Why play or listen to an early or “period” piano? An instrument which may have significant limitations compared to a precisely made and carefully calibrated modern instrument, and surely “better” and infinitely more sturdy and reliable than an old piano?

Aside from the visual aesthetic of period pianos (many are very attractively designed, with fretwork music desks, elegantly turned legs, and veneered or inlaid cases), playing a period piano reveals how the instrument informed and guided the composer, and how composers such as Beethoven, Schubert or Chopin responded to the piano technology available at the time, a technology which was developing very rapidly.

Dismiss any fanciful notions of “musical time travel” when playing or hearing such instruments: the intention is not to transport us back to a Viennese Schubertiade or a nineteenth-century Parisian salon, because it is impossible to know exactly how these instruments sounded to the composers who wrote for them. But these instruments do offer us a direct connection to the music: we are so used to hearing the great works in the repertoire played on a modern grand piano (usually a Steinway), whose sound is far more homogenised, brighter and even across the entire register, that it is easy to forget that the style and the soundworld of piano pieces written prior to the 1850s are intrinsically linked to the instruments.

Playing these period pianos, many of which are very delicate and require a different touch from the “pounding” that a robust modern piano can take, offers special insights into compositional details such as articulation, tempo, dynamics (the “double escapement” mechanism pioneered by French piano maker Érard, for example, enabled the pianist to achieve very fine pianissimo playing), use of the pedal, touch and key release, shorter sound decay, musical semantics and aesthetics. These instruments may be more softly-spoken than their modern counterparts, instruments designed to project into the largest concert halls, but their voices are richly-hued and characterful with myriad overtones. An 1820s Conrad Graf fortepiano, for example, an instrument with which Schubert would have been very familiar, has a bass sound which recalls bassoons, horns and kettledrums, and a silvery treble allowing for great clarity of articulation and music thought (listen to the final movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, played on a fortepiano by Malcolm Bilson, and you’ll hear every single note in that whirlwind of sound). Once the ear has tuned in to the soundworld of these instruments, surprisingly varied colours, textures, articulation and expression are revealed.

The Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov has made several recordings using period instruments, and his latest disc features music by Schubert, Chopin, Liszt and Stravinsky on instruments from the 1820s, 1837 and 1875, and a modern concert Steinway (he has also performed this programme live on similar instruments), offering listeners and audiences the chance to experience four great works of the piano repertoire interpreted in their original instrumental environment. It’s a fascinating exploration of familiar repertoire through the medium of different pianos and how the composers responded to them. Meanwhile, the organisers of the International Chopin Competition have launched a new competition in which participants will perform on period instruments. The inaugural competition takes place in September this year and I hope this competition will offer competitors and audiences something more than a novelty or “living museum recital”, and will cultivate sensitivities and sensibilities in pianists, who can appreciate and respond to what period pianos provide.

Stephen Hough’s Dream album

034571281766A few years ago, I heard Stephen Hough in concert in a programme of “serious” music: the premiere of his ‘Trinity’ Piano Sonata III alongside Franck’s mighty Prelude, Chorale & Fugue, plus works by Liszt and Schubert. And the encore? Eric Coates’ By the Sleepy Lagoon, which many will recognise as the theme music from the BBC’s Desert Island Discs programme. Played with as much care and expression as the main programme, it was a delightfully witty and (for those of us of a certain age) a rather nostalgic close to the evening. This charming miniature appears on Stephen Hough’s latest release ‘Stephen Hough’s Dream Album’.

Dreaming – Isn’t this what we do when we listen to any kind of music? We suspend the reality of our ordinary lives, we long for spells to be cast, for phantoms to be grasped, to enter a state of ecstasy. (Stephen Hough).

