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Bax to the Future

September 5, 2008

This is an edited version of an interview with Colin Clarke

Ashley Wass is a young pianist whose career is in the ascendant. His new series of Bax piano music promises much. A prize-winner in both the World Piano Competition and the Leeds Piano Competition, Naxos has introduced Mr Wass’s playing to the record-buying public. I was lucky enough to chat to Mr Wass over tea in Piccadilly.

(Colin Clarke) I note your Naxos discography with interest. Firstly there is Franck, whose keyboard music strikes me as under-rated, certainly in the UK.

Ashley Wass: First of all the project was something that was suggested by Naxos at that time. Beyond the Prélude Aria & Finale and the Prélude Chorale & Fugue you still need another 30 minutes or so of music…there are maybe six or seven other pieces of varying quality so it was a question of finding the best of the rest. I would love to have done one or two transcriptions, but Naxos at that time really wanted only original piano music. It was a really fun project. The Prélude Chorale & Fugue has become one of my staple pieces now. It really is one of the greatest works written for the piano. I absolutely adore the piece and even the smaller pieces, while they’re not of the greatest quality…it’s a different kind of challenge to me, to make that sort of music work for a listener, to make it convincing.

(CC) Franck was mainly known as an organist. Does it feel like an organist writing for the piano?

AW: I’ve heard it said about Franck that pianists complain that his music is two organistic and vice versa…but I love contrapuntal music and I think it is very complex, very austere.

(CC) …so you like Bach?

AW: I do, although I’m too scared to play it at the moment! I know that there are Bach specialists and I leave the Bach playing to them.

(CC)You don’t go to the other extreme and programme Sorabji, do you?

AW: (laughs—lots) No.

(CC) The Bax is another fascinating choice, and you have the first two Sonatas providing the bulk of your new release. So you programme Bax in live concerts?

AW: Not so far except for a couple of smaller engagements when I played one or two of the smaller pieces (such as ‘Dream in Exile’). From next season onwards, though, I’ve quite a few promises of programming the First Sonata, ‘Dream in Exile’ again. To be honest I have experienced a little bit of reluctance on the part of promoters…Music Societies in this country seem to be afraid that it’s a little too heavy for their audiences.

(CC) I wonder if that’s prejudice? I wonder how many people actually know the music…

AW: I don’t think any of them do to be honest. All four sonatas are really good pieces and I am absolutely amazed that nobody plays them, I’m really shocked about that. They’re really fine works. I can think of many pieces which are core repertoire for pianists that are far less deserving…

(CC) Let’s hope that the Naxos recordings will do the job! …Your Bax seems fairly all-encompassing. I can hear references to Debussy (‘Cathédrale engloutie’ in the Second Sonata, for instance), and Scriabin is a big one (again in the Second Sonata). Do you see it as a mission not only to bring Bax to the public but also to show there is more to Bax (including a wider frame of reference) than was previously thought?

AW: I didn’t set out with any ambitions like that but having worked on this disc now and recognised the quality I hope that more people will be more attracted in the same way that there are now so many versions of the symphonies, and people are much more aware of them now. I hope that more people will be encouraged to listen or that one or two pianists will be encouraged to programme these pieces. They are really deserving.

(CC) They don’t sound easy…

AW: Well, there are certain problems. To be honest the biggest technical difficulties come from the fact that they’re not written in a very forgiving way. Bax is very orchestral in the way he writes and in that sense, there are difficulties involved. Just minor things, but sometimes he doesn’t write as economically for the piano as someone else might. They’re challenging, but nothing… (trails off)

(CC) Do you think orchestrally when you play (in terms of how Bax would orchestrate in his symphonies, for example)?

AW: Very much so. Generally speaking the music I like to play is contrapuntal, but also ‘orchestral’ music. Beethoven’s a composer that I play more than any other, simply because I think of his piano music in orchestral terms. The later works perhaps on a smaller scale, but it is that that interests me. I’m not fond of piano music that is too pianistic.

(CC) Of course when you move into Beethoven the competition is absolutely fierce.

AW: Absolutely.

(CC) The sonatas (Bax) sound like great fun to play (the bell-like, almost Chinese-y effects spring to mind). Are they?

AW: They are. They’re very intense, and something you can really sink your teeth into and get a lot of satisfaction from working at them. I’ve heard it said that Bax is an acquired taste, but as you become more familiar with the music you appreciate it more. It does require a little bit of effort (from both performer and listener) but there is a lot to be taken from these. There is such a wide range of emotion and so much drama in this music, it’s fantastic to play.

