Maintaining Pace

Written by: Duncan Hadfield

The dynamic and immensely gifted pianist Ian Pace has already faced some stern challenges in his time, frequently concentrating on some of the most formidably complex keyboard music in the contemporary repertoire. Yet these challenges peak when Pace, this coming Sunday (28 January) at the Duke’s Hall of the Royal Academy of Music, delivers the world premiere of what is the longest non-repetitive piano piece ever written: Michael Finnissy’s five-and-a-half-hour History of Photography in Sound.

Yet, astonishingly, the laid-back Pace seems completely unfazed by the arduous task at hand, or, more appropriate, hands! But, then, he has “already played Finnissy’s piano works to date in a six-concert series I gave back in 1996, as well as … executing sections of History of Photography too.” In addition, his “friendship with the composer stretches back to the 1980s – I think I’m getting familiar with his diverse idioms.”

Nevertheless when it comes to Sunday’s marathon, which he delivers in three parts at 1, 4 and 7pm respectively, how will Pace address the sheer wealth of material? “Well, obviously I’ve been practising a lot, and in that process breaking it down to smaller and smaller manageable chunks. I then see it as my task to build it up again by mentally and technically cross-referencing sections to get the hang of the overall structure. After that it’s just a case of filling in details, dynamics, articulation and so on – but I think that’s the nature of all musical performance. I always like to think there has to be some fluidity left for when I actually get up there and perform, and I suppose that’s where the frisson lies.”

Does the History of Photography in Sound have a specific agenda? “Well, I think it has many, as you might expect from an opus of such extraordinary length. I also believe that with it Michael has taken the opportunity to take stock of his life’s work, as well as move forward and explore new ideas. He’s actually described the three words of the title in different ways: History, that which is always forgotten yet newly remembered; Photography, that which records things as they ’seem’ to be; and Sound, that which is heard, as distinct from seen or touched. On top of that the work’s eleven sections often exploit or parallel the medium of film itself through such techniques as cinematic perspective, montage, fades, dissolves and jump-cuts.”

It all seems like grist to the mill to this Herculean pianist, but then he has been occupying a piano stool “since the age of six and was, I suppose, ineluctably drawn to the instrument.” Studies at Chetham’s School of Music, Queen’s College, Oxford (where he first met Finnissy) and New York’s Juilliard School followed. “I’ve always derived much pleasure from learning and exploring new or exciting repertoire, though I have hopefully played my fair share of classics in the process. There’s something I particularly relish about facing something untouched, something one has to think about and try and set in order in one’s mind before approaching it – almost like uncharted terrain. However, total engagement is what I attempt to avoid. I think there’s a danger in confusing identification with a composer and his work and one’s personal feelings towards that composer, which is particularly true of someone like Finnissy who I know very well. I feel I have to give him the benefit of the doubt, so to speak, and thus come at his music from an analytical perspective although not a cold-blooded one.”

Yet when the sun finally sets on Finnissy’s mammoth History of Photography in Sound at around 9pm this Sunday (and Pace has no doubt left the platform to tumultuous applause … and to bathe his hands in soothing balm) this tireless pianist won’t have many days to re-compose himself before his next major London appearance – a Wigmore Hall recital on Friday 9 February entitled A Portrait of John Ogdon, in which he plays Liszt, Busoni, Scriabin, Maxwell Davies and the late Ogdon himself.

Yet again the cerebral Ian Pace seems immediately able to home-in on why he’s giving this concert. “John Ogdon was obviously a key figure, but since he died at the tragically young age of just 52 back in 1989, his star might have faded somewhat, so I thought this might be a good opportunity to present an affectionate, retrospective evening and play not only some of the large range of repertoire with which Ogden was associated but also some of his own compositions, which are fascinating and, to some extent, unduly neglected.”

Once again this Wigmore Hall recital promises to be an unmissable event of polished pianism at its finest. But then Pace is a consummate artist; the accolades for his championing and execution of modern repertoire, especially Finnissy’s, have been flowing thick and fast. Of the Finnissy series, The Independent observed: ’tackling this difficult corpus requires a will of iron, and Pace has clearly mastered it note for note.’ Yet, from his position on the piano stool, the modest Ian Pace views the entire procedure somewhat differently: “It’s always nice to get notices like that but to my mind the notes on the manuscript paper are not that difficult. I’m just playing music.” Maybe it isn’t that difficult; maybe it’s the prospect of ’just’ listening to Finnissy’s five-hour-plus History of Photography in Sound where the real challenge lies!

Article published on 23 January 2001

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