My teaching term finished at 4.45pm today as I saw the last student, Tom, out of my warm, cosy home into the cold, dark, snowy evening. I pressed a giant chocolate coin from M&S into his gloved hand, and cheerily wished him and his mother a Happy Christmas, while also reminding him to practice over the holiday. Officially, my teaching term (which runs for 12 weeks) ended last week, but I had to cancel some lessons and carry them over from last week.

Now, I am afforded an opportunity to review the term just ended and look forward to the spring term. As always, it has been a busy term: there has been much music made, new pieces learnt, old ones revised and finessed. I’ve sat through hours of scales and other technical work, done a fair amount of pre-exam hand-holding (mostly of anxious parents rather than students), and talked endlessly about “telling the story” and “painting pictures” in music. The hugely successful Christmas concert marked the culmination of the term and was a wonderful tribute to my students’ hard work this term – and mine too! Three students took the Prep Test, a pre-Grade 1 “taster” exam, five are working towards Grade 1, including two of my adult students, and three are working on the Grade 2 syllabus. I am enjoying teaching the exam syllabuses, as the current crop of pieces are varied and interesting: why weren’t the exam lists this interesting when I was taking my music exams, way back when….?

Particular highlights include: Eli playing my adaptation of Pachelbel’s ‘Canon in D’, a piece he chose himself, and which he played with real panache and surprising depth for an 8 year old; Claire, a student who has really blossomed this term, playing ‘Walking In The Air’ at the Christmas concert; Harrison’s improvised ‘Vampire Blues’ (“but please don’t do that in your exam!” I warned), Bella’s lovely, measured reading of Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C; Tom’s ‘Chinese Crackers’, one of his Prep Test pieces which utilises the piano’s harmonics in a clever way; and Marianne’s ‘Snowdrifts’, a piece which seems particularly appropriate given the current weather!

As for my own music, I have put to bed, for the time being at least, Debussy’s Prelude ‘Voiles’, after performing it in my Christmas concert. Listening to the recording was a mixed experience: despite all the plaudits I received from friends, parents, students and family on the day, I feel there is plenty of room for improvement. A pause from this piece will help me reappraise it and think about what else I need to do with it. Meanwhile, I am making interesting inroads into Messiaen’s 4th Vingt Regard, a deeply arresting piece which requires a huge amount of emotional input (the notes themselves are not so difficult), and the Toccata from Bach’s 6th Partita, which is cerebral and satisfying (the scores are in my suitcase to read in France, together with my fold-out keyboard to enable me to mark up the rest of the Messiaen properly). The Chopin Ballade continues to haunt me – in a good way – but it is on the backburner while I try to get as much Diploma repertoire into my fingers: 2011 could be the year I take the exam, or not, depending on how I get on….

The Spring term will see three students sit their Grade 1 exam, and at the end of the term I will attend my teacher’s advanced piano course again, where I hope present more of my diploma repertoire. I will also rise to my teacher’s challenge, and play Chopin’s Etude Opus 10 No. 3 at the end of course concert.

For the time being, I am looking forward to a couple of weeks “off” (though not off the piano, of course), and a chance to catch up on some reading and listening.

Merry Christmas to all my readers, some loyal and regular, others casual and occasional. The Cross-Eyed Pianist will return after the holiday.

During the opening measures of the famous chorus, members of the audience glanced around anxiously, checking to see who would be first to rise to their feet. Then someone in the balcony stood, and someone else, and suddenly the whole of the Cadogan Hall audience rose to its feet, as is traditional for the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus.

The reasons for this tradition are somewhat apocryphal: one version is that at the first London performance in 1743, the audience “together with the King”, were so moved by the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus that they spontaneously rose to their feet. An alternative explanation is that King George II was so tone-deaf that he thought the performance had finished, and the orchestra was playing the National Anthem: once the King stood, everyone present was obliged to stand too. Whatever the reason, there is something really special about standing for such an uplifting and triumphant piece of music.

For me the ‘Messiah’ will forever be associated with the beginning of the Christmas season. When I was at school, it formed an integral part of the concert which ended the Autumn term, along with the service of nine lessons and carols at the church next to the school. I must have sung the ‘Messiah’ at least 10 times, for the tradition of performing it at Christmas continued when I joined the university choir.

