Guest Writer, Ateş Orga
“Nobleman of the profession.” Nicholas King
Ronald Bertram Smith – pianist, composer, teacher, writer, broadcaster, recording artist, hero – was born a hundred years ago today in Lewisham south London, son of Albert James from Camberwell, insurance agent, and Lillian Gertrude from New Cross, latterly Deptford St Paul.
21 January 1977. Interview.
AO Alkan and Chopin aside, you particularly admire Liszt’s partitions of the Beethoven symphonies. What’s their fascination for you?
RS I’ve done the Fifth [21 September 1958, 11 January 1960,] and Seventh [27 July 1982] for the BBC. [Also the finale of the Eroica, 13 August 1966.] They’re marvellous – they could almost be played in concert, a rather special concert – they’re tremendously effective.
AO In these arrangements Liszt wants the piano to sound like an orchestra. Therefore in performance one needs to make the sonorities and registers of the instrument sound orchestral rather than pianistic.
RS Of course. It’s an absolute mistake to treat them pianistically. Just as it’s a mistake to make the Alkan Symphony [Op 39 Nos 4-7] sound pianistic, for exactly the same reasons …
AO Though in the Concerto [Op 39 Nos 8-10] you might be more liberal?
RS In a way … In the Alkan Symphony it isn’t simply that the sonorities are totally orchestral, especially the first movement. It doesn’t seem exactly like an arrangement of an orchestral symphony …
AO What drew you to the complete form of the Concerto [HMV SLS 5100, Abbey Road Studios, January 1977, stereo/quadraphonic], having already made one recording of the cut version? [HMV HQS 1204, Wigmore Hall, released 1970]
RS There were a mixture of reasons why I made the cuts. Firstly, when I learnt it for the BBC Third Programme we had a limited time slot. Humphrey Searle [BBC Music Division, 1938-40, 1946-48: ‘the man who invented late Liszt’] was the producer, and he knew much more about Alkan than I did. Alkan was then till a new name to me: it was in fact coming to grips with this Concerto that made me realise that here was a major composer. I had 35 minutes to play it [the complete version lasts upwards of 50 minutes], and three weeks to learn the notes. Humphrey rang me up and said ‘oh, one must make cuts, they’re cuts indicated after all’: as you know the composer indicates a colossal one in the first movement. So, when I thought about it, I made his cut [18 August 1948]. But afterwards I had time to work it up. By the time I was asked to record the work commercially, I realised that some of the finest music was missing. Further I still hadn’t got the shape of the first movement as a whole in my mind. You know my rather austere upbringing – the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and all that sort of thing! (One should of course always make things as short as possible. In my own compositions I always used to, I was always making them shorter …) Well anyway, with all this in my mind, when I discussed it with the studio technicians they said ‘we would very much welcome it if the first movement doesn’t take more than 22 or 23 minutes, especially if it’s loud music’. That clinched it: according to EMI they couldn’t in those days  get half-an-hour decently on to one side of an LP – though they can now. All these factors came into consideration.
Interlude – March 2002. Letter from David Mottley, Producer.
‘Dear Ronald, Purely by a very lucky chance I heard you the other day on In Tune on the radio. Hearing your voice and listening to your playing brought back a flood of the most delightful memories – the many Alkan recordings, the COMPLETE Chopin Mazurkas and Islamey in two takes! Do you remember those days? … I was instantly transported back into Abbey Road Studio One where we had such a great time together and came out with some very fine records. Those were the days, weren’t they. I must say times have changed so much with the recording companies being only interested in immediate short-term profit. But at least I can look back on some great memories and for that I am truly thankful. It’s wonderful to hear you in such great shape. Thank you for our collaboration …’
16 December 2002. 80th Birthday Season Recital, Queen Elizabeth Hall. Programme Tribute.
Musician, Scholar, Gentleman. Ronald Smith is proof that while artisans may retire, artists never do. In the Indian summer of his life, more than half-a-century of professional music-making behind him, he’s as energetic and enterprising as ever. Still playing. Still teaching. Still thinking. Still passing-on. Still recording, tackling once again the masterworks of his youth with all the enthusiasm, mental staying power and physical prowess of players generations younger. Where others drop repertory when the demands on fingers and body become too much, Ronald resolutely refuses to. How many octogenarians have the strength still to play the Emperor or Tchaikovsky? How many would even begin to contemplate, let alone programme, the Wanderer and Chopin Op 25 plus the mazes and marathons of Alkan’s puissance pianism? The older Ronald gets, the fresher his responses seem to become. No pulling back of tempo for him, no shortening of programmes, no safety nets. Uncompromised, he flies with the music, and we fly with him, compelled to share in the vision.
Such thoughts crossed my mind a couple of years ago, reviewing his Brandon Hill Beethoven from APR [5566, July 1997]. Here, blazingly, was a cohesive Waldstein of the profoundest stature – its notoriously tricky first movement a grand masterclass in dramatically hewn tension and structure, in how to hold tempo across repeats and reprise, the latter prepared through suddenly blinding analogies with the corresponding passage in the later Fourth Symphony. The marbled pathos of the adagio, the finale’s misty, clarifying sunrise of imagination and bacchanalian exuberance, confirmed clearly that we were in the presence of one of history’s great accounts. Ronald was still a boy when Tovey wrote that the Waldstein ‘is enormously more difficult than any set of technical studies that could be made out of its passages. A performance of it up to the rhythmic standards of a good string quartet or orchestra is an exercise of first-rate athletic form: and all the pianistic traditions that make thunder and lightening of the opening, and that read the E major theme as an andante religioso, are mere disguises of fatigue’. Around the time Richter first visited London [summer 1961], those words were my guiding ethos as a student, determining my values and helping shape future listening patterns. Familiar as I was with Schnabel (reservations notwithstanding) and Backhaus, subsequently the young Brendel (VOX), what I really craved after was Ronald’s example before me. The old sage of Edinburgh would surely have wanted to applaud.
There’s Ronald the muscular symphonic planner – Beethoven, Schubert, the Liszt B minor. There’s Ronald the poet, touching the soul, phrasing time like lace blowing in the wind. His slower Chopin studies – the A flat from Op 25 with its distinctively prolonged upbeat and tenor voicings, the left-hand soliloquy from the same volume’s C sharp minor, the long-breathed E major from Op 10 – come, like the D flat Nocturne, from a more aristocratically leisured age. His Alkan adagios can touch the stars – like no one else’s, contemporary or pretender. Who brings so much sadness to the Chant d’amour-Chant de mort from the Op 35 Studies; such wistful magic and lonesome bass to La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer; such tenderness, such ‘spiritual modesty’ (his description) to ‘J’étais endormie mais mon couer veillait…’, the wonderous G flat Prelude from Op 31, Busoni’s favourite? Who has so exquisitely loved the beauties of the Grand duo concertant, or the slow movement of the Cello Sonata?
Alkan and Ronald Smith! Alkan, the ‘isolated genius whose music stands aloof from place, period or school’. Ronald Smith, the man of ‘sturdy rhythm […] and architectural sense’ (Joan Chissell). More than anyone else, Ronald placed Chopin’s reclusive friend on the map. Others talked, a few dabbled, but he did. Like Petri, he made us take him seriously. Through BBC broadcasts. Through recordings for Oryx and EMI. Through the first study in English, which our friend Morris Kahn had the foresight to take on (two volumes, 1976, 1987), keep in print, then update and expand (2000). Such belief, devotion, doing, has landmarked forty years of British musical life. How we valued those early BBC forays, surreptitiously Ferrographing the airwaves, foraging for faded Costallat-Billaudot scores forsaken by their Bloomsbury agent. How happily we let the vinyl spin for the Thirty-Niners complete. How we welcomed the brilliant, easy-borne scholarship of the written page – and so well written, too, with such English high-table grace and wit, such originality of phrase (‘technical armour plating,’ ‘exorcism by fugue’, ‘subversive conservationist’). When Ronald’s EMI Op 76 Grandes études were first released  I noted that here was an artist enamoured with sound, the subtly luxuriant sonority of open pedals, the sensuousness of the piano as an instrument, an Aeolian harp, of humming, glittering fantasy. ‘Keyboard freedom unaccommodated by rhythmic licence.’ Ronald revels in the sonorous and the metallic, in the expansive lines and vertical rock-faces, the curious spatial voids, the warm caesuras of intimacy, that define Alkan’s universe. An Aintree of images and sounds, storms and dreams. I have yet to meet a more impassioned, more commanding hunter to take us round the fences and turns, the glorying home-runs uphill.
Combining the weight and brilliance of Solomon, the directorial strength of Boult, the temperament and fire of Barbirolli, the mind of Tovey, the creative enquiry of a Bob Simpson, Ronald’s is an inspiring, powerfully individual voice. British pianism couldn’t want for a finer elder statesman.
Interlude – circa summer 1986. St Paul Sunday Morning, Minnesota Public Radio Warehouse of Music Studio. Ronald Smith talks informally with Bill McGlaughlin and plays Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, Chopin’s Studies Op 25 Nos 1, 6, 7, 10, and Alkan’s ‘J’étais endormie mais mon coeur veillait…’ and Three Études de Bravoure (Scherzi) Op 16, the latter claimed to be the first complete performance in the USA.
1 June 2004. Obituary, The Independent.
[Original draft, adapted]
In the Indian summer of his life, with more than half-a- century of music-making behind him, Ronald Smith – ‘The Amazing Mr Smith’, ‘The Alkan man’ – was as energetic and enterprising as ever. He was still teaching and still recording with all the enthusiasm, mental staying-power and physical prowess of players generations younger. The older he got, the fresher his responses seemed to become. There was no pulling back of tempo for him, no shortening of programmes, no safety nets.
Smith will be remembered for his concentrated, toughly symphonic view of the classics, for his big-boned concertos (more than forty of them) and for his poetic way with the reflective side of Romanticism. His lasting memorial, however, will be his championship of the French pianist and composer Charles-Valentin Alkan. Smith put Chopin’s misanthropic Parisian friend on the map, through pioneering BBC broadcasts and recordings (on both modern and period instruments), a trail-blazing book, and his presidency, from 1977, of the Alkan Society, tirelessly supporting new initiatives, including the society’s Piano Scholarship inaugurated in 2001 in collaboration with Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.
Though, regrettably, he never recorded the solo concertos in his repertory, Ronald Smith’s studio legacy – from 1950 to 2002, mainly under the aegis of EMI, Nimbus and Bryan Crimp’s APR label – otherwise embraced much he was passionate about: Alkan (the major piano and chamber works); Balakirev; Beethoven; Chopin (all the mazurkas including his published realisation/completion of the F minor last one); Liszt; Mussorgsky; and Schubert.
‘Good singing tone – thumbs off the keyboard – in heavy octaves a straight fifth – play every technical exercise as though it were great music’ (Canon Roger Job, funeral address, Church of St Peter and St Paul, Saltwood, 7 June 2004). Smith taught at Harrow from 1943, and then from May 1951, for close on forty years, at the King’s School, Canterbury (relinquishing duties in 1990), his home open-house to anyone in need of musical immersion. He enlightened and entertained many, through master-classes – exercises in ‘absorption rather than direct learning’ – from the Purcell School to Australia, knowing when to say nothing and when to intervene. A demanding but kindly mentor, ready to digress at will without an eye on the clock, nurturing, expanding and overseeing the minds of his young charges, with an individual recipe for each, he gave people the belief that anything was possible and that there was always a solution to a tricky corner. If he taught by example, it was less a matter of ‘this is how we play it’, more that music was his ultimate life, sustenance and voice.
At the Royal Academy of Music, winning the Sir Michael Costa Scholarship in 1939, aged 17, he attracted the attention of Sir Henry Wood. Wood later directed a student performance of Saint-Saens’ Fourth Concerto [years later played at the 1957 Proms under Sargent], conducted Smith’s Symphonic Prelude for large orchestra, and invited him to make his Proms debut at the Royal Albert Hall in August 1942, playing Bach. In the post-war period, Smith studied privately in Paris with Marguerite Long and the emigré Russian pedagogue Pyotr Kostanov [Pierre Kostanoff].
Smith wanted to be a composer, even maybe an academic – and throughout his life thought like one. He took his external Bachelor of Music degree from Durham University in 1946, and the following year had a Violin Concerto broadcast by Martin Sauer with the BBC Northern Orchestra under Charles Groves. Piano playing, however, took over and at the Abbey Road Studios in May 1950 Smith made a landmark Philharmonia recording of Bach’s Triple Concerto with Edwin Fischer and Denis Matthews, consolidating his reputation as a Bach specialist. (Smith, taking second prize to Maria Tipo’s/Robert Weisz’s first, had caught Fischer’s attention at the 1949 Concours de Genève.) ‘A remarkable achievement. Great care has been taken, not only with the placing of pianos and their balance against the strings, but also with the dynamics of the soloists themselves. The result is that Bach’s tour de force, instead of clattering on as if driven by steam, comes through with every contrapuntal strand in clearest outline. The interweaving of the solos is a delight to follow’ (Edward Sackville-West, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, The Record Year, London 1952). ‘I am glad that Ronald Smith and I joined him in the recording of Bach’s C major Concerto,’ Denis Matthews recalled in his memoirs, In Pursuit of Music (London 1966). ‘It reminds me of the night when Fischer conducted this same work from the keyboard in the vastness of the Albert Hall, drawing us and the far-flung audience into an enchanted circle.’
During the fifties Smith enjoyed a high-profile concerto schedule, working with Ernest Ansermet, Adrian Boult, Anatole Fistoulari, Hugo Rignold, Malcolm Sargent, Constantin Silvestri and William Steinberg (who declared that, unlike the composer, only Smith and Vladimir Horowitz played all the notes in Rachmaninov Three: Smith played this at the last of his nine Prom appearances, 30 July 1959, with Basil Cameron and the LSO). When he wasn’t on tour, he was busy teaching, broadcasting or recording. Always the professional, he got into the habit early on of turning up at halls and studios impeccably prepared. For him the philosophy of recording was about one take. He abhorred ‘patching’ a performance together. Being ready for anything, having the security of a rigorously disciplined technique (however much, in his case, unorthodox and personally developed), knowing what needed to be said, was what mattered. Ensure your foundations before expressing your voice was how he ran his ship.
In his velvet jackets Smith cut a dapper figure on the London scene – suave, attentive, precise and softly-spoken, needing no more than a decibel or two to lend a word persuasive emphasis. People not in the know would mistake him for a wine-waiter, a cocktail pianist from the Savoy perhaps. On stage, his pianism, like his choice of music, defied adjectives. His 80th birthday recital at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in December 2002, beset with illness, was typical of the fearless programming he was renowned for. Vienna to Paris, Wanderer and Opus 111 to Chopin’s complete Opus 25 and an Alkan triptych – Chant No 1 in E Op 38 Book 1, La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer Op 31 No 8, Étude de Concert in E [Octave Study] Op 35 No 12.
Similarly his final appearance, aged 82, at the Brighton Festival four days before his death (Old Market, Hove), juxtaposing Beethoven’s Waldstein, Alkan (the Song of the Mad Woman by the Seashore that he had made so much his own over the years), Chopin’s Opus 25 again, Liszt (challengingly, the Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody), and, by way of last encore, the A minor Mazurka from Chopin’s Op 17. His sight may almost have gone, but not his musical faculties, nor his gift for sculpting orchestrally at the keyboard.
Off-stage, his knowledge astonished. I have memories of specifics, digressions and startling wisdoms over civilised meals. Of sitting on competition juries where his quietly firm logic and psychologically astute grasp of situations and people set unfaltering standards. Of a man sharing the post-Tovey DNA of Arthur Hutchings, Howard Ferguson, Basil Lam, Robert Simpson, Harold Truscott …
“Symbol of that restless physical impulse to seek the still unachieved in the domain of material things.” George Frederic Watts. Physical Energy, 1905 casting, Kensington Gardens London