Interview with Ashley Wass
Ashley Wass is a young pianist whose
career is in the ascendant. His new
series of Bax piano music promises much
(MusicWeb review of Volume 1
to follow). A prize-winner in both the
World Piano Competition and the Leeds
Piano Competition, Naxos has introduced
Mr Wassís playing to the record-buying
public. I was lucky enough to chat to
Mr Wass over tea in Piccadilly Ö the
interview follows on below.
(Colin Clarke) I note your Naxos discography
with interest. Firstly there is Franck,
whose keyboard music strikes me as under-rated,
certainly in the UK.
Ashley Wass: First of all the
project was something that was suggested
by Naxos at that time. Beyond the Prélude
Aria & Finale and the Prélude
Chorale & Fugue you still need
another 30 minutes or so of music Ö
there are maybe six or seven other pieces
of varying quality so it was a question
of finding the best of the rest. I would
love to have done one or two transcriptions,
but Naxos at that time really wanted
only original piano music. It was a
really fun project. The Prélude
Chorale & Fugue has become one
of my staple pieces now. It really is
one of the greatest works written for
the piano. I absolutely adore the piece
and even the smaller pieces, while theyíre
not of the greatest quality ... itís
a different kind of challenge to me,
to make that sort of music work for
a listener, to make it convincing.
(CC) Franck was mainly known as an
organist. Does it feel like an organist
writing for the piano?
AW: Iíve heard it said about
Franck that pianists complain that his
music is two organistic and vice versa
Ö but I love contrapuntal music and
I think it is very complex, very austere.
(CC) Ö so you like Bach?
AW: I do, although Iím too scared
to play it at the moment!. I know that
there are Bach specialists and I leave
the Bach playing to them.
(CC)You donít go to the other extreme
and programme Sorabji, do you?
AW: (laughs Ė lots) no.
(CC) The Bax is another fascinating
choice, and you have the first two Sonatas
providing the bulk of your new release.
So you programme Bax in live concerts?
AW: Not so far except for a
couple of smaller engagements when I
played one or two of the smaller pieces
(such as ĎDream in Exileí). From next
season onwards, though, Iíve quite a
few promises of programming the First
Sonata, ĎDream in Exileí again. To be
honest I have experienced a little bit
of reluctance on the part of promoters
Ö Music Societies in this country seem
to be afraid that itís a little too
heavy for their audiences.
(CC) I wonder if thatís prejudice?
I wonder how many people actually know
the music Ö
AW: I donít think any of them
do to be honest. All four sonatas are
really good pieces and I am absolutely
amazed that nobody plays them, Iím really
shocked about that. Theyíre really fine
works. I can think of many pieces which
are core repertoire for pianists that
are far less deserving Ö
(CC) Letís hope that the Naxos recordings
will do the job! There havenít been
that many recordings before.
AW: Only one other company,
Chandos (Eric Parkin).
[(CC) There were some on Lyrita LPs
(Iris Loveridge), I believe and Marie-Catherine
Girod on Opes 3D]
(CC)Your Bax seems fairly all-encompassing.
I can hear references to Debussy (ĎCathédrale
engloutieí in the Second Sonata, for
instance), and Scriabin is a big one
(again in the Second Sonata). Do you
see it as a mission not only to bring
Bax to the public but also to show there
is more to Bax (including a wider frame
of reference) than was previously thought?
AW: I didnít set out with any
ambitions like that but having worked
on this disc now and recognised the
quality I hope that more people will
be more attracted in the same way that
there are now so many versions of the
symphonies, and people are much more
aware of them now. I hope that more
people will be encouraged to listen
or that one or two pianists will be
encouraged to programme these pieces.
They are really deserving.
(CC) They donít sound easy Ö
AW: Well, there are certain
problems. To be honest the biggest technical
difficulties come from the fact that
theyíre not written in a very forgiving
way. Bax is very orchestral in the way
he writes and in that sense, there are
difficulties involved. Just minor things,
but sometimes he doesnít write as economically
for the piano as someone else might.
Theyíre challenging, but nothing Ö (trails
(CC) Do you think orchestrally when
you play (in terms of how Bax would
orchestrate in his symphonies, for example)?
AW: Very much so. Generally
speaking the music I like to play is
contrapuntal, but also Ďorchestralí
music. Beethovenís a composer that I
play more than any other, simply because
I think of his piano music in orchestral
terms. The later works perhaps on a
smaller scale, but it is that that interests
me. Iím not fond of piano music that
is too pianistic.
(CC) Of course when you move into Beethoven
the competition is absolutely fierce.
(CC) The sonatas (Bax) sound like great
fun to play (the bell-like, almost Chinese-y
effects spring to mind). Are they?
