Pianist and writer Christine Stevenson is marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude Debussy by exploring an A to Z of Debussy’s piano music in a series of blog posts. Each entry contains interesting facts about the pieces discussed, as well as analytical and stylistic notes, video and sound clips. Alongside this well-written and well-researched blog, Christine has been performing piano repertoire by Debussy in a series of recitals.
Tchaikovsky – Scherzo à la Russe, Op. 1 No. 1 Intermezzo in E flat minor, Op. 1 No. 2
Prokofiev – Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 1
Bartók – Rhapsody, Op. 1
Schumann – Abegg Variations, Op. 1
Berg – Sonata, Op. 1
Brahms – Sonata No. 1 in C major, Op. 1
Peter Donohoe, piano
Acclaimed British pianist Peter Donohoe opened the 2012-13 season of concerts hosted by Sutton House Music Society with a coruscating performance of music by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Bartók, Schumann, Berg and Brahms. Intriguingly entitled ‘Opus 1’, the programme featured early works by these great composers. As Peter said in his introduction, ‘Opus 1’ does not indicate the first ever piece written by the composer, but rather the first published work. These works are revealing in that they all contain fascinating pre-echoes of the composers’ later music, as well as highlighting the diversity, originality, and future maturity of these composers. The theme of the concert also enabled contrasting composers – Tchaikovsky and Berg, for example – to be programmed together. The first half of the concert was all Slavic composers, the second all Germanic.
“My first published piece was Scherzo à la russe, Op. 1″ so wrote Tchaikovsky in a letter to Nadezha von Meck, in 1879. Dedicated to the great pianist Nikolai Rubinstein (who famously rejected Tchaikovsky’s first Piano Concerto as unplayable), the Scherzo a la russe and Impromptu in E-flat minor both show evidence of the composer’s later style, particularly that of the Nutcracker ballet score.
The Scherzo, based on a Ukrainian song which the composer heard from the gardeners at Kamenka, the home of his sister, begins innocently enough, with a naive melody, executed with a disarming simplicity by Donohoe, before moving into more chorale-like territory. The return to the opening theme is marked by cascades of octaves, all handled with ease. The Impromptu, meanwhile, marked ‘Allegro Furioso’, opens in a brash, excitable gallop, cast in unremitting quaver triplets, which gives way to an arresting, Chopinesque middle section played with great expression and beauty of tone.
Anyone familiar with Prokofiev’s later works, striking for their uncompromising, exciting and original harmonic landscapes, could be forgiven for mistaking the Sonata No. 1 for a work by Glazunov (one of Prokofiev’s professors). Although not part of the composer’s juvenilia, nor does it hint at his later style: rather, it is a showcase of the composer’s pianistic skills. It was not especially well-received, and was attacked by modernists for being “too orthodox”, perhaps because it shows the influence of composers such as Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Busoni, and, above all, Anton Rubinstein (a favourite composer of Prokofiev’s mother). Scored in a single movement in rigid sonata form (exposition, development, recapitulation), it suggests an unwritten second and third movement, and has a sweeping lyricism with a strong emphasis on melody. It was played with flamboyance, with bright fortes and passages of great warmth, intensity and romance.
Bartok’s Rhapsody Opus 1 is full of premonitions of his later works – bass drones, open fifths, folk melodies and dances – yet has a strong affinity with Liszt in its thunderous virtuosic passages, sweeping scale and its masterful juxtaposition of the ethereal (in the opening Adagio) with the ominous in the boisterous and colourful second section. It was performed with great involvement and commitment, Donohoe highlighting perfectly the contrasting moods, colours and textures of the music, including some wittily executed glissandi and hushed pianissimo passages.
Schumann’s ‘Abegg Variations‘ felt like more familiar territory, with arabesques and fiorituras, and cantabile melodies redolent of Chopin. Despite its opus number, this work was neither Schumann’s first work, nor his first set of variations. With its letter-to-pitch derivations, the music prefigures ‘Carnaval’, and the later fugues on the name BACH. Each variation was executed with delicacy of touch, a rich mellifluous tone, and sparkling flourishes.
The Berg Sonata, like the Prokofiev, is cast in a single movement, with an exposition that includes two contrasting themes, a development section in which the themes are expanded, a recapitulation, in which the themes are restated, and a plaintive coda. It makes use of many tonal suspensions, which create some particularly haunting passages. The work is poignant and passionate, with a dramatic intensity, which Donohoe maintained throughout, playing with great commitment, at times as if for himself alone.
