Piano Sonatas D664, 769a & 894 – Stephen Hough (piano). Hyperion, 2022


In his memoir ‘Every Good Boy Does Fine’, American pianist Jeremy Denk says of Schubert, “He likes to let his ideas spread out, like pets that hog the bed.” He’s referring specifically to Schubert’s penchant for length or expansiveness, most evident in his late piano sonatas. This is not a criticism from Denk; later in the same paragraph he goes on to explain how Schubert uses his “heavenly length” to accumulate meaning.

In the first movement of Schubert’s G major piano sonata, D894, which opens this new recording from recently-knighted Stephen Hough, the ideas are certainly spread out, each clearly delineated, from the chordal, prayer-like first subject to the delicately dancing second subject (where the cantabile clarity of the upper registers of the piano is utterly beguiling in Hough’s hands), yet without the longueurs of Richter’s interpretation (and such a slow tempo really only works in Richter’s hands!). Hough favours a molto moderato which moves forward with vigour and colour when required but also allows time to savour all the details and nuances of this wondrous first movement.

The second movement is genial and intimate, a simple aria elegantly sculpted by Hough, reminding us that this is music for the salon rather than the concert hall. Hough really appreciates this, creating intimacy and introspection through supple phrasing and rubato, pauses (so important in Schubert’s music to create drama and breathing space) and tasteful pedalling.

The third movement scherzo revisits the chords of the first movement, this time in B minor, its robustness quickly offset by another dance figure. The trio, almost entirely in ppp, weaves a pretty melody around a handful of notes, with an offbeat bassline, like the memory of a forgotten Viennese waltz. And when the music shifts into the major key, it is almost more tender and poignant than when Schubert is writing in the minor key. The rondo finale is also a dance, graceful yet playful, occasionally insistent, played with an elegant clarity and some delicious bass details.

A curious interlude between two complete sonatas comes with the unfinished sonata fragment in E minor, D769a, a mere 1 minute of music yet profound and inventive in its expression. It finishes on a repeated figure, pianist and listener suspended, wondering where Schubert might have gone next with this music.

The Sonata in A, D664, is wholly delightful, Schubert at his most good-humoured. The affable first movement sings in Hough’s hands, while the second movement is thoughtful, poignant and tender, marked by gently sighing phrases. The sunny mood is soon restored in the finale, to which Hough brings a joyful light-heartedness with its tumbling scales and dance-like passages.

The recording was made on a C Bechstein Model D piano and there’s an intimacy and warmth to the piano sound which perfectly suits Schubert’s introspection, while a bright but sweet treble brings a lovely clarity to the melody lines and highlights Hough’s deftness of touch.

This year’s Petworth Festival, which opens on 13 July, offers a feast for piano fans this year.

Thanks to a new partnership with the Leeds International Piano Competition, Petworth will showcase the first, second and third prizewinners over consecutive years, with current Leeds winner Alim Beisembayev performing at Petworth on 29 July in a programme of music by Haydn, Beethoven and Liszt.

“It is one of the greatest privileges we could wish for to be able to showcase winners of such an important international piano competition as The Leeds….I know they will be a source of great inspiration to young musicians in our area.” – Neil Franks, Chair of Petworth Festival

From a young concert pianist at the start of an international career to a grand statesman of the piano, Piers Lane gives a concert of Nocturnes by Chopin, some of the best-loved piano music in the repertoire, on 17 July.

Another piano treat awaits the next day when Steven Osborne performs Debussy, a glorious programme which includes the much-loved Arabesques.

For jazz fans there’s boogie-woogie with Ben Waters, who celebrates the music of some of his heroes – Fats Domino, Huey Piano Smith, Albert Ammons, Ian Stewart (founder member of the Rolling Stones), Jerry Lee Lewis, Diz Watson – as well as performing his own compositions.

In addition, the Festival welcomes some of the finest chamber pianists – Martin Roscoe, Iain Burnside, Charles Owen, Huw Watkins – joined by, amongst others, violinist Tai Murray, soprano Julia Sitkovetsky, and cellist Natalie Clein,

This feast of music takes place in the lovely West Susssex town of Petworth from 13 to 30 July. The town is easily accessible from London by road and rail, and there is plenty on offer during the two-week festival to satisfy all tastes, including events for children.

