Former student of Denis Matthews (1919-1988) marks 25th anniversary of his death
19 August 2013
Young musicians deserve to be nurtured by responsible musical mentors,
writes pianist Sarah Beth Briggs, who has dedicated her latest recording
to the memory of her teacher Denis Matthews
It is hard to believe that the great pianist and
musicologist, Denis Matthews, died 25 years ago this Christmas Eve. There isn’t
a day when I sit down to play the piano that I don’t think of him, in my mind
hearing what he said when I played certain pieces (and being very aware of what
he would have said when playing others!) Although I was only 16 when he died, I
feel incredibly lucky to have benefitted from Denis’s breadth of musical
knowledge for eight of my formative years and to have grown so close to someone
who really awakened my love of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, in
I am commemorating this anniversary by dedicating my fourth release for Semaphore to his memory. It includes Schubert’s final piano sonata – the only piece of solo piano music that Denis chose when he featured on Desert Island Discs in 1967. It was also the first piece of music to move me to tears (aged just nine) when Denis performed it in Newcastle.
He was a great scholar pianist, always more interested in serving the interests of the composer than the performing self. In him, one found not only an interpreter who brought pure magic and freshness to every performance, but also a brilliant, questioning musical mind. The combination was exhilarating.
Was Denis an exceptional teacher? In my case – without
reservation. An honest appraisal would probably suggest that he was superb if
one could get onto his wavelength. Compromise wasn’t something that he embraced
easily. For many a talented eight-year-old pianist, the notion of listening to
Mozart operas, Beethoven string quartets and Brahms symphonies in lessons and
relating them to what they were studying might seem odd, if not utterly
bewildering. For me, the idea of being brought into piano music from a wider musical
perspective worked extremely well. Denis was someone who refused to become too
bogged down by issues of technique. Asked whether he believed in scales and
exercises, he would simply say that one should make exercises within the
repertoire that one was studying. It was essential to have strong
self-discipline to work well with him. But for eight years, I was inspired by
him, shared his musical passions and was introduced to and guided through so
much of the music that has become central to my performing repertoire. He and
my family became very close friends and we shared the ups and the downs of his
Recent revelations about a small but significant number of disgraceful, irresponsible (albeit highly talented) people who have abused their role as mentors have inevitably made parents fearful of teaching situations like the one that I was fortunate enough to enjoy with Denis. It would be a travesty if these people’s misdemeanours ruined the possibility of children developing that very special guiding relationship with a mentor in the future. The foundations of artistry are built within this context and, to a musician, it is almost as significant as the bond with a parent or other close relative. A chaperone would certainly have been one person too many in my lessons. I can only hope that future generations are not prevented from experiencing that sort of artistic interplay.
When preparing the Schubert D960 for my recording, I looked back at my old Associated Board edition which I had studied the sonata from while learning with Denis. The tiny number of markings (Denis wasn’t one for writing on the music, preferring his students to process his thoughts and accept or reject them) were enough to remind me of the way he brought this, and so much other great music, to life for me. It is a great sadness that Denis’s account of this glorious piece wasn’t saved for posterity. I can only hope that this recording will be a fitting tribute to the memory of a truly great musical mentor.
Sarah’s CD of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert will be released in September
Sarah will give concerts commemorating the 25th anniversary of Denis’s death on 3 October at the King’s Hall, Newcastle University (where he was Professor of Music from 1971-1984) and on 8 December at The Craxton Studios, London, NW3. Particularly appropriately, the latter is the Craxton Memorial Trust Fund-Raising Concert so the concert will celebrate both Denis’s memory and that of his mentor, Harold Craxton
Kohlberg & Co drops Steinway bid after Paulson makes rival offer
14 August 2013
Private equity group Kohlberg & Co has dropped out of the bidding process for Steinway Musical Instruments, after it emerged that hedge fund manager John Paulson had made a higher offer for the grand piano maker, reports the Financial Times.
Kohlberg was notified by Steinway on 11 August that it had received a new cash offer of $38 a share, or $475m, topping the private equity group’s proposal of $35 a share announced in July.
The counter offer came during a ‘go-shop’ period of 45 days, during which Michael Sweeney, Steinway’s chief executive, had been soliciting rival bids.
Photographer Sussie Ahlburg's body found in Hampstead pond
7 August 2013
Nick van Bloss
IP is sad to report that the immensely talented photographer Sussie Ahlburg has died.
