The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column
Liszt in Lockdown: Interview with Charles Owen
14th September 2021
14th September 2021
Charles Owen: The Janáček was recorded nearly 20 years ago, it was my first solo record. I was in my early 30s then. Funnily enough I gave a live performance from the Oxford Lieder Festival, where they also present instrumental music, back in February this year. I played Liszt, Schubert and Janáček’s In the Mists, which we’ve just put up on YouTube. I’ve finally got my act together and now have a proper YouTube page with concert and some homemade films.
There are basically different strands to my music-making: me playing alone, me in my piano duo with Katya Apekisheva, and me with various instrumentalists I work with, for example the Sacconi Quartet, we recorded Jonathan Dove’s Piano Quintet a few years ago, and that was a very successful recording for Signum. I perform with a fabulous German violinist, Augustin Hadelich – we recorded Janáček and Dvořák for Warner about two years ago in Boston. And the solo discs: the Bach Partitas, Brahms [late piano works] and two discs of Fauré, the complete Nocturnes and the complete Barcarolles.
SD: Now you're at the real heart of 19th-century German Romantic repertoire with Liszt.
CO: Yes, though I still think of Liszt as a sort of mixture of Hungarian, French, German, all rolled into one.
SD: And one of the quintessential Romantic composers.
SD: And you’ve been playing some of these works for a while now, haven’t you?
SD: That’s a very nice association for the recording to have!
CO: It’s a lovely connection, and of course Curzon, apart from being a great in Schubert and Mozart, also played wonderful Liszt. On a more Romantic note, I found that these pieces are so descriptive, with wonderful poetry often quoted in the printed scores...
SD: Schiller, Byron and Senancour.
CO: That’s right. And so, there’s that connection, and the fact that I absolutely love Switzerland, I adore the landscape, I love the Alps. Of course, I couldn’t get there, but I was looking at old photos from previous visits. I actually did just make it to Switzerland, playing at the Verbier Festival with Augustin [Hadelich], a month ago: but after my recording was long in the can! So, I think being at home in north London playing these pieces was a kind of escape from reality, it’s got a really personal meaning, it helped my mental state in those months. Now, of course, I’m fully back in the saddle: I’ve been giving a lot of concerts, in fact I’ve just played in Manchester two days ago with Katya, we performed all of Poulenc and Milhaud at Chetham’s in their new hall [the Stoller Hall] in Manchester.
Talking about musicians in lockdown, my impression, is that some people simply stopped practising entirely, they just felt, ‘I’m exhausted, it’s too much, what’s the point?’, they were so low. Others (like me, I’m afraid) after initial shock, stasis for a few weeks… I realised, actually I need to use this time wisely, to prepare new recordings, learn new repertoire, revisit old repertoire, read, study. So, I think that basically musicians fell into those two categories.
SD: Well, there was a third, wasn’t there, which was those who decided, very sadly, to quit the profession altogether?
CO: That’s the third group, and I can hardly bear to contemplate what happened to those musicians who had to change direction entirely just to survive. A dreadful situation.
SD: So, this was one of several lockdown projects?
CO: That was the main lockdown project for the first half of the year, but also, as I said, Schumann and Chopin. I then re-emerged and had some wonderful chamber music experiences. I played with Steven Isserlis for the first time at Prussia Cove. We did the big Rachmaninov D minor Trio, and the violinist was a lovely lady called Sini Simonen who leads the Castalian Quartet. Normally at the Prussia Cove chamber music seminars there are forty plus participants; on this occasion there were just 18 very lucky people. I had some concerts at Kings Place, 100 in the audience, live-streamed. And then a few others, a handful of things, and then lockdown again. It was announced just at the very moment I’d finished the Liszt recording: I couldn’t believe it!
SD: The recording was done in October, wasn’t it?
CO: I finished it on Halloween! Then lockdown again, and then briefly a few things happened, and then that very, very tough first half of this year. I did a handful of streamed concerts, and I worked with Katya on our new Poulenc project as we’re recording all the Poulenc repertoire for two pianos, we did some of that; and then the Chopin Preludes. So, I achieved something. But in the second winter lockdown I was low – not depressed, but low – and I couldn’t muster the same energy. It was too much, I think, mentally for a lot of people. But I re-emerged in May, June, and then it was literally non-stop, so many different programmes to deliver.
SD: What sort of repertoire?
CO: In concert, I played Chopin’s Second Concerto four times, the first thing I did, with the Orchestra of the Swan, based in Stratford; Michael Collins conducted beautifully. I’ve missed collaboration so much, a big part of what I do is chamber music. Paul Lewis, a very old friend, invited me to his festival, which I’ve done a few times, in Old Amersham. I worked quite a lot with the violinist Alina Ibragimova, which was a great joy. And then there was a chamber music project at the Menuhin School, and Verbier with Augustin, and now also solo recitals: lots and lots of different projects. I’m just about to give a postponed 50th birthday concert at Kings Place, which is Debussy, Chopin, Liszt and Messiaen.
SD: That sounds a marvellous programme! You mentioned the literary and landscape elements of the inspiration behind the Liszt. It seems that your performances manage to balance that with the inner expressiveness, what Liszt called the ‘deep emotions’ that are stirred by those scenes. Is that something you’re conscious of?
CO: Not at all.
SD: It must come naturally then! Some pianists go just for the splashy surface of these pictures, but their performances can pale with time, while yours grow with repeated listening, they have an inner strength to them. That’s not at all conscious, then?
CO: Definitely not, and that’s probably why it’s come out. I agree that all these pieces have a very strong emotional connection. And I’m also fascinated by the fact that it also took Liszt about 20 years to get to the finished version. Ashley Wass, who I mentioned earlier, recorded the early version, Album d’un voyageur: some things are similar to the later one, but Liszt was just a much more experienced composer by the time he did the revision, the edition that most of us play, know and love. There are some very profound thoughts and emotions in the pieces. He’s looking back to the 1830s, remembering his time travelling with the Countess Marie d’Agoult: she scandalously left her husband and was carrying Liszt’s child (he was only 24 at the time). These pieces depict something deeply emotional and significant for Liszt; it’s not just the beautiful landscape and the great literature and poetry he was carrying with him. There are some very deeply felt emotions and profound music. I remember the first time I played this at the Machynlleth Festival, a very intimate, beautiful venue right on the edge of Wales. When I got to the very end, ‘The Bells of Geneva’, the final arrival of the journey – that piece strikes me as so full of love and generosity. I rarely feel moved on stage, but it was a really emotional moment to reach that piece having been through the doubts of some of the other pieces, the drama of the storm and so on. There’s a real trajectory which I’d almost be bold enough to compare to a Schubert or Schumann song cycle.
The other thing is: why did he use the word ‘pèlerinage’ – ‘pilgrimage’? It does feel like the ultimate Romantic, Ruskinesque approach: you’re on a journey of self-discovery, of learning about the world, about yourself, about your place in it. Going to slightly more cosmic things, there are moments in the ‘Vallée d’Obermann’ for example, where it’s almost ‘Hamletesque’ at times: the lonely voices asking these questions into this vast landscape, 'Where do I fit in on this planet?'
SD: And there's a connection to a French translation of Schiller’s Wilhelm Meister novels, isn’t there?
Liszt - Années de pèlerinage 1 (Switzerland), Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude AV2476
Charles Owen’s YouTube channel:
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