(CC) Looking at Bax’s life there seems to have been a fair amount of drama there…I wonder how much that fired up the music?

AW: Well, (laughs), I suspect quite a lot.

(CC) Do you see yourself channelling into British music?

AW: I do have a kind of agreement with Naxos to do a lot of discs of other British piano music in the future. Obviously the first goal is to complete the Bax, as well as doing the piano music I’m also doing some violin music with Laurence Jackson from the Maggini Quartet. We’ve already performed the first sonata together and sessions are taking place in around December. Also probably the two-piano music with Antti Siirala (dependant on his commitments to other companies). Also possibly the Piano Quintet with the Magginis, cello works…if funding can be found, the concertos too. In addition to that we’ve spoken about a lot of other things. The piano music of Elgar, Frank Bridge…

(CC) I’m hearing you’re doing a lot of chamber music. Is that part of your life as well?

AW: Yes, it’s really my greatest passion. I get so much pleasure from it. To be honest I don’t do as much as I would like to. I do have a regular Trio that I started fairly recently. As a pianists there’s a social aspect which…the interaction both musically and personally is so rewarding. I learn a lot

(CC) Who are the two other members?

AW: They’re both living in New York. I met them in America in the various festivals over the years. We played together for fun, and it worked. [CC Note: the Denali Trio consists of Jesse Mills, violin; Sarah Cater, cello; and (obviously) Ashley Wass, piano.]

(CC) Lots more recordings?

AW: Actually, one of the projects I’ve discussed with Naxos is the possibility of doing the Bridge Trio, which is a fantastic piece, so hopefully that will work.

(CC) Chamber music stops life being insular for the concert pianist…

AW: Absolutely. I was on the BBC New Generation scheme and one of the things they do is to get you together with other members of the scheme and I did a fair amount but not as much as I would have liked. Maybe 20 or 30 years ago there were distinct boundaries between concert pianist, chamber musician and accompanist , but people now realise it is so important to do everything, to learn so much (and it’s so much fun!).

(CC) Now to Concertos—do you play the Ireland (a personal favourite of mine!)?

AW: Alas, no. The only British Concerto I’ve performed so far is actually the Britten, a piece that isn’t really performed as much as it should be. It’s a very good piece.

(CC) Richter championed it—you couldn’t ask for better.

AW: It’s bizarre how it has fallen out of favour. I know John Lill played it in Manchester last year, but…That was this first time I’d seen it programmed for a while.

(CC) Maybe it’s something about Britten concertos. The Violin Concerto is just coming back, and of course the Vengerov recording is really big…

(CC) With Naxos, can you dictate your repertoire?

AW: There’s a certain amount of give and take. It’s basically up to me to suggest things to them. Obviously there are a number of factors that need to be taken into consideration, sales figures etc. Most of the funding is coming from Select, who are championing British music, and they’ve had a lot of success. The Maggini Quartet with their Bax series for example…but it’s a question of me suggesting things to them. Mostly they give me the green light. Occasionally there are one or two things they shy away from…

(CC) OK, let’s talk maybe a little bit about your development and your major teachers. What did you take from them and—more interesting—what didn’t you take from them?

AW: I came from a very particular school of playing . I studied for a while in London with Maria Curcio, a pupil of Schnabel, and this line traces all the way back to Beethoven. At the RAM I was a student of Chris Elton , who was also a student of Maria’s. A lot of this school of playing is about quality of sound , I try to pay a lot of attention to that . I get very frustrated by so many modern pianists who sound as if they’re trying to kill the piano. I suspect part of the reason is because students spend their time practising in tiny little rooms on badly maintained pianos and they become almost immune to the sound that they’re making. I find that incredibly frustrating. As for what I didn’t take…you often learn the most from working with people you actually disagree with strongly. You really have to ask yourself why you disagree with them, you have to defend your own ideas and that can reveal more. What is it about their playing that you don’t like, what is it about their teaching that you don’t like and that can often be a valuable experience.

It’s the same thing with chamber music. You don’t always work with people you gel with. You always have to find a way to make it work. You learn to be a diplomat

(CC) The magic comes when it does work and you get that communication…

AW: Exactly, that’s a fantastic experience. Spontaneity is possible then. I hate to have everything planned. Just to have the trust in somebody that if you try something new, they will go with you.

