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?
I was seven years old when my parents suggested that I learn a musical instrument during the summer holidays. It finally came down to cello and piano, and I picked the piano, because I didn’t want to carry a big instrument with me! However, at that time we didn’t have a piano at home so I rented a practice room at the local piano studio.
My father tried to encourage me during my early years at the piano and, within the first year, he gave me this old photocopy of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” piano sonata which he had kept for years, even though he didn’t play the piano as he couldn’t afford lessons. I remember struggling through the first movement, Adagio sostenuto, which, despite its slow tempo, was so daunting – C-sharp minor is definitely not an easy key for a beginner! That was my first, serious classical piece and after that I spent hours and hours at libraries and CD shops browsing through old scores and recordings. I also attended a lot of concerts as a schoolboy. However, it wasn’t until much later that I decided to study music at university. Until then, I had grown up wanting to become a doctor, like my father!
Emile Naoumoff, my piano teacher at Indiana University in Bloomington, USA, is probably the most important influential figure in my musical life. He opened up a whole new universe of hearing, understanding and playing music for me. Every note he plays and demonstrates on the piano speaks with such integrity and meaning. He would go on and on improvising at the piano and suggest clever fingerings that are totally out of this world. I also loved his wit – he could be very sarcastic sometimes!
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Finding the balance between playing what I would like to play and what the audience would like to hear, so that I remain true to myself! I believe music should not just be pleasing to the ears, but should fully reflect what our senses experience: joy, sadness, excitement, melancholy, fear, and so many other emotions.
Besides concerts in traditional venues, I play a lot of salon concerts in private houses. While I try to programme pieces with a wide emotional spectrum, it is often challenging given the intimate setting, the host’s requests and the fact that on such occasions the element of entertainment tends to come more to the foreground. A couple of light waltzes could be nice, but a whole evening of them would be boring. I try to strike a good balance but often it is not easy!
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
Even if the audience clap enthusiastically, as a performer I know my pieces inside out and always feel that there are things that could have been played better or differently. In fact, I rarely listen to my own recordings and often feel uneasy when friends put on my CDs. There’s no way I can listen to myself without being critical! Rather than being proud of a particular performance or recording, I find it very satisfying having spent a long but productive day practising a piece, even if it is only work in progress.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I feel personally and artistically connected to French music written at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century and have a particular emotional attachment to the music of Gabriel Fauré. He composed a great deal of piano music, chamber music and art songs of the highest quality, most of which are not for the extrovert virtuoso, but hold great emotional depths. Emile Naoumoff once said that Fauré’s 13 Nocturnes for the piano, when considered as a cycle, are as important and monumental as Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. I agree with him!
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I try to live a varied life off stage: I love going to art galleries, auctions and art fairs. Anything from European Old Masters and Chinese porcelain to Contemporary Art can keep me in a museum for a whole afternoon. The parallels between visual arts and music are unlimited. It’s so important that a musician lives a life outside the practice room and concert hall!
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I love discovering lesser-known pieces that are seldom performed. Of course, there are certain pieces that you have to study at conservatoires that belong to the classical music canon – a term that invites more and more discussion and debate nowadays – but there is just so much great music out there that deserves more presence on the concert stage.
My most recent project is a solo album called “Mirage” which features piano transcriptions. I think it’s a fascinating genre in itself and there are so many surprises and gems in that repertoire. Here is the link to the album trailer. I’ve included two of my own transcriptions based on popular German songs, “Ich hab’ noch einen Koffer in Berlin” and “Für mich soll’s rote Rosen regnen”. In these arrangements I try to create a subtle and lush soundscape, following in the footsteps of the great British pianist Stephen Hough.
Another project that I’ve been working is a concert series on with the Konsonanz Chamber Ensemble from Bremen which focuses exclusively on chamber music by female composers. I think repertoire choices should not only reflect a musician’s artistry but also their awareness of contemporary social issues.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
There are still so many wonderful venues I have yet to perform in! However, I do enjoy performing up in smaller, intimate venues. I recently performed a recital at the newly refurbished Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond, North Yorkshire, and it was the most magical experience. The closeness to the audience, the clear but warm acoustics of the theatre and the history of the theatre itself all made it a unique and intimate experience performing on stage.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?
In the digital world today, we must adapt to new trends and developments. Whilst live performances are certainly the core of classical music making, we must constantly find new and innovative ways to reach our audiences, especially younger ones, so that in due course they come to live concerts. We need younger audiences so that classical music can live on.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
It has to be a concert given by the 12 Cellists from Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in the Cologne Philharmonie in 2017. They played a splendid and eclectic programme of American and Latin-American music in a sold-out concert. As the last encore, they performed a piece which I had never heard. It was melancholic and yet it had a wonderful lightness to it. Even though I didn’t know what it was, I noticed that everyone in the concert hall (and there were probably more than 2000 of them!) immediately hummed along to the tune. It was the most moving experience! I asked my friend what the name of the piece was, and it was a popular German song called “Für mich soll’s rote Rosen regnen” (Let it rain red roses for me) by Hildegard Knef. I had no idea Knef was, and still is, such a prominent pop icon in German-speaking countries. I tried very hard to look for a piano score but all that I could find was the score for voice with a simple keyboard accompaniment. So I thought to myself, “why don’t I transcribe the piece for solo piano?” And I did. I love playing this piece as an encore in my concerts. It’s such a beautiful tune and the audience loves it.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I think success can be quite subjective and fleeting. But I find it very gratifying when I work on a piece and gradually make progress!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Listen to what others have to say, pay attention to your peers and learn from them while being true to yourself, open up your senses and try things you haven’t tried before. Go to art exhibitions, visit countries you would never dream of going to and try restaurants with friends which you wouldn’t go to alone! There is a life outside of the practice room…
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
To open a score which I’ve been trying to find for years and to spend the whole afternoon getting to know the piece.
Albert Lau’s “Mirage” is available on the Eden River Records label
Young Steinway Artist Albert Lau (MMus, LRAM) was born in Hong Kong and performs internationally both as a solo pianist and chamber musician. His repertoire ranges from Bach to Birtwistle, and includes rarities as well as his own transcriptions. He was named a Young Steinway Artist by Steinway & Sons in 2018.