Interview: Susanne Stanzeleit of the Primrose Piano Quartet
October 12, 2017

One of the UK’s leading chamber ensembles The Primrose Piano Quartet returns to Battle Festival performing at no less than three events this year. Ahead of the ‘Love and Obsession’ Tea Concert on Sun 15 Oct for which they are joined by mezzo-soprano Louise Winter, we hear from one of their members, violinist Susanne Stanzeleit (based in Battle) who tells of her musical upbringing and some very special collaborations.

What is your own musical background?

I grew up in Germany. Both my parents were violinists, so it was inevitable that I would try and grab their instruments as soon as I could crawl. They didn’t really have any choice in the matter and had to buy me my own 16th size violin, which I started playing at the tender age of 3. My mother had had to leave music college when she fell pregnant with me – in the sixties there was no other option – but she very resourcefully started work on a ground-breaking violin method for very young children. At age 5 I became the guinea pig for her method, and it obviously worked. Her books still sell extremely well in many countries, and I am most certainly still playing the violin!

Is there someone who has been a particular musical influence for you?

My biggest musical influences were two of my teachers in very different ways. I was obviously a very talented child although I would balk at calling it a child prodigy; I agree with pedagogues who say a child prodigy is a child who plays like an adult at a really young age. I definitely played like a child but one with a lot of talent. My father was rather determined to push me into the word of prodigies however, so he approached Leonid Kogan when he came to play with my Dad’s orchestra. Leonid Kogan was one of the true greats in the golden era of violin playing, on a par with Heifetz, Stern and Milstein. At the tender age of nine I first played to this legend (luckily at such a young age you tend not to be afraid  of anyone), and he agreed to give me regular lessons without wanting any money for it. (This may have been not entirely out of generosity but also a fear of getting into trouble with the KGB agent who was watching him constantly when on tour in the west). Of course in hindsight I am extremely grateful to my pushy father to have enabled me to study with someone of that calibre. However, at the time my father became more and more determined to have me perform all over the world when I really needed the time to just develop, learn and be young. This is where my second biggest influence came to my aid; my mother had in the meantime decided to start taking lessons again herself, and she introduced me to her teacher, a wonderful musician called Vesselin Paraschkevov. I studied with him for many years, and he taught me many things I still pass on to my students today.

What have been a few of your career highlights to date?

Having grown up under the dubious mantle of a “child prodigy”, you are basically expected to turn into a big soloist who plays concertos with orchestras. I have done a fair share of those but they are not what makes me really proud to be the musician I am. I would say the absolute highlights of my career have always involved playing chamber music with extraordinary musicians such as Zara Nelsova, Steven Isserlis, Andras Schiff, Zoltan Kocsis, Norbert Brainin, Gervase de Peyer, to name but a few. This is why I have chosen a career in chamber music; performing music as a team is very different to dazzling your audience with a concerto, which will never enable you to create a performance on the same intimate and very special level.

Of course I am also delighted to have been fortunate enough to record so many CDs; to date this list is reaching 50 – I think; it may be more by now – and there are certainly some I feel particularly proud of.

In terms of collaborations, is there anyone you would be particularly keen to work with in the future?

I absolutely love working with Michael Collins; he is one of the truly great musicians of our time, and I am thrilled that we have always remained good friends and he has agreed to play with us in Battle. We are in talks with several exciting musicians we are hoping to recruit for future concerts but unfortunately we can’t say who they are yet! Other than that I am glad to say that the Primrose as it is now is such an extraordinary group of players that I don’t feel playing with anyone else can top that.

How did the Primrose Piano Quartet come into being?

John Thwaites (our pianist) and I have been friends since we met on the Advanced Solo Studies at the Guildhall School back in the late eighties, and we worked together in several collaborations through the years. By the beginning of the year 2000 we both found ourselves in Scotland; John at the Scottish Academy and I as leader of the Edinburgh Quartet. A few years later I left the Quartet for personal reasons, and I decided I very much liked the idea of forming a mixed group of strings and piano with John. We came up with a good name; the legendary violist William Primrose was from Glasgow and had founded one of the first piano quartets himself, so the Primrose Piano Quartet was born.  This coincided with the famous Lindsay Quartet deciding to retire, and their cellist had asked me if I fancied doing some concerts together. Soon their viola player joined us, replacing Susie Meszaros who had been asked to join the Chilingirian Quartet (the world of chamber music is extremely promiscuous!), and we played in that line-up for many years. Bernard, our cellist sadly started to suffer from ill health and was replaced by Andrew in 2010. Robin, our violist decided he needed to spend more time with his family in 2015 and was replaced by Dorothea (Allegri Quartet violist), and all critics have so far agreed that the current line-up is the best!

