Maurizio Pollini’s six decades of exceptional pianism at Southbank Centre

pollini-01‘That boy can play better than any of us’ Arthur Rubinstein

Maurizio Pollini is one of the great piano legends, with a career spanning nearly 60 years. With his unaffected manner and an elegant clarity to his playing, Pollini has brought his individual voice to all musical styles from the 1700s to the present day. Ahead of his two recitals in spring, we’ve looked into our Southbank Centre archive to explore six decades of Pollini’s performances.

Pollini is now considered by many to be one of the world’s most outstanding pianists. Yet he was only 18 when he obtained international recognition, by winning first prize at the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1960.

It was three years later that the maestro made his debut in London in a concert in 1963 at Royal Festival Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra. Conducted by Pierre Monteux, the repertoire chosen for Pollini’s first solo performance was:

TCHAIKOVSKY Fantasy Overture, Romeo and Juliet

BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37

SCHUBERT Symphony No.9 in C (Great)

In the early 70s, Pollini began to establish an international career of the greatest importance. In 1971, he signed with Deutsche Grammophon and released his first recordings on the German label; these included Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka and Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata.

With regular appearances in music centres around the world, Pollini began the career of piano superstar.


Fact: Pollini’s strong political convictions formed an important part of his musical life, improving his technique by playing in factories for causes such as peace in Vietnam with Italian conductor Claudio Abbado and Italian composer Luigi Nono. He also performed concerts in the neighbourhoods around Reggio Emilia and recitals for students at La Scala, animated by their ideals of justice and peace.

The collaboration between Abbado and Pollini continued after those years, with several concerts held at Royal Festival Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Pollini began the 80s at Southbank Centre, with a televised opening season concert playing Mozart’s D Minor Concerto with Sir Georg Solti and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He continued to give several recitals in Royal Festival Hall throughout the decade as well as a  performance in 1983 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Masse by Giacomo Manzoni written as a homage to Varese, the first explorer of Manzoni’s favourite musical sounds was part of that evening’s repertoire.

Fact: New York, 1987: Under the direction of Claudio Abbado, the maestro played the complete piano concertos of Ludwig van Beethoven with the Vienna Philharmonic. On this occasion he received the orchestra’s Honorary Ring.

In 1996, Pollini brought back his superb pianism to Royal Festival Hall with the Beethoven Sonata Cycle

The audience was taken on an intense journey through eight recitals, that followed the chronological order in which Beethoven wrote his works, with the exception of Opus 49.

Pollini demonstrated how great playing can be achieved through quiet, undemonstrative means.’ Annette Morreau, 16 December 1996 – The Independent

Pollini’s career in London in the new millennium was full of highlights. These included a performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in honour of their 75th birthday in 2007; and the Pollini Project in 2011, where he embarked on a five-recital pilgrimage, with the concerts spanning 250 years of piano repertoire from Bach to Boulez.

‘I like their way of listening and their deep interest in music, and so I thought it was possible to do something larger and different. I have played these works many times and they are all extraordinarily important works for the piano. Put together, they form something of a line, something of a story of piano music. But it is not a rigorous or strict line. They are closely connected to me and my overall musical interests, so it is also my personal line and, in a way, my personal story.’ Pollini on London audience

Fact: The opening of the Pollini Project in London was signposted by the arrival of a brand new favourite piano: a Steinway concert grand refined by the Italian piano technician Angelo Fabbrini.

‘I have played a recital in London more or less every year throughout my career and have a very strong relationship with the London public (…)’ Maurizio Pollini

With his two upcoming recitals, Maurizio Pollini’s cumulative appearances at Southbank Centre add up to 133 performances.

His recitals have made a major contribution to the International Piano Series as one of the most prestigious piano recital series in London, where fans  can see him playing alongside the emerging talents aspiring to Pollini’s greatness.

Mr. Pollini is represented by HarrisonParrot and records exclusively for Deutsche Grammophon.

Violinist Viktoria Mullova talks about her forthcoming recital with Katia Labèque, 6 November 2015

It’s hard to think of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres as a modern work. Its beautiful chords seems to have existed forever, although it was written in 1977 in its first version for string quintet. And yet when Viktoria Mullova and Katia Labèque performed tonight’s programme in Rio de Janeiro recently, the marketing poster made no mention of either this piece or Takemitsu’s 1951 Distance de fée, which the duo also plays. Mullova explains: ‘They thought it would scare the public away. Sometimes contemporary music can be difficult and people are worried, and think, “I don’t understand it, it’s just a lot of notes.” But the public came, heard both pieces and they got the biggest applause.’

