I am very much looking forward to reading Alan Rusbridger’s forthcoming book Play It Again: Why Amateurs Should Attempt the Impossible in which he describes the monumental task he set himself to learn Chopin’s First Ballade in just one year. The Ballades are considered some of the most challenging pieces Chopin wrote and are amongst the most popular with concert artists and audiences around the world. While he was studying the piece, Rusbridger was also kept exceedingly busy by his day job, as editor of The Guardian newspaper at a time when a number of major stories broke, including Wikileaks and the phone hacking scandal, so the book is also an account of how Rusbridger balanced his day job with his love of the piano.

Alan Rusbridger at the piano (photo: Graeme Robertson)

Rusbridger is a keen and very competent amateur pianist. A hundred years ago the word “amateur” was a compliment: indeed its Old French origin is “lover of” (from the Latin amator). But the meaning of the word has changed and has come to mean “hobbyist” or a certain cack-handed incompetence.

I have met plenty of “amateur” pianists – at courses, masterclasses and other piano events – and many of them are very fine pianists, who play to a near-professional standard and with the same commitment and devotion as the seasoned pro. Some studied at music college or conservatoire but decided not to pursue a career as a professional musician, some learnt as children and continue to learn, as adults. Others have come later to the instrument, or returned to it after a long pause (as I did). But all of the amateurs I have met (and I include myself in this description) love the piano and its literature. Some of us perform, many of us are studying for exams or diplomas, others are happy to play purely for pleasure. We don’t really like the tag “Sunday pianist”, because many of us practice every day, often for several hours. We are incredibly committed and we love every minute of the time we spend at the piano. I very much hope that Alan Rusbridger’s new book will redefine the word “amateur”, casting it in a positive light and proving that it needn’t be synonymous with ineptitude or lack of skill.

More about amateur pianists here

I will be reviewing Alan Rusbridger’s Play It Again after the book is published on 17th January.

Alan Rusbridger goes to piano boot camp

Bach 50 shades

The best-selling “mummy porn” erotic fantasy 50 Shades of Grey (and its sequels) is notable for being short on culture and long on bad writing and naff BDSM sex scenes. I know this because I weakened, while bored on holiday at Christmas, and read the damn thing (a friend sent me a PDF of the book so I could read it in secret on my iPad!). Those who know me well – as a voracious reader of books on pianism and classical music, and the works of contemporary novelists such as Alan Hollinghurst, Ian McEwan, Helen Dunmore and Paul Theroux – are probably now, as I write, throwing their hands up in horror at this confession. However, as a reviewer and one who will join in noisily with a good debate around the dinner table, I believe it is necessary to read, hear or see the rubbish so that one can a) offer criticism based on knowledge, rather than hearsay; and b) really appreciate great literature, music or art when one comes across it.

50 Shades…. has been responsible for sending Thomas Tallis’s wonderful, soaring 40-part motet Spem in Alium to the top of the classical music charts (it’s the piece Christian Grey, the controlling, BDSM-obsessed ‘hero’ of the book, is listening to the first time he seduces our ‘heroine’, the irritatingly immature Anastasia). Another piece which has enjoyed a resurgence of interest thanks to the book is the ‘Adagio’ from J S Bach’s Concerto in D Minor after Marcello, BWV 974. Christian Grey, who is not only drop-dead gorgeous and richer than Croesus but also a talented amateur pianist (natch), is playing this piece (naked at the piano, I might add) the first morning-after-the-night-before:

I hear the music.The lilting notes of the piano, a sad sweet lament……

Christian is at the piano, completely lost in the music he’s playing. His expression is sad and forlorn, like the music. His playing is stunning……I listen enraptured. He’s such an accomplished musician….

When he’s finished, Christian tells Anastasia that it is Bach’s transcription of an oboe concerto, originally by Marcello.

I first came across this arresting piece on the soundtrack of a French film called ‘Je Te Mangerais’ (in English ‘Highly Strung’) about a couple of French lesbians (one of whom is a pianist), which I saw just after I’d done my ATCL Recital Diploma in December 2011. I was looking for some repertoire to keep me occupied while I was waiting for the exam results, and, by a neat coincidence, the entire Concerto was on the repertoire list for the LTCL, which I decided to attempt after I’d received my ATCL result.

