My friend Michael owns a Steinway B, purchased brand new 18 months ago when he retired. Unlike most businessmen who, on retirement, buy a big boy’s toy, like a Porsche or an Aston Martin, Michael eschewed such trinkets and instead chose the piano he had always wanted, trading in his very nice Yamaha grand for an even bigger, shinier 7-foot Steinway.

It fills almost half the sitting room of his spacious home in Camberley, a black beast squatting in the corner. The family photographs and ornaments which adorn its lid do little to soften its vast statue. This is no parlour piano: this is an instrument for a serious musician who values sound quality and subtlety of touch, expert workmanship and high-end design and manufacturing above all else. On the rack is Schumann’s famously difficult ‘Kreisleriana’, and beside the score, a Mont Blanc propelling pencil for annotations, an appropriate accessory for such an upmarket piece of musical furniture.

I first played the ‘Minotaur’, as I call it in my mind, only a few weeks after Michael purchased the piano, when it was still “settling in” to its new home. I drove down the M3 with a sense of excitement and trepidation: the last Steinway I played was my previous teacher’s in Rickmansworth in 1985, an old instrument which had probably received a far amount of abuse from a procession of willing and unwilling piano students. Sadly, I don’t get my hands on a really nice piano that often, except for my regular appointments with my current teacher’s antique Bechstein, and a mini-recital on a 1920s Bluthner at Russborough House in Co. Wicklow last summer….

Arriving at the house, the piano was unveiled for me, the protective felt cover for the keys carefully removed, rather in the manner of a Japanese tea ceremony. “Michael’s left you some music” Ruth, Michael’s wife, said. Apart from the Schumann, there was Rachmaninov, Granados, Debussy, as well as the obligatory Bach and Beethoven collections. Always interesting to see what someone else is working on: Michael’s taste is definitely more Romantically-oriented than mine (though I did spy a collection of Scarlatti sonatas). My initial experience with the Steinway was a depressing one: everything I played felt heavy-handed, too loud in the bass (despite living in a sitting room with soft-furnishings and fitted carpet, it has a massive bass voice), and generally unbalanced. Was it me? Or was it the piano…..? Grumbling about it to Rolf, my piano tuner, a week later, he blamed the piano. “Of course, you are used to a Yamaha!” he said reassuringly, agreeing with me that Steinways could be fickle creatures, and that playing one, even a brand new one, can be akin to driving a sports car. “I knew you wouldn’t like it!”.

The second time I played it, it was better – and I felt it growing on me the longer I played it. Maybe I was less in awe of it? Or perhaps I was just better able to adjust my playing to suit it. In any event, it is a lovely piano and I get a tremendous amount of pleasure from my ad hoc recitals on it, while Ruth prepares the lunch. It is also a very useful experience as it is an opportunity to play current repertoire to a different audience.

The Bach Toccata, which is comfortably “in the fingers” after 5 week’s work, so I can now enjoy finessing its colour and shape, sounded grand and stately on the Steinway – as I hoped it would. The Chopin Etude (Op 10/3) had a nice mellowness, though I cocked up the dread 6ths in the climactic middle section – as I knew I would (this section really needs to be practised every day!) – and I collapsed into “Eric Morecambe-style playing”. The Debussy Prelude (‘Voiles’), which I have not touched since my Christmas Concert, was languid and transparent, something I have been struggling to achieve at home. It’s a piece that is very well suited to an instrument with a very singing, limpid treble set over a deep, resonant bass – perfect for those recurring B-flat pedal points.

