Tag Archives: Chopin G minor Ballade

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.

Moderato

Moderato (It.)

‘Moderate’, ‘restrained’, e.g. allegro moderato (‘a little slower than allegro ’).

adv. & adj. Music (Abbr. mod.)
In moderate tempo……. Used chiefly as a direction.

‘Moderato’ is one of those rather nebulous musical terms, like andante (“at a walking pace”). If I ask one of my students what it means, they say “moderately”. But what does it really mean? At the most basic level, it is a tempo marking, slower than allegretto, but faster than andante. The modern metronome gives a marking of 96 to 100, a very narrow range – and I would always guard against assigning a specific metronome mark to a piece marked moderato, or allegro moderato, or molto moderato. Like so much else in music, moderato is not just a tempo marking; it also suggests mood and character. It is personal feeling and sense of  music, and one person’s moderato might be rather different from another’s, both in terms of tempo and character.

The opening movement of Schubert’s last sonata is marked molto moderato, literally “very moderately”. And taken literally, that could result in a very slow tempo, virtually alla breve (two beats in a bar), which can make the music appear to drag. Schubert also used the German term mässig, implying the calm flow of a considered allegro. But the word “allegro” suggests a certain character as well as a certain speed, and so the moderato marking is more appropriate, Schubert suggesting in it a graceful strolling tempo. There are many, many different interpretations of Schubert’s marking, resulting in some wildly varying lengths of the first movement. Richter’s is an almost self-indulgent 25 minutes – listening to it, you get the feeling he is thinking about every single note and where to place it; while Maria Joao Pires brings it in at 20 minutes, which feels both fluid and eloquent, and Imogen Cooper at 16 minutes, which is thoughtful and serene. In another recording I have, one which I listen to most often, and used as a benchmark when I was learning the piece,  the movement lasts just over 21 minutes, yet at no point is there a sense of the music stagnating, even in the most poignant sections; it moves forward with grace.

Of course, at the end of the day, all these timings are rather meaningless: one would not notice the time passing at a good performance unless one was pedantic enough to sit there with a stopwatch – and if one was doing that, one would not be concentrating on the music! Creating a sense of the music and conveying mood, colour and shading is more important. One pianist, who shall remain nameless, did take it far too fast for my liking at a lunchtime concert at the Wigmore, and the music just felt rushed, as if he couldn’t wait to finish it. (He also omitted the repeat of the exposition, which is inexcusable, in my view. Without the repeat and the absolutely transcendental bridging figure, one does not achieve a full appreciation of the composer’s intentions in the development section.)

When I was learning the sonata a couple of years ago, I had a tendency to play the opening movement “molto molto moderato”! This was partly to enable me to cope with some of the more tricky measures in the development section, but whenever I played it, I had a terrible sense of the music plodding. When I listen to the piece, I always feel the opening movement suggests a great river broadening into its final course before reaching the sea: unhurried but with continual forward motion. There are moments of “other-wordliness” in this movement as well, which demand sensitive rubato playing and some very fine pianissimos.  There are storms too, but these are short-lived, and do not disturb the overall, almost hymn-like, serenity of the movement. But no matter how often I practised the wretched movement, it always sounded chunky, and “notey”, as if the river was made of treacle through which one was wading painful step after painful step!

Discussing my difficulty with my friend Michael was more a discussion of the meaning of moderato in a literal sense rather than in relation to Schubert. In the end, Michael suggested I tried playing the movement quicker: the difference was instant. Never mind that some passages were still very rough in my hands, the overall sense of the music was of a relaxed serenity and spaciousness. There was still time to hear every note and to enjoy each one, but there was also a much greater forward propulsion, especially in the climactic passages of the development section, which highlight Schubert’s long lines of melody and the overall evolution of the movement. Armed with Michael’s helpful advice and my renewed interest in the work, it was one of the first pieces I presented to my teacher when I started having lessons again, nearly two year’s ago.

In Chopin’s Ballade in G minor, a piece of fluctuating tempos and ever-changing moods and textures, the first theme is also marked moderato. Here, I would read this marking as a much slower tempo than in the Schubert sonata. The mood is very different too: the key is darker, and the off-beat quaver figures and the rather uncertain harmonies, with the prominent use of diminished and dominant seventh chords to add moments of tension which are not always resolved immediately, create a sense of hesitancy in the music, as if it is not quite sure where it is going. After the fioritura, the opening theme returns, slightly elaborated with a sighing quaver figure, but rather than increase the sense of forward motion, I feel the music becomes more suspended; thus when one reaches the direction agitato, there is a far greater sense of climax. This continues right through to the arpeggiated figures and onwards, in a section marked sempre piu mosso. After the great, memorable second theme is heard, the first theme returns, this time in A minor, and the music returns to the moderato tempo and mood of the opening. Here once again, uncertain harmonies are used to contrive a feeling of suspense, while the insistent repeated low E’s in the bass tether the music even more firmly in one place. This is a useful device for introducing another climax, which seems to suddenly free itself from the restraints of the moderato marking; the restatement of the second theme on a far grander scale than its first appearance. So, one could argue here that the use of moderato at the opening of the piece, and its reappearance later on, is a very deliberate device which serves to create moments of great tension, suspense and climax.

An interesting discussion of tempo came up during the piano course I attended in the spring. One of the students played some Bach, one of the French suites, I believe, the opening movement of which he took at such a lick, we could hardly hear the notes. When asked to put the brakes on, the result was charming: measured and elegant. This led to a discussion about “comfortable tempos”: just as one person’s moderato may be different from another’s, it is also true for presto or allegro. Nimbleness of brain and fingers can result in very lively, speedy, clean playing: if you feel comfortable playing at that speed, good for you. But speed at the expense of accuracy or musicality can wreck a piece.

The opening movement of Poulenc’s Suite in C, which I am currently learning, is marked Presto, and on my recording Pascal Rogé takes it at an alarming presto, far quicker than my 44 year old brain and fingers can manage – at the moment. Thus, I am practising it at a “comfortable” tempo; eventually, I hope that comfortable tempo will be quicker – the music needs to sound light yet sophisticated (its C Major key gives it an innocence which should shine through all the time)  – but for the time being I am concentrating on accuracy, with a beautiful sound. It ain’t easy: sometimes just learning the notes is hard enough, without all the other attendant directions and markings one has to take note of and execute!