The Road Less Travelled

Interview with pianist Ashley Wass in International Piano, Nov-Dec 2010

If you mention the names of Arnold Bax or Frank Bridge in the company of pianophiles nowadays, it won’t be long before the name Ashley Wass crops up. In ten years of recording he has assembled a catalogue of British piano music that is impressive by any standards, all the more so considering how rarely heard much of this music was before he began recording it, and how much better known it is since. Nor is it just a question of numbers. Read the reviews, and you’ll notice how the terms “maturity”, “intelligence”, and even “benchmark” crop up with astonishing regularity.

Wass's recording career began shortly after he won first prize at the World Piano Competition in London 1997, later becoming only the second British pianist in 20 years to reach the finals of the Leeds International Competition. The budget label Naxos, just beginning to flex its muscles as an ascendant power in the record industry, lost little time in snapping up pianist, who was still completing his postgraduate studies at the Royal Academy, working with Christopher Elton and Hamish Milne. His signing with Naxos made him the first solo artist to sign an exclusive contract with the label, debuting with a well-received disc of César Franck’s piano music.

It soon became clear, however, that Naxos had devised a very specific plan for their new signing. From Alwyn’s Green Hills to Vaughan Williams’s Piano Concerto, via complete cycles of Bax and Bridge, Wass’s catalogue tells a very particular story: that of 20th-century British piano music.

It comes as something of surprise, then, to learn that the scenery relevant to his latest disc is not the rolling hills of Elgar’s Worcestershire but the altogether steeper Alpine slopes traversed by Franz Liszt on his 1835 adventure with Marie d’Agoult. For the 32nd instalment of Naxos’s Liszt edition, Wass has recorded the first book of the Album d’un voyageur – the original set of musical recollections of the journey Liszt composed before revising and republishing them in their better known guise as the Années des Pélérinage – together with the three Apparitions of 1834. The disc came out this summer. The reviews, so far, have been uniformly excellent.

“The disc would have come out earlier, in fact”, says Wass when we meet. “My first attempt to record these pieces was three years ago. It was a disaster - the only time, in fact, that I have ever felt completely unhappy with what I was doing. I didn’t like the piano, I didn’t like the venue. Most of all, I didn’t like what I was doing. After a day and a bit, nothing was working so we packed up and left.”

This had never happened to Wass before. Always fastidious and a consummate professional, his other discs had all been recorded smoothly, in two, three days at the most. But there was a much greater pressure, he explained, with the Liszt project.

“This was a crucial disc for me. Here was a composer whose music I loved deeply, which I genuinely wanted to play. I was absolutely adamant that I wanted to get it right.”

There were two reasons for this increased pressure. Although he had previously recorded, with Leon MaCawley, Liszt’s two piano arrangement of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, the Album d’un Voyageur was going to be his first major solo release in international repertoire. And after ten years in the Naxos stable, concentrating almost exclusively on British music, he was becoming increasingly anxious about being labelled as a specialist.

“Naxos had taken me in a direction which I’d never really anticipated. I mean I’d always been interested in travelling off the beaten track, but in all honesty Bax, Bridge, composers like that, they weren’t even on my radar at all.

“I’ve enjoyed doing it enormously, but there’s a momentum - once you’ve done one disc, people send you more repertoire, a pattern develops – and I wanted to stop it before it got too late.”

The second reason is more personal. “It’s always a hard thing to explain, and I’m aware musicians often sound ridiculously vague when they’re talking about things like this, but with some composers you just get the feeling that they are speaking to you personally and that the way you are as a pianist and a musician, you just need to play this music in order to be yourself.

“Take the music of Chopin for example. I love his music in many ways, and I know he is a really exceptional composer, unique in many ways, but somehow his music just doesn’t speak to me in that particular way. But with Liszt, his music is so poetic, almost naïve.”

It wasn’t always like that, though. For years, Wass explains, he had no interest in Liszt at all and numbered himself among the rank and file of those who consider his music rather over the top and self-indulgent.

“I remember at school, walking down the corridors, hearing umpteen people trying to play the Hungarian Rhapsodies, or the B minor sonata. I thought the whole thing was ridiculous. But then, much later, a pianist friend of mind came to stay. I was in the next door room and overheard this music. It was Liszt’s Benediction. I remember just sitting down and thinking, ‘wow, I’ve got to play that’.

“That transformed my understanding of Liszt. It’s the way his music shifts between extreme theatricality and then total intimacy that I find fascinating. In the Album, for example, the way it leads up to this wonderful encounter, this search for inner truth, if you like, in the Vallée d’Obermann, that makes it theatrical. There’s this real sense in which you experience a character who is undergoing some kind of deep change. There’s an amazing honesty, but its often mistaken for sentimentality. I don’t mean theatrical in an arms flaying, head swinging all over the place kind of way. These extremes are just there, in the music.”

Just from talking to Wass, you can tell that he isn’t the kind of pianist whose head swings all over the place when he wants to get “theatrical”. His gestures are restrained, his voice even and quiet. As with his pianism, there’s a clarity of mind and quiet assurance to his conversation that seems to betray a maturity beyond his years. I ask him whether this self-possession has always been with him. Did he always know that he would become a pianist?

“Not really. In fact music came to be kind of by accident, really. Neither of my parents can read a note of music. They ran a guesthouse on the Lincolnshire cost and when I was little they bought a small electric organ, thinking some of the guests might like to play it from time to time. I started playing it a bit, and eventually it became my job to entertain the guests, playing tearoom tunes, that kind of thing.”

His parents may not have been able to read music, but they didn’t take long to realise they had a talented son, organising piano and clarinet lessons, eventually entering Ashley for a scholarship to Chethams.

