Yuanfan Yang – Watercolour (Orchid Classics)

Nicholas McCarthy – Echoes (Leftnote Records)

Andrew Matthews-Owen – Halo: Music for Piano (Nimbus)

5060189560738At just 20, Yuanfan Yang is already a promising pianist and young composer. Winner of keyboard final of the 2012 BBC Young Musician, he has been a prizewinner in many other international piano competitions. The works by Schubert, Chopin and Liszt on his debut disc represent the kind of mainstream showpiece repertoire one expects from competition participants, and the music played is well-mannered and attractive, rather than attention-grabbing. Schubert’s ever-popular B-flat Impromptu has the requisite lyricism and grace, while the opening of Chopin’s darkly-hued Fantasie in F minor, Op 49 is ponderous rather than portentous. The ‘Winter Wind’ Etude and Liszt’s ‘La Campanella’ are despatched with the kind of youthful gusto one would expect from a musician of this age who has been on the competition circuit for several years now: fleet and pristine fingerwork but rather bloodless in interpretation. La Vallee d’Obermann feels too restrained and lacks the grandeur and spaciousness to really recall the profound majesty of the Alps. Far more interesting are the works composed by Yuanfan himself, colourful programmatic pieces inspired by watercolours, whose titles link them to the pieces by Liszt on this disc and also to Philip Cashian’s ‘Landscape’ and Peter Maxwell-Davis’ ‘Farewell to Stromness’, the final work on the disc, which again feels too polite – a little more Scottish lilt would be welcome. Overall, a nicely-presented “recital” disc showcasing Yuanfan’s developing talents as both pianist and composer.

 

500x500Left-handed pianist Nicholas McCarthy presents an altogether more mature and convincing performance on his new album ‘Echoes’, which features repertoire by Bach and Rachmaninov which he first explored as a pianist in the early part of his career, all in fine transcriptions for the left hand alone. The final track on the disc is Paul Wittengenstein’s transcription of Bach’s evergreen Prelude in C. Like McCarthy, Wittengenstein was a left-handed pianist (he lost his right arm following an injury in the First World War). If you have seen Nicholas McCarthy in concert you will know that as a left-handed player he is incredibly athletic, utilising the entire range of the keyboard. Nicholas is no novelty act pianist; he is a serious concert pianist whose superb technical ability and musicality enable him to create a rich palette of sounds, colours and shadings, from full-bodied fortissimos to delicate pianissimos, and elegant, lyrical cantabile playing (try the Andante from Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata Op 19 or Bach’s Prelude in C for particularly lovely examples of this). The album begins with a robust and entirely convincing transcription of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor. It loses nothing being played with only one hand, and the same is true for all the pieces on this disc. You would never guess that this music is played with the left hand only, such is the quality and clarity of Nicholas’s sound. The album was recorded on a Yamaha CFX concert grand and the sound quality is direct but never strident with a warm resonance, particularly in the bass. Recommended.

 

51wyuc5onpl‘Halo’ is Andrew Matthews-Owen‘s first solo disc. A highly sought-after collaborative pianist and song accompanist and noted champion of contemporary music, Matthews-Owen showcases his affinity for this repertoire in this rewarding recording of contrasting works by Joseph Phibbs, Dobrinka Tabakova and Hannah Kendall. Phibbs’ Preludes (2016) were dedicated to Matthews-Owen and are short aphoristic works whose spare simplicity, delicate melodic fragments and piquant harmonies are redolent of Schoenberg’s Kleine Klavierstucke. Matthews-Owen’s directness and clarity allows these short works to speak for themselves. Dobrinka Tabakova’s ‘Modétudes’ – brief “studies” based on the main modes (Dorian, Lydian, Phrygian etc) – are characterful miniatures whose individual musical personalities Matthews-Owen delineates with delicacy and precision, alert to their ever-shifting moods. They are folksy in their idioms and immediately accessible to the listener. Hannah Kendall’s ‘On a Chequer’d Field Array’d’ is a work in three parts, inspired by a game of chess: again, Matthews-Owen is always sensitive to the contrasts and switches of emotion in this music. Tabakova’s ‘Nocturne’ is delightful, delicate and songful, while her ‘Halo’, evoking a lunar halo seen one summer’s night, is powerfully atmospheric (the second movement, ‘To blinding shine’ for example, begins with bright rapidly repeating notes, interjected with a hymn-like motif, somewhat reminiscent of Hovhaness’s Visionary Landscapes, before moving into far more dramatic territory). This disc is a splendid advocate for contemporary piano music from a performer whose understanding of and affinity for this music is clear from the very first note to the last.

