Guest post by Howard Smith


Edward Gregson (b.1945), is an English composer of instrumental and choral music, particularly for brass and wind ensembles, as well as music for the theatre, film, and television. He was principal of the Royal Northern College of Music and studied piano with Alan Bush at the Royal Academy, winning several prizes for composition. Gregson retired from academic life in 2008 to concentrate on composition. He continues to sit on a number of Boards relating to music education. He is a fellow at the RNCM, as well as at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music. A major retrospective of his music was held in Manchester in 2002. 

Gregson’s Complete Music for Solo Piano has recently been recorded by Murray McLachlan on the NAXOS label. It includes the composer’s Album For My Friends (2011), Three Etudes (2020) , Four Pictures for piano duet (1982), Six Little Pieces (1982, rev. 1993) and the remarkable Piano Sonata in one movement (1983). Hidden among these works lies the utterly bewitching Friday a.m.

EMOTIONAL IMPACT 

How to describe a piece of music? Written in 1981, Gregson states that Friday a.m. was his response to the ‘emotional impact’ of listening to the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony. Indeed, Gregson does borrow from the first few notes of that glorious melody but thereafter heads in an entirely different direction. Murray McLachlan has described this as a ‘gradual metamorphosis into a lighter style, reminiscent of jazz, as though moving from a philharmonic hall in central Europe to a Manhattan Jazz club around 2am, when everything is subdued and transient.’ It’s a wonderful allusion. But there is nothing subdued about many of the passages of this music. Mahlerian it is. Lounge Jazz it is not, although as I will show, the music pays homage to many Jazz idioms. And does so with great subtlety; without the slightest trace of irony or pastiche. 

Having fallen in love with the piece on CD, I never expected to hear a live performance. Imagine how surprised and delighted I was that Murray McLachlan included it in his recital at the 2021 Chetham’s International Piano Summer School. His performance cemented my obsession with the music. Most striking, McLachlan’s ‘poco a poco stringendo’ starting at bar 39 as the music builds to the ‘ma appassionato’ in bar 48 was electrifying. I was hooked. I promptly placed the piece on my ‘must play’ list, even though the music lies beyond my current ‘grade’ when played to the max. 

THE MUSIC AND ITS HARMONY

Friday a.m. comes in at roughly six and half minutes of delicious harmony and melody. Primarily in the key of G, in common time, there are several contrasting sections. Each, however, reuses idioms, arpeggios and motifs that pervade the music from beginning to end. 

We know this is ‘about’ Jazz, but is not Jazz, from the outset. Gregson outlines in 3rds the chords C major 7 in bar 1, C major 9 in bar 2 and C major 11 in bar 3. Core Jazz colours. This then slides, via a G Minor+Major 7 chord (over Eb)  to A minor 9 (over 11), to rest on a C Lydian arpeggio (sharp 4, F#) in bar 6: n effect, D7 / C (4th inversion). This concludes (molto rit.) what I call the PRELUDE to Friday a.m., which later becomes an emotional REFRAIN at bar 57 over an expanded harmony. Clever. 

We leave bar 6 via the simple device of three ascending notes, D, E, F# sitting over an equally simple interval of a second, C+D, in the LH. The Dominant of G leads to our home key, G and the melody is laid out before us, recalling the Mahler theme. Gregson’s development of the theme takes us firmly into the realm of filmic music. There is great romance here. The harmony progresses as expected, from G, to C, to B-7, A minor, to G major 9. Here, and elsewhere, Gregson layers in Jazz colours. C is C6. A minor is the minor 11th. G major is G major 9. In each arpeggio, Gregson emphasises Jazz colours. But this is most definitely not the Blues. The only ‘blue note’ occurs in bar 30. And we never see a raw Blues progression. No root G7 here.  

Throughout the music, harmonies are laid out using arpeggios in the LH, semi-quavers. They twist and turn, sometimes rising, then falling, sometimes alternating direction. During my practice I found it hard to memorise the many variations. Fortunately they are repeated among the various passages. For example, bar 49, 50 and 51 LH is a ditto of bars 8, 9 and 10. But be careful, Gregson introduces twists, for example, in bar 53, the single notes used in bar 12 LH become parallel 3rds. 

STRUCTURE AND FORM

To the casual listener there are six major sections to the music. They do not correspond to any ‘standard’ form I know. 