In contrast, the Brahms Piano Sonata opens with a thrilling opening gesture reminiscent of Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata, offset by a tender second theme, which prefigures the composer’s later writing for the piano. The slow movement is tender and songful, the Scherzo all Beethovenian swagger and rhythmic vitality, while the Finale reprises the ‘Hammerklavier’ idea in a dancing Rondo theme with contrasting episodes. In it, Donohoe demonstrated his ability to switch seamlessly between power and resolution, and warmth and lyricism. This was truly a thrilling finale to a fascinating, insightful and deeply involving concert.
Sutton House Music Society is based at Sutton House, a Tudor house run by the National Trust in Hackney, east London. Concerts are held in Wenlock Barn, an intimate recital space which allows audience to feel very connected and involved with the performer/s. The Music Society hosts a varied selection concerts, offering audiences the chance to hear top-flight artists as well as up-and-coming talents. For details of forthcoming concerts, please click here.
The next concert at Sutton House is on Sunday 18th November and is given by pianist Elena Riu. Elena will feature in a Meet the Artist interview ahead of her concert.
Platinum Consort will be performing at St Giles Cripplegate, in the heart of the City of London, on Friday 16th November, in a programme featuring three world premieres – two works by Platinum’s composer-in-residence, Richard Bates, and one by David Ianni. Following on from their stunning concert at King’s Place (which I had the great pleasure of reviewing), this promises to be a fabulous evening of choral music, in a beautiful setting. For a taster, Platinum Consort have released a short film:
To coincide with this concert, I will be publishing my Meet the Artist interview with David Ianni, composer of ‘Consecration Prayer’, together with a guest post by Scott on the excitement and challenges of working on new commissions.
In the words of Robert Schumann, “Endeavour to play easy pieces well and with elegance; that is better than to play difficult pieces badly.” In other words, know your limits and keep within them. You may want to learn the Mephisto Waltz, but if you are not technically, physically or intellectually ready for it, you will feel frustrated.
2. Record and film yourself.
Recording and filming practice and performance is a crucial tool in evaluating how we are progressing. Our music sounds different when heard away from the piano. Never listen to a recording as soon as you’ve made it: wait a few days and then listen. Be positively critical and assess what you like and dislike about your performance. Make notes on your recording in your score or practice diary, away from the piano.
Don’t just listen once. Use repeated listenings to evaluate aspects such as rhythm, intonation, tone quality, expression, dynamic range.
A video is helpful for checking posture (in particular stiff or raised shoulders), gestures and mannerisms, grimacing/smiling, and stage presence.
3. E is for Excellence
When we practice, whatever we are practising, we should aim for ease, expressiveness, accuracy, rhythmic vitality, beautiful tone quality, focused attention. Do not play forcefully through difficult passages or at a tempo which is beyond us.
4. Mistakes are helpful!
Errors highlight gaps in our preparation, providing crucial feedback. Remember – there is a ‘perfect wrong note’! Isolate the problems, understand why they happened, and strive to solve them so they do not occur again.
5. Ask others for feedback
The views of teachers, mentors, colleagues and friends are all useful. Get into the habit of playing for others and actively seek their feedback. What did they like or dislike about the performance? We should ask others to critique not just our playing but also programme notes, concert attire, stagecraft and presentation skills. Take on board all comments and do not be perturbed by negative feedback; rather, use it positively to improve the performance.
6. Don’t cloud the vision
Most of us engage in music because we care passionately about it and love what we do. However, when evaluating our work, it is important to retain a degree of detachment, to stand back from the music and view it dispassionately, as if reviewing someone else’s performance.
Consider what you liked and disliked about this or that phrase, the ornamentation, dynamic colour, expressiveness, phrasing, use of rubato, etc.
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?
My grandmother taught music at school and my aunt is a pianist, so I was familiar with the piano, but it was presented as something of importance and treated as such, so I didn’t have much access to it. And I didn’t even know what it was called! Then my mother asked me if I wanted to take piano lessons. I said ‘yes’ because the name sounded somehow pretty and magical to me and I expected something – I was 3 or 4. I’m glad I said yes then! And all followed accordingly as I continued playing. There were few moments of difficulties but I’m glad to be where I am now. Playing he piano is my job but it is also my way of life, a form of being musician.
Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?
I had truly great teachers who taught me how to be not only a better musician and pianist but also a better human being. But my greatest influences have been always of my fellow musician friends.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?
It depends on the orchestras and ensemble, and also the pieces you are playing. Sometimes, the lack of rehearsal time, but this could also be an exciting factor.
