When I was a student in the mid-80s, we all had “cassette players” (the word “ghetto blaster” was fairly new vernacular at the time), and we all made compilation tapes for each other. One of my friends, who was ‘studying’ (hollow laugh) Sociology, seemed to spend most of his time closetted in his room in a cloud of stale, fetid air, creating compilation tapes for the rest of us. Party mixes, mostly, for those “corridor parties” in “halls”, or, when “living out” (i.e. not in a hall of residence), the all-nighters we enjoyed in our scruffy rented accommodation, where the walls were adorned with blue-tacked posters of trendy Steven Berkoff plays, photographs of Jim Morrison, Pre-Raphaelite prints and the ubiquitous Che Guevara picture purchased from Athena. We drank Exmoor and Wadworth 6X, and stuck candles in old wine bottles, wore black jeans and black roll-necks like French intellectuals from the 1960s, and thought we were oh so cool. We were wild in the old days! We had a lot to learn……

A friend (and lover, as it turned out) of my mother, who fancied himself as a unreconstructed hippie and who used to smoke hand-rolled joints in the back garden of our house in the leafy commuter town of Rickmansworth, gave me a new compilation tape every birthday during the years that he and my mother enjoyed an association. For my 18th birthday, it was a collection of songs from the year of my birth, 1966, which was quite inventive. I used to play it a lot, and it included tracks like ‘Paint it Black’  and ’19th Nervous Breakdown’ (The Rolling Stones), ‘Summer in the City’ (The Lovin’ Spoonful), ‘Shapes of Things’ (The Yardbirds), and ‘Sunshine Superman’ (Donovan). At the time, I was deeply into late 60s bands like The Doors and Jefferson Airplane, and female protest singers such as Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell. The compilation tape, made for a friend, or, more significantly, a boyfriend, became a vehicle for unexpressed or inexpressible emotions and barely-concealed longing.

On a radio programme I caught the other day, one of the guests was lamenting the demise of the compilation tape, now that we don’t have cassette players any longer. But with the advent of iTunes and similar music programmes, it is possible to create compilations and “mixes” once again – and it’s a whole lot easier these days because you simply “drag and drop” the tracks into the new playlist. Newer versions of iTunes have a neat function called ‘Genius’ which will create compilations for you, based on a highlighted track. It looks clever, as if the artificial intelligence of iTunes is able to match certain tracks with others to create a coherent playlist, but in reality all it is doing is using some kind of techie ju-ju and searching by genre and tempo. It copes less well with classical music, for example, pairing a Bach Cantata with a Chopin Prelude.

I still make my own mixes, mostly for listening in the car. I do not have a CD player in the house any longer: when it finally gave up the ghost last year, I didn’t bother to replace it. Instead, all my music is stored on the main house computer and is streamed to a high-quality sound system in the sitting room via the magical gadget that is Apple TV. I also have a very old, now very collectible first generation iPod, on which almost my entire music library is stored. The iPod is so old (barely 10 years!) that its battery no longer charges, but it works off the mains and can be plugged into the hi-fi. So I make ‘mixes’ for long car journeys, a trio of CDs especially for the campervan (when I had it), or for 8-hour drives down the autoroute to the Alps when you need stuff you can sing along to to keep you awake (‘Hallejulah’ by K D Lang was popular at Christmas!). I also keep a CD of my current repertoire for listening to when I’m driving. Then there’s ‘Chopin Favourites’, ‘Schubert Favourites’, ‘Shorter Beethoven’ and ‘Oddments’, a collection of mostly piano music ranging from Bach to John Adams which just seems to fit together nicely. and is enjoyable and stimulating to listen to.

One of the best features of iTunes is that you can purchase a single track, rather than a whole album. So I bought Sheila Chandra’s ‘Ever So Lonely’, hit the Genius button, and hey presto! there was an hour of mostly ‘ambient’ music which seems to suit the late evening when everyone’s had one too many glasses of wine and wants to chill on the sofa. Brian Eno’s ‘An Ascent’ (from the ‘Apollo Atmospheres and Soundtracks’ album) threw up an even more laid back mix via the power of Genius.

