Tag Archives: Chopin Ballades

Wednesday Afternoons Music – Chopin

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I can think of few better ways to spend a weekday evening than listening to a sensitive and skilled pianist such as Mark Swartzentruber playing Chopin’s Four Ballades – and on Wednesday evening I was afforded the opportunity to do just that, in the comfort of a private house in a quiet residential street in Chiswick, west London.

The house was the elegant home of Japanese pianist Rika Zayasu, founder and artistic director of Wednesday Afternoons Music, a non-profit organisation which hosts a series of concerts and workshops on Wednesday afternoons and early evenings. The format is very simple: a group of invited guests arrive at Rika’s home, where we are directed to the living room to enjoy a drink and socialising before the concert begins. Afterwards, there is more socialising and drinks, and an opportunity to meet the performer.

I love hearing music performed in a setting such as this. It brings one closer to music and performer, is highly accessible, friendly and informal, a shared experience which reminds us that the majority of music written before 1850 would have been performed in such a setting. Indeed, on Wednesday evening, with the light fading outside, and a group of friends and music lovers seated in a friendly semi-circle, we could have been in a nineteenth-century Parisian Salon.

Chopin’s Ballades are some of his most popular works for piano (pianist Mark Swartzentruber admitted that they were his favourite of all Chopin’s piano works), and are performed frequently, either as a set of four, singly, or in pairs. To hear all four consecutively in one concert is a fascinating and rewarding experience. Although each has its own individual character, there are connecting threads through all of them: the use of lilting rhythms, the sense of a narrative unfolding, the recapitulation of themes and motifs, high virtuosity and intricate fiorituras and cadenzas offset by passages of great beauty and lyricism. Taken together, the Ballades create a rich and absorbing programme, and Mark’s playing of them was thoughtful and eloquent.

After enthusiastic applause and “bravos!”, Mark played Chopin’s Barcarolle, a wistful, mellifluous piece whose rocking rhythms and ringing chords in thirds and sixths evoke the swell of the sea. It was a charming close to a highly enjoyable concert.

There was time to socialise afterwards, and I enjoyed talking to a number of the guests, including a young composer who has written some piano works for Rika, and of course to Rika, and to Mark (we discussed the merits – and otherwise – of using an iPad in performance, one’s attachment to paper scores, and the exigencies of practising, amongst other things).

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Book review: Play It Again – Alan Rusbridger

In April 2010, in the elegant sitting room of a large Victorian family home in north London, a young man, painfully shy and awkward, sat quietly composed at an antique Blüthner grand piano before proceeding to pull off a convincing, profound and highly polished performance of Chopin’s fourth Ballade. The day before I had played, somewhat tentatively due to anxiety, the C-sharp minor Étude from Chopin’s Opus 25. It was the first Chopin Étude I ever learnt, and the first time I had performed in “public” since my school days. Compared to the flamboyant Ballade, my effort seemed insignificant.

When the young man, whose name was Stephen, finished there was an appreciative silence from the tiny audience before the applause, the greatest accolade one can give a performer. I went home after the second day of what Alan Rusbridger in his book Play It Again calls “piano camp” – my piano teacher’s weekend course – inspired and terrified. Everyone else on the course was better than me, and Stephen, at just 17, was way, way ahead of the rest of us (I later learnt that he had only started playing the piano seriously at 14). On the last day of the course there was a concert for the participants, at which I played the Chopin Étude. When my teacher told me how well it had sounded, how much I had improved in the eighteen months since she first took me on, and turned to my husband to announce “Fran played really well today”, I burst into pathetically grateful tears, but when I got home, shattered after three days of intensive masterclasses and trying to remember what a Neapolitan Sixth was, I remembered Stephen’s Ballade. I Googled “piano diploma” and within two days I had downloaded the syllabus from Trinity College of Music: eighteen months later, I passed my Performance Diploma with Distinction, and felt I could claim to be “a Liszt player”.

Alan Rusbridger’s “piano epiphany” was similar to mine. At piano camp in the Lot Valley in France, he heard one of the other students play Chopin’s first Ballade in g minor, a performance notable for both its profound musicality and technical assuredness. Back home in London, Rusbridger decided he too would learn the first Ballade, in the space of just one year, but his hectic life as editor of The Guardian precluded lengthy practice sessions, so he set about learning it on only 20 minutes practising a day (if possible).

His new book, Play It Again, written in the form of diary extracts, charts not only his adventures with the Ballade, a project he likens to George Mallory attempting to climb Everest “in tweed jacket and puttees”, but also an extraordinarily busy year for his newspaper and the world in general: the year of the Arab Spring and the Japanese Tsunami, Wikileaks and the UK summer riots, and the phone hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Enquiry.