Ahlburg, 50, was found in the ladies’ bathing pond on Hampstead Heath, north-west London on Monday. She had gone swimming on Sunday and was reported missing by her family when she did not come home.
The BBC has reported that the death is being treated as ‘unexplained’ and that police are keen to speak to anyone who may have seen Ahlburg at the pond on Sunday.
Ahlburg’s distinctive portraits were widely used in
the classical music press. Her work frequently appeared in the pages of IP, and
she photographed many pianists including Ashley Wass, Benjamin Grosvenor, Nick
Van Bloss, Imogen Cooper, Nino Gvestadze and Peter Donohoe.
Opposite: Pianist portraits by Swedish photographer Sussie Ahlburg
REVIEW: James Rhodes at Latitude Festival, Suffolk
25 July 2013
Few concert halls – not even the lake-ensconced KKL Luzern, watery
home to the Lucerne Piano Festival, or London’s Royal Festival Hall, post-war
edifice with enviable Thames views – can claim a stage that’s as dramatically
waterside as Latitude Festival’s waterfront stage. The floating structure,
which performing artists reach via punt, is set among the woodland and fields
of Henham Park in Suffolk; quintessentially English countryside that is overrun
by tents, fairy lights and coloured sheep for four days a year in July.
Latitude Festival (18-21 July) celebrates dance, literature, visual arts, craft and a range of music, from synth to symphonic, and last year the waterfront stage welcomed its first concert pianist, Lang Lang, who attracted a 7,000-strong audience. This year’s booking, James Rhodes, may be less well known, but his blend of gritty pianism and witty banter is ideal for such a setting. As anticipated, he didn’t disappoint, mixing short pieces by Chopin and Beethoven with interesting contextual information. His recent album Jimmy: James Rhodes Live in Brighton came with the covering note ‘caution – explicit language’ as it included Rhodes’ – frequently colourful – talking between pieces. At this Friday afternoon and family event, Rhodes was more cautious, but his rapport with the crowd was clear. The Steinway was amplified, and the sound carried magnificently across the fields, albeit with a few clunks here and there. Audience members lay on the grass, eyes closed, while others, pint in hand, stood on the bridge. Rhodes, in his customary skinny jeans, has a palpable energy at the keyboard, and an evangelical approach to classical music; exactly what is required at a cross-platform festival like Latitude.
James Rhodes plays Soho Theatre, London, 25 July-3 August
REVIEW: Martha Argerich at Manchester International Festival
15 July 2013
Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Manchester International Festival, 12 July
A few heart-stopping moments of silence preceded Martha Argerich’s entrance onto the stage at the Manchester International Festival. The legendary Argentinian pianist – who in recent years has become as famous for cancelling concerts at the last minute as for her dazzling and unfading artistry – had already made a last-minute change to the programme, opting to play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 1 instead of the billed Shostakovich concerto for piano and trumpet.
But eventually she appeared from the wings, to the relief and delight of an audience eagerly anticipating her first appearance in Manchester for more than 50 years. Argerich had been invited to play with Manchester Camerata, as part of the Manchester International Festival, because of her reportedly close relationship with the chamber orchestra’s new principal conductor, Gábor Takács-Nagy.
Argerich’s Beethoven was tender and contemplative, eschewing the tense, edge-of-seat approach taken by some interpreters; but there was certainly no lack of attack in her performance. Now 72 years old, Argerich has lost none of the clarity of touch and that has earned her such a dedicated and adoring cohort of fans. Those fans rose to their feet at the conclusion of the concerto, rewarding her with a standing ovation and the kind of applause more typically reserved for a rock star.
And there was more to come: with the cheers still ringing out across the auditorium, Argerich suddenly sat back down at the piano and launched into a rare encore. Her account of Traumes Wirren from the Schumann Fantasiestücke Op 12 sizzled and danced, its fiendish runs dispatched with stunning accuracy and a rapt sense of playfulness.
Argerich’s appearance was preceded by a spirited performance of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, and followed by Arvo Pärt’s haunting Lamentate. Both of these pieces featured another pianist, 27-year-old Frenchman David Kadouch. The Pärt in particular revealed a deeply sensitive musical intellect, with Kadouch providing many of the highlights of an arrestingly beautiful performance.
Manchester International Festival runs until 21 July