On October 30, 2017, Wexford Festival Opera presented Irish pianist Finghin Collins in solo recital at the National Opera House. It was a stunningly performed program of varied music that was marked by both a keen sense of musical architecture and searching lyricism. Collins worked magic with his interpretation of Alban Berg’s Sonata, Op. 1; it was perhaps the most lyrical performance of this work I have ever heard. He brought the same qualities to Leoš Janáček’s Sonata I.X. 1905 (From the Street) and to a set of solo works by Frederic Chopin—the Prelude, Op. 45; Four Mazurkas, Op. 17; Two Nocturnes, Op. 28; and Ballade No. 4 in A-flat major, Op. 52. Recently, Collins released a new CD, Chopin Recital, on the Claves label.
On the day after the Wexford program, he spoke by telephone with followkellow.com.
BK: Please tell me a little about your remarkable family. Of course I know your work and that of your sister Dearbhla; I’ve heard her accompany a number of singers in recital in Dublin, where she is on the faculty of the Royal Irish Academy of Music. It sounds as if you all grew up in an amazingly fertile atmosphere for a group of young artists.
FC: We all started in music at a young age, and took to music and loved it and are all very involved in it as much as we can be.
My elder sister Mary lives in Germany, and my brother Donagh is chief executive of Askanos Holt (one of the U.K.’s leading artist agencies) and is in the top job there now. He deals with big orchestras and big conductors. He is very important in the music business. My sister Dearbhla and I were both recently conferred with honorary doctorates on the same day, from the National University of Ireland. It seems to have been a first–two siblings being honored simultaneously.
BK: How has the state of music education in Ireland changed from the time you were a child?
FC: I think it’s all the time improving. When I was in primary school, it wasn’t a significant part of the curriculum, but great efforts are being made to improve things now. Music Generation is now gradually spreading to all parts of Ireland, and it’s so important to get to them when they are very young and instil this love of music. I was lucky, because I went to Gonzaga College, and there was an inspiring music teacher who remains a close friend, and I had a lucky time there. He would take us to concerts and it was a very holistic education. I realize that I was quite lucky in that. It’s not something very evenly spread across, but I do think things are improving.
BK: Please tell me your thoughts on the current state of opportunities for pianists in Ireland. Is it inevitable that many have to leave the country and seek out possibilities in New York and London?
FC: I was one of the first to be able to base my studies here; it had only started that you could do a B.A. in Ireland in music performance. Pianists are not obliged to go abroad anymore. I had a lot of wonderful opportunities to perform in recital and chamber music. Having said that, it is challenging to make a career as a performer, whether you are here or in London. I have seen a lot of students come to me with big eyes and say “I want to perform like you,” and I tell them the stars have to align—you have to win competitions and all of that. Many do succeed, but for a lot of them, it doesn’t always work out. But everyone makes his own way, according to his own talent. I do a lot of artistic directorships. Unlike a lot of people, I don’t have a teaching position.
BK: I’d love to know about a particular piano piece that you still consider a work in progress.
FC: About a year ago, I started working on some Rachmaninoff Preludes. I feel they need more work. I still don’t feel totally comfortable. I perform them next year at Wigmore Hall, so I need to keep working at them.
BK: In New York, it seems that every year, Juilliard turns out a group of pianists who can play faster and more virtuosically than the group of pianists the year before. But we in the audience often come away feeling that these performances are lacking in any distinctive musical profile. Do you find that to be the case in Ireland and England as well?
FC: Well, I remember going to competitions in the 1990s, and there was a lot of fast and loud playing and they were astonishingly well practiced. But most of them didn’t go on to stimulating careers.
People want to have the essence of the music communicated to them.
BK: Which areas of the piano repertoire do you feel are best represented in performance today?
FC: Well, I think Debussy and Mozart are well represented. I don’t think there are other areas better represented than others. i don’t listen to a huge range of other pianists, to my shame. I listen to opera a great deal, and of course, I play for singers.
BK: I loved your performances yesterday of the Liszt Tristan and Rigoletto fantasies. Which of the Liszt opera transcriptions/fantasies do you feel are the most successful in terms of capturing the feeling of the original opera?
FC: What’s interesting about yesterday’s paraphrases is that the one Liszt did on Tristan is faithful to the score of the opera, and sort of transcribes it bar by bar. The one he did on RIgoletto is much less sincere, if you like—poking fun at Verdi a little bit. Wagner was his father in law and he was respectful of Wagner. Both are effective and I think they make a nice pair like that—complementary, in a way.
BK: Your playing has such wonderful transparency. Can you talk at all about the technical process by which you achieved that quality?
FC: I don’t sit down and say that I want to play with transparency. It is very instinctive, how I play. I am inspired by the lyric aspect of music. I work a lot with singers. The lines of the Berg Sonata I like to bring out as much as I can in a transparent way. Maybe I am also thinking orchestrally—this is the oboe, this is the clarinet. I like to have a whole range and tapestry of instruments coming through. Even Chopin nocturnes have to sing. And even when you play the Mozart Piano concertos—I always say you can’t play them unless you know the Mozart operas. The piano has to sing. That’s my approach, and that’ s perhaps why my playing comes across as lyrical.