Radio 3 is currently revelling in a major Mozart-fest, by broadcasting “every note he wrote” between now and January 12th. It has been a pleasure to tune in intermittently during the day and hear excerpts from his operas, choral works, symphonies, piano music, chamber music, and much more, reminding us of his immense and varied output, and in yesterday’s Breakfast show (presented by Rob Cowan), listeners were treated to a truly wonderful live performance by the Heath Quartet of the Divertimento in D major, K.136, which surely is a first for the Breakfast programme. (You can find a full programme listing and listen again here)

Other delights include Play Mozart for Me, a late-night request programme presented by Sarah Mohr-Pietsch. Listeners are invited to send in their requests, and to write to Sarah with thoughts on their favourite Mozart pieces, or why Mozart is important to them, or indeed any other personal ‘Mozartiana’. There are lunchtime concerts, evening performances, blogs and forums – and there is even a Mozart Mash-up where you can download 20 Mozart fragments, and create your own 60 second “mash up” (I am downloading the material as I write – just for fun). The best clips will be broadcast (and if my own mash up is successful, I will add a soundclip to this blog).

All this Mozart-mania suggests that “Wolfie” remains perennially popular, and Radio 3’s plethora of programmes and related articles, videos, blogs, interviews seems a great way to encourage more people to discover him. Many of us had our first encounters with his music as young children or novice students. Some of his earliest, most youthful piano pieces (many of which were written before he’d reached his teens) appear in the syllabuses of the early graded music exams, and I am sure most of us can recall a Fantasia or Sonata or two which we learnt when we were more advanced pianists.

While Mozart may be master of the Classical period, Franz Liszt, the bicentenary of whose birth is celebrated this year, is undoubtedly king of the Romantics. Let us hope Radio 3 finds a way to celebrate this all too-often misunderstood and under-represented composer with similar panache and enthusiasm.

For more on Radio 3’s Genius of Mozart season click here.

The holiday is over, and my students return next week for the start of the spring term – which means I must get organised! As I start to plan the upcoming term, with the usual emphasis on finessing pieces for exams later in the spring, and encouraging students to think “musically”, a quote from the pianist Artur Schnabel comes to mind, that bar lines – like children – should be seen and not heard.

When I introduce the way music is constructed and written to novice students, I explain that bar lines are there to “keep the music tidy”, and that each ‘measure’ of music is separated by a bar line. This immediately sets them up as notional hurdles to keep the unruly sheep of notes tethered in the right place. Quite soon after, students meet phrase marks, and are then presented with a conflict: bar lines forces the eye read music vertically, while phrase marks ask the eye to read horizontally.

Many novice students play music bar by bar,  literally “vertical” playing, since seeing the notes contained within each bar as a single entity that must not be allowed to stray along the stave seems to force the hand and fingers to adopt a piston-like up and down action, which can result in very chunky, “notey” and overly accented playing. Meanwhile, I try to encourage students to see music in terms of phrases, or “sentences”, as long strings of melody, and urge them to “read ahead” so that they are continually anticipating what is to come. Alongside this, I ask students to think about the movement of their hands, and to play with more relaxed, elliptical movements (“polishing” was one of the words I used with Bella to help her achieve a lovely fluidity in her Bach Prelude). This is one of the great conflicts of playing the piano: the mechanical action of the instrument requires an up-down movement to produce a sound, but to produce beautiful sound – which is what we all strive for, whether the quietest pianissimo or the most forceful fortissimo – one must free arms, hands and fingers to play with looser, more parallel movements, and learn how to distribute weight through the fingers or to allow the arms and back to draw weight away from the fingers.

With practice, one learns to read the music horizontally, and good keyboard geography will enable a student to stop checking their hand/finger position every bar. And so, from reading line by line, one goes on to take in the whole page in a single glance. I tell my adult students that reading music is like driving: one must look at the road ahead to anticipate hazards, speed markings, and stop signs. Anticipation is crucial, for it allows one to play fluently, and seeing beyond the bar lines helps to avoid placing unnecessary emphasis on the first beat of every bar. When looking at new music, I now ask all my students, children or adults, to point out phrase marks, tempo, dynamic and articulation markings, and any other signs or symbols which they need to be aware of in their journey through the score. Thus, the music becomes a map – and the job of the pianist is to navigate and interpret it.

Of course, it would be far easier, in many ways, if bar lines did not exist. Without these hurdles and dividers, our eyes would automatically take in the score horizontally and read along the stave rather than up and down it, and we would be able to achieve more nuanced phrasing and fluent playing. As it is, the majority of music we encounter will be divided into measures, and so we must train our eyes to see past the bar lines, to read the score as a whole rather than in small sections, and to strive for a coherent, fluid and well-shaped reading,

With all this in mind, I really should be practising…….

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.