Wednesday 18 October 2017

Kill or cure! Julian Jacobson introduces his 70th birthday series at St John's Smith Square

Julian Jacobson (photo Roger Harris Photography)
Julian Jacobson (photo Roger Harris Photography)
The pianist Julian Jacobson is about to turn 70, and has chosen to celebrate with a concert series at St John's Smith Square combining music by Beethoven and Schubert with Prokofiev's war sonatas (the first concert is on Sunday 22 October with Beethoven's Eroica variations, Schubert's Four Impromptus and Prokofiev's Sonata No. 6). I recently met up with Julian to find out more about the series, and my first question was why had he chosen this particular programme for the series. He suggested that it was 'kill or cure', the programme would 'either do for me, or catapult me into a reasonably active 8th decade'!

In fact, Julian had originally conceived of doing a complete cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas. Such cycles are something for which he has become known, but this time he found he lacked the enthusiasm. Partly because with seven or eight concerts, it would be hard to fill the hall and then there is also the need to find something new to say.

So instead he thought of turning to other composers, though known for his Beethoven he has always loved Schubert but has not played much of his music recently and finds it the 'other side of the coin' to Beethoven. Julian wanted to perform some of the late, great Schubert sonatas (he is performing the Sonata in D, D850 and Sonata No 20 in A, D959). Whilst Julian thinks that Schubert is fully the equal of Beethoven, he finds Beethoven's middle and late sonatas so titanic. Schubert's message would be dissipated if he played the Hammerklavier Sonata, so he has chosen to perform the earlier, popular, Beethoven sonatas.

In addition he decided he wanted to do a major 20th century work. Here the present political climate came into play, with the 'fix we are in' Julian felt that a nod to the 'terrible and heroic things which happened in the 20th century' was appropriate, and this seemed to need Prokofiev's war sonatas (Piano Sonatas Nos. 6, 7, and 8, Opp. 82–84 written in 1939).
As there are only three Prokofiev war-time sonatas, for the fourth concert Julian is playing pieces Prokofiev's  Romeo and Juliet. This gave him the idea of finishing the series with something lighter, and so with his piano duo partner Mariko Brown they are playing Julian's transcription of Gershwin's American in Paris.

Julian Jacobson 70th birthday series at St John's Smith Square
Julian and Mariko first came together to play a piano duet transcription of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. Julian feels that this works better than the solo piano version, because in the solo version you get no sense of the antiphony between soloist and accompaniment. The version they played is by Henry Levine who was a member of Gershwin's circle; it is a version which Julian feels preserves a lot more of the harmony and texture of the original. In fact, Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue isn't the only work Julian feels this applies to, he thinks that the piano solo transcription of Ravel's La valse lacks something, even though the transcription is by Ravel himself).

When Julian was asked to perform the Rhapsody in Blue in the solo piano version, he brought Mariko in to perform the piano duet version, and this became the start of their piano duo. When Julian encountered Gershwin's Second Rhapsody, in the Michael Tilson Thomas recording, this sparked something and he decided to do a piano duet arrangement. In fact, the full score was not published then and Julian had to work from a photostat of the manuscript.

Having done this arrangement, 'one thing led to another' and Julian did an arrangement of An American in Paris which he and Mariko premiered in 2016, going on to perform it in the UK and in New York, and when Julian has finished proofreading it, which includes deciding how to notate the taxi horns, it will be published. Julian feels that this new arrangement is just right, and that the one of the Second Rhapsody is perhaps too hard. The arrangements are for piano four-hands, which Julian thinks is a more intimate medium and keeps the music more cohesive.

Julian cannot remember a time when he didn't want to play the piano, perhaps because both his parents were pianists. He is told that he went to the piano just before he was three, and was making up tunes. He always assumed that he would become a pianist. At the age of eight he either wanted to be a pianist or an engine driver!

However, he rebelled totally at the age of 12. At some point he became totally crazy about jazz, and developed an ambition to be a jazz pianist. He was the pianist in the inaugural National Youth Jazz Orchestra at the end of 1965, and he still plays jazz at parties and to relax. But he got to the end of school, and realised that he cannot just leave and become a jazz pianist. Having attended the Junior RCM, Julian decided to try for the Royal College of Music. He took a crash course of lessons, 'and got in somehow'. The problem during his college days was that he was a interested in contemporary repertoire as in the classical repertoire that he was supposed to study; he performed Schoenberg's Op.11.

He developed a big inclusive repertoire, 'too big really' he admits. His wide repertoire is something that just happened. He never focussed on things you were supposed to do as a pianist, so he has performed few of Chopin's Etudes.

He also loved chamber music, and in his early career did a great deal of it. In 1971 he formed the chamber music group Capricorn, which played both classic and contemporary repertoire, and he would be at Prussia Cove playing chamber music. At one point he seems to have found a niche playing for debutant flautists at the Wigmore Hall, and feels that he knows the Martinu Flute sonata better than is strictly necessary.

His Desert Island music would include Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante, 'sublime', Debussy's Prelude Apres Midi d'un Faune, Beethoven's Violin Concerto, Ravel's G Major Piano Concerto and Daphnis & Chloe, and in fact Ravel, Ravel, Ravel.

As a pianist, a great inspiration was Samson Francois, who was a bit of a dark horse when Julian was a student (Francois drank, smoked and went to clubs). They were not supposed to listen to him, but Julian and his student contemporaries did. Julian finds Francois' playing unbelievable, imaginative and vivid, but also highly disciplined and scrupulously faithful to the text. In the same he enjoys the playing of Martha Argerich.

But he finds nowadays that he likes Horowitz more than he used to, in the past he had puritanical objections. He also enjoys the violinist Fritz Kreisler for his elegance, culture and sensitivity of playing. Julian has himself written neo-Kreisler pieces, waltzes and tangos which he describes as encore pieces. He still writes music but describes himself as a Sunday composer, and he gets a great deal of pleasure out of the transcriptions he does.

But he feels that the composing and jazz have an effect on his playing; he comments that his jazz experience has given him a feeling for a stable bass line. Julian thinks that the creative mentality is slightly different to the executant one, and he finds it difficult to imagine being anything else other than a composer and jazz pianist. He encourages his students to copy out music, to understand the labour that goes into creating something.

On Julian actual birthday (in November) he will be playing the second of his London programmes in Paris. He had intended to celebrate the birthday with family and friends, but was offered the concert out of the blue. And after all, he has lots of friends in Paris, and members of his family are coming over to support him too, and he will also be playing the same programme in Germany.

Looking further ahead, Julian will be playing Beethoven's Emperor concerto next year, and Brahms' Second piano concerto and there is talk of a tour to China, though there is nothing firm yet.

In the recording studio, Julian has also started to record what is planned to be a complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas, having rightly decided that if he doesn't start doing it now it will be too late. One disc has been recorded but not yet edited. The sessions for the sonatas are spread over three years, recording them in Potton Hall, and the disc will be coming out on Sleeveless Records.

Full details of Julian Jacobson's concerts from his website.

Update: My apologies for errors which crept into the original version of this interview regarding Julian's family background.

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