The PRELUDE leads to the MAIN THEME. The theme is then RE-STATED (8va), after which there is a section dominated by 4-note (7th) chords in both hands. Let’s call it the CHORDAL ‘middle section’. This is followed by a DEVELOPMENT of the main theme, littered in the LH now by the ever increasing tempo of demi-semi-quavers and the effect of an ascending bass pedal point: A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G. From here the piece explodes into what I call a CADENZA, although classical musicians would likely not use this term. The MAIN THEME is then repeated ‘ma appassionato’ in fortissimo. Each melody note in the original RH is now explosively stated using four-note chords, after which the piece subsides to its original dynamics of mezzo-forte and finally to mezzo-piano during which we hear the REFRAIN of the opening motif … C major 7, C major 9 and C major 11. 

The piece ENDS as it began, resting (molto rit.) on that Lydian arpeggio (D7 / C), resolving to G. Gregson then asks us to play ‘Slower’ (bar 63) as he outlines G major 7 and G13, to rest finally on an A minor note cluster with added 4th, D. And as if this were not enough to stamp ‘Jazz’ on the music, Gregson adds, after a pause mark (bar 64), a final pp chord outline: a low G, followed by B, A, E and D. Each note is marked tenuto (deliberate emphasis) until the last D. The dominant. Yes, the G69 chord. It hangs in the air; as if smoke in a room. Friday a.m, as in McLachlan’s Manhattan.

IDIOMATICS

Note clusters are used at various points in the music, another Jazz idiom. For example in bar 9 we have G,A,C,D and E immediately followed by F#. Where such clusters occur the colours ring out as if to further emphasise the love Gregson clearly has for Jazz harmonies. As do I. 

Throughout the music, and often on the 4th beat of the bar, Gregson revels in 2 against 3, 3 against 2, 3 against 4 and 4 against 3 rhythms. I initially found these polyrhythms challenging, especially as the composer has a habit of holding over notes from the previous beat to the first of the triplets; for example in bars 11 and 12 and 18. Just to add insult to injury, Gregson also asks for a dotted rhythm in the LH against a triplet in the RH in bar 18. Tricky for me. 

CHALLENGES IN PERFORMANCE

There are many challenges in playing this music. I judge it to be Grade 8 +, possibly a first diploma level piece? All I know is that the music presented challenges I had not encountered before. Of these, the rapid LH passages, escalating over bars 37 to 44, tested my weak LH. Also the eight-note chords, split between two hands, in bars 26 to 36; some tricky harmony here. And last but not least, the ‘cadenza’ bars 44 to 48, yielding to the climax of the restatement of the main theme in RH chords. I was not familiar with how to play such an emphatic fortissimo, and do so without any harshness. The grandeur of the piece from bar 44 onward is hard to pull off. All dynamics are relative, I realise, but I find it hard to control the volume through the ‘stringendo’ section that precedes the climax. (And generally, there is a need to control dynamics from the outset, keeping the LH ‘mp’ as the motifs and themes are laid out one by one.)

Since I mentioned the LH, my teacher warned me about a “too literal statement of these semi-quaver groups”, what she described as a “childish rendition”. I think Gregson anticipated this with his instruction in bar 7: ‘a tempo (ma con rubato)’.  Yes, but as the music builds there is no chance for rubato and the notes in the LH arpeggios are integral to the harmony. Unless laid out somewhat ‘robotically’ the tension notes (Jazz) are less clear than they need be, I feel. I want to ‘hear’ those carefully placed 7ths, 9ths, 11ths and 13ths. 

Pedalling is always a struggle for me. Fortunately, here it mostly consists of ‘down’ at the start of a bar and ‘up’ at the end, or before the 4th beat. The harmonies are rich and overlaid. And yet this can be too much as the dynamics build. Half pedalling may be needed. 

People use the term ‘colour’ variously. Whatever it means, there are clear points in the music where a shift of ‘colour’ or ‘tone’ is essential. The transition from bar 3 to bar 4 is one such example. The G major harmony shifts to Eb major, the minor 6th of a G minor scale. New colours are also required in bars 10, 15 and 17 and in later bars where similar harmony is used. 