Victoria Mullova and Katia LabequeMullova and Labèque perform these two pieces straight through without a break, as Mullova describes: ‘One comes out of the other, which works fantastically, because they mesh together so well. I like Pärt’s harmonies, the simplicity of it. The effect is incredible. Takemitsu was very much influenced by Debussy, and this piece sounds like Pelléas and Mélisande. Usually these two pieces have the biggest success of the whole programme. It’s easy to understand this music. It goes straight to the heart, which is the most important thing – that the music speaks to you.’ One of the benefits for performers in playing contemporary music is that they can actually encounter the composers, and Mullova has met Pärt several times and even had direct feedback from him about performing Fratres. She says, ‘It was wonderful to see him and talk to him. He was so kind and inspiring, and we discussed little technical things about the piece.’

Paradoxically, the oldest music on the programme – Mozart’s Violin Sonata in A major K526, written relatively late in Mozart’s career, in 1787 – is the newest to Mullova. She has only lately started playing the work, as she explains: ‘I’ve never played the Mozart sonatas before. I like Mozart’s symphonies, operas and piano music, but I never liked his violin writing very much. I always thought the sonatas were a little boring. I didn’t understand them until recently, when I saw them brilliantly choreographed by Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián. For the first time I understood what it’s all about. There’s lots of humour – it doesn’t take itself too seriously. This sonata is one of the most difficult ones technically, but it’s well written and lots of fun to play.’

This humour provides a contrast to the Violin Sonata by Robert Schumann, written in 1851, by which time the composer was probably showing signs of mental breakdown. This sad fact can be felt in the music, according to Mullova: ‘The Schumann Violin Sonata is very dark and manic, especially the last movement. You can feel Schumann’s madness in his writing. The phrases are very unusual and strangely written. There are lots of tempo changes and it doesn’t take the usual sonata form. The melody of the first movement is my favourite of the whole work.’

Completing, and ending, the programme is Maurice Ravel’s jazzy Violin Sonata, written between 1923 and 1927. Unusually for most classical musicians, Mullova has ventured into the genre, having recorded several jazz CDs, so this change in style holds little fear, and when asked how she finds the right atmosphere for it, she says, ‘I just feel it.’

And with that, tonight’s programme runs the entire gamut of eras, emotions and impressions. Mullova explains, ‘It’s very well balanced, very unusual. I like different pieces and styles in a programme – it’s boring to play one composer over a whole concert. I like contrasts.’

© Ariane Todes

Viktoria Mullova and Katia Labèque perform at St John’s Smith Square as part of Southbank Centre’s International Chamber Music Season on Friday 6 November at 7.30pm. Tickets from £10. 

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Meltdown Day 5: Meet the Ex-Goth Classical Pianist

We are approaching the halfway point of the Meltdown Festival and yesterday the budding music journalists were rewarded with the opportunity to watch the live broadcast of Lauren Laverne’s radio show.  Standing on the same balcony that hosted the after-show parties and surrounded by PRs, researchers and fact-checkers, we observed  a cappella singer Petra Haden (who wowed the crowds with versions of The Who songs last night), house musician Matthew Herbert who is performing on the 23 August, and of course the curator of the festival, David Byrne. Whilst the temporary set looked similar to the BBC newsroom seen on TV, behind the scenes was a different story. Around a dozen people were working as the broadcast took place, searching on their laptops, managing the sound and occasionally getting up to press a handwritten note into the host’s hands. Over the sound of the traffic and horns of the river boats, we could overhear Lauren helping Petra to relax and the guests taking off their headphones for a chat whenever the music was playing.

Lauren Laverne interviewing David Byrne on BBC Radio 6 Music

Lauren Laverne interviewing David Byrne on BBC Radio 6 Music

Another highlight of the day was Eliza McCarthy, an up-and-coming young pianist, who performed a free gig in the ballroom.  She is a trained classical pianist who moved to the UK from Philadelphia aged 12 to attend the Menuhin School. Her set included pieces composed by Mica Levi, who she has been working with for the past year, and John Luther Adams, both of whom were in the audience watching her perform. She admitted that this was the first time she had met John Luther Adams, despite being an avid fan. If that wasn’t enough pressure, she is also a big fan of David Byrne, describing his music as the ‘soundtrack of my life’. She got involved in Meltdown ‘fairly unromantically’, due to an email which cited Mica Levi and John Luther Adams as two of David Byrne’s favourite composers. She jumped at the chance, emailing back asking if she too could perform at Meltdown.

