Martin Roscoe is one of the UK’s best loved pianists, as well as a piano teacher, who has a career that spans four decades. He opens Harrogate International Festivals’ Sunday Series.
As the music world laments the passing of Bowie, Cohen and Prince in 2016, Martin Roscoe reminds us of another great loss to the world of classical: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.
But, he says, the music lives on.
“Maybe we shouldn’t focus too much on losing people like that and think about enjoying the music they’ve left behind. My 2017 wish list is that more people will come to concerts because there’s nothing quite like live concerts; listening to recordings is not a substitute.”
A career as a professional pianist wasn’t the most likely of choices for a lad from Merseyside, but it was in fact the power of a live concert that dictated his path in life.
“I didn’t know the piano was going to be my life. I started lessons when I was six and didn’t show much interest in the first few months, but when I was just seven my older brothers and myself were taken to a Proms concert at the Albert Hall by my mum and that was just an amazing experience for me, and I never wanted to do anything other than music to be honest. When I got back home, they couldn’t keep me off the piano. Having a career as a pianist wasn’t quite something I understood until I was much older, mid-teens, but I never felt I wanted to do anything else, apart from teach the piano which I do, I’m very passionate about doing that.”
He did have music in the home growing up – his mum played piano, his dad violin: “I suppose if I didn’t have music in the home and my mum hadn’t taken me to that concert, I might not be sitting where I am now.”
He didn’t particularly have a sense of inner belief.
“No I didn’t really know what that meant. I didn’t have any good piano lessons till I was 13, I just went to the local teacher who was lovely but she seemed a bit mystified by me bringing along Beethoven sonatas and wanting to play them, she wanted me to play a scale or two and pass my Grade II. But when I was 13 I changed teachers and had two fantastic teachers – both in Manchester – when I was at the Royal Manchester College of Music as it was in those days.”
When asked if there’s a particular piece that stands out for him, listening to his answer is a powerful allure to seek out his next live performance.
“There are too many different pieces to name one,” Martin says, “but as you asked the question I did think of Beethoven’s last piano sonata, no 32 opus 111, which I think is one of the most amazing pieces of music ever written for any instrument. I think there’s a sort of vision involved in the last movement, something that almost transcends human experience as we know it; there’s an otherworldly quality about it. The final thing in Hamlet where Hamlet’s last words are ‘the rest is silence’, I often think of that – when I’m introducing the work I usually say that to the audience. It’s one of those pieces where you take your hands off the keyboard and you can almost hold the silence as you long as you like, so that nobody applauds.”
It sounds almost religious.
“I’m not a religious person but I think I can understand, especially some of those composers like Beethoven who were very religious – and Beethoven was – maybe, who knows what actually was in his mind, wouldn’t it be marvellous to be able to interview him now and find out?”
Is the music for Martin all-consuming?
“I think certainly it’s true to say it is all consuming, it does dominate your life, in a good way most of the time although sometimes you wish you could get away from it a bit!” he laughs, “but certainly it doesn’t leave much room for much else.”
Martin is well known for his love of walking in the Lake District – his home – is it to get a little respite perhaps?
“I don’t leave music behind when I’m walking because it’s going on all the time in my head. Sometimes I wish I could get rid of it. Also apart from the exercise aspect of it, you’re looking at beautiful nature and landscapes, it’s inspiring. It can give you peace away from your phone and computer to think about some of the problems in the pieces you’re working on and to come to some conclusions about what to do with them. It does help up to a point, but it’s not leaving it all behind.”
For him performing is about the expression of emotion, and intellect.
“The two things are slightly interconnected, but at the end of the day the beauty and the power and the message of the emotions is what you’re trying to put across. You might speak to a different pianist and get a different answer about what a particular piece means, because in one sense it’s what it means to me, therefore I try and put across what I think it means to the audience, if that makes sense.”
Martin has played lots of concerts in Yorkshire, but also directs the Beverly Music Festival in September every year.
“I do think platforms like Harrogate International Festivals are very important. I played the Sunday Series around five years ago and it was obviously a popular series as it was sold out. Harrogate is a great town, I’ve played there many, many times over the years and at the Festival quite a few times now so I always enjoy going and I’m looking forward to this one.”
In Harrogate, he’ll be delivering a French programme.
“The second half is all French music by arguably the four greatest French composers of piano music: Faure, Ravel, Debussy, and Poulenc. They were all composers who were interested in music of the past, not just French music, and I’ve linked together some of the works that they wrote with works in the first half that also have French connections.
“For example the French suite of Bach opens the programme, and then Beethoven’s sonata has a French title, Les Adieux, which I’ll be explaining to the audience exactly what it means – it tells a story about Beethoven’s great friend and patron, Archduke Rudolf, having to leave Vienna because of guess what, the French invading! Beethoven gave it a French title which was very unusual in those days. And then Chopin who was one of the most influential of all 19th century composers of French music, his father was French and he spent most of his life living in France, even though he was born in Poland and his mother was Polish. Across the interval then leads to those four works in the second half that have links to the past and indeed to those composers featured in the first half. I’ve played around with the programme a lot this season and it seems to work!”
Despite playing hundreds of concerts over four decades, he still gets nervous.
“If anyone says they don’t get nervous they’re probably trying to evade the question,” he laughs. “Performance anxiety is part of the process, but you have to learn how to channel it to produce a positive response. And so long as you can keep your mind very firmly on the music, and what the music means to you and what you think it will mean to the audience, you’re heading in the right direction. At the end of the day when you’re out there doing it, there’s nothing quite like it.”
Martin Roscoe, Sunday 15 January, 11am, Old Swan Hotel. www.harrogateinternationalfestivals.com Box Office: 01423 562 303.