It’s four years since I last heard the Messiah, also at Cadogan Hall, a lovely venue close to London’s Sloane Square, which boasts a spacious crush bar where one can get a decent-sized glass of Prosecco. The audience is different to the Wigmore, being largely fully awake, alive and lively. People-watching is fun beforehand and I spotted a couple of “slebs” in the noisy bar as I waited for my friend to return from the cloakroom. The other benefit of Cadogan Hall is its generous, comfortable seats, and the gently raked auditorium which affords a good view wherever you sit. The hall itself is a converted Christian Science church, completed in 1907, though the interior suggests a more 18th century heritage. Much of the original interior has been retained including a fine wooden screen and balcony at the rear of the stage. Last night, a tall Christmas tree sparkled from the balcony.

The English Chamber Orchestra with the Rodolfus Choir and four soloists was under the baton of eminent and now very elderly conductor Raymond Leppard. I remember seeing him conduct when I was a child, and it was lovely to see he is still going strong, if a little more portly than I remember, and somewhat unsteady on his feet. Under his direction, orchestra and choir were impeccable: perfect timing, perfect cadences, perfect intonation. The soloists, two of whom I have seen before in the same roles, were very fine, offering just the right balance of acting and emotion, while also “telling the story” of the music very clearly. From row D, the closest I have sat to the stage at a concert for some time, we were afforded a wonderful view of the orchestra, soloists and choir. I loved the way the continuo player switched from harpsichord to chamber organ and back again, as the score required.

The Rodolfus Choir is made up of singers aged 16 to 25 and their youthful voices suited the music perfectly. The clarity and purity of their delivery was matched by the orchestra with an elegant symmetry.

I suppose the best thing about the Messiah is all the memorable ‘tunes’ – from ‘Ev’ry Valley Shall be Exalted’ to ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’, ‘I Know My Redeemer Liveth’ to the charming duet between tenor and alto ‘O Death Where is Thy Sting’. Then there are the choruses: ‘And the Glory of the Lord’, ‘All We Like Sheep’, ‘For Unto Us a Child is Born, ‘Hallelujah’, and the wonderful, life-affirming fugue of the final chorus. In between all this are some beautiful solos, and orchestral interludes. Handel brings the text, drawn from the King James Bible, to life with light and shade, storms and sunshine, fugue and counterpoint, and a huge variety of textures and “word painting”, the technique of having the melody mimic the literal meaning of the libretto.

It was a wonderful evening and a lovely start to the festive season. I felt very Christmassy as I left the hall with my friend, and we drove around Sloane Square, which was beautifully decorated, with great bunches of fairy lights in the trees, and a shimmering curtain of lights all down the main frontage of Peter Jones.

Cadogan Hall

As the year draws to a close, I thought I would review my year in music:

Goldberg Variations, Simon Devine, Purcell Room, March: The perfect way to spend a sunny, early spring Sunday morning. Harpsichordist Simon Devine brought immense colour, elegance, depth and humour to Bach’s greatest keyboard work.

End of Course Concert, March: My first “proper” performance in 25 years, as part of my teacher’s end of course concert. I amazed myself by pulling off a thoughtful and melancholy rendering of Chopin’s Etude Op 25/7, which has now become my “party piece”! The exceptionally high-quality of the music was a great inspiration, as was the variety: Chopin, Gershwin, Bach, Kapustin.

The Jerusalem Quartet, Wigmore Hall, March: A lunchtime concert memorable for all the wrong reasons, a concert during which politics and angry protest invaded the hallowed space of the Wigmore Hall and forced everyone present to contemplate the question “should music be above politics?”. The Jerusalem Quartet played on, despite the frequent interruptions. A disturbing, eye-opening, and extraordinary event.

Elisabeth Leonskaja Schubert recital, Wigmore Hall, May: A wonderful lunchtime concert which included several of my favourite works (Impromptu in F minor D935, and Impromptu in A flat D899, played as an encore), and confirmed, once again, what a fine Schubert-player Leonskaja is.