Playing piano started on a whim when her mother asked her if she wanted to have lessons. ‘It sort of snowballed when I started doing competitions’.  This snowball effect brought her to England to study at the specialist music school (and later Guildhall School of Music and Drama). Her music taste developed at the Menuhin School because, as a boarder, she was subjected to a lot of different styles of music – everything from Marilyn Manson to Bach. She even went through a goth/grunge phase, but due to the lack of pianos in the scene she continued with classical music. Her advice to budding young musicians is to

Remember that the music comes first

Eliza McCarthy

Eliza McCarthy

When younger she contemplated careers such as acting and dancing (a dream crushed due to her being told ‘my feet were too flat’).  A natural performer from a young age, this is reflected by her energetic and unique performances. But she admits that it can all get a bit intense. ‘Sometimes I do fancy maybe having a farm somewhere, in the middle of nowhere’, she says, explaining how she likes to feel connected with nature. ‘But it only lasts a few minutes, then I remember I’ll get bored’.  She does have other ways of relaxing though:  in September she will begin teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction at Guildhall to help the performers cope with the stress.  With her parents being Zen Buddhists and spending summers as a child at Zen Camp, Eliza explained how she’d ‘always been a meditator’.  She turned to mindfulness as it ‘stems from all of the Buddhist practices in a secular way’.  When asked if other artists should try it, she looks slightly surprised before adding ‘everyone should. It’s just a way of being aware’.

Well, for her at least the mindfulness seems to be working: she played her hour-long set with energy and passion and her audience was completely transfixed.

Last Night’s Review: Benjamin Clementine

By Max Caffyn-Parsons

Benjamin Clementine is a London-born singer-songwriter and pianist who was discovered busking in Paris.  He is influenced by classical music and poetry but he fuses this with contemporary styles of music, including chamber pop and folk.

Benjamin Clementine

Benjamin Clementine

Last night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall Clementine brought his compelling, introspective storytelling and gorgeous aesthetics to the stage in an intimate performance. The show opened with the venue going dark and a spotlight being cast upon the stage, making only the piano and microphone visible. Clementine then entered, barefoot and dressed in a trench coat. He opened with ‘Edmonton’, and his powerful vocals and sublime piano playing immaculately set the tone of the performance from the outset and immersed the audience in his poetic, melancholy stories.

After each song the stage would fade to black and some seconds later the spotlight would make Clementine reappear, which was very fitting for the personal and sombre themes that he explores in his songs. At times smoke would form dramatic shadows upon him, making the performance even more evocative.

Clementine embodied all of the emotions that he conveyed to the audience. He is the master of dynamics and has a large vocal range – subdued during the quiet and touching parts of his songs, he delivered louder, more passionate vocals during a lively outro. Much of the performance consisted only of Clementine and a piano, but his astonishing vocal and pianistic talents kept the audience amazed and delighted.

A drummer came on after three songs to accompany Clementine for some of the tracks. He too was a great performer and his hypnotic rhythms complemented the interesting melodies. The drummer had a solo, too, which was a nice way to vary the set towards the end of the show.

Clementine channelled the potent emotions of his songs impeccably throughout the show. Integrating multiple styles of music and encompassing his influences, he succeeded in captivating the audience from start to finish with his truly entertaining showmanship.

In his voice there is a lazy little tango

Tango Siempre ensemble
Soar to the heights and dive to the depths of this music from Buenos Aires

Tangos for Angels and Demons takes place in Purcell Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday 6 September. The concert features romantic ballads and classic instrumental tangos performed by Tango Siempre and featuring the operatic soprano Ann Liebeck.

The theme of Angels and Demons acknowledges the light and dark elements that comprise the tango. Insistent rhythms and soaring Italianate melodies are accompanied by thick harmonies and gothic lyrics inspired by Christian beliefs.

The idea of Angels and Demons also refers to the real people whose lives are described in the surreal and violent language of tango poetry.  Street culture is an essential component of many tangos, which feature a rich array of city characters in their lyrics. From pimps and poets to Gauchos and gamblers, these tangos provide insights into the loves and losses felt by each person.

The compositions of Astor Piazzolla – many of which feature in the performance – often tell gritty stories from the streets where he grew up. Piazzolla drew on his years in New York City and Buenos Aires to write songs such as Chiquilín de Bachín – a soaring, lamenting piece which describes a day in the life of a street urchin, who survives by selling flowers for a pittance in a local bar.

