Rhinegold Photo credit: Suzie Maeder
James Lisney


Preview: Endgame concert series

2:02, 20th September 2019

British pianist James Lisney’s Endgame concert series explores the notion of ‘late style’ through the late piano works of Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin. Ahead of his UK performances this October, Lisney talked to IP about the significance of late style and why he finds it so fascinating

I have a habit of starting study projects from the ‘end’. My first serious attempts at understanding the style of Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin were drawn from their late or final works. I see this as a symptom of my impatience to attempt music that has an aura of difficulty, and that benefits from long maturation.

As a student, I performed one of the final Beethoven sonatas in a competition. Louis Kentner, sitting on the jury, enquired as to how long I had been studying the sonata. When I answered that my interpretation represented three months’ work, he smiled and said that he was still studying it after 60 years, but that it was always best to start ‘before you are ready!’

Late works reveal an extraordinary amount about a composer’s compositional journey: they intensify the trajectory of characteristics apparent in the early works. Take Schubert, whose first works often contained passages of melancholy and turbulence alongside traditional sentiments of youth. Seeing these aspects writ large in, for example, the final sonatas provides a sense of perspective on passages that are often over-played or ascribed to morbid or neurotic causes.

For me, ‘late style’ in Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin is notable for a lack of sentimentality, any sense of morbid or maudlin valediction, or deterioration in ability. Instead, each composer combines their essential characteristics and philosophical perspective to extend the musical experience. The authority and concentration of late works create surprising revelations and justify a position at the forefront of our concert hall programming. They provide uplifting inspiration and help us make sense of universal human concerns.

The repertoire for my concerts selected itself. My only regret was the omission of some special works such as Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux or Beethoven’s Bagatelles. I had to ensure that I created a menu of variety, validity and exciting progressions. For example, in the final concert, the bohemian dance character of Schubert’s Klavierstücke leads naturally into Chopin’s late waltzes and mazurkas – before Diabelli’s ‘cobbler’s patch’ of a waltz provides the stepping-off point for Beethoven’s astonishing variations.

It is impossible to select favourites among my chosen works because their significance evolves in relation to one’s personal life and pianistic or artistic capabilities. If part of a piece attracts me less, I make it my focus, and find that the investment of time and care is quickly repaid. This is also a good strategy with our fellow human beings!

In future editions of Endgame, I plan to include an extended range of composers. The late works of Bach, Brahms, Debussy, Scriabin, Rachmaninov – let alone of contemporary composers such as Jan Vriend – provide endless satisfaction during lengthy periods of detailed study.

For me, it is a remarkable experience to go to the piano each day to face the challenges of extraordinary music. It constantly changes my perspective and moulds my thinking. Ultimately, living with this music makes being a musician worthwhile.


Upcoming UK performances of Endgame take place as follows:

1 October – Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham

13 October – St George’s Bristol

16 October – West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge

The series continues throughout 2020, including a date at the Southbank Centre in the spring.


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