Could you give us a taste of Vaughan Williams’s Piano Concerto?
It’s a work that seems to dissociate itself from the Romantic concept of concertos as it draws the piano into the orchestral texture rather than offering the soloist huge opportunities to shine. The first movement is a rhythmically-driven toccata, the second contains some of his most beautiful writing – it’s absolutely gorgeous. The piece is tremendous fun to play, though famous for its difficulty. There’s a sense of battle against the orchestra, and it’s a physical challenge just to come through.
And the ending is a magical moment…
It’s one of the very few concertos that ends slowly and softly – it eschews that dramatic, virtuosic climax. I remember when I played the Concerto at the Royal Albert Hall I was fighting against thunderstorms. It was an astonishing experience to fight your way through this work and struggle against these elements. And in the end the music seems to work its way up to the ether and just disappears. It’s a moment of great beauty.
When you made your Proms debut with this Concerto last year, it was the first time the piece had been played there since 1939. What was it like?
That year was the big Vaughan Williams year. The Proms audience is unique in a way as you could perform a little-known work such as this and still get a huge crowd. And there’s definitely a real physicality to this piece – you can see the soloist fighting against the orchestra. That dramatic visual element is lost on disc, so to perform it live was fantastic.
British composers have become something of a speciality for you. What attracts you to them?
Many years ago the first project I was asked to do was of Bax. Actually, I turned down the opportunity to begin with, but as I became more aware of his music, I became more attracted to it. And then it’s a snowball effect. There was a Bax fan who contacted me and offered to send me some recordings. This huge box arrived full of CDs of all sorts of English repertoire, and it included the Bridge Piano Sonata and the Second Piano Trio – both of which I have since recorded – and when I listened to them they just blew me away. It’s been quite fulfilling to do repertoire that not many people know, especially when there are some real gems.
This October sees you take on a completely new challenge – trekking to the base camp of Mount Everest.
It’s the trip of my dreams, and it’ll be wonderful to leave the piano behind for the best part of the month and take myself to a completely different world. My wife Claire and I are doing it for a cancer charity, and it's a privilege to do it. All the people we've spoken to say it's a life-changing experience. Fingers crossed we make it, that's all.
So are nature and the outdoors inspirations for your playing?
Very much. I grew up in Lincolnshire which is one of the flattest counties in the country, so I suppose it’s inevitable that I’ve always been attracted to the mountains, whether it’s been the Lake District, Scotland, North Wales or the Alps. I just love getting there – it gives you a real sense of perspective. I live in London, so it’s wonderful to walk for two or three days in Scotland and not see a single other person and to clear the mind. And think of the number of composers who have been inspired by nature and scenery – there’s definitely a real connection. Sometimes music is the only way to capture the essence of the beauty of nature. It’s a way of feeling closer to things.
Interview by Rebecca Franks
Audio clip: Vaughan Williams: Piano Concerto – Romanza
Image: Jack Liebeck
CD details: Ashley Wass (pno); Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/James Judd
Vaughan Williams: The Wasps Suite; Piano Concerto: English Folk Song Suite; The Running Set