Image credit: Peter Donohoe © Sussie Ahlburg

 

Elder statesman of British pianism and soloist of international renown, Peter Donohoe, gave a richly varied and, at times, highly emotional recital as part of the Southbank Centre’s ongoing International Piano Series, featuring music by Debussy, Liszt, Brahms and Bartok. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here.

I stupidly left some of my precious scores at the venue where I attended a photoshoot last week. I put the scores on the windowsill of the theatre while my photographer friend and I moved the piano into position: I remember thinking, “I mustn’t forget to take those scores with me”….. I only discovered I was missing the scores when I went to practice on Saturday morning, and for a moment I suffered that awful heart-in-the-mouth feeling as I tried to recall where I might have left them. Unless I am reading a score away from the piano (usually in bed, when others might be reading a novel!), my scores live on or close to the piano. Having searched briefcase, bedroom and car to no avail, I realised I had left the music at the theatre.

I felt curiously bereft without them: the Dover edition of Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage with a rather fine portrait of Liszt on the front cover, the pale mauve ABRSM edition of Chopin’s Nocturnes, which I had when I took my Grade 8 exam over thirty years ago (still with my then teacher’s annotations), the dusky blue Henle edition of Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux which accompanied me to my Diploma exam…… “You must have something else you can practice,” my husband said, seeing my miserable face. “You can go back to the theatre on Monday and collect them.”

He was right, of course – and I did retrieve the scores – but without them nearby all weekend, I did feel rather unhinged. It’s not so much the books themselves, which of course can be replaced, if necessary, but all the annotations and personal scribblings on the pieces I’m working on which I missed.

A pianist friend of mine, on seeing my richly annotated score of Liszt’s Sonetto 123 del Petrarca (heavy with my fingerings, comments to myself, and excerpts of the libretto from the song version), suggested that I rub out all but the most essential markings and “clean up that score!”. “Oh no! I can’t possibly do that!” I exclaimed in horror. For to me those markings are as familiar as old friends, and without them it’s just NOT MY SCORE!

I expect we all have our own set of personal markings and annotations: I favour rings around notes to remind me of a place where I regularly make a mistake, exclamation marks (rather like the road signs) to alert me to ‘hazards’, a cartoon pair of spectacles to remind me to look out or ‘watch it’. Then there are general notes about context, the composer, facts about the work. (In the case of the Liszt Sonetto, it was incredibly helpful in my interpretation and shaping of that work to have a translation of the libretto at crucial points in the score, as well as a copy of Petrarch’s original sonnet pinned to the inside cover.) It’s always interesting, almost voyeuristic, to see someone else’s score, for the marks within in are highly personal: someone else’s fingering and comments, which, if analysed, might reveal someone’s deepest insecurities and frustrations, their unspoken hopes and most secret desires.  Someone else’s annotations, their wisdom, the score they have lived in, and worked over many times.

My scores are now safely stowed on the lid of the piano, ready for this week’s practising. Meanwhile, over the weekend, I worked on Mozart’s Rondo in A minor (K.511), and made some useful inroads into Messiaen’s Prelude ‘Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste’ and Rachmaninov’s wonderful transcription of the Prelude from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3.

Tenor John Aler sings ‘I’ vidi in terra’ – Sonetto 156 di Petrarca (S.158/3)

Olivier Messiaen composed his eight Preludes for piano in 1929. Debussy’s own Preludes were less than ten years old at the time, and the influence of Debussy on the young Messiaen is obvious in these piano miniatures. Like Debussy, Messiaen gave each Prelude a title, suggesting a narrative for the work. Some are obvious, such as ‘La Colombe’ (‘The Dove’), a piece with delicate flutterings and cooings high in the register, or ‘Un reflet dans le vent…’ (‘A Reflection in the Wind…’), with its stormy gusts and eddies, while others have more esoteric titles: ‘Les sons impalpables de rêve…’ (‘The Intangible Sounds of the Dream’) and ‘Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu’ (‘Bells of Anguish and Tears of Farewell’).

