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Howard Shelley not only plays piano and conducts, but he also does both at the same time. He offers Classic FM's John Suchet a behind-the-scenes glimpse into his Beethoven recording session – and a bit of conductor gossip.
There are two sorts of people I admire more than any other: surgeons and musicians. Surgeons because my father was one, and I grew up aware that when he went off to work, he would probably save someone’s life. And musicians, because I tried so hard to be one. I admit it.
At one point I decided I was going to be a professional trombonist. Fortunately for the world of music I changed my mind. (Whether the world of journalism benefited from that decision is for others to decide.) But music has always been there for me, particularly at difficult moments. And whose music was it? Always Beethoven.
So the opportunity to meet Britain’s finest Beethoven virtuoso was irresistible. My early attempts at music had taught me just how difficult it is to perform. Not, it seems, for the real virtuosos, like Howard Shelley. It comes naturally. Howard disagrees when I say that performing is not difficult for him. He says that it is always a struggle. But what he would not deny is that to him it is second nature.
He first performed a Beethoven piano concerto at the age of 12. The next time he was 13. And so Beethoven has always been part of his life. Why then is this the first time he has recorded the piano concertos?
“Playing Beethoven is a great honour, but it’s a responsibility too,” he says.
He understands what Beethoven means to people like me. We need Beethoven’s music, and as a performer he needs to be sure everything is right before he commits himself to a recording — after all, they last forever.
He loves the Orchestra Of Opera North, and Leeds Town Hall has a wonderful acoustic. Everything came together, Chandos gave the green light, and so we have Shelley’s account, not just of Beethoven’s piano concertos, but also of every piece that the great man wrote for piano and orchestra. That includes his very early, abandoned piano concerto, which Shelley has orchestrated, and the underrated Choral Fantasia.
Shelly hasn’t heard the story of how, at the first performance of the Choral Fantasia in December 1808, at the end of a four-hour concert on a bitterly cold December night, Beethoven and the orchestra agreed to drop a section. When they remembered and he forgot, the piece came off the rails. We laughed at the chaos Beethoven seemed able to conjure from order.
Now how do you imagine a musician like Shelley approaches a gigantic undertaking like this? I’ll tell you what I think. Months of preparation poring over scores, then weeks of rehearsal with the orchestra, and then recordings taking several days, weeks even, for each piece. After all, as I said, a recording is forever.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
First of all, Shelley tells me the music is in him. He has lived with Beethoven since that first performance aged 12. So he only looks at the tricky passages that will need extra work. Mind you, in Beethoven’s case there are plenty of those.
As for the recordings themselves, he recorded Concertos 1, 2, 4 and 5 over three days last September, the Choral Fantasia and No.3 over two days in June, and the Triple Concerto, Piano Concerto No.6 (Beethoven’s own transcription of the Violin Concerto), the abandoned early piano concerto and Rondo for piano and orchestra over three days in July. Just eight days.
Is he satisfied with the recordings?
He shrugs. “I don’t know, and I won’t know. I won’t listen to them for several years.” He told me he was too close to them. He would hear nothing but passages that could be improved.
So how does he perform and direct the orchestra at the same time – in other words, do the impossible?
“Actually, it’s not as difficult as you think,” he says. “There is more immediacy between me and the orchestra, and therefore more precision, than when a third person is involved. While I am actually playing I direct with a raised eyebrow, the smallest twitch of the face. I am there, facing the orchestra. And that’s how Beethoven would have done it.”
He doesn’t want to criticise conductors, but they’ve got a lot on their plate. He told me one story of how he was playing a Beethoven concerto with a world-renowned conductor (long since gone to the great concert hall in the sky), and the maestro wouldn’t even let him come to a rehearsal until the day before the concert. When he insisted on a meeting two days before, the great man simply flicked through the score, pointed to two difficult passages, and dismissed him.
“If you have a conductor, the ‘once upon a time’ moment is lost to the audience,” he told me. I know just what he means. The first notes of a performance should be like the first steps of a journey. You may have travelled the road many times, but who knows what’ll happen this time?
I asked him if he had ever thought of using the fortepiano, an instrument from Beethoven’s time, to record the concertos.
He laughed. “Yes, I’ve played Beethoven on period instruments. But I have no doubt at all that Beethoven would have leapt at the chance to perform on a modern concert grand. He was always complaining that the instruments available to him were not good enough for his music.”
I have one final question for him. When might we have the Howard Shelley recording of the complete piano sonatas?
“When I’m 111,’”he says, “one year for each opus number!”
Studied: Royal College of Music.
Big Break: Made his piano-playing debut at the Proms in 1972; his conducting debut was at the Barbican in 1985 Prizes Won the premier prize at the RCM. Awarded an OBE in 2009.
Family: Married to fellow pianist Hilary Macnamara. His son Alexander Shelley is also a conductor.
Did You Know? Shelley became the first pianist ever to perform Rachmaninov’s complete solo piano works in concert, to mark the fortieth anniversary of the composer’s death.