Tag Archives: Liszt Sonetto 123 del Petrarca

Returning….and continuing

Revisiting a work one learnt last month, last year, or 20 years ago can be a wonderful experience, like reacquainting oneself with an old friend, while also making a new friendship. Picking up a piece again after a long absence, as I have been with Mozart’s melancholy late work, his Rondo in A minor, K 511, often offers new insights into that work, and reveals layers and subtleties one may not have spotted the first time round.

My experience with my studies for my Performance Diploma taught me how to practice deeply, to the extent that I was on intimate terms with every note, every phrase, every nuance, every shading in all of my exam pieces. After I had performed the pieces for the exam, I might have considered them “finished”: certainly, on the morning of the exam, my thought was “I have done all I can. There is nothing more I can do”. But that was then, on 14th December 2011, and now, mid-February, picking up the Liszt Sonetto 123 del Petrarca again ready for Richmond Music Festival, the piece feels very familiar, yet certainly not “finished”. Of course, it needs some finessing for its next performance in just over two weeks’ time, and some reviewing in the light of the examiner’s comments, and, yes,  it is “all there”, in the fingers. But it has changed since I last played it: it’s more spacious and relaxed, gentler and more songful. It won’t be quite the same piece as before, when I play it in the festival.

The Mozart Rondo K 511 is multi-faceted: it prefigures Chopin in its rondo figure, a weary yet songful and at times highly ornamented melody, and harks back to Bach in its textural and chromatic B and C sections (a more detailed analysis of this work here). This is actually my second revisit of this work: I first learnt it before I started having lessons with my current teacher (about 5 years ago), and then revived it about two years ago. So, third time around, I am finding more subtleties in it, while also being struck at how cleverly Mozart manages to express his entire oeuvre in the microcosm of a piano miniature: there are arias, grand operatic gestures, Baroque arabesques and chromaticism, Chopinesque fiorituras, extremes of light and shade, sometimes within the space of a single bar. All the time when I am working on it, I find aspects which remind me why I picked it up in the first place, while also discovering new things about it.

A work can never truly be considered ‘finished’. Often a satisfying performance of a work to which one has devoted many hours of study can be said to put the work ‘to bed’, but only for the time being. The same is true of a recording: rather than a be-all-and-end-all record, maybe a recording is better regarded as a snapshot of one’s musical and creative life at that moment. As a pianist friend of mine once said “it’s always the way: you commit a work to a CD then discover all sorts of new things about it….”. American Pianist Bruce Brubaker, in his sensitive and thoughtful blog Piano Morphosis, describes this as a process of “continuing”. Thus, one performance informs another, and all one’s practising and playing is connected in one continuous stream of music-making.

Here is Mitsuko Uchida in Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K 511. For me, this is a peerless interpretation of this work.

Mitsuko Uchida – Mozart: Rondo in A minor, K.511

Repertoire update – June 2011

Liszt – Sonetto 123 del Petrarca (from ‘Années de pèlerinage, 2ème année: Italie’). When I ‘performed’ this the other night for friends, on a very ropey ‘Chas n Dave’ piano, I realised how far I’ve come with this piece in the two months since I played it at my teacher’s course. Nevermind that the instrument was appalling (so much so, that I couldn’t play one of the trills because the keys simply did not work!); overall, it felt concert-ready – and so it should. I am playing this in my students’ concert in a month’s time. A year ago, I never thought I would be playing Liszt – and neither did my teacher. Her positive comments, and my own satisfaction at having learnt the piece almost entirely without assistance from her, shows how far I’ve progressed in the last year. And another diploma piece is finally in the the fingers for the exam next year. This recording by Wilhelm Kempff is sublime and has been very inspirational:

Wilhelm Kempff – Sonetto del Petrarca no. 123 (Più lento)

