Estonia, and even when I am far away my heart is here all the time.”

This year will see the tenth season of the Pärnu festival, founded by Paavo Järvi in 2011 together with his father, Neeme. How does he look to bring new audiences to classical music? “This is what we are always thinking about”, he says with feeling. “I don’t have a magic formula, other than one has to do it really well and be engaged. If the programme is interesting then that is the first important thing. The other thing is to enjoy the music. Very often with orchestras it can look like business as usual, and they play as if they are working.”

That was emphatically not the case with the Estonian Festival Orchestra when they made their BBC Proms debut last August, and who were noticeably all smiles. “I think that’s the way it should be”, says Järvi. “It is very hard for me to imagine playing music and looking like you’re not enjoying it, it’s not logical to me. Orchestras that come together occasionally, like the festival orchestra does, have an advantage, but it has to happen with every orchestra. It’s such a very logical thing, and if you enjoy it makes sense to do something which is very contagious. Energy comes through being contagious!”

The NHK Symphony Orchestra and Paavo Järvi perform Takemitsu, Schumann and Rachmaninov at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday 24 February.

You can listen to the orchestra’s new recordings of Mahler and Bartók on Sony Music on Spotify above, and follow the link to find samples and buying options on the Presto website – the Mahler here and the
Bartók here.

Järvi’s disc of Tüür’s Symphony no.9 will be available on the Alpha label in March – for more details click here

Talking Heads: Emika

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Most people hate January…but then, from early on in our chat, it is clear Emika is not one of them. “I love January, it’s the one!” she gushes. “Everyone’s moping around, but I’m just on it doing all my work so I can relax in the summer! Everywhere is cold and dark in Berlin currently but I really love it at this time of year.”

We have connected to talk about the many and varied musical projects in which she is currently involved. Head of the queue is new piano album Klavirni Temna, a sequel to 2014’s Klavirni – about which she became Arcana’s very first interviewee in 2014. A lot has changed in her life since then, in particular the arrival of a baby girl. The new addition is heavily connected to Klavirni Temna, of which more later – but first Emika is talking about how her music is developing.

“My creativity is getting a lot worse now I’m a mother! I’m doing more and more, I’m collaborating a lot more. I have a new label concept, working with a lot more artists, and working in much more creative zones. There are things that don’t fit my Emika project but I can do them on someone else’s record. I call it having music kittens, lots of them!”

Klavirni Temna can be thought of as the pedigree in the litter. While the new release schedules and streaming platforms are packed with solo piano records, it has a distinctive voice of its own, and when heard on headphones (listen above!) it is like having someone in the room next door. “That’s what I wanted”, she affirms. I like the feeling that someone’s actually performing, a person in a time and a moment. All the pieces and improvisations are ones that didn’t have mistakes in them, and they were recorded on my phone. Then I went back to them, racked up on a lot of things and recorded them properly.”

Emika was effectively recording for two. “It’s a particularly interesting record because I wrote it while I was pregnant, and I could feel how the baby was responding to the music. When it went too dark I could feel the baby didn’t like it, and it got more uncomfortable! I finished the record and was in a rush, so I whacked plug-ins on it and thought it would be nice, I could put it out, and concentrate on becoming a mother. But when I’d had the baby it sounded rushed and clean, and not really me. I re-did it and used broken, dirty, dusty tape compression and delay. I wasn’t sure what to do, I had the test presses and didn’t know, so I put the test presses on and my daughter came in. She was listening, and then came over and tapped my stomach and said ‘mummy sound’! She understands the piano as being home and me. Forever we have this sound connection, and it’s one of a kind, a strange musical thing.”

Her Czech musical ancestors wrote similarly intimate pieces for piano, the likes of Dvořák, Suk and Janáček putting down some of their most private thoughts in suites and individual pieces, such as the Janáček example played by Piotr Anderszewski above. Emika is no different. “The piano’s my notebook. It feels like a black pencil and a white piece of paper, and it’s how I can set down to work.”

Each of the pieces is identified as Dilo, which means ‘moment’ in Czech. “It is exactly like that, and I feel akin to it”, she says. “Janáček made a lot of pieces for his children, and that was a big confidence boost to me. If he’s done it I will do it! Since the first Klavirni album solo piano has become so popular and trendy, and that’s why I wanted to develop the sound this time. Usually my music is not so trendy but this feels like the height of the trend! And it is five years since I did the last Klavirni album. It’s cool – it could have gone either way, but this release makes the other one safer if you know what I mean.”