I was just enjoying a cup of tea prior to setting off back up the M3 to return home, when Michael arrived back from a meeting. I played Mozart’s K511 Rondo for him – giving him an opportunity to enjoy the lovely sound of his piano and a chance for him to appraise whether it really did need tuning again or not (I thought not). As I found when Michael played my piano last summer, it is always helpful to hear one’s instrument being played really well by someone else – because you hear it in a different way if you sit back from it and listen for pleasure, instead of listening to yourself. I wish I had been able to stay longer: Michael was working on a piano reduction of the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony, and the extract he played for me was rather wonderful. But I knew if we got talking – and playing! – I could be there until dinner time, and unfortunately, I had to get home for my appointment with one of Liszt’s Années. But it’s lovely to know that the piano is there when I want to play it and that old friends will welcome me into their home, and listen to me play with pleasure, while also offering useful, constructive criticism. When my Diploma programme is finalised, I shall look forward to playing it for Michael – and others, of course….

This article on the Piano Addict blog interested me, not least because I feel we spend far too much of our lives these days trying to do things at high speed, without allowing ourselves time to stand still and think, or to look up occasionally to admire a beautiful sunset or starlit sky, or to listen – to the birds singing in the garden, or the beauty and intricacy of a Bach Chorale. Or to just sit quietly and do nothing, even for just a few moments

As a foodie as well as a pianist, I have an interest in the Slow Food Movement and concur with many of  its values. And like the author of the Piano Addict article, I think similar values could be applied to the way we play the piano, teach the piano, and study and listen to music.

Many, many teachers, practitioners, mentors and students advocate “slow practice”, playing a piece at half-tempo, or slower, to allow one time to examine all its elements, and to consider and learn them properly. When I’m teaching – and the majority of my students are quite young children – I find that students want to rush headlong into pieces, and to be able to play everything that is put before them very fast and (too often!) very loud. Children (and some adults) often do not have the patience or the understanding to take time to acquaint themselves properly with the way the music is constructed, to look for the composer’s signposts, and to consider, before playing a single note, the kind of sound, mood and character that the music requires.

Lately, I have been trying to apply my own admittedly rather cerebral approach to music to my students, and the first thing we do on encountering a new piece, is to study it. “Have a look through this and tell me if there is anything in there you don’t understand, don’t like the look of, or want to ask me about….” is usually how we start. This very basic analysis will, I hope, set my students on a learning path that will ensure they take time to study the music before actually putting their fingers and hands on the keyboard. It allows important “thinking time” and, for the more advanced musician, is an essential part of the process of learning new work. As an aside, I also do a lot of contextual reading and listening, especially if I am embarking on a piece by a composer whose oeuvre is relatively new or unknown to me (such as Olivier Messiaen).

Slow practice is often the only way to tackle tricky or rapid passage work, awkward chord progressions, or uncomfortable fingering; it is also the best way to become really intimate with a piece of music, to understand the composer’s intentions and to examine all the interior architecture of the work. Listen to Perahia or Gould playing Bach, and you can hear from the way the music is played that these pianists (and they are not alone) have taken the time to understand the interior structures, textures and colours of the music.

During my lesson this week, my teacher suggested practising the trickier parts of the Bach Toccata (BWV 830 from the 6th Partita) I am learning “in the manner of a Chopin Nocturne”. I was amazed at the difference this made, not just to the sound but also to the feel of the music under the fingers: my hands and arms were instantly more relaxed, more languid (but no less alert), as Bach’s Baroque arabesques were transposed to a 19th-century Parisian salon. Bach is always beautiful, but played like this, it was really beautiful (especially played on my teacher’s lovely antique Bechstein). Practising the piece at home yesterday, the effect was the same (despite the noise of a drill outside). In the end, I played the entire piece in this way, and I will continue to practise it like this until all the awkward passages are secure, and I can play them accurately and in a more relaxed manner.

I was struck by the need for Slow Piano techniques in my studio, not just for myself, but also for my students, when a parent asked me recently if it would be possible to “fast-track” her child to Grade 4 by the time applications have to be made to senior school (in eighteen month’s time; apparently, this may secure a music scholarship to a local private school). It reminded me of my own learning, at roughly the same age as the child in question, when I was on an “exam treadmill”. As soon as one grade was passed, I would embark on the syllabus for the next one. What I should have been doing was playing and enjoying repertoire to bridge the gap between grades for a few months, something I have been doing with a number of students who have recently passed Grades 1 and 2.

