The show music (virtually) go on: Discovering a wealth of pianistic riches online

28 May 2020
By Erica Worth
At the beginning of 2020, we took concerts and piano lessons for granted. Now, behind closed doors, technology must fill the gap. Pianist editor Erica Worth finds a wealth of pianistic riches online...

Filling in my diary at the start of the year, I noted down Yuja Wang at the Barbican in March, the launch of the BBC Proms in April, the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition in Tel Aviv in May. You will have had red-letter dates of your own. Diaries everywhere, of course, now lie useless and unopened during our months of lockdown as we protect ourselves and everyone else from the spread of Covid-19. What to do, for the amateur pianist and piano lover? Practise, of course.

What about the professionals, and the rest of the music industry? The concert halls whose chairs are empty? The festivals who have cancelled for the year? The teachers who can no longer accept pupils past the front door? They must adapt, too, and so they have, making their archives and their talents accessible online.

The world of classical music often finds change difficult, accustomed as it is to selling and broadcasting to a comparatively specialist community. Now a much wider audience must be sought and found – and, in the early weeks, the signs are positive.


Face to face

With any luck, your regular teacher is now just a Zoom or Skype call away. This remains the best way of keeping your playing up to scratch and your physical network of musical engagement intact.

However, Pianist itself has, over the years, built up a uniquely enriching library of lessons dealing with specific technical issues and led by some of the most inspiring teachers at work today. Our regular contributor Graham Fitch features in an ever-expanding series of masterclasses. How to structure your practice? How to deal with scales and arpeggios? How and why to practise hands separately? Graham has all the answers, and explains them in his unique and friendly manner at London’s Steinway Hall.

'I’ve seen students really benefit and improve from online lessons,’ he says. ‘They can use the extra downtime to put in some serious practice hours. It is surprising just how much can be achieved in an online lesson, despite the limitations of the technology.’

Another natural in front of the camera is Boris Giltburg (pictured below). On his Facebook page, the Russian pianist hosts a series of masterclasses for the more ambitious student; I learned a great deal from his lesson on the first movement of Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2. Like many other pianists of renown, he has also been generous with his time in performance, streaming live concerts from his home every Monday and Wednesday.

Boris Giltburg


Cooped up at home, we could all learn something from Louis Schwizgebel’s elegantly executed leg-stretching exercises, which he performs lying on his piano bench while simultaneously playing Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Prelude in C minor ‘backwards’ – more for entertainment than imitation, perhaps.

For a final bit of fun, search ‘coronavirus etude’ online and see what pops up.

You can steam ahead with your piano exams, if you fancy, as the London College of Music Examinations (LCME) has announced a programme of piano exams which can be sat ‘virtually’ from home.

While the doors of the summer schools are likely to remain closed, Manchester-based Chetham’s remains defiantly open online: this popular haven for adult amateurs has announced three week-long courses, available via live streaming – the same dates as originally planned, and involving many of the same staff, but now with much-reduced fees.


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House parties

I’ve watched live, impromptu music-making from Isata Kanneh-Mason and siblings in a crammed living room; daily duets on Twitter from the music room of Tom Poster and his violinist wife Elena Urioste (look for #UriPosteJukebox, pictured below); as well as professionally filmed recitals given by Daniel Barenboim and his violinist son Michael at the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, pictured at top (replays available on Medici TV).

Tom Poster (left) and Elena Urioste


Right from the beginning of lockdown, Igor Levit began hosting daily ‘house concert’ broadcasts on Twitter.

Every Friday, Lang Lang and the young scholars of his International Music Foundation give a virtual recital. More established venues have also launched an impressive array of live and archival material, including Wigmore Hall Live, Live with Carnegie Hall, Barbican’s Read, Watch and Listen, Royal Albert Hall At Home, Quarantine Concerts from Verbier and much more.

Over on her YouTube channel, ‘Angela Hewitt in Lockdown’ plays classics of her repertoire from Couperin to Debussy at the Fazioli in her living-room.

Back on Facebook, tune in to the ‘Live Requests’ show hosted by Dominic Ferris (below): ask him to play any tune – from Chorus Line’s ‘Singular Sensation’ to Debussy’s Clair de lune – and he’ll perform it there and then with bags of style and a seriously impressive improv technique.

Dominic Ferris


Piano makers also want to stay in the public eye (and ear). Yamaha has launched a Live from Home initiative, gathering together house concerts and tutorials from its artists around the globe.

Steinway’s ‘Music at Home’ site hosts films of Steinway & Sons artists, freely available recordings from its own label as well as what could be an invaluable list of resources for performing artists who are struggling to make ends meet: international relief funds, private and state organisations and support initiatives.

I may not be able to zip off to Israel for the Rubinstein Competition, but I will be following its Arthur Rubinstein Virtual Pianofest. This online event includes live-streamed recitals of past laureates, archive programmes and talks (also available on catch-up).

The Van Cliburn Foundation is doing something similar, where, twice a week, you can relive some of the best moments of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition – Beatrice Rana included – in a global ‘Watch Party’.


Screens off

Try listening more. Highlights among the latest piano releases include a new instalment of Mark Viner’s Alkan series, featuring the Grande Sonate Op 33 (on Piano Classics); Stephen Hough’s Beethoven Concertos (Hyperion); and spellbinding Beethoven and Brahms from Grigory Sokolov (DG).

Among recent piano books, admirers of Sir András Schiff should pick up a copy of Music Comes Out of Silence (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), a recent memoir discussing his life and thoughts on music: playing techniques, interpretation and more.

In Piano Lessons – Reflections from a Life in Music (Wyastone), Vladimir Feltsman covers similar subjects from the Russian school perspective. Penelope Roskell’s mammoth The Complete Pianist: from healthy technique to natural artistry (Edition Peters; A4, 550pp!) offers ‘new and unique’ approaches to playing the piano. Roskell is Piano Advisor to the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine, where she holds a clinic for pianists with tension or injuries – important reading for those aware of physical problems.

For beautiful writing off the beaten track, follow Sophy Roberts as she tracks down long-forgotten instruments and the stories behind them in The Lost Pianos of Siberia. If ever there was a time to explore all that’s new and wonderful, now’s the time, while we isolate and wait for a different future.

Main image: ©Deutsche Grammophon

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