There are unexpected twists and turns as the album develops, meaning the listener is kept on their toes while experiencing the darkly meditative scores. Dilo 31 is an example, dropping in pitch as it progresses in an affecting and slightly disturbing way. “The engineer couldn’t believe I wanted it that way, he was really confused! I think bending the piano’s pitch afterwards rather than playing it live is cool.”

Emikae loves the escapism playing the piano affords. “My studio is close to a forest, and that’s what I see when I’m playing, with the weather changing. The piano is right by the window, so it’s connected to the outside world. I’ve shifted from a dark Berlin room to a lofty space outside. The studio is a work in progress, and it’s really inspired by Earthship. I saw how Michael Reynolds builds houses from trash, using glass bottles and tyres. The houses capture energy and heat from the sun and have their own ecosystem, and you can grow food too. I’ve been researching solar power, and the goal is to have somewhere sustainable, rather than being part of a grid system. I am trying to downsize, to not use too much energy and to do more with less. The piano is the ultimate instrument for that…synthesizers, not so much!”

Her enthusiasm for the move is contagious. “The first step was to move out of the city. Then I wanted to look at designs, and to get architects. I’m really inspired by the Tiny House movement, and I would love to build a tiny house studio. You can run them with solar power, and reuse your waste. It’s all about getting ready for the next era of survival and energy, and it’s making me think very differently about shrink wrap, vinyl and all those things. It’s difficult in the digital age to replace that with something meaningful, but we will find a way!”

Now she’s fully installed in the German countryside, Emika can devote more time to her second symphony project. “It’s inspired by the economist Jeremy Rifkin, who delivered a talk with VICE on YouTube (below):

I looked him up and just e-mailed him. I let his chief of staff know that I wanted to do a piece of music inspired by his work, and to my surprise he got back to me! Melanfonie, my first symphony, looked back to the past, but this one is looking 300 years into the future. I’ve been experimenting with using Maxim SP to play synthesizers, deciding what they play with a set of conditions that you program in first. It plays for half an hour, and I’ve got about 80 recordings, each one of them getting better with the process. Now I’d like to get the orchestra to play those parts.”

Emika’s willingness to embrace both the analogue sounds of the piano and the future digital ways of working is inspiring, each complementing the other in her music. “The more we understand technology, the closer it’s getting to nature and feels like it will save it again. I would like this symphony to be a live process. With Melanfonie everyone got it on the CD after, and didn’t get the live experience. For this symphony the idea is to do it in front of a live audience, with no click track or headphones. That creates a lot of pressure, but if you’re going to do it it’s the best thing you can do. This time I want to have synthesizers and to perform with the orchestra. That was the feedback, to have some bass-heavy, epic stuff going on!”

Klavirni Temna, Emika’s second piano album, is released on Friday 14 February on Emika Records. You can listen to extracts and order the album on Bandcamp here:

You can read more detail about Emika’s studio set-up on the Music Tech website (opens in a new window)

Talking Heads: Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood
Picture courtesy of Decca Classics

Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a rare commodity. In the midst of dazzling publicity, he is helping open doors for classical music by his very approachable demeanour and an approach to album-making that brings it into closer contact with other forms. On the evidence of this interview he is refreshingly grounded and intently focussed on his first love, which of course is music.

While some have expressed concern that the cellist might be overworked early in his career, our discussions around second album Elgar confirm him to be relaxed and deeply satisfied with the newest addition to his discography.

His debut album Inspirations, released this time in 2019, presented the Shostakovich Cello Concerto no.1, the piece he played to win the final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016. Kanneh-Mason coupled it with diverse pieces from Pablo Casals, Offenbach, Leonard Cohen and Bob Marley. This time however his main focus is the work of a much older man, the Cello Concerto in E minor of Sir Edward Elgar.

The recording of this much-loved corner of the cello repertoire was made with conductor Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra. It has an intensity which belies Kanneh-Mason’s tender years, offering new viewpoints into what will be familiar music to a lot of people. Again the context into which Sheku puts the Elgar on his album is intriguing, of which more later. But where did he first hear the music of Elgar – and was it the piece he has just recorded?

“It would have been the concerto, definitely”, he recalls. “I listened to it a lot when I was younger, and I grew up with the famous Jacqueline du Pré version. While we were working on it I listened to a lot of different recordings of the piece, it’s such a special work. Other recordings I really love are the most recent Steven Isserlis recording, Truls Mørk with Simon Rattle, and the famous one from Beatrice Harrison with Elgar himself conducting. There is a huge range of ways in which people approach the piece, and what strikes me about the piece is that everyone reacts in a different way.”

