Early music interest

Several years before I was born a boy pianist about 8 years old gave a recital at the Malvern Assembly Rooms. My father’s family heard him and were so impressed they invited him and his parents back home for tea – and so began a friendship which stretched far into the future. That boy was Vernon Varner. At that early age he already had a formidable piano technique and played many of Chopin’s Etudes. His family were not well off and may father’s family helped them by taking Vernon on holidays abroad – a habit maintained long after I arrived on the scene. I grew up amidst sound of music – especially Chopin – superbly played. My father’s mother – my grandma – was also a talented self-taught musician with a gift for improvisation. All my early years were spent listening to the best of music superbly played and, as I appeared to have an aptitude for the piano in any case, it became a large part of my life. At 13 I remember hearing de Pachmann at the Assembly Rooms and loving his effortless runs in Chopin’s Impromptu in G flat. Afterwards my father introduced me to him as a second Vernon Warner – that’s optimism for you! – and Pachmann examining my hands. “They are no good; fingers too long”! In my old age I would agree with him. Pachmann and Edwin Fischer both had short-fingered hands and both possessed that ability to play whisper-quiet completely even runs up and down the keyboard which I have heard in no other pianists. When I left Stowe at 17 I went to live at Kew and became a pupil of Vernon Warner and actually moved into his house there with him and his wife Paddy. At 25 I gave my first public recital in Malvern and I remember playing Triana – that lovely and extremely difficult piece by Albeniz. I was passionately fond of Chopin, which was natural as a pupil of Vernon Warner. His Chopin was unique. The only other artist in the running was Cortot whose memory and accuracy was not so good. I remember a pupil complaining to Vernon about this and Vernon’s reply “I would rather hear Cortot playing wrong notes than most pianists’ right ones!”

Vernon’s Beethoven was not good and he thought it essential that I should obtain a good training in the more classical side of music which he felt he couldn’t provide. I was to go to Berlin and study at the Edwin Fischer School. So off I went in 1935 for two years in Berlin. My teacher was Conrad Hanson who often took over Fischer’s main class during his absence giving recitals. Hanson’s first words to me were “Each week I want you to prepare a Bach Prelude and Fugue from the 48, a movement from a Beethoven Sonata and a Chopin Etude.” This, I knew was impossible because I was almost dyslexic when it came to reading music. My training under Vernon Warner had stressed towards the perfecting of each phrase in timing, tone, rhythm and touch backed up with many hours of finger exercises (Hanson and others) to strengthen finger mussels and finger independence. Reading music fluency did not come into the category. But later on when I found it embarrassing when I found I couldn’t accompany a singer in even a simple song, and I decided to remedy this failure I could not do so. I am dyslexic as far as music reading goes. I am not alone in this. One of my friends in Berlin was Pablo Castellanos, a sixteen old boy who had come direct from 4 years at the Cortot school in Paris and, in my opinion was the best pianist in Fischer’s master class. I had permission to attend this class and I remember Fischer asking Pablo to accompany another pupil in a Beethoven Concerto and Pablo’s “I’m sorry Herr Doctor I cannot read music” “Well you’d better learn” from Fischer. With the result that Pablo and I spent hours together at a piano with volumes of piano duets trying to make sense of them, but with minimum result. With hindsight I think my time in Berlin was a mistake. I never really understood or loved Beethoven and I can assure you Fischer never understood Chopin. Maybe there is another aspect to these two years.

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