Graham Johnson and the Songmakers’ Almanac

On Wings of Song The Songmakers’ Almanac 40 years on
It was in 1976 under the enlightened management of William Lyne that the Wigmore Hall was relaunched.
He had persuaded Artur Rubinstein to give just one last concert in his long career in order to save the Wigmore Hall from the threat of demolition.
A concert on the 31st May 1976 when an almost blind Artur Rubinstein played for the very last time in public.
His final piece the B flat minor Scherzo by his beloved Chopin he abandoned as he could no longer see the great leaps involved.
He proceeded to play two studies op 10 n.4 and one we had never heard him play in public before op 25 n.2.
Both of which took our breath away.
It was a truly memorable recital that had included Schumann Carnaval,Beethoven op 31 n.3 Ravel Valses Nobles and Chopin Nocturne op 27 n.2 and Scherzo op 31.
An audience in delirium and Rubinstein with not the slightest sign of having played a recital that would have worn out much younger colleagues.
He turned to the audience and begged them not to allow the hall to be demolished.
He had started his career in 1912 in the Bechstein Hall and he was happy to finish it here in the newly named Wigmore Hall 54 years later.
He invited the audience to go backstage for this very last time.
He was being greeted by all when he could sense that there was someone very exceptional in front of him.
”I may be blind but not too blind to know when a beautiful lady is standing in front of me.”
Lauren Bacall was charmed of course as only Rubinstein knew how.
William Lyne not content with just Rubinstein devised in typical antipodean style a month of celebrations with concerts that included Elisabeth Schwarzkopf,Henryk Szeryng, Peter Pears with Julian Bream and Murray Perahia,Melos Ensemble,Parikian, Fleming,Roberts Trio and a concert in memory of David Munrow who was to have directed the Early Music Consort.
The Hall was reborn and has since under the enlightened antipodean Managements of William Lyne and now John Gilhooly become one of the most sought after and revered chamber music venues.
It has created its own audience who fill the hall night after night for artists such as Andras Schiff,Steven Isserlis,Angela Hewitt,Joshua Bell ,Graham Johnson etc etc .

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf on the 12th June 1976
Little could they have imagined that the hall was born on the wings of song.
For just down the road on the South Bank a young enthusiastic pianist was devising programmes for singers with themes under the name of the Songmakers’ Almanac.

A man in love
It took a little while for William Lyne and Graham Johnson to find each other and to realise that the ideal place for this new adventure was infact in the reborn Wigmore Hall.
With the first steps on stage of Graham with his colleagues from the RAM :Felicity Lott,Anthony Rolf Johnson,Richard Jackson,Ann Murray it was love at first sight.
A love affair that has lasted over 40 years.
Visibly moved as Graham Johnson remembered all those who had been on this long journey of discovery with him but were no longer with us.
The voice of “Tony”Rolfe Johnson brought a tear to his eyes as it still brought to us a tingle of excitement with the sublime exchange between voice and piano of this singer whose life was cut short much too early.
Sharing with us so generously his memories of 40 years of the almanac which he had idealised for these great young singers who were just happy to have programmes devised for them rather than jotting down their pieces on the back of a brown envelope.
Geoffrey Parsons was not immediately convinced.
Singers sing and accompanists follow !
He soon changed his tune and became an invaluable part of the Almanac as did the veteran Gerald Moore.
Officially retired in 1967 to tend his rose garden rather than darting from one continent to another.Gerald Moore took the Almanac audience by surprise one evening by joining Graham at the piano for a Schubertiade.
What greater endorsement could there be than that for a young man who had been seduced by song at the age of 21 playing with Felicity Lott in the class of Flora Nielson.
Graham and I had been contemporaries at the Royal Academy.
He had come on an Associated Board Scholarship from South Africa to study with Harry Isaacs .
I with Sidney Harrison but we shared chamber music coaching together with John Streets.
I well remember him telling Graham that he did not have to play every note as if someone was sticking a knife into him!
But Graham was already ultra sensitive to beautiful sound and he would also regularly quote the great poets to us in the student canteen much to our bewilderment.
Graham took part in the BBC Cello Competition directed at Dartington by Eleonor Warren.
He partnered Jonathan Williams a very fine cellist and the son of one of the Trimble sisters who had a well known piano duo at the time.
But when he struck up the Rococo Variations by Tchaikowsky it was the sheer beauty of the sound of Grahams’ orchestra that has remained with me all these years.
As Graham told us he was preparing the usual Concerto and Sonatas of a solo pianist ………………..that is until at the age of 21 he fell madly in love ………..with song.
Thanks to that great singing teacher Flora Nielson.
A lover he has never betrayed in fact it has become stronger as he delved deeper and came into contact in those early days with musicians of the calibre of Schwarzkopf,De Los Angeles,Pierre Bernac,Peter Pears,Gerald Moore,Walter Legge ,Hugh Cuenod etc etc.
He even helped Benjamin Britten write down his opera Death in Venice when he became physically too frail to write down the marvels that were still in his heart and mind.
This is just a small part of the fascinating journey that Graham shared with us on a Saturday morning here on his beloved stage.
Pointing to the spot where an already invalid Peter Pears had participated at an Almanac dedicated to him and had stated :
”The Wigmore hall is the place where singers can sing better than they ever thought possible”
How many programmes had been meticulously prepared and in preparing them how deeper his love had become.
His CD recording of the complete Schubert Songs has become a classic and his volume that accompanies it a reference for all that wish to know every detail of Schuberts heart and mind.
It was a story that Graham shared in is inimitable way.
With elegance,wit and above all intelligence in which his passionate involvement rang out so strongly.
A few years ago after one of his many recitals he was honoured with the Gold Medal of the Wigmore Hall.
He was presented too with a carriage clock.
Graham in thanking John Gilhooly immediately  quipped “but I have no intention of retiring!”
I introduced him via internet to Dame Fanny Waterman.
I had been listening in Italy over the radio to a recital transmitted from the Wigmore Hall.
Mesmerised by the beauty of Graham’s playing in writing to Dame Fanny with birthday greetings I mentioned that I had just been overwhelmed by the concert.
”But I was listening too in Leeds and he is the greatest accompanist alive .“
Fanny has chosen artists of the calibre of Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu to win her competition and is rarely wrong when it comes to playing the piano.
They have since become friends and mutual admirers.
I am involved too with helping to monitor and point in the right direction extraordinarily talented young pianists on the verge of important careers in music.And I often say to these Lions of the Keyboard if you want to learn how to make the piano sing listen to Graham Johnson.
Ever generous he came to one of the Keyboard Trusts’ Prize Winners Wigmore debut of a magnificent Russian pianist who had sought from Graham to find his secret of true legato hidden in that black box of hammers and strings.
A wonderful illuminating morning that I just hope will be recorded for posterity or at least published as an important document of someone who has changed the face of music appreciation.
Not content with all that he does he has just finished an important book on Poulenc which is about to be published in the UK.
The Green Room crowded by his friends and admirers after an hour and a half cut short only because time ran out.
“Am I too loud” his mentor Gerald Moore would ask.
No No dear Graham but much much “more” please.
The good news is that at the invitation of John Gilhooly,Graham has devised a new Songmakers’ Almanac series that begins on the 24th January 2019.
The Wigmore and Graham Johnson are indeed floating once again on Wings of Song.

Graham Johnson

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