Pianist Duncan Honeybourne in conversation with Robert Beattie

New piano music emerges from the Covid lockdown

Duncan Honeybourne © Kris Worsley Photography

Duncan Honeybourne gave his first London recital at 15 and his first BBC broadcast recital at 17. He was a prize-winner at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, where he graduated with First Class Honours and later received the honorary award of HonRBC for professional distinction. His teachers included Rosemarie Wright, Philip Martin, John York and Dame Fanny Waterman, and he completed his studies in London for three years with Mikhail Kazakevich on a Goldenweiser Scholarship awarded by the Sheepdrove Trust.

His debut in 1998 as concerto soloist at Symphony Hall, Birmingham and the National Concert Hall, Dublin, was broadcast on radio and television, and he gave recital debuts in London, Dublin, Paris, and at international festivals in Belgium and Switzerland. Duncan’s debut CD was described by Gramophone magazine as ‘not to be missed by all lovers of English music’, whilst BBC Music Magazine reported: ‘There are gorgeous things here’.Duncan has toured extensively in the UK, Ireland and Europe as solo and lecture recitalist, concerto soloist and chamber musician, appearing at many major venues and leading festivals. His solo performances have been frequently broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and TV (UK), RTÉ (Ireland), Radio France Musique, Radio Suisse Romande, Austrian, Belgian, Dutch, Finnish and German Radio, SABC (South Africa), ABC (Australia) and Radio New Zealand. Duncan’s engagements for regional music societies and arts centres across England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland have included hundreds of solo recitals.

Branded a ‘doughty champion of English piano music’ by the Birmingham Post, Duncan has pioneered British composers in concerts, recordings, and broadcasts worldwide. Radio appearances have included programmes of piano music by E.J. Moeran and Archy Rosenthal on ABC Classic FM in Australia, where Duncan featured in the Sunday Recital series, and a feature on Bax for RTÉ Lyric FM in Ireland. In 2015, Duncan’s premiere recordings of the piano works of composer, poet and priest Greville Cooke (review) were broadcast complete in a series of weekly programmes on Radio New Zealand Concert and, in 2019, a 30-minute programme of his recordings of British piano music was broadcast from Vienna on ORF, Austrian Radio’s national cultural network. Premieres of over 70 solo works have included John Joubert’s Third Piano Sonata and Richard Pantcheff’s Piano Sonata, John Casken’s Tempus Plangendi, three piano cycles by Sadie Harrison, Luke Whitlock’s Flowing Waters (an Arts Council of Wales and Welsh Government commission), Peter Reynolds’s last piano piece, Penllyn, for Late Music York, and the Andrew Downes Piano Concerto at Birmingham Town Hall.

Duncan’s discography (for EM Records, Prima Facie, Divine Art and Naxos/Grand Piano) includes contemporary works dedicated to him by celebrated composers as well as complete recorded cycles of the solo piano music of Moeran and Joubert and the complete violin/piano music of Parry, plus premiere recordings of forgotten piano works by Walford Davies and Ivor Gurney. Duncan’s solo discs have been awarded 5 stars in Musical Opinion and International Piano, and featured as MusicWeb International Recording of the Year, CD of the Week on FMR Radio, South Africa, and Recommended CD on Austrian Radio.

Active as a piano teacher for over 20 years, Duncan has taught, coached, adjudicated and given masterclasses at all levels, working with pianists of diverse ages and stages from beginner to postgraduate. Alongside his teaching posts he has been a Staff Pianist at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, the Universities of Southampton and Chichester and in many schools and colleges. Currently a Piano Tutor at the University of Southampton and Sherborne School, he has also served as Acting Head of Keyboard at Sherborne School for Girls, and many of his former pupils are now professional musicians and teachers.