Full details and tickets on the Petworth Festival website

I was recently asked for some tips on returning to the piano after a long absence.

I stopped playing the piano at the age of 18 when I left home to go to university and I didn’t touch the instrument again seriously until I was in my late 30s.

It may be two years or twenty since you last touched a piano, but however long the absence, taking the decision to return to playing is exciting, challenging and just a little trepidatious.

Here are some thoughts on how to return to playing:

Stick with the familiar and play the music you learnt before

To get back in to the habit of playing, start by returning to music you have previously learnt. You may be surprised at how much has remained in the fingers and brain, and while facility, nimbleness and technique may be rusty, it shouldn’t take too long to find the music flowing again, especially if you learnt and practised it carefully in the past.

Take time to warm up

You may like to play scales or exercises to warm up, but simple yoga or Pilates-style exercises, done away from the piano, can also be very helpful in warming up fingers and arms and getting the blood flowing. This kind of warm up can also be a useful head-clearing exercise to help you focus when you go to the piano.

You don’t have to play scales or exercises!

Some people swear by scales, arpeggios and technical exercises while others run a mile from them (me!). As a returner, you are under no obligation to play scales or exercises. While they may be helpful in improving finger dexterity and velocity, many exercises can be tedious and repetitive. Instead try and create exercises from the music you are playing – it will be far more useful and, importantly, relevant.

Invest in a decent instrument

If you are serious about returning to the piano, a good instrument is essential. It needn’t be an acoustic piano; there are many very high-quality digital instruments to choose from. Select one with a full-size keyboard and properly weighted keys which imitate the action of a real piano. The benefits of a digital instrument are that you can adjust the volume and play with headphones so as not to disturb other members of your household or neighbours, and most digital instruments allow you to record yourself and connect to apps which provide accompaniments or a rhythm section which makes playing even more fun!

Posture is important

You’ve got a good instrument, now invest in a proper adjustable piano stool or bench. Good posture enables you to play better, avoid tiredness and injury

Little and often

Your new-found enthusiasm for the piano may lead you to play for hours on end over the weekend but hardly at all during the week. Instead of a long practice session, aim for shorter periods at the piano, every day if possible, or at least 5 days out of 7. Routine and regularity of practice are important for progress.

Consider taking lessons

A teacher can be a valuable support, offering advice on technique, productive practising, repertoire, performance practice, and more. Choose carefully: the pupil-teacher relationship is a very special one and a good relationship will foster progress and musical development. Ask for recommendations from other people and take some trial lessons to find the right teacher for you.

Pianists at play at a summer piano course in France

Go on a piano course

Piano courses are a great way to meet other like-minded people – and you’ll be surprised how many returners there are out there! Courses also offer the opportunity to study with different teachers, hear other people playing, get tips on practising, chat to other pianists, and discover repertoire. I’ve made some very good friends through piano courses, and the social aspect is often as important as the learning for many adult amateur pianists.  More on piano courses here

Join a piano club or meetup group

If you fancy improving your performance skills in a supportive friendly environment, consider joining a piano club. You’ll meet other adult pianists, hear lots of different repertoire, have an opportunity to exchange ideas, and enjoy a social life connected to the piano. Piano clubs offer regular performance opportunities which can help build confidence and fluency in your playing.

Listen widely

Listening, both to CDs or via streaming, or going to live concerts, is a great way to discover new repertoire or be inspired by hearing the music you’re learning played by master musicians.

Buy good-quality scores

Cheap, flimsy scores don’t last long and are often littered with editorial inconsistencies. If you’re serious about your music, invest in decent sheet music and where possible buy Urtext scores (e.g. Henle, Barenreiter or Weiner editions) which have useful commentaries, annotations, fingering suggestions, and clear typesetting on good-quality paper.

Play the music you want to play

One of the most satisfying aspects of being an adult pianist is that you can choose what repertoire to play. Don’t let people tell you to play certain repertoire because “it’s good for you”! If you don’t enjoy the music, you won’t want to practice. As pianists we are spoilt for choice and there really is music out there to suit every taste.