Which recordings are you most proud of?
Well, my first commercial CD featuring Debussy and Takemitsu will be released on Claudio Records at the end of October! Claudio developed their cutting edge new recording system especially for these two composers and the venue, St Bartholomew’s in Brighton, and we had a wonderful instrument to play on too. The result is quite amazing, and we are very proud.
Do you have a favourite concert venue?
I don’t know many prestigious venues, which I I’m sure I could have listed here. But so far, the Wigmore Hall and Salle Gaveau in Paris are two of my favourite venues to perform in. Both halls provide the right balance between intimacy and distance, which allows both audience and performers to concentrate on the musical communication. I think for a live concert, you don’t necessarily need the perfect acoustics or instruments to achieve this.
Who are your favourite musicians?
I am a big fan of the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen! I also admire the piano playing of the late Vlado Perlemuter. In fact it was he who encouraged me to come to Paris when I played Chopin’s 3rd Ballade for him when I was very young. I didn’t actually study with him, but stayed there in my formative years for nearly 7 years before settling in London, so it was important event and I have always liked his music since then.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I would like all my concerts to be memorable and I remember every single performance I have given so far, as most of performers do, I believe. There is no storage limit for this kind of memory.
What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?
Debussy. I also love the sound of the oboe d’amore, so tend to get recordings which feature the instrument.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?
To inspire and get inspired. Because I think inspiration is one of the most powerful ways of communication. I wouldn’t say ‘there is no inspiration’ as some of the greatest composers used to say.
What are you working on at the moment?
Scriabin Piano Sonatas for the next Claudio CD. Also Christian Mason’s ‘On Love and Death’ for soprano sax and piano.
What do you enjoy doing most?
I have recently started pastel drawings, mainly the portraits of my musician friends. It makes you realise so many things and you learn so much from it.
Born in Tokyo in 1972, Rika began playing the piano at the age of five, inspired by her pianist aunt Yoshiko Ogimi and encouraged by her mother who was an amateur violinist. Following the completion of her study at the Tokyo Metropolitan High School of Music and Fine Arts, she moved to Paris and took private lessons with Michel Béroff and Denis Pascal for three years. She also studied with Louis-Claude Thirion and obtained a 1er prix à l’unanimité (piano) and a gold medal (chamber music) from the Conservatoire de Boulogne-Billancourt.
She moved to London in 1995 and studied with Maria Curcio, the legendary pupil of Artur Schnabel for more than five years. Rika continued her study with Joan Havill and the late Paul Hamburger at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and obtained her Postgraduate Diploma and Master’s Degree in music performance.
In 2006, she has completed her thesis on the music of Tōru Takemitsu entitled To the Edge of Sound: Tōru Takemitsu’s works for soloist and orchestra at the University of York. Her research interests broadly across the period of global musical exchange since the late 19th century. She is currently undertaking a research on the relation of music to the surrealism.
She is an advocate of new music and gave several world premieres in the UK and abroad. It is her great privilege to have worked with composers such as, Thomas Simaku and John Stringer – but also Evis Sammoutis, Ian Dickson, Christian Mason and many others.
She gave the first performance of her piano transcription of Takemitsu’s Requiem for string orchestra at St. Martin-in-the-fields in London to critical acclaim. Her new album featuring piano works by Debussy and Takemitsu is released on Claudio Records.
Rika Zayasu performs as a recitalist, soloist with orchestras, and chamber musician. Her recent appearances include London, Paris, and Tokyo. During the 2012/13 season, she will make several appearances in the UK, at the venues including St John’s Smith Square in London, West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge, and Sir Jack Lyon’s Concert Hall in York.
She currently lives in London with her husband and a Welsh springer spaniel.
Thinking about studying at music college? This guest post by Madelaine Jones, a third-year student at Trinity-Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance, will give you a flavour of student life at a top London conservatoire…..
Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance in Greenwich
“So where do you study, then? What subject?”
“Oh, I’m a piano student. I study at a conservatoire.”
Cue either the hostile look of ‘that’s not actually a degree, is it?’ (unfortunately, I have experienced this), the confusion at the fact that I attend an alien type of institution that sounds shockingly similar to something you grow plants in (amusingly, I have also experienced this), or the look of sheer terror at the fact that I clearly must spend 14 hours a day chained to a piano and have no shred of a life away from a keyboard. To fellow musicians who’ve never experienced conservatoire life, there is this strange misconception that conservatoire musicians are work-machines who never do anything but practice, practice, practice – and while I’m sure there are some music students out there whose lives resemble something of the sort, the vast majority of conservatoire students have far more varied and interesting lives than you’d ever given them credit for.