At other times, Piazzolla’s songs express something magical. Milonga del Anunciación provides a snapshot of the strange and wonderful Maria de Buenos Aires, whose speech is filled with riddles and mysterious images. She describes a man walking past: ‘Skinny and lost, a trashy Jesus is going along splashing; In his voice there is a lazy little tango.’ Then, she speaks to her loyal poet, Sleepy sparrow of Buenos Aires, You’ll never catch up with me: I’m like a rose that says I don’t love you.’

The concert includes Oblivion and Libertango – iconic Tango Nuevo pieces composed by Piazzolla – as well as his lesser-known ballads Balada Para un Loco (Ballad of the Crazy Guy) and Balada Para mi Muerte (Ballad of My Death).  It also features classic and complex instrumental tangos and solos for the bandoneon – a type of concertina popular in Argentina.

Tango Siempre members Julian Rowlands, Jonathan Taylor and Ros Stephen are best known as composers of the score for Olivier Award-nominated West End hit Midnight Tango. They are joined by operatic soprano Ann Liebeck for this concert. She has previously performed a selection of tango songs in Dublin with bandoneonist Julian Rowlands, as well as singing Violetta’s Last Tango in Purcell Room last year.

Baritone Nuno Silva also joins the group to perform a song from Piazzolla’s opera Maria de Buenos Aires. The cast is completed by LUKAS Award-winners Los Benitez, who dance a selection of tango classics. The performers come together to collaborate as tango aficionados do across Latin America and in cities around the world.

Violinist Alda Dizdari discusses Robin Holloway’s music and Donnagh McKenna’s painting

Violinist Alda Dizdari and pianist Tom Blach perform Robin Holloway’s Violin Sonata alongside works by Schubert, Faure and Ravel at Southbank Centre on Thursday 2 July. The concert also features four of Donnagh McKenna’s huge, bright canvases. Alda talks about playing Robin Holloway’s challenging and dramatic music, and bringing music and visual art together on stage:  

When I asked Robin Holloway, the brilliant British composer, about his creative inspiration for writing for the violin the response was very clear, ‘Life’, with all its facets, is his inspiration. He said:

‘I am often inspired, direct or oblique, by life, literature, landscapes & cityscapes, paintings, reflections, etc: but more often still by music itself—the innateness of it.’

For me as a performer, this statement is an important one. It makes the process of creation much wider, luminous, eclectic, much more real.

Robin’s solo violin sonata is one of the most challenging works I have been working on since tackling the Bartok solo violin sonata or the works of Bach, two composers who inspired this piece.

And the challenges, as in the Bartok and Bach, are not only technical, but more so emotional.

To capture the source of inspiration is like capturing a prism with all its facets, the diversity, colours, drama, beauty and ugliness, the myriad of expressions have to come out of the instrument in a fluent and clear way. The communication has to be clear for the audience, flawless for the structure of the piece. The responsibility is immense.

The art of Dounnagh McKenna gives me the same type of inspiration, his gigantic work with its abstract language somehow shares the same power of expression. Even the language used to describe his work is similar to that used about Robin Holloway’s sonata: strong colourful language, drama, beauty, diversity, contradiction.

One of Donnagh McKenna's paintings that will be displayed during the concert

One of Donnagh McKenna’s paintings that will be displayed during the concert

I didn’t have the chance to know Donnagh while he was alive but I am pretty sure, judging from his work, that his creative inspiration was stirred up by life, by all that surrounded him, and he experienced it and expressed it full of passion and with obsessive dedication to his art.

It will be a very interesting experience for me as a performer, but more so, for the audience, to take in the music and the art and to see how these two different art forms come together to create a unified vision about the world we live in, life, beauty and everything we hold dear in our existence.

By Alda Dizdari

June 2015

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The best tools for the job: putting old string instruments in new hands

Artist Louise Kaye and her husband David have an unusual relationship with the team of world-class musicians they have assembled for a charity concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall on 22 June. Louise explains:

‘Two unrelated facts triggered my desire to support Parkinson’s UK by organising this concert. First of all, my husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s five years ago, at the age of 55. David had, we realised, been showing symptoms for at least five years before that.