AW: They are. Theyíre very intense,
and something you can really sink your
teeth into and get a lot of satisfaction
from working at them. Iíve heard it
said that Bax is an acquired taste,
but as you become more familiar with
the music you appreciate it more. It
does require a little bit of effort
(from both performer and listener) but
there is a lot to be taken from these.
There is such a wide range of emotion
and so much drama in this music, itís
fantastic to play.
(CC) Looking at Baxís life there seems
to have been a fair amount of drama
there Ö I wonder how much that fired
up the music?
AW: Well, (laughs), I suspect
quite a lot.
(CC) Do you see yourself channelling
into British music?
AW: I do have a kind of agreement
with Naxos to do a lot of discs of other
British piano music in the future. Obviously
the first goal is to complete the Bax,
as well as doing the piano music Iím
also doing some violin music with Laurence
Jackson from the Maggini Quartet. Weíve
already performed the first sonata together
and sessions are taking place in around
December. Also probably the two-piano
music with Antti Siirala (dependant
on his commitments to other companies).
Also possibly the Piano Quintet with
the Magginis, cello works Ö if funding
can be found, the concertos too. In
addition to that weíve spoken about
a lot of other things. The piano music
of Elgar, Frank Bridge Ö
(CC) Iím hearing youíre doing a lot
of chamber music. Is that part of your
life as well?
AW: Yes, itís really my greatest
passion. I get so much pleasure from
it. To be honest I donít do as much
as I would like to. I do have a regular
Trio that I started fairly recently.
As a pianists thereís a social aspect
which Ö the interaction both musically
and personally is so rewarding. I learn
(CC) Who are the two other members?
AW: Theyíre both living in New
York. I met them in America in the various
festivals over the years. We played
together for fun, and it worked. (CC
Note: the Denali Trio consists of Jesse
Mills, violin; Sarah Cater, cello; and
(obviously) Ashley Wass, piano).
(CC) Lots more recordings?
AW: Actually, one of the projects
Iíve discussed with Naxos is the possibility
of doing the Bridge Trio, which is a
fantastic piece, so hopefully that will
(CC) Chamber music stops life being
insular for the concert pianist Ö
AW: Absolutely. I was on the
BBC New Generation scheme and one of
the things they do is to get you together
with other members of the scheme and
I did a fair amount but not as much
as I would have liked. Maybe 20 or 30
years ago there were distinct boundaries
between concert pianist, chamber musician
and accompanist , but people now realise
it is so important to do everything,
to learn so much (and itís so much fun!).
(CC) Now to Concertos Ė do you play
the Ireland (a personal favourite of
AW: Alas, no. The only British
Concerto Iíve performed so far is actually
the Britten, a piece that isnít really
performed as much as it should be. Itís
a very good piece.
(CC) Richter championed it Ė you couldnít
ask for better.
AW: Itís bizarre how it has
fallen out of favour. I know John Lill
played it in Manchester last year, but
Ö That was this first time Iíd seen
it programmed for a while.
(CC) Maybe itís something about Britten
concertos. The Violin Concerto is just
coming back, and of course the Vengerov
recording is really big Ö
(CC) With Naxos, can you dictate your
AW: Thereís a certain amount
of give and take. Itís basically up
to me to suggest things to them. Obviously
there are a number of factors that need
to be taken into consideration, sales
figures etc. Most of the funding is
coming from Select, who are championing
British music, and theyíve had a lot
of success. The Maggini Quartet with
their Bax series for example Ö but itís
a question of me suggesting things to
them. Mostly they give me the green
light. Occasionally there are one or
two things they shy away from Ö
(CC) OK, letís talk maybe a little
bit about your development and your
major teachers. What did you take from
them and Ė more interesting Ė what didnít
you take from them?
AW: I came from a very particular
school of playing . I studied for a
while in London with Maria Curcio, a
pupil of Schnabel, and this line traces
all the way back to Beethoven. At the
RAM I was a student of Chris Elton ,
who was also a student of Mariaís. A
lot of this school of playing is about
quality of sound , I try to pay a lot
of attention to that . I get very frustrated
by so many modern pianists who sound
as if theyíre trying to kill the piano.
I suspect part of the reason is because
students spend their time practising
in tiny little rooms on badly maintained
pianos and they become almost immune
to the sound that theyíre making. I
find that incredibly frustrating. As
for what I didnít take .. you often
learn the most from working with people
you actually disagree with strongly.
You really have to ask yourself why
you disagree with them, you have to
defend your own ideas and that can reveal
more. What is it about their playing
that you donít like, what is it about
their teaching that you donít like and
that can often be a valuable experience.
Itís the same thing with chamber music.
You donít always work with people you
gel with. You always have to find a
way to make it work. You learn to be
(CC) The magic comes when it does work
and you get that communication Ö
AW: Exactly, thatís a fantastic
experience. Spontaneity is possible
then. I hate to have everything planned.
