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.

Canadian pianist (and sometime composer) Marc-André Hamelin can play anything, you know…….

Or so it appeared last night as he wowed the Wigmore audience with a programme of radical and adventurous repertoire. Read my review for Bachtrack here

“If you can’t sing it, you can’t hear it. And that means we [the audience] can’t hear it either.”

This is what my teacher said to me at my recent lesson, during which we worked on Chopin’s Nocturne, Opus 62 no. 2, the last Nocturne published in his lifetime. In bars 20-22 the left hand plays descending sustained minims, achieved by silently changing from a thumb to a fifth finger. I’d got the fingering right, but I could not sing those sustained notes. As a result, they were lost amid all the other sounds and textures in this passage. Once I’d sung the notes, I found I could sound them easily, and a little extra weight in the finger added a warmth and resonance which was obvious, but not overpowering, under the gorgeous treble line.

It sounds obvious, that we should listen all the time when we are playing, whether in practice or performance, but it is quite common for us not to listen, and to allow the mind – and ears – to wander as we work, and thus not take in fully what we are doing at the keyboard. As pianist Murray McLachlan said at a recent EPTA event I attended, “use your ears: they are your fiercest critic and your best teacher”.

My piano lesson last week was mostly concerned with listening as both pieces I presented have a strong melodic line which needs to sing out over the bass (the other piece was the slow movement from Bach’s D minor Concerto after Marcello, BWV 947). As I listened to myself playing, striving always for the most beautiful cantabile sound, I learnt to adjust my arm weight, lightening it to produce a better sound. In the Chopin, even where a passage is marked crescendo, leading to forte (for example, from bar 12), one should not allow the arm to become heavy: the sound one is aiming for here is increased warmth rather than volume. At this point, my teacher and I paused to discuss first-hand accounts of Chopin playing: it is said that he never played louder than mezzo-forte (even if he had written forte in the score). ‘Warming up’ the sound can create the effect of an increase in volume, without losing a beautiful tone.

I find it hard to persuade my students to listen. Too often they want to gallop through their pieces, get the notes right and not bother too much about producing a good tone. Yet, the production of beautiful tone is what pianists strive for above anything else: even the most spiky passages of Prokofiev or Stockhausen should be played with careful attention to tone. Be critical as you play: listen all the time and if you don’t like the sound you are hearing, find ways to adjust it to make it better by experimenting with arm weight (lightening the arm will usually produce a better tone), and by ‘visualising’ the sound you want to achieve before you play it (it’s amazing how different your tone will be if you spend a few moments before you play imagining the sound). We should keep our ears open and attuned to what we are doing, to allow us to make minor adjustments to our playing and sound production. If you like the sound you are producing in a particular passage, try and remember that sound for next time, and what it felt like as you were playing it. Were your arms light, your wrists soft? What else were you doing with your body to create that sound?

Recording yourself playing is another invaluable aspect of listening: I have routinely started recording my students, especially those who have exams fairly imminently, and sending them a soundclip to listen to. I ask them to listen critically, not for errors and slips, but for an ‘overview’ of the sound. I ask them to make notes (to bring to the next lesson for discussion with me) about what they liked and disliked about the sound, and to think about how they can improve it or change it.

If you do record yourself playing, don’t listen to the recording as soon as you’ve made it. You are likely to be far more critical at this point and may not listen in the right way. Leave it a few days, and then listen to your recording. Review it carefully and note what you like and dislike about your playing. Compare recordings of the same piece, made at different times and in different circumstances (for example, in practice, in performance, on a different instrument etc.).

Another aspect of listening is of course hearing other people play, live and on disc. Go to concerts, listen to recordings and note what you enjoy about the sounds other pianists make. Remember that they are probably employing the same techniques as you to create that sound!

Chopin – Opus 62 no.2

Here is Richter