Interview: Alasdair Beatson - ‘You can hear the music unfolding without struggling to keep up’

Pianist Alasdair Beatson
Pianist Alasdair Beatson
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Scots pianist Alasdair Beatson is widely regarded as one of the finest young musicians around, with a growing national and international reputation.

Before his two concerts at Glasgow’s Piano Festival 2012, playing the music of Michael Nyman and Philip Glass and a programme of songs arranged for piano, he exchanged emails with Claire Black about soundtracks, his commitment to lesser known repertoire and why Nyman and Glass might be seen as modern day Mendelssohns.

CB: What was your introduction to the music of Michael Nyman and Philip Glass?

AB: My first encounters with Nyman and Glass were through their film scores, appropriately enough! Though it was The Piano which elevated Nyman to such a level of celebrity, I remember being particularly struck by his music for Gattaca - this beautiful, futuristic film deals with issues of emotion, humanity and individuality in a sterile, modern, dispassionate environment. The Truman Show, one of my favourite films, was my introduction to Philip Glass.

Both composers control a transparency of texture, and of compositional process, that makes listening to their music unchallenging and immediately meaningful. As a listener, one feels one can follow the music unfolding without feeling a struggle to keep up. Of course, both have their own distinct style, but they stand apart from many of today’s composers in similar ways.

CB: Soundtrack composition always makes me think of the discussion of the difference between song lyrics and poetry in that there’s usually a healthy debate about whether song lyrics can really work without the music that they’re written for. In a similar sense, does the music stand-up without the imagery with which it was written for?

AB: I think the vast majority of soundtracks would make little sense or enjoyment (if) experienced divorced from the imagery, partly as the quality of music may not stand up to such scrutiny, and also the feeling of structure, proportion and rhetoric - its argument - would be all wrong without backbone! However, not only do Glass and Nyman write a higher quality of soundtrack than most, but both the works I am performing with the SCO have been reworked as concert pieces, tackling exactly these issues and allowing them to stand strongly apart from their original context. Of course, when hearing the concert I expect and hope some of the audience will enjoy remembering the imagery and atmosphere of the films.

CB: How do you explain the success of both of these soundtracks?

AB: The success of the soundtracks comes in part from the quality of writing in sympathy to the films, and to the films themselves being successful. But perhaps too Glass and particularly Nyman are like modern day Mendelssohns - the inherent appeal and comparative simplicity of their musical language attracts amateur music-making film lovers to learn and play for themselves the music at home. I’m sure this has been the case with music for The Piano.

CB: Nyman has said that other than Peter Greenaway, film directors have often limited his music to what they needed for their films and yet The Piano soundtrack has sold more than a million copies. He’s also said that when it comes to soundtracks “less is more” - what’s your take on that as an interpreter of the music?

AB: Yes, I suppose a soundtrack is usually to be treated as subservient to other elements of a feature film, but should that film be called The Piano the music might take on some extra importance and responsibility! It is also to Nyman’s credit that he can transform the famous and loved themes from this movie into a piano concerto idiom, creating a dramatic, more virtuosic concert experience whilst remaining true to his original.

CB: What makes a good soundtrack for you? Do you have a favourite?

AB: I’m at risk of being contrary here, but I love in the rather eccentric Bruce Robinson film How to Get Ahead in Advertising the juxtaposition of Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony with Richard E Grant discovering his boil can talk. But I also love the Herrmann/Hitchcock partnership.

CB: You seem to be viewed as a musician who is attracted to a less familiar repertoire - how do you choose the work you want to perform and record?

AB: I think that first and foremost I like good music, and don’t like to compromise on quality. However, I do think that, bemused by the size and complexity of the repertoire available to pianists, many are rather conservative in their choices of what to play. I’d much rather spend some time syphoning through less known works to find things that appeal particularly to me and my taste, that are free of the baggage of the famous and loved interpretations of other pianists, and that deserve more exposure.

CB: You’re best known for your interpretations of chamber music. What pleasures does this repertoire present?

AB: Yes, I’m especially at home in chamber music it seems. I love the contact - for inspiration and challenge - with other musicians, as well as the inevitable spontaneous nature of chamber music. I try and let this inform my solo concerts as well. There’s also something incredibly intense about chamber music, rather like watching tennis players in battle - a physical, emotional and social conflict and resolution.

CB: I interviewed Philip Glass recently and he said that playing his own piano music was one of the best gifts he could give audiences because “when it comes to playing my own piano music I will put that up against anybody even though I’m not the best piano player in the world because the music is written for me”. I’m interested in what you make of that.

AB: Ha! I wonder if it was rather tongue-in-cheek? It’s certainly a very composer-centric point of view, as if he as composer can say what is best and what is not in his music, and that there is one ideal. I’m sure Glass is delighted to have other interpreters, and sees the value in having his music playing in many different ways, as all music of true quality ought to withstand. However, if he is happy to acknowledge his limitations as a pianist, I rather wish he wouldn’t accomodate them in his writing and instead aspire towards some concept of an ideal pianist/interpreter!

CB: What was the first piano music that had a real impact on you, that really inspired you?

AB: I remember from quite a young age feeling the enormity of Beethoven - there is nothing else quite like the strength, integrity, wilfulness and magnificence of his music.

CB: Tell me about your other concert within the Piano Festival. It sounds intriguing.

AB: Yes, I have a nice solo programme where all the works I’m playing are songs transformed - Mozart takes a rather glib Gluck aria and writes ten inventive and unpredictable variations; Liszt transcribes German song into virtuosic piano showpieces; Schubert writes a huge fantasy, sort of like a pianistic wild dream, on one of his own songs, the Wanderer.

CB: When you studied with Menahem Pressler, what was the main thing that you learned? How has it impacted on your subsequent development as a musician?

AB: Two things were most remarkable about Pressler - the first was his listening, which might seem a strange thing to comment on! His ears could pick out minute details in a very complex texture, and he constantly reminded his students to be responding to sound (what’s actually being played) and not sensation in the hands (what you think you’re playing!). The other remarkable thing was Pressler’s work ethic - though 80 years old, he practised all morning every day before either travelling to play a concert or teach his students. I remember asking if he holidayed ever - his reply was that 40 years earlier he had enjoyed a trip in Brazil, but at the end he realised he’d wasted too much time, and has never had a holiday since.

• Glasgow’s Piano Festival 2012 runs from 16 to 25 November. For more information visit