Just to have the trust in somebody that
if you try something new, they will
go with you.
(CC) These days part of the development
of any pianist is competitions. Its
almost unavoidable these days Ė few
circumvent it. You won the World Competition.
How did you find it?
AW: It was great for me at the
time Ė I was about 20 when I did it
and it was my first major international
competition. I really only entered for
the experience, I didnít even expect
to be accepted. But it was a great experience.
What I learned most was that I should
come with preparation Ė a huge amount
of repertoire; to manage my time and
be efficient Ö I havenít done many (three
in total). The most valuable experience
I got from them was in the preparation
(CC) You did the Leeds as well? And
you were a finalist?
(CC) Which concertos did you play in
both the finals?
AW: Brahms 1 in both which in
hindsight was not the wisest choice
perhaps for me. All of a sudden everyone
was playing this in the finals of competitions.
When I did the Leeds, 3 people played
(CC) Yes, there were two performances
in the World piano competition finals
the year I went Ö
AW: Yes, that was when I met
Antti (Siirala) and immediately after
that we went to Marlboro Festival in
America and we were there for 6 weeks.
Thatís how we really got to know one
(CC) Are there going to be piano duets,
twoĖpiano pieces as well as the Bax?
AW: Hopefully the Bax. Weíve
spoken about one or two other things,
but itís not going to be for a couple
of years at least because of schedules.
(CC) Naxos seems to keep things in
the bag for a while ..
AW: I do know they prioritise..
(CC) Competitions sound like hell on
earth to me. It must be awful ..
AW: Yeah Ö I remember at Leeds,
my most vivid memory is from the semis
and when they announced the results.
There were 12 semi-finalists, 6 go through
to the final and I remember we were
ushered into a backstage room and there
was a wonderful platter of food and
we were just told to wait. Of course
everyone was ashen-faced, nobody wanted
to eat anything. Every time someone
came in, everybodyís head would spin
around and we waited there for so long.
Nobody was talking, there was such a
horrible atmosphere (understandably).
When eventually somebody did come we
were taken into the jury room, almost
frog-marched in one by one and lined
up against a wall (like a firing squad)
and they just read out six names. I
remember one person who didnít get through
who was like Ďwas that six names, I
only heard fiveí. Itís such an unpleasant
experience and even though on that occasion
I was one of the lucky ones, I felt
awful. I never want to do that again.
(CC) And the good news is that now
you might not have to Ö
AW: Fingers crossed! No plans
(CC) One of the most appealing sides
of the concert pianistís life (to me!)
is the travel. You presumably get to
see quite a lot of the world?
AW: Iíve been to some interesting
places. I just came back from Cuba a
couple of months ago, a British Council
thing, and I had a good time out there.
They have a very good School of Arts
(CC) Have you Ďbrokení Japan yet?
AW: Iíve only been to the Far
East once, and that was to Hong Kong,
which was in itself a fantastic experience
... its an amazing city. There, there
are huge posters and marketing campaigns
for artists. You donít get that here.
(CC) What about contemporary music
of the more hard-hitting variety: Stockhausen,
Ferneyhough, Ligeti etc. Do you play
AW: They havenít really been
part of my repertoire as such. Interesting
you ask me this now. A month ago I did
play some Ligeti Etudes for the City
of London Festival with some Kurtag
pieces and a premiere by Sally Beamish,
which was great. Just yesterday I came
back from Cheltenham where I gave more
World Premieres by Eric Tanguy, a French
composer, and by Gerald Barry. Its funny,
they happened within a month of each
other because Iíd never given a premiere
of anything before. I really enjoyed
it. There is a certain pleasure to be
taken from coming to music on which
you have no preconceptions. The language,
the sound Ö when you learn a new Beethoven
sonata, the language is essentially
the same. When you come to these new
composers, its great. You suddenly have
to work it out for yourself; itís like
building a puzzle or something.
(CC) Do you work with the composers
AW: I did with Sally (Beamish).
She was wonderful, very open to ideas.
With the Tanguy I met him literally
just half an hour before the concert.
A question of checking tempi. We did
get on very well and the piece got a
good reception. We talked about doing
more in the future.
(CC) And commissioning?
AW: I guess thereís a practicality
issue Ė money. But it would be something
that would interest me. I guess Iím
fortunate that I have a good relationship
with the BBC and they are a champion
of new music. Hopefully there will be
more things in the future Ö
(CC) One of the most tricky things
about any piano disc is the recording
itself. I only have a pre-production
copy of the Bax Ė is it the same recording
team as the Franck?
AW: Yes it is. This was Potton
Hall (the Franck was St Gerogeís, Bristol).
