“Brouillards swathed the Wigmore audience in mist, yet the sound was never foggy”
Occasionally one comes across an artist who seems so at one with the music, that one can almost hear the composer at the artist’s shoulder saying ”yes, that is what I meant”. Such was the effect of French pianist François-Frédéric Guy’s performance of Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, the Op.111, at London’s Wigmore hall on Friday night: a performance replete in insight and an emotional intensity which comes from a long association with and admiration for this composer and his music.
The Oxford Piano Group – Teachers’ Edition, directed by Sally Cathcart, has become firmly established over the last four years as a vibrant and forward thinking community of piano teachers. The beautiful setting of the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, and the use of a Steinway Model D provides the backdrop for teachers from all over the UK.
TOPG offers a series of workshops and study groups for teachers, and indeed anyone with a interest in the piano and its literature, with renowned visiting lecturers, including Debussy expert Paul Roberts (May 2014). The study days also focus on aspects of piano teaching including best practice for fee setting, studio policies and developing a teaching practice, and offer piano teachers a forum for discussion and the exchange of ideas. The 2013/14 season focuses on the teaching potential in Schumann’s Kinderszenen and Bartok’s For Children. The final session of the season includes a performance by a gamelan orchestra, and will explore the influence of gamelan on the music of Debussy and Ravel.
Early application is recommended, especially for the May meeting, as places are limited. Full details of all courses and an application form here
“My music is like a garden – and I am the gardener”
Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996)
It was rather wonderful to wake to the sounds of the music of Toru Takemitsu on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme on Friday morning. An unexpected pleasure, as such music is usually reserved for the wilder shores of Radio 3.
Takemitsu was a composer, but he was also a writer on aesthetics and musical theory. His music is delicate and refined, as beautiful as Hokusai print or a carved jade netsuke. Largely self-taught, his music combines elements of Japanese and western philosophy with the subtle manipulation of instrumental and orchestral timbre, using both western and traditional Japanese instruments, and the use of defined silences to create a unique and extraordinary soundworld.
Takemitsu admired Debussy and Messiaen, as is evident in his piano music, and was drawn to composers who were themselves deeply influenced by the musical and philosophical culture of Asia, including John Cage. After my very positive experience with Messiaen for my ATCL Diploma programme, and my love of the piano music of Debussy, the desire to explore the piano music of Takemitsu seemed a natural one.
Takemitsu composed his Rain Tree Sketch II in 1992 in memory of Oliver Messiaen (1908-1992), the French composer who had a strong influence on Takemitsu. The work was composed for a concert “Hommage à Olivier Messiaen” at Les Semaines Musicales Internationales d’Orleans, France, and was premiered by Alain Neveux on 24 October 1992. The name of the work was probably inspired by a quotation from a novel by Kenzaburo Oe about the miraculous rain tree, whose tiny leaves store up moisture and continue to let fall raindrops long after the rain has ceased. The work is also a dreamy meditation on the flow of life, and was the last piano piece Takemitsu wrote (his first Rain Tree Sketch was written in 1982). It is in a clear ABA (ternary) form, with a rhythmic opening which is reprised, in shortened form, after the melodic middle section. Its tonal language is redolent of Debussy and Messiaen, with chords used for colour and timbre rather than strict harmonic progressions, and, like its dedicatee, Takemitsu employs recurring motifs (such as an ascending three-note broken chord figure) and well-placed silences to create a carefully nuanced atmosphere and colouristic shadings. Directions such as “celestially light” and “joyful” contribute to the metaphysical nature of this work.
There are some written in pedal markings, and these should be adhered to as the composer directs. Elsewhere, use of the pedal is at the discretion of the pianist. I tend on the side of restraint and use half or one-third pedal to avoid obscuring the clarity of the chords and melodic figures. Regarding the bars of silence, these should sound expectant and anticipatory, rather than dead; using the pedal to allow sounds to “ring” will help achieve this.
The metronome markings in the piece are somewhat ambiguous. On the dedication page of the score, the duration is given at 5 minutes, but if one adheres to the metronome markings exactly, the piece comes in at around 3 minutes. I have opted for a calm moderato, a sense of the music moving forward, but without pressing ahead. In my Diploma programme, this piece comes between the Bach D minor concerto BWV 974 and Mozart’s Rondo in A minor K511. The contrast is, to me, rather special, and I feel it works well.
While researching the programme notes on this piece for my Diploma, I came across an interesting piece of research in which the author discusses the suggestion of traditional Japanese instruments in this work, and other piano works by Takemitsu, specifically the Taiko drum (the low D pedal point at the opening of page 2), and the long zither koto and the short-necked lute biwa (the ascending arpeggio figure suggests the plucked sound of these instruments). The article contains many interesting thoughts about Takemitsu’s piano music, and is definitely worth exploring further.
As for performances of this work, when I heard Noriko Ogawa perform it at the Wigmore last autumn, I was struck by the incredible soundworld she managed to achieve, producing “droplets” of notes and really evoking the miraculous rain tree (my review here). The recording I have been using for reference in my study of this piece is by Ichiro Nodaira: I particularly like the relaxed tempo of the opening melody.
The pianist Paul Crossley has recorded Takemitsu’s complete piano music, sadly, now out of print, though available via some music streaming services and Spotify.
Pianist and writer Christine Stevenson is marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude Debussy by exploring an A to Z of Debussy’s piano music in a series of blog posts. Each entry contains interesting facts about the pieces discussed, as well as analytical and stylistic notes, video and sound clips. Alongside this well-written and well-researched blog, Christine has been performing piano repertoire by Debussy in a series of recitals.
In a recent interview for Reuters, French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard described Debussy as a “hedonist” of sound, and this definition was clear in Aimard’s performance – one of incredible precision, intensity, sensitivity, and sensuality, which showed Debussy to be a composer of great complexity, a profound and dark artist, and a revolutionary of sonority and musical colour. Read my full review here
Here is a beautifully written, informative and informed post about Debussy’s first book of Images, by pianist Christine Stevenson.
Christine is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth by exploring an A to Z of Debussy’s piano music in a series of blog posts. I am working on Hommage à Rameau as part of my LTCL Diploma programme, and I found Christine’s notes on this piece particularly helpful and well-expressed.
A dramatic and absorbing concert of “limitless possibilites”, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude Debussy, given by three young performers who demonstrated great insight and maturity in their approach to the music. Read my full review here.
In a neat piece of programming, Monday’s Wigmore Hall lunchtime concert brought together two French master-pianists to play two French masterpieces for the ballet, Debussy’s erotic and ecstatically playful Jeux, and Stravinsky’s “beautiful nightmare”, The Rite of Spring. Read my full review here
Going back over old territory here, but by chance I found a film I made when I was rehearsing for my ATCL Diploma recital last winter with my page turner (who also happens to be a very good friend of mine, and one of my piano students). I’ve edited it into a more watchable programme. The pieces are played in the order in which I performed them in the exam recital on 14th December 2011
Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture