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The Mid-Twentieth-Century Concert Pianist - An English Experience
by Julian Hellaby
Publ. 2019, 266 pp

Dr Julian Hellaby, the author of the present book, is currently an Associate Research Fellow in Music at the Coventry University. He has had a distinguished career and is an outstanding authority in various aspects of music. He studied piano at the Royal Academy of Music and has performed as solo pianist, concerto soloist, accompanist and chamber musician in continental Europe, the Middle East, South Africa and throughout the UK, including recitals in the Wigmore Hall and Purcell Room. He has extensive experience of piano teaching at all levels and is an ABRSM examiner, trainer, moderator and public presenter, as well as a mentor for the ABRSM’s Certificate of Teaching course. Dr Hellaby has released several CDs for the ASC and MSV labels. Before the appearance of The Mid-Twentieth-Century Concert Pianist, Ashgate published his previous book Reading Musical Interpretation in 2009.

As the subtitle of the book gives away, the study presented in The Mid-Twentieth-Century Concert Pianist is from an English perspective and experience and, as one would expect from someone of Julian Hellaby’s credentials, the book is rather erudite but do not let that put you off. It is also written in a very clear, direct, concise manner, making it very easy to read and understand. As to be expected, Hellaby writes exceptionally well, in a fluent, interest-grabbing but precise style. The aim of the book is, as stated by Hellaby himself in the book’s Introduction: “…to assess performance style from the evidence of recordings but equally to examine how concert pianists in the western classical tradition were trained, got started in the profession, then developed and sustained their careers”, plus attempting to establish whether there is an English school of pianism.

The main period of study is from 1935 to 1970. For this Hellaby chose six concert pianists who were not already firmly established before the time-period of the study but who were consistently active during that period and were contrasting in both repertoire and performance profiles. The pianists in question are: Malcolm Binns (b. 1936), Peter Katin (1930-2015), Moura Lympany (1916-2005), Denis Matthews (1919-1989), Valerie Tryon (b. 1934) and David Wilde (b. 1935). Before getting into the analysis of the above individuals’ careers, Hellaby writes a rather interesting historical summary of musical life in mid-twentieth-century England, including the war years and post-WWII. This was to my personal taste the most interesting chapter and although summarised there were things I learned and had not read before.

Part II of the book is about career development and sustenance. Hellaby presents the then and now in a succinct, fair way, without being judgemental. In Part III he discusses performance practice through pedagogical influences to start with. The bulk of Part III is then filled with “in search of an English school of pianism”. Perhaps because I am not a native English person, have lived in different countries and always looked at music as international, and indeed universal, I fail to see the importance of establishing, or not, the existence of an English school of pianism. The exception being from an academic perspective where these types of studies are relevant and have a place in music or even history degrees. This is mostly where, to my mind, the interest of this book lies – the academic, musical and historical perspective. On the other hand, through reading about what happens today and what past pianists used to do, it is also an excellent, comprehensive and instructive guide to becoming a concert pianist and sustaining that career successfully.

The case studies (the six chosen pianists) are generally fascinating, and it is also compelling to read how they became successful and managed their careers. Ultimately, to discover how music in general and some artists in particular fared and survived in a world dominated for years by the horrors of WWII is uplifting. Personally, I think it also proves music’s universality and power to redeem and inspire. The book is well and logically structured. It also contains various photographs, reproductions of promotion materials and other documentation related to the six subjects, which in all enhance the written information. The author included his sources with an extensive bibliography, list of archival collections, select discography and even YouTube links. I did go to the two links listed and I must say they were a rewarding experience, especially the interview given by Valerie Tryon to Melanie Spanswick in 2013. Again, like the photos and other documents, they enrich and complement what one reads in the book.

The book finishes in a positive note with Hellaby’s Closing Thoughts, as a way of Conclusion. He summarises some key points and briefly discusses English music education and Englishness (the English temperament), making a curious comparison with tennis, which some people may find of particular interest. The final paragraphs are about some outstanding modern-day pianists, where perhaps paradoxically, only one is English.

The Mid-Twentieth-Century Concert Pianist is a very informative, well-written book, accessible and engaging to anyone interested in music and piano, as well as an excellent guide to someone wanting to become a concert pianist or looking to sustain a successful career as such. However, at 115 for the hardback and even 37 for the e-book I fear it will be out of reach for many of the readers it is trying to attract.

Margarida Mota-Bull
(Margarida writes more than just reviews, check it online at

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