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Beyond Black and White: My life in music
by Roger Woodward
609 pp.
Published 2014
ISBN 978-0-7333-2303-4
ABC Books

Roger Woodward’s musical career has now spanned more than half a century and his hefty autobiography, which runs to just over 600 pages, offers a salutary reminder of the complexities of a performing musician’s life whether domestic, artistic, or political. And more than most, Woodward is an example of a performer who has absorbed the past and canalised the present, so that whilst he has been the musical conduit for contemporary composers such as Takemitsu, Cage, Xenakis, Barraqué, Stockhausen, Boulez and Radulescu – and to each of them he devotes a chapter – Bach is, in his words, his true musical homeland. Time and again, one is reminded of the force of his Bachian convictions in a contrapuntal weave of life and art.

From an Anglo-Irish background his family upbringing in post-war Sydney was warm; his sister Maureen seems to have been especially gifted musically and he pays tribute to his early teacher, Miss Pope, as well as to the self-sacrifice of his own parents. To his love of animals and nature can be added his absorption in church music, given that his original intention was to be a church musician and organist – his subsequent career as an international piano soloist was ‘by default’. Hearing Eugene Goossens conduct the St Matthew Passion in Sydney was the most moving musical experience of his early life but Woodward pays due tribute to Kenneth Long, the British cathedral director and organist who took many of the rehearsals. It is this scrupulous recollection of admired figures that animates so much of this book - a recognition that each musician plays his part in the building up of an edifice of a performance such as the one finally presided over by Goossens, and that it is not simply decency but a regard for historical record that ensures that they are remembered.

He devotes many passages to his great piano teacher, Alexander Sverjensky, who also taught Richard Farrell and Malcolm Williamson, amongst many others, and the gradual thawing of their master-pupil relationship makes for engaging reading. Some of the most revealing material concerns the conservative nature of musical and social life in Sydney - conservative socially but also politically. It’s particularly interesting to read about ostracisation based on political affiliations – by which one means Communist affiliations. Raymond Hanson, whom Woodward clearly admired, was an egalitarian and Communist, and met a sad end. I was very taken by his violin works on Tall Poppies TP197 and it was clear that this was the music of a real Australian and iconoclast who had a forward-looking musical mind, and a sense of nature-identification which would have chimed with Woodward’s own.

His studies in Warsaw introduce the reader to a succession of grim-sounding experiences, not least the mutual incomprehension that seems to have existed for quite some time between Woodward and his teacher there, Drzewiecki. Woodward’s lack of ostensible desire to specialise in Chopin was clearly a mark against him and his teacher, cold, distant, dismissive, seems to have sapped Woodward’s drive, at least for a time. And yet here he flourished in other ways. Musicians such as Richter and Rowicki were heard and lavishly admired - even their weaknesses serving to humanise them. He also met Arthur Hedley in London and this Chopin expert seems to have taken to Woodward.

Along the 600 page journey one can read, or intuit, his admiration for certain musicians; Fou Ts’ong and Rubinstein as Chopin players, as well as his embracing of such divergent approaches to traditional music as from Leonhardt and Klemperer. His musical association with the violinist Wanda Wiłkomirska makes for some beguilingly funny recollections. As he began to perform new music his remembrance of Sverjensky’s injunction never to neglect traditional repertoire led to the conjunction in his concerts of repertoire such as Bach-and-Xenakis. This seems to be a perfect example of his position as an inheritor of Sverjensky’s tradition but one whose exposure to contemporary piano music allowed latitude of programming, which encouraged music of the past and music of the present to ‘speak’ across the centuries.

There is quite some detail on the activities of the Polish secret police, on local politics, and a chapter that reflects the Prague invasion of 1968 and Woodward’s response to it. His pro-Solidarity views earned him some enmity, not least from the KGB, and living in Brixton in London from 1978 for two decades he was around for the riots there. Details of his personal life are here, but like some of the text, things emerge almost tangentially or in a non-chronological way; this is not a simple chronological narrative though it does cleave relatively closely to a conventional history. Thus children are suddenly born, and a marriage disintegrates. He fostered a black boy called Elroy and the harassment endured by both, and the unsavoury-sounding interactions with the police, reflect a time of simmering resentments. There is some opaque business about his experience of the British courts, which could have been explained more clearly.

Woodward’s self-criticism attests to his personal honesty. The chapters devoted to some of the composers whose music he has performed are equally laced with insight but lack any sense of superficiality. These detailed pages are some of the most fascinating. How do instrumentalists and composers collaborate – closely and with frequent intervention, as with Feldman, or not much at all; at what moment and how do rehearsals gather in mastery; in what way does the concert itself surprise, or please, or disappoint. The pages about Xenakis and emotional responses to his music, to the performances of Keqrops in particular, and to the nature of collaborative working are full of detail. He doesn’t spare the reader composers’ more absurd sides; a nasty scene with Stockhausen is not glossed.

There is a chapter of conductors (‘Maestri’) and a Little Masterclass in which he gives some wise instruction to the reader, and one assumes, the budding pianist, or both. Selected correspondence from composers is included in the shape of their telegrams or letters, which are reproduced on the same paper as the text; reproducing them on the art pages that house the attractive illustrations would have made some a tad more readable, but it’s rare to see such up-to-date things in book form. Helpfully there’s a full Woodward discography and a list of his compositions and writings. ABC has employed an indexer, thank goodness, so cross-referencing is made easy.

There is far more in Beyond Black and White than can be touched on in a review – more musicians, more life, and many more reflections. But it bears out Woodward’s own injunction to the aspirant concert pianist that in works of art secrets should be revealed in their own time. This Janus-faced musician, a mediator between the past and the present, will still have much to say, and find much to play.

Jonathan Woolf



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