Duncan has curated several series of piano and chamber concerts and has written for Classical Music and International Piano magazines as well as the Jewish Chronicle, The Times, and the Birmingham Post. His performing career has also encompassed solo piano improvisation, harpsichord and spinet recitals, and organ recitals at Brecon and Truro Cathedrals and Ypres Cathedral in Belgium. Duncan is a frequent lecturer on his experience of life on the autism spectrum and, in 2012, was commissioned by the Manchester Camerata/Royal Exchange Theatre to make a series of short films on autism. He is a Patron of SoundWaves South West, a music and music therapy trust.

In the autumn of 2019 Duncan played the Brahms D minor Piano Concerto at Southampton’s Turner Sims Concert Hall with the Southampton Youth Orchestra, and gave solo recitals at the Yorkshire English Music Festival, in St Endellion Church, Cornwall, and at London’s 1901 Arts Club. Projects in 2020/21 include a 2-disc set of British piano music for EM Records, and the premiere of a new piano work written for him by Cecilia McDowall. 

I spoke to Duncan about his musical background and his interest in British piano music. Duncan recently launched a series of Piano Soundbites and Contemporary Piano Soundbites on various internet websites to help raise money for struggling musicians during the pandemic.  I spoke to him about these projects and his new Contemporary Piano Soundbites recording.

Robert Beattie: Can you tell us about your musical background and who were the key influences on your development as a musician?

Duncan Honeybourne: I was brought up in Dorset where there was a lively musical climate, and I had piano, cello and organ lessons from an early age. I was incredibly fortunate that my early teachers were excellent, all fine musicians of the highest calibre, from whom I absorbed a broad musical culture and an enquiring approach. Healthy habits and good practice were instilled from an early stage, and my own curiosity also propelled me forward. When I was 14, I went to the Junior Royal Academy of Music (RAM) and my teacher there, Rosemarie Wright, whom I’d met when she came to adjudicate the Weymouth Music Festival, was profoundly influential. Up to then I’d had a very active time musically, I’d managed to get the highest marks in the country for Grade 8 piano, and I’d had quite a bit of performing experience locally. I played, listened, and read about music voraciously, but none of my early teachers – excellent musicians though they were – had been trained as solo pianists. I think that was the best way around for me, to first be nurtured as an all-round musician, but the fact remains that at this point my musicianship was definitely superior to my piano technique, which now needed fine tuning and serious work! Rosemarie was instrumental in helping me build my technique and learn my craft with a professional career in mind. She guided me, objectively and systematically, through an exceptionally broad range of repertoire from Baroque to contemporary. Rosemarie’s Viennese training gave her a special insight into classical and early romantic repertoire, and she gave me disciplined instruction in this as well as supporting and nurturing my own quirky repertoire interests. She encouraged a vigorous discipline, a sense of duty to the music and composers, and an objective self-awareness for which I shall always be deeply grateful. She knew exactly when to insist, sternly but good-humouredly, and when to give me space to find my own paths. I had a strong interest in British piano music, even then, and Rosemarie encouraged me to develop that. She also emphasised to me that the professional performer has a compelling obligation to support contemporary composers, something she certainly did in her own career and a potent lesson that has always stayed with me. My recent CD, Contemporary Piano Soundbites, featuring new pieces written during this year’s lockdown, is one example of that lesson brought to fulfilment, I suppose. I had written to Rosemarie to tell her all about the project just two weeks before her death in April, as the pieces were rolling in from composers and I was learning them. I was deeply touched to learn that Rosemarie, despite her frailty, had read my letter and had placed it on her piano, where her family found it after her death. The disc is dedicated to her memory, a gesture which seemed to me to be the least I could do to pay tribute to the person whose values influenced me above all others in my journey towards being a pianist. Her constant emphasis on humility in the presence of great music, inner discipline and finely-tuned self-criticism is always with me, and so many aspects of her teaching come back to life on a daily basis when I give lessons to my own students.

My later teachers were all wonderful and illuminating in their different ways, representing a range of pianistic traditions and influences. In particular, the marvellous Russian pianist Mikhail Kazakevich cultivated a greater lyricism and intensity in my playing. He refined my sound and broadened my colouristic palette.