Recommended.

 

 

I first encountered the piano music of British composer Peter Seabourne in 2016 when he kindly sent me the scores and recordings of his Steps Volumes 2, 3, 4 and 5. Conceived and organised as “a pianist’s Winterreise”, the music is remarkably varied yet highly accessible and recalls the piano music of Debussy, Janacek, Prokofiev and Messiaen in its piquant harmonies, lyricism, and rhythmic adventurousness. Seabourne describes the series as “a compositional travelling companion” and the collection works more like a cycle rather than a progressional series such as Bartok’s Mikrokosmos.

Although composed over ten years ago, the pieces which comprise Steps Volume 1 have now been released (on the Sheva label), performed by Korean pianist Minjeong Shin. The first volume is not intended as a cycle, but rather a set of pieces in the manner of Grieg’s ‘Lyric Pieces’ or Janacek’s ‘On An Overgrown Path’,  for example, and the works have evocative titles, many of which are drawn from poetry by Emily Dickenson, Sylvia Plath, Rilke and Swinburne. The range of expression, character and emotional power of these pieces is impressive, hinting at a lively, inquisitive and all-encompassing attitude to creating music (as the composer says himself, “I am with Mahler: music should contain all of life!“), and the broad scope of the music, together with its inherent expressivity, lyricism and romanticism, makes it immediately appealing. There are atmospheric etudes, aphoristic miniatures, expansive character pieces, and intimate, poetic preludes. Minjeong Shin’s sensitive response to the shifting moods and myriad soundscapes reveals the music’s astonishing variety and virtuosity.

The CD’s comprehensive booklet was written by the composer himself and contains detailed programme notes for each work, together with biographical information on performer and composer.

In Steps Volume 1, and indeed in the other volumes in the cycle, Peter Seabourne has created contemporary piano music which is accessible and appealing to professional and amateur pianists alike (he has also made the score readily available via his website), and it is most gratifying to have such a varied contribution to the ever-growing repertory of new music for piano.

Recommended.

 

Buy Steps Volume 1

Review of the other volumes in the Steps series

 

 

simon_vincent__stations_of_the_cross‘Stations of the Cross’, a new work for solo piano by British composer and pianist Simon Vincent, was inspired by a visit to Jerusalem in 2015 and by William Fairbanks’ installation in Lincoln Cathedral. Entitled Forest Stations, the installation is a series of sculptures in wood and reflects Fairbanks’ love of timber and his concern about the preservation of forests and trees. The sculptures tell the story of Christ’s death, the ‘Stations of the Cross’ being the places on the route to the place of Crucifixion where Christ is said to have stopped. For the faithful, each station, or stopping point, provides a point of prayer and meditation on the Passion of Christ.

Simon Vincent’s ‘Stations of the Cross’ (2016) is a series of 17 short movements, depicting Christ’s spiritual, emotional and corporeal journey to his death on the cross.

It is intended that the work opens up reflection and discussion of the image of a sole human figure weighed down with burden, an image which for me raises issues of the relationship of the individual to both a society and state which are not only capable of looking away but also of allowing suffering: themes of truly vital relevance to us today

– Simon Vincent

The work is prefaced by an earlier piece, ‘Meditations on Christ in the Garden of Gethsamane’ (2013) whose sombre, reflective mood prepares the listener for the main work on the disc. Musically, ‘Stations of the Cross’ owes much to Morton Feldman, master of stillness and controlled, deliberate silences, while the concept of a cycle of devotional meditations connects this work to Messiaen’s epic ‘Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus’. 

Vincent’s carefully-placed chords are infused with jazz harmonies, while subtleties of tonal colour are achieved through long, sustained notes and the piano’s resonance. It’s the kind of music that demands to be heard live, preferably in an acoustic which allows the timbres and unexpected fleeting clusters of notes and rhythmic fragments to linger in the air like memories.

It was Claude Debussy who declared that “music is the space between the notes”, and the pauses and fermatas which colour ‘Stations of the Cross’ allow one to fully appreciate every single note and chord. Into this void, the sounds reverberate and resonate with a meditative stillness and restrained expressive gravity. The effect is powerfully cumulative, despite the brevity of each movement, with a sense of the music building inevitably towards its contemplative conclusion.

The work receives its world premiere on 18th April 2017 in a concert given by the composer in the Chapter House of Lincoln Cathedral. Further information

A Meet the Artist interview with Simon Vincent will be published shortly.

