Mishka Rushdie Momen interview: ‘We’ve inherited a lot culturally from the ideas of the Reformation, including a sort of paradoxical individualism’

Jessica Duchen
Friday, May 24, 2024

Mishka Rushdie Momen has recorded an album of works by composers working in the shadow of the Reformation, including Bull, Byrd and Gibbons. She tells Jessica Duchen about the enduring appeal of this music and why she plays it on a modern piano

Mishka Rushdie Momen (photo: Benjamin Ealovega)
Mishka Rushdie Momen (photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

Mishka Rushdie Momen is a veritable musician’s musician. Nothing about this 32-year-old British pianist’s rise conforms to the usual pattern so familiar in the piano world. She has not won a major competition. She is not from a musical dynasty (though she has a celebrated literary uncle). And it’s fair to say that those in the know have been watching her progress for years.

One of Momen’s chief mentors is András Schiff, who presented her as one of his ‘Building Bridges’ artists (a series of international recitals for three chosen young musicians), and she often appears in chamber music with the cellist Steven Isserlis. She has been an artist-in-residence at the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival, works with singers including Ian Bostridge and Mark Padmore, and was the Times arts critics’ chosen nominee in classical music for their 2021 Breakthrough Award, as part of the South Bank Sky Arts Awards (The South Bank Show had profiled her that year). Another mentor, Richard Goode, has said of her that ‘it is the purity and depth of her musical feeling that impress me most. She has the rare ability to communicate the essential meaning of whatever she plays.’

Mishka Rushdie Momen (photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

Mishka Rushdie Momen (photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

Momen has a slight build, with a dazzling smile, small, strong hands and a flame of intellect that burns extremely bright. Over tea in a north London café she tells me that her musical journey began when her elder sister started learning the piano at her state primary school. ‘I used to watch her play, then climb up on to the piano stool and try to copy her.’ Once she began lessons herself, ‘it was complete obsession from the start. There was no turning back.’

At the age of just six she became a pupil at the Purcell School. ‘It was a venture into the unknown, because nobody in my family had ever been a musician, or known anything about that world. For my mother especially, it was a question of finding out as we went along, trusting our instincts and being very lucky with teachers.’ At school, she recounts, she was ‘non-conformist and very stubborn’ – but she appreciates, with hindsight, the benefits of having been surrounded by other musical children, ‘for whom it was just normal to practise every day and to take music seriously’.

‘I had a healthy family background – my parents were very open-minded. They both came from India and we were in an environment where that was quite unusual; but they never introduced me to the concept that there might not be a place for me in the musical world, so it never occurred to me. It was quite a long time before I heard those ideas from other people. I was old enough by then to discount those prejudices as being ridiculous, so I took no notice of them.’

That particular type of racist prejudice, Momen reflects, is fortunately growing less common today: ‘People would say things like, “Oh, you can’t play this music because it’s not in your blood”, or “it’s not in your culture”, “it’s not in your background”. And it made me think: what a stupid thing that is to say! It just shows such a lack of imagination.’

When she was about 14, Momen began to study with Imogen Cooper. ‘That was wonderful because it was an entirely new way of working and really opened up my imagination’, she tells me. ‘Imogen was hugely inspirational. She had extremely high standards and was very demanding, but also I think she gave me a lot of confidence in finding my own way with the music. She taught me how to think about a piece independently and find my own way into its sound world.’ Her studies with Cooper coincided with Momen’s first introduction to playing Schubert, which is central to her repertoire now. ‘At that time, Imogen was doing her second big Schubert cycle and recording all the sonatas again. It was exciting to be studying these pieces alongside her and sharing in her discoveries.’

Mishka Rushdie Momen (photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

Mishka Rushdie Momen (photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

When Cooper was away on tour, Momen had occasional lessons with Joan Havill; later, as a postgraduate student at the Guildhall, she moved on to study with her. ‘Joan has so much knowledge and excellent taste, and I think she also helped me with stage confidence, knowing how to be really ready for a concert. She’s also very detailed, very thorough.’ Overall, she says, ‘this was a perfect marriage of different styles of teaching’.

Momen first met Schiff when she was invited to play in a masterclass he was giving at the Guildhall. She subsequently took part in more of his classes, notably at the Menuhin Festival in Gstaad, Switzerland. ‘He’s a phenomenon – one of my musical heroes and probably my favourite living pianist,’ she says. ‘Listening to him teaching and playing in close proximity, you can start to enter into his point of view almost as much as when you’re working with him directly on a piece. There’s something extraordinarily potent and magical about his playing.’