CINEMATICS AND THE ADDED 4TH

I mentioned film music at the outset, and there are many ‘cinematic’ moments in Friday a.m. The most startling begins in bar 20. The melody is re-stated in a high register at 8va. The LH similarly moves to the treble clef and uses simple broken chords to outline the harmony. The effect is delicate, ethereal. As this passage dies away, we hear a suspended fourth pattern on the dominant; D sus 4. No third, Jazz style. This pattern is important later in the ‘cadenza’. The chord is D,G,A,D over three octaves, 11 demi-semi quavers in the time of one beat, repeated twice (bar 45 and 46) and punctuated by a trio of chords in both hands: first inversion of C6, D sus4, root C6. To create dramatic effect the chords are first expressed as a triplet, and then as even quavers. The pattern then leads to a bass descent starting on E. As the bass thunders out huge D octaves, we are led inevitably to a tumultuous D dominant 7th (bar 47) before the return to the main melody. Fortissimo. Friday a.m has reached its cinematic climax. 

In fact, the ‘modern’ sound of the suspended or ‘added’ fourth is sprinkled into many other places in the music, on minor chords. Bar 9 (and similarly in bar 50) is an example. Here, the chord is D minor 7 sus 4, a Jazz chord if ever there was one. 

MORE HARMONY

No analysis of Friday a.m. would be complete without attempting to describe the enigmatic ‘chordal’ MIDDLE SECTION, which begins on the fourth beat of bar 26. Spread between the two hands, eight-note chords lay out a rich harmonic landscape mezzo forte, as if heard indistinctly from afar. The impression is as if one were a passer-by, overhearing the music from the street, only dimly aware of rich music being played inside. 

Gregson uses three devices to achieve the indistinct effect. First, the chords are thick. Second, the use of triplets blur; despite any judicious use of the pedal. Third, as each harmonic statement is made, the LH descends to the far bass, outlining the harmony once again. Then two notes are struck as octaves in the RH, 8va. It’s a call and response motif (in bar 27 and again in bar 30). And it is here that the only ‘blue note’ is used, C#, the augmented fourth (tritone) in G. I may be being fanciful here, but I cannot escape the conclusion that the composer deliberately chose to place this solitary note solely for the passer-by in the street. Was Gregson saying: “if you had any doubt, this is Jazz”. It’s a wonderful illusion when set against the richly painted harmonies? And was the intermittent use of triple time in bars 28, 31, 32, 34 and 35 an attempt to paint this passage, the closest to Jazz in the work, in 7/4 time? It’s the only passage in which Gregson deviates from common time. 

The first (of four) harmonic ‘utterances’  are the chords A minor 9, B minor 7, C6, B minor 7. The voicings are achieved by using a root position chord in the LH and a first inversion chord in the RH. For example, to achieve a full A minor 9, use root A minor 7 in the LH and root C major 7 in the RH. Yes, that means both the 3rd and the 5th are doubled. Rules are there to be broken. Similar approach is taken to three more statements of harmony, taking us further into distinctly jazzy territory. In bar 29 we encounter C dominant 7 #9. In bar 31 we have F# minor 9 +11. And in bar 34 the thickness is increased once again. F# major 7 in the LH with Db major 7 in the RH.  It’s heady stuff but never a cliché. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

To play this music without care is relatively easy. To play this music as the score demands, amplifying the effect of each idiom used, is difficult. To explode through the cadenza (held back) and into the appassionato, and then to subside to the refrain of the opening motif, releasing the emotion, is a challenge for this adult returner. It demands a measured control of the ever-decreasing tempo and languid dynamics over the last eleven bars, all the way to the final notes of the spread G69 chord, each seemingly picked out of nowhere, as if the imaginary Jazz pianist is doodling, unaware that anyone is listening. Friday a.m.

Buy the score of Friday a.m https://www.wisemusicclassical.com/work/61304/Friday-am–Edward-Gregson/


Howard Smith is a keen amateur pianist and the author of Note For Note: Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered. https://linktr.ee/note4notethebook 

In this, the first in a new occasional series of articles on repertoire, pianist Daniel Tong introduces a chamber work with a fascinating “melting pot of cross-reference” which first captivated him as a teenager.


Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio, in C minor, Op. 66 was published in 1846 amidst illustrious company, dedicated to superstar violinist-composer Louis Spohr, premiered with another world-famous violinist Ferdinand David alongside the composer, and presented to Fanny Mendelssohn as a fortieth birthday present. It is a piece full of fire and passion, but also confession and intimacy. Although by no means rarely performed, for many years it has lain in the shadow of its lyrical predecessor in D minor from 1839, an audience favourite ever since Robert Schumann declared it the ‘master trio of the age’. But for me this C minor work is the more dynamic, challenging and multi-layered of the two, notwithstanding Mendelssohn’s low mood at the time: “Nothing seems good enough to me, and in fact neither does this trio”, he wrote to Spohr.

Artists can have a tendency towards the overly self-critical and certainly later composers seemed to agree with my more positive appraisal. Schumann paid homage to this work in his own final Trio from 1851, and Brahms also recalled it, both in his magnificent F minor Piano Sonata, Op. 5, and even more tellingly in the finale of his Op. 60 Piano Quartet. There is a world of allusion in Mendelssohn’s score, from Beethoven in the opening passagework to Chopin’s C♯ Minor Scherzo in the chorale section of the finale. I love this melting pot of cross-reference with Mendelssohn’s Trio at its centre; it is as if a whole host of composers are taking part every time we play the piece.

Indeed the piano trio itself was a medium rich in intertext and personal significance for Mendelssohn’s circle. The moment when it was written was particularly extraordinary: Felix was working on his trio during 1845, the year before Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn wrote their own Piano Trios. In 1847 Robert Schumann produced his first two trios, the first of which was obviously inspired by Mendelssohn’s 1839 Trio, as well as his wife’s work. I imagine them playing these pieces to one another alongside string player friends, each expressing enthusiasm, but also giving advice. There are many accounts of such meetings. And my mind travels further, imagining the feel of the old wooden-framed piano beneath the fingers of these four geniuses, the flicker of the fire in the grate, the starched collars of the men, cinched waists of the women, laughter and wine, because however much a work of art is set free to transcend its origins, these are works of a particular moment. One cannot play the Mendelssohn without the others in the room. Beethoven and Brahms too. Life, in those days, was precious; by the end of 1847, both Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn were dead.

The trio opens (Allegro energico e con fuoco) with swirling piano figures, whilst the strings play threatening, sustained chords. The whole movement tumbles forward with unstoppable momentum, new themes often beginning before the previous one has finished. The piano part alternates between demonic flashes of virtuosity and the simplicity of a chorale-like second theme, in a Faustian tussle, all achieved through a thematic development of which Beethoven would have been proud. There is a sublime, prayer-like oasis in the middle section, but the power of the minor tonality is in the end too much; the opening material first sneaks back in and then hammers the chorale into a desperate fortissimo before Mephistopheles leaves, slamming the door behind him. It is a movement of dramatic concision and pent-up energy that seems to mirror its composer’s mood and hint at the precarity of life, leaving you (literally, as a performer) breathless.

Next comes the movement that captivated me as a teenager, amongst the drama and pathos, a profoundly beautiful song without words, cast as a lilting sicilienne (Andante espressivo). Again Mendelssohn makes use, to beguiling effect, of overlapping phrases where the end of one is also the beginning of the next, but this time there is a disarming simplicity to the action, set in stanzas of three lines each. The middle section increases the tension and momentum as dark clouds pass, before the motion is carried into a reprise of the song, the piano turning arabesques with great delight whilst the singing strings develop their harmony as two soulmates who have experienced life together.

Third comes the scherzo, Molto allegro quasi presto, the three players ready to pounce like tigers, glancing at one another in adrenaline-fuelled anticipation. The violinist gives the merest hint of a nod and the strings are off, deft and fleet, my job initially to support their scurrying semiquavers with dark rumbles of harmony. Once the headlong flight is instigated it cannot be stopped; my hands dance around the keyboard in a complex choreography learned through painstaking repetition. The notes are too fast to devote conscious thought to each one at speed. The central trio section explodes with gleeful laughter, continuing the moto perpetuo without respite, even bursting back in when it has no right to, after the scherzo material has returned. Finally the movement retreats to the shadows with string pizzicatos, the audience let out their breath, often audibly, and we all wonder yet again just quite how we managed it.