Lucy’s Parham’s ‘Nocturne’ at Wigmore Hall, July: A delightful and very moving evening of words and music by and about Chopin. Parham’s playing left something to be desired: she is unnecessarily flamboyant, and lacks finesse and accuracy at times, but the overall experience was delightful. Sam West was so good that very soon into the evening I truly believed he was Chopin!

Courtney Pine at Hampton Open Air Pool, July: A picnic with friends to the accompaniment of jazz-legend Courtney Pine’s full-bodied and exciting music, in his own tribute to Sidney Bechet. The best part was shaking his hand as he toured the audience at the end of the concert.

Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’, Wigmore Hall, October: The first time I’d heard this monumental work played live and in its entirety. Deeply moving, searing, painful and beautiful, it has inspired me to learn some of Messiaen’s piano music, and has piqued my interest in 20th century music in general.

Goldfrapp, Hammersmith Apollo, November: A rarity for me, attending a pop concert, but nonetheless a great night out. Interesting and unusual music, beautifully performed and visually and aurally arresting.

Students’ Concert, December: A lovely, fun and very enjoyable afternoon of music-making by my own students. The event was a huge success and I will be using the same venue for my summer concert.

Elisabeth Leonskaja, Schumann and Schubert, Wigmore Hall, December: Another great performance by this monumental “old school” Russian pianist. She never fails to please and I am already looking forward to her next solo recital in the late spring.

Handel’s Messiah, English Chamber Orchestra with Raymond Leppard, Rodolfus Choir, Cadogan Hall, December: A really fine Messiah with the superb ECO, youth choir and soloists, all under the baton of Raymond Leppard, a conductor who I remember seeing many times as a child. A lovely start to the festive season.

I fear I may have omitted some concerts from earlier in the year, and will make an effort to keep a ‘concert diary’ next year so that I don’t forget what I’ve heard. If there are any sins of omission here, I am sure Sylvia will point them out for me!

Russian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja is not one for extravagant or flamboyant gestures: she strides across the Wigmore stage in the manner of a collective farm worker who has recently descended from her chugging tractor, her meaty, potato-pulling arms disguised in a soft brown velvet jacket. Seated at the piano, she is self-contained and workmanlike. There is barely a moment’s silence after the applause which greets her has died down before she begins, as if she is impatient to get on with the evening’s work. But from the sweeping opening measures of Schumann’s suite Papillons, there is no doubting her commitment, both to the music and the performance.

Papillons is a young man’s composition, written when Schumann was just 20. A suite of miniature dance pieces, it draws its inspiration from Schubert’s waltzes and four-handed polonaises, and the novels of 19th century writer, Jean Paul (whose pseudonym was Johann Paul Richter), and can be considered an early example of “programme music”. It looks forward to later  suites such as Carnaval, Waldszenen and Blumenstuck, while the influence of Schubert is obvious in the colourful and inventive harmonies, and the rapid changes of mood, dynamic and tempo.

This suite may be written by a student, but it is definitely not ‘student music’. After an introductory figure, not unlike the opening motif of Chopin’s First Ballade, the first piece is 16 bars of fast right-hand octaves, and many of the following movements employ similar devices, while others are lyrical and songlike. Elisabeth Leonskaja gave each movement the appropriate measure of weight, strength, delicacy, warmth and colour, highlighting the full range of Schumann’s moods, and his twin personas Eusebius (passionate, flamboyant, impulsive) and Florestan (dreamy, poetic, controlled)

The Etudes Symphoniques Op 13 are even more ‘bi-polar’. Written in the form of a theme and variations, these are Etudes in the manner of Chopin – i.e. intended as concert pieces which investigate the possibilities of technique and intonation. These are not variations in the sense of Mozart’s, but rather draw influences from Beethoven’s monumental Diabelli’s Variations in their arrangement and construction: aspects of the theme are used in subsequent variations, amplified and transformed, as opposed to a straightforward variant on the opening theme. There are moments in this work where, even if one knew nothing about Robert Schumann’s mental state (he suffered from what we now call “bipolar disorder”, one has the sense of a troubled mind at work. Some movements are simply manic, or thrillingly virtuosic (the 9th Etude is marked “Presto Possibile“, literally, “as fast as possible”!) Others are light and airy, or dark and sombre. An Allegro Brillante Etude brings the suite to its exciting, noisy conclusion.