Most of us go to concerts and listen to music to be taken to another place, and this album succeeds in this objective in spades, offering a varied selection of flights of fancy, erotic reveries, melancholy ponderings, and fleeting visions. All the works on the disc are transcriptions, by Hough himself and others (if you, like me, own Hough’s ‘Tributes and Transcriptions’ collection of piano music, you will be delighted to hear his Radetzky Waltz, Niccolo’s Waltz, Osmanthus Romp and Reverie, and Lullaby played by the composer/performer himself). Here, Hough the concert pianist is cast also as transcriber, interpreter and re-creator, and his own transcriptions are a testament to his musical insight, skill, and whimsy.

In others’ hands, this music could sound schmaltzy and sentimental, but Hough brings to it his characteristic clarity, wit and an intoxicating kaleidoscope of expressive colours and moods to create an album which delights and surprises at each turn. It’s deeply personal, ending with “the piece I want to be the final piece I play in concert – the last encore of my last concert which I first heard on my first LP“. Nostalgic and bittersweet, redolent of “at homes” in Edwardian drawing rooms or pre-war cocktail hour, the music evokes a dreamy golden age tinged with poignancy. Hough’s magical soundworld brings an intense intimacy and elegance to every piece. Listen to it as an entire recital album or dip in and out of it: I guarantee you will be utterly charmed and transported.

Stephen Hough’s Dream Album (Hyperion)

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

Despite my parents efforts to convince me not to, I started the violin when I was three. Throughout my childhood I was determined that I would be a violinist, but when I was eleven I went to a course called The Walden School, a composition course for teenagers situated five minutes away from my step-grandmother’s place in New Hampshire. I wanted to go to a performance course but my mother convinced me to try it… she’d noticed that most of my ‘practice’ time was spent improvising.

Walden and the world of new music was a revelation to me and I fell quickly and deeply in love with the madness and freedom of the vast array and different sorts of music that I heard there. Walden’s motto, ‘Music is Sound organised in Time’, was emblazoned across the top of the recital hall and I took it to heart. It was ear and mind opening and although I continued to claim to want to be a violinist for the next year or so, I kept returning to Walden and spending my time writing… as my mother says, ‘you vote with your feet’.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I’m always looking for new sounds from any musical genre to excite me and spark thoughts. I also look outside of music: my mother is a sculptor (you can have a look at some of her works here: Josiespencer.com), and my father is a theatre manager and producer, so I grew up with influences from all sorts of art forms.

Certain pieces catch me at certain times in my life, and I suppose they become part of me, whether or not their influences can be heard in my music – among these, Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae and Black Angels, many pieces by Hildegard Von Bingen, Kurtag’s Hipartita, Pauline Oliveros’s philosophies of deep listening, and many works by Oliver Knussen – especially his Songs for Sue. Alongside these classical influences, I like to sneak little bits of R&B, pop, folk, and rock into my pieces.

I’m lucky enough to have had three wonderful composition teachers and each of them challenged me and helped me grow as a composer in different ways. I studied with Giles Swayne during my undergraduate degree and afterwards in London, Simon Bainbridge during my masters and the first years of my PhD, and Oliver Knussen currently. They each have been insightful and supportive mentors as well as being composers whose music I deeply admire.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Starting each new piece always feels like it’s an insurmountable challenge… until it isn’t.

I think this is true of any career – but keeping life in balance is another constant challenge. It’s how you spend your time each day and what those days add up to as a life in total.

I don’t think either of these two will ever become less challenging.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Commissions give me deadlines, certainty, and variety. These are all things that are both pleasures and challenges at the same time.

Of which works are you most proud?

A few years ago, I had the slightly impractical idea that I’d like to create a piece of music for an especially designed space. I wanted to create a way for people to interact acoustically with a piece of music and physically walk around interwoven lines within a piece to explore how they relate to one another and what they’re doing individually.

Along with my sister, violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen, and two architectural designers, Finbarr O’Dempsey and Andrew Skulina, we made ​Permutations​, a playfully immersive & interactive artwork. It was developed on an Open Space Residency at Snape Maltings and premiered at the 2017 Aldeburgh Festival along with the release of a CD by the same name on Signum Classics.

I’m unbelievably excited that it will be going on tour starting later this year! The tour will launch at the Dartington Festival during week four, After that ​Permutations ​will travel to the Royal Academy of Music for their ‘Festival of Space’ in November, and on to the Royal Institute of British Architects North, in Liverpool for May 2019. Other venues & dates will be announced later.

Finbarr and Andrew designed six chambers, each lined with rotating doors, with polished timber on one side and corrugated felt on the other. The chambers have Amina Technologies’ invisible speakers built into the wood of their ceilings, and each one plays a different one of the six recorded violin parts, all recorded by Tamsin. If you stand in the middle of the space with the six chambers surrounding you, you can hear the 18 minute piece, equally balanced. You can interact with the music in several ways: you can walk around, in and out of chambers, you can acoustically isolate a solo or a duo by rearranging the doors, you can fully rotate the doors of a chamber to change how resonant the acoustic is, or you can find a seat and place yourself in one particular place and listen from there. There’s also a social element – you can decide whether to create a private closed off space to listen from, or move into the more open communal spaces with other listeners.

It’s a multi-sensory experience – so the best way is often to show rather than tell… here’s a video from the premiere:

I’m also really proud of the string quartet I wrote for the Santa Fe Chamber Music festival last summer. It’s called Snap Dragon and the Heath Quartet are going to be playing it again this summer at Dartington. You can listen to the fantastic Flux Quartet playing it in this recording:

 

How do you work?

I start by sketching on paper and writing pages of semi-nonsensical scribbles (in both words and music notation) in various notebooks. Depending on what is forming, at some point I start to move towards working in Sibelius (music notation software). I go back and forth a bit between paper and Sibelius during the writing process, but at a point of critical mass I work almost entirely on Sibelius.

Currently, I’m writing a piece for the concert series Listenpony, which I co-founded along with Josephine Stephenson and William Marsey in 2012. We started Listenpony to produce concerts where we would hear the music we love – regardless of genre – in a friendly atmosphere, while also providing a platform for outstanding young musicians.

In May, we had our first ever tour, including at date at the Playground Theatre in London among my mum’s sculpture exhibition ‘Murmurations’. For the tour, I wrote a piano piece for pianist George Fu – it’s influenced by Scottish folk music and the clarity of texture in Couperin’s keyboard works as realized on the modern piano.

I’ve also recently completed piece for 12 players (string quintet, clarinets, flutes, oboe, trumpet, trombone, piano, percussion) from the Philharmonia Orchestra for their Music of Today Series. It was performed in May at the Royal Festival Hall.

 

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

My favourite composer is Messiaen, although some days I think it’s Bach, Schubert or Stravinsky.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success is clarity of vision mixed with the flexibility to allow for discovery during the process. If I am getting this balance right, composing is a joyful and playful experience.

Success in the broader career-minded sense is best left out of the creative process – concern with it can poison the waters.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

As much as you can, free your work from your ego – ego will hold you back from learning and growing. Presumably you’re doing it because you love it – so don’t let anything compromise that joy in creation. Don’t compare yourself to others. Write music that you want to listen to.

 

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Anywhere, composing.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Happiness comes in flashes, when I’m not searching for it, and its beauty is often in its imperfection. One of my favourite poems is ‘Happiness’ by Jack Underwood. It’s probably not legal to print the whole thing here but if I can quote a line: ‘we know happiness because it is not always usual, and does not wait to leave’.

 


 

Described as “at once intimate and visionary” by BBC Music Magazine Freya Waley-Cohen’s music has been heard in the Wigmore Hall, Sage Gateshead, St John’s Smith Square, The Barbican Centre, The New Mexico Museum of Art and at Aldeburgh, Tanglewood, Santa Fe, Dartington, Cheltenham, St Magnus, Ryedale and Spitalfields festivals. 

Winner of a Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize in 2017, Freya is associate composer of Nonclassical, NightMusic at St. David’s Hall, and Reverie Choir, and will be a featured artist at this years Dartington Festival. Freya held an Open Space Residency at Snape Maltings from 2015-2017, where she created the collaborative artwork Permutations, which will tour to Dartington, the Royal Academy of Music and RIBA North in 2018/19.

In 2017 Signum Classics released a CD of Freya’s music including Permutations and Unveil – both of which are recorded by her sister Tamsin Waley-Cohen. Her works have also been released by Nimbus Records, Listenpony, and McMaster Records.

Upcoming commissions include works for the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Music of Today series, CHROMA ensemble, and the LA Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series.

She is a founding member and artistic director of Listenpony, a concert series, commissioning body and record label that programmes classical music, both new and old, alongside a variety of other genres including folk, jazz and pop, in beautiful and unusual venues. 

 

http://www.freyawaleycohen.com

http://www.permutations.co

http://listenpony.com

Guest post by Lee Varney

Owning a really fabulous grand piano is what most pianists dream of and aspire to. I remember when I used to have a ropey old upright with candle holders on the front, and a whiff of old timber dating back to circa 1925. It was good enough to start me off learning at the tender age of 12, but I used to daydream about owning a big black gleaming beast of a piano, with bright brassy wheels and a thunderous tone that could silence orchestras, or reduce the listener to tears with its ineffably sweet tone and colour. That was 1982, and of course I gave up playing 3 years later after achieving the dizzy heights of grade 5 It wasn’t until I was 38 that I rekindled my love of the piano, and I realised that the black beast daydream still burned strong and bright somewhere inside of me. Thus, my piano buying journey commenced. Some 10 years later, I have been lucky enough to have owned 5 grand pianos since then, of which number 5 is the latest incarnation. Alas, during this journey of piano enlightenment, I realised that not all black shiny pianos are created equal, and so I set about buying “the one” – the piano to rule them all (within the limits of my living room and the tolerances of my neighbours).

So, how does one go about buying the piano of one’s dreams when there are so many to play and choose from, and with huge budget considerations to factor in?

Tip oneGo as big as possible within the constraints of the room the piano’s going to be in. This is not for volume. I could make an enormous sound on my previous small grand – a wonderful Boston 163, which one of my students now has in her possession. A long piano gives you far more tonal range and colour than a small grand. In fact, I found that I can play quieter on my bigger grand than I could on my old 163. This is particularly noticeable in the bass, where long sustaining notes are much easier to maintain with half pedalling.

Tip twoMaximise your budget. You’re not going to find anything that resembles your dreams under £10,000, and anyone who’s telling you otherwise is lying. Even then, this is only the start of your journey, and you’ve got to keep going. Unless you’ve got a spare £25000 plus lurking under your bed to start off with, there are ways to upgrade your piano to better models. I was advised by my lovely (now sadly deceased) piano teacher Denise Patton, to go to Coach House Pianos in Swansea, who would “sort me out” with a decent grand (they are simply the best for thousands of miles – try them). They have an upgrade price promise plan, where you can trade in a piano bought from them, and they will honour the amount paid for it originally, less VAT, towards a better model. This was the route I chose, and I’ve encouraged my students to follow suit.

Tip three – Keep your budget to yourself. There are big discounts to be had out there, and deals are there to be made. Never accept the price on the piano – go for those discounts that are hidden. You have the money after all, and the piano dealer wants it.

Tip four – Play as many pianos as you can. Travel widely to different dealers and don’t expect to find “the one” there. Be open-minded and accept the disappointment of travelling hundreds (yes, hundreds) of miles and not finding “the one” – despite having the cash in your account and ready to go. I made this error once, and bought a complete donkey of a piano. It was horrendous, and the only one where it made me so angry I threw all my sheet music around the room in utter wrathful agitation.

Tip five – Beware the black and shiny ones. There are some dreadful pianos on offer (their name may sound German in an attempt to woo you over with that engineering thing the Germans do so well), but they’re manufactured elsewhere, usually in Asia. These pianos play like you’ve taken the action out, given it a good kicking, left it out to weather over winter, and then had a go at tuning it yourself (because you’ve seen the tuner do it and it looks a doddle).

Tip six – Try, try and try before you buy. When you’ve found what you think is “the one”, don’t buy it yet. Try it with at least 5 or 6 pieces of contrasting test music. This needs to be music you can play to a very high standard, is technically sorted, and you know exactly the sound you want the piano to make. This is crucial. My own test pieces are Ravel Sonatine, Chopin Berceuse, Scarlatti Sonata in C major Kk420, Rachmaninov Etude Tableau in C minor Op 33/3, and the opening bars of the first movement of the Waldstein Sonata. Your potential new musical soulmate must be able to do exactly what you want in all your test pieces. Disregard it if it fails. Be ruthless. Try again on a different day but maintain your standards – if it still fails to deliver, walk away.

Tip seven – Take a piano mate with you (I had the esteemed Cross-Eyed Pianist as my buying companion), and ask them to play their test pieces. Listen to the sound that is emerging from the instrument. Close your eyes and actively listen to it as if you were listening at a concert. Move around the piano and listen to it from lots of different vantage points in the showroom.

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Trying out pianos at Coach House Pianos’ showroom in Swansea

Tip eight –  Don’t buy the one you see in the dealer’s showroom. If you’re going to be spending a lot of money on a new piano, you must try as many of the models you are considering as possible. I played a total of 10 new Yamaha C3X’s before settling on “the one”. After playing 5 pianos at Coach House’s showroom, the team there arranged for me to spend half a day at the Yamaha selection centre in Milton Keynes where I had another 5 pianos to try – all the same model that I wanted, all beautifully set up and tuned, in a decent sized concert room. Even then I had a tough job deciding between number 1 (a sweet, and oh so beautiful tone), and number 3 (ravishing tone and velvety touch), before being ordered to play number 5 by a somewhat impatient Mrs Cross-Eyed Pianist because I had ignored it up until then. With the first chord of Schubert’s last piano sonata, I realised that this was the piano of my dreams. It’s a surreal moment and one I hope all pianists will experience.

Tip nine – Consider different makes. If your attention is focussed on a Steinway Model A, I strongly suggest you try the new Yamaha C3X range. Under the fingers, there is very little, if any difference in these 2 models. They are the same size, but the Yamaha is about £30,000 cheaper – and in my opinion, you absolutely do not get £30,000 more piano with a new Steinway A.

I adore my new Yamaha C3X, and I hope you find the piano of your dreams too. There is something incredibly special when you find “the one” – a connection that is effortless. For me it took 30 years – and my own journey has only just begun….

Lee Varney is a keen advanced amateur pianist and piano teacher. He has collaborated with The Cross-Eyed Pianist on a number of projects, including charity concerts for SPIN and Hannah Lindfield, and performance workshops for adult amateur pianists. He is currently working towards a Licentiate Performance Diploma. In his other life, Lee is an anaesthesia practitioner at a leading London teaching hospital.


Resources

Coach House Pianos

Yamaha UK

Steinway UK

Diploma Day 2018, hosted by the London Piano Meetup Group, was held at Morley College on Sunday 10 June. Now in its third year, this one-day workshop for people taking, or considering taking, a Performance Diploma is proving very popular and successful. Six pianists participated in masterclasses with renowned teacher Graham Fitch, and everyone benefitted from Graham’s wisdom, insights and friendly teaching style. There were some nerves, both spoken and unspoken, but one of the key aims of the event is to create a supportive “safe space” where people can perform part of their diploma programme and receive useful critical feedback. Anyone who has studied with Graham, or has attended his classes and courses, will know that he has a particular knack of identifying a few key areas in each piece and giving the student useful suggestions to implement in practising. What is very gratifying too is hearing the changes that occur in someone’s playing with just a few suggestions from Graham, and everyone can learn from watching others being taught in such a friendly and accessible situation.

In addition to the masterclasses, regular breaks throughout the day allowed people to chat about repertoire, the exam process, anxiety and more, and I gave two brief talks on Choosing a Performance Diploma (of which more below) and managing performance anxiety.

a great gathering of like-minded people!

Neil, performer

“Another fabulous day and Graham Fitch was superb. I have picked up so many technical and practising tips

Janet, observer

Had a fabulous day yesterday playing at the London Piano Meetup Group’s Diploma Day. An expert masterclass taken by Graham Fitch and workshops on all sorts of other related topics.

Kate, performer

We enjoyed a wide range of repertoire, including music by Scarlatti, Rameau, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Fauré, Debussy, Grainger, Webern and Sculthorpe, and it was clear from each participant’s “mini recital” that much thought had gone in to selecting pieces which fulfilled the criteria of the performance diploma while also creating a contrasting and interesting programme.

A compilation of live tweets from the event offers many nuggets of advice from Graham- including a National No Pedal Day which was endorsed by concert pianist Stephen Hough.

Read the tweets here

Judging by the popularity of this year’s Diplomas Day, the event will run again in 2019. To keep up to date with London Piano Meetup Group events, please join the mailing list by contacting londonpianomeetup@gmail.com or by joining the LPMG Facebook group

Huge thanks to Graham Fitch for inspirational teaching and to Claire Hansell of LPMG who organised the entire day and ensured it all ran like clockwork.

CHOOSING A PERFORMANCE DIPLOMA

  • Be very aware that the lowest, Associate level diploma should not be considered as “Grade 9”. Unlike grade exams, Diplomas are recognised professional qualifications and as such require a significantly higher level of musical competency. The expected standard of playing for an associate diploma is equivalent to the performance component of the first year in conservatoire.
  • With a variety of diplomas on offer, select the format which you feel will suit you best as a musician. There is a lot of snobbery surrounding certain exam boards – but don’t feel that one exam board’s Diploma is necessarily “better” than another, rather that there are “different” diplomas on offer. All are recognised professional qualifications and the Associate, Licentiate and Fellowship diplomas across the three main exam boards (ABRSM, Trinity and London College of Music) all share the same RQF levels (4, 6 and 7 respectively). The repertoire lists for each level of Diploma are almost identical across the three main exam boards and the diplomas accrue the same academic points.
  • Consider also why you are taking a diploma. Is this for a personal challenge or to enhance your professional career, as a performer or teacher? This may also influence the diploma format you choose. For example, you may feel you don’t wish to be tested on sight-reading in which case the Trinity Diplomas, which are heavily weighted towards performance and include no sight-reading/quick study, may suit you better.
  • Once you’ve selected the exam board, read the regulations very carefully and ensure you can fulfill the criteria. Note that some exam boards require evidence of a pass at Grade 8, for example. Details such as the timing of the programme are very important and attending to these details demonstrates your professionalism. If you’re submitting a programme comprising own-choice repertoire, seek approval from the exam board in good time.
Choosing a programme
  • Unlike in grade exams, you don’t have to offer a chronological programme that includes music from specific periods (Baroque, Classical, Romantic etc). Instead, create a programme which is contrasting in terms of tempi, moods, styles. You could, for example, create a programme entirely from 20th-century music and still fulfill the exam criteria. Consider how the pieces work as a concert programme rather than as an exam.
  • Select music that you know you will enjoy studying and playing rather than pieces which you think will impress the examiner. We all play better if we like the music we’re playing!
Further reading
Many more articles on Diplomas, including my own Diploma journey, can be found on this site – type Diploma in the Search box.