Poised on the threshold of the finale, the narrative could still take many turns. Mendelssohn plunges us back into the stormy world of the opening movement with a galloping Allegro appassionato night-ride, the anguished phrases of the cello soaring above, but as in a good thriller, we are still unsure as to how the piece will conclude: will it be in tragedy, along the lines of Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ [Piano Sonata] or Brahms’s B Major Trio, or a more positive resolution? When the second theme arrives it recalls the chorale-like music of the first movement – Gretchen perhaps, to complete the Faustian trio of characters – but the masterstroke is still to come. In the central part of the movement, the music fragments and dissipates, as if exhausted or in mental turmoil. A true chorale now emerges, evolving from the Gretchen material that has its root in the first movement, pianissimo, pure and soothing. Initially this seems as if it may just be a typical contrasting episode, as the main themes of the movement re-assert themselves, but during the coda, as the music seems set to spiral into crazed oblivion, the chorale reappears, majestic and fortissimo, like a mighty archangel, to banish the darkness forever. The Trio ends in exalted triumph, hard won, but all the more joyous for it.

My London Bridge Trio, David Adams, Kate Gould and myself, are performing this piece three times in January: on 20th at the Assembly Rooms in Norwich, 22nd in Seaford, Devon, and on 23rd at Conway Hall in London.

Here is the first movement played by a previous incarnation of our trio, when Tamsin Waley-Cohen was violinist:


Pianist Daniel Tong enjoys a diverse musical life and is regarded as one of Britain’s most respected and probing artists. He performs as soloist and chamber musician, and directs two chamber music festivals, as well as teaching and writing. Born in Cornwall, Daniel first came to prominence as piano finalist in the BBC Young Musicians competition (more years ago than he cares to remember) and his life has subsequently embraced a rich variety of musical experience, from concerto performances at Kings Place and St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, chamber concerts at the Wigmore Hall and frequent broadcasts on BBC Radio, to a current role as Head of Piano in Chamber Music at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. He released his first solo CD of works by Schubert for the Quartz label in 2012 and has recently recorded the three Op. 10 Piano Sonatas by Beethoven for Resonus Classics, due for release in Spring 2022. Later next year he records piano works by Brahms for the same label. He also recorded short solo works by Frank Bridge for Dutton as part of a London Bridge Ensemble disc and broadcast Janacek’s piano sonata live on BBC Radio 3. He has appeared as concerto soloist at St Martin-in-the-Fields and King’s Place in London.

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The sonatas of Mozart are unique; they are too easy for children, and too difficult for artists.
― Artur Schnabel

On the page the piano music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart looks simple (but never simplistic) yet for many pianists, the music’s greatest challenge lies in that simplicity. Its beauty, and profundity, is contained in a transparency of texture and expression which challenges the most technically assured and artistically insightful musicians.

As pianist Alfred Brendel says of Mozart, “everything in his music counts”. He reduces music to its most essential and it demands from the pianist a precision which easily matches the virtuosity required to play Liszt. Arpeggio passages and trills must shine with jeu perlé playing; literally “pearly playing”, a technique which creates fractional separation between rapid notes to bring a glorious opalescent sheen to the sound – easy to achieve on the lighter instruments Mozart would have known, much harder on a modern piano. His gorgeous melodic lines must sing like the most beautiful, sensual arias from his operas, accompaniments (Alberti bass lines, for example) need the balance of the best string quartet textures, while fioriture and cadenzas call for drama and spontaneity.

For many professional pianists, Mozart is regarded as the ultimate challenge. This may seem surprising, given that his piano scores contain far fewer notes than, say, those of Liszt or Ravel. But every one of those notes demands to be sounded and heard perfectly, and this requires an inordinate level of technical mastery to achieve such refinement, coupled with imagination and artistry to breathe colour and life into those deceptively simple passages. In the piano music of Schumann or Liszt, Brahms or Rachmaninoff there are thickets of notes which give one some cover; in Mozart there is nowhere to hide.

The beautifully-crafted simplicity of the notes belies unfathomable and infinite complexities, and an extraordinary breadth of expression, which easily equals that other master of musical chiaroscuro, of smiling through tears, Franz Schubert. Dismiss the image of Mozart as the giggling, farting Rococo man-child as portrayed in the play and film ‘Amadeus’; the range of emotion in Mozart’s writing is extraordinary: profound, poignant, tender, angry, joyous, witty, passionate, demonic, exuberant, his mercurial mood shifts often occurring within just a handful of bars, or even a single bar, sunshine one moment, dark clouds the next.

