When I was in the final throes of preparation for my ATCL Diploma in December 2011, my piano teacher gave me some very useful advice. “Try and remember what excited you about the pieces in the first place and what you like about them”. (Here’s what I wrote about the previous programme.) When one is preparing for a big exam, competition or recital/recital series, and one has been living with and working on the same repertoire for a long time (nearly 18 months in the case of some of my pieces), there is a terrible danger of growing bored with the music, or overworking it to such a degree that it starts to go stale. My students find it hard to grasp the concept of “over-practising”, which suggests to me that none of them do enough practising in the first place (!), though a couple have complained of this issue in recent weeks, with their exams coming up very soon. When one goes into the recital room on exam or concert day, it is important to have something extra to give, to add an edge to the pieces and to make them appear fresh, created anew for the audience or adjudicator.
When I was playing to a friend/colleague on Friday, I recalled over and over again, when we were discussing the pieces, why I like each and every one of them, and why, after such a long period getting to know them and immersing myself in their individual characters and intricacies, I still love them.
Bach – Concerto in D minor after Marcello BWV974
I’ve always loved Bach, from the time when I first encountered his music as a young piano student in the Two- and Three-Part Inventions, through the “48” to the Partitas for keyboard and Concerti for solo keyboard. I was immediately struck by the beautiful serenity of the slow movement of this concerto, bookended by the upright and rhetorical opening movement and the joyous (despite its minor key) dancing Presto final movement. This has been a satisfying and absorbing piece to learn, and the one with which I always begin my practising, almost without fail. I love the way Bach retains some of the orchestral elements of the original concerto by Marcello, particularly in the first movement, and combines these with aspects – ornamentation, texture – which demonstrate the possibilities, both technically and emotionally, of the harpsichord (or piano). I have written more extensively about this Concerto in a separate post).
Takemitsu – Rain Tree Sketch II
I wanted to include some 20th century music in my programme, for the sake of contrast, and I originally started learning one of Messiaen’s Preludes (the ‘Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste’/Song of Ecstasy in a Sad Landscape), but realised it would be a very long and challenging learning process. When I first heard the Rain Tree Sketches, I fell in love with the Debussyan and Messaienic references, the musical colours and meditative soundscape. I will learn the first Rain Tree Sketch in the near future. More about Takemitsu here.
Mozart – Rondo in A minor K 511
I first came across this late piano work in a concert given by Robert Levin with the OAE in 2007. I love its plaintive melancholy and the way it presents, in microcosm, almost every aspect of Mozart’s music from grand operatic statements and beautiful arias to string quartet articulation and Baroque references. I have been learning this work, on and off, for five years, and each time I come back to it, I find more things in it. It is one of the most difficult pieces I have ever learnt – not the notes which are relatively straightforward, but the shaping and the profound emotional content of this music.
Liszt – Sonetto 104 del Petrarca
I learnt the ‘Sonetto 123’ for my ATCL. It was my first serious foray into Liszt’s music, and I am so glad I took the plunge to start exploring his piano music. The three ‘Petrarch Sonnets’ come from the second year of the Années del pèlerinage (more here), and this is the most virtuosic and dramatic of the three. I felt it was important to have one big romantic work in the programme and I decided to steer clear of the obvious pieces, such as one of Chopin’s Ballades. I love the sweeping romanticism of this piece, its rapid changes of mood, and striking harmonic shifts.
Rachmaninov – Études-Tableaux in E flat and G minor, Op 33
I had never seriously learnt any Rachmaninov until I picked up these pieces. I had an idea that Rachmaninov’s Études were easier than Chopin’s (I was wrong!), and I felt it was better, once again, to steer clear of the more obvious choices such as two of Chopin’s Études, or the Opus 39 Études-Tableaux, which are more well known.. I like the Slavic flavour of these works, in particular the open fifths in the arpeggiated figure in the moody, elegaic G minor Étude-Tableau. (I have written more extensively on these pieces – here)
Great post! I like your repertoire choice. I went to an all-Takemitsu recital once by specialist Kotaro Fukuma and was very impressed with the music (and playing!)
In my experience the quickest way to let repertoire get stale is to do the same things over and over again in the practicing. Sure, there are some things which need repeated work (like the octaves at the beginning of the Liszt Sonata, etc.), but variety is key in practicing; don’t let yourself get stuck in a rut. If you find you always start your practice sessions with a particular piece, mix it up by starting with another piece. If you do any kind of warm-ups, don’t do the same ones every time. Or, try not doing any warm-up at all for a change. It has been shown that your brain responds the best to variety – after a certain period of doing the same thing you stop absorbing information. I’m confident that this applies not only within practice sessions but also between practice sessions.
Make sure to constantly take apart the repertoire, much like a watchmaker would do, and work on things in the most minute detail. Are you absolutely sure about what the left hand is doing in that measure? Do you know that particular voice separately? Are you totally happy with how long/short that staccato is? Work on the broad structure too – ‘skeletonizing’ or ‘outlining’ is almost indispensable. How does the tempo of the first movement/section relate to the next?
There is an almost infinite number of ways that we can work. The only limit is our imagination and creativity.