Chopin – Ballade No. 1 in G minor, op 23; Etude in E, Op 10 no. 3

Debussy – Voiles, Pour le Piano: Prelude & Sarabande, Dr Gradus ad Parnassum

Poulenc – Suite in C

Gershwin – Prelude no. 1 from Three Preludes

Liszt – Années de pèlerinage: 2ème année: Italie, S. 161: VI. Sonetto 123 del Petrarca

Last year it was Purcell and Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn. This year it’s Chopin, Schumann and Mahler, and next year it will be Liszt (and Mahler – again!). I am talking, of course, of composer anniversaries, celebrations to mark either their birth or death, or, in the case of Mahler, both.

The trend for marking such events with coverage on radio, tv and in concert halls and lecture theatres seems to have increased exponentially in recent years, the most significant, perhaps, being Mozart Year in 2006, marking the 250th birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which induced a veritable tsunami of ‘Mozartomania’, on the airwaves and concert platforms around the world. Classic FM went into daily paroxyms of cliché-ridden excitement about Mozart’s “laahvely melodies”, and wheeled out ‘Mozart favourites’ with such alarming regularity that one began to suspect the recordings were on a continuous loop. With increased coverage and focus on a particular composer, one is afforded the opportunity, without having to try very hard, to get to know that composer and his music better. Thus, last year, I properly discovered Handel, a composer whose oeuvre had been nudging at the edges of my musical consciousness for many years.

The same is true of Franz (Ferenc) Liszt, the larger-than-life towering intellectual genius of the 19th century, friend to Chopin, George Sand, and Delacroix, champion and benefactor of composers such as Berlioz, Wagner and Greig, lover of aristocratic women, trainee priest, phenomenally accomplished pianist and conductor, who contributed importantly to the development of the art, and who, almost single-handedly, made the virtuoso piano recital what it is today, an important teacher and a highly influential composer.

I rather facetiously said to a friend recently that I did not “do” Liszt, for which I was immediately ticked off. I am reasonably familiar with quite a lot of his piano music, though I will hold my hands up and admit that I have avoided his orchestral works. I could probably recognise and/or name quite a few of his piano works if a question came up on Brain of Britain. But he does not feature in my repertoire – yet. By the same token, I do not “do” Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, all fine composers for the piano (though I must agree with my piano tuner here, who once said “I cannot see the point of Rachmaninov”!!). In fact, there’s a lot I don’t “do”: as I have mentioned before on this blog, the trouble with, and the joy of being a pianist is the vast repertoire, and the lack of time to acquaint oneself with all of it.

I think my ‘problem’ with Liszt was that I had heard too many bad performances, too many overly romantic interpretations, and read too many urban myths about him. I suspect he was probably riotously good company (he was ridiculously portrayed by Julian Sand in a truly dire film about Chopin, who was, incidentally, played by Hugh Grant, for the Lord’s sake!); he was also very hardworking, if the other urban legends are true. It is said that he practised for 12 hours a day, that he had huge hands (often cited as the reason why so much of his piano music is famously difficult). Apparently, his concerts could go on for hours, full of pyrotechnic displays of virtuosity, improvisation and general showmanship. Today, most of us who enjoy classical concerts, would have no truck with this kind of extreme showboating behaviour (except perhaps fans of Lang Lang). He was also wrote essays on many subjects, was admitted to minor holy orders, though he never became a priest (he undertook no vows of celibacy), and was a highly committed teacher.

Listening to the Années de pèlerinage, one has a sense of a man more closely aligned, spiritually and artistically, to writers such as Byron, Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth, the French artists Jacques-Louis David, Eugene Delacroix (who was a friend of Liszt’s) and Théodore Gericault, and English painters JMW Turner and William Blake. He is defined as a ‘Romantic’ composer, which slots him neatly into the shared chronology of Chopin and Schumann, though he far outlived these contemporaries, and his music looked far beyond the confines of 19th-century Romanticism. The Romantic period in music falls later than the Romantic period in art and literature, yet I feel Liszt is more in tune with the aforementioned poets and artists. Some of the pieces in the Années suite are subtle, imaginative, and deeply poetic musical visualisations of works by Michaelangelo and Raphael, while others are inspired by the Sonnets of Petrarch. Later pieces, from the third year, such as “Les Jeux d’Eaux à la Villa d’Este” (“The Fountains of the Villa d’Este”), seem to prefigure impressionist works on similar subjects by Debussy and Ravel (La cathédrale engloutie, Jeux d’Eau to name but a few).

