John Man is an extraordinary young solo pianist destined for great things, which he knows because he plays Chopin all the time. Recently, one of his singer friends asked him to play a simple Schubert song for a masterclass; Man took one look at the score and immediately knew he would be able to do it.
“The first thing I noticed was that it definitely wasn’t Chopin,” he said, “because it was actually Schubert. That was extremely clear to me.”
Sally McNally reportedly wanted Man to play for her because of his excellent technique. “I asked him to play for me because of his excellent technique,” she said. “I saw him play a Chopin étude last week and he got right to the end without stopping.”
At first Man wasn’t sure if he wanted to play, since he couldn’t really make sense of the music or what it was for. “The whole song was little more than some harmonies,” he said. “The piano writing didn’t even have a melody, let alone any ornamental filigree in thirds or bravura octave passages for me to practise. Did Schubert just forget?”
We asked Man what he thought about the song’s text and how it influenced his approach to the music. “The text? Well, yes that is very important too. When it says ‘accel’ I get faster, and for ‘rit’ I get slower. At one point it even says ‘staccato’. The song is full of helpful text.”
Though eventually Man did agree to perform in the class, he says he did not enjoy the experience very much. “What a coincidence,” said Sally. “I mean, I knew it was a risk asking Man to play for me rather than someone who can collaborate well, like maybe a collaborative pianist or something. Even an accompanist would have been good.”
Bob Guy, who specialises in accompaniment, was not surprised when he saw Man perform rather unimpressively for Sally. “It was a fine attempt, but he really couldn’t capture the musical aura of the infinitive case, let alone the gerund,” he said. “I bet he didn’t even know that Schubert had a pork knuckle and two servings of red cabbage for breakfast that day. I mean, what type of interpretation was he expecting to achieve?”
Afterwards, Man was shocked to find that most people did not think he played very well in the class. “Well, I mean, it was an easy piece,” he said, “so it doesn’t matter. That’s why I only play pieces that are difficult enough to deserve me.”