I just got the first edit of Bax Volume
2 a couple of weeks ago and Iím much
happier with the sound. For me Potton
Hall is just a little bright, a little
(CC) How involved are you in the recording
process? Microphone placement is presumably
left to the engineer? You can ask about
change of sound etc?
AW: Absolutely. We spent probably
the first day trying to find the right
sound. The one thing we didnít try was
moving the piano and when I went to
do the second disc the piano was still
in position from the night before, completely
different from where it was when I did
the first volume. Immediately it sounded
much better. I explain what I like or
(CC) And the technique of recording
itself. Do you work in long takes?
AW: It varies dramatically.
It try to wherever possible. I absolutely
adore the process of recording. Iíve
always worked with Michael Ponder in
the past, who has produced all the discs
Iíve done so far. We have a good relationship.
He gives me complete control over everything.
I do all my own edits (he sits there
very patiently letting me do that!).
We do it during the sessions themselves.
I like to do it immediately, when everything
is fresh, when I have the chance to
go back. I love the process. I start
to wonder if I shouldnít become a record
producer instead of a pianist Ö
(CC) You might not be the first!
AW: I just love the idea of
piecing something together like that.
Itís almost like a jigsaw. Thereís something
incredibly creative about it.
(CC) Do you miss an audience, though?
AW: There are times I guess
when you do. Thereís always a certain
special atmosphere created when you
have a good audience, anyway. But I
have to say mostly not. I actually almost
prefer the recording experience to the
performing. I think itís more creative,
more reactive. You can take more risks
because of the wonders of editing and
piece together something that is as
close to perfection (a horrible word!)
as you can possibly get. There are always
things in performance youíre not going
to be 100% happy with, inevitably. I
could count on one hand the number of
performances in my whole life that Iíve
been genuinely pleased with. Any pianist
Iím sure would say the same.
(CC) Three day sessions actually sounds
quite comfortable Ö
AW: For the Franck I did 2 days
, but for that I didnít select my own
edits. The 3rd day is all
about that. Iím very lucky. Itís nice
to be able to work without the pressure
of an extreme deadline. The whole selection
process is very time-consuming . You
may have 10, sometimes maybe 20 takes
of the same thing Ö
AW: Absolutely, yes. The concentration
required is immense. By the time you
listen to your tenth take, to find which
one is very difficult.
(CC) Youíre taking on very difficult
works. How about the technical aspect
of things? Did that come easily for
AW: Iím lucky in that I do learn
pieces quickly, but sometimes thatís
almost a curse. The Bax was a new challenge
in that he writes in a different way
for the piano. When I first began the
Franck it was actually quite challenging,
but over time it grew into my fingers
and developed, and the same with the
Bax. I didnít initially understand the
technical demands of the music. Over
time it was a very rewarding to reach
a stage when you actually feel comfortable
(CC) Did that take a long time?
AW: Not an immense amount, no.
It felt quite natural. I do enjoy exploring
lesser-known music. Itís a hobby of
mine. When I was on the New Generation
scheme they wanted me to do lesser-known
pieces for specific programmes, and
through that I developed a taste for
(CC) Youíre with exactly the right
AW: Absolutely. I know Iím not
going to be recording the Beethoven
Sonatas for them Ö
(CC) At which age did you start to
AW: When I was 5. When I was
young I preferred like most young children
to play football but I went to Chethams
when I was 11 and so that was a big
commitment. I would never send my own
kids there Ö
(CC) It seems to be a rounded education
AW: A great education, no question.
If Iíd have stayed in Lincolnshire where
I was born I would not be doing what
I do now and I owe a lot to the place.
But the whole competitive environment
is very unpleasant at times. In some
ways it prepares you for the industry
itself. You have to have a thick skin.
But itís not a good experience for a
lot of people.
(CC) Do you actually do any work away
from the piano?
AW: Very much so. Itís very
important. You often have your clearest
thoughts away from the piano.
(CC) What are your thought on analysis
AW: Itís absolutely crucial,
to understand the harmonic structure
of any piece is vital. I remember a
few years ago I went for a lesson with
Murray Perahia. Heís obsessed with Schenkerian
analysis. I knew nothing about it at
the time and I found it was such an
intense approach, different from what
I was used to. It is crucial though
to have that structural understanding,
particularly with the Bax.
(CC) Schenker tends to engender a different
way of listening, because of the interaction
between the various levels (foreground,
middle-ground, background). Did you
find your listening as well as your
playing grew because of it?
AW: I became more aware of some
things. Its not an approach I really
adopt today. If you understand the harmonic
skeleton of the piece then that for
me is the key to the structure of the
work.. Itís the key to everything, melodically,
in terms of colouring Ö
(CC) That basically brings to an end
the questions Ö Many thanks for your
time and good luck with your endeavours!
see also Arnold
picture credit Hanya Chlala full