Richard R. Adams interviews pianist Benjamin Martin
Posted on January 21, 2015 by Bax Admin
Editor’s Note: Benjamin Martin is an Australian composer/pianist who records for the Melba label and has recorded for BIS and Chandos. A graduate of the Juilliard School where he was a student of John Browning, Benjamin has received numerous awards including the Queen Elizabeth Grant, first prize in the Hepzibah Menuhin Memorial Award, The Marten Bequest Scholarship and two scholarships to the Tanglewood Summer Festival (as a pianist in 1987 and composer in 1988). His teachers have included Alexander Semetsky, Maria Clodes-Jaguaribe, Stephen McIntyre and Dorothy Taubman. He has performed throughout Australia and toured the United States, Europe and Asia, performing solo and duo-recitals with such artists as Alina Ibragimova, Joshua Bell, Pekka Kuusisto, Richard Tognetti, Dimitri Berlinsky, Raphael and Elizabeth Wallfisch, Janice Martin, Steven Davislim, Boris Baraz, Eiji Oue and the Utrecht Quartet. Benjamin has also given numerous Premieres including the New York Premiere of Two Pianos by Morton Gould (associate artist M.Herskowitz) and Brett Dean’s Elegy (with cellist Emma-Jane Murphy). His discography includes three CD’s with the great German violist Hartmut Lindemann for Tacet Records.
Richard Adams: You are an Australian pianist with roots in England as your father was born there. He was also a very prominent musician who influenced your own career as a musician. Tell me about him and his influence on you.
Benjamin Martin: In all sincerity I can hardly overestimate the influence my father, Christopher, had upon my musical development. He was in certain respects more traditionally inclined than me, however his love of classicity as an expression of beauty in both design and proportion is something I almost certainly got from him and went on with in my own way. He did not like to intellectualize too much about things – something that in his case represented more refined sensibilities rather than less. When people would carry on about how much they know, he’d say something wonderfully infuriating, like ‘Well it certainly sounds as though you know what you’re talking about’!
RA: It sounds like he worked with many of the great composers of his time. Who were some of the composers he spoke of?
BM: Being at student at the Royal College of Music in London at that time meant that Dad was surrounded by some of the most influential musicians of the last century. As a violist in the New Edinburgh String Quartet he performed with Dohnyani, and also performed under Szymon Goldberg for a number of years in the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra. He actually had a bit of a confrontation with Goldberg in one instance, whereupon he stood up in the orchestra and shouted ‘You’re just a little man!’. Dad had a bit of a temper at times, although he greatly admired Goldberg, and so things carried on as before. He also worked on chamber works with William Walton, and made the mistake of comparing his viola concerto with Prokofieff’s first violin concerto. There are indeed similarities, but Walton was a bit put out. He also worked with Britten – I don’t believe Dad committed any faux pas there.
RA: Why did you choose to pursue piano instead of a string instrument like your father?
BM: Actually I used to play the ‘cello and am sorry that I gave it up, since, despite the piano’s wonderful repertoire, I really wish I could partake of some of the great string quartets. But I never seriously attempted the violin, which I love as much as the piano, by the way. My neck’s too long, I would have needed a chunky-sized shoulder rest, something of which my Dad would not have approved. Too inelegant. I did take up violin lessons for a very short time while living in Boston, and left it on a train somewhere uptown. It wasn’t meant for me.
RA: You attended Julliard in the late 1970s and studied with the great John Browning. What was he like as a teacher and what are some of your recollections of him?
BM: Browning was a true gentleman with aristocratic manners, and was very kind and supportive to me. For example, he acted as my guarantor while I rented an apartment in New York. He did not like to impose himself pianistically or musically unless my playing didn’t convince, in which case ‘he’d move in’, as he put it. He was constantly on the lookout for idiosyncrasies in the score offered by different versions and manuscripts, such as in the finale of Chopin’s Bb minor Sonata, where there are some fascinating harmonic alternatives that are almost never observed.
He had a profound awareness of the piano’s limitless potential for varied sonorities, and frequently offered some wonderfully imaginative pedaling, such as in Chopin’s Barcarolle. He was also very open to all kinds of repertoire – I brought him works like Ives’s Concord Sonata (whereupon he remarked – not without a tinge of irony – that ‘Ives hears sounds which others do not’), and also Janacek’s Sonata, which he loved so much that he took it into his repertoire. He also was particularly keen to hear my own music, and supported me tremendously in this area. The one work he demanded I study was Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and the one work he didn’t want to teach was Barber’s Concerto, since he’d been playing it to death.