Above all, enjoy the piano!


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Every Good Boy Does Fine, the title of pianist Jeremy Denk’s recently-published memoir, will be familiar to anyone who had piano lessons as a child. It’s a mnemonic of the notes e, g, b, d and f which sit on the lines of the treble clef – other variants include Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge.

The title suggests this will be a book about pianistic progress and the smooth path to achievement and success, the fairy-tale of the child prodigy which morphs seamlessly into an account of What Jeremy Did at Music College or How I Became A Concert Pianist.

It’s not that, not at all. In this honest (sometimes painfully so), witty, intelligent, entertaining and eloquent memoir Jeremy Denk explores the exigencies of the path he chose for himself while only 11 – “the piano now seemed inseparable from me…..the only way I’d found to express myself, a shelter and a persona“. We encounter his teachers, each significant, formative in his learning, some kind, others tough, even monstrous, yet each giving him more pianistic food for thought (though at times he wonders if lessons with his teacher Lillian were intended to kill any pleasure he might take in music, a sentiment many of us who had lessons as children can understand).

Pianists’ memoirs are few and far between, though there are many books about the mechanics, technique and artistry of piano playing, most notably Piano Notes by Charles Rosen or Susan Tomes’ excellent books. In fact, Denk’s book is the first I’ve read where the reader is really taken to the heart of what it means to be a pianist in a way that is both honest and inspiring. Denk makes no bones about the hardships, the hours of practice in grim rehearsal rooms, the daily grunt work required to finesse and refine music that goes on behind the notes we the audience hear (“Dohnányi was a new horizon of boring“).

But alongside this is the love story element of his writing (the book’s subtitle is A Love Story, in Music Lessons). As a precocious child, Denk’s curiosity seems unstoppable – and curiosity is, to me, one of the crucial aspects of the musician’s creative and artistic persona. His interest and passion is piqued by specific pieces of music – for example, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K364, which he first hears on cassette tape, or Brahms’ D minor piano concerto, which becomes almost an obsession for him – and the book is chock-full of analysis and commentary on the music he is playing. But this is not dry, musicological writing, rather he animates the music for both fellow pianist and listener with his own observations and insights which will have you running to your music desk or stereo to play or listen with new ears.

But it is the cavalcade of teachers and Denk’s description of them that is perhaps most intriguing, for teachers are often the most significant influence on the shaping and development of the young musician. We all remember the good teachers, and the bad ones even more so, perhaps, but if, like Denk, one goes into lessons with a curious, open-mind, the insights and wisdom one can accrue stay with one for years to come.

While adding new lessons, you have to keep listening to the old ones – as it happens, just like the unfolding notes of a melody. 

Encounters with some of the greats (and now late, sadly) are described – amongst them Leon Fleisher and György Sebők, perhaps the greatest of all the teachers with whom Denk studies. As Denk grows ever more fluent and confident in his playing, it is teachers who temper the ego, reveal errors in his playing, but also offer intriguing and challenging new insights. In these encounters we see the paradox of the developing artistic persona – the pull between fidelity to the score and the attempt to get inside the composer’s soundworld, and the desire to illuminate it with one’s own distinct music voice. This is the lifelong challenge of any serious musician. 

It is György Sebők who also reveals the fundamental simplicity (another paradox!) of something so extraordinarily difficult as playing the piano – that it is possible to go beyond technique and simply imagine the sound one wants to produce, eyes closed. When Jeremy plays the passage again, the sound is “deeper and richer”, and suddenly all the struggling to create a big, bold sound is replaced by “a moment of ease”. It’s a lesson I would recommend to any pianist! Sebok also points out to Denk that he is a perfectionist and that this is holding him back – another paradox of the musician’s life where one’s training is all about the pursuit of perfection. It’s another musical life lesson: perfection is an artificial construct, but one must keep striving anyway. And Denk is more than willing to rise to the challenge, such is his love of the music.

You never “still know” a piece, really. You have to force yourself to know it again, even rebuild its foundations.

I first encountered Jeremy Denk through his writing and his blog Think Denk (which was, in part, an inspiration for this site) and I’ve always liked his ability to ground this high artform we call classical music in a place that is unpretentious and readable. In the book, he explains the complexities of music by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert et al in a manner which is simple without being simplistic, illustrated with hand-drawn diagrams to explain musical structures, harmony etc. And he peppers his commentaries on specific pieces with some wonderful aphorisms

Beethoven makes you earn your difficulties. You can’t just go wild. The fireworks are always held in tension against some spine of meaning.

Young Schumann is a miracle, really, an outpouring of mostly piano music with unprecedented inspiration and imagination, and a model for turning confusion into art.

People often complain about Schubert’s length, and for good reason. He likes to let his ideas spread out, like pets that hog the bed.

(And before all you Schubert fans exclaim at such a statement, Denk goes on to explain how Schubert uses his “heavenly length” to accumulate meaning, “so that the music becomes less about things themselves, but processes operating, like tectonic plates….”)

I love these quotes because they both bring the music down to earth while also revealing its greatness, something Denk fully appreciates, and revels in. It’s an approach that will appeal to serious musicians and classical music fans, and also the non-specialist reader. To add to this, a generous appendix further illuminates with Denk’s own commentaries on specific pieces and his recommended recordings.

 

This engaging and engrossing book is a journey of self-discovery, about coming out as an artist, and also as a person, a gay man, the latter most tenderly, poetically expressed towards the end of the book – but it’s also a love letter to the piano, its literature, those who play it and those who teach and inspire the next generation.

Highly recommended.

Every Good Boy Does Fine by Jeremy Denk is published in the UK by Picador


Meet the Artist interview with Jeremy Denk

Jeremy Denk

There are certain habits of piano practice which are ingrained in us from an early age and which have become a form of “piano dogma”. As young piano students, we may accept these practices without question, trusting in our teacher’s seniority and greater knowledge – and the assertion that these activities are “good for you”, that they will make you “a better pianist”. These include scales, arpeggios and other technical exercises (Hanon, Czerny etc), separate hands practicing, slow practice and use of the metronome. Many of these practices come from theorists, lesser musicians, traditional teaching, and exam boards, who perhaps exert far too much influence on what is “good practicing” rather than actually listening to active musicians who have formulated their own ways of doing things which reflect the realities of learning and performing music today.

Scales, broken chords and arpeggios

These are generally considered an essential part of the pianist’s practice regime, still seen by many as the path to superior technique. By the time the piano student is approaching Grade 8, they will have learnt scales and arpeggios in all the major and minor keys, plus various permutations such as scales in major and minor thirds and sixths, octave scales and arpeggios, chromatic scales (also in thirds), dominant and diminished seventh arpeggios, and contrary motion scales and arpeggios. Scales and arpeggios have a use – they teach us about keys and key relationships.

But, like the technical exercises devised by Hanon et al, scales and arpeggios are generally mechanical exercises used to build greater finger dexterity, independence and velocity. Although one can practice such exercises in a musical way (fluctuating dynamics, different articulation or rhythms), in my opinion, they are fundamentally unmusical.

How often are you required to play a full four-octave arpeggio or scale in major thirds in a piece of music? Sure, we encounter many scale and arpeggio patterns within pieces but these are devices to illustrate the drama and narrative of the music or to create specific effects (a descending chromatic scale can be darkly, spookily dramatic, for example). You may have practiced octave scales in a book of exercises but the test is whether you can play them musically in the context of real repertoire.

Not scales, never. Exercises, never….. I worked on pieces. Then if that didn’t work, I’d work on individual passages.

~ Martha Argerich, in an interview with Charles Dutoit

Separate Hands Practicing

This is one of the “holy grails” of piano practice – perhaps the holy grail! – that we should learn the music hands separately first and then bring the hands together. This was how I was taught as a young piano student and many, many students have the benefit of separate hands practice drummed into them from their early years to conservatoire level.

There are many occasions when separate hands practicing is very useful; but there are also occasions when separate hands practice is less helpful or even a hindrance to learning. Sometimes it is necessary to hear the complete harmony of the music or to have the foundation of a bass line or melody to support the other hand.