“That was a shock. Growing up in Lincolnshire, there wasn’t much music around the place really, I mean apart from my ‘Tea for Two’ stuff. And then suddenly I was there in this school, 200 pupils crammed together in this ultra-competitive space where everybody knows what you’re doing before you do. In some ways, I suppose, it really sets you up for professional life because you realise how hard you’re going to have to work if you want to be singled out.”

Wass was indeed singled out, and by no less a talent-spotter than Maria Curcio, the legendary teacher whose famously impeccable pedigree – via Schnabel, Leschetizky, Czerny, and back to Beethoven – was as intimidating as it was inspiring.

“Maria came to give a masterclass one day and she just blew everyone away. If I had to pick the one day that things really changed for me, it would be the day she said that she would like me to come and study with her in London. That was a really big moment for me.”

At the end of the year, Wass left for London to take up a place at the Academy. He had won a scholarship that also allowed him to take extra classes with Curcio, who at that time only taught privately.

“It took me a long time to really understand what Maria was trying to do for me. I was always very reserved, shy even, and limited in depth, and she was always trying to open me up and pull me out of myself. I suppose it wasn’t really until I stopped studying, almost six years later, that I actually came to realise that she had been doing this all along.

“She is still one of my biggest influences. The focus she maintained not just on technique, but hours on sound-production and on thinking about musical structure – these are unquestionably the deepest foundations of my own musical thinking today.”

Wass’s deep respect for his former teacher is clear, but there were times when studying with such a fiercely possessive character her could be rather tricky.

“Maria was a woman who drew her students very close to her. Many of them lived with her, and ate dinner with every night like a big, weirdly close family. Although I lived only a two-minute walk from her house, I never actually told her that because I was wary of getting dragged into the ‘family’.

“A friend of mine lived down the road, and had made the mistake of telling Maria where he lived. After that, he couldn’t get away. If he tried to refuse a dinner invitation, she would always come out with ‘I would never refuse Schnabel’. After he got a girlfriend she refused to teach him any longer. Her students were her children, really.”

Toward the end of his studies, Wass explains that he became frustrated, with the unswerving focus on the classic repertoire of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and with the endless quoting of Schnabel.

“It was always ‘Schnabel told me this’, or ‘Schnabel thought that’, and I began to think, ‘but what do you say? Why don’t you just tell me what you think?’

“At the same time, there were these amazing moments when she didn’t say anything at all. She would just push me aside and start to play, sometimes for ages, as if I had suddenly ceased to exist and she was by herself in the room. Her playing was extraordinary. She could transform a piece at a single touch, and just from listening everything would just fall into place in my own mind as well. That’s really when I learnt the most from her.

“I think I probably owe everything to her, and to Hamish [Milne], one of my teachers at the academy who came from a totally different background to Maria. He’s the one musician about whom I’ve never heard a bad word – that’s almost unheard of in this business – but for some reason he’s never become a household name but he’s one of the most amazing pianists I’ve ever heard. He would also just push me aside and play for me.”

Toward the end of his time at the Academy, Wass was put forward by Curcio and Milne for the London competition, which he won, and then Leeds, in which he was a finalist.

Looking back, Wass is in two minds about the merits of the competition circuit. From sitting on juries himself, he describes the way the system can encourage a certain kind of conservatism because of the way strong musical personalities, especially when they’re still young and not completely formed, usually rub at least one of the jury members up the wrong way. He’s glad, too, that he didn’t do too many.

“I remember at Leeds, at the semi-final when we’d been ushered into a room and told to wait for the decision. They had put out food but of course nobody touched it. Eventually we were summoned into the jury room. They lined up against the wall. It literally felt like we were going to be shot.

“I made it through to the final that time. Even so, I remember phoning my girlfriend afterwards and saying, ‘If I ever even talk about doing another competition, just remind me how I feel just now. I never, ever want to put myself through this again.’”

Luckily, he was rescued, first by the BBC, with the New Generation Artists Scheme, and then by Naxos, with an exclusive contract to record three discs a year. That contract has now expired, and Wass explains his excitement about his new-found freedom.

“I love the way they work at Naxos, and they were always very good to me. But a commitment of three discs a year is bit much if you’re not always dead sure about the repertoire. Moving in another direction seems right now.”

One of the activities Wass says gives him most pleasure at the moment is running the Lincolnshire chamber music festival. There’s a Lisztian element to that too, since during his tour of Britain in 1840, Liszt gave several concerts in Lincolnshire.

“We managed to track down the original poster of one of these concerts. You know, there’s this misconception that Liszt had an enormous repertoire. In fact he didn’t. He just used to play the same things in unfamiliar ways, like the first movement of the Moonlight sonata: fortissimo, prestissimo, the lot. He said he did it because he would get bigger applause that way. Anyway, we thought we might try to recreate that programme we found.”

Another Lisztian project sounds even more unlikely, which is connected to Wass’s annual visit to Restoration House in Rochester.

“This is the only place I ever get to play a fortepiano”, he explains. Just at the mention of the word “fortepiano”, he starts grinning. It spreads to a chuckle. “Last year they asked me to play Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven 6. I thought for a while that it was a crazy idea, but we went ahead with it and, honestly, it was an absolute riot. The colours you can create on that instrument are much closer to the orchestral original. So there’s a plan that I might put that onto disc, maybe next year- that would be quite a departure.”

It would indeed, I think. But then his giggling fortepianist recedes and the serious, scholarly pupil of Maria Curcio returns to his place.

“And Brahms,” he says. “I absolutely have to record some Brahms.”

The disc is available to buy from Naxos here

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