James Lisney enjoys a rich musical life, moving seamlessly from concerto and recital soloist to chamber musician, song accompanist, and pianist director. Initiatives such as his Schubertreise series at London’s Southbank Centre, his extensive Beethoven Project or the recording company Woodhouse Editions, provide a platform for his wide-ranging musical sympathies. This year he is performing all of Schubert’s completed piano sonatas across four concerts at the Church of St John the Evangelist in Oxford. Emma Brown spoke to him about Schubert’s music and his varied career.
What draws you to Schubert’s music?
Originally, I focused on Schubert’s music ahead of the bicentenary celebrations in 1997. I made some recordings and organised a series of concerts involving piano music, chamber music, and song. I was hooked and decided to continue with my studies through the millennium, with a series of twenty recitals at London’s Southbank Centre. Schubert’s music pushes many buttons (lyricism, poetry, drama etc), but what I felt most strongly was that the interpretation of this great music is still in a state of flux. There are plenty of issues of texture, tempo and scale to be settled; this created a fascinating area of exploration as I moved through my thirties and forties.
What are some of the unique difficulties presented by Schubert’s piano music?
Clarity and phrasing are paramount. He was a string player first and foremost and this influences the whole approach to the keyboard, stimulating the player to evoke the textures of string chamber music enlightened by a whole range of ‘bow strokes’. The pedal is to be used with great discretion and the contrapuntal complexity (the ‘so called’ accompanimental figuration often needs the most potent characterisation) perhaps explains why he was so drawn to writing for four hands.
Schubert’s instrumental music is often compared to Beethoven’s, with the latter tending to come out more favourably. Do you think that this is a fair assessment (or a fair comparison)?
This is, thank goodness, becoming an outdated view. They are radically different composers and both suffer from being typecast. Beethoven is far more whimsical and humorous than many give him credit for – and Schubert is not the ‘sleepwalker’ that some artists insist on portraying him as. His craft is exceptional and the virtuosity and innovation of his instrumental writing is extraordinary. I think it is best to avoid thinking of pairs of composers such as Mozart/Haydn, Ravel/Debussy and Schubert/Beethoven. Genius creates its own criteria of judgement.
Schubert’s instrumental music has been subject to many extra-musical interpretations (Charles Fisk has suggested that the last three piano sonatas convey Schubert’s loneliness and alienation, and some consider the final Sonata in B-flat major to be a work in which Schubert faces his own death). As a performer, do you find extra-musical readings such as these helpful?
Yes – and no! Fisk is wonderful and very persuasive, and he has helped me a great deal in my work. In the end, though, I found myself looking at the evidence of the text and this gives me, I believe, a chance to avoid the clichés that can come from extra-musical inspiration. There is so much nonsense written about the last sonatas, for example – and I feel that the death of Beethoven is of far more importance in the reading of these great works than Schubert supposedly ‘facing his own mortality’. The final sonata has such a regal character and appears to me to drink from the same well of inspiration as Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, the Archduke Trio and the final String Quartet. The work is ultimately positive and is shot through with as many shafts of lightness and joy as darkness and foreboding. There is no real difference in the balance of these elements in this final work and those of his youth. As I keep reminding myself, audiences, and pupils, he was not dead yet! I believe that the overly sentimental approach to this music lessens its effect by making it pretentious.
On your website you say that you prefer small and informal performance spaces: why is this?
These places do not demand rhetorical posturing and one can attempt to illuminate the great works without distorting them. Audiences also appear to be more deeply affected and the post-concert communication is also of greater value. The demands upon the player in such intimate venues, however, are greatly amplified, not least the issue of artistic honesty.
You’ve had a varied career as a soloist, chamber musician, and accompanist. What are some of the challenges presented by each role?
I see them as all being part of the same activity. They are the essential roles of the musician and should also include composition and direction. Think of the range of cultural and musical activities perfected by Rubinstein, Tureck, Richter, Gould and Arrau, for example. Playing the textures of a Schubert slow movement involves the same musical activities as collaborating in chamber music – and the shaping of melodies on the piano have often benefited from the experience of working regularly with singers..
You frequently perform with your daughter, the cellist Joy Lisney. Do you find that knowing a fellow performer well on a personal level helps with rehearsal and performance?
This has been a stimulating and refreshing activity for both of us. We work on the music together in a non-judgemental way, paying the strictest adherence to ‘what we see’ and avoiding influences from ‘tradition’. It means that we often feel like explorers together and that negates any differences in our age or experience; it is new for both of us and we challenge each other to be true to the work. I would say that this has affected my solo work tremendously and I thank Joy for opening my eyes to so much in music. I am now also working with Emma, my youngest daughter and Oxford student, and I am benefiting the same way. We are looking forward to working together as a piano trio.
You have several upcoming performances in France and Germany: do you find that attitudes to classical music differ in these countries compared to in the UK?
The level of culture in Germany is still exceptional. Audiences often know the music you are performing or are open to exploring the new. France is exciting as there is so much enthusiasm for art and a seriousness about its value. These countries are extremely stimulating to visit and I would add that I also adore the Netherlands, Belgium, and Spain.
How would you say the British classical music scene has changed over your career?
It has become rather dominated by the media. The ‘BBC Young Musician syndrome’ and (less so these days) the Leeds Piano Competition have made audiences and promoters lazy. I hear amazing young players with plenty to say but their futures are in the hands of conservative concert societies and audiences that are happy to be led by the nose by competition winners and a small number of influential music magazines and websites. I believe that this laziness has increased as the general public has less exposure to ‘joined up’ classical music in the mainstream media; it is very rare, for example, to come across an instrumentalist or symphony orchestra performing on prime-time television. When did you last hear even a famous Beethoven Sonata performed in its entirety on the BBC One?
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A refreshing debunking of urban myths and traditional attitudes towards Schubert’s late piano music.