Chopin’s first Ballade is not some piffling little drawing room piece any old pianist can pick up and play. It is complex in its structure and meaning, physically and emotionally demanding, requiring advanced technique and musical understanding. It is a proper virtuoso work (as are the other Ballades), perenially popular with performers and audiences around the world. It is considered one of the high Himalayan peaks of the piano repertoire and is most definitely not for the faint-hearted. No right-minded pianist, whether student in conservatoire, professional, or advanced amateur, would set themselves the task of getting to grips with such a monster on anything less than two hours practice every day.

In the course of his study of the piece, Rusbridger meets other pianists, amateur and professional, who discuss their attraction to the piece and why it continues to hook them in. All the professional pianists he interviews (including Noriko Ogawa, Stephen Hough, Murray Perahia, Emmanuel Ax, the late Charles Rosen, and William Fong – Rusbridger’s tutor at piano camp) admit to learning the work as teenagers: its vertiginous virtuosity is a huge attraction for the young piano student, and the work often finds its way into end of year recitals in conservatoire, and diploma programmes. But the work continues to fascinate mature pianists as well.

Much of the book is a glimpse into Alan Rusbridger’s “practice diary”, his day-to-day responses to learning the piece. For the serious amateur pianist and teacher, Rusbridger’s analysis, virtually bar-by-bar, is very informative, but you would want to have a copy of the score beside you as you read. There is also plenty of useful material on how to practice “properly” – something Rusbridger has to learn almost from scratch – and how to make the most of limited practice time. Alongside this, we also meet piano restorers and technicians (Jeffrey Shackell, Terry Lewis) to peer into the rarefied world of high class grand pianos (Steinway, Fazioli), as well as neurologists (with whom Rusbridger discusses the phenomenon of memory), piano teachers, pianists all over the world who have played or are studying the piece (with whom Rusbridger connects thanks to the wonders of social media), other journalists, celebrities, politicians, dissenters, and Rusbridger’s friends and family. Rusbridger interweaves his journey into the heart of the Ballade with his daily travails at The Guardian, offering fascinating insights into his working life, at a time when the very future of British journalism was being called into question as a consequence of the News of the World phone hacking scandal.

Another aspect which comes across very clearly throughout is the pleasure of music making and its therapeutic benefits, for performer and listener, and the book is very much a hymn to this. Like the Ballade itself, the book hurtles towards its finale: will Alan learn the piece, memorise, and finesse it in time for the concert?

The final section of the book contains extracts from the score and insightful commentaries from top class international pianists, essential reading for anyone who wishes to study the work seriously.

This is an inspiring read for the competent amateur who aspires to play some of the “greats” of piano literature. The book is a celebration of the dogged persistence of the determined ‘amateur’ (in the French sense of the word – “a lover of….”), which will give hope and support to pianists seeking a challenge from new or more complex repertoire. The fact that Rusbridger pulled it off will doubtless inspire others to follow his example: I certainly hope so.

Perfectly executed: Piers Lane at Wigmore Hall

Monday 24th January, Wigmore Hall

Schubert – German Dances, Ländler, Valses Sentimentales; Brahms – 4 Klavierstücke, Op 119; Beethoven – Piano Sonata Opus 110; Chopin – Four Ballades

Encores: Chopin – Nocturne Op 9, No. 2; Dudley Moore Parody on a Beethoven Sonata

There is a mysterious fulfilling pleasure in watching any manual task being performed with infinite skill and grace, the agility and accuracy required, the finesse of touch and judgement. Thus, we admired Piers Lane’s superior technical prowess in the four Ballades of Chopin, and the applause that came spontaneously after he had completed the first one was, in part, an appreciation of the monumental technical effort involved in playing some of the most challenging music of the piano repertoire. After the fourth was safely delivered, the applause was even more rapturous, and perhaps tinged with relief, that the performance had been completed safely, accurately, and without mishap. Indeed, the playing was utterly pristine, and if it was lacking in depth or emotion at times, at least the performer’s technical assuredness could be admired.

This was my first concert of the new year, a varied programme which contained two great edifices of the standard repertoire: Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata, and Chopin’s Four Ballades.

The concert opened with a selection of Schubert’s D783 German Dances, Ländler (D790, No. 3), and Valses Sentimentales (D779). It is easy to forget, when hearing works like this in a formal concert setting, that these are salon pieces, written for the regular Schubertiades, which often took place in Schubert’s home, or the homes of his friends, and where assembled guests would take to the floor and dance. There is a light-heartedness in these pieces – indeed, some are positively rollicking – yet many of them are shot through with Schubert’s distinctive harmonic shifts, and the melancholy is never far away. They were a pleasing, inoffensive opener, and one had the sense of Piers Lane clearing the way for the big warhorses to come.

