Keeping repertoire alive

I received an email late last night from my teacher (who I haven’t seen since the early autumn) wishing me luck in my Diploma exam next week, and offering, I felt, a genuine endorsement of all the learning and preparation I’ve put in over the past year. In her final paragraph, the line “try to remember what excited you about these pieces in the first place” reminded me of how important it is to keep repertoire alive and fresh, even if one has been working on it for a long time.

A busy professional pianist will need to have several programmes of music “in the fingers” at any given time, which can be made ready for some kind of performance at any given time. Alongside that there is new repertoire to be learnt, old repertoire to be revised, overhauled, finessed, or just simply kept going. And then there is the “emergency” repertoire – stepping in for an indisposed colleague or being required to learn something quickly. “Note bashing” is no substitute for the hard graft of careful, in-depth learning, spending time with the music and understanding what makes it special.

One of my students was amazed when I told him I had been working on the Debussy ‘Sarabande’ for a year and a half. “Don’t you get bored with it?” he asked. I replied that, on the contrary, I actively look forward to spending time with my Diploma pieces each day, and I do so with a degree of excitement and anticipation. A long association with a work can make one hyper-sensitive to all its subtleties and nuances, yet with that growing familiarity, one can also approach it in new ways. Listening or playing around the music can also offer new insights; also, playing for others, as I have done in the course my preparation for my exam, has thrown up new thoughts and ideas. I believe that this “living with the music” – and for some of my pieces that includes just having the score lying around my home, open on a table or by my bed so I can see it – gives one a profound understanding of the music. These days, it strikes me that many young pianists learn far too many pieces too quickly, perhaps pushed by tutors or, more likely, promoters and PR people to make them more appetising to the listening public. While one may marvel at the vast repertoire someone like Lang Lang carries in his fingers and his head, listen carefully to a performance of say, his Chopin Études at the Festival Hall earlier this year, and you will hear a largely superficial reading of these extraordinary pieces. Surface artifice, showy technical wizardry, crowd-pleasing pianistic gimmickry seem to be the order of the day, rather than a true understanding of the music. Alternatively, there is middle-of-the-road technique and formulaic modes of expression (nothing too controversial, but sounding sufficiently exciting or natural to satisfy crtics and audience) which also avoids having to confront the music head on, and live with it.

When I selected the pieces for my diploma over a year ago, I did not, then, have a clear idea of how I would organise the programme. I selected the repertoire on the basis of my passion and love for the music (which is always my criteria for selecting repertoire), though I was aware, at the back of my mind, that I should choose a range of music that would demonstrate my ability to handle different styles and tempi. With my teacher’s recent comment in mind, here is a brief resumé of what excites and interests me about the pieces in my Diploma programme:

Bach – Toccata in E minor from 6th Partita BWV830: Bach was an obvious choice: I hadn’t learnt any Bach seriously since school (amazingly, since I adore his music), but my teacher warned against selecting anything too intricate or fast as rapid semiquavers in an opening piece could trip me up. This Toccata is grand and serious, redolent of the Toccata in D minor in its chromaticism, yet it combines more virtuosic/decorative toccata elements with the singing serenity of the fugue subject and involving contrapuntal textures. It is cerebral and meaty: I play it virtually every day, even if I don’t need to, as I love to lose myself in its intricacies. It requires total mental commitment. When I play it, I see the interior of a northern European Baroque church, gold arabesques and curlicues adorning the fundamental architectural structure.

Debussy – ‘Sarabande’ from Pour le Piano: I’ve always loved the music of Debussy, especially his piano music. The first piece I learnt as a junior piano student was a simplified version of the Prelude La Fille aux cheveux de lin (‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’) and this remains a favourite piece. I liked the nod back to a Baroque model in the suite Pour le Piano and intended to present both the ‘Prelude’ and the ‘Sarabande’ in my exam programme. But the Prelude proved too tricky. The Sarabande sits perfectly with the Bach and is a calming contrast to the intricacies of Bach’s writing. I love the shifting colours of this piece and the ambiguous parallel harmonies.

Schubert – Impromptu in E flat, Opus 90 No. 2: I first learnt this piece when I was about 14, and played it very badly then! My teacher advised me not revive something I’d learnt in my teens, but I persisted with this piece and simply approached it in an entirely new way, to the extent of buying a new Henle score (my Peters Edition had disintegrated!). I felt it was important to have something rapid, playful and contrasting in the the middle of my programme. I love the “prettiness” of the opening section – too many pianists play this too darkly for my liking – and the rough gypsy flavour of the trio and coda. It is an immensely difficult piece, not least because of its speed, and there is a tendency to focus on tempo rather than shaping. Played well it dances and mesmerises: my turner got a bit lost in it when we rehearsed earlier in the week and forgot to turn for me, despite some serious head-nodding on my part!

Liszt – Sonetto 123 del Petrarca: My first serious foray into Liszt and proof that I could play Liszt, having avoided him for years, thinking his music unplayable for an amateur. This piece soothes after the frenetic Schubert, with a beautiful, romantic melodic line, interspersed with breathless climaxes. Played badly, this music can sound schmaltzy and self-indulgent. I have tried to let the music “breathe” (listening to the earlier song versions has been very helpful) and relax. It is one of my most favourite pieces and has inspired me to learn further pieces from the Annees de Pelèrinage.

Karol Szymanowski – Mazurkas Opus 50: A friend once said to me, “If you like Chopin, you’ll love Szymanowski”. It’s true that some of his music shows a clear connection with that of his fellow countryman, but he also drew influence from Debussy and Ravel, as well as Bartok and Smetana. The Mazurkas have a rough folksy edge with moments, especially in the first one, which could be pure Debussy. The second one adds a nice roughness and energy after the Liszt and before the Messiaen…..

Olivier Messiaen – ‘Regard de la Vierge’ from the Vingt Regards: I found this piece deeply arresting the first time I heard it, not because of its profound religiosity and spiritualism, but because of its soundscape. This was my first serious attempt at atonal music, and now I am hooked. It is full of interesting colours and textures, is absorbing to play and expresses concepts that are far bigger than us.

My exam recital is next Wednesday. Having lived with most of these pieces for over a year now, it will be strange to wake on Thursday morning and think what I should be practising….. but also very exciting to be considering new repertoire.

You can hear my complete programme on SoundCloud via the Media page.