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A Balancing Act – Ashley Wass Talks to Jeremy Siepmann

April 1, 2011

Now in his mid-30s, Ashley Wass is still occasionally tagged as a ‘young English pianist’. Media, critics and publicists sometimes seem to think the world of music is populated by Peter Pans. But even when he could plead guilty to noteworthy youth, Wass was more often singled out by critics and musicians alike for his exceptional maturity—for his rapt poetry, his commanding but unostentatious sense of structure and musical narrative, for the sheer elegance and sophistication of his piano-playing. Today his maturity is less remarked for the simple reason that it is taken for granted, and is anyway no longer surprising. Having already outlived Schubert, he will soon have outlived Mozart. His stature and his age in combination confer maturity as a given. Like so many of today’s artists, he first came to widespread attention on the competition trail. In 1997 he became the first British pianist to win First Prize at the London International Piano Competition and in 2000 he was the second British pianist in twenty years to reach the finals of the Leeds Piano Competition. Yet like many of his colleagues, his feelings on the subject of musical competitions are distinctly ambivalent.

‘Well I only ever did three, so I’m no great authority, let alone a veteran. They were all very good experiences for me, but I have to say that I never enjoyed a single second in any one of them. My approach was that I would just play, prepare and perform in my own way, in my own time. If they liked it they liked it, and if they didn’t they didn’t, and that was that. But it wasn’t that easy. At one point in Leeds I phoned my then girlfriend and said ‘If I ever even think of doing another competition, just remind me of how I feel right now.’ I know there are people who actually enjoy the competition experience but the best I can do is to regard them as a necessary evil.’

The evil, however, rapidly yielded to the good. In the immediate aftermath of the London Competition, Wass made his first CD for Naxos, little suspecting that it would result in a 10-year contract: ‘That first disc was part of the prize. So I did my César Franck recital, and the contract resulted from the success of that. When I began my Naxos decade, so to speak, there was never any stipulation that I should become a specialist in British piano music. On the contrary. We agreed that I would record three discs a year, plus the odd chamber thing, and that the fundamental structure would be two British discs balanced out with one devoted to the so-called international composers—Liszt for example. As it transpired, the British discs tended to come out before the other ones, with the result that I’ve often been cast as a specialist, which is not at all how I see myself. The Bax was the first project, and from the beginning, I enjoyed it enormously. But Bax was only the beginning. The next great departure was Frank Bridge, whose music I just fell in love with. Of all the projects I’ve undertaken, the Bridge recordings have been by far the most rewarding for me. At his best he’s a truly extraordinary composer. The Sonata, for instance, is an absolutely wonderful piece. Unfortunately it remains much less well-known than many lesser works by more famous composers, which get a hearing simply because their composers are better known. And I think that’s a shame. Sometimes music is neglected for absolutely justifiable reasons, but definitely not in this case. It would be foolish to pretend that every work I’ve recorded in this series has been of the very highest quality, but I’ve been lucky enough to encounter some absolute gems. The Bridge Second Piano Trio is another marvellous work. And in the case of the Bax, there are some real masterpieces: the Symphonic Variations, for instance—a wonderful, wonderful piece. It was fabulous fun to record, and I’d love to perform it in concert if the opportunity ever arises. Unfortunately the present state of the score pretty well precludes that. The First Sonata, however, has regularly found its way into my concert programmes over the past three or four years, and has always been well received. So there’s clearly an interest in this music, away from the recording industry, which is itself pretty well completely disconnected from the performing industry. Another very remarkable work, coming out in April, is the big, big 45-minute Winter Legends, a proper monster of a work! I have to admit I was initially hesitant about recording it, but as I’ve come to really know it, it’s grown on me immensely. It’s a very fine piece—quite dark at times, typically Baxian in its rather wandering structure and its elusive melodies; one thing Bax could really do, though, was to write music which is immensely beautiful. The slow movement, for example, is absolutely gorgeous—and in the coda he has a wonderful way of drawing all his ideas together, as he does also in the Symphonic Variations, providing this wonderfully rapt conclusion. It absolutely deserves to be heard but concert organisers are hesitant to mount such an ambitious work, of such epic dimensions, by a composer of such marginal interest. So we just have to hope.’

And is the recording process something Wass enjoys? ‘I always enjoy piecing something together. It’s a wonderfully creative process, if you approach it in the right way, and I see it as very, very different from public performance. There are always going to be things that don’t work well in the concert hall but do work on CD and vice versa. I think one of the great myths about recording is that there’s no room for spontaneity. If anything, I think there’s even greater scope for creative experiment, from playing around with the musical materials to having the luxury at the end of the day of being able to discard things that you don’t like—a luxury you certainly don’t have in live performance!’

Considering the great breadth of his repertoire, recorded and otherwise, it came as no surprise to me to learn that Wass has always been a quick learner. ‘It’s true. Yes. But to be perfectly honest, I’ve always regarded it as much as a curse as a blessing. It can make you complacent from time to time, and it can also persuade you to take on too many things. In some ways I think perhaps my repertoire is too wide. It’s certainly the case that in the last few years, when I’ve tried to do a lot of chamber music, I’ve sometimes got bogged down in learning just too many notes. Last year, for instance, I performed with four different violinists in a single week. Even for a fast learner it can be quite overwhelming to have four different programmes to learn in such a short period of time. If learned more slowly, perhaps I wouldn’t be so ready to take on such things.’

