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Owen Mortimer

Q&A: Alexander Boyd

2:10, 15th March 2018

The British pianist talks to Owen Mortimer about his fascination with pictorial music, and his love for the poetry, colour and passion of Spanish Romanticism

Your programme for Rhinegold LIVE explores the link between music and images. How strong is your own visual sense, and does music conjure pictures in your mind’s eye when you perform?

I think most music can initially produce visual imagery, but this quickly translates into an emotional response. When studying or performing a piece of music, the aim is to let the music do all the talking and not get in the way, so hopefully any visual imagery is created in the minds of the audience rather than the musician.

You come from a very artistic family that includes many painters, sculptors and writers. Did you ever consider following in their footsteps, or were you always more drawn to music?

I have always enjoyed painting for pleasure and have the privilege of being surrounded by beautiful and inspiring works of art, but I don’t think I am particularly good! My family are all passionate music lovers and the general feeling is that it doesn’t matter if it is through music, the written word or the strokes of a brush that you communicate, just that you are doing it. Of course, you realise at some point along the way that you have to try to earn a living from it, which is not easy. My brother Nathaniel, who is a fine cellist, has in recent years combined music and painting as a career, my grandfather painted a number of compositions on manuscript paper which I have played, and I keep meaning to write a novel and a play…

Colour and vibrancy: Jamie Boyd’s illustration for the cover of Iberia Volume 1
Colour and vibrancy: Jamie Boyd’s illustration for the cover of Iberia Volume 1

Your father provided the cover art for your two recent albums of Albéniz’s Iberia. How did you choose which images to use, and what qualities in the music do you feel they convey?

I think the pictures convey the colour, vibrancy and constantly changing moods of the Iberia suite. They are not typical landscapes or scenes, so allow you to find what you will in them, much as I feel that composers hope to happen with their music.

Debussy is often described as an ‘Impressionist’ – a term he himself rejected. How useful do you find this label in understanding his music?

That is just a title and giving anything a title will prejudice your approach, which is not useful at all. If you look at Debussy’s music it is extremely detailed and specific in its musical direction and needs to be played with great sincerity and integrity.

Rachmaninov initially refused to provide any descriptions for his Études-Tableaux, saying ‘Let [the listener] paint for themselves’. Do you agree with this view?

Absolutely. This is very similar to the answer my grandfather gave to people who asked him about the meaning or narrative behind his paintings – ‘I would rather you decide for yourself’. As a musician, it is important to let the music dictate what it needs to you, not hijack it as a means of expressing yourself or your ego.

Granados’ Goyescas have not been authoritatively associated with any specific paintings by Goya, but conjure the general atmosphere and character of the Spanish painter’s work. How successful is this act of translation?

I think that Granados succeeds in conveying joy, love, pain, anguish and loss with a vivid Spanish flavour. The music may have grown out of an influence from these pictures but really it has a life of its own, and I don’t think the connection or success of any translation as such is terribly important.

You have previously recorded Iberia and now plan to release Goyescas. How did you develop this fascination with Spanish music?

I had paid it scant attention until my wife Gemma, who is a wonderful pianist with Spanish roots, played some of the repertoire, encouraging and inspiring me to try it. I quickly felt that it offers a compelling combination of the poetry and lyricism of Chopin plus the colours of Debussy, allied with the rhythm, passion and flair of Spain.

It has to be said that boy, oh boy, does it have a lot of notes in it, and is very time-consuming to learn as well as unnerving to perform!

What other projects do you have in the pipeline?

I have been enjoying composing more and more in recent times, having done a couple of film scores for my sister Jessica, who is an actor and director. I am also going to write a duo work for my brother and myself to play at London’s Purcell Room early next year. In addition I am recording the Études-Tableaux and making a long-awaited return to play in Australia in June.

Alexander Boyd will give a Rhinegold LIVE recital of works by Debussy, Granados and Rachmaninov at London’s Conway Hall on Monday 26 March 2018.  Visit the Rhinegold LIVE webpage to reserve a free ticket: www.rhinegoldlive.co.uk

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