In this series of interviews dedicated to the UK – Russia Year of Music Russian award-winning pianist Yulia Chaplina talks to four of her distinguished British colleagues who perform and teach Russian music withgreat love and passion. Her second interviewee is a British concert pianist, the brilliant Charles Owen.
Charles Owen has enjoyed an extensive international career performing a wide-ranging repertoire to outstanding critical acclaim. He appears in recital at Wigmore Hall and Kings Place. Internationally, he has performed at the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall in New York, the Brahms Saal in Vienna’s Musikverein, the Paris Musée d’Orsay, and the Moscow Conservatoire. His chamber music partners include Julian Rachlin, Chloe Hanslip, Augustin Hadelich and Nicholas Daniel as well as the Vertavo and Takacs Quartets. A regular guest at festivals such as Aldeburgh, Bath, Cheltenham, Leicester and Ryedale he has also performed concertos with the Philharmonia, Hallé, Aurora and London Philharmonic orchestras. He has enjoyed collaborations with many leading conductors including Sir Mark Elder, Ryan Wigglesworth, Nicholas Collon and Martyn Brabbins. Charles is a Professor of Piano at the Guildhall School, Co-Artistic Director of London Piano Festival and was appointed Steinway & Sons UK Ambassador in 2016.
Charles’ solo recordings comprise discs of piano music by JS Bach, Brahms, Janácek, Poulenc and Fauré. Chamber music recordings include the cello sonatas of Rachmaninov and Chopin with Natalie Clein and the world premiere of Jonathan Dove’s Piano Quintet with the Sacconi Quartet. He plays a lot of chamber Russian Music and together with his duo partner, Katya Apekisheva, they released a recording for Quartz in 2016, featuring Stravinsky’s two piano ballets, the Rite of Spring and Petrushka, with a dedication to the memory of their Russian teacher Irina Zaritskaya. Their second disc came out in January 2018 on Avie featuring music by Rachmaninov, recorded at Kings Place.
In addition to his wonderful interpretations of the Russian music, Charles speaks Russian absolutely fluently and idiomatically.
– Charles, you have played a lot of Russian Music, do you have any favourites among the Russian composers?
It is so hard to choose a favourite among all the amazing Russian composers! If I had to select one it would have to be Igor Stravinsky for his unsurpassed, daringly original imagination and ability to channel Russian folk music into his works I also have huge admiration and love for Rachmaninoff’s music particularly his late masterpieces such as the Fourth Piano Concerto and Symphonic Dances.
– You have been to Russia many times, have there been any memorable moments whilst you were there?
A lot. I first went to Russia in 1993, immediately after Perestroika. In those days what struck me was how dark it was. Moscow really wasn’t properly lit and transformed as it is now the city appearing quite grim and forbidding. The shops looked dreadfully run down – in some shops you could buy things for dollars; in others you couldn’t buy anything at all.
Then I spent a month in Russia during the winter of 1994 to play several concerts in St. Petersburg’s festival “Just Friends” and I was struck by a completely different approach to everything in Russia. Of course, then when I returned to Russia to play in the mid-2000 I was more than surprised to see so many expensive restaurants, lights, and the like – all becoming very Western.
I also met a lot of fantastic people who have become friends, and visited old communist apartments; it was quite amazing – once I visited the parents of one of my Russian friends and one of the rooms from floor to ceiling was filled with cans of pickled vegetables – mushrooms, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbages, brought from their dacha for the winter! I also remember people selling jars of home-grown pickles directly on Moscow’s main high-street – Tverskaya – which was so astonishing to me.
– Do you think the concert audiences are different in Russia?
Yes, the public is very different. I think people are really very warm, besides they are very curious about the way foreign artists perform and what their interpretations are. Although one might feel they are a little critical at the beginning, after the concerts you can really get a great feeling of appreciation.
– You studied with a Russian teacher Irina Zaritskaya; do you believe in the so-called ‘Russian School’ of teaching?
Absolutely, I do indeed. I think I would not be playing professionally without her. I first encountered her when I was 14: she came to the Menuhin School in the 1980s played concerts and gave inspirational lessons – I had never heard such a wonderful sound out of the piano before. It was some kind of magic. She was such a warm person, but the best was that she could explain any possible technical question – there was nothing she couldn’t help with. Zaritskaya was fantastic in linking images to the music. It wasn’t the dry technical teaching one sometimes encounters in the West, it was always very inspirational.
Were you influenced by any of the Russian pianists’ concerts or recordings?
– I have been to listen to Richter several times, to Shura Cherkassky, Grigory Sokolov as well as Elizabeth Leonskaya, Mikhail Pletnev, Boris Berezovsky, Dmitri Alexeev, Eliso Virsaladze and many other younger Russian pianists. However, I don’t think I am particularly influenced by their ‘sound’ or interpretation. Later I was taught by Imogen Cooper and took a lot from her, and indirectly by Alfred Brendel’s influence. So I have a lot of French, German and also Hungarian tradition in my playing which overlaps with the technique and things I learned from Zaritskaya, I am, I guess a sort of ‘pianistic fusion cuisine’.
– What do you think are the main challenges of the Russian Music?
Well, of course there are those long, sustained melodies so very different from Western composers’ melodic lines and I must of course mention the often complex textures of much Russian music. Everyone knows that the most difficult concertos written for piano are by two of the great Russians – Prokofiev and Rachmaninov. They take Liszt and Chopin to another universe of complexity. Getting into that psyche – the dark moods and vastness of the landscapes, the way that Russian folklore appears in Russian music, is another big challenge, especially in Medtner and Mussorgsky. You also need a huge dynamic range as well – I feel the Russians have really pushed the limits of piano technique to the extreme. There is a certain level of physical training one must have when playing Russian music.
Thank you, Charles, for a really fascinating conversation
For further information about Charles Owen and his concerts please follow the link