Repertoire choices by pianists – why so little Mozart ?

We keep a detailed archive of works performed at St Mary’s Perivale.  I have performed an analysis on piano works played between 2004 and 2015 – a total of over 500 concerts, with over 200 pianists.  I suppose there have been about 200 half or whole-length solo recitals in that time.  The musicians have a free hand in what they choose to play, although I occasionally ask them to change it if it is exclusively 20th century repertoire, as detailed in a previous blog about the tensions between what musicians want to play and what the audience want to hear.

A summary of  the pianists’ repertoire choices is on  and makes for interesting reading.  Top of the list is the ubiquitous Chopin G minor Ballade, studied by virtually all pianists, with 13 performances, although I am not sure that any of them have been entirely satisfactory – but that is a topic for another blog !   After that, the major Chopin piano masterpieces and popular Liszt virtuoso works (Rigoletto paraphrase, B minor sonata, Mephisto Waltz, Spanish Rhapsody etc) feature prominently, with several late Beethoven sonatas (Op 101, 109, 111) being performed more frequently than earlier Beethoven works.   Rachmaninov’s Second sonata and Mussorgsky Pictures are also well-represented.   Lower down the batting order, we find Ravel’s Gaspard, Debussy’s Images Book 2 and L’Isle Joyeuse, Schubert’s Wanderer and a cluster of favourite Schumann works.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of this list is ‘the dog that didn’t bark in the night’ – namely the virtual absence of Mozart.  He makes only one appearance in the list, with the Fantasy K475 being played 3 times. Looking at the data again, it transpires that there were two performances of the ‘Ah vous dirai-je’ variations K265 and single performances of 7 sonatas (K283, 310, 330, 331, 332, 457 and 545,) and of the D minor Fantasy K397, to set against all those performances of Chopin and Liszt.  Why is this ?   I doubt whether it reflects the musical tastes of our pianists, since I don’t know (and wouldn’t understand) any musician who doesn’t worship Mozart.  And most pianists, me included, must have bashed their way through most of the sonatas when aged say 9 -12, so they will know them all.  And I think most of our pianists would jump at the chance of playing any of the great Mozart piano concerti, but steer well clear of performing the solo sonatas in public

No, the explanation is obvious, although it will seem strange to non-musicians.  Mozart’s sonatas sound easy, but are extraordinarily difficult to play well.  By comparison, the big romantic works are much easier to  ‘bring off’.  Everything is so exposed – the phrase ‘walking on eggshells’ comes to mind – and problems of balance between the hands, of ‘inner phrasing’ and articulation in the runs, and handling all the trills and turns deftly and neatly, and achieving that rare spiritual balance between purity, warmth and freedom, may be beyond at least some of the pianists who choose Chopin, love Liszt or revel in  Rachmaninov.  These problems are generally more evident in the  sonatas than the piano concertos, where the orchestral support solves some of the balance problems. There don’t seem to be many ‘Mozart specialists’ among the best young pianists around London at the moment.  Perhaps they don’t get so far in competitions.    If I were holding a piano competition, I would make a Mozart sonata a compulsory choice.  Certainly there are no easy ‘plaudits’ for fine Mozart performances, compared with a rousing Liszt rendition, because the audience will assume it is easy – but never mind !   I am hoping we can encourage more musicians to be brave and play the Mozart (and Haydn) piano sonatas in their recitals in future.

Problems for students from abroad obtaining a visa

Many of us enjoy listening to the brilliant young musicians who come from outside the EU to study at one of the London conservatoires. I have only recently started to understand the difficulties they face in surviving here, and being allowed to remain in the UK. I thought it might be interesting to describe the circumstances of one such musician. At his request, I am keeping his identity secret, but all the details below are accurate.

He is an exceptional young pianist, in his mid-20’s who has a star-studded CV. He was born in the former Soviet Union, showed exceptional promise from an early age, trained with distinction at the Moscow Conservatory and won a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music. He has won first prize in two important international competitions as well as several awards in other competitions. He is a charming young man who, to coin a phrase, plays like a god ! Yet he is in an impossible situation. Although his scholarship covers his tuition fees at the RCM, it doesn’t cover his living expenses, which need to be obtained from elsewhere. He is not allowed to teach piano or work in any other capacity. The immigration authorities require him to show that he has £11,000 in his bank account for a period of a month, in October, to prove that he can sustain himself, before they will give him a student visa to remain in the UK. He has won several awards of a few hundred pounds from various worthy funding bodies who support exceptional young musicians, but is still about £5000 short of the target, and is desperate to raise the funds to allow him to stay in the UK and to progress his career as a pianist. Various generous individuals have already contributed support, but it is insufficient. The RCM (and Professor Vanessa Latarche in particular) have been immensely supportive to this student, but there is little more they can do.

I am writing this post for two reasons. Firstly, there may be some readers who would like to help this wonderful young musician so that he can complete his training. I have heard this pianist give outstanding recitals and I know enough about piano-playing to declare that he has exceptional talent. He is also a thoroughly charming person, and I cannot think of a more worthy recipient of support. If anyone would like to contribute to help him stay in the UK, please send me an email at and I will put you in touch with him directly. I hope this might stir some generous souls to contribute. Why not help this very good cause ? Any support would be treated in strictest confidence, and would be gratefully received.

Secondly, I am ashamed of our country’s attitude to outstanding young musicians. This blog steers well clear of political comment, particularly in the current climate, but when there are so many untraceable illegal migrants in the UK, it seems perverse to concentrate so hard on excluding supremely talented young musicians from the UK. This is a frequent problem for the many other brilliant musicians who want to remain here. London is still the music capital of the world, and so many of the world’s elite musicians live here. In terms of pianists, for example, this includes Brendel, Perahia, Uchida and Schiff, who were all born abroad and have contributed enormously to our cultural life. So why do we make it so difficult for their successors to settle here ?