My Dover edition of the complete Années dropped through the letterbox the other day (actually, the postman had to ring the bell, but I like the idea of Liszt dropping through my letterbox!), and I spent a happy hour browsing and sight-reading my way through it. The ‘Sonnetto 123 del Petrarca’ is on the approved repertoire list for my Diploma, which is as good a reason as any to learn this piece, aside from the sheer, unadulterated beauty of it, but I suspect my teacher will tell me off for selecting yet another slow Romantic piece, so something with a little more pace may be more appropriate. In the end it doesn’t matter: the entire suite of pieces is wonderful, worthy of months – years! – of exploration. Meanwhile, I enjoyed a very pleasant afternoon listening to Lazar Berman’s fine recording while watching a slide show of my holiday photographs (courtesy of my swanky Apple TV gadget), appropriately pictures taken in Liguria two years ago, and shots of snowy Alps in France. Indeed, listening to the Années is a little like going on holiday to the most beautiful, cultural parts of Italy and Switzerland, taking in the art and literature on the way – oh, and the music too.

Moderato (It.)

‘Moderate’, ‘restrained’, e.g. allegro moderato (‘a little slower than allegro ’).

adv. & adj. Music (Abbr. mod.)
In moderate tempo……. Used chiefly as a direction.

‘Moderato’ is one of those rather nebulous musical terms, like andante (“at a walking pace”). If I ask one of my students what it means, they say “moderately”. But what does it really mean? At the most basic level, it is a tempo marking, slower than allegretto, but faster than andante. The modern metronome gives a marking of 96 to 100, a very narrow range – and I would always guard against assigning a specific metronome mark to a piece marked moderato, or allegro moderato, or molto moderato. Like so much else in music, moderato is not just a tempo marking; it also suggests mood and character. It is personal feeling and sense of  music, and one person’s moderato might be rather different from another’s, both in terms of tempo and character.

The opening movement of Schubert’s last sonata is marked molto moderato, literally “very moderately”. And taken literally, that could result in a very slow tempo, virtually alla breve (two beats in a bar), which can make the music appear to drag. Schubert also used the German term mässig, implying the calm flow of a considered allegro. But the word “allegro” suggests a certain character as well as a certain speed, and so the moderato marking is more appropriate, Schubert suggesting in it a graceful strolling tempo. There are many, many different interpretations of Schubert’s marking, resulting in some wildly varying lengths of the first movement. Richter’s is an almost self-indulgent 25 minutes – listening to it, you get the feeling he is thinking about every single note and where to place it; while Maria Joao Pires brings it in at 20 minutes, which feels both fluid and eloquent, and Imogen Cooper at 16 minutes, which is thoughtful and serene. In another recording I have, one which I listen to most often, and used as a benchmark when I was learning the piece,  the movement lasts just over 21 minutes, yet at no point is there a sense of the music stagnating, even in the most poignant sections; it moves forward with grace.

Of course, at the end of the day, all these timings are rather meaningless: one would not notice the time passing at a good performance unless one was pedantic enough to sit there with a stopwatch – and if one was doing that, one would not be concentrating on the music! Creating a sense of the music and conveying mood, colour and shading is more important. One pianist, who shall remain nameless, did take it far too fast for my liking at a lunchtime concert at the Wigmore, and the music just felt rushed, as if he couldn’t wait to finish it. (He also omitted the repeat of the exposition, which is inexcusable, in my view. Without the repeat and the absolutely transcendental bridging figure, one does not achieve a full appreciation of the composer’s intentions in the development section.)

When I was learning the sonata a couple of years ago, I had a tendency to play the opening movement “molto molto moderato”! This was partly to enable me to cope with some of the more tricky measures in the development section, but whenever I played it, I had a terrible sense of the music plodding. When I listen to the piece, I always feel the opening movement suggests a great river broadening into its final course before reaching the sea: unhurried but with continual forward motion. There are moments of “other-wordliness” in this movement as well, which demand sensitive rubato playing and some very fine pianissimos.  There are storms too, but these are short-lived, and do not disturb the overall, almost hymn-like, serenity of the movement. But no matter how often I practised the wretched movement, it always sounded chunky, and “notey”, as if the river was made of treacle through which one was wading painful step after painful step!

Discussing my difficulty with my friend Michael was more a discussion of the meaning of moderato in a literal sense rather than in relation to Schubert. In the end, Michael suggested I tried playing the movement quicker: the difference was instant. Never mind that some passages were still very rough in my hands, the overall sense of the music was of a relaxed serenity and spaciousness. There was still time to hear every note and to enjoy each one, but there was also a much greater forward propulsion, especially in the climactic passages of the development section, which highlight Schubert’s long lines of melody and the overall evolution of the movement. Armed with Michael’s helpful advice and my renewed interest in the work, it was one of the first pieces I presented to my teacher when I started having lessons again, nearly two year’s ago.