 

How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano

A guest post by composer John Pitts

howtoplayindiansitarraagsonapiano20front20john20pittsJohn Pitts’ somewhat unusual book How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano is designed for adventurous pianists. Indian raags have an extraordinary musical heritage dating back several centuries (from the area that is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) – a truly unique musical genre of fascinating melodic beauty and rhythmic intricacy – freely combining elaborate composed melodies with carefully rehearsed improvisation. But now the amazing world of Indian raags has been opened up in a sympathetic but thorough reinvention for piano solo (or duet or two pianos) by an award-winning British composer.

In this guest post, John explains how his fascination with Indian raags began, leading eventually to his new book…..

My fascination in Indian raags (also spelled raga/rag) was sparked back in 1994-95 during a gap year in Pakistan before going on to study Music at Bristol and Manchester Universities. I had the great pleasure of several late night music sessions in a rural farming village in the Punjab, with local amateur musicians and a visiting classically-trained and highly accomplished ‘radio singer’, known to me only as ‘Ustaad’ – an Urdu term of respect. He accompanied himself on a harmonium – a little equal-temperament reed organ with the bellows pumped by his left hand. Drone notes were held down in the mechanism and his right hand loosely doubled some of his sung melody. Our generous host, a keen music enthusiast, provided the percussion layer on a pair of tabla. It was enthralling music, exotic to my youthful ears, gradually developing from a slow and atmospheric exploration of a tiny handful of notes to fast and frantic, highly rhythmic, full of passion and energy and intoxicating vocal virtuosity. The following year I had a few sitar lessons with Baluji Shrivastav in London – on an instrument I’d bought in Lahore’s music bazaar.

Both as pianist and composer I found an affinity with this music. There’s a peacefulness (and a certain self-indulgence) which I love – a focussed and absorbing stillness – in slowly improvising, with an evocative scale only gradually emerging, initially without the restrictions of a regular pulse. There are beautiful, richly ornamented melodies, and the organic sense of journey and destination. Then comes the thrashing rhythmic drive and the rapturous metric games, the fast and the furious. For the performer the pleasures bear many of the hallmarks of intelligent free jazz, along with a rich eastern mystique.

As composer I explored various aspects of Indian musical thinking in a number of my own pieces, in 2011 culminating in a virtuosic piano duet Raag Gezellig. This sounds partly improvised but is actually through-composed within a fairly typical raag structure. While composing that duet, extensive googling of ‘piano’ plus ‘raag‘ or ‘raga‘ resulted in very little. Harmoniums have been used by Indian classical musicians for the past 150 years; pianos on the other hand have generally only gained a small foothold in Indian pop and in Bollywood film references to western classical music – but not in raags – the highest classical musical art-form of India.

The raag is a genre of highly ornate, partly-improvised music with a typical set of conventions and a typical structure.  The nearest equivalent western musical term might be a cross between ‘air’ (a composition dominated by melody) and ‘sonata’ (a musical form with established conventions).  The word raag literally means ‘colour’ and from that also ‘passion’ or ‘emotion’.  Each individual, named raag is defined by a set of musical ingredients which determine its distinct ‘colour’.  Raags are typically played by a melody instrument (or voice) accompanied by a drone instrument and rhythmic percussion, with performances lasting anywhere between a few minutes and a few hours.

Englishman William Bird published from Calcutta his “Airs of Hindustan” way back in 1789 – a collection of short keyboard pieces in a European classical style using Indian melodies (albeit largely major scale) that he’d collected.  The result was European music with a slight Indian twist. Subsequently there have been plenty of other musicians – classical composers through to jazz and rock guitarists – who have found a fascination with music from the east and who have created European music inspired by features of Indian music.

But in the past very few years there has been a newly emerging development, on Youtube at least, which has quite suddenly featured a number of musicians, both Indian/Pakistani and European/American, playing classical raags on a piano – ie: using the piano as an Indian instrument playing truly Indian music – not some kind of crossover or simply one genre of music influenced by another. I’d recommend looking up videos of Utsav Lal, a brilliant young raga pianist from Scotland.

As a secondary school music teacher I wrote a simple piano version of Rag Desh in 2013 to help our GCSE students develop an understanding of how raags work. From there came the idea of a bigger piano book containing a number of raags plus instruction on typical ways to improvise on the different sections of musical material. That summer, the book’s scope and size quickly grew because there are countless different and interesting raags to choose from – so many exotic scales, so many characterful motivic permutations and interesting time signatures and rhythmic cycles (talas). Now in December 2016 the finished 258-page book is a collection of 24 raags – reflecting the idea that individual raags are associated with a particular time of day. As well as the sheet music, there are loads of musical examples and a section of ‘Pick and Mix Ingredients’.