Debussy – Sarabande from ‘Pour le Piano: I’ve dropped the first piece from this suite (the Prelude) as a potential diploma piece because I am worried about all the semiquavers! It’s a very rapid piece, at once grand and playful, and when I play it, if I’m not careful, it has a tendency to run away with itself, like an over-eager racehorse. I would not want to risk any “bolting” in the exam, so I am concentrating on the Sarabande, which I feel would make a good companion piece to the Bach Toccata from the Partita No. 6, since it draws very strongly on Baroque antecedents (Bach’s French counterparts Couperin and Rameau, rather than JSB himself). This piece was in danger of turning into a Sisyphean task, as every time I felt I was making progress, the tenosynovitis in my right hand would flare up and I would have to take a break from practising it. In the end, a lesson spent doing hand loosening and relaxation exercises has armed me with a strategy to practice without pain. I spent a week retraining my muscle memory (using the “Jumping Cat Invisible Hand” exercise – see earlier post), and at last I feel comfortable playing this music. The sound has changed for the better too, as my hand/arm function has improved.

Mark Swartzentruber – Debussy: Pour Le Piano, Sarabande (11/2005)

Schubert – Impromptu in E flat, Opus 90, No. 2: I didn’t think I could get so smitten with another Schubert Impromptu (the fourth of the Opus 90 being my absolute favourite) but this piece has hooked me in and I love playing it. Like the Prelude from ‘Pour le Piano’, it has a tendency to bolt, so I’ve been practising it in the manner of a Chopin Nocturne, to concentrate on the phrasing and long melodic lines, and it feels more reined in now. The contrasting sections sound both dramatic and poignant: the coda needs finessing, but overall this piece is progressing nicely. I am particularly enjoying the ‘etude’ elements of it, and I’m looking forward to playing it to my teacher when I next see her. I feel it would be an excellent contrast to the Debussy in my diploma programme.

Schubert – Impromptus D. 890: No. 2 Allegro

Messiaen – IV Regard de la Vierge, from ‘Vingt regards de l’enfant Jesus‘: At Christmas, in the ski chalet, I was marking up the score and playing the opening measures on my cardboard fold-out keyboard, much to the amusement of Tony, my host. I learnt the first two pages fairly easily and then got disheartened (easy with this music – it’s physically and emotionally draining in practice). Lately, I’ve been forcing myself to practice this at least three times a week and the other day I had a real breakthrough, when I managed to play right through to the end of the piece. As a friend of mine who has also been learning this piece said recently, it’s actually quite comfortable under the fingers once you’ve nailed the awkward chords and leaps. Because I have fairly small hands, I can’t manage all the big chords with one hand, but I think it is perfectly acceptable in these instances to share the notes between the hands. It’s immensely satisfying to be playing music like this – especially as it is way off my usual repertoire. I would like to end my diploma programme with this piece: it is tender, dramatic, and portentous.

Messiaen – Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus : IV Regard de la Vierge

Mozart – Nine Variations in D, K573, on a minuet by J P Duport: Late Mozart, and the last set of variations he wrote in the ‘galant’ style, evocative of “courtly grace”. After my travails with Messiaen, playing Mozart again is like coming back to earth from some dark, outer firmament, and finding grass and trees, flowers and cows. However, that does not mean this is entirely light-hearted music: the D minor variation is melancholy and agitated. Plenty of technical challenges in here too: crystalline articulation is required, and the ornaments need to be carefully thought out, so as not to sound contrived. I love the way Mozart evokes different instruments: in Variation III it’s all violin lines, while Variation IV suggests woodwind.

Mozart – Nine Variations in D, K.573 on a minuet by J.P. Duport

Repertoire Update, February 2011

With six weeks to go until my teacher’s advanced piano course, I am beginning to put together the repertoire to take with me. The course takes place over a long weekend, and is three days of intensive masterclasses, culminating in a students’ concert on the Sunday afternoon. Last year, I went with a degree of trepidation as I had never done a piano course before. I came away from it inspired – so much so that I decided I would start working for a performance Diploma, which I hope to take this winter. It was wonderful to wallow in piano music for three whole days, and to “talk piano” with like-minded and very committed people. Because of my teacher’s style and her expert tuition (she is quietly precise, and firm, with a reputation for guiding and encouraging each student to reach their full potential, both musically and technically), everyone feels very supported and encouraged, and there is a very friendly atmosphere on the course.

