When I was in the final throes of preparation for my ATCL Diploma in December 2011, my piano teacher gave me some very useful advice. “Try and remember what excited you about the pieces in the first place and what you like about them”. (Here’s what I wrote about the previous programme.) When one is preparing for a big exam, competition or recital/recital series, and one has been living with and working on the same repertoire for a long time (nearly 18 months in the case of some of my pieces), there is a terrible danger of growing bored with the music, or overworking it to such a degree that it starts to go stale. My students find it hard to grasp the concept of “over-practising”, which suggests to me that none of them do enough practising in the first place (!), though a couple have complained of this issue in recent weeks, with their exams coming up very soon. When one goes into the recital room on exam or concert day, it is important to have something extra to give, to add an edge to the pieces and to make them appear fresh, created anew for the audience or adjudicator.

When I was playing to a friend/colleague on Friday, I recalled over and over again, when we were discussing the pieces, why I like each and every one of them, and why, after such a long period getting to know them and immersing myself in their individual characters and intricacies, I still love them.

Bach – Concerto in D minor after Marcello BWV974

I’ve always loved Bach, from the time when I first encountered his music as a young piano student in the Two- and Three-Part Inventions, through the “48” to the Partitas for keyboard and Concerti for solo keyboard.  I was immediately struck by the beautiful serenity of the slow movement of this concerto, bookended by the upright and rhetorical opening movement and the joyous (despite its minor key) dancing Presto final movement. This has been a satisfying and absorbing piece to learn, and the one with which I always begin my practising, almost without fail. I love the way Bach retains some of the orchestral elements of the original concerto by Marcello, particularly in the first movement, and combines these with aspects – ornamentation, texture – which demonstrate the possibilities, both technically and emotionally, of the harpsichord (or piano).  I have written more extensively about this Concerto in a separate post).

Takemitsu – Rain Tree Sketch II

I wanted to include some 20th century music in my programme, for the sake of contrast, and I originally started learning one of Messiaen’s Preludes (the ‘Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste’/Song of Ecstasy in a Sad Landscape), but realised it would be a very long and challenging learning process. When I first heard the Rain Tree Sketches, I fell in love with the Debussyan and Messaienic references, the musical colours and meditative soundscape. I will learn the first Rain Tree Sketch in the near future. More about Takemitsu here.

Mozart – Rondo in A minor K 511

I first came across this late piano work in a concert given by Robert Levin with the OAE in 2007. I love its plaintive melancholy and the way it presents, in microcosm, almost every aspect of Mozart’s music from grand operatic statements and beautiful arias to string quartet articulation and Baroque references. I have been learning this work, on and off, for five years, and each time I come back to it, I find more things in it. It is one of the most difficult pieces I have ever learnt – not the notes which are relatively straightforward, but the shaping and the profound emotional content of this music.

Liszt – Sonetto 104 del Petrarca

I learnt the ‘Sonetto 123’ for my ATCL. It was my first serious foray into Liszt’s music, and I am so glad I took the plunge to start exploring his piano music. The three ‘Petrarch Sonnets’ come from the second year of the Années del pèlerinage (more here), and this is the most virtuosic and dramatic of the three. I felt it was important to have one big romantic work in the programme and I decided to steer clear of the obvious pieces, such as one of Chopin’s Ballades. I love the sweeping romanticism of this piece, its rapid changes of mood, and striking harmonic shifts.

Rachmaninov – Études-Tableaux in E flat and G minor, Op 33

I had never seriously learnt any Rachmaninov until I picked up these pieces. I had an idea that Rachmaninov’s Études were easier than Chopin’s (I was wrong!), and I felt it was better, once again, to steer clear of the more obvious choices such as two of Chopin’s Études, or the Opus 39 Études-Tableaux, which are more well known.. I like the Slavic flavour of these works, in particular the open fifths in the arpeggiated figure in the moody, elegaic G minor Étude-Tableau. (I have written more extensively on these pieces – here)

Rachmaninoff composed his Opus 33 Études-Tableaux between August and September of 1911, the year after he completed his Opus 32 Preludes, and while the Opus 33 shares some stylistic points with the Preludes, the pieces are very unlike them.

The pieces are intended as “picture studies”, evocations in music of visual stimuli, though Rachmaninoff was never specific about what inspired each piece; he preferred to leave such interpretations to listener and performer, suggesting they should “paint for themselves what it most suggests”, rather as Debussy does in his Études, and Préludes (whose titles appeared at the end of the piece in Debussy’s original score). And like the piano Études of Scriabin, Debussy and Messiaen, Rachmaninoff used these pieces to explore and exploit a wide variety of themes, textures and sonorities, the possibilities of the modern piano, and how music for it should be written. They are also related to Chopin’s Études Opp 10 and 25, for they make technical demands on the pianist, while also offering characterful, beautiful and varied writing for the instrument. (It is no accident that Rachmaninoff greatly admired Chopin, especially his ability to write exquisite piano miniatures.)

Performing all eight Études-Tableaux together could be considered to run counter to the composer’s original intentions: he published only six in his lifetime. Numbers three and five were published posthumously, though are often inserted amongst the six etudes in modern editions. Number four was transferred to the Opus 39 set. The works make various demands on the pianist: syncopations, alternating hands, changing time signatures, awkward extensions, brisk tempos, expressive melodies, large hand leaps and massive chords. Many require strength, precision, endurance, rhythmic control, and dynamic and tonal balance. They push the boundaries of the Étude even further than Chopin or Liszt did, and are virtuosic in the extreme, with passionate character and vivid rhythmic vitality.

I hadn’t really explored these pieces until I heard the No. 2 of the Opus 33, in C Major, played as an encore by Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes in a recent recital on the Southbank. He played it with a Chopinesque tenderness, yet it was unmistakably Russian, the arpeggios in open fifths of the first bar, which form a recurring motif and accompaniment throughout, lending a slightly folksy feel to this work, and putting us in touch, as Rachmaninoff does with a great deal of his music, with the vastness of his native land.

The LTCL repertoire list asks for “two contrasting Études-Tableaux‘ from either Opus 33 or Opus 39, so I selected the No. 2 and No. 7 (sometimes listed in editions as No. 4) from the Opus 33. The No. 2 is a beautiful nocturne, a soaring melody over an arpeggiated accompaniment. The study elements of this piece are achieving a balance between the hands, and coping with some awkward extensions in the arpeggios. By contrast, the No. 7 in E flat, a brilliant and triumphant march, opens with a bright, brassy fanfare, and wild alternating chords, and bells at its close. It’s full of wit and humour, redolent of the Prelude in E, Opus 32, No. 3, and, to me, suggests an aristocratic rider, liveried in gold and scarlet, on a lively, prancing horse. Rachmaninoff himself actually nicknamed it “Scene at the Fair” when discussing it with Respighi (who orchestrated the Études-Tableaux‘). Its principal difficulty lies in the middle section where huge leaps and chords of 10ths make playing it up to tempo tricky. I’ve found practising it slowly and quietly protects the hands, and ensures accuracy when pushing the tempo up.

As for a recording, look no further that British pianist John Lill, who has recorded both Opuses. He gives a big, bright, full sound when required, and retains a strong sense of line and the dramatic impact of these pieces throughout, yet he never over-interprets.

Here is Sviatoslav Richter in the Opus 33, No. 4 (which I am also planning to learn)

And Hélène Grimaud in the No. 2 and No. 1