Michael McHale Goes it Alone

It's set to be a huge year for the Belfast pianist. He talks Belfast Festival at Queen's, Sir James Galway and new album The Irish Piano

‘Can we do one more, just for me this time?’ Michael McHale is sitting at a Steinway grand in St Peter’s Church of Ireland, Drogheda, asking producer Eoin Brady for one final take before the sessions for The Irish Piano, his debut solo CD recital, are over.

It’s been a punishing three-day schedule putting the disc together, and McHale confesses himself ‘totally flattened’ when Brady declares a wrap. The young Belfast pianist is finally able to relax a little.

‘I really did feel a big difference, I have to say,’ McHale comments, comparing the go-it-alone Irish Piano sessions to those he had previously played on for his highly successful collaborations with English clarinettist Michael Collins.

‘I really put a lot of extra emphasis on my preparation for it,’ McHale continues. ‘Because I know from my previous recording experiences that it is quite an emotionally draining thing to try to attain that level of concentration and adrenaline that you would want for a live performance, over a stretch of eight hours in one day.’

The recording process is, McHale says, considerably more demanding than playing a live concert. ‘To have that same focus for a full day’s recording is a very different thing. You have to learn as you go along how to control that, how to peak at the right time, and make sure you deliver a really good master-take for each of the pieces.’

The Irish Piano is no run-of-the-mill classical piano recital. In making it, McHale has deliberately sought out music that he hopes will make the new album special, focusing on Irish composers and pieces with an Irish connection.

‘I’m proud of my Irish heritage,’ says McHale. ‘And I originally thought, maybe that’s a project that I could do three, four discs down the line. But when it came down to it I thought, well this is the thing that I feel most passionately about.’

No fewer than ten different composers are featured on The Irish Piano, half of them contemporary, including Belfast’s own Philip Hammond and Ian Wilson. The 18 tracks have been carefully sequenced by McHale to make a coherent listening experience, a genuine old-style album rather than a dryly archival recording.

McHale acknowledges that the kind of freedom the RTÉ Lyric FM label has given him to compile The Irish Piano programme is highly unusual in the straitened circumstances of today’s classical music market, especially for a young artist (McHale has yet to turn 30).

‘They gave me carte blanche,’ he explains. ‘It was amazing as a performer to have that freedom. I only included tracks that I personally had something to say about and believed in, that are really little gems.’

Four of those ‘little gems’ are actually arrangements made by McHale himself of traditional Irish melodies, which he was encouraged to record by Stephen Johns, former Vice President of A&R at EMI Classics.

McHale’s treatments of these familiar, much-loved melodies ('My Lagan Love' and 'She Mov’d Through the Fair' among them) are hauntingly poetic and emotional (a ‘beautiful sadness’, he calls it), and feature regularly in the encores the pianist uses at his live recitals.

The Irish Piano is released on October 12, at a crucial period of McHale’s development as a concert pianist, with a whole bevy of exciting projects on the horizon. On October 19 he opens this year’s Belfast Festival at Queen’s, playing Gershwin’s Piano Concerto with the Ulster Orchestra and its principal conductor, JoAnn Falletta.

There is also a recital tour in Ireland with soprano Patricia Rozario impending, and a return to the Wigmore Hall (where he made an acclaimed solo debut two years ago), for a recital with the young Irish cellist Brian O’Kane.

And then, the big one – McHale’s American concerto debut in November, at the high-flying Minnesota Orchestra, where his friend and fellow Belfastman Courtney Lewis is associate conductor.

‘I’m really, really looking forward to it,’ McHale enthuses. He is playing one of his favourite concertos, the Mozart in D minor (K. 466), and has slipped his composer’s hat on again prior to packing his suitcase for America.

‘Because there are no surviving Mozart cadenzas,’ he says (referring to the sections where a soloist plays unaccompanied at the end of movements), ‘I’m going to play my own ones. Why not!’

McHale agrees that Minnesota is undoubtedly the most important booking of his career so far, and he is evidently relishing the prospect. He will also be continuing the highly fruitful relationship he has developed with the world-renowned Belfast flautist Sir James Galway, for whom he is now the regular recital partner.

McHale laughs as he recalls their first musical encounter. ‘Sir James was in London, about to play on the In Tune programme on Radio 3, with Sean Rafferty. But he didn’t have a pianist.’

An emergency call was put out to McHale, who responded with youthful alacrity. ‘His taxi was delayed, so we only had time for a three-minute rehearsal before the Christmas special. I was sight-reading live on air. I actually didn’t know what was on the next page of the music!’

McHale views the experience of working with Galway as, musically speaking, absolutely priceless. ‘This guy has been performing non-stop as a soloist since the mid-1970s, on the greatest stages, to the biggest audiences. To be on stage with someone who’s that assured in what they do, that comfortable, is a real gift. It kind of rubs off on you.’

With so much happening for McHale professionally, it’s hard to credit that a little over a decade ago he was still a sixth form pupil at Methodist College, Belfast, the same school as his fellow pianist and mentor Barry Douglas attended.

‘A huge influence, pianistically and personally,’ is how McHale assesses the role Douglas has played in his development as an artist. ‘Such an inspiration in opening up paths to younger Irish musicians.’

Those paths, for Michael McHale, have never looked broader or more numerous than they do at present. Can he emulate the achievements of Galway and Douglas, the global superstars who blazed a trail before him?

Time will tell. For now, McHale is content to simply continue making music. ‘My main goal,’ he says, ‘is anytime someone asks me to do a concert, to try and just do it really well, and to develop as a musician in the process. I really don’t think in career terms at all.’