The Debussyan influence is clear in the use of unresolved or ambiguous veiled and misty harmonies, and parallel chords which are used for pianistic colour and timbre rather than definite harmonic progression, but Messiaen’s Preludes are also mystical rather than purely impressionistic, and look forward to his great and profoundly spiritual piano works, Visions de l’Amen (for 2 pianos) and Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jesus.

Messiaen described his Preludes as  “a collection of successive states of mind and personal feelings”. Sadness, loss, and meditations on mortality are found in many of the Preludes, but there is light (physical and metaphorical) as well, as there always is in Messiaen’s music, and they contain many of the features which are so distinctive of Messiaen’s later works: a masking of literal definitions, shimmering sounds, colours, light, “flashes”, and already suggest the vastness of Messiaen’s spiritual and musical landscape, a landscape which makes the Vingt regards such extraordinary pieces to play and to hear. As Alex Ross says of Messiaen’s music in his book The Rest is Noise, it is “an evocation of the vastness of the cosmos that many experience when visiting mountains.” One has the sense, always, when playing or listening to Messiaen of something that is far, far greater than us.

Messiaen shared Debussy’s fascination with the percussive, tinkling, luminous sounds of the gamelan orchestra of Indonesia, and the piano and pianissimo measures in Messiaen’s music can be very effective if played with a slight stridency and brightness of tone (this is a very ‘French’ style of piano playing, and if you listen to Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s second wife, playing his music, you can hear that sparkling clarity). And Messiaen, like Debussy before him, capitalised on the piano’s sonorous potential, for example, in the inclusion of deliberately “wrong” notes (to be played more softly that the rest of the material), which create the illusion of the natural sympathetic harmonics set up by the release of the sustaining pedal.

Here is Yvonne Loriod in the second of Messiaen’s Preludes:

Yvonne Loriod – Messiaen : 8 Préludes : II Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste

And here is French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who went to study with Messiaen at the age of 12:

from the Vingt Regards – X. ‘Regard de l’Esprit de joie’

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

This week I visited Dulwich village, an area of south-east London I have not been to for many years. I had the very good fortune not only to review an exhibition of exquisite Indian miniature paintings at the wonderful Dulwich Picture Gallery, but also to play Bach on a spinet belonging to a friend. The spinet playing will feature in a separate post. Meanwhile, here is my review of ‘Ragamalas’ for OneStopArts.com.

Dulwich on View magazine is running a ‘create your own ragamala’ competition. Details here

I ran an informal poll amongst my Twitter and Facebook friends, asking them to indicate which pieces they feel should be “must plays” in the pianist’s repertoire. This post is compilation of those thoughts. Thank you to everyone who contributed. Please feel free to leave further comments, either via the comments box on this blog or via Twitter @crosseyedpiano.

J S Bach – The Well-Tempered Clavier, Italian Concertos, Partitas

The general consensus is that Bach “teaches you everything” (Melanie) and is “the basis of all piano knowledge” (Lorraine) – phrasing, voicing, balance, techniques such as jeu perlé and legato, “orchestration”. Master Bach and you can play anything. Bach was revered by many composers who followed him, perhaps most notably, Fryderyk Chopin, who, it is said, studied the ’48’ every day (he took a copy of the manuscript with him on his ill-starred trip to Majorca).

Mozart

I’m revisiting Mozart’s late Rondo in A minor, K511, at the moment, and I am struck, not for the first time, by how Mozart’s piano music presents his oeuvre in microcosm: operatic, orchestral, choral – it’s all there. He is also a master of chiaroscuro (light and shade), with changes of mood and shading often occurring within the space of just a bar or two. Mozart’s piano music requires great clarity and elegance. Never forget Schnabel’s comment “too easy for children, too difficult for artists”.

