Sir András Schiff is beyond question one of the world’s greatest living pianists, as well as conductor, pedagogue and lecturer.
As pedagogue, he has been described by The New York Times as “a discerning judge of young pianists”. With effect from 2014, each year he selects three outstanding rising young pianists from around the world in a concert series titled “Building Bridges” curated by him.
It is a matter of huge pride for India that in the very second year of this initiative, Schiff has selected Kerala-origin Julian Clef, in addition to Schaghajegh Nosrati (Germany) and Jean-Sélim Abdelmoula (Switzerland).
Clef has already performed two (8 December 2015 in Berlin, 10 December in Frankfurt) of the six concerts scheduled in this series. The remaining four are scheduled in New York (this will be his US debut, in March 2016), Zurich and Brussels (May 2016), and Düsseldorf (June 2016).
Schiff reminisces on his choice: “When I first heard Julian Clef at a master-class playing Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’, his performance moved me profoundly.” Such high praise is not conferred lightly, and Clef would have been among scores, if not hundreds of other aspirants vying for Schiff’s choice of three for the 2015-16 season.
Clef’s concert recital programme in the “Building Bridges” series features the Appassionata, as well as Brahms’ Three Intermezzi, Opus 117 and Prokofiev’s Sonata no. 8 in B flat major, Opus 84.
For some time now, Clef’s playing has attracted the attention of not just Sir Schiff, but other discerning stake-holders in the classical music world far and wide have also been sitting up to take notice.
His performance of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto in C, opus 15 in November 2015 at London’s Barbican Centre with the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michail Jurowski was hailed by critics as “wonderfully poised… technically flawless and unfailingly sensitive”.
In January 2015, he gave a successful debut performance with the Philharmonia Orchestra under the baton of Michael Collins in the Royal Festival Hall at London’s South Bank.
Another great pianist of our time Benjamin Firth had this to say about Julian Clef, several years ago: “Julian has a musical and pianistic maturity well beyond his years. He gives performances of great beauty, without mannerism or distortion. Already very experienced, he is totally composed on stage and he possesses a remarkably relaxed technique with which he brings the music so vividly to life”.
In June 2012, Clef was tipped as a “Rising Star”, “A Great Artist of Tomorrow” by BBC Music, a widely respected magazine in the classical music world.
In July 2012, he was invited to András Schiff’s masterclass at Beethoven-Haus, Bonn. He was allowed the rare opportunity to play on Beethoven’s own Broadwood 1817 instrument while there. Presumably it was this encounter that first brought Clef to Maestro Schiff’s attention.
In September that year, he featured at the prestigious Dvořák Festival in Prague, sharing billboard space with the top guns of the classical music world, from our very own Zubin Mehta and the Staatskapelle Dresden to the Capuçon brothers, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. It was a tacit acknowledgement of the regard that Clef had begun to garner for himself in the unforgiving, perfectionist world of classical music.
His stunning Gold Medal-winning performance at the Royal Northern College of Music Manchester in 2011 got him snapped up by the leading international music management company Hazard Chase, which represents the world’s renowned artists and also has on its list Piers Lane, Benjamin Grosvenor, and Martin Roscoe (piano); Pinchas Zukerman (violinist and violist); Viviane Hagner, Jennifer Pike, and Anthony Marwood (violin); Julian Bream (guitar); and the Brodsky and Endellion string quartets.
On the Hazard Chase website, Julian’s manager James Brown describes that concert: “Within moments of Julian starting his recital, I had no doubt that he was a very special artist. It was an easy decision to offer him representation….I hope we will also be able to play a significant role now, delivering the major career he so richly deserves”.
That richly-deserved major career seems to be shaping up nicely, surely and steadily. It is an unusually remarkable trajectory for someone who had no formal piano tuition until the age of sixteen.
For several years now, almost from the first time I heard Julian Clef perform in Goa in 2010, I have lamented the fact that the national media and India in general does not make a bigger deal over such a prodigious talent. I have written about him before in the Goan press, but despite pitches to various publications, the mainstream Indian press is not interested, nor are the TV channels.
So it is rather ironic that a TV crew from NHK World (Nippon Hoso Kyokai), Japan’s public broadcasting company has been to India and overseas over the past year to film a feature programme on the story of Julian Clef. The documentary will be aired on 29 January 2016; the exact time will be mentioned on the channel’s website nearer the date, for those interested. NHK World is available on most satellite TV here.
There is a woeful deficit in the attention (let alone patronage or support) we give our rising stars in music compared to China, where young pianists like Yuja Wang, Yundi Li or Lang Lang are fêted as superstars and inspirational role models for China’s children and youth.
At return visits to Thiruvanthapuram, Clef has been compelled to perform upon an upright piano, as the state does not have a concert grand piano. Unless this situation has changed in the last year, it may well still be so. In an interview to London’s Asia House in January 2015, Clef stated: “There is no grand piano in Thiruvananthapuram….You can get more colours and tones and so on from a grand and more possibilities dynamically; the sound is quite different.”
This embarrassing lacuna must be addressed, not just for Clef to perform upon, on visits to his home state, but for music to flourish at home as well. There is so much that needs to be done for the cause of music in India; we can start by making a much, much bigger fuss over Julian Clef and the heart-warming story of his rise to worldwide prominence despite so many odds.
(An edited version of this article was published on 24 January 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)
My past articles about Julian Clef: