Memory in Action: Part 1

One of the most frequent comments I receive after concerts is in fact a question:

How do you remember all those notes?!

Blinking in the bright lights, I often mumble something indistinct about repetition in practice and starting young. Occasionally I have the presence of mind to quip that I do not remember all the notes at once; just the next one.



I put my hands up now and admit that neither of these are good answers.



I am currently memorising music to perform as conductor rather than cellist, which is a novel prospect for me, and one which caused me to think more clearly about how memory works for me.


A friend recently shared this picture on social media which highlighted for me an important point in the process of memorisation, and one which possibly explains why many people find it difficult to be 100% confident performing from memory.

At first glance, the top of this pyramid seems to be the ideal state – Know it so well you don’t have to think about it. In this case, when you are on stage, your brain can leave the more mundane requirements, like playing the right notes, up to autopilot and busy itself with the real reason we play music at all – communication. But what happens when your brain, in its adrenaline-fuelled state of heightened awareness, notices in its peripheral ‘vision’ that your fingers are flying all over the instrument in a blur of virtuosity and cannot resist engaging?

This is, I believe, a prime time for the disaster feared by every musician: a memory lapse. Your heart starts hammering in your ears, fingers suddenly become clammy, time slows down (or speeds up) and you have to either improvise your way back in, or stop. Stuff of nightmares!

When your brain has a chance to second-guess the muscle-memory you have drilled into your body, there can be a painful gap as the autopilot stalls and the brain, which has shut down its right-sided functions to fire on all its creative cylinders, cannot immediately take over.

Therefore we must strive for a higher level of ‘Mastery’ when memorising music:

Know it so well that even when you do think about it you still know it.


How is this achieved? Conscious practice, tricks and exercises to programme the correct movements into the brain from all possible angles, mental visualisation, a knowledge of an entire score so thorough you can see clearly where you are, where you have been and where you are going at every moment.

Watch this space for my next blog post which will delve into the details of these methods which have helped me to memorise all sorts of repertoire, including complex contemporary pieces like this one:

Music through the Ages

One of the many fascinating things about music is the complex web of influences, derivations and ideas that link even its most diverse manifestations. The exploration of just a single thread through history right up to the present day becomes an exercise in musical archaeology, enriching our understanding of the music from many perspectives.

This summer I have released my debut recording with Woodhouse Editions: Volume II of my father James Lisney’s Schubertreise project. (Click here for audio excerpts!) This concept harks back to a series of recitals in London’s Southbank Centre in 2001, in which the complete ‘journey’ of Schubert’s completed piano sonata movements were performed in a series of 18 concerts. The music of Schubert was programmed with works of other composers, sometimes complimentary in style and temperament and at other times chosen for their musical closeness. Schubertiads have been repeated in venues across Europe and this blossoming recording project seeks to reflect the spirit of spontaneity and exploration central to the original concept.

Volume II gathers numerous threads of the fabric of musical time, not least the father-daughter relationship we share as the Lisney Duo. Our partnership is a collusion of two musicians at different stages in their musical journeys, captured in the moment by this disc: I was nineteen at the time of the recording, still soaking up the plethora of opportunities and ideas which university offers, and my father James has thirty years of rich performing experience with many artists and in countless concert venues upon which to found his music making. Of course, he would be the first to say that he is still learning all the time!

The music chosen for this disc also exposes many other connections. Late Chopin forms the heart of this recording, pairing the Nocturne Op. 62 No. 1 with the Cello Sonata in G minor Op. 65. Chopin completed the Sonata in the winter of his years and the possibility of a link to Schubert’s great Wintereise cycle has been tentatively discussed since the Sonata’s earliest performances.  The powerful opening motif of the cello in Op. 65, which provides thematic focus for the entire sonata, vividly echoes the memorable figure that haunts the opening song of Winterreise, tolling in the piano at the end of each stanza of poetry. Furthermore, both Op. 65 and Winterreise were conceived during periods of great emotional upheaval for the composers – another telling parallel.

Continuing from Schubert and Chopin, we may follow two separate threads. The first travels along the musical heritage of a nation, with a journey through Polish history right up to Witold Lutoslawski, whose Grave (1981) finishes the disc. The other thread follows the path of musical influence most directly, leading first to Debussy, whose pianism and fluidity of harmonic language owe much to Chopin’s innovations. From here, our thread whirls through the disparate tapestry of 20th and 21st century music to a composer born in the Netherlands, who now makes his home in the hills of Gloucestershire. Jan Vriend  counts the music of Chopin and Debussy among his chief influences and in fact his music ties into our musical web even more tightly than might at first be apparent: Vriend composed JOY in 2011, directly inspired by a performance my father and I gave of the Chopin Cello Sonata. (You can read in more detail about the many significant features of JOY here).

As if that isn’t enough, one final musical link can draw all this together more completely: Lutoslawski’s Grave was composed in memoriam Stephan Jarocinski, a musicologist who specialised in the music of Debussy and Grave takes its thematic starting point from the forest scene of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

Writing this has caused me to wonder where I will be on my musical journey in five, ten, or even twenty years time. What ideas and influences might inspire me, who and what might I come across as I experience life as a cellist? Might I even do some influencing of my own?

The more I explore music, the more tightly everything appears to be pulled together, but contrary to that old adage – ‘Its a small world’ – my perspective on the musical world is becoming ever richer.

Related Links:

James Lisney, pianist

Jan Vriend, composer

Woodhouse Editions

Audio excerpts from Schubertreise, Volume II

‘JOY’ – Jan Vriend (2011)

To have a piece of music written for you can be a burden of responsibility, or it can be supremely liberating. Jan Vriend’s JOY is certainly the latter and my affinity with the piece runs much more deeply than our shared name.

This music is the epitome of true unity between piano and cello. The colourful textures that emerge as the piece progresses are characterised by something beyond communication between the musicians. Sometimes Vriend makes great use of the contrast in timbres between cello and piano and engages the musicians in dialogue. For much of the piece, however, the parts seem to be borne from one intention, requiring a special unanimity between the players to create a variety of fascinating colours from the combination of the two instruments. Indeed, when I play JOY, more than most other music, I am playing both parts, in a heightened state of consciousness which is wholly personal but also the most honest communication of the music.

Honesty is at the core of JOY. It makes evident the human struggle for, well, ‘joy’ and takes the player and audience on this journey. The music is fundamentally melodic and its unselfconscious nature is a hallmark of Vriend’s style, which is both very individual and yet instinctive to play and hear.

The cello writing is challenging because of the sweeping range of the melodies, which often span more than two octaves. Once this technical challenge can be overcome, however, the trajectories and tone of the music is strikingly vocal.

The rising phrases of the opening section seem to betray a desperate longing for something altogether out of reach, and indeed this same urge returns throughout between excursions to various ‘tableaux’. The first is a passage that glistens with the glassiness of harmonics, a contrast with the richly scored opening, finishing with the unmistakeable sounds of wailing seagulls in the cello.

Then the piano takes over, leading us into a whirlwind of stormy virtuosity, punctuated by rapid pizzicato in the cello. Out of this chaos springs, like a glorious fountain, a quotation from Chopin’s Winter Wind etude. Jan Vriend’s tribute to Chopin is rooted in a supreme admiration of his music and also a reference to the fact that JOY was partly inspired by a performance of Chopin’s cello sonata op. 65.

At the centre of the piece, there is a still moment of reflection, which for me brings to mind the cello movement of Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin de temps. Pulsing chords in the piano and a long sustained melody in the cello put a stop to the energetic momentum that is characteristic of Vriend’s music. Soon, however, the music returns to the yearning figures of the opening from which the composer leads us into a strangely submerged passage in which the cello plays quarter-tones, the highly chromatic sounds between the notes! Finally the momentum builds to a furious climax, but it is quickly dissipated, and if you listen very carefully you might hear another quotation, this time thinly veiled and played by the cello, a lone voice still daring to whisper with the spirit of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

The musical extracts are from a live performance I gave in the Pittville Pump Room in Cheltenham with my father James Lisney. The full live recording can be found here.

We are releasing a studio recording of JOY along with works by Chopin and Lutoslawski in 2013 on Woodhouse Editions.

A Royal Introduction

Beethoven Sonata for Piano and Cello Op. 5 No. 1

In 1796 Beethoven, at twenty-five years old, was an active concert pianist and as part of his Berlin tour he was invited to the royal palace by the king of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II, a keen cellist and music lover. Haydn and Mozart had both dedicated string quartets with prominent cello parts to the king but Beethoven dared to go one better – he delivered the opus 5 cello sonatas nos. 1 and 2.Image

Beethoven premiered them at the palace with cellist Jean-Louis Duport, the younger of the two Duport brothers. The Duports were breaking new ground in cello technique and are credited with the invention of the cello spike which stabilises the instrument allowing for more virtuosic playing. It is clear that Beethoven sought advice as well as inspiration from the Duports as many of the virtuosic passages in his sonatas bear significant resemblance to the Duport etudes, which are still studied by cellists today.

The only previous examples of sonatas for keyboard and cello are those by Luigi Boccherini, yet these were simply for cello with continuo harpsichord accompaniment. Other lesser-known composers had written sonatas for the combination, but these are really piano sonatas with a practically superfluous cello part. Beethoven was the first to write a truly democratic work for cello and piano, with the instruments as equal partners. Cellos in Beethoven’s day had gut strings which make a softer sound than their modern steel counterparts and did not have the advantage of a high range like the violin. Part of Beethoven’s challenge in writing these works was to balance the cello with the piano which was advancing in sound and size all the time.

He begins the first cello sonata, the father of a genre, with a slow introduction. The piano and cello play a series of uncertain questioning fragments in unison, as if testing the water of their new roles. This opening is as unsettling for a modern audience as it was in the royal court of 1796 – there are as many rests as notes in this passage! A few bars later, the cello provides the perfect antidote for this unnerving beginning: a long sustained melody high in the tenor range, which brings to mind the seemingly endless sustaining powers of a professional singer. Later a flourishing piano cadenza temporarily puts an end to the equal partnership – Beethoven of course wrote the most impressive part for himself to play! –  and after a moment of uncertainty, we are launched into the Allegro which forms the bulk of the movement. This cheerful romp is interspersed with humorous episodes such as chains of off-beat accents, intended to confuse the audience’s sense of pulse. Of course Beethoven good-naturedly ends the joke and all becomes clear again. At the end of the movement, the momentum is arrested and the music seems to reminisce over the uncertain opening of the sonata. This time the questions are answered with a frantic Presto which builds up to a long rapid trill in both instruments, holding the tension unbearably!…

…and then launches joyfully into the Allegro theme we know so well for the end.

The F major sonata is in two movements unlike the piano and violin sonatas from the same period which are in three or four movements. It is however on a grand scale, in keeping with the royal prestige of its dedicatee.

The second movement is an exciting spectacle overflowing with virtuosic outbursts from both instruments. The boisterous energy is sustained almost all the way through with the occasional wistful lull where the cello holds long notes and the piano tinkles gently. For the most part, however, Beethoven’s music is not polite and would have been shocking to an audience used to the grace and elegance of Haydn and Mozart. He makes use of the earthiest sounds a cello can make with loud scrubbing effects deep in the register. Near the end of the piece, Beethoven slows down almost to a standstill and then jolts his audience out of that trance with a cascade of brilliance and grand heroic ending.

Beethoven’s genius is such that he simultaneously achieves a superb exploration of the capabilities of the cello, a fantastic display of his own extraordinary keyboard skills and all within a wonderful example of his mastery as a composer. Thus Beethoven introduces himself to King Wilhelm II, but more importantly he introduces a new genre, the sonata for piano and cello.

Britten’s Suite for Cello, Op. 72

Backstage at the Royal Festival Hall, Rostropovich had just given the London première of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. Britten, personally invited into the green room by Shostakovich, soon committed himself to writing a cello sonata which he duly completed and then recorded with Rostropovich in 1961. This was the beginning of one of the most fruitful composer-performer relationships of the twentieth century. Within a few years, Britten completed his Cello Symphony, which remains a giant of the cello concerto repertoire. The three solo suites were written over the next ten years and are widely considered to be the greatest addition to the solo repertoire since J.S. Bach’s six suites.

Rostropovich, Oistrakh, Britten and Shostakovich

In 1964 Britten presented Rostropovich with the Suite for Cello op. 72 as a Christmas present, inspired by a performance of Bach’s cello suites. This large work is in six diverse movements, split into pairs by three ‘canto’ movements which function like the Promenades from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition– always recognisable but appearing in new guises with the development of the suite. They help to guide the listener through this complex piece – Britten was clearly aware of the challenges of understanding solo cello music in this style. Despite having never played the cello, Britten achieves superbly idiomatic writing as he stretches the instrument to the limits of possibility.

Canto Primo

The piece opens with the optimistic Canto Primo, full of rhetorical gesture and dramatic harmonic tension-and-release. Britten thickens the texture by using double-stops throughout, often writing out three-note spread chords. It fades away to a glimmering D major and out of the brief silence, the first of our six movements emerges: Fuga.

The writing of fugues found a new vogue in the twentieth century, most notably with Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis, and Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues op. 87. Both these composers were directly inspired by Bach’s monumental benchmark: Das Wohltemperierte Klavier. None of Bach’s solo cello suites include fugal movements, because they are structured traditionally as dance suites, but he was not averse to writing fugues for other string instruments: each of his solo violin sonatas begins with a Prelude and Fugue pairing. Britten includes fugal movements in all three of his solo cello suites, recognising the advancement of cello technique that took off during the twentieth century, and rises impeccably to the challenge of creating a fugue for an instrument most suited to the realisation of one line. The cellist’s task is to bring out the different voices by variation of the tone quality and careful phrasing. The subject is exposed and developed, growing to an explosion which rapidly falls away into glassy harmonics, a ghost of its former self. Britten follows this movement with the Lamento, a simple song which blends straight into the Canto Secondo: Britten’s second use of his ‘Canto’ theme is this time suffused with melancholy.

The fiery Serenata springs out of the ashes and is played entirely by plucking the string with both hands. It has an unmistakably Spanish character and Britten uses the cello like a guitar with cross-rhythms rooted in flamenco traditions. Like its fellows, this movement outlines a clear journey, culminating in a breathless ascent to a solitary top A, with the piercing feeling of thin air and bright clarity only experienced at extreme altitude.

Britten’s next movement is another dance – the Marcia begins with the bugle calls and drums of an approaching military band, achieved by tapping the wood of the bow on the string – col legno. The music gets closer and closer until a powerful singing outburst obliterates the martial precision of the opening. The marching band is soon heard again, already retreating palely into the distance, defeated. The ensuing Canto Terzo marks a new milestone of the suite, building to a passionate climax with clashing discords and then fades away, appeased, to a deserted open D string.


This note becomes the drone for the ensuing Bordonean eclectic movement paying homage both to the Baroque style of monodic recitative over a droning bass and Balinese tuning and texture. Britten toured Japan and Indonesia in 1955-6 and integrated material borrowed from Japanese, Indian and Balinese music with his own style in subsequent works. The Prince of the Pagodas (1957), for example, is scattered with gamelan techniques from Bali.

Finally the devilish Moto Perpetuo e Canto Quarto explodes out of this meditative stasis, a flurry of chromaticism, which surges up and down, spinning across the range of the instrument. Suddenly, the Canto Quarto bursts through, and its dazzling sunlight battles to and fro with the determined flood of notes. As we approach the end, the two themes are blurred and then united for the final gallop to the finish.

Benjamin Britten

Britten composed his Suite for Cello with a performance of Bach’s six suites imprinted on his mind. Despite the greatness of this music, the most powerful aspect of his inspiration must have been Rostropovich’s phenomenal virtuosity and vitality of expression, blessing these pieces with a theatricality and communicative force unsurpassed in music for solo cello.

Recommended recordings:

Mstistlav Rostropovich ‘Britten Cello Suites 1 & 2’

Alexander Baillie ‘Britten Cello Sonata, Suite No. 1

© Joy Lisney 2012