Monday 24th January, Wigmore Hall

Schubert – German Dances, Ländler, Valses Sentimentales; Brahms – 4 Klavierstücke, Op 119; Beethoven – Piano Sonata Opus 110; Chopin – Four Ballades

Encores: Chopin – Nocturne Op 9, No. 2; Dudley Moore Parody on a Beethoven Sonata

There is a mysterious fulfilling pleasure in watching any manual task being performed with infinite skill and grace, the agility and accuracy required, the finesse of touch and judgement. Thus, we admired Piers Lane’s superior technical prowess in the four Ballades of Chopin, and the applause that came spontaneously after he had completed the first one was, in part, an appreciation of the monumental technical effort involved in playing some of the most challenging music of the piano repertoire. After the fourth was safely delivered, the applause was even more rapturous, and perhaps tinged with relief, that the performance had been completed safely, accurately, and without mishap. Indeed, the playing was utterly pristine, and if it was lacking in depth or emotion at times, at least the performer’s technical assuredness could be admired.

This was my first concert of the new year, a varied programme which contained two great edifices of the standard repertoire: Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata, and Chopin’s Four Ballades.

The concert opened with a selection of Schubert’s D783 German Dances, Ländler (D790, No. 3), and Valses Sentimentales (D779). It is easy to forget, when hearing works like this in a formal concert setting, that these are salon pieces, written for the regular Schubertiades, which often took place in Schubert’s home, or the homes of his friends, and where assembled guests would take to the floor and dance. There is a light-heartedness in these pieces – indeed, some are positively rollicking – yet many of them are shot through with Schubert’s distinctive harmonic shifts, and the melancholy is never far away. They were a pleasing, inoffensive opener, and one had the sense of Piers Lane clearing the way for the big warhorses to come.

I was not, until this evening, familiar with the Brahms 4 Klavierstücke, Op 119, though I had listened to extracts of them on iTunes earlier in the day. The first, a meditation on descending thirds, was utterly sublime, “teeming with dissonances”, as Brahms warned Clara Schumann, and freighted with sadness, as each note of every bar was sounded so carefully. The second was breathless and agitated, with a contrastingly tender middle section, whose melody returned at the end, allowing the music to fade away nostalgically. The third was playful and graceful, while the fourth, a rhapsody marked Allegro risoluto, was confident and full-blooded, full of pent-up energy, and generous in its thematic content.

And so to the Beethoven Sonata….. Here, I must admit to a love affair with this piece which borders on an obsession. It is my Desert Island Disc (a choice I share with tenor Ian Bostridge, clearly a man of taste), but I would not take any old recording with me to my Desert Island. No, it has to be the right one. For me, Arrau is hard to match (as he is with all of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas); equally, Glenn Gould, for all his eccentricities (and on the recording I have, one can ‘enjoy’ his humming and muttering accompaniments in the Arioso), brings a Quasi una Fantasia feel to the piece, segueing effortlessly from one movement to another, in a continuous stream of Beethovenian consciousness, while, in his hands, the final fugue is a peon of praise, as glorious as a peel of celebratory bells, life-affirming and uplifting. Another favourite performance, or rather performances, given by a friend in unusual and intimate venues, is remarkable for its meditative qualities, and its ability to remind us that this is music that goes to the very heart of what it is to be a sentient, thinking human being. This is music which speaks of the meaning of life, shared values, what it means to be alive, and which debates the basic philosophical questions of Beethoven’s time which still have relevance to us today. Written towards the end of the composer’s life, at the same time as the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven’s last three sonatas (the Opus 110 is the last but one) prove that a whole universe can be contained in a single piece of music. This is not just music; this is philosophy.

Of course, Piers Lane had no idea that I was placing such a huge responsibility upon him as he played the opening measures of the Opus 110, and, while I enjoyed his playing, it was no Desert Island choice. In the Arioso, particularly the section where the music literally dies back, and comes back to life little by little (and this is Beethoven’s actual instruction in the score – poi a poi di nuovo vivente), I did not feel that Piers Lane truly “breathed life” into the music, and the final fugue, which should sound triumphant, exultant with a sense of the music groping its way to daylight from some darker, outer firmament, started to unravel slightly, with uneven tempos. His playing was pristine (as it was throughout the entire performance), but it did not move me.

Chopin’s Four Ballades are considered to be some of the most challenging works in the piano repertoire, a fact from which I draw a certain amount of smug satisfaction, for I am learning the First Ballade, at the suggestion of my teacher. It is rare to hear them performed back to back, since they are technically and physically demanding. They are each sufficiently different to be performed as stand-alone works, but it was wonderful to hear all four in a one siting.

Chopin ‘invented’ the Ballade, deriving it from its poetic and vocal cousins, and was the first composer to apply the term to a purely instrumental piece. It was later taken up by composers such as Liszt and Brahms. The Ballades are innovative in form in that they cannot be placed in any other form, for example, Sonata form. Despite sharing the same title, each is highly distinct, with its own character, though all share certain attributes, such as the clever use of “lost” or “ambiguous” keys, exquisite delayed gratification through unresolved harmonies, contrasting, climactic passages, and moments of pure romanticism. The structure of the pieces does not suggest a firm narrative; rather, the listener is able to form his or her own narrative as the music unfolds. (The Third, for example, has a “ticking clock” motif which brings to mind a lovely image of Chopin working at Nohant, while an elegant carriage clock chimes on the mantelpiece, perhaps reminding him, poignantly, of the passing of time.)

Once again, I felt Piers Lane’s rendition of these monumental works lacked real depth, and it was only at the Fourth where he really seemed to settle into the music and finally get into his stride. The piano was too loud at times, so loud that it hurt, and occasionally the tone was marred by some very dodgy harmonics, a problem I noticed when I heard Leonskaja at the Wigmore last autumn (suggesting it’s the piano rather than the performer at fault). I do think it is important to remember the kind of sound Chopin was said to produce when he performed, or which he encouraged his students to strive for, and to bear in mind that the kind of piano he preferred (a French Pleyel) had a smaller voice than a modern concert Steinway. A little tempering of the fortes and fortissimos here and there would have brought more of Chopin’s famous “souplesse” to the music. (Interestingly, Piers Lane has talked very elegantly on the subject of Chopin’s music, as part of Radio 3’s bicentenary celebrations last year.) Nevertheless, it was an impressive performance, and the applause and curtain calls were absolutely deserved.

The Nocturne, played as a first encore, was relaxed and elegant, the fiorituras tripping off his fingers, as if he had just improvised them there and then. Perhaps this is because it is easier to play an encore like this when the main job of the night is done? But the evening was not yet over. Returning to the stage once again, Piers Lane announced that he would play “a very naughty piece” – Dudley Moore’s hilariously clever parody of a Beethoven sonata.

Wigmore Hall

Dudley Moore playing his Beethoven Parody

Something else that came to my attention via Facebook. Enter your birth date, and the website BibliOZ.com will flag up the New York Times bestsellers from the week of your birth.

I was amused to find the following featured in my birth date bestseller list:

Fiction

Valley of the Dolls – Jacqueline Susann

The Secret of Santa Vittoria – Robert Crichton

The Birds Fall Down – Rebecca West

Giles Goat Boy – John Barth

The Adventurers – Harold Robbins

Non-Fiction

Human Sexual Response – Masters & Johnson

With Kennedy – Pierre Sallinger

The Search for Amelia Earhart – Fred Goerner

Flying Saucers: Serious Business – Frank Edwards

Get your birthday bestseller list here

 

Anthony Tommasini, music critic of the New York Times, has compiled a list of the top 10 classical music composers. This is not just a list plucked from the air, in the manner of the protagonist of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (who makes endless lists of songs. Rather, Mr Tommasini has polled readers, and provides ample justification for the inclusion of each composer on the list. Such lists are always subjective, but this is interesting because it has caused a stir amongst musicologists by seeming to give credibility to the idea of a classical Top Ten. Readers will, I am sure, have their own top 10, and I would be more than happy to hear about them!

See the list and read the accompanying article, including Mr Tommasini’s justification for inclusion of particular composers here

For what it’s worth, here is my own list (it is biased towards composers for the piano, of course):

1. Bach – obviously. The Grandfather of them all.

2. Haydn. Father of the symphony and ‘sonata’ as we understand it today. Beethoven’s teacher.

3. Mozart.

4. Beethoven. A revolutionary.

5. Schubert. Had a major impact on those that followed him, particularly Wagner, Mahler, Berlioz. Bridged the Classical and Romantic periods.

6. Chopin. Took the piano to its absolute limits and forced pianists to rethink the way the instrument was made and used. Helped in development of modern piano as we understand it today. Particularly influenced Debussy, Syzmanowski.

7. Liszt. Do not underestimate the wide-ranging influence of Franz Liszt.

8. Stravinsky. Father of 20th century ‘modern’ music.

9. Debussy. Impressionist and symbolist. Did incredible things with the piano – forget it’s a piano when playing his music!

10. Bartok. Draws on folk traditions and “the people’s music”.

 

This week I am wrestling with one of my personal pianistic bête noirs: the dread cross-rhythm (or ‘poly-rhythm’). I am ashamed to confess that at my time of life (mid-40s) and pianistic ability (advanced), I have never truly mastered playing a cross-rhythm (for example, triplets in right hand over duplet quavers in left hand). I suspect I was never taught how to do it properly by the teacher I had in my teens, though I do recall that one of my Grade 8 pieces, a Chopin Nocturne in D minor, had a few cross-rhythms, which were just skimmed over: I seemed to play them all right, and I passed my Grade 8 with a creditable mark. Unfortunately, for me, being able to play a cross-rhythm convincingly, and, more importantly, correctly, is a basic requirement for a pianist of my level of (so-called) expertise. It is also essential for the Debussy I am learning for my Diploma (the ‘Prelude’ from Pour le Piano), which contains a small section of triplets over semiquavers. For the uninitiated, playing a cross-rhythm is the pianistic equivalent of rubbing your stomach with one hand whilst patting your head with the other (or vice versa).