This is “big” music, both physically in the demands it makes on the pianist’s hands with its rapid octave passages and wide hand-stretches, and, at times, in sound. Leonskaja harnessed the full force of her powerful, tractor-driver’s arms for the loud passages, while bringing delicacy, lightness and sweetness to the quieter sections. It is no accident that the Etudes Symphoniques are considered some of the most difficult music in the repertoire: Leonskaja made them look alarmingly easy. Added to that is her technical assuredness: there was not a smeared nor split note that I could detect in the entire performance, despite some unpleasant harmonics from the piano which at times displayed an alarming “twang”.

After such a grand, dramatic, and varied first half, we had a drink in the front bar, and looked forward to the second half, which was Schubert’s Sonata in G, D894.

I have heard Leonskaja play Schubert on several previous occasions, the first time being a fine performance of the last three sonatas. She has been criticised in the past for bringing a “Beethovenian” feel to her Schubert-playing, but I like the robustness. It also reminds us that Schubert admired Beethoven’s music, while striking out on his own after the Old Radical died in 1827. The G major sonata has an unusually expansive first movement, which contains a mixture of contrasting material, from the calm, hand-filling chords of the first subject, to the pretty and lyrical second theme. Marked “Molto moderato e cantabile”, it looks forward to Schubert’s last, great sonata in B-flat, the D960, in both its tempo and its deeply serene atmosphere, only briefly interrupted by a fff moment of violence in the development section. The subsequent movements are gentle, melodic, and largely untroubled, while the finale has the feel of a string quartet in the organisation of its textures and styles.

As in the first half, Leonskaja gave the full range of emotions and colours, highlighting Schubert’s extraordinary and unexpected harmonic shifts, and his innate lyricism. She is mistress of the velvet touch, perfectly judging exactly how much weight should be brought from finger to key to create exactly the desired sound, and despite more unpleasant twangs from the Wigmore Steinway, the Schubert sonata was memorable, moving and completely wonderful.

In true old-school Russian pianist tradition, she gave two encores, the first Debussy’s final Prelude, the other the second impromptu from Schubert’s D935 set. She played with the bouquet she had been presented at the end of the main performance on the lid of the piano, the pink and white flowers in their crisp cellophane wrapper reflected in the gleaming inside lid of the Steinway.

Elisabeth Leonskaja returns to the Wigmore Hall in 2011, for a concert with the Artemis Quartet on 17th May and a solo Schubert recital on 27th May, to include the Allegretto in C Minor D900, the Sonata in A D664, and the Wanderer Fantasy.

Click on this link to read a review of this concert on Classical Source.

I wrote these notes for my adult students to help them overcome their anxiety about performing in my forthcoming concert. They are coming to my home a couple of days before the event for an evening ‘soirée’ of music and wine – an opportunity to play their concert pieces in (I hope!) a non-threatening environment, amongst friends.

First, it’s ok to feel nervous! It is normal, and it is a sign that the body’s “fight or flight mechanism” – i.e. the production of adrenaline – is working properly. Performance anxiety can manifest itself in many different ways; the most common physical symptoms are:

  • Dry mouth
  • Moist hands
  • Trembling hands
  • Nausea
  • Palpitations

I find Pilates-type deep breathing (“thoracic breathing”) very useful for dealing with anxiety. The physical act of breathing like this calms you down. It also forces you to focus. When I am playing and I make a mistake, or I find my concentration slipping, I take a deep breath and exhale slowly. This helps me refocus.

Learning to deal with performance anxiety is a useful skill, and will make any kind of public performance, musical or otherwise, easier to deal with.

1.    Before you perform, take time to remind yourself that you have practiced to the best of your ability, that you know the piece intimately, and that even a small slip is not going to put you off. Confidence comes from knowing the piece intimately. Before the main performance, play it for family and friends and imagine yourself in a concert situation.

2.    Do not be self-critical. Do not pre-judge the event or draw conclusions about what just happened or what might happen. Self-criticism is pointless because it destroys your focus and takes you out of the here and now. Rather than judge your playing, simply observe it without saying anything. Do not over-analyse, play from the heart.