It is the pure beauty of the Adagio, a limber solo melody over a hypnotic, repeating bass line, that makes it so compelling: a serene oasis between a witty, rhetorical opening movement and a Presto finale, an exuberant 3/8 romp, scored almost entirely in semiquavers.

Bach transcribed 16 instrumental concertos by other composers for solo harpsichord during the 1710s. Six were originally works by Antonio Vivaldi. Alessandro Marcello lacked the style and innovation of Vivaldi, and it is possible that Bach selected this concerto to transcribe to test his own skill and adaptive ingenuity. Bach’s transcription, like its original, is in the usual three movements of an Italian concerto. The shell of the first movement is clearly Marcello’s work, though Bach is quick to thicken the lean textures of the original, particularly in the middle of the movement where the writing is very dense.

In the Adagio, the right hand melodic line is highly ornamented, suggesting improvisation, and is perhaps an opportunity for Bach to show off the emotional possibilities of the harpsichord, as well as the technical prowess of the keyboard player. When I first started learning it, I was also working on Chopin’s Nocturne in E, op 62 no. 2, a piece in which a beautiful simple melodic line is decorated with ornaments and fiorituras. Chopin revered Bach, and learning the two pieces concurrently demonstrated the influence and inspiration Chopin drew from JSB.

As for playing the piece, a soft, light right hand and arm is crucial to achieve a beautiful singing tone in the melody. Keep the mordents and trills quite leisurely/lengthened, and the demi-semiquaver bars relaxed to create a sense of improvisation. I like to spread some of the chords – e.g. bars 5 and 13. Keep the LH chords soft – “floating chords” where the keys are depressed just enough to create sound – and think 3 in a bar (rather than 6 quavers). Throughout, the piece needs to ‘breathe’, so observe Bach’s phrasing where marked (there is limited phrasing in my Barenreiter edition) and don’t overdo the drop slurs (e.g. at bar 18), and don’t push the LH. Remember, this is 5 minutes of serenity between two dramatic and exciting outer movements.

For me, the benchmark recording of this work has to be Glenn Gould’s. His treatment of the ornaments is particularly fine, and the rest of the Concerto is splendidly orchestral. James Rhodes has also recorded the Adagio but to my mind it is an overly contrived, self-conscious reading of the piece. A quick trawl around Spotify threw up some other interesting interpretations of the work, including a ‘cello version with Rostropovich, and a rather smooth, “lounge” style improv by Gabriela Montero. When studying the concerto, it is worth listening to Marcello’s original to hear how Bach has handled the orchestral writing, and where he has stripped out material to highlight the capabilities of the harpsichord.

Download the score of the complete Concerto in D minor BWV 974 from IMSLP. For a simplified version of the score, click here

Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis

If you’re interested in reading quality erotic literature, take a look at the book reviews and recommendations at Mucky Book Club

The main focus of 2013 will, of course, be the bicentenary of Richard Wagner (1813-1888) and the centenary of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), a composer whose music I have loved since I was a small child who was taken on holiday to Aldeburgh (where Britten could occasionally be spotted walking along the seafront with Peter Pears).

In all the excitement of the Wagner/Britten celebrations, many other composers, whose anniversaries also fall in 2013, may be overlooked. Here is a small selection:

Giles Farnaby (1563-1640) English composer and virginalist. His best-known works can be found in the ‘Fitzwilliam Virginal Book’, and include Giles Farnabys Dreame, Fancies Toys and Dreams, His Rest, Farnabyes Conceit and His Humour

John Dowland (1563-1626) Dublin-born English Renaissance composer, singer and lutenist. In recent years his music has undergone a huge revival of interest, and is today considered some of the finest and most profound music written for the instrument. His most famous works include the song ‘Flow My Tears’, and the Lachrimae (Seven Tears), a set of seven pavanes for five viols and lute, each based on a theme from ‘Flow My Tears’; ‘I Saw My Lady Weepe’; and ‘In darkness let me dwell’. The tenor John Potter created The Dowland Project to rediscover the essence of Renaissance song from the perspective of the modern performer. His album Care-Charming Sleep includes post-Dowland English and Italian songs, performed on Renaissance and modern instruments, including clarinet and saxophone.

Alexander Siloti (1863-1945) Russian pianist, conductor and composer who is perhaps best known for his transcriptions of Bach. His also transcribed works by Vivaldi, Beethoven, Liszt and Tchaikovsky.