Liszt – ‘Sonetto 123 del Petrarca’ from Années de pèlerinage, 2eme annee, Italie: This beautiful, dreamy, meditative piece is inspired by Petrach’s Sonnet I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi (“I beheld on earth angelic grace” – read the full text here). An understanding of the text of the Sonnet is essential to a proper understanding of this music, and I have spent the last few days listening and watching YouTube clips of this work in its song form, as well as singing the melodic lines to myself, both at the piano and away from it. This is very romantic music, in the truest sense of the word, and one must be careful not to make it sound saccharine, self-indulgent and schmaltzy. The notes themselves are not so hard – there are some awkward chord progressions which can be achieved with the right fingering – but conveying the mood and emotional depth of the piece is more tricky. Coming after a month’s work on Bach’s Toccata from the Sixth Partita, this piece provides a wonderful foil to Bach’s Baroque arabesques.

J S Bach – Toccata from Partita, BWV 830 in E minor: I have really enjoyed getting my fingers, and head, around Bach after a long absence from his music (I used to play a lot of Bach when I was at school, both as a soloist and in a chamber group where I played continuo). On one level, I have proved to myself – and my teacher, who has not heard me play Bach before – that I can still do it. I thought it would be a long learning process, so I was surprised that I had learnt the entire piece in just three weeks. The intellectual and technical demands of this kind of music have been immensely satisfying and rewarding, and with the music now well “in the fingers”, I am enjoying the ‘finessing’ work on colour, contrast, shape and mood. This piece is very nearly concert-ready, and I may choose to include it in the end of course concert.

Debussy – Pour le Piano: Prelude & Sarabande: I love the way this music links to the Bach, but I also feel in the first piece, the Prelude, Debussy’s ‘take’ on his Baroque antecedents is more humorous, and my recent work on this piece had been to concentrate on keeping the fingers nimble and playful, and experimenting with various hand and finger techniques and movements to achieve different effects. The piece is very much a “toccata” in that it is a test of the pianist’s touch, but there are also moments of great, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek, grandeur too (again a nod back to a Baroque model), for example in mm. 42-55. These big chords are potentially dangerous for me with my unstable right hand: I am practising them quietly, no louder than mezzo-forte, while concentrating on keeping my wrists light and bouncy to avoid straining my hands.

The Sarabande provides a complete contrast, and I love the way the cadenza of the Prelude, in particular the big, fortissimo chords in the final six bars, sets up a silence for the sublime opening of the Sarabande. This elegant, stately dance requires an angled, caressing attack and very smooth movements between the chords. My notes at the top of the score include some quotes about Debussy’s own playing of this piece: his hands are described as “floating over the keys”, that they never left the keys, and that it sounded as if his hands were “sinking into velvet”. Trying to achieve all this, while also highlighting the interior “voices” within the melodic lines, is not easy! And again, I need to be careful with the big hand stretches. I have not yet played this for my teacher, and I look forward to working on it with her at my next lesson. This and the Prelude will definitely be going on the course!

Mozart – Rondo in A Minor, K511: I have really enjoyed revisiting this piece over the past month or so, with a view to putting it into my Diploma programme. I took a long break from it, after learning it initially, and this has definitely helped as I’ve returned to it fresh, with some new thoughts about it. A difficult piece, with all its contrasting strands of melody and texture, it requires great clarity of playing and technique. This also makes it an excellent Diploma piece as it showcases a number of different styles and techniques, with its nods forward to Chopin and back to Bach.

Chopin – Ballade No. 1 in G minor: I’ve learnt half of this, and have really enjoyed it, but it’s on the back burner now as I must concentrate on my Diploma repertoire. I will go back to it and learn the rest of it, but it’s a long haul and I want to have the time to devote to it. I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from knowing that I can play a “great” of the piano repertoire, if only half of it at present!

Messiaen – Regard de la Vierge (“Gaze of the Virgin”) from Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus: I did quite a lot of work on this away from the keyboard when I was on holiday at Christmas, but since then I have done no more. This is a very difficult piece – not so much the notes, but the profoundly emotional content and subject matter. When the Debussy pieces are more advanced, I will return to this.