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Though Russian, German and French pianists have received considerable attention in piano literature, the history of piano-playing in the UK has been relatively neglected. True, there have been interesting autobiographies, including a very colourful one from Moura Lympany as well as the moving Duet for Three Hands by Cyril Smith and his wife Phyllis Sellick. There have also been some fascinating in-depth studies of John Ogdon and excellent books on Dame Myra Hess and her teacher Tobias Matthay. But much of this material is now long out of print, and there has been nothing substantial written about the specific style of playing cultivated by many of the greatest performers from British soil.

Julian Hellaby’s book is a fascinating study which explores the period c1935-70 and the careers of six leading performers: Malcolm Binns, Peter Katin, Moura Lympany, Denis Matthews Valerie Tryon and David Wilde. In addition to examining the ways in which this magnificent half dozen developed their careers through recitals, concertos, broadcasts and commercial recordings, Hellaby does pioneering research that convincingly manages to find an authentic ‘English voice’, an approach to music-making that separates English players from their contemporaries in mainland Europe and America.

Key recordings, such as Peter Katin’s exquisitely refined rendering of Chopin’s Nocturne in D-flat major, are chosen for comparison with leading non-British figures. Through detailed analysis, salient ‘English’ characteristics clearly emerge – namely an emphasis on strict fidelity to the text, a love of refined sonic beauty and a desire to put the music before anything else. Even though the six chosen players are all totally different on disc, they do share a sense of giving, of selfless devotion to their art which is touching and quietly powerful.

It is also touching to see how marketing has changed since the pre-1960s and our own times. Moura Lympany’s 1950s publicity photos have an aura of understated aristocratic authority, very different from photoshoots with today’s artists.

Hellaby interviewed four British pianists from the present day: Clare Hammond, Viv McLean, Ashley Wass and Llŷr Williams. The difference between their career paths and those of older pianists is extremely telling. In the pre-social media age, press reviews in the national press, royalties from record sales and thriving diaries from music club engagements were standard fare for successful artists. Today’s generation of performers have to look elsewhere for their incomes and publicity. We live in much more internationally fluid times, where 21st-century British pianists face a less certain future.

MURRAY MCLACHLAN Read the full review on Agora Classica


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