Participating in the International Musicians Seminar, Prussia Cove, and the Kronberg Academy in Germany, Momen not only had further chances to work with Schiff, but also got to know Steven Isserlis, who runs the IMS and soon recruited Momen as one of his regular chamber music colleagues; by the time you read this they will have performed together in the Fauré-focused Sheffield Chamber Music Festival in late May. This year marks the centenary of Fauré’s death and Isserlis has been championing prominently a composer with whom he has been much associated. ‘It’s so exciting and inspiring to work with him,’ Momen says. ‘There’s so much spontaneity and imagination in his playing. And to play Fauré with him is completely revelatory. For my taste, nobody else’s Fauré can compare!’

Then, at the end of June, Momen’s first solo recording for Hyperion, for many pianophiles their label of choice, is being released. Most unusually, it is of music by the English composers of the Elizabethan age working in the shadow of the Reformation, which gives the recording its title. The programme includes William Byrd, John Bull and Orlando Gibbons, plus a guest appearance from the Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck – and it started life as an enthusiastic exploration during the covid lockdowns.

‘I discovered the Byrd Fantasia in A minor first,’ Momen explains. ‘It’s one of those all-time masterpieces, especially in the fluidity with which Byrd can develop the material. The spontaneity of moving from one theme to something entirely different – a different metre, a different tempo – is extraordinary. There’s a wonderful sense of completeness to the piece; it doesn’t feel episodic.’

Mishka Rushdie Momen (photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

Mishka Rushdie Momen (photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

Inspired by the Fantasia and having time to hunt, she delved next into two great compendia of Renaissance keyboard music – the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book and the collection of John Bull’s keyboard music published in 1951 as Musica Britannica. ‘It was completely mesmerising and intoxicating. It was a treasure trove – piece after piece after piece that I’d never come across before and certainly never heard on the piano. In general, they’re still quite under‑represented in concert programmes, which is a great pity, because there’s so much richness to be discovered.

‘I felt immediately that this music worked well on the piano; I didn’t feel there was any problem transferring between the instruments. Orlando Gibbons, in particular, wrote a lot of pieces that could be played on the virginals or the organ, and would work equally well on either in different circumstances. That gave me the confidence to lean into the modern piano’s sound and to make the most of its expressive capabilities.’

Momen points to the contrast in musical character between the chief composers on the album. ‘I see Byrd as the father figure: the most revolutionary and the most profound of the three. John Bull is far more audacious. He was clearly a great virtuoso of the keyboard – you can see from a piece like Walsingham that he must have had the most amazing facility.

‘With Gibbons, what really strikes me about him is his mastery of counterpoint. I’ve included his Fantazia of Foure Parts as well as the Pavan and Galliard Lord Salisbury, which was famously recorded by Glenn Gould. Gibbons’s control of the counterpoint and of the interweaving between voices is completely amazing. It’s done so seamlessly that one can hardly tell where one idea begins and another ends. There are seven different themes in a piece that’s only five minutes long. There’s so much development of material, so much imagination; it looks very complex on the page, and yet the impression when you actually hear it is of a natural unfolding of ideas. It’s an incredible achievement.’

Momen has paid detailed attention to the quality of the recorded sound, especially with regards to building atmosphere. ‘The engineer Ben Connellan captured exactly what I was looking for, which was a rich sound, reflecting the sonorities of the modern piano in a confident way and yet creating the atmosphere of a very intimate room. For example, with some of the pieces, the short dances by Gibbons for example, I wanted them to have a very close feeling – as if you were sitting next to just one other person. And then for Byrd’s The Bells, which was created to sound like a cathedral with bells ringing, we changed the set-up so that it really resonates.’

But what about those early-music aficionados inclined to clutch their pearls at the notion of playing such repertoire on a modern piano? Momen gives a smile: ‘They’re entitled to clutch their pearls!’ There is plenty to justify bringing this repertoire into the 21st century, she says. ‘On a musical level, a lot of these pieces seem very modern, even visually on the page, because there are, for example, so many changes in metre. They are adventurous rhythmically, the polyphony can be extremely complex, and I think that has similarities with a lot of music being written today. Thomas Adès’s piece Darknesse Visible, for instance, is an expansion of John Dowland’s lute song ‘In darkness let me dwell’. There is a natural relationship between that age and this.