(CC) These days part of the development of any pianist is competitions. It’s almost unavoidable these days—few circumvent it. You won the World Competition. How did you find it?

AW: It was great for me at the time—I was about 20 when I did it and it was my first major international competition. I really only entered for the experience, I didn’t even expect to be accepted. But it was a great experience. What I learned most was that I should come with preparation—a huge amount of repertoire; to manage my time and be efficient…I haven’t done many (three in total). The most valuable experience I got from them was in the preparation .

(CC) You did the Leeds as well? And you were a finalist?

AW: Yes.

(CC) Which concertos did you play in both the finals?

AW: Brahms 1 in both which in hindsight was not the wisest choice perhaps for me. All of a sudden everyone was playing this in the finals of competitions. When I did the Leeds, 3 people played it

(CC) Yes, there were two performances in the World piano competition finals the year I went…

AW: Yes, that was when I met Antti (Siirala) and immediately after that we went to Marlboro Festival in America and we were there for 6 weeks. That’s how we really got to know one another.

(CC) Are there going to be piano duets, two-piano pieces as well as the Bax?

AW: Hopefully the Bax…

(CC) Competitions sound like hell on earth to me. It must be awful…

AW: Yeah…I remember at Leeds, my most vivid memory is from the semis and when they announced the results. There were 12 semi-finalists, 6 go through to the final and I remember we were ushered into a backstage room and there was a wonderful platter of food and we were just told to wait. Of course everyone was ashen-faced, nobody wanted to eat anything. Every time someone came in, everybody’s head would spin around and we waited there for so long. Nobody was talking, there was such a horrible atmosphere (understandably). When eventually somebody did come we were taken into the jury room, almost frog-marched in one by one and lined up against a wall (like a firing squad) and they just read out six names. I remember one person who didn’t get through who was like ‘was that six names, I only heard five’. It’s such an unpleasant experience and even though on that occasion I was one of the lucky ones, I felt awful. I never want to do that again.

(CC) And the good news is that now you might not have to…

AW: Fingers crossed! No plans to anyway.

(CC) One of the most appealing sides of the concert pianist’s life (to me!) is the travel. You presumably get to see quite a lot of the world?

AW: I’ve been to some interesting places. I just came back from Cuba a couple of months ago, a British Council thing, and I had a good time out there. They have a very good School of Arts there.

(CC) Have you ‘broken’ Japan yet?

AW: I’ve only been to the Far East once, and that was to Hong Kong, which was in itself a fantastic experience…it’s an amazing city. There, there are huge posters and marketing campaigns for artists. You don’t get that here.

(CC) What about contemporary music of the more hard-hitting variety: Stockhausen, Ferneyhough, Ligeti, etc. Do you play them?

AW: They haven’t really been part of my repertoire as such. Interesting you ask me this now. A month ago I did play some Ligeti Etudes for the City of London Festival with some Kurtag pieces and a premiere by Sally Beamish, which was great. Just yesterday I came back from Cheltenham where I gave more World Premieres by Eric Tanguy, a French composer, and by Gerald Barry. It’s funny, they happened within a month of each other because I’d never given a premiere of anything before. I really enjoyed it. There is a certain pleasure to be taken from coming to music on which you have no preconceptions. The language, the sound…when you learn a new Beethoven sonata, the language is essentially the same. When you come to these new composers, its great. You suddenly have to work it out for yourself; it’s like building a puzzle or something.

(CC) Do you work with the composers themselves?

AW: I did with Sally (Beamish). She was wonderful, very open to ideas. With the Tanguy I met him literally just half an hour before the concert. A question of checking tempi. We did get on very well and the piece got a good reception. We talked about doing more in the future.

(CC) And commissioning?

AW: I guess there’s a practicality issue—money. But it would be something that would interest me. I guess I’m fortunate that I have a good relationship with the BBC and they are a champion of new music. Hopefully there will be more things in the future…

(CC) One of the most tricky things about any piano disc is the recording itself. I only have a pre-production copy of the Bax—is it the same recording team as the Franck?

AW: Yes it is. This was Potton Hall (the Franck was St Geroge’s, Bristol). I just got the first edit of Bax Volume 2 a couple of weeks ago and I’m much happier with the sound. For me Potton Hall is just a little bright, a little hard.

(CC) How involved are you in the recording process? Microphone placement is presumably left to the engineer? You can ask about change of sound etc?