I remember a lesson where he played for me excerpts from a Barber Opera with such intensity. He also had a double-manual harpsichord – like his hero Wanda Landowska – and delighted in demonstrating its gothic, rattling power. He loved Bach performed in the monumental manner, just as my father did.
RA: I suppose itʼs more accurate to refer to you as a composer/pianist. When did you start composing and how would you describe your compositional style?
BM: I began composing when I was ten years old, initially transcribing some symphonic works like Sibelius’s First Symphony for piano. I always find it a challenging topic to discuss my own style of writing, not least because one can too easily fall prey to a point made by the musicologist Richard Taruskin – namely, that composers tend to cite influences which flatter their own egos (and hence are often invented) rather than naming them truly. For instance, you’re drawn primarily to, say, Balinese Gamelan music informed by Stochastic techniques. That makes you sound intelligent. Nineteenth century Western music one avoids mentioning lest you sound a sentimental, unprogressive old fool. Unless, that is, you are Elliott Carter, in which event it’s safe to mention the influence of Schumann, for instance, since only those with superior sensibilities can hear any such ‘connection’.
So where does this leave me? My music is very polyphonic in nature, motif- oriented, and without trying too hard, you might pick up my attraction to Ravel’s transparency of texture as well as some Ligeti-esque modalities. Most of what I’ve written over the past fifteen years sustains a certain tonal continuity and lyric aspect. Prior to that I wrote much that is more densely complicated, too much so.
RA: You appear to have a huge repertoire. Are there any composers you would say you specialize in playing or consider favorites?
BM: Bach means more to me than any other composer. I’m actually never quite comfortable with the term ‘composer‘ since if one has truly anything to say then one is not merely an assimilator, but a poet, and Bach was perhaps the greatest musical poet. But I don’t perform him very much, I can’t say why, and it certainly has nothing to do with period instruments! However I’m very fond of Couperin, and often program him. Handel’s Suites I also play, as well as Copland’s and Webern’s Variations, Berio’s Sequenza IV, some Ligeti, my arrangements of Terry Riley, and hopefully some Sebastian Currier in an upcoming festival. I have always loved and performed much of Chopin, Schumann and Liszt, Debussy and Ravel. Rachmaninoff’s First Concerto is wonderful. I don’t like Prokofieff very much, except for the Second Piano Concerto, which I think is astonishing in its emotive power.
RA: Your most recent CD is titled “In the Wake of the Great War” and is a collection of works written by British composers right after the First World War. How did you get the idea for this CD?
BM: I think my father’s character and influence was the catalyst for this recording. His very artistic and personal development was overwhelmingly influenced by his experiences during WWII – how could it be otherwise?
RA: British piano music is still ignored by most of todayʼs major concert pianists. Why do you think that is and do you believe the neglect is deserved?
BM: The issue of music being brought into the standard repertoire is not at all complex. Remember Rachmaninoff’s request to Horowitz, that he perform his First Concerto so as to make it as much of a success as he did his Third? Had Horowitz followed through there’s little doubt that Rachmaninoff’s First would be every bit as popular as the others. The greatest pianists, violinists, and so on, make certain works famous. Horowitz introduced audiences to Prokofieff, Barber and Scarlatti. Michelangeli also offered Scarlatti, as well as Debussy and Ravel. Heifetz brought many lesser-known composers to the general public, such as Korngold, Bruch’s Second Concerto and Scottish Fantasy as well as Glazunov.
Having said that I fear that Horowitz would have avoided performing English music like the plague! He would have felt it demanded too much by way of the listener’s attention. It’s a curious issue. The writer Philip Ball argues that listening to, say, Charles Ives, requires really very little by way of special concentration. You simply allow for the sounds to carry your ears along, and eventually it will seem perfectly natural. But not all audiences like ‘eventually‘. Dare I say it, but I feel that the music on my recording is actually better suited to being listened to as a recording than in a live setting. Too much of its character – emotional, psychological tension coupled with English restraint – gets lost in the concert hall. For slightly different reasons I feel the same way about the Berg Violin Concerto. But in terms of the English music’s quality, its neglect is utterly undeserved. I only wish that Vaughan Williams had written more for the piano. He was by no means a pianistic writer, but his spirit – of the greatest kind – would have reached out to people beyond such considerations
RA: Iʼm curious as to why you have championed the Third of Baxʼs piano sonatas. I believe it is the most elusive and structurally complex as well as the most difficult to play of the four numbered sonatas. What is it about this work that appeals to you and how did you come to know it?