Secondly, we are fortunate to be friends with many top-notch musicians around the world. As well as travelling far and wide to attend their concerts and recitals, we enjoy providing a home base for them when they are passing through London. We are not musicians ourselves, but over the past 12 years we have bought a number of fine old string instruments and two bows which are now on long-term loan to eight musicians, five of whom will be playing on 22 June.

Louise Kaye

Louise Kaye

It all began when we had been following the development of the Jerusalem Quartet over a few years and had a chance to meet them at a house concert. We then discovered that Amihai Grosz, who was then the violist with the quartet, was the only one playing a modern instrument which was not close to the league of the other three instruments. Having been told that buying good string instruments was an excellent investment we decided to buy Amihai a viola. He was very much involved with the selection of the instrument, and it took about 10 months to find the right one, made by Gasparo da Salò around 1570.  It was much more expensive than the budget we had given him, but in the end we decided that it was such a marvellous instrument and he was worthy of it, so we went ahead and bought it.  We have not regretted our decision for a moment. He is now the section leader for the Berliner Philharmoniker, a position he gained partly because of the tone of the instrument.

Each time we have purchased a new instrument it has been because we first developed a relationship with the musician and loved their playing.  We could see that, like Amihai, a better instrument would help them reach greater heights in their careers. Our intention is that each musician will keep the instrument for the duration of their professional career.  Then it will be passed on to another player in their late twenties or early thirties, also for the duration of their career.

Of course, this means that our purchases are not really an investment in financial terms, as we do not intend to resell them, but they are definitely an investment in people, and all eight of the players have become an extension of our family. They are more than happy to give something back to us by doing a fundraising concert such as this one.’

Violist Jennifer Stumm is one of the musicians whose instrument was bought by Louise and David. She talks about what it’s like playing a viola made in around 1590:

Jennifer Stumm

Jennifer Stumm

‘There are obvious advantages to having as excellent a tool as possible with which to ply one’s trade–one drives faster in a faster car!  But the relationship of string instrument to player involves so much more–a true melding of personalities. There is magic in how this thing, with which you spend most of your time, connects you with 400 years of history, and how its sound has been moulded by so many hands. It’s a privilege to be a link in that chain. It reminds me of the power of history and human connection and expression—the reasons I play classical music in the first place.’

Like Louise and David Kaye, violist Ori Kam has personal reasons for giving his time and talents to this concert:

‘My uncle has been living with Parkinson’s for 20 years. Another friend has Parkinson’s as well. A small number of diseases like HIV and Cancer take up most of our collective attention and funding, so it’s important not to forget to support research for other conditions. We musicians receive so much support from audiences, individuals and from society in general, when I have the opportunity to do something for the greater good I don’t think twice.’

The concert on 22 June at Queen Elizabeth Hall includes Brahms’ Sextet No.2 and Tchaikovsky’s ‘Souvenir de Florence’.


Guy Braunstein violin
Tai Murray violin
Ori Kam viola
Jennifer Stumm viola
Richard Harwood cello
Adi Tal cello
Kyril Zlotnikov cello
Tom Poster piano

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One person in every 500 has Parkinson’s. That’s about 127,000 people in the UK. All proceeds from this concert will support the work of Parkinson’s UK – funding research, awareness-raising, and vital emotional and practical support for people with Parkinson’s, their families and carers.

David and Louise Kaye on their investment in musical instruments – and musicians

Philanthropists David and Louise Kaye donate money to support school-age musicians through the London Music Masters Bridge Project, but they take their commitment to music several steps further than simply writing a cheque now and they. They open their home to visiting professional musicians – as overnight guests as well as for rehearsals and performances.

They also invest in string instruments, though as David says, “Buying fine instruments has been a good investment, but as we have no intention of selling them, it defeats that purpose. We do it for our love of music and the satisfaction of supporting young people in their careers.”

Louise explains how it started: “We had been following the Jerusalem Quartet for some time, so when we found out, 10 years ago, that Amihai Grosz was looking for a new viola, we wanted to help. Having the new instrument made a real difference to his playing and his career. My husband has Parkinson’s disease and in 2013 I asked all the players who have our instruments if they would do a fundraising concert for Parkinson’s UK. They were all delighted to be able to give something back to us and there was a wonderful atmosphere at the concert. These eight musicians have become part of our extended family.”

You can hear the Jerusalem Quartet at Southbank Centre on Friday 24 April, and a chamber concert in aid of Parkinson’s UK,  by performers who have benefitted from the Kayes’ instruments, including former leader of the Berliner Philharmoniker Guy Braunstein, on Monday 22 June.