So, maybe the compilation is not really dead; its format may have changed with the times, but its purpose and intent remain the same. And still, perhaps, a vehicle for unexpressed emotions……

Apple TV

“Maestro Pollini”, as the interviewer in the programme rather sycophantically calls him, is presenting a five-concert series at the Royal Festival Hall entitled ‘The Pollini Project’, intended, as the Italian pianist says in the interview, to offer “an overall flavour of the keyboard repertoire, from the Baroque to that great master of the 20th century, Stockhausen” to a London audience he describes as “almost unique………so enthusiastic, attentive……..with lots of young people”. The five concerts offer a fairly broad brush of piano music from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier of Bach, to Pierre Boulez’s Piano Sonata No. 2 (a composer with whom Pollini claims a particular affinity), Chopin’s Op 28 Preludes, Debussy’s Etudes, and the last sonatas of both Beethoven and Schubert. The final concert in the series features music by Stockhausen, Schumann and Chopin.

Pollini is a fairly regular visitor to the RFH, and I was very sorry to miss his Chopin birthday recital last year, as I have heard he is good with Chopin. I have not heard him before, neither live nor on disc. Last night, the second concert of the series, he played the last three sonatas of Beethoven, which are a somewhat different kettle of pianistic fish from Chopin, being profoundly emotional, with universal values, and in possession of “philosophy in music”, if you will (that is not to say that Chopin does not posses these attributes in his music, because he does, in different ways….). The last sonatas combine sublimity and a certain roughness, and a skilled performer, who understands these pieces intimately, both metaphorically and physically, should be able to combine both elements convincingly.

The Opus 109 begins with that memorable, lyrical opening melody. It was pleasantly played, if a little choppy in places (what my teacher calls “notey” playing). The second movement variations did not grab me, but I have no criticism of his playing per se which was pristine and technically flawless. There was a sense of Pollini settling in to his programme.

Readers of this blog and my musical friends will know already that I am very devoted to the middle sonata of the three, the Opus 110. It is my Desert Island Disc, and I am very fussy about it. Piers Lane failed to move with it a couple of weeks ago at Wigmore Hall in a rather workmanlike performance. To me, Pollini hurried through it, not allowing us enough time to enjoy the beautiful, serene first movement, while the final fugue, in its second incarnation, was rushed and muddy in places so that its wonderful “paean of praise” was lost. There were some nice parts in the Arioso, but his fortissimos were sometimes too much and verged on Hammer Horror soundtrack in places. Some of the quieter passages were also marred by an unidentifiable buzzing in the auditorium (someone trying to tweet by Morse code, perhaps?), a good deal of coughing in the audience (well, I suppose it is the time of year for coughs and colds), and the pianist’s own huffing and snuffling.

Pollini’s playing style is quite uncomfortable to watch too, though it is unlikely that anyone will ever replicate Glenn Gould’s bizarre, crouched posture. He sits close up to the keyboard, almost hunched over it (though he’s not tall – I know this because he walked right past us when we were having a post-concert drink), with his elbows jammed to his sides. He looked awkward, and it was often a surprise to see his arms go out to the highest or lowest registers of the keyboard.

Having said all that, the Opus 111 was fantastic. He brought an appropriate roughness and “bump and grind” to the opening movement, while the second movement variations were full of lyricism, sublime and meditative, while in the more up-tempo variations, Pollini demonstrated he could more than cope with Beethoven’s sheer weirdness and nuttiness (a feature common to the late works in general). Some of the trills in the highest registers fluttered as if carried on a fragile breath, and in other places we heard bells ringing, and repeated notes which seemed to nod forward to the minimalist music of  John Adams and Philip Glass (and I’ve never felt that about Beethoven before!).

He received five curtain calls at the end, and many members of the audience were on their feet by the third call. Behind us, a group of Pollini tifosi whooped and cheered, much to the irritation of my companion who grumbled “I can’t stand that stuff!”. Since he played the three sonatas straight through without an interval, there was still time after the concert to enjoy a leisurely drink in the bar. Maestro Pollini came down to the foyer of the RFH to receive plaudits and sign copies of his Beethoven CD.

The next concert is in the series, Schubert’s last three sonatas, is on Saturday 26th February.

The Pollini Project

With six weeks to go until my teacher’s advanced piano course, I am beginning to put together the repertoire to take with me. The course takes place over a long weekend, and is three days of intensive masterclasses, culminating in a students’ concert on the Sunday afternoon. Last year, I went with a degree of trepidation as I had never done a piano course before. I came away from it inspired – so much so that I decided I would start working for a performance Diploma, which I hope to take this winter. It was wonderful to wallow in piano music for three whole days, and to “talk piano” with like-minded and very committed people. Because of my teacher’s style and her expert tuition (she is quietly precise, and firm, with a reputation for guiding and encouraging each student to reach their full potential, both musically and technically), everyone feels very supported and encouraged, and there is a very friendly atmosphere on the course.