RB: You have become a champion of British piano music and have released recordings of Moeran’s and Joubert’s piano music to critical acclaim.  How did your interest in British piano music come about?

DH: When I was a child, we spent many of our summers in the Welsh border counties of Shropshire and Herefordshire. Nearby was Elgar’s Worcester birthplace – and Holst’s too, in Cheltenham – and I really responded to the rich musical resonances of that part of England. I listened avidly to British music at that time – Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Howells – and the symbiosis between music and landscape seeped vividly into my musical identity. I was an enthusiastic reader about British composers, and I started to perform much of this music from an early age.  When I was in my teens, I learned works by Ireland, Bax, Moeran, Bridge, Bowen and others. And yes, you’re right – I seem to have increasingly carved a niche in playing British piano music over the years. Even 20 or 25 years ago one was considered rather strange as a young pianist to be looking at the early 20th century British repertoire in such seriousness and depth. But things have changed a lot, and I feel excited and privileged now to be part of a new generation of pianists who are very actively immersing themselves in it. It seems to be a good time to be alive for a pianist of my persuasions!

RB: I sometimes think the British piano repertoire is overlooked. You have those wonderful piano sonatas by Bax and Tippett, piano concertos by Ireland, Britten and Tippett and of course Holst’s The Planets was originally written for two pianos. Can you tell us about some of your recordings of British piano music?

DH: Well, my first commercial recording was of Moeran’s complete piano works, which felt appropriate as these pieces had been part of my life for a long time – and had grown with me, as it were. Because Moeran was half English and half Irish I had the idea of contextualising his works by framing them with a selection of other pieces by English and Irish contemporaries of his. This was a bit unusual; it mirrors what I have often done in concerts, and people seemed to like it. There’s a terrific suite by Alois Fleishmann, a very patriotic Irishman and a great friend of Moeran and Bax. Fleischmann’s remarkable music deserves a much wider audience. Moeran’s own language, very much in the late Romantic tradition, is rhapsodic and mystical, tender and truly inspired.

My recording of John Joubert’s music is also very special to me as John was a good friend for 20 years. After I had played all his earlier piano music, he wrote his third piano sonata for me in 2006, and then in 2017 I played all the piano music complete in a single evening in Birmingham for John’s 90th birthday. John said he’d like me to record it all, and this I did just in time for him to hear the finished disc. This is very poignant for me, because apparently, he listened to it a lot in his last weeks, and it made him very happy, which touched me enormously. John wrote me his very last letter about it, the day before he had a serious fall which led to his death at the age of 91. So, I’m so glad – and deeply grateful to my producer at Prima Facie Records, Steve Plews – that we did it when we did. I love John’s music and it has a staggering emotional power and range: touching lyricism, rhythmic drive, pungent chromaticism and tangy harmonies.

Andrew Downes is a composer who, along with his music, has been part of my entire journey as a professional pianist. Andrew was head of composition at the Birmingham School of Music and had studied with Herbert Howells at the RCM. We have been close friends and collaborators for many years and Andrew has written many wonderful pieces for me. I recorded what was then his complete piano music a few years ago – but he has written more since, so it’s not complete anymore! That’s the wonderfully invigorating thing about working with composers … everything is evolving, growing, developing.

RB: You have just released a new recording entitled Contemporary Piano Soundbites on the Prima Facie label.  How did this initiative come about?

