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A recent search thread which led someone to my blog – “classical music you should be practising” – set me thinking: what are the “must plays” of the standard repertoire, and why?

Please feel free to join the discussion and leave your comments and suggestions. I will then compile a proper blog post.

To get the conversation going, I have so far:

Bach – Partitas, WTC and Italian Concertos

Chopin – Etudes

Use the comment box to leave your suggestions, or contact me via Twitter @crosseyedpiano.

by Madelaine Jones

Say the name Balakirev to a musician and the first word to pass their lips will most probably be Islamey, the terrifyingly difficult Oriental Fantasy that the composer is most renowned for. Try Wagner, and Tristan and Isolde or Tannhäuser will closely follow suit. Dare to mutter the name Schoenberg, and horror at the thought of yet another piece of serialist, ‘plinky-plonky’ atonal music will turn them pale. And yet Balakirev has over 100 published works (and a great deal many more surviving manuscripts), Wagner wrote symphonies, piano sonatas and choral works as well as his operas, and Schoenberg didn’t write any atonal music at all until 1908, when he was 34 years old. It’s the same for almost any composer: we have a set handful of things that we most associate them with, and we mentally fill in the blanks from there, meaning that there is a whole catalogue’s worth of music that musicians don’t play, explore or programme because they simply don’t look beyond the obvious choices.

I decided last year that I was going try something a little different, so over the past 6 months, I have purposefully searched for some pieces I had never heard of before by (fairly) well-known composers and set out to learn them. As a result, I have had the pleasure of studying some fantastic pieces of music I would never have been exposed to had I not ventured a little off the traditional path. Here is a selection of pieces I’ve come across on my hunt for new repertoire:

Saint-Saëns: Mazurka in G minor, Op. 21

We all know Chopin was a prolific mazurka writer, but it turns out Saint-Saëns actually wrote a small handful of them too. Three separately published mazurkas written by Saint-Saëns exist, the earliest (the op. 21 in G minor) written in 1862, 13 years after Chopin’s death. The G minor Mazurka is full of cheekiness and wit, from the repeated ‘ping’ of the bass line to the waltz-like lyrical middle section. The whole thing sparkles with charm, and makes a great little character piece, or alternatively, the three in a set make an interesting item for any programme (the other two mazurkas, op. 24 and op. 66, are also both full of character and rhythmic intrigue). The link I’ve included is not necessarily the best recording of the work I’ve heard, but it’s a recording by Saint-Saëns himself, which I personally found remarkably interesting to listen to.

Balakirev: Scherzo No. 1 in B Minor

As I mentioned earlier, we tend to know Balakirev for his Islamey and nothing else, but he was in fact a prolific writer for piano and a far greater figure in Russian music history than we frequently credit him for. After listening to a BBC podcast about Balakirev last year, I heard a short clip of the B Minor Scherzo and became determined to learn it, despite having to have the music shipped in from Russia (and finding only one recording on Amazon!). The piece was written in 1856, and juxtaposes a fierce, majestic opening with a beautifully poignant, lyrical middle section. Dainty filigree in the right hand is then followed again by rich, virulent chords, the calm of the middle succeeded by a drama and passion with a triumphant coda to finish. In my opinion, the piece easily rivals the famous Chopin Scherzos for its dramatic outbursts, twists and turns, though with a distinctly Russian feel to the harmony. Learning-wise, it’s not an easy piece: the octaves are an absolute killer (a struggle for anyone with small hands, definitely!) but it is well worth struggling through for the sake of learning such a wonderful piece of music.

Shostakovich: Aphorisms, Op. 13

While pianists probably know Shostakovich best for his Preludes and Fugues, a modern take on the Bach Well-Tempered Clavier, there are some delightful (yet slightly more experimental!) sets of pieces by Shostakovich out there. His Aphorisms, Op. 13, was written in 1927, and consists of 10 short ‘character’ pieces which are, interestingly, far more atonal that some of his later works. The work is kicked off with the Recitative, a contrapuntal yet lyrical introduction, with the set going on to include a Nocturne (in free-time, very improvisatory), an 8-bar Elegy, a Dance Of Death (the initially child-like tune mixed with the Dies Irae theme proves to be very macabre) and a Lullaby (surprisingly soothing despite the innovative choices of harmony). The set really shines a different light on Shostakovich, allowing us to see how his remarkable nature for innovation developed from his artistic experiments as a 21-year-old, and the set is a wonderful work to play, being both technically challenging and stretching the imagination with regard to interpreting the titles.