BM: I came to know Bax’s Third Sonata through reading a book by the late Mack Jost, a wonderful pianist who had studied with the incomparable Ignaz Friedman. He championed a great deal of British music including the Concerto by Arthur Bliss. I was already familiar with some of Bax’s other music, like the Viola Sonata, and was keen to discover more of it. Bax was of course a very fine poet, and his music contains something ineffably descriptive about it, but not in the manner of say Britten, whose descriptiveness is occasionally over-ripe. It’s rather more like the kind as reflected by Schumann – who was also a fine poet – in say Kreisleriana, whereby something fantastic and possibly exceeding music’s innate, expressive parameters, is nonetheless captured in musical terms. Bax could be every bit as hallucinatory and ecstatic as Schumann, although his poetic instinct is less accessible, and pianistically his music is more awkward.
RA: Your performance of the Third on this disc is brilliantly played and gripping in its intensity. It also sounds to me as though youʼre rather liberal with rubato in places – especially the first movement. My sense is that your approaching this work with the mind of a composer and doing what you can to clarify the structure of this work to the listener. Would you agree?
BM: I’m delighted that you feel that way since that pretty much sums up my approach to the work as whole. The first movement is by far the hardest in terms of discovering its internal logic or cohesion. There are moments which are truly like a ‘stream of consciousness’, inspired passages of prose which cannot be made to ‘fit’ within its otherwise relatively classical structure. Therein lies its great challenge.
RA: You have recorded Baxʼs Viola Sonata with Hartmut Lindemann. What was that experience like and who of the two of you suggested that work to the other to record?
BM: I recorded the Viola Sonata with Hartmut a good while ago – going back over twenty years – and can’t recall all that much about our recording sessions. But I do recall the instrument, a Boesendorfer, which had an odd, very dark kind of sonority that was perfectly suited to the work. Hartmut’s playing of the work always drew me deeper into it. When we first began working at it I thought it a pretty poor piece(I”m being honest here!) which, in its efforts of lyricism, fell short. Initially his poetry, its rhetorical style and pathos, was lost on me. Nowadays there are passages that haunt me for days. It has a profound, tragic decadence, expressed in a manner unlike that of any other writer I know.
RA: I have to admit that the highlight for me of your new disc is the stunning performance of the Bridge piano sonata that to my ears is the most compelling and brilliantly played weʼve yet had. How did you come to know this work and what is your opinion of it?
BM: My attention was drawn to it upon reading a passage by David Dubal, who wrote that Bridge’s Sonata is perhaps the finest of the 1920’s. Then I read how Myra Hess complained that following her premiere of the work she lost many of her friends, or some such thing. That really intensified my curiosity – what kind of English music from that time could repel so many people? I think it’s a work of terrifying gothic scope and sweep, bittersweetness, and unbearable desolation. It has a wonderful harmonic continuity about it, but may take some getting used to for listeners unacquainted with his more developed style.
RA: What can we look forward to from you next both as a pianist and composer?
BM: I’ve just finished writing a commissioned work for piano duet entitled Echoes of Ancient Voices, which I’ll premiere with my wife Krishna at the Mount Macedon Festival in April 2015. I’m also scheduled to perform in the 2015 Townsville Festival, which is directed by Piers Lane.
RA: Iʼm very excited to have made your acquaintance with your new disc on Melba. Itʼs obvious that you are a pianist of the highest order with thoughtful and passionate ideas about the music you play. I very much hope more Bax appears in your programs – especially the first two sonatas, which I believe would benefit greatly from you advocacy – and in fact, so would we!
BM: Thank-you Richard! I will certainly be delving further into Bax’s music in the near future, with a view to record it with Melba, who always look to champion works by composers who deserve to be heard much more frequently.