3.    Avoid inner dialogue. Do not distract yourself with the “what ifs” and the “maybes”. Focus on the music. Hear it in your head and imagine your fingers on the keyboard.

4.    Do not pre-judge the audience’s reaction. Remember, no one is going to boo, slow hand-clap or heckle. Most people who go to concerts, whether given by professional or amateur musicians, are full of admiration for anyone can get up on stage and do it. Everyone who comes to our concerts is there because they want to be there, to support the performers and to enjoy the music.

5.    When you go to the piano, acknowledge the audience – without them it would not be concert! – but then try to blank them out: look straight ahead at the score.

6.    When you sit down to play, take a moment to compose yourself. It is up to you when you start – the audience must be patient. Think about where your hands should be on the keyboard. Get acquainted with the look of the piano – if it’s an unfamiliar instrument.

7.    Just before you begin, take a deep breath and breathe out slowly. As you exhale, allow your fingers to float onto the keys – and then begin. Remember to breathe when you’re playing – it’s amazing how many people hold their breath when they are playing! If you feel your focus slipping, use the deep-breathing technique to help you.

8.    When you have finished, let your hands float off the keyboard. Wait for a moment and then stand and acknowledge the audience again

Cue rapturous applause!

At my piano lesson this week, I played the first two and a half pages of the Toccata from J S Bach’s 6th Partita, BWV 830 in E minor. I have not played any Bach to my teacher before; indeed, I have not played any Bach seriously since I was about 14, when I learnt the Prelude & Fugue in D minor BWV 851 from the WTC as part of my Grade 8 repertoire. I’m not sure why Bach dropped off my pianistic radar – it’s not as if I don’t like his music, because I love it, and, if it was up to me, I would programme a whole three hours of continuous Bach for the Radio 3 Breakfast show. To me, there is nothing more enjoyable than waking up to a steaming mug of Redbush tea, a grey Burmese cat purring by my head, and a Bach Cantata or one of the Brandenburgs, or any of the keyboard music playing quietly on the radio at my bedside. Sadly, Rob Cowan, the most regular presenter of the show, favours lively orchestral music to open the show at 7am, and when I switch from argumental John Humphries on Radio 4, I often find my ears assaulted by Viennese ‘oom-pah’ music or some fussy, overblown Wagner.  (By the way, I am sure I am not alone in finding John Humphries’ recent malapropism “Peasants and phartridges” hilarious; the best part was hearing James Naughtie snorting audibly on the radio and then the pair of them dissolving into silent giggles – a case of what a friend of mine calls “laughing in church”. A great radio moment.)

Part of my revisiting of the music of Bach came about because I have recently taught two of his keyboard pieces to a couple of my older students. I did one of the Small Preludes with a student in the summer term, encouraging her to overcome her timidity and play it with a sweeping grandeur, as if she were seated at the great organ of a great Baroque church of Mitteleuropa (another of Fran’s famous “visualisations”!).  And this term Bella, who is my most advanced student, has learnt a simplified version of the first Prelude of the WTC (simplified only in that the semiquavers have been replaced with quavers and the closing phrase has been shortened), a piece she plays with wonderful colour and texture, a piece which she clearly loves. (She is opening my Christmas concert with it next weekend). Working on this piece, alongside Debussy’s Prelude from Pour le Piano, a piece which draws many influences from the Grand-daddy of them all, reminded me of how much I like the architecture of Bach’s music, his voices, and textures. It’s incredibly satisfying music to play, and requires a high degree of cerebral input, which appeals to the ‘intellectual pianist’.

A brief aside – I am no Bach purist, and will happily listen to his keyboard music played on harpsichord, organ or concert Steinway. To me, Bach was a revolutionary and an innovator: I am fairly certain he would have loved to have been able to compose for the modern piano, fully utilising all its capabilities.