So, maybe Slow Piano is all about taking time to enjoy and savour the music we are studying, playing for pleasure, and listening to, and encouraging others to do the same. And the only competition is with oneself, to achieve perfection, through slow, meticulous and thoughtful practise. It’s a big ask, but one that is definitely worth pursuing.

With that in mind, I’m off for some slow piano practise of my Bach Toccata……………that is, when I’ve fed the cats, made a cake, and prepared dinner for tonight, had my hair cut and written out some music for lessons later…..

Sviatoslav Richter demonstrating “Slow Piano”  techniques in Schubert’s Sonata D894 – one of the most thoughtful readings of this sonata I know. The opening movement is marked molto moderato….

Rather than write an exhaustive summary of my piano lesson today, I am simply going to note the things I discussed and worked on with my teacher. While the notes are specific to the music I am working on currently (the Toccata from Bach’s 6th Partita, BWV 830, and the ‘Prelude’ from Debussy’s Pour le Piano), they have a general relevance, and I hope readers will find them useful. This post is also an opportunity for me to review, while writing, my piano lesson and what I need to focus on in the coming weeks.

We began with the Bach (Partita No.6). This piece is intended for my Diploma recital, but learning it has also reminded me of how satisfying it is to play Bach. His music is intricate, textural and cerebral, and I have thoroughly enjoyed working on this piece, having not played any Bach seriously since I left school (I am ashamed to admit!).

Overall – well played, in some places “beautifully played”, a nice sense of grandeur in the arpeggiated figures in the opening and closing sections, some good three-part playing where I’ve clearly analysed the structure of the fugue. Piece needs to be neatened up, with more colour and shape. Listen to the Chromatic Fantasia for reference as this piece shares some similar motifs. Needs more “flourish” in places. Be sure to maintain the sense of a steady pulse throughout. Do not use the pedal as a cover for sections which are difficult or less secure.

mm. 1 & 2 (and all similar measures): achieve a greater sense of grandeur and flourish through the arpeggiated figures. Keep dotted figure legato and maintain sense of forward movement into crotchets. Avoid “chunky” hands and “notey” sound through these sections. Try to move smoothly between chords with a horizontal motion.

mm. 3-6 (and all similar measures): try for “swirling” motion between the hands, almost a sense of “one hand playing”. Keep these sections lighter (as a contrast to opening measures). Distinct “toccare” feel. Slight tenuto on first note of each figure, for example, in mm. 15-16 to emphasise the chromaticism.

Take difficult or insecure bars in the Fugue and practice them slowly, in the manner of a Chopin Nocturne. As I found in my lesson, this technique enables the hands to relax. The more difficult bars should sound unforced: resist pushing into the keys in these sections, especially in more tricky three-part sections.

Semi-quaver passage work: relax the hands, again to achieve unforced sound.

Debussy: ‘Prelude’ from Pour le Piano – This piece sits rather well with the Bach Toccata as it is Debussy’s nod back to his Baroque antecedents (specifically Couperin, rather than Bach), and has very distinct “toccata” elements in its constant forward motion and the “divine arabesque of Bach”. It also contains “antagonistic” elements and oppositions of extremes, such as dynamic or colour. Despite these apparently “serious”, Baroque features, there is a delightful playfulness in this piece.

mm. 1-42 – as in the Bach Toccata, think about shared movement and “swirling” between the hands, almost a sense of the hands “playing” with each other.

mm. 42-54 – keep wrists, forearms and elbows bouncy through these big chords. Practise mf, and gradually use back to increase sound. Glissandos – don’t hang around!

mm. 55-56 – Whole tone scale: try and achieve “harp” sound, hands drawn rapidly across strings, with sweeping movement. Practice the runs in groups of 8 notes (4 per hand).

mm. 57-64 – RH “shake”, likewise from m. 69 in LH. Keep fingers “playful” through this section.

