Why A Career As A Pianist Is Not Always Black And White
‘People keep asking whether I’m a soloist or a chamber musician.” Alasdair Beatson sounds a tad fed up with the question.
“Why the pressure to define my career along that dichotomy? Hopefully my musical life makes the answer obvious enough.”
The answer, of course, is that the Scottish pianist is both, and all the better for it. Each discipline complements the other, he says, and to him the two sides of his musical personality are inextricable. In solo recitals he draws his audience into intimate emotional dramas. In concerto mode he’s buoyant and boisterous – and he never loses track of the conversational art of chamber music.
Beatson is the finest pianist to come out of Scotland since Steven Osborne. He’s an intuitive, thoughtful, generous and deeply individual player. He takes risks and isn’t afraid to lay his heart bare in performances. He makes well-trodden repertoire by Schubert or Beethoven sound fresh and personal, and delves into new music so that it somehow feels familiar. Like Osborne, he has technical muscle and isn’t afraid to use it. And, like Osborne, that has not restricted his musical curiosity. If his career isn’t yet glitzy, that’s probably because he set his sights on a more subtle, slow-burn approach to music making.
Beatson grew up in Perth in a family where “everyone loved music,” he says. “There were guitars and banjos around the house and a piano in the front room. I always said I wanted to be a musician even if I didn’t really know what it meant – partly I was just being an obnoxious wee kid, trying to keep up with whatever my big brother was doing.”
He had the luck of good piano teachers from the start, particularly Claire Gallagher in Perth, and played viola in the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland which he says was his “first real experience of social music-making”. Does he still play viola? “Er, no. Let’s just say I was a closet violist, even then.”
As his piano-playing became more serious he started travelling up to Aberdeen for regular lessons with John Blakely, who focused on chamber music and song accompaniment as well as solo repertoire. When it came time to leave school, Beatson followed Blakely to London where he taught at the Royal College of Music (RCM).
“As soon as I arrived in the big city I was excited by everything around me: the sheer number of people, the scale of it all, the amount of music going on. I threw myself at every playing opportunity I was given. It was great fun, but a bit manic.”
Graduating from the RCM in 2002 with masses of chamber experience and a voracious appetite for learning new music, what Beatson needed next was time and space to discipline his fingers and hone his technique. He found it in Bloomington, Indiana, with the formidable octogenarian Menahem Pressler, founder-pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio.
“He’s an incredibly poetic musician with a very distinctive sound – an old-school player in a way, directly linked to the Liszt and Busoni schools of pianism. He’s also a fiercely committed and slightly terrifying teacher. My time studying with him was like a boot camp, and that’s exactly what I needed.”
Beatson returned to London suitably pummelled into shape, “got a little flat with a little piano”, and started gigging. “It was a leap of faith, deciding that from that point I would ‘be a pianist’. I played concerts at music clubs around the country for very little money, then eventually my first Wigmore Hall recital” – a benchmark for emerging young soloists.
“A lot of my colleagues wanted more financial security so they took on loads of students. I just wanted to play concerts.”
The decision proved pivotal in consolidating his knack for communicative performances. “Only when you’re with an audience on your own can you realise what they really want,” he says; “that communication and spontaneity can’t be learned through exams or teachers. That’s why I like playing chamber music. It’s the kind of performing that really depends on the responsiveness of the room and a conversation between everyone in it.”
Beatson says he likes to leave a lot of interpretative decisions up to the night: never will you hear him reiterate a phrase the same way two performances running. For him there are too many variables. Even the piano “can be like another colleague – hopefully one that I get on with”.
Does the spontaneous approach ever misfire? He laughs. “Aye, of course it does! But I just have to accept that it’s all in the name of something I believe in. I’d rather risk it and get it wrong than not risk it at all.”
These days Beatson lives in Brixton and says he copes with London “because I make regular visits to Scotland to see my family, and just to be somewhere that’s more familiar and less aggressive.” His next trip north is to Paxton House, in the Borders, where he will open its annual music festival. First he accompanies baritone William Berger in songs by Dvorak, Ravel, and Falla: “I last played with Will in the late 90s, and in general I rarely play with singers – it’s something pianists tend to specialise in or not – so this is a real treat.”
The following day he takes to the stage alone for early Schumann (Fantasy in C, Opus 17) and late Beethoven (Sonata in A, Opus 101). “I care more about Schumann than about any other composer and I’ve been playing his Fantasy since I was 18, so this music really is in my bones. It’s a big-scale, confident declaration of life and physical love with enormous depth of feeling. Schumann dedicated the piece to Beethoven, so coupling it here with one of Beethoven’s most tender late sonatas seemed only right.”
Alasdair Beatson performs at Paxton House, Berwickshire, on July 19 and 20.