Over the years, my silly difficulty with the cross-rhythm has forced me to exclude a great deal of music from my repertoire: a good deal of Chopin, Schubert, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev has, until recently, remained a mystery to me, because I only have to see a group of triplets against quavers, and I go cold with fear.

A few years ago, I taught myself the opening movement of Schubert’s great last sonata, the D960 in B-flat Major. (I also taught myself the rest of sonata, but the glorious first movement was my main preoccupation). In the development section, there are six, yes six, bars of triplets in the right hand over duplets (pairs of quavers) in the left hand. This section marks the climax of the movement, and, when played correctly, is extraordinarily dramatic, as the two strands of music come together. Whenever I encountered this section, I just “fudged” it, playing a rough approximation of what it should sound like and feeling relieved when I reached the end of the section. A brief encounter with a piano teacher (one who I quickly dropped like the proverbial hot potato when I discovered some rather unsavoury truths about him – but that’s another story) gave me a little ditty to help cope with the cross-rhythms in the Schubert. A quick trawl of the internet earlier today, while trying to find a proper exercise to help me with the Debussy, threw up a number of rhymes and suchlike for this purpose, the most popular being “Nice Cup of Tea” or the variant “Cold Cup of Tea” to cope with triplets against duplets. Rhythmically, it works like this:

Nice (both notes together) Cup (2nd triplet) of (2nd duplet) Tea (3rd triplet).

It helps to tap the rhythm out on alternate knees while saying the words a few times before attempting it at the keyboard. This ‘system’ works for very short passages of three against two, or better still, one triplet group against two quavers. But try saying Nice Cup of Tea over and over again for six bars – as for the Schubert – and it quickly becomes apparent that one needs a more rigorous approach.

When I played the Schubert for my current teacher, at my first lesson with her, she immediately picked up my difficulty with the cross-rhythms in the development section, and gave me a neat exercise, which forces one to keep a regular pulse going (essential to ensure the notes of the cross-rhythm fall in the right place). Take the simplest one-octave C major arpeggio in the right hand, in triplets, descending from the C above middle C (C-G-E, C-E-G etc), while the left hand plays crotchet C’s and G’s on the beat (say, in 2/4 time). Get a good sense of the pulse before dividing the left hand rhythm into quaver duplets, and allowing the second duplet to fall just after the second triplet of the group. Be careful not to allow the triplets to turn into a dotted rhythm. I found this exercise really helpful as it prevents one from playing too mechanically and does not interrupt the flow of the music.

Other people advocate a more mathematical approach, involving diagrams and numbers. This is for 3 against 4, pulled from an ABRSM forum on the subject:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2
x       x        x       x      (x falls on every third beat)
o          o          o     (o falls on every fourth beat)

Now, count aloud while patting alternate knees: 1(Both) 2 3 4(left) 5(right) 6 7(left) 8 9(right) 10(left) 11 12

Do this very slowly at first and build up speed, until you can ‘feel’ the rhythm and you won’t have to count it in your head.

Sounds simple? I will be trying this method tomorrow with the Debussy….. I suspect there will be a degree of “fudging” involved: the tempo of the piece means that one could wing it, but I am sure my teacher would notice it – and I want to play it correctly! Very slow practice, playing the notes from left to right in the order they are written and making sure to stress the strong beat where both hands fall together may help my poor brain (and fingers) from getting in a tangle! Knowing each hand’s part intimately (from memory, ideally) should help too. Expect a follow up post on this subject in a few weeks’ time!

Meanwhile, here are some resources which I found helpful.

The first of Brahms’s 51 Exercises is an exercise in cross-rhythm, rather than a fingering exercise. Download a PDF file Brahms 51 Exercises No. 1

PDF Worksheet on Cross-Rhythms

Last year, I participated in several surveys of piano teachers in the UK, aimed at gathering more information about how many piano teachers are active currently, and the mode and method of piano teaching, as well as other related areas such as fees, average age/gender of students, study books used, teacher qualifications and ongoing professional development.

This preliminary survey, conducted by Sally Cathcart of The Oxford Piano Group, contains some diverting statistics. I was particularly interested to learn that piano teaching in the UK is unregulated, though many of us belong to professional bodies such as EPTA (European Piano Teachers’ Association), or ISM (Incorporated Society of Musicans). What troubles me is the lack of protection for music teachers in the event of an ‘incident’ or difficulties between teacher and pupil, from simple issues such as collecting overdue fees, to more serious accusations of ‘inappropriate’ behaviour and child abuse.

The Piano Survey – Preliminary Analysis Report

The Oxford Piano Group

As BBC Radio 3’s Genius of Mozart season drew to a close, last night’s late night request programme, Play Mozart for Me, featured music from the last year of Mozart’s life, including my request to hear the Rondo in A minor, K511, a piece which I have written about previously on this blog.

You can hear the entire programme via this link. My comments on the K511 come at about 2’40” in (near the end). The performance is by Richard Goode, though I had requested Mitsuko Uchida’s recording, which, to me, is pure perfection, with a liquid clarity and some passages of truly heart-rending melancholy….