Contrary motion scale preceding Cadenza – again, keep hands light, nimble and playful. Practise RH measures slowly

Cadenza – runs should be “kaleidoscopic”, like a “harp”, fingers swept across the keys.

Final 6 bars – keep in Tempo primo. Very grand. These big chords should set up the silence for the sublime opening of the ‘Sarabande’.

Overall, this piece needs to remain playful, both technically and musically.

At lunchtime today, I eschewed Sunday lunch with the family, or shopping, which seemed to be what most people were doing, to see the new Glenn Gould biopic at Richmond Filmhouse. This delightful, small cinema, tucked down a side alley off the main drag, is part of the Curzon group, and tends to show art house, European, and less mainstream films. Which is good, because I like those types of films, and I doubt I would have had an opportunity to see the Glenn Gould film otherwise, since it is not on general release, being of somewhat ‘specialist’ interest.

Glenn Gould has always been part of my musical/pianistic landscape, along with Ashkenazy, Perahia, Barenboim and Brendel, for these were the artists my parents heard live in concert and on LP, and I remember seeing the photo of Gould on one of my father’s records, with his trademark cap and long coat. He is probably best remembered today for his extraordinary recordings of Bach, specifically the Goldberg Variations, which he recorded twice – first, when he was a young man (in 1955), and later, in 1981, a year before he died. The jury’s still out as to which version is “better”. I would argue that they are simply different: the later version is more thoughtful, and, in some places, just plain weird – that is, if you like your Bach served straight. What most people agree on, however, is that with the music of J S Bach, Gould reveals his true pianistic genius. Listen to him playing, and it is as if a whole choir is contained under his fingers as he directs all the different voices, giving just the right amount of emphasis to each one, so that we truly hear Bach’s intentions and “see”, through sound, the interior architecture of the music (something Murray Perahia also does).

Gould was also famously, or infamously eccentric, and it is probably his personal life and his eccentricities that remain perennially fascinating to fans, musicians and non-musos alike. When I was researching a novel some years ago, in which the principal character is a concert pianist, a young man just starting out on what promises to be a brilliant career, I read a number of books and biographies of Glenn Gould to try and understand what motivates someone to choose such a masochistic career, and what drives the pianist to spend hours and hours in self-imposed solitary confinement with only dead composers for companions. Gould’s obsessiveness, not just about his music, is perhaps more extreme than most, but I think all of us who are committed to the piano, whether as a professional or serious amateur, can understand, to a greater or lesser degree, what drove him to do what he did, and why.

In 2006, Bruno Monsaingeon’s film about Glenn Gould, ‘Hereafter’, came out on DVD. This was, in part, an attempt to get inside the mind of Gould, as an artist and a human being, but also focussed on people whose lives had been touched, in special ways, by Gould’s playing. Monsaingeon was a good friend of Gould’s for over 30 years – this is apparent in the film in the scenes of them working together. More a film about Gould’s relationship with the piano and his music than about his mental state, it is quirky and entertaining, constructed as it is in the manner of a documentary narrated by Gould himself.

‘Genius Within’ goes beyond Monsaingeon’s film to try and penetrate even further the mind of Gould, and so focusses more on his personal life and eccentricities: the gloves, scarf, hat and long coat, even in the height of summer; the repeated request not to have to shake hands for fear of damaging his fragile fingers; his extraordinary attention to detail when recording; his dislike of performing in public; his extreme hypochondria. Constructed from interviews with people who knew Gould, including the artist Cornelia Foss who left her husband to live with Gould for four years, taking her children with her, and interspersed with footage of him playing in the studio or the concert hall, or walking in his beloved Canadian countryside, this is a very intense, beautiful, detailed and moving portrait of a highly complex and profound musical personality. For the really serious musos and Gould fans, the film clips of him playing are fascinating: so much of what he did goes against what most of us are taught when we learn the piano, yet the sound he produced was remarkable and unique. For those who know little or nothing about Glenn Gould, this film is great introduction to his life, and will have you ordering his recordings and reading the biographies of him before you know it. It contains more unseen footage than Bruno Monsaingeon’s film, and is a true work of art in its own right.