I was not, until this evening, familiar with the Brahms 4 Klavierstücke, Op 119, though I had listened to extracts of them on iTunes earlier in the day. The first, a meditation on descending thirds, was utterly sublime, “teeming with dissonances”, as Brahms warned Clara Schumann, and freighted with sadness, as each note of every bar was sounded so carefully. The second was breathless and agitated, with a contrastingly tender middle section, whose melody returned at the end, allowing the music to fade away nostalgically. The third was playful and graceful, while the fourth, a rhapsody marked Allegro risoluto, was confident and full-blooded, full of pent-up energy, and generous in its thematic content.

And so to the Beethoven Sonata….. Here, I must admit to a love affair with this piece which borders on an obsession. It is my Desert Island Disc (a choice I share with tenor Ian Bostridge, clearly a man of taste), but I would not take any old recording with me to my Desert Island. No, it has to be the right one. For me, Arrau is hard to match (as he is with all of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas); equally, Glenn Gould, for all his eccentricities (and on the recording I have, one can ‘enjoy’ his humming and muttering accompaniments in the Arioso), brings a Quasi una Fantasia feel to the piece, segueing effortlessly from one movement to another, in a continuous stream of Beethovenian consciousness, while, in his hands, the final fugue is a peon of praise, as glorious as a peel of celebratory bells, life-affirming and uplifting. Another favourite performance, or rather performances, given by a friend in unusual and intimate venues, is remarkable for its meditative qualities, and its ability to remind us that this is music that goes to the very heart of what it is to be a sentient, thinking human being. This is music which speaks of the meaning of life, shared values, what it means to be alive, and which debates the basic philosophical questions of Beethoven’s time which still have relevance to us today. Written towards the end of the composer’s life, at the same time as the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven’s last three sonatas (the Opus 110 is the last but one) prove that a whole universe can be contained in a single piece of music. This is not just music; this is philosophy.

Of course, Piers Lane had no idea that I was placing such a huge responsibility upon him as he played the opening measures of the Opus 110, and, while I enjoyed his playing, it was no Desert Island choice. In the Arioso, particularly the section where the music literally dies back, and comes back to life little by little (and this is Beethoven’s actual instruction in the score – poi a poi di nuovo vivente), I did not feel that Piers Lane truly “breathed life” into the music, and the final fugue, which should sound triumphant, exultant with a sense of the music groping its way to daylight from some darker, outer firmament, started to unravel slightly, with uneven tempos. His playing was pristine (as it was throughout the entire performance), but it did not move me.

Chopin’s Four Ballades are considered to be some of the most challenging works in the piano repertoire, a fact from which I draw a certain amount of smug satisfaction, for I am learning the First Ballade, at the suggestion of my teacher. It is rare to hear them performed back to back, since they are technically and physically demanding. They are each sufficiently different to be performed as stand-alone works, but it was wonderful to hear all four in a one siting.

Chopin ‘invented’ the Ballade, deriving it from its poetic and vocal cousins, and was the first composer to apply the term to a purely instrumental piece. It was later taken up by composers such as Liszt and Brahms. The Ballades are innovative in form in that they cannot be placed in any other form, for example, Sonata form. Despite sharing the same title, each is highly distinct, with its own character, though all share certain attributes, such as the clever use of “lost” or “ambiguous” keys, exquisite delayed gratification through unresolved harmonies, contrasting, climactic passages, and moments of pure romanticism. The structure of the pieces does not suggest a firm narrative; rather, the listener is able to form his or her own narrative as the music unfolds. (The Third, for example, has a “ticking clock” motif which brings to mind a lovely image of Chopin working at Nohant, while an elegant carriage clock chimes on the mantelpiece, perhaps reminding him, poignantly, of the passing of time.)

Once again, I felt Piers Lane’s rendition of these monumental works lacked real depth, and it was only at the Fourth where he really seemed to settle into the music and finally get into his stride. The piano was too loud at times, so loud that it hurt, and occasionally the tone was marred by some very dodgy harmonics, a problem I noticed when I heard Leonskaja at the Wigmore last autumn (suggesting it’s the piano rather than the performer at fault). I do think it is important to remember the kind of sound Chopin was said to produce when he performed, or which he encouraged his students to strive for, and to bear in mind that the kind of piano he preferred (a French Pleyel) had a smaller voice than a modern concert Steinway. A little tempering of the fortes and fortissimos here and there would have brought more of Chopin’s famous “souplesse” to the music. (Interestingly, Piers Lane has talked very elegantly on the subject of Chopin’s music, as part of Radio 3’s bicentenary celebrations last year.) Nevertheless, it was an impressive performance, and the applause and curtain calls were absolutely deserved.

The Nocturne, played as a first encore, was relaxed and elegant, the fiorituras tripping off his fingers, as if he had just improvised them there and then. Perhaps this is because it is easier to play an encore like this when the main job of the night is done? But the evening was not yet over. Returning to the stage once again, Piers Lane announced that he would play “a very naughty piece” – Dudley Moore’s hilariously clever parody of a Beethoven sonata.

Wigmore Hall

Dudley Moore playing his Beethoven Parody