In Chopin’s Ballade in G minor, a piece of fluctuating tempos and ever-changing moods and textures, the first theme is also marked moderato. Here, I would read this marking as a much slower tempo than in the Schubert sonata. The mood is very different too: the key is darker, and the off-beat quaver figures and the rather uncertain harmonies, with the prominent use of diminished and dominant seventh chords to add moments of tension which are not always resolved immediately, create a sense of hesitancy in the music, as if it is not quite sure where it is going. After the fioritura, the opening theme returns, slightly elaborated with a sighing quaver figure, but rather than increase the sense of forward motion, I feel the music becomes more suspended; thus when one reaches the direction agitato, there is a far greater sense of climax. This continues right through to the arpeggiated figures and onwards, in a section marked sempre piu mosso. After the great, memorable second theme is heard, the first theme returns, this time in A minor, and the music returns to the moderato tempo and mood of the opening. Here once again, uncertain harmonies are used to contrive a feeling of suspense, while the insistent repeated low E’s in the bass tether the music even more firmly in one place. This is a useful device for introducing another climax, which seems to suddenly free itself from the restraints of the moderato marking; the restatement of the second theme on a far grander scale than its first appearance. So, one could argue here that the use of moderato at the opening of the piece, and its reappearance later on, is a very deliberate device which serves to create moments of great tension, suspense and climax.

An interesting discussion of tempo came up during the piano course I attended in the spring. One of the students played some Bach, one of the French suites, I believe, the opening movement of which he took at such a lick, we could hardly hear the notes. When asked to put the brakes on, the result was charming: measured and elegant. This led to a discussion about “comfortable tempos”: just as one person’s moderato may be different from another’s, it is also true for presto or allegro. Nimbleness of brain and fingers can result in very lively, speedy, clean playing: if you feel comfortable playing at that speed, good for you. But speed at the expense of accuracy or musicality can wreck a piece.

The opening movement of Poulenc’s Suite in C, which I am currently learning, is marked Presto, and on my recording Pascal Rogé takes it at an alarming presto, far quicker than my 44 year old brain and fingers can manage – at the moment. Thus, I am practising it at a “comfortable” tempo; eventually, I hope that comfortable tempo will be quicker – the music needs to sound light yet sophisticated (its C Major key gives it an innocence which should shine through all the time)  – but for the time being I am concentrating on accuracy, with a beautiful sound. It ain’t easy: sometimes just learning the notes is hard enough, without all the other attendant directions and markings one has to take note of and execute!

A friend of mine, who subscribes to this blog, asked me recently, “What I want to know, Fran, is how the F— do you find the time to write all that stuff?!”. Another friend said, “Why write it if you don’t know if anyone reads it”, evidently completely missing the point of why one writes anything. In anwer to the second question, I write because I enjoy it, and I find that writing about the music I am learning or am interested in, helps to crystallise my thoughts and feelings about it, allowing me time to consider it away from the keyboard.  Also, my visits to my teacher are very precious and valuable, and I would rather work with her than muse about music.

I am often asked how much piano practise I do; when I reply casually, “Oh, about two or three hours a day”, this statement is met with much exclaiming and pulling of eyes: “How do you find the time for that?!”. Sometimes, I am tempted to point out that Liszt allegedly practised for 12 hours a day, and that the average professional pianist puts in at least five or six hours per day, every day. The old adage “practise makes perfect” is definitely borne out by hours of repetitive practise: it’s the only way to improve muscular memory and it breeds a familiarity with the score – its shapes and patterns – that is invaluable. “Thinking time” away from the keyboard can also be classed as practising, as well as reading the score, going through it with a pencil, and listening and reading around the subject.

Regular practise gives structure to my day (and I am the world’s greatest procrastinator when it comes to boring reality tasks!), and a productive practise session can leave me on a “high”, with a self-satisfied sense of a job well done. And, as those who live with me will attest, not being able to practise – for reasons of absence from the piano, illness, tiredness etc – can leave me very grumpy indeed. The sheer physical effort of piano playing is akin to going to the gym: both activities release endorphins, the happy hormones which induce feelings of exhilaration, the so-called “runner’s high”.

During term time, when my time is limited by my teaching schedule (some 8-10 hours per week), my practising has to be highly organised. I don’t do exercises, in the traditional sense of 20 minutes warm up with scales and arpeggios, though I do create my own exercises out of the pieces I am working on (the Chopin Ballade has some useful arpeggiated passages, while the Gershwin Prelude No 1 is an exercise in syncopation and pulse). With at least three pieces on the go at any given time, I set myself clear targets for each practise session to ensure I cover everything I have set out to do. I set my iPhone to “airplane mode”, which means no one can call, email or text me, and try to ignore the doorbell. Then, armed with a mug of Lapsang Souchong, I begin.

Advice from my teacher about good working habits has been invaluable; also the book The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green taught me useful concentration and confidence-boosting techniques, which I now try to encourage in my students, especially the adults, who seem far more nervous and unsure of their abilities than the children I teach. But by far the biggest encouragement to keep going is actually being able to appreciate how much I have improved in the last eighteen months: I can hear the difference! And my confidence has been sufficiently raised that now when I open new music, I don’t immediately think “Ooh no, I couldn’t possibly…..”. I do admit, though, to being slightly fazed by Evgeny Kissin’s performance of the Chopin Ballade I am learning: I made the mistake of listening to him playing it only a few days into my work on the piece. It left me feeling utterly demoralised, but now, six weeks into the learning process, and roughly halfway through the piece (with all the really stormy, speedy passages still to learn!), I am delighted with the progress I have made, and am actively looking forward to playing it for my teacher next month.

And I’ve stopped listening to Kissin….

At my recent piano lesson, my teacher suggested I set Chopin’s Etude Opus 10, No. 3 aside for a few months and turn my attention to “one of the bigger works, perhaps a Scherzo or a Ballade?”. Eighteen months ago, not long after I started having lessons again, I would have said “Oh, I’m not sure I am up to it”, and my teacher would have had to bolster my confidence sufficiently for me to actually open the manuscript. This time, I replied, most emphatically, that I would love to learn at least one of the Ballades. In fact, I heard the third and fourth Ballades at the Chopin evening at the Wigmore last Sunday and was struck, not for the first time, at how beautiful and varied they are.

“Learn the first or the third, for sure!” Sylvia said over pre-concert drinks at Tuesday’s concert. The first was in my head already, as I’d been listening to it on my iPod. “I just love the ‘ticking clock’ in the third.”

They are all wonderful, and looking through my just-received Dover edition of the Ballades, Impromptus and Sonatas, it occurred to me, yet again, how lucky we pianists are: to have so much repertoire to choose from. Every taste and ability is catered for. One could spend a lifetime only learning Chopin’s music and still one would not have time to tackle his entire ouevre.

“Too much fodder, not enough time!” is one of my oft-repeated laments, as I consider all the music I want to learn. My obsession with Chopin continues, but I love Schubert too, and Beethoven. Oh, and while we’re about it, I love Mozart, especially his later piano music. And Haydn. Then there’s the Bach Italian Suite I heard on Radio Three the other morning and thought “Ooh, I fancy that too!”. This time last year I was “into” the English Romantics – Delius, Ireland, Bridge. Before that, it was Albeniz, his exotic melodies reminding me of holidays in Andalucia. I am always hearing things on the radio, looking them up and thinking, “I’ll have a look at that next”. This is how I came to learn Chopin’s Etude Opus 25 No. 7, a deeply melancholic work, and my first ever Chopin Etude. By beginning a study of the Etudes, I felt I was striding with giants, for to me, and, I suspect, most serious pianists, the Etudes represent the high Himalayan peaks of the classical piano repertoire. With two now learnt (kinda), it has given me the confidence to tackle some of Chopin’s bigger works. One day I might even learn a Sonata…..

Selecting an appropriate programme for my Performance Diploma could be a nightmare, as I have such varied tastes at present. But that is one of the great pleasures of studying for the Diploma: the opportunity to study repertoire I might have otherwise ignored.

My students are equally spoilt for choice, though they do not realise it yet. At the beginner and early intermediate level, there is a wealth of music, not just “standards” such as easy-peasy Bach, Haydn, Dussek, but reductions of famous works (two of my students played a simplified version of ‘l’Autunno’ from the Four Seasons by Vivaldi for Grade 1 – an imaginative and enjoyable piece), plus huge amounts of newly-written music. One of the most popular pieces I have taught in the last year is John Rowcroft’s ‘African Dance’, a joyful piece in F major, with a relaxed township lilt and echoes of jazz in its harmonies and syncopation. I try to select music that will suit the individual personalities of my students: most of the boys want to do jazzy, fast, loud pieces or theme tunes like ‘Indiana Jones’ or ‘The Great Escape’, but sometimes, doing something like Bartok’s ‘Former Friends’ can be a good lesson in thoughtful, careful playing. Then there is Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts. I have taught the Andantino from this suite to about five students, adults and children, and they are all hooked by it. It is easy under the fingers, requiring no hand jumps nor tricky fingerings, but it sounds “different”, with some interesting “crunchy” harmonies. It’s pretty and quirky, and a great introduction to twentieth-century repertoire.

Going back to the Ballades, I sight-read through the first Ballade yesterday, and skimmed through the other three. It’s definitely the No. 1 for me, with its rather stately opening achieved through the use of a Neapolitan chord, and questioning harmonies at the end of the introduction, not fully resolved until later in the piece. It has one of the most memorable melodies (the second theme, introduced at bar 68), and is a work full of contrasting textures and moods. Played badly, it can sound self-indulgent and egotistical. Played well, it spoils the senses, “pure music” in its finest form, allowing both listener and player to form their own personal narrative as the music unfolds.

So, which would you choose?