John Bingham

Rapturously received pianist who preferred a teaching career

John Bingham, pianist: born Sheffield 31 March 1942; married 1975 Claire Kitchin (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1990 Kaoru Kobayashi (one son); died Sheffield 6 December 2003.

If ability and renown were directly correlated, John Bingham would enjoy an international reputation as one of the finest pianists Britain has ever produced.

His playing married the concern for tone and sonority of the big Romantic pianists of the early 20th century with the technical precision and dexterity of our own age. But Bingham was a modest man with - in the words of his friend and colleague Raymond Banning - a "complete lack of interest in cultivating any sort of image for himself". He preferred instead to devote his time to his students at Trinity College of Music, where he began working in his late twenties and remained until his death.

Bingham was born in Sheffield in 1942, into a musical family: his steelworker father, Sidney, was an amateur pianist of some ability whose plans for a career in music had been foiled by the Second World War. His own enthusiasms were then projected on to his son, whom he took to local concerts.

Under the tutelage of one of Sheffield's best teachers, John's obvious promise developed into genuine ability, and at 10 he derived enormous encouragement from a meeting with Solomon, the outstanding British pianist of the mid-20th century. When he was 16, his father died, and so his mother, Edna, stepped into the breach, devoting a good deal of the earnings from the corner shop she ran with her sister to assure the support, financial and domestic, that John's vocation now required.

Private study with Harold Craxton, one of Britain's best-reputed piano teachers, was rewarded when John Bingham won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London. Here he came under the wing of Myers Foggin, the Warden, who took a fatherly interest in him, and became an important musical influence, too. It was Foggin, who upon his appointment as Principal of Trinity College in 1965, asked Bingham to join the staff, thus beginning his long association with the institution.

Meanwhile, Bingham's studies went from strength to strength. He scooped all the important prizes at the Academy, played Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto under Barbirolli, won scholarships to the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome and the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, studying also with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.

The final contribution to his keyboard training was perhaps the most important: two years' study in Moscow with Stanislav Neuhaus - he was Neuhaus's first and only British student - which put the finishing touches to a powerful, big-boned Romantic technique.

In 1963, in the first Clara Haskil International Piano Competition, Bingham was one of the four finalists, before a jury which included Géza Anda, Paul Baumgartner, Arthur Grumiaux, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, Rafael Kubelík and Igor Markevitch - who in the event decided not to award a prize that year. Four years later, his Wigmore Hall début, marked by some especially distinguished Scriabin playing, attracted the kind of critical notices he would command for the rest of his career ("Perfection", said The Daily Telegraph). In February 1997, he marked the 30th anniversary of that occasion with another Wigmore recital - a sell-out, of course.

With Bingham only in his mid-twenties, his career ought now to have assumed a stratospheric trajectory. In 1975 marriage to Claire Kitchin, whose father, Alfred Kitchin, worked for the agents Ingpen and Williams, brought some focus to it, and he toured Europe, Japan, the United States and Australia.

His occasional recordings, too, were received rapturously by the world's press: "one of the very greatest pianists of the century" said Records and Recording of his Liszt Schubert transcriptions; comparable with Horowitz and Richter, said Fanfare about his Schumann Fantasie; he was the first British pianist to receive the Hungarian government's Liszt Medal of Honour; and his Liszt Malédiction won him the Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik.

But he never capitalised on his early impact, nor the success of his recordings. He seems simply not to have been interested in the trappings of fame, as Raymond Banning argues:

Friends and colleagues from those days suggest that John Bingham would have enjoyed a glittering international career had he been more worldly. It is fair to say that he never quite understood the outside world, and, apart from being a brilliant cook, found it difficult to master many of the normal day-to-day practical tasks.

Gavin Henderson, the current Principal of Trinity College, identified another possible source for his apparent lack of ambition:

I've never known an artist who was so nervous before going on a platform. He was a very heavy smoker: he would practically eat a packet of cigarettes.

But the scope of his intellect, Banning found, was not compromised by his unworldliness:

As a thinker and conversationalist, he revealed a brilliant and deeply perceptive mind. He never lost the ability to lose himself in deep thought even when chaos reigned around him, and his lifelong interest in mysticism, metaphysics and aesthetics, combined with his passion for football, UFOs and fast cars, made him an endlessly fascinating companion.

It was teaching which soon became the focus of Bingham's passion, as Henderson recalled:

His teaching was of the old school. He worked from the great 19th-century repertoire - that was his grounding. His students were very solidly grounded in Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt - the masterworks of the 19th and early 20th century. He was a very engaged, demonstrative teacher. He would certainly interpose - he didn't simply sit back and make suggestions. He was immensely committed.

Banning observed that his colleague's

Yorkshire bluntness could come to the fore in a withering form, but was only employed against those who looked for shallow success or who engaged in pianistic tricks. He was always hard on those who sought to sacrifice musical integrity for mere show. On the other hand, he could be very encouraging, to the more modestly gifted youngsters just as much as to the exceptionally talented.

What he couldn't take, though, was the increasingly bureaucratisation of Britain's academic life. It was difficult, Henderson observed,

for him to fit into the world of modern higher-education management, and that is particularly an issue in the creative institutions. He was a provocative figure, in that he fiercely defended the issues of his own staff. He had done his stint as chairman of the staff association - it was at that level that he took up the cudgels. He was not at all comfortable with the ways and means of modern bureaucracy, but stood up to them quite resolutely and won a lot of respect for that.

Eventually, though, Bingham had had enough and in 1995, after five years as Head of Keyboard, he resigned. His stewardship of the department had increased its international reputation, and he drew students from around the world, Russia and Japan in particular. Stepping down from the position allowed him to continue teaching and to devote more time to his own playing.

And it was playing of the highest order. He had a dazzlingly secure technique, to which he added a vast range of tone-colours, a legato touch of extraordinary sensitivity and the ability to produce a long, singing line from the piano. He had a powerful memory, maintaining a huge repertoire which included 50 concertos, and he always remembered his students' names and the pieces they were working on. He was a very fine chamber musician, too, and his partnership with the Medici Quartet brought luminous recordings of the Franck and Elgar Piano Quintets - the latter re-released by Meridian Records earlier this year.

His last years were marred by illness. A stroke earlier this year compounded increasingly severe diabetic problems, which required the amputation of his right leg. Undaunted, he intended to return to teaching. With Raymond Banning he was even discussing the foundation of a piano school intended to inculcate the values of the Romantic piano tradition of which he was such an outstanding proponent.

Martin Anderson

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