The Toccata from the Partita No. 6 has a grandiose introductory section, the arpeggiated and dotted figures of the opening bar setting the tone, and style (here is another opportunity to imagine one is playing a great organ in another great Baroque church of Mitteleuropa!) before a shift in mood into a tightly-constructed three-part Fugue. Although called a Toccata (from the Italian “toccare“, to touch, and featuring lightly-fingered, fast-moving, virtuosic passages or sections to demonstrate the player’s dexterity: the third piece from Debussy’s ‘Pour le Piano’ suite is a fibrillating Toccata which requires immense fleetness of touch – I haven’t attempted it yet….), this is really a ‘Toccata and Fugue’ in the manner of the (in)famous, D-minor Toccata and Fugue. The introductory material is recapitulated at the close of the piece: the middle section is all fugue.

I played as far as bar 34, just after the subject and counter-subject of the Fugue are heard for the first time; this is all I have learnt so far (and I know this piece is going to be a long and satisfying learning process). My teacher complimented me on my playing, my phrasing and ability to highlight the ‘voices’ (I have never been keen on “monochrome” Bach-playing). We did some work on the opening measures, and then she turned to me and said “Can you explain the structure of a Fugue to me?” – and for a moment I was a 12 year old again, back in Rickmansworth, with my previous teacher, Mrs Murdoch, one of the “48” open on the music rack in front of me, a diagram of the construction of a fugue pencilled-in at the top of the page, which looked something like this:

Fugue Subject__________________________________________

______________Counter-Subject___________________________

_____________________________________Stretto___________

_______________Free Counterpoint_________________________

I managed to prevent myself from woffling about subjects, counter-subjects, stretto and suchlike to my current teacher, and admitted that I had not had to study a Bach fugue since A-level music, over 25 years ago. But as I spoke the various elements that make up the fugue in the Toccata from the BWV 830 seemed to spring out of the music before me, and as Penny asked me to identify the Subject, Answer, Counter-Subject, Codetta and so forth, I found myself playing each example as it appeared. Three pages in, and the music becomes more close-textured, and I was really enjoying this game of “hunt the Fugue”. Meanwhile, Penny was busy writing out my “homework” for me.

On my food blog, I have written about two “deconstructed pies” I recently cooked, where I took the constituent ingredients of two classic pies (steak & kidney and chicken & mushroom), and reconstructed them so that the key elements (filling, pie crust) were obvious and separate. In the same way, my teacher has set me the task of deconstructing Bach’s fugue, identifying the constituent elements and laying them out in such a way (on manuscript paper) so that each one stands alone. By highlighting each element, and writing it out in a different colour, I will be able to fully comprehend the architecture of Bach’s fugue, down to the tiniest detail, and will, I hope, know the piece intimately before I actually play it – rather like stripping out all the curlicues, traceries, columns and pediments of a great Baroque church of Mitteleuropa to see how it was built.

“I’ll start this on the way home” I thought excitedly as I left my teacher’s home and began my great trek back to south London. With a 90-minute commute in prospect, I could get quite a lot done, but tiredness overtook me by the time I reached Waterloo and I spent most of my homeward journey listening to Murray Perahia’s marvellous recording of the Partitas. In the Toccata, under his fingers, we hear great arches of sound (that Baroque church again), a lulling inner-heartbeat, and a middle section redolent of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, with its fanciful codettas and cadenzas. This is one of the things I love about Perahia’s playing – his ability to highlight all the interior architecture, the harmonies, textures and voices. He does it with Chopin too, reminding us that Fred’s music is not just about “laahvely melodies”.

Meanwhile, as I traversed the London Transport system and considered the notes my teacher had made for me to set me on the task of mapping Bach’s landscape, with the different elements of the fugue highlighted in different colours, it occurred to me that my map of the fugue might not be so different from the London Tube map – coloured lines converging and veering off again, each with a distinct place, and role, in the construction of the whole. Just a thought….

I’m off to buy coloured pencils and a big pad of manuscript paper: I’ve got homework to do!

Explanation of a Fugue

Postscript – a note on Bach’s ornamentation:

When I played the opening measures of the Fugue for my teacher, I played “old school” mordents, the decoration beginning ON the note. This is how I was taught to play such decorations when I first encountered Bach, way back when…..  Modern scholarship (within my pianistic lifetime) suggests that a mordent should begin on the note ABOVE (thus, in the example given here, the decoration starts not on E but on F-sharp), thus creating some wonderfully crunchy harmonies and moments of tension.

Links

Bach’s Ornament Table