AW: Absolutely. We spent probably the first day trying to find the right sound. The one thing we didn’t try was moving the piano and when I went to do the second disc the piano was still in position from the night before, completely different from where it was when I did the first volume. Immediately it sounded much better. I explain what I like or don’t like.

(CC) And the technique of recording itself. Do you work in long takes?

AW: It varies dramatically. It try to wherever possible. I absolutely adore the process of recording. I’ve always worked with Michael Ponder in the past, who has produced all the discs I’ve done so far. We have a good relationship. He gives me complete control over everything. I do all my own edits (he sits there very patiently letting me do that!). We do it during the sessions themselves. I like to do it immediately, when everything is fresh, when I have the chance to go back. I love the process. I start to wonder if I shouldn’t become a record producer instead of a pianist…

(CC) You might not be the first!

AW: I just love the idea of piecing something together like that. It’s almost like a jigsaw. There’s something incredibly creative about it.

(CC) Do you miss an audience, though?

AW: There are times I guess when you do. There’s always a certain special atmosphere created when you have a good audience, anyway. But I have to say mostly not. I actually almost prefer the recording experience to the performing. I think it’s more creative, more reactive. You can take more risks because of the wonders of editing and piece together something that is as close to perfection (a horrible word!) as you can possibly get. There are always things in performance you’re not going to be 100% happy with, inevitably. I could count on one hand the number of performances in my whole life that I’ve been genuinely pleased with. Any pianist I’m sure would say the same.

(CC) Three day sessions actually sounds quite comfortable…

AW: For the Franck I did 2 days , but for that I didn’t select my own edits. The 3rd day is all about that. I’m very lucky. It’s nice to be able to work without the pressure of an extreme deadline. The whole selection process is very time-consuming . You may have 10, sometimes maybe 20 takes of the same thing…

(CC) Exhausting

AW: Absolutely, yes. The concentration required is immense. By the time you listen to your tenth take, to find which one is very difficult.

(CC) You’re taking on very difficult works. How about the technical aspect of things? Did that come easily for you?

AW: I’m lucky in that I do learn pieces quickly, but sometimes that’s almost a curse. The Bax was a new challenge in that he writes in a different way for the piano. When I first began the Franck it was actually quite challenging, but over time it grew into my fingers and developed, and the same with the Bax. I didn’t initially understand the technical demands of the music. Over time it was a very rewarding to reach a stage when you actually feel comfortable with it.

(CC) Did that take a long time?

AW: Not an immense amount, no. It felt quite natural. I do enjoy exploring lesser-known music. It’s a hobby of mine. When I was on the New Generation scheme they wanted me to do lesser-known pieces for specific programmes, and through that I developed a taste for it.

(CC) You’re with exactly the right recording company.

AW: Absolutely. I know I’m not going to be recording the Beethoven Sonatas for them…

(CC) At which age did you start to learn?

AW: When I was 5. When I was young I preferred like most young children to play football but I went to Chethams when I was 11 and so that was a big commitment. I would never send my own kids there…

(CC) It seems to be a rounded education there, though…

AW: A great education, no question. If I’d have stayed in Lincolnshire where I was born I would not be doing what I do now and I owe a lot to the place. But the whole competitive environment is very unpleasant at times. In some ways it prepares you for the industry itself. You have to have a thick skin. But it’s not a good experience for a lot of people.

(CC) Do you actually do any work away from the piano?

AW: Very much so. It’s very important. You often have your clearest thoughts away from the piano.

(CC) What are your thought on analysis and analysts?

AW: It’s absolutely crucial, to understand the harmonic structure of any piece is vital. I remember a few years ago I went for a lesson with Murray Perahia. He’s obsessed with Schenkerian analysis. I knew nothing about it at the time and I found it was such an intense approach, different from what I was used to. It is crucial though to have that structural understanding, particularly with the Bax.

(CC) Schenker tends to engender a different way of listening, because of the interaction between the various levels (foreground, middle-ground, background). Did you find your listening as well as your playing grew because of it?

AW: I became more aware of some things. It’s not an approach I really adopt today. If you understand the harmonic skeleton of the piece then that for me is the key to the structure of the work…It’s the key to everything, melodically, in terms of colouring…

(CC) That basically brings to an end the questions…Many thanks for your time and good luck with your endeavours!
- Colin Clarke, MusicWeb International

Ashley Wass Biography & Discography


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