John Bingham’s untimely death in December 2003 will have saddened many. He was held in the highest esteem by those who knew his playing, even though he was in his latter years something of a recluse among pianists. Of his comparatively rare public performances, many were abroad, on the continent or in Japan; however, his recordings gained high critical acclaim, notably his Schubert/Liszt Songs and his Schumann Fantasy, both of which remain critical and popular favourites today.
Bingham was born in 1942 in Sheffield into a music loving family. After showing early promise as a pianist, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy, where he studied under Harold Craxton and Myers Foggin and performed Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto under the direction of Sir John Barbirolli. After graduating from the Academy, he spent several years learning from many eminent teachers all around Europe, and his recollections of these personalities, including Nadia Boulanger, were fascinating to hear. His prodigious talent and technique enabled him to learn a vast amount of music and absorb a huge body of impressions. His wide ranging artistic personality must have been born in these Lehrjahre.
His most formative experience was his course of postgraduate studies with Stanislav Neuhaus in Moscow, and Bingham’s reverence for this giant of teachers lasted all his life. It was here that he began his search for the ultimate legato, the ultimate cantabile that was to mark his playing, particularly of Chopin and Liszt. The experience of studying in that musical pantheon of Moscow, encountering Richter, Gilels, Shostakovitch and Oistrakh in their prime, must have been awesome for a young British pianist, at a time when foreigners were still very rare in Russia, and life in the capital very tense.
After leaving Moscow, Bingham returned to London, were he joined the teaching staff at Trinity College, remaining there until his death. He began a successful international concert career, noted for the wide range of his repertoire, playing Szymanowski and Beethoven with equal success. His Chopin playing set new standards through the limpidity of tone and perfect legato, qualities he always rated very highly in other pianists. Many EPTA members may remember his deeply moving Beethoven recital several years ago. Striking was also the sheer hunger to discover, demonstrated by his strong interest in new music. His repertoire included the Second Sonata by Boulez, as well as other works by contemporary composers, many of them personal friends, and his eye for quality was as probing in modern music as in the more conventional works.
Bingham was very interested in the great pianists of the past, and much of his teaching was devoted to instilling an appreciation in his pupils of giants such as Hoffman, Fischer and Serkin. His taste was wide, and he was tolerant of acoustic and technical weaknesses, but he always searched for the lightness of touch, the silver tone and the musical integrity, above all the spirituality these masters were capable of. Ever open to new talent, he was an avid collector of CDs, waiting to discover some newly emerged pianist who could brighten up the piano world. However intent on spirituality, he nevertheless respected pianists of great “resources”, as he liked to refer to technical ability, and always took his hat off, metaphorically, to someone who could master the hurdles of Liszt Etudes or Rachmaninov, even if he was musically less impressed.
Another strong conviction of Bingham’s was that spirituality, originality and pianism do not in any way conflict with a rigorous respect for the urtext, the notated intentions of the composer. When teaching, he was quick to point out anything that deviated from the score, believing that not only was the composer perfectly able to judge what would work best, but that there usually are strong structural reasons for following the score. This interest in understanding the finer points of structure led Bingham to introduce analysis classes at Trinity during his time as Head of the Keyboard Faculty. These demanding classes focused on Schenkerian analysis, as well as other approaches, and went far in giving students a taste of what goes on “behind the scenes” in an average piano work.
It was not just the piano that was important for Bingham. In conversation, he always revealed a wide knowledge of all musical fields, and he was just as at home discussing historical singers, conductors or violinists as pianists. The fact that he and his second wife Kaoru chose the name Jascha for their son, rather than Josef, Rudolf or Artur underlines this nicely. While teaching, he would often refer to parallels in operatic or orchestral music, and students would have to be quick to follow the breadth of his citations.
On a personal note, I had the privilege of studying under John from 1992-96, during the time he was Head of the Keyboard Faculty at Trinity College. The more time passes between then and the present, the more I realize how much I learnt from him, and how much he enriched my perceptions of music and performance. In a time where classical music is being increasingly torn by the populist demands of industry and society, his advocacy of spirituality and artistry, above all integrity, helped to keep in mind what music is all about.
John Bingham, pianist, born March 31 1942; died December 6 2003, survived by a daughter, Natasha, from his first marriage, and by his second wife, Kaoru, and their son Jascha.
©Bela Hartmann 2004
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