Beethoven – Piano Sonatas

Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas are considered to be the New Testament of piano repertoire (Bach’s WTC is the Old Testament). Learn any one of the sonatas and you’ll have a snapshot of Beethoven’s creative impulse, as well as insights into how rapidly the instrument was developing at the time. Beethoven pushed the boundaries, both of the form and the instrument for which he was writing. For all the clichéd readings of it, the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata (Opus 27/2) remains a revolutionary work, written by a composer poised on the cusp of change. His music is full of wit, humour, pathos & philosophy.

Chopin – Études, Nocturnes

I suppose it goes without saying that any pianist worth his or her salt should study at least one of Chopin’s Études and Nocturnes at some point. Chopin elevated the Étude from student study to a highly refined genre, while retaining the original intention of the ‘study’. They are all different, and individual, and they all offer opportunities to hone specific techniques. Some are very well known (the ‘Winter Wind’, ‘Butterfly’, ‘Aeolian Harp’, ‘Tristesse’, ‘Revolutionary’) which makes them doubly difficult to play, for one wants to do one’s absolute best by them. Learn a handful of the Études – or all of them – and you will be scaling the high Himalayan peaks of piano repertoire.

The Nocturnes are exquisite miniatures, some of the finest small-scale music written for piano, and studies in beautiful cantabile playing. The distinct ‘vocal line’ in these pieces lends great drama and profound emotional expression, together with the judicious use of tempo rubato. Many have decorative features such as trills and fiorituras, which, when played well, appear to float over the surface of the music. The influence of Mozart on Chopin is clear in these works, in their distinct melodic lines. For me, the best performances of Chopin’s Nocturnes reveal him as a classical composer, with understated rubato, and close attention to structure and notation. Chopin may be ‘Prince of the Romantics’ (Count Adam Zamoyski), but he revered Bach and Mozart.

On a more general level, playing Chopin’s music offers the modern pianist a fascinating insight into what kind of instrument the piano was in the first part of the nineteenth century. More advanced than Beethoven’s piano, it was still some way from the modern instrument we know today. Hearing his music played on a period instrument is fascinating and makes sense of his dynamic markings such as sostenuto, and his pedal writing. (The Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands, Surrey, has three ‘Chopin’ pianos, which he may have played during his 1848 visit to England.)

Rachmaninov

The landscape artist in sound, Rachmaninov presents the vastness of his native Russia in his music, and a sense of history. A reluctant performer himself (in a photo in the green room at Wigmore Hall he looks as if he’d do anything but play the piano!), he wrote piano music which is difficult yet so beautifully constructed that it is extremely satisfying to play.

Debussy

Debussy forces you, as a pianist, to totally reappraise the way you play, and how the instrument works. In a lot of his piano music, you need to forget the piano has hammers. Debussy’s own piano playing was described as “hands sinking into velvet”. I learnt so much about arm weight, lightness, and touch from my study of Debussy for my Diploma, so much so that I feel he is now required playing for any pianist, whatever level. (Even simplified versions of Debussy’s greatest piano works are worth investigation.) Debussy’s piano music also presents some interesting paradoxes for the modern pianist: we have this idea that his music is fluid and gentle. It was, relative to the prevailing style, but we have now gone too far now, and many interpretations capitalise, sometimes erroneously, on the “impressionistic” nature of his music. The Preludes, for example, contain many different moods. shadings, and exercises in touch and tone. Definitely worth studying.

Bartok, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Messiaen, Stockhausen, Ligeti

I’m a recent convert to atonal music. I actually sat through a piece by Stockhausen in a concert earlier this week and enjoyed it, and I learnt a piece by Messiaen for my Diploma. It’s good to play outside your comfort zone, not least because it introduces you to new and different repertoire (I feel the same about Scarlatti and his cohorts!). Interestingly, younger students are often very receptive to dissonant and atonal music, because they have not yet experienced enough ‘straight’ classical music. I have also found some of my students like minimalist music, for the same reason.

This is by no means comprehensive, and is also very subjective. There are many, many more pieces and composers which could be considered “required reading” for pianists. Do please feel free to leave comments and keep the discussion going.