Isidor Philipp (1863-1958). French pianist, composer and distinguished teacher, Isidor was also a grand-pupil of Chopin, via his teacher Georges Mathias. Other notable teachers include Stephen Heller (1813-1888, a pupil of Czerny), Camille Saint-Saens and Theodore Ritter (a pupil of Liszt). He met Claude Debussy while studying at the Paris Conservatoire, with whom he remained lifelong friends. Compositions include 6 Concert Studies after Chopin’s Études, Concert Étude after Chopin’s Minute Waltz, a concertino for three pianos, and a considerable number of works for left-hand only. The British pianist Phyllis Sellick studied with Philipp in Paris.

Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) Polish composer and conductor, Lutoslawski was one of the most significant European composers of the 20th century.. His early works show the influence of Polish folk music, but from the 1950s onwards, he began to develop his own characteristic compositional techniques, such as building harmonies from small groups of intervals, and ‘aleatoric’ processes in which the rhythmic coordination of parts are subject to chance. I first encountered his music via my father, who played some of his works for clarinet.

 

Charles Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) Apart from Benjamin Britten, Alkan is, for me, the most interesting composer whose anniversary falls in 2013. Often misunderstood and little known by many, his piano music has been dismissed as unplayable, except by a select, skilled few. Yet he was one of the greatest pianists of his day, friend to Chopin (who greatly admired him and his work), he was venerated by Liszt, Busoni, Anton Rubinstein and the artist Delacroix, and was studied by Debussy, Saint-Saens, Franck and Ravel. His phenomenal pianistic technique is evidenced by the huge technical and physical demands his music places on the player: Liszt praised Alkan’s extraordinary technique, and admitted that Alkan was the only person he was afraid of performing to.

Charles-Valentin Alkan

He fell into obscurity for a century, largely because he himself withdrew from the concert platform and became increasingly reclusive. In the mid-twentieth century, the British pianist Ronald Smith (1922-2004) was responsible for a revival of interest in the piano music of Alkan, and recorded many of his works. Latterly, the French Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin has championed and recorded his music. In 2013, a number of pianists will be exploring his music, including Karl Lutchmayer and Jonathan Powell.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

19,000 people fit into the new Barclays Center to see Jay-Z perform. This blog was viewed about 130,000 times in 2012. If it were a concert at the Barclays Center, it would take about 7 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career

I remember hearing a tape recording of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony in my dad’s car when I was very young, and I simply could not believe how good it was. I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t being played on every radio station! The result of this exposure was that I began to experiment at an old Blüthner piano that we had in my house at the time, and soon began taking lessons with a private teacher when I was about 8 or so. And with regard to making it my career, I think composing and performing has always been such an all-consuming interest for me that I didn’t have a choice!

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?

If I were to narrow it down to a list of three pianists, they would be Sviatoslav Richter, Murray Perahia and Krystian Zimerman. Richter for his notational precision and incomparable technique, Perahia for his extraordinary clarity, and Zimerman for his delicate phrase endings. I also admire them for their naturalness and dedication to live performance.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I suppose one of the main challenges is that very often people tend to think of classical music as a genre or style of music, which it isn’t. I try to encourage people to both appreciate the vastness of the term, which covers many extremely diverse approaches to music making across hundreds of years, and to discover a style period that they find musically engaging, which they inevitably will if they are a curious person and maintain an open mind. I am also a staunch believer that you do not require years of music training to appreciate and enjoy classical music, and this is something else I try to communicate.

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?

I did a recording of some compositions of mine with an ensemble that I brought together last March, and really enjoyed the experience. Irish traditional music represents a major stylistic influence in my work, and so a large part of the instrumentation featured for the recording was traditional instruments such as the Uilleann Pipes, Button Accordion and Irish Harp. I found it very stimulating to work with authentic players from a completely different musical background to my own, and learnt a lot from them, especially with regard to the improvisatory ornamentation that is such an indispensible feature of Irish music.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

I think the most attractive venue I’ve ever played was the Oak Room in the Mansion House in Dublin. It’s a small, intimate room that seats around 100 or so, with two spectacular chandeliers, as well as an oak-panelled wall decorated with the coat of arms of every Lord Mayor of Dublin since Daniel O’Connell.

Who are your favourite musicians?