Madelaine Jones is currently a student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, studying piano and harpsichord with Penelope Roskell and James Johnstone respectively. Her ensemble experience as a pianist has included working alongside the BBC Singers, the Medway Singers and the Walderslade Primary School Choir, and she has performed as a harpsichordist and chamber organist in the Greenwich International Early Music Festival alongside Trinity Laban’s various Early Music Ensembles. Madelaine is a recent recipient of an LCM London Music Schools and Teachers Award, and is also a keen writer in her spare time.

Twitter: @madelainemusic

Franz Schubert's eyeglasses on the manuscript of the song "Gretchen am Spinnrad", Schubert Museum, Vienna

 

Music journalist and author Jessica Duchen makes a passionate case for the music of Franz Schubert in a recent article on her blog.

I’ve had a lifelong fascination with Schubert’s music, from an LP of the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony in my parents’ record collection to hearing my father playing ‘The Shepherd on the Rock’ on his clarinet, and my own early explorations with the Impromptus as a teenage piano student, explorations which continue to fascinate me today. I think Jessica says it all – read her article here.

Michael Collins (clarinet) – Der Hirt Auf Dem Felsen (The Shepherd On The Rock)

by James MacMillan

I was in London this week working with a group of young composers (http://lso.co.uk/composing). This has been a marvellous new initiative over the last few years from the education and outreach department of the London Symphony Orchestra. Basically, six young new composers are chosen every year to compose a short work for the orchestra. They are mentored through the year by the composer Colin Matthews. They regularly meet the players, some of whom give specialist workshops and instruction. I have seen and heard sessions on writing for viola, harp, percussion etc. The class also attend many orchestral rehearsals and concerts throughout the year too. They get to know the players.

Last year Colin had a sabbatical so I was asked to step in and do the mentoring. I met the young composers on various occasions to see how the music was developing and to discuss progress, touching on practical, technical, stylistic and aesthetical questions.

This year, was Colin was back, and I was asked to conduct the final workshop. This is open to the public and takes place at the wonderful St Luke Centre, the LSO’s new base near the Barbican. It was a fascinating insight into the new generation of composers. Most were British this year, but there was also a German and a Korean. Last year some of the composers came from Canada, South Africa and Armenia.

There is no single style or approach discernible, but I have noticed that they are not afraid of writing fast music! It may seem strange to say this, but 30 years ago when I was their age, many of us found it difficult to write fast music. The general pulse was slow, but each beat seemed to be filled with frantic activity. I think we thought it was old-fashioned to write fast music, and the connections between rhythm and harmony seemed broken so long ago that we felt lost as to whether music should have ‘direction’ and ‘aim.’

Not so nowadays with the young. Some felt that the reason for this might have been the influence of minimalism over the last three decades, or perhaps the openness to popular culture. There is certainly less self-consciousness now with harmony and a sense of drama, which may have been off-bounds for composers in the previous generation, more in thrall to the ideological experiments of ‘modernism’.

Anyway, it was intriguing to hear the contributions on all of this from the composers, the players and those who turned up to hear the works being rehearsed and dissected. The place was full of composers! Many were from the London colleges who may have been friends and associates of the chosen group. Their teachers were present, including Julian Anderson and Simon Bainbridge.

I know that this kind of project is taking off all over the country. It helps young composers immensely, and introduces others to the kind of thinking that goes on in the minds of musical creators today. Long may it continue.

© James MacMillan

James MacMillan is one of today’s most successful living composers and is also internationally active as a conductor. His musical language is flooded with influences from his Scottish heritage, Catholic faith, social conscience and close connection with Celtic folk music, blended with influences from Far Eastern, Scandinavian and Eastern European music. His major works include percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, which has received more than 400 performances, a cello concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich, large scale choral-orchestral work Quickening, and three symphonies. Recent major works include his St John Passion, co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Boston Symphony and Rundfunkchor Berlin, and his Violin Concerto, co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Concertgebouw Zaterdag Matinee and the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris.

James MacMillan’s website

London Symphony Ochestra website

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