Mozart’s piano works should be for the player a receptacle full of latent musical possibilities which often go far beyond the purely pianistic.
– Alfred Brendel

Another challenge for the pianist is Mozart’s complete mastery of orchestration. His musical imagination was not limited by the compass and timbre of the keyboard instruments of his day, or indeed the modern piano, and his solo piano works demonstrate his entire oeuvre in microcosm, from string quartets and wind divertimenti to symphonies, and operatic arias and recitatives. There are grand orchestral tuttis, brass fanfares, articulation drawn from string writing and woodwind, and of course the singing melodies which must speak with clarity, meaning and beauty. Many of the piano sonatas have a symphonic sweep and soundworld in their opening and closing movements, while the slow movements are soprano arias with dramatic interludes. Such piano writing demands that the pianist harnesses his/her imagination to evoke these instruments and sounds within the scope of two staves and just two hands.


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Bach’s Goldberg Variations caused me misery – but I still can’t get enough

– Jeremy Denk, pianist


Our relationship with our repertoire is personal and often long-standing. Connections with certain pieces and composers may be forged in our early days of learning our instrument, which remain with us throughout our musical lives. Many of us can clearly remember some of the earliest pieces we learnt as children, and returning to repertoire learnt in childhood and during student years can bring an interesting, and sometimes uncomfortable rush of memories. Opening the score of the first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, I saw my teacher’s markings, her explanation of the structure of a fugue, and for a moment I was transported back nearly 40 years to her living room and the big black Steinway grand piano on which she taught me.

Sometimes these repertoire relationships forged during early study can be detrimental to our learning as mature players. Bad habits from childhood and student days are deeply ingrained, and all too easily recalled, and thus very hard to shift later on. This is interesting in itself as it demonstrates how carefully (or not) one has learnt the music previously, and sometimes the only way to step aside from these habits is to buy a new score and start the music afresh, as if learning it for the very first time.

Jeremy Denk’s comment on the Goldberg Variations is interesting and will resonate with many musicians, I’m sure. We all have pieces which have a particular hold over us, which fascinate and compel us to revisit them over and over again. Yet their technical and musical complexities make the learning and practicing process difficult and sometimes less than rewarding. Some repertoire, however beautiful, satisfying or intriguing, is simply a slog, and the more progress one makes, the more “just out of reach” it seems.

Other works, in comparison, feel relatively easy, the music flows in practice and performance, gives satisfaction to player and audience, and enters into one’s personal catalogue of “favourites”.

However, “easy” can be a myth, because everything, even the simplest little prelude by Bach, can be taken up a level each time we revisit the music. This setting aside of and returning to repertoire also affects our relationship with it, and we may observe how that relationship changes over time and with the benefit of artistic maturity. I have gone back to previously-learnt works and wondered what I found so difficult before. The passing of years, and accumulated experience and wisdom make the process of reviving repertoire stimulating and enjoyable. We are reminded of what attracted us to the music in the first place, while also continually finding new aspects to it. This curiosity also helps to keep alive our relationship with the repertoire.

Then there are pieces which we may never play, but, rather like the books you haven’t read, and may never read, remain special. Just knowing the score is there, on the bookshelf, can foster a particular relationship with that music (I often buy scores of music I know I will never play simply for the pleasure of reading the music or admiring the organisation of it on the page), and maybe one day you will open it, set it on the music stand, and start the process of learning it….

 

 

A personal journey through Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata (read previous posts here)

With a good deal of reading, of both the score and books and articles on this sonata and Schubert’s piano music in general, and listening, and thinking, by late November 2014, it was time to embark on some serious note learning……

