Daniel-Ben Pienaar

Biography

Daniel-Ben Pienaar is garnering an international reputation for his growing discography and for  his concert appearances. He has a particular interest in early music and in the Viennese classics and early Romantics, devoting his time to recording and performing, studying and reading, and teaching at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he is the Curzon Lecturer in Performance Studies.

Born in South Africa, he came to public notice there at the age of fourteen, performing Liszt's E-flat concerto, and shortly afterwards Beethoven's Emperor, with the country's most prominent orchestras. After winning the South African National Youth Music Competition and the University of South Africa Overseas Music Scholarship he moved to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music, where he was in the piano class of Christopher Elton, and where Laurence Dreyfus' imaginative response to the early music debate, and Jonathan Freeman-Attwood's understanding of the creative possibilities of recording made a deep impact. Upon graduating from the Academy in 1997 he received the prestigious Queen's Commendation. He is an elected Fellow of the RAM.

Eschewing the competition circuit upon completing his training, he set out on a programme of self-imposed study and repertoire learning. In 1999 he first played the set of six partitas by Bach in one concert; 2000 saw a Mozart piano sonata cycle at the Academy. Since then he has, aside from these works, also variously given complete performances of Bach's Goldberg variations, the two books of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Beethoven's Diabelli variations, Schubert's twelve major piano sonatas, the Chopin ballades and waltzes, in addition to a representative selection of, mostly, 19th-century works.

Much of 1999-2005 was spent travelling extensively in Japan with the popular violinist Narimichi Kawabata, playing a diverse duo repertoire and solo recitals.

A summer of immersion in Bach in 2002 led to his first recording – two days of sessions devoted to The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 in 2003. This was released on the small independent label Prometheus Editions. These session tapes were revisited in 2007 for a revised edit, now released online on Magnatune. The Bach recording in 2003 was followed a few months later by the Chopin ballades for Victor Japan. The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 2, recorded in autumn 2004, appeared on Magnatune in 2005. 

The keyboard works of Jacobean master Orlando Gibbons followed in 2006 – the first complete recording of this oeuvre – recasting the output as idiomatically pianistic and as a single recital. This was released to acclaim by Deux-Elles in 2007.

Mozart's Viennese piano sonatas (nos. 10-18) were recorded over three days in 2008, and the nine remaining sonatas over two days in 2009. This is the first recording that Pienaar also edited himself. The complete set was released by Avie in November 2010 and received outstanding notices.

Further CD releases have been of Bach's Goldberg Variations and the Fourteen Canons BWV1087 (rec. September 2010), Beethoven's Diabelli Variations and Bagatelles, Op.126 (rec. September 2011), and a much-praised new recording of Book 1 of Bach’s ‘48’ (rec. April 2013) coupled with a re-mastered version of the 2004 recording of Book 2.

A studio cycle of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, recorded over ten days (during September and November 2012, January 2013, and January and April 2014) was publicised in February 2015 to mixed critical responses. During March and July 2015 a set of Schubert’s twelve great sonatas (the eleven completed sonatas together with the important fragment D. 840), was recorded at St George’s, Bristol, the release date for this yet to be confirmed.

Recital credits include performing at the Singapore International Piano Festival and Eilat Festival in Israel, playing the two books of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier on consecutive nights at London's King's Place (as part of their 'Bach Unwrapped' festival), a Wigmore Hall recital of Chopin and Schubert, chamber music at Kioi Hall and Shinjuku Opera City in Tokyo and re-introducing South African audiences to Arnold Van Wyk’s 1950s masterpiece, Night Music.

Planned for the remainder of 2017 are studio traversals of the Chopin ballades and 3rd sonata and of the mature piano music of South African composer Arnold van Wyk, and a Mozart recital at the Lippstadt Wortfestival. Future projects include a 17th-century collection to complement the Gibbons recording of 2006, and returning to the Bach partitas.

Collaborations have included re-imagining music from the 1600s through the mid-20th century for the unlikely combination of trumpet and piano with Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, and five discs, mostly of Pienaar's own arrangements, have so far been recorded for the Linn label, the most recent (a neo-classical recital including a complete Stravinsky 'Pulcinella' Suite) released in early 2015. These arrangements are being published by Resonata Music, and the Stravinsky is slated for publication by Boosey and Hawkes. A sixth disc, recorded in 2017, comprises arrangements by Tim Jones. Further chamber music activities have included a popular cycles of the Brahms violin sonatas and Mozart’s sixteen mature violin sonatas at Wilton’s Music Hall with Peter Sheppard-Skaerved, performing Bach's Art of Fugue on harpsichords and chamber organs with Martin Knizia, and playing prominent London venues with violinist Giovanni Guzzo.

Pienaar has been a member of the Royal Academy of Music teaching faculty, assuming a variety of roles, since 2005. Currently his undergraduate teaching includes elective courses on Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Piano Sonatas 1778-1854. He runs an interpretation seminar for master's degree students with cellist Neil Heyde and curates a series of repertoire and performance practice workshops for postgraduate pianists. Public talks on a wide range of performance-related topics are also a regular feature of his Academy work. He views the performer's position in relation to the canonic repertoire as radically 'late' – both with respect to the works themselves, and to the performance traditions and great recorded performances that surround them – demanding an active intervention from the performer. That implies taking critical stock of a gamut of expressive means, drawn from a variety of practices, in a personal and idiosyncratic way, and setting the challenge of making music without taking recourse to a ready-made 'interpretative' philosophy or commercial niche.

His fascination with the recording process extends to acting occasionally as producer: a number of recordings for the Academy's own recording label have appeared, including such diverse ventures as 'American Icons' (symphonic brass) and ensemble arrangements of Frank Zappa. He has also produced a Liszt recital on historical and modern pianos by Olivia Sham for Avie, and an upcoming Liszt transcriptions programme by Chiyan Wong for Linn.