Slow practice

Another holy grail of piano practice! Like separate hands practice, there are occasions when slowing the tempo right down can enable us to manage a tricky section, get the notes learnt and under the fingers before speeding the music up. Slow practice also allows us to hear details in the music (but only if you are actually listening while practicing – and you’d be amazed how many pianists, including advanced or professional pianists, don’t listen to themselves!). But if you always practice the same passage at below tempo, the procedural (“muscle”) memory will find it harder to cope with playing at full tempo. In reality, tempos should be able to work both too slowly (a musical challenge) and too fast (an efficiency challenge).

Practicing with the metronome

Tick tock tick tock tick tock…..The insistent tick of the metronome is one of the abiding memories of my childhood piano lessons; my teacher made me play scales to the beat of a metronome. It was pretty hellish, but I submitted anyway. As a result, my scales were fluent, accurate and even.

The metronome can be useful in helping you establish a clear pulse, but practice too much or too often with that insistent tick and your playing may become overly mechanical without the necessary nuance of tempo which adds ebb and flow to music.

I’ve observed a certain metronome addiction amongst some student and amateur pianists: nearly all exam repertoire comes with a suggested metronome speed – note suggested. Yet some people believe they will be marked down in their exam performance or play the music incorrectly if they don’t adhere exactly to the metronome marking. It’s often worth pointing out that the metronome wasn’t invented until 1815; before that time musicians relied on an innate sense of pulse and an understanding of what tempo was appropriate for directions such as allegro, largo or adagio, for example – and that’s what we should all aim for. By all means use the metronome to get a feel for the pulse in the music, but don’t become addicted to it!

A music-led approach

While I may employ all of the above activities in my own piano practice, I have found that a “music-led” approach allows me to practice more productively and, importantly, enjoyably. The first teacher I had when I returned to the piano as an adult after a 25-year absence encouraged me to create exercises out of the music I was learning – a far more useful tool than turning to boring, mechanical exercises. There is so much beautiful music out there for us to play and a Bach Prelude, for example, can offer far greater technical and artistic challenges than a book of exercises by Hanon.

Don’t be afraid to look for alternatives and to experiment with practicing. Fundamentally, it’s about finding an approach that works for you as an individual, rather than a “one size fits all approach”.

You should diligently play scales and finger-practices. There are many, however, who believe they’ll achieve all, by practicing daily on technique for hours on end, up till high age. It’s like practicing every day to enumerate the alfabet faster and faster. One would think one could make better use of their valuable time.

~ Robert Schumann

This article first appeared on my sister blog A Piano Teachers Writes….


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Guest review by Michael Johnson

International Acclaim: One Piano, Eight Hands is a factional novel by Michael Lawson told by an omniscient narrator who slips seamlessly in and out of anonymity as the action unfolds. Four generations of the talented but fictional Steinfeld family parade through the plot, performing in the piano’s golden age, the height of the Romantics. Many of the greats appear – Rachmaninov, Godowsky, Taneyev, Siloti, Hoffmann, Medtner, Moiseiwitsch, Friedman, Gabrilowitsch, Blumenfeld, Schnabel and one of Lawson’s own teachers, the “tender tyrant” Nadia Boulanger.

Readers must be on their toes as 68 characters rotate to keep the narration spinning. Lawson’s knowledge of 19th century Europe through his Polish ancestors enrich the story, notably with several scenes of terrible tragedy – fictional injuries in fires, psychological conflict, the near extinction of the family name in a Polish pogrom, and finally the death in public of the latest family star, Daniyal.

This novel is nothing short of a Tolstoian epic.

Author Lawson is up to the task. He is an accomplished pianist and composer, retired archdeacon of the Church of England and author of some 14 books. Rounding out his career, he is also a trained psychotherapist who has worked with several pianists, including child prodigies. He brings all these strands together in a breathless story.

“I am and always have been fascinated by the great Romantic pianists,” he tells me in email exchanges over several days. It shows.

