Michael Dussek, pianist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Growing up in a musical family and showing far more aptitude for music than anything else, I don’t think my career path as a musician was ever in doubt, though initially I was expected to become a composer. It is impossible to single out one influence, but Greville Rothon, a long-term student and later assistant of Claudio Arrau, showed me, in six long and intense lessons, a way of playing which allowed me to combine healthily my musical ideas with those of the composer. This technique is almost entirely dictated by and combined with the requirements of the music, aiming to link those two elements completely. Interestingly, Arrau belongs to the school of piano playing which can be traced back directly to Liszt, Czerny and Beethoven. The school of piano playing which I believe Jan Ladislav Dussek founded and passed on to Chopin, via Field, is slightly different. Beethoven’s playing was always likened to an orchestra, Dussek’s to a choir. But of course the similarities in all schools of piano playing vastly outweigh the differences.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

To still be playing in my 60s is something I am proud of. I had to overcome serious illness in my 20s and early 30s at a time when I was earning my living almost entirely as a performer. I think a challenge for all pianists is the sheer amount of repertoire you encounter, and the number of notes entailed in playing most of it. It is a long time before you make a profit in terms of the ratio of fees to hours spent in preparation, but in the end works such as Franck’s Violin Sonata, which I must have played at least 200 times, have paid their way nicely. This at least partly balances the vast number of hugely challenging works I have played only once!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Two recordings stand out: York Bowen’s first Piano Concerto which I recorded on Dutton Epoch with Vernon Handley and the BBC Concert Orchestra took me into territory which I never expected to encounter. A student played me some of it recently on his laptop and I was pleasantly surprised! Another, of more conventional repertoire for me, was a recital with violinist Ryu Goto (aged 17 at the time), recorded live by Deutsche Grammophon from Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, including the Strauss Violin Sonata and Ravel’s Tzigane. A number of students have come to study with me having heard this recording. And I am genuinely excited about this new recording which, particularly in the 2nd movement of the C minor Sonata, shows Dussek discovering an indisputably Chopinesque style more than a decade before Chopin was born.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

The classical and romantic chamber music repertoire, including duo sonatas, though I would love to have performed more Lieder than I have.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

Interesting question! Of course we can only express what we have experienced, but I also think that music gives us the chance to express the things we can’t express in life (including anger and even violence at times). But having experienced love and a sense of spirituality are two factors which I find indispensable for playing great music.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

These are not usually mine to make, but I always beg for as much consistency and as many repeat performances as possible.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Like everyone else, I love the Wigmore Hall, particularly the colourful and relaxed Sunday morning Coffee Concerts. I have also had some memorable experiences performing in Oxford’s Holywell Music Room, most often in recent times for the Oxford Lieder Festival. Above all I love performing in the wonderful concert halls you find in almost every major city in Japan. The last time I played in Osaka’s Symphony Hall, in 2018, I was acutely aware of how perfect the piano and the acoustic were and therefore how wonderful the music should sound!

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences/listeners?

I think today’s young musicians are extraordinary both in the way that they perform music – the standard of live streams I have watched from around the world recently has been astonishing – and their imaginative and flexible approach to promoting classical music in different venues and through different means of communication.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I’m happy to say there are a few, but I’ll choose two: a performance of Schubert’s Bb major Trio with the Dussek Piano Trio in a candlelit Devon church seemed to hit the spot for everyone. And a performance of Saint-Saens d minor Violin Sonata with Ryu Goto in Suntory Hall where the entire audience seemed to rise spontaneously as we arrived at the final note. The concert was being recorded live and they didn’t want applause on the recording so we had to re-record the last bar!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Playing as well as possible and giving pleasure.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

In my opinion the essential principles of classical music will never change. But the social context within which the music is performed changes all the time, which in turn influences, however minutely, how the music is played and sung. I see my role in teaching chamber music and song at the Royal Academy of Music as focusing on the unchanging musical principles. I am happy to leave the social context to the students, who understand it far better than I do!

Where would you like to be in 10 years?


What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Present contentment combined with long-term satisfaction.

What is your most treasured possession?

I used to say my piano, but during lockdown my wide-screen TV ran it close!

What is your present state of mind?

As nearly always, more stressed than I would ideally like, but with a big-picture sense of near-contentment.

Michael Dussek’s new release Romantic Revolution explores how the music of his ancestor Jan Ladislav Dussek influenced Fryderyk Chopin.  Dussek is revealed as “revolutionary in his approach to both composition and pianism” and for Michael how playing Dussek’s music has changed his view of Chopin. Available on the SOMM label.

Michael Dussek made his Wigmore Hall debut in 1980, where he was described as “a real find”. In 1981 his duos with his wife, cellist Margaret Powell and oboist Douglas Boyd were both winners of the Greater London Arts Association. Subsequently, as a member of three chamber ensembles, the Dussek Piano Trio, Endymion and Primavera, Michael has been privileged to work with many of Britain’s finest instrumentalists, performing regularly in concert venues and festivals throughout the country and broadcasting frequently for BBC Radio 3. Recently he has performed with cellist Gemma Rosefield and violinist Leoš Čepický in Wigmore Hall recitals and at major festivals internationally, including the Prague Proms.  He has also collaborated with the Bridge, Chilingirian, Coull and Dante String Quartets. 

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