What was your experience of Battle Festival last year?

We loved our first concerts for the Battle Festival. When Andrew and I moved to Battle in 2014 we had an instinct that this would be a great place for concerts, and we knew about the wonderful acoustics in St Mary’s. We put on a self-promoted concert soon after arriving here, and we had a wonderful and enthusiastic audience. David Furness, the Chairman of the Festival, approached us soon after and we started discussing a possible collaboration. We have had a lot of past festival experience which we could bring to the table, having run festivals in Scotland and Greece before in addition to West Meon (more below). We find it is crucial to achieve a good balance of programmes audiences want to hear and we want to play – either can be more tricky to achieve than it might sound. We very much felt that the main concert last year achieved this; the Trout Quintet is a work people love and we always adore playing. One of the real advantages of a piano quartet is its flexibility within the line-up, and we are therefore able to do smaller, informal concerts without a piano and involving duos, trios, solos etc – we felt this really worked in our coffee concert and are looking forward to this year’s.

We are very passionate about introducing children to the magical world of classical music, and we were delighted with the success of last year’s family concert. The advantage of Battle Festival featuring so many wonderful offerings in terms of arts and crafts meant that we were able to collaborate on that front and offer fantastic entertainment for the children before the actual concert – as well as decorating the Memorial Hall to within an inch of its life! Thanks to having such wonderful helpers on the committee, crucial aspects such as bars etc are also looked after brilliantly.

In the run-up to the Festival we visited all the primary schools in the area and had a very special time playing to the children. To see the faces and reactions of the little ones in particular when they hear live music played so close up is utterly magical.

Aside from the Primrose Piano Quartet, what have you been working on most recently?

John and I are about to release a CD of British Violin Sonatas, which is the latest in a series of such sonata recordings. I do play with other pianists (although I have to say John is my favourite!) and other chamber groups, but my biggest focus outside the Primrose is my teaching work. I teach at the Birmingham Conservatoire where I spend two days each week, and I feel very passionate about that side of my work, having now taught at college level for 25 years. There is nothing better than watching your students develop into not only mature musicians but happy and confident adults who have found something they feel passionate about. I also work as a record producer, which means I am fortunate enough to be able to do a lot of the editing work from my home in the countryside outside Battle – rather than the usual mad touring musicians usually have to do!

Can you tell us about your festival in West Meon?

Back in 2010 the Primrose were planning to record one of the Brahms quartets and we were wondering about a “USP” for the disc as the work had certainly been recorded many times before. We chanced upon a music lover who owned a Blüthner piano chosen for his grandmother by Brahms himself. It transpired that he and his wife also ran a series of house concerts, which we agreed to play for. We all liked the piano so much we decided to use it for the recording, and hunting around for venues we found a wonderful church in the village of West Meon. The PCC were happy to let us use it for the recordings as long as we gave a concert for the village. The audience at that concert was so enthusiastic that the idea of a festival soon followed. The first festival in 2011 was a big success and a lot of people who had come to it were keen to become involved in the running. Six years later we have a wonderful committee who do everything from generating local advertisers and sponsors, running the box office, building the stage to providing all the refreshments and other backstage help. The Festival is entirely self-funded and because audiences have been growing to such an extend, the number of advertisers and sponsors have also increased. We are able to keep running costs low as we design our own flyers, tickets and programme books (this year an impressive 48-page publication!) as well as providing our own piano but the excellent financial situation has enabled us to invite very exciting guest artists to perform in the festival. We also feature a young artists’ concert and a children’s concert which has become more adventurous each year. This year you would have seen the Quartet dressed as Dumbledore (John on stilts), Sugar Plum Fairy (Dorothea on a unicycle), skeleton (myself) and Harry Potter (Andrew), and we don’t just play but sing, dance, play the organ, juggle….I am not sure many other chamber groups let their hair down to quite such an extend!

The ‘Love and Obsession’ Tea Concert with Louise Winter is at St Mary’s Church on Sun 15 Oct, 3pm, £17.50/£15 concs/£5 students/£1 under 18s

Mozart Quintet with Michael Collins is at St Mary’s Church on Sat 28 Oct, 7.30pm, £20/£17 concs/£5 students/£1 under 18s

A FREE Coffee Concert with the Primrose Piano Quartet is at Battle Baptist Church on Sat 28 Oct, 11am