The purpose of “How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano” is first and foremost to open up the astonishing world of Indian classical music to pianists from western classical or jazz traditions who otherwise have no easy way to engage with Indian raags.  The aim is to help enable you to perform a (pretty much) authentic, improvised raag, having understood the structure and having practised using, playing around with, and generally enjoying the key raag ingredients, and immersing yourself in a whole new emotional experience.  I also hope that some more adventurous pianists will be encouraged to develop the raag tradition further in interesting new directions. The book is for good amateur pianists through to virtuosic professionals.  It is suitable for any pianist who enjoys discovering new music, or who has an interest in music from other cultures, or who knows the pleasure of jazz noodling and wants to explore a rewarding and fresh (but centuries-old) form of improvisation.

What exactly is a raag?

At the age of 18 it was difficult for me to get my head around what a raag is, because as a concept it is really rather different to any western music. Western music is written by a composer, who chooses the notes – the pitches, the rhythms and the order they go in etc etc, it is all written down, and the completed piece of music has a title by which it is identified and copyrighted. Performers then play (more-or-less) what the composer has written. But traditional raags just don’t work like that. If ‘Raag Desh’ is listed in a concert programme, for example, all an informed audience can tell from that is that the performance is likely to contain a set of conventions and musical ideas that are historically associated with that raag – ie: improvisation using a particular scale, particular rising and falling versions of that scale, a particular set of little musical motifs etc etc. It does not specify the key, time signatures, rhythms, tempi, character, mood etc. And it probably doesn’t tell us anything that is affected by copyright laws – for instance it doesn’t tell us the name of the tune(s) being used, or who composed it.  It is about as specific as saying that the performer is going to play ‘a boogiewoogie blues’

The term ‘Raag Desh’ conveys only this approximate set of historical musical ideas and conventions. This approximate set of ideas is then used by different performers as the starting point for creating a whole range of very different pieces, ie: live performances. Each of these pieces/performances is named ‘Raag Desh’ (despite frequently using completely different melodies), and on paper is distinguishable from the numerous other ‘Raags Desh’ only by the name of the performer and date of performance.  To make matters worse, the pre-composed melody (the gat) rarely even has a name (unless it is taken from a song) and is not usually identified anyway, so you don’t know whether it is a variant of an old traditional melody or a newly composed one (by the performer or anyone else). Countless melodies may be associated with a particular raag. To help avoid this issue in “How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano”, as well as the Indian name I have given appropriate English titles to each of the 24 raags, which I hope my readers will find attractive and evocative.  These titles have two functions – first to help you quickly capture the right atmosphere when learning the music, and second, as usual in western classical music, to give a formal identity to these particular melodies and raag adaptations – not least for the benefit of the Performing Right Society – I’ve got kids to feed!

Raag Kalyani “Bliss”

Raag Hemvati “Golden Mountain Stream”

Raag Latangi “Little Girl”

Raag Desh “Sweeping Landscape”

Raag Vachaspati “Wise Old Man”

Raag Gezellish “Gazelle”

Raag Kalavati “Moonlight”

Raag Bageshri “The Waiting Bride”

Raag Neenda “Sleep”

Raag Paraj “Pollen on the Breeze”

Raag Lalit “Elegant Mischief”

Raag Jogiya Kalingra “Aroma of Saffron”

Raag Chakravaak “Ruddy Goose”

Raag Kofi “Intense Coffee”

Raag Suraja “Morning Sun”

Raag Bilaskhani Todi “Mourning”

Raag Asawari “Full of Hope”

Raag Todi “Lady in the Forest”

Raag Gaud-Sarang “Lunchtime Bell”

Raag Madhuvanti “Flowing with honey”

Raag Patdeep “Stealing my heart”

Raag Charukesh “Beautiful Hair”

Raag Poorvi “From the East”

Raag Puriya “Satisfaction”

Order the book

www.pianoraag.com

john_pittsJohn Pitts is a British composer who lives in Bristol, England, with his wife and four children.  He composes mostly chamber music, especially for piano solo and duet, in styles perhaps best summarised as melodic, motoric, motif-driven, jazz-tinged, post-minimal impressionism.  His pieces for two pianists have been performed at concerts and festivals in several European countries, Armenia, Australia, Russia, Ukraine and the USA, including in March 2015 a concert dedicated to his music in Perpignan’s “Festival Prospective 22ème siècle” by French duo Émilie Carcy and Matthieu Millischer.