Go and see it. And listen to Gould playing Bach….and Beethoven, and Brahms, and Hindemith……

………and if you can’t see it at the cinema, the DVD is released in the UK in March.

 

An article about Gould’s ‘finger tapping’ technique.

Monday 24th January, Wigmore Hall

Schubert – German Dances, Ländler, Valses Sentimentales; Brahms – 4 Klavierstücke, Op 119; Beethoven – Piano Sonata Opus 110; Chopin – Four Ballades

Encores: Chopin – Nocturne Op 9, No. 2; Dudley Moore Parody on a Beethoven Sonata

There is a mysterious fulfilling pleasure in watching any manual task being performed with infinite skill and grace, the agility and accuracy required, the finesse of touch and judgement. Thus, we admired Piers Lane’s superior technical prowess in the four Ballades of Chopin, and the applause that came spontaneously after he had completed the first one was, in part, an appreciation of the monumental technical effort involved in playing some of the most challenging music of the piano repertoire. After the fourth was safely delivered, the applause was even more rapturous, and perhaps tinged with relief, that the performance had been completed safely, accurately, and without mishap. Indeed, the playing was utterly pristine, and if it was lacking in depth or emotion at times, at least the performer’s technical assuredness could be admired.

This was my first concert of the new year, a varied programme which contained two great edifices of the standard repertoire: Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata, and Chopin’s Four Ballades.

The concert opened with a selection of Schubert’s D783 German Dances, Ländler (D790, No. 3), and Valses Sentimentales (D779). It is easy to forget, when hearing works like this in a formal concert setting, that these are salon pieces, written for the regular Schubertiades, which often took place in Schubert’s home, or the homes of his friends, and where assembled guests would take to the floor and dance. There is a light-heartedness in these pieces – indeed, some are positively rollicking – yet many of them are shot through with Schubert’s distinctive harmonic shifts, and the melancholy is never far away. They were a pleasing, inoffensive opener, and one had the sense of Piers Lane clearing the way for the big warhorses to come.

I was not, until this evening, familiar with the Brahms 4 Klavierstücke, Op 119, though I had listened to extracts of them on iTunes earlier in the day. The first, a meditation on descending thirds, was utterly sublime, “teeming with dissonances”, as Brahms warned Clara Schumann, and freighted with sadness, as each note of every bar was sounded so carefully. The second was breathless and agitated, with a contrastingly tender middle section, whose melody returned at the end, allowing the music to fade away nostalgically. The third was playful and graceful, while the fourth, a rhapsody marked Allegro risoluto, was confident and full-blooded, full of pent-up energy, and generous in its thematic content.

And so to the Beethoven Sonata….. Here, I must admit to a love affair with this piece which borders on an obsession. It is my Desert Island Disc (a choice I share with tenor Ian Bostridge, clearly a man of taste), but I would not take any old recording with me to my Desert Island. No, it has to be the right one. For me, Arrau is hard to match (as he is with all of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas); equally, Glenn Gould, for all his eccentricities (and on the recording I have, one can ‘enjoy’ his humming and muttering accompaniments in the Arioso), brings a Quasi una Fantasia feel to the piece, segueing effortlessly from one movement to another, in a continuous stream of Beethovenian consciousness, while, in his hands, the final fugue is a peon of praise, as glorious as a peel of celebratory bells, life-affirming and uplifting. Another favourite performance, or rather performances, given by a friend in unusual and intimate venues, is remarkable for its meditative qualities, and its ability to remind us that this is music that goes to the very heart of what it is to be a sentient, thinking human being. This is music which speaks of the meaning of life, shared values, what it means to be alive, and which debates the basic philosophical questions of Beethoven’s time which still have relevance to us today. Written towards the end of the composer’s life, at the same time as the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven’s last three sonatas (the Opus 110 is the last but one) prove that a whole universe can be contained in a single piece of music. This is not just music; this is philosophy.

