The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

Liszt in Lockdown: Interview with Charles Owen

  14th September 2021

14th September 2021

This week The Spin Doctor takes on a different format as we interview British pianist Charles Owen, ahead of the release in a few days’ time of his new Liszt recording. Amid a busy schedule, Charles generously gave time to answer our questions and offer his views and reflections on a broad range of topics, from the challenges for musicians of the Covid-19 pandemic, to the music of Liszt, and many of his own past and future projects. The Liszt disc, out this Friday, contains deeply musical performances of the first, ‘Swiss’ book of the epic Années de pèlerinage, as well as the glorious ‘Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude’ from the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. Charles Owen brings out all the brilliance and intensity of expression in these pieces while tracing a clear musical path through each number. Widely respected among his colleagues, he is something of a musician’s musician; he is also, happily for us, as articulate and infectiously expressive in person as he is at the piano keyboard. We hope you have as much pleasure reading this interview as we had making it!

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Spin Doctor: You already have an impressive list of solo recordings to your credit, ranging from Bach and Brahms to Fauré, Poulenc and Janáček.

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.

CO: Absolutely.

SD: And you’ve been playing some of these works for a while now, haven’t you?

CO: I always wanted to learn Années de pèlerinage and the Bénédiction, and I finally got round to it about six years ago for a really amazing festival in Wales that Julius Drake runs, the Machynlleth Festival. I played the Swiss book there for the first time, and the second half was the big A major Sonata by Schubert. Having played the cycle for the first time in 2014, then I thought: I want to record this someday, it must happen, I love it so much. And then when the first lockdown occurred, like many musicians I was working very hard on Beethoven, and as all those concerts started to collapse like dominoes, I just hadn’t got the heart to carry on practising Beethoven, it just didn’t feel right somehow. So, I allowed myself to be drawn as if by a magnet towards Chopin, Schumann and Liszt, those three. I don’t know why I was drawn to them, but I was, and they were the most wonderful companions. I revisited a lot of Chopin, practising the Études, just purely for myself really, even though I’ve performed some of them. I worked from the Alfred Cortot edition, which I found amazingly insightful and inspiring. Then I thought, you know, maybe this is the year to record the Liszt Swiss book, so I started to practise it, and I worked and worked away on it. Initially, because of lockdown, I have an upright piano here at home in north London, a Yamaha which also works silently (so as not to disturb neighbours!), and then I have two Steinways which are about a 10–15-minute walk from here, looked after by a wonderful lady who’s in her 80s, a family friend of ours. So, I couldn’t get to my Steinway pianos during that very hardcore first lockdown, when everything closed – a new world for everybody. I did all this practice for about two-and-a-half, three months even, on the upright piano, and my partner did a few films just on the iPhone of me playing, some of them are now on YouTube, just as a document of those months as something unexpected and unique.

As I became more and more drawn to the Liszt, I then did some complete performances privately, followed by a run of them for the Fidelio Orchestra Cafe in Clerkenwell. It was one of the first places in the entire UK to present classical music after the first lockdown, because it was when restaurants were allowed to reopen with table service only; the piano is in the centre of the restaurant. An extraordinary range of musicians performed there in that first season including Steven Isserlis, Alina Ibragimova, Pavel Kolsesnikov.  I attended many concerts at the Fidelio Cafe as a listener, and of course was delighted to perform there myself. The great thing about the Fidelio Cafe is that you get to repeat the programme three or four times in a row, so the performances really grew. I then felt it was time to go into the studios in the autumn, and I went to the Menuhin School, which is where I studied, and the piano I recorded it on was one I chose with fellow pianist Ashley Wass [Director of Music at the Menuhin School], a brand-new concert Steinway for the Menuhin School. The school were able to purchase it due to a gift from the Wallace Curzon Trust [in memory of Clifford Curzon and his wife Lucille Wallace].

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?

CO: Exactly: Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre [‘Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years’]. The Germans call it Reisebilder [‘travel pictures’], and Heine also wrote about Reisebilder. And I think Schubert really is the precursor in music of all of this. For example, I think ‘Au lac de Wallenstadt’ and ‘Au bord d’une source’ would not exist without Schubert, and Liszt knew Schubert’s music intimately, having transcribed so many of the songs. When I first came across those song transcriptions, I was slightly sceptical, but many of them are completely brilliant. It’s worth mentioning that Liszt was one of the most generous spirits in all of music history: he gave so many lessons, he supported so many young musicians – not just pianists – and he did so much for other composers to support their work. He did a huge amount to bring Schubert’s music from obscurity. And that’s particularly relevant to the Swiss Année, because there’s something to do with Die schöne Müllerin and even Schwanengesang: rushing streams, mountains, gazing down at forests; it's that sort of Caspar David Friedrich element coming out in music. So, I definitely think Liszt owed a lot to Schubert: and he actually almost quotes little snippets of Schubert songs in some of the pieces.

SD: The Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude – such a gorgeous piece which, despite all that’s going on technically for the pianist, has such a sense of stillness and inner peace – must have been given special intensity by the circumstances of last year?

CO: I would say yes. And the short poem by Lamartine that Liszt quotes at the beginning, talks a lot about finding solace in God and nature, of starting a new life, being born anew, new beginnings. I felt that piece had particular emotional resonance. There’s some very deep religious and spiritual feeling to it, and the final page of the whole score is almost on the level of late Beethoven: it’s so profound, so wise.

SD: That comes across very vividly in the recording.

CO: Thank you: I gave it everything I could imagine!

SD: What about future recording projects: what else is in the pipeline?

CO: The next disc is with Katya recording all of Poulenc’s music for two pianos, also Milhaud’s Scaramouche, and Ravel’s version for two pianos of Debussy’s Nocturnes. I’m also moving gradually to a Schumann disc of some description, probably focusing on the earlier works and including some of the lesser-known pieces. I’ve played the ‘Abegg’ Variations, which I learnt a year ago in lockdown, and things like the Arabeske, Davidsbündlertänze, the Intermezzi, Papillons. I’m very drawn to early Schumann, there’s something about the freshness, the imagination, the new forms he created. Of course, I love late Schumann too, but I think that possibly will be the next recording. I know there’s a lot of Schumann recordings, but I think that will be it. I’m also starting to very slowly learn the Italian Année, but it will be a few years before it’s recorded.

I’m working on lots of other repertoire in concert, not necessarily on disc. Katya and I have commissioned quite a lot of major new works, very contemporary, just written for us in the last six years. For example, Nico Muhly wrote us a virtuoso piece which is a transcription of an organ work he wrote called Fast Patterns; a piece by Elena Langer which referenced a painting from the Russian Revolution; we’ve also played Tom Adès’s Powder Her Face paraphrase, one of the hardest things we’ve ever done, an amazing piece. Jonathan Dove has written a new piece for us, called Between Friends, a major fifteen-minute, four-movement work. And the latest commission which I’m literally just about to start learning is by Sally Beamish.

SD: An amazingly prolific composer!

CO: She’s absolutely wonderful, and I just warm to her so much as a person as well. That’s being premiered on 25 September at the New Ross Piano Festival in Ireland, a work for three pianists on two pianos including Finghin Collins. It’s called Sonnets, and it’s inspired by some of the sonnets that Shakespeare wrote to a young man and to a woman, and it’s a kind of love triangle, fascinating. They were written during a time of plague in Elizabethan London, so it’s got a kind of pandemic element, but not laid on too heavily. Apart from that, I’m just about to start learning it, so I can’t tell you anything about it!

SD: Thanks so much for sparing your time for this interview: it’s been a real pleasure talking to you.

CO: Thank you!

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The Recording:
Liszt - Années de pèlerinage 1 (Switzerland), Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude  AV2476

Charles Owen’s YouTube channel:

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