His 2009 album Intensely Pleasant Music: 7 Airs & Fantasias and other piano music by John Pitts, performed by Steven Kings, was released to critical acclaim – receiving a 5 star review in Musical Opinion Magazine, several 4 star reviews including the Independent newspaper, with descriptions such as “beautiful, moving and relaxing”, “delicious”, “lovely”, “colossal… stunning and seriously impressive”, “great character and emotional integrity”, “exciting stuff all round… toes – prepare to tap.”

John studied at Bristol and Manchester Universities, under composers Wyndham Thomas, Adrian Beaumont, Raymond Warren, Geoffrey Poole, John Casken, John Pickard and Robert Saxton, and briefly with Diana Burrell in a COMA Composer Mentor scheme.   He won the 2003 Philharmonia Orchestra Martin Musical Scholarship Fund Composition Prize at the Royal Festival Hall in London, and two of his chamber pieces were shortlisted by the Society for the Promotion of New Music.  He has also written music for four plays and two short operatic works – “Crossed Wires” (Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 1997), and “3 Sliced Mice” (commissioned by Five Brothers Pasta Sauces).  He writes music for Christian worship, with two hymns on Naxos CDs recorded by his eldest brother composer Antony Pitts and Tonus Peregrinus, including one in Faber’s The Naxos Book of Carols.  In 2006 Choir & Organ magazine commissioned “I will raise him up at the last day” for their new music series.

John was the secretary of the Severnside Composers Alliance from its inception in 2003 until 2015, with a special interest in music for piano triet by living composers.  His own first triet “Are You Going?” (“a toccata boogie of unstoppable, unquenchable verve” Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb International) was premiered at the 2010 Kiev Chamber Music Session Festival by the Kiev Piano Duo (with Antoniy Baryshevkiy), for whom he wrote “Gaelic Faram Jig” for 2 pianos and 2 percussionists for the 2012 festival.  John has conducted four Bristol Savoy Operatic Society productions, arranging Pirates of Penzance, Gondoliers and Iolanthe for small band.  In January 2010 he became the Associate Conductor of the Bristol Millennium Orchestra.

In 1994 he spent a gap year in Pakistan, which led to a number of chamber pieces heavily influenced by Indian classical music, including “Raag Gezellig”, a piano duet composed as the compulsory work for the Valberg International Piano 4 Hands Competition 2011, subsequently recorded by French duo Bohêmes (Aurélie Samani and Gabriela Ungureanu) and released by 1EqualMusic/Hyperion.  Hearing that virtuosic Indian piano duet performed by a number of superb duos led to the idea of writing this book – and to the desire to make Indian raags accessible to many more pianists.  The sheet music for “Raag Gezellig” is available in the book “7 Piano Duets & Triets”.     

www.johnpitts.co.uk

 

 

 

368630Andrew Eales of Pianodao nominates ‘Butterflying’ by Elena Kats-Chernin

Elena Kats-Chernin (born 1957) is an Australian composer, originally from Uzbekistan (at the time part of the Soviet Union). Kats-Chernin has won numerous prizes, and her music was featured in the opening ceremony’s of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Her output includes 6 operas, the popular ballet Wild Swans, numerous orchestral and instrumental works, film scores and a large amount of piano solo music.

Butterflying, from ABC Classics, brings together 30 of her piano compositions, performed by Tamara-Anne Cislowska, who is also joined by the composer for some duets.

Elena Kats-Chernin’s pieces vary considerably in style, but in all cases her music is contemporary in mood and accessible to all. Perhaps the best known piece included here is the Eliza Aria. Even more wonderful in my view is the title track, which makes a flowing prelude to the collection:

https://open.spotify.com/track/1IhrJd4Av1XQvZeEp4Lab4

Or check out the characterful Russian Rag in A minor: 

https://open.spotify.com/track/6czSZ7ljwRhvekcHiboe7Q

Compare and contrast these two pieces, and you will get an idea of the delightful range of music included. Rather than listen to the album to reflect a particular mood, this is a good collection to live with, and different tracks are likely to speak to you from one day to the next.

Butterflying is a 2CD set, and is also available as a digital download from iTunes, which is significantly more cost effective.

For those who wish to play these pieces for themselves, the sheet music book Piano Village, recently published by Boosey and Hawkes, includes most of the solo pieces from the recording, although in some cases they are in simpler versions.

I have reviewed the sheet music collection on the Pianodao website here.