As noted in an earlier post, Schubert’s late piano sonatas are large-scale works: their first movements alone, with exposition repeats intact, can last as long as an entire sonata by Beethoven, and this “heavenly length” can pose problems for the performer in terms of stamina (it takes me around 43 minutes to perform the D959 in its entirety, with repeats), retaining a clear sense of the cyclic elements which recur throughout the work, and appreciating the overall narrative of the work. From my reading of the score, and other materials, I had concluded that the second movement, the infamous Andantino was the most “difficult” (though this is all relative when considering such a large piece of music!). This is the movement which provokes the most discussion and theorising amongst pianists, musicologists, critics and audience members, many of whom believe this movement is the clearest indication we have of Schubert’s emotional and mental instability, probably due to his advanced syphilis. Musically, it feels like an aberration in the overall scheme of the D959, which is generally warm-hearted and nostalgic in its character and prevailing moods, and it is unlike anything else Schubert wrote. “Its modernity is incredible even today” (Andras Schiff, Schubert Studies). It has a “desolate grace behind which madness lies” (Alfred Brendel), the lyricism of the outer sections providing a dramatic foil to the savage intensity of the middle section. Its position in the overall structure of the sonata creates a striking contrast between the majesty and expansiveness of the opening movement and the quirky, playful Scherzo which follows it. In my own practical approach to this movement, I decided to ignore much of the psychobabble and work with what is given in the text.

The movement is in straightforward ABA (ternary) form, the A section reprised with a more intricate left-hand accompaniment and a haunting triplet figure in the treble.

The middle, B, section unfolds initially like a Baroque fantasia (bars 73-86), with descending diminished seventh arpeggios which take the music into C-minor. Gradually all the elements speed up (Schubert indicates this through note sub-divisions, striking modulations and volume of sound) and the music continues to build with increasing savagery via extreme registers and the use of trills to sustain tension, eventually arriving at C-sharp minor and culminating in dramatic fortissimo chords (bars 120/121). A short recitative-like section follows, interrupted by dramatic chords, before a serene passage reminiscent of the G-flat major Impromptu (D899/3). The A material returns at bar 159.

The opening A section combines a barcarolle bass line with a right-hand melody redolent of several of the Heine songs and ‘Der Leiermann’ from Winterreise, while its expressive qualities and character relate to the song ‘Pilgerweise’, also in F-sharp minor. Some pianists like to treat this movement as a barcarolle with a storm in the lagoon (the middle section). Daniel Barenboim has called A section “a melancholy folksong”, a description which I particularly like: the lilting style of a folksong is implied by the recurring bass figure and the simple melody from which is unleashed the turbulent and chaotic middle section.

A rather chilly, tread-like quality in the bass is created through the use of staccato on the first note and the slur on the second and third notes, with the third note lighter (although this is not indicated specifically after bar 2, we can safely assume that this is what Schubert intended throughout). I found it helpful to think of this in terms of a cello or bass pizzicato figure: it needs resonance but should also be balanced with the right-hand melody. I don’t sustain the staccato note with the pedal here, and indeed the pedal is used sparingly throughout this section. The repeated use of falling seconds and a limited range, together with largely understated dynamics, create a feeling of stasis and melancholy contemplation. With so many repetitive elements in this section, it is necessary to create contrasting musical colour (for example between bars 1-8 and 9-12). At bar 19 the music moves into A Major, one of those magical Schubert moments where the mood seems at once warmer and yet even more poignant because it is expressed pianissimo. I like to use the una corda pedal for this pianissimo passage, and the corresponding passage at bars 51-54 to create a sense of other-worldliness.

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Page 3 of the Andantino with my annotations
Other details worth noting throughout this section (bars 1-32) are the inner voices in bars 7, 15, 16, 25, 29 and 31 (and then at bars 39 and 57), and the ornaments which should be played on the beat (though many celebrity pianists prefer to do otherwise, admittedly to beautiful effect). For example, in bar 15, the A sounds with the E sharp on the beat and the turn at bar 23 begins on the note above, but need not be pedantically with the bass C sharp. (See David Montgomery Franz Schubert’s Music in Performance for more on ornaments.)

At this point I feel it’s important to mention the overall tempo of the movement. It is marked Andantino, and needs a sense of forward propulsion. Despite this, some pianists tend more towards Adagio, and at this speed there is, in my opinion, a very fine line between the music sounding meditative or funereal, or even boring, which I do not feel is appropriate. I have aimed towards a metronome mark of quaver = c90 bpm. A quick browse through Spotify reveals quite a broad range of tempi, with some versions of the Andantino coming in at well over 8 minutes (Schnabel, Pollini, Uchida, Perahia) and others at around or under 7 minutes (Lupu, Schiff, Goode).