Liszt – ‘Sonetto 123 del Petrarca’ from Années de pèlerinage, 2eme annee, Italie: This beautiful, dreamy, meditative piece is inspired by Petrach’s Sonnet I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi (“I beheld on earth angelic grace” – read the full text here). An understanding of the text of the Sonnet is essential to a proper understanding of this music, and I have spent the last few days listening and watching YouTube clips of this work in its song form, as well as singing the melodic lines to myself, both at the piano and away from it. This is very romantic music, in the truest sense of the word, and one must be careful not to make it sound saccharine, self-indulgent and schmaltzy. The notes themselves are not so hard – there are some awkward chord progressions which can be achieved with the right fingering – but conveying the mood and emotional depth of the piece is more tricky. Coming after a month’s work on Bach’s Toccata from the Sixth Partita, this piece provides a wonderful foil to Bach’s Baroque arabesques.

J S Bach – Toccata from Partita, BWV 830 in E minor: I have really enjoyed getting my fingers, and head, around Bach after a long absence from his music (I used to play a lot of Bach when I was at school, both as a soloist and in a chamber group where I played continuo). On one level, I have proved to myself – and my teacher, who has not heard me play Bach before – that I can still do it. I thought it would be a long learning process, so I was surprised that I had learnt the entire piece in just three weeks. The intellectual and technical demands of this kind of music have been immensely satisfying and rewarding, and with the music now well “in the fingers”, I am enjoying the ‘finessing’ work on colour, contrast, shape and mood. This piece is very nearly concert-ready, and I may choose to include it in the end of course concert.

Debussy – Pour le Piano: Prelude & Sarabande: I love the way this music links to the Bach, but I also feel in the first piece, the Prelude, Debussy’s ‘take’ on his Baroque antecedents is more humorous, and my recent work on this piece had been to concentrate on keeping the fingers nimble and playful, and experimenting with various hand and finger techniques and movements to achieve different effects. The piece is very much a “toccata” in that it is a test of the pianist’s touch, but there are also moments of great, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek, grandeur too (again a nod back to a Baroque model), for example in mm. 42-55. These big chords are potentially dangerous for me with my unstable right hand: I am practising them quietly, no louder than mezzo-forte, while concentrating on keeping my wrists light and bouncy to avoid straining my hands.

The Sarabande provides a complete contrast, and I love the way the cadenza of the Prelude, in particular the big, fortissimo chords in the final six bars, sets up a silence for the sublime opening of the Sarabande. This elegant, stately dance requires an angled, caressing attack and very smooth movements between the chords. My notes at the top of the score include some quotes about Debussy’s own playing of this piece: his hands are described as “floating over the keys”, that they never left the keys, and that it sounded as if his hands were “sinking into velvet”. Trying to achieve all this, while also highlighting the interior “voices” within the melodic lines, is not easy! And again, I need to be careful with the big hand stretches. I have not yet played this for my teacher, and I look forward to working on it with her at my next lesson. This and the Prelude will definitely be going on the course!

Mozart – Rondo in A Minor, K511: I have really enjoyed revisiting this piece over the past month or so, with a view to putting it into my Diploma programme. I took a long break from it, after learning it initially, and this has definitely helped as I’ve returned to it fresh, with some new thoughts about it. A difficult piece, with all its contrasting strands of melody and texture, it requires great clarity of playing and technique. This also makes it an excellent Diploma piece as it showcases a number of different styles and techniques, with its nods forward to Chopin and back to Bach.

Chopin – Ballade No. 1 in G minor: I’ve learnt half of this, and have really enjoyed it, but it’s on the back burner now as I must concentrate on my Diploma repertoire. I will go back to it and learn the rest of it, but it’s a long haul and I want to have the time to devote to it. I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from knowing that I can play a “great” of the piano repertoire, if only half of it at present!

Messiaen – Regard de la Vierge (“Gaze of the Virgin”) from Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus: I did quite a lot of work on this away from the keyboard when I was on holiday at Christmas, but since then I have done no more. This is a very difficult piece – not so much the notes, but the profoundly emotional content and subject matter. When the Debussy pieces are more advanced, I will return to this.

I am posting three YouTube videos which a colleague and fellow-blogger, Notesfromapianist, flagged up in her Twitter feed yesterday. For anyone studying the three ‘Sonnetti del Petrarca’ from Liszt’s Années, these video clips provide some invaluable food for thought, study and practising: hearing the original song versions has really informed my practising today. The piano pieces included in the second year of the Années de pèlerinage are Liszt’s resettings of his own song transcriptions (composed ca. 1839–1846 and published 1846). I am learning the Sonetto 123 at the moment….