DH: For the last 18 years I‘ve run a series of lunchtime concerts in Weymouth. Not only have I played a lot myself, both as a soloist and with many friends in chamber music, but we’ve invited many young artists and have built up a large regular audience.  When the lockdown started, I decided to upload a daily video of a piano piece to Facebook and YouTube, to keep in touch with our audiences while they were starved of live music. Calling them ‘Piano Soundbites’, I played much familiar fare – Chopin, Brahms, Schumann – as well as a healthy dose of the unfamiliar, and some pieces that had been written for me. I was amazed how many people tuned in, including many who weren’t especially interested in music in ‘normal’ times! That, for me, was a revelation, and it showed me how wide is music’s potential to speak to people. Many who would never have gone to a ‘classical’ concert listened and enjoyed it, and I invited donations to the Help Musicians UK Coronavirus Hardship Fund. I’d never have dreamed of filming myself playing or putting it online at any ‘normal’ time but, in the exceptional climate of the 2020 lockdown, we were all thinking far outside our usual zones of operation! I was overwhelmed by the response, and I was just glad people enjoyed it. I frequently apologised for my ‘lockdown tuning’, because I couldn’t access a piano tuner and had a couple of broken strings. But I had a choice – either to do it as it was, or not to do it at all – and almost everyone took my offerings in the spirit in which they were offered, with the good cause and the international emergency in mind. I did 75 consecutive daily films, bringing the series to the close at the beginning of June.

Given this initiative proved so successful, I decided to invite a number of contemporary British composers to write new pieces which I could put online in the same way.  All the composers contributed these pieces free of charge to the project, and I called this collection ‘Contemporary Piano Soundbites’. At the same time, I set up a Just Giving page on the website to help raise funds for Help Musicians UK.  I am delighted that we managed to raise over £2,500 through this initiative which has gone to help fellow musicians through this very difficult period. There were 30 contemporary pieces, including some extras which composers kindly sent me when they heard of the initiative.

RB:  I understand you have just released a recording of the Contemporary Piano Soundbites?

DH:  Yes, indeed, Prima Facie have just released the recording.  As with the video clips the proceeds of sale will go to Help Musicians UK.  In inviting the composers to write something, I gave them an extremely open-ended brief, simply to write a piece for video premiere during the pandemic: the piece could reflect an aspect of this extraordinary chapter in history, or it could simply be a piece they fancied writing at the moment. Listeners to the disc will find that some of the pieces are indeed a response to what is going on in society at the moment, whilst others have nothing whatsoever to do with it. A few people have mused, perhaps a trifle cynically, on the fact that all have been lumped together as ‘lockdown compositions’, wondering whether this is supposed to define them in some way. Absolutely not! They all happened to be written during lockdown, but that’s the only thing that ties them together, and I think it’s an insult to composers of the quality and distinction of some of those featured to suggest that they would stoop to writing some kind of programmatic work of poor quality just to satisfy some sort of naïve brief! Some of the pieces are really outstanding and will, I’d venture to suggest, find a place in the permanent repertoire. The collection certainly represents a wide range of styles, with 23 on the new disc and some more to come on another forthcoming release. If a composer has chosen to reflect the events of this year, that has more to do with the inevitable impact of life on art than any suggestion of mine.

All the pieces are relatively short – they are all under six minutes long. Some very distinguished composers kindly wrote for me, including John Casken, Graham Fitkin, John McLeod and Francis Pott.  In addition to some of the more established composers, the recording also features a number of emerging and young composers.  The response from the public has been extremely positive so far so I hope the recording will provide greater exposure for them and their work. Moreover, I hope the disc might draw new people into the world of some of these composers, people who might never have explored their work. Many people out there are still suspicious of  ‘contemporary’ music and I’d like to think that some listeners may hear a piece by a composer and feel drawn to explore his or her wider output. And some of the composers featured have discovered one another through the project and established new working relationships and friendships. We live in uncertain, changing, and insecure times. If creative energy generated during lockdown helps to draw new listeners into the work of some of our remarkable contemporary composers, setting up longer term listening habits and enthusiasms, that would be the icing on the cake for me.

RB: Duncan, thank you very much for talking to us. I have listened to some of the pieces myself and I found myself very drawn to the music and the new creative thinking. I also thought you performed them extremely well so many congratulations.

Subsequent to this interview with Duncan Honeybourne, MusicWeb International has published a review (click here) of Contemporary Piano Soundbites by John France. Robert Beattie will also be writing a review in due course.  

For Duncan Honeybourne’s website click here.

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