The second movement (a Scherzo) finds Kanneh-Mason and Rattle scooting along with a particularly quick choice of tempo, and the cellist clearly relishes the fast bow strokes required. “It’s a fun piece to play, and you get swept up in it but you have to work on getting a lightness of touch with the repeated notes.”

Elgar’s concerto may be the main piece on the album but there are a variety of shorter pieces imaginatively included by Kanneh-Mason. One composer in particular we may be hearing from again is the Swiss-born American Ernest Bloch, born to Jewish parents. Two of his shorter pieces are included here. “I love his music”, says Sheku. “For Grade 8 I did the Prayer for cello and piano, which is a piece I knew to play young. It’s music I really love, and there’s also the piece for cello and orchestra, Schelomo, which I hope to record in the future. You can feel some of the pain in the harmonies he uses.”

More obscure still is a piece for cello ensemble, Hymnus, by the German composer Julius Klengel. “It’s an amazing piece”, he says. “He was a cellist as well, so I think that’s how he ended up writing for 12 instruments. Every week at the Royal Academy of Music we had a cello ensemble, and that’s how we got to know it. There’s a nice link there, as there is for all the pieces on the album. It’s very inspiring being around really young hardworking musicians and all of us being based in one place.”

How does Kanneh-Mason balance his studies with days like today, where he has a whole day of promotional interviews to navigate? “I just have to be very organised with my time, which is a good thing for us anyway. I never feel that I have too much on.”
He is particularly gushing when talk turns to his work with Sir Simon Rattle, and the bond they share in the interpretation of the Elgar. “Definitely. I think what I love about working with someone is the freedom to do what I want but knowing that they can do everything as well. It’s the spirit of true collaboration I think”.

The theme of collaborating runs through both albums, and Kanneh-Mason identifies with this original approach. “It’s nice to have a link and a reason for putting them together, like creating a concert program. It’s great to record a masterpiece and a big piece, and put it with smaller pieces that have an equal range of colour and harmony, and perhaps more subtleties.”

For Elgar he was helped by Simon Parkin, with sensitive arrangements for cello and orchestra of Elgar’s Nimrod, from the Enigma Variations, and the Romance originally written for bassoon and orchestra. To that he adds Frank Bridge’s Spring Song, the folksongs Blow The Wind Southerly and Scarborough Fair, and Fauré’s profound Elégie.

“He’s an amazingly skilled arranger”, says Sheku of Parkin, “and he keeps the heart of the pieces while making the most of the instruments. I love mixing the arrangements that complement the pieces of music in their original form, and it’s great to record them in respect of friends and teachers, which makes it more personal. I’m always excited and open to lots of new things and working with new people. I’ve had some amazing experiences with these recordings, and you can hopefully hear the enjoyment from them.”

As you might expect given his album programming, Sheku’s ‘out of hours’ musical tastes are varied. “I listen to a mixture of classical, jazz, reggae, and different kinds of folk music”, he says. “Growing up with music all around me has been really inspiring, and it has kept me grounded and motivated. Now I live with students, and the people below me are also musicians.”

Thinking back to his BBC Young Musician of the Year triumph brings Kanneh-Mason onto a subject close to his heart, musical education. “I think we should have as many young people in music as possible. The Young Musician of the Year is great as it shows people playing to the highest standard. When I did it I found watching people three or four years older than me was really inspiring, and it ultimately gives people the opportunity to do many more things.”

He also notes the importance of after care. “Afterwards there was so much attention, but the BBC really looked after me. It was important to have the right people around me and to be working with the right people. A competition is only good if what comes after is good.”

With time running out, we conclude by discussing his favourite musicians of the moment. “I love Steven Isserlis”, he says. “He’s my favourite cellist to watch…and I also love listening to the violinist Daniel Lozakovich. Martha Argerich is also someone I find really inspiring, I love watching her play the piano.”

This blend of youth and maturity, established and new, is perhaps the most inspiring thing about Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s success. His approach is very inclusive, and his next ventures will be very interesting to chart and appraise. With Elgar reaching the heights of number eight in the album charts so far, the musical world is very open to him right now.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s Elgar album is out now on Decca Classics – it can be purchased here, via Apple Music, or streamed below via Spotify: