To King’s Place to hear the Hungarian piano professor Ferenc Rados teach a public masterclass for several chamber groups. I know lots of people who have had memorable lessons with Ferenc Rados in recent years, though I myself hadn’t seen him since I played to him in Prussia Cove quite a few years ago.
Like several of his compatriots, such as Sandor Vegh, Gyorgy Sebok and Gyorgy Kurtag, Rados’s style of teaching is intense, vivid and unpredictable. He speaks very quietly, so in a big hall we all had to strain to hear. He focuses above all on how to make the underlying structure of the music clear. He also talks a lot about how to read the ‘grammar’ of each musical sentence. Today he said that even if a piece of music seems to be in a language we do not yet know, we can still sense whether the shape of a musical sentence is plausible – whether syllables are being articulated, whether there is movement through the sentence, whether there is space to breathe. I don’t know whether this ‘parsing’ of musical phrases works in all types of music (not all music resembles speech, after all), but treating music as if it were a compelling piece of oratory often brings it to life in a very immediate and satisfying way.
His determination to do justice to the music sometimes makes him ruthless towards the performers. This is a very different style of teaching than the one we’re used to here, particularly in our present era of ‘supporting the student and bolstering their self-esteem’. Bolstering their self-esteem appears to play no part in the Hungarian method; on the contrary, it often feels (as one of the participants said afterwards) as if the intention is to make them realise how small they are, and what a long way there still is to go. Some people rise wonderfully to the challenge ; others just clam up and turn away. I think most people sense that the focus is on the greatness of the music, not the ego of the performer; that’s as it should be, but it’s asking a lot for young musicians to respond instantly and positively in front of an audience containing their friends, tutors, agents, and competitors.
My favourite moment today was when Rados spoke about the many different ways to play something quietly. ‘You seem to think that ‘piano’ is always something lovely, sweet, tender, melodic, romantic,’ he said to one of the groups. ‘But it can be so many different things. Here, for example, it is a secret fortissimo!’ He chuckled and went on in a low tone, ‘You know, in a Hitchcock movie, the most dangerous words are whispered.’