But the lure of chamber music is very great. What, in particular, makes it such a special part of Wass’s life? ‘One of the many things I love is the extent to which it’s rooted in the social aspect of music making. It’s wonderful to be with other musicians, both on and off stage (where the pianist can feel quite lonely). We’ve all gone to concert halls where we’ve struggled to find much enthusiasm for the venue or the acoustics, or sometimes for the piano. And when you’re fighting those things on your own it’s much more difficult to find that spark that can really ignite the proceedings. In chamber music, you’ve got other people to bounce off, as it were, and if you’re not feeling very inspired yourself they can often lift you, which is a wonderful feeling. And I love the sense of spontaneity and camaraderie onstage, especially when you develop relationships with people, and the people you’re playing with aren’t just colleagues but good friends. And of course the repertoire is simply fabulous. Not that we’re spoiled for great works in the piano world, of course. But there are just so many masterpieces for two instruments or more. Playing chamber music has been hugely beneficial to me, not only as a musician but as a person. And to have worked with some of the people I’ve worked with! I’ve probably learned more from them than from any of my actual teachers, or master-classes or festivals or music schools. It’s been absolutely invaluable to me. We musicians, after all, are really sponges, picking up those things that are most useful to us and absorbing them, just as we discard those that aren’t. And eventually we form our own musical personalities from the experiences we encounter. So many of the most valuable, for me, have come from working with others.’

Small wonder, then, that since 2007 Wass has run his own chamber music festival, set in his native Lincolnshire. ‘This has been one of the most immensely rewarding and enjoyable experiences of my life. I’ve always enjoyed programming, I find it just fascinating and it’s a wonderful feeling when you spend time mulling over a programme, piecing things together, and then something clicks and you feel you’ve got it right. And to be able to do that over the course of a whole festival is just wonderful. The programmes are entirely planned by me. Then we get the musicians to come and play them—friends, colleagues, and people I’ve admired from afar—and it works very strictly to a theme, every concert slotting into it. We try to make it educational as well as entertaining and uplifting—and in many cases the person who is most educated is myself! This year we’re focusing particularly on performer-composers, with Liszt (naturally, in his bicentenary) as our guiding muse. As it happens, he performed quite extensively in Lincolnshire, so we’re recreating one of the programmes he played at one of the venues where he played it. That should be good fun! Sadly, he himself wrote very little chamber music, but one of the things we’re focusing on is duo arrangements, and some of his own students’ arrangements of works by him. We’re also including one or two of his greatest transcriptions. I think it’s important that we celebrate Liszt not only as a composer but as possibly the greatest arranger who ever lived. I’ve actually already done his transcription of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (last year, at my annual fortepiano concert—the only time in the year that I play the fortepiano). Some people may think that was an outrageous thing to do, but it worked wonderfully well. The texture of the instrument, the timbre, the translucency, are all much more suited to orchestral textures than you might think—in some ways better than the modern grand.’

Wass’s most recent release on Naxos, prior to the Bax Winter Legends, was devoted principally to the seldom heard Album d’un Voyageur—the first incarnation of Book I of the famous Années de pelerinage—the Swiss volume. As one who has played the later version for years, this fascinating turning back of the clocks was an illuminating and in some ways a disconcerting experience: ‘It was. Yes. Some of the movements are really very different. So much so that they’re virtually unrecognisable, compared with the versions we’ve come to know and love. The Bells of Geneva, for example, plays a central role in the earlier set. It’s much more expensive, there’s a lot of material that didn’t make it into the revised version, and Vallée d’Obermann, too, is very different. On the whole, the original versions are much more difficult technically, the later version generally far more refined. But I have to say there are some wonderful moments which I almost wish had made it into the revised version—little harmonic corners, special colours that he creates through his pianism, which didn’t make the cut.’

From looking back to Liszt we ended our conversation by looking forward with Wass. How, ideally, I wondered, would he like to see the next ten years unfold? ‘That’s the million-dollar question isn’t it! Somebody asked me that a couple of years ago and I replied then that I wanted variety, which for me is a very important thing. I love playing chamber music, I want to continue doing solo recitals, of course, and concertos—I love working with orchestras—I love the festival work, and I’d certainly like to do much more of that; I never want to give up teaching, and I also enjoy travelling, but only in moderation. I’m no great fan of living out of a suitcase. I always prefer to sleep in my own bed—and then, in that earlier conversation, I switched off the future and realised that I had in fact just described my present. I’m incredibly lucky to have all that already. Some people might think it’s a bit of a mishmash but as I say, I love the variety, the diversity. That’s what keeps the light alive in me, finding inspiration from all that range of different sources—exploring new repertoire, doing recordings, the whole lot. It’s challenging but tremendously rewarding when you get the balance right.’

And getting the balance right is one of Ashley Wass the artist’s many outstanding virtues. He is also one of those pianists who regularly ‘speaks’ through his playing, appearing to address each listener as an individual. He will never lack a ready and responsive audience.

More recordings by Ashley Wass on Naxos:

Ashley Wass Biography & Discography


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