Originally inspired by accounts of virtuoso Simon Barere’s death in 1951 at a Carnegie Hall recital, Lawson says he “knew how the novel would end but not how it would begin”. The story occupied his attention for some 40 years, the last six months of which were dedicated to non-stop research and writing six days a week. For easy reading, he has structured his story in five ”movements”, each consisting of several brief chapters, some only two pages long.

He takes interesting detours to fill in backdrop of the environment – the German bombing of London, the pogrom in Lvov (now Lviv) in 1918, Jewish family life, piano competitions and the history of the piano. The subtitle takes its name from the fictional four generations of virtuosi – imagining his main players, Abramczyk, Aleksander, Daniyal, and Kovi making music together, on one piano, eight hands.

Lawson brings in a sub-theme of exceptional interest, the phenomenon of the child prodigy, an accident that he estimates occur once in five or ten million births. He invokes his therapeutic expertise to warn of over-praise of prodigies from family and the public. “Can a child ever receive too much love? … We are now discovering that sustained exaggerations of esteem from parents or any circles of admiring approval can be harmful.” (It) can inhibit the growth of a healthy and robust, self-critical super-ego.”

The great teacher Leschetizky carries on, cautioning that an “excess of applause at an early age may help cerate unhealthy performance appetites in later life”. Audiences sometimes help create such the prodigy, and, adds Lawson: “ … some will flock to see a child perform as they might jostle for the best seat at the circus.” Aleksander’s parents stepped in to slow the process. They decided that he would not undertake public concerts until his seventh birthday.

Lawson’s career at the piano also translates into some of the more dramatic passages in the repertoire. Discussing Chopin’s Etude No. 11 op 25 (“Winter Wind”), he writes of the pianist’s intense concentration in the slow theme at the outset. “Then, like an exploding volcano, a tumultuous cascade of sixteenth notes erupted from the top of the keyboard; the left hand leaping in punctuation fury, driving forward the rhythm of the raging wind and sudden lighting flashes, and the final theme, bringing Chopin’s death-defying Etude … to its breathless conclusion.”

(performed here by Yulianna Avdeeva):

Lawson takes a swipe at pianists whose acrobatics onstage “let us know they have danced with death and prevailed”. “Their shoulders rise and fall with their heavy breathing, their hands run maniacally through their tousled hair (and) they practically swoon there on stage in front of us.” He adds that Franz Liszt was the inventor of this “bizarre behaviour”. Many of today’s prominent players have gone further. Lang Lang, for example, wears makeup and winks at the audience between swoons while bouncing on the piano bench.

Family life is enlivened with the joy of Jewish humour and culture. At one point, Aleksander receives in the post an invitation to perform with the New York Philharmonic. The family and guests burst into a singing, dancing version of the popular Russian folk song “Kalinka My Kalinka” gradually ratcheting up the tempo to breakneck speed.

The dance is performed here:

The text is peppered with tips on piano performance, one of which is the need to practice relaxing. “Remember that tension is the enemy,” Lawson writes. “It squeezes glue all over the keyboard and in all kinds of ways gums up your playing.”

Critical reception to the novel has thus far been favourable, as has reader reaction. One reader wrote to Lawson that the connections and convergences in the plot are “so beautifully written, it brought me to tears.”

I know of no other writer who can draw on such a varied and pertinent background and weave them into a single tale.

Why did Lawson set himself the monumental task of researching and writing this epic? This book might seen as swan song or a cathartic exercise, but Lawson disagrees. He considers it it as “a celebration of music, musicians, and the creative spirit that animates my present and future.” I totally agree.

International Acclaim: One Piano—Eight Hands by Michael Lawson is available from Amazon.


Michael Johnson is a music critic and writer with a particular interest in piano. 

He has worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is a regular contributor to International Piano magazine, and is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux, France. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

Michael Lawson is a Psychotherapist, Composer, Writer, Film Maker and Broadcaster. His varied career began in music as a composer and concert pianist in the early seventies, having studied with the great French teacher Nadia Boulanger at the Paris and Fontainebleau conservatoires, with the British composer Edmund Rubbra at the Guildhall School of Music, and at Sussex University with Donald Mitchell, the leading Britten and Mahler scholar. His piano professors were David Wilde and James Gibb.

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