Here is Uchida

And Lupu

 

And so on to the B section, which leads to the most passionately and extraordinary part of the movement and indeed the whole sonata. It is typical of Schubert to create sections in the music which are vividly contrasting yet also complementary: the A sections are reflective in their lyrical subject while the middle section completely destroys this frame of reference, only for it to return at the reprise of the A section. It is the strong contrast between the A and B sections which makes this movement so arresting and so powerful.

The bridging passage begins at bar 69, and is preceded by three bars whose dark, descending chords mirror in their reverse movement the chords which form the opening sentence of the sonata (and a figure which recurs elsewhere). I like to create a sense of mystery in bars 69-72 with a wetter pedal effect and a little rubato to suggest improvisation as the music unfolds. The main difficulty I encountered in the entire B section was maintaining a sense of the underlying 3-in-a-bar pulse and clarifying the different note hierarchies, while also continuing the improvisatory/fantasia feel. In order to achieve this, I drilled the section strictly with the metronome for several weeks, a tedious but necessary task for once the note hierarchies and subdivisions were well learnt, I could let the music break free, particularly in bars 102-122, to create a rising sense of hysteria. 

A clear sense of pulse is required through bars 124-146, as the recitative section takes over. After all the “busyness” of the previous page, I like to create a sense of the music being restrained once again, with the contrasting disruption of the FFz chords. At bar 147 the music arrives in C-sharp major in a passage which seems directly drawn from the G-flat Impromptu. At bar 159 the A section returns, this time with the more elaborate LH figure and the triplet figure in the RH, which should have the quality of a separate, “other” voice. Throughout this section, it is important to retain a sense of the opening melody and a similar lightness in the LH to that in the opening bass figure (note the demi-semiquaver rests at the end of each bar). Bars 177-182 the RH accented E’s sound as tolling bells above the melody, and once again I like to use the una corda pedal here to give a more ethereal quality and to create contrast with the forte chords in bars 185/66 and the descending figure in bar 187. The movement closes with dark, arpeggiated chords which echo those at bars 65-68, and which are transformed into sparklingly joyful spread chords in the Scherzo which follows. I try to keep these in tempo until bars 198/9 at which I introduce a rit. to signal the close of the movement. The dynamic landscape here is very quiet and muted, and I feel una corda is perfectly acceptable in these closing statements.

It took me three months of fairly consistent work to bring the movement to a point where I felt confident enough to perform it for others (for friends at home). I then “rested” it for some weeks while I turned my attention to the first movement, the subject of the next article.

by Dr Charles Tebbs

 

My slightly unusual recording of this famous nocturne was inspired after the discovery of a remarkable book over the summer of 2014:  Neal Peres da Costa’s Off the Record: Performing Practices in Romantic Piano Playing.  The basic premise of the book, argued painstakingly and meticulously throughout, is that early recordings (those by pianists born in the nineteenth century) provide a vital and often overlooked window onto 19th-century piano playing.  Far from being the mannerist distortions that later schools of pianism dismissed in favour of so-called fidelity to the score, Peres Da Costa argues that these recordings embody a performance tradition that is quite probably quite close to the playing of Schumann, Brahms and Chopin.  He also charts some of the changes in playing style that occurred during the course of the twentieth century, during which some of the older expressive approaches were deliberately derided and discarded. He refers to a wealth of recordings, pedagogical texts and contemporary accounts of piano playing in support of his argument, and focuses on Chopin’s D flat Nocturne amongst other works.

The musician who spends time listening to the many audio examples Peres Da Costa provides (via an associated website) as well as to full length recordings available elsewhere (see discography below), will be at the very least intrigued by this remarkably different pianistic universe, though to begin with the sound quality and some of the expressive habits of particular pianists can be annoying or puzzling.  Above all it is an emotional, improvisatory, sometimes wildly spontaneous world, though perhaps for that very reason unsuited to the definitive act of recording in the modern sense, in which a masterpiece is perhaps interpreted in an idealised way that will stand the test of being listened to many times.

Read the full article on Charles’s website

Dr Charles Tebbs is a pianist, accompanist and piano teacher based in Nottingham, with a wealth of experience and a diverse range of musical expertise.  He gives regular concerts and recitals and has made a CD of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  His doctorate is in musicology (concerning musical endings) and he has also written prize-winning compositions and music for TV.