A musician that I really admire is Keith Jarrett. His improvisations are always imaginative and evince a wide range of musical sources. And not only is he one of the outstanding improvisers in contemporary Jazz, he is also an accomplished classical performer, and is seemingly just as comfortable playing classical repertoire. Check out his harpsichord recording of Bach’s C-sharp minor Prelude and Fugue (Book 2 of the WTC) on YouTube to see what he is capable of. I copied out this fugue a few years back, and am familiar with many of the technical intricacies as a result; Jarrett absolutely nails them.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Finishing out the last of my cycle of 12 Études at a concert I gave in July as part of the “10 Days in Dublin” arts festival. It had been a hectic few weeks leading up to the concert, and I had been feverishly working to get all of the music composed on time. I was worried that I had tried to fit in too much in too short a space to time for my brain to subconsciously process everything, and that as soon as I went on stage to play it would all somehow conspire against me. But the first few went reasonably well, and gradually I began to ease into the performance. And then suddenly there I was, with 11 behind me, and it really felt like I had reached the home stretch.

I had been aware during the composition of this last piece that I was not drawing 1 isolated piece to a close, but rather a cycle of 12 pieces. I tried to reflect this sense of gravity technically through the use extensive dramatic pauses in juxtaposition with a sparse, monophonic texture, both of which are salient features of the Sean-Nós singing tradition that inspired much of the cycle. This economy of material lent itself well for improvisation, and allowed me to be spontaneous in the closing moments of the concert in a manner that would have been much harder to achieve if I had continued to compose in strict polyphony.

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?

I enjoy playing and listening to lots of different styles of music from lots of different periods. Recently I’ve been listening to Handel’s Oratorios a lot, Fantasias by Sweelinck, as well as the Bossa Nova album “Getz/Gilberto”. I hate to use the word eclectic, so I won’t use it.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

For musicians generally, try seek self-reward through intrinsic improvements in your craft, rather than improvements in ranking against your competitors.

For performers, when practicing, aim to isolate and focus on the technical and musical areas where you are weakest, and keep run-throughs of an entire piece to a bare minimum.

For composers, firstly try to accumulate a wide array of knowledge about style periods and their composers, secondly compose in imitation of the style of some of these composers, and lastly try to express your own voice and creativity through this absorbed knowledge of craft.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have just finished composing a set of 3 Continuo Songs, which I wrote as a part of collaboration with a friend of mine, Conor Leahy, who is a very talented poet. The songs vary somewhat in style; the Sean-Nós influence is still there, but the continuo harmonies are infused with exotic jazz chords and Bossa Nova-style rhythms. I’m very excited about the project, and we’re getting some of the members of the Trinity Orchestra on board for the performance. Keep an eye out for updates by following Louis Ryan Music on Facebook, or alternatively @louisryanmusic on twitter.

Louis Ryan is a 22-year-old professional composer and pianist based in Dublin. He has just completed a B.A. in music at Trinity College Dublin, where he specialised in composition and attained 1st class hons. Other relevant qualifications include a Licentiateship in piano performance held with Trinity Guildhall School of Music in London, as well as winning 1st place and a prize of 1,000 Euros in an inter-varsity piano competition at the Lord Mayor’s house in Dublin in November 2011. He has given several public recitals across Dublin, the most recent of which was given as part of the 10 Days in Dublin arts festival in the Royal Irish Academy of Music, where he premiered his cycle of 12 Études for solo piano. All 12 are now posted and available to watch on YouTube (see attached links below).

Further videos in the series can be viewed here

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A selection of my favourite Christmas music, in no particular order

Corelli – Concerto Grosso No.8 “Christmas Concerto” in G Minor, Op.6: III. Adagio – Allegro – Adagio

Joubert – Torches, Op. 7a

Rutter – Adam lay y-bounden

Britten – There Is No Rose

Cornelius – The Three Kings

Traditional – Myn Lyking

Traditional – Personent Hodie – carol 14th c. Germany. Words from Piae Cantiones, 1582 – Arr. Holst

Rutter – Sans Day Carol, ‘Now the holly bears a berry’ (Traditional English Carol, arr. Rutter)

The Sixteen – Messiah – Chorus – For Unto Us a Child Is Born

Best wishes for the holiday season. Cross-Eyed Pianist will be back in 2013.