‘Of course, it’s tempting to draw somewhat specious comparisons simply because this is the time that we’re living through now. One of the exciting things about the Elizabethan period is actually how different it was and how people were not like us. Yet, at the same time, they were going through a period of transformation that is not dissimilar to today. The Reformation was a convulsive event that influenced the next 500 years of history, and I wonder if now we’ve reached the inevitable conclusion of that transformation. We’ve inherited a lot culturally from the ideas of the Reformation: a sort of paradoxical individualism, emphasis on personal responsibility and freedom of thought while at the same time we’re also quite judgemental and didactic about what we “should” think. And there’s a great emphasis on penance. Maybe humans have always had an instinct for punishing each other. But I feel that’s quite significant.

‘It strikes me again when I think about what it must have been like for someone like William Byrd, who was a devout Catholic, trying to navigate this incredible disruption in the very fabric of what people believe. The relationship to the idea of belief changed completely. Now I feel we’ve ended up in a society which is very Protestant in a fairly godless way, and maybe that is the inevitable conclusion to the process of the Reformation.’ She points also to the parallels between the ever-present dangers of plague then and covid today, plus the threats of terrorism and uprisings, ‘and an instability and insecurity about the future’.

The Elizabethan period, Momen suggests, is deeply embedded in our current culture in innumerable small ways: ‘Think of the influence of Shakespeare on the language that we use today and the way that we communicate – and our cultural obsession with the Tudors, about which there are countless novels, books and endless research. I think there is something really enticing about that age, because it has all the drama of your favourite soap opera, with marriages, affairs, blood and guts and all of that, and we know so much about it, yet it’s always slightly out of reach. Perhaps that makes it all the more enticing. But I also feel that often the music of that time is not included in those explorations, particularly the keyboard. That is part of what really drew me to this project.’

If Momen sounds deep-thinking and literary, it should be no surprise, given that her uncle is the author Salman Rushdie. What is it like to have a literary giant in the family? ‘I couldn’t be more proud – it’s so inspiring,’ she says. ‘Sometimes I feel we take for granted the normal affection and easy relationship with him, and you forget what an extraordinary genius he is, with his incredible wealth of knowledge on so many subjects and his ability to make connections on profound and different levels.’ Of his books, she names Midnight’s Children as her favourite, quickly followed by The Golden House and The Enchantress of Florence.

She was a child during the worst years of the fatwa, when he had to go into hiding – ‘we definitely knew that we had to be secretive about things and we knew that a policeman needs to come to the house. But my uncle is such a wonderfully stoic and determined person. He’s just a complete inspiration.’

His stabbing at a literary festival in New York in August 2022 was, for Momen and her family, ‘our worst nightmare. But again we’re bowled over by his determination to be well and by the power of his will and his mind.’ His new memoir of the incident, Knife, is currently receiving rave reviews: ‘I couldn’t believe that so soon after such a momentous event he could produce work of that profundity and clarity. I think there’s an incredible beauty in the way that he writes, a natural instinct for the unfolding of sentences.’

Rushdie the novelist has an extraordinary touch in evoking magical transpositions of time and place. There is a pleasing symmetry in the way his niece’s musical preferences also zip back and forth between evocations of music past and present. Alongside her excavations of early keyboard works, she enjoys exploring the contemporary scene, having commissioned sets of variations from Nico Muhly and Vijay Iyer for her 2019 debut album on Somm, and premiered Héloïse Werner’s An Inviting Object in Lucerne in 2022.

The one thing that is not in this mix, however, is any involvement in Indian classical music. ‘It’s such a different discipline – it’s not the kind of thing you could just dip your toe into,’ Momen says. ‘It requires a great deal of knowledge, learning and discipline; people spend years, decades, solely focusing on that. I would never want to do anything half-heartedly and I think it would be almost disrespectful.

‘India of course is part of my background, and if I’ve gone longer than a week without eating Indian food, I don’t feel like myself. But I think our identity is made up of many different things other than ethnic background and religion. I worry a lot about this, as the focus on national identities seems to be popular. I worry that it can be paternalistic and it makes quite destructive assumptions about people’s needs and preferences in a way that makes me fairly uncomfortable.’ As for today’s buzzword, ‘relevance’, she neatly skewers the notion. ‘I feel it is arrogant of people to have these ideas about what should be relevant to whom, and why. The things that feel relevant to us can change and be different at different times.’

There is just one cherished concession to Momen’s cultural heritage that she makes when performing: ‘I almost always wear my grandmother’s earrings.’ 

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2024 issue of International Piano. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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