Of course, Piers Lane had no idea that I was placing such a huge responsibility upon him as he played the opening measures of the Opus 110, and, while I enjoyed his playing, it was no Desert Island choice. In the Arioso, particularly the section where the music literally dies back, and comes back to life little by little (and this is Beethoven’s actual instruction in the score – poi a poi di nuovo vivente), I did not feel that Piers Lane truly “breathed life” into the music, and the final fugue, which should sound triumphant, exultant with a sense of the music groping its way to daylight from some darker, outer firmament, started to unravel slightly, with uneven tempos. His playing was pristine (as it was throughout the entire performance), but it did not move me.

Chopin’s Four Ballades are considered to be some of the most challenging works in the piano repertoire, a fact from which I draw a certain amount of smug satisfaction, for I am learning the First Ballade, at the suggestion of my teacher. It is rare to hear them performed back to back, since they are technically and physically demanding. They are each sufficiently different to be performed as stand-alone works, but it was wonderful to hear all four in a one siting.

Chopin ‘invented’ the Ballade, deriving it from its poetic and vocal cousins, and was the first composer to apply the term to a purely instrumental piece. It was later taken up by composers such as Liszt and Brahms. The Ballades are innovative in form in that they cannot be placed in any other form, for example, Sonata form. Despite sharing the same title, each is highly distinct, with its own character, though all share certain attributes, such as the clever use of “lost” or “ambiguous” keys, exquisite delayed gratification through unresolved harmonies, contrasting, climactic passages, and moments of pure romanticism. The structure of the pieces does not suggest a firm narrative; rather, the listener is able to form his or her own narrative as the music unfolds. (The Third, for example, has a “ticking clock” motif which brings to mind a lovely image of Chopin working at Nohant, while an elegant carriage clock chimes on the mantelpiece, perhaps reminding him, poignantly, of the passing of time.)

Once again, I felt Piers Lane’s rendition of these monumental works lacked real depth, and it was only at the Fourth where he really seemed to settle into the music and finally get into his stride. The piano was too loud at times, so loud that it hurt, and occasionally the tone was marred by some very dodgy harmonics, a problem I noticed when I heard Leonskaja at the Wigmore last autumn (suggesting it’s the piano rather than the performer at fault). I do think it is important to remember the kind of sound Chopin was said to produce when he performed, or which he encouraged his students to strive for, and to bear in mind that the kind of piano he preferred (a French Pleyel) had a smaller voice than a modern concert Steinway. A little tempering of the fortes and fortissimos here and there would have brought more of Chopin’s famous “souplesse” to the music. (Interestingly, Piers Lane has talked very elegantly on the subject of Chopin’s music, as part of Radio 3’s bicentenary celebrations last year.) Nevertheless, it was an impressive performance, and the applause and curtain calls were absolutely deserved.

The Nocturne, played as a first encore, was relaxed and elegant, the fiorituras tripping off his fingers, as if he had just improvised them there and then. Perhaps this is because it is easier to play an encore like this when the main job of the night is done? But the evening was not yet over. Returning to the stage once again, Piers Lane announced that he would play “a very naughty piece” – Dudley Moore’s hilariously clever parody of a Beethoven sonata.

Wigmore Hall

Dudley Moore playing his Beethoven Parody

Something else that came to my attention via Facebook. Enter your birth date, and the website BibliOZ.com will flag up the New York Times bestsellers from the week of your birth.

I was amused to find the following featured in my birth date bestseller list:

Fiction

Valley of the Dolls – Jacqueline Susann

The Secret of Santa Vittoria – Robert Crichton

The Birds Fall Down – Rebecca West

Giles Goat Boy – John Barth

The Adventurers – Harold Robbins

Non-Fiction

Human Sexual Response – Masters & Johnson

With Kennedy – Pierre Sallinger

The Search for Amelia Earhart – Fred Goerner

Flying Saucers: Serious Business – Frank Edwards

Get your birthday bestseller list here