Over the last three years of college, I have met people who work consistently throughout the year, putting a few hours in every day, come rain or shine. I have also met people who won’t touch a piano for weeks at a time and will wing their exams after cramming furiously at the last minute. Similarly, I’ve met people who study avidly, listening and reading as much as they possibly can. I’ve also met people who haven’t touched a book since they left school and who would far rather go to a Lady Gaga concert than a Wigmore Hall recital any day of the week. The spectrum of people, abilities and ambitions at a music college is simply staggering, and to cast a blanket over the average conservatoire student and their experience of college life would be absolutely impossible.
Personally speaking, the most important part of any conservatoire education is Principal Study time (or, to scrap the jargon, one-to-one instrumental lessons with a teacher). During your time at college, your teacher is your mentor and probably the biggest influence you’re going to have musically – I do even know some people who picked their college solely for their instrumental teacher. As with scary practice myths, there seems to be this misconception that all teachers at conservatoires are incredibly hard taskmasters who crack the whip incessantly and have ridiculous expectations. True, there are some teachers like that – and generally it’s the pupils who want to be pushed who opt for those teachers. But equally, there are plenty of empathetic teachers out there. My Principal Study teacher is quite simply one of the most understanding and patient teachers I have ever had (given my somewhat temperamental disposition, she’s got the patience of a saint!), and the lack of pushiness doesn’t in any way deter me or make me want to work less. If anything, it inspires me to work harder so that I can try and repay her for her kindness and understanding by becoming a better pianist. But there are some people I know who would hate to have a teacher that, frankly, didn’t kick them up the backside every five minutes, else they’d get complacent.
The freedom to do what you want at a conservatoire is, without any shadow of a doubt, both a blessing and a curse. In terms of timetabled activities, I don’t actually have a lot of classes: there are a few academic classes every week, a few optional ensemble classes, a performance tutorial, but in terms of compulsory lectures to attend, there’s really not much to pin your day around. This can be a blessing if you’re motivated enough to use it wisely: you can practice, read about music (or anything else), go to concerts, widen your view on the world, and still have time to get all your work for college done. You can also fill your time with extra-curricular projects and performances. Over the past two years, I’ve taken harpsichord lessons and occasionally participated in Early Music projects, which has been a great experience. Other people I know have signed up for various orchestral projects or completely saturated their timetable with chamber music. So, for people who really want to get involved, having a sparse timetable with access to practice facilities and a whole range of optional classes is a blessing. However, the question of motivation is always an issue. Let’s face it, if you had nothing but a couple of hours of classes on your timetable every day, wouldn’t you be tempted to sneak more than the odd lie-in too? Wouldn’t that picnic in the park, mid-June and gorgeously sunny, sound more appealing than a day in a sweaty practice room to you? Where there is freedom, there is always the temptation to stray off the path of hard work. It’s just up to the individual how much they want to let themselves stray.
So when people ask me what a conservatoire is like, as you can see, there’s such a giant scope of different experiences that it’s difficult to pin down a single explanation. It will vary from person to person, conservatoire to conservatoire (experiences in other colleges may be different – those of you who attend ridiculously competitive institutions, berate me if you wish). To sum up the average experience, given those I know and see on a day-to-day basis, I would say this: a conservatoire is strange little bubble of a world where everybody talks about Schumann like they know him personally, drinks coffee incessantly, finds it normal to spend more than 10 hours in college and only have spent half of them actually practising and fills the rest of the time either frittering away their life in the café, avoiding work, or, if they’re one of the blessedly motivated few, reading and listening and broadening their mind. It really is a truly wonderful – if a little surreal – place to study, and even in the stressy exam periods, I am very happy to say I chose to come to a conservatoire and have enjoyed my time immensely so far (sadly, I’m now halfway through my degree). To me, the best part of it all is that since everyone is studying the same subject, and college is so small, there’s a great sense of camaraderie in a conservatoire which you don’t get in your average university. Everyone has a shared love, and everyone’s in the same boat – a boat which, with any luck, would have good sound-proofing.
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. She was the winner of the Gladys Puttick Improvisation Competition 2012 with duo partner and dancer, Adam Russell. 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 previous recipient of an LCM London Music Schools and Teachers Award, and is also a keen writer in her spare time. She reviews for international concert and opera listings site Bachtrack, and is a regular guest contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog.
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