Iyad Sughayer in Conversation

Iyad Sughayer has been quietly establishing a reputation as one of our brightest upcoming pianists, appearing as soloist with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, European Union Chamber Orchestra and the Cairo and Amman Symphony Orchestras, as well as giving solo performances in such prestigious venues as London’s Wigmore Hall and King’s Place, Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall and the Steinway-Haus in Hamburg.

Now he has released his debut recording on the BIS label. A brilliantly conceived and executed disc of solo piano works by Aram Khachaturian (1903-78), the recording is certainly a stunning showcase for the brilliant talents of this young player, who delivers performances of the utmost musical conviction and power.

I was delighted to more recently catch up with him at the Chetham’s Summer School for Pianists, since which I have now had a chance to interview him in more depth for the site…

The Interview

Andrew: Hello Iyad. Thanks for talking to Pianodao!

Could you introduce yourself to readers by telling us a little about your background – your childhood discovery of music, growing up, education?

Iyad: I was born and raised in Jordan.

According to my parents, I showed interest in music from a very young age. My father bought an electric keyboard and at the age of 3 or 4, I began playing tunes I heard on the TV and radio. This immediately encouraged my parents to speak to my music teacher at Kindergarten who suggested I start piano lessons at the music school in Amman.

I studied there until the age of 14 and then moved to the UK in 2008 to study at Chetham’s School of Music.

Then I pursued my Bachelors degree at the Royal Northern College of Music, then my masters at Trinity Laban in London, to eventually return to the RNCM for the International Artist Diploma and am currently based in Manchester.

Coming to Chetham’s having spent your childhood in Jordan must have been quite a culture shock! How did you adjust?

Not so much! I had the most wonderful time at Chetham’s. The nature of the school made me feel right at home from Day 1. Students came from all around the globe and so I was exposed to so many different cultures and made many friends.

Of course I missed home, my family and friends however knowing that I’ve moved to the UK for a good reason helped.

A very good reason!

And you have learnt with some great teachers, most notably Murray McLachlan at Chetham’s and the RNCM, and Martino Tirimo and Peter Tuite at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire in London… Was it Murray who first introduced you to the solo piano music of Khachaturian?

I am very fortunate to have worked and studies with many inspirational teachers and mentors!

Murray McLachlan taught me for many years. After a couple of performances of the Khachaturian Concerto, Murray suggested that I learn the Sonata next! This was certainly the beginning of my journey into discovering the rest of the works.

Murray also encouraged me at Chetham’s to learn the complete Mozart Sonatas… another incredible discovery of sound world, which I would have otherwise avoided at that young age!

Working with Martino Tirimo at Trinity Laban was equally wonderful. I had many inspiring sessions with him; his knowledge and musicianship is phenomenal. His emphasis on turning the pianist into a musician and singer left a very big impression on me and my playing.

However I am forever grateful to all my piano teachers and mentors who have all contributed to my overall musicianship.

photography: James Cardell-Oliver

For your debut CD recording, you have chosen an all-Khachaturian programme, including the stunning and highly virtuoso Sonata as well as some smaller pieces and pedagogic works.

What is it about Khachaturian’s music that appeals to you so much, and how would you describe this programme to those unfamiliar with these works?

My fascination with Khachaturian’s music began from a very young age. I’ve always felt that Armenian music has many similarities with Arabic music. The long pedal notes, the improvisatory singing quality, the exciting rhythms and folk harmonies I find very attractive.

The album demonstrates an overview of his writing styles throughout his life. From the early works such as the Poem, Two Pieces and Toccata right to the monumental Sonata. He also wrote works for younger performers and pupils such as the Sonatine and Children’s Albums.

I hope listeners would agree that this is an unfairly neglected repertoire that deserves wider recognition.

I certainly think so too. Do you have any ideas of why Khachaturian’s piano works are generally rather neglected though?

Khachaturian was better known for his Ballets and Orchestral works. I have met many musicians that simply had no idea that Khachaturian even wrote piano music.

It is always a rewarding feeling when audience members express their admiration of the Sonata and Poem, which I perform quite often in concert. Many have expressed their surprise at to why this music isn’t performed more often!

And it’s such passionate music… which you play with enormous conviction on the recording. I’m also so impressed that you play the smaller pieces, such as the beautiful Children’s Album pieces, with the same commitment and musicality as you bring to the larger works. In some ways they even become the heart of the album, not just an afterthought!

It must have been a particular excitement for you to work on some of these pieces with Murray McLachlan, who has previously also recorded them all….

It was indeed a wonderful experience working with Murray on this album. He recorded the same works back in 1992.

Learning and preparing for the recording was very rewarding. I spent weeks listening to Armenian folk music and all of Khachaturian’s works to familiarise myself more with his idiom and musical language. This also led to countless discoveries of other Armenian composers and their beautifully rich culture…

And was it easy to persuade BIS to commit to recording this repertoire?

BIS is a label that champions recordings by lesser known works and composers. So when I proposed the Khachaturian Piano Works, they immediately supported this project!

It’s great that you’ve been able to record a debut at a young age… will you be making further recordings for BIS?

I am indeed very fortunate and really hope I do get the opportunity to record further projects!

How do you view the international competition circuit – are you planning to appear in any? Do you see these events as essential as a young artist?

That depends on the individual.

Competitions in general can be very useful for a number of reasons. Artistically they can be a very good training and professionally useful for exposure and getting engagements.

I’ve never found them particularly exciting and I don’t have any plans thus far!

So what’s next?

Performances around the UK, Europe and the Middle East, further exploration of Khachaturian’s music, continuing my teaching at the RNCM, as well as other exciting projects lined up including the complete Mozart Piano Sonatas cycle!

Fantastic! Good luck with all your projects, and again thank you so much for taking the time to talk to Pianodao!

Thank you so much for inviting me to do so!

Iyad Sughayer’s debut recording Khachaturian Piano Works is available from Amazon UK here.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.