I’m a big fan of the BBC Radio Three ‘Breakfast’ programme, which goes out every morning from 7am, and, except for Saturday when it ends at 9am to make way for CD Review, lasts for a full three hours. I usually manage to listen to most of the programme, in between chivvying my son off to school and organising myself for the day. Sometimes, I “do a Glenn Gould” and leave the radio playing in the kitchen while I am practising; thus, my current peregrinations of Liszt are to the accompaniment of the comforting hum of the radio from the other end of my house.

By around 7.00am, I’ve usually had enough of ‘argumental’ John Humphrys on the Today programme on Radio Four (though I do have a fondness for Evan Davis and Sarah Whatshername), and as soon as Other Half leaves for work, it is with relief that I turn over to Radio Three. The opening piece of the programme is usually something cheery, rousing and Baroque, and each day the running order of the programme is largely the same: “great pieces, great performances – and a few surprises”, as it claims on the programme’s webpage. In recent years, it appears the programme has borrowed some ideas about format from Classic FM to become more popular, and certain pieces do seem to be on a loop, recurring about once every 2-3 weeks. Having said that, there is always a very good selection of music, mostly classical, with some titbits of jazz and world music thrown in for good measure.

My favourite presenter is Sara Mohr-Pietsch, whose voice is just about perfect for radio, and who endeared herself to me not long ago when she said that Bach was the perfect way to begin the day, and that she could happily listen to three hours continuous Bach in the morning – as I could. Rob Cowan can irritate me: his strangely “smiley” voice can sound inappropriate when introducing very serious or sombre music, and he also has “favourites” which come round with alarming regularity, namely, Smetana’s Overture from ‘The Bartered Bride’ (this morning!), anything by Buxtehude (the performance of which is always preceded by an anecdote about how Bach walked from Arnstadt to Lübeck to meet him), Saint-Saens’s ‘Tarantella’, and Coupland’s ‘Rodeo’ Suite. And I’m afraid my heart sinks whenever Rob says “and now here’s something from my rucksack”. I imagine him fossicking around in the bottom of a grubby old khaki knapsack, and pulling out a CD from which he has to remove sticky old toffee wrappers, loose Polo mints, and that strange fluff-grit mix that always seems to live at the bottom of a bag….

I have discovered music through the programme, and have often gone on to look up an artist, group or album after hearing an extract over my cornflakes. I would never have found the wonderful early music group L’Arpeggiata, for example. The programme has also introduced me to new repertoire, and I regularly hear piano music and think “ooh, I’ll learn that”. Recent examples include Delius’s ‘Scherzando’ from the Three Preludes (which I abandoned because of the awkward arpeggios), Alkan’s ‘Barcarolle’, Op. 65, and a Spanish dance by Granados. A few days ago, I heard a fun, jazz take on Bach called ‘Bach Goes to Town’ by Alec Templeton, a piece I learnt in my teens and would love to revisit. Sometimes, I even “join in” with the programme, sending a text with a comment on a piece or a request to hear something. And unlike Classic FM, the flow of the programme is not interrupted with loud and febrile advertising jingles every ten minutes or so.

On Tuesdays, after the 8am news slot, the Specialist Classical Chart is broadcast. There was much wringing of hands and pulling of eyes by Radio Three purists last autumn when it was first announced. I admit I was sceptical, fearing more shades of Classic FM and its “best of” and “your favourites” lists etc, but the Specialist Classical chart is, largely, serious, and interesting. It is also available as a podcast.

In the old days, Radio Three was considered very rarefied and esoteric, the home of hushed, reverential tones, and the station for serious classical music afficionados. Today, its remit is far more popular, and while it has received criticism for this from certain quarters, the award of Station of the Year in 2009, the radio equivalent of the Oscars, is proof of Radio Three’s success. Of course, there are serious programmes, for serious music lovers, but there is a wide range of other material, from drama and literature, to world music and jazz, choral and early music. Another of my favourite programmes is Late Junction (from 11.15pm, weeknights) which offers a truly eclectic mix of music – again, a great place to make new discoveries. All in all, Radio Three is a lively mix of music and culture, and a pleasant foil for Radio Four (of which I am also an avid fan: wild horses could not keep me from my daily fix of The Archers!).

So, tune in, if you haven’t before, and give it a whirl: your eyes and mind